Philosophy in the public square

My night with Slavoj Žižek.

Thick with heat and windows dripping with condensation, the atmosphere in and overcrowded Café Oto was almost tangible as I walked around the packed floor of eager participants looking to prop myself up against a vacant wall space. I found one at the back of the room and waited for the night to begin.

I was there for a marathon evening based on the work of philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and his latest book Less Than Nothing.  A non-stop 24-hour (yes, you read that correctly) event that began with a seminar by Iain Hamilton Grant before a talk by Žižek himself was then turned over to the general public who in turns read from the author’s latest offering throughout the night and next day. Frazzled from a particularly trying week at work, I didn’t quite manage the whole 24 hours.

I couldn’t and I’m not going to attempt to summarise Žižek’s lecture – you can listen to it yourself below - but there was something about the persistent heckling during this talk that made me think, not about the heckle itself but about what was going on in the room. About the public engaging with philosophy. Even though the man’s complaints were drowned out against the far more numerous groans of Žižek supporters that greeted it, it made me contemplate the possible role philosophy could and should have in society.

There is a possibly apocryphal interpretation of Socrates that says he used to sit in the Athenian square debating with the general public about the subject of philosophy. That this practice, for him, in someway constituted doing philosophy. That philosophy should really be about debating with everyday people and bringing academic subjects to the public as opposed to a conception of the subject in which philosophers sit alone in universities and think about philosophical problems. Fast-forward over 2,000 years and this debate about whether academic subjects should prioritise public engagement or research is - with universities having to justify funding against the backdrop of education cuts - as current as ever.

The tension between working in an academic environment and engaging the general public in those subjects was something familiar to me from my time studying philosophy. Throughout my studies at a BA and MA level I often wondered, ironically perhaps, what was the point of my chosen subject. Why was I doing philosophy and did it serve any purpose or public good? Over the course of four years I went from believing I was doing something useful to believing I was not. The further up the academic ladder I went – with the increasing specialisation and alienation from the general public this requires - the less I felt the academic work I was doing was a valuable public service. Writing a dissertation on objections related to a probabilistic account of subjunctive conditionals (yes, again you read that correctly) was the point I realised my time in the subject was up.

The Saturday previous to the Žižek talk, I’d been at a similar event. This time though at Kensington’s Institut Français and the My Night with Philosophers event – a vast assortment of lectures and talks comprising the audiovisual, written, musical and theatrical that took place through the night. Having drunk enough wine and coffee to power me through the 12 hours I fell into a twitchy sleep haunted by words such as subjunctives, truth, beauty, reality and all manner of other philosophical concepts. Spurred on by the amount of conversations about Descartes’ sceptic I’d heard the night before, when I awoke I even pinched myself to double check I was really awake. Although, as Descartes would say, this is no guarantee to know that I was really awake as opposed to just being tricked by some malicious demon.

As with the Žižek talk, people were actively engaged in philosophy. Over the course of the evening through readings, performances and most importantly arguing and debating with each other as well as the philosophers giving talks it was strikingly clear that there is not only a need but an appetite for this kind of public engagement of academic subjects. Particularly appealing for myslef was watching the philosophers debate between themselves (see here Beyond The Fringe’s fantastic spoof of such debates) and, in certain debates, try to find their own answers to the questions that had bothered me so much as a student and that I’ve outlined above. They didn’t reach any conclusive answers but then again, if I’d learned anything from studying philosophy and attending these events, it was that it isn’t the point of the subject. And maybe that’s why we need it.

Sean Gittins is a performer, broadcaster and producer of the Arts Council England funded project Til Debt Do Us Part. You can follow him at http://www.seangittins.co.uk/Home.html and @sean_gittins

In the agora: Slavoj Žižek at Café Oto Photo: Tim Ferguson
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era