How to Understand an Election
James Meek asks if he is in a position to understand an election campaign in the country where he lives without being on Facebook (LRB, 1 June). I gained my understanding of the general election campaign from afar almost entirely through my contacts on Facebook, who sent me the posts and clips they liked and assumed I would like. Insulated from the press and the BBC, I learned that the UK electorate did not agree with them or with Theresa May that Brexit was the paramount issue; as far as I could tell, they were more agitated by the NHS, student fees and the greed of the 1 per cent. Whether Jeremy Corbyn set this agenda or merely surfed on it, I wasn’t surprised that his campaign was more successful than hers.
Marietta, South Carolina
May I reassure Ian Patterson that there is one university at least where the work of Jilly Cooper is studied (LRB, 18 May). I teach Riders as a foundational text of popular conservative female sexual liberation, and as the harbinger of Thatcherism, played out through the tensions between old money and new. We discuss readerships and whether luxuriating in the time away from domestic labour to read an 800-page anti-feminist novel is a feminist act; we also explore the social status of bonkbusters. Riders is significant for being the first popular novel to promote the joys of vibrators. And it marks the limits of acceptable sexual behaviour: having sex with underage girls is a bit naughty, but raping your wife during an orgy is grounds for divorce, apparently on the basis of incompatibility. Patterson is right to pick up on Cooper’s disdain for bearded academics but he should count himself lucky: Rutshire’s female academics have an even harder time. Every one of them is a hairy lesbian, the worst thing Cooper can imagine.
Every year, my students share stories of horrified parents wondering why their offspring are wasting their time with ‘that stuff’ at university. Popular fiction is important: its production, characteristics and consumption delineate a culture’s desires, fears and interests. I have a suspicion that the youth vote that tipped so heavily in Labour’s direction in the general election might correlate with sales of Terry Pratchett’s and J.K. Rowling’s novels.
University of Wolverhampton
You Know Who
Abigail Parry begins her delightful poem with a quote from the actor Jeremy Brett, who described how ‘some actors’ were afraid that if they played Sherlock Holmes for too long he would ‘steal their soul, leave no room for the original inhabitant’ (LRB, 1 June). He was talking about himself. Brett played Holmes in the Granada series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes between 1984 and 1994, and it destroyed him. He was determined to be the best Holmes there had been and obsessed over the sleuth’s mannerisms, documenting them in a 77-page manual that he kept with him on set. But he found Holmes increasingly difficult to let go of, and was tortured by nightmares about him, becoming so spooked that he began to refer to Holmes as ‘You Know Who’ – the title of Parry’s poem – rather than mention his name. From 1986 his mental health began to decline noticeably. He was diagnosed with manic depression and prescribed lithium, which caused fluid retention, making him rapidly gain weight. He started having problems with his heart. In the last couple of Holmes instalments, produced shortly before his death in 1995, he is haggard and vague, his performance underpowered.
The difficulty with playing Holmes – one of them, at least – is that Holmes himself is such a good actor. He is a master of disguise, a convincing ostler in the morning, a clergyman in the afternoon, who keeps extensive notes, just as Brett did, on people’s habits of dress, speech and manner. ‘The stage lost a fine actor,’ Watson says in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, when Holmes ‘became a specialist in crime’. But Holmes lacks a core. We get very little insight into his inner life, beyond the process of deduction, and he rarely shows emotion. He can be everyone but himself. ‘Watson describes You Know Who as a mind without a heart,’ Brett once said, ‘which is hard to play.’
Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!
I read Jenny Turner’s beautifully written review of my work as if on a rollercoaster, agreeing and disagreeing and wishing she had read more closely some things I’ve written that I care about most (LRB, 1 June). It isn’t the case that I indulged in an ‘ecosexual in-joke’ by naming Camille’s town Gauley Mountain; I had in mind Beth Stephens’s film Goodbye to Gauley Mountain, about her return to her hometown to fight against mountain-top-removal coal mining. And despite my explicit argument in Staying with the Trouble, Turner refuses to hear ‘chthonic’ (‘in and of the earth’) in Chthulucene, but instead the patriarchal monster Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, which I haven’t read. Justly paying for an unconscious aural pun, I wish I had used the term Chthonocene.
But the most important issue raised by Turner’s review is what I call ‘the burden of human numbers’. My taking the numbers seriously seems to warrant the charge of ‘anti-human creep’ and, in Sophie Lewis’s words, quoted by Turner, ‘trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’. These are strong charges, and should at least be based on passages in my book rather than on another writer’s views. Even to mention the burden of human numbers (six billion more people on earth during my own lifetime – one rich white woman’s lifetime – and the optimistic demographers’ projection of well over 11 billion human beings by 2100, even if birthrates remain low) is, in ‘progressive’ intellectual circles, to be accused of being foolish, a racist and more. No matter that Staying with the Trouble makes clear the ongoing trouble of neo-Malthusianism, racism, coercive population control programmes, ongoing colonial capitalism, hyper and unequal consumption, genocide, the primary responsibility of rich nations and certain sectors of the population for extraction and consumption, the scandal of border violence and anti-immigration policies and ideologies, the depressing pro-natalist nationalism in countries that perceive themselves to be in the grip of a ‘low fertility crisis’, misogyny, the failure to introduce just and widespread adoption practices, and many more instances of unequally distributed pain and injustice.
I think that is part of the problem ‘we’ face. The subject is forbidden, no matter how carefully it is framed; it has been ceded to the right and to population professionals. To insist that seriously facing the burden of human numbers is not racist; but shutting up out of terror of the issue might well be. Fear of getting things badly wrong certainly doesn’t serve reproductive justice, even in human-exceptionalist terms, much less in terms of multi-species reproductive justice. Failing to think together anew is a scandal, a collective failure of courage. Population is the third rail of left political discourse. Too many of my people think that citing excellent critiques of neo-Malthusianism is all that is required. This is a touching sort of idealism, as if critique made the problem vanish. Instead we must find new ways to think and act with each other, in pursuit of multi-species (including human) environmental justice.
I take heart from the knowledge that every time I engage with those who call my arguments racist a real conversation results, in which no one has the answers, but everyone joins in love and rage to work together. Jenny Turner, Sophie Lewis and I are currently in just such a conversation on email. The slogan ‘Make Kin Not Babies’ derives from a panel that Adele Clarke and I organised at the meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science in Denver in 2015, to be followed by a short book now in progress, with Kim TallBear, Michelle Murphy, Alondra Nelson, Chia-ling Wu and Yu-ling Huang, her former student. We are not all in agreement, but we are, in Angela Davis’s idiom, in generative conflict and collaboration in overlapping but non-identical idioms and histories.
Sisterhood (intersectional and of all genders) is powerful! Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!
University of California, Santa Cruz
‘People need to eat,’ Jenny Turner remarks. ‘For humans to live in our current numbers, we need to go on killing animals.’ In fact, the opposite is true: to maintain our current numbers and mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to stop killing and eating animals. A UN report on agriculture and the environment from 2006 concluded that ‘livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,’ making the livestock industry a greater contributor to climate change than the entire transport sector.
Turner, following Haraway, represents vegans and vegetarians as sentimental animal lovers. On the contrary, they are pragmatic realists, and the only ones taking climate change seriously. Absurdly, Turner also compares ‘veggie-braggers’ to anti-abortion activists who force women to give birth to children they don’t want and can’t care for. It isn’t vegans who require the enforced insemination of billions of cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, and neither are they responsible for forcefully incarcerating this mass of life in unimaginably horrific conditions. In his lecture ‘The Animal that therefore I Am’, Jacques Derrida said: ‘No one can deny seriously, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves, in order to organise on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence that some would compare to the worst cases of genocide.’ Turner, along with Haraway, would like to carry on this dissimulation by reframing a relationship of violence and exploitation as chummy ‘companionship’. I ask you, who’s being sentimental?
US v. Opec
‘When the United States set itself at odds with Arab nations in the 1973 Yom Kippur War,’ Tim Barker writes, ‘Opec responded with an embargo that marked the end of the Texas era of oil stability’ (LRB, 1 June). The implication is that Opec flexed its muscles in opposition to the US. By contrast, in Oil and World Power (1986), Peter Odell pointed out that ‘Opec/oil companies co-operation became a fact of the oil power system of the early 1970s with the positive encouragement of the United States.’ Odell gave two reasons for the US position on co-operation. First, it would make it easier for Arab oil-producing countries to accept a compromise in their dispute with Israel. Second, it would raise prices to a level above that of the high unit costs of Texan oil producers: ‘The US was fed up with a situation in which the rest of the industrialised world had access to cheap energy (which the US itself could not have because of its policy of protecting indigenous energy production, both oil and coal).’
University of East Anglia, Norwich
The Greeks reckoned the Romans must have been Trojan, Denis Feeney tells us; the Romans agreed, and Julius Caesar traced his family line back to Aeneas (LRB, 15 June). Early historians of Britain, keen to import some of what Feeney calls ‘Trojan glamour’ into their own story, claimed Brutus of Britain, the country’s founder, had been a Trojan and a descendant of Aeneas and Ascanius. Being a Christian, Nennius, the Welsh monk credited with authorship of the Historia Brittonum in the ninth century, also extended the chain of ancestry backwards: Aeneas was descended from Javan, the son of Japheth, one of Noah’s sons, and Noah was a direct descendant of Adam.