The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: June, 2016

Jaeggi’s Re-Thinking Ideology

Interesting chapter available on about the possibility of re-instating the critique of ideology in academic thinking. Rahel Jaeggi defines ideologies as “systems of beliefs [with] practical consequences. They have a practical effect and are themselves effects of a certain social practice.” She then writes, “To come at it from a different angle: ideologies constitute our relation to the world and thus determine the horizons of our interpretations of the world. Or the framework in which we understand both ourselves and the social conditions, and also the way we operate within these conditions” (64). But this second definition doesn’t seem to me to come at it from a different angle so much as to provide a far more rigid and totalizing conception of the term. We don’t necessarily have to insist that a “system of ideas”, as per definition one, serves to “determine the horizons of our interpretations of the world” – the difficulty with going this far, theoretically more impressive as it sounds, is that it won’t stand up to any empirical study whatsoever – any system of ideas we adopt or believe in won’t account for everything we think or do; it won’t determine our conceptions in any strict sense. Therefore I much prefer the more modest and straightforward first definition to the more intellectual and theoretically daring second definition, which, by virtue of its very theoretical ambitiousness, is bound to fail, its exponents expending their energies in defending what cannot be defended.

Jaeggi goes on to focus on the critique of ideology as a “critique of domination” (65). Here, again, I think she’s entering problematic territory. Conceptually, it is certainly feasible to see domination and ideology as closely linked, but contextually I think it’s the wrong move, as it will tend to place ideology in subservience to the Foucauldian language of power/domination. Foucauldian theory effectively has hegemony over this language at this point, so genuine ideological theory will collapse into Foucauldianism, rather than offer a alternative to this rather narrow (and politically questionable) paradigm. A Marxist critique can never aspire to any great position within a Foucauldian framework, because the emphasis on class relations is constantly being shifted towards questions of sexuality, discipline, etc. The task, then, is to overturn this paradigm, at least as a paradigm, retaining, undoubtedly, some of its insights.

There’s more and I will perhaps give more time to reading in detail this interesting and cogently written chapter, even if I don’t agree with some of its central premises.

The academia source (a scan of a photocopy) gives no publication details (that I could find), but I believe the original publication from which the chapter comes is:

Boudewijn Paul de Bruin & Christopher F. Zurn (eds.), New Waves in Political Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan (2009)


Carlyle in Representations

Interesting piece on Carlyle from Representations by Elisa Tamarkin. Title: “Why Forgive Carlyle?” Only the first few paragraphs provided at link, and I don’t yet have access to the full essay, but it promises to investigate one of the great paradoxes of Carlyle: his popularity amongst those who most disagreed with him, and who one might have expected to be most repelled by his violent authoritarianism. It will be interesting to see if Tamarkin ventures an answer to the question raised by Whitman in these paragraphs of what that “impalpable something” in Carlyle that provoked such admiration was.

Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station

Edmund Wilson was maybe the last great humanist literary critic. He’s now “astoundingly irrelevant”, but “The loss is not Edmund Wilson’s. It’s ours.” He was also very interested in Marxism, less in the theory than in its manifestation in post-1917 Russia. Wilson’s To The Finland Station (1940) is still as good an introduction to Marxist theory and history as one can get. It is perhaps all the better for being obviously partisan – and partisan in a particularly problematic and even discredited way, in that Wilson wrote with a great and uncritical admiration for Lenin. This makes the book flawed but none the less interesting for that.

The book is divided into three sections: pre-Marxism (Michelet, Renan, etc.); Marx and Engels; Lenin and Trotsky. It is a book of theory, history and biography. Wilson is not like a modern academic theorist of Marxism in that he never reads theory in isolation from either history or the biography of its author. I am far more sympathetic to the Wilson approach than to the modern-academic: theory without history is pointless, I insist. So, for that alone, I am well disposed to this book.

To The Finland Station does not have to be read in sequence, cover to cover. Indeed, I didn’t read it like that. The one really unmissable section is that on Marx and Engels, which takes up most of Book II. This would constitute a great introduction to Marxism, better even than any of Marx or Engels’ own works. I have said that Wilson has an undue admiration for Lenin, which makes that section rather unconvincing, but he is intelligently critical of Marx. The section follows the lives of its two main actors, stopping for detailed critiques of their works and theories. I knew only vague details of Marx’s life, but  known in detail they provide a context in which his theory becomes more meaningful. The description of Marx and his family’s life in London in the 1850s (the chapter entitled “Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History”) while he was engaged on research that resulted in Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1867) is harrowing. Marx, wife, and four children moved into two rooms in London in 1850. Another child was born to Jenny Marx just after the move, but died a few months later, and Wilson gives a long excerpt from a moving letter Jenny wrote:

[T]he poor little angel drank in from me so much secret sorrow and grief with the milk that he was constantly unwell[…] [.] He has not slept a single night since he came into the world – two or three hours at most. Now lately he has been having violent cramps, so that the poor child is always hovering between life and death. (204-205)

Further extracts from a police agent’s report and from Marx’s letter about the death of his young son a few years later underline the difficulties the Marxes faced, living in squalor and penury.

Interspersed with such material are Wilson’s reflections on Marx and Engels writings and theories. Wilson is sympathetic, but sharply critical, too. Most interesting, I found, was his chapter on Das Kapital (the chapter entitled “Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities and Dictator of the Proletariat”). The argument of Das Kapital is based on the Labour Theory of Value – a theory which Wilson debunks pretty trenchantly: “The Labor Theory is thus simply, like the dialectic [which Wilson has earlier refuted at length], a creation of the metaphysician who never abdicated before the economist in Marx – an effort to show that the moral values which he wished to impress on people were, independently of our ideas about them, somehow involved in the nature of things.” (293) The thing about Marx’s Labour Theory is that it’s not justified in Das Kapital, but was to be fully elucidated and theorized in a later volume – but no follow-up to the first ever appeared. Marx simply left some notes at his death. Wilson suspects Marx deliberately omitted that element from the book because he simply had no argument to sustain it, and that he deliberately refrained from writing a defense of Labour Theory, leaving it for Engels to do after his death. Labour Theory, then, is “the central fallacy of Marxism” (295). Wilson’s argument is, to me, compelling, and I tend to think Labour Theory is a consequence of Marx’s increasing tendency to isolate himself among books when preparing to write, rather than engaging with history as he did up to the Revolutions of 1848. Thus, I would add to Wilson’s argument, he ends up committing the very same fallacy he ridiculed in his early work. That great early letter to Ruge comes to mind:

Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. (September 1843)

Sadly (in my opinion) Marx’s own involvement in the struggle gave way to a “roast pigeon of absolute knowledge” in the form of the Labour Theory of Value. He constructed a wondrous edifice from this foundation, but the foundation itself just wasn’t present. Thus, Marx becomes, in To The Finland Station, a tragic figure in more than one sense.

Finally, one must emphasize that good as Wilson is on Marx, he lets the book down by his section on Lenin. Here Wilson’s critical faculties desert him, and he fawns over his subject throughout. As Louis Menand’s Foreward makes clear, Wilson was clear that Soviet Russia had turned into a totalitarian state, but he blamed Stalin (hardly mentioned in Station, which ends at 1917, at the moment of Lenin’s great triumph), and refused to countenance the possibility that the development could have any roots in Lenin’s rule. Menand notes that Wilson’s portrait of Lenin is based entirely on Party-controlled publications. Even though more critical sources were available, Wilson ignored them. This is bad, very bad, and maybe it explains why the book has become semi-forgotten. But it still has plenty to offer, and was half way towards being a great book before Wilson let his Leninophilia take over.


Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, foreward by Louis Menand (Phoenix, 2004)

Interesting piece by Louis Menand on Wilson from The New Yorker here


Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies (2015)

Of all the paratexts of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Laurie R. King’s series of novels about Holmes and his younger sidekick and wife are perhaps the most highly regarded. 2015’s Dreaming Spies (Bantam Press) is the thirteenth in the series. Intriguingly, for me, the blurb announced that much of the action takes place on a ship called the Thomas Carlyle. This, I decided, must be my first point of call in reading King’s work.

First, the Carlyle connection. Carlyle’s position in the Doyle universe is established in the opening pages of A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.


This is a very famous passage, or at least the reference to Holmes’ ignorance of the sun is. Discussions rarely mention the Carlyle reference, and adaptations invariably omit it. The reason is obvious: while unawareness of the sun’s movement still stands as a reliable index of Holmes’ strange selective ignorance, Carlyle is no longer famous enough for the reference to him to have any force, or even comprehensibility. Even those who are familiar with Carlyle do not associate him with such fame as is suggested by Watson’s reaction. For reasons with nothing to do with Doyle’s writing, and everything to do with changes in Carlyle’s reputation, the reference no longer “works”.

Many scholars have pointed out that later on in Scarlet Holmes does evidence a familiarity with Carlyle’s work: “’They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’” This well-known definition is usually attributed to Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, where the quote actually runs: “‘Genius’ […] means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all.”

In any case, Holmes does later refer to Carlyle by name in Scarlet’s follow-up, The Sign of Four (1888), in a way that suggests considerable acquaintance. And, in general, Watson’s belief that Holmes knew nothing of literature is, time and again, proved erroneous, and has given much food for thought and tortuously ingenious speculation to Sherlockian scholars.

But to King. Though the early part of the book does indeed take place on a ship of the name mentioned, I was unable to discern any substantial significance in the name. It is significant to Sherlockians, of course, in being a canon reference, recalling the above quoted passage, but specific reference to Carlyle himself seems to be absent.

King’s book is narrated by Holmes’ companion, Mary Russell. Unlike Watson, she has an apparently rich inner life, and likes nothing better than to divulge the workings of her mind to the reader. Indeed, her narrative verges at times on running commentary, interrupting exchanges of dialogue and periods of actions with her own passing reflections thereon. Here we have much of the reason why this book weighs in at 380 pages, much more than any of Doyle’s stories.

Another related reason for the considerable length of the book is that Mary is much given to providing extensive background information on the places she goes and thinks she sees. As much of the book is set in or closely concerning Japan, this means we get a lot of extraneous information on that country. Doyle was famously cavalier about details, sending Holmes to Japan over the course of one line, and not even able to get that one line factually correct, in that he tells us Holmes learned the martial art “baritsu” there, rather than bartitsu. Doyle’s misspelling now has a Wikipedia entry of its own. Mistake or no, Doyle wore his knowledge or lack thereof lightly, while King/Russell cannot help parade theirs at every opportunity: divagations on the Bodleian Library, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, and various elements of Japanese culture are included, though they are, in many cases, of questionable relevance to the plot. A passing reference to Van Gogh is accompanied by the information that his “odd perspective and lively technique had, since his death a generation ago, been of growing interest to collectors” (293), a bizarrely general comment unrelated to the subject of the book. It is a sentence, indeed, that would be more at home in a book of art history.  A good, ruthless editor was what this book needed, although perhaps it says something about the contemporary Sherlockian that mini-lectures on high-culture play so large a part.

Dreaming Spies also performs one of my least favourite moves in the Sherlockian repertoire: it introduces the plot that goes to the very top. The integrity of the Emperor of Japan is at stake, and Britain’s Prince Regent is also involved at second-hand. This is an element of some of Doyle’s stories, too, and it is one I dislike. Holmes shouldn’t have to invoke a national emergency to be interesting; he certainly shouldn’t have to appeal to the emotional pull of the monarchy. Rather, the most fascinating of the stories are generally those set around a rather ordinary but perhaps eccentric person or household: the “obese, pompous and slow” tradesman Jabez Wilson; the irascible Grimsby Roylott and his vulnerable daughter; the sinister Rucastle household of “The Copper Beeches”; the down-at-heel Henry Baker of “The Blue Carbuncle”. When Doyle is reduced to invoking some massive threat to the government, or a compromised royal or noble in need of protecting, one can tell he’s on autopilot. But the attraction of this sort of plot among latter-day Sherlockians points to the nostalgia for a vanished order.

And this focus on royalty is really symptomatic of the universe of this novel. The milieu is purely aristocratic. The unthinking alignment with aristocracy is offputting: “Servants don’t need to like their employers – in some ways, it’s easier if they don’t – but a lack of respect undermines the whole machinery” (323). This concern with maintaining the social machinery illustrates the conservatism that underpins much contemporary affection for Sherlock Holmes, against which one would like to define a more dissident detective, had one only the time, energy and skill. To the same end is the endless detail on the Bodleian library, the repeated references to its exclusiveness and to Russell’s great familiarity with it: the world evoked is not the relatively open one of Doyle’s stories, wherein all classes could find a place. It is the aristocratic Oxford of dreaming spires, where only the hereditarily rich need apply. Revealing is the following reflection by Russell:

The Bodleian Library is one of the glories of the Western world – although, if the world (and the University) was a fair place, the institution would be called the “Ball Library”, after the wealthy widow Thomas Bodley had married. It was Ann Ball’s money (inherited from a trader in pilchards) that restored the library of Dulke Humfrey, stripped bare in the Reformation. (273)

Here is the fawning love of old-time aristocratic glory and its trappings; here the presence of pointless information that drags the novel down (this passage on the Bodleian’s history is in fact much longer than is quoted here); here also an truly asinine reflection on fairness – a cheap shot in favour of feminism, yes, but does it not occur to Russell that Ann Ball’s inheritance of wealth was no more worthy of commemoration than her husband’s marriage into it? Apparently not, and it’s the smugness and blindness of lines such as this that contributed greatly to my dislike of the novel. Not only did the novel bore me with Russell’s unnecessary background histories, but it began to actively annoy me as well.

And I’ll leave it at that. I can’t quite give up on King yet. I’ll have to read at least the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, to see how the whole thing began. Then, perhaps, I will have a better feel for the characters and more sympathy with them. As an earlier entry, too, it might be more streamlined and less indulgent. As the work of a younger writer, it might be less conservative and less in love with a mythic aristocratic past. Then, perhaps, I can begin to agree with the high praise this series has garnered.

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