The June 2009 issue of the online film studies journal Scope contains my review of What Have They Built You to Do: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. It’s a bit longer than my usual reviews, but I do tend to go on a bit when it comes to Cold War film studies.
Archive for June, 2009
I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.
The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger
Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.
The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.
The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.
Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.
English as a Global Language by David Crystal
The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.
English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.
Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.
(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)
In an effort to keep myself organised, I’ve added a new page to this blog that contains information on my collection of British political diaries and memoirs. Most of them, clearly, are from elected politicians, but I also have an interest in writings by civil servants or diplomatic officials.
I’ve been building this collection for the past few years, trying to acquire good condition volumes and the occasional signed or first edition copy. Like most collections, it’s very much a work in progress. I do have limits on how much I am willing to spend on individual acquisitions — recently, I passed up an absolutely beautiful signed first edition of Jim Callaghan’s Time and Chance because the price was a little too dear. With a little luck and persistence, though, I hope to build a fine little library in which I can take pride.
One of the things that’s been keeping me occupied of late has been the publication process for an article that is in press with Contemporary British History. ‘Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera: Evaluating the Impact and Influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister‘ was born out of my (perhaps excessive) love for that particular 1980s satirical sitcom, and I’m beyond thrilled that it’ll be in print in the September 2009 issue of CBH.
I’ve sent in the appropriate copyright forms and am waiting for the page proofs, which should be ready in about a fortnight. I’m used to editing the page proofs of other people’s articles (I do it for a living, after all), but marking up my own will be an interesting challenge. I may ask a co-worker to skim through it just in case I’ve missed something in my zillionth read-through.
Of course, this whole process has reminded me of two other papers that are sitting on my hard-drive, silently nagging me to stop ignoring them and polish them up enough to submit elsewhere. One needs a more in-depth literature review; one needs to be ripped to shreds and pieced back together in a better and more logical format. But that’s a post for another time.
Yes, still horribly backlogged in both my review posts and my non-review posts. Here’s a nice chewy review for the moment; when I have a few spare minutes to clean up another post or two, I hope to have more to talk about.
A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
In the early 1940s, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was living in the United States, attempting to find a job and attempting to hold his fast-dissolving third marriage together. He had lost several previous teaching posts, some because of financial difficulties at the scholarly institutions to which he had applied and some because he had fallen out with his employers, and the war made it all but impossible for him to try to return to England. Public protests against his controversial writings on sex and marriage had prevented him from taking an appointment at the College of the City of New York, and he was only saved from complete financial collapse by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which offered him a post teaching the history of philosophy. Very short on cash, and struggling to keep both his personal and professional lives afloat, he compiled his Barnes Foundation lectures into a single comprehensive survey of the history of Western philosophy and published them in 1945 under the straightforward title A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s history became an unexpected best-seller, saved him from complete financial ruin, and provided an steady income stream upon which he would depend for the rest of his life. Indeed, the book was a strong contributor to the body of literature for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1950 — and today, outside of the philosophical and mathematical communities, is possibly second only to Why I Am Not a Christian as the work for which Russell is best known today.
Russell divides his History of Western Philosophy into three parts, focusing on ancient (Greek and Roman) philosophy up through the third century CE, Catholic philosophy (which also includes bits about Jewish and Islamic philosophy) of the Church Fathers through St Thomas Aquinas and up to the Renaissance, and modern philosophy from the 1500s through the early 20th century and Russell’s own works. The first two parts receive much more attention than the final part, mainly because Russell’s attempts to show the founding principles and evoluation of various philosophical schools of thought require him to delve deeply into the works of the most influential ancient philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Russell makes very little pretense of being objective in his comments; it is more than clear which philosophers he likes and which he dislikes. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, have an ‘emotional poverty’ that ‘will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions’ — he acknowledges the work’s effect and influence on future generations of philosophers, but dismisses the work itself (and, for that matter, much of Aristotle’s other work). In contrast, he has high praise for Spinoza as both a person and a philosopher — in Russell’s words, Spinoza is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ — and the loving descriptions and generous assessments carry through the description of the man’s life and personality and into his work. Comments such as these make for alternately interesting and frustrating reading matter, all the way through the nearly 900-page book covering nearly three millennia of philosophic history.
In his autobiography, Russell defended his approach to the History of Western Philosophy by stating that ‘a man without bias cannot write interesting history’. Yet one conclusion which appears to be nearly universal among reviewers (including this reviewer) is that the History of Western Philosophy reveals far more about Russell’s own biases, prejudices, and personal philosophies than it does about those of any individual philosopher or philosophic tradition he surveys. He is prone to making authorial comments that may raise a few eyebrows, such as his remarks on Jewish history during the time of the Maccabees: ‘In enduring and resisting persecution the Jews of this time showed immense heroism, although in defence of things that do not strike us as important, such as circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork’ (316). In another digression, Russell’s strong belief in the need for a world government creeps into his discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ writings on the government: ‘Every argument that [Hobbes] adduces in favour of government…is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction’ (557). In this light, the conclusions drawn in A History of Western Philosophy makes a good deal more sense after having read Russell’s massive Autobiography — at least, having more information about Russell’s background and circumstances may reduce the general frustration of reading the book and attempting to accept the author’s often peculiar conclusions at face value. As a history of Western philosophy, there are better works available…but as a reflection and even a microcosm of Bertrand Russell’s own political philosophies, this is one instance in which the book shows far more than it tells.