Sunday, 31 May 2015

Raymond Williams Now

How heartening yesterday's well-attended 'Raymond Williams Now' conference in Manchester was, despite our dark Cameronian political climate! How much younger many of its speakers and audience were than those you'd find at your average William Morris Society meeting; and why should that be? For a couple of decades now, what I suppose we must call 'Raymond Williams studies' has been hampered by an essentially retrospective and even at times hagiographical approach; but after yesterday I have a sense that a younger generation, who did not personally know Williams and to whom he is not therefore a unreproachable Saint of the Left, are enthusiastically picking up his work as a rich resource and getting on with whatever political or cultural task they are currently about with some of the tools he has left us – a more modest but also more wholesome approach to a great precursor.

Highlights for me from the event were Tony Crowley's opening plenary lecture on 'Keywords Then and Now’ and Ruth Beale’s 25-minute film ‘Performing Keywords’. Crowley gave a masterly exposition of how Williams’s thinking on language relates to a wider socialist tradition of linguistic thought, and ended with some astute reflections on contemporary ‘words that interpellate us’: chav, scouse, radical, and dissident among them. A member of the audience wanted to add ‘aspirational’ to the list, it being a word we are already hearing so much of in the Labour Party leadership contest and elsewhere.

Ruth Beale’s remarkable performance project combined elements of dance and stylised collective movement, the fragmentation of Williams’s keywords into what felt like Dada nonsense syllables (COM-MUNI-CATI-ON), recordings from adult education workshops on key terms, and live readings by local people in a variety of regional and social accents from Williams’s Introduction to Keywords. Williams was, after all, Professor of Drama at Cambridge, so dramatising his theoretical work in this way is both enterprising and entirely apt, and I would certainly like to see more experiments in this direction (and with Morris’s work too).

‘Keywords’ is also the name of the Raymond Williams Society journal and of an important website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh ( It is such a crucial term precisely because it defines a project rather than a hagiography, a task we will always urgently need to get on with in our own times using (but also moving beyond, when we need to) the initial discoveries that Williams gave us in his 1976 book on the subject. When the work of a thinker on the Left can be defined as a project in this way, then it can be taken positively forward; it is open to the young (as we saw in Manchester yesterday) in new ways, in novel political and cultural circumstances. Whether we can construe William Morris’s work in this manner, so that it is subject to forward-looking rather than exclusively historicist approaches, well, that seems to me still a very open question.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Elections and Utopia

A little piece in The Guardian Review on 9 May about the reading habits of the leaders of the political parties can form a pendant to my previous post on the general election itself. You might expect the Green's former leader, Caroline Lucas, to be the most interesting figure here, since she studied English Literature at Exeter University and has a PhD for a feminist account of Elizabethan romance. I once asked Caroline, in the Kelmscott Coach House, whether she felt there were connections between her early Eng Lit studies and her later Green convictions, and rather to my surprise she didn’t have a very ready or clear answer on this. I know what the answer is in my own case – romantic anti-capitalism is the common term – but whether that would work for her I'm not sure.

So the clear winner, from this blog’s perspective, is Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, who ‘says she was inspired by Marge Piercy’s feminist sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), in which the heroine – a woman detained and drugged in a New York psychiatric hospital – is visited by a time-traveller from a utopian future world, but fears what could unfold instead is a dystopia where systematic use of mind-control secures the elite’s power’ (p.5). That latter formulation is quite a good account of what we have just witnessed, with those relentless Tory invocations of the Labour-SNP ‘nightmare’ securing our elite's power, so it is good to know that at least one party leader also harbours Piercyian aspirations towards utopia in these dark moments. Perhaps we can persuade her to read News from Nowhere next.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Democracy at Work

‘There is something in all this very like democracy’, William Guest eagerly declares to old Hammond as the latter explains the principles of communal decision-making in News from Nowhere (ch.XIV). And we too, at the end of this six-week campaign period, may feel that we are exercising our own democratic rights in putting crosses on ballot papers at some point in the course of the day.

However, today’s general election is a farce, from various viewpoints. First, because its only outcome will be further neo-liberalism – the hard, nasty version under Cameron’s Tories, or the with-a-human-face-and-ever-so-regretfully-but neo-liberalism-all-the-same variant from Miliband and Labour. Second, because it is operating under a corrupt first-past-the-post system which, by design, reduces all non-establishment challengers to near-impotence. Third, and most importantly, because putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years has almost nothing to do with democracy where and how it would really count – in the work-place, where most of us actually spend most of our waking hours.

If my academic colleagues and I had daily votes on the variety of issues which face an early twenty-first-century university, or if the workers at the Magnet kitchen showroom just down the road from me all decided collectively in committee how their business would be conducted, and so on, then I might believe that the term democracy had some meaning again in this society. We used to talk about this issue, about extending formal bourgeois democracy to substantive ‘industrial democracy’ – that would indeed have been part of what Raymond Williams used to mean by his ‘long revolution’. But that discourse seems to have faded away almost entirely in the neo-liberal epoch.

Until we get it back on the agenda, I am going to take comedian Russell Brand’s original advice – which was also, by the way, that of William Morris’s Socialist League in its own day – and NOT vote. By that ‘policy of abstention’ (to borrow Morris’s term) I shall, in my tiny way, avoid giving a corrupt and pointless rigamarole the show of legitimacy it craves from its victims.