History’s flow

On 15 June 1878 the East London Observer reported the case of one Eliza S–, whose infant children had been taken into care.  She blamed her husband, who was by then deceased.  He had been an Italian who made bird cages, and had had difficulties with debt.  Eliza survived her conviction to die an old woman in a workhouse.  From this story, Judith Willson has woven an extraordinary poetic meditation, Fleet, named after the river which fed into the Thames.  Much of the book takes place up and down the Thames, a confluence of exotic birds, migrants and washed up detritus in the mud and marshes, and towards the end of the book, the gaze broadens out to Ancona, the home of the Italian dealer in ‘foreign birds and curiosities.’[1]

The collection includes a series of children’s songs, acute and oblique views of life, but in playground rhythms, which have such deep roots.  It also reflects on the technological capture of the past or of distance – the first recording, early photographs, maps, archives, telescopes.  The collection is pervaded by a profound sense of the unknowability of the past, but its vitality nonetheless

‘Time is a process of coming into being’

not a memorial stone                     a story

neither remembered                     nor imagined

a saltwater creek                             its vagaries

silt-water             silk-mud               mirror-mud

Eliza’s circumstances are largely unrecoverable, except by a process of imagination shaped by the fragments of the past.  She slips away, even her grave is not preserved:

‘she left nothing                               not even her death.’ 

In one of the most haunting moments Willson imagines the court scene, recorded in the papers:

The prisoner said

the only words she spoke in her life

that anyone recorded,

pressed into lead.

What moves through her

is invisible, silent

as the dark between the stars.

Yet for all that Eliza is elusive, missing, unknowable, she is also an amazingly vibrant presence, imagined at the laundry, warming her hands, listening to the songbirds, ‘a breath exhaled between numbers,’ a presence half glimpsed, finding her independence in her ungraspable particularity, finding her place in the water, ‘riding the tideway into the eye of the wind.’

There are many ways to read this wonderful book; one is as framing what the work is that history does.  From the tiniest scraps of archives, a newspaper, court records, a cross for a signature, the map of where a grave once was, we get a partial vision of something which happened, which can be analysed but which is still elusive.  These fragments are like the scraps Willson finds on the foreshore by Rotherhithe

Neck of a bottle

                                                                freckled earthenware

                                                                plump as a song thrush

Chunk of fogged glass

                                                                moulded nubs and trails

                                                                unreadable under my fingertips

But the challenge of unreadability, the act of translation and transmutation that goes on in imagining and performing, the capture of the glimpse of voices and faces is the work of history:

each of us walking through our muddled days

muttering in our own dialect

twisting it into shapes to hold some wild flapping creature

in all its improbable colours

What is missed too often in debates over culture and history at present is that polyphony is at the very heart of history.  History is fundamentally aggregative, connective; like water it flows into gaps and seeks out new channels.  If history does not flow, become renewed by new approaches and voices, it becomes stagnant.  The addition of Eliza’s voice, the bird cage maker of Ancona, the history of the docks and implication in empire, the slaughter of birds for a market in feathered trinkets, the broken debris, the migrant and the prisoner – and the poet joining them up over time – is the work of history.  The more voices we hear, the richer our histories, and our shared lives. 

It is inconceivable to me that the addition of voices should be understood as the replacement or cancelling of voices.  History that has just one note is nothing but a dessicated voiceless bird in a cage.

I am writing this a mile or so away from where Eliza and her Italian husband lived in a shop, perhaps crammed with sailers’ curios and exotic birds, watching the Thames flow. 

Rotherhithe looking west

There is a moment when Willson is looking at the same part of the Thames and writes

Impossible to believe

we never touch anything

We make it all up out of particles

a shimmer at the boundary          a story

that travels on the tides

But make it up we do, and must; our humanity depends on finding ways to imagine the connections between us, and that is why arts and humanities as disciplines have such a critical place in our world.  We mend, we sing,[2] we tell stories so that our aloneness joins that of others to make sense in the flow of time.  Our disciplines find their greatest strength and relevance in their openness to helping voices be heard.

[1] Judith Willson, Fleet, Carcanet Press, Manchester 2021. The online book launch can be viewed here.

[2] On mending and singing, see my previous blogs https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/28/magic-and-the-mastery-of-non-mastery/ and https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/breaking-fixing-wondering/.

Magic, and the mastery of non-mastery

When and how is the world most alive to me?  When I am most in tune with it or most at odds with it?  As a fundamentally clumsy individual, I am frequently put in mind of, and awed by, those who show genuine dexterity and competence.  What sometimes rattles round in my head as I drop screws, fumble for tools, lose and break things is Heidegger’s notion of the carpenter and his hammer.  Heidegger alludes to the way that a craftsman and his tool (the Heideggerian world of carpentry is inescapably and unforgivably male) can be so at one with each other that the tool withdraws from visibility – the skilled worker barely knows the hammer is there or separate from him in his work.  ‘Handiness is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself initially a theme for circumspection. What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy.’[1]  This example draws attention to a particular state of absorption. It is deliberately based in the world of physical labour which Heidegger felt he knew from his own woodworking and practical knowledge, and thereby is set in deep contrast to the rather unworldly speculations of his philosophical opponent Ernst Cassirer, who one supposes had spent little time contemplating hammers. It also goes fully against his old master Husserl. Heidegger says ‘The less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly it is encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific “manipulability” [Handlichkeit] of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call “readiness-to-hand” [Zuhandenheit].’  Whereas Husserl spent a lot of time staring at things, describing objects and representations of them, Heidegger insists you have to pick the hammer up and hit something with it to have the basic intuitive relationship with it.[2]


However, things go wrong even for the best of carpenters.  The tool is misplaced; the hammer breaks; it becomes unhandy.  At that point, the carpenter begins to look around the world and see the complexity of relationships in which he and the hammer were entangled.  Things become more conspicuous in themselves and in their relationships.  The carpenter notices his workshop in a different way when it ceases to be the perfect extension of his activity.

Nursing the toe on which I had dropped a heavy piece of a desk chair I was trying to assemble, I could get behind the notion that unhandiness discloses the world in a sharper way.  But this Heideggerian progression, which as always is never really explicit, has troubled me for a while.

In the first instance, it’s not at all clear to me that we can speak of some sort of primordial perception.  There’s more than a bit of a sense of an idealized, but not terribly reflective, early humanity.[3]

Happisburgh hand axe

In the second instance, there’s something just a bit too easy about that slide from functional invisibility to dysfunctional visibility.  Is it really the case that we can make such a distinction?  Can one not consciously enjoy being in tune with the world?[4] 

And thirdly, what is the goal of all this?  Being and Time, whatever else it is, is an assertion of an individualistic capacity to be authentic, which, in part, comes from an absolute determination to face up to the irreducible certainty of one’s own death.  But it’s not a book about death; it’s a book about the irreducible mine-ness of life and its questions (Jemeinigkeit).  Heidegger’s carpenter is at the centre of the world – his hammer, his workbench, his hut on the hill, his history, his people, his destiny.   

Heidegger’s hut

When at the famous debate between the two philosophers at Davos, Cassirer asked if Heidigger was willing to give up objectivity, he touched on the core of the debate, and specifically the core of the function of our anxiety.  Cassirer sought liberation from anxiety through culture and thought, through the role of symbolic form;[5] Heidegger was driven by anxiety to the rejection of all palliatives; authenticity is found in nothingness and finitude.  Cassirer seemed out of his time already at Davos; he is perhaps even further from our thinking now, and that is unfortunate; it’s good to see a new translation of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 

Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos, 1929

But whereas Heidegger is more recognisable, his aggressive appropriation of the centre of the world into the little mountain hut meant that whereas he spoke the language of care, it’s not clear to me that the object of care was nearly as important as the carer.  Heidegger’s anxiety trumped and triumphed over all.  Whilst Heidegger was writing Being and Time he was also in a relationship with Hannah Arendt; he famously said to her (using Augustine), volo ut sis – I want that you might be.  It’s perhaps telling that his indicative wanting grammatically trumps her subjunctive existence.[6]

Heidegger had not yet done with his carpenter’s eye view.  Much later in life, he returned to the network of entangled relationships that woodworking revealed. He imagines the apprentice working to the instructions of the experienced carpenter:

‘If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings, are constantly in that danger.’[7]

In this later formulation, Heidegger is closer it seems to me to the Spinozists or new materialists, and this leads to the sorts of language which Hartmut Rosa has started to develop in his expansive new synthesis Resonance, in which he says ‘When we love these things [sc. the people, places, tasks, ideas, objects, and implements that we encounter and with which we interact], there emerges something like a vibrating wire between us and the world;’ and it is along these axes of resonance that our contentedness is to be found.  This is about a kind of ‘right relationship’ and Rosa is pulling together an enormously complex tradition in so doing.[8] 

I want to move on by contrasting early Heidegger and his contemporaries with a different sort of thinking, which is part of Rosa’s inheritance, and that is the rejection of the notion of mastery as a goal.  For it seems to me that what unites three of the four magicians of Wolfram Eilenberger’s recent group biography is a fundamental belief that the aim of a philosophical life is mastery, the final attainment of some sort of language or technique that offers truth.  And this powerful deduction of a necessary development from skill to mastery to truth, the attainment of a techne, is exactly what I find so difficult.

In Heidegger, the notion of a primordial skill in which the world withdraws is replaced by the idea of an anxiety which gives the individual a degree of centrality within the network of increasingly visible (ready-to-hand) relationships.  Although Heidegger and Cassirer ended up in disagreement, Cassirer sought a similarly universal account – and if Heidegger’s centre was his Black Forest hut, Cassirer’s was Warburg’s library.  And the third figure is Wittgenstein, whose commitment to understanding language takes us round from Heidegger’s practical thinking, Cassirer’s historically informed synthesis to the world as it is constructed through the way we speak: ‘To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique’ (Philosophical Investigations #199). 

The Warburg Library

The odd one out is – as so often – Benjamin.  Benjamin is far less convinced of the efficacy of technique, or rather, for Benjamin, where technique goes wrong is where it entails an instrumentalism which is designed to master the world.[9]  In The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin argues that technique is the medium through which humans give shape to the world. He too has a ‘primordial’ and a ‘modern’ version of technique; the first entails ‘the maximum possible use of human beings, [whereas] the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first [technique] […] might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first [technique] […] are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures).’  Benjamin, so prescient, sees different and terrifying extremes of instrumentalism, from the human as experiment to non-human play. The latter, importantly is a distancing from nature and a withdrawal from the world, the endpoint of which is the drone and all its guiltfree murderousness.  The balance for Benjamin is technique as “the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man” (To the Planetarium).

Walter Benjamin at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1937

In other words, we are back to resonance, but even Benjamin was not immune to the notion of mastery.  We have to look forward to the later twentieth century to find accounts of language which insist on the need to distance ourselves from the world as subordinated to a sort of descriptive tyranny.  One of the most striking expressions comes from Maurice Blanchot, who writes

‘We are tempted to think that the language of the poet is that of the master: when the poet speaks, it is a sovereign speech, the speech of one who has thrown himself into risk, says what has never yet been said, names what he does not understand, does nothing but speak, so that he no longer knows what he says. When Nietzsche asserts: “But art is terribly serious! … We surround ourselves with images that will make you tremble. We have the power to do it! Block your ears: your eyes will see our myths, our curses will reach you!” it is the speech of a poet that is the speech of a master, and perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps the madness that overtakes Nietzsche is there to make masterly language into a language without master, a sovereignty without contract. Thus Holderlin’s song, after the over-violent outburst of the hymns, becomes again, in madness, that of the innocence of the seasons. But to interpret the speech of art and of literature in that way is to betray it. It is to mistake the demand that is within it. It is to seek it not at its source but, drawn into the dialectics of the master and the slave, after it has already become an instrument of power. We must, then, try to grasp again in the literary work the place where language is still a relationship without power, a language of naked relation, foreign to all mastery and all servitude, a language that speaks only to whoever does not speak in order to possess and have power, to know and have, to become master and to master oneself – that is, to a man who is scarcely a man.’ [10]

Blanchot offers a different sort of perception of the world through literature.  The critical recognition of the presence of power and hierarchy even within the way we describe the world and the determined effort to escape it is at odds with Heidegger’s hammer, or his vortex of anxiety that wills a description of the world as is; or Cassirer’s laborious description; or Wittgenstein’s mastery of the game.  It is closer to Benjamin’s play. 

There are consequences to all this.  Rosa extends his theory of resonance across to education:

‘Education in the sense of resonance theory … is aimed not at cultivating either the world or the self, but rather at cultivating relationships to the world. The goal is not refinement of the individualistic or atomistic self, nor disengaged mastery of the world, but rather opening up and establishing axes of resonance. Children are not vessels to be filled, but torches to be lit. Whoever the original source of this insight is – whether Rabelais or Heraclitus is unclear – it is correct.’

In a previous post https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/breaking-fixing-wondering/ I argued that the value of the humanities may not be in fixing things, but in unfixing them, freeing them.  In her brilliant account of reading, Sarah Wood writes ‘Reading asks us to reread, to forget our first understanding, to not understand and begin again.’[11] 

Our tool is not the hammer, but the song; our aim is not to order the world but to encourage its continuous reimagination.[12] 

Eilenberger’s calls his four protagonists ‘magicians.’  It is a direct reference to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book which prefigured in so many ways the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, even to the extent that both feature the mountain town of Davos.  Cassirer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin were playing with dangerous magic; and in a few years that magic would lead to an implosion of their world.  Cassirer fled to America, Heidegger promoted the fascist regime, and lived out his life in a degree of disgrace, Wittgenstein worked in hospitals in Britain, and Benjamin took his own life on the French Spanish border in September 26, 1940.  None mastered the world as they thought they might; Benjamin was at least unsurprised.  But we have maybe still not appreciated the damaging roughness of their magic, how disruptive of our resonance with the world it could be.  As I have been thinking through these anxieties over some months now, if I began with Heidegger’s hammer I end with another magician’s renunciation of his staff of mastery and the attendant gift of freedom.

But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music, which even now I do,

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,

I’ll drown my book.

[1] M. Heidegger, Being and Time, rev. tr. Stambaugh, SUNY Press 2010: I.3.

[2] See for the relationship between Heidegger and Husserl, R. Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, Harvard 1994; W. Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, London 2020; more detail in P. E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, Harvard 2010, 77-82. The image is taken from H. Read’s Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design, published in 1935.

[3] For a brilliant prose poem on flint knapping, see Rod Mangham, Knife, https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=9328. For a radical rereading of Neanderthal tool making (‘Stone tools were the atoms of Neanderthal life’) see R. Wragg-Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, London 2020.  The illustration is the Happisburgh hand axe, which is the oldest hand axe found in northwest Europe, found in Norfolk and some 500,000 years old. For the archaeology of entanglement see especially I. Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Chichester 2012.

[4] Seamus Heaney begins his poem Clearances with this beautiful account of the enjoyment of skill learnt from his mother, related then to the production of poetry:

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:

How easily the biggest coal block split

If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,

Its co-opted and obliterated echo,

Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block

To face the music. Teach me now to listen,

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

[5] He quotes lines from Schiller’s Das Ideal und das Leben:

But free from the ravages of time …

Would’st thou freely soar on her wings on high,

Throw off earthly dread.

Flee from narrow, stifling life

Into the realm of the ideal.

[6] The original phrase is in Augustine’s eighth sermon on the first letter of John.  Augustine’s point is that one should love an enemy for their potential to be turned by God: You love not in him what he is, but what you wish him to be, non enim amas in illo quod est; sed quod vis ut sis.  Heidegger in a letter to Arendt on 27 December 1927 turned this into volo ut sis. And it’s easy enough to be charitable and translate as ‘I want that you be who you are’ but that’s absolutely not what Augustine meant, and certainly Arendt did not read the passage that way in her dissertation, where she wrestles with this passage (H. Arendt, Love and St. Augustine, Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, Chicago 1996).  She clearly recognised that Augustine was arguing for a love that was grounded in some level of self-denial: “It also means that for the neighbor as well love is merely a call to isolation, a summons into God’s presence. The lover turns the beloved into his equal. He loves this equality in the other whether or not the beloved understands it. In self-denying love I deny the other person as well as myself, but I do not forget him … This denial corresponds to “willing that you may be” and “carrying off to God.” I deny the other person so as to break through to his real being, just as in searching for myself, I deny myself’ (95-6).  At the end of the dissertation, things are a lot more complicated, because Arendt recognises that this whole process of loving one’s fellow person all too easily gets turned into a love for an individual and that threatens the basis of communal life; and moreover the indirectness inherent in loving someone only for their relationship to God ‘breaks up social relations by turning them into provisional ones’ (111-12).  See also R. Coyne Heidegger’s Confessions The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond, Chicago 2015, 67 for Heidegger’s not entirely convincing reading of Augustine in The phenomenology of religious life, with which Arendt is engaging.   Arendt just about rescues Augustine by the end (though she underplays the fact that Augustine was simultaneously in Letter 93 to Vincentius justifying coercion against the Donatist heretics as part of the same principle of ‘tough love’), but I can’t help but think that she knew that Heidegger’s volo ut sis was a bad reading of Augustine and a poor basis for a relationship. (This note is indebted to Lyndsey Stonebridge’s 2021 David Ceserani Holocaust Memorial Lecture).

[7] M. Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? Quoted at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/

[8] H. Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World, London 2019.

[9] J. Sieber, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Technique, Anthropology and Materialism: A Journal of Social Research 2019.4. https://journals.openedition.org/am/944. My title is taken from M. Taussig, Mastery of Non-Mastery om the Age of Meltdown, Chicago 2020, which discusses Benjamin.

[10] M. Blanchot, The Book to Come, Stanford 2003, 33. For a powerful reading of the inherent violence in language see Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Durham-London 2018.

[11] S. Wood, Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces, Edinburgh 2014.

[12] In Theories of German Fascism, Benjamin argues that technique “gave shape to the apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence – even though this [technique] […] had the power to give nature its voice” (SW 2, 319).

Breaking, Fixing, Wondering

1995.  Two years after his return from the United States to China, Ai Weiwei, who had been collecting antique vases from markets, is photographed holding a Han dynasty vase, some 2000 years old.  He stares at us, impassively.  In the next shot in the triptych, he has moved his hands apart and the jar is falling, and in the third shot, it is smashed on the floor.  Ai Weiwei’s face has not moved a muscle; his hands gesture asymmetrically, one facing down as if pushing the vase downwards, the other facing out as if in surprise.  Even in its entirety the vase seems asymmetrical.  The only thing that appears symmetrical is the artist, dead centre against a brick wall.[1] 

Much lay behind this deliberate act of destruction.  Ai Weiwei’s father, the poet Ai Qing spent the Cultural Revolution in exile in Xinjiang, and forbidden to write.  He was himself cancelled as a writer, as so much else was destroyed.[2]  Mao claimed ‘The only way of building a new world is by destroying the old one,’ a phrase repeated by Ai Weiwei in response to criticism of his work.  Ai Weiwei’s appropriation of the Maoist rejection of the past was guileful; his gaze out at us provokes and challenges notions of value.  But it’s the smashed vase which I keep turning back to.  The fabric is thick and it has broken into large pieces – the body is smashed but the neck is largely intact.  You feel it could be picked up and restored.  In its fractured state, it remains recognisable.  And if the act appears wantonly destructive, Ai Weiwei’s gaze forces us to answer to the question of what value was in the past, what destruction we commit, what meaning we can make of breaking that is reconstructive of value.

We are used to looking at reconstructions of ancient vases.  It’s not uncommon to see more or less clumsy examples in museums.  The notion of repair is not modern though and there are striking examples of quite simple and cheap 5th century BCE Athenian vases which, transposed into Celtic society, had acquired such additional value that they were mended with gold.  The gold is far more valuable, intrinsically, than the cup itself, but the cup presumably acquired value by associations with a foreign exotic cultured world.[3] 

It is difficult not to think of the much later Japanese practice of kintsugi.  Here, cracks and breaks are repaired with a plant-based adhesive lacquer, mixed or marked with silver or gold.  Thus whereas museum repairs of Greek pottery sometimes seek to conceal the break, the Japanese examples, also often applied to pottery imported from China or elsewhere, draw attention to repair.  Moreover, they are often viewed explicitly as symbolic of the passage of time; they are used especially in autumnal tea ceremonies, which mark the cusp of winter, the communal acts of support in preparation such as reroofing, and the awareness of value in a time of impending scarcity.[4]

The emotional effect of this act of repair is clear, and sometimes highlighted by accompanying poetry.  In an essay on kintsugi, Christy Bartlett wrote, ‘Mended ceramics foremost convey a sense of the passage of time. The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject . This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, an empathetic compassion for, or perhaps identification with, beings outside oneself. It may be perceived in the slow inexorable work of time (sabi) or in a moment of sharp demarcation between pristine or whole and shattered. In the latter case, the notion of rupture returns but with regard to immaterial qualities, the passage of time with relation to states of being. A mirage of “before” suffuses the beauty of mended objects.’[5]

These examples have made me think about the ambivalence of the notion of fixing.  We like to fix things that are broken, fix problems – it is perhaps a basic human desire.[6]  Perhaps it’s why I want to pick up Ai Weiwei’s vase. But inherent in that notion of fixing is a sense of mastery, our control over the material world, and Ai WeiWei’s act of destruction and the practice of kintsugi both draw attention in different ways to the fragility of this notion. 

Our notion of fixing, as in repairing or making good, is a modern one.  It is a shift in meaning in the 17th and 18th centuries from the earlier semantic concept of ‘fixing in place’ or ‘fastening’ – what they share intriguingly is an inherent desire to capture stability through halting movement or returning something to an original functional state.  To fix in the earlier sense is to make something static, to freeze it – and both breaking, and visible reparation which draws attention to damage, are in opposition to that work of reversing damage, reversing time.  They rather draw attention to time’s flow; they seek to open up possibility rather than close it off.[7]   Situating the material world within its temporal flow is a way of refocusing, fixing our attention if you like to that which is not fixed, but which is constantly loosening.  And it is here, precisely, that new meaning can be found.  As the famous song goes, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

Once one starts thinking about fixing in this way, the process is not so much of resolution as of creation, the process of making anew, and bringing new questions to light, which takes me to a wonderful and well-known passage by Derek Walcott, in his Nobel Prize Lecture.[8]

‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.’

For me, the work of the humanities is driven at least partly by the desire to understand and embrace brokenness and the fragmentary through acts of restoration and restitution.  This is not to devalue the fantastic work of those who are more solution oriented including in our own communities, but it gives credit to our constant need to rethink, fit in another piece of the puzzle, present a new whole.  Breaking and drawing attention to the unevenness of the reconstituted whole has the potentiality of being creative.  It resists fixity and lets new voices be heard.  The crash of the artist’s vase is an answer to the silencing of the poet’s voice.

And that answer takes us back to our curiosity, and to wonder, and my last vase is part of another dialogue across time.  The great American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti died, aged 101, almost exactly 200 years after John Keats, who was only 25.  In one of his greatest poems he alluded to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which the lover is perpetually in pursuit of the beloved:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ferlinghetti’s great allusive poem I am Waiting plays with the constraints of tradition and the potentiality of breaking through into a new world.  It is as destructive in its humour and irreverence as it is liberating in its incantatory force.  It draws attention to time, voices unheard, injustice and the chance to reimagine the world.  And it offers the hope of breaking another vase and letting wonder flow.

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting  

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder

[1] Ai Weiwei’s approach to politics and history are intriguingly explored in a comparison with Andy Warhol in M. Delany, E. Shiner (eds.) Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei, National Gallery of Victoria 2015; see especially Gao Minglu, ‘Political and artistic legacy in Ai Weiwei’s art,’ 117-40.

[2] For Ai Qing, see G. B. Lee, China’s Lost Decade: Cultural Politics and Poetics 1978–1990.  In Place of History, Brookline, MA, 2012: 38-77, with thanks to the author.

[3] https://www.laits.utexas.edu/ironagecelts/kleinaspergle3.php

[4] M. Kopplin (ed.) Flickwerk – The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, Cornell – Munster 2008, http://annacolibri.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Flickwerk_The_Aesthetics_of_Mended_Japanese_Ceramics.pdf

[5] C. Bartlett, in Kopplin (ed) The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, 11.

[6] Ottoline Leyser wrote recently “Curiosity, a desire to understanding things, a drive to fix problems and make things work better are very basic human activities that everyone does every day. They involve creativity, imagination, joy, frustration, success, failure and all the things that make us human.” Viewpoint: Research’s ‘lone genius’ image is unhelpful – UKRI

[7] Similar thoughts are provoked by Ai Weiwei’s painting over Neolithic pottery with industrial paints, or Coca-Cola logos.

[8] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1992/walcott/lecture/

“Paradise, no doubt, is just a huge library.” (Gaston Bachelard). 

(This paper was delivered as a keynote address to Research Libraries UK on 5 November 2020).

I am delighted to be speaking to members of Research Libraries UK.  This is my first public outing as Executive Chair of the AHRC, and I honestly cannot think of a more appropriate event for me or for AHRC, as part of the UKRI team.

I have spent a lot of my life in Libraries, and they have always had a touch of paradise about them for me.  I can remember my first visits to the Library of the Societies for the Promotion of Roman and Hellenic Studies, now bound up with the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, when I was still at school.  I’d never seen so many books in my life and I can still remember the amazement but also the realization of what scholarship meant as I tried to navigate my way around a library that was bursting out of its then confines.  All those runs which ended obscurely and started again in another corridor.  Books with uncut pages and unlearnt languages.  It was a complicated heaven.

When I started teaching at St Andrews, I would take students to the Library and plant them in front of the reference section which they never referred to; and the only time I completely overcame the worldly scepticism of an Honours class was in front of Sigonio’s 1555 edition of Livy.  I even line managed the Library for a while.  I lived above the Library of the British School at Rome, Britain’s leading arts and humanities research institute overseas, for eight years.  I got to know all the Rome libraries one way or another, including their irreplaceable photographic archives.BSR

Libraries are, then, my mental safe space; I love and care for them because it feels like they have loved and cared for me.  I know many of you will have faced difficult challenges and choices in what you can do in the physical space of your libraries – and I can only express my thanks on behalf of every researcher in the UK for all you have done to maintain services, and keep things running.  And I’d like also to say that we have heard some distressing stories, and the AHRC unequivocally condemns any and all aggression or abuse towards colleagues in library and archive services.

helsinki Laitio in Helsinki said that “Libraries have this incredible promise—that you can build your future in here. You can be your best person inside this building.”  I think there is something very powerful about the notion of the library as enabling one to build oneself – it has that element of the argument underpinning one’s mental development and spiritual growth which is so critical.  Much of what I have talked about relates to the library as a personal cultural space.  I can describe and analyse my personal relationship to physical libraries much better than I can describe my relationship to the virtual library, but of course the virtual library is really coming into its own now.  Yet both physical and virtual – and everything in between, collections, catalogues, interfaces, informatics and so on – are economic, social and political spaces too.

This makes the Library a critical object of research as well as a means of research, and that is a challenge which we need to face up to.

The study of the library over time and space is well advanced.  There is a significant body of scholarship on libraries in the Greek and Roman world.  It is a source of great joy when one has access to someone’s library or even their library borrowing record and can assess what they might actually have read.  I supervised a brilliant PhD thesis which was based on what James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, read in the Library of St Andrews, where he was  student.  We have his borrowing record, and you can find a lot of his reading of Cicero infusing his belief in the necessity for a powerful popularly elected president balanced by natural justice:

JusticeJamesWilsonThe President, sir, will not be a stranger to our country, to our laws, or to our wishes. He will, under this Constitution, be placed in office as the President of the whole Union, and will be chosen in such a manner that he may be justly styled the man of the people. Being elected by the different parts of the United States, he will consider himself as not particularly interested for any one of them, but will watch over the whole with paternal care and affection.

Well, what is he thinking now, I wonder?

I suppose it’s possible that we will reconstruct a modern scholar’s intellectual biography from her JSTOR record, but I rather doubt we shall.  And here is the challenge  – we know so much about print culture, circulation, history of collections and so on in the past, and we can map that onto major trends in access to literacy, education, the changing nature of the university, of teaching and curricula and so on.  But how will we research the contemporary library in all its bewildering distributed complexity, and what will it tell us?

I don’t know the answer to this and I hope librarians will tell us.  I also hope we will be funding that research, because it seems to me vitally important that we have a critical grasp on how we are managing the business of research – and that word critical is intended to do some heavy lifting.

As we think increasingly in UKRI not just about equality – ensuring the playing field is level if you like – and more about equity – what are the reasons why somebody never gets directions to that field at all, let alone the kit and invitation to play, the research library can look a little bit like the last rung on a ladder which is multiply broken from the very bottom.

This seems to me to be a challenge and one we will have to face up to increasingly in the very tight world of university financing.  How do we ensure that the promise of the flow of resources across the system is actually fulfilled?

For arts and humanities, then, the 21st century Library offers challenges then that are rooted in economic and social considerations which need careful study.

The biggest challenge of all is around access.  Here I do not actually mean open access as we currently tend to argue about it.  Arts and humanities have a complex relationship with open access, and I hope you will forgive me avoiding dealing with this head on.  There’s a significant conversation which will have to happen around monographs, as well as all the other trickiness around Plan S and so on.

We will take a position but most of the passes are won or sold depending where you stand.

I want to argue a rather different point, which is that we have been significantly distracted by the questions around delivery – how do you ensure that paid-for research is delivered without cost, or how do you shift that cost around the system.

The obvious problem is that a paper which you can summon onto your computer in your kitchen or sitting room is not thereby accessible.  Hence the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research recently stated that ‘science has a responsibility towards society to ensure clarity, transparency and comprehensibility when sharing and communicating research findings, and to explain the difference between non-scientific opinions and scientifically verifiable findings.’[1]

So the key question that follows for me is, what is it we are hoping to enhance access to?  To specific publications?  To scientifically verifiable findings?  Or to the capacity to develop reasoning to understand the debates at large?

We see across all countries rising proportions of people who do not believe in climate change, think telephone masts give you viruses, and are incapable of conducting sophisticated arguments, and some make it into legislatures.  For twenty years we have argued about open access; more information is freely available than ever before; yet the quality of civil discourse is grim; and the distance between the processes of thinking scientifically and the processes of public decision making seem to me to be as great as ever.  I should stress that this is not, or not just, about COVID. It’s about the extent to which we are prepared to understand the limitations of the processes of argumentation which lead to decision making.  We don’t have and do not deploy good parameters around what the Bonn declaration called opinion and scientifically verifiable findings; and I would argue that even that dichotomy is so banal in its description of the embedded nature of knowledge, outside a few uncontested eternal verities, as to be potentially misleading.

Most of what we create in research is the product of a history of reasoning and questioning which is socially embedded and culturally constructed.  This has a huge impact on what we know, what we care to know, what we choose to ignore.  And if you don’t understand the processes which construct the knowledge world in which any given piece of research was created, you risk misunderstanding its significance and lessons.

To recognise that, you only have to ask why we are having crucial debates about slavery, race and ethnicity now that were inconceivable thirty years ago, and at the same time realize that much of the scholarship of thirty years ago has incontestable merits as well as enormous blind spots.  At least in arts and humanities, but I would argue also in social sciences and much more science than is sometimes admitted, the difference between opinion and fact doesn’t cut it as a picture of what is produced in research libraries across the world.

How far does the research library rise above this contested fray to be a disinterested instrument to be used or misused?

Well, not very far I suspect, and I imagine they wouldn’t wish to.

Research libraries seem to me to be doing everything they can to try to overcome these issues by explicit and profoundly self-critical engagement with improving methodological literacy.

In this, if we return to our wider analysis, they fight against a tide of fragmentation of knowledge which is itself a product of political, economic and social forces.  And this takes us directly to the issue of how our knowledge has changed.

I am going to refer here directly to the brilliant sociologist Andrew Abbott, and specifically a lecture he gave entitled “The Future of Expert Knowledge” in 2017.[2]  He speaks there of objects, subjects, results and activities of knowing.  It’s too long an argument to summarise and actually I disagree with bits of it, but by focusing on the process of knowing (not knowledge as such), and then seeing knowing in a variety of different lights, Abbott forces us to acknowledge that what we know and who does the knowing are intimately connected, and socially inflected; they then impact on what is known (and not known) and this has a result in terms of the activity of knowing.

Abbott argues that

  • increasingly the object of knowledge is details about ourselves;
  • increasingly the knowing subject is a group (people learn socially) or an organization;
  • this has encouraged the commodification of knowledge, so that the conclusion is more important than the argument;
  • and the consequence is that what people think knowing is, is increasingly about finding not thinking.

The very process of finding out is commodified, and, Abbott argues, universities then reinforce all this by encouraging social learning of facts rather than the artisanal work of learning of how to think.

Abbott ends saying that the 20th century attempt to build knowledge, and democratise it, has worked – the problem is that it’s over, and we are going over old ground with ever decreasing effect.  We need a new form of knowledge.

There is a whiff of the jeremiad to all this, but there is also a sting of truth.  But he grinds to a halt on the verge of the future, and I want to say that for me the research library remains the lab where this new knowledge must be found.  It’s hugely interesting to read Urszula Pawlicka-Deger’s recent article on the library as an infrastructure of engagement; she has the beautiful line that “A laboratory is far more than just a place with instruments and equipment. It is a highly epistemologically and culturally charged concept that implies a specific way of thinking, experimenting, and seeing the world. [It is an] infrastructure of engagement.”[3]

So when one thinks, as I tend to do, of the library as a humanities laboratory, and one which critically intersects with community and with new forms of knowing, we perhaps find ourselves touching on ‘the transformation of audiences … into practitioners’, as Pierluigi Sacco describes ‘Culture 3.0.’  In an ideal world, research spills naturally into engagement and into co-creation.

Open access properly understood – that is access to thinking – and transformative knowing meet in infrastructures of engagement.

One of the key places where that will happen is or should be the research library.  If the political, social and economic conditions of the research library increasingly place it beyond the democratised world of knowers, because of different kinds of barriers to access that are far sharper than access to facts because they are barriers to the capacity to make discursive and contextualised arguments with facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Version1-2-9-2020That’s why it’s so important to me that UKRI has insisted in its latest vision and mission on the significance of the research ecosystem as being a much broader and more inclusive concept which requires funding throughout.  We have to get away from the idea that we at UKRI give money to the researcher and that nothing in between really matters except as a slightly resented consumer of overheads.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our failure fully to recognise the intricately interconnected and diverse ecosystem has led to the combination of underfunding and devaluation which then in turn diminishes the system further.[4]

To return to Abbott’s taxonomy in a slightly different way, because we have excluded the connections and emphasised only some parts when defining the objects of funding, we have exacerbated the isolation of the subject of knowing into an insufficiently diverse set.  It’s not surprising that that set of knowers tend to keep on knowing the same things, and those things may tend to be increasingly divorced from innovative discursive reasoning.

Put the Research Library as an infrastructure of engagement, and the research librarian as its essential leader, and suddenly by changing the object of funding, you change the set of investigators, change the kind of questions that might be asked and refresh the process of research.

How radical is this?  I am not sure – and I’d love to know what librarians think.  The risk is it might become a more radical ask over time.  We know that libraries generally are under pressure, and whilst I welcome the commitment of research libraries to reach to the wider library infrastructure, as that infrastructure weakens, your job becomes much harder.

At the same time, universities are perhaps becoming more embedded in their communities, and more conscious of shifting from equality to equity.  This is by no means a battle lost.  Rather it’s a challenge to be understood, a battle to be won.

It rests heavily on our preparedness to sustain libraries.  I started with a wry quote about the paradisiacal library, and I have included a reference to the library as a physical space for personal growth.  But I wanted to end with a quote about the library as a place for the here and now, which express my own conviction that if we are to build back better, libraries will be part of the solution.

Georges Duhamel in 1937 wrote “If humanity were to lose its libraries, not only would it be deprived of certain treasures of art, certain spiritual riches, but, more important still, it would lose its recipes for living.”

Again and again we come back to the library as a place which critically has to be seen as a part of the ecosystem of learning and engagement which supports argument not fact, context not certainty, the connectedness of knowledge not fragmentation into facts.  This is an argument about science in general.

Arts and humanities has an obligation to make the argument most strongly because we use more of the full spectrum of what a library is than other disciplines, and the understanding of the political social and cultural context of knowing is one of our key concerns.

So I hope my time at the AHRC will be characterised by a deep conversation between the library in all its manifestations and research across the spectrum, and let’s hold on to those recipes for living which we will need for reimagining our futures.

Thank you.

[1] https://www.bmbf.de/files/10_2_2_Bonn_Declaration_en_final.pdf

[2] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSFkljMNegY.

[3] U. Pawlicka-Deger, 2020. A Laboratory as the Infrastructure of Engagement: Epistemological Reflections. Open Library of Humanities, 6(2), p.24. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.569

[4] UK Research and Innovation Corporate Plan https://www.ukri.org/about-us/what-we-do/corporate-plan/

‘Symbols do one good’ (Aby Warburg).

The new edition of Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl’s masterpiece Saturn and Melancholy has led me to reflect on its role as a symbol for our research.[1]  

saturn and melancholyIt’s not unreasonable to say that the book was unprecedented in scope and ambition.  As perhaps the definitive illustration of the methods encouraged by Aby Warburg and his colleagues, it brings extraordinary erudition to bear on the intellectual antecedents of Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving, showing how it reflects and departs from what was already a 2000 year old tradition of thinking about the humours, and the relationship between creativity and despair.  It represents both the continuity of tradition and the transformation of ideas, even as it redefined how to do research.

Given Warburg’s own depression, melancholy was an appropriate topic.  It was also his meticulously developed collection which furnished some of the core research material.[2]  The classical tradition, as presented through the Library’s unusual organization into the categories of Image, Word, Orientation and Action, is understood as a pattern of thinking.

Warburg libraryAs the Library’s mission proclaims, the Warburg Institute furthers the study of the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture; the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures; the relationship, in Western thought, between magical beliefs and religion, science and philosophy; and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions.  Sure enough, in Saturn and Melancholy, we follow melancholy through its medical analysis, and its association with Saturn, from Aristotelian notions of the melancholic genius to poetry, finally to arrive at Dürer’s heroic picture, which does not represent the abstract state, but the person sunk in the contradictions of melancholy – what it feels like to meet the limits of creation.


This is a very particular kind of scholarship.  The book was decades in the making, interrupted by war and exile.  It is ferociously learned, and although it touches on folklore, it has little to say about ordinary life.  It approaches the troubling issue of mental disturbance through the mechanisms of learned diagnosis and from the angle of heroic creativity, through the history of science and the doctrines of religion, through ancient astrophysics to modern poetry.  It is a dizzying dissolution of disciplinary boundaries, and in this way is a parallel to Robert Burton’s 17th century Anatomy of Melancholy, itself the product of a melancholy genius, which spares us no detail in his lengthy and learned enumeration of the ways of being miserable.  “Be not solitary, be not idle” he concludes, without much hope.


Not easy, these past months, or the months to come, to follow that injunction.  And for all the length and depth of these classic works, they only begin to touch on the complexity of the subject.  Heroic melancholy is a long way from our understanding of mental illness now.

November has become a month for thinking about male health, and I will do my best to walk and post a poem a day.  But that’s not because I think of literature as a light touch middle class therapy, or arts and humanities as no more than complex and rarefied descriptions.  Rather arts and humanities disciplines are committed to ways of talking about the unspeakable; they represent the struggle to express the complexity of our emotions and relations.

And arts and humanities does so much more, and so directly.  I have seen in the past two months projects using arts and humanities research and immersive technology to help young people in some of the UK’s more deprived regions to address mental health issues.  Arts and humanities research is right now helping communities cope with the pandemic through better targeted communication.  Arts and humanities research is searching for ways for live performance to return as soon as possible.   Arts and humanities research has underpinned the content used in online museum collections, music, and poetry.  Arts and humanities researchers are joining medical practitioners to support health initiatives among young and old alike.  The technology would have been inconceivable to Warburg, Saxl, Panofsky and others (though Klibansky died only in 2005, just short of his centenary), but the role of art and literature in describing and unlocking our fears and anxieties would have been completely familiar; indeed, it is what many of them held onto through the devastation of their intellectual community in the Second World War.

The world is no less complex and problematic for a young adult struggling to make her or his way in 21st century Britain than it was for Dürer’s stymied genius.   All areas of research will be needed to make a better, wiser society after this crisis.[4]  It is in the unending conversation of science, not in disciplinary particularity, that we are at our best, which is why it is essential that all our disciplines are able to contribute to reimagining the future.  The Warburg School knew this value of thinking across intellectual borders – there is always another question to ask, another angle from which to look which reveals a facet of our complex difficult world, another way of thinking, and perhaps that is why Saturn and Melancholy has such symbolic power.  The image or the symbol opens the way to the next question, a new way of seeing the world, and that’s why, as Aby Warburg said, symbols do us good, heal us (‘Symbol tut wohl’).

[1] R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky, F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, new edition, Montreal 2019.  The original was begun in the 1920s, one version was lost, and it was not published until 1964, and then updated by Klibansky for a German edition of 1990.

[2] For a recent account of the interactions of lives and thought around the original Warburg Library, and the afterlife of the method and its proponents, see E. J. Levine, Dreamland of the Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School, Chicago 2013.  The divergence of Panofsky’s methods and views from those of Warburg are an important subject which I have understated here.

[3] Robert Burton (1577-1640) produced several editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy, each more detailed than the last.

[4] See recently the British Academy report https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/2678/JBA-8-p167-MorganJones-Abrams-Lahiri_jAIJOay.pdf

Modesty and Moonshots

How does architecture embody and become inflected by political theory?  Bell and Zacka’s recent edited collection offers a series of fascinating and challenging accounts, addressing the role of architecture as encouraging behaviour and imparting meaning to actions; as symbolizing values; and as fostering a political ethos (5).[1]  The book offers on the whole restrained optimism, recognising even in its gloomier moments that architecture can create democratic space, and sometimes its greatest strength is in its less ambitious statements, on the balconies of Beirut (Zacka), in the preservation of neighbourliness (Rosenblum), or amid the modest power of the greenways (Aslam).

Pulsing through the book is a tension between centralized, totalizing discourses, either political or architectural, and the power of the everyday, the local and the contingent.  One of the most direct explorations is Margaret Kohn’s response to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, using Dufferin Grove Park as an example of where socio-economic structures and decisions can support, rather conflict with, design.  It is a short step to Hofmann’s rethinking of Lefebvre’s famous notion of a ‘right to the city.’ If cities indeed liberate, as Jacobs thought, their advantages should be more widely spread; ‘prospective migrants to the city might be thought to have occupancy rights to a place in which they are not currently embedded’ (209).  In this section, the book is both prophetic and strangely untimely.  As our cities have become eviscerated by home working and the sudden challenge represented by crowds, the long commutes of support workers into the city from the suburbs veer between a stark reminder of inequality of access, and an easy casualty of economic logic.  Where will the new jobs be found if cities dwindle?[2]

The belief that architecture has social efficacy pushes the book repeatedly towards a reassessment of modernism, a redemption of ambition recast in more modest terms.  At the same time, there is a sense that the result should be an alternative to the spaces of late or neo-capitalism: gated communities, buildings which reflect instead of being transparent, untethered from locality, symbols of the abolition of limit.  The appeal to the past (Plato in particular) is here frequently functional not whimsical self-referentiality.  So Betegh contrasts Plato’s Magnesia and Costa’s unfulfilled plans for Brasilia.  Arendt’s agora is a point of reference (Beiner).  Mihai refers to the Lebbeus Woods’ notions of radical reconstruction to insist on the importance of preserving the tears and wounds of the violent past in order to create spaces liberated from the past, freespaces.  There is a repeated emphasis on materiality – on drawing out the politics of architecture through individual experiences of the sensations created by surface, volume, space, texture and light (Picon). 

What emerges is an appeal to architecture to enable the capacity to imagine an alternative world, to give signification to the smallest of actions and responses.  Towards the end of the volume, Picon cites Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, the attempt to create a city which, predicated on the freedom of all through the development of mechanical reproduction, gave space for the unplannable and for infinite possibility.  Here, though, one of the ghosts which haunts this collection comes to light; how can an optimistic architecture avoid becoming a nightmarish utopia? 

One answer is offered by Coleman’s reference to Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope.  Hope mediates between the criticism of the present and the risk of a crushing utopia by making explicit the possibility of disappointment:

‘Hope is the opposite of security.  It is the opposite of naïve optimism.  The category of danger is always in it.  This hope is not confidence. … If it could not be disappointed, it would not be hope.  … Hope is surrounded by dangers, it is the consciousness of danger and at the same time the determined negation of that which continually makes the opposite of the hoped-for object possible.  …  There would not be any process at all if there were not something that should not be so.’[3]

The promise of a politically hopeful architecture is therefore precisely the acknowledgement that it should allow space for our disappointments, the imperfection of our world, without ever allowing that there is no path to the better.  One of the intriguing features of cities, as we have seen time and again, for instance in Tiananmen Square, Taksim Square, throughout the Arab Spring, in the Black Lives Matter protests and in the mass gatherings in Minsk, is that even despite themselves and the attempt by rulers to make cities project the stability of power, the open spaces and routeways of cities can be colonized for the imagination of a different world.

The other answer comes in Lindstrom and Malpas’s invocation of a short essay by Albert Camus, Democracy is an Exercise in Modesty, from 1947.  Lindstrom and Malpass are unconvincing in their choices; Monticello and I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha would not have sprung to my mind as examples of modesty. 

But the invocation of ancient ideas of limit (frugality, parsimonia), and Camus’ radical modesty, is suggestive.[4]

Camus echoes Churchill’s view of democracy, as imperfect but preferable to its alternatives, and he places strict limits on the capacity of reason to prove universal imperfection and therefore remove any need to try to change, or to claim that reason points to a single mechanism for social improvement. 

As a result democrats are modest. They admit to a certain degree of ignorance and recognizes that their efforts possess characteristics that are in part risky and that they do not know everything. And because they admit that, they recognize that they need to consult others, to complete what they know with what others know. Democrats recognize no rights for themselves unless they are delegated by others, and they constantly subject these rights to their agreement. Whatever decision they decide to take, they admit that the others for whom the decision is being taken can have another opinion and let them know that.[5]

The line between modesty and ambition is unresolved in Lindstrom and Malpass’s essay.  They choose very prominent buildings, ambitious in scope, to illustrate modesty.  And somewhere here is the point of friction which both animates and troubles this volume; how can the highest ambitions of architecture be reconciled with a politics that is animated by a respect for the individual and their own choices, their own hopes and their own ambitions?  How can space and material animate democratic flourishing?

These past few weeks, the word ‘moonshot’ has gained a new currency.[6]  I take it to mean, in the current parlance, a venture with high ambition, potentially high returns but a high risk of failure. 

On a planet engulfed by pandemic, natural disasters, the suffocation of our oceans with plastic, loss of biodiversity, and widespread food shortages and poverty, no-one surely has the right to argue that we should not make every scientific attempt to confront these issues, however implausible success may seem, though reading Camus will be another encouragement to take a very broad view of what science means.

But as well as the lunar landings in 1969, the voyage to the moon that has come back to me is one described by Ariosto in the early 16th century in his poem Orlando Furioso.  Orlando, whose destiny was to lead the defeat of the Saracens, had fallen in love with Angelica.  She did not return his love, and he was driven mad, harming himself and his friends.  In an ironic retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Orlando’s cousin Astolfo is led from a visit to Hell to Mount Athos, and then he and the Evangelist St John take Elijah’s chariot to the moon.

What by our fault, or Time’s relentless flight,

Or Fortune’s chances, or by accident

(Whatever be the cause) we lose down here,

Miraculously is assembled there.[7]

Amid kingdoms and titles, wealth and honour, love and unfulfilled desire, and the undeservedly neglected reputations of poets, Astolfo finds Orlando’s wits, and those of many others too, including some of Astolfo’s.  How foolish we must be, when so much of the intelligence we are granted has been lost and stored elsewhere; as Tobias Gregory wrote, the wisdom imparted there is not transcendent but cynical.[8] 

Astolfo discovers from his moonshot that the world is built on loss.  A less classical approach, and one embedded in architecture and space, might note that every choice – where to build, how to build, how to frame the conditions of living – necessarily entails some losses, some curtailment of possibility.  So what would a moonshot for radical modesty look like?  Both Camus’ insistence on finding completion through others, and Bloch’s even more radical view that hope exists in the incomplete, and in the process, entail risk and surprise, and countenance failure.  As Müller puts it here (34), ‘democracy is institutionalized uncertainty.’  In architectural terms, Bell and Zacka’s volume implies that a moonshot for a radically democratic yet modest architecture might well look more like a balcony than a bank, more like a green park than a gated suburb. It would have as its underpinning an articulation of values that would lead to the losses and gains contingent on the material framing of our lives becoming more equitably shared.  As Plato put it, ‘it looks as if our entire building programme needs thinking about pretty much from scratch…’[9]

[1] D. Bell, B. Zacka (eds) Political Theory and Architecture (London 2020).  Essays are as follows: 1. Jan-Werner Müller, What (If Anything) is ‘Democratic Architecture’?; 2. Josiah Ober and Barry Weingast, Fortification and Democracy in the Ancient Greek World; 3. Gabor Betegh, Plato’s Magnesia and Costa’s Brasilia; 4. Bernardo Zacka, What’s in a Balcony? The In-Between as Public Good; 5. Ronald Beiner, Durability and Citizenship: Towards an Arendtian Political Philosophy of Architecture; 6. Nancy Rosenblum, The Soft Power of Neighbors: Proximity, Scale, and Responses to Violence; 7. Duncan Bell, Scripting the City: J. G. Ballard Among the Architects; 8. Ali Aslam, Architecture as Government; 9. Margaret Kohn, Making Superstar Cities Work: Jane Jacobs in Toronto; 10. Benjamin Hofmann, Whose Right to the City? Lessons from the Territorial Rights Debate; 11. Nathaniel Coleman, Can Architecture Really Do Nothing? Lefebvre, Bloch, and Jameson on Utopia; 12. Mihaela Mihai, The Architecture of Political Renewal; 13. Randall Lindstrom and Jeff Malpas, The Modesty of Architecture; 14. Antoine Picon, Architecture, Materiality and Politics: Sensations, Symbols, Situations and Decors; Epilogue: Fonna Forman, Top-Down / Bottom-Up: Co-Producing the City.

[2] For the argument that cities are not an inevitable feature of human life, see G. Woolf, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History (London, 2020).

[3] Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Something’s missing: A discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the contradictions of Utopian longing,’ in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, (Cambridge, MA. 1988), 1-17 at 16-17, cited at Bell and Zacka: 232.  The title of the conversation comes from Jim Mahoney’s line, in Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonnay, ‘Aber etwas fehlt.’

[4] See now I. Gildenhard, C. Viglietti (eds.) Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond (Cambridge, 2020); for a collection of Camus’ references to modesty see Tommaso Visone, ‘The radicalism of modesty: democracy and art in Camusian thought (1945–1951),’ History of European Ideas 45:3 (2019) 454-464.

[5] Translation based on Albert Camus and Adrian Van den Hoven, “Democracy Is an Exercise in Modesty.” Sartre Studies International, vol. 7, no. 2, 2001, pp. 12–14, removing the gendered language.

[6] It is a concept with an unstable past; see https://www.merriam-webst.er.com/words-at-play/moonshot-words-were-watching

[7] Ariosto, Orlando Furioso Canto XXXIV.73 (tr. Reynolds).

[8] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n17/tobias-gregory/mad-for-love, reviewing David Slavitt’s translation.  Orlando is restored, but his presence in the later part of the poem is muted and he will suffer yet more loss and grief.

[9] Plato, Laws 778b.

Sovereignty and the Sacred

Robert Yelle’s recent book offers an attempt to relocate the relationship between sovereignty and the sacred. It is a beautifully written account, covering an enormous range of topics and writers, and it illuminates both sides of his equation.1


Yelle’s work sits within the renewed interest in structuralism on the one hand and divine kingship on the other. It reacts to the challenge posed by two cornerstones of recent theoretical work, the possibility of an axial age and of a moment of disenchantment, the first the product of Jaspers’ attempt to understand a change towards scepticism, individuality and at the same time the replacement of immanence as a religious view with transcendence, the second the outcome of Weber’s explanation of what modernity does to religion.

If we state two of the key contentions of the book, we can see instantly that Yelle is doing something rather unfamiliar in comparison with standard political science approaches. First, Yelle argues that religion is sovereignty (not that sovereignty is part of the scaffolding which supports religion, at least transcendent religion). Second, by using Schmitt and Agamben, he insists that the sovereign and the sacred operate as ruptures of the normative order; they are the moments of exception. In contrast to contemporary language which tends to regard sovereignty as an underlying condition of the social order or a a political norm which is ruptured at peril, sovereignty is itself the antinomian moment, the antithesis of law.

How do we get to this argument, and what is at stake in these inversions? The first point is that both Schmitt and Agamben are controversial starting points. If you commence from the position that sovereignty is singular and the fundamental fact of a hierarchical state, then you arrive at a set of consequences which may well describe a philosophy of power, but might not analyse the real world in any meaningful way. As Ben-Dor Benite, Geroulanos and Jerr put it, if you start from here, this ‘answers the question of sovereignty before it has been properly posed because it determined sovereign power as much through an identification with those at the limit of humanity as through a convenient genealogy of resistance.’2 Schmitt does not have good arguments for the derivation of sovereignty, and Agamben does not have good arguments for the operation of good governance, because both drive the concept to its limit. It is perhaps unsurprising that Arendt, whilst avoiding a direct battle with Schmitt, seeks to ground politics not in the exception but in the contract, not in the flash of the groundless decision but in the repeated working through of immanent principles.3

So Yelle starts from a place which is much more contested than he allows, but which is nonetheless profoundly productive for his thesis.

First, it allows Yelle to make sovereignty a far less rational decision than political theory might suggest, and he underscores this by looking at Weber’s notion that charisma was replaced by routinized power. He argues that Weber had in fact simply taken over the notion of the supercession of the work of miracles and prophecy and applied it to power. The idea, taken from Protestant theology, is that the coming of Christ and the authority of the gospels spelled a new orderliness. Thus disenchantment is not a sociological fact but something closer to a metaphor or a narrative, and as such can be regarded as incomplete, a repression rather than a finished process. (Yelle’s commitment to structuralism shows through here).

So we need to rethink the world in different terms, and this then leads Yelle to tackle the problem of what is at stake in Agamben’s notion of homo sacer, that is the relationship between law and the sacred. Here the professional ancient historian may have to look away because both Agamben and Yelle are effectively dealing with an image of antiquity rather than the real thing. But Yelle’s argument that the sacred ambivalently embraces law-breaking and law-making may be more appealing than Agamben’s insistence on the primacy of law, a primacy which shuts the sacred out of the conception of beginnings. The intersection between law and the sacred is surely more complex than Agamben wanted it to be. Yelle’s intuition is that Agamben needed to claim that the capacity to put someone outside protection reduced to mere life, and defenceless against murder, has no defence in the murky magic of ritual or the sacred. It was a matter of politics, and therefore wholly culpable, a critical position if you run the line directly from antiquity to the Holocaust, as Agamben did.

Once the sacred emerges once more as an expression of ambivalence, it is possible to start thinking more interestingly about the religious as implicated in rather than opposed to the rational world, here largely understood in economic terms. So to recap, the world is not really disenchanted – we have repressed the enchantment; and the sacred is not subsequent to and distinct from the law – it is part of it. And so religion produces value; it requires the existence of the economic world for the surplus and excess which sacrifice entails, and it transforms that wealth.

Where does sovereignty fit in? In dealing with sacrifice, Yelle adopts and adapts Bataille’s views of its unproductiveness and excess, alongside ideas of potlatch and so forth, and argues that sacrifice reflects the sovereign act of largesse. The fact that sacrifice entails the existence of a surplus economy is then taken into a discussion of how (animal) sacrifice may reflect on the move from immediate return economies to storage economies, with their more hierarchical power structures. This then permits a highly economic reading of asceticism as a transformation of an economic relationship, a deposit against salvation. If sovereignty is ‘just another term for not being subject to conditions’ (124) the rejection of the normative polity which is represented by asceticism is a kind of antinomian sovereignty of the self.

In each of the three cases there is a good deal to worry about in detail. It is interesting to see how often Yelle reverts to theorists such as Bataille, Starobinski, Girard, Seaford and Graeber, who might be described as historicising their political theory. The transformation of religion into a parallel economy is a neat inversion, but this is not evidently a transubstantiation; it is more a translation from one metaphorical system to another. Ultimately I think Yelle fails to convince that religion is sovereignty, rather than the theatre of sovereignty being part of the supporting structures of certain polity-centred religions.

What are the gains and losses? One evident gain, I think, is in the contribution to the understanding of transcendence as part of a systemic shift, and here one thinks of Alan Strathern’s magnificent analysis in Unearthly Powers.4

What Strathern does rather more successfully is to insist that transcendence never quite wins, and some aspect of Yelle’s ambivalent sacred is I think bound up in the persistence of the immanent. Strathern’s analysis of how cargo cult reflects how other-worldly salvation became this-worldly salvation in process is a case in point. The interaction of immanent and transcendent views transform relationships between people, metapeople and things. Strathern summarises this quite brilliantly towards the end of his book (320):

In effect, this [the transformation of immanentism] was the strategy of monotheism on the march: first to enhance the salience of the economy of ritual efficacy, by making competition explicit and unavoidable; secondly, by achieving premium value in that economy; and thirdly, by subsequently undermining its significance, so that the vicissitudes of worldly existence could never again challenge the fundamental structures of the tradition. This was the point at which a gleaming new engine of conceptual control was wheeled into action. Promises of immanent assistance were offered with one hand, but rendered insignificant by a flourish of the other; the real reward was always yet to come and had to be conceived in quite different terms.

Now this seems to me very close to what Yelle is arguing, and both make the king, divinized or sacred, a critical figure; the king (or sovereign) is how society understands metaphorically the relationship between power, community and the legitimation. The key difference between them, I think, is where I see the bigger loss entailed in Yelle’s starting point. It is attractive from a certain point of view to make religion antinomian and to eschew a Durkheimian functionalism. Religion can break things as well as make them. But by starting with the sacrifice and not the acts of communication entailed thereby, between sacrificed and sacrificer, people and gods, and within community, Yelle does not quite carry his project forward into the reformulation of sovereignty. He claims to be looking for the exit sign from the disenchanted and rational world, but it is not entirely clear that we will not come out, on this reading, somewhere rather bloody and differently hierarchical.

Naturally there is no instant answer to this; Yelle ends with a question and it is for us to work at it. As one small contribution, I wonder if one of the challenges we might offer is to ask what sort of state we might conceive if our primary model was not a dualism of good and evil, and rather a complexity of ambivalences. This takes us to the politics of pluralism, which David Runciman explored so well, and the problem of authority between competing groups if the sovereign state is one association amongst others.5 Religion encompasses languages which allow us to transform values through the reimagining of possible outcomes.

A state that is conceived as existing in multiple and enchanted/enchanting acts of communication might be worth a look. It is notable that the pluralists took seriously the Hobbesian notion that the state, as a personality, is also a fiction, and grappled with the problem of how the state could be an actor and an author, both a participant and the source of authority. As Runciman put it, discussing Ernest Barker, one could argue that the state is solely responsible for the staging of the drama, but as soon as it acts, takes on a personality, we need to answer the question of who is responsible for the broader drama? Similar questions beset Arendt’s suggestion that the state is there to guarantee our capacity to create and sustain a public space of appearance, to be able to act, which is equivalent to being free. What is this state, that it has the authority to do this?

The divinized king is one way of imagining this public space of appearance. It is not uncommon for the story to be that that the king is constrained by power and limited by his closeness to the immanent. Yelle’s emphasis on the capacity of the sacred to be ambivalent can be extended; power moves around the circuit of metapeople (the immanent world), rulers and community. The broader drama is ritual and the question of how the state can be actor and author is contained within the ambivalence of the persistence of sacred communication which continuously breaks and re-makes community.

On the narrative we have traced, the move towards transcendent rather than immanent notions was harnassed to limit the ambivalence of the sacred; it was, as Strathern says, a power grab at the supernatural and the political level (317). Yet the immanent has not gone away. The more we understand the paths we left, the ways we have been able to constrain and ameliorate power within community, and the strength of the aesthetics and performativity of our common life in all its diversity to empower processes of change, the more chance we might have of finding the exit signs which Yelle was looking for.

1R. A. Yelle, Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion, Chicago 2019.

2Z. Ben-Dor Benite, S. Geroulanos and N. Jerr, The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic perspectives on the History of a Concept, Columbia 2017: 32.

3Well argued by Andreas Kalyvas in Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt, Cambridge 2008: 194-253.

4A. Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political change in World History, Cambridge 2019.

5D. Runciman, Pluralism and the Personality of the State, Cambridge 1997.

‘A partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’: Burke and the principles of society.

This note on a recent speech by the UK’s chief EU negotiator, David Frost, seeks to tease out the consequences of some of its language on sovereignty.[1]  Frost states:

“Some argue that sovereignty is a meaningless construct in the modern world, that what matters is sharing it to gain more influence over others.

So we take the opposite view. We believe sovereignty is meaningful and what it enables us to do is to set our rules for our own benefit.”

The first sentence is quite awkward.  Its first clause appears to posit a view that sovereignty has no meaning; it would seem to take aim at the post-sovereignty argument, which was most brilliantly enunciated, specifically in the European context, by Neil MacCormick, who stated that:

‘sovereignty and sovereign states, and the inexorable linkage of law with sovereignty and the state, have been but the passing phenomena of a few centuries, that their passing is by no means regrettable, and that current developments in Europe exhibit the possibility of going beyond all that. On this view, our passing beyond the sovereign state is to be considered a good thing, an entirely welcome development in the history of legal and political ideas.’[2]

This is an argument that vests authority in constitutional and legal solutions to an acknowledged pluralist system; and it is indeed unclear that McCormick’s vision has been successful.

The second half of the sentence then turns the first on its head, by claiming that those who hold this view, hold it because they think that whatever sovereignty is, so far from being meaningless, can be shared to exert greater influence.

Is this perhaps the reference back to Teresa May’s speech in Florence in 2017?  May argued that there were two conceptions of sovereignty.  The UK emphasised domestic control and local accountability.  This was in contrast to the European approach:

‘The profound pooling of sovereignty that is a crucial feature of the European Union permits unprecedentedly deep cooperation, which brings benefits.’[3]

The shift from her description of a principled position which underpins one but not the only beneficial set of outcomes, to the notion that sovereignty is merely instrumentalized in a power move is an interesting recalibration.  It fits with Frost’s underlying claim that the UK’s position is better than the EU’s position.  This is the pivot to the next sentence, the notion that sovereignty allows one to set one’s own rules.

The opposition is not neat.  Both a federal body which sets common rules to gain advantage beyond the federation and a nation-state which sets rules to its own advantage are instrumentalizing a conceptual framework to legitimize advantage.

The claim which would have more clarity is the one which says that national sovereignty trumps federal arrangements in terms of economic gain (with relevant consequences in terms of democratic consent).

My interest is in what sort of sovereignty is being invoked?  Is the model the influential one of Tuck’s sleeping sovereign?[4]  Here the sovereign must be democratic (the people); government is the day to day running of things, but the fundamental legitimacy is restored via plebiscite.

So one could argue that a plebiscitary decision by the sovereign people in the 2016 referendum set the necessary grounds for political separation, and that entails legislative divergence; the logic is partly economic, and partly political necessity to demonstrate divergence.

260px-Edmund_Burke_by_James_NorthcoteThis is interesting because it is a Rousseauian position, and about as far from the position of Frost’s invoked hero, Edmund Burke, as you can get.  Frost seems to want to claim that Burke differentiates the administrative partnership from the state as object of reverence, but actually his own quote shows that Burke thought the state was both.  So the pivot is to say that the UK never reverenced the EU because it was the product of the kind of deracinated thinking that characterised the French Revolution.  And here would be a fatal involution; the EU’s sovereignty would seem closer to a revolutionary, plebiscitary sovereignty than Burke’s more cautious representative democracy (and in fact it is neither, but the product of its own post-WWII consensus).

Following Burke’s thought further is interesting.  Burke is a far more awkward conservative than sometimes configured.  In this section of his Reflections on the French Revolution, he is making a claim for the essential connection of the English state with the religious establishment, within a broader emotional and moral universe; his claim is that English Protestantism is more broadly attuned to both freedom and equality on the one hand and a more beneficial distribution of property on the other, than its contemporary Catholic counterpart.  The argument is that the excesses of old French Catholicism and its closeness to royal power contributed to the tearing down of both.  I am less interested in this proposition as such, than with what Burke does with it.

As David Bromwich argued, the key to understanding Burke may lie in his breadth of vision, the universality of his moral vision, rather than in any national politics.[5]  Burke excoriates precisely the Rousseauian notion of the popular sovereign:

‘where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded, confidence in their own power. They are themselves, in a great measure, their own instruments. They are nearer to their objects. Besides, they are less under responsibility to one of the greatest controlling powers on earth, the sense of fame and estimation. The share of infamy, that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world.’

And he goes on to say that in contrast to popular democracy, the state as object of reverence takes its place in a much wider, indeed universal and divinely inspired order.  In the passage immediately after that which Frost quotes, Burke says:

‘As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles.’

Bromwich would argue, I think, that this universality of view does not mean that Burke was a nationalist, rather that he thought that Britain had the duty to be a better universalist.  The potential for a more explicit argument for the UK’s moral and ethical leadership is hinted at, but not explored in Frost’s speech, and perhaps this was neither the time nor place, but his retreat to the claim that local decision-making is better than that conducted at a higher level serves to expose the next paradox.

It seems that the only form of sovereignty that can be made to fit this argument is some form of delegated parliamentary sovereignty, and so we come back to Burke.  But quite apart from the stress under which this principle was recently placed, our version of parliamentary sovereignty is by definition a historically contingent system of governance.  This takes us back to rules.

Indeed Frost’s speech is, quite correctly in the circumstances, all about how to find a way to accommodate different regulatory systems.  Ironically, it is precisely McCormick’s post-sovereignty which gives the best description of how this might work.

McCormick points out that sovereignty is not a zero-sum game.  No-one gets my sovereignty if I give up a bit of it.  The more we focus on governance, including the processes of parliamentary as opposed to plebiscitary democracy, that is the choices made by local jurisdictions over what we sign up to and what we do not, the more one sees the value of this claim.  If we choose to be aligned to someone else’s rules, or to pay the price for divergence, our sovereignty is no less, nor is theirs any greater.

As McCormick insists, as we move further towards the recognition that we are living in an interconnected world, ‘systems as systems of rules, partly overlapping but capable of compatibility, will be recognised. This will depend … on legal and political communities recognising themselves as communities of principle.’

Ultimately, it seems inevitable that we will end with some set of legally binding and enforceable rules, which will require choices and compromises (trade-offs).  We will enter a version of McCormick’s legal world, but if we start from sovereignty rather than principle, perhaps not the optimal one.  All parliamentary sovereignty tells us is the locus where we decide how to co-operate, not on what basis.  The argument then reverts to the definition of ‘our own benefit,’ and we return to a question of principles, not merely economic but social and moral.

Where should we find those principles which McCormick suggests should underpin our systemic communities?  Even if Burke’s worldview was a frequently repugnant and fundamentally elitist and paternalistic one, he also appealed to the recognition of a wide set of responsibilities.

In the light of our contemporary broader crises, most of which require a global and collaborative response, parliamentary sovereignty is only an expression of the mechanism of governance.  Burke’s ringing phrase that the ends of society are ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’ would be a more interesting place to start.

[1] https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2020/02/full-text-top-uk-brexit-negotiator-david-frost-on-his-plans-for-an-eu-trade-deal/.

[2] Neil MacCormick, “Beyond the sovereign state.” The Modern Law Review 56.1 (1993): 1-18.

[3] https://ig.ft.com/theresa-may-florence-speech-annotated/

[4] Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The invention of modern democracy, Cambridge, 2016.

[5] David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, Harvard 2014.  The quotes are all taken from Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.

“We all live downstream.” Thoughts for mid-winter.

After a night of rain and wind, the sun shone, but for only a few hours today, the shortest day of the year, and the last winter solstice of the decade. EMUBP4dWkAAwwjV

The celebration of solstice is old; around 3200 BC, the Neolithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange near Dublin was constructed so that the morning light shines through it.  Solstice is when the unimaginable forces that keep us in motion around our sun and the unfelt peculiarities of our obliquity, or axial tilt, combine to create an infinitesimal moment of suspension.  As Yves Bonnefoy wrote, ‘The scales of light tip no more. Shadows and dreams have equal weight.’

9780691195643This seemed a good time to read Jedediah Purdy’s meditation on our current turning point This Land is our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton 2019).  It starts with the actualities of the transformation of the land in geological terms, in the terrifying transformation of the Appalachians and the transformation of American politics in 2016; traces the long history of the interconnection between concern over ecology and over standards of life; and concludes with the hope that the future might place value in ‘work that does what is necessary and sustains its own conditions of possibility.’

That process of valuing is necessarily a communal one, hence Purdy’s call for commonwealth – not necessarily governed by global sovereignty, but nonetheless a ‘community oriented to commonwealth ideals’ (97).  What is anathema to this notion of commonwealth is nationalism which denies the claims of those who are not our compatriots and global integration which unequally extracts resources from the planet.  We need sovereignty, but not sovereign entities driven by ‘the impresarios of denialism’ (99).

In the epilogue which Purdy cleverly calls ‘forward’ he notes that the metaphysics of valuing has to be built; it is not given.  And that is an observation made by John Rawls.  Two brilliant and important books have recently tackled Rawls’ philosophical formation and legacy.  Eric Nelson has placed Rawls, and liberal thought more generally, in the context of a debate about theodicy (the extent to which God can permit evil and injustice in the world) whilst Katrina Forrester has located Rawls in the context of a fading post-war consensus.[1]

When I first read Rawls, very naively and decades ago, the idea of deciding on the principles of justice from behind the veil of ignorance – agreeing the conditions of society without knowing where you might land – seemed persuasive, and it remains one of the twentieth century’s most influential and challenging arguments.  Sadly the veil of ignorance was doing a good job of concealing my own privileges and blindspots.  This has been one of the main critiques of Rawls’ position; his unwriting of historical circumstance and injustice is too extreme.  Forrester in particular argues that Rawls commenced from a belief that ‘deep down, social life rested on the possibility of consensus and ethical agreement’ (xx).  The problem is that the consensus was fracturing even as he wrote, and those who worked with the paradigm did not sufficiently identify how significant a problem this was – or indeed that the consensus that did exist was not necessarily supportive of their notion of distributive justice.  Thus, as the location of Rawlsian justice moved from the national to the global, it also may have moved further away from the practice of politics and into abstract theory.

Here is a reflection, on a political event, which acknowledges such a challenge, and suggests that the problems with Rawlsian arguments are deep-seated.  The ‘election represented not an “ideological revolution” – a collapse of faith in the welfare state or a belief in “free enterprise” – but a signal of the “non-ideological” nature of the British electorate and the failure of the Labour Party to persuasively set out its core egalitarian principles.’  This is not a comment on the election of 2019, but on Margaret Thatcher’s victory 40 years before in 1979, cited by Forrester.   If Rawls had learnt something from the debates in Labour under Crosland and Gaitskell, reflecting a postwar optimism about the future of socialism and distributive justice in a post-capitalist world, Ronald Dworkin would try to hammer out a version of Rawlsian justice through ‘rights, insurance, and the common law twinned with the efficient and fair mechanisms of the market’ (213).  Thence flow a whole range of elaborations on theories about luck egalitarianism, and the levelling out of the consequences of ill fortune.

SO19_art_Page_03_Image_0003This is very much part of Nelson’s argument.  If as a Pelagian, one assumes that we are free, we can assume also that the conditions of our freedom include the potential for inequality, and we have to decide what to do about it.  If as a non-Pelagian, we decide that the situation is ordained, there is a bigger problem to justify the situation, or to argue for its remedy.  Rawls, Nelson argues, tried to argue for our intervention to rescue those who suffer from the consequences of bad luck, despite remaining anti-Pelagian.

The twists and turns of this are fascinating, but seem to me to miss our current predicament in ways that are analogous to, but not quite the same as, those adduced by Forrester for the problematic starting point of Rawls’ theory, a belief in consensus.  Nelson’s core argument is that we cannot know if the existing distribution of natural assets is in fact just or unjust.  I think this amounts to two different sorts of arguments.  First, a sliding scale argument.  Some of my unequal share may be unjustly gained but not all, so why should I lose all?  What redistribution is correct?  Second, who knows whether the world would actually be better if the conditions which produced inequality were changed?  It is not possible that worse inequality would be created?

On the first point, this seems to work at a highly abstract level and for the issue of luck.  It is not luck, or it is not only luck even in its strained philosophical senses, that has caused historic inequality.  One way of interpreting the collective challenge offered by Forrester and Nelson is that in very different ways they show how difficult it has been to get from Rawlsian justice, which operates at the kind of community level that many moralists of the 17th and 18th century were thinking – the unfortunate man, woman or child in one’s immediate circle – to the wider and broader consequences of economic exploitation.  It is not only that too many of the people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance looked the same, but also that they have had unique advantages in being able to swish the veil aside and make choices that leave them assured of a historically greater say in what justice looks like, in who makes the consensus.  In other words, scaling up from a morality tale to dealing with the enormous long term consequences of slavery or disposession leaves the notion of luck looking exceptionally thin.

One the second, we return to Purdy’s challenge.  It seems now very hard to argue that a pursuit of policies which will exacerbate or fail to slow the human impact on the environment is the best of all possible worlds.  With or without a veil of ignorance, the best claim might be that some will adapt and survive to altered circumstances; but the impact is universal.  It is perhaps the first time in our history where our decisions affect us all, even if unequally.

It is really interesting that at the end of his book Nelson suggests that the arc of the argument leads back to a notion of representation.  Rawls worried that tacit consent was not enough, and so we needed to strengthen on an almost objective basis the grounds of governance; the state’s violence over those who have not consented demands that we have a strong account of what justice means.  That was always a very good question to ask, and Rawls remains relevant because he asked important questions.  In response, Nelson argues himself into a justification that if the state behaves unjustly we could refuse to co-operate.  But if the principle of redistribution is not mandated by any theory of justice, Rawlsian or otherwise, what is the basis of our non-co-operation?   Evacuating the political sphere may not be our best option right now, though it might appeal to some of our leaders.  One does not need a universal objective standard of justice to want to see a persistent active scrutiny of government; the line between non-co-operation and inactive citizenship is a fine one.[2]

This brings us back to Purdy’s commonwealth of commonwealths, and the situation of remedy in the behaviour of individuals, valuing each other and being valued as equals.  But that also probably requires some fairly hard and very concrete arguments, and neither the past nor the future can be left out.  As Forrester implies, if we do not have consensus to fall back on, we have to rely on the capacity to manage disagreement.  The greatest enemy to that, and to active citizenship, is disinformation, which is why we are in such a dangerous place.

As Purdy says, we all live downstream; we are all subject to the consequences of previous actions.  But we are also upstream of our future, and responsible for it. The solstice is a moment of suspension, and the hope is that we, humans and the collective of everything that lives on earth, are by the extraordinary circumstances of our planetary fortune swung past darkness and on to light.  The question is whether the light will be guiding and hopeful, or the searching brightness in which there is no shadow to hide from the truth of where we have gone wrong.  Perhaps we need a bit of both.


[1] Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God, Harvard 2019; Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy, Princeton 2019.  Both have been the subject of excellent reviews; Samuel Moyn on Nelson https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/rawls-theodicy, and Jedediah Purdy on Forrester https://newrepublic.com/article/155294/john-rawls-missed-create-just-society .  See also Seyla Benhabib https://www.thenation.com/article/john-rawls-liberal-philosophy-review/ .

[2] Interestingly, one reading of Aristotle’s theory of redistributive justice argues for its focus on individual excellence, on the habits of morality.  Jill Frank argued that rather than try to make Aristotle present rather modern sounding arguments about the way a community should act, we should allow him both to reject external qualifications for office (for example wealth, freedom, good birth, which one might I suppose classify as the products of luck) and to insist that personal excellence is demonstrated through active citizenship.  See Jill Frank, “Democracy and Distribution: Aristotle on Just Desert.” Political Theory 26, no. 6 (1998): 784-802.

On Simone Weil’s Venice Saved, punishment and redemption

venicesavedSimone Weil left an unfinished tragedy, called Venice Saved.  She began to write it in 1940 and continued with up until her death; it clearly mattered greatly to her, and it has just been beautifully translated and published, along with her notes and commentary.[1]

The plot is simple enough.  It is set in 1618; Renaud, the Spanish ambassador to Venice, has persuaded some Provencal troops to destroy the city on the eve of its spring festival, and betray it to the Habsburgs; his motive is that the Venetian government is hated, cruel, and opposed to peace in Europe.  The troops are led by Pierre; summoned by the Ten, he entrusts the command to his closest friend Jaffier.  Jaffier seems – indeed we have to believe genuinely was – convinced that this was the right thing to do, but some apprehension of the reality and beauty of the city stopped him in his tracks.  He betrays the plot, on the terms that the leaders of the conspiracy be spared.  They are not, of course, and he is racked with guilt, alternately begging for death and hoping to live.  In the end, a small skirmish breaks out with some remaining soldiers who were part of the plot.  He starts to go to join them, hesitantly, and we imagine he will die with them.  The drama ends with the daughter of the Secretary of the Council of Ten, Violetta, singing an innocent hymn to Venice.

The editors make no claim for the literary quality of this peculiar piece.  But it retains a fascination, as it inadequately wrestles with some of Weil’s preoccupations, and most especially, of rootedness, society, sacrifice and providence.

To start with rootedness, one of the most effective and chilling moments in the play is Pierre’s expectation for Venice after the betrayal (74):

But, as of tomorrow, their city, their liberty and their power will seem to them to be more unreal than a dream. Arms make a dream stronger than reality; this is the stupor that brings about surrender. As of tomorrow, they must believe that they have always been subjects of Spain, that they have never been free. The sky, the sun, the sea and the stone monuments will no longer be real in their eyes. As for the children, they will be born without roots.

Jaffier will take this up later (87):

Empty eyes will look around in vain

for palaces, houses or churches.

Their songs will never again be heard.

They will have no voice for their lament.

This sea for them will be always mute.

Day after day and for all their life

they will hear nothing, only orders.

In contrast with Violetta’s innocent refusal to believe that Venetians can ever not be integrally connected to their city, Pierre and Jaffier plot a deracination that is truly terrifying.  ‘As for the children, they will be born without roots….’

The work which lies closest to Weil’s concerns in the tragedy is her long essay L’Enracinement, written in 1943 shortly before her death.  It was translated as The Need for Roots, and the title already betrays the work into a sort of conservative vision, which it frequently, if inconsistently, subverts.[2]  The act of putting down roots, which is perhaps closer to the original meaning, reflects Weil’s urgent hope that the French could find a new moral, Christian foundation for society.  It is far more transformative as a vision than this might suggest, however, for Weil was no conformist on any level.  Take as just one example her comment on patriotism (111):

The State is a cold concern which cannot inspire love, but itself kills, suppresses everything that might be loved; so one is forced to love it, because there is nothing else. That is the moral torment to which all of us today are exposed.

Instead Weil urges a compassionate love for country (169):

such a love can keep its eyes open on injustices, cruelties, mistakes, falsehoods, crimes and scandals contained in the country’s past, its present and in its ambitions in general, quite openly and fearlessly, and without being thereby diminished; the love being only rendered thereby more painful. …  Thus compassion keeps both eyes open on both the good and the bad and finds in each sufficient reasons for loving.

Hardly a Gaullist sentiment.

Another place we see this clearly is in her account of punishment.  This comes in the first part of the book on the ‘needs of the soul,’ whose titles (order, responsibility, hierarchism, private property) read at first sight like a checklist of the traditional order, but each is in turn subverted, transformed.  Punishment is indispensable, because it alone, by putting someone back inside the circle of law, might have the chance to ‘weld him back again’ to society.

‘The need of punishment is not satisfied where, as is generally the case, the penal code is merely a method of exercising pressure through fear,’

Weil writes; and again

‘Punishment must be an honour. It must not only wipe out the stigma of the crime, but must be regarded as a supplementary form of education, compelling a higher devotion to the public good’ (19-21).

Weil’s theodicy is fundamentally one of sacrifice, God’s sacrifice and self-sacrifice; ‘the destruction of her self is a decreation which allows her to restore the unity of the divine.’[3]  As Weil’s perception of the demands made by her religion deepened, the vision becomes ever more tragic.[4]  There is no compensation for virtue; everything must be experienced at the extreme – Oedipus Rex not Oedipus at Colonus, King Lear not The Tempest.  And that is reflected in her view of tragedy and therefore of the tragedy she tried to write, Venice Saved.

Where Weil’s God steps in, in the miraculous or providential, happens because of the logic of this self-sacrificial necessity.  ‘All real desire for pure good, after a certain degree of intensity has been reached, causes the good in question to descend.’[5] Weil refuses the deus ex machina of a miracle; all that matters is one’s own intensity.

So one can unify the notions of putting down roots in a way so as to transform society towards a greater equality, and one in which the sacrifice of self can lead to the providential appearance of the good.  Weil’s vision may be tragic but it is not therefore hopeless; its demands are, however, absolute, in terms of the way society must become different, the intensity of attention that is required and the self-abnegation which is demanded to achieve such intensity.

How does Venice Saved manage to encapsulate these ideas?  Weil’s ambition for the play, and its working out, do not match, and there are two points where things go wrong, I think, but both are telling.

First, Jaffier’s change of heart.  Weil tells us what she wants to happen (53):

Act Two. Make it clear that Jaffier’s change of heart is supernatural.

Jaffier. It is supernatural to stop time.

It is then that eternity enters into time.

To believe in the reality of the external world and to love it: one and the same thing.

Ultimately, the organ of belief is supernatural love, even with respect to things below.

As soon as Jaffier realizes that Venice exists … .

But she cannot write it.  Although Jaffier’s conversation with Violetta about the beauty of Venice is supposedly pivotal he continues to reiterate his pitilessness; is this his ascent to intensity? The closest we come to a dramatic peripeteia is when Renaud bothers him with a logistical detail and he does not reply – almost as if – right there, when attention is demanded, Jaffier sees and finally, fully loves.

Second, Jaffier in Act Three in his affliction is inconsistent and confused.  Weil’s determination to make him a perfect hero is undercut by the horror of what he intended, the compromises he made (he tries to save just twenty men – what about the rest?)  His life is spared, and he at times rejects this, but at other times embraces it; and at the end, he keeps stopping before joining the insurrection in which he will surely die, and is effectively forced into it by the Venetians.  This is not to say that Jaffier is a coward, but something has come unstuck in Weil’s conception; was she perhaps so determined to write affliction that she has forgotten why he is afflicted?  Maybe Bataille saw something of this desperate confusion when he wrote that ‘Indubitably, there was in her, beyond useful works, a dominant attraction toward evil and the disturbance of the order of things that is affliction [malheur]’; Weil seems to need Pierre and Jaffier to have a perfect friendship in a terrible cause, and for Jaffier to betray, and be betrayed, over and over.[6]

Yet this weakness in the play reveals something about crime and punishment.  Jaffier’s affliction is total – no-one speaks to him in the last act.  He becomes, in Agamben’s term, a homo sacer.  His last words show that he finally sees a way out of his shame; he holds on to the emotion towards the beauty of the city which led him to the act which saved Venice, and condemned his friend.  As a result, he will be the one who is cast beyond society, without roots.

Death is going to come for me. For now, the shame has passed.

To eyes that will soon go dark, how lovely is the city!

I must leave the land of the living, never to return.

There will be no dawn where I shall go, nor any city.

If at the end we are supposed to believe that Jaffier is positively transformed, that he ‘accepts the void,’ it is a grim place he enters.[7]  As Alexander Irwin puts it, only by sinking below the human can one finally rise above it, perhaps another point of awkward connection with Bataille.  And maybe we have to see that the play’s weaknesses reflect a deeper truth.

Redemption is messy.  Crime and punishment may be necessarily linked in a society which seeks to be grounded, rooted, and therefore able to grow, but it is inescapably costly to make the punishment truly fit the crime.  Weil intended dramatic catharsis to be devastating; her play runs into the barriers of language and the impossible scandal of the terrorist who comes closest to salvation; it ends in a sentimental hymn to a city, which, while beautiful, has not changed or addressed its enracinement.

So maybe Weil was a bad playwright; that does not diminish the seriousness of her intent.  And even if one cannot follow Weil’s underlying logic or accept her solutions, her demand to pay attention to the paradoxes of safety and to the arc of redemption, and her refusal to accept that punishment should be reduced to the creation of fear, is resonant.  And never more so than when lives have been tragically lost defending the belief that ‘we can help people who have done terrible things to see themselves by seeing them, really seeing them.’[8]


[1] S. Panizza, P. Wilson (eds.) Simone Weil Venice Saved, Bloomsbury 2019.

[2] S. Weil, The Need for Roots, translated by A. Wills, preface by T. S. Eliot, London 1952.

[3] Panizza, Wilson, Venice Saved,  p. 36.

[4] ‘Weil’s Christian vision may be called tragic, then, because, rather than the idea of compensation for virtue, the concept of the human being’s interior victory in outer defeat lies at its center. This is a sacrificial notion.  Only in a tragic world, a world in which suffering and evil blindly reign, is the human being able to respond to the perfect self-emptying love of God with a perfect love of his own. For Weil, the supreme instance of this love constitutes a participation in the cross of Christ.’  Katherine T.Brueck, The Redemption of Tragedy : The Literary Vision of Simone Weil, New York 1995, p. 67.

[5] Weil, The Need for Roots, p. 257.

[6] G. Bataille, ‘La victorie militaire et la banqueroute de la morale qui maudit,’ a review of S. Weil, L’enracinement, (published 1949), in Oeuvres Complètes  xi (Paris, 1988) p. 532-49.  See A. Irwin, Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil and the Politics of the Sacred, Minneapolis 2002.

[7] See Weil’s note: ‘Jaffier. Passion. One of the meanings of passion is perhaps that all the pain, the shame and the death that you do not want to inflict on others will fall on you, without you having wished for it. As if, mathematically, affliction had to compensate for distant crimes, so that the soul might stay under the power of evil (but in a different sense); reciprocally, virtue consists in keeping to oneself the evil that is suffered, in not freeing oneself from it by expelling it, by deeds or by the imagination. (Accepting the void.)’ (51).

[8] From the desperately moving essay ‘Redemption Arc,’ http://crookedtimber.org/2019/11/30/redemption-arc/, written in the aftermath of the London Bridge tragedy, 28 November 2019.