Monday, 28 March 2011

Manufacturing Dissent : The Verso Book of Dissent by way of Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium

‘Hmmm the blanketty Book of Dissent. Now where have I heard that before?’ muses Michael Rosen on Verso’s online discussion board. ‘Not the Chatto Book of Dissent surely? And then its paperback edition the Vintage Book of Dissent ...edited by Michael Rosen and David Widgery.’ Rosen, it appears, was not given advance warning of the striking parallels between the anthologies; The Verso Book of Dissent does, nevertheless, acknowledge his 1991 volume as providing an ‘early inspiration’. Yet where Random House has produced a number of specialist Chatto Books Of I can’t imagine Verso producing rivals anytime soon for the Book of Botanical Verse or the Book of Cabbages and Kings. Indeed, there is something more particular in its relationship to dissent. Tariq Ali’s preface, entitled ‘In Praise of Dissent’, is as much a celebration of the publisher for its 40 years of facilitating inspired interrogation of ‘entire thought-systems and state structures’ as of those who did the interrogating.

Whilst emphasising its commitment to challenging holders of power and abusers of democracy, Ali neglects to mention Verso’s commercial success in recent years. A brief survey of the philosophy and political theory shelves of my local Waterstones found one in every four to be a Verso. Their glossily designed covers, from the minimalist chic of the Radical Thinkers series to Balibar’s Philosophy of Marx, featuring an charmingly woven lace outline of Marx’s face, are books that make Routledge look antediluvian. Critics may feel inclined to put a spin on Chomsky’s famous dictum and accuse Verso of manufacturing dissent, of packaging it into commercially desirable forms so that they slip through the conservative radar of the central managements that police their retail outlets. Yet, when one is being stacked against such titles as Great Philosophers in 30 Seconds and How Proust Can Save Your Life, it is remarkable how books that are unembarrassed by the word ‘dialectic’ manage to compete.

This ambiguous boundary between attacking the capitalist establishment and operating within the logic of its markets in a way reflects what is so Verso about this book of dissent. Editors Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim have gathered nearly 400 extracts, fragments and quotations from writings and speeches of a dissenting nature. Unlike the Chatto volume’s division of its material into thematic sections Verso has been arranged chronologically, running from an Egyptian peasant in 1800 BC to a Swedish mystery writer in 2010 AD. Although Ali makes a point in his preface that forms of dissent within ‘established structures whose aim is to strengthen the existing order’ were excluded from the selection, the anthology itself testifies to a more nuanced picture of a history that seems to be as much about reforming from within as overthrowing from without. Whilst it is clear that figures such as Marx and Engels in the Manifesto and the Levellers were theorising spaces outside existing orders it is less obvious how Edward Murrow’s reminder that opposition is essential to a healthy democracy conforms to a subversive mode.
Moreover, the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence and its afterlife in debates on abolition and female suffrage illustrates well this very problem of trying to “locate” dissent. What started life as a manifestation of a people’s defiance against an unconstitutional regime became the cornerstone of a new state’s identity. The Declaration was then used by subsequent critics of the governing elite as both a normative ideal with which to hold the government to account, such as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’s appeal to its ‘great principles’, and as an index of hypocrisy with which to argue for the overturning of the entire established order, as exemplified by William Lloyd Garrison’s vitriolic editorial in The Liberator. 

Although never directly addressed by Ali or the editors, the question of what exactly it means to write dissentingly is unavoidable for a reader of this volume. The words spoken or written by someone involved in revolutionary activity, such as famous last words and manifestos, are obviously prevalent in Verso; however, in such cases the selection of the piece is due more to its source than its content. For extracts from Sappho and Bessie Head the act of a woman writing is itself revolutionary, even if the content does not necessarily adhere to any standard models of political radicalism. With the inclusion of rebels like Nguyen Quang Bich and Jose Rizal, for whom writing in their native tongue is an integral part of their dissent against colonial powers, the translation into English is one of the more awkward aspects of a book of this kind. And then there is the type of writing that makes protest its issue, one that self-consciously develops its own rhetoric of dissent.

Whilst this final “category” may seem to provide the most scope for general theory hunting it is also the most problematic. For instance, Sallust’s blunt excoriation of wealth and its corrupting powers deploys antitheses, paradiastole, paradox and other stylistic weapons from the rhetorician’s armoury; it is characteristic of what William Garrison later calls ‘the severity of language’ and is of central importance to any history of dissenting literature. Yet the editors are brave enough not to shy away from mentioning that, as governor of North Africa, Sallust was ruthless in his exploitation of the natives and the resources of their land, thus failing to act in light of his censure. The Swedish author Henning Mankell says in the book’s final extract ‘it’s the action that proves the word’, a quote that feels like a stern warning against the divorce of praxis from lexis.

Then again, given the variety of contexts from which the extracts are derived (satire, manifestos, parodies of manifestos, journals, speeches, slogans, aphorisms, novels, poems), it seems to me that Verso is also asking us to consider that there may be certain types of writing that allow for a form of dissent that doesn’t necessarily involve the strict collaboration of word and action. Satire, for instance, gives the dissenter the ability to criticise without needing to supply the kind of positive alternatives that we would expect from a manifesto. Indeed the power of James Tytler’s 1797 attack on the slave trade, ‘The Petition of the Sharks of Africa’, lies precisely in allowing wrongness to speak for itself: to what is presumably the mind of an imagined trader the improving of the safety of his vessels is unacceptable for one could ‘not suffer sharks to starve in order that negroes be happy’. And, in the case of Sallust, his censure is one of the key contributions to a type of moralistic record, later seen in Tacitus, that is critical of the hedonism of the powerful. Thus dissent lies with the genre rather than the particular author. This idea of a type of dissent transcending the actions or beliefs of its writer also helps explain the inclusion of an extract from Satan’s radical call to arms against the tyranny of God in Paradise Lost, something of which Milton would not have consciously endorsed. 
My main concern here is not so much what dissent is but how we’re to go about reading it through this book. Nick Lezard in his Guardian review of Verso describes the book as a ‘delightful anthology to dip into’, suggesting a coffee-table quality that for many would be the most obvious way of entry. Other reviewers have used ad nauseam the ‘from…to’ construction to imply that vastness is a merit in itself, that if something can go from John Milton to Marvin Gaye it must be worth £12.99, even if actually getting from the one to the other is a lot less exciting than the arbitrary coupling implies. All of this assumes that the reader of The Verso Book of Dissent doesn’t have the obligation to pore through every page from start to finish in the way she or he would when following the argument of a book of philosophy or a novel.

This reflects the way we treat anthologies as ragbags of little gems, a series of tasters that is more a survey than a work in itself. Verso, which is not usually in the business of publishing delightful anthologies, is trying to say something about the place of dissent in history beyond simply directing our attention to a catalogue of political and social radicals. Thus, rather than taking the Chatto books as the index for comparison, it may be more worthwhile to look for an alternative paradigm. One may choose to consider this through Benjamin’s ‘montage as history’ in The Arcades Project. Benjamin generates through his ‘constellation’ of fragments related to nineteenth century Paris a space for encountering history in the rich plurality of its different voices. Reading it is to be overwhelmed and disorientated by history, the desired effect of Benjamin’s reaction against traditional narratives but one that is markedly different from the experience of the judiciously edited Verso.

I would prefer to look closer to home in the form of Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers, not least because its chronological arrangement of material is structurally closer to Verso than either Benjamin or Rosen’s works. Jennings has only recently received recognition as Britain’s pre-eminent documentarian after decades of neglect, with films such as Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and Diary for Timothy (1945) being seen to have opened up social realism to new artistic possibilities. His literary output is still largely unknown, resting mainly on his contributions, as poet and painter, to British Surrealism in the 1930s.

Finally published in 1985, 35 years after Jennings’s death, Pandaemonium is an attempt to outline how the advances in technology and the industrialisation of labour has affected the way people think -formally, casually and imaginatively- and how this manifests itself in the images and stylistic devices that gain (and lose) currency in various kinds of writing from 1660 to 1886. This isn’t simply a two cultures divide: Jennings explores imaginative expression in science writing and mechanistic tendencies in literary practice.

Beyond the publication difficulties, Pandaemonium’s neglect may also be due to certain dated theoretical penchants that, if isolated from the book, would indeed confine it to eccentric irrelevance. There is a characteristically Surrealist medley of Marxism and Jungian psychoanalysis in Jennings’s professed belief that images have a special power over us and that language is not entirely personal but bound up with various forms of ideology. Similarly, Jennings’s theory that ‘by 1750 […] poetry has been expropriated’ from ‘common language’ due to an irrevocable rift between the poet and the newly mechanised thought processes that pervade society is only a slightly more Fabian way of thinking about F. R. Leavis’s use of literature and history. Leavis, who happened to have supervised Jennings at Cambridge, proposed that the ‘organic community’ of traditional culture, identified more as an aesthetic ideal than an historical phenomenon, became cut off from high society. However, unlike Jennings, Leavis could never make up his mind on a date for this cultural diremption and, late in his career, even pushed it back as far as the time of Chaucer.

Thankfully, Pandaemonium is more interesting to us than the sum of its theoretical parts. Through the selection of 372 ‘images’ Jennings attempts to construct a narrative of history whilst also maintaining his chronological trajectory. In so doing, the book explores how a collection of parts might constitute a whole work. His avoidance of the word extract is, I think, an important indication of his attempt to get away from the idea of the individual part being defined by an absence, of being a tokenistic representative of something larger. Rather, his images are meant to be interesting in themselves and made sense of not in relation to their source material but to the other images in Pandaemonium. 

There is commentary, but it is brief, irregular and does not argue out the relationships between texts but suggests ways to go about conceptualising a unifying narrative. For instance, one note asks us to compare a piece on the souls of animals to ‘Wesley in 41 on ‘the beasts that perish’, i.e. the workers.’ Within the space of a further sentence comparisons are suggested to Locke’s image of the mind at birth as a blank slate and some lines from Wordsworth. Jennings’s mind, whilst superb at spotting obscure connections, was less tolerant of difference, of the idea that surface similarities may, on closer inspection, reveal alien details that disturb comparison. But then this objection misses the point of Pandaemonium, for it isn’t a work of probing historical analysis but of creative link making that is its own kind of myth making.

Within the constraints of the chronological arrangement Jennings structures the material so as to provoke certain interpretations, such as the opening juxtaposition of Milton’s diabolical council and a memorandum from the first meeting of the Royal Society. This witty pairing feeds into Jennings’s perception that the institutionalisation of science is partially unsound and that, in a way, resulted in the corporatisation of labour. Later the effect of formal scientific thinking on language is hinted at by a playful image from Erasmus Darwin on optical illusions that takes the word ‘BANKS’ as a test subject. The meaning of the word is unimportant, being used merely because it is ‘the right length’ for the experiment. Darwin’s inadvertent demonstration of how a word can be rendered semantically redundant for the purposes of experimentation is followed by an extract that presents the reduction of animal life to a tool for scientific investigation. This latter piece describes how a fellow of the Royal Society, on his way to visit friends, spied a frozen snake and ‘put it in his pocket to dissect’ only for it to later thaw and spring out of his coat, much to the horror of polite society.

The concern for setting up similarities isn’t anywhere near as obvious in The Verso Book of Dissent. On the contrary, the editors seem to relish disturbing the emergence of narratives for one particular type of writing. For instance, rather than setting up a tidy juxtaposition of an extract from Lenin’s 1917 The State and Revolution article and the 1918 Clause IV of the Labour party constitution, the editors have punctuated this demonstration of the international valences of socialist thought with a 1917 letter from a Somali religious leader, Mohammed Hassan, to a British colonel. Hassan’s heartfelt plea to imperialist forces to leave his home, which to them is ‘bush and stones’ but to him is worth dying for, is a striking counterpoint to the ideological conditions and abstractions within which more organisational forms of dissent operate.

Even when the pairing of similarly themed extracts does occur in Verso, the juxtaposition often serves to underline greater degrees of difference. For instance, a 1918 speech from the dock by the convicted pacifist John Maclean is immediately preceded by an extract that uses the courtroom setting for the allegory of Armenia standing trail for rising up against the Ottoman Empire. The image of old lady Armenia ‘bathed in blood’ finds a curious echo in Maclean’s description of himself as ‘dripping with blood from head to foot.’ Yet any coupling is to be taken with a fistful of irony, for the dissent of a pacifist is incommensurable with the violent resistance of the Armenians.

For Verso the chronological method is a corrective against the tendencies to subordinate extracts to an overarching narrative. Such unfortunate tendencies can, however, be observed in Pandaemonium, such as when Jennings is at pains to link Thomas Pennant’s 1772 account of the disappearance of traditional Hebridean communities to extracts from Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper (1805) and Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale (1819). Jennings evidently thinks the point so important that, rather than allowing us to make these connections, bucks his own ordering by bringing two later texts back in time to the 1770s.

What I think this comparison with Pandaemonium affords is the acknowledgment that for both texts the arrangement of the material is not incidental but central to their arguments. In seeking to determine the ‘place of the imagination in the world today’, Jennings forms his concepts from a narrative of history and thus encourages a way of reading that sees time as being held together as if by a dialogue of images. Verso, however, points to a degree of incoherence in conflicting historical narratives so as to problematise some of our inherited concepts. Indeed, the latter volume is as much about how ideas are shaped in the appropriation and distortion of them by future generations as they are informed by the generations that came before. For instance, in following the extracts that sketch the various directions that socialism took in the twentieth century the book reminds us that the most exciting and successful attempts to organise a working class movement around Marxist and anarchic principles originated not in the hinterland of the European intelligentsia but among trades union activists in North America. It is fascinated to see much of the rhetoric of American Marxism finding a second life a decade later in the writings and slogans of the Soviet revolutionaries, such as the adoption of the IWW constitution by the rebelling Kharkov miners in 1917.

Whilst in their conceptual form we may be cognisant of feminism and socialism as complementary entities, a number of extracts show that as contextually contingent movements they were not always so mutually sympathetic. The trade unionist Mother Jones criticises ‘the whole machinery of capitalism’ on the basis that it corrupts female innocence by forcing women abandon their household duties to the labour market. Later, the editors draw out elements of chauvinism in writings of radical socialists such as the (exclusively male) leaders of the Black Power movement (‘the only position for a woman in the SNCC’, writes Stokely Carmichael, ‘is prone’) as well as elements of fascism in the feminism of Valerie Solanas’s manifesto for the Society for Cutting Up Men, or just SCUM. 

However, if the editors of Verso are familiar with Pandaemonium (I have no reason to suppose that they are) it doesn’t show. Despite their book’s many accomplishments it ultimately errs precisely where Jennings succeeds. Reading Verso one becomes increasingly conscious of the editors’ pains to cover all the major movements, struggles and causes, particularly those that crowd the twentieth century. That the material becomes somewhat tokenistic shouldn’t be surprising for a book of this kind, and nor is it a bad thing as long as the selection is representative in a sufficiently eclectic and thoughtful way. However, lazy inclusions such as Edward Carpenter as the token homosexual belittle Carpenter’s contributions as campaigner for many of the other causes represented by Verso. Jennings, as it happens, includes an extract from Carpenter’s blistering prose poem about child poverty Towards Democracy, a much neglected work that exists somewhere between Dickens and Dylan. Verso, by too often presenting figures in the forms for which they are best known, takes reputation at face value rather than seeking to question or broaden it. This results in a kind of dividing up of dissent into certain key issues, with each having its own stock representative. This runs contrary to Jennings’s belief that extracts have a life beyond their authorial context and that by including them within his narrative they become active in a unifying trans-historical conversation.

This compartmentalisation is also at odds with what the editors are trying to say about dissent. If it is plural and resists standardisation then it is not something that should be carved up and assigned iconic mouthpieces. However, this is what is likely to happen when dissent is separated from the discourses that it is reacting against. The editors of Verso have put together a book that opens up fascinating debate with itself over the conditions and forms of dissent but sidelines the more immediate debates that dissent throws out to its opponents. A history confined exclusively to complaint, injustice and vitriol inadvertently calls into question the very effectiveness of dissent as a coordinated response to wrongdoing. What does it mean that after 4000 years we are still having to operate through a variety of subversive and disruptive means to implement positive change in society? The cynical answer may be that as long as these voices of disaffection continue to be excluded from ‘entire thought-systems and state structures’ there will be some corner of free market liberalism that is forever Verso.