2004: Shit Kicks
Letter sent to Ben Watson on 5 July 2004, commenting on his novel Shit Kicks And Dough-balls (Spare Change Books, 2003). The full text of the novel is available at http://www.militantesthetix.co.uk/skanddb/SKandDB01.html
I’ve now read your novel cover to cover (a compliment you rarely extend to your opponents). In the hope that they may be of some interest, I offer a few comments.
In view of my predilection for realist narrative, I had expected to be very hostile to the book, knowing some of your other work and your various prejudices. In fact, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Your ability to draw together music, philosophy, politics, sex, food etc. etc. is quite spectacular. The index is a poem in itself. I was delighted by your linking of Plato and Duane Eddy. Having myself been stitched up at Marxism, I found your account of Callinicos/Snodgrass and John (Rees‑)Mogg hilarious, despite reservations (see below). Your wonderful description of Lloyd Grossman’s accent as a ‘mid-atlantic abortion, something unformed and bloody left in a jumbo jet’s toilet’  is delightful. The text throws up hundreds of provocative questions, and invites a reply as long as the book itself – don’t worry, I shan’t write one. As a novel of ideas it reminded me somewhat of The Magic Mountain, though it’s thankfully shorter and rather funnier.
But it still left me with a lot of problems about your position. To begin with, it is rather bizarre to have a novel written by someone who is hostile to the novel form and who refuses to read novels. It’s rather like me writing an opera. You are sceptical of ‘the procedures of the realist novel’,  but I’m not always sure whether you have a clear idea what these are. For example, you blame the realist novel for operating with a ‘linear narrative’.  But surely we all live in a linear narrative, whether we like it or not. I wake up in the morning, and I can either read your novel or go leafleting for Respect. I can’t do both with the same bit of time, and I can’t have two alternative existences in which I do the two things. Of course there are science fiction narratives which do break with the linear notion of time. I’m thinking of the delightful movie Sliding Doors. (I’m sure there are many more sophisticated versions in the science fiction canon, but I don’t know them.) But surely the whole charm of such works is that they offer a vision of something which is denied us by the material circumstances of our existence.
One of your characters very aptly remarks that everything in the book seems ‘like its own parody’.  This is one of the book’s merits, but it does leave a problem for anyone wishing to challenge your ideas, in that it offers a perfect evasion. If a critic attempts to quote from your text, you can simply dismiss any particular opinion as being parodic.
Then, rather oddly for one opposed to the realist novel, you have chosen to write what is one of the most naturalistic varieties of the genre, the roman à clef. It’s quite difficult to judge what the novel would read like to someone who didn’t recognise any of the characters. Obviously I know some of the characters quite well, while others I didn’t identify at all – if indeed they all are based on ‘real’ people. Thus the scenes between Lunch and Esther Punnck made me feel almost voyeuristic, while the SteifBohner/Helen Muffin scenes produced a much more detached response.
The wordplay is often impressive, but again there is a problem. It’s not always clear whether the various puns are conscious or the product of accident (though in your aesthetic it may not matter). Is the word ‘idealogue’  a clever evocation of the idealism inherent in all ideology – or did you just miss it in the proof-reading? And does the word ‘cam’ [117: line 29] indicate a sudden recall of happy student days spent punting – or did the printer miss the letter ‘e’. And if you want to be pedantic, get your facts right. You claim that your have four punctuation marks in a row.  But the first apostrophe is a spelling convention to indicate the pronunciation of ‘Lightning’, and therefore is not punctuation in the strict sense.
You claim that you wrote the book as a novel in order to ‘broadcast’ information on a ‘more accessible waveband’,  and hope that ‘thousands’ will read it.  While I hope the book sells well, I’m not sure that you have solved the problem of translating what Irving Howe (in Politics and the Novel) describes as ‘hard pellets of ideology’ into fiction. Anyone picking up the book in the hope of lurid sex will probably skip the discussions of Dietzgen, and may well not bother finishing the book at all. Maybe it’s my age, but I didn’t find the sex scenes particularly appealing. [The New Statesman recently had a competition to write the most unerotic sex scene possible; I think some extracts from your book might well have won.] The aim, however, is thoroughly laudable; finding new ways of presenting revolutionary ideas so as to reach a wider audience is obviously a key question for any serious revolutionaries.
Now for my main reservations. As I’ve told you before, I think your style is terrorist. I also think, despite your repeated invocations of materialism, you remain trapped in idealism.
I find the style of all your writing terroristic. Anyone who does not share your aesthetic judgements is not only labelled aesthetically inadequate (which might be acceptable – I’m not a relativist) but also morally derelict. This is the mirror image of Matthew Arnold, staring back at him over the Hyde Park railings.
I’ve no objection to the enthusiasm for hate  . There is indeed plenty to hate in the present social order. But all too often it is diffused and misdirected. Thus poor old Neil Sedaka is associated with the Ku Klux Klan, for no better reason than that he has a K in his name.  Actually I think Sedaka got his name from being a Jewish immigrant, so he probably had more to fear from the Klan than you have. But in any case, why go for Sedaka? He sang a few nice tunes and didn’t do anyone any harm. There are much more evil people in the world.
In particular, I find somewhat disturbing the way you attack your enemies’ sexuality. I agree with what you say about Stephen Milligan; that just because he was a Tory we should not denigrate his sexual options.  It’s true that many people on the left have a formal position in favour of gay rights but are otherwise very conservative about sexual diversity.
The trouble is, that you lapse into the position yourself. Thus we are told that Simon Frith and his wife ‘hadn’t had a fuck in years’.  There could be all kinds of reasons for this – from age and health to taste and inclination – but for you it seems to be an unfailing proof of moral depravity. Anyone who isn’t permanently on the verge of erection is morally inadequate. And the poor fellow’s only crime is that he likes the Pet Shop Boys. [I must confess to having bought a copy of Suburbia and rather liking it. Doubtless this confirms your impressions of my sexuality.] I have some sympathy with Frith when he asks ‘how could anyone hate him so much.’ 
Now I know nothing of Frith’s sex life, nor do I wish to know anything, so I don’t know if you’re being unfair. With Snodgrass/Callinicos things are even clearer .You catch some of his style and mannerisms rather well, but why does he have to be ‘a lifetime celibate’.  Clearly this doesn’t fit the ‘facts’. [You should send a copy to Sam and see what she thinks of it. You probably don’t remember the young Callinicos, who had a Pabloite wife; they used to keep snakes and feed them on live rats.] Of course it is legitimate for a novelist to explore the relation of intellect and sexuality in a character; for example, George Eliot’s Casaubon in Middlemarch. And you’re not wrong to argue against the mechanical division between sexual appetite and intellectual curiosity.  But in rejecting the realist novel you obviously reject ‘character’; these figures are caricatures, and Callinicos’s impotence is an authorially imposed castration. I’m afraid that to me this seems very close to: ‘He doesn’t like football! He must be queer!’ And of course we have a problem with Callinicos’s ‘giant erection’ in the final scene . Has he gone through some unspecified moral conversion, or had you simply forgotten what you wrote earlier?
The same attitudes seem to underlie the rather odd claim that Lunch’s wank is ‘a blow to totalitarian systems’.  Come on; this is sixty years out of date. You’re back with Orwell and the ‘Junior Anti-Sex League’. Nazism and Stalinism may have sought to repress sexuality, but modern capitalism knows better. It’s much happier for us to stay at home wanking, than for us to be out on the streets marching. Imagining that sexuality of any sort can actually weaken capitalism is a dangerous illusion. [But some good news. You seem anxious that wanking may cause prostate cancer.  A recent article in the LRB cited research that wanking makes prostate cancer less likely. And it doesn’t make you go blind either.]
Your terrorism leads you into the same dead end as surrealism and Situationism. By seeing the whole of the existing culture as an undifferentiated enemy, you end up working yourself into a moralising frenzy of ideological purity. Soulboy is quite right [55-6] to point out the contradictory nature of ‘containment’. We can only make ideological interventions because the contradictions within the system create space for us to do so.
Secondly, your idealism. You seem to have a quite excessive confidence that holding the correct philosophical position somehow guarantees correct political choice. And as a result you make some quite dangerous mistakes about both Stalinism and fascism, questions upon which it is vital that revolutionaries have clarity. Thus you express confidence that Dietzgen would have opposed the war in 1914, and quote some of his words  But there are thousands upon thousands of socialists who came out with ringing denunciations of war right up to two or three days before the outbreak of World War I. I defy anyone to show that all the capitulations had the same philosophical roots, or that all those who opposed the war shared some common philosophy. Lenin opposed the war first and then went off to read Hegel.
Likewise poor old Max Eastman, whom you rather cheerfully vilify as a ‘pragmatist’ and an opponent of dialectics. Yes it’s true that he ended up with Reader’s Digest.  He had lived through an extremely difficult and demoralising period. I wonder how many of our generation, if we’d had to live through ‘midnight in the century’, would have come through with our principles intact. I’m not at all confident that I would. So I’m not sure it can all be blamed on his lack of dialectics. And then of course we recall Walter Benjamin’s courageous public identification with the Left Opposition. Don’t we??
Even worse, you describe all those who supported Stalinism in the thirties as ‘idiots’.  It’s a novel interpretation of history to explain the historical phenomenon by a mass outbreak of ‘idiocy’. If that many members of the working class in that period were ‘idiots’ we might as well all pack up and go home. It’s a gross insult to many people who were determined class fighters despite their Stalinist illusions, and it’s also a complete failure to understand why Stalinism kept its hegemony for so long.
You also evoke the spectre of determinist Marxism and the belief that socialism is inevitable.  Now it may be true that this belief had some pernicious effects – ninety years ago. I don’t know about Camden Town but up here in Enfield the number of people I’ve heard argue that socialism is inevitable is precisely zero. Nothing is more futile than fighting yesterday’s ideological battles today.
And why poor old Saussure, an apolitical thinker who made a technical contribution to the study of linguistics comparable to the work of Newton or Darwin in their fields, becomes an apologist for slave-owning  is quite beyond me.
I also find bizarre your claim that ‘when fascism comes, it wears the face of Elton John serenading a dead Lady Diana’.  I yield to no-one in my dislike for Elton John, but this is a complete misunderstanding, based, I suspect, on an application of Benjamin on aesthetics and politics to a totally different situation. Far from being a rerun of The Triumph of the Will, John’s performance was a response to an extremely ephemeral mood; it is now widely mocked. Channel Four recently did a (very inadequate) Top Hundred bad records. Candle in the Wind ’97 was in the top ten (just behind the Cheeky Girls). The real significance of the Di cult is the transformation of the monarchy from a pillar of ideological strength to a commodity, and the consequent loss of ‘halo’ and ‘reverent awe’. It’s precisely the process Marx pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, just before the section you very rightly quote about ‘sober senses’. [155-6]
I’m also puzzled by your comments on Dentists.  I’d always assumed the Nazi band took its name from Trotsky’s comparison of fascism to the man who fears the dentist’s pliers, but who is forced to go to the dentist when the pain is bad enough. A very good image of fascism, and far better than your suggestion that modern technocrats have some affinity with fascism.  The bourgeoisie far prefer parliamentary democracy and a tamed trade union bureaucracy to fascism; it’s more efficient. Fascism is only a last resort in crisis.
But I think you’re also out of date with regard to dentists. Since the 1970s dentists have extracted very few teeth – for obvious material reasons. If you extract a tooth it’s gone; one fee and that’s it. If you ‘save’ the tooth and keep inserting fillings, adding crowns, etc., then it is a permanent source of income over thirty years and more.
I think your idealism is also manifested in the ahistorical nature of the narrative. It is quite unclear when the events take place. At one point we are told 2003 is already in the past  but a few pages later Oswald is ordering by written slip at the British Library,  when these have not been used since the move to St. Pancras in c1998. Of course you will invoke ‘modernism’ – Kafka ‘s depiction of an eighteenth -century city state with telephones. But we live in the ‘linear narrative’ of history and we can only act within it. So it’s quite important that we know when and where we are.
Also you show some of Benjamin’s cavalier attitude to historical detail. Thus you refer to Liebknecht and Luxemburg voting against war bonds  – I assume these are what other people call war credits. But women didn’t have the vote and there were no women in the Reichstag, so Luxemburg couldn’t have voted. Likewise you clearly haven’t read Lenin’s Testament, if you think it contains opposition to ‘socialism in one country’.  There’s no mention of the question, largely because Stalin didn’t start advocating it until Lenin was safely dead. And if you think things didn’t go wrong in Russia till 1926, read Victor Serge.  These may be pedantic points, but we can’t learn from history unless we get it right.
I hope these comments aren’t too irritating. I wish you success as a novelist, and look forward to seeing myself in one of your future works, doubtless as an senile, overweight, impotent pedant, Small Faces fan and lackey of the Party leadership.
All best wishes,