See the Goldsmiths site for more information.
I am trying out blogging my experience of co-editing a book for the Working Class Movement Library: the biography They called her ‘our Enid’. Life story of Enid Stacy, socialist, feminist and worker for democratic rights 1868-1903. Enid Stacy was a feminist and socialist, helping to organise strikes in Bristol in the late 19th century. She became a prominent speaker at meetings and was present at the conference founding the Independent Labour Party in 1893.
It’s been a while since I read the manuscript but one of the memorable aspects of the book was Stacy’s struggle to pursue her political work as well as caring for a much wanted child. I imagine that her experiences will speak to many women today. Stacy deserves more attention as a socialist who did not make women’s rights a secondary issue. As June Hannan’s DNB entry states:
Enid Stacy’s most enduring contribution to the revived socialist movement was to bring socialism and women’s rights together. […] Her most systematic attempt to develop a theoretical framework to bring socialist and feminist ideas together was her essay, ‘A Century of Women’s Rights’, published in the influential socialist anthology Forecasts of the Coming Century (1897), edited by Edward Carpenter.
Thankfully, the WCML has a copy of Forecasts; I look forward to consulting it.
We (Maggie Cohen, Rae Street, and I) are editing the biography without being able to consult its author, Angela Tuckett, who is no longer with us. Tuckett was Stacy’s niece, and was so prolific in so many areas that you must really read the WCML website entry on her to get a full biog (short version: communist, journalist, international hockey player).
The manuscript therefore presents us with extra jobs: not just correcting formatting and style (without checking with Tuckett) but also checking all Tuckett’s references (some of which are inaccurate), adding references to the now fully indexed items in the WCML’s Angela Tuckett archive, and finding references to other archives that have been relocated from one institution to another. It’s a difficult task of sleuthing, sometimes, but I hope we have a script before long that honours Enid and Angela’s efforts.
It’s been a while since RSN has organised any events: Ben Harker took up a new post at the University of Manchester, and Elinor and Jen were finishing PhDs. Thanks to the generous support of the Raymond Williams Society we have some funding to put on a day conference in the centre of Manchester on a Saturday in May 2015.
‘Raymond Williams Now’ will ask questions about the continuing relevance of Williams’ work in criticism, politics, and creative projects. (I was going to write ‘creative writing’ but remembered reading this week about Ruth Beale’s ‘Performing Keywords‘. Why always writing? Ruth and Amy Feneck contributed to RSN3 in February 2013 with their talk ‘The Alternative School of Economics: Art Practice, Politics and Education’.)
The conference will aim to provoke genuine assessments on Williams’ legacy, on subjects including but not limited to:
adult education; ecology; feminism; media; Williams and Wales; the May Day Manifesto; post-colonial and global Williams; science fiction; the public intellectual; Williams and the politics of criticism; Williams as novelist and playwright; ‘old’ and ‘new’ lefts.
Recent meditations on British cultural studies have covered Stuart Hall and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. We want to give Williams his due but also to discover the places for new growth. As Williams stated himself in Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977: p. 116)
much of the most accessible and influential work of the counter-hegemony is historical: the recovery of discarded areas, or the redress of selective and reductive interpretations. But this in turn has little effect unless the lines to the present […] are clearly and actively traced.
Clearly, academia does not have (and is unlikely to develop) a monopoly on creating ‘lines to the present’ — drawing links between what Williams would call ‘residual’ social, political, creative forms and contemporary concerns. Contributions from people with other backgrounds will therefore be extremely welcome. Costs will be kept as low as possible to enable people without generous travel bursaries to attend.
We would also like to break somewhat with the traditional conference format, maybe no keynotes and a more participatory aspect? What would you appreciate: discussion sessions on key texts? Round table discussion instead of keynotes?
It’s early days as we have yet to finalise the date but wanted to give our followers advanced warning. Please email us if you want to join the mailing list: raymondwilliamsnow2015[at]gmail.com
I have enjoyed writing this post and hope to engage with the blog more regularly in the future. A personal blog doesn’t hold much appeal for me but a group one exploring common interests does. I have just finished my PhD and imagine that not having access to a research community would start to bite after a while. Hopefully, RSN events and this forum will provide us and others with stimulation.
Please let us know if you would like to contribute guest posts, as Chris Witter did in the previous post.
by Jen Morgan
Following up his talk for us back in October 2013, Chris Witter contributes a discussion of the contemporary in relation to the possibilities open to critical academics. It is a line of thought he is developing from his doctoral work, which he intends to publish as The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment.
I’ve just finished reading Robert Eaglestone’s intervention in Textual Practice, ‘Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto’ (Dec, 2013). In it, Eaglestone sets out a series of provocative questions about ‘what it means to research contemporary fiction’. Eaglestone summarises his argument, by way of conclusion:
I suggested that disciplines are shaped by questions, and that they reach maturity when they question their own questions. However, the study of contemporary ﬁction does not even know what its questions are despite the unique complications it faces in relation to periodisation, the archive, authorship, the ‘business’ of ﬁction, globalisation, genre, value judgements, and form. The risks of not facing up to these issues in the study of contemporary ﬁction are that we become ‘modern antiquarians’, picking oddities that pique our interest to display to the public, or ‘generic critics’, showing off our honed senses with no focus on the nature of the contemporary. (Eaglestone, 1100)
These are indeed questions worth pursuing. But there was something missing here, for me, which is worth locating.
What strikes me first of all about Eaglestone’s sub-manifesto is that it is ordered by the desire to shore up a role for the academic critic as entrepreneurial subject. Eaglestone asks: How do we compete with new formal and informal networks of online debate, publication, education? How do we assert a place for criticism in an economy in which publishers can market directly to audiences, and where reading has not only become decoupled from the educative project of ‘cultivation’ (with its many hierarchies and gatekeepers) but increasingly bound up with that particularly spectacular commodity, the ‘blockbuster’? All of this is coded in his opening gambit: ‘what makes a geek [read fan] different from an academic?’
This problem comes more clearly into focus in relation to Eaglestone’s argument, later in the essay, that academics should make their value judgements explicit. For how futile does the figure of the academic look, trying, like a modern Canute, to pronounce upon the mass trash spectacle of the Twilight series, or its prodigious offspring, Fifty Shades of Grey? This futility indicates a broader malaise within literary studies: its marginalisation within society. Literary studies once had a project — however paternalistic and bourgeois — in encouraging cultivation and the development of sensibility. Now there is no project underpinning literary studies, and no place for it in society. ‘Keeping up with the new’ is not sufficient in itself; to imagine that it is is merely to allow research to be subsumed by commodity production.
Either way, we should ask whether literary studies has a social role. If it does, is it one we are consciously creating, or one we’re acting out despite ourselves? Already it seems we’re seeing ‘fields’, ‘disciplines’ and ‘specialisms’ becoming ways of framing bids for research grants, or else a strategy of pre-emptive marketing. Disciplines are dissolved into the discipline of the market and specialisms into one’s strategic ability to compete in this ‘weak’ market. In this situation, only monotony is nourished by the new; we are increasingly bored by literary criticism because we do not know what we are writing for.
In a different conjuncture, literary critics and scholars furiously debated the relation of literature to the proletariat, and wrote out prescriptions for ‘revolutionary literature’. At other moments, the relation of literature to emancipation has been at the forefront of writing and its criticism, leading to politically committed magazines and journals, and courses designed to tell histories of struggle in and through literature. In many ways, it was these struggles that opened the way for a more ‘critical’ and ‘open’ form of literary studies.
Yet politics is peculiarly absent from Eaglestone’s provocation. The ‘established categories’ of ‘sex/class/race/empire’ are said to be ‘vital’, but they are by no means placed at the heart of Eaglestone’s discussion, despite weak gestures towards criticality, such as framing the discussion in terms of Rancière’s concept of ‘dissensus’ (Eaglestone, 1093). Instead, the essay considers substitutive political struggles — for example, as to whether ‘open/closed’ operates as a better descriptive binary than ‘literary/genre’.
This is not simply a fault of Eaglestone’s piece. It is a broader symptom of the destruction of left-wing institutions in the UK, and the consequent weakness and marginalisation of a fragmented and disorganised Left. As much as one wishes to be a ‘good soldier’, the possibility of constituting and participating in a left-wing ‘critical’ project looks shaky — if not impossible. It becomes more tenuous as higher education takes on an increasingly reactionary character; the conditions of production of academic work increasingly limit the possibilities of research and teaching being underpinned by a radical project.
The above points have a bearing on the problem Eaglestone raises of defining the ‘contemporary’. For Eaglestone this has several dimensions. On the one hand it is a temporal problem: when is the ‘contemporary’ period? On the other it is spatial: in a globalised world, how do we address the problem of differing temporalities and multiple modernities? Eaglestone then moves from these temporal-spatial dimensions to discuss the contemporary in relation to production and consumption. On the one hand, the subject is swamped by the flood of the contemporary:
We have in our sub-ﬁeld not only an open archive but also an archive that is continually proliferating and expanding. […] The issue here is not simply the size of the archive: most disciplines, and most sub-ﬁelds within disciplines, have archives too enormous to be processed in a life time. The issue here is that the archive of contemporary ﬁction is, by deﬁnition, continually growing at a phenomenal rate. (Eaglestone, 1091)
Here, history and commodity production become identical, whilst the contemporary becomes a mere ‘snapchat’ shot of this endless flow of commodities, obsolete even as it is produced. Against the flood of history-as-production, the academic appears powerless, their critical gestures becoming as provisional as their critical objects are disposable.
In a not unfamiliar manoeuver, Eaglestone then reverses this, to move from the macro totality of production to the micro level of the dividuated subject:
Put very crudely: what seems ‘of the past’ for a graduate student of 25 seems oddly ‘contemporary’ for an academic of 50 (a question of ‘duration’, perhaps, or of the difference between ‘academic’ and ‘living’ history). (Eaglestone, 1095)
As such, the ‘contemporary’ is understood not in terms of a canon, nor as a specific historical formation, but as a pluralistic modulation of commodity preferences, which is the inverse of the contemporary as the endless flow of production. 
If Eaglestone accedes too much to the logic of late capitalism, a more productive discussion of contemporaneity is to be found in Claire Bishop’s Radical Museology (2013). In this short but thought-provoking pamphlet, Bishop offers a resonant critique of ‘presentism’, as:
The conditions of taking our current moment as the horizon and destination of our thinking. This is the dominant usage of the term ‘contemporary’ in art today; it is underpinned by an inability to grasp our moment in its global entirety, and an acceptance of this incomprehension as a constitutive condition of the present historical era. (Bishop, 6)
Against this ‘presentism’, Bishop draws on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history  to sketch out a dialectical approach to contemporaneity, which interrogates how the present relates to the past and the future, explicitly politicising these temporal relations:
What I call a dialectical contemporary seeks to navigate multiple temporalities within a more political horizon. Rather than simply claim that many or all times are present in each historical object, we need to ask why certain temporalities appear in particular works of art at specific historical moments. Furthermore, this analysis is motivated by a desire to understand our present condition and how to change it. Lest this method be interpreted as yet another form of presentism with the now masquerading as historical inquiry, it should be stressed that sightlines are always focused on the future: the ultimate aim is to disrupt the relativist pluralism of the current moment, in which all styles and beliefs are considered equally valid, and to move towards a more sharply politicized understanding of where we can and should be heading. (Bishop, 23)
Temporality, rather than being a ‘mundane’ technical problem (Eaglestone, 1093), becomes a vital source of political energy. For temporality is a social relation — a way of organising past, present, and future. As such, the contemporary is a site of struggle.
Following Bishop’s arguments about contemporary visual art, an alternative conception of contemporary literary criticism emerges to that of the entrepreneur or antiquarian, who offers up fashionable categories and concepts in order to corner emerging markets. Rather than conceding our power to shape the present to the market, we might articulate conceptions of the contemporary that search out and construct explicitly politicised constellations of textual and critical practices, in order to explode the ‘eternal present’ of neoliberal capitalism.
1. See: Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, 59 (Winter, 1992), pp. 3-7.
2. Benjamin’s dialectical conception of history critiques the bourgeois concept of ‘progress’, but remains oriented by a conception of authentic historical progress (emancipation). In the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) and the Arcades Project (1927-1940; 1982; 1999) he thus constructs a dialectical conception of history and social progress.
Chris Witter is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of English & Creative Writing, at Lancaster University. His research focuses on postwar US culture and society, particularly experimental literature. In 2012 he won the Raymond Williams Society Postgraduate Essay Prize, with an article titled ‘Grace Paley and the Tenement Pastoral’. This was subsequently published in Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, 11 (2013). He is currently working on a monograph titled, The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment, and a book chapter titled ‘Tillie Olsen: Subaltern Modernism in the Postwar US’, for the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Experimental Women Writers (1900 – Present). He can be contacted via email: c.witter1 at lancaster.ac.uk
A call for papers for a conference on Postpolitics and Neoliberalism has just been issued that may be of interest to members. From the CFP:
Politics is dead, dying, or changing into something new. The word ‘ideology’ has become a term of abuse, associated especially with the ‘utopian’ old left. Commitment and belief have become ‘tribalism’ and ‘dogma’. Technocracy, pragmatism, and single-issue campaigns are the order of the day. As the public tune out and turn away, politicians perform increasingly desperate acts of self-abasement. Anti-Westminster mavericks are on the rise. Everywhere there are calls to shrink the state. Yet a politics that exists outside the theatre of the state has yet to be imagined.
As the 2015 election fast approaches, this two-day conference will explore the ideological, cultural, linguistic and historical dimensions of the contemporary postpolitical moment, and its relationship to neoliberalism. With participants drawn from academic, writing, and campaigning backgrounds, the conference will bring together a range of approaches in order to grasp the enduring subtext of the all-consuming and all-erasing daily news churn.
- Are political fragmentation and the apparent demise of left and right part of an inevitable and epochal transformation, or a contingent neoliberal strategy, designed to foreclose any possibility of coherent challenge or change?
- What underlying meanings can be gleaned from the zombie lexicon of traditional politics in the run-up to a general election? How are its mangled euphemisms and ideological inversions to be interpreted?
- At a time when the centre ground appears to be shifting ever farther to the right, what is the real nature of the public need for the ‘properly political’, and to what uses is it being put?
- What is the difference between new forms of popular politics and a resurgent populism?
- Are new forms of political language – framing, narratives and so on – articulating idealism or repurposing spin?
- Does the proliferation of grassroots initiatives constitute a new grand paradigm, or unwittingly reflect neoliberalism’s dispersed hegemony?
Full CFP here.
Ahead of the fifth RSN on 30th October, I thought I’d re-post something I wrote for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.
It was published on that site first, on 29 July 2013.
‘The Masque of Anarchy’ at the Manchester International Festival, 2013
‘The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air’ (Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, i (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1844), p. 208.
Monday 16 August 1819 was a hot day, the weather contributing to the size of the crowd that assembled at St Peter’s Field to attend a political meeting that entered the annals of history under the name ‘Peterloo’. Nearly two hundred years later, around two thousand people a night (12–14 July 2013) braved a heat-wave to gather in the Albert Hall on the site of the Manchester Massacre. In one of the Manchester International Festival’s (MIF) highlights, Maxine Peake, directed by the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, performed Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. As a rendition of the poem it was related directly to the concerns of my doctoral research, though it was beyond my period of the early to mid-nineteenth century. If Maxine had been a Chartist performing the poem I would certainly be writing about the performance in my thesis. So I wanted to write about the performance for another forum, and also because I think it deserves a more extended analysis than is possible in a newspaper review.
The tickets for the event sold quickly, at £12 each they matched the standard charge for the limited number of tickets for more expensive MIF events which were reserved for residents of Greater Manchester. Macbeth featuring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, for example, cost £65 but there were some tickets available at £12. Masque was pitched at and attended by local people, many of whom will have followed the routes into town from Ashton, Middleton, Oldham, etc. traced by attendees of the reform meeting in 1819. This aspect of the performance was not incidental, as the intention was to speak to present-day concerns on the site of the event, and I argue that the performance placed the relationship between performer and audience at its heart for a political purpose.
My Ph.D. research uncovers the specifics of Shelley’s presence in Chartist and Owenite socialist newspapers and journals. It has long been a critical commonplace that Shelley exerted a strong influence on these movements, but I thought it necessary to situate their use of his poetry in terms of the development of those movements. If Shelley gave Chartists ‘a better hope and a faith in the future’, then the facts that Chartism went through periods of hope and despair and that the movement ended without gaining what it demanded — the People’s Charter — must surely have affected their relationship with Shelley. I wanted to see whether and in what ways poems like the Mask of Anarchy entered into the political rhetoric of Chartists as well as the poetry columns of their newspapers. One example I found was in a speech by Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in which he stated that: ‘The only astonishment that now prevails is, that the lion of England has not arisen before from his slumber, and in his majesty shaken the dew from his mane’. The rising of lions from slumber or the working class from political subordination, O’Connor suggested in 1839, was long overdue. Chartists also referred frequently to Peterloo, with one Northern Star article describing a semi-theatrical remembrance of the event on its site and on its anniversary: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’. The narrator, Edward Curran, was a veteran of Peterloo, and directed his audience’s attention to the scene of action and to its historical meaning:
In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)
Peterloo was to be, as it was so often described in Chartist discourse, the ‘never to be forgotten’ event, the wave of repression that followed was to be only ‘a temporary defeat’, and the only thing that could redeem the blood sacrifice of Mancunian reformers in 1819 was Chartists’ efforts in their own era to obtain political representation.
I thought of Curran’s speech when Maxine performed the poem, for it was a true performance rather than a recitation of a poem on a page. Mask’s dramatic possibilities, all those whispers, shouts, and murmurs, the ventriloquising of the ‘hired murderers’ (60) and the ‘Maniac maid’, were given shape and voice. The poem’s sections were marked out in the way Steven E. Jones described it: ‘two major parts: the first part, twenty-one stanzas of the satiric masquerade, then, after a brief transition scene, the second part, fifty-five stanzas of exhortation’. Masquerade, an aristocratic form of entertainment, was used formally by Shelley in order to invert conventional values: the forces of law and order were actually Anarchy, Murder was disguised as the politician Castlereagh. I thought I detected the use of RP tones in this section, with ‘blood’ rendered ‘blad’ rather than ‘blud’ as Maxine would normally say it, though this may be fanciful. If it was intentional to give the masquerade section an artificial gloss then it made the delivery of the poem’s last exhortative section all the more immediate.
I have always found it difficult to imagine the transition scene, in which change is wrought by the actions of the Maniac maid Hope prostrating herself before the horses of Anarchy. Its indeterminacy seems politically problematic — What, exactly, happens at this point? Who or what is the ‘shape arrayed in mail’? (110) Whose is the voice that speaks words of ‘joy and fear’ (138), ‘as if’ they had sprung from the heart of the ‘indignant Earth’? (139, my emphasis) Mask has been read variously as a call to arms, arguing for political violence in the face of state oppression, and also as advocating non-violent actions. MIF’s slogan is ‘Made for Manchester. Shared with the World’, and this could equally stand for Mask and its afterlife — it has inspired or been used by Ghandi, the students in Tiananmen Square, and Brecht during the Nazi period. My own view is that Shelley imagined, in his recommendations that the next crowd assembled in a Peterloo-like scenario ‘fold their arms’ when threatened, a virtuous circle in which repeated mass martyrdom encouraged more people to join the reform movement until their collective mass was ‘unvanquishable’ by sheer force of numbers. Even if that worked it would require a tremendous commitment to the sacrifice of yourself and your friends, something the Chartists in their frequent rhetorical references to Peterloo rejected. We might reflect here on the great changes in military hardware that does not pitch cavalry and artillery against people armed with guns and pikes, the chosen weaponry of the Chartists, but unmanned drones against unarmed civilians. It may seem incredible that a poem can be taken as having something serious to say about modes of political action, but it seems to me that Mask’s great virtue is not that it describes a particular course of action but that it poses ‘again — again — again’ (371), for successive generations, the problem of the necessity for political action. Not only that, in posing the problem it places decisions on the agenda: Should we act, or not? If we are attacked, what then?
Maxine’s version of the transition scene in the dramatic venue of the Albert Hall’s Methodist chapel gave to the haziness of the images offered by Shelley what I can only think of as bulk and the space to breathe. They were not translated into literal figures (that would have been a loss), but their imaginative possibilities were allowed to occupy the space of the chapel reaching up to its ornate ceiling. She gestured at the ‘clouds [growing] on the blast’ (106), watched the Shape’s ‘step as soft as wind’ passing ‘o’er the heads of men’ (118–19). We were helped to see the invisible, to imagine that which does not exist — this section functioned, as it was meant to, as a representation of political awakening if not a provocation of such an experience. The section had the emotional intensity and indistinct shapes of a sublime dream, offering a contrast that was felt like a shock when it was succeeded by Shelley’s definition of Freedom as the labourer having ‘bread’ (221) and a ‘neat and happy home’ (224).
As the performance moved to the final section of the poem, the ‘exhortation’ as described by Jones, Maxine looked very much like the best political speech maker of her generation. (In the Culture Show episode dedicated to the event, she described herself (in a reversal of the usual story of frustrated ambition) as an actor who wanted to be a politician.) It begins with the lines ‘What is Freedom? Ye can tell/ That which slavery is, too well’ (156–57). Maxine posed the question to the audience directly as a real question, pausing after ‘Freedom’, forcing a moment of reflection. As she took a step towards the audience (I nearly wrote ‘crowd’), the poem turned into a direct address full of immediacy. Stress was laid on words that left us in no doubt of the intention to make the poem relevant to our own time: ‘Such starvation cannot be/ As in England now we see’ (228–29), and ‘They are dying whilst I speak’ (171). RP tones, if they were present in the opening stanzas, were now gone. Food banks were described in a Guardian article in March 2013 as an ‘austerity-era civil society growth industry in the UK’, and the Albert Hall was used as a venue for soup kitchens. All of this was present in the performance; the Chartists would have loved it.
(From ‘To the People’, a passage from Mask reprinted and given a new name in the Chartist publication The National: A Library for the People, pp. 124–26.)
 Bouthaina Shaaban, “Shelley in the Chartist Press.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin. 34 (1984), 41–60 (p. 47).
 ‘Feargus O’Connor, Esq. at Nottingham’, Northern Star, 6 July 1839, p. 6.
 ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
 Line references to Mask refer to the Longman edition. (The Poems of Shelley, ed. by Geoffrey Matthews and others, 4 vols (London : Longman, 1989–), iii: The Mask of Anarchy, ed. by Jack Donovan (2011), pp. 27–63.
 Steven E. Jones, ‘Shelley’s Satire of Succession and Brecht’s Anatomy of Regression: “The Mask of Anarchy” and Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy’ in Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World ed. by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). pp. 193–200 (p. 195).
 ‘Maxine Peake — Performance, Protest and Peterloo’, The Culture Show, BBC Two, 17 July 2013.