Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Terry Eagleton 50th Anniversary Interview

‘For the university, is there hope?’, Professor John Schad asked yesterday in the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts Building. Terry Eagleton, whom he was interviewing there, seemed inclined to answer no, speaking apocalyptically of the ‘effective end of universities as a centre of humane critique’ in our time. So, in Kafkaesque fashion, plenty of hope, but just not for us, in the twenty-first-century academy. But is there not a performative contradiction here? Does not the very fact that Eagleton could make such an announcement, to an enthusiastic audience of 130 (including the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and admirers who had travelled up from as far away as South Wales), at a public interview that celebrated both Lancaster University’s 50th anniversary and Terry’s own extraordinary 50 years in the literary-critical business – does not all this suggest that we might in fact need a slightly more nuanced account of ‘hope in the university’ today?

John Schad’s wide-ranging and beautifully judged interview reminded us of the many ways in which Terry has been not just a brilliant literary critic and theorist, but also an important public intellectual, speaking on behalf of socialism and the oppressed in a variety of tones and registers (including humour, a topic which had some prominence in the interview: ‘I know I’m going to write a book on comedy’). The fact that a revered Marxist public spokesperson is now, since his enforced retirement from Manchester University in 2008, a celebrity intellectual in the neo-liberal university system, complicates matters no end, but does not just cancel out that former role.

Perhaps we need some new sociology of the role of stellar oppositional figures – particularly in retirement, as they now ‘sit loose’ to formal academic requirements – in the marketised university economy, since they are themselves commodities (in terms of institutional visibility and recruitment) and yet eloquent enemies of commodification. To walk that fine line, to sustain critique without just being absorbed and marketised oneself, seems a lot more complex now than it presumably was in the good old days when F.R. Leavis, after retirement from Cambridge in 1962, took up his new post at York three years later. So we look forward to a comparative study of figures like Eagleton, David Harvey and Alain Badiou, as they wrestle with such contradictions and do their best to speak for radical hope still. Moreover, as I reflected during the wine reception in the LICA foyer that followed this splendid Schad-Eagleton interview, we shall all hopefully be assembled here again in ten years time, for Terry’s 60th anniversary as critic, theorist and socialist.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Theses for a William Morris Communism Project

1. William Morris was above all a communist – and this crucial fact is too little recognised. As he declared in Commonweal on 18 May 1889, ‘I will begin by saying that I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’; and his pamphlet ‘Why I am a Communist’ was published by James Tochatti’s Liberty Press in 1894. George Bernard Shaw, who had been very close to Morris in their early activist years, confirmed in 1934 that ‘Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist ... He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically, and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with’.

2. With so much of the discourse on and around Morris in our culture consisting of gossip about Pre-Raphaelitism, admiration for flowery wallpaper or textile designs (which you then have reproduced on your tea-towels and wellies), worthy but in the end merely historical scholarship about his life and writings, or benign approval of his environmental and conservationist commitments, there is room and need for a group or network which locates itself firmly on the terrain of Morris’s communism, at the extreme edge of his and our culture, and which strives to get his role as a major communist activist, artist and theorist widely acknowledged.

3. This is, however, not just a historical project. Alongside the global capitalist crisis from 2008 onwards, we have witnessed a growing affirmation that communism is once again a viable term for radical politics and thinking in our own time. Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jodie Dean, Bruno Bosteels and others have been key thinkers in this project. For as Badiou puts it, ‘We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and “natural” character of the most monstrous inequalities’. After its twentieth-century history, communism certainly remains a challenging term, but the wager of these theorists is that now is clearly the moment to reinvent it.

4. Past and present can and should powerfully illuminate each other. The return of communist thinking in our own time once again makes visible this neglected but central dimension of Morris, while his own political activism, artistic work and utopian writing make available new resources to the communist revival of the early twenty-first century. There is thus now the possibility of an invigorating conversation between communisms past and present – a conversation which will be a matter of artistic production as well as intellectual analysis. Given the continuing hegemony of neo-liberalism, and all the human and ecological damage it does, no contemporary use of William Morris could be more necessary or urgent than this.