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
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496