Chris Norris

Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce
Wednesday, 13 June 2018 16:32

Tragedy: a caution from Brecht

Published in Poetry

Tragedy: a caution from Brecht

by Chris Norris

Our representations of human social life are designed for river-dwellers, fruit farmers, builders of vehicles and up-turners of society, whom we invite into our theatres and beg not to forget their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts for them to change as they think fit.
- Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. Willetts

Great theoretical obstacles prevent us from recognising that the concreteness with which life is depicted in Aristotelian drama (drama which aims to produce catharsis) is limited by its function (to conjure up certain emotions) and by the technique this requires (suggestion), and that the viewer thus has a stance imposed on him (that of empathy) which prevents him readily adopting a critical attitude to the things depicted.
- Brecht, Journals, ed. Rorrison and Willetts

Before you talk of 'tragedy', just think:
It goes right back to Ancient Greece,
To Oedipus and all
Those boneheads who
Brought upsets sure to call
Down retribution without cease
Even to the umpteenth generation, link
By bloody link, till civil peace
Required that empires fall,
That heroes stew
In their own juice or haul
Themselves offstage for a short lease
Of fate-tormented life. So, in a blink,
You've got the gist: it's sheer caprice,
The way things go in small
With folk like you
And me or states in thrall
To divine wrath. So why increase
The sum of woes by kicking up a stink
With social change your Golden Fleece,
Or your device to stall
Word getting through
That though you won't play ball
Just yet the cost of your set-piece
Display's to boost the stock of Creon Inc?

My point: that tragic stuff's a clear non-starter
If what you really want’s to bring
Real change about and smash
The bourgeois state,
Not just to tap a cache
Of maudlin sentiments. They ring
True only if you're keen to give your heart a
Quick tug at every feeling-string
That answers to the trash
Put out as bait
For fools with each rehash
Of some old plot. The tragic thing
Is just their age-old need to play the martyr,
Enjoy vicarious suffering,
And relish how the clash
Of love and hate
In rival clans can dash
A glorious career and fling
It on the pile of heroes whose life-data
Involve just that which has them swing
From high to low, then crash
As gods or fate
Prescribe. They cut a dash,
Those tragic figures, but they spring
From dullard stock: good comedy's much smarter!

It's that ‘catharsis’ notion we should blame,
That Aristotle-backed idea
Of tragedy as what
Requires a well-
Designed dramatic plot
To generate 'pity and fear'
In a well-tempered audience. They'll tame
At one remove the wild career
Of passions that are not,
As primers tell,
Allowed to grab a spot
Stage-centre lest such violence steer
The soul on stormy sea-tracks apt to claim
More victims. Better they appear
As just 'our human lot'
In forms that swell
With pathos yet have got
Nothing of use to say when we're
On strike, or unemployed, or blind and lame,
But don't need Oedipus or Lear
To tell us just how hot
The inner hell
Of lives long gone to pot
For reasons squarely in the sphere
Of politics, beyond that tragic frame.

It makes you think, rage, argue, answer back!
That's why a comic twist best goes
With taking Marx to heart
About the need
To change things, not let art
Or art-talk lead us by the nose
So we make up in chatter what we lack
In will-to-change. All that high shows
Of tragedy impart
Is a fool's creed
That puts the feeling-cart
Before the action-horse and throws
The glove in sooner than defy the pack
Of moralising frauds or those
Whose sermons always start
And end up keyed
To narratives that chart
The self-same tale. Its downbeat close
Is meant to show how tragic odds just stack
Up steadily like hammer-blows
That no-one can outsmart
Since they exceed
The power of life or art
To hold at bay. It's fate bestows
All weal or woe: ours just to take the flak!

A stupid doctrine, surely you'll agree,
And one that just might tell us why
A so-called tragic play
Like 'Hamlet' had
Its audience making hay
And prone to split their sides, not cry,
When viewed by Soviet workers brought up free
Of bourgeois notions. So this guy,
This Hamlet, with his way
Of acting mad
Through having lots to say
About himself they'd classify
As clown, as joker, one the bourgeoisie
Might count the pinnacle of high
(Since tragic) art, while they,
An audience glad
To find such stuff passé,
Could give the comic side a try.
They’d set their more inventive wits to see
What novel tactics might apply
In order to convey
How such a sad
Though risible display
Could yet be made a means whereby
The tragic’s stripped of bourgeois dignity.

That's why I say leave tragedy alone,
Or anyway make sure you treat
It with the cheerful kind
Of insolence
That comes of wit combined
With tactics picked up on the street.
Such ploys are best, most intimately known
To those whose long tale of defeat
In the class-wars may find,
At times, a sense
Of clouds still dark yet lined
With silver. That’s why they can greet
The tragic ethos of high hopes long flown
With comic strategies to cheat
The fate of lives consigned
To impotence
By the same turn of mind
That led those dumb-clucks to repeat
The Attic horror-show. So they'd atone
For deeds enacted in the heat
Of passions mute and blind
Whose recompense
Required the double-bind
Of guilt pre-rigged to have us beat
Until the tragic mode’s one we’ve outgrown!

To My Wife, from an Israeli Gaol
Monday, 21 May 2018 09:12

To My Wife, from an Israeli Gaol

Published in Poetry

To My Wife, from an Israeli Gaol

by Chris Norris

'She kept saying: “You have to go. You have to go”', recalled one aunt, Ahlam, 30. ‘She was the most dedicated of all of us.’
Wesal, 14, was shot dead on Monday, one of more than 60 people killed as Israeli snipers fired on protesters. The teenager has left behind a family who are grieving, but who also feel purpose in their loss.‘Now she is dead, I’m ready,’ said another aunt, Anwar. ‘After what she did, we are not afraid.’
- The Guardian, May 19th 2018

I don't know what to do, dear heart,
I don't know what to say.
It's just that when those settlers start
Bad-mouthing us I stay
And bad-mouth back, or else take part
In stone-fights, like the day
Last year when bits of martial-art
Bravado let me play
The hero and appear street-smart.

But that was months ago, my dear,
When things were bad but not
As bad as now. Months on, I fear,
The toll of all those shot
And killed or maimed will mean that we're,
As per their master-plot,
A remnant doomed to disappear
From this old trouble-spot
With just the rubble left to clear.

They use live bullets on us now,
Live rounds designed to kill
As many as their 'rules' allow,
Those rules that let them spill
Our blood as fast as they can plough
It back beneath the hill
Of our wrecked homes. And yet, somehow,
It reaffirms our will
That no one break the Nakba vow.

My dear, such things I've seen that it's
As much as I can do
To grasp how readily this fits
With all that we've been through
These seven decades; how it commits
Us fighters to pursue
The path that most directly pits
A cause both just and true
Against the next live-bullet blitz.

For I've now witnessed genocide
As the unspoken plan
For stretching Israel's borders wide
So that our dwindling clan
Might lay their nationhood aside
And finish what began
In turf-wars duly sanctified
By taking the Koran
Or the Old Testament as guide.

But argument's no use when they're
Dead-set on just the same
Brute tactics as were brought to bear
Against them in the name
Of a Volk who refused to share
The land with those who came
Of ‘alien stock’ so must go where,
As here in Gaza, shame
And suffering are their daily share.

The Warsaw Ghetto: that's the place
That always comes to mind
When each new grab for living-space
Leaves other folk confined
To the fast-tightening embrace
Of borders watchtower-lined
And justified on grounds of race,
Or creed, or claims enshrined
In some scriptural database.

And so they drive us, ever more
Grief-toughened, out to meet
The wire, the guns, the daily score
Of deaths, the forced retreat,
And this new bloodbath of a war
That sets us Gaza street -
Trained skirmishers to face, offshore
And inland, those elite
Shock troops with weaponry galore.

So what else should we do against
These Axis powers – US
And Israel – that have us ring-fenced
On every side, and press
So hard on us that we're incensed
Enough to turn distress
Into the rage of victims tensed
In pogrom-readiness
For harms that can't be recompensed.

One thing I know: we'll not be done
With fascism in all
Its protean forms till we've begun,
Backs hard against the wall,
To lift our gaze from the short run
And look to the long haul
When every lying tale they've spun
Becomes a conscience-call
For David's stone against Goliath's gun.


Poets, jump the class divide! Dark Times Revisited
Tuesday, 15 May 2018 10:30

Poets, jump the class divide! Dark Times Revisited

Published in Poetry

Image: Côr Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Reds Choir), have raised their voices in song, campaigning for peace, freedom and justice.

Dark Times Revisited

by Chris Norris

Oh why do we not say the important things, it would be so easy, and we are damned because we do not. - Bertolt Brecht, ‘Song About My Mother’

Singers, d'you think Bert Brecht was left tongue-tied
When asked, 'In these dark times just what
Have we to sing about?', and he replied
'About the dark times, you sad lot!

Make that your theme and you’ll be bona fide,
Since then the coin will drop: you’ve got
To change your tune, come out on the right side,
And now get real, like it or not.

You poets too: take Heine as your guide,
Kick Rilke out, prepare to blot
Your lyric book, help turn the fascist tide
By giving truth your last, best shot.

That way, with luck, you'll jump the class-divide
Before the system goes to pot
And not have all the comrades asking why'd
That fellow-traveller lost the plot?

Old clever-clogs Adorno (can't abide
His kind of high-falutin' rot)
Says poetry post-Auschwitz ought to hide
Its face and now yield up the spot

Where poems once assumed generic pride
Of place. His point, in short: it’s not
Ethically thinkable for those clear-eyed
About the Holocaust to trot

Out yet more poems after genocide
On that scale. Yet there's still a slot,
A good-faith role, for poetry applied
To making plain what they forgot,

Those lofty lyricists, or simply shied
Away from since it seemed too hot
For them to handle. Such self-occupied,
Self-serving stuff's exactly what

Strikes ears more finely tuned as open wide
To Heimkehr tropes the Rilke-swot
Takes broodily to heart. It's that bromide
Turns poet-activist to poet-sot!’


Poetry on the Picket Line

Windrush: a reckoning
Wednesday, 09 May 2018 21:22

Windrush: a reckoning

Published in Poetry

Windrush: a reckoning

 by Chris Norris

 On 18 October 2017, Wilson was detained at the Wolverhampton Home Office reporting centre where she had been reporting on a fortnightly basis since August 2015. She was put in a vehicle that reminded her of a ‘meat van’, because it had no windows, and taken to Yarl’s Wood for six days; she says this was the worst experience of her life.

She called her daughter from the detention centre and cried uncontrollably down the line. ‘I said: “Get me out of here, Natalie, please get me out of here”.’ After six days she was put in another van, and when she got out she realised she was being taken to a building next to Heathrow airport; she was told that she would be put on a plane the next day.

It was only at the last minute that she was released, given a travel warrant for train tickets and let out to make her way back to Wolverhampton. ‘The planes were taking off over my head; I had to put my hands to my ears because of the noise’, she said. - The Guardian, May 5th, 2018


The good ship Windrush brought us here,
Seven decades back and more.
They greeted us with many a cheer,
With ‘Welcome’ flags galore.

The Windrush docked at Tilbury pier,
The news had gone before.
Our lives ahead shone bright and clear
With jobs and hopes in store.

Yes, we had lots of things to fear,
We travellers knew the score,
The smile that hid the racist sneer,
The threat you can't ignore.

We'd left behind our homeland dear
To cross a foreign shore,
A flag-adorned yet strange frontier
Like a half-opened door.

We'd known them long enough to know
Their double-dealing ways,
Those crafty Brits who'd run the show
Since old colonial days.

We knew they'd got us over so
We'd help with some new phase
Of labour-shortage, plus the glow
Of public pride we'd raise.

Besides, we knew how touch-and-go
It can be when some craze
Like that wears off, or jobs don't grow
And we're put out to graze.

Then it would be a case of slow
Boat home, or seeking stays
Of judgment while the call to throw
Us out hit law's delays.

Yet now what strikes me, looking back
Across those seven decades,
Is just how long they took to crack
Down on us renegades.

For that's their chief line of attack,
The endless press tirades
By every soul-corrupted hack
Who'll dish the dirt in spades.

Still they held off, that Tory pack,
For so long that the shades
Of prison lifted till our lack
Of papers struck their aides.

Then it became their task to track,
Through spying and dawn raids,
The hundreds who'd soon get the sack
From their long-serving trades.

Those seven decades: a time of grace
They've come to seem when viewed
By those, like us, who've had to face
The witch-hunt that ensued.

For now it's hostile looks in place
Of feigned solicitude,
And Tory placemen keen to chase
Out migrants they once wooed.

This whole land seems a holding-space
Where we've long sat or queued
While some weird Kafkaesque court-case
Takes lifetimes to conclude.

Maybe they planned it from first base,
Those bureaucrats who screwed
Things up by wiping out all trace
Of our old Windrush brood.

Or maybe there were decent guys
In the Home Office then
Who'd not destroy our family ties
With one stroke of their pen.

But now they're planning our goodbyes,
Those brutal-hearted men,
As if it was their greatest prize
To send us back again.

They think the moral law applies
To human beings when
They're British-born but can't arise
For folk classed ‘alien’.

So their big project’s to devise
A native regimen
Where those born under foreign skies
Are deemed an allergen.

women nurses

No thought those politicians spare
For all the time we've been
Your porters, nurses, respite care
Providers, folk who clean

For you, bus-drivers, car repair
Men, ambulance-men, canteen
Staff, railway workers, below-stair
Domestics, skilled machine-

Tool operators, firemen, fare-
Collectors, cooks, routine
Home-visitors, and our fair share
Of writers, teachers, screen-

Familiars, voices known on-air
From far back, and their teen-
Age grandkids rapping songs that bear
The mark of years between.

It's you, the politicians, whose
Destructive hand we see
At work each time the morning news
Repeats our Windrush plea.

Why bring us here, it says, why schmooze
Us with your oratory
And tempt us on that cut-price cruise
To shame and poverty?

Why, decades on, decide to use
Your utmost powers so we,
Your guests, should feel the tightening screws
Crush out our life-debris?

And if, back then, we'd read the clues
On that Tilbury quay
Who knows which future life we'd choose,
Which hostile fate we’d flee?

CN Yarls Wood Pic Darren Johnson

'Structures don't take to the streets!' May '68: a structuralist riposte
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 09:32

'Structures don't take to the streets!' May '68: a structuralist riposte

Published in Poetry

May ’68: a structuralist riposte

by Chris Norris

A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand crosses the English Channel from Paris, and then, in an instant, the trees, the orchard, the hedgerows, the field of wheat, are black with locusts. When at length they rise to fly on to the next parish, the boughs are bared of all culture, the fields have been stripped of every green blade of human aspiration; and in those skeletal forms and that blackened landscape, theoretical practice announces its ‘discovery’: the mode of production. - E.P. Thompson

‘Structures don’t take to the streets!’ - graffito on wall of the Sorbonne, May 1968

OK, point taken: it's not 'on the street'
You'd find them, all those 'structures' that we went
On endlessly about till soixante-huit
When we skulked in our academic tent
(Or so the story goes). We'd failed to meet
Our one great chance and challenge heaven-sent
To end the left's two-centuries-long defeat
By making good the two decades we'd spent
On theory-talk.

perpignan 1 2

Small wonder should they greet
Us lot, those militants, with slogans lent
An added force by dint of our elite
Normalien credentials, native bent
For high-flown chat, and tendency to treat
The world as theory's oyster. We'd frequent
Only those streets (they said) where a discreet
Escape-route helped us twisters circumvent
Our own past calls to action. Then some neat
Debating-trick did service to augment
Our cultural capital, and take the heat
Off any failings that we might repent
Were they not wiped clean from our record-sheet
By the fine structuralist expedient
Of counting subjectivity a cheat
That's foisted on us when we represent
Ourselves as 'free'.

La liberté est le crime qui contient tous les crimes

Thus all our thoughts repeat
The lie that has us willingly assent
To ideology's absurd conceit
Whereby the hoodwinked subject rests content
With a fake ‘freedom’ that would have him beat
Its own unyielding bounds. How orient
Ourselves to action if the driver's seat
Of willed intent contains a subject pent
By structures that perpetually secrete
The solvent of each self-constituent.

That's the idea: that all those Althusser-
Primed theorists could do, faced with the May
Événements, was to disown all share
Of agency, urge strikers to delay
That premature revolt, and so declare
The present conjoncture not one that they
Could possibly endorse. Then they'd compare
The current prospects with the grisly way
Things go whenever passions start to flare
And, as so many times before, betray
The white-hot zealots to the black despair
That comes of hopes and dreams long kept at bay
By the same powers that soon must conquer their
Ill-timed charade.

18418534 5MLIV

                   Yet I'd still say,
All these years on, that you'd best spare
Us street-averse soixante-huitards your pay-
Back accusations of our taking care
To hide ourselves behind a great array
Of abstract propositions framed to bear
Whatever weight of evidence might fray
Our threadbare theory-hope. It's you who err
Most grievously if you take that cliché,
'No structures on the streets', as if to square
Accounts with real-world history and play
The role of less-deceived. Who more aware
Than us how world-events will often stray
Far wide of anything that the armchair
Philosopher might dream hors de mêlée
Since structures don't emerge out of thin air
But just when subjects meet the come-what-may.

a cause indifference generale

Quick recap for the faint of heart or weak
Of memory: 'structure' signified the site
Of struggle, contestation, and critique
Where subjects found a leverage-point despite
Appearances. It seemed to show a bleak
Since language-based determinism quite
Devoid of all idea that we might speak,
Act, criticise, and thus relieve our plight
As drifters up the croc-infested creek
Of any ideology that might
Recruit compliant minds.

may 68 graffito 3

              That's how the clique
Of New-Right, mostly ex-left types indict
Us true soixante-huitards, we who still seek
A way to get the basic issue right,
The one that comes to us from Ancient Greek
Philosophy and yet remains the blight
Of system-builders as of those who'd sneak
Free-will back into some (it seems) airtight
Construction through a small but handy leak
Of subjectivity. No inner light
For us old structuralists, no high mystique,
Like Sartre's, of a freedom shining bright
With existential promise through that freak
Of nature, human choice. Hail the White Knight
Who comes (though often by the most oblique
Or complex ways around) to wing our flight
From the iron grip of causal laws that wreak
Destruction on our human will to slight
Mere circumstance and end the losing streak
We suffered as if fate had fixed the fight.

Prenez vos désirs pour des réalités 1968

My point: that structuralism helped us see
Beyond that Sartrean fix by letting go,
Once and for all, the thought of subjects 'free'
In the sense 'really, deep down, prone to no
Impediments of kind or of degree
To their free choice: 'defend the status quo
Or strive against it!'
             That's the reason we
Took language as our model, or – you know
The story well enough – the master-key
Of structural linguistics. This we owe
To Saussure, Jakobson and company,
Plus Althusser who managed to bestow
On Marx a reading that could claim to be
Both rigorous and well equipped to show
Our own conjuncture with the clarity
Such thinking brings. The syntagmatic flow
Of speech is like the combinatory
Of actions and events, an ordered row
That bears the mark of willing agency,
Whether to hold in place or overthrow
Such order. Yet it shows unconsciously –
So structuralists maintain – the sous-niveau
Of differences and contrasts that decree
How speech or actions signify although
The speaker, like the agent, won't agree
That what they've said or done makes sense on so
Arcane a set of terms.
            Think: why should she,
The militant, however street-wise, grow
Conversant with depth-codes of strategy,
Or speaker venture nothing till, below

The surface utterance, he too can trace
The signifying systems that elude
Our conscious grasp? For else they’d slow the pace
Of speech, or thought, or action, and preclude
All access to the generative space
Where subjects somehow find the aptitude
For words and acts that promise to displace
The ideologies that once subdued
All stirrings of revolt. So we gave chase
To errant signifiers, or pursued
Those fleeting signs – exposed to us by grace
Of Marx and Freud, plus insights late accrued
From Althusser and Lacan – that the case
Is not at all as it's naively viewed
By those who take our words and deeds at face
Acceptance but, more tellingly construed,
Half-yields to ideology's embrace
Yet kicks against it.

may 68 graffito 3

                  Hence the multitude
Of symptoms that would promptly self-erase
At its behest if not for us, the brood
Of old-school structuralists who opt to base
Our strategies and methods on a clued-
Up symptom-reader's grasp. This shuns the race
From thought to deed, reminds us what ensued
In ‘68, and bids we play our ace
Card to warn just how easily a mood
Of premature euphoria takes the place
That, we say, falls more aptly to a shrewd
Since theory-guided project to retrace
The structural constraints that had us screwed.


An Unfortunate Case
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 22:03

An Unfortunate Case

Published in Poetry

An Unfortunate Case

by Chris Norris

Portugal’s president has described the circumstances in which a homeless Portuguese man died near the UK parliament as ‘inhumane’. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid tribute to the unnamed man found dead in an underpass near Westminster tube station, a stone’s throw from an entrance to the Houses of Parliament. In a statement on the official website of the president of the Portuguese republic, de Sousa said he ‘laments the death in inhumane circumstances of our fellow countryman of 35 years, who was found without life in one of the metro entries in the British capital’.

- The Guardian, 16th February, 2018 

The Jesus note: not one that I
Play up but there's that line
Of his that goes
'Look on me, all ye who pass by:
Was ever grief like mine?'
Bit lachrymose,
You'll say, and on the whole I try
To give no outward sign
Of inner woes,
Though times there are when I could die
And none would grieve or pine
Excepting those
Who paused awhile to wonder why
The tourist crowds confine
Their passing shows
Of interest to Big Ben on high
Or to the sty of swine
Our nation knows
As Parliament. Great place for my
Campaign to take the shine
Off its fake pose
As friend of every little guy,
That time-dishonoured shrine
To freedom's foes.

There's lots of MPs walk my way,
The Tories nose-in-air
Or keen to show
They'd have me thrown in gaol today
If it was left to their
Best judgment (know
Them by their rotten fruits, I say),
And 'socialists' who'll spare
Small change then go
On endlessly about how they,
The old guard, did their share
To overthrow
Class-prejudice or some cliché
Stamped 'vintage Tony Blair',
And then – although
An off-note in that cabaret –
Real socialists who'll dare
To halt the flow
Of tourist-trade and disobey
The bylaws with a rare
And powerful show
Of outrage fitted to convey
'Blame that lot over there,
Just a stone's throw'.

The Mail and Sun delight to call
Them 'Corbynistas', these
New types who seem
A breed that’s worlds apart from all
The self-styled 'left' MPs
Whose only dream
Is getting on, or playing ball,
Or trying hard to please
Whatever team
Of crass time-servers have the gall
To pull their usual wheeze
And switch mid-stream
To business-class. It's a long haul
For anyone who sees
How the regime
Of capital has us in thrall,
Yet those who hold the keys
Lack any scheme
To buck the future or forestall
A turning tide that frees
The distant gleam
Of hopes renewed at every fall
Of fortunes built on sleaze –
The Levellers' theme!

Myself, I'll just hang on here till
The next election (must
Come soon enough!)
And then let's hope the people's will
Revolts in sheer disgust
At folk who stuff
Their pockets, gourmandise their fill,
And think it fair and just
That we sleep rough,
Us whom the cold nights sometimes kill,
Yet who retain their trust,
When times are tough,
That in the long death-dealing chill
Of Tory rule we've sussed
An age-old bluff
And figured how the plebs might still
Find the right ass to bust,
Vow not to fluff
It yet again, but bend our skill
Against those upper-crust
Class-laws we’ll slough
Off like each parliamentary bill
Now set to bite the dust
At our rebuff.

That’s why the Corbynistas link
My situation here,
Begging for bread
And living always on the brink
Of the deep freeze I fear
Lies just ahead,
To Tory policies that sync
A code-word like 'austere'
With plans to shed
All care for those our masters think
Beyond the civic sphere,
Hence good as dead
Already. This new lot won't shrink
From setting out to clear
The Augean shed
Despite the daily growing stink
Of many a privateer
Caught short instead
Of mixing it with Graft Corp Inc,
Advancing their career,
And helping spread
The moral rot at which we wink
Till, of a sudden, we're
Unhoused, unfed.

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou
Tuesday, 30 January 2018 11:26

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

Published in Poetry

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

by Chris Norris

We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and 'natural' character of the most monstrous inequalities. - Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis

 I would say, if you like, that the party is like an out-moded mathematics. That is to say, the mathematics of Euclid. We need to invent a non-Euclidian mathematics with respect to political discipline. - Badiou, The Concept of Model

Without mathematics, we are blind. - Badiou, Short Treatise on Transient Ontology

First lesson: there's a truth as yet unknown
In every situation, and its place
Is marked out by some problematic zone,
'Evental site', or looming crisis-space
Where – after all the errors that postpone
Discovery – the truth of what's-the-case
Stands clear to view. For now the signs have grown
Quite unmistakable and bear the trace
Of bygone struggles that faint-hearts are prone
To call 'defeats' but communists embrace
As their instructive past. That way they'll hone
A sharpened sense of how the long-haul race
Goes not to those who'll eagerly disown
Old causes vanquished but to those who base
Their hopes on revolutions overthrown
Yet yielding truths no setback can efface.

Lesson the second: lesson one applies
Across as many disciplines as find
Sufficient room for truth, or recognise
How states of knowledge always lag behind
New truth-procedures. These we must devise,
Through thought and force of circumstance combined,
To meet unlooked-for issues that arise
In truth's domain, or forms of double-bind
That current thinking struggles to disguise
Since, by its nature, always pre-inclined
To save appearances. So what complies
With common sense wins credence of a kind
Withheld from that which radically denies
The truth, consistency or sense assigned
By expert lore to those ideas we prize
As if by timeless intellect divined.

Third lesson: mathematics is the key
To thinking through those issues in the spheres
Of science, politics and art that we
Old compartmentalisers must shift gears
To think about at all. What links the three
Is how a grounding in set theory clears
The way to truths which those alone can see
Who understand how each domain appears
Dilemma-prone and without guarantee
Once Cantor's infinite breaks old frontiers.
This shows the mirage of consistency
To license our discounting all that veers
From any norm where those allowed to be –
To count as subjects, citizens, or peers –
Are just those who, the ruling powers decree,
Can best ensure the counting-scheme

CN GC 338px Georg Cantor2

Georg Cantor, inventor of set theory

Fourth lesson: it's anomalies like those
That plagued set theory which gave rise to its
Great revolutions, just as tests expose
An unknown problem with the working fits
In some machine, or analysts disclose
How certain logic-systems fall to bits
If rigorously quizzed. This also goes
For sites where some state apparatus pits
Its power against the multitude yet throws
The system into crisis when it hits
One non-included multiple that grows
In number, size and force. This then permits
No mere adjustment of the ratios
To ease the deadlock or to call it quits
Since such anomalies entail who knows
What threat to all the state's survival-kits.

Lesson the fifth: we communists will err,
And seriously so, if we should take
A vulgar-Marxist line and so declare
Ourselves resolved in principle to break
With all that 'abstract', 'formal', or 'armchair'
Philosophising. Such a view would make
Small sense of my expending so much care
On laying out events in Cantor's wake,
Or my erecting castles in the air
Around them. All these efforts for the sake –
So grumble the innumerate – of their
Enabling me to claim an active stake
In the ongoing struggle. Yet my share
Involves (they say) procedures so opaque
And technical that very few would dare
To call me out as muddle-head or fake.

Sixth lesson, just for them: if it's concrete
Reality you want, then nothing's more
Entirely up your preferential street
Than all those numbers you'd have us ignore
As 'merely abstract'. Fact: the balance-sheet
Of every corporation shows they store
Our fates and futures like a trick-or-treat
Run wild. Truth is, the further we explore
Their complex ways, the better chance we'll meet
Those horrors that left-moralists deplore
With sharp analyses of how the cheat
Works out in detail. That's just when the lore
Of capital serves handily to beat
Off challenges, so our best way to score
Max points against it is to turn the heat
Up mathematically: wage number-war!

CN corporate greed 2

Another Day Under Corporate Control, by Clay Bennett

And that's my seventh lesson: we should choose
Our ground with utmost care, make sure we play
Our cards right tactically, but also use
Strict thought-procedures that insist we pay
The past due heed. They point to what ensues
From our hypothesis when, come the day,
Some mounting perturbation puts the screws
On every link that held revolt at bay
Until things took this turn. We look for cues,
Us communists, in what the papers say
About such happenings. But – please excuse
My coming back to it – we need a way
To link whatever piece of current news
Grabs our attention with the dossier
Of past (don't call them 'failed') popular coups
Wherein we read hope’s mixed communiqué.

For lesson eight's the truth that Cantor showed
And that's borne out implicitly by all
Attempts to crack the errant master-code
Of politics. It says that off-the-wall
Procedures, like events, might just explode
All bounds and show how change goes epochal
By yielding some unguessed-at episode
That far exceeds thought's finite wherewithal
Or drives its systems into overload
At every point. Hence Cantor's Saul-to-Paul
Conversion on the long Damascus road
That started out from scruples deep in thrall
To fear of all the paradoxes stowed
In the bad infinite. Yet soon they'd fall
Like bread from heaven as thinking overflowed
All limits that the finite would install.

So, lesson nine: no crisis-point so taut
With future possibility as that
Which comes unnoticed by the expert sort
Of change-predictor out to bell the cat
Of revolution. Fending off that thought
Is just what they're so very expert at,
Like those old dix-huitards who still hold court
On what went wrong in '68, or chat
Dismissively about the battles fought
To save the Paris Commune, or – old hat
To them – have their obligatory sport
With notions of the proletariat
As vanguard class. Close kin to those, in short,
For whom the Cantor great leap forward begat
Such monsters that they did their best to thwart
Its spread with every queasy caveat.

CN May 68 paris

Les evenements, Paris 1968

For lesson ten I leave you to reflect
On Jean Cavaillès whom the Nazis shot
As a résistant, one whose intellect –
Whose work in mathematics – showed him what
It likewise meant in ethics to select
One's axioms and pursue them though you'd not,
At first, decisive reasons to expect
They'd see you through. That fatal trouble-spot
Makes him a case apart, but helps connect
The truth-procedures scientists have got
To follow lest their errors go unchecked
With those that once convinced the sans-culottes
To let no bourgeois allies redirect
And skew the course of their self-scripted plot.
Agreed: ten lessons drawn from Marx and Brecht,
But think how Cantor cut the Gordian knot.

CN Jean Cavailles


An Embarrassment
Sunday, 14 January 2018 13:07

An Embarrassment

Published in Poetry

An Embarrassment

by Chris Norris

LONDON — A political storm is brewing ahead of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s May 19 wedding over whether to crack down on homeless people and beggars in the well-to-do English town of Windsor . . . . Borough council leader Simon Dudley kicked off the controversy by tweeting over the Christmas holidays about the need to clean up Windsor’s streets. He then wrote to police and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May suggesting that action be taken to reduce the presence of beggars and the homeless. Dudley referred to an ‘epidemic’ of homelessness and vagrancy in Windsor and suggested many of those begging in the town are not really homeless. He said the situation presents a beautiful town in an unfavourable light. - The Washington Post, January 4th 2018

It can be hard to find a vacant pitch.
You think you've cornered one, but then
It turns out there's some unexpected hitch,
Like 'let's not see your face again',
Or cops with that let's-send-them-packing itch,
Or druggies looking for a den,
Or doorway-minders stationed by the rich
Lest we scare some good citizen.

It's quite a simple trade-off once you know
The ropes. Choose an impoverished part
Of town with hopes and incomes running low
And chances are the cops won't start
Those same old scare-techniques from the word go
Because that's not where all the smart
Set live or those who have the clout and dough
To silence any bleeding heart.

But then of course folk won't have much to spare
In poor parts, so we chase the dosh
And tend to wind up in those places where
The local council's run by posh-
End bureaucrats who seem to think that their
Fine precincts will soon be awash
With us lot if they show a moment's care
For all that human-kindness bosh.

Myself, I did quite nicely for a while
In Windsor, locals rich enough
To spare at least some fraction of their pile,
And others doing all the tourist stuff,
Which meant they'd sometimes go the extra mile,
When they saw I'd been sleeping rough,
And give as if to say: let our life-style
Rub off on you though times are tough.

So not a bad pitch, Windsor, all in all,
Until this jobsworth got the word
That he, as Council Chairman, must play ball
And make sure us lot were transferred
Elsewhere, us human flotsam, with as small
Upset as could be lest we stirred
An impulse of regret that might just gall
The conscience of the royalist herd.

The reason? Some dim-witted legatee
Of a half-dozen clans far-gone
In the descent to inbred idiocy
Of Europe's royals had got it on
At last with some royal-fancier, so we
Folk in the lowest echelon
Must up sticks so that Windsor has its spree
And we don't spoil the denouement.

The lesson? If you want a country fit
For Tory toffs, for all those Royal
Flunkies and floozies, and the tabloid shit
Put out to keep the commoners loyal,
Then, fellow-subjects, just get used to it:
We'll always be around to foil
Your best-laid civic plans and do our bit
To see what fake dreams we can spoil.

For here's my point, beyond just being pissed
Off with the whole Royal-wedding binge,
Or at not being on the invite list:
That it's the same habitual cringe
That bends the knee of every monarchist,
That frees that Chairman from a twinge
Of conscience, and that tells us: don't resist
Or push your anti-royalist whinge.

For you'll not clear us losers from your streets
Until you clear them from your dreams,
Those royals, as well as from the gossip-sheets
That feed your fantasy with streams
Of reportage where your worst life-defeats,
Like mine, look less important themes
Than the crowd of adoring fools that greets
The couple with their PR teams.

Think harder and you'll maybe come to hate
The system that keeps them in place,
Those useless idlers, while it views our state
Of penury as no disgrace
But ours alone, or else as just what fate
Decreed for us so that we face
Up to it, like Prince Harry and his mate,
Secure in destiny's embrace.

See through that crap and you'll be on the way
To seeing how it works, how we're
Kept down, kept quiet, kept under, kept at bay,
Or just kept moving on by mere
Compliance with the roles they'd have us play,
Those harkers-back to yesteryear
Who seize their chance, with each Royal-wedding day,
To re-infantilise the public sphere.

A Disillusionment
Friday, 29 December 2017 22:54

A Disillusionment

Published in Poetry

A Disillusionment

by Chris Norris

 It sounds counter-intuitive. How can the ‘Jewish State’ or the Zionist movement be anti-Semitic? But several of US President Donald Trump’s appointments have made it clearer than ever. He leads the most pro-Israel US administration in history, even while appointing key figures with anti-Semitic ties as his most important advisers.

- Asa Winstanley, Memo: Middle-East Monitor

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devalue words and reasons . . . . How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew [cf. Palestinian] appear to him . . . . If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse.

But some will object: what if he is like that only with regard to the Jews [cf. Palestinians]? What if he otherwise conducts himself with good sense? I reply that that is impossible . . . . A man who finds it entirely natural to denounce other men cannot have our conception of humanity; he does not see even those whom he aids in the same light as we do. His generosity, his kindness, are not like our kindness, our generosity. You cannot confine passion to one sphere.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’

 (Note: ‘Bibi’ is the nickname, affectionate or otherwise, of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel.)

My parents spoke of Israel
As of a Promised Land,
A place on which our dreams might dwell,
Though not (we'd understand)
A dwelling-place since its far spell
Could not be known first-hand
And some folk there had been through hell
En route for Haifa’s strand.

Still it remained my soul's ideal,
My youthful hope and dream,
That magic place-name that would steal
Upon me as the theme
Of reverie, though a country real
Enough for it to seem,
In bad times, the one name to heal
My wounded self-esteem.

For that, to me, was what it meant,
Aside from all the fuss
(As then I thought) about those sent
Away to clear for us,
Or ours, more Lebensraum that lent
A God-sent chance to bus
Or fly folk in and circumvent
Land-claims we'd not discuss.

But then the doubts began to crowd
Back in and wake a sense
Of what injustices allowed
My joy at their expense,
Those Palestinians, once a proud
And free-born people; whence
Their courage to endure unbowed
In rightful self-defence.

These five decades, since Israel fought
Its war for 'living-space',
I've watched the dream go sour and thought
Their talk of 'by God's grace'
The sort of thing routinely taught
When people make a case 
For causes desperately short
Of any moral base.

And now we've evidence, if more
Was needed, in the way
That Bibi's happy to ignore
The bulging dossier
With Trump's additions to the store
Of handy ways to play
The fascist card and give his core
Supporters a field-day.

For now I have to count the name
Of 'Israel' one we lump,
To its and my eternal shame,
With that of Donald Trump,
An anti-semite who would blame
'The Jews' as soon as plump
For Moslems or whoever came
In next for the high jump.

And then I think: was Sartre right
To say that what we mean
By 'Jew', or ought to mean in light
Of history, is seen
Most clearly in the victim-plight
Of everyone who's been
Killed, dispossessed, or put to flight
By hatred's lie-machine.

So 'anti-semite' would extend
Beyond its usual scope
To take in haters who depend
On 'Jews' to let them cope
With categories of foe and friend
So stark that they must grope
Around for scapegoats fit to lend
Their hate-crusade new hope.

For who, I ask you, wants or dares
To come straight out and state
The chosen-people case: that there's
Some type-specific trait,
Of grace or shame, that no-one shares
Who's not a candidate
For marking down as one of theirs
Or one they're bound to hate?

So I’m among the dispossessed,
An inner exile, though
I've only lost the dream that blessed
My early years, and so
Am now resolved to do my best
For those who undergo
Such pains as only the oppressed
In soul and body know.

Why then should I, deprived of all
I once believed in, keep
Faith with a state whose actions call
For me to take the leap
And say I’ve now crossed Bibi’s wall
With soul-wounds that go deep
Because such late-life Paul-to-Saul
Conversions don't come cheap.

Yes, I'm still 'Jewish', but the word
Now signifies, for me,
Whatever voices can't be heard,
Whoever lives unfree,
And those whose minds and hearts are stirred
By acts we daily see
When history’s victims, undeterred
By force, seek liberty.

So when they couple 'Zionist'
With (what seems quite insane)
'Anti-semitic' I insist
That first we ascertain
Just what they mean in case we've missed
Their point and it's the strain
Induced by that mind-wrenching twist
Of thought that's most germane.

All praise to those Israelis brave
Enough to stay around,
Confront the threats, and fight to save
The name in which they found,
Like me, a source of pride that gave
Fresh hope yet runs aground
More jarringly with each new wave
Of war-planes Gaza-bound.

For now the hate-name 'Arab' rings,
On every settler's tongue,
With a harsh resonance that brings
Back memories fresh sprung,
Like 'Jew', said brusquely, which still stings
Me now as once it stung
Years back, and other hurtful things
They'd say when I was young.

And, worse, we have to quell our rage
When Trump and Bibi use
Our history of victimage
As a means to excuse
Their choice of some new war to wage,
Which makes it seem us Jews
Are cast forever as front-page
And soul-destroying news.

Yet most of all it's this that drives
Me nearly to despair:
The thought that Palestinian lives
Should be the ones that bear
The lethal cost of what arrives
Like karma when we dare
To reenact a scene that thrives
On sufferings elsewhere.

Yet that's the hideous double-bind
They'd wish on us, those two
Gut-populists who’ve now combined
Their forces with a view
To ‘common interests’ redefined
So as to let them do
Whatever gets the mob behind
Their demagogic coup.

So if we’re so keen to appease
Our ‘ally' Trump, then how
Come he and his own allies seize
Each chance to re-avow
Those sentiments that show that he's,
Like them, one who'd allow
A pogrom-blitz if that would please
His followers right now.

So – pray forgive me if I rub
The lesson in too hard – 
What price our entry to the club
Of players with Trump card
If, from now on, we have to grub
Around for such ill-starred
Alliances as earn a snub
Even in our backyard?

Why then rebuke me when I stake
My faith on it that we've
A duty now, as Jews, to take
Our conscientious leave
Of any creed that, for the sake
Of striving to achieve
The New Jerusalem, would make
Us prone to self-deceive.

For there's no telling just how far
This grim charade might run
Before it hits a credence-bar
When we'll at last have done
With any rule that says we are
Required to honour none
But tales of faith that may now jar
No matter how they're spun.

You find me now, I must confess,
A man of darker mood
And one perhaps too keen to stress
These things on which I brood
Incessantly, though hoping less
For some new certitude
Than for some way to dispossess
Myself of hopes renewed.

It's when I think again of that
Embrace so warmly shared
Between the fascist plutocrat
And Bibi, aptly paired
As they may be, that I feel flat-
Out thankful to be spared
All last pretence of aiming at
The moral circle squared.

For who could make-believe the dream
Lives on now Israel's made
Its Faustian pact with Trump's regime
And bolstered the parade
Of those whose latest master-scheme,
Once all the plans are laid,
Leaves no place on the winning team
For their back-up brigade?

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg
Monday, 11 December 2017 14:14

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg

Published in Poetry

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg

by Chris Norris

My name is Jacob Rees-Mogg, and
I’ll have you peasants know
I'm here to save this precious land
From many a deadly foe.

I'm ten years old but please don't laugh;
I'm grown-up as can be.
I read the Daily Telegraph
And that’s the rag for me.

It's great, a name like J. Rees-Mogg;
It helps me meet celebs,
And keeps the tabloid press agog,
And wows the idiot plebs.

My way of talking’s a big plus:
Old man or pimply boy?
A cross between Gerontius
And Little Lord Fauntleroy.

CN jacob fresher images

But I have plans they cannot guess,
Those types who'll love to mock
My weird beliefs or style of dress;
They're in for quite a shock.

I like to say, when interviewed,
That my ambition's height
Is to have loads of dosh accrued
And put the nation right.

CN jacob William Rees Mogg images

Sometimes I like to flummox them,
Those interviewer-chaps,
By saying I'll become PM
By age eighteen, perhaps.

But really what most stirs my soul
And seems the better plan
Is casting myself in the role
Of Mosley, my main man.

CN jacob mosley staring

Already I've the right ideas
And the right attitudes
To make us two, across the years,
A hand-picked pair of dudes.

I look ahead and seem to see,
Like him eight decades back,
A fascist column proud and free
All dressed in shirts of black.

CN jacob mosley marching

I'll meet their chief ideologues,
Their neo-Nazi clones,
And love it when they tell me 'Moggs,
You're fascist in your bones'.

* * * * * * * *

And now I tick each box of theirs,
Those splendid chaps who find
In Trump a president who shares
Their every turn of mind.

Yet – here’s the neat bit – people say
‘Rees-Mogg’s a harmless fool’,
Or ‘Anyone who talks that way
Deserves plain ridicule.’

Meanwhile I hold forth all the time
On all my latest fads,
Like making birth-control a crime
Or anything that adds

To my large fan-base among those
Who think me just a clown
And those for whom my class-act goes
A whole lot deeper down.

For some watch film-clips and recall
How many folk would scoff
When Mosley spoke; yet still they fall
For any right-wing toff.

CN trump 3

It's still the same fifth-column stuff,
With Trump in Hitler's place,
And us his side-kicks keen enough
To push the fascist case.

This Brexit thing’s come bang on cue;
It’s set friend against friend,
Remobilized our street-mob crew,
And let me set the trend.

Meanwhile the Tory faithful choose
Me as their pin-up guy
And propagate my right-wing views
So followers multiply.

The beauty is, they’re simple folk
And know not what they speak,
Or half-suspect it’s all a joke
Amongst their Tory clique.

The Guardian sounds a warning note:
‘Don’t trust this man an inch
Or one day they’ll be at your throat,
Those who’ve long felt the pinch’.

‘For now’, its columnists intone,
‘This fraudster has their ear,
And though his head seems solid bone
His words are words to fear.’

But I can happily ignore
Their cautionary tales
Since for each reader twenty more
Pick up their Suns or Mails.

Else it will be some viral tweet
Passed on in that mixed mode
Of call-to-arms and ‘Can you beat
This guy?’ that they decode,

My readers, pretty much as taste
Or politics incline
Though few are favourably placed
To grasp my true design.

They said of Mosley he was our
Lost leader, one who might
Have done great things had lust-for-power
Not put his wits to flight.

CN jacob mosley salutes

Me, I’m much subtler in my bid;
I’m well prepared to wait
With powder dry and keep the lid
Tight lest it detonate.

For soon there’ll come a time when it’s
All up with bleeding hearts,
With those who say that Trump’s the pits,
Like his Brit counterparts,

Who think that I’m a nasty piece
Of work in clownish guise,
And whose emotions find release
In new things to despise.

I’ll keep it up, my fogey act,
But leave them in no doubt,
My trusty Blackshirts, of the fact
That what it’s all about

Is bringing on the day when we
Can raise our flag again
And celebrate the victory
Of true-born Englishmen.

Then there’ll be no more flannelling
To keep the Guardian quiet,
No delicate news-channelling
In case the peasants riot.

CN jacob with textimages

I’d come right out with it and nail
My theses to the door,
Except that Luther won’t prevail
With those who know the score.

For ours will be a nation ruled
By Catholic decrees,
Where women are from childhood schooled
Their men and God to please.

We’ll have no liberal talk of choice
But preach the right to life
And how each woman should rejoice
In what befits a wife.

For that’s God’s law as certified
By chaps, like J. R-M,
With God-appointed role of guide
To weaker souls like them.

Then we’ll be near to heaven on earth,
A heaven for all but pro-
Life activists who think of birth
As their gift to bestow,

Not God’s, or those poor infidels
Who question the command
Of scripture when it plainly tells
Truths given us first-hand.

So let them mock my speech so quaint,
My breakfast shirt and tie,
And say the patience of a saint
Is what my witterings try.

I’d just remind them: now we’ve Trump
And Boris plus the hordes
Of disaffected types who’ll plump
For anyone who lords

It over them like me and spouts,
In truth, a load of tosh
Yet wows them as he flaunts and flouts
The rules of being posh.

CN jacob top hat

Deny it as you may, I’ve tapped
Into a certain vein
Of Brit class-sentiment that’s apt
To go against the grain

Only for those who spot my ruse
And think back eight decades
To the last time when toffs would use
It on the hate-brigades.

So don’t desert me now, my loyal
Supporters from the ranks
Of those on whose delight in royal
Occasions our lot banks.

For we’ve deep things to draw upon
And old myths to revive
Which might see you lot dead and gone
While we still live and thrive.

 CN jacob hate tories











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