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An Editor Speaks

AN EDITOR SPEAKS
J onathan Ree’ s ‘Editorial’ in R P2 0 des cribes
itself as a ‘farewell performance’ written to mark
his retirement as the magazine’s editorial secretary. Since the piece is a personal, occasional
statement, it may seem officious to take up further
space merely in order to indicate that this
Editorial’s views are not universally shared. But
Jonathan Ree’s text does not consist only of memories and reflections: it is also a fairly forceful
attempt to redirect the magazine’s policy along
certain lines which it sees as desirable. So some
discussion seems in order about what these recommendations mean and what arguments are put
forward in their favour. For me this is none too
easy, since for much of the ti me I find it quite
hard to grasp what the Editorial is talking about
and what it wants. This makes it almost impossible
to take issue with what one thinks it is saying
without either the risk of misunderstanding or the
-. temptation to employ the uncomradely weapons of
sympto matic reading in order to diagnose what
lies beneaih its protective aura of vagueness.

The difficulty starts·with the Editorial’s retrospective survey of the magazine’s career,
expounded in terms of the familiar schema of a
struggle between two ‘lines’. These are (1)
‘theory’ and (2) ‘cultural action’. Line (1) is said
to have been gaining an undue predominance, owing
to ‘an insidious dialectic that seems to be at work
within us all’. However, there are signs that this
perilous ‘drift’ is being halted. To a Kremlinologist or a China-watcher, such an analysis,
coming say from a prominent party official, might
signal the occurrence of dramatic upheavals. (It
does indeed bear some resemblance to the gnomic
formulae of Mao Tse.-Tung thought.) But here such
curiosity would be condemned, as so often, to feed
on speculation, since nowhere in the Editorial is
any actual pie ce of writing in the magazine (or any
other contemporary text) named as representative
of either of the warring lines. This remark should
not be taken as the disingenuous puzzlement of an
insider with his own axe to grind. In so far as any
valid generalisations are possible regarding the
magazine’s varied and polymorphous contents, my
impreSSion is that the overall mixture of genres,
topics and orientations has re mained strikingly
constant from 1972 to 1978. Certainly the contents
lists for previous issues yield -little evidence of an
advance (or an incipient retreat) of the wave of
‘theory’. Or else the ‘drift’, like other such insidious processes (the corruption of language, the
decline of British industry) turns out to have been
perennial. RP2 was already discussing the ‘Theory
of Ideology’, RP4 a ‘Theory of Truth’, RP5 a
‘Theory of Art’ …

Within this picture of a struggle of opposing
principles, the Editorial’s avowed purpose is to
throw its weight on the side of the underdog, line
(2): ‘cultural action’. But what is ‘cultural action’?

The Editorial’s characterisations of its favoured
strategy suffer from a monotonous, almost tautologous vagueness: ‘formation of a vital counterculture’; ‘shoving British culture out of its circle
of discreet and repetitious compacencies ‘; ‘to build
up an effective and durable counter-culture’; ‘the
38

Colin Gordon

valleys of cultural action ‘; ‘shifting the deadweight
in British culture’. Cultural action, moreover)
‘leads a fugitive, outlawed existence’: so much. so,
it seems, that its very identity is uncertain. (So
also is that of the adherents of line (1), ‘those
concerned only with the advancement of “theory”.

Mathematicians, maybe?)
One cannot help noticing the absence of any
political dimenSion to these formulations. I am
far from wanting to insist terroristically on the
‘primacy’ of the political, or advocating the view
(most popular precisely among radicals of a
counter-culture persuasion) that everything is
political, all human life is there. But the Editorial’s
ways of referring to politics where it does do so are
strangely dismissive. Either it comes in scarequotes: ‘a particularly reactionary ideology …

which revolves around pious pomposities about the
“autonomy of theory” or the “political” character
of ”theoretical interventions ”’; or it is found to be
beside the point, as with the old Marxist magazines and their lineS on ‘particular political
questions’; or it is presented as a psychological
category: impulses of ‘political anger’ and ‘political
awareness’, which are to be ‘developed’ in harness
with their counterparts, ‘philosophical anger’ and
‘philosophical awareness’. I am not suggesting that
failing to talk in terms of monopoly capitalism, the
state, the bourgeoisie, etc, amounts to a political
‘deviation’. Nor is silence concerning the-racism,
nationalism or sexis m of British culture’any proof
that’ an author dismisses or disregards these
matters. But the range of epithets which the
Editorial does apply to British culture, Leftis m and
philosophy are all disturbingly abstract, neutral and
aesthetic in tone: ‘discreet and repetitious complacencies ‘; ‘pious pomposities ‘; ‘dusty etiquettes ‘;
“coy precisions … self-indulgent conceits …

tedious repetitions ‘; ‘smug conventions ‘; ‘generalised
and self-referring’ theory. The terms are almost
interchangeable, and their derivation is unmistakably from the timeless discourse of bourgeoiS
satire and literary non-conformity, the excoriation
of the Establishment by (a fraction of) itself.

I do not want, indeed it would be impoSSible, to’

argue that what Jonathan really means by cultural
action is a bad or undesirable-aim for RP. Nor do I
want to impose a rival strategy. What the Editorial
is really doing, it seems to me, is not so much to
argue for an intelligible set of poliCies as to conduct
a series af complicated manoeuvres, deploying a
set of floating, sliding signifiers defined only by a
criss –cross of differences, oppositions – and
contradictions. My worry is that the effect of this
is not to open up new space for thought but rather to
establish an embattled void.

Leftis m and philosophy
The Editorial hands recent Marxism a small
bouquet for producing ‘a framework for ‘positive
investigations of society’. Yet the Marxism into
which it sees RP as drifting is held incapable of
investigating anything but itself; it is ‘selfreferring’, it will turil RP into ‘a mirror in which
Marxists gaze at their own reflections’. No reason
is given why Marxism should be a worthwhile

pursuit only outside the pages of RP – unless
perhaps philosophy itself is to blame for these
solipsistic fixations. Yet the ‘real. world’ which
RP’s Marxism is ch~rged with neglecting is not
that of society, but of ‘particular bourgeoiS disciplines’ – such as philosophy. RP is urged to ‘disturb’

philosophy with ‘left-wing criticism ‘; some minimal
set of political premises must be presupposed for
this, but how are they to be worked out without
falling back into the narcissistic toils of Marxism?

The Editorial represents RP’s optimal posture
towards philosophy and the Left in effect as a sort
of’ Kissinger-style super-diplomacy. The magazine
is to act as philosophy’s emissary to the Left, and
the· Left’s to philosophy. Little scope is offered for
either party to assess RP’s ambassadorial credentials, since the Leftism in question is entirely unspecified, while philosophy is characterised somewhat vacuously through its ‘ideals of clarity and
explicitness’, which are- to be ‘injected’ into Marxism. The arms of critique embodied in this portable
syringe sound like nothing so much as the fabled
analytical cutting-edge of the Oxbridge ·intellect.

Given such nebulous protagonists, can the
‘confrontation’ which RP is invited to ‘engineer’

amount to more than shaOOw:~,boxing?

Philosophy and theory
Theory, as the Editorial understands the-term, is
a menacing incursor into the life of the magazine.

But it takes some ingenuity to see what distinguishes
‘theory’ from philosophy, and the relationshio
between the two is rather tortuously set out. Philosophy, as we have seen, prizes clarity and explicitness. Theory, on the other hand, is ‘anxious to
avoid vagueness’, as well as concerned (to excess)
with truth. The drift towards theory is linked with
the disorienting compartmentalisation of knowledge
into ‘specialised academic disciplines’, yet at the
same time held responsible for RP’s neglect of
‘dialogue with particular bourgeoiS disciplines’.

I would say that the former point, at least, is
mistaken. One positive feature of the current boom
in theorisations of ideology, language-, discourse,
the ‘subject’, etc. is the way they transgress the
confines of existing ‘disciplines (perhaps thereby
disorienting some profeSSional philosophers).

Philosophy and Radicalis m – recent developments
The Editorial underlines the urgency of Leftist
dialogue with philosophy in Britain by stating that
the discipline is ‘in some ways rather healthier
than it was a few years ago’. This reverses the
diagnosis of the Editorial in RP16 (also by Jonathan
Ree) which pronounced orthodox British philosophy
in the spring of 1977 to be ‘feeble and emaciated;
it feeds on itself and becomes still thinner and
weaker’ .. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison tomake: Editorials, like party lines, are ephemeral
creatures, designed to fit the passing ‘conjuncture’

But it is surpriSing that the RP20 piece gives no
indication of the signs or causes of- our patient’s
unexpected resurrection. (The ‘mainstream’ philosophy of tre past is credited in equally cryptic
terms ‘with the little known’ achievement of inventing
the central ‘slogans’ of Marxism.)
The verdict on post-68 radicalism (the ‘student
movement’) is more severe. The old enthusiasms
have ebbed, or worse, lapsed into macrobiotic
emaciation. .. Even the women’s and gay movements are only ‘possible exceptions’ to this
gloomy vision. (why only ‘possible ‘-?) Apparently
nothing much else ha-s happened, apart from ‘some
intellectual gains’, and these only· at the cost of a

‘reactionary ideology of intellectual activity’. The
(unnamed) culprits here (the dreaded Althusse rians ,
no doubt) eSpouse a doctrine of the ‘autonomy of
theory’. Yet, once again, what the offending doctrine is supposed to be, or where it is to be found
expressed, we are not told.

Truth and inspiration
What can one make of such an array of nonconcepts, non-analyses and non-arguments, or of
such pronounce ments as that action must be guided
by ‘sound ideas’ but that ‘there is no point in -putting
forward good ideas if no one is going to take any
notice’ ? Perhaps a certain amount of platitude and
pontification is a recognised element of Editorial
licence, though this might seem a good argument
against the whole practice of editorialising. It may
be that all these comments are guilty of exploiting
the ‘unfair advantage’ that Jonathan Ree attributes
to the line of Theory with its ‘familiar academic
criteria of excellence and originality’, as against
line (2)-with its ‘awkward l!riteria about effective
cultural action ~ whatever these may be. Blft one
would like to know whether it is some peculiarly
academic notion of excellence that is thought to havt:

seduced us, or whetherthe very concern with
‘excellence’ is inescapably academic – and, either
way, what is wrong with being ‘academic’ in these
senses?

Another possible hypothesis is that the Editorial
is acting on its own principles. Some of these, if
taken at face value, seem to me to imply a rather
pessimistic estimate of the reader’s intelligence.

The Editorial says that the cultural action lobby
may want to publish articles which, although ‘less
true’ than one might desire, ‘might be more useful,
even inspiring, for readers’. B-eaders might accept
the promise of inspiration more gratefully if this
Editorial showed more concern about the connectedness of ‘usefulness’ and truth.

MEMBERS OF THE RADICAL
PHILO SOPHY GROUP WILL
GIVE PAPERS AT A DAY SCHOOL
TO ff l-ELD ON SAT. 3 FEB,10.30an
AT GOLDSMITHS’ CQLEGE NEW CROSS
LO NOON 5[14
Further details from
1

1

1

Madan SaruPI at
above add res s.

‘Yr
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