Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Orwellian Prizes

"Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
The fate of famous quotations such as George Orwell's is to become a cliché, to lose meaning beyond their own historical reference points, themselves also by now a cliché. So to renew the observation, let's make it real again by looking at political prizes: the Orwell Prizes, no less. "The ambition of the prizes" we're told "is to reward, celebrate and promote work that helps nurture the discussion of politics and that contributes to the quality of public life." It is run "in association with The Orwell Trust ... and the Media Standards Trust". What more could guarantee objectivity and independence?

To begin we may ask what discussion does it seek to nurture? Looking at the archives, it has shortlisted books by Nick Cohen (twice!), Andrew Marr and (Tony Blair's press secretary) Alastair Campbell, each to varying degrees responsible for selling to the British public the solidity of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Distruction and respect to the murderous invasion of Iraq. Peek at its award for Journalism and you'll see the similar heroes of quality nurturing: Justin Webb, Johann Hari, Clive James, David Aaronovitch, Melanie Phillips, and Peter Hitchens (twice!). For the blog award, which began only last year, it has already included Oliver Kamm and Conservative blogger Iain Dale (twice!). Perhaps in scanning the lists I've skipped representatives of the Left and discussion isn't so constrained.

Of course, the prize has included some worthy authors, usually those writing about issues in lands safely out of range – this year the Arctic, Kenya and Zimbabwe (twice!). Yet what about those who have sought to elucidate Orwell's dictum in the nearest, the now and in England? Richard Seymour's Lenin's Tomb superbly written and often revelatory blog posts have yet to be recognised. His book was ignored too. It's a staggering truth also that John Pilger has not been nominated for the journalism prize. Here's his Welcome to Orwell's World. As for the book prize, the work from 2009 most overtly inspired by Orwell is surely Newspeak in the 21st Century by Davids Edward and Cromwell, "an exposé of the arrogance and servility to power of our leading journalists and editors". Yet it too is conspicuous by its absence from the longlist.

It is very fortunate then, that, due to the abiding example set by Orwell, the impeccably independent prize judges are free to resist the dead hand of political language in order to reward those who expose its lies and to hold to account those who make mass murder respectable. We can only assume the four writers mentioned above just didn't make the grade. After all, we can rest assured even those close to the power prefer freedom and independence to wealth and privilege. For this we give thanks, in association with the Media Standards Trust, of course.

Monday, March 22, 2010

For rivers make arable the land

The Ister is a film based on Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin's poem Der Ister. (Via Enowning).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reticent artificiality

In another essay, developing his reasons for admiring W. G. Sebald, [James Wood] contrasts him with some of his more popular contemporaries:
What is remarkable about The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn is the reticent artificiality of Sebald's narration, whereby fact is taken from the real world and made fictional. This is the opposite of the trivial "factional" breeziness of writers such as Julian Barnes and Umberto Eco, who take facts and superficially destabilize them within fiction, who make facts quiver a little, but whose entire work is actually in homage to the superstition of fact . . . . Facts are a sport for such writers . . . . For Sebald, however, facts are indecipherable, and therefore tragic.
From James Wood's The Broken Estate as reviewed by Gabriel Josipovici.

More reverie hunger

Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.
Wittgenstein, On Certainty, entry 676.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Reverie hunger

There is, with Joubert, an entire physics and cosmology of dream [...] where he ventures forth, pushed by the necessity of reconciling the real and the imaginary, which tend less to negate the reality of things than to make them exist starting from almost nothing – an atom of air, a sparkle of light, or even only the emptiness of space that they occupy: "Observe that everywhere and in everything, what is subtle carries that which is compact, and what is light holds suspended all that is heavy." We see clearly, then, why poetic language can revive things and, translating them in space, make them apparent through their distancing and their emptiness: it is because this distance lives in them, this emptiness is already in them; thus it is right to grasp them, and thus it is the calling of words to extract the invisible center of their actual meaning. It is by shadow that one touches substance, it is by the penumbra of this shadow, when one has arrived at the oscillating limit where, without disappearing, it is fringed and penetrated with light. But, naturally, for the word to attain this limit and represent it, it also must become "a drop of light," and become the image of what it designates, image of itself and of the imaginary, in order finally to be confused with the indeterminate expanse of space, while still raising to the roundness of a perfect sphere the moment that, in its extreme lightness, it carries and, by its transparency, defines.
from Joubert and Space, translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

From the lexicon of totalitarianism

A notable feature of Latin America over the past ten years has been the emergence of a new kind of left-wing populism, of the paragon is Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. His regime and other usually include some or all of the following ingredients: massive handouts to the poor from the revenue of commodity exports; substantial but selective nationalization not only of foreign, but also of locally owned, companies; the astute use of carrot and stick to keep the existing armed forces in line, along with the creation of an alternative, or "popular", armed force of revolutionary guards; virulent anti-Americanism; and, last but by no means least, a genius for occasioning constitutional change through constituent assemblies, which allow the president to be re-elected indefinitely.
This is the opening paragraph of David Gallagher's review of The Priest of Paraguay in the March 5th edition of The TLS.

Let's run through this sinister catalogue again: the people of these countries get to have a say in the companies that had previously been run from other countries, have an army to protect their democracy, and, like other democracies such as the UK, they're allowed to elect an executive leader more than twice. What's more, the profit from the work of ordinary people goes to ... ordinary people. Don't they also have bankers in desperate need?

And what of this charge of "virulent anti-Americanism"? In what ways are Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela not American? Perhaps David Gallagher means a particular kind of Americanism that is exclusive to one country and is practised by only one country. So, we might ask: have any of the American regimes Gallagher mentions invaded their American neighbours, overthrown an elected American government, installed and supported brutal American dictatorships that use American military power to enforce American anti-democratic industrial relations? Evidently not.

This isn't the first time Gallagher has stained Britain's foremost literary review. (I'm pleased to see Richard Gott respond in the same pages).

For more background, here's an unpacking of the term "anti-Americanism" by someone often accused of it:
The notion “anti-Americanism” is a revealing one. It is drawn from the lexicon of totalitarianism. Thus people who think that the US is the greatest country in the world are "anti-American" if they criticize the acts of the Holy State, or join the vast majority of the population in believing that the corporate sector has far too much influence over government policy, or regard private corporate institutions created by state power and granted extraordinary rights as "a return to feudalism" (to quote old-fashioned conservatives, a category that now scarcely exists). And so on.

In totalitarian societies, the usage is standard. In the former Soviet Union, for example, dissidents were condemned as "anti-Soviet" or "anti-Russian." Where a democratic culture prevails, the usage would be regarded as comical. If people who criticize Irish government policies were condemned as "anti-Irish," I suppose people would collapse in ridicule in the streets of Dublin. At least they should.

The notion has an interesting history. It traces back to King Ahab, the epitome of evil in the Bible, who denounced the Prophet Elijah as an “ocher Yisrael” (a proper translation, now used in Israel, is "hater of Israel"). His reason was that Elijah condemned the acts of the evil King, who, like totalitarians since, identified the state (himself) with the population, the culture, the society.

People are entitled to revere King Ahab and Soviet commissars, and to adopt the term "anti-American," on their model. But we should have no illusions about how they are choosing to identify themselves.

Children and Journalists

Some have criticised the lack of sophistication in Makhmalbaf's film, but it's a sobering reminder of the extent to which the harshness of life has enabled the Taliban influence to persist – even after the liberation – and of how children can be persuaded to accept anything as truth.
From The Radio Times.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The writer, his biography

There are books that can never escape the circumstances of their creation. Suicide is one of them. French artist and author Edouard Levé submitted the manuscript of his novel on October 5th, 2007; three days later his editor at Editions P.O.L. called to tell him that he was utterly captivated by it, and they arranged to meet on the 18th to discuss publication. The meeting was not to be.
Hugo Wilcken continues the story at the Berlin Review of Books. Were it not for one outstanding exception, it's hard to imagine an English equivalent of Levé. It's no coincidence that Tom McCarthy's Remainder was first published in Paris by Metronome Press.

Friday, March 05, 2010

"A non-negligible minority"

Typically, cattle are led down a chute to a "knocking box". Here, theoretically, a steel bolt is shot into the cow's brain. "Sometimes the bolt only dazes the animal, which either remains conscious or wakes up as it is being 'processed'." "Processing" continues with wrapping a chain around the animal's leg, and hoisting it into the air. Then, it is moved to a "sticker", who cuts its throat. If the knocking hasn't done its work, then, as one slaughterhouse worker put it: "They'd be blinking and stretching their necks from side to side, looking around, really frantic". Then they move on to the "head skinner", where the skin is peeled off the head of the animal. Some cattle, not the majority but a non-negligible minority, find themselves still conscious at this stage. Then, on to the "leggers", who cut off the lower portions of the animals' legs. At this point: "As far as the ones that come back to life \[go\] . . . the cattle just go wild, kicking in every direction".
It's a quick death, God help us all.

Play it again, Psalm

‘The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.’ [Psalm 115:17] On one level that is a truism: of course the dead do not praise the Lord – but what does it mean, ‘neither any that go down into silence’? It could be a mere synonym for ‘death’, but Hebrew parallelism often works in more interesting ways, as [Robert] Alter has shown, the second limb enriching and even questioning the first. The Psalmist is perhaps suggesting that silence, the inability or refusal to speak, is a kind of death, a psychological death. Such a psychological death is given many metaphors in the Psalms: silence, desert, being overwhelmed by the sea. [...] Most terrible of all perhaps is the devastatingly simple remark of the narrator of Psalm 88: ‘I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.’ The most interesting example from our point of view is the prayer or psalm in Jonah 2:
I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice / For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all thy billows and thy waves passed over me… .
Four years ago when Gabriel Josipovici published The Singer on the Shore, I said to anybody who'd listen that the opening three essays on the Bible were as much a rousing encouragement to the modern writer seeking a way forward as the later essays on TS Eliot, Kafka and Borges. For this reason I believed the book would gain a grateful readership wherever real writers sought inspiration and guidance. Yet how does one convince those so easily in thrall to well-marketed pap? Well, step forth the internet. I've just discovered that Singing a New Song, the third of those essays, is available online at PN Review (Update: now offline, sorry). It offers an answer to why a great many of the Psalms "seem to ask to be sung":
It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you; as if finding words to express your total despair and the sense you feel of being shut up, unable to come forth, of having been rejected by the whole world, God included, makes the water return to the desert, makes life return to the one who was dead. The fact that the Psalm in Jonah is embedded in a narrative allows us to verify the truth of this, for no sooner has Jonah finished speaking than ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.’ [10] Of course it is important that Jonah and the ‘I’ of the other psalms on this topic cry out to God; but in a sense they only do so because God is the one who will always be prepared to listen. Simply giving voice, I would suggest, finding words for your anguish, is what in the first instance, makes it possible to overcome that anguish.
You can read the essay on Borges from the same book at ReadySteadyBook.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Solar Anus

Brushing away what he has called "the dead hand of modernism", he believes that novels should tell stories, have strong plots and be exciting. He likes to surprise readers.
The Daily Telegraph profiles Ian McEwan.

See also.


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