SIR: John Sturrock’s review of Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics (LRB, 22 November) raises the question as to whether an attitude of neutrality is desirable in the reviewer. Almost the only unambiguous virtue which Sturrock finds in Turkle’s study or Jacques Lacan is that the book it ‘heroically neutral’. It is to my mind unfortunate that Sturrock spends most of his review attempting to outdo Turkle in this peculiar and questionable brand of heroism. He seems to believe that, like the BBC when it is dealing with party politics, he is bound by the principle of balance. The balancing acts which he tries to perform are extremely difficult. Inclining his head to the one side, he tells us that Sherry Turkle’s book is ‘reasonable’; inclining his head to the other side, he tells us that it is ‘unreal’ and ‘too dramatic’. As he extends his left foot forward to deliver a critical tap to Lacan or Turkle, he seems intent on thrusting his right leg back in order to kneel at the shrine of one or both. The posture is not easy to maintain and there are a number of painful moments. Having assured us that Lacan’s professional mission has been the ‘recovery of the true Freud’, he goes on to tell us that ‘in Lacan’s version of Freud, the Ego dissolves.’ If someone told us that a theologian had set out to restore the true concept of the Holy Trinity and that in doing so he had decided to leave out God the Son, we might well feel that the situation called for some comment. Although he is in a similar position, John Sturrock seems to think that even to raise an eyebrow would be to commit an unpardonable breach of critical manners. Unperturbed, he goes on to observe that ‘the paradox of Lacan is that he is the immovably authoritarian source of anti-authoritarian ideas.’ Lovers of neutrality have a habit of discovering paradoxes where others can see only contradictions.
What is most interesting about John Sturrock’s review are the various hints he gives that he does not understand Lacan’s Ecrits. Lacan not only writes with a ‘disordered syntax’ but has managed to produce ‘a large volume of considerable obscurity’ which is ‘strangely arcane’. Yet Sturrock has been given the task of reviewing this study of Lacan because he is particularly well-qualified to do so. If he really does not understand Lacan, he might reasonably conclude that this is not because of his own inability to read, but because of Lacan’s inability to write, which perhaps only disguises a more serious inability to think. Sturrock claims that Lacan’s published lectures are ‘relatively easy going’ when set beside his Ecrits. That may be true but ‘relatively’ can be a big word. My own experience is that when Lacan exchanges tortuous prose for slightly less tortuous prose, his deep theoretical confusion simply becomes more apparent. Sturrock does not seem to be disturbed either by Lacan’s obscurity or by his theoretical confusion and he ends by suggesting that Lacan may revolutionise the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing? Is a man whose major theoretical writings are incomprehensible well-qualified to bring about a revolution in literary criticism?
There will always be some who declare that the Emperor really is wearing new clothes and the cult of Lacan will no doubt persist. It will persist for reasons similar to those which lie behind the success of the Divine Light movement, the Church of Synanon and the Moonies. The cult of neutrality will help to ensure that such movements thrive.
SIR: Wynne Godley claims in your first issue that ‘if we were not members of the EEC we could avoid gratuitous transfers abroad, with a large direct benefit to the taxpayer’ (LRB, 25 October). It is quite true that if we stopped paying out money to Continental farmers, we could, in principle, cut our domestic taxes. But one of the main points in Mr Godley’s article is that farmers in Britain are going to be squeezed by the strength of sterling just as industrialists are, but that under EEC rules we cannot help them with subsidies. He cannot have it both ways. If we leave the EEC, we can give increased subsidies to our farmers. But to do that, we will have to use the money which we have saved by no longer subscribing to the Common Agricultural Policy. The taxpayer will simply have moved from subsidising French farmers to subsidising British ones. That may be a much more congenial duty, but it doesn’t look much like a ‘large direct benefit’.
SIR: I was about to snort off a letter (normal run-of-the-mill Lefty yell at the preposterous clique of Rightist status quo apologists, academic muffins, middle-class hack luminaries of the sellotaped mind variety, jobbing literary jelly babies, fauna and flora floss rhymsters and upper-class loonies rehashing old Eton debates you appear to fill your pages with) when I realised, after frossicking through your first issue, it is nigh impossible to find yer actual address to post myself off to. Except for an Eng Lit locker somewhere in the bowels of University College. Has the editor some fear-filled unconscious desire not to be communicated with at all? Will all your letters be commissioned? Taking élitism beyond the bounds of Max Stirner’s theory?
And then I was just about to send off another letter about the London Review of Books’s lack of social awareness (you can imagine the sort of stuff: is there not a war in Belfast? Is not the entire East African Community crumbling under the heel of British Intervention? Are we not in the hands of the most reactionary government this country has seen for fifty years? And etc etc), when I came across a letter in your columns by Ian Hamilton. A letter seemingly devoid of decent human shame, penned in a self-flattering warble by an ex-literary editor who received the most notoriously prodigal state subsidy for a poetry magazine in an Arts Council decade. What was the sum? £179,000 for the past four financial years for the privilege of putting to sleep a certain magazine which achieved a kind of immortality for the number of excellent writers it had in fact excluded from its pages.
So I was on the point of drafting yet another letter about the exclusion of writers or subject-matter which might in any way reflect the aspirations of the working class (yes, quite so – where are review pieces by Lynton Kwesi Johnson, Naseem Khan, Jamal Ali, Bill Griffiths, Verity Bargate or Farrukh Dhondy, to name but a few?), when the truth dawned. Just so long as you can perpetuate your own kind (Clive Jerms on Nivel Dranreb, John Vincent on Jeremy Twerp etc) you give neither a sneeze in a handkerchief factory nor a SUS law in a Sowthall crowd.
No magazine can entirely have lost its way if it gets a letter like this. In his eagerness to give offence, Mr Hastings did not trouble to discover that the second issue was principally devoted to the subject of Ireland, and the ‘war in Belfast’ he says we are incapable of writing about. As for Ian Hamilton, he was responsible for two related literary journals over periods totalling 15 years. For the last five of these, according to Arts Council figures, he received state support at a level somewhat lower than this letter indicates.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: In the editorial in your first issue you make a statement of policy that begins by invoking the idea of democracy. This is followed by the rather less democratic assertion that ‘we are not in favour of the current fashion for the “deconstruction" of literary texts, for the elimination of the author from his work’ etc. Why? Your own critical position is defined only negatively, yet you are not prepared to take seriously those positions you define yourself against. You have begun by dismissing them – without any explanation or justification of why contemporary ideas in academic literary criticism are being assigned to the slur-heap of ‘fashion’.
In your next paragraph, you admit that literary journalism has ‘suffered a loss of confidence’. Is it not possible that – rather than the explanation you give of ‘national decline’ – the cause of this is to be found in the absolute separation that now exists between literary journalism and academic literary criticism? The latter, far from suffering a loss of confidence, is experiencing one of the most vigorous and serious developments in its history. How long can English literary journalism afford not to take contemporary intellectual thought seriously? Isn’t it even possible that your readers might appreciate some serious recognition in your columns of post-war critical thought? I don’t see why you should oblige them to accept the magisterial decree ‘We are not in favour …’ nor why potential contributors should be reduced to having to waste their energies objecting to such an editorial position. Why shouldn’t the London Review of Books itself be interested in thought?
Mr Young suggests that literary journalism is separate from the universities, and that academic criticism can be associated with a commitment to structuralist approaches which produces all that there is in the way of ‘serious’ ‘intellectual thought’. So far as it is intended to refer to what is now the case in Britain, this is mostly misrepre-sentation, of a familiar kind. His further suggestion that those who think differently cannot think at all shows a greater intolerance than any that could reasonably be attributed to this editorial.
The last two letters are not typical of those we have received. Readers might like to know that the response to the paper has, so far, been very good, and that the first two issues sold out at approximately 18,000 copies each.
Editor, ‘London Review’