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László Krasznahorkai’s ‘The World Goes On’

I sometimes wonder if developing an interest in Marxism ruined novels for me. Treating contemporary fiction as part of a broader totality of commodity production rather than a generational turnover of competing styles or dispositions means that when reading recently published novels, I become frustrated and rarely make it much further beyond the halfway point. Some of the reasons for this include i) valorising individual action, ii) making the point that nothing essential ever changes iii) not in some way emphasising that we’re twenty years into a century we won’t be coming out of. I can sometimes give a bit longer to writing which is more wry or playful because I can fool myself into thinking the elision of fundamentals might be self-conscious or deliberate, but even then it begins to grate more intensely, playing games with a failure to clarify is one of those devices I’ve seen operationalised so many, so many times times it’s become impossible for me to care about a novel postulating that there is no ultimate truth without even having the decency to be funny. To come to the point, László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On was the most recent book that annoyed me.  

The World Goes On is a collection of short stories, but it contains within it a certain number of tropes and recurring voices that had me thinking at first that it was a fragmentary novel, even though the blurb had told me it was a collection of short stories and I had read this blurb many times. Someone said to me recently that all short story writers are very good at doing one thing and do that same thing over and over again and I think that Krasznahorkai in fact does up to two and a half things over and over again. I’m not going to itemise those things, so much as talk about the deeper tropes or attitudes that I think they point towards, though I did skip a few of them, one in particular was an especially egregious instance of that tweetthe precise wording and authorship of which escapes me at the moment about how male writers are prone to representing women ‘her enormous breasts bounced boobily’ etc.  

Krasznahorkai is perhaps especially irritating in this respect because he intuits that there are things about modern life which are bad and that there are persisting remnants within it which have the potential of being good. There is a stable basis for proceeding here. Unfortunately, what has the potential of being good is a languid Paterian awe in the face of Art and The World. Of course this would all be a bit naff in the present conjuncture, so Krasznahorkai has it taking on a slightly sharper edge or valency, where it partakes more of a disaffection with yearning characteristics. ‘Bankers’ is one story which consists of a man named Fortinbras meeting Paul and his friend in Kiev and overhearing their conversations regarding financial transactions/their co-workers. The stories these men share are purposefully aimless and either impossible to, or not worth, following. Fortinbras spends some time in a hotel room and groans internally about the incongruous and irregularly laid out buildings in the area. A friend of mine complained to me recently of the persistence with which irregularly laid out architecture will be criticised in contemporary fiction, as if the aesthetics were the foremost problem and not that no-one can afford to live in them. I would agree with this critique, and locate its origins in the works of J.G. Ballard. I think much of Ballard’s persisting influence resides in the fungibility of his analysis and its capacity to encompass critiques of the Soviet model, the British welfare state and private capital, as if the problem with post-modernity was that it’s a bit weirdly laid out. 

The title of the collection originates in a short story of the same name which, along with ‘Universal Theseus’, presents the thesis that effectively nothing ever changes, to exist in the world is to exist in a state of slavery and what change there is can never be understood let alone challenged because everything is too complex. The former story also contains a rather bizarre digression on 9/11 and how it was without precedent, shattered all our illusions about the world that existed before, created a wholly new one and all other kinds of cod-analysis which denies its material and historical origins, consequencies. In line with this, the aforementioned ‘Bankers’ contains a paragraph which lists names of banks, ruminates on the interminable and inscrutable nature of their internal structures and the oligarchic fiefdoms they ultimately generate, variously attributed to or associated with the old communist regime, #Putin, anything other than globalised capital. In this way, Krasznahorkai abides by a very nineties understanding of politics, where the loss of older modes of kinship or cohesion in favour of a vacuous private consumption comes to be regarded as the primary issue rather than a symptom. Fortinbras then visits St. Sophia’s Cathedral and mourns that the spiritual values that the saints used to represent no longer do so. Rather than going to visit the Bulgakov house, Fortinbras’ hosts insists they sit in a kitschy café and gossip, and how Kiev is the only place where someone without a university degree can get a management job, all of which Paul, his name taking on at that stage an increasingly symbolic valency, to what end I’m not sure, insists is ‘much more interesting’. There is an acute sense of ‘the horror, the horror’ overlying all this, as if it makes a jot of difference to anything if we were all to sit around in tasteful cafés taking turns to swoon over Bulgakov or St. Sofia’s Cathedral. Fortinbras is then brought to a brothel where sex workers ply him with a drug that brings him into touch with the cosmos and I can only agree with Krasznahorkai that the problem with modern life these days is that sex workers in luxury hotels are always trying to give me drugs that allow me to experience a universal and fundamental happiness, albeit one slightly compromised and undergirded by a banal ennui. 

There’s another story about Yuri Gagarin unable to express the wonder of the cosmos in a Soviet system, which is not treated in any historical specificity, rather used interchangeably with a rationalised bureaucracy of ultimate and inhuman evil because it cannot accommodate Gagarin’s visionary religiosity and contentless humanism. In the story ‘György Fehér’s Henrik Molnar’, we read an extensive excerpt from a screenplay the narrator wrote, which effectively re-enacts Kafka’s The Trial. The screenplay’s apparent moral is that the worst thing about a man being prosecuted for no reason and no recourse is that his judges do not ‘understand’ him. What we see in Krasznahorkai then is a long and remorseful howl right from the confused heart of the weltanschauung of a liberal literatus. No wonder it was shortlisted for the booker. 

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True crime and the production of sympathy

Someone told me the other day that Ted Bundy was a really smart guy. This was an impression they had derived from a film about Ted Bundy they had seen in the cinema, which is either the same Ted Bundy film as the one on Netflix which now has been given a general release, or a new Ted Bundy film. Another point both of these films seem to be advancing was that Ted Bundy was really hot and this got me thinking about how much mobilising of sympathy there is within particular sections of our mass culture for white male murderers given how little of it there is to go around in others.

Put more simply, it seems to me that producing the notion of a just cause for acts of terror committed by white men is much of what our culture is for now and while it makes perfect sense given the present conjuncture, one which is typified by mass shootings committed by white supremacists, the resurgence of fascism and an unending torrent of apologia for both generated by journalists, it annoys me how few people are asking questions regarding mass culture and astroturf for its most regressive messaging. I will here provide some brief notes regarding true crime podcasts, films and Netflix series which I have not watched or listened to because i) there are better uses of my time, if you want to read a blog about how you’re a legend for watching hours and hours of dreadful junk instead of reading a book there’s no shortage of them elsewhere and ii) because a synoptic perspective does more to move beyond the quibbling over the rights and wrongs of particular representations in particular works that more often serve as advertising for aforementioned dreadful junk, i.e. the approximately 10 million impending thinkpieces about what it says to identify with the Joker without considering the material interests this identification serves. A lot of what I say here will be indebted to Sean McTiernan talking about a film called Black Panther on his old podcast, especially his comments about serial killers not being poètes maudits.

Much of the works circled above serve to mystify the function of historical context. We think of Serial, where context and understanding and sympathy are cited over and over again by the show’s host as its motivating factor and to what effect? Is context here understood history of racialised violence in the US? Is context a history of the economic function of the criminal justice system? Is context how the law is the continuation of state violence by other means? No, context is what your man said on the phone the other day, context is a behavioural psychologist spouting some sub-Ronson piffle about what motivates CEOs, context is how annoying the defense attorney’s voice was. There’s a very high-profile film out at the moment where the antagonist is a genocidal Malthusian and a depressing number of critics seem to think renders him sympathetic. Context in capitalist cultural production is a means of excusing and/or validating the motives of the most powerful.

We might consider the Netflix series Mindhunterfrom a similar perspective. The series takes place at a time which is broadly understood as a cultural turn and stages the point at which law enforcement begins to learn and adopt the methods of the counter culture. It is, in this sense, a dramatisation of Angela Nagle’s undergraduate blog post Kill all Normies , where the reactionaries are better leftists and cops are better sociologists. What this holistic advance, the FBI reading some effing Foucault passes over, is that this changing mode of pathologising and criminalising subjects takes place within an existing order; post-war criminology was not a more honest attempt at mapping modernity it was an integral part in shaping and excusing it deflecting attention from those who ‘kill facelessly, with pen and ink and telephone…Men of blood they are nonetheless’.

 I can think of no closer analogue to the contemporary notion of the serial killer than the entrepreneur; both function prominently within our culture, both work dialectically with one another, strategically neutralising or emphasising the function and traits of the other given the particular conditions. The decadence of modern urban existence, the congenital weakness of particular subjects, the capacity of the strong and/or those who work hard to succeed, the lot of the weak to fail, the central importance attributed to self-aggrandisement, self-interest, brand recognition and promotion on social media.

Me on Free Thought FM

Was knocking around the Douglas Hyde Gallery today while I was passing through Trinners, leaving printed copies of my zine in relatively unassuming places. I noticed that Garrett Phelan’s latest was on so I dropped in only to meet the man and have a conversation about his Black Brain installation, which I still think about regularly

He was kind enough to let me on the air to talk about signal and education for a bit, here’s the soundcloud below

 

 

‘Some thoughts on Nan Z. Da’s ‘The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Criticism’ or; ‘Against Articles Beginning with the word ‘Against’’

Nan Z. Da’s in Critical Inquiry is the latest salvo in the endless digital humanities culture wars, a sub-section of the humanities in which we use computers and see how long we can sustain the same conversation we’ve been having since 1985. There’s a lot that Da writes that’s true, I have my own list of problems with what Da refers to as computational literary criticism (CLS) and a lot of it corresponds with Da’s but enough of it is sufficiently different that I felt motivated to write this far from exhaustive response. I’ll leave that to the people Da goes after.

So the notion that the field is plauged by insufficient amounts of bootstrapping, ahistoricism, the shortcomings inherent to the analysis of hundreds of thousands of novels (speaking for myself I’m totally uninterested in reading literary criticism written by someone who has not read the novels they’re quantifying) the suspect nature of network visualisations, topic modelling, reductive notions of influence which are definitely pervasive within the field, the dubiousness of mark-up are all well considered and I think I broadly correct. I think the fact that so much ink is spilled about digital humanities within higher education publications has much to do with the messianic tone in which stylometrists such as Moretti presented their work in the past. I think this is a problem which the field has to account for, and if we were in need of another reason to not read Moretti anymore, the lack of robustness in his quantitative work (if it could even be called that) would definitely be another. As Da writes in the piece’s opening paragraph, CLS can often seem tautological. The abscence of an intermediary scale between the macro at which the text is analysed and the micro at which it is read through which we might bring these two into a meaningful relation seems to me to be quite true; I’m sure a lot of people reading this are familiar with the bathetic tone of many stylometric publications’ ‘Results and Discussion’ sections. The only autononomously interesting thing I’ve ever turned up from my own analyses is that in the chapters in which Joyce introduces a woman narrator cluster with the very early sections of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, suggesting that Joyce writes his women characters in much the same way as he writes young children. Otherwise, a medical humanities study being run partialy out of UCD used supervised topic modelling to analyse a large corpus of British medical journalsin a bid to provide some historical provenance to the anti-vax scare discovered the language associated with disease is heavily inflected by race and the primary means through which disease is conceived of was in racial terms. (Yes, we probably didn’t need an algorithm to tell us the British are racist or Joyce’s representations of women are an embarrassment but I thought these were interesting).

The first thing I’d dissent from Da outright on is the failure to consider the gap between authorship attribution and stylometry, this being the different between forensic attribution studies and more exploratory approaches. Though this might seem like a hedge (‘I don’t have to be rigorous if I say I don’t have to be’) but this has been the most straightforward means through which I’ve gotten away from the tyranny of replication more towards a literary criticism without a narrowly conceived utility. These is a notable lack of a consideration of the implications of Burrows’ Delta method; the way Da describes it, it would seem as though the fixation on vocabulary was a totally arbitrary decision, but in fact it was adapted because of how robust it proved as a measure of authorship, I’ll put some of articles in the works cited which will all give an indication of just how successful Delta was, but in short, it demonstrated that a relatively small sample of the words in a corpus all tend in a highly significant direction from author to author and that authorial style is absolutely rooted in the relative frequencies with which these words are deployed. This might have helped focus Da’s consideration of the value of word frequencies in Shakespeare’s plays for instance. I absolutely agree that in their own terms they’re insufficient, they need to be paired with historicisation, context, the state of the art and most critically, sensitive close readings, and many literary critics might think there’s more direct routes which I completely understand.

Replicability is the point at which I think more structural concerns need to be introduced. Just from my own anecdotal experience between a handful of Irish institutions, conversations at conferences, etc. I really do have to say the notion of stylometry as some kind of cash cow is vastly overstated. A lot of the articles which are cited to this effect are the products of individual and intra-institutional score-settling. I’d like to see some actual statistics to demonstrate that the p-values (lol) are actually of an order of less than 5% chance and that extravagantly funded literary labs are cropping up at anything like a rate which could be considered statistically significant.

I am a bit more worried for example, about the use of text analysis within the context of political science. There’s no shortage of publications out there which are attempting to collapse the distinction between Nicolas Maduro and Donald Trump as political actors, and again just in my opinion, I think computational literary criticism gets a disproportionate amounts of flack considering how successful the anti-democratic project of promoting ‘populism’ as a category has been in Natural Language Processing. This is why the cheap rhetorical connections of quantitative literary criticism with the NSA or amazon are so irritating, where is the awareness of the material facts of the economics into which our universities are locked? How many graduate students on your campus are being funded by private companies to demonstrate the health benefits of a noodle brand or skin cream? (These are real examples) Does your university have investments in weapons manufacturing, cigarette companies? Ethical critiques are all well and good, but I think we need to start somewhere more fundamental than ‘you are reproducing hegemonic forms of knowledge-production’. Just in my opinion, I think a lot of the digital humanities as vanguard of neoliberalisation represents a means for the humanities to wash their hands of all responsibility in the contemporary decimation of universities qua educational institution.

Finally, finally, the closing arguments about how people just invent means of measuring things and then talk about them in roundabout ways doesn’t meaningfully differentiate stylometry from the rest of academia for me.

Works on Delta

Argamon, S. “Interpreting Burrows’s Delta: Geometric and Probabilistic Foundations.” Literary and Linguistic Computing23.2 (2007): 131–147. Web.

Burrows, J. “All the Way Through: Testing for Authorship in Different Frequency Strata.” Literary and Linguistic Computing22.1 (2007): 27–47. Web.

 —. “Questions of Authorship: Attribution and Beyond: a Lecture Delivered on the Occasion of the Roberto Busa Award ACH-ALLC 2001, New York.” Computers and the Humanities37.1 (2003): 5–32. Print.

— . “‘Delta’: a Measure of Stylistic Difference and a Guide to Likely Authorship.” Literary and Linguistic Computing17.3 (2002): 267–287. Print.

Eder, Maciej. “Visualization in Stylometry: Cluster Analysis Using Networks.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities32.1 (2017): 50–64. Web.

 — , and Jan Rybicki. “Do Birds of a Feather Really Flock Together, or How to Choose Training Samples for Authorship Attribution.” Literary and Linguistic Computing28.2 (2013): 229–236. Web.

Elliott, Jack. “Whole Genre Sequencing.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities32.1 (2017): 65–79. Web.

Evert, Stefan et al. “Understanding and Explaining Delta Measures for Authorship Attribution.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities32.suppl_2 (2017): ii4–ii16. Web.

Hoover, David L. “Quantitative Analysis and Literary Studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 1–12. Print.

— . “The Microanalysis of Style Variation.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities32.suppl_2 (2017): ii17–ii30. Web.

Ilsemann, Hartmut. “Forensic Stylometry.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities17.3 (2018): 267–15. Web.

Jannidis, Fotis et al. “Improving Burrows’ Delta — an Empirical Evaluation of Text Distance Measures.” 2015. Print.

Rybicki, Jan. “Vive La Différence: Tracing the (Authorial) Gender Signal by Multivariate Analysis of Word Frequencies.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities31.4 (2016): 746–761. Web.

— , and Maciej Eder. “Deeper Delta Across Genres and Languages: Do We Really Need the Most Frequent Words?.” Literary and Linguistic Computing26.3 (2011): 315–321. Web.

Smith, Peter W H, and W Aldridge. “Improving Authorship Attribution: Optimizing Burrows’ Delta Method*.” Journal of Quantitative Linguistics18.1 (2011): 63–88. Web.

Signal: A Zine on the state, state media and reaction

 

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 20.41.01I’ve been working on a longer bit of writing for the past while based on an interest I have in old (Irish) radio broadcasts, the politics of (Irish) state-formation and (Irish) hegemony and all that. To this end I’ve been writing a sequence of monologues which are the result of transcriptions from primary sources, cut-ups, cutting togethers and outright fabrications. The result is Signal, and because I have no notion where something like this would be published, I’ve decided to print a few hundred of them off myself and distribute them to interested parties. Where these interested parties are, I’ve no idea, so I’m just going to leave them around the place in Dublin and here in .pdf form. If you would like a print copy, email me your address at cbeausan@tcd.ie and I can get it to you

signal

Vegan Spice Bag Recipe

Serves 2, roughly

Since I’ve gone vegan I’ve very much missed my old vegetarian spice bag recipe with the deep-fried halloumi so this represents an attempt to sub in something else for it, in an otherwise perfect recipe.

Ingredients

250g tofu, cut into roughly thumb sized rectangles

4 medium sized spuds, ideally maris piper, skin on, cut into thin chips

100g green beans

100g mangetout

1 onion, diced

100 ml apple cider vinegar

100 ml dark soy sauce

100 ml honey

4 star anise

olive oil

2 tsp cinnamon power

whatever fresh or dried herbs you have to hand (I’d go for basil and oregano)

1 piece of fresh ginger, thumb-sized

garlic

a few lemons

Cumin seeds

Paprika

Cayenne Chili Powder

Fennel Seeds

Caster sugar

Cornmeal

salt (some regular, some of that coarse unground stuff too)

pepper

1/2 tsp dried chilli powder

4 red chillies, finely sliced

2 red peppers and 2 green peppers, cut vertically into thin strips

nutritional yeast (if you, like me, are quite dubious about nutritional yeast, it actually works quite well here)

white miso (apparently tahini or sesame oil can do you for this if you’ve none to hand)

1 banana shallot, cut vertically into thin strips (if your local doesn’t have one of these, i’m informed you can approximate the flavour profile with a small onion and a few cloves of garlic)

1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder (if your local doesn’t have this, you can do one up by grinding and mixing together one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of cloves, one star anize, one teaspoon of (toasted) szechuan peppercorns and one teaspoon of (toasted) fennel seeds

Method:

First you need the tofu marinade. I have had the most amount of success with an attempt to sub in for some feta cheese which you can find here and which involves getting the miso, freshly squeezed juice, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, nutritional yeast, a selection of herbs, a few cloves of garlic (grated), some salt, pepper and chilli flakes, throwing them in a bowl with the diced tofu, and leaving them all together in a bowl in the fridge for as many hours as you possibly can. I like to leave three days, but I’m sure one will do.

Once your one or three days are up, drain the tofu, get another bowl and drop in a roughly even mixture of cornmeal, paprika, salt, pepper or whatever other spices you generally like together. Put a pan onto high heat and toast a spoonfull of fennel seeds and a spoonful of cumin seeds for about a minute or two, until they start releasing their aromas and before they get too brown. Grind these up and them to the bowl, then roll the marinaded tofu around in there till they’re evenly covered, adding a dash or two more of paprika or cayenne or both, depending on how spicy you want the tofu to be. Add the lemon juice and 2 ground star anise to a pan on high heat, then add as much oil as you need to get the tofu cooked. Turn them over after two or three minutes, once they’re done drain them on a wire rack or they’ll get damp.

Frying the chips is a bit of a subjective procedure, you can either put them in a deep-fat fryer or just in a pan with enough oil that a good few can be totally submerged at once. Probably safer to do it in batches, mind not to burn yourself. Alternatively, if you like them less greasy, toss them around in a bowl with a selection of the seasonings listed above, and a bit of oil. After that you can put them in the oven at 200C for fifteen twenty minutes or till they’re browned to satisfaction.

Combine the peppers, banana shallot, two tablespoons of coarse sea salt, one teaspoon of pepper, the chinese five-spice powder, chilli powder and red chillies. Put these in a pan with the apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, honey, 2 ground star anise and cinnamon on medium to high heat. Grate in the ginger and garlic cloves, then add the green beans, mangetout and onions and cook for 10–12 minutes or until the veg is tender. Stir well consistently while cooking.

Throw in the chips and tofu and mix until everything’s hot then serve.

Ellen Mieksins Wood and Marxist historiography 

I wanted to throw a few words into a post on the themes identified in the title because I’ve had a few problems with Wood’s various works on the fallacies of vulgar stagism in Marxian historiography that I’ve not seen flagged in any of the usual places. Even with only the smattering of Marx and Engels I’ve been picking through over the past while, there’s a fair bit that doesn’t quite wash for me, and I’d like to thrash it out over the course of the next few paragraphs. I do so in the hopes that someone more invested in the factional disputes between various schools of Marxian historiography, the Swezys, Hiltons and Polyanis, will take a more systematic and lengthy perspective.

The terms of Wood’s argument, as I see it in The Origin of Capitalism, as well as the essays collected in both Democracy Against Capitalism andThe Pristine Culture of Capitalism,is to challenge the idea that capitalism’s emergence is related to cities, the bourgeoisie, the expansion of markets and industrialisation. This vision, whereby feudal modes of production are swept away by a rising, urban-based bourgeois class, did not, from the perspective of Perry Anderson, happen as extensively in England and it did not therefore pave the way for the sort of purging of feudal remnants that one can see in other jurisdictions, such as France. Wood reverses the schema, revising the centrality ascribed to the industrial revolution, arguing the changes which the first stage of the industrial revolution were ‘in any case modest’ (what about the second one?) and that in identifying capitalism’s starting point, we need to begin with agrarian workers in England, whose unique relationship to the means of subsistence, enclosure and landlords inculcated what she refers to as capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’. In this sense, both Marx, and his subsequent readers, have attributed too much centrality to the power of capitalism to eradicate feudalism and construct something wholly new. Wood argues that the writings in which Marx describes this process are ‘heavily dependent upon the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and contrasts sharply with Marx’s mature critiques of political economy’. What this older materialism looked like, where the new materialism originated from in respect to the old, the social function these played, or how it all relates to the polemics Marx was then directing against the idealism of the young Hegelians, is passed over, and in so doing I think Wood abides by a reading of Marx that one finds in a lot of literary criticism, wherein there is disproportionate emphasis given to disparate, metaphorically charged passages in The Communist Manifesto which allow for allow for the free elaboration of idealistic concepts.

Capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’, from Wood’s perspective, represent a movement away from coercive methods of surplus value extraction under feudalism, to a sequence of market incentives, whereby landlords could begin to depend on the expanding productive capacities of their tenants. With regard to the definition of capitalism, I am a bit more convinced by Marx’s writings on surplus value, and the idea that markets are non-coercive or can incentivise people to be more productive via competition seems to me to cede ground to right-wing notions of markets as egalitarian technologies, I certainly wouldn’t attribute an expanding productive capacity to capitalism in itself. In citing evidence of pre-capitalistic markets, Wood refers to the processes of ‘buying cheap and selling dear’ in fragmented markets, as if this was somehow a neutral undertaking, as if fragmentary markets doesn’t often act as a means of augmenting the extraction of surplus value. On a final literary-critical note, ‘laws of motion’ seems to me to be a peculiar metaphor to utilise, since its a naturalising one, comparing capitalism to the laws of physics, which capitalism does not have, becuase its an historical configuration.

Wood’s project therefore seems to orientate itself around the extraction of an essentialised capitalism from its associations with the bourgeoisie and the city. This tendency to take capitalism apart from historical phenomena it was, in fairness coterminous with, such as landlords extracting rent, leads to Wood talking about international trade, shipping, trading posts, settlements, monopolies, militaries and trading privileges as ‘extra-economic’. For Wood, capitalist economies are particular to their national and domestic contexts and therefore the plundering of South American silver is not ‘capitalist’. I do sort of wonder about the worth of trying to find a category to give a name to exploitation which can be isolated from the fact of imperial dispossession.

I hope that the limitations of this perspective would be obvious, but in case they aren’t, I’ve placed an extended quotation from a letter Marx wrote to the Russian magazine Otecestvenniye Zapisky 1877below, wherein Marx talks about someone who has generalised his theory of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe to a broader context. I base my scepticism with regard to broad sweeping accounts of historical development which seek to isolate phenomena primarily on these two paragraphs:

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)

Given Wood’s focus on Britain, it is perhaps not surprising that Wood doensn’t have much time for Marxists who criticise the Eurocentric nature of Marxist historiography. These historians, who are unnamed, receieve cursory dismissals along the lines of ‘they think we’re all racist’ and are then being accused of themselves being responsible for the phenomenon they wish to critique. There’s a bit more of this Spiked-type reasoning in her texts whereby a lack of sourcing means ‘the Left’ is being said a lot, and thereby encompassing, as it usually does, the far left, revisionists,bourgeois academics, and Blairites, which means you get sentiments along the lines of ‘Marxists don’t understand that public services are actually good’, and I think a bit more attention to context would be required here. This tendency to not name names means that in general the provocativeness of Wood’s ideas seem to exist in an inverse relationship to the amount of evidence she seems to be able to marshall in support of them, in for instance arguing that the plantation projects were market endeavours (they were state subsidised to varying degrees), that Ireland took on an empirical ideal in the British imagination, that revolutionary movements of the twentieth century are far less revolutionary than the French revolution was, or inverting the polarity of nineteenth/twentieth century cultural production, whereby the former is outward looking futurism, while the second is a nostalgic medievalism. This last one I’m writing part of my thesis on, and I would’ve liked a bit more discussion on how Wood situates this perspective relative to anyone notable who has written on it. Sleights of hand will crop up whereby ‘some Marxist historians associate capitalism with cities’, will suddenly become all Marxist historians have very fervently argued that all cities are fundamentally capitalist, and one begins to get the sense that the text is a lengthy buffetting around of various orders of strawmen.

In the final chapter of The Origin of Capitalism we have some more amorphous critics who have all told us that capitalism is bringing an end to the nation state. The state’s continued existence, Wood argues, lies in capitalism’s dependence on ‘supports’. Uniquely, as a mode of production we are told, capitalism requires stability, and it finds this support in the nation state. This is also why militarism is dying out, because coercive measures are no longer used anymore because bombs can’t create the sort of stability capitalism needs in order to exist. This is I think symptomatic of the difficulties with Wood’s approach, in locating capitalism as something which has ‘gone wrong’, rather than something integral to the coercive nature of private property. Compare the centrality the philosopher John Locke recieves in justifying landlordism, without just considering landlordism as a fairly substantial force for itself. For a text so concerned with Marxian historiography, it is oddly short on actual class-based analysis.