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 and @sean_gittins

In the agora: Slavoj Žižek at Café Oto Photo: Tim Ferguson
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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood