Sorry blog, I haven’t forgotten about you!

I thought I should write a bit of an update as I haven’t posted anything on my blog in months now – I fell into the position of always having some PhD work that was more pressing, and when I did have free time to write on here (which to be honest, was quite often) I felt I should be doing something more relaxing, like looking at the ducklings and coot chicks in Rowntree Park.

I haven’t got any big news, no major life changes to explain the lack of attention I’ve paid to the blog, and I’m still writing my PhD from the same small bedroom as I was in 2020, and even in 2019 before the pandemic. I should have a new teaching gig coming up this autumn, which should be exciting. Other than that, everything’s much the same.

I’m on the cusp of entering my third year as a PhD student, and I think I’m in a good place in terms of the work. It’s always difficult to tell as every PhD project is so unique; you can’t really judge your progress by comparing yourself to your peers. But, I think I have the more theoretical and methodological part of the project done – although, of course, it will probably be redrafted and revised a hundred times before I submit the final version – and in the coming year I hope to start in earnest on my case study chapters. I did write a draft of a case study chapter last year, one on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, but as my methodology has changed so much since then I’m going to have to do some heavy rewriting of that chapter. Whereas that version focused only on two conspiracy theory texts, the new version will look at around 6 texts, with much more of a focus on the linguistic features of the texts than before.

I’m going to do my best to keep updating the blog, though I will only do so when I actually have something interesting to write about. In a previous post I said that I’d write a deeper analysis of Adam Curtis’ take on conspiracy theories, and I still intend to do so soonish. I’ve also got another book review coming up, hopefully about a book that is at least tangentially related to the topic of my PhD.

That’s all for now, really. I’m already working on that book review, so it shouldn’t be long before I post that. Until then, bye!


Book review: New Model Island, by Alex Niven

I started writing this months ago, but only recently found the time to revisit and finish it. Alex Niven’s New Model Island was one of the most intriguing and exciting books I read during 2020, and although I disagree with much of his argument, I still think it deals well with a pressing issue of our time – namely, the future of the British Isles and our dissatisfactory politics. It’s a highly imaginative book that incorporates insights on literature and culture effectively into its broader political point.

In New Model Island, Alex Niven (in perhaps typically English fashion) argues that England does not exist. Through the drawn-out processes of unifying the British Isles and building the world’s largest empire, England and Englishness became indistinguishable from Britishness. In gaining an empire, England sacrificed any meaningful sense of national identity it had prior. London’s position as the capital of this empire led to the imbalance we are all familiar with today, where people and resources are sucked in from all across Britain and Ireland – for many of us, migration to the capital is down to economic need (it’s where all the jobs are) rather than an actual desire to live there. On top of its economic centrality, London remains the seat of political power in the UK, despite Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland having their own devolved legislatures.

What’s left of England, then? Niven finds three “essential facets” to Englishness: the sense that England is cursed or has not been allowed to exist; a feeling of confinement, as represented by the country’s castles, gothic architecture, and its involvement in the slave trade; and a lack of identity, a void, and hiddenness. While some on the left (such as that pillar of English leftism, guitar man Billy Bragg) have tried to piece together a progressive English patriotism out of the radical political moments in its history, Niven thinks there is something false or unsatisfying about this new story of England. There is nothing specifically English, for instance, about the struggles faced by rural labourers at the time of the enclosures, nor about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. These were moments of class struggle, not an English struggle.

Instead of English nationalism, Niven opts for the opposite route: he proposes that England should be split up into 7-9 regions of roughly the same size, each with its own governments. To balance out London’s impact, he proposes turning Carlisle into a “soft capital” for the “North-West Triangle” – that is, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Northern England. With its proximity to Scotland, Tyneside, the Irish Sea, and the cities of North West England, Carlisle is well suited to be the administrative centre for these regions. This new regionalist formation could also fill that void felt by the English, with positive regional identities providing greater meaning to the people of these isles.

I find Niven’s vision of decentralisation very appealing: political power has always been far removed from the inhabitants of the UK, and the gravitational pull of the capital makes it difficult for young people from outside the South-East to continue living in the communities where they grew up. I think Niven’s diagnosis of Englishness as being void, or non-existent, is correct too – there are no specifically English values, and all the cultural touchstones of England (cricket, tea, stately homes, whatever) seem so absurdly reductive and irrelevant. However, his argument is limited by an inverted English exceptionalism, perhaps because of his adherence to the Nairn-Anderson Thesis, which states that the England’s inherent conservatism is the result of the failure of the English bourgeoisie to cement its control during the Civil War. The Civil War was therefore a failed bourgeois revolution, as it concluded with the restoration of the monarchy and the aristocracy’s power. England is deemed to be an exception in this sense, as it failed to develop in the same way as other nation states, most notably France.

In the context of New Model Island, this inverted exceptionalism is apparent whenever Niven mentions the other nations present on this archipelago. While English identity is a problem that needs solving, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh identities are treated as if they were uncomplicatedly positive and progressive. Under Niven’s plan, England needs to be broken up to put an end to centralisation, while Wales and Scotland are granted independence without being carved up themselves. In Ireland, meanwhile, unification of the North and the Republic “seems inevitable, and indeed fairly imminent”. England is special in being a problematic void, while other nations are fine and good as they are.

When Niven writes that, “Unlike England, Wales has a positive sense of self founded in a long-running independence movement”, I can’t help but feel that he needs to dig deeper into the history of Welsh nationalist politics. English identity gets a thorough dressing-down, but Welsh identity is apparently simply good – good enough to warrant its own unified state. But Wales and Welsh identity are rather more complicated than that. For instance, life in North Wales is arguably more closely connected to Merseyside and Manchester than Cardiff. The train from Holyhead to Cardiff spends much of its route going through the West Midlands of England; getting to London is much quicker and easier. Growing up in Gwynedd, the Government in Cardiff felt nearly as distant as the one in Westminster. So why is it decentralisation for England, but recentralisation for Wales?

Furthermore, the assumption that Welsh nationalism is innately benevolent is somewhat undermined by a tendency towards exclusion – a characteristic of all forms of nationalism. Nationality always leads to the question of who’s in and who’s out, and in Welsh nationalism there’s something of a tension over whether one needs to be able to speak Welsh to count as Welsh. The term ‘Cymry Cymraeg’ (the ‘Welsh Welsh’) is sometimes used for people in the Welsh-speaking heartlands, with the implication being that only a fraction of Welsh people are really truly Welsh and that the rest are living in some indeterminate zone between being Welsh, English, and British. Nor can a figure like Saunders Lewis, who held a prominent position in the early years of Plaid Cymru and who expressed anti-Semitic views and sympathy for Nazism, be so easily dismissed as just an aberration. (There’s a great documentary by historian Gwyn Alf Williams about Saunders Lewis’ life that’s really worth watching: At the very least, it indicates that Welsh nationalism hasn’t always been entirely progressive, leftist, or radical – although these currents are certainly the most prevalent today.

Plus, England is not unique in having cultural touchstones that become silly upon serious reflection. I prefer football to rugby, I don’t eat cawl or lob scaws, and I have never eaten laverbread (I do like Welsh cakes, mind). I don’t travel to work in a coracle. Llanfair PG’s incredibly long name is just a gimmick created for tourists, as is the story of Gelert rescuing the baby from the Wolves in Beddgelert. The longer you stare at national identity, the more it seems to dissolve into a translucent blur.

Niven rightly emphasises that he wants to avoid a “blood-and-soil version of regionalism” as a replacement to the void that is England. Nevertheless, I think his argument for rejecting ethnic regionalism/nationalism falls into the trap of arguing on his opponents’ terms. To dispel the notion of there being an ethnically homogenous ‘Angelfolc’, he highlights ethnographic research that shows the existence of several different distinct DNA clusters within England, as well as in Britain and Ireland more broadly. Central and Southern England, Niven tells us, comprise one of these clusters, while others exist along the border with Wales, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and Cumbria and the North East. This means that “the ethnic argument for a cohesive Englishness is completely without foundation”. The conclusion is sound, but the reasoning behind it is flawed. It only suggests that English ethnic nationalists have got their boundaries drawn in the wrong places, when we should be rejecting the very categories used by ethnic nationalists. Pointing to the diversity of DNA clusters within England still allows the ethnic nationalist to shift their pride and identity onto one of those clusters – so, ‘England for the English’ can be replaced with ‘Cumbria for the Cumbrians’. To reiterate, Niven is in no way arguing for a form of ethnic nationalism, but his criticism of ethnic nationalism should go further.

What is most frustrating about the discussion around the possibilities emerging from the unravelling of the UK is that it is never clear to me how what is being proposed is really that radical. Why is the division of a population into smaller subdivisions innately radical? I haven’t found an answer that satisfies yet. None of these changes – none of the new borders, polities, and identities that are being proposed – necessarily entail a major change for the better in people’s daily lives. Perhaps it’s characteristic of our age that utopia has become the division bourgeois states into a greater number of (still bourgeois) statelets. (Sorry, I’ve been reading a lot of Adorno recently and it’s really turning me into the biggest pessimist). It isn’t clear from Niven’s book how the internal politics of each of the new regions would work, but I would hope that it would be something more than the representative politics that was implemented through devolution. Why aren’t we talking about deliberative or participatory forms of democracy as well? I am also left with questions about the possibility for economic competition to accelerate between the regions and nations, resulting in increased inequality – but let’s leave that question for another day.

To close, I’d like to briefly reflect on what might be going on with such visions of a divided future Britain. Niven’s is far from the only reflection on the character of England and Englishness – it’s a topic that is growing in prominence, particularly due to the realistic prospect of the breakup of the UK. Recently, journalists like John Harris have written about the need for a positive version of English patriotism, in contrast to Paul Mason’s blunt view on England: “I do not want to be English – and any attempt to create an English identity will fail.” Maybe what Harris and Niven are both seeking is a clearer identity – either national or regional. But perhaps a middle way can be carved out, and the tool for that job are already at hand: the void in Englishness itself. What Niven finds frustrating about Englishness – the fact that it doesn’t really exist – is precisely what I think is worth taking advantage of. It allows for a greater degree of malleability and variety; you can do pretty much what you like with it; you shouldn’t need to learn any folk dances or wear a particular type of a hat to pass for English, nor speak with a particular accent or dialect. I fear that might change in future, and that the search for new identities as a response to our political situation could see us all, each one of the nations and regions of the UK, becoming more insular and strangers to each other.

Thoughts on Adam Curtis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Just some quick notes and initial thoughts having watched Adam Curtis’ latest documentary series for the BBC, Can’t Get You Out of My Head:

  1. The interplay between mainstream culture and counterculture

What Curtis does well in this series is that he shows how easy it is for the counterculture to feed back into the mainstream; opposition to the norms of one’s society is often later incorporated into those norms. To take a couple of examples from the series, Bobby Seale goes from co-founding the Black Panthers to hosting his own cooking show on TV while Eldridge Cleaver winds up designing and selling trousers with something like a sock stuck on the front to ‘liberate’ the male member. Another example Curtis gives is that of the hippies, whose efforts at living outside mainstream society ended up being commercialised as yet another fashion trend one could buy into. To quote that line from end of Withnail And I, “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man.”

2. The crisis of individualism

I’m not sure if it’s still there now, but there used to be a hair salon on Brick Lane in London, whose slogan was ‘We sell liberation’. I think this ties in with the previous point, but it also highlights one of the main points Curtis is trying to make: that individualism has indeed meant a liberation of sorts (from older paternalistic forms of rule), but that it also leads to a narrow, apolitical version of freedom. ‘Liberation’ is now used to sell commodities and services to consumers, who enjoy their liberation in their own private ways.

When things go wrong at a societal level, as Curtis thinks they have, individualism runs up against its limit. When we are all atomised, and each of us is separated from everyone else, then collective action – and solutions to our shared problems – becomes very difficult indeed. Having a new haircut may be satisfying and fulfilling to a certain extent, but it hardly equates to people’s liberation from discrimination, technocratic misrule, or economic pressures. These things, Curtis suggests, can only be achieved if we find a new story to bind us all together.

3. Capitalist Realism

It turns out that Adam Curtis knew Mark Fisher, which doesn’t surprise me as there is a lot of overlap in the arguments each of them makes (plus they share a love of the dubstep musician Burial, whose music appears frequently in Curtis’ films). On the one hand, Curtis talks about there being no apparent alternative to individualism, while on the other hand Fisher wrote about how there are no competing visions of society to challenge capitalism. Fisher tapped into the dearth of anything new in contemporary pop culture, where movie re-boots and sequels are aplenty and so much of new music seems to be aping some earlier genres or trends. Whether this argument holds up today, I don’t know, but nevertheless both of them are focused on the sense of pessimistic inevitability that afflicts contemporary society.

What’s also interesting is the choice of terminology: for Fisher, the problem was capitalist society; instead, Curtis talks about the age of the individual and rise of bureaucracies and corporations. Perhaps Curtis holds back from blaming capitalism so as not to put off the BBC and its viewers? It just seems to me that while the crisis Curtis has identified is specific to our time, individualism is baked-in to capitalism to an extent, and any attempt at forging a new collective story will need to deal with that underlying problem.

4. Conspiracy theories

I am planning on writing a more detailed analysis of Curtis’ understanding of conspiracy theories in future, so I will try to keep things brief on this point. I think that Curtis’ argument that the isolation of the age of individualism can lead to suspicion and conspiracy theorising is nearly right but needs some tweaking. Individualism, which I should stress cannot be grasped separately from capitalism, facilitates conspiracy theories because the individual is seen as master of their own fate. When that fails to play out in reality, the response is to assume that some other powerful individual was in fact exerting their control over one’s life. So, rather than ditching individualism, the sense of powerlessness is explained with a narrative that still complies with individualism. Conspiracy theories often play this role, providing an explanation for one’s own powerlessness over their life and circumstance. I follow Tim Melley on this point, but while he attributes this sense of powerlessness (which he calls ‘agency panic’) to the rise of complex bureaucracies in the post-war years, I think the cause runs much deeper – after all, Melley’s theory still leaves us unable to explain why conspiracy theorising was going on decades prior to that period.

I also think there’s something interesting about how he describes the JFK conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison’s view of society. From Curtis’ description, Garrison believed that seemingly coincidental or unrelated events could be explained by ‘connecting the dots’, and that there was a hidden level of society where secret actors exercised the real power. It reminds me of two of my favourite Adorno quotes, the first of which comes from his Theses Against Occultism:

“The asocial twilight phenomena in the margins of the system, the pathetic attempts to squint through the chinks in the walls, while revealing nothing of what is outside, illuminate all the more clearly the forces of decay within.”

The second comes from lecture 8 of his Lectures on Negative Dialectics:

“It is as if philosophers wished to stuff an infinite cosmos into a tiny, cottage in which they could oversee every detail.”

By the sounds of it, Garrison is guilty of both of these (I haven’t read anything of his yet, but am planning on doing so for my PhD). Firstly, there’s the attempt to critique society while holding on to its ideology; secondly there’s the assumption that reality can be grasped and known as one coherent system.

5. The feeling of now

I listened to an interview Curtis did with Blindboy, in which he said his aim with this series was to capture the way things feel now, at this historical moment. He certainly succeeds in this regard. Not only is he telling the story of individualism’s crisis, but he is also doing it in a very individualist way – the story is told by focusing on a handful of individuals (such as Jiang Qing, Michael X, Afeni Shakur, Eduard Limonov) and how they themselves made use of individualism in different ways. There is little room for the impersonal in Curtis’ tale – everything happens as a result of somebody’s actions, even if the outcome was not what they had in mind (the classic ‘But this was a fantasy’ and ‘What the scientists/politicians didn’t realise, was that…’). Everyone has a clear motivation and acts on whatever information they possess to achieve their desired goals. For instance, Jiang Qing wants to do away with the old persisting forms of power in China, as well as have her revenge on all the people who held her back, and so instigates the Cultural Revolution. However, in the end she finds that Mao was using her all along, and that the whole thing had been part of his effort to root out his political rivals.

But this sort of narrative will be unable to fulfil Curtis’ call for a new collective story. It depicts historical events as being orchestrated by individuals, and the result is a story that comes close to conspiracy theory itself – and only avoids crossing into conspiracist territory by showing that people don’t always get their way. Curtis’ critique of individualism is still stuck with an individualist perspective. This then raises the question of how stories can be told that don’t succumb to the pitfalls of individualism.

As I said above, I’m thinking of writing something more in-depth on Curtis’ treatment of conspiracy theories. I would highly recommend watching Can’t Get You Out of My Head, not because of Curtis’ central argument but because it’s so refreshing to hear a serious, detailed analysis of our society on the BBC.


Image: Jan Koper

The Welsh word hiraeth has become our equivalent of the Danish hygge; not because of a similarity in meaning, but because of the way in which both are promoted as words without any equivalent in English. Just as there is no exact word like hygge in English, so too is there no exact translation for hiraeth. The closest you can get is something like – a longing or nostalgic feelings for a home that cannot be returned to, or that may not have existed at all.

When you search for the term online, what you get are countless images of the sort that are shared frequently on social media: a dreamy photograph of some hills, mountain, or coastline (presumably Welsh, though who knows), overlayed with the term in big white lettering and its definition underneath. They crop up in my Facebook feed occasionally, usually accompanied with a message about how much someone is missing Wales.

There will always be some words that do not translate perfectly into others – for instance, the German word Wissenschaft is somewhere between science and knowledge, but so far no one has built an industry out of it as has happened with hygge. It has not happened to hiraeth yet either, but it has still become a way of expressing the cultural difference between Wales and English-speaking nations.

What hiraeth’s popular usage implies is that Welsh is a more emotional, maybe even spiritual language than English – that every Welsh person will sometimes look off into the distance wistfully, and a tear will roll down their cheek as they recall the splendour of the mountains of Snowdonia, the galloping waves lapping at the shore of Cardigan Bay, or the ominous slag heaps of Blaenau Ffestiniog. But this usage misses out an important dimension of hiraeth – namely, that the longing is for a home that one cannot return to, and that might not have ever existed in the first place. To be precise, hiraeth is more like that feeling you may have experienced on holiday, where you suddenly realise how wonderful home was after all – its familiarity is viewed through rose-tinted glasses, even though you know that home is not really that superb and that you should really be appreciating the holiday a lot more. Or hiraeth is what you get when you pass by your old childhood home and recall the joys of your upbringing only to realise that a new family lives there now, and that it is no longer your home but someone else’s.

The more straightforward version of hiraeth, where it is used to mean a longing for home, leans into a parochial attitude where each person belongs to one particular place. The message here is simultaneously positive and negative: you will always have a home where you will be welcomed, no matter how long you are away for, but you will be tied to it for your whole life. The nation presents itself as something no one can escape from – roots bind each person to their homeland, the only place they will ever truly belong. The ghosts of your ancestors drag you back to the land of your fathers to share their fate. Their song is Yma O Hyd (here forever), in which the nation is framed as though it exists outside of time itself. Whatever you accomplish in your own life, wherever you go, you know that you must return to Wales one day.

The more precise meaning of hiraeth, by contrast, implies a much more promising view. The power of one’s roots is recognised as illusionary, and that the dream of the nation as a pure and unchanging was just that – a dream – lays the groundwork for building something better, rooted in our experience of the world as it is. Instead of being dictated to by tradition or ancestry, we instead get to forge a new path for ourselves. Home no longer needs to be the place we were born and grew up, nor where our parents or grandparents are from, but can be someplace of our own choosing – somewhere where we can build a new meaning for ourselves. Hiraethu can thus be a prelude to building something better in the here and now, rather than hoping for the return of the (illusionary) good old days.

Furthermore, recognising that the notion of a Wales based on ancestry and permanence is a myth enables the boundaries of the nation to be opened up too, to allow for an acceptance of the plurality that was previous overlooked. As real as the nation is, at its root is an untruth. No nation is a monolith, dominated by a single way of life, a single language, and a single culture – but nations can stamp out difference. Today, Wales is a bilingual country whose inhabitants have friends, relatives and ancestors spread all over the world – and this should be accepted, even celebrated, instead of being seen as an potential threat or problem. There is no need to measure everyone from Holyhead to Cardiff by the yardstick of an old-fashioned, unchanging notion of Welshness.

Taking the more precise meaning of hiraeth enables us to move beyond static, archaic ideas of what it means to be Welsh, and wake up to the world as it is today. Thus, a term that is often used to reinforce the notion that Wales is essentially different from every other nation can in fact yield a new angle for the critique of an outmoded form of Welsh nationalism.