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Politics and the Production of Theoretical Journals

‘POLITICS AND THE PRODUCTION OF
THEORETICAL JOURNALS’

In February 1979, the Radical Publications Group
organised a conference at the ICA in London about
current problems and opportunities for left publishing in Britain (see Radical Philosophy 22). The
conference concentrated on questions of marketing
(how to get a firm subscription base; how to expand
shop sales; how to improve distribution), and of
access (how unions might break the right -wing
newspaper monopolies; prospects of state support
for small publications, etc). The RPG has continued
discussing and planning in both these areas since.

But the February conference also revealed, negatively, a range of problems of left publishing that
could not be caught in the nets of ‘markets’ or
‘access’. These elusive, fugitive questions have to
do with the quality of a publication’s relations to its
audience, rather than the sheer size of its sales with the kinds of encouragements or discouragements
they give to potential readers and writers. It
seemed that most editorial collectives had run up
against such problems in some guise or other,
usually in debates over the use of long, difficult
words, or the balance between ‘introductory’ and
‘advanced’ articles, or between translations and
‘local produce’; it seemed also that many collectives
had had nasty, hurtful, confusing and unedifying
fights about them. But it was evident that no one had
managed to think them through in a clear and responsible way.

issues of New Left Review, and, most impressively,
the numerous publications associated with the Left
Book Club, with its tens of thousands of members,
thousands of local study groups, and the problem of
not being able to accommodate their readers’

rallies in such smally premises as the Albert Hall.

Why, we wondered, is such a movement impossible
today? … if indeed it is. And in any case, what
did it achieve, apart from making us feel envious
forty years later.

The next session dealt with the character of the
theories propagated in left journals over tl).e past
ten years, and especially the way in which the
pedestalling of Althusser caused a lurch towards
increaSingly abstract philosophical questions, glibly
justified in portentous terms of ‘politics’ and ‘theoretical practice’ – a phraseology whose hermetically
sealed tautologies effectively suffocated all reflection on the practical effects and contexts of journal
production and of left theoretical writing generally.

The third session opened some psychological perspectives, pointing out that anyone who engages in
intellectual work in general, or left theoretical
writing in particular, has to have, or adopt, certain
forms of subjectivity, or neurosis, or emotions,
and urging that it is artificial and indefensible to
treat these matters as if they were irrelevant to the
politics of left publishing.

So after the February conference, a small working
group was formed (Valerie Walkerdine, Mark Nash,
Jonathan Ree, Julian Henriques, Wendy Hollway) to
prepare a meeting to fill this gap. The day school
on ‘Politics and the Production of Theoretical
Journals’ was eventually held at Birkbeck College
London on Saturday 22 September 1979.

The final session broached the problem of ‘audience
theory’, and defined various choices that writers
make about the roles in which they cast their
readers – as admiring, humbled spectators, as
potential participants or co-conspir?tors, and so
forth – choices which, nearly always, are passed
over unconsciously by left theoretical writers, and
taken by default – the result almost invariably being
unthinking mimicry of the audience attitudes implicit
in orthodox academic writing.

Recognising that the questions we needed to discuss
are hard to lay hold on, we decided that we could
not be content to list some topics and hope that when
people turned up on the day, there would be an
effective, spontaneous discussion of them – the most
likely result of that would be a voluble and confident
dis{!ussion of different and easier questions, less
slippery and more familiar than the ones we wanted
to consider. For the same reason, we did not want
to invite outside speakers to give expert lectures on
the problem – they too would be likely to veer off
into the ‘wrong’ problems. Instead, we held a series
of discussions within the working group, to sharpen
our collective sensitivity to the problems, and eventually divided the area into four topics, allocating
each of them to one member of the working group,
who prepared a talk On the topic in consultation with
the group as a whole.

The meeting ended on an interrogative note, with a
recognition of choices where formerly determinism
has seemed to rule. Someone in the audience said it
had been an exceptional day – thoughtful, explorative
informative and undogmatic, and quite unlike other
left meetings in their experience, and so on … well
perhaps my memory exaggerates, but it was a compliment that the organising group did not turn away.

But there was a more sombre side to the proceedings … as we noticed when we reflected that most of
those with effective control of left publications had
not bothered to turn up. We were in fact a rather
specialised group, with a strong representation of
people who are completely pissed off with the
academic drift evident in the recent development of
left theoretical publications, and little confidence of
any power to change it: in which case, this was
really a dirge for defunct aspirations. We shall see.

It seems to have worked. On the day, about forty

J onathan Ree

people turned up to hear four carefully thought -out,
co-ordinated talks, and to participate in surrounding
discussion. The first talk surveyed different kinds of
left journals in Britain since the 1930s, ranging
from those which aimed to create a specific and
ne cessarily small ‘intelligentsia’ (Scrutiny, Politics
and Letters, and New Left Review under Perry
Anderson) to those which hoped to address a mass
movement wuch as the New Reasoner; the early

40

CONTRIBUTIONS
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Business and editorial correspondence to:

Radical Philosophy, clo Ri chard Norman, Darwin
College, University, Canterbury, Kent
Reviews and books for review to:

Martin Barker, Humanities Department, Bristol
Polytechnic, St. Mathias, Fishpounds, Bristol

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