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Showing posts from May, 2010

Materialism and Ideology

A few weeks ago, the University of Exeter's (Cornwall Campus) Critical Theory Reading Group - a group in need of a sparky and witty acronym if ever there was one - discussed Louis Althusser's essay 'Contradiction and Overdetermination', one of the pieces in the collection For Marx, which I discussed a few weeks ago.
The core of the debate lies in the relationship between ideas, production and history. What drives historical change? The 'vulgar' Marxist answer is material factors: production, economy, labour. Yet this seems a little reductive to say the least: do we really say that the invention of democracy or the theology of the Reformation had no concrete effect on events? Or that such concepts and ideas were merely mechanical expressions of underlying economic trends, with no force of their own? It is to sidestep reductionism that Althusser turns to overdetermination, arguing that every historical event is caused by multiple factors: inflected by culture, pol…

"Life" Optative and Constative in McCarthy's The Road

I don't read many contemporary novels (by which I broadly mean anything written by someone who isn't dead). Nevertheless, impelled not so much by the white heat of positive reviews but by the fact it was a gift that I've been meaning to attend to for two years, I've just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006).
I'm not going to rehearse the critical commonplaces here: it's a bleak, post-apocalyptic narrative - two anonymous characters, a father and son - with searing but minimalist prose, and a trace of redemption sketched into a alienated and voided landscape. There.
I think I enjoyed the narrative most when the action (if one can call scavenging amongst remains an 'action', a question not unrelated to what follows) finally reaches the coastline of North America. To some extent, the journey undertaken in the first two hundred pages had been one without telos, and once the proverbial edge of the map is reached, the question of the point of the cont…

Exam Technique: Five Tips

As an undergraduate, I did a lot of examinations. Sometimes, I did pretty well on them: this may have had something to do with the requirement to don a suit, white bow-tie, gown and carnation, which seems to strangely sharpen the sense of occasion.
Anyway, many of my students are currently facing a battery of exams (without pseudo-medieval dress codes), so I'd thought I'd crystallise some advice.
1. the +2rule. It's important to be agile in exams. You don't want to be forced into a corner: there's nothing more obvious than an awkwardly twisted or forced answer. Luckily, years of hard-won exam experience has provided an elegant solution to this, the +2 rule. Prepare two more texts than you need - one of them can be a bit of a 'reserve', with more sketchy or narrow revision - and I (almost) guarantee you the luxury of choice when you come to take the paper.
Remember also to have two or three 'approaches' to every text you revise, a constellation of the…