Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Seeds beneath the Snow: Anarchism in Nowhere

The moving obituary in today’s Guardian newspaper for the eminent British anarchist theorist Colin Ward (p.35) turns my thoughts to those pesky Anarchists who dominate the Socialist League meeting in the opening pages of News from Nowhere: ‘there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions’. So fractiously anarchistic are the SL Anarchists here that they don’t seem capable of agreeing even with each other as to what anarchism might represent!

So anarchism has a bafflingly paradoxical position in Morris’s utopia. It deeply shapes the vision of a fully achieved socialist society in the body of the book, with its decentralised, libertarian and ecologically responsible political and cultural habits. Yet, as the opening frame narrative shows, it is the greatest obstacle of all to the practical building of such a society in the first place because it disastrously fractures the unity a revolutionary party would need in order to grow into any meaningful challenge to a powerful capitalist system. News from Nowhere can neither live with anarchism (because with it a strong party cannot be built), nor live without it (because in that case a dangerously centralist State might install itself permanently in the post-revolutionary period).

We will need a new, appropriately paradoxical concept for thinking about the role of anarchism in Morris’s utopia, then; and I suggest that the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (non-)concept of the pharmakon (which he derives from Plato) might serve our purpose. The pharmakon is both ‘cure’ and ‘poison’ simultaneously, or the illness and its cure. This is a contradiction that cannot be erased upwards in some benign Hegelian sublation or Aufhebung; but just remains in its stubborn and prickly unthinkability. And so it is with News from Nowhere: utopia can’t exist without its pesky anarchists, but it can’t exist with them either.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

In Praise of Steampunk

Visiting my son in Oxford the other day, I took the opportunity to see both the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the refitted Ashmolean Museum and the exhibition of Steampunk artefacts at the neglected Museum of the History of Science opposite Blackwells Bookshop in Broad Street.

The new Ashmolean is indeed a joy – spacious new galleries and stairways, so many additional objects on display, not to mention excellent breakfasts in its delightful rooftop restaurant. The nucleus of its Pre-Raphaelite collection is that of Thomas Combe, Printer to the University in the 1850s and the first important patron of the young PRB artists. In its attractive green display room this material was being perused silently and intently by an audience that was middle-class and middle-aged (if not older) to the last man and woman. Highlights for me were the Chaucer-decorated wardrobe which Burne-Jones gave to Morris as a wedding present and Charles Allston Collins’s lovely painting ‘Covent Thoughts’.

The Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science, by contrast, was consigned to the cramped and dingy basement of the building – a daft curatorial decision if ever there was one. For on the day I visited it was absolutely packed, with people from the whole social and age range (including many children) chattily admiring the weird and wonderful ingenuity of the Victorianised artefacts on display. The contrast of this bustling enthusiasm with the hushed awe of the Pre-Raphaelite Room at the Ashmolean was wholly invigorating.

So it is the bizarre mechanical ingenuity of Steampunk - which is no longer just a minor science-fictional genre but, it seems, on the evidence of this exhibition, a whole emergent sub-culture - it is this extraordinary effort to reimagine the Victorians, to unleash a Victorian and Jules-Vernian technological future which never in fact happened, that is surely where the real energies are in our own current engagement with the nineteenth century. I may still love the hushed devotionalism of ‘Covent Thoughts’, but to my son and his contemporaries it is the fabulously complex goggles and helmets, the peculiar brass chronometers, mechanical animals and whirring robotic arms of Steampunk, that represent an exciting vision of the (neo-)Victorian age; and to which we should, I believe, make Morris’s work responsive too.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

'Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?'

Listening to Radio 4's 'Today' programme over breakfast this morning, I learnt that the New Economics Foundation is recommending a working week of no more than 21 hours as a way of solving many of our contemporary social problems: overwork, unemployment, environmental depletion, and so on. With a working week of 21 hours we would, the NEF argues, again have time and leisure to be good parents and good citizens.

Yes indeed! But we have been here before, with the Manifesto of the Socialist League in 1885 arguing rousingly that after the revolution 'every man will ... receive the full value of his labour, without deduction for the profit of a master, and as all will have to work, and the waste now incurred by the pursuit of profit will be at an end, the amount of labour necessary for every individual to perform in order to carry on the essential work of the world will be reduced to something like two or three hours daily; so that every one will have abundant leisure for following intellectual or other pursuits congenial to his nature'.

'Fantasyland economics' was the kneejerk Establishment response to the NEF's suggestion on this morning's radio. Well, it is indeed utopian, and all the better for that. Morris's Socialist League felt that it could point immediately at the social agent - the organised working class - which could bring such desirable changes about. Our task is to find and mobilise such agents of change in our own, much more complex present.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Morris in Wonderland

In my book on William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, I tried to get away from the over-familiar story of Morris as an Oxford undergraduate at Exeter College to tell the full story of his mature relationship to Oxford, of his return there as an architectural and political activist in later life. Around the colourful story of the nine speeches Morris gave in Oxford from 1879 onwards I tried to evoke the whole spectrum of his adult interactions with his old university.

And now, preparing for the first time a lecture on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for my Victorian literature class, I find I have missed one minor aspect of that interaction. For the mathematics tutor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was indeed an Oxford phenomenon as ‘Lewis Carroll’ from the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. And Morris, it appears, had distinct views on this Oxonian brand of children’s literature. For as his daughter May informs us: ‘he never could sympathise with the enthusiasm children had a little later on for “Alice in Wonderland”. It was a type of child-literature that “gave him the fidgets”, he would say’.

Why, one wonders (since May herself doesn’t elaborate on this), should Morris have taken against the Alice books in this way? They look to us like very radical and subversive works, challenging many of the institutions and philosophical categories of Victorian establishment thought; and it is certainly no accident that Lewis Carroll was later canonised by the Surrealists. Yet perhaps what Morris himself saw in the books – and reacted against - is what Hugh Haughton in his fine Penguin Classics edition terms ’a travesty of the heroic Pre-Raphaelitism of Rossetti, Morris and the Laureate’s Idylls of the King’.

We will never now know for sure. So this remains an additional aspect of Morris’s mature relationship to Oxonian culture which invites further speculation.