Vol. 4 No. 3 · 18 February 1982
From Richard Webster
SIR: ‘Ten years ago,’ wrote Borges in 1940, ‘any symmetry with a semblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?’ Forty years later philosophers continue to construct their own versions of Tlön and intellectuals continue to be entranced by them and to submit to them. Often they do not do so until they have first projected onto whichever rigid intellectual system is in question – whether it be Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Althusserian Marxism, or any other version of mechanical idealism – their own intellectual flexibility and vitality, their own aspirations and social hope, their own historical awareness or poetic sensitivity. The great danger of this pattern of projection, a pattern which lies at the heart of all messianic movements, is that, in succumbing to it, we give authority to the very people who may ultimately seek to ignore, denigrate or attack the qualities and values we have projected onto them. It is to the climate which results from the prolonged indulgence of such intellectual self-deception that Edmund Leach’s bullying and arrogant review of Graham Martin’s The Architecture of Experience belongs (LRB, 17 December 1981).
In the course of being disgruntled about Martin’s book Leach reaffirms the view that ‘British children who devote their energies to learning how to assemble a motor-bicycle or write computer programs may have a better grasp of reality than teachers who expect them to write essays about the plays of Shakespeare.’ From the context it is evident that Leach is putting forward a kind of epistemological axiom according to which, in an ideal world, the whole of our intellectual housekeeping would be conducted. In an expanded version his argument would run something like this. ‘Since the social and psychological reality which lies behind our everyday existence resembles the affectless and value-free structure of bicycles more than it does the affective and value-loaded substance of Shakespeare’s poetry, then taking bicycles apart and putting them together again is a more appropriate apprenticeship for the social scientist than reading literature could ever be. Indeed, mathematical and mechanical models are the basic tools of all knowledge. Anyone who expresses doubt about this self-evident truth must be either a fool or a literary critic and is certainly the mortal enemy of 20th-century rationality. The discipline of literary criticism should now be recognised for what it is: a luxury refuge for the soft-hearted and the soft-headed who prefer the soft-bedded luxury of emotional indulgence to the bare boards, cold baths and other rigours advertised in the latest prospectus of the social sciences. In a time of higher education cuts and government austerity it is to such rigours as these that we must increasingly submit ourselves; they will be even better for our souls than unemployment, although this latter fate might well, without too much loss to our intellectual culture, be meted out to literary critics. Leach does not quite say all this but this seems to be what he believes.
There are, of course, many conservative arguments which literary critics might advance against this view. But there is also a radical argument – one which is concerned not only with the vitality of criticism but with the vitality of the social sciences as well. For in their present state the social sciences are dominated by mechanical models and reductive, crypto-theological theories. As long as the arena in which social scientists operate remains cordoned-off from real history, and the unruly facts of human experience and affective behaviour are ruthlessly policed and frequently detained without trial by ideology which masquerades as methodology, the rule of such reductive theories will remain unchallenged. Let those facts emerge with their full force, however, as they do in many of the most intimate areas of human behaviour, and as they do also in poetry and literature, and all those cherished theories and elegant abstractions will soon lie in shattered fragments on the ground. Only then can the true work of theory-building begin, and theories which mystify social reality can be replaced by theories which possess genuine explanatory power.
This cannot be done until the social sciences admit fully the reality of affective behaviour. The particular value of our literary tradition to our intellectual culture lies in the manner in which it does this and thus affirms the very dimensions of human and social reality which are denied elsewhere. So long as that denial is maintained by the social sciences there will always be works of literature which contain more psychology than psychology, more history than history, and some which, in addition, contain more democracy than any parliament. One such work is King Lear. Another, from our own times, is D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel.
It is because of the enduring power of the literary imagination that it might once have been suggested that a literary education, or one which included a strong literary component, was the best training that any aspiring social scientist could have. If that view is now in doubt it is because many of those who have been entrusted with teaching literature in our universities appear not to understand the nature of that trust, and to understand still less the wealth of the literary tradition of which they have become the guardians. Edmund Leach, who returns now and then from the remotest corners of the wilderness of the social sciences to prophesy to us, should not worry so much about the decadent sensuality of literary critics. For many of them have long been clamouring to join him. See how they are leaving the oasis in droves and walking deep into the barren desert carrying their tyre-levers and their spanners in their hands. Edmund Leach should really not grow so depressed. Social anthropology will not be on its own for long. Soon, if we are not careful, literary criticism, too, will be a branch of higher bicycle mechanics and everyone can assemble bicycles together, regretting only that, in this part of the desert at least, there is no oil.
Those who, craving distinction, seek to purge themselves of ordinariness will always follow prophets into the wilderness. Into whichever wilderness its critics may wander, however, literature itself will remain, and its wealth will remain an ordinary wealth. Some works of literature have always possessed the capacity to evoke the whole range of human emotions. At the same time novelists, dramatists and poets have observed the intricacies of human character which are associated with these emotions. They have evoked the complexity of human relationships and human society, and the mystery of human motives, and have gone a long, long way towards unravelling those complexities and solving that mystery.
It is, no doubt, a mark of our own poverty that we should need to resort to literature at all in order to experience our own nature fully or meditate fruitfully upon it. But we cannot afford to conceal that poverty. For when we do that it is never very long before we begin to mistake poverty for wealth, and parade it and invest it and multiply it as though it were our only capital. That indeed is something we began to do long ago. Edmund Leach now calls upon us to extend our investment in poverty. His call should be resisted.
Vol. 4 No. 4 · 4 March 1982
From Edmund Leach
SIR: In the course of his long tirade your correspondent Mr Webster (Letters, 18 February) provides no evidence that he has read the book which he seeks to defend against my allegedly unjust attacks. This puts me at some disadvantage, particularly since the main target of Webster’s venom is a passage in my review in which I was defending myself against an entirely gratuitous personal attack by Gerald Martin!
In point of fact, I am even more of a philistine than Webster seems to imagine. I hold it to be an unassailable fact of history that connoisseurship and patronage of the arts is a luxury which can only be afforded by affluent societies and, in class-stratified systems, by affluent sectors within those societies. Furthermore, although I am not a committed Marxist (in any of the accepted senses of that term), I certainly hold that the infrastructure of society is basic. Access to the management and control of the means of production appropriate to the available technology is the only sure way to avoid exploitation at the hands of those who control such resources. In a just society access to such technological knowledge should therefore be maximised and systematically credited with the highest possible social value. Engineers are more important for our survival than art critics. Indeed any society which invests heavily in creating art critics instead of engineers will simply go bankrupt and end up with neither. British society is still affluent to a precarious degree, but because we have for years paid insufficient attention to the training of ordinary people in the technological necessities of a modern society we are rapidly ceasing to be so.
I hold it to be axiomatic that one of the prime purposes of education is to teach the individual how to enjoy himself/herself. I don’t know whether Messrs Martin and Webster would accept this axiom, but it seems quite clear they both arrogantly believe that the enjoyment which they themselves derive from the study of literature is morally virtuous whereas the enjoyment which I derive from writing computer programs and fiddling with machinery is morally debased. I categorically reject that view. I consider that it is of the utmost importance that every child should be shown how to gain enjoyment from doing things which are ‘necessary’ in an economic sense even if in the last resort that means the abandonment of the study of the arts altogether.
Some readers of the LRB may find such views shocking but in fact we have no choice. Unless British education is given a much more drastically technological slant in the very near future, then it will only be a decade or so before we shall be unable, as a nation, to sponsor any study of the arts of any kind.
Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982
From Robin Kinross
SIR: The exchange between Richard Webster and Edmund Leach (Letters, 18 February and Letters, 4 March) is further evidence of the continuing and useless conflict between the ‘human’ as found in literature and the scientific-technical. It is an argument that seems peculiar to British life – the Leavis-Snow ‘two cultures’ debate being only the most notable recent instance. The two positions are entrenched and apparently unbridgeable. However, there is an area of activity and thought that could provide some common ground: this is in the practice of design. As a publisher of books on design, I hesitate to say this, knowing the enclosed and intellectually impoverished character of the British design world, but it is in designing that the technical gets imbued with values, even those of the high-serious kind that Richard Webster elaborates. The designer is exactly that person who can break out of the dichotomy presented by Edmund Leach: the false choice of either ‘engineer’ or ‘art critic’. In designing, play with machinery or with a computer program takes on a human and social purpose – something absent from the vacant ‘fiddling’ of Sir Edmund’s description.
If one had to support these claims for design, one could mention specific achievements and products – or, more confidently (in the context of a literary-intellectual publication), one could point to the tradition of design thinker-practitioners that includes Patrick Geddes, W. R. Lethaby, Walter Gropius, Lewis Mumford (this last the clearest exponent of a human-technical vision). Currently-producing contributors to this tradition would include Tomas Maldonado and Norman Potter: quite different from each other, but both substantial and necessary figures. The fact that very few readers of the London Review will have heard of these last two names (or even those of the first group) can be taken as evidence of the virtual non-awareness of design in British culture: lost in the gaps between fine art, literature, science, technology; at best, a poor and embarrassing relation to architecture.
Further recent evidence of this lack of awareness has been the sense of as-if-for-the-first-time naive enthusiasm evident in the reception of the ‘Art and Industry’ exhibition that inaugurated the Boiler-house project at the Victoria and Albert Museum – almost fifty years after Herbert Read’s book of this title was first published. (Was Read’s interest in design passed over, as a further sign of superficial polymathy?)
The problem is an educational one, no doubt – and there are signs that design is starting to be tackled seriously in the secondary schools. One supposes that the last places to get the message will be the universities, and the London literary establishment.
Hyphen Press, 73 Blenheim Gardens, Reading
From Richard Webster
SIR: Replying to imaginary letters is sometimes easier than replying to real ones. The fact that Edmund Leach (Letters, 4 March) has taken so much trouble to reply to an imaginary one presumably indicates either that he has no answer for the letter which I actually wrote or that he does not understand the point I was making in it. I will try to put the point more clearly.
My letter was not concerned, as is Leach’s reply, with the relative economic usefulness of art critics and engineers. Nor was it concerned to condemn Edmund Leach for the entirely legitimate pleasure he may derive from fiddling with machinery. It was concerned, in part, at least, with Leach’s habit of mystifying social reality by using mechanical and mathematical models in his attempts to understand it. Readers who are easily beguiled might well conclude from the studied irrelevance of Leach’s reply that he has never indulged in this habit. In view of this, it seems necessary to underline the fact that he has and that he has done so on and off throughout his intellectual career. As long ago as 1959, in Rethinking Anthropology, Leach was urging his colleagues to think of ‘the organisational ideas that are present in any society as constituting a mathematical pattern’. Sounding remarkably like Jacques Lacan, who sought to use the structure of complex knots as a basis for a new geometry of the psyche, Leach went on to maintain that ‘considered mathematically society is not an assemblage of things but an assemblage of variables. A good analogy would be with the branch of mathematics known as topology which may crudely be described as the geometry of elastic rubber sheeting.’ Since 1959, it may well be that Leach has quietly allowed some of his wilder ideas to lapse. But the rod which, Moses-like, he once held out to his colleagues, was unmistakably the rod of mechanical reductionism. It was with that same rod, as I saw it, that Leach was seeking to chastise Martin’s book. If, as his letter obliquely suggests, Leach was in fact not doing this but was actually stretching the body of Martin’s book on a rack of cruel technocentric monetarism, then I can only apologise for my mistake.
Leach now says he holds it to be axiomatic that ‘one of the prime purposes of education is to teach the individual how to enjoy himself/herself.’ Coming from one of such a puritanical and utilitarian cast of mind, this sounds rather odd. It soon becomes apparent, however, that what he really means is that children should be taught how it is that they may draw pleasure from submitting willingly, pacifically and even eagerly to government by the cruel junta of the rational and the quantifiable, and that this should be done ‘even if in the last resort it means the abandonment of the study of the arts altogether’. What Leach seems not to have noticed, and what I was trying to point out, is that we have already started to abandon the study of the arts and that we have done so not openly but covertly by our commitment to reductive mechanical models and by our adoption, in structuralism, of a philosophy of reactionary repression which masquerades as a philosophy of liberation, a philosophy which provides a means of invisibly suppressing the subversive vitality of literature and replacing it by a pseudo-technical metaphysic.
Not all literary critics are intent on becoming what Leach aparently thinks university academics should be – the paid agents of a technocentric economy. But many evidently are. It was for this reason that I sought in my letter to defend, not so much the discipline of literary criticism, as literature itself. Contrary to Leach’s suggestion, the appreciation of literature is not something which depends on luxurious patronage. It depends only on a little ordinary humanity and the wealth of the human imagination.
Edmund Leach writes: Since I inadvertently initiated this bizarre correspondence, perhaps I may close it down by invoking my favourite 18th-century author in support of Robin Kinross. Vico maintained (contra Descartes and the majority of contemporary natural scientists) that only God can be expected to understand the natural world because God made it. On the other hand, Men can reasonably expect to be able to understand human society because Men made it. As the model for this argument, Vico claimed that only the carpenter who made it can truly understand the nature of a chair. We now know from Darwin and his successors that even God’s inventive originality is not inexhaustible and that living organisms are, by and large, topological transformations of other living organisms. This is true also of all human societies and of all man-made machines except that it is much more obvious. It is not ‘reductionist’ to argue in this way; it is just common sense.