McDonald's had better sign me up for an advertising campaign, because I am loving it
, having mysteriously overlooked my previous work, has just reviewed Unhitched
is massive; therefore I am massive. Fuck Bono. Fuck Bob Geldoff. The next Live 8
is hosted by me. And what a review. It is the most deliciously splenetic fanboy tribute to unreasoning hysteria that it has ever been my pleasure to gloat about. I wasn't prepared for an opportunity like this, but I won't pass it up all the same.
This reviewer, like every reviewer of Unhitched in the liberal media thus far, outs himself as a votary of the Hitchens personality cult. "Hitchens was a friend, mentor and neighbor of mine," he writes, as if to reassure the reader of his objectivity in this matter. He is also, in the interests of fuller disclosure, a neoconservative writer for the Weekly Standard - just the sort of bargain basement intellectual company that Hitchens kept in his last decade. If Unhitched is written in the style of a 'prosecution', this review is an indicment. What am I charged with? In a series of increasingly shrill non-sequiturs, I am condemned for every seditious affront to empire ever confected: anti-Americanism, apologia for the bad guys, sympathy for the devil, etc. For example, I have placed myself "on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta", because I deemed the British war an imperialist one. Oh, well. Sorry about that. For no obvious reason, I am also deemed to believe that "a noble anti-imperialism inevitably arises out of anti-Americanism", whatever the latter term means. Again, duly chastened.
But there's much, much worse. "Seymour routinely defends, excuses, and minimizes the depredations of
the two classes of people whom Hitchens loathed most: dictators and
Islamists." He does not! Does he? "Muammar
Gaddafi’s ruthless crushing of any dissent was nothing more than an
“inability to allow any form of organized opposition,” as if his jailing
dissidents was tantamount to dyslexia." Well, I don't need any more proof than that. The reviewer even quotes this Seymour to damn him out of his own mouth. What more could one need? With regard to the Rushdie affair, I am belaboured for describing "a rather straightforward argument between the right to
publish and religious totalitarianism" as "a far more nuanced
“saga” that “was saturated with these meanings and could not be limited
to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.”" I'm not sure how I should respond to the charge of being nuanced, but - how tantalising this review is: "these meanings" just left hanging like that! What are they? Oh, just stuff. Proceeding: "Seymour
is either ignorant or lying when he writes that “the editorials and
clerical bluster in Iran had yielded little.”" This may or may not be a fair criticism, but it isn't a criticism of me. In this quoted statement I am merely and explicitly summarising Hitchens's own rebuke to the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, written in 1999, in which he assailed the hysterical 'clash of civilizations' mythology that treated every threatening editorial or sermon as proof of a coming cataclysm.
Nevertheless, let it pass. The outrages continue to mount. "Seymour elsewhere mocks Hitchens, along with anyone else who viewed with
alarm the murder of 3,000 Americans". At this point, levity has to stop. There are some things one simply doesn't joke about. I am certainly not rolling my eyes and hugging myself with laughter at this point. Seriously, what did this tasteless mockery consist of? Well, I criticised Hitchens for "conjur[ing] a civilizational challenge out
of a handful of combatants with box cutters." In my defence, if you think that needs a defence, Hitchens's claim to have been exhilarated by the events of that day really don't suggest that alarm was his dominant response. Further, as the reviewer must have noticed, Hitchens was himself the first to belittle such alarm. It's "not that terrifying", he claimed. "That kind of thing happens in a war, it has to be expected in a war, if you’re in a war you’re gonna lose a building or a plane, and maybe a small town or a school or – you should reckon about once a week. Get ready for it." Suddenly sounding so much more like Daniel Pipes, and so much less like his urbane critic from only a few a years before.
What else? The reviewer is aggrieved that I repeat "the
paranoid claim of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez ... that an
attempted 2002 coup d’état was “US-supported,” in spite of the fact that
there exists no evidence to support such a claim." He has a
habit, this pundit, of using the words 'no evidence' in the most eccentric way. The
most generous translation of it is: 'no evidence that I would be remotely interested in looking at'. Still, it has the dignity of being a point of view, or rather a point of non-view. Other eccentric misuses of language: "Hitchens believed that “Halliburton
has as much right as anyone else to take over Iraq’s oil (since Iraqis
plainly could not be trusted with it themselves),” Seymour alleges." I suppose I do 'allege' this inasmuch as I cite Hitchens's words to this effect, with an accompanying footnote. Mark the sequel: "Such
wording suggests that, under the reign of Saddam Hussein, regular
Iraqis had any say over their country’s munificent oil resources." Is. That. Right?
Predictably enough - which is not to say with tiresome inevitability - some of Hitchens's fans take greatest umbrage at the point, made in the prologue, that their immortal paladin was a habitual plagiarist. I don't make a big deal of it, but this reviewer considers it the most serious claim in the whole book. "Seymour
provides no evidence to substantiate his scandalous claims", he expostulates. There's that phrase again: 'no evidence'. "For instance, Seymour writes that “a great deal of his work on Bill
Clinton’s betrayal on health care was lifted” from another journalist,
yet in the footnotes concedes, “In fairness, Hitchens credited [said
journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition of No One Left to Lie To,” Hitchens’s salvo against the 42nd president." Now, as the reviewer would know, having scrupulously read Unhitched from first recto to final verso, the point is that the credit was not given until after Sam Husseini had cried foul about the original plagiarism. Further, other plagiarisms in the same book remained intact - as could be gleaned from the same footnote from which the reviewer cited. And, as far as I'm aware, there was no such rectification of, for example, the plagiarism of Chomsky and Herman in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a case that the reviewer simply ignores.
"Seymour also alleges" - that word 'alleges' again - "that “one reviewer has already detected plagiarism in the case of large tranches of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man,”
yet the review in question, while certainly negative, actually states
that “there is of course no question of plagiarism” by Hitchens." Since I've seen this elsewhere, can I at least make the obvious point
that Barrell was taking the piss? The quoted statement should be given in full: "Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this –
the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no
question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of
fine writing that
allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired
choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the
police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’". Need I underline the point? Or do I have to explain what plagiarism is? The reviewer concludes: "As for
other examples of what he claims to be Hitchens’s “many plagiarisms,”
Seymour offers nothing." Here, 'nothing' is synonymous with the author's previous use of the term 'no evidence'.
Now this reviewer must ask himself: would mummy and daddy be proud? I don't think so. Being so silly and telling little porkie-pies? That's an open invitation for mister hand to take a short, sharp trip to botty-land. You know, a cliche in many of these affronted reviews
, as they labour to be condescending, is that Unhitched
is the product of some desperately earnest polemicist, unleavened by irony or humour, someone who treats political difference as an unpardonable sin. I beg to differ. It is the fans who, in their undignified idolatrous zeal, manifestly can't take a joke, or brook serious criticism. But then, isn't that the condition of fandom, almost by definition?
Of course I profoundly disagree with the language of 'privilege' for reasons I've given many times before. The discourse seems inadequate to the complex realities of racial, gender, and national inequalities for example. It also tends, in concrete politics, toward an unhelpfully moralistic language - checking your privilege, and so on. However, I don't think one should be afraid of it. Not just for macho reasons - though it's true that I am quite a big boy now, and can stand to hear things I disagree with. Rather, like many problematic-yet-persistent concepts, getting at something real. And when 'male privilege' and its effects are raised in this context
, to explain how implicitly sexist assumptions can be reproduced without much thought, it does seem to be addressing a real problem. (This is not a comment on Owen Jones; I'm speaking generally).
I am reminded of Stuart Hall's discussion of the implicit 'white eye' view in the media. It is not that every white person equally shares in this point of view, or is equally responsible for it, or is equally implicated in it. Far from it. This implied perspective arises from complex sets of ideological representations that are largely produced in the ideological state apparatuses by the ruling class and its allies. Naturally, since ideology is a field of struggle and contest, these ideological representations must also incorporate 'popular' elements if they are to be effective. But the 'white eye' is not the 'eye' of an essential 'whiteness'; it is the 'eye' of an historically produced mode of domination from which a minority of ruling white men derive most of the benefit.
The 'white eye' is not what is seen, moreover. It is outside the frame, but seems to shape everything in it: a present-absent cause, it exerts a gravitational pull around which a discursive field of racist assumptions is organised. The implied perspective, simply because it is implied and never explicated, forms a 'common sense' so that those articulating it speak with great assurance. The onus is on those disputing it to disprove its assumptions - to prove that immigrants aren't deviants and leeches, the black families are not dysfunctional sources of crime, that 'Islam' is not a particular solvent of values or security menace, etc.
So it might be with 'male privilege' referred to in this sense. Adapting Hall, one might speak of "those apparently naturalised representations of events and situations relating to sex and gender, whether 'factual' or 'fictional', which have sexist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions" and which "enable sexist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the sexist predicates on which the statements are grounded." It is obviously not the case that this 'malestream' perspective is one simply shared by all men, and no women. The 'male eye' view is one organised around gender stereotypes that subordinate women, the 'second sex', in a way that benefits a determinate class of men.
What is called 'rape culture', which has been the focus of the recent radicalisation of women's struggles, is but one particularly obnoxious variant of this phenomenon. Take some of the usual tropes
: "women ask for it sometimes"; "only bad girls get raped"; "women get raped because they get drunk and show off their bodies"; "women cry rape because they've been jilted, or have something to hide"; "women's bodies, if they genuinely don't want sex, shut down". Underlying these are various fundamental gender binaries: male activity vs female passivity; male rationality vs female hysteria; male seriousness vs female deviousness; and so on.
Notably, these tropes mostly don't explicitly condone rape. Rather I think they can be related to the three categories of denial identified by Stan Cohen: 1) literal denial, wherein it is asserted that no such thing happened, and the woman must be a liar, a fantasist or unwell; 2) interpretive denial, wherein some of the facts are admitted, but it's suggested that in context it's not as bad as it seems, because the woman was drunk, or drugged, or is likely a prostitute, or was dressed provocatively; and 3) implicatory denial, where it's admitted that the facts are as they're said to be, and very bad indeed, but, well, there's nothing that can be done about it anyway, rape is just a part of life, the best thing is for women concerned is to dress down, not stay out late, not drink, etc. Things are much worse overseas, anyway: you're lucky you don't live there. The result of such strategies of denial is to mobilise implicit assumptions about women into a story, as narrated from a 'male eye' view, which normalises and naturalises rape, and blunts the force of any challenge to it.
It would be grotesque to say that enabling the perpetuation of rape thereby preserves or protects any 'privilege' for men. But clearly the gendered tropes that are pressed into the service of rape culture are bound up with the ostensible compensations of 'maleness', this 'psychological wage' as Du Bois put it in a different context. Of course, these compensations are not simply 'psychological'. They are an iteration at the level of ideology of various realities - the wage gap, male household dominance, the orientation of mass culture toward encouraging women to be 'man-pleasing', and so on. In the total, longer-term view, all of these realities actually cost men. The wage gap, for example, is part of maintaining a stratified labour system that undermines the bargaining strength and political cohesion of labour, and thus reduces the overall wage claims of both men and women. But social interests are always construed through social representations, and one might say that the implied 'male eye' view of a great deal of mass media and academic output provides the appropriate grid through which these compensations can be perceived and lived as a real privilege.
This 'psychological wage', which some might still prefer to call 'male privilege', is necessary to explain the investment that too many people have in these strategies of denial, which otherwise serve to reinforce a deeply harmful pattern of sexual violence and hypocrisy, a combination of prurience and puritanism that leaves no one better off. Necessary, I should add, but not sufficient.
Well, give me credit for foresight at least. Having heard that the Washington Post
was about to review Unhitched
, I told my audience on Wednesday "this will be hatchet job, especially if the paper has anything to do with DC, which was Hitchens's spiritual home". Nonetheless, as I also said, one doesn't balk. This is the first time a major newspaper in the US has even bothered to look at one of my books, and the sales will soar irrespective of what the review says.
So, let's see:
The author — a Marxist writer and activist born in Northern Ireland and
living in London — has done his research, apparently having read almost
everything his subject ever wrote, but in the service of the narrow
goals of the over-zealous prosecutor.
Ah. A Marxist. Over-zealous. Here we go.
But, as frequently occurs in this book, Seymour insists on advancing his
argument from solid ground onto very thin ice. Hitchens’s reversal on
Bosnia — from arguing that the outside world should do nothing about
ethnic cleansing and the barbaric siege of Sarajevo to forcefully
arguing for intervention against “Serbian and Croat fascists acting in
collusion” — is cast as an immoral capitulation to American imperialism.
So, too, is his call for humanitarian intervention to prevent the
massacre of Kurdish refugees at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, another
stance one would think that a leftist animated against right-wing
tyranny would applaud.
Well, there you are. The Strident Marxist Who Went Too Far. I'm sure there's a Stieg Larsson-style book series in this. Let's see. The Strident Marxist Who Didn't Go Too Far Enough. The Strident Marxist Who Went Too Far Enough, Took Pictures, Came Back and Mailed Them To Your Mama. This is starting to turn into something. I might email Verso about this idea. Anyway, all this finger-wagging would be easier to take without giggling if it wasn't so obvious that the reviewer begrudgingly liked the book but just couldn't bring himself to say so.
Anyway, far from complaining about this, I'm grateful. Thank you, glorious imperial masters, for your belated attention to my work.
on International Socialism blog:
We welcome the formation of a faction which recognises the widespread
discontent within the party. We declare our intention to join
immediately, and invite others to do so.
In recent weeks, the lack of leadership from the Central Committee (CC)
over a very serious crisis concerning the handling of sexual harassment
and rape allegations has been compounded by a hostile approach towards
internal criticism. It is clear that these criticisms are not limited to
a tiny minority, but come from broad spectrum of comrades across the
Regrettably, the CC’s attempt to provide a perspective thus far has
been limited to blaming internal critics, the left beyond the party, and
the right-wing media for the crisis. This is a political failure,
insofar as it results from a shocking failure to apply our sexual
politics, and has revealed a serious deficit in party democracy. But it
is also an untenable strategy that risks doing irreversible damage to
the party’s standing in the movement. And it damages our ability to
work within united fronts and alongside others on the left.
The motion carried at the recent National Committee meeting
unfortunately serves not to solve this crisis but to deepen it. The
attempt to curtail democratic rights to call a special conference, and
threaten disciplinary action against comrades opposed to the present CC
strategy, must be opposed. We also oppose the ill-founded expulsions of
four comrades over this issue before conference.
For all these reasons, we welcome the creation of a broad, united
faction. And we support any project that aims to promote a genuinely
democratic, tolerant culture in the party.
We pledge to work constructively inside the faction for its declared
aims, and urge other comrades to join and work alongside us.
We also call for a special conference at which to address the issues
raised by the faction. The purpose of the conference should be to
identify and correct those aspects of our work that have led to the
current situation, not only organisational structures but also failures
in long-term analysis and perspective. We believe it must include in
its remit the issues of party democracy and the structure and practices
of the Disputes Committee. It must allow a full pre-conference period
with internal bulletins to allow for the most thorough debate. The right
to call such a conference is guaranteed by the constitution and we
refuse to accept any arbitrary time constraints placed upon this.
Further to these points we would also like to suggest that our crisis
points to severe internal deficiencies that urgently need to be
First and foremost, we must rectify the culture wherein female comrades
could be so badly treated, and the term ‘feminism’ used as a term of
abuse for those who object. We as a party have nothing to fear from a
serious political and theoretical engagement with feminism as it exists
today. We should therefore, in addition to examining the processes that
led to our present crisis, work on developing and updating our
traditional perspectives on women’s oppression, and women’s liberation.
Second, this crisis may be the most the severe we have experienced in
recent years, but it certainly isn’t the first. In the last ten years
alone the party has been hampered by the Respect split, the split with
what is now Counterfire, and the later split with what is now the
International Socialist Group. We believe these crises are the
culmination of deep-seated problems in our long-term perspective, and
our methods of organisation, problems which we have never fully
addressed or resolved. We will work constructively alongside other
comrades in the coming period to address these fundamental issues.
In our view, the combination of a large full-time apparatus, a Central
Committee that frequently resorts to bureaucratic means in order to
assert its authority, and the way in which the various party bodies are
elected, serves to produce a mostly unchanging leadership which is able
to hold the monopoly on the development of perspectives. This restricts
the space in which to develop alternatives.
Third, there is an ungrounded fear of frank public debate in the party.
The entrenched scepticism about the internet, though justifiably
repudiating cyber-utopianism, is symptomatic of this phobia. Whereas
the party once published internal bulletins in the Socialist Review, we
now worry about comrades carrying on debates on social media. Worse,
some comrades mistakenly think that such debate is the major cause of
our crisis. Full and open debate is actually the way out of the crisis.
We regard the diverse contributions from comrades to the International
Socialism blog, for example, as a sign of health. It demonstrates a
desire to develop alternative perspectives honestly and openly.
In a way, the CC has been right: this argument is about the sort of
party that we want to build. The party aspires to be part of a mass
party that can lead the working class. Such leadership would be
impossible on the basis of secrecy and paranoia, since this necessarily
excludes the class from the party’s debates and decision-making.
As Tony Cliff wrote in 1960:
“Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the
class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they
should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The
freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at
unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the
revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of
policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let
the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the
party, its apparatus and leadership.”
We are the Democratic Renewal Platform. Please join us.
Aidan Sheffield North
Alaina Sussex & Brighton
Andy Hackney East
China Brent & Harrow
Chris Sussex & Brighton
Ciara Tower Hamlets
Danny Man Met SWSS / Rusholme
Jack Leeds Central
Jackson Sheffield South
Jamie Manchester Rusholme
Jennifer Wandsworth & Merton
Jennifer Hackney East
Jess Sussex & Brighton
Kris Wandsworth & Merton
Lewis Sussex & Brighton
Martin Sussex & Brighton
Martin Sheffield South
Matthew Bristol North
Richard Bristol East
Richard Hornsey and Wood Green
Rob Sheffield South
Thom Sheffield South
Tom Manchester Rusholme
Toni Bristol South
In addition, the platform is supported by and in turn supports our
four comrades currently appealing against their expulsion:
Bear in mind there's been a degree of success with this book already, to the extent that it set out to wind up the belligerati, the unhitched. Having never exchanged two words with them before, I suddenly find to my delight that my name has been taken in vain by both Nick Cohen ("puffed up political hack", "totalitarian") and David Aaronovitch (who consigns me to "Tosserdom"). I think this may not be a coincidence, comrades. Obviously, Harry's Place have taken umbrage, which I can always rely on them to do. That moronic ultra-Blairite Indy columnist has apparently been dreading the thought of having to read it, but was spared the burden by Fred Inglis's dopy review. And the less said about the culture editor of the New Statesman, the better.
If you haven't read the book, you might not understand why the Hitchens fans are tearing their hair out about it. I'll tell you why right now: it's because the argument in the book is unanswerable, and it puts a big black mark on all the pro-war, Islamophobic ideologues. Don't believe me? Come tomorrow, and I'll give you a demonstration.
: This went very well. A few of the unhitched came. The Harry's Place
nutter turned up. But they were surprisingly quiet throughout. I did get a few challenging questions, but they were more interesting than trolling. And this was the audience, looking all interested.
A People’s History of the World, by Chris
Harman, is a fascinating and wonderful book. Something interesting happens
around halfway through however. The story of Absolutely Everything changes; things
like settled agriculture, irrigation and the printing press and so on, drop
away. The last few hundred years expand massively and the tale becomes much
more about wars, Jacobins, syndicalism and such like. This is very appropriate.
The bourgeois revolution in its broadest sense is the dawn of public life, the
awakening of mass consciousness and all that it has entailed until this point.
But we must go back a step. Being
determines consciousness. Our mode of being is altered by the inventions
through which we live. The clock, for example, alters our sense of time. Under
capitalist relations it bourgeoisifies our sense of time. Under capitalism time
is money. Through the clock face it is converted from peasant, analogue flow
into measurable capitalist quanta. This is just an example.
There is relatively little in the Marxist
canon that deals with the effects of new media. The Marxist who paid closest
attention to this question was Walter Benjamin. Excellent groundwork though his
essay The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction is it is also short and aphoristic. It was also
written prior to several major developments in mass media.
I would like to introduce to you all a
philosopher, not a Marxist, but someone whose ideas can extend and enrich our
discussion and study in the area of culture and technology. Marshall McLuhan.
Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta. His
father was a real-estate businessman, his mother was a schoolteacher. His
father enlisted in the Canadian armed forces in 1915. After his discharge the
McLuhan family settled in Winnipeg. Young Marshall enrolled in the University of Manitoba there
Marshall McLuhan was a bit of a polymath.
He started out academic life studying engineering before switching to English
Literature, a subject at which he excelled. In 1937 he moved to Cambridge in England,
where he was required to repeat some of his undergraduate studies. He did
however some of the eminent New Critics, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. New
Criticism was a movement that emphasised close textural reading. McLuhan
studied both William Shakespeare and James Joyce in immense detail; as a result
he was one of those rare people who could quote Finnegans Wake in the course of an argument. It was also at Cambridge that he
would come to convert to Catholicism. In his academic career he mostly taught
in Catholic Colleges.
All of this is to say he was not a
revolutionary figure. However his focus changed when he began teaching
Communication and Culture seminars, funded by the Ford Foundation. He carved
out an academic niche of his own, starting with the book The Mechanical Bride,
examining technology and popular culture, quite different subject matter to the
(I would argue) closed and cold world of the New Critics. This led to the
foundation of the University of Toronto McLuhan
Programme in Culture and
Technology in 1963.
He was not completely closed to the world
of politics. His aphoristic, collage style of writing and his non-judgemental openness
toward new forms of communication lent itself to post-war youth culture. While
McLuhan was a friend of right-wing author Wyndham Lewis, he was also an
associate of Timothy Leary and is credited with coining the hippie slogan, Turn
On, Tune In, Drop Out.
McLuhan’s arguments and aphorisms have
proven massively popular and influential. His speaking-style, especially in
front of non-academic audiences, was playful and thought provoking. They are
important for us I think because they help stimulate thought often about things
we take for granted. Mass culture and its role within bourgeois hegemony is a
crucial question for Marxists in advanced, core capitalist countries. Mass
media profoundly determine the shape and form of mass culture.
The ideas I present here from the beginning
of McLuhan’s most famous work, Understanding
Media. First of all:
medium is the message
“It is always necessary to distinguish between the
material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be
determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious,
artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become
conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.
It is not exactly an aphorism, but it is a neat
segment of Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy with an important
implication. Ideology is reasonably defined as a collection of ideas based
around a distinct point of view. The argument here suggests ideology is the
medium of class consciousness.
In the clash between forces and relations of production, the basis of class
struggle, people can achieve things which are contrary to the ideas they hold.
This was something Antonio Gramsci dwelt upon in his Prison Notebooks
repeatedly. The achievements of the Biennio Rosso were not capitalised upon
because there was not sufficient critical renovation of ideas; long story
short, the workers rebellion was not translated into a workers state.
Ideology is the medium of class consciousness and, as we know, the medium is
the message. The key benefit of Marshall McLuhan’s media studies was the
spotlight he shone on the media themselves, media as physical objects, and the
effects they have. For example, (in this case David Sarnoff, pioneer American
broadcaster) people often advise that the “products of modern science are not in
themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their
value”. McLuhan responded:
“Suppose we were to say, ‘Apple Pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is
the way that it is used that determines its value’. Or ‘the Smallpox Virus is
in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way that it is used that determines
its value’. Again, ‘Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the
way that they are used that determines their value’.
A useful point for consideration, the ideology of Protestantism helped found
capitalism. Not because of some supposed work-ethic, plenty of harsh toil had
been carried before anyone pondered the nature of a personal god, but because
its dispute with Catholicism over humanity’s relationship to the divine was in
effect an argument over the individual’s relationship to authority. “No King
But Jesus” is a roundabout call for a republic.
But why does this matter? One of the crucial questions about ideology, and specific
ideologies, is why do they arise when they do? As Frederick Engels pointed out,
early socialism was utopian because:
“What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who
understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been
clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the
chains of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as
well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500
years of error, strife, and suffering”.
So, Protestantism didn’t just happen to rise up during the feudal era to attack
it, it arose out of the feudal era, part of it but against it (and eventually
to be supplanted by more advanced articulations of bourgeois ideology). There
is no debate about a personal versus an impersonal god without print technology
and the beginnings of mass literacy. There are no ideas apart from the means of
We live in the medium of Earth’s atmosphere. We do not notice it because our
bodies are evolved to live at around sea-level pressure; we live at the very
bottom of an ocean of air. You can only get a handle on this when you climb a
large mountain, get into a submarine or board a spacecraft. We exist, in a
similar way, in a state of media saturation, to the point where we do not
regard the effects such media have upon us.
We tend not to notice the dominant ideology, the collection of ideas based
around the point of view of the dominant class in our society. It is only when
we are outside that medium that we see it for what it is. McLuhan’s strength is
that he looks at the effect of technology on consciousness. It is easy to
accept that electronic media creates almost instant global communication, and
thereby bridges the gap between cause and effect, core and periphery in the
public mind. You can extrapolate from this. We have lived through a period of
growing gated bourgeois communities, increasingly militarised policing, the
enclosure of more and more public space, and so forth. The mass media batters
away, the poor are dangerous, deracinated and, look, they're living among us.
It’s all very logical.
But there is one clear problem with techno-determinism. Take something like the
Canary Wharf Complex in East London. To the bourgeois Londoner it is a sleek monument to their power.
The working class Londoner on the other hand would be forgiven if they found it
a cold, bewildering and unwelcoming place (built upon the ruins of a former
trade union stronghold let’s not forget). Technology, mass media live inside
the greater medium of class society; that is the message carried to us,
everywhere, all the time.
Hot and cold media are important concepts
for McLuhan. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ are slightly misleading names. The basic
opposition is between high definition/low participation and low definition/high
participation media. It is, say, the difference between a live action film and
a drawn animation. With live action the visual detail is fairly rich, leaving
little room for the viewer to fill in/interpret. With a drawn cartoon (a good
example being Matt Groening animations) there is minimal visual information,
few lines, few surfaces, and wide room for viewer inference.
Why should hot and cold media bother us? I think, firstly, because it is a
useful way to track cultural development. Ruling classes attempt to develop
culture appropriate to its rule. This means that culture is a site of conflict
in class society. In Understanding Media,
McLuhan at one point cites the example of the waltz (a ‘hot’ dance) versus the
twist (a ‘cool’ dance).
Dance is an expression of sexuality. The waltz, a formal dance, where the
information is largely filled in beforehand, was consistent with early
capitalism and its attempt to mould sexuality to the nuclear family and capital
accumulation. The twist is an informal dance, with room to improvise and, most
dangerously of all, does not require two closely locked partners. The twist and
related forms of dance were consistent with a period of affluence and immanent
sexual liberation. They were consequently terrifying to authorities committed
to the capitalism and sexual propriety. Let’s not forget the added bourgeois
horror of mixed race social dancing. It may seem unbearably strange and
backward now but American cops used to attack Ray Charles concerts for
precisely this reason (brilliantly evoked in Mike Davis’s writings on post-war
But there’s a second point of interest. In McLuhan’s scheme new media cause a
shock to our system. In order to overcome this shock, so we aren’t sent reeling
every time we walk down the street or glance at a TV, we numb ourselves to the
medium’s effects. One way of doing this is by cooling down the medium.
The printed word is visually hot. Spoken word on the radio is aurally hot. They
each take particular senses and fill them out. One thing you will not have
missed is the rise of right-wing demagogy in the internet and talk radio. These
are cooling media that allow for greater participation; but this participation
is as a kind of reflective surface in an echo chamber. Slanders become rumours
and rumours become facts, as host and audience goad each other.
This can create false notions that are very difficult to dispel. An example:
after the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes the Metropolitan Police put out a
number of statements that simply weren’t true: he jumped the barrier, he was
wearing a suspicious device, he challenged the police, he looked like Hussein
Osman, etc. These claims were recycled through public forums and consequently
longer in people’s minds even after they were disproved.
What is ideology, the medium itself; hot or cool? As far as the question is
relevant I would suggest it is a cool medium, participatory. For example: The
Conservative Party is a key outlet for bourgeois ideology. The party cannot win
general elections on the vote of its social base, the bourgeoisie, alone. There
is a Conservative Party for big capitalists, but there is also one for small
business people, there is even a party for a minority of conservative workers.
This can only be achieved by incorporating the concerns, the points of view of
other groups into the broader bourgeois perspective of the Tories.
The point here is not to suggest hot, cold or cooling media are better, worse,
beneficial or pernicious, but to understand them so we are not taken by
surprise by their effects.
narcosis to awakening
McLuhan’s best known writing is more about aphorism
and argument than precisely laid out research. This is particularly the case
with the opening chapters of Understanding Media. There are two chapters, which
run together smoothly, The Gadget Lover and Hybrid Energy. McLuhan begins his
argument by retelling the myth of Narcissus.
The myth is generally understood as a warning against self-love, Narcissus fell
in love with his own reflection. According to McLuhan this is not quite the
intention of the story. Narcissus was transfixed by his reflected image and so
became numb to all other stimuli, a closed circuit.
All media are extensions of particular human aspects; the wheel is an extension
of the foot, the lever an extension of the arm, clothing an extension of the
skin, and so forth. Human invention is a response to need generated by
discomfort; the wheel relieves the burden of moving objects, the lever the
burden of lifting them, clothes keep us from being cold (or sunburned).
Any new invention is a greater or lesser shock to human relations. A neat
illustration, from Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital:
“In districts where natural economy formerly prevailed, the introduction of
means of transport – railways, navigation, canals – is vital for the spreading
of commodity economy… The triumphant march of commodity economy thus begins in
most cases with magnificent constructions of modern transport, such as railway
lines which cross primeval forests and tunnel through the mountains, telegraph
wires which bridge the deserts, and ocean liners which call at the most
The latter chapters of the Accumulation of Capital are a meditation on the
various media used to establish a commodity economy in various colonies,
including the medium of ballistic weaponry. Colonialism is a rather sharp
example but the point stands, changes in the medium of human existence require
changes in the way people relate to each other.
On an individual level the shock of change leads to numbness, what might have
been disturbing to your ancestors you have to take in your stride. Imagine, for
example, your journey to work. You would never get there if you had to regard
every single advert trying to catch your attention. This shutting down of the
senses blinds us to the effect of various media. Back to the original example,
ideology; we do not recognise mainstream ideology as such. Even so the supposedly
non-ideological person is in fact the most ideological.
We only recognise a medium for what it is when it is either hybridised or
superseded. An example from art is the journey from painted portrait to
lithograph to photograph, to moving image, to synchronised sound, to
Technicolor. Each invention cried out for the following one. As each medium was
superseded it was transformed, the obvious example being after the rise of
photography artists began painting concepts and feelings, rather than literal objects.
Another example: we now know that novels are in fact movie scripts. Every
successful novel is touted to movie producers as a sure-fire hit (that or it’s
cherished as an unfilmable novel). Movies are not novels, however. They almost
never make the journey backwards. If anything movies are becoming role-playing
computer games, judging by the number of spin-offs that have been made.
Relating this back to the point about ideology; we overcome our numbness to
bourgeois ideology, see it for what it is, through its supersession (or,
perhaps, hybridisation if we take reformism into account). This of course
happens through practical action, class struggle, combined with the critical
renovation of consciousness.
McLuhan’s legacy, if it is anything, is a
techno-evangelism, in part an offshoot of the counter-culture (McLuhan was also
the first person to use the word “surf” in its modern sense); computing will
save the day the internet will broaden our minds, liberate information and the
geeks shall inherit the Earth.
One very modern off-shoot of this philosophy is the argument (distraction in my
opinion) over the role of social media in popular rebellion. Does the
application of Twitter to 21st century society result in occupations, riots and
strikes? It's certainly a more comforting conclusion than admitting people over
the world are tired, poor and fed up with living under their rulers.
But McLuhan was not a member of the 60s counter-culture. He was an educator, an
educator with a very keen sense of the crisis in education, which arose out of
post-war society and came to be known as the Generation Gap.
Capitalism needed an educated, skilled workforce more than ever. Educational
opportunities grew and millions of young people growing up in the core
capitalist countries for the first time had the chance to go into Higher
Education, therefore reaping the rewards of a better life. At the same time the
rigorous application of capitalist norms to a formerly artisan-like HE system
generated conflict, conflict between the new mode of intellectual production
and the relations of production. The lecturer was slowly proletarianised. The
student, promised intellectual liberation, was subjected to fusty, paternal
supervision and backward rules. For example: the student struggle in France
1968, which set off the great strike in May, began as a struggle over the right
of male students to visit female dorms overnight.
McLuhan was a lecturer during this period of change. He experienced the shift
when he began teaching. Though only a few years older than his students, he
felt an insurmountable gap between him and them. The difference, he thought,
was in the mode of understanding. He was steeped in the literate, sequential
and disinterested mode of thought. His students were saturated by modern media
and its effects. Their understanding was post-literate, non-linear and deeply
He saw this as the root of the conflict, the crisis of education (and of
society at large). It was this he studied. His solutions were humane,
intellectual and appropriately utopian – more designed to provoke debate rather
than resolve it. His answer was critical reflection, we had to understand the
changes we were going through as a society in order to cope with them. Cutting
edge thought, and in particular art were to lead the way.
The Marxist response is clear. Firstly, culture is ambiguous. For human history
so far every document of civilisation has also been a document of barbarism. In
order to have Socrates you also had to have slaves. The prevailing culture of
any class society is determined by that society's ruling class, their
prerogatives, their preoccupations. An obsolete way of thinking does not simply
give way to critical reflection, which brings us onto the second point; consciousness
has its basis in material reality. As Marx pointed out in his Theses on
Feuerbach, criticism of heaven takes place on earth.
I want to conclude with two quotes, from Challenge and Collapse, the final
chapter of the opening section of Understanding Media, one which Marxists
should find intriguing:
“Perhaps the most obvious “closure”... of any new
technology is just the demand for it. Nobody wants a motorcar until there are
motorcars, and nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programmes”.
This is a close relation to the Marxist observation that a society does not
create problems for which it does not already have solutions. There is no
solution to bad weather therefore it is not a problem. There is a solution to
poor harvests, to food speculation and starvation. These things are problems.
While McLuhan's solutions may be technocratic, we can accept what he is saying
here. But, McLuhan continues:
“The power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent
of technology being first an extension of our own bodies and senses. When we
are deprived of our sense of sight, the other senses take up the role of sight
in some degree. But the need to use the senses that are available is as
insistent as breathing - a fact that makes sense of the urge to keep radio and
TV going more or less continuously. The urge to continuous use is quite
independent of the ‘content’ of public programmes... It is ridiculous to talk
of ‘what the public wants’ played over its own nerves... Once we have
surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those
who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves,
we really don't have any rights left”.
This is a vital point that we can all agree
with. However you define 'the media', broadly or narrowly, they are our mode of
existence, alienated from us and used against us. We take them back under our
control in order to emancipate ourselves.
Labels: capitalism, communication, engels, hegemony, Marshall McLuhan, marx, mass culture, media, Rosa Luxemburg
Now look, if a Times
drudge is going to review Unhitched
, the least he could do is hack my emails and try to find out what the book is about. Sadly, but predictably, the pattern with Hitchens's acolytes is to entirely ignore the book's contents, to the point of being conspicuously vacuous
. The winning formula: a series of genuflections to the deceased sandwiched between petulant and pissy observations about the book's uppity author that, one supposes, are intended to put him back in his box. One example will suffice, since it happens to be among the few minor points where the book's contents are discussed:
The worst thing about Seymour’s book is that he thinks he writes as well as
Hitchens, with embarrassing consequences. It may be true that Hitchens’s
book on Thomas Paine was not his finest, but would anyone with English as a
first language suggest it should be classed as “a somewhat opuscular
component of the Hitchensian oeuvre”?
Heartbreaking stuff. In response to this scathing indictment, I can only offer two defenses. The first is that the sentence fragment quoted is both written in perfect English, and uses its adjectives appropriately. That is, the searing rhetorical question fails by inviting the obvious answer: "yes". The second is that in the original, the quoted words are embedded in a discussion of Hitchens's tendency to plagiarise other works. The main point being made about the book on Paine, is that much of it is plagiarised. I don't make much of this fact, or claim any originality in making it. But it happens to be a fact, and a rather more salient one than that which gets the reviewer's dander up. You see what I mean: they'd rather talk about anything than the contents of the book.
Another salient fact, I suppose, is that I'm getting an intimate education in both sides of the old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity. On the one hand, there plainly is. I think this point needs no elaboration. On the other, every spittle-lathered review of Unhitched by one of the unhitched actually results in a gratifying improvement in the book's sales figures. I'd like to see much, much more of this. But I'd also like a proper review by someone who has read the book.