Elinor

Postpolitics and Neoliberalism: Call for Papers

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.

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth: A Centenary Celebration

The Working Class Movement Library hosted an event on September 7th 2013 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s Miss Nobody. Holdsworth’s novel has recently been republished as part of a new series of her works by Kennedy and Boyd with an introduction by Belinda Webb.

Nicola Wilson of the University of Reading introduced the novel, describing the barriers faced by readers and students in engaging with work by working-class writers. As Wilson pointed out, many students graduating with English Literature degrees are likely to complete their studies without having read any work by working-class authors, and even less likely to have come across working-class women writers. This is, of couse, damaging, and contributes to a distorted image of the cultural lives of working people. The practical difficulties of changing this situation, however, are not inconsiderable. Many texts have been lost altogether, or otherwise exist only in specialist archives. (Chris Hopkins has produced a useful case study on teaching out-of-print novels that offers some ways through these problems for academics.) Then there is the fact that when these texts are republished they are often on the expensive side, which is discouraging for students and general readers. Cuts to public libraries restrict access further. Then there are a series of questions about literary value: a critical dismissal of the genres and modes – romance, thriller, melodrama – often employed by working-class writers leads to a tendency to regard their work as having an kind of ethnographic and sociological interest, but of little value to literary scholars, and still less to general readers. At the root of that is, among other attitudes, an assumption that working-class writers are basically uncreative in the forms they use, and unreflectively reproduce the conventions and codes of popular fictions, with their attendant connotations of shallowness, unreality, and so on.[1]

The republication of Carnie Holdsworth’s novels will, it is hoped, intervene in this conspiracy of factors that work to marginalise working-class writers. Born into a radical weaving family in Oswaldtwistle in 1886, she wrote at least ten novels together with a startling volume of journalism, children’s stories and poetry, beginning to write while working in the mills in Great Harwood, Lancashire. Belinda Webb’s introduction the new edition of Miss Nobody identifies three literary traditions that feed into the novel: the ‘New Woman’ novel, the Chartist novel, and the romance. She combined elements of these forms with a language rooted in working-class experience to bring into the remit of the novel the lives of working women. The novel appeared in the year of Emily Wilding Davidson’s death at the Derby, and while Carnie Holdsworth seems to have had connections with the Pankhursts, her work insists on the distinctive nature of oppression faced by working-class women, an emphasis that was not typical of the middle-class dominated Suffragette movement.[2] A video of extracts of the novel read by the actor Keeley Forsyth gave attendees an sense of the humour and grit of Carnie Holdsworth’s writing.

This was followed by three short films by Nick Wilding, a film-maker who has worked to track down and show the 1922 film adaption of Carnie Holdsworth’s Helen of Four Gates, shot near Hebden Bridge. Nick showed a film tracing Carnie Holdsworth’s steps around Great Harwood and the surrounding moors that provided an atmospheric glimpse of the landscape in which she wrote. Nick also showed a film of Dorothy Sutcliffe, who herself worked in the mills in the area, reading Carnie Holdsworth’s poem ‘The Bookworm’. Nick concluded with a film shot in the Working Class Movement Library, in which Nick and Rae Street discussed the comparable lives of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Enid Stacey.

After a break to view to Library’s holdings of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s work, including a very rare copy of The Clear Light, the anti-fascist journal she established in the 1920s with her husband, Kathleen Bell of De Montfort University gave a keynote lecture. Bell argued that examining the reading and writing lives of working-class people helps us to think about what literature is for. Drawing on her research into working-class women writers from the eighteenth century onwards, she noted that it is common in their work to find an idea of literature as a kind of alternative wealth, the ‘treasure house of the intellect’. This is the central concern in Carnie Holdsworth’s ‘The Bookworm’, which imagines the reading experience, the entry into ‘the world of books’, as a way of ‘owning the world.’ This is often attended by anger at the way those with unfettered access to knowledge hoard and squander it. Economic and social conditions affect the reading and the writing experience for working-class people, and especially the lack of leisure time in which to read and write – Carnie Holdsworth described struggling to read two pages in six hours. Bell argued that this experience of time affected both the choice of reading matter and the writing practices of the working class. The need for concentration of effect and strength of plot were identified as primary concerns. Working-class writers were affected by the economics of publishing that meant other working people could not always afford to read their work, depriving them of an audience, but also by prevalent myths of artistic production, such as the romantic image of the struggling and starving artist.

The event was rounded off by a recital of two of Ethel’s poems, ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’, set to music by Ethel Smyth in 1913, by Emma Walton and Stuart Overington of the Royal Northern College of Music.

There is of course a long way to go before the reading and writing experiences of working people are treated as other than marginal and peripheral concerns. Discussing the politics of literary recovery, Raymond Williams pointed out that academic and critical attention alone was not enough: ‘Significant recovery begins when at least some of the novels are put into active circulation again, for the readers and the children and successors of the readers among whom and sometimes for whom they were written.’[3] Having Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s novels in circulation once more, available for those who shared – or whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents shared – the life she lived and wrote about is surely a major achievement in this struggle.

A few photos from the event:

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Elinor Taylor


[1] Critical discussions of this assumption can be found in (among others) Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working Class Novel, 1890-1945 (Duke University Press, 1994); Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Duke University Press, 1993); Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (Harvard University Press, 2006).

[2] The complex relationship between the Suffragettes and the working class is discussed by Paula Bartley, in ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’.

[3] Raymond Williams, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in some Welsh Novels’, in Gustav Klaus, ed., The Socialist Novel in Britain (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1982), p.110.

 

 

Summary of RSN 4

The fourth meeting of RSN on 24 April 2013 featured talks by Nottingham Trent’s Cathy Clay and the University of Salford’s Elinor Taylor.

Elinor Taylor, a final year PhD student at the University of Salford (and RSN co-convenor) gave the first paper, entitled  ‘James Barke and the Popular Front: Communism, Scottish Nationalism, and the Spanish Civil War’.

Taylor’s paper drew on her doctoral research and discussed the relationship between the Scottish novelist James Barke and dynamics of communist politics in the 1930s. In particular, her paper sought to explore how Barke negotiated the ‘national turn’ in Communist politics introduced by the Comintern in the 1935. While for socialist writers like Edgell Rickword and Jack Lindsay the new popular front line opened a space in which to imagine a new Englishness, celebrating traditions of popular radicalism and resistance, the new line presented problems for leftist Scottish writers like Barke.

The discussion focused on two of Barke’s novels, Major Operation (1936) and The Land of the Leal (1939) to consider the differences in their relationships to Scottish history. These differences, Taylor argued, can be related to the outbreak of the war in Spain in 1936, just as Major Operation was about to be published. Overtly, The Land of the Leal seems the more conservative text, with its emphasis on a long history of struggle narrated through the formal paradigm of the family saga, as against the aggressively modern, experimental Major Operation.

Barke’s Major Operation is fiercely anti-nationalist: nationalism is a middle-class affectation figured as kitsch: he describes the ‘city folks’ with ‘their kilts and their bastard Gaelic’ drawing from their ‘peculiarly dull wit, a superficially attractive semi-Celtic tartan ragstore twilight’ (Major Operation, London: Collins, 1936, p.81). The novel does not imagine a national or nationalised solution to the crisis it depicts. Instead, the solution is obviously implied in the novel’s title: a massive and immediate intervention in the body politic: revolution. Taylor sketched the novel’s arguments to this end at the level of its form – the central plot of physical collapse and painful rehabilitation, and the regular figuration of Glasgow as an afflicted beast – and argued that were a sign of the novel’s ‘sustained dialogue’ with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Grey Granite (1935).

Taylor then drew on published letters and unpublished manuscripts held at the Mitchell Library to identify the way Barke’s thinking exhibits an interlocking of two issues: the national turn and the defence of the Spanish Republic. She described how Barke argued that it was against the traditions of Scotland to abandon the Republic at its time of need – a marked shift from his earlier line.

Finally Taylor turned to Barke’s 1939 epic of the Scottish working class, The Land of the Leal, which she described as ‘a history of Scotland that ends in Spain, but also a story of Spain that begins in Scotland’. She described the novel’s positioning of the war in Spain as the latest front in the working-class struggle that was both national and global. This in itself is quite a conventional proposition, and can be found elsewhere in the literature of the period. But what is most compelling in the novel is the way that the text suggests that the war in Spain is also a war for definition, for the meaning of class experience: the communist character Tom senses that:

‘Only now was his life having point and significance. But not only his own life. Now the life of his father and his mother might be fulfilled. They had toiled and laboured from the Galloway fields to the city itself – from one century into another. […] They had been exploited and victimised without ever understanding why and without being able to make any conscious effort to save themselves’. (The Land of the Leal, 1939; London: Collins, 1950, p.596.)

Taylor noted the rather strained, even hyperbolic feel to this passage, but also pointed out that through it Barke is attempting to resolve the contradiction between the national and the international. It maintains a kind of national emphasis: a connection to the land, and to the labouring of the land, in a particular place; and it’s crucially about family, about inheritance, while also accepting that those things cannot be fought for or won on home ground alone.

Cathy Clay’s talk — ‘Eleanor Farjeon’s “Weekly Crowd”: Work, Leisure and Socialist Politics in the Feminist Periodical Time and Tide’ — was exemplary in its handling of poetry in periodicals and the politics of print culture. As a poet Farjeon came into conflict with Time and Tide’s editorial policy on the subjects of socialism and war. For the periodical’s editors, the intersection of socialism and feminism in Farjeon’s poetry was a liability. Post 1922 there was an overt tension between feminism and socialism, which impacted on Farjeon’s position in the periodical. The poetry in her column ‘Weekly Crowd’ advocated pacifism, while its editorial line was that ‘war was the only way out’ of the dispute in Greece between 1919 and 1922. She was, however, extremely popular with readers, with one writing that her contributions were ‘worth the price of the whole paper’.

Another major flashpoint in the relationship between Farjeon and Time and Tide was the General Strike of 1926. The wealth of Lady Rhondda, Time and Tide’s owner, came from coal and the periodical was dependent on this wealth as it did not generate profit. Time and Tide was, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic to strikers and ‘Weekly Crowd’ did not appear in the periodical during the strike. Farjeon’s poems in which she expressed solidarity with the strikers were printed in this period, however, by the British Worker.

Clay’s analysis took into account the formal qualities of periodical culture and poetry. She argued that ‘Weekly Crowd’ functioned as a liminal space in Time and Tide with Farjeon’s poetry introducing a nineteenth-century oral aesthetic associated with radicals and the working class that was in tension with the editorial line. Changes in the periodical’s title banner, with the icon of Big Ben being reduced in size to make way for the depiction of a crowd on Westminster Bridge but later shifted back to prominence, reflected Time and Tide’s politics.

The Radical Studies Network will reconvene after the summer break with a seminar scheduled for October 23rd, when we will be hearing from three postgraduate researchers. Full details will be published soon.