what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Critical German Redoubt

Grand Hotel Abyss – the lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) is the sort of book which has me salivating….it is the story of the individuals who came together in Germany in 1923 in an unusual multi-disciplinary institute; and used what came to be known as “critical theory” to try to make sense of the social, political and economic turbulence then being experienced in Europe and Russia…... Evicted by the Nazis after only a decade, they then moved to the States where their survey work focused initially on trying to understand the Nazi takeover and then on the cultural aspects of their adopted country – at least until 1949 when Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, managing to attract a young Juergen Habermas to their ranks. The denazification process was, understandably an initial focus of their work there but, as the political momentum for this quickly faded, their focus on understanding the new forces of capitalism was renewed.

Such figures, however, as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm stayed behind to plough their distinctive radical furrows in the USA – which bore fruit in the heady 60s when their writings indeed were far more influential in 60s Germany than those of Adorno and co at the Frankfurt school. I vividly remember the anger of the Marxist students at Berlin’s Freie University when I spent 2 summer months in Berlin in 1964 – and it was Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” which was one of the crystallising text for them.
Adorno died in 1969 but the Institute operates to this day – if with little of the global influence it had in its heady days….. For those who want their analysis in small bites, the excellent Aeon magazine has article about the school with the appropriate title – How the Frankfurt school diagnosed the ills of western civilisation 

The author of Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries, is one of many who have penned the history of this group – although he may be the first English journalist so to do. Many Germans have been down this road eg The Frankfurt School – by Wiggershaus (1995); and at least 2 American scholars – with The Dialectical Imagination (Martin Jay 1973); and Rethinking the Frankfurt School – alternative legacies of cultural critique; ed JT Nealon and C Irr (2002).
Jeffries’ book has an excellent bibliography – which lists (some of) these books – but, as I discovered them, I wondered why he had not thought to offer a comment in (say) the Introduction to help us understand what exactly his new book offers that is different and distinctive….. I should imagine that he feels that a journalistic approach will clearly be more accessible than an academic’s – but have to confess that I find his language, on occasion, a bit elliptic if not cryptic….

In these times, however, it’s useful for a British audience to be reminded that, for almost a hundred years, this Institute has been articulating a different way of seeing and thinking……
But I often had the feeling in the first half of the book that he would have preferred to be writing about Walter Benjamin…….  whose various writings are generally much more lucid than those of his colleagues at the School – eg Early Writings 1910-1917; Reflections – essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (1978); and Selected Writings volume 2 part 2 (1931-1934) – perhaps because Benjamin was actually a journalist

I was also disappointed that, apart from a solitary paragraph, the book failed to make the connection with the group of New Left writers who have been active in Britain from 1960 to the present – particularly with the “cultural wing” which found expression in the British Centre for Cultural Studies from 1964 until its demise in 2002. British Cultural Studies – an introduction by Graeme Turner (1990) offers a good treatment of their work.
Admittedly, the Frankfurt School had a 40 year start on the Brits but, for some reason it’s the French whose influence permeates UK cultural studies (as Turner’s book shows) – with only Gramsci challenging this. Germans such as Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas simply made no impact on the Brits…Why is this I wonder? The Frankfurt School and British cultural Studies – a missed articulation is an interesting article which explores this question……

Let me finish with an excerpt from an interview with the author of Grand Hotel Abyss (and recommend that you read the full interview) 
What legacies has the Frankfurt School left us? And which thinkers do you regard as its inheritors?They were certainly attentive to how culture changes us and can be a force for change. In the 1930s Benjamin imagined that cinema, for instance, by using jump cuts and close ups, would change our perspectives on reality and so might have a revolutionary potential; a few years later, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Hollywood as if it were a totalitarian tool of oppression akin to the Nazi film studio UFA. One Frankfurt School legacy, then, then is to make us think about the politics of culture. For them, art is never just for art’s sake, and entertainment is never just entertaining. By taking the politics of culture seriously, the Frankfurt School opened up new lines of thinking. Without them, all the stuff that happened in a little corner of Frankfurt’s twin city of Birmingham (the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies) wouldn’t have been conceivable and our approach to culture would have been very different.
To be sure, the likes of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams saw culture very differently from Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. They followed the Frankfurt School in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control, but, unlike the Germans, appreciated how the culture industry could be aberrantly, even rebelliously decoded, by its mass consumers and that popular sub-cultures might subvert the culture industry in a form of immanent critique.
Further Reading

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Celebration of writing about Italy

Italian readers have, in recent weeks, been consistently second in the highly prestigious league table of readers of “Balkan and Carpathian Musings” (surpassed, it has to be said by far, by Russians).  As it happens ,we shall be spending several weeks in Italy from mid March – first 5 days in Rome, then ditto in Naples and, then more than a week  in Palermo, using the Italian trains to make the connections from Rome. I will, therefore, just miss the elections - which I am, however, following on such sources as Prospect and Jacobin magazines.  
Our purpose, however, is to savour the country’s landscape and (past) glories – although La Bella Lingua – my love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language has whetted my appetite for learning at least a few words of the language.

Italy has of course, over the ages, attracted some superb writers (let alone artists) to visit and wonder at its history, paintings, sculptures and buildings – writers whose journeys and commentaries are recalled, for example, in Sicily – a literary guide for travellers. Although I’m not quite sure what such knowledge adds to our appreciation of Italian vistas, I do appreciate book lists and, therefore, pass on this list of the “top 10 books about Italy” which includes a couple I own - The Oxford Companion to Italian Food; and Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily”.  
I have, over time, accumulated a nice little library of books about the country and made a special journey a couple of weeks ago to my snow-bound mountain house to retrieve it. It includes titles such as – John Berendt’s  naughty exposure of Venice society in the late 1990s - The City of Falling Angels; and The Dark Heart of Italy; by Tobias Jones – whose elegant text tries to capture the essence of the country and the way it has become politicised.

Two more detailed and brilliantly-written studies I brought down for rereading are The Pursuit of Italy – the pursuit of a land, its regions and their peoples; by biographer David Gilmour (2011); and Italy and its Discontents 1980-2001 by historian Paul Ginsborg (2002) whose focus on the family, civil society and the state uses a range of contemporary local sources not normally seen in such books…….Ginsborg has lived in Italy as a Professor of history for some 30 years and gives us with this offering probably the most incisive and encyclopedic take on the country. There can be few other English-language analyses of foreign countries to rival this one! 

Resident for almost 30 years, translator Tim Parks’ Italian Ways- off and on the rails between Milan and Palermo (2014) is highly readable - as well as useful for those venturing on its  trains.
Two people who hail from Australia have produced 3 books which give us not only cultural insights but the very tastes, sounds and smells of the country -
Rome – a cultural, visual and personal history; Robert Hughes (2011) – art critics are usually the worst of writers but Hughes’s prose was, by contrast, electrifying . Sadly now deceased, this book of his brings the city alive……

John Dickie’s Mafia Republic - Italy’s Criminal Curse is a lively read – but the one book of my batch which really disappointed me was the florid Naples Declared – a walk around the bay; by Benjamin Taylor who has a nervous tic of throwing in comparisons with North American sites……
Latinist Mary Beard, on the other hand, has given us very recently SPQR – a history of ancient Rome; which brought to mind Robert Harris’s novels about Roman figures (particularly Cicero) and intrigues - “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Pompeii”. And, speaking of novels, I’m glad to see that the English editions of Albert Moravia’s novels are once again (thanks to NYRB) easily available. I always appreciated his modernist touch (and his naughty book “The Two of Us”)
Of course I have several generic travel guides – 2 for Naples, the DK Eyewitness one and the TimeOut City Guide; and the DK Eyewitness Guide to Sicily – but these rely on visuals and tips about accommodation, eating and travel which rapidly date 

But the best briefing about the country freely available – thanks to the London Review of Books – are the writings of the incomparable Perry Anderson who has written, over the years, no fewer than four major and incisive commentaries on Italian society -

What is Missing?
I’ve sent away for The Italians by John Hooper (produced in 2016 by the Economist’s correspondent in Italy) which I think is the only major title currently missing from my library. It will be interesting to see how much it builds on Ginsborg's unparalleled analysis.....
I also like the sound of A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks. Thanks to Vlad and the newly re-opened English Bookshop – the smallest Carturesti bookstore – these 2 titles should be with me by the start of March…
I’m not a great reader of novels – The Leopard sits forlornly unopened on my shelves but this list of Italian novels tells me I should read Ferrante if I am spending some days in Naples…..

Musical Interlude

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the Icelandic composer Jojann Johannson who has just died at the tragically young age of 48 - but I was very taken with this Song for Europa to which I owe to an amazing US radio station - KEXP - an affiliate apparently of the University of Washington…..
I also liked his Free the Mind

Listening made me realise how much I appreciate some of the more atonal music – I have always loved Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. And the Finnish composer Arvo Paert never fails to touch me eg “Tabula Rasa” and Credo

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crafting effective public management - why so few practitioner perspectives?

If you want to understand a subject, would you rather have one written from a theoretical standpoint – or from a practitioner’s? Most people, I suspect, would choose the latter….and yet, in reality, land up with the former. Who, for example, trusts political memoirs? For an understanding of politics we look to academics – or at least to those few who write clearly and coherently. And I have to say these rarities tend to be found in history departments rather than departments of politics (or of social sciences such as economics, geography). Although there are honourable exceptions such as David Runciman, Mark Blyth and Danny Dorling)

Management literature is slightly different – despite its pretensions, it is hardly a social “science”, offering an inter-disciplinary approach. Which means a highly selective one which uses case-studies to weave plausible narratives and “theories” (ie tell stories). And that’s before we encounter the large number of autobiographies by - and hagiographies - about the business elite.

Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of books have been produced in recent decades about efforts to reform state structures globally. When I started my own reform efforts in the early 1970s we had only Peter Drucker (and perhaps Machiavelli) to guide us – there were literally no books available on the question of managing government bodies…..Now we are swamped by the literature – which I tried to summarise recently in a booklet Reforming the State” (which is actually a trailer for a couple of books I am putting together to try to give a practitioner’s view of reform).

For every thousand of academics writing about public management reform, there will be at most one with practical experience. I actually know of only a handful of consultants who have written about their craft – Michael Barber, John Seddon and Ed Straw – all of whom are strongly selling their particular version of the truth Why is this?…..Are we consultants just too busy? Or perhaps too overwhelmed by the complexity of everyday events to feel able to offer theories? Or perhaps lacking the necessary discipline in writing and language???

Crafting Effective Public Administration – reflections from central europe (2018) is my attempt to meet this huge gap in the literature. It’s been almost a decade in the making and opens with an account of the circumstances which led me to develop this strange passion for organizational interventions…..It then moves to an overview of the writing about reforming government systems before outlining how reform got underway in the UK and US from 1965-1995. Then follow some 60 pages of “Notes on key readings” which can be skimmed or skipped for a first reading…
“State Building in “impervious regimes” 1995-2015” is the paper I presented to  a NISPAcee Conference at the Black Sea in 2011. “Back to the Balkans - Why are the new EU member states so impervious to public concerns?” are some more recent thoughts I had on training and Structural Funds in the Lower Danube area.
…It is in fact one of two texts I'm writing on the subject - the next one summarises my various reform efforts of the past 50 years and tries to draw the lessons from them....