iain boal

a letter to the editors


This is, first of all, to wish you and Cesura//Acceso all the best. It is a courageous gesture to launch a new magazine in the deep twilight of a publishing world in full-blown crisis. The culture of print that flourished for more than four centuries around the office of Cesura//Acceso at 88 Fleet Street, in the shadow of St Bride’s—aka the “journalists’ church”—has all but vanished.

To be sure, there are memoirs and novels about the old Fleet Street of the 20th century. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men and Towards the End of the Morning acquired cult status among the journos who laboured in the byways, courts and alleys between Aldwych and Ludgate Circus. Many reporters took Scoop to be a work of pitiless realism rather than wild comic invention. As a young medical student at St Thomas’, I would purloin papers from the van drivers streaming away from the presses to catch the overnight trains with the first editions, and then would drink with the compositors and porters in favoured pubs around Smithfield with an off-hours license. In 2005, an English journalist in exile waxed nostalgic for the smell of printer’s ink and the thunder of hot-metal Linotype machines, for “the lights blazing in the black-glass palace of the old Daily Express…the fog around Blackfriars … the suicidal imbibing in the King and Keys, or the Punch, or El Vino … the demented whims of the latest proprietor …”

Michael Moorcock wrote a poignant elegy for the quartier through the eyes of an eager young gopher in 50s London. Still, we are almost as much in the dark about the texture of an editor’s shift at the Birmingham Post in 1900—in its London home at 88 Fleet St—as we are about the daily round of Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s apprentice who in 1500 set up the first printing press in Fleet Street.

In St Bride’s yard, where Kieran Tobin has set up his coffee stall with the permission of the archdeacon and fuels the old and new denizens of the neighbourhood—the organist and the verger, the trader and the quant, the poet and the archivist—lingers the shade of John Milton, son of a musician and scrivener. There, in a long-demolished house, the “acrimonious and surly” political pamphleteer (thus the Tory lexicographer Samuel Johnson) argued against state censorship. Milton ranked “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. In 1667, in aftermath of the plague and the fire that razed London, and just as Christopher Wren began scheming a resurgent city and a new St Bride’s, Milton published his coded epic in defence of tyrannicide and republicanism, living with the bitter knowledge that the revolution, the “good old cause”, has been defeated.

You are working in the rubble of the old Fleet Street which was destroyed by Rupert Murdoch’s union-busting manoeuvres during the ’80s. Given the longer, slow quietus of the bohemian dissenting enclave of bookbinders, illuminators, cartoonists, pamphleteers, scriveners, tanners, stationers, papermakers, marblers, journalists and essayists, reviewers and editors who lived and worked in the garrets and alleys around Grub Street and the Fleet Ditch, what chance has a small, independent, printed periodical in an era of the emoticon and the viral meme?

I was intrigued to find out that you had chosen for the title of the magazine two terms taken from the specialized jargon of rhetoric and music, conjoined/separated by a typographical sign from the technical jargon of poetics, scansion and musical notation. Cesura//Acceso. By the sound of it, you have an interest in rupture. Rupture with élan. Fiery breaks. Or, at the least, an impassioned pause.

An aside on glyphs. Just as the octothorpe symbol (#), a shorthand scribal relic of the phrase libre pondo has been lately reinvigorated thanks to the designers at Twitter and the explosion of social messaging, so the c(a)esura, etymologically derived from Latin caedere [‘cut’] and cognate with “caesarian” and “czar” (via “Caesar”, the nickname of the dictator Gaius Julius and a nod to his mode of arrival in the world), has migrated from the arcane orbit of literary critics, poets and composers onto computer screens everywhere, in the form of the “pause” or “stop” sign (||). In a recent conversation with a Croatian programmer, we surmised that the cesura symbol probably first appeared in this context on the “pause” button of an early tape recorder, perhaps the choice of some sound engineer/musical technician familiar with its conventional meaning. Oddly, the term acceso, and its English cognate “access” [from Latin “ad + cedere”, “go to”] has, in its dominant sense of “approach”, also migrated into the central workings of the cybersphere, far beyond the boundary of musical stylistics, signifying “the right and opportunity to ‘log on’ to a computer system and to read and edit files that are held within in, often requiring the entry of a password” (Chambers Concise Dictionary, 2012). By this route, then, “access” comes to mean “no access”; it’s a keyword in the new enclosures.

The other sense of acceso is the one I take to be salient in your title, coming from the world of music, with its siblings presto, fortissimo, staccato, spiccato, etc. Meaning: performed with passion and heat, and therefore resonating with the subordinate and archaic, even obsolete meaning of “access”, recorded in Harrap’s Shorter French-English Dictionary, thus: “access of rage etc.; often ironic (of enthusiasm, generosity).”

Back in the 1930s the American critic Kenneth Burke meditated—during the great emergency years for capitalism and the post-Versailles nation-state system—on the politics of vocabulary and forms of address. Why would a radical agitator, Burke wondered (speaking himself as a heterodox revolutionary), insist on “workers” as the compulsory, undeviating honorific used at mass public meetings by party orators, if one subscribed to Marx’s theory of alienation and the degradation of life generally under the rule of capital? It’s not that Burke had a answer to the problems of language in a society riven by divisions of gender, generation, class, race and so forth. He fully understood the possible objections to addressing a crowd of longshoremen as “citizens”, for example. But he confessed later that simply raising this question at a conference of communists in Manhattan provoked such an abusive reaction that he dreamed of tasting “excrement on my tongue.”

Burke specifically also pondered the importance of literary entitlement. A title, he said, may be viewed as a condensation, a summa, of the contents of a work or piece of writing. Retrospectively, so to speak. Or else it can be thought of as anticipatory, a form of convocation, of conjuring an audience or readership, and operating as a devise for focusing attention and attraction (or alternatively, repulsion). It sets the tone, providing a kind of fundamental frequency, which anyway is all one can do with a journal or magazine, which by definition cannot be summed up in advance.

In the mid 1980s, that bright springtime of neoliberalism and Reagan’s Cold War, a Bay Area group of antinomians—writers, artists, scientists, poets, artisans, teachers—planned the launch of a journal of radical criticism. We had certain models in mind—I remember the inspiration we drew from the Rumanian surrealist Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse published out of Baton Rouge in an eccentrically stretched format. And then in our hometown of San Francisco there was the City Lights Journal edited by Nancy Peters. I also recall the moment, in the long defunct second-hand Book Consortium just off Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley, when I stumbled across a couple of old issues of Sheldon Wolin’s democracy [lower case d] journal containing a fine piece by Michael Rogin, and another marvellous essay by Hanna Pitkin on representation and direct democracy, which for many years circulated among the non-academic staff on the Berkeley campus. And alongside the essays of Mike and Hanna appeared the late David Noble’s enabling reinterpretation of the Luddites. So it was a disappointment, though hardly unexpected by those who have inhabited the world of small magazines—unsubsidized by advertising or powerful institutions—to discover that democracy had also to be filed under that poignant category, “short-lived journals”. And so by this and other traces, I became aware gradually, as one must if a new-comer, of the history of the local membership, long scattered, of an “invisible college”. And that is one of the gifts of small magazines.

Our San Francisco group especially admired an obscure non-sectarian journal entitled Retort, appearing between 1942 and 1951, edited and published from a cabin in Bearsville, a hamlet near Woodstock, New York, and we made plans to revive it in the late ’80s. Retort’s printing press had belonged to the eloquent Wobbly agitator Carlo Tresca before he was assassinated on the streets of Manhattan, perhaps by agents of Mussolini. The journal was anti-statist, anti-militarist and published essays on art, politics and culture. Poetry too—the first issue contained the Kenneth Rexroth poem that begins “Now in Waldheim where the rain / Has fallen careless and unthinking / For all an evil century’s youth, / Where now the banks of dark roses lie …” Retort Press also published Prison Etiquette: The Convict’s Compendium of Useful Information, compiled by war resisters, specifically those imprisoned for refusing to collaborate either with the state or with the Anabaptist “peace churches” who had agreed with the US government to self-manage the rural work camps for conscientious objectors.

We also liked the name because we wanted to activate “retort” in the old sense of the alchemist’s vessel that ferments, distills, transforms. It’s fragile, it needs fire, there may be problems with the underlying theory, but there’s occasional magic. We very much liked the resonances and the polysemy of the title.

The name Retort also, of course, acknowledges that we are engaged in a wider conversation whose terms and assumptions we reject, and that we stand on ground, rhetorical and otherwise, not of our own choosing. We are forced to spend much of our time—far too much—in rebuttals, demurrers, rejoinders. In a word, retorting. Anyway, we consulted the gentle urbanist and essayist Colin Ward, whose own editorial work, for War Commentary and Anarchy magazine, we greatly admired. We asked for his blessing; instead he argued quietly against a regular journal on account of the enormous amount of labour involved, advice based on long experience. He then suggested, given what he knew of our busy lives, that we publish only as the occasion demanded. And so we have: broadsides, pamphlets and books over about three decades. Retort is now an imprint of PM Press, with a pamphlet series and occasional books.

Of course, language does not just label things in the world; it helps constitute it. The naming of parts, the framing of questions, the choice of terms, the setting of agendas—these are at once the prerogative and the springs of power. Too often enemies of the present, standing on terrain not of our own choosing, respond in an idiom satisfactory to the sovereign. There are reasons for this. For one thing, we are all tossed into this world without asking; we begin by introjecting it uncritically. Toothlessly. And that includes the acquisition of the language of the tribe, and the terms of engagement with others and with objects—siblings and family, peer-groups and elders, ancestors and the collective inheritance. Not to mention the commonsense of the epoch, the tacit and the unspoken, the “absolute presuppositions”, in Collingwood’s phrase.

The unique status of English in the early 21st century derives most recently from Ukania’s imperial past, but above all our language has to be understood—in its roots, so to speak—as an Anglo-Norman creole. Gaining access to the full resources of English vocabulary historically involved a training in “classics” (no accident that “classics” is cognate with “class”) and typically correlates with a formal education. The result is what linguists would call a form of diglossia. We have inherited a language with two distinct layers, an Anglo-Saxon substrate and a Norman/Central-French overlay, reflecting the conquest by invaders from the European mainland in the 11th century, feudal settlers from Normandy speaking a derivative of Latin.

In relation to your choice of Cesura//Acceso for a title, which I like very much, I am thinking of the Welsh critic Raymond Williams who grappled head-on with the problem of English as effectively a class-based diglossia. (He was looking in at English from the outside; he approached the language as a native Welsh speaker.) His Keywords, dubbed “a vocabulary of culture and society”, was a study in historical semantics. Williams had no nostalgia for some pristine or Adamic form of speech; he despised pedantic schoolmasters and the various self-anointed guardians of diction and style, those linguistic mavens who patrol the perimeters of language, on the qui vive for deviations from the “true meaning”. But he did see the problems produced by a language with class inscribed so deeply in the structure, and for that reason he suggested a regular column in the Tribune newspaper on “difficult” words, especially those with polysyllabic Greek and Latin roots. The editors turned the proposal down, and so Williams never had the chance to take on, in the pages of Tribune, what he thought was the disastrous policy of George Orwell, who suggested that proletarians stick to simple Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, more honest and less liable to fall into Stalinist obscurantism and gobbledegook. Williams considered this strategy a bogus and condescending populism that was all too easy a recommendation coming from the dissident Etonian and classical scholar Eric Blair.

The enormous lexical resources of the language, and their invidious differentiae, therefore present writers—and speakers—of English with a problem that ought to be more consciously acknowledged, making matters more difficult than they are, say, in France, especially given the different outcomes of their revolutions. As to what might be entailed in the forging of a lexicon adequate to the matters now at hand, that is a complex question. The critic was right who observed that, although political writing is always instrumental, its time of instrumentality—its time as a weapon—sometimes lies a little in the future. That was perhaps true in some ways for Holley Cantine’s original Retort; in other ways, the relations of the state to capital and war-making have been profoundly transformed, and with it the task of a new journal in a time of war.

I don’t think it is contradictory to hope that one of the tasks of Cesura, which belongs to an older tradition of literary productions and periodic journalism is to understand and to speak back to the new conditions of spectacle. The state has been drawn into the web of modernity’s new technics of image and sound production, and found itself vulnerable in novel ways. The events of September 11 were a most dramatic example of the state’s vulnerability. To be sure, the codex, the daily broadsheet and the tabloid, in certain respects, have been definitively surpassed, and the ubiquity of the phone-camera is causing headaches for states everywhere. Wikileaks was an interesting development that emerged out of the same contradictions identified in Retort’s Afflicted Powers and immanent in the new apparatus of reproduction. It is a threat to the state and is recognized as such, partly because the baroque and ramified system of official secrecy cannot practically be sealed off; all electronically stored information is potentially just one click away from global dissemination. Talk of Wikileaks heralding a new model of journalism and publishing is muted for the moment but the question we posed in Afflicted Powers nevertheless remains: whether the new conditions of spectacle could lead to real destabilization. Even to frame such a question points to a new historical situation, and one which paradoxically demands slow reading, slow looking.

Edward Thompson argued that the antinomian publishing tradition that flourished for so long around St Bride’s was in part a radical defence against the hegemonic “reason” of a ruling class, especially during the long generations when the revolutionary fires burned low. He took Ludovic Muggleton and John Milton in the 1660s and Blake after the counter-revolution of the 1790s as embodiments of a strategy of coping with their respective moments of defeat. There are moments for pause and rest, without loss of a sense of the rhythms and movement of history; then occasionally moments of rupture, when the fires burn bright, the slack line quickens, and focus grows intense. How to feel the cesura and to act acceso, that is the question. It may be no surprise that an archivist/ historian will recommend, with the Wobbly poet, Tom McGrath:

 

The Use of Books
 
What’s there to praise
In that vast library of long-gone days
Bound in the failed and fading leather
Of ancient weather?
 
To free what’s trapped or bound
Is my whole law and ground:
Since it’s myself I find
Out on the rough roads // travelling blind
 
Yet, // for another’s use
I bind what I let loose
So others may make free
Of those lost finds no longer use to me.

 

*

Valete, P and G. Ave, Cesura//Acceso.

Iain

Hammersmith

8 ix 2014


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