:: Article

Radical Thought

By Owen Hatherley.


Radical Thinkers: Set 4, Verso Books, 2009

Probably the most noble thing a publisher can possibly do is provide cheap paperback editions of important texts. All the first editions and Folio press embossed hardbacks in the world are, culturally if not financially, worth less than a single bundle of 1960s Penguin Classics, and the line of low-budget purveyors of enlightenment is a worthy and laudable one. From the Everyman’s Library editions of the 1900s-40s, with their arts & crafts aesthetic, aimed clearly at autodidacts rather than scholars, to the more famous and, recently, highly fetishised Pelicans and Penguins of the 40s-70s, this is a story of profit, no doubt, but also of human emancipation through mass production. You can see this especially in the Pelicans of the late 1960s, where hot-of-the-press accounts of the ‘new French revolution’ would go alongside texts on scientific management, with Herbert Marcuse next to Frantz Fanon next to A.J.P Taylor, and all of this conflicting and intoxicating information in a pocket-sized form, on cheap paper and with impeccably elegant modernist covers. This tradition has started to make something of a minor comeback, perhaps as a result of the obvious intellectual vacuity of a now decrepit Thatcherism, and the most encouraging example of this is Verso’s Radical Thinkers series.

It isn’t by any means the only recent example of cheap editions of major philosophical and political texts. After they bought the respected theory publishers Athlone, Continuum brought out the Impacts series, making texts by the usual suspects (Deleuze, Derrida et al) available for the first time at a reasonable price. Unfortunately the books suffered from headache-inducing design seemingly borrowed from a mid-90s video games magazine, were just an inch too expensive (usually retailing for over a tenner) and certainly an inch too big, not having the all-important ability to fit in your coat pocket. That isn’t an accusation that could be hurled at Penguin’s Great Ideas, which had elegant, if eclectic designs and an excellently compact size – but the often conservative selection (until the third series, philosophy ended with the impeccably Harry’s Place-friendly George Orwell and Albert Camus rather than anything more controversial) and the over-frequent use of extracts rather than full texts is a mark against them. Verso’s Radical Thinkers, which came after these two, has the sophisticated and serious selection that Continuum specialised in combined with a much more palatable price and size, and a particular point other than a mere collection of disparate knowledge – a compendium of left-wing philosophical and political thought, inoculating it against the ‘great idea’ of philosophy-as-self-help.

The design though, was generally a bit on the drab side, but the most recent fourth series changes that entirely – the covers by Rumors are beautiful things in white black and red, their irregular arrangements of titles enlivened by minimalist computer line drawings, all fitted to the particular book. So Georg Lukacs’ Lenin – A Study in the Unity of His Thought has an arrow drawing a circle; Guy Debord’s Panegyric has two lines holding up the title as a plinth; the lines form a ballot-box ‘X’ for Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, a missile for Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema, a map of Germany for Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama. As a work of graphic design, it’s spectacularly impressive, varied, consistent and instantly recognisable, and hopefully will be a major contributing factor to getting the aesthetically inclined to actually read the original books, rather than picking up their theory from secondary texts, art catalogues and hearsay – the series recognises that, as Wilde would have had it, only a fool does not judge by appearances, and scholarship need not sheath itself in the classical boredom imposed by designers in Paris or Harvard. In short, they look very sexy. As for the actual contents…

There is a certain amount of name brand-recognition going on here. Verso, since its soixante-huitard days as New Left Books, has long been a specifically political publisher, and unlike Continuum or Penguin, any eclecticism here is part of a wider project rather than mere accident. Some of the authors here are familiar from earlier entries in the series, the ‘classics’ of Verso’s roster. Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Theodor Adorno all make re-appearances. Their major contemporary draw, Slavoj Žižek, is absent for the first time, though he does contribute a lengthy new preface to Adorno’s In Search of Wagner. This is a selection from their capacious history which largely excises their contributions to polemic, geography and art in favour of a relatively narrow definition of Theory, most frequently that known (occasionally derisively) as ‘Continental Theory’. At times this is rather a shame, and one sometimes wishes that a Mike Davis or a David Harvey would appear here too, proving that the Marxism to which so many of these thinkers adhere has a practical as much as a theoretical application. This is a particularly acute question today, as the recent financial collapse leaves an obvious gap which the left hasn’t filled as yet, as complacently noted by the British press. One of the most consistently compelling of these books, Fredric Jameson’s collection of intellectually expansive essays on Postmodernism in media, politics and architecture, The Cultural Turn, makes the (since oft-quoted) contention that it is now easier for most of us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. So what do these Radical Thinkers offer in the context of a ‘crisis of capitalism’ that is a reality rather than a wishful prediction or an old lefty’s catechism?

As it is, the most directly political books here are as full of questions as answers. The 1924 Lenin, by literary critic turned revolutionary Commissar (both in the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and later in the similarly brief anti-Stalinist government of 1956) Georg Lukacs is a short, tersely argued tract in favour of a unity between theory and practice, which the author believed was embodied in the Russian revolutionary – it was written in the immediate aftermath of his death, partly as a pre-emptive attack on his future canonisation by the ‘Leninist’ state. Lukacs’ Lenin is a thinker who uses a period in exile to study Hegel’s Logic, and an underground militant who sleeps in workers’ basements and discusses with them the price of bread. Most importantly, the ‘unity’ of the title means that bread and the dialectic are of essentially equal importance in political strategy. ‘The concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not the opposite of ‘pure’ theory; on the contrary, it is the culmination of all genuine theory, its consummation, the point where it therefore breaks into practice’.

Could these titles themselves imaginably break into practice, then? Terry Eagleton’s Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism clearly would desperately like to. His study of the German thinker is constantly mediating between Benjamin’s complex fusion of Constructivist-inflected Marxism with Messianic mysticism and the political circumstances of his day (the book was published in the early ’80s, and it shows in the unashamed stridency and confidence of its rhetoric), but for an intellectual imagination which genuinely makes the reader see the world in a new way, you would be better off with Benjamin’s own works – here rather oddly represented by his most hermetic and esoteric work, on 17th century theatre, strange considering Verso could have brought out a cheap edition of his masterpiece of Modernist, urbanist fragments, One Way Street, a book where abstractions, ephemera and apocalyptic economics are montaged with the elliptical force of an El Lissitzky. Another cryptic choice is Guy Debord’s autobiographical Panegyric, which with its famously classical French prose constructed largely from quotations, its digressions into military strategy and its unabashed self-aggrandisement is if nothing else a testament to the glamour of a certain side of French political thought. Debord here presents himself as the last man capable of understanding everything from war games to fine wines to the media landscape of the 20th century. It’s an impressive enough performance, and in its vision of a prelapsarian Paris underground, it’s as riven with nostalgia and sentiment as a volume of Proust.

So in terms of the unity of theory and practice, the series is not perfect – but as an argument for theory it is enormously impressive. The works most obviously engaged in their ‘conjuncture’ are by Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and the aforementioned Fredric Jameson. Virilio’s scattershot collection of military and filmic correspondences is often thrillingly apocalyptic in its overload of information, contending through technological analyses and obscurely fascinating nuggets of history that as Anita Loos put it, ‘World War One was the reason for Hollywood’. Jameson’s The Cultural Turn manages to relate architectural or artistic form to politics and economics without ever falling into the pat divisions between base and superstructure – his discussions of architecture and financialised capitalism concentrate as much on the sordidnesses of rent or ownership as much as the dematerialised, allegedly transparent edifices that result. A book to have in the pocket on the DLR as it travels through the neoliberal dream-city of Canary Wharf. Jean Baudrillard’s 1990 The Transparency of Evil is a book of two parts. The second, on ‘Radical Otherness’, shows Baudrillard at his most easily mocked, full of windy pronouncements and wilful ‘pataphysical’ perversity, but the first section, ‘After the Orgy’ is ferocious – football violence, cloning, Michael Jackson, the internet (or rather its cutely dated French precursor Minitel) and the horrible sensation that nothing can happen anymore are all anatomised by a couch-bound cynic whose negativity is so corrosive that the seeming quietism could easily be mistaken for a simmering rage, where what columnists and politicians see as the ‘apathy’ of the masses is presented as ‘a profound disgust with the political order – though one which may well coexist with specific political opinions. Disgust for the pretension and transcendence of power, for the inevitability and abomination of the political sphere. Where once there were politcal passions, we find now only the violence peculiar to a fundamental disgust with everything political.’ As a way of transforming this formless disgust into educated critique, these books are a fine, cheap and decidedly elegant starting point.

Owen Hatherley is the author of Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009) and writes for the New Statesman, Building Design and New Humanist, among others. Read his recent interview with 3:AM here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 23rd, 2009.