And find out what’s behind it

Cross-posted from ¡Vivan las Caenas!, where a series of retrospective posts is currently under way. This one is essentially ‘my life as a mature student’, and features what I didn’t realise then was the beginning of my interest in the law.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

As for the law, consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 1 April 2015 at 13:23 | Permalink | Reply

    “with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle”

    If you’re ever in Madrid and you’ve not seen it already, you’ll probably find this interesting.

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