ReadySteadyBlog

Liberalism: Slavery, imperialism and exploitation – panel discussion with Domenico Losurdo, Robin Blackburn and Richard Seymour. Tonight, May 5th 2011, at King’s College London. Hosted by the European Studies Department in association with Verso Books.

In this definitive historical investigation of the formation of liberalism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Domenico Losurdo overturns complacent and self-congratulatory accounts by showing that, from its very origins, liberalism and its main thinkers—Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, Constant, Bentham, Sieyès and others—have been bound up with the defense of the thoroughly illiberal policies of slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and elitism. Losurdo probes the inner contradictions of liberalism, also focusing on minority currents that moved to more radical positions, and provides an authoritative account of the relationship between the domestic and colonial spheres in the constitution of a liberal order.

The triumph of the liberal ideal of the self-government of civil society—waving the flag of freedom, fighting against despotism—at the same time feeds the development of the slave trade, digging an insurmountable and unprecedented gap between the different races. Domenico Losurdo

Domenico Losurdo is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Urbino, Italy and the author of many books, most recently Liberalism: A Counter-History.

I'm not sure quite how I missed the existence of this one, but it was only when ambling around the LRB Bookshop t'other week that I came across Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Linebaugh, as I've doubtles said before, is the writer of one of my all time favourite history books, The London Hanged, as well as a fascinating history of piracy (The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, with RSB interviewee Marcus Rediker).


The publisher blurbs The Magna Carta Manifesto thusly:


This remarkable book shines a fierce light on the current state of liberty and shows how longstanding restraints against tyranny - and the rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law, and the prohibition of torture - are being abridged. In providing a sweeping history of Magna Carta, the source of these protections since 1215, this powerful book demonstrates how these ancient rights are repeatedly laid aside when the greed of privatization, the lust for power, and the ambition of empire seize a state. Peter Linebaugh draws on primary sources to construct a wholly original history of the Great Charter and its scarcely-known companion, the Charter of the Forest, which was created at the same time to protect the subsistence rights of the poor.

Since making some provisional comments on the (historical) novel and its definition the other week, I've been thinking more and more about the history of the novel (and of the book and, of course, of reading itself).


What should be on my reading list, then? Walter Allen's The English Novel, Margaret Doody's The True Story of the Novel, Ifor Evans' A Short History of English Literature and Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel, for sure. What else? I'm currently reading Robert Mayer's persuasive History and the Early English Novel and enjoying it thoroughly. Mayer argues:


... that the novel emerged from historical writing. Examining historical writers and forms frequently neglected by earlier scholars, Robert Mayer shows that in the seventeenth century historical discourse embraced not only ‘history’ in its modern sense, but also fiction, polemic, gossip, and marvels. Mayer thus explains why Defoe’s narratives were initially read as history. It is the acceptance of the claims to historicity, the study argues, that differentiates Defoe’s fictions from those of writers like Thomas Deloney and Aphra Behn, important writers who nevertheless have figured less prominently than Defoe in discussions of the novel. Mayer ends by exploring the theoretical implications of the history-fiction connection. His study makes an important contribution to the continuing debate about the emergence of what we now call the novel in Britain in the eighteenth century.

As noted earlier, Richard wonders "why we insist on having the word 'novel' encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño 'are certainly' novels? Are they?"


Well, the actual is real and all that, so, yes, Sebald and Bolaño's books are novels because that is what we call "a fictitious prose narrative of book length"! I don't think we should worry too much about how restrictive the term might be because, in practice, it has always been a wonderfully capacious and imprecise thing. And a perenially contested term to boot: indeed, each and every new work of art potentially contests it... 


According to my Shorter OED, short stories of the type contained in works like the Decameron and Heptameron were being called novels by 1566. By 1643 the definition had morphed to be "a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length, in which characters and actions representative of real life are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity."


What is going on in writing in English over this time? Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, (written circa 1470) was published in 1485, Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia in 1581, the first English translation of Don Quixote was 1620, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress 1678, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe 1719, Swift's Gulliver's Travels 1726 and Samuel Richardson's Pamela 1740 (dates thanks to Wikipedia). Sterne's Tristram Shandy first appeared in 1759 two years after the OED says the word novel was being used to describe "this type of literature."


The problem with the term, as Richard points out, following Josipovici, is that the Victorian novel became fused and confused with all that fiction could be ("Josipovici has argued that the narrative mode of the 19th century novel became so dominant... that we expect it to hold true for very different sorts of narratives") but, as we've seen, the coinage pre-dates the Victorian era by hundreds of years (Victoria reigned 1837-1901).


In The True Story of the Novel, Margaret Doody argues -- to quote the blurb -- against the "conventional view of the novel, arguing that instead of being the defining achievement of the English middle class, the novel is an older more cosmopolitan creation, a protean form that emerged from the ancient cultures of Africa, Asia and Europe." Doody says, "One of the most successful literary lies is the English claim to have invented the novel.... One of the best-kept literary secrets is the existence of novels in antiquity." Doody is arguing against Ian Watt whose influential Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) traced the rise of the modern novel "to philosophical, economic and social trends and conditions that become prominent in the early 18th century". But we can recognise the truth in Watt's history of the modern British novel whilst accepting Doody's corrections to his parochialism: "novels" pre-date novels, considerably pre-date Victorian novels, certainly pre-date the use of the word novel in England, and have, for sure, existed in many forms in many cultures (the work of Franco Moretti, the novel as a "planetary form" and all that, is important here).


What I don't know is "why a term of art derived from the French word for 'new' under a very historically contingent set of circumstances" actually arose -- what was deemed to be so new? Presumably -- and Josipovici has argued something along these lines -- Epic poetry, mystery/miracle plays and folk tales no longer functioned as successfully as they once did and what was new was that storytelling was becoming writing. Is that right?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel, the matchless historian of American working class life (author of And They All Sang: The Great Musicians of the 20th Century Talk About Their Music, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do amongst many other titles), has died at his home in Chicago, aged 96 -- more via the BBC.

Over at identity theory, Robert Birnbaum interviews radical historian Howard Zinn (author of A People's History of the United States):


This whole issue of optimism and pessimism, cynicism and utopianism—these issues will always be with us. Always you can draw up this double list. Always. You can draw up this double list you started to draw up, which is a terrifying list which shows we are still going to stupid wars and still violating people’s liberties and all of that is true. You can’t deny it. On the other hand, you can also draw up a list which says there is a greater consciousness today in this country about the rights of women than there was twenty years ago. There is a greater consciousness of people to sexual privacy. A greater consciousness about that. And the problem is—and there is a greater consciousness of the futility of war–it’s a consciousness which can be set aside when [there’s] a fusillade of propaganda from the government and it’s echoed by the press, and that’s what happened in the Iraq war (more...)

The Royal Court is celebrating playwright Caryl Churchill’s 70th birthday with a series of readings of her plays. Mark Ravenhill is directing a reading of her British Civil War play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, which I have a special fondness for as this is a rare cultural recognition of this heady period. Somehow the Civil War fails to register in our culture as a major historical moment – compare it with other revolutions and civil wars the world over. (It was because of its scrubbing from popular discourse that I wanted Verso to publish an edition of the Putney Debates last year, and I’m delighted to say it was a success.) This may be because, in one sense, it failed, but it did provide Britons with the first coherently expressed demands for democracy and freedom. So how strange that, despite the conflict, the tragedy, the religious enthusiasm and the utopian vision, you can count on the fingers of two hands the cultural product that has been prompted by, or even set in, this period.


My list is:


Literature: Paradise Lost (Milton); Marvell’s poetry; Englishmen with Swords (Montagu Slater); Sexing the Cherry (Jeannette Winterston); and Winstanley (David Caute)


Films: Cromwell (Hughes); Winstanley (Brownlow); To Kill a King (Barker); and Witchfinder General (Reeves)


Ok – so what am I missing?

Via Booksurfer: "This neat and informative Atlas comes courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries. Designed primarily as an interactive teaching aid, it is still useful to the general reader with an interest in the history of the books."

Today is the feast day of Saint Casimir, patron saint of Lithuania and of those suffering from, or wishing to avoid, the flea-borne plague. Love wikipedia!


And a word that means being full of fleas? Pulicosity!

I've just posted a fantastic (and huge!) interview with historian Ian Mortimer (most recently the author of The Fears of Henry IV) over on The Book Depository. It is a superb example, I think, of just how good e-mail based Q&As can be. Go read!