A God that Knows how to Dance

A couple of years ago I was asked by the Portuguese magazine Electra to write a very short response to this quote from Nietzsche – ‘I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance‘. I’ve been meaning to post it for a while, but it seemed in pretty poor taste while the pandemic was going on and none of us could go out and dance. But I’ve been inspired by the simply extraordinary tele-cinematic event which has been the broadcast of Steve McQueen’s film Lover’s Rock: surely the greatest screen representation of social dance that’s been produced to date, and a powerful tribute to the radical creativity of black British culture.

Anyway, here’s the Nietzsche dancing God thing…

I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.

-Nietzsche 

The dancing god features in many mythologies. In the ‘Western’ tradition, Pan dances at the border between shamanic prehistory and classical paganism; and is said to have died with the advent of Christianity. But even Christ can take a dancing form, in the modern imagination. Sydney Carter’s 1963 song ‘Lord of the Dance’ – sung by generations of British schoolchildren – imagines Jesus as Nataraja: the dancing form of the Hindu god Shiva, whose dancing generates the energy that both creates and destroys the universe. Carter borrowed his melody from a Shaker song: the Shakers being a charismatic Christian sect that included ecstatic dances in their worship practices, when they believed themselves moved by the Holy Spirit. In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God’s immanence to the material universe.

 It’s no surprise then, that Nietzsche – the great philosopher of immanence, the enemy of body-hating dualism and Christian transcendentalism – should be prepared to believe in a dancing God. Nietzsche loved dance and described his love of it in explicitly spiritual terms. Of course ‘dance’ for Nietzsche would not have conjured the kind of images that it might for us today. But all dancing -from the Waltz to the ballet to the rave – exists somewhere along the same continuum, between individual, gravity-defying gymnastics and the irreducibly collective physicality of a rhythmic, mobile crowd. 

Dance as mystical practice – from shamanic rites to Sufism –  erases two boundaries at the same time. It suspends or erases the distinction between matter and spirit: an elevated mental state induced by corporeal practice. It breaks down the boundary between self and other, between individual and group. The dancing crowd is unified and differentiated at the same time. It is in motion but in formation. It is one and many. The god who dances is an immanent force, a force of multiplicity and inherent creativity. 

This is surely what makes the image such a potent one for Nietzsche – who is always a philosopher of multiplicity – and for other thinkers trying to express a reality that cannot be adequately defined by categories of enumeration and individuation, or by ordinary understandings of space and time. In his new age classic, The Tao of Physics, Fritoj Capra refers to the inherently mobile and creative nature of matter as ‘the cosmic dance’. He points out that the the entire thrust of theoretical physics since the end of the nineteenth century has been to develop an understanding of matter as dynamic, energetic, processual and strangely unpredictable (an understanding that traditions like Taoism have always shared). This stands in direct opposition to the classical theistic and  dualistic assumption that inert matter can only be animated by an immaterial force that is always distinct from it: God, spirit, mind or soul. 

In the culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, all of these elements – secular spirituality, the erasure of dualism, the suspension of individualism – can be found where bodies congregate to dance. The late 60s / early 70s saw the birth of the rock concert and the disco as the key socio-cultural expressions of the counterculture: democratic and utopian spaces that would only be captured and colonised by capitalism with great difficulty, whose radical spirit has been carried into the twenty-first centuries by raves and festivals of many kinds. 

The psychedelic godfather of Disco (and so of all modern dance cultures), David Mancuso, once said to me that he often felt that all parties are just local expression of the ‘one big party’ taking place everywhere, all the time, that occasionally we manage to tune into or express through our own bodies and gatherings. The profundity of this remark has stayed with me ever since. What David seemed to sum up in this single image was the fact that the joy of dancing in groups is an intense expression of the inherently creative capacity of the social relations that always constitute all of our being: what I call the ‘infinite relationality’ of existence. The cosmic dance of matter, the multiplicity of the multitude, the creative power of complex groups: to acknowledge the god who dances is to acknowledge them all. 

We Lost Because We Weren’t Big Enough…

Here’s the latest long, long analytical essay for open Democracy. It’s basically trying to look at the whole conjunctural situation of the left in the UK and the US, after the defeats of Corbyn and Sanders and under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The title might seem like a tautology, but my editor Adam, who’s a very good judge of these things, liked the phrase and pulled it out from the main text to use, and it certainly captures something at the heart of what this is about.

You should definitely read it all or else you’re lazy and a bad comrade. But if you must have a very short summary…

•The left in the US and the UK has been through a very similar process over the past yew years. We built a significant democratic movement for the first time in decades, we tried to take control of the main party of the ‘left’, we had limited success and eventually were denied any chance to form a government.

•We got beaten by two forces….

•On the one hand, the centrist neoliberal technocrats who have run the Democratic and Labour parties for decades ultimately succeeded in blocking us, because the threat posed to their own jobs and status by the rising Left was of more immediate concern to them than, for example, the threat of planetary destruction if the Left’s programme is not implemented soon.

• This opened the door to the electoral success of a right-wing nationalist project (and kept it open), in each case headed by a figure who is popular basically because they used to be on TV a lot and precisely because they present themselves as fundamentally unserious politicians.

•This leaves two major tasks ahead of us: building class consciousness amongst workers to challenge conservative nativism; disaggregating the social bloc that is led by the (neo)liberal technocratic political class. It’s a serious mistake to see these tasks as mutually exclusive or to prioritise either at the expense of the other.

•The big challenge that we’re likely to face in the coming years will be the attempt by the Right to de-legitimate demands for a Green New Deal (or comparable programme),with working-class citizens (especially white working-class citizens). They’re likely to do this both by pursuing culture-war tactics which will seek to associate any Green project with metropolitan ‘elite’ culture and with liberal cosmopolitanism, and by offering some material concessions (safe jobs, relatively affordable homes etc.) to key constituencies of workers.

There’s also stuff about, like, how to theorise racism. But that’s mostly in passing.

In terms of what all this means pragmatically…err….well, one thing is I think people who make viral videos and those kinds of media should really be thinking about how to persuade financially comfortable gen-x voters that the kind of politicians that they habitually like to vote for (eg. Keir Starmer, Kamala Harris) are NOT going to do anything to fix climate change, pointing out again and again that their predecessors (Blair, Clinton, Obama) had every opportunity to do so and failed, because they were ultimately in hock to capitalist interests. Of course we also need to revive the labour movements and organise workers in the rust belts. But that’s not really my area of expertise.

One thing I will say is that I think a particular problem right at this moment is that to some extent, in both the UK and the US, we’re in a holding pattern, waiting to see if Biden can win and if Starmer can ever actually build up a significant poll leads (as Blair already was doing by this point in his leadership). The resolution of either of these issues doesn’t have any overriding effects on our strategies, but it will make a difference to where some people focus their energies and attention. If these figures can consolidate their positions, then we’ll have to do almost all of work outside the party structures, trying to shift actual public opinion among key constituencies. If they don’t, well, we will still have to do that; but the opportunity to once more make a play for power inside the party structures will be too significant – and the temptation too great – for this not to become a preoccupation for at least large numbers of us, once again.

FWIW, while we will know whether Biden has won or not on one day in November (presumably…maybe not though…), the question of when we will ‘know’ if Starmer has managed to stabilise his position or not is more open. But, all other things being equal, I would expect the Labour membership to start getting very restless if he is still pursuing a totally uninspiring strategy of trying to win back centrist and socially-conservative voters, but hasn’t secured Blair-style massive poll leads, by some time next year.

Anyway, that’s enough…I got really useful feedback on this essay from Alex Williams, Anthony Barnett, Adam Ramsay, Neal Lawson and Clive Lewis. Thanks for that!

Some other recent contributions on left strategy, in the UK at at least, that are definitely worth checking out:

https://medium.com/@paulmasonnews/the-left-the-party-and-the-class-1ca7b6a959e6

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/09/labour-starmerism-movement

https://newsocialist.org.uk/guilty-men-thesis-and-labours-route-power/

Notes Towards a Theory of Solidarity (talk from the Goldsmiths teach-out)

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A few weeks ago, when many UK university staff were on strike against a major attack on their pension rights, I was invited to speak at the teach-out organised by the   UCU (University and Colleges Union) branch at Goldsmiths, University of London.

I gave a 20-minute talk from notes that I’d made the previous day. The talk provoked a really interesting discussion, and I promised a couple of people that I would make the notes available once I had had time to write them up. Well, I’ve written them up and they’ve become quite long, but that’s not all that surprising. This is still just notes – it’s not supposed to be a worked-out argument. But here it is in case anyone finds it useful.

Welcome to the age of Platform Politics- explaining the election result and its implications

So just after the election Alex and I did a talk at the Anti-University of East London event on this subject, which will be central to our forthcoming book (among many other things). The video is HERE

A week or two after that I wrote a long essay on the subject and the implications of the election, but I had already promised to write on this subject for Fabian Review, so I produced a short edited version for them which was published here last week. I did an even shorter version for IPPR but I don’t think that’s been posted yet.

The full length version is on open Democracy HERE.

 

The Relations of Force: Politics and Power in Britain Today

All politics is about building coalitions and building power: if Labour cannot understand this truth and grasp its implications, then it is doomed. 

A quick preface

This was written as a short contribution to a Pluto Press book that was supposed to be published last year,  but never finally happened. I think it’s still pretty relevant to everything so I’m posting it now.

(If you’re one of the several people who are waiting for me to finish writing something – don’t worry – I did this ages ago…it hasn’t been distracting me from what I was supposed to be writing for you)

My aim in this short essay is to explain how a particular way of understanding politics and social change can illuminate our current situation. But first a disclaimer. I won’t be  saying anything new here. The ideas I will be using are very familiar to those who are trained in a particular intellectual tradition. I present them here because they remain invaluable and useful, and because lots of people have had  no access to that tradition; but not because I claim any originality for them.

I am going to be explaining in very basic terms how an approach derived from the ideas of the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, who died in ta fascist prison in the late 1930s, can help us understand current British politics. It seems particularly appropriate to to do this right now, because the past month has seen the launch of Stuart Hall’s Selected Political Writings [https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/stuart-hall-event]. Hall was one of the giant’s of British public and intellectual life of recent decades (https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/stuart-hall; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/tribute-to-stuart-hall). One of Hall’s great contributions to British intellectual culture was to bring to Gramsci’s ideas to on the analysis of British politics, in a number of key essays, several of which can be found in his key 1980s collection, The Hard Road to Renewal.

At the present time, Gramsci and his ideas seem to be undergoing yet another one of their periodic revivals, having been dismissed by many commentators as hopelessly outdated a few years ago. Many introductions to Gramsci are available,  but one of the best has been recently updates: Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/gramscis-political-thought). Many scholarly expositions of Gramsci’s work have been produced, but Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment (2009) set a new benchmark in English-language scholarship. I don’t know much about the state of Gramsci scholarship outside the English-speaking world, but I do know that the popular French radio show and podcast Les Chemins de La Philosophie (https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-chemins-de-la-philosophie) recently produced an episode on Gramsci simply because he is so widely cited by so many people. Radical publishers Verso have just published  a historical study of Gramsci’s key concept – ‘hegemony’ (if you don’t know what this means don’t worry, I will explain in simple terms shortly) – by one of its most prominent writers, Perry Anderson. In fact Alex Williams and I are currently writing a book for the same publishers on the subject of hegemony in the 21st century, which due to be completed before the summer. (We are considering presenting initial arguments in a series of public seminars and videos, so if you think you might be interested in that then do follow us at @lemonbloodycola and @jemgilbert).

Here it is

Free Course! Introduction to Cultural Studies: Culture, Technology & Power

From February to June this year, I’ll be teaching on a free fortnightly course at Open School East in Dalston which will be be covering a number of key issues in contemporary cultural politics – race, gender, sexuality, technology, neoliberalism, music, money, the future, etc. I’ll be taking most of the sessions – Stephen Maddison will do the one on queer politics.
Anyone is welcome and it  should be very interesting.
These lectures / seminar are technically the second part of a free course titled ‘Introduction to Cultural Studies: Culture, Technology & Power’, but they should be accessible and interesting whether you are completely new to these things, or an advanced cultural theory postgrad, or anything in between. Please do pass on to anyone who might be interested.
For more details about the course, the context, etc. see HERE and HERE
The information about what, where and when is below:

Where and how to get there ?

Open School East
The Rose Lipman Building
43 De Beauvoir Rd
London N1 5SQ

View Map

Buses: 67, 149, 243 (Haggerston Station) & 21, 76, 141 (Downham Road)
Overground: Haggerston

(Open School East is fully wheelchair accessible)

What and When?

Every other Tuesday (normally – see dates below), Feb 23rd – June 14th 2016

6:30pm -8:30pm

Just turn up no booking required

(then drinks round the corner at Brilliant Corners!)

Dates and Topics 

Tuesday February 23 2016

We are all migrants

‘Some bunch of migrants’ is what David Cameron called the refugee inhabitants of the Calais ‘jungle’ when Jeremy Corbyn went to visit them. But migration and movement of people has shaped every aspect of our lives and culture, from the forced migrations of the slave trade to the take-away menus on our high street. With the EU referendum just around the corner, and anti-immigration feeling running high in the UK, what hope is there for a progressive cosmopolitan politics today? 

Tuesday March 8th 

Computer World  

‘Computer World’ is the title of Kraftwerk’s best album (yes it is). At just around the time they recorded it, economists, philosophers and social theorists were predicting that the ‘computerisation’ of society would change everything, creating a world of infinite information, without stable values, in which the very idea of being ‘modern’ would come to seem out of date.  Were they right? The technological changes of the past few decades have radically changed how capitalism works – but is it still fundamentally the same old system?

Tuesday March 15th  (NB this is only one week after the last session)

No Such Thing As ‘Society’

“There’s no such thing as society: only individuals (and their families)”. This was perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s most notorious public pronouncement. It was also one of the few moments when she made explicit her commitment to the ideals and assumptions of ‘neoliberalism’: the individualistic political philosophy that has come to dominate our politics, our culture and our lives. 

After the 2008 crash, and the rise of Corbynism, we’re hearing a lot of discussion these days about the problems with neoliberal economics, which basically wants to privatise everything, drive down wages and cut taxes for the rich. We don’t hear so much about neoliberalism as a cultural ideology, promoting individualism, competition and greed in every area of life, from the nursery to the hospice. But without understanding this, we can’t understand how  ruling elites have got away with imposing such an unpopular programme for so long. 

We’ll have a think about this here – and take the opportunity to revise a bit of Marx, Gramsci and Foucault. 

Easter break 

Tuesday April 5th 

This is what a feminist looks like 

If historians of the future remember our era for anything, it is probably going to be the unprecedented revolution in the social status of women that we have lived through, and are living through.  But the movement which made that change possible is still derided and feared, often seemingly unpopular with the very generations of young women who have benefited from it. At the same time it has raised a question which cultural and social theory is still struggling to answer – what is gender? Is it a social construct or a biological fact, or both, or neither? What does it mean to be a feminist today? Where does masculinity fit into all this? What are ‘performativity’ and ‘intersectionality’ when they’re at home? We will sort all this out in time to get to the pub before 9, honest…

Tuesday April 19th

Queer as Folk

Another huge cultural and political change of recent years has been the transformation in social attitudes towards same-sex relationships. It’s hard to believe now that both advocates and opponents of ‘gay liberation’ once thought that capitalism itself simply could not tolerate open same-sex relationships, and would be fatally undermined by any attempt to validate them. At the same time sexuality remains a highly charged political issue in many complex ways, and the broad field of ‘queer theory’ has been one of the most productive and contentious areas of cultural studies. 

Tuesday May 3rd

The Multitude, the Metropolis (and the Mayor)

Since around 2000, there’s been growing interest in the English-speaking world in a particular strain of radical Italian thought. This ‘autonomist’ tradition believes in the creative, dynamic capacities of workers of all kinds, from factory workers to software engineers, and wants to liberate the creative power of ‘the multitude’ from capitalist control. Thinkers such as Hardt & Negri and Lazzarato offer very interesting ways of thinking about the rise of the ‘creative economy’, about how social media platforms generate profits from our everyday communications, and about why cities are so often hotbeds of radicalism and innovation. Two days before the London Mayoral election, we’ll also think about what potential there might be for Londoners to take back our own city from the clutches of the oligarchs and the Corporation of London.

Tuesday May 17th  

Can you Feel it?

 Once upon a time, Cultural Studies was basically about looking at everything as if it were a language: fashion, advertising, music and journalism were understood as different ways in which people ‘make meanings’. A lot of cultural studies still is like that – it’s a very useful and productive way of looking at things. But what about those aspects of our lives which are not easy to translate into ‘meanings’?  What about feelings? What about the sounds of music, the colours of paintings, the physical thrill of watching a movie? These issues aren’t just important for thinking about art and music – they’re also crucial to understanding what motivates people politically and socially. We’ll  explore these issues and try to get inside one of the most difficult but rewarding bodies of 20th century theory: the ‘schizoanalysis’ of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Tuesday May 31st 

How did we get here?  

How did we get into this mess? Rising inequality, climate catastrophe, miserable youth and a culture which can’t innovate: it’s hard to believe that until some time in the 80s, people actually believed the world was getting better.  Can Cultural Studies help us to understand how we got here? It can and it will.

In this session we’ll bring together many of the ideas from the previous weeks, and the previous term, to see how they can help answer this questions. We’ll be looking at some classic Cultural Studies text such as Sturt Hall et. al’s Policing the Crisis published in 1978 (which starts off analysing newspaper reports about muggings, and ends up basically predicting Thatcherism before anyone else could see it coming), and asking if culture in 2016 is still stuck in ‘the long 1990s’. 

Tuesday June 14th 

Where are we going?

What kind of world are we heading into, and who gets to decide? Will artificially-intelligent robots be our masters? Will we be cyborgs ourselves? Are we already? What will happen to us once Chinese workers start demanding decent wages for making all the stuff we buy? Can the planet tolerate the levels of consumption we’ve got used to? Will technology save us or destroy us.? Are we already experiencing ‘post-capitalism’?  Are we already ‘post-human’? All this and more will be revealed. 

The Long 90s is Over

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Capitalism, Culture and the Media conference at the University of Leeds last week.

It touches on some themes discussed in a bit more detail in this lecture I gave at Open School East earlier in the summer.

I will write this up into a proper article and get more into the stuff around the global historic bloc of Big Tech and Finance Capital (Wall St + Silicon Valley) when I get around to it. For now I thought I’d better put this online because people like the excellent Aditya  are starting to quote me on the long ’90s thing…