Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Let It Bleed

I often read the online version of the New Yorker, mainly for the mystifying cartoons and the caption competition (this one makes me hurt with laughter any time I think about it). However, I do read the odd article, too, and a paragraph from a recent review article by art critic Peter Schjeldahl ("Let it Bleed: '1969' at P.S.1", New Yorker Nov 16 2009) made an impression on me. He wrote:
"The embitterment of right-wing politics today isn’t a patch on that of leftist temperaments in 1969—an alienation so deep as to resemble indifference, but scintillant with rage. The art world, or community, became a destination of internal exile. Art works became tests of initiation. If you wondered what they were about, it meant that you would never know."
An alienation so deep as to resemble indifference, but scintillant with rage ... That's Miltonic, isn't it? I love the use of that archaic word "scintillant", with its suggestion of dark brooding cinders and spitting sparks. It's also a good definition of "cool" (as an attitude or lifestyle, that is, before it became a simple synonym for "good"). Schjeldahl knows this, of course -- his last sentence alludes to the famous answer (variously attributed to Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller or Miles Davis) to the question, "What is jazz?": "If you have to ask you'll never know". Which, in its coolness, barely conceals an anger which is equal and opposite to the disdain expressed in that other famous answer, "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it".

It's also true, and something I hadn't really thought about before. I was still a kid of 15 in 1969, but in the mid-70s I kicked around in the ashes and embers of that rage as a student activist. There was little choice: it was pretty much the only game in town. You could hardly sit down for a coffee in Balliol JCR without becoming embroiled in a prolonged, often shouty debate over the "degenerated workers' state" or the finer points of The German Ideology. The smoke of May '68 (or maybe it was just Christopher Hitchens' cigarettes) seemed still to hang in the air, and the likes of Alex Callinicos and David Aaronovitch held snarling matches over pint mugs of tea.

As a member of the Howard Marks Tendency I was tolerated, just. Despite making myself useful, I never truly belonged to that scene, because I had to ask, and would therefore never know. I was too interested in unserious things (such as myself), too clearly a hedonist, something I could tell was considered deeply suspect. My working class origins did make me an object of curiosity to some of the public-school educated revolutionaries, but not that much. I was a clown, a tourist, a Useful Idiot.

I think I've used this before, but some pictures deserve a second showing

For all its ideology of universal love and peace, the Left I knew was fuelled by a shared sullen anger, the source of which was obscure to me. It was quite depressing to be around, like living with someone in an all-encompassing chronic sulk. The movers and shakers were continually cross about a whole shopping list of issues, causes and grievances, and expected fools like me to give them regular opportunities to vent their crossness; indeed, they were clearly disappointed if you didn't. It was a mystery to me, then and now, how anyone barely out of school could have arrived at such deeply held, radical opinions about events -- often obscure, historical events -- in countries I could scarcely point to on a map. I was amused, but also impressed: you have to acknowledge a class act when you see it.

In the late 70s, when I was living as a squatter in Hackney, you would still encounter members of the elite special forces of rage: muttering back numbers of the Angry Brigade, and smouldering, pseudonymous Germans from the fringes of the RAF. But, by then, the anger had gone mainstream and downmarket; these semi-fugitives seemed like kids playing hide and seek who hadn't heard that the game had been called off. The sudden, unexpected assault by punk music -- all that snarling, spitting, self-harming posturing -- was probably their worst nightmare come true: it was the appropriation of sham political "attitude" by pop culture. Welcome to The Society of the Spectacle, indeed.

Things could only get worse (or better), when the Thatcher government was elected. Everyone fully expected the pervasive sense of grievance to achieve critical mass and explode, which it did, briefly. The cool facade of indifference finally gave way to hot, angry defiance. But it was not led or fomented by a disciplined Marxist vanguard, however; it was a spontaneous eruption of the much talked about but much ignored lower orders, fed up with the police interfering with their hedonistic pursuits. Another time, remind me to write about how the Prof and I were present at the St. Paul's Riot in Bristol in 1980, probably the most exciting party I've ever been to.

By the late 1980s, it was all over. Despite ever-increasing and systematic social inequality, some truly oppressive government legislation, and the gradual break-up of the welfare state and the political consensus that had built it, it seemed no-one could be arsed to do anything much about any of it. I was a trade union activist at local level for that whole decade, and the frustration was at times overwhelming. Even the Miners' Strike in 1984/5 was only half-heartedly supported by the wider trade union movement and membership: we had moved into the era of power-dressers with flipcharts, and those dreary miners wanted to take us back to the era of flat caps and shaken fists ... so 1930s! The attendance at meetings and demonstrations steadily dwindled. Academic "Marxists", with careers based on readings of Althusser or Walter Benjamin, were rarely, if ever, seen at union meetings, and were even spotted crossing picket lines. The anger had dissipated, and the action was elsewhere (in career development and home improvements, it seemed).

Your blogger assembles the People's Flag, ca. 1980
(I seem to have spent my life attached to a bag)

The Poll Tax Riot of 1990 was an event most of us watched on TV, perhaps with a sense of nostalgia, but with no great inclination to join in. After the astonishing events of 1989 everyone and everything had gone all ironic and post-modern in a punch-drunk kind of way. Political protest seemed to become simply an extreme sport, defined by and restricted to special interest groups, mainly youngsters with time on their hands. Spectacular, but quickly contained and easily ignored. It looked like fun, compared to endless meetings, but... Like the rave scene in music, I looked on with the envious eyes of middle youth. No more acid for me, thanks, I've got work in the morning.
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.


I do not think that they will sing to me.

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Meanwhile, those movers and shakers had moved onwards and upwards. Familiar names would flash in the news -- rising journalists, barristers, politicians, professors -- as yesterday's disdainful, angry comrades took up their rightful, ordained places in the order of things. Occasionally one would refer to his or her past life as a mere interlude spent as a "revolting student". Some moved steadily rightwards. I began to feel real sympathy with those nutters I'd met hiding out in Hackney, like those Japanese soldiers who used to emerge from the jungle on Pacific islands, long years after the War had ended, still ready to die for the Emperor.

Twice on marches in London against Thatcher's rounds of cuts in higher education I bumped into guys whom I had once counted as friends, covering the event as journalists. Both times we said "Hello!", but then they quickly moved on when it became clear I was a mere foot-soldier. Well, of course: they were working, and I was not the story, just local colour at best. We could hardly have popped over the road for a pint. And I had one end of a banner to carry. But those incidents and others like them bothered me: no matter who I had been, no matter who I might have become, I was now -- actually, relatively, effectively (perhaps "objectively", as we used to say) -- nobody, it seemed. It was not a good feeling.

A great truth struck me around that time. That is: It really does all come down to social class (duh!). Most left-wing activists were, are and probably always will be bright young middle-class kids with an optimistic view of the world mixed in with an understandable sense of guilt at the privilege of their upbringing. It's an explosive cocktail for a while, but -- like all bright young middle-class kids -- there is no way they are not going to achieve their ambitions, once the fizz has gone out of that brew.

They work hard at making connections, getting feet on ladders, setting themselves goals: those simple secrets of achievement are known to them (is it something they learn at school?) and they work that knowledge hard -- competitively, even ruthlessly sometimes. The disdain of my old comrades for my ignorance of the situation in Nicaragua or Namibia was not "essentialist", I realised. It wasn't that they thought that by nature I was an ignorant piss-artist. It was that I hadn't done my homework. To their way of thinking, I had chosen to be an ignorant piss-artist. In the middle-class worldview, what greater condemnation is there?

By contrast -- and this is something Left activists will probably never understand -- the standard-issue working class worldview is, basically, that of a cargo cult. "I'm entitled to my share, too! You bastards are so lucky! Can't wait until it's my turn!" Activists pretend to sympathise, but they can't; they believe in analysis, in actions that set in train processes that will have results. The last thing an activist would do is buy a lottery ticket, punt a week's wages on a horse, or wish upon a star. Activists don't believe the wealth of the world is distributed by a system of luck, magic, and entitlement; they believe that their parents created it by exploiting the labour of others, then converted it into cash, and put it in the bank.

I suppose my real insight was that, despite a prolonged education and much exposure to middle-class people, I had retained my cargo cult view of the world. I wanted to achieve things, sure, but I thought these would and should happen because I was deserving of them or entitled to them, or because they were "intended" to happen. As a result, I did nothing about it. The idea of making things happen by hard work and shameless exploitation of contacts seemed like, well, cheating. I remember how, at the end of our three years of study, I had surprised one of my friends furtively leafing through glossy recruitment material from IBM, as if it were a copy of Hustler. "What are you doing??" I demanded. "Um, looking for a job," he said. At the time, I thought this was both sad and funny.

So, eventually, I woke up -- sort of -- after a decade or more of sleepwalking. I was like the sheep in that famous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, portrayed achieving an herbivorous moment of satori in mid-mouthful: "Wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!" The great wisdom of that cartoon, of course, is that all the other sheep are paying her absolutely no attention at all.

7 comments:

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Mike,

This post requires rereading, though, as an unreconstructed hippie/commie/pinko/draft dodgeing weirdo myself, I might add that the serious activists I was involved with, or around or heard, were, humorless and boring. My own hedonistic leanings have led me to avoid people on stately white horses since those heady days.

Martin H. said...

Mike

I've done the 'rounds'. Shaken my fist on the picket line at the gates of heavy industry, took a stand with the Claimant's Union, had a bizarre correspondence with Arthur Scargill (in one letter I recall, he declared that, given the chance, he wouldn't abolish the House of Lords...he would give everyone a peerage)hmmm..

So, late on, I got myself a so-called education and tried my hand at 'the game'. But the truth will out, and as more suitable candidates made their ascent by gaining a foothold on the faces of others, I was denounced as an opportunist. Ironically, by the same individuals who passionately claimed to be above making 'value judgements'.

Solution? Live up to the 'opportunist' tag, take the dosh and get the hell out. Result.

Struan said...

You present life as most see it: finding an existing group to join. As a generalist, and one who loves diversity, I have always felt myself fighting the strong urge towards exclusivity that has existed in all the groups that I have joined. I'm clubbable, but hate clubs. In the U.K. class overrides everything else, but it's depressing how strongly all societies seem to now distrust the jack of all trades.

Background is much harder to shake off than I thought when I was younger, but I have also learned that only matters if you use your 'home' culture as crutch to make your life easier. I aim for a Dalai Lama approach: knowing my own self, and confident of its worth, but willing to interact with and learn from anyone. At bad times though I feel more like a tame hermit: tolerated in my eccentricities as long as I don't actually influence anybody.

Mike C. said...

Bron,

I think the reality of Vietnam and the draft probably gave a different flavour to those years in the US -- here, Paris 68 was the main ingredient. Either way, yes, "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters..." are sound words of advice.

Martin,

Your face is familiar, comrade. May you enjoy your "result"...

Struan,

Hi, I was about to notify Inspector Wallander that you seemed to have mysteriously vanished. Whatever happened to Twiglog? "I'm clubbable, but hate clubs" -- I think I agree, but "clubbable" is one of those words that I'm not sure I have ever properly understood (we're obviously not talking about baby seals). Is it an active or a passive condition?

Mike

Struan said...

Thanks for your concern, although given what Wallander tends to dig up once he starts investigating people I'm not sure I'd want him on my case. It's a bit like the old advice to run straight out of the concert hall if Morse sits down beside you.

Since the summer, family and work have squeezed my photographic life to the bare minimum of taking pictures I see Twiglog as a place for longer pieces that don't fit the sense of conversation I prefer on dicussion forums, and I've just not been in essayist mode for a while. I'll reboot soon. Honest.

I did have a fire-and-brimstone piece on Southampton Art Gallery half written, but they seem to have sorted that one out without me. What's your take on class and public art?

Struan said...

PS: 'clubbable' in this case means a preference for two-way communication. I probably should have said cafe-able. I like armchairs, not lecturns, and a lack of membership dues.

May said...

Reading about those years made me nostalgic, even if I haven't lived them because I was born too late.

Thank you very much for sharing your memories with us.