The 250th Issue of PN Review

In November this journal will reach the milestone of 250 issues, and in order to celebrate this we will be releasing one piece of poetry, criticism or journalism each week from the 46-year back catalogue which continues to exemplify PN Review‘s conviction that poetry, at its best, is enactive, and what it does matters more than what it says.

Anatomy of Ideology

This article is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October – December 1978.

While almost all mainstream political theory purports to be the objective response to facts, David Levy here makes it clear that in actual fact ideology insofar as it is a worldview is perpetually observing and revising itself in the minds of its proponents, and also provides a wildly prescient analysis of the role of privilege in prejudice, noting the twin and opposite forces of confimation bias and, increasingly nowadays, the deliberate search for things that wound our sensibilities.

This article is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October – December 1978.

The Anatomy of Ideology by David Levy

THE ANCIENT Zoroastrians believed that every man born into this world must at some point in his life choose between Truth and the Lie. `For our choice’, says Zoroaster, `Truth has been presented for our own benefit, but to the false teacher the Lie for his undoing.’ To choose the Truth is to side with the principle of Being against the disintegrating power of the Lie, to enlist in the cosmic battle waged against Ahriman, principle of evil and the Lie. In the end the evil realm of the Lie is doomed to perish from its own confusions and contradictions but the victory of Ahura Mazda can be aided by men’s choice of Truth, against the Lie.

The Zoroastrians believed that to be in Truth was to see life steadily and see it whole. To choose between the Truth and the Lie is to choose between recognizing things as they are with all their deficiencies on the natural plane and inventing an imaginary dream world from which these deficiencies have been conjured away.

Nowadays we are only too aware of how difficult such a choice can be. We are aware of the extent to which particular people in particular situations may be blind to aspects of reality. Marx used such facts to dismiss `bourgeois’ science and philosophy as ideological and establish the truly scientific character of his own ‘proletarian’ theory. The full potential of humanity-they tell us-is distorted by class structures-nowhere more so than under capitalism. For capitalism is a system in which a propertyless class of wage labourers is produced by the competitive system of private ownership at a stage of historical development in which, thanks to the technical mastery of nature, there could be abundance for all. Only from the position of the proletariat is the contradiction between the pursuit of property and the increasingly propertyless majority of the population made clear. The proletariat is historically privileged because it will inherit the benefits of industrial society once the irrational factor of private property has been eliminated, but it is also epistemologically privileged in that only from its social position can the paradoxes of the situation be seen.

Regardless of the deficiencies of this theory which result from over-hasty prophecies concerning the destiny of capitalism, it is apparent that the claim for the truth of ‘proletarian’, i.e., Marxist, science rests on the prior claim that the capitalist system is riven with contradictions and disguised by the very theories, like classical political economy, that claim to show the way it works. The existence of a propertyless class negates the universalistic claims of capitalism and from the position of that class this negative situation can itself be negated. The negation of the capitalist Lie, theoretically through Marxist analysis and politically through revolution, involves the elimination of private property. Marxism which pretends to show that property is no more than congealed labour thus prefigures, on the level of theory, what post-revolutionary confiscatory legislation will do in practice. The Marxist conclusion can only be that against the realm of the Lie Socialism represents the Truth.

The contrast between capitalism, the realm of the Lie defended by ‘mystifying’ ideologists, and the true, ‘scientific’ theory and practice of Marxist socialism is typical of what Voegelin has described as Gnostic theories of politics. For beneath the surface attack on private ownership is a more fundamental utopian stream which attributes all the limitations and frustrations of social existence to a particular institution (private property) and looks to the abolition of that institution for the transformation of the very conditions of human existence.

Karl Mannheim’s theory in Ideology and Utopia (1936) is an advance on that of Marx in that Mannheim admits that if a certain socially privileged position precludes its occupants from seeing certain facts that might undermine their sense of domination, it may also be true that ‘certain oppressed groups are intellectually so interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it’. Mannheim calls the first position ideological and the second utopian and claims that, ‘In the utopian mentality, the collective unconscious, guided by wishful representation and the will to action, hides certain aspects of reality.’ Mannheim thought that the Marxists presented their theory as ‘true’ because they saw the first but not the second fact.

His solution to the problem of true understanding, which he called ‘relationism’ to distinguish it from a relativism that renders us incapable of evaluative judgements, was based on the idea that one can relate ideas to their social settings without falling victim to the narrowing of perspective involved in being in that setting oneself. Not bourgeoisie nor proletariat were the epistemologically privileged group for Mannheim, but the relatively independent intellectuals who could see the deposit of truth in all perspectives by being of none.

It is no disrespect to Mannheim to say that in formulating his theory of relationism and the free-floating intelligentsia he ignored a major problem of ideology which belongs to epistemology and metaphysics and not to sociology and history. Our difficulty in judging between different interpretations of reality, finally in choosing between the Truth and any one of an infinite number of lies, rests in the fact that for any given situation there are infinite possible explanations. The words we use to explain reality do not have the concrete character of reality itself. There is something hard in any situation that man finds himself in before the world which is only too easily softened when we try to theorize about that situation.

The quest for the nature of the realm of limiting realities is what is usually described as the search for essences or natures. But whether we hold that such essences can be grasped in an intuitive act of the intellect or can merely be approached, through trial and error elimination, it is only if we assume them to exist that we can explain the fact that every item of reality has a certain determined character which makes it what it is. Kittens are kittens and every kitten either grows into a mature cat or dies. Acorns grow into oaks and never become elms. We know such elementary facts and act on our knowledge. No doting father ever bought his child a kitten on the assumption that with a bit of environmental conditioning the beast could be matured into the golden retriever the child so much desired. In other words, we all acknowledge that things are determined, made what they are and not other things, by inherent characters, natures and essences. What is more we estimate situations in which two or more such things stand in observable relationships to one another on the basis of what we know of the nature of the relating units. When we are correct about such matters, we describe our estimation as true.

Human projects are substituted for divine creation in the sense that reality is conceived as being as plastic, always given the right frame of mind and the correct techniques, as the original void from which God created heaven and earth. What is forgotten is that form is there already. The universe is crammed with intelligible essences, actualized in existence, that make each thing what it is, define its nature and limit its potentialities, and man, who may never finally know the essence of his own nature, can only discover the reality of his being in relation to the known natures about him. Even if man possessed the divine gift of creatio ex nihilo, the void is no longer there.

Read the full article here

I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Rain: Vietnam Again by Dudley Young

This extract is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 1, September – October 1979.

In this time of daily apocalypse, it is important to consider why we are supplied with harbingers of doom with such alarming frequency; the end is no doubt coming, but then again, that’s never not been the case. This article, extracted from a 1979 issue of the magazine, shows the power and motivation behind the reporter’s lens, before the total democratisation of the technology of taking pictures and the means of distributing them removed such weight from documentation, and normalised violent footage.

I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Rain: Vietnam Again

Dudley Young

THE LITERAL meaning of apocalypse in Greek is “an uncovering”, and it is quite possible that the divinities dis-covered in apocalyptic experience are neither amused nor gratified by such human intrusiveness: in fact resent it as the drunken Noah did, and punish the leering son accordingly.

With Romanticism, occidental energies turned defiantly to blasphemy, and with the First World War, apocalypse became official. Since then we have re-shot the movie several times (in the Gulag, at Belsen, Hiroshima, etc.) and it seems unlikely that Vietnam was the last go round. Presumably we must keep at it until we get it right.

Oh dear: manic prose again. The culprit is that increasingly ubiquitous technology which has progressed us from the iconic gravity of Genesis to the terminal whimsy of celluloid. The communicating media mediate, yes, they do, dis-cover divinity as if it were only today’s news, which of course it is: provide us with such knowledge and no forgiveness: you can’t sin without the words to sin in. But if the devil’s last trick is indeed to convince us he doesn’t exist, then his work is now almost done, and there need not be many more Vietnams.

Strictly speaking, all wars count as Dionysiac revelry: dangerous overflows, as it were, of carnival. In the less convivial terms of the Jews, when Cain eats Abel he is trying to abolish death, but in fact inventing murder. Whichever myth you follow, what distinguishes one war from another, for religious purposes, is the degree to which the dismemberment is both vivified and economized by symbolic ritual; thus, for example, an engagement which is resolved by two champions in single combat, watched and applauded by their respective armies, is both vivid and economical, high culture in fact. So too is the primitive warrior who, having killed his foe, must live isolated in a state of ritual pollution for some weeks until the mana in his meal has been digested.

At the other extreme comes the shapeless barbarism of trench warfare. La Somme: Passchendaele: endless corpses edifying no-one. Since then the spectacle has become even less edifying, as mechanization has rendered the violence even more abstract. In Vietnam, for example, death almost always came in on the freaky-fluky, which couldn’t be further from the sacred tearing and eating of flesh. It looks as if we don’t get a meal until Big Mama comes to collect us.

So much for background. The question I am concerned with here, mercifully, is less vast, and is considerably illuminated by Dispatches, Michael Herr’s recent book on his experiences as a reporter in Vietnam. Simply put, how much of his movie should we be watching? Should we be watching at all? Can we stop watching? watching?

Mr Herr has asked this question as intelligently as any of the Vietnam reporters, which means he is by no means certain how to answer it. From the very outset he places himself in the landscape with quiet accuracy: listen to him quote a soldier on the relevance of ideology to the war: ” ‘All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill them. Period.’ Which wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch.” Admirably put. There are two kinds of players in Vietnam, the ones who load and shoot guns, and the ones who load and shoot cameras. What’s the difference? The irony snuggling behind “at all”, somewhat arch, accurately places Herr’s awareness of some connection just on the threshold of his consciousness. The trouble is that he doesn’t work hard enough at making the connection explicit, and so in the end it eludes him, leaving him mildly spooked.

Here’s a theory. The enemy isn’t really dead until he’s been shot by both guns. The M-16 rifle blows him away, renders his body incoherent, and the camera puts him back together again, shapes the unshapely, captures the life that escapes him, reconstitutes the fragments, re-presents the corpse for mental consumption. Torn flesh, after all, can be taken in the mouth or in the mind, and for several reasons our lips are sealed; which places the second shot higher in the national interest-any old grunt can fire an M-16. Hence the reporter as artist-priest, his Pentax and his pen composing the alchemy whereby sheer bloody incoherence is transubstantiated into something rich and strange.

Here’s another theory. The disturbing truth behind our inability to make the death real is our deeper concern to make it unreal. The panoply of technologies at our disposal (the guns and the cameras) invite us so to abstract the perception of death as to disperse utterly its radical particularity, abolish its terror, dismantle the ground from which all life starts and to which it returns. If death can be dismantled, made really unreal, then we are finally spaced out, extra-terrestrial, beyond gravity; which means, heaven knows, anything goes.

The struggle is no longer between man and man, but rather between Mother Nature and our lunatic son the Robot, while we stand around watching.

This extract is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September – October 1979.

A Note From The Curator

It has been my utmost pleasure, as a college-aged reader, in the last few weeks to find myself entrusted with the keys to this historic institution, and to pick through the archives to find those pieces which most succinctly embody all that PN Review believes itself to be.

I hope that as these articles and poems are reintroduced over the coming months, you will agree with me that, through many years, and many forms, PN Review has remained a bastion of intellectual rigour and new, interesting work since 1973.

To quote the very first issue, when PN Review was called Poetry Nation, for I believe it still holds true, confronted with the ‘variety and rich potential of new poetic modes, there is a renewed popularity of formal writing, combined with a refusal to surrender catholicity and assume the too readily available stance of the embattled poet or critic’ at the core of this journal. We are driven by this idea of the intrinsic and immutable value of both criticism and poetry which refuses to limit itself creatively in a search for a wider readership, and of our collective responsibilities to a ‘vital linguistic and formal heritage, to a living language, to a living community’.

-Ronan McAuliffe, Inaugural Curator of the PN Review Blog

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