The Victorian Sage

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

Month: April, 2017

Carlyle and Foucault?

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis. The difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent, but their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

A.J. Ayer in the Post-Truth Era

The fact that we are now living in the era of “post-truth” does not signify that truth no longer matters. As far as progressive political debate is concerned, in fact, it signifies the opposite: that now truth is once again a key term of discussion, a term worthy of extended theoretical reflection. As Andrew Calcutt has described, truth went out the window not with the election of Trump but with the coming to prominence of post-modern thought through the 70s and 80s. Indeed, it is the political climate which produced Trump (etc.) which has forced academics and political theorists to rehabilitate truth, and to begin to imagine again a regime of truth, to which post-truth is opposed.

So, as with any new movement in thought, that revolving around the theorization of post-truth (and, by implication, truth) will need to find its ancestors. Here, perhaps, the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer’s Logic, Truth and Language (Dover, 1952 [1936]) can come in. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and strict factiness, this is a book which will force readers to adopt a narrow and workable definition of truth. It is a book which impressed me greatly on first reading, although I haven’t yet used it in my scholarly writing.

Ayer wished to eliminate all metaphysics from philosophy – or, if not eliminate it, to at least make it clear that metaphysics was not verifiable and was “nonsense” in his sense of that word. Propositions, Ayer argues, are either sense or nonsense; if the former, they are either true or false; if the latter, they are neither true nor false, and one really needs to think long and hard about why one is engaging in arguments using these propositions, and what is the goal of such argumentation.

Essentially, everything is empirical. If we can’t come up with material, sense-based evidence of a proposition, then we must be speaking either tautology or nonsense. Of course, propositions may be a mixture of verifiable empirical substance and nonsense, but in this case the essential intellectual task at hand is to separate these out.

Ayer’s philosophy seems rather anti-philosophical in its refusal to countenance metaphysics. He specifies that the task of philosophy is “wholly critical” (48), it is a work of “clarification and analysis” (49). The philosopher “devotes himself to the purely analytical tasks of defining knowledge, and classifying propositions, and displaying the nature of material things” (52). Ayer goes on to specify the philosopher’s role further:

[T]he philosopher, as an analyst, is not concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them (57).

This is striking: it seems to equate with philosophy with what we think of discourse analysis, and discourse analysis is very much the province of broadly post-modern thinkers, e.g. Foucault. In this sense, Ayer’s logical positivism is very much compatible with post-modern thought.

But there is a key difference. Ayer recognizes the simple truth and falsity of wholly empirical propositions. He wouldn’t elide the difference between true and false statements by pointing out that “everything is discourse“. Rather, every proposition should be parsed for what empirical truth or falsity it contains, and only after this elementary step has been taken can we begin to take into account the emotional significance of a statement.

In reality, things get very complicated in the political arena, and each sides produces different data sets (empirical proofs) to back up their assertions. But while Ayer’s scheme is too abstractly simple to be a comprehensive guide to truth, it at least allows us to recognize simple truths when we see them, and that is something that is needed, and it also provides a model of frank and striaghforward prose. Perhaps, then, in the search to rediscover truth, Logic, Truth and Language is a book we should familiarize ourselves with.

Agatha’s Christie’s The Body in the Library (1942): Revenge on Boisterous Youth

The purest essence of genre fiction is found, perhaps, in the detective novels of Agatha Christie. Many admire her works, but few consider them to be literature. In “The Typology of Detective Fiction“, Tzvetan Todorov makes the distinction that great literature is that which transgresses the norms of a genre, an thus creates its own genre. Christie’s novels are the archetypal “whodunits” for Todorov, not concerned with transgressing norms, but with bringing them to a “geometrical perfection”. On one hand, this is an admirable quality, but on the other it is easy to see how such a technical perfection might be considered inferior to a more humanistic literature, as a triumph of the mechanical intellect over the dynamical (as Carlyle would say). Christie is therefore a perfect plotting machine, but not a great writer.

Image result for the body in the library

So, on opening The Body in the Library (1942) recently, this distinction was one I had in mind. In mind, also, was how Christie would stand up after so many years. In my early teenage years, I had read her books voraciously, transfixed by her ingenuity, methodical plotting, and clear, unobstructed style. But I had long ago moved on to other things.

The Body in the Library opens unexpectedly: with a dream scene. We are inside the consciousness of the sleeping Mrs Bantry. Even in her subconscious, however, this Christie character is evidently pretty tame. She is dreaming of winning the local flower show. On a slightly less banal note, the Vicar’s wife inhabits the dream dressed in a bathing suit, in a touch that signifies the surrealism of the dream world, or that, perhaps, hints at a submerged homoeroticism in Mrs Bantry.

Agatha Christie.png

In general, Christie spends very little time in her characters’ consciousness. There is much external focalization and very little internal focalization, in Genette’s terms. Mrs Bantry is woken by a maid with the news that there is, as the title predicted, A Body in the Library. Christie, again against the conception of her as a mechanical writer, has a bit of “meta” fun with this body (e.g. a character says, “Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”[Harper Collins, 2011, 4]).

This is a Miss Marple book. Up to the point I have read (about half way), Miss Marple’s investigation is intercut with that of Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable in charge of the case. He gets just as much space as her, but it is clear that Miss Marple has access to modes of investigation he cannot reach. She has, according to another character (Sir Henry Clithering) “specialized knowledge”: “Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life” (93). Precisely because of her sheltered and boring existence, without apparent profession and without close family, she has observed her own microcosm of life in the village with such acuity that she can apply her learning to the whole of humanity, having a convenient parallel for every occurrence. That’s the idea in this book, at least; it would be interesting to see if Christie takes it to spaces beyond the English country village. There is, thus far, no mention of the clue-based rationalism of Holmes or Poirot; this is a psychology-based insight into crime, based on a close examination of a rural slice of human nature, and a conviction that “Human nature is very much the same anywhere” (99).

As for the politics of Christie, or at least of the “implied author” here. What looms large in Library is the generation gap, the near-absolute incompatibility of the ways of life involved. Representing the youth, first of all, is the murder victim herself, who appears in the opening pages as the titular body, a body that is somehow “cheap, tawdry, flamboyant” (11). Throughout, as her life is pieced together by investigators, Ruby Keene is spoken of in curiously disparaging terms by almost all characters. Even Miss Marple herself is surprisingly dismissive of Ruby’s personality. For example, here. in the context of her relationship with an older man, and what he saw in her:

“[…] She may have had some remarkable qualities.”

“Probably not”, said Miss Marple placidly.


“This girl saw her opportunity and played it for all she was worth!” [said Miss Marple.] (95-96)

Ruby is a lower-class person, a dancer by trade; she is also virgo intacta, according to the doctor who examined her body. Perhaps it is all a ruse by Christie, and the denouement will reveal that Ruby was something other than she has appeared, but Miss Marple’s dismissal of her suggests otherwise, and it is a little discomfiting to read the contempt with which she is discussed (“weaselly” and “stupid” are two epithets I recall being used by other characters about her), and to consider it in the light of the class politics of the novel.

But one must emphasize the generational conflict at the heart of the novel. This is manifest in the suspicion with which Ruby’s attachment to an older, wealthier man is discussed. It is manifest in the early pages when Miss Marple reflects that this tawdry body must have originated at one of young Basil Blake’s house parties:

It seemed to me that the only possible explanation was Basil Blake. He does have parties […]. Shouting and singing – the most terrible noise – everyone very drunk, I’m afraid – and the mess and the broken glass next morning simply unbelievable[.] (17)

When the police pay a visit to Blake, it is revealed that he lives in a “hideous shell of half timbering and sham Tudor” (20). A hideous shell! And this is the narrator, the mild, blank Christiean narrator who makes this judgement. The young in The Body in the Library are a threat, an obscene irruption, oversexed and underclothed, vulgar and tasteless. As such, the novel is reading to me at the moment almost as a middle-class and middle-aged fantasy of revenge. There, perhaps, is the significance of the dream opening: a clue to the fantasmic underpinning of the novel. But perhaps I have merely been taken in by Christie and by the end I will have been forced to changed my mind. In any case, finishing the book will be a pleasure, for the unobstructed clarity of Christie’s prose and her narrative drive have not changed.

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