A Journal of the Plague Year

Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up. (13)

Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family [. . .]. Such intervals as I had I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day [. . .]. (58)

I cannot be the only person who, in these strange times of pandemic and confinement, is turning to narratives of plagues and pestilences past. Indeed, in early March it was reported that Penguin was rushing out a reprint of Camus’s La peste, while sales of novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand were similarly booming. And if these texts were once read as a species of horror, perhaps now we are turning to them for their (more or less) happy endings. At least, after all, they do finally end: their plots arc to some kind of resolution. And so, extrapolating to our current circumstances, we can be assured that this, too, shall pass.

defoe_plague-yearUnlike Camus and King, Daniel Defoe does not present his A Journal of the Plague Year as a work of the imagination (though the same could be said of Robinson Crusoe), and in fact it is said to depict quite accurately the Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666. Indeed, though it was written over half a century after the period it describes (Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665), there is some debate as to whether the text should be regarded as fiction or not.

Still, Defoe’s book does not exactly follow the template of what we now know as the novel (a genre that he himself of course helped to pioneer), even as it cannot easily be described as a “journal,” either. There is much digression and repetition, and a strange mix of conjecture and certainty, while the narrative frequently pauses to draw essayistic and even quasi-scientific conclusions, for instance about the means by which the infection spread or the role (or otherwise) of divine providence and predestination. It reads, in short, as a patchwork of styles and discursive forms. There is a surprising amount of statistics and reportage, chronicling the numbers of burials in various London parishes as the plague spread, even as Defoe tells us that the numbers can hardly be trusted: “It drove us out of all measures. Men did no more die by tale and by number. They might put out a weekly bill and call them seven of eight thousand, or what they pleased; ‘tis certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps, that is to say, without account” (178). There are reflections on public policy, not least about the wisdom (or not) of confining the sick and the well together in boarded-up houses.

There are also anecdotes and stories, presented either as the narrator’s experience or as what he has heard and is uncertain or doubtful as to how much credit he should give them: “It was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things” (64). One long section follows a biscuit-maker, a sailmaker, and a joiner (John, Thomas, and Richard) in their attempt to flee the city and traverse the villages of Essex in search of safety. This extended narrative might almost stand on its own account, but it opens hesitantly, after many false starts, and somewhat tails off at the end: “They got colds in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection; and then about December they came home to the city again” (113). Perhaps this is because, overall, the plague does not follow any particular logic: it arrives, sweeps through the city, until at last it just seems to exhaust itself. The book comes to an end, but not to any great resolution.

Indeed, and I am unsure if we should regard this as great comfort or not, Defoe’s conclusion is that ultimately not much changes once the crisis has come and gone. There is no “new normal.” However much, during the plague itself, common practices and prejudices were briefly overturned, such that (for instance) religious divides no longer weighed so heavily, by the end “It was not the least of our misfortunes that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before” (176). Old habits all too quickly resumed, old enmities were re-established: “The quarrel remained: the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the Dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents retired” (177). It is as though nobody has learnt anything.

It is almost as though the plague had not happened at all. On the book’s final page, Defoe (or his narrator) quotes a man who, once the infection has passed, exclaims “’Tis all wonderful; ‘tis all a dream” (186). But the over-riding impression is that, for all the brutal reality of the pits turned into common graves into which countless bodies were dumped, it is the plague itself that is experienced as a “dream.” And this perhaps is the rationale for Defoe’s book, which repeatedly presents itself as a pedagogic text (“the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow, in case the like public desolation should happen here” [45]): even fifty years after the event, it still had something to teach its readers. Indeed, the plague had yet to be constituted as an “event” at all.

It may be that the same question faces us now, in our present pandemic: whether Covid-19 is to be cast as an event, and if so of what kind?

Friends, Enemies, and Others

bercowPresented at “Theologies of the Political: From Augustine to Agamben, and Beyond”
UBC Medieval Workshop
Green College, UBC, 29-30 March, 2019

“Friends, Enemies, and Others: Political Theology and the Art of the Encounter”

To adopt a phrase from the liturgy of monarchical succession: Political theology is dead, long live political theology. In what follows, the argument I hope to sketch out concerns the link between sovereignty and politics. For Carl Schmitt, who first coined the phrase “political theology,” this link is fundamental. Schmitt defines sovereignty as the ascription of a singular point that has the power to decide over the exception, and politics in terms of the dyadic distinction between friend and enemy that such an ascription frames and enables. I argue, by contrast, that this link is broken (if it ever functioned), that there is no such singular point (if there ever was), and that the friend/enemy distinction is, and always has been, a misleading distortion.

Along the way, I will not even pretend to be a medievalist, for which I hope you will forgive me. The case study that I will be analyzing, through which I will be reading Schmitt’s concepts, is about as contemporary as one could imagine: it is the ongoing legislative uncertainty around Britain’s projected withdrawal from the European Union, an event that should have happened yesterday but which may now take place on April 12 or May 22, or sometime, or never. Brexit is an unusually odd and complex affair; it is, in every sense, exceptional. But it is an exception that does not ground traditional conceptions of sovereignty (as Schmitt would have it); it radically undermines them. And I argue that Brexit is symptomatic, that it tells us something about the limits of political theology today (and perhaps always), and not only in the UK.

One response to this dilemma might be to jettison political theology. In the end, however, I suggest (all too briefly and cryptically) that political theology can still be redeemed, perhaps via a return if not to the Middle Ages (though Geoff Koziol’s discussion of ninth- to eleventh-century insurrections suggests that the Carolingian era might provide fertile ground) then at least to the Early Modern, and to a counter-tradition that has run parallel to the contractualist orthodoxy that is now utterly exhausted.

Read more… (PDF)

Beyond Europe

Brexit

There are plenty of good reasons to dislike the European Union. It is, perhaps above all, profoundly undemocratic–at times, as in its treatment of Greece a year ago, stridently anti-democratic. Of course, some of its elements are more democratic than others; it is more a cluster of institutions than a unitary body that speaks in anything like one voice. Moreover, democracy is not always everything: the European Court of Human Rights, for instance, is surely one of its more progressive components, not least because it has acted as a break against demagogic tendencies in individual nation states.

Moreover, whatever the Union’s benefits (or drawbacks) for citizens of its constituent states, you also have to take into account its effect on those outside its borders, or on those who precariously find themselves within its boundaries. For all the conveniences of relatively unrestricted travel and movement within Europe, there are the pernicious effects of “Fortress Europe”: the attempt to restrict movement from outside the area, or to corral refugees in the periphery of the South and the East so as to keep the Northwestern “heartland” as pure as possible.

There is thus undoubtedly a progressive case to be made against Europe, and there always has been. For instance, if one were outside the EU it might be easier, rather than harder, to welcome migration and encourage a diversity that goes beyond the tired old European constraints: not just Spaniards or Poles, say, but Syrians, Somalis, Colombians, and so on. This would be to acknowledge that Britain has never been solely European, but also (for both better and worse, thanks to its imperial past) a meeting point of cultures and populations that are truly global.

But has this been what we have heard from the “Leave” campaign? Far from it. Indeed, quite the opposite. Which is why yesterday’s “Brexit” vote is so discouraging. Rather than leading to a more expansive vision of Britain’s place in the world, underlining the extent to which we are more than simply European, it is a retreat, a withdrawal, a reversion to an old (and manifestly untrue) conception of national self-sufficiency or organic distinctiveness. It is all deeply depressing. Even the disappearance of Cameron and (soon, no doubt) Osborne is hardly a silver lining, given their likely replacements.

But the transition is going to be messy. Perhaps, amid all the confusion (for surely the Leave campaign have no more idea what exactly happens next) there may be space to open up the idea that the (not so) United Kingdom can move beyond Europe, not simply away from it.

Erratum: A friend of mine has repeatedly taken me to task for suggesting that the European Court of Human Rights is part of the EU infrastructure. It isn’t, of course, and I apologize for the error.

On the other hand, the relationship between the ECHR and the EU is complex, and the two are deeply imbricated; they are both closely linked as part of a wider cluster of Europe-wide legal and political institutions and treaties. For more on this tangle, see for instance Francis Fitzgibbin’s “If We Leave” (London Review of Books 38.12 [June 2016]).

In any case, none of this materially affects my points above. Some transnational institutions that broach national sovereignty are reasonably progressive and/or popular, and whether they are or not doesn’t necessarily correlate with the extent to which they are democratic. We need a more nuanced take on them all, which is precisely what neither the Leave nor the Remain campaigns gave us.

Universities at War

Universities at War

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. In January 2014, the University suspended him from this post, pending an investigation into charges that (allegedly) he had “undermin[ed] the authority” of his Head of Department by “sighing, projecting negative body language and making ‘ironic’ comments.” During the period of his suspension, he was essentially exiled from the university in toto: forbidden access to the campus, barred from attending events, prevented from using its library, from contacting colleagues or students, and even (apparently) from writing the preface for a book in a series that he himself edits. Ultimately, he was cleared of all charges and able to return to work, but only thanks to a costly tribunal, and while incurring significant legal bills himself.

In the meantime, however, Docherty wrote Universities at War. This book is obviously inspired and even shaped by his own experience: as he points out, unable to use the library he was forced to rely more on sources taken from the Internet (x); for other material, he comments in a footnote, he is indebted to the diligence of his lawyers (60). More generally, his argument about the authoritarianism of the managerial turn in higher education, and the bureaucratic injunction to “govern your tongue” (107), clearly speaks to his own predicament. But overall the case he is trying to make here is less to plead for individual faculty than to recover a sense of the university’s mission in the world.

For everyone, he claims, is shortchanged when the guiding principle and “key driver” of the institution is no longer thought, but money (ix). Faculty are silenced, yes, by the drive to conformity and homogeneity. But students are also cheated when they are treated simply as “human capital”: “When the university is reduced to the function of preparation for jobs and not for life, life itself gets lost under the jobs” (85). Most broadly and seriously of all, society as a whole suffers as the university abandons its traditional role as “that institution that has a responsibility to counter the incipient violence of natural force” (40). The fate of the university is bound up with the fate of democracy and citizenship at large. If society is to change, and injustice and inequality challenged, we need now more than ever an institution whose role is to be “’critical’ of the existing world state of affairs, dissident with respect to it” (6).

One might reasonably think that Docherty’s account of the university’s historic mission is somewhat idealistic. When exactly did the institution uphold this democratizing mission? Moreover, he himself outlines the ways in which higher education has been molded by forces external to it (for good, in the aftermath of the first and second world wars; for bad, under contemporary neoliberalism) more than it has itself managed to change them. On the whole, moreover, it has generally been a rather conservative institution. Still, it is worth setting the university’s ideals against its practice, and calling it to task for not living up to them. Docherty is perhaps on surer ground in arguing for the principle of the collegium, a “scholarly community [. . .] shaped by the interplay of forces among a collective” that has in recent times been “atomized and neutralized by the elimination of communal space and its dissolution into separate individualized cells” (23). For college life has indeed historically been seen and experienced as inhabiting a space apart, with its own logic, distinct from if not unaffected by social life as a whole. It is a significant change that universities are now treated as (and more or less proudly assert themselves to be) businesses or corporations like any other. Even here, however, he surely waxes over-lyrical when he claims that “the university [. . .] is the site where friendship, love and neighbourliness are all made possible” (74).

But ultimately the book argues that the real idealism lies with those administrators and self-proclaimed university “leaders” who champion the “official” view of the institution, for which everything is measurable from course credits to world rankings in the name of what (following Bill Readings) Docherty notes is “an essentially vacuous ‘excellence’” (120). This “Official University is effectively a fantasy” (125). By contrast, more concretely and less idealistically, the real work of teaching and learning continues, but “in a clandestine and unofficial manner.” The good news is that “the clandestine university [. . .] is where most of us do our daily work, and it’s usually [. . .] pretty good” (121).

There is still space, in other words, for research and learning, if despite rather than because of the efforts of vice chancellors, line managers, and the like. But even the clandestine university is increasingly being squeezed and asphyxiated, thanks to the drive for conformity and discipline, enforced by cops on campus that are both literal and figural. Docherty is sharply critical of inanities such as the imposition of “aims, objectives and outcomes” on everyday teaching: “Anyone who predicts ‘outcomes’ cannot, ethically, be a teacher at all” (121). And “if we teach to an agenda in which we show that predicted outcomes are achieved, we are poor teachers, for we are thereby limiting the imaginative possibilities of collaborative acts of imagining” (124). Indeed in general this is a book has much more to say about teaching than about research, except for instance for the observation that today “it matters little, we know, what research is done; all that matters is that the research grant has been captured” (140). And as much as Docherty (rightly) condemns the myth of widening participation, and of the university as an instrument of social mobility–noting for instance that, in the UK, in 2009-2010 Oxford and Cambridge admitted exactly 40 (0.05%) of the 80,000 school-leavers who were poor enough to qualify for free school dinners–his own personal biography, as a working-class Scot both of whose parents left school at 15, indicates clearly that he is what Pierre Bourdieu called an “oblate,” someone whose social identity is indebted to the institution he criticizes. The collegium is where Docherty has chosen to live out his life. No wonder that his temporary suspension from it should have hit him so hard.

For a short book (140 pages), Universities at War is surprisingly sprawling and digressive. It takes in everything from a brief history of popular music to a fairly lengthy reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One. It is motivated by anger and frustration, for instance at the ways in which “authoritarian governance” has taken on the task “to empty the universities of knowledge, and refill it with information and data. Then sell it” (125). But it is also written with what one can only describe as love. “There is a war on indeed for the future of the university,” Docherty tells us (115). And there is no doubt that he considers it to be a war worth fighting. All those who currently work in the clandestine university should join him.

Revolution

Russell Brand, Revolution

Russell Brand is probably best known as an actor, comedian, and radio host. He is also a “celebrity” in all the modern senses: working-class boy made good, with a back-story of deprivation and addiction; larger than life personality and idiosyncratic sense of fashion; high-profile romances (Katy Perry, Jemima Khan); scandalous and out-spoken. He goes out of his way to attract attention, as he half-shamefacedly admits in Revolution, his most sustained incursion into political thought: “I, like a lot of people who come from somewhere glum, was trying to be something spectacular” (104). As such, his turn in recent years to political activism–to expressing the voice of the disenfranchised, of those too alienated from the system to vote–could cynically be seen as part and parcel of the same celebrity syndrome. Again, he practically admits as such: “You know me, when I started this book I really thought I might be able to write my version of, I dunno [. . .] Das Kapital, that I’d contrive some brilliant manifesto where I would, on a wave of raring adulation, be carried from celebrity to political office” (250).

And indeed, Brand gives us plenty of reasons to be cynical, even though (or because) he then subverts them with a burst of the candor that is equally part of his schtick (“You know me”). His narrative is the hardly original tale of rags to riches to spiritual rags as he discovers that fame and fortune are no panacea for whatever psychological damage his Essex upbringing may have left him with (“I loved my mother, was uncomfortable around my stepfather, and adored my absent dad” [17]). He turns therefore to spirituality, to everything from kundalini yoga to Transcendental Meditation, via a brief excursion through African Pentecostalism, to end up pronouncing that we are all but “manifestations of one sublime vibration” (199), “a temporary expression of a subtler and connected electromagnetic realm unknowable on our bandwidth of consciousness” (253). It’s all about love (the book’s final word), as the cover image, with the “love” highlighted in rEVOLution, also emphasizes. Again, however, Brand pre-empts criticism by admitting that much of what he has to offer is a “New Age hippie ramble.” But as he points out, there are worse things than that: “Don’t look under the bed. The horrors that lurk there will dwarf this eastern liberalism” (210).

Taking both his own social mobility and his experience as a recovering addict (plus a smorgasbord of opinions from people such as Dave Graeber and Noam Chomsky, mixed in with some pretty hasty research that mostly goes no farther than Wikipedia), Brand embraces the notion that personal change is the basis for social change, without quite succumbing to the prevalent New Age substitution of the personal for the social as a whole. In other words, he never forgets that the personal is indeed political, and he makes a decent effort at translating, for instance, the keystones of the twelve-step program into a social agenda that would entail dismantling corporations, decentralizing power, and enhancing participation in communal processes of self-actualization. He wants to free us from “our addiction to a corrupt and corrosive system” (275). It’s self-help on a grand scale, but with an awareness that the self is also the product of a particular social regime.

The book makes me fairly fond of Brand, and there’s plenty of good sense (common sense) in the mix. He provides welcome bullshit-free arguments against stigmatizing the homeless or immigrants for instance: “Me, I don’t see immigration as a real issue; for me an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else” (281). And yet as he points out, his hometown of Grays, Essex, is a place where people who share his background (and much of his alienation) have repeatedly voted for anti-immigration and not-so-covertly racist parties such as Ukip. If this is a wake-up call against the kinds of prejudices to which all the mainstream parties have been pandering (and not just in Britain), then the book has some worth. What’s most annoying about it is its style. I understand that it might be aimed at the “ADHD Generation,” but even so was frustrated by the fact that it is (almost literally) all over the place: Brand jumps back and forth from topic to topic, delighting in digression and following his distracted thoughts wherever they may lead. This may work for stand-up, but on the page it grates, and what is worse is decidedly unfunny. In fact, the purported jokes end up less matey and demotic than simply tiresome: telling us Guy Debord was “a clever old stick and as French as adultery” (137) or calling Chomsky variously “Chompers,” “Chomskers,” and “Chomskerooney” (260, 261). Brand is at pains to tell us that Revolution need not be boring. But I’m not sure he sets such a good example.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey cover

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey pulls off the difficult feat of being both relentlessly self-reflexive and (on the whole) a genuinely enjoyable read. It is, after all, a commentary on the writing and reading of novels, and more specifically on the then-popular genre of the gothic romance. The commentary is both diegetic and extradiegetic: conveyed by individual characters and also by a narrator who claims (to some extent at least) to transcend and stand outside the action. I say that the narrator is only able to transcend the action “to some extent” in that she (or he) recognizes that this novel, too, is bound by (or chooses to be bound by) many of the same conventions that structure the object of its reflection. Hence the form of Austen’s novel itself also provides a commentary on novel-writing and, again, on popular genres in particular. Any distance that Austen takes from what she (or her narrator) sometimes calls her “sister author[s]” (81) can only be temporary or provisional. Ultimately, they are all in this together even (especially) if Austen chooses to parody and so implicitly criticize (but also mimic) some of the structural expectations of the genre.

To put it another way: this is a novel that repeatedly switches between critique and indulgence. It plays a double game of ostensibly taking its distance itself from the gothic commonplaces (“gloomy passages [. . .] ponderous chest[s] [. . .] unintelligible hints [. . .] violent storm[s]” [115]; “dreadful situations and horrid scenes [. . .] midnight assassins or drunken gallants” [122]) that it so hilariously sends up, and at the same time indulging itself in precisely these same clichés. It’s as though Austen were allowing us to partake of a guilty pleasure: her critical jabs at the genre absolve us of most of the guilt, and leave us with almost all the pleasure. In short, here Austinian irony comes close to the postmodern sense of the term: a knowing imitation whose knowingness supposedly absolves it from complicity.

Except that Austen doesn’t quite let her readers–or even herself–off the hook. She undoubtedly agrees with Henry Tilney, her heroine’s suitor, that “the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (77). We can’t, or shouldn’t, deny the pleasure that novels bring us. But this is not to say that we cannot question that pleasure. Indeed, Austen has quite a complicated relationship to pleasure: she is far from averse even to the simplest (“unaffected” [23]) of pleasures, and indeed is skeptical of the mannered pedagogy in taste that Henry elsewhere offers in the form of a “lecture on the picturesque” (81). At the same time, she is consistently critical of those characters whose only concern is with their own pleasure, and who neglect therefore duty and responsibility. A novel, for Austen, also has its responsibilities–and in the case of Northanger Abbey, that involves perhaps above all an education in the power of self-reflection, and its significant but subtle difference from self-regard.

Ultimately, however, I think that Austen shows herself to be dissatisfied by her approach in this early novel. Her rush to conclude at the end, jumping through the hoops of formulaic conventions without taking the time to allow us to enjoy them, pulls the rug from under our feet. In the novel’s final few pages, which hurtle us towards our hero and heroine’s marriage (“the bells rang and every body smiled” [186]), while reminding us rather too insistently of “the rules of composition” (186), feel churlish at best: as though she felt she had to fulfill the promises that her acceptance of generic conventions implied, but no longer got much pleasure in doing so… or perhaps feared that she had already over-indulged both herself and her readers. There is something anticlimactic about this conclusion, and it makes sense that in subsequent novels she will perfect a properly Austinian irony, leaving behind the (perhaps too crude) pleasures of imitations whose knowingness is never alibi enough.