Personal thoughts (scroll to the good bit if it makes you feel icky)
Lockdown is hard. Shielding is hard, and if I didn’t have such an amazing community of support around me, it would be so much harder. And I am shielding in the most privileged of circumstances. It is safe where I am. As many others have noted, the medical conditions that put me in the ‘extremely vulnerable’ camp, have also given me a load of tools, and lowered expectations, to get through the day. One of the things that has really got to me, however, is not something that I saw coming. Feeling vulnerable rather than valuable, and reliant rather than productive has shone a light on my value structure; for good and for ill. We know that the productivity drive in lockdown is unhealthy, but when a team of people that I have always enjoyed working with got in touch and floated an idea I was grateful, and excited.
I am excited to announce that from Monday 11th May 2020 I will be curating Vivienne Westwood’s Intellectuals Unite book club online on my Instagram @ProfLRobinson
I started meeting, talking and thinking with Vivienne and her IOU: Intellectuals Unite in 2016. What struck me straight away was that this is not some retro punk celebration, especially at the time of the 40th anniversary of punk celebrations. Intellectuals Unite and Climate Revolution are not a nostalgic rerun of the prank anarchism of 1977. They are a group of people, who have conversations that were very much rooted in the now and focused on the future. Although much of my work has focused on subcultures, sex, drugs and rock n roll, my involvement with Intellectuals Unite was based on my background as an activist and my historical research on structures of protest and political organisation.
The group, who meet, share tactics, and discussions across local and national issues was inspired by a variety of moments, by new community models, the legacies of the 2011 urban protest, the junior doctors strike, student campaigns for greener economically and environmentally sustainable campuses, for example. One of the practical strands has been Vivienne’s support of alternative electricity and utility providers as a way to undermine the power of the fossil fuel’s political lobby.
Her Manifesto of Active Resistance Against Propaganda reshaped my teaching , and she even gave me a space to raise awareness of our UCU strike issues and our strike fund.
The politics of Vivienne’s vision however extends beyond the academy. Her starting point is that we are all intellectuals. If you think about the world; if you participate in it critically and culturally – then you are an intellectual too. The context in which we find ourselves forces us to do just that. The circuits of exchange between resistance or protest and intellectual analysis is often only imagined in one direction, where the work of great thinkers influences the public, or perhaps more commonly, intellectuals pick up on the concerns and approaches of the public, and then frame them as their own intellectual interventions.
“Any kid off the street who wants to go on a demonstration to find out what’s happening – come and join us, you are an intellectual. We have to unite. It’s the only thing that can really challenge the government’s lies.”
The Book Club is partly inspired by a lovely letter that Vivienne wrote to her grand-daughter Cora, who she had been missing. She recommended that Cora work through
“The literary ethos of the 19th Century sometime after the reign of Napoleon around 1830 up to WW1. Going back, the evolution of the novel began before printing at a time when Kings and Queens and rich people lived in castles and palaces, and books were expensive. What started as ‘[h]eroic stories of romance and chivalry’, became the literary form where every strata of society could find themselves represented – if not necessarily in terms that they would choose.”
As someone who misses her Grandchildren so much that it hurts and has been trying to maintain a connection with them by sharing books with them online, this totally struck a chord.
But more than that. This is the literature that I grew up loving, grew in confidence studying, and, I hope, could help us to feel connected to both each other and to the past, in these extraordinary times. The 19th century novel demands that we find ourselves in the bigger picture. The expansiveness of the novel’s totality takes us outside of our own carefully measured safe distances from each other.
Books’ characters are our comrades.
In Vivienne’s Manifesto Get a Life, Alice and Pinocchio are fellow travelers who accompany us in Active Resistance.
My hopes are that by sharing these books, we can join collectively with these fellow travelers. Reading (in all its forms) as a pastime might help us in this time. Reading as a process might connect us through a shared experience, and reading as an analysis might help us think about what lessons for today we learn from the literature of the past.
How will it work?
Vivienne will share her book recommendation every two weeks. We will share an introduction to the book, thinking about things to look for, contextual background and ideas to think about. We will hold a virtual book club, with questions and discussions. I’m going to rope in colleagues and friends that I miss talking to as well. Pam Thurschwell has agreed to come and hang out with us.
She shared her thoughts with me about the power of the novel in the current moment:
“Novels matter in the time of coronavirus because art makes connections between people, even in the absence of hugs and handshakes; novels help build our shared understandings of our worlds. The 19th century European novel was centrally focused on what binds us together into that thing that Margaret Thatcher insisted did not exist, ‘society’. But novels have also always charted what breaks us apart, the sense of ourselves as isolated individuals. George Eliot describes the ties that connect her many characters to each other and to the provincial town of Middlemarch as a “web”; this image of intricate spidery connectedness might seem both comforting and entrapping. We need our webs and we fight against them. By contrast one of the works we like to call the first novel in English was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from 1719, the story of the hardy shipwrecked colonialist Crusoe, building his domain with a single subject, the black slave Friday. The realist novel gives us stories of love death, and domination, sex, work, scandal and money (always money), but also tells us how we fit into the webs that surround us.”
We want to want to find a space to think about virtual and literary communities. Can Instagram be this moment’s literary salon? Vivienne is always clear how much she values the book as a physical object and like a lot of academics, my bookcases are a form of autobiography (another privilege). But reading comes in many forms. This might be audiobooks, or a screen reader, eBooks, or a variety of different adaptions available form BBC sounds or iPlayer for example.
We want to find as many ways to get people involved and providing content as possible.
Send videos of your reactions to the books to be collated for the live event. Email me your thoughts and reviews, as text or as videos. Particularly if you have thoughts about how reading as a past-time, process, or analysis is helping you to make sense of a society in lockdown.
Our first Book Club will be Monday 25th May, time tbc
First book will be announced 6pm 11/05 2020
Check out @ProfLRobinson for more info.
#IntellectualsUnite #ClimateRevolution #IOUbookclub #viviennewestwood