Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thompson gets youtubed

I think it would be fair to say that I have always had a tormented relationship with electronic technology. My pain began back in the 1980s, when my family found itself on the wrong side of the vicious VHS-Beta war. My parents bought a Beta video machine just as the vast majority of film distributors and video shops were defecting to the side of VHS technology. Rather than taking Karate Kid and Back to the Future home from Papakura Civic Video, I had to settle for The Guns of Navarone and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

More recently I have been battling yahoo, which has been scrambling and reassembling my e mails as if it were William Burroughs working on one of his cut-up novels, and blogger, which has stopped recognising my password and forced me to usurp Skyler's identity.

Given the sorry history of my dealings with the electronic universe, I was rather surprised to discover that the folks at Google Books have attached the following biographical thumbnail to their advertisement for my recently-published study of EP Thompson, The Crisis of Theory:

Scott Hamilton was Senior Lecturer at Manchester University in the UK, where, in addition to his research activities, he spent more than 30 years teaching electronic circuit design to undergraduate and graduate students. He is now retired.

Some people might argue that the last sentence of that profile is accurate enough.

Before I give the impression that I completely regret post-Neolithic technology, though, I wanted to publicise three superb additions to youtube's vast catalogue.
The clips at youtube show Thompson speaking at a 'Forum on Social Change' held by Britain's Social Sciences Research Council in March 1977.

Thompson replies lucidly and lengthily to the rather high falutin' queries of the scholars seated at the table around him, but there seems, to me at least, to be a peculiar sort of tension to his performance. His voice sometimes rises an octave, and his brow sometimes creases. He runs his hand through his shock of white hair nervously. His discussion may be involved and theoretical, but his body language is urgent and uncomplicated.

Only a couple of months before his talk to the SSRC, Thompson had returned from an extended and traumatic visit to India, where he discovered that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, an old friend of his family, had established, with the support of both the Communist Party and the CIA, a de facto dictatorship.

As he gave public lectures in India and watched students who had asked him excessively political questions being arrested by secret policemen, Thompson became terrified that Britain would follow in the footsteps of its former colony, and succumb to authoritarianism. As he noticed both India's Marxist academics and its US-trained exponents of 'development studies' excusing policies like forced sterilisation of the poor and the chasing of tribal peoples off their land in the name of 'historical progress' and the 'boosting of productive forces', he became achingly aware of the ways in which the lofty language of theory could act as a cover for avarice and repression.

In 'The Poverty of Theory', the one hundred and ninety-nine page polemic he published in 1978, Thompson would attack intellectuals to both his left and his right as dangerous traitors to reason, and in a legendary appearance at a conference in Oxford in 1979 he would denounce a vast audience of distinguished left-wing scholars - scholars who wanted to honour him - for their alleged failure to recognise the steady erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

When he talked to the SSRC in March 1977, then, EP Thompson was in the middle of a period of political and intellectual turmoil. Thompson's performance, which was apparently discovered on an old video tape (was it Beta, or VHS?) in the SSRC archive, is a taonga which historians of the left will study with delight.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well i found his 'discussion' totally incomprehensible.

but hey i'm only a worker not an intellectual wanker like you and your friends. lol.

9:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beta rocks.

10:59 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

His talk reminded me of the most important points of theory that I've gleaned over the years.
1) As John Anderson and Futa Helu both held: thought is a species of feeling. It is a spiritual object but more importantly, it is also material.
2) That any thought is an ongoing and infinitely complex process and can at any time fall prey to the fallacy of dogma and stasis, much like political history itself.
3) That when ruling classes no longer maintain a reciprocal relationship with their subjects then some sort of violence is inevitable. Workers have agency as long as someone turns them on to what's happening!

I admit that these points may seem obvious to the layman (when they're conveniently spelled out in ordinary language) but they are certainly not wankery.

In fact it's shocking how often these important principles are ignored in the everyday language of workers as well as in government policy.

Deal with politics before politics deals with you! Theory is matter and it matters!

11:52 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

"In fact it's shocking how often these important principles are ignored in the everyday language of workers as well as in government policy..."

...let alone among theorists.

9:32 am  

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