Some notes on reading EP Thompson

I’ve finished EP Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”. It’s a 900 page behemoth that I’ve been reading since the beginning of the year.  This is in no sense a “review” – it’s too lengthy and too densely packed with information, and it’s been endlessly discussed over the last 50 years. I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts.

Class consciousness: Thompson paints a picture of the emergence of a coherent, self-identified, working class emerging from pools of agricultural labourers and artisans through to the working class movements of the 19th Century. I’m very impressed with Thompson’s abilities just to see what he saw, to articulate what happened out of a mass of unclear and ill-kept evidence. It shows a real visionary ability be able to see this emergence, and present it back as a coherent picture. His skills as a historian are quite incredible.

What struck me in particular was how he seemed to be writing to the worker’s movements of the 60s and 70s, saying “look, here are your antecedents”.  Looking back on this now, on the other side of the “End of History”, I’m conscious of what we’ve lost with the taming of the unions and the outsourcing of large scale industrial work. The creation of the class consciousness Thompson talks about requires a shared, mass experience, which is now gone – the Union movement in the 70s being its high point. There’s a certain sadness in this for me – nostalgia for the revolutionary moment and the possibilities that held ( indeed, this whole blog was intended initially as a response to this).

Riots. They loved a riot back in the 18th Century. It seemed like a national pastime. Riots were frequently connected with food but also to resistance to taxes, press-gangs, new machinery (the book contains a lengthy discussion of Luddism) and a host of other grievances. Thompson has a unique framing though. Even food riots were “rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions” (p. 68). It’s refreshing to read an analysis of riots that unashamedly brings out their deepest aspects – riots as expressions of clashing and changing values, values which are deeply held and have roots in the sense of self. Some passages describe the spontaneous repricing of goods by the crowd in non-violent “riots” i.e. forcing merchants to take a price set and viewed as fair by the “mob” – perhaps this is the the true “hand of the market”?

Religion: The passages on Methodism are some of the most insane things I’ve ever read. Thompson provides great detail on the bloodthirsty, life-hating aspects of Methodist thought. Some of the hymns he quotes verge on the psychedelic: “O precious Side-hole’s cavity/ I want to spend my life in thee/ There in one Side-hole’s joy divine/ I’ll spend all future days of mine./ Yes, yes, I will forever sit/ There, where thy Side was split” (p. 408). Thompson creates clear links between this self-directed sadism and repression and the characteristics required of the new industrial worker. In this, he almost steps out of his role as historian into that of a cultural psychoanalyst. Thankfully, he also details contemporary resistance and critique of these ideas. This love-affair with death can’t help but remind a contemporary reader of ISIS and their ilk. Martyrdom as sublimated sexuality. As Thompson puts it “It is difficult to conceive of a more essential disorganisation of human life, a pollution of the sources of spontaneity…” (p. 409).

All in all, an incredible read. I’ve just picked up on three aspects of the book which leapt out to me. It’s an incredibly rich and dense text, and I’m sure I will keep returning to it.

 

Château Rouge

I made a quick trip to Paris over the Easter break with my partner. An unexpected bonus of the trip was my experience of where we stayed – Château Rouge, right next to the Sacré-Cœur in Montmarte. I’m slightly conflicted to describe this experience as a “bonus” for reasons that should become apparent. It gave me a vivid experience of cultural difference and my strongest sense yet of what immigration feels like in Europe. It was too fleeting to claim any great insights, but I’m writing this because I want to note it at least. I’m trying to foreground the uncomfortable feelings, the oddness, because it’d be too easy to let this stuff remain unsaid. There’s a complexity around issues of race and immigration that’d be easy to avoid.

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Violence & Desire: Wilhelm Reich in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher is Haneke’s sixth film. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Elfride Jelenik. The story is to some degree autobiographical. Jelenik was trained to be a musical prodigy but, in her early 20s, she was overcome with an anxiety disorder that led to agoraphobia. She began to write as a form of therapy. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 but was unable to collect the award due to her anxiety disorder, accepting the prize via a video message.

I’ve chosen to write about this film because it’s as clear an exposition of Wilhelm Reich’s ideas around armouring as I’ve seen, albeit with one key element missing (which I will return to later). Armouring is the process discovered by Reich whereby as children and infants we learn to reduce our emotional pain and distress by creating muscular tensions. These tensions become chronic and unconscious, held outside of our awareness, and contribute to structuring our characters. They help to manage our pain but they reduce our capacity to live fully. A key process we armour against is our sexuality. Reich’s ideas help to explain why such a central part of lives is surrounded by so many taboos and so much fear, loathing and disgust. This is illustrated in this film with stunning force.

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Ian Bone – “Bash the Rich”

Just finished Ian Bone’s “Bash the Rich’. Bone was the founder of the anarchist group Class War,  who produced a newspaper of the same name, which became infamous for its tabloid style and unashamed hatred of the rich. It had an amazing line in agitprop and gallows humour.

I was surprised and heartened to find some mentions of Wilhelm Reich in the book – the political Reich at least. It’s a semi-autobiography, covering Bone’s early life and career as an activist and punk musician in Swansea before he headed to London in the early 80s. It goes on to cover Class War’s greatest hits and misses, the launch of the paper, supporting the miner’s strike, participation in the Brixton riots, disrupting the Henley Regatta and humiliation in Hampstead. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read even though I have mixed feelings about Bone’s strategy. On one hand, it’s great that he is so honest and upfront about his rage. In a world where every gesture is spun and hedged, it’s refreshing to read something uncompromising about challenging your enemies via physical force. On the other, it seems pretty delusional – the idea that a combination of riots and the miner’s strike would overstretch the police and cause Thatcher’s government to fall. I don’t think things are that straightforward. Even if things did go “according to plan”, at the very least there’d be an interim period where the army would shoot a lot of people. Bone seems to have pulled back from the brink himself in the wake of the Broadwater Farm riots and the murder of PC Keith Blakelock, with worries about being had up for incitement. Probably his greatest achievement was Class War’s circulation – 15,000 at its peak, which is unheard of for an anarchist newspaper.

Some of the most interesting chapters for me were at the end of the book where he discusses Class War’s influences – the anarchy and humour of The Beano, the Diggers & Levellers and English tradition of “the mob” as described by EP Thompson, as well as lesser known writers like Jack Common. He’s very astute and sharp when he discusses the total failure of anarchist and Leftist ideas to appeal to a wider public, and his desire to articulate political ideas in a way that speaks about the life of your average working class person. This is part of the appeal of Reich to him – Reich’s political writing articulates why people are complicit in their own oppression, and have an emotional and psychological reasons for allowing  it to continue. Maurice Brinton (pen name of Chris Pallis) was a big influence on Bone with his pamphlet The Irrational in Politics which is based on Reich’s sex-pol work in 1930s Berlin. There are some fascinating hints in the book of the importance of sex and the politics that emerge from this influence. Early copies of Class War were funded by sex workers, and apparently debates about sex were apparently central to Class War meetings, more so than violence. He gives a snapshot of striking miners debating porn, abortion policy and contraception in the pub, prompted by copies of the paper.

To quote from an early edition of Class War: Working class people aren’t usually motivated in a revolutionary direction by a handy ready-made ideology available like a packet of Daz, or the sufferings of Third World peasantry. No, the primary motivating factor for many of us is our own individual experiences of oppression and that includes the intimate, personal desires and feelings which affect us in every conceivable manner.

Class War’s trashy, immediate style was a attempt to undercut stultifying deadness of most political writing and to give voice to very real emotions of desire, rage and anger. Shame they aren’t more well known for the desire  – it’s more interesting in the long run (they are called “Class War“, I guess).  It’s also interesting that Bone didn’t bring  his Reichian analysis to bear on his own rage and fascination with violence. Rage is a worthy response to an unjust world but it can also point to the frustration of our primary needs and desires, in childhood and infancy.  He may have found the results illuminating.

More here: Ian Bone on Reich

Who Owns the Future – Jaron Lanier

I recently finished reading Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future. Lanier is a Silicon Valley computer scientist who has been present since the early days of the computer industry’s ascent. He first became famous as a pioneer of virtual reality, and has a parallel career as a composer and owns one of the biggest collections of obscure musical instruments in the word (a pastime which endears him greatly to me).

His basic thesis in this book is that technological change is hollowing out pretty much all of our economy, weakening our businesses and enterprises, terminally so in many cases. Think of the music industry – the short term fix of free music is destroying the ability of many of make a living and will lead to less music being made and circulated. The cultural buzz around music obscures this, but not only is it harder for an artist to make money, but many of institutions and careers that supported the industry are dead or vastly reduced in scale – record shops and labels, artist management etc. – and they are not being replaced. Lanier predicts whole swathes of middle class careers will go the way of the Dodo – journalism and the photographic industry are just two of the examples he cites, with more to come. It’s possible that currently secure careers like teaching (my own profession) or medicine will become increasingly automated.  The book  gives a lot of detail about the power currently being accrued by powerful computer companies who dominate the new economic spaces which have opened up, and concentrate the wealth generated in the hands of a few individuals. He cites Instagram as having effectively replaced the thousands of jobs created by Kodak, and doing this with a mere 13 employees when it was bought out by Google. Lanier calls these companies  “Siren Servers” as they are impossible to resist – and posits a broad blueprint for a solution, the fine print to be negotiated, this being small remunerations for the sharing of information. Continue reading

La Vie Nouvelle (A New Day) – Phillipe Grandrieux, 2002

Phillipe Grandrieux is a French film-maker and academic. Taking the lead from by Pier Pasolini and Jean Epstein amongst others, he is attempting to expand the possibilities of cinema, using archetypes and ideas supplied by horror cinema and psychoanalysis. La Nouvelle Vie (A New Day) is is his second feature film. I found the film challenging and unsettling and was gobsmacked at moments by a couple of blasts of real cinematic power. I also take issue with a number of specific points based on my own biases/practices, which I intend to explore in this review.

The full film is here for those who’d like to view it unspoilt.

Firstly, the film’s structure  – well, it’s completely off the map compared to normal cinematic concerns. It’s one hour forty minutes with about 30 words of dialogue uttered, minimal exposition and an array of experimental cinematic techniques. The nominal story is that of a guy (Seymour – Zachary Knighton) falling for a prostitute ( Melania – Anna Mouglalis) and trying to buy or rescue her. The clichéd and sexist nature of the plot would be my only real criticism – Grandreiux has nothing really to say about women’s experience, and the women in the film are just ciphers for male desire, like a million other films.  I do feel he offers some insight into male pathology  but are these insights enough? I leave it for the viewer to decide. He’s exposing the brutality behind the sex trade, but more besides. A scene where Melania’s pimp cuts her hair is charged with the cruelty of power, but for many, the exercise of power in itself is  titillating.  I felt that Grandrieux is playing games here with the eroticism of power, and deliberately making the male viewer complicit, much as we can be complicit in many other elements of the sex trade and exploitation.

With these criticisms in mind, I’d like to explore some of the film’s themes and intentions. Grandrieux, with a refreshing absence of the English fear of pretension has stated that his concerns are “to open the body’s night, its opaque mass, the flesh with which we think – and present it to the light, to our faces, the enigma of our lives”. What does this mean in practice?

What we have on screen is endless acres of skin, cameras and bodies shaking and writhing with agitation, passion and hatred, the human form squeezed, pushed, cut and beaten. The film blog Esotika has stated the: “The catalog of techniques of affect present in La Vie Nouvelle is astounding” and I concur. The Director seems to throw every technique he can at you, to try to almost yank you physically into the frame. The intensity peels off the screen like a scent.

And there are levels of meaning that congeal and reveal here. The film opens with a shot of an anonymous crowd, faces blurred out, unseeable, like the masks worn by a thousand cinematic serial killers. This blurring of identity, literal loss of face, returns later in the film, but in the opening sequence, we move from these anonymised blurs to extreme close-ups. Vast, craggy displays of features speak to a life’s history, staring blankly into the camera. When one learns that the film is set in Sarajevo, these faces begin to speak of displacement and war.  Jason gives way to Abu Ghraib.

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The film shift registers towards the end. Brutal contemporary realities have been shown, but the film’s core is literally an Orphic trip into the Underworld. Contemporary meanings fall away and only the timeless world of the psyche is left. For this scene, Grandrieux switches to using a thermal imaging camera, which throws the images into black and white and previously stable forms began to rupture, veering into the animal or abstraction, reminiscent of the cave walls at Lascaux. Screams echo through the dark.

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And then our Hero returns. After the descent, we see him emerge, shellshocked and lost, into a forest. He returns to a bar that prompted the film’s opening reveries and picks up a dancer. He withdraws with her to a back room and fucks her with increasing violence. It’s as if he’s trying to fuck his way through a wall – but this brings him no respite. The film’s closing shot is of him screaming, unable to achieve the catharsis that he’d hoped for. I read this as showing that the transformative encounter shown earlier hadn’t worked. The alchemical wedding in the depths of the psyche has resulted more in a bitter divorce and he’s desperately trying to fuck his way back to it.

This obvious lack of sexual satisfaction as a driver behind brutality reminds me, inevitably,  of Wilhem Reich. Reich’s model of health was “orgiastic potency”. Reich defines orgiastic potency as “the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy, free of any inhibitions; the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body”. What holds us back from achieving orgiastic potentcy is our muscular armour, tensions and fear of pleasure held in our very flesh. Reich writes movingly of how learned sexual fear becomes trapped in our muscles. Spontaneous movement can bring out this fear and this suppression of something so fundamental to our selves can lead to rage and aggression:

Orgiastic impotence produces secondary impulses which achieve sexual gratification by force… since the armour does not permit the development of involuntary movement i.e it does not permit involuntary convulsions to pass through this segment, the pleasures sensations are turned into sensations of rage. The result is a tortuous feeling of having to get through which cannot be called anything but sadistic. In the pelvis, inhibited pleasure is turned into rage and rage is turned into muscular spasms. This can be confirmed clinically. (Reich, Character Analysis, p. 389)

And indeed, the work of Reich and his successors is full of case studies demonstrating this process. It’s profound work which cuts to the core of our cultural ambivalence about sex. Sex is the core of human psychic life but is still something hidden and dirty. A source of fear and discomfort yet always desired. Grandrieux is unwittingly demonstrating Reich’s perspective here. He shows a man unable to achieve satisfaction as he’s trapped inside his own muscular armour and this leading to rage, hatred and violence. Seymour’s reddened, tense, sinewy body highlights this for me. His very musculature is his prision.

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To go further, it seems to me here the film shows an essential difference between Freudian and Reichian programes. Freud proposes that libidinal desire must essentially come under the rule of the “reality principle”. One must fit in, despite dissatisfaction. Reich on the other hand proposes that true satisfaction is indeed possible. “Orgaistic potentcy” can be realised and on a grand enough scale, this will transform the world. Grandreieux’s film to me seems to ally with the former view while the latter lurks beneath the surface. One can achieve something approaching freedom through relaxation and yielding, surrender to the body.  There is a way out of the Underworld.

Xkarie XB-1(Jindřich Polák, 1963)

One of the intentions of this blog, from where it takes it’s name, was to think about the idea of the future, and the way future orientation, and utopian (or even progressive) thinking has declined.  I feel a nostalgia for idea of a visionary future, one that inspired and encouraged us to dream. A lot of political thinking of the past seemed to have this “utopian trace” and I feel that this absence is keenly missed in current politics.

I recently watched Xkarie XB-1, another Eastern European gem from Second Run DVD. It struck me afterwards what a forceful example of this future orientation this was. It”s set aboard the titular spacecraft, in the year 2163, as it makes the first manned mission beyond the solar system, to Alpha Centurai. The trip will take 15 years or so, but due to the effects of relatively this will only seem like 28 months to the crew.

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The plot, the story and the mission aren’t the major drivers here however – much of the film simply seems an attemtpt to give you a sampling of life aboard. An astronaut grapples with the fact he won’t see his daughter grow up,  a Robbie the Robot take off stumbles about, and there’s a brilliant “space disco” scene, where couples dancing in 2163 is envisaged. The modernist set design is great as well, lots of stark, sleek lines and geometric patterns.

And if the photo above reminds you of 2001: A Space Odyseey, well, there’s a reason.. Kubrick viewed a lot of classic SF before writing his classic, and Ikarie was clearly an influence. The climatic sequence on the ship, where HAL is shut down, owes much to Ikarie. Kubrick wasn’t the only one  paying attention either.  With it’s mission to “boldly go”and its ensemble cast, it was clearly an influence on Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek.

The plot is kinda secondary, only leaping into life at the film’s end: the crew are lulled into sleep by a dark star and one crew member is sent mad by space radiation and experiences complete existential panic – “There never was an Earth!” – I was hoping the director would really make something strange and Tarkovskyian out of these moments ,but it was not to be.

It’s implicit in the film that the culture that have launched this mission is a Communist one. This is perhaps made clearest when  the crew chances on a 20th Century spacecraft – the spacecraft is complete with evil nuclear weapons and what caused the mission failure was an outburst of  intercine homocide. The name of the craft is  the “Tornado” and signage in American English is prominently displayed, signalling those bad old capitalist nations! Later, two characters debate the bad old days of the 20th Century and it’s achievements in art and culture are presented as perhaps the saving grace.

I found this “looking back” from a more highly evolved standpoint very poignant. There’s an implied certainly that violence and war would just pass away. Such hope for humanity! And …

 

(SPOILER)…

 

… the film’s closing frames imply (perhaps) that Communism has spread amongst the stars. Ikarie’s crew are – maybe – just bringing humanity into the already existing galactic fellowship.

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This rare optimism is a compelling reason for watching. The fact this optimism itself grows out of a compelling political context, now vanished,  is another.