Phil Gyford’s website

London Review of Books, 20 April 2006

I’d really like to read a book about revolutions. Describing how a variety of major popular uprisings have happened; what sparked them off, who took part, what worked, what didn’t, what lasted. Are there common factors among them? If you know of such a book, do let me know. In the meantime, the current London Review of Books has ‘Martial Art’ (subscribers only again) by Bruce Robbins, a review of Science of Science and Reflexivity by Pierre Bourdieu, which contains these two paragraphs:

Consider Bourdieu’s account of the events of May 1968. Like most of his analyses, this one emphasises local dynamics — within the university in this instance — at the expense of more general political issues. A large proportion of the most active protesters, he notes, were students and young faculty members in new disciplines such as sociology (for men) and psychology (for women). These young and fragile disciplines could not satisfy students’ expectations of further employment. Many of the frustrated students came from the dominant class, but their educational achievement did not correspond to their social origin. Thus the key actors in the protest were “all those who have not managed to obtain social recognition of and reward for their inherited cultural capital.” Underlying the protest, in other words, was a failure of the pattern of class reproduction. What was happening in the world outside the university was almost irrelevant.

The students’ experience of “downclassing” may have driven them to sympathise with those worse off than themselves, but this for Bourdieu is the sad truth about the way left-wing politics operates in general. Those who are subordinate within the field of power declare their solidarity with those who are subordinate in society as a whole: the truly powerless. The relatively minor grievances of certain intellectuals lead them to declare their solidarity with, say, the proletariat, who have altogether larger problems, and only in this indirect fashion do movements for revolution and reform come into being. The protesters are trying to negotiate a better position for themselves among the intellectual class; those who are truly dominated initiate nothing. The depth of Bourdieu’s cynicism appears in an afterthought: alliances like those between students and workers have more chance of succeeding, he says, “if the partners … have less opportunity to enter into direct interaction, to see and speak to each other”.

Well, it’s a start. There’s also a review (free) by Hilary Mantel of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr, which sounds like a good overview of the whole event.

Completely unrelated, Peter Campbell has a piece (free) about the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and Tate Modern’s exhibition on Albers and Moholy-Nagy. I very much liked this bit about the contradiction of all this “modern” stuff being so old:

Because the look they [the early Modernists] established for such things is so familiar, because they still feel ‘modern’, you can be taken aback by the way the originals of everyday things have aged. Time adds a glow to old walnut and elegance to faded tapestries, but the discoloured plywood of a Breuer chair or the chipped paint of an Aalto, the yellowed paper of a Le Corbusier drawing or photographic prints which have begun to fade, have the poignancy of wounded veterans at a memorial parade. (Some objects are luckier in their materials: Hermann Gretsch’s white porcelain tableware, for example, or the Tatra T87 saloon car are showroom-fresh.)

Finally, from Daniel Soar’s review (free) of Patrick’s Alphabet by Michael Symmons Roberts, I wanted to remember this about Weegee: “He used a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, preset for instant shooting to 1/200th of a second at f16 with a focal distance of ten feet.” That’s all.

Friday 5 May 2006, 10:04am

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