Monday, 13 July 2009

Doris Lessing on the fragmentation of culture

I came across Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize lecture recently. There's some interesting issues raised, which are worth thinking about.

The title of the speech is 'On not winning the Nobel Prize', and Lessing focuses on the sheer deprivation in Zimbabwe, and the lack of the conditions necessary for proper education, 'I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.' Despite all this, she maintains, there is an intense desire for knowledge, and an active culture of self-education. She contrasts this with the immense resources of a prestigious London school she visited, where excellent facilities are left vacant by the absence of interest.

In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities.
"You know how it is," one of the teacher's says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used."

There's a curious thing; "you know how it is"; "what I always hear"; "we do indeed know how it is". How it is that the dominant countries of the world, ironically, are entirely lacking in a drive towards self-education that could ensure their dominance.

How it is in Lessing's narrative, is that this lack of drive derives from a general cultural listlessness, itself born of a postmodern disintegration.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

yeah, yeah, we know, all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. It's not unreasonable to see in these words a literati lament, mourning with belated bitterness their dispossession of the privileges accorded to artists within an earlier mode of capitalism. Cerainly, that's the position taken by Scott Rosenberg, from, who sees it as a basically conservative position, 'the cultural establishment, the journalism business, and other important institutions are still saying that blogs will destroy civilization.'

But let's bracket that easy dismissal and look at the role of reading in her argument. There are many, she says, "[who] know nothing of the world, [who] have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other". Reading, then, and probably culture in general, is for Lessing a vital link between the individual and the world, perhaps even of establishing some harmony between the disparate individuals and groups of society. It is, as she says herself, concerned with taking the "raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined, into the realm of the general."

If we maintain a sceptical position on this, we would argue that the function of literature, then, is to contribute to the reconciliation of social existence as individuated and society as totality, between civil society and the State. That is, that literature can fulfill the same function for the conflict between individual and general in the terrain of world-vision that democracy accomplishes for the political-economic.

But what of this for socialists? And let us remember Lessing's own credentials as an advocate of social equality, and a sharp critic of capitalist power relations.

Well, Trotsky, Lenin et al were keen readers, weaned on the greats of classical Russian realism. And this brought them into sharp conflict with the Futurists and Formalists, particularly when the former advocated 'push[ing] Pushkin and Dostoevesky from the steamship of modernity.' The later official theory of socialist realism, expounded most definitively by Lukacs, identified the realist form with the greatest gifts of the bourgeoisie to the proletarian movement, and from it emerged a strict set of guidelines for the articulation of proletarian literature, a written form that would overcome the mystifications of capitalism, and the bring the working class into consciousness of itself and, of course, its historical mission.

This brief sketch may have pushed my hypothetical readers straight back towards postmodernism, so I had better try and make a libertarian socialist case for realism.

Class, as we know, is not solely a matter of one's relation to capital, but also, crucially, of one's relationships to others in our society. Is the attitude of capitalists to their workers authoritarian or paternalistic? Are politicians clientelist or ideological? These are all important questions for the analysis of society in general. But for our analysis of the working class and its development into a revolutionary force, the question of modes of organisation is absolutely fundamental, and provides the clearest distinction between the various articulations of socialism.

The mode of organisation identified by libertarian socialists as the only one possible for the construction of a socialist society is what has been termed 'horizontalism', which I have attempted to define earlier (I think). In my view, the development of the proletariat as a revolutionary class demands that horizontalism be the determining mode of its social organisation, and that it consciously attempts to extend this mode across the social terrain; i.e. towards communism via revolution.

So, in this case, the formation of this class consciousness, and its extension as revolutionary class consciousness is clearly a massive change in the world-vision of many people. Moreover, this vision must be shared among the class, there must be a common framework for self-consciousness. It will require, in fact, for many men and women, to know much of the world, to know much of each other, and to know what they are capable of.

Back to the Bourgeoisie
A conservative critic, who writes for Asia Times as Spengler, and who chose his pseudonym advisedly, has written of China's 6 to 1 advantage over the United States. This is the ratio of Chinese to American children studying classical piano.

The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world - surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills - can compete

Here we have the same basic components as Lessing; education, class, the emerging nation, and the malaise of Western culture. Education, it seems, is tightly bound to the emerging nation. For Lessing, this is tied to poverty, to growing up in a place "where parents long to get an education for their children which will take them out of poverty." For Spengler, it is tied to the development of a class of intellectuals, of scientists and engineers and businessmen. A class that will build the nation.

Another key writer here is Benedict Anderson, as his writings on Nationalism highlight the common development of a national elite as the common core of nationalist rebellion in subaltern economies.

[INSERT Anderson quote, plus stuff by Gramsci]

Gramsci was one of those who tried to think through a similiar process from the perspective of empowering the working class.

To fight for a new art would mean to fight to create new individual artists, which is absurd since artists cannot be created artificially. One must speak of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life...intimately connected to a new intuition of life until it becomes a new way of seeing and feeling reality and, therefore, a world intimately engrained in "possible artists" and "possible works of art."

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