George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (55)

PETER Marshall has produced Demanding the Impossible; a history of anarchism. (Harper-Collins). The free-market movement known as anarcho-capitalism he rejects as “merely a free-for-all in which only the rich and the cunning would benefit. Evidently he agrees with IC that anarchism stands not only for freedom but also for limitation; a free-for-all is not acceptable. Reviewing the book, James Joll, who has himself written on Anarchism, reminds us of “the black, violent side of Proudhon, (the first to claim the title of anarchist) “his outbursts of rage against
Jews and homosexuals, his passionate advocacy of the death penalty and even of torture” and his replacement of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” by “Liberty, Equality, Severity!” (TLS 10 Jan)

REVIEWING Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity (Oxford: Polity) Alan Ryan notes the discussion of “the way the modern age’s obsession with eliminating as many risks as possible has caused about as much anxiety as it has removed” (TLS 10 Jan)

NOTHING appeals in John D.Barrow’s review of The Philosophy of Vacuum (Oxford: Clarendon), edited by Simon Saunders and Harvey R. Brown. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy presents it, he says, as “an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea or panic.” IC has to ask: What are we to think of writers, whatever their tendency, who either esteem or find themselves awed or frightened by a concept of nothing – which is not only “undigested” but no concept at all? Barrow does report recognition of the distinction between nothing and vacuum, now seen as “a sea of particles and antiparticles.” (TLS 10 Jan)

REVIEWING Nicholas Jardine’s The Scenes of Inquiry (Clarendon) Stuart Sutherland defines science as “the attempt to construct rigorous theories from which observed phenomena can be deduced.” Sutherland does not make the point, concentrating very rightly on the book before him, but that definition turns on “rigorous.” All of us attempt, successfully, to construct theories from which observed phenomena can be deduced; we show ourselves to have done this every time we put a kettle on a gas flame and expect it to boil, or refuse to buy potatoes with big black spots because we don’t expect them to make good eating. But no matter how often such theories receive validation they remain always unscientific, and this comes from their lack of exact definition and quantification; in Sutherland’s term they lack “rigour” or, as s.i. has it, they lack the precision which distinguishes scientific thinking.

IC HAS more than once pointed out the ideological links between literary criticism and advanced politics; the frequent use of “critique” and “self-criticism” among communists provides one of the more obvious connections. Activities reported in The Year’s Work in English Studies 1988 might well find a place beside the fragmentation of the advanced left recorded under our heading Doing the Splits; the volume, Giles Foden’s review reports, shows “critical yard- sticks splintered and sects in hot dispute.” (TLS 15 November) John Gross, in an afterword to the new edition of his book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, brings out another facet of the connection when he draws attention to the unexampled proliferation of theories in this field since the Second World War and distinguishes between this and a true explosion of knowledge. It compares better, he suggests, with a cuckoo taking over the nest; “the growth of theory seems to be an index of the ambitions of theory.” In the activities of the political revolutionaries also, even those of the Class War anarchists (see “Class War” in theory plays a dominant part, and Gross expresses his conviction of a link (though he does not identify it as ideological) between literary criticism and advanced politics, remarking that literary theory “might have been, invented… to fill the gap left by the decline of classical Marxism”. (Quoted in TLS 15 November)

The Bulletin of Anarchist Research 25 (Autumn 1991) also links the two activities, the editor, John Moore; saying of his own essay that it “was conceived as a stylistic experiment in mapping some contours on the interface between literary and critical discourse, and in part was intended as an ironic riposte to certain nihilistic, cryptolascist tendencies within contemporary British anarchism.”

Under the title “A Grim Scenario” Hilton Kramer protests that “our literature, like our politics, has been fragmented into warring interest groups.” Promotion of sectional interests – ethnic, racial or sexual has become a new orthodoxy hostile to dissidence. Crippled by sectarian political standards, American criticism no longer addresses a general readership, with the result that no novelist, poet or playwright now arouses eager expectation except among the professional reviewers. (TLS 17 January).

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.