Tag Archives: war

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.

 

[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue that depict Ryder at war, having returned to Brideshead in order to repurpose it as a military base. Main themes include memory, war, religion, and painting. Sebastian Flight is the lovable drunkard with whom Ryder class in love as a young man at Oxford. But Sebastian slowly goes to waste and exits the novel almost all together. he dies off screen, or does not, one is not sure. His sister, Julia, takes center stage in the second half of the novel. Ryder, now a successful painter of houses and married to Celia, falls in love with Julia while on a boat. They become lovers, but when she returns to the Catholic faith at the end of the novel, Ryder and her (despite both getting divorced for each other) decide not to get married.

Curious book to put into dialogue with The Return of the Solider and other novels that mourn the loss of innocent after World War I. Here, it is War World II that triggers a memory that returns to that pre-war state. The portrait of Oxford is a bit anachronistic, compressing the days of Richards and Empson with the days Pater and Wilde. Anthony Blanche is the token “aesthete,” and Ryder finds himself caught up in a new decadence that will string between the two wars. The wars themselves seem to squeeze together to the degree that intervening years are reduced to a couple of family squabbles: Julia says famously, “I see the past and future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Indeed, the finance capital vulgarians like Rex and the regressive Catholics like the Marchamids seem to be the only options for Julia and Ryder: they are therefore both unhappy at the end.

Use the meal with Rex to show the differences between Ryder’s older continental proclivities and Rex’s modernizing impulses, etc.

The novel gives the lie to the narrative that would reconsolidate England after the war. There are folks like Rex, who is similar to the Dalloways in his relationship to industry, his desire to ignore the war. The Marchmaid family, on the other hand, are trying to live an existence that belongs to another century. It isn’t that this lifestyle is unfit for 20th century, but that it in fact self-destructs: modernity must be described as “uneven development” with regard to its secularizing drive, etc.

As the war approaches, there is a moment in which Julia and Ryder, on the boat, no longer speak in their voices, but in the voices of the English who wish to deny that war is coming. They repeat in almost stichomythic fashion a battery of cliches about how the Germans have no money, etc.

Ryder is a painter of architecture. His painting can be seen as a synecdoche for Waugh’s mode of writing. He prefers drawing buildings that show the encrustations of each age–showing how each has made use of the building. Brideshead itself is shown repurposed multiple times, and the closing scene is of a lamp meant to be purely symbolic of epic and tragedy, hanging in a chapel, now burning in prayer for all the solders in France, etc. Relate this to Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” where he claims that each generation needs to find its own limits, and that there is not a single lyric voice that can consolidate their various attempts at self-transcendence.

 

 

Rebecca West – The Return of the Soldier (1915)

Chris suffers from shell-shock and when he returns to his wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) he can can’t remember the last 15 years of his life. Instead, he is living as if he is still in love with the lower class Margaret with whom he had a brief but intense relationship before he met his wife. Him and Margaret reconnect, ecstatically, but eventually a psychoanalyst intervenes and they “cure” him (by reminding him of his son that died when a child), which entails both the re-shattering of his youthful dreams and his incipient return to Flanders.

Talk about how the war pentrates domestic space. Not unlike the domestic space described in David Jones In Parenthesis or in Cummings The Enormous Room. Talk about how Fussel recounts the forceful making of English gardens in the trenches, etc…flowers that do not have nutritive purpose…the desire to create a domestic sphere that is impervious to war finds expression in the mirror image: real domestic spaces that are penetrated.

Talk about memory and its relation to trauma. The curing of Chris consonant with the death of love–the death of the object of desire itself. Interpretation in some sense kills that third term (talk about Laplanche)

The world that we thought the war killed is in fact simple another reality that has replaced an existence that was someone even more ideal than the England we thought we had lost, etc.

Talk about Hardy in reverse. In Hardy, his attempt o get into the melancholic modd reveals the impossibility of telling the difference between his current state of loss and the the loss that was always-already a part of his relationship with his wife. here, when the soldier returns (no longer a cause for mourning), the two companions realize that they were only ever substitutes for a love that already been lost. This can in turn be connected to Joyce’s “The Dead.”

The end of Chris’s life is the last day he can remember. Link this to Bergsonian notions of time, memory and durée.

Rather than read the trauma as a stark break with a past life, we can fact read it as revealing a thread of loss that was otherwise repressed. Chris as a young man had a sense of the “imminence of the improbable,” which shell-shock in some ways allows to occur–namely the rebirth of a prehistory that was otherwise consigned to wither away.

Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

The opening declarative sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The question remains, “to whom did she say this?” From the beginning, performance of the self is highlighted, how we comport ourselves within restricted fields to determinate others. Also, after the lark and the plunge (exaltation of larks is the term of venery…connect with Yeats discourse on birds), the field of phenomena is presented by way of clauses separated by semi-colons, a formal feature characteristic of Woolf. Think of the semi-colon as somewhere between the (Joycean) colon and the more traditional comma—granting relative autonomy to clauses, but binding them into some sort of narrative that makes the part more than the whole. Bring together with Hulmean-Bergsonian reflections on stasis and movement—how to render movement in an instant..-to render becoming more fundamental than being, etc. Further, a good example of what she calls the cotton-wool of daily life, how the myriad impressions (along with certain social roles such as wife, host, etc.) become constitutive of the self. Clarissa actually feels herself becoming “invisible, unseen; unknown” (11).

THE URBAN IN WOOLF: as opposed to Joyce, in which Bloom sifts and sorts through a barrage of commodities and advertisements, the Woolfean character sees the reflected back in the objects that we confront in our daily rounds: So while Clarissa might “slice like a knife through everything,” opening up an absence consonant with her subjective shrinkage, she also recognizes in “the ebb and flow of things,” the survival of a history she has already brought into being. CRUCIAL: the temporal present of everyday experience is punctuated by a history that is never suppressed by habit; rather, it is disclosed through habit. At times, the self seems to dissolve: individuals are united into loose collectivities when they see the figure aristocratic god passing in the carriage, or the new god of advertising appearing in the sky–much like in Wandering Rocks. This points forward to the experiments with the multiple self in The Waves.

Contextualize this reading of the ordinary within her distinction of being and non-being in “Sketch of the Past.” It is somehow as if non-being is exactly those trivial facts of life that we always overlook, but which fiction must labor to unveil. How this intersects with her notion of the trivial in “Modern Fiction” is up for debate. One can at least say that the play between being and non-being is not immediately conscripted into Hegelian becoming, but non-being seems able to exist as an autonomous field. Relate this to the Time Passes section in To the Lighthouse. Also, worth contrasting the various modes of habit that characterize Proust, Beckett, Beckett on Proust, and Woolf. For Beckett, habit makes like possible…but it also circumscribes life within its tight loop of repetition. For Woolf (and for Proust, too), habit is precisely that which evades representation because it is so close to the very mechanism of memory itself. Elucidating habit, outside of the scope of habit, is precisely the task they set for themselves.

And then contrast Dalloway’s phenomenology with that of Septimus Harding, who is, in some sense, a too perfect reader of modernist literature (“susceptibility to impressions had been his undoing”)…that is, his psyche has undergone the same forms of fragmentation that lead to the arbitrary collection “anarchy and futility” of daily life. He is not capable of making new wholes, in the Eliotic sense. Rather, he finds beauty in the advertisement in the sky, “

bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible clarity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (22)

Can relate this to Benjamin’s theory of aura and the commodity. In some sense, he has understood too exactly the mechanism of the modern artwork. But Clarissa is attuned to the social coordinates that are in fact ordering this fragmentation. Like the viceregal calvalcade in Wandering Rocks, the carriage draws together and orders the perceptual fields of the myriad characters in the opening passage. But even them, Clarissa must stand in front of mirror to constitute to herself a coherence of the self. Talk about this mirror in terms of the many other mirrors: the cracked looking glass in Wilde and Stephen’s Telemachus chapter; the pool in Nausicaa; deKoven in Rich and Strange; Mill on the Floss; Lady of Shallot; etc. Peter also has his own idea of beauty, on that inheres within the furniture of drawing rooms, piano, gramophone and corridor, the glimpse of the social as it is revealed in the sudden moment of seeing a dinner party through a window (163)

The not entirely arbitrary imposition of unity in the form of the bell tolling from Big Ben: Contrast this with the Eliot-Joyce mythical method. Also contrast with the bell ringing in Murphy, how Murphy’s “internal” clock is impossibly aligned with such tolling. Such devices are common, present even in Gabriel Oak’ watch that has a minute hand but no hour hand. Talk about Bergson. Spetimus has a different relationship to Time: it engulfs him, its splits it husk, poured its riches over him (cf. Baudelaire: “Le Temps m’engloutit minute par minute”). SO TIME: on the one hand,  can become overwhelming if not ordered, if it becomes overly subjective (as in the case of Septimus), but it’s overly objective ordering (in the form of Big Ben) can be equally harmful. 

Sally Seton and the kiss. Established as an alternative pre-history. In general, talk about how the past punctuates the present. Contrast the shock of the past in Septimus, to the healthy sublimation of the past in someone like Clarissa. Also crucial spatial aspect: her memory is located in the pastoral countryside, while Spetimus’ memory is dislocated from that landscape…on the battlefield (Evans appears with frightening immediacy).

Peter, at the end, feels ecstasy and terror (much like “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916”) at the “presenting” of Clarissa Dalloway. Read Peter as a Prufrock of sorts, an educated professional class on longer valued in terms of land, blood and money, but in terms of functional work within the system of Imperialism. Compare to Cecil in Passage to India…the product of an England that has dissolved (in contrast to Whitbread, Bradshaw, Richard Dalloway, etc.)

Virginia Woolf – Jacobs’s Room (1922)

[Plot summary impending]

Epistemological constraints overlaid on gendered exclusion: the narrator can only imagine what goes on in the rooms at Cambridge. All particularity (Jacob’s back, for instance) is accessed through a window…the rest reamins thoroughly interrogative. Throughout, then, the narrative toggles between the classificatory systems set by consciousness (necessary for the ordering of the phenomenal world) and the classificatory systems imposed by society.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself. (75, Signet)

The irony should not be missed here. Other forms of exclusion are eluded to in the multiple descriptions of the names etched in the rotunda of the British Museum, sequestered palace of self-improvement dedicated to the “public,” [Cf. new Grub Street, where Marian yule slaves away for her father Alfred], yet symbolizing the “unbroken knowledge” that extends from Plato to the present [Jacob is attempting to write himself into a tradition that the narrator is anxiously attempting to validate], constituting an “enormous mind,” “haroded beyond the power of any single mind to posses it.” [Cf. Mr. Ramsay’s anxiety in To the Lighthouse]. And further, there is the intimation that Jacob’s friend “Bonamy” is gay (“Now he’s a dark horse”) and therefore excluded as well. Jacob himself worries about being excluded from the intellectual aristocracy he tries so ostentatiously to penetrate. “Am I a bumpkin?” he asks.

Space: Could be considered an extended critique of interiors, of the pretensions of the gentry to preserve a sense of classicism despite the ravages of the 20th-century. [Connect this with bertha’s room with Beethoven’s bust.] Further, Jacob’s trip to Greece illustrates his lack of any real connection to the history he so desires to join. He goes to Greece not to be a part of civilization, but instead to protect himself from civilization. He has no connection, ty as he might, to a landscape that is undergoing processes of history. Ironically, Jacob will be violently pulled into history by his death in Flanders. That his last name is Flanders rewrites the rambling impressionistic nature of the small book as a tragedy in the Greek tradition–he was meant to be a part of a history that he refused to see.

Side note: he is working on piece that asks whether history is composed of great men, which connects to Carlyle’s One Heros and Hero-Worship.

 

Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (1938)

From New Poems (1938), this poem’s title refers to a blue rock that serves as the medium of a sculpture given to him by Harry Clifton (to whom the poem is dedicated). Opens with an indictment of detached artists by “hysterical women,” who claims that l’art pour l’art has no place within the context of the impending second world war. Yeats calls for a poetry that engages catastrophe, but refrains from adopting the tragic as its final note. The poem will come around to a “tragic joy” that is achieved in and through the human capacity to create.

The long second stanza talks about Shakespearean tragedy, and introduces “gay” as a crucial word: Gaiety transfiguring all that dread. This gaiety is Nietzschean in its ability to affirm. The poem engages in this affirmation through a rewriting of “The Second Coming”:

All things fall and built again
And those that build them again are gay.

This locates a certain joy amidst the process of historical, political and aesthetic tragedy. The final stanzas describe the Lapis Lazuli sculpture in detail. The importing of an Eastern sculpture directly rewrites Keats “Grecian Urn,” thereby offsetting the Western “solution” of the static truth-beauty onto an Eastern paradigm of Eternal Recurrence. In the temple, where Yeats imagines the “Chinamen” going, they engage in a song of worship, suitably rustic:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The repetition of eyes is curious in the context of modernism’s exaltation of vision as the medium of aesthetic judgment (cf. Conrad, Ford, etc.). Also, the statue which started the revelry ends by producing a song, thus securing for lyric a privileged status. Lastly, ancient and glittering recall Yeats early work: the fish in Wandering Aengus is glittering, and everything is ancient. Here we have a return, a resignation, a joy, one that has been hard won.