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Review Essay: Thinking with Berger, Global and Local/Dialogue.

In Papastergiadis on April 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from New Literatures Review, 27: 1994)

Review of Nikos Papastergiadis 1993 Modernity and Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s Writings Manchester: Manchester University Press

I imagine him straining over the shoulder of the rider to watch, through blurred eyes and at hell-raiser speed, the approaching bend. On the road up a wild mountain, a motorcycle roars towards an adopted village, with a passenger from the city; another visitor, another stranger come to visit, a visitor among others. Drink lubricates words well into the night, and after a working day in the fields it is memories that evoke an evening of talk. To be remembered. Remember John Berger? In a book which defies the safety of conventional biographies, Nikos Papastergiadis has given us a memoir of the writer in exile.

Much more besides. This study, Modernity in Exile, also takes up theoretical and political issues that have importance beyond the specific exile of a certain Berger. This review is difficult to keep on track, the road twists and turns, other themes emerge and vie for attention. In more convoluted terms; what is at stake is a conception of dialogue that will speak to/with difference and name the violence that attends our global condition.

Perhaps Berger was always in exile. As an art critic and columnist for The New Statesman, before his decision to leave England in favour of life in a remote French village, Berger was already an oppositional figure, even amongst the oppositional critics of the British left. His art criticism was always more than an orthodox art history; connecting the “life” of a work with the lives of viewers, he tried to challenge the gap between freedom and alienation. His longer writings were even more difficultly poised; he was interested in both the success and the failure of Picasso, where others either (and only) praised or scorned. He was, importantly in “the midst of the cold war” (NP:39), someone who resisted the easy symmetries of exclusive positions. He was, he claimed, both a Marxist and a Romantic. To all of this Papastergiadis attempts to remain faithful in his retelling of Berger’s positions — which makes Modernity in Exile a difficult and rewarding book.

Berger’s work spans more than forty years, and deals with so many of the critical issues of our time that the study of his oeuvre easily becomes a kind of kit-bag for rethinking the epoch. Modernity in Exile began as a doctoral dissertation in politics at Cambridge. Here, Berger was assigned only a secondary role in the earliest drafts (NP:191), before a gift fell across Papastergiadis’ path, enabling scattered thoughts to be woven together and held fast. In Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, writes Papastergiadis, “we do not see England through the estranged eyes of an exile, but rather with the alienated eyes of a local who looks up at an exile and from there looks down at his culture” (NP:156). A crucial moment. I like to think of this book as crafted by a writer carrying quotations in cupped hands to the workbench, choosing their position with care. This work reads like a mosaic of ideas so arranged. At another point Berger is seen to write himself autobiographically into the novel as the character Janos, for whom “a perpetual distance between England and Hungary casts a shadow over any neat reconciliation of the two” (Berger quoted in NP:151). To follow the itinerant thoughts of this book, always with a danger of becoming lost, offers the promise of an arrival if there is a thread to hang on to — Berger is that thread. Leading somewhere? Where? This is not Ariadne, guiding Theseus through the labyrinth created by Daedalus.[1] There is no linear development or step by step guide to Berger, and Papastergiadis offers “no totalising text, no definitive essay, not even a strict code” (NP:37) — and yet the sense of Berger is tracked throughout. How is this possible in the “absence of an established discipline that can examine the dynamics of displacement in modernity”(NP:4)?

Perhaps it can be achieved with an emphasis on what can be shorthanded as “the dialogical relationship”; the dialogue between author and subject which carries Berger away, and which organises the trajectories of each of Papastergiadis’ chapters. It is “a dialogical mode of writing” which may be capable, for both Berger and for this biographical study, of avoiding “the pitfalls of critical distance, appropriation and displacement, which tend to dominate so much of contemporary writing on the other” (NP:4-5). The pitfalls include certainty, arrogance and the self-serving authority of objectivity, and these are to be avoided by an empathetic approach which requires “a code of interaction between the self and the other that admits the reflexivity of both positions” (NP:5). It is by attention to this dilemma of the other that, for Papastergiadis following Berger, the “gift of empathy” allows a “heightening of new subject positions in the dialogue with the excluded” (NP:16). The possibility of a dialogical turn in literary and cultural studies has a long history, and its place in contemporary theory has frequently been rehearsed.

Berger struggles “to find a sympathetic space within modernity in which identity can be relocated” (NP:181). Dialogue is not a neutral “exchange”. Still it may be possible for Papastergiadis to invoke the metaphor — and its incommensurability — to help bring out a critique of those who profess to engage equally (take turns) with “others”. It is evident that any simple acceptance of the “dialogic turn” is an ideological creation of a speaking exchange which occludes differences — it is clearly the burden of Berger’s work to struggle with this problem. At the same time, that social commentators like Berger, and indeed Papastergiadis, are also bound up within cultural and political forms which condition “dialogic” encounters may sometimes be overlooked in enthusiasm to find a path out of this mesh.

This Exilic Shuttle

In Modernity in Exile, a sustained confrontation and detailed exploration of the methodological status of any more complicated understanding of dialogue is cunningly displaced into debates about positioning and metaphor. This text on Berger has a guiding metaphor, or at least a series of related metaphors grouped around one found, with more than rustic irony, amongst the village life of Berger’s retreat…  continue reading NP review


 

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