Thinking Blue Guitars

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On James Parker’s Prose Style

James Parker’s recent article on Joe Strummer in The Atlantic features one of the finest opening paragraphs I have ever read:

American shrinks know him well: the English boarding-school boy. Privately educated, privately damaged, culturally overstocked, and twanging with the knowledge of his own separateness. Having made an emigratory thrust westward, he washes up, middle-aged, in the therapist’s chair, head in hands, complaining of a sound, a sound: tires on gravel, and the swish of the family vehicle as it slides off the institutional forecourt, abandoning him to Matron, and cold toast, and the other boys.

Look at that prose. Understated, suave, elegant, intricately constructed – down to the individual comma. It purrs like a top-rate Jaguar. Instead of opening with a bang, the first sentence sidles into the reader’s psyche, the colon assuming the subtlety of the appositive comma rather than its usual consequential bluntness. Then, with the mention of the “English boarding-school boy”, we are in the realm of stereotype – a dangerous place to be with the wrong guide. But Parker is wily, absorbing all the force of the cliché (similar in affective tenor to gossip) but shaping it to his own ends.

“Privately educated” is official in tone; it would be at home in any old obituary or newspaper profile. But Parker undercuts the reader’s expectation with “privately damaged”, combining the stylistic curio of the anaphora with the continued cliché of the content (after all, it is part of the stereotype of English boarding-school boys that they are psychologically damaged). “Twanging” is a touch of genius; we have entered the sphere of Wallace Stevens (“I know my lazy, leaden twang/ Is like the reason in a storm”) but here it is not ratio that sounds out: it is knowledge of his own separateness – a lesser writer would have chosen “solitude”.

The paragraph continues in this guise, each phrase sculpted to semantic and tonal perfection: “emigratory thrust”, “washes up” and so on. And then we enter for the briefest of moments a stream of consciousness, “complaining of a sound, a sound”, the repetition of which is crucial for the vitality of the psychoanalytic scene. We are there with him, staring down at this helpless but enormously privileged man-boy. It ends as it begins: in the realm of stereotype. The distinct joy of reading this last sentence is a combination of cultural recognition – Matron! Of course! I remember that figure from all those terrible films! – and stylistic exactitude. The tires don’t roll or move, they swish off the forecourt, onomatopoeically reproducing in our mind the thousands of episodes of Famous Five or Midsomer Murders we’ve had the (mis)fortune of watching over the years. It is an exercise in stylistic perfection.

But now, initial excitement over, we must recover ourselves. For prose which produces such heightened cathexis must have something of the night about it, something embedded deep in the political unconscious. What might that be?

Let us look again. The overriding tone of this style is self-confidence. One rarely encounters it these days, for those who attempt it usually mistake arrogance for stylistic virtue (Martin Amis’s clichéd anti-clichés spring to mind). Yet, read the personal accounts of the “great individuals” of history and you will find it there: cf. Trotsky, passim. It is the tone of the victors, those to whose will reality ultimately conformed and whose triumphs echo in the sinews of their writing. It is a rhythm which implies a clear beginning, middle and an end; we are not, here, in the realm of Virgina Woolf, one who lingers on the abstract detail at the expense of the narrative totality. No, we are marched through the paragraph, hand in hand with a man (and that it is a man is crucial) who is sufficiently au fait with the cultural enthymemes of our time to draw on their ideological acuity, yet who by very subtle mockery implicitly raises himself above them. Quite whether we are raised with him is a question of who is reading.

In short, as unlikely as it may seem, I claim that what appeared initially to be a purely aesthetic excitement over Parker’s prose style is in fact socially and politically specific. The joy I felt on reading this prose was the form momentarily assumed by the Utopian (or Dystopian) desire for historical triumph in combination with my identification with an ideological construction of bourgeois masculinity: I wanted to be the man who knows what he wants, gets what he wants, but does so with the all the suaveness that stylistic capital has to offer.

Nonstop You

The BBC reports that a combination of CCTV, facial recognition technology and radio frequency identification are paving the way for real-time individualised adverts. Based on our online activity, our physical appearances and so on, we will be presented in public with adverts which cater to our unique personal tastes. This is worrying on many levels, but the one I want to focus on is how it might affect our subjectivity.

The first result will be to urge us into an unchanging, eternal present of ourselves (an extension of a process already well underway). By accessing data on what I like, on what I’ve already bought and so on, it will simply present me with more of the same. In no matter how subtle a manner, it will urge me to continue along this one particular path of taste (within the general cycles of fashion). It will recycle my affect, and in doing so it is effectively designed to prevent the advent of novelty. For if all I am ever confronted with is an extension of a previous version of myself, I am partially stripped of my capacity to be other than I was.

The second result will be an objective narcissism. I say “objective” because here the narcissism is literally inscribed in (what was once) public space itself. As Žižek has observed,Even in a public space, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with other people”. And if I am everywhere surrounded by my inner private world, incapable of experiencing the objective limits of my own desires and introspections, then I cannot fully live. For surely any life worth living is one in which I am able to learn and accept my limits via my interactions with other people and the natural world – with that which is subjectively and materially other than myself. It is no wonder that death has no place in such a society, since it is the ultimate limit on all egomaniacal projects. Likewise, it should make us stop and think when the German airline, Lufthansa, has as its slogan a theological definition of hell: “Nonstop you”.

The political upshot of such subjective dispositions is yet more erosion of our in-built capacity for solidarity. For if I live constantly in the shadow of my own mollycoddled self, a subject who is seriously other than me – one who makes demands on me – can only strike me as at best an obstacle, at worst a monster. So it is, then, that seemingly innocent advances in advertising have quite direct political effects.

In Utopia, of course, this technology will be used for far different purposes. One day, as I’m brushing my teeth, an image of my rotting corpse will suddenly flash up on the mirror in front of me, surrounded by my children – old themselves now ­– and friends. Or as I’m walking to the forum to take part in the collective centenary movie of the saviour of earth from the Anthropocene, I will see an image of another world suddenly appear on the side of the workers’ theatre, a world where everything is different, like a fairy tale in which we are all invited to honour our past selves but not to be shackled by them, to dare to dream in the bosom of the space we have made together.

Eloquent Silences

Corey Robin has written a genuinely wonderful response to James Wood’s review of Greg Bellow’s new memoir. Wood himself has even commented on the response. I want here simply to reply to the question posed in Corey Robin’s title: “Are We Not All the Child Memoirists of Writers?” My answer to this is: “It depends”. If the “writer” metaphor is simply that – a metaphor that stands for the mysterious interior life of our parents, beyond the care and devotion they bestow on us – then yes. But if Robin means it somewhat more literally – which phrases such as “their real life may be the life they lead elsewhere, which may also be on a page, whether a diary, a letter, a legal brief, a memo” – then I’d say no, simply because most people do not write down their inner, mysterious lives but live them out in an often painful, occasionally tragic silence. Ironically, I suspect it is partly their realisation that this is so which drives many people to become writers in the first place. They recognise the eloquent silences of people’s lives and, unlike those who live them, cannot bear to leave them unsaid. I myself have never understood why literature has at certain points in its history aspired to the pristine nothingness of silence, for it can be a truly terrible thing.

Orpheus Song

The Standing Men and Women of Taksim



Once there was a man who stood below the sun and hurled his eyes aloft. At first he lasted but a fraction of a second before the blazing white was too much and he had to look away. But slowly he evolved. Each glance outlasted the one before by several seconds. As the days went by, the glances prolonged themselves even further, first by minutes, then by hours, until, after several years, glance mutated into look, and look into gaze, and gaze into knowing silent wonder. His eyes developed gelatinous films, transcoders of the light. He was a mystery to men. Some say he was insane; others, he was a phantom. But older legends exist describing how an angel hypnotized him, how every day whilst he slept a six-winged beast would come with holy balm and coat the spongy spheres beneath his lids. And each time the man awoke to resume communion with the sun, a flutter of wings trailed off into the bright white spaces of the world.

What the legends forget is that he was not alone. First one, then ten, then thousands of others joined him, until the standing men and women of Taksim stood for all men and women everywhere. Whilst they stood – as they still stand – scholars squabbled over meanings: did an angel really coat their eyes, or was it something else? But the standing men and women knew what graced them: it was the future. Scarred and ugly from the struggle, half-blinded from the tear gas, but fierce, beautiful and new.



Raymond Williams and Derrida

Thanks to a friend of mine, I recently discovered this invaluable series of videos of Raymond Williams, filmed at a conference in Strathclyde back in 1986. The totally unexpected highlight, and one that has about it that disorienting aura of the uncanny, is a video of Derrida in conversation with Raymond Williams. Moreover, in the audio section, one has access to the complete recording of Williams’s very important lecture on language and the avant-garde.

The Concept of Totality in Lukács and Jameson

For anyone who’s interested in the work of György Lukács or Fredric Jameson, I’ve just uploaded a draft version of a paper I gave 18 months ago at the Historical Materialism conference in London. Here’s the abstract:

This paper sets out the implicit and explicit theories of “totality” in the work of György Lukács and Fredric Jameson. It begins by asking to which problem the proletariat is a solution in the work of the early Lukács. It suggests that this problem is not only historical, but also literary in nature. In the second section, I offer a brief explanation of Lukács’ theory of realism, as found in the Marxist aesthetic debates of the 1930s, and as it relates to his concept of totality. Finally, I outline Fredric Jameson’s problematisation of Lukács’ theory of totality and spell out two key innovations in his use of the term.


Thinking Blue Guitars Now on Facebook

Thinking Blue Guitars now has its own Facebook Page. If you don’t want the hassle of following the blog via Google Reader or RSS feed, then simply “like” the page and you’ll receive all blog updates directly to your Facebook news feed. You’ll also receive links to literary, political and theological articles which I find of interest (and which I wouldn’t bother to publish on the blog itself).

Frank Kermode Interviews Iris Murdoch

Frank Kermode interviewing Iris Murdoch in 1965 on the relation between form and freedom – part of ‘In Their Own Words: British Novelists,’ a great new literary audio-visual collection from the BBC Archive. This was originally targeted at Sixth Formers! Bit like Badiou’s Ethics being written for lycée students…(which it was, incidentally).

Poem for Terry Eagleton

For Eagleton:

His throat intoned a plum:
you ripped it out,
studied the blood-blue flesh
and ate it up.

Inside there was a stone
on which was carved
a worker’s simple fist,
Walter’s farewell.

“Oh yes,” you laughed out loud,
“I could build my house on this!”

Against Satire and For Personality Cults

The Shitter

Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am).  That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.

But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.

As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.

It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world.  They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.

And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!

Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.

And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.

(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).

Imaginary Interview with Javier Marías

This is an extract from the very end of an imaginary interview with a character called Javier Marías. The interviewer is a character called Daniel Hartley. The extract, all I could find of this long-forgotten interview that never took place in a Madrilenian café, begins at the point where interviewee transforms into interviewer.


JM: So what type of man do you think I am?

DH: I think you’re the type of man who finds it unbearable to sit in a café or a restaurant if there is someone sat behind him, because his eyes should always be the last pair in the room, unwatched, but all-watching. You’re the type of man who mistakes habitual introspection for profundity and precise prolixity for compassionate intelligence. You’re the type of man who takes upon his shoulders the pain and badly hidden neuroses of a room of strangers, who suffers on their behalf, but does so constantly with one eye on the hidden gloriousness of that suffering. You’re the type of man who knows it is pretentious to be photographed in black and white behind a typewriter with chin in hand in thoughtful equipoise, but who knows also that without the ironic indulgence of this bohemian cliché, he would fall to pieces, like a dead soul shorn of its ghostly carapace. You’re the type of man who is trapped in legends, and who can’t get out. And in every beautiful phrase you write, there is a lonely boy peering out, wondering how his father could be so genuine when the only thing that he can do is act. You are, in short, a man who longs to be a Hamlet, and therefore Hamlet shall ye never be.


Paper-clipped to this extract I found a scrap of notepaper in Daniel Hartley’s handwriting. It said: ‘Met JM today. Was like talking to a mirror.’

Commonwealth: 1.2 Productive Bodies

Originally published at The Night Shift

This is a very difficult chapter, so you’ll have to bear with me. The first section charts the transition that occurred in twentieth century radical thought from the Marxist critique of private property to the ‘phenomenology of bodies’. The young Marx focused on the relation between capital and law. Legal systems, he stated, are abstract representations of social reality, whilst capitalist property relations provide the concrete reality. In other words, the law says we’re all equal, but pop down to your local factory and you’ll see we’re not. Thinkers like Louis Althusser, an important French Marxist, and Theodor Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt School (a group of Marxist theorists), then extended this analysis beyond the law to demonstrate that the whole of social life has been ‘subsumed’, or saturated, by capital. Because of this shift away from an outlook which perceives only certain areas of social life as being ‘contaminated’ by capital to an outlook which claims that our entire lives are produced by capital, the type of societal analyses became less ‘transcendent’ and exterior, and more ‘immanent’, or interior. The body now becomes important.

There were two reasons for this shift. One was the militant activism that spread like wildfire across France, Italy and Germany in the 60s and 70s, thereby immersing analyses in the direct experience of militants. The other was a change in the object itself. Material production – making things in factories – gave way to immaterial production: labour was no longer simply physical, but also cognitive and intellectual. (In Britain we might say that this corresponds to the demise of primary industries like mining, ship-building, steel works etc. and the rise of service sector office jobs). When immaterial labour becomes predominant, so Hardt and Negri argue, the entire capitalist process has to be understood differently. Moreover, the scope of Marxist theory now expands. It is no longer acceptable simply to talk of class: feminist, antiracist and anticolonial struggles exploded and forced the Left to think the commodification of labouring bodies through the prisms of gender and race.

Ironically, this move from ‘transcendent’ critique of private property to ‘immanent’ experience had already been prefigured in various conservative philosophies in the early twentieth century. Vitalism and phenomenology, both of which attempt to cast off abstraction to root themselves in concrete life, offered to refuel the values of a system rendered hollow. If we imagine most philosophy up to this point as an overhead, panoramic shot, then the gaze now descends like a thunderbolt into the very bodies that just a moment ago looked like the tiniest of ants. As it does so, the view from inside the body looking out means that the individual to whom that body belongs can longer be seen; the move from the transcendent to the immanent coincides with openness to the other, to that which an individual is not: to the common. (Here, one might cite Husserl or Merleau-Ponty).

And here we arrive at Foucault and the concept of ‘biopolitics’. Negri and Hardt very briefly outline three axioms of Foucault’s research:

  1. Bodies are the constitutive components of the biopolitical fabric of being.
  2. On the biopolitical terrain, where powers are continually made and unmade, bodies resist.
  3. Corporeal resistance produces subjectivity, not in an isolated or independent way but in the complex dynamic with the resistance of other bodies.

What can this possibly mean?! Well, being itself – the totality of that which is – is conceived as constituted by a series of bodies (our bodies), like a great patchwork quilt – but a quilt which we produce through our labour (we build the buildings, we make the laws, we educate the children, we write the books, we invent the aeroplanes…). It is ‘biopolitical’ because it consists of our live, biological bodies, but also of a whole network of material and immaterial political forces: law, education, language, labour, capital, etc. All of these are intertwined to form a continuous whole; if one part alters, its repercussions ripple through everything else. But it must not be imagined that the political forces completely dominate our minds and bodies; on the contrary, history is precisely the antagonism of our bodies resisting these attempts to discipline us. Indeed, in the process of resisting we constitute our very ‘subjectivity’ – i.e. what we mean when we say ‘I’, our selves. The ‘I’ is an interplay of a whole mind-boggling range of encounters, of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ to power, of being with others, of dominating and being dominated. These are very difficult ideas, but they should become much clearer throughout the rest of the book!

Hardt and Negri end the chapter with a section arguing that fundamentalisms (religious, nationalist, racist, and – oddly – economist) all have a double relation to the body: on the one hand they are obsessed by it – the Islamic fundamentalist enforces the veil to hide the flesh, the racist transfixes the being of another in his very skin etc. On the other hand, however, they make bodies vanish: it is not, at bottom, the bodies about which fundamentalists care, but rather the transcendent values or essences of which the body is a sign, as if it were ‘an x ray to grasp the soul’. Biopolitics, as a form of resistance, refuses to acknowledge this transcendental realm by insisting on the immanent, material dimension, on the very power of bodies themselves.

Dan Hartley

Commonwealth: 1.1 Republic of Property

Haitian Revolution

Originally published at The Night Shift

The first half of the book will focus on ‘the republic, modernity, and capital as three frameworks that obstruct and corrupt the development of the common’. There is a structural analogy here to the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza’s Tractatus Politicus which aims to investigate the limits of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as political forms. (Spinoza died before writing the crucial section on democracy. It should be noted that his philosophy has been hugely influential for Negri). Hardt and Negri want to carry out an investigation which interrogates the very conditions of possibility of social life today. Capitalism is not an overt sovereign ruling over us; rather, it is invisible and functions as an impersonal form of domination, saturating our entire social field of vision – right down to our most personal experiences – without our even being aware of it.

But the first political form in which capitalism as we now know it really took root was republicanism. This is a form of government, instituted by the great bourgeois revolutions, based on the rule of property and the inviolability of the rights of private property, which excludes or subordinates those without property. In the French and American revolutionary Constitutions the position of property was sacred. And this continues right through to the constitutions of the present day. The only exception was the Haitian revolution: by freeing slaves it freed property, and hence was denied entry into the canon of republicanism.

In the final section of the chapter, the authors locate a split in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. On the one hand, there is the ‘major Kant’, the thinker who provides the theoretical foundations for a burgeoning capitalist class. On the other hand, there is the ‘minor Kant’ who not only dares to know, but knows how to dare: this is the Kant whose critical reason turns against itself and threatens to explode at any second the very philosophical foundations of the republic of property which he had just laid down. The major Kant continues today in social democratic traditions across Europe (Habermas, Rawls, Giddens, Beck), but the minor Kant is we, the multitude: overthrowers of the republic, brothers and sisters of the Haitian emancipators, builders of the common.

Dan Hartley


And so it begins…


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