Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989

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‘The Satanic Verses’

In common with, no doubt, many other of your readers, I have been keenly looking forward to the London Review’s reaction, in due course, to the matter of Salman Rushdie – and have been proportionately disappointed by what appears in your current issue. Robert Fisk’s ‘Diary’ (LRB, 16 March) is an interesting footnote to the affair of The Satanic Verses, but it is hardly more, even with his disclaimer at the start. It is reassuring to know that, together with ‘all sane and law-abiding people’ – Sir Geoffrey Howe, for instance – he deplores death-threats to authors. But, again perhaps like Sir Geoffrey, though he doesn’t think writers should be murdered for writing, he’s not going to get very excited about ‘freedom of speech, etc’.

Perhaps in the Middle East it is harder even than in most places for a sophisticated observer to see the wood for the trees. But here at least it seems clear that free speech is the real issue; and though of course it is one which transcends Salman Rushdie’s individual plight, and though other recent assaults on it have not been wanting, there seem to be intrinsic reasons why The Satanic Verses should be the storm-centre of this latest and most violent manifestation. Mr Fisk writes about the ‘demonisation’ of political agitations, and the importance for political leaders, Middle West as well as Middle East, of manufacturing fiends to serve as adversaries. He might have noted and found it to the point that precisely this pandemoniacal state of affairs is a main theme of the novel: that, indeed, Salman Rushdie’s most striking achievement is to express so vividly the common feeling that all hell is breaking loose, and that this condition is not only a consequence of political manipulation and media distortion – important though these are in his phantasmagorical story – but reflects a general disorder. Again, the way in which social/cultural/religious confict, especially between Islam and the West, operates in Rushdie’s satirical scheme, might have been thought to bear on the matter in hand. Patrick Parrinder touched on some of these points in the review you published last September, four months before the ‘blasphemy’ row broke out. We see, now, how remarkably – uncannily, if you like – the novel describes and prefigures the fate that has befallen it. It diagnoses, in advance of the particular effect upon itself, the condition of a world dominated from top to bottom by ‘fictions masquerading as human beings’.

It is unfortunate, therefore – even making allowance for irony – that Mr Fisk should find the ‘reality’ of the Rushdie affair purely in terms of political manoeuvre, and in the humiliation of the Imam who is now ‘reduced to threatening an author’. Yes, to threaten and perhaps to feel threatened by a person no more significant than a professional scribbler! Maybe it is unreasonable to expect Mr Fisk to look beyond his own specialised point of view. But the reality which might seem worth your further comment is that an author, a mere book, a pulpable paperback, should once again have acquired, in the strongest sense, exemplary importance.

Christopher Small

We do in fact mean to publish further, and at length, on the threat to Rushdie.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Guardian Angels

It is to be hoped that Philip Horne (Diary, 2 March) benefited therapeutically from the writing of his curiously obsessive account of the ‘Kevin’ adventure. Myself, I was left with yet another new fear: to the dangers of eating almost anything, comes the danger of being spotted in my front garden by Mr Horne and his pugilistic friend, René Weis.

‘We may have been right, but were we wise?’ Well, actually, neither. Even in 1989, we retain our right to crouch at the doorstep of our father’s house with sock-covered hands. It may be argued, though with less certainty, that we also have a right to pause outside somebody’s property and ask a crouching, hand-socked person whether there is anything wrong. The right we surely don’t have, however, is to assume that if we are told that there isn’t anything wrong but insist on staying (‘we explained that we wouldn’t go till we found out what he was doing there’) then other people won’t turn equally nasty or – feeling threatened and possibly frightened, or for that matter being drunk or drugged or prone to violence – much nastier.

‘Kevin’ does sound a little tiresome, it is true, ineptly brandishing ‘something metallic’ in one of his socks and ‘setting his feet further apart in a combat posture’. But I rather warmed to his family, even by Mr Horne’s account, rushing out to do battle and defend their son and property. It was the middle of the night after all, and one takes Mr Horne and Mr Weis to be fully-grown men. Mr Weis, indeed, by that time appears to have lost control of himself and to have been hitting anything that moved, whilst Mr Horne may well have been a figure to strike terror in the new-wakened breast, holding a spanner in one hand and cramming his misshapen spectacles onto his face with the other …

How unlovely of our heroes to report the Kevins to the Police. How sensible of the Police to stop them making further fools of themselves. How odd to assume a morally superior position to the impulsive, warm-hearted Clough (‘the controversial manager of Nottingham Forest FC’ – as we are very helpfully told). We knew about not running onto soccer pitches. We must now look to our gardens, our language, our posture, and our socks.

Christopher Scarles

As a previous Diary contributor, during the last prison service industrial dispute, I read with great interest my friend Phil Horne’s Diary piece regarding his tussle with a suspected, but in fact innocent burglar. Whilst not wishing to minimise either the well-intentioned attempts of the public to arrest would-be criminals, or to ignore the trauma experienced by those who are the victims of crime, Phil’s assertion that in our society there ‘is a lot of crime’ is seriously and misguidingly at odds with all official statistics. What our society suffers from is not too much crime, but too much fear of crime. We are afraid to walk the streets, ride the tube, or leave our house unattended, despite the fact that statistically it is almost more likely for the Martians to land than for our house to be burgled, or for a nice university lecturer like Phil to be mugged. Undoubtedly the media play an important part in creating this fear, and Orwell recognised this as long ago as 1946 in ‘The Decline of the English Murder’. Ironically, all Phil has done is to add to this climate, not just by the Diary piece and its assumptions about young people who don’t give straight answers to questions posed by strangers after midnight, but also by his and his colleague’s intentions to dramatise the Thompson-Bywater’s murder. Personally, I’m just pleased that Phil is not researching Michael Ryan.

David Wilson
The Governor’s Quarter

Why are you here?

Some years ago I read, with considerable enjoyment and admiration, Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics, in which she offered a non-partisan comparison of Lacanian and American versions of Freudian psychoanalysis. But now, in her review of Lacan’s seminar papers (LRB, 5 January), she seems to have shifted her position towards Lacan and, especially, towards his rather rabid antagonism to the ego-psychology of Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein. The purpose of this letter is not to endorse the ‘Troika’, whose views have long been modified, if not supplanted, by others – and not necessarily by those of Kohuth, who is hardly the flavour of this month – but to express regret that she is now less critical of Lacanian ideas which are no more tenable than those to which they are opposed.

To begin with, she makes no comment on Lacan’s tendency to reify or, worse, personify the ego, which is presented as dangerous, deceptive, elusive, shifty and to be approached ‘with daggers drawn’. There are intimations here of nothing less than incitement to violence! Who whom? Or again: ‘When you look inside there are mirrors and snapshots. But there is no I.’ Is the I absent? In which case, where lies its corresponding presence? And if I is non-existent what would we have expected to find if it were not? Or is I, like God, something purely imagined and without any objective correlative? And is it the case that for each one, there are only second and third persons? And who or what is it that relates to them? I shall be reminded that Lacan is only using metaphors. But, for Lacan, there is no such thing as only using a metaphor.

Hartmann et cie became so concerned with the ego – or with some aspects of it – because excessive Freudianism was attributing everything to the contrariness of unconscious instinct: psychoanalysts would not have been able to explain the very practice of their ‘science’, such as it was and is, without acknowledging some area of mental activity in which the criteria of rational evaluation – not only of scientific theories, but of the assumptions of everyday life itself – could, indeed, have some degree of autonomy.

This is no plea in defence of the ‘Troika’s’ whole project, since what was wrong with it were the very theoretical directives with which they tinkered; the whole apparatus needed, and still needs, replacement. What it does not need are the paranoid horror stories tacked on to it by Lacan. Those stories are grist to the mill of analytic practice; they are not components of its theory.

Turkle seems to endorse Lacan’s emphasis on the ‘decentred’ self which is nothing but the product of the identifications which have been made with ‘others’. This all ‘underscores that part of Freud’s message which is most revolutionary for our time’. Unfortunately, that term ‘decentred’ has become yet another of the buzz words of post-structural or post-post-structural discourse in which nothing is ‘privileged’ except perhaps the meta-discourse which is, for the moment, on stage. Turkle is not of that ilk but might be thought to be on loan to it. But if all persons are ‘decentred’ – in which case where is the person? – what is the measure of their condition: that is, where is the ‘centre’ at which they would be if they were there? Perhaps the article should have been titled not ‘Why are you here?’ but ‘Not being there’.

Turkle ends with the promise that ‘what sex was to the Victorians, the question of free will is to our new Fin-de-Siècle.’ Considering that nearly all determinisms, whether ontological or epistemological, have taken a severe beating for much of this century, and even more so of late, having been increasingly replaced by the idea of systems of different degrees of openness and closure – Popper’s clouds and clocks – one wonders what she has in mind. Both free will and determinism have become zero-rated points on a continuum. There may be much to be learned from Lacan; and especially from points of agreement between his Freudian theory of identification and Mead’s theory of the self. But it is surprising that Turkle does not notice that Lacan’s ‘vendetta’ against the ego – that is, his particular choice of ambivalence to Freud – indicates an excessive commitment to a metapsychology which he could have helped undo.

Percy Cohen
London School of Economics, WC2

Via Mandela

I was somewhat amazed to read the letter from Peter Strauss and Geraldine Cooke (Letters, 2 March) suggesting that the LRB was behaving oddly by carrying my review of Fatima Meer’s biography of Nelson Mandela. I should like to make several points. 1. Ms Meer’s book was certainly not banned in South Africa while I was there. The book was piled high in bookshops and Ms Meer toured the country promoting it, in company with Winnie Mandela and the Mandela United FC. Many thousands of copies were sold and if the authorities were intending to ban it, they were singularly inefficient about it. 2. Ms Meer is in no position to protest about the banning of books, since she led the demand for the banning of The Satantic Verses in South Africa – a request with which the Government happily complied, for a section of the Left had thus legitimised the whole banning/censorship system. This led to demands from writers such as J.M. Coetzee that the likes of Ms Meer should be regarded as having placed themselves ‘outside the liberation movement’. 3. By the same token, of course, Ms Meer is one of those now calling for severe measures to be taken against Penguin books. I find it pretty ironic that Penguin (to whom I am under contract) should write in criticism of me and in order to boost someone who is no friend of theirs.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

America Deserta

Richard Poirier’s review of Jean Baudrillard’s America (LRB, 16 February) employs the usual stance of conservative American academics in dealing with French Post-Structuralism – the stance of the reasonable pragmatist with a long historical perspective. It is the stance of Johnson refuting Berkeley. Poirier argues that Baudrillard’s critique of media manipulation in America is ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘hyperbolic’, because anyone with good sense can correctly interpret what he or she sees on television. But good sense is easier to talk about than to exemplify, as Poirier shows by offering a seemingly commonsensical interpretation of his own – one that inadvertently raises the crucial issue not directly faced in his review.

Poirier’s example comes from last fall’s televised Presidential debate, in which Michael Dukakis answered the question of how he would feel about capital punishment if his own wife were raped and murdered: ‘Dukakis gave an answer worthy of a mechanical mouse. He was rightly judged on this occasion as someone who in a crisis probably could not bring to his decisions a trustworthy range of human feelings … [George Bush] won because he appeared – quite accurately, I think – as marginally the better of two weak candidates.’ Now the argument of the critics of media manipulation (Post-Structuralists and others) is not simply that what one perceives on television is a kind of optical illusion (as in the Doonesbury figure of Ron Headrest, a brilliant caricature of the notion of a ‘pseudo-event’): the argument, more importantly, is that television may be used to restrict the terms of political debate to what can be managed and represented on a video screen. The media specialists who now conduct American political campaigns have made this restriction explicit. For example, the adman who ran Bush’s successful Congressional campaign in 1966 maintained in a report that ‘issues would not have to be involved in the campaign. There was no issue when it came to selling Ford automobiles; there were only the product, the competition and the advertising. He saw no reason why politics should be any different’ (the paraphrase is by Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President). Media specialists attempt to replace argument with ‘impressions’, which excite instinctive responses in the viewer. The most important of these responses is the pair ‘warm/cool’.

How would you convince the majority of the American electorate that a right-wing plutocrat and former director of the CIA represents their own interests, and not just the interests of the tiny, wealthy minority who would benefit from his stated economic policies? You would present him in a series of controlled appearances as part of an issueless campaign, and convince people that they could make informed judgments on this basis. With luck, you would find a Democratic opponent who played into your hands by insisting that the ‘issue’ was competence. But how do you ‘see’ competence? In his interpretation of Dukakis, the Poirieran viewer (by which I mean the unspecified collective agent of such passive verbs as ‘was judged’) unwittingly acts out the agenda of the media handlers. He silently reinterprets ‘competence‘ to mean ‘competence in front of a camera’; then he forms an impression – in this case, the impression ‘cool – unlikeable’ – which he converts into several assumptions: that Dukakis’s response at that moment means that he is a cold man; that coldness disqualifies him from handling grave national security situations, and so forth – the false logic that converts the subrational impression ‘warm/cool’ into the dominant criterion of political choice. The beauty of the example is that the Poirieran viewer responds as Bush’s handlers would have him respond, not in this case to one of their own photo effects but to their opponent. In the view of Baudrillard, the present commodity system appears as a system of endlessly proliferating signs that refer not to realities but to other signs (that is to say, they ‘make sense’ only in comparison with other signs like them). One might bring together the language of Madison Avenue and the language of the Left Bank this way: what the Poirieran viewer ‘saw’ was not Dukakis but the sign ‘cold’, and which contrasts with the sign ‘warm’ attached to Bush. Baudrillard’s language may indeed strike English readers as hyperbolic and extravagant – I myself prefer John Berger’s earlier account: but both are infinitely preferable to the common-sense world of Poirier’s viewer, who believes he can see all he needs to see on the television screen. What’s left out in Poirier’s example is the fact that opposition to capital punishment is, after all, a political position that divides the two candidates, and that this position is profoundly related to hotly-contested attitudes and beliefs about race, class, the control of crime, the obligations of government, the place of violence in a civilised community.

What’s left out, in a word – this is still more true in America than in Great Britain – is anything that used to count as an important political issue. Class conflict in particular does not represent well on the screen; and that, obviously, is the reason why media management is not simply an ideologically-neutral stupefaction of the democratic body public. It favours the Right, because the Right cannot advertise its essential function as the representative of a privileged minority. The handlers then tend to be anti-intellectual: voters (and consumers) are thought to be irrational by nature, they are bored by politics. What reasonable person could be gulled by this flimflam? If Poirier’s analysis of what is really there on the television screen is typical of American political consciousness, then the handlers may already have achieved more than we thought.

Paul Sawyer
Cornell University

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