Monday, August 28, 2006


All this hoo-hah about Betjeman has thrown up some undesirable individuals. First there is AN Wilson, a Tory hack at the Evening Bastard, who has written an otiose biography of the former Poet Laureate. This biography features a recently discovered love letter from Betjeman which was supposed to disprove the notion that he was a sexually rather lethargic and disappointed man. It now turns out that the letter was a hoax, conjured up by Bevis Hillier, himself a former biographer of Betjeman (the first letters of each sentence read "A N W I L S O N I S A S H I T". Despite the good joke, Hillier seems like a bit of a prick too.

In fact, Betjeman himself comes across as something of a daisy, surrounded by a crowd of giant hogweeds, all leeching off of him. Only problem is, Betjeman was not much of a poet.

So, somewhat fed up with Dan Cruickshank and Rick Stein banging on about what John Betjeman means to them, I am going to introduce another villain onto the scene: a truly vile man who was, alas, the best British poet of the latter twentieth century. Larkin was a febrile racist, a misogynist, and a lover of pornography (which, personally, I don't think is so bad a trait); but the best of his poetry (and some of it is simply maudlin) deploys melodrama to great effect. He is no stranger to sentimentality, and his fixation with death is no more real or stoic than Betjeman's own flights of fancy. And I can't really say I buy any forecast of death - "the total emptiness of forever" - which denies the emptiness of the present.

But, whereas I find it difficult to read prose which I disagree with (Evelyn Waugh, for example, often makes me laugh, but I think he is a fairly lousy novelist, because he was so clearly a lousy man with lousy beliefs), the severance of form and content comes easier with poetry. I can read "Aubade" and refute its facile despondency, while still deeply appreciating its tone, which is grave, sombre and stately. Larkin reminds me of what Morrissey would be like if Moz was really miserable.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse -
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Only in Africa could a story like the AmaXhosa Delusion be plausible. I posted John Berger’s account of it the other day, and have been turning it over in my mind for a couple of days. For objectivity’s sake, here is an abridged account of the Delusion from wikipedia (see here for the full story):

The incident is one of the most remarkable instances of misplaced faith recorded in history. The Xhosa tribe had not accepted their defeat in 1853 [by the British] as decisive and were preparing to renew their struggle with the Europeans.

In 1854, a disease spread through the cattle of the Xhosa. It was believed to have spread from cattle owned by the Settlers. Widespread cattle deaths resulted, and the Xhosa believed that the deaths were caused by ubuthi, or witchcraft.

In May 1856, a girl named Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, she told her uncle Mhlakaza that she had met three spirits at the pool, and that they had told her that all cattle should be slaughtered, and their crops destroyed. On the day following the destruction, the dead Xhosa would return and help expel the whites. The ancestors would bring cattle with them to replace those that had been killed. Mhlakaza believed the prophecy, and repeated it to the chief Sarhili.

Sarhili ordered the commands of the spirits to be obeyed. At length the spirits commanded that not an animal of all their herds was to remain alive, and every grain of corn was to be destroyed. If that were done, on a given date, myriads of cattle more beautiful than those destroyed would issue from the earth, while great fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest, would instantly appear. The dead would rise, trouble and sickness vanish, and youth and beauty come to all alike. Unbelievers and the hated white man would on that day perish.

The people heard and obeyed. Either in faith that reached the sublime, or in obedience equally great, vast numbers of the people acted. At length the day dawned which, according to the prophecies, was to usher in the terrestrial paradise. The sun rose and sank, but the expected miracle did not come to pass. The chiefs who had planned to hurl the famished warrior upon the colony had committed an incredible blunder in neglecting to call the nation together under pretext of witnessing the resurrection. They realised their error too late, and attempted to fix the situation by changing the resurrection to another day, but blank despair had taken the place of hope and faith, and it was only as starving supplicants that the Xhosa sought the British.

This account is quite representative of the first 15 sites I found after typing “amaxhosa delusion” into Google. It questions neither the credulity of the Xhosas, nor the conduct of the British. Yet, if we applied a similar story to nineteenth century Europe, or even Asia, there would be major doubts regarding its plausibility. We do not think of human beings as being irrational enough, en masse, to believe the apparently deleterious claims of their gods. We would not readily accept that a human being would believe a message if it appeared to have fatal consequences for them. At the very least, we would ask ourselves why a human being would believe such a message. But of course, we are not talking about human beings here. We are talking about Africans.

It is said that history is always written by the victors, so on that basis alone it might not seem fanciful to suggest that this story was fabricated by the Europeans. But let’s look a little closer at the story.

(1) No account of the story that I have read explains why Nongkawuse might have heard such a message, nor why her uncle might have been so ready to believe her. From an agnostic point of view, we might see religious visions or messages as arising out of the unconscious; and yet, the Xhosa had been more successful than many other tribes at quelling the imperialists. In 1856, after the replacement of their chief Sarhili by a British official, the Xhosa were in no mood for defeatism. So why would a message ordering the destruction of crops and livestock be given?

(2) Following on from (1), why would an entire tribe buy the dubious claims of a young girl and her uncle?

Firstly, neither Wikipedia’s entry nor Berger’s account explain that Nongkawuse was no ordinary young girl; she was in fact a prophetess, a figure in the vein of Joanna Southcott fifty years before. Southcott had her followers of course, but it would be difficult to imagine her prophecies causing a famine on the scale of the Irish Potato Famine, not even in Devon.

To imagine that things might be different in Africa chimes perfectly with the prejudices of the nineteenth century, and perhaps with those of the twenty-first. But it has no basis in truth. Religious beliefs contain a potent mixture of rationalism and superstition by whomever they are held. Religion does not suddenly become more volatile when possessed by an African. On this basis, the claim that Nongkawuse’s prophecy would cause tens or hundreds of thousands of people to destroy their crops and livestock seems tenuous. Christopher Heywood suggests that Nongkawuse may have suffered from some kind of Electra complex, torn between a domineering prophet father and a desire to be the ultimate mother. But even if we see her prophecy as a primordial maternal act, this still does not explain why the tribe might have swallowed her story, unless the tribe suffered from a collective maternal absence. Perhaps this was so, but I cannot find any reference to it. This part of the story therefore strikes me as literally incredible. I do not believe a word of it.

So, if Nongkawuse’s prophecy did not directly cause the destruction, how come 50,000 people died?

(3) Was there some other reason for the tribe committing such a suicidal act? In believing that they could no longer subdue the British, did they decide to commit a kind of (agri)cultural hari-kiri? One could see how this might be so. Faced with a European civilisation which the tribe could not comprehend and which had been imposed upon it, perhaps the Xhosa realised that it could not place itself within this new frame of reference.

(4) Alternatively, were the Xhosa defeated once and for all by the British, who wished to provide a cover in the form of the delusion? Clearly the story as told exonerates the European imperialists for any wrongdoing they may have committed in this particular episode, and those which they certainly did commit during the long colonisation of South Africa. By emphasising the dementia of the native people, it corroborates the party-line of empire as an influence which eradicates primitive fundamentalism and instills democracy. Such justifications arose from prejudice and distortion just as they do today.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Hombre Jugueton will, after 27th November, be the new name of this blog.

Today I bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. I leave London on the 27th and arrive in Argentina the following day. Then I start looking for accommodation, a job, some friends, sex etc, though not necessarily in that order.

Am I nervous? A little, of course. But if I could leave this country tomorrow, I would be on that plane like a shot. Plus, within a year, I shall be able to impress you all with my ability to do this:

Monday, August 21, 2006



On 23 December 1847, the British Governor of Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith, summoned together the chiefs of the Amaxosa tribes on the Eastern Frontier. He told them that their territory - the most fertile in South Africa - was to be annexed and made a crown dependency : British Kaffraria. After a while it became clear that the Gaika tribe and their chief Sandila were determined to offer the most stubborn resistance. Sir Harry Smith re-summoned the chiefs. Sandila refused to come. Whereupon Sir Harry deposed him of his chiefship, and in his place, as chief of the Gaikas, appointed an English magistrate called Mr Brownlee. Convinced that they had now dealt with the matter masterfully, the two Englishmen ordered the arrest of Sandila. On 24 December 1850 the force sent out to arrest him was ambushed and the Gaika tribe rose in revolt. White settlers in the military villages along the frontier were attacked and killed whilst celebrating Christmas. Thus began the Fourth Kaffir War : the penultimate stage in the Amaxosas' long defence of their independence, which had continued for sixty years.

By 1853 the British, with their prodigious military advantages (the war cost the Colonial Office nearly a million pounds), were able to impose a military defeat on the tribes. In 1856 there followed what the British were later to call 'The Great Amaxosa Delusion'. This 'delusion' constituted the ultimate stage of the A,axosa nation's defence of its independence.

A girl named Nongkwase told her father that when going to draw water from a stream she had met strangers of commanding aspect. The father went to see them. They told him that they were spirits of the dead who had come to help their people drive the white men into the sea. The father reported to Sarili, an Amaxosa chief, who announced that the people must do what the spirits instructed. The spirits instructed the people to kill all their cattle and to destroy every grain of corn they possessed. Their cattle had become thin and their crops poor as a result of the land already stolen from their by the white man. When every head of cattle was killed and every seed of corn destroyed, myriads of fat beautiful cattle would issue from the earth, great fields of heavy ripe corn would instantly appear, trouble and sickness would vanish, everybody would be young and beautiful, and the white man, on that day, would perish utterly.

The people obeyed. Cattle were central to their culture. In the villages heads of cattle were the measuring units of wealth. When a daughter was married, her father, if rich enough, gave her a cow, an ubulungu - 'a doer of good': this cow must never be killed and a hair from its must always be tied round the neck of each of the daughter's children at birth. Nevertheless the people obeyed. They slaughtered their cattle and their sacred cows and they burnt their grain.

They built large new kraals for the new fat cattle that would come. They prepared skin sacks to hold the milk that was soon to be more plentiful than water. They held themselves in patience and waited their vengeance.

The appointed day of the prophecy arrived. The sun rose and sank with the hopes of hundreds of thousands. By nightfall nothing had changed.

An estimated fifty thousand died of starvation. Many thousands more left their land to search for work in Cape Colony. Those who remained did so as a propertyless labour force. (A little later many were to work as wage slaves in the diamond and gold mines further north.) On the rich, now depopulated, land of the Amaxosa, European farmers settled and prospered.

From John Berger, G. 1972

More on this story during the week...

Thursday, August 17, 2006


John Berger:

Falling in love at five or six, although rare, is the same as falling in love at fifty. One may interpret one's feelings differently, the outcome may be different, but the state of feeling and of being is the same.

A pre-condition is necessary for a five-year-old boy to fall in love. He must have lost his parents or, at least, lost any close contact with them, and no foster-parents should have taken their place. Similarly, he must have no close friends or brothers or sisters. Then he is eligible.

Being in love is an elaborate state of anticipation for the continual exchanging of certain kinds of gifts. The gifts can range from a glance to the offering of the entire self. But the gifts must be gifts: they cannot be claimed. One has no rights as a lover - except the right to anticipate what the other wishes to give. Most children are surrounded by their rights (their right to indulgence, to consolation, etc.): and so they do not and cannot fall in love. But if a child - as a result of circumstances - comes to realise that such rights as he does enjoy are not fundamental, if he has recognised, however inarticulately, that happiness is not something that can be assured and promised but is something that each has to try to find for himself, if he is aware of being essentially alone, then he may find himself anticipating pure, gratuitous and continual gifts offered by another and the state of that anticipation is the state of being in love. You may ask: but what does he have to offer in exchange? The boy, like a man, offers himself - not altogether impossibly. What is impossible, or at least very improbable, is that his beloved will ever recognise either his offer or his anticipation for what they are.

From John Berger, G. 1972.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Now that the Israelis love the Ay-Rabs again (isn't it so cute that they've stopped firing rockets at them?), it is now once again safe to trot out a few hoary old facts about how fair life is between the two camps just so long as a ceasefire is in place:

Did you know that non-Jewish Israelis cannot buy or lease land in Israel?

Did you now that cars owned by Palestinians are colour coded to distinguish Jews from non-Jews?

Did you know Palestinians are not allowed to move from one city, say Gaza to Bethleham, to another without first getting a 'visa' from Israel?

Did you know that Israel allots 85% of the water resources for Jews and the remaining 15% is divided among all Palestinians in the territories? For example in Hebron, 85% of the water is given to about 400 Jewish settlers, while 15% must be divided among Hebron's 120,000 Palestinians?

Did you know that Israel routinely confiscates Palestinian bank accounts, businesses and land and refuses to pay compensation to those who suffer confiscation?

Did you know that Israel stands in defiance of over 80 United Nations Security Council Resolutions?

Did you know that it was not until 1988 that Israelis were barred from running 'Jews Only' job ads?

Did you know that Sharon (the 'elected' leader of a democratic society) was held responsible for the massacre of more than 2750 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila? The UN qualified the massacre by Sharon as GENOCIDE.

Did you know that Sharon's commando unit in 1953 razed the Palestinian village of Qibya killing all its citizens and bombed all the houses, mosques and schools?

Did you know that Israel's settlement-building on Palestinian land increased considerably since the signing of the Oslo agreement?

Did you know that settlement building of Jewish only homes under Barak doubled compared to settlement building under Netanyahu?

Did you know that Palestinian refugees make up the largest portion of the refugee population in the world?

Did you know that between 1967 and early 2002 Israel expropriated some 79% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Estimated figures published by Amnesty International in 1999 show the following:

Year Land Confiscated in the West Bank
1984 42%
1991 60%
1998 74%

Did you know that since between 1967 and early 2002 Israel demolished or sealed over 8500 homes, of which 2500 were in East Jerusalem alone? Houses are demolished as punitive measure or under the pretext of 'lack of building permit' - permits are rarely granted.

Did you know that the Ha'aertz Israeli paper estimated in 1998 (31 July) that a population of 5800 Jewish settlers in Hebron consumed 547 liters of water a day each? By contrast, a population of 119,230 Palestinians in the same area consumed or had access to no more than 58 litres per day each.

Did you know that since 1967, (and of course not counting the atrocities committed since March 2002) over 600,000 Palestinians have been jailed in Israeli jails and over 200 have died while in Israeli jails? During the first year of the second intifada alone, Israel arrested over 1900 Palestinians, of which 600 were children under 16.

Did you know that Israel uses torture routinely in jails (only against non-Jews of course) despite the Israeli High Court outlawing it?


Sunday, August 13, 2006


Chapters VIII and IX of Drift are now online. To whet your appetite, I will briefly explain how Drift was written, at least up to this point.

The first several chapters, perhaps up until Chapter VI, tell the story of how a prophetess called Joanna becomes pregnant through an immaculate conception and then gives birth to a bubble which rolls through the English countryside and swallows up everything in its path.

All of this was intended as a short story of no more than three or four thousand words. I had an idea of how the story could end with a kind of apocalyptic reverse Big Bang, but I couldn’t quite put this into words. So I left the story unfinished for a couple of months, fell in love for a short while, and the decided I would read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the Twentieth Century, a book which had been untouched on my bookcase for a year or so.

Lipstick Traces has a picture of a sneering John Lydon on the front, surrounded by various Dadaist and Lettrist motifs. It describes the passage from Dada > Lettrist International > Situationist International > punk. Peter Bergman’s blurb on the back cover reads: “We are living in hell, and this book makes me proud to be alive in hell – to be a good citizen of hell.”

What links these various art movements (and it is dubious whether the SI should be considered artistic), Marcus says, is their desire to change the world. “The desire begins with the demand to live not as an object but as a subject of history – to live as if something actually depended on one’s actions. Damning God and the state, work and leisure, home and family, sex and play, the audience and itself, [it was] possible to experience all of those things as if they were not natural facts but ideological constructs: things than had been made and therefore could be altered, or done away with altogether.”

The book utterly changed my life, far more than any other book or CD or film I have ever consumed. True, it was my entry-point into theory, specifically that of a Marxist persuasion: this is life-changing enough (without Lipstick Traces there would be no Homo Ludens, and how much poorer the world would be as a result!). But listening to the Pistols or the Gang of Four or Wire, or reading the articles of the Situationists, the poetry of Tristan Tzara, or Debord and Jorn’s Memoires, a sandpaper-bound book of newspaper cuttings and bloody paint-splashes intended to finish off literature once and for all convinced me that I could write a novel which would change the world.

Debord and the Situationists would have considered such a project hopelessly bourgeois. Don’t write your life, they defied me beyond the grave, live it! But I am not the sort of person who can expose myself in the middle of Oxford Street and piss on the legs of suited businessmen, so I knew I had to content myself with writing.

Chapters VIII and IX bear the first traces of my attempt to turn a short story into an experimental novel. Chapter VIII is a rip-off of a Situationist poster about peaceful demonstrations (“Our tactics are those to which the greatest number can conform with the least difficulty. They require no more than your presence and a minimum of participation.”); chapter IX echoes Isidore Isou’s desire to become god “without renouncing the pleasures of suspicion and scepticism.”

The early chapters of Drift are as straightforward as any story about a Devonshire woman giving birth to a bubble can possibly be. Chapter VIII is where it really gets interesting…

Saturday, August 12, 2006


What a silly person you are!, George Galloway tells one of Sky News's resident silly people. Rousing stuff for early on a Sunday morning.


Fact of the day: Evelyn Waugh's first wife was called Evelyn.


Quote of the day, from Frank Sinatra: "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day."


And on that note, I bid you good-night.


Conversations overheard:

1: a child and her mother at a pelican crossing:

Mother: Come on, the traffic has stopped. We can cross the road now.

Child: No we can’t, mummy. The green man isn’t flashing yet. You have to wait for the green man. He tells you that it’s safe to cross the road.

2: two friends over coffee

Man: I think my problem is that I go for women who need a father-figure.

Woman: That’s my problem as well, except that I am that woman!

Man: I wonder why?

Woman: Perhaps you need to be needed. You need someone to depend on you because that gives you power.

Man: Which I suppose makes me a sadist. After all, if my power over a woman is derived from her vulnerability and my ability to protect her, it is in my own interests to perpetuate her vulnerability. In fact, I suppose I might even create situations which put her at risk, in order that I can save her.

Woman: I think we’ve just diagnosed you as being a very bad man indeed.

Man: And you’re all the more of a fool for falling for it!

David Hume (from A Treatise on Human Nature):

"We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin'd [sic] together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction. We only observe the thing itself, and always find that from the constant conjunction the objects acquire an union in the imagination."

Of all these analyses of cause-and-effect, I think I would go for the child’s. She has discerned (at an unusually early age: she was no more than five) the implications of signification, a subject which the others discount at their peril.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Ludwig Wittgenstein and Latin American dance are rarely written about in the same blog, but hey – this is Homo Ludens, and we do things a little differently here.

Last Friday, I went to Fuerzabruta at the refurbished Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. “Fuerzabruta” is Spanish for “brute force,” which perhaps hints that this was not yr common-or-garden soar ‘n’ sashay affair. I can take or leave contemporary dance, but the company’s blurb said that it was “An event where worlds collide. A powerful music score, strobe lighting, nudity (moderate), water (lots), scenes of a poetic, violent and beautiful nature and a whole lot of mess. It's an all-standing rave of a show.” I’m sure they’re right, and I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it. But still – dance is not my medium, so I took it and left.

As I walked out of the auditorium, a display caught my eye. It described a conference, held in an earlier version of the Roundhouse in 1967, entitled “The Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation” (more here). Organised by anti-psychiatrist R.D.Laing, its keynote speakers were Herbert Marcuse, Stokeley Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg. It is a sign of our contemporary passivity that one finds it difficult to imagine what a radical intellectual event with such disparate voices might look like today – such public intellectuals and artists are hard to find.


For all its claims of creating the Anti-university of London, I don’t doubt that the Congress made little actual progress. Yet the conclusions that Congress came to fit our modern-day situation rather well. In the introduction to the book The Dialectics of Liberation, psychiatrist David Cooper explains how psychiatric research had helped to inform the political climate of the day, dominated as it was by the USA’s impact on the world, and specifically the American War in Vietnam:

“Our experience originated in studies into that predominant form of socially stigmatized madness that is called schizophrenia. Most people who are called mad and who are socially victimized by virtue of that attribution (by being ‘put away’, being subjected to electric shocks, tranquillizing drugs, and brain-slicing operations, and so on) come from family situations in which there is a desperate need to find some scapegoat, someone who will consent at a certain point of intensity in the whole transaction of the family group to take on the disturbance of each of the others and, in some sense, suffer for them.”

The anti-psychiatry movement explored whether schizophrenics were a priori mad, or whether their symptoms were merely an absorption of the anomalies and abnormalities of the world. Is madness, they asked, merely the point where “sanity” fails in an irrational, insane world? Does modern society require people to take on the mantle of madness in order to convince itself that it is otherwise sane? Put another way, do we purge ourselves of sociopathic psychoses by projecting them onto other people?

The same argument has been used by Zizek to describe the unique form of Western racism towards the Balkans, whereby that area enables “civilised,” “enlightened” Europeans to project their latent and untamed monstrousness onto a nearby “Other.” As soon as the Other takes on the status of enemy or victim, it becomes dehumanised. This, Cooper says, is what was happening in Vietnam as the Congress in Chalk Farm was underway; and it is happening all over again in the Middle East:

“The ‘inhuman’ become ‘non-human’. At this point they become the ultimate projected versions of ourselves, those bits of ourselves that we wish most finally to destroy in order to become Pure Being. If we cannot destroy these bits in ourselves, we have to destroy them in this outside version.”

This is a straightforward psychoanalytical point, but it provides an interesting skew on the Hegelian absolute being, or indeed any synthesis that results from a dialectical process. It suggests that any conflict between a force and its opposite will leave a surplus which is not taken up by the synthesis. So, to use the Marxist example, when the forces of production clash with those who own the means of production, neither will be absolutely annihilated. Socialism may win the struggle, but there will be aspects of capitalism (and not just those which are intended) which will remain.

Nevertheless, to go back to the dehumanisation of the Other, this reduction of on the one hand the civilised West, and on the other the uncivilised East, into pure, abstract signifiers rules out the possibility of reflection. We dispense with, as Blair did in his American speech this week , any analysis of cause and effect, of the effect of history upon a situation. Hezbollah become terrorists; Israel is fighting for its survival. End of story.


You can read Marcuse’s address to the 1967 Congress here. One wonders how Marcuse went down with the hippie crowd of the time. Perhaps rather well: despite counselling his audience that his speech would be that of “a hopeless philosopher,” it is full of utopia (listen to this for proof). I didn’t think all that much of it, to be honest, and would rather look at Marcuse’s explanation as to why contemporary debate might be so crude. Chapter 7 of his classic One Dimensional Man (damningly entitled “The Triumph of Positivist Thinking: One Dimensional Philosophy”) looks specifically at positivism.

The positivist school of philosophy, whose leading proponents included Wittgenstein, Popper and Russell (each, ironically, offering rather different versions of a system which is supposed to do away with ambiguity), rests on the principle that we should speak only of what we know. It states that there is a logic to language, and that as long as we follow this logic, we can organise statements into meaningful ones and those which make no sense. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, perhaps, the cornerstone of positivist thinking. Its famous seventh proposition states: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Proposition 4.5 states: “The general form of a proposition is: This is how things stand.”

I can see how this sort of thing appeals to people. It is basically philosophy for people who don’t like philosophy, or rather who do not like manageable dictums being spoiled by the messy business of real life. It also absolutely precludes any subjective position, and yet it promotes solipsism. It is also timeless, and I do not mean that as a tribute. Wittgenstein’s word games, whereby he experiments with statements made by and to abstract beings (“Person A” and “Person B”), would have been as logical two thousand years ago as they are today, because the speakers and the statements they make are plucked from a fabricated reality. Their irreality means that positivism strays dangerously close to metaphysics, the one doctrine it is supposed to do away with.

Marcuse’s criticism of Wittgenstein is nicely summed up in his conclusion to Chapter 7:

“In spite of the simple clarity [of the language game], the speakers and their situation remain unidentified. They are x and y, no matter how chummily they talk. But in the real universe of discourse, x and y are “ghosts.” They don’t exist; they are the product of the analytic philosopher. To be sure, the talk of x and y is perfectly understandable, and the linguistic analyst appeals righteously to the normal understanding of ordinary people. But in reality, we understand each other only through whole areas of misunderstanding and contradiction.”

It is not enough to say that meaning is sufficiently stable that we can understand each other most of the time. It is true that we share enough of a comprehension of language to communicate fairly well with each other. But Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy relies on the fixity of language, and does not allow for this constancy to be broken up by the peculiarities of individual subjects. “Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings,” Wittgenstein says. “What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings show so as to help people past the danger points.” Wittgenstein acknowledges the impossibility of his task, and concludes that, since it cannot serve his purpose, philosophy can teach us little that is new. It certainly cannot offer up any grand theories. It should suffice us to expect from it no more than a reflection of reality.

Such is the limited scope of positivism. It is delineated by straightforward empiricism, with material science (very different to social materialism) as its primary referent. As such, it precludes any thought that steps outside already accumulated knowledge and, more importantly, precludes any thought or communication that does not originate from the conscious. “It leaves the established reality untouched; it abhors transgression.”

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says “For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” So to understand a word, it helps to know the specific object or concept to which it is referring at that moment, whether the word is formal or colloquial, if there are special circumstances where that word is usually employed etc. But Wittgenstein’s analysis only holds water when applied to his manmade situations and characters. It overlooks how meaning is shaped by methods of communication other than direct speech.

The incapacity of language to speak for us (exemplified by the fact that our thoughts, conscious and unconscious, cannot all be articulated) creates a profound alienation. In a romantic situation, this may have two consequences. The first is the classic “How much do you love me?” situation, whereby you are persuaded to quantify your love in words. I have written about this elsewhere. The second, the albatross of courting couples, is the misinterpreted statement. If a new girlfriend tells me that her ex-boyfriend bought her lots of gifts, but that she eventually got bored with him and dumped him, should I infer that (a) I should buy her lots of gifts in order to further progress our relationship, (b) I should not buy her gifts because she easily tires of such trifles, or (c) it does not matter either way, since she is still talking about her ex and is therefore still in love with him? Whichever I choose, it is probably not the one she intended, if indeed she intended any hidden meaning at all.


Applied to a capitalist society, where language and meaning is warped and cajoled, positivist analysis seems both naïve and conformist. As Marcuse says, its “acceptance of the empirical violates the empirical, for in it speaks the mutilated, “abstract” individual who experiences (and expresses) only that which is given to him who has only the facts and not the factors, whose behaviour is one-dimensional and manipulated.” Minifig, who I know would name Wittgenstein as the philosopher who for him has best explained the world, exemplifies the problem of positivism in his critique of religion. There is little here that I actively disagree with, but crucially there is so much that it doesn’t say. It does not mention why religions are formed, why people find religion comforting or empowering or uplifting or provocative, and it does not once mention history, class etc. In other words, it does not mention people, nor the contradictions and conflicts that determine their lives and shape historical change.

For all its embarrassment with the business of philosophy, positivism is too formal for its own good. It is the reason why Julian Baggini asks if we should eat the pig that wants to be eaten. Find me a pig that wants to end up in my bacon roll, get to the bottom of his historical, and then maybe – just maybe – I might give you an audience.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


To demonstrate that class is alive and well in Britain, you only have to compare the coverage of yesterday's anti-war march with that of the Countryside Alliance a few years back. 100,000 people marched from Speaker's Corner to Parliament Square yesterday in what, according to the organisers, was the largest emergency demonstration ever held in this country; yet, it received barely a hint of coverage from the mainstream press.

No matter: it was an excellent day. In fact, in many ways it was the perfect march: great weather, solidarity between all ages, religions, genders, classes and political orientations, a great mixture of sadness, rage and good humour, and a handful of great speeches at Parliament Square. Craig Murray, in particular, played an absolute blinder. It was great to see Walter Wolfgang, recently elected to Labour's national executive (which I guess proves that the Labour Party still retains an element of socialism in a few dark, dusty corners) there too.

There were two things that particularly enthused about this march. The first is that there must have been thousands of people there yesterday who do not usually march, or who perhaps have never marched before. A friend of mine, a departed New Labour supporter (I know, I know), turned up to what I know was his first anti-war demonstration in this country. He has a natural antipathy towards the Left, and questioned the "We are all Hizbollah" posters.

Well, fine. Those posters do rile people - there were two adolescent American jockito bystanders who stared at Nasrallah's image with open-mouths as we passed them by on Piccadilly. But even those who distrust the glorification of Hizbollah must confess that this is of secondary concern while Lebanese civilians are being slaughtered while the rest of the world (Western and Arab) looks on.

The second thing that made me smile was the attitude of the many bystanders who watched the march go by. Probably many of these people were tourists - I certainly saw some intrigued faces on those tourist double-decker buses. There was plenty of smiling, and even a few spontaneous rounds of applause as the marchers went by. It always warms the cockles of my heart to know that every tourist who visits the House of Commons must also, via Brian Haw's banners and posters, reflect on what the inhabitants of that chamber have inflicted on people around the world. Well, yesterday that message got across in an even more lively and vocal way.

The only bad thing about the day, from my point of view, was my failure to recharge the battery for my camera. I bet Cartier-Bresson never had these problems. As usual, however, Lenin is here to save the day with some excellent photos, footage and commentary.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Attention all night owls!


Unconditional ceasefire now

Stop Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza

Saturday 5th August

Assemble 12 noon at Hyde Park (Marble Arch tube)

For more information, go here.

To sign the letter to Blair, go here.