Posts By Seán Sheehan


Architecture is Politics

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Book Review: Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the tradition of progress, John Allan (Artifice) and 21st Century London: The New Architecture, Kenneth Powell (Merrell)

Today, the idea that architecture plays its part in changing society only gains purchase with a pejorative sense of what change entails. Look to the Dubai skyline, where architects are still binging on cocktails of concrete, glass, indentured labour and fat fees – 25% of the world’s cranes were operating there when 100 skyscrapers went up in ten years,  — producing a mad jamboree of eye-catching buildings.

But it can’t be said the architecture fails to respond to the needs of the community because Dubai, peopled with expatriates lured  by the loot, waiting for their contracts to end, doesn’t have anything so organic as to be properly called a community. London, on the other hand, is a city of many communities and while it’s not Dubai the architecture that is currently redefining the city’s skyline is similarly characterized by excessive ostentation fuelled by the inexorable logic of capitalism and purchasable architects eager to join a bandwagon.

The mantra for the architectural companies winning contracts in London is build it big, construct a photogenic monument that will stand alone in glorious and pastless isolation from its neighbourhood, untroubled by its surroundings, self-sufficient testimony to its own ambition. Kate Goodwin, the curator of the Sensing Spaces exhibition now on at the Royal Academy of Arts, spells out what is missing : ‘Unlike almost any other art form, architecture is part of our everyday life, but its ability to dramatically affect the way we think, feel and interact with one another is often overlooked’. The greatest architect who has worked in London, Berthold Lubetkin, would have shaken her hand in warm agreement.

John Allan’s book on Lubetkin is an astonishing achievement and one wonders how many years he spent putting it all together. When it first appeared in 1992 — a second edition has now been published – it was praised as ‘the most intelligent English-language account of any twentieth-century architectural career in its context’ and the accolade still holds. The whole story of Lubetkin’s work is here, from his birth in Georgia in 1901 to his appointment in 1947 as architect-planner of a new town for 30,000 residents in the Durham coalfields. This, his greatest project, was never realized and John Allan analyses with care the reasons behind his resignation from the post.

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Non-Fiction of 2013

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A selection of the best non-fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013. Also see the best fiction he read in 2013.


An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman (Maclehose Press)

Grossman  made a two-month trip to Armenia in 1961. Some accounts say he needed the money, travelling there as part of an official commission to edit an overlong novel by an Armenian writer, but he also needed to get away from Moscow where officers had arrived at his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate. Not only had his magnum opus been ‘arrested’, his marriage was in tatters.

He writes of how one never forgets arriving  in a foreign city for the first time, in this case Yerevan:  ‘Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.’ Sometimes you worry the prose might slip into swooniness but Grossman’s  romanticism is always tempered by the real, even at his most Dylanesque –

I saw warriors, knights, thinkers, swindlers, hucksters, poets, builders, astronomers and preachers. I saw collective-farm chairmen, physicists and engineers who built bridges.

– and it sits alongside an impish sense of humour: arriving in Yerevan, he notices the washing lines with ‘sail-like brassieres of hero-mothers’ and market stalls with eighteen-inch-long radishes ‘that seemed to be belong to some phallic cult’. He is  cynical about the criticisms being unleashed against Stalin, not because they are untrue but because they are expressed by those who previously worshipped him.  Grossman can be hard-nosed but is always alive to the contradictions of existence: Armenia’s always stony landscape yielding orchards of peaches; ordinary lives afflicted with tragedies yet loyalties surviving eternal (like the wife he meets who turned up at the Siberian camp where her husband was serving nineteen years and lived in a hut outside the gulag). His travelogue ends with an Armenian wedding, a tour de force that leaves more famous literary travel writers in a dull shadow. No other writer of our times has expressed with more unsentimental admiration the nature of what it means to live with a sense of nobility.

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Fiction of the Year

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A selection of the best fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013.

Top Fiction of 2013

Something Like Happy, John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)

Frank O’Connor wrote how the short story is marked by ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and given the unsettling mix of memory and melancholy that haunts the stories of John Burnside it is tempting to locate the genre in such a desolate landscape.  But Burnside’s canvas is larger: his writing has an acuity that goes deeper than a sense of the isolation of the individual’s existence. What F.R. Leavis said about Lawrence helps bring out more carefully the special quality of Burnside’s stories. Leavis, wanting to defend Lawrence against those who saw him as an arrogant and uncouth genius, applauded his reverence towards life. It found expression, he said, in a certain tenderness; not ‘tender-minded’ or soppy, he hastens to add, but something strong and clairvoyant and incorruptible in its preoccupation with realities of living. There is reverence in Burnside too and it exists alongside his ability to evoke the pain of just being alive, of remembering loss and the lacerations of time. This sensitivity – what Keats in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ calls ‘the giant agony of the world’ –  verges on the morbid and risks crossing over into the unrepresentable but Burnside always keeps this side of the border; he also avoids gratuitousness.  In ‘Peach Melba’, one of the unforgettable stories in this remarkable collection, he doesn’t surrender to the gestural. Instead, he orders his language to recall with precision the narrator’s memory of someone he once worked with and had known – but only too briefly.

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The Bombing War

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Book Review: Three new books about World War II: 

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Richard Overy (Allen Lane)

Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma (Atlantic Books)

Sandakan, Paul Ham (Doubleday)


Richard Overy’s subject is the bombing campaigns of WWII that were not part of ground or sea operations. The rationale for these campaigns was the belief that the enemy’s capacity to continue fighting would be undermined by demoralizing non-combatants, hopefully precipitating a surrender by their rulers. The first bombings by Germany in WWII, of Warsaw, the Low Countries and France, were tactical operations in support of ground movements. The bombing of Britain that started in the summer 1940 was part of an invasion plan but by mid-September it was clear that the RAF was not defeated. The bombing continued because to do otherwise would be seen as a British victory and, anyway, Stalin had to continue believing that an invasion was about to commence while Germany planned its surprise attack on the USSR. Targets in Britain became economic ones like ports and industrial centres, with London being hit 57 nights in succession. When Germany switched to nightime raids there was no effective deterrent to these attacks, yet little of lasting importance had been achieved (though 43,000 people died).

Overy devotes a chapter to the British civilian experience, more or less confirming the commonplace view that the existential threat was accepted by the public with fortitude. Public shelters were not used as much as expected; Londoners trusted more to the Underground even though it was not official policy at first. Communist Phil Piratin led a protest group of 70 from Stepney to the Savoy and occupied the basement, where they found colour-coordinated shelters with armchairs, but he led them out again the following day.

Another chapter covers the relatively unexplored area of German bombing of Russia, reflecting what at times has become a general indifference to the mighty and hugely decisive part that the USSR played in the defeat of Hitler. In contrast to London, Moscow’s subway system was wholeheartedly utilized from the start and Stalin’s HQ was based in one part of it. Another area that benefits from Overy’s research is Italy’s role in bombing and being bombed.

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Two very different books sharing a niche interest that will strike some as macabre: one concerns the work of an American freelance photographer, an ‘ambulance chaser’ who arrived at violent crime scenes with camera at the ready; the other offers psychoanalytic readings of British murderers on the basis  of archival crime scene photographs taken by the police.

How Can I Too Become A Weegee?

Weegee: Murder Is My Business, Brian Wallis (Prestel, 2013)

Weegee and his ’38 Chevvy cruised the mean, dark streets of New York from the mid-1930s to the mid-’40s — working at night was his forte — with his fedora and tools of his trade on the front seat and accessories in the boot. His mission was film noir, literally: Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, apocryphally for his psychic-like ability (as in Ouija board) to know where a crime had taken place, was a freelance photographer. He had the nose of a nocturnal trufflehound for what was pleasing and his dish of choice, served best whilst still warm, was homicide; preferably a mobster killing, though brawls, fires and grisly car crashes would do at a pinch – as long as a person, dead or alive, was in his frame. Often, he was indeed the first to arrive at the crime scene, sometimes before the cops, helped by having a police-band radio in his car and another in his one-room apartment situated very close to the Manhattan Police Headquarters. He worked with a cumbersome, large-format Speed Graphic camera – usually set at f/16 at 1/200 of a second with a set focus distance of ten feet — and, what was a fairly new piece of gear at the time, a large, bulbous flash. Nothing else was required, except his special pass issued by the New York Police Department that allowed him to cross police lines. After all, murder was his self-declared business and as he explained years later in an interview, ‘when you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.’ And get it he did, time and time again, earning his living by selling to tabloid newspapers the kind of photographs reproduced in this book.

Nowadays, of course, a crime scene is strictly off-limits for press photographers and the generic kind of pictures the public are allowed to see have to be taken from behind the ubiquitous police line of coloured polythene tape. The close-up shots of suspects that could once be taken are now rare. One of the photos in Weegee: Murder Is My Business shows Anthony Esposito, a hoodlum probably but with his humanity on display, about to be booked on suspicion of killing an officer of the law in New York in 1941. He is handcuffed to one detective, is cut under one eye and his shirt is dishevelled, while the back of a second, broad-shouldered detective commands more space than the man in custody. Both lawmen have turned away from the camera to avoid their faces being shown.

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Reaping What You Sow

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Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace

The time and place of Harvest seems to be Tudor or  medieval England – seven days in the life of a community after the harvest has being brought in and celebrations begin — though one critic reckons it must be after 1850 because of some of the characters’ vocabulary. This is not carelessness on the author’s part (though it may be impishness); Jim Crace likes to equivocate in such matters and it would be a reckless reader who made a bet on the terrain or time of Continent, his first novel, with its seven different parts and a style that mildly mixes Borges with Kafka. Quarantine, his 1997 novel, is easier to pin down for it takes an episode from the Bible, Jesus’s forty days in the Judean desert, but then this could be a fictional event in the first place.

In Craceland, historicity is labile even though one can often make a reasonable guess as to time and place. All That Follows (2010) is recognisably located in a Britain of the near future and there is no doubting that Harvest takes its context from a real historical movement, one arising from the intersection of economic plate tectonics: an old-world, pre-capitalist order coming up against a new mercantile domain where profit and loss calculations take precedence.

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The First Marxist

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Book Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber (Norton, 2013)

It seems like good news when a new book about Marx is not a hatchet job, is widely reviewed (though not, of course, in Ireland) and receives fairly universal acclaim in the mainstream press. Mind you, another biography of Marx that appeared in 1999 was also praised at the time and few seemed to be offended by the tone of its author, Francis Wheen. Wheen’s style, writing, for example, how Marx had little regard for his mother ‘except when he was trying to wheedle money out of the old girl’, revealed a supercilious, platitudinous attitude towards its subject, as if a book about Marx had to be presented as a jolly wheeze in case anyone thought he might be taking the ideas of the author of The Communist Manifesto just a tad too seriously.

It comes as a relief to find that Jonathan Sperber does not write like Wheen, that he approaches his subject with scholarly seriousness and presents Marx’s life in elegant and scrupulous prose. He successfully communicates a sense of Marx as a restless, erudite intellectual, fired-up by the limitations of others and hugely learned in a way that contemporary academia would have difficulty in coping with. This in itself would not have been a problem for a German university in the nineteenth century but the young Marx burnt that bridge when he crossed over into Young Hegelian territory and identified himself as a caustic opponent of the ultra conservative Prussian order. Until then, his prospects were sunny. Born 1818 inTrier, a southwestern German town that had been annexed to the French republic during the Revolution, he was the son of a Jewish lawyer who pragmatically adopted Protestantism but never abandoned his adoption of Enlightenment thought. Sperber is adept at explaining the obstacles faced by Heinrich Marx and the pressure he would have faced to assimilate. For many in his position, Catholicism would have been the religion of choice for conversion but Heinrich was an heir to the Enlightenment and this explains choice of denomination. 

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‘Self-Hating Jews’, ‘Ideological Criminals of the Worst Kind’


Book Review of three recent books by Jewish writers, Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on Israel.

Ideological Criminals

This rose is red

Red is a colour

Therefore this rose is coloured

There is an initial plausibility to such syllogizing but Hegel uses this example to show where such thinking goes awry. It associates a universal (red) with a particular (rose) but, because different universals can be associated with a particular, the form of inference being employed here allows for more than one conclusion to be drawn. Red can also be a representation of communism or, as the crowds recently celebrating Alex Ferguson demonstrated, of Manchester United but we cannot infer that this rose is communist or a Manchester United rose. A plurality of conclusions can be drawn, though, because the presence of one universal does not preclude the possibility of there being others. The rose is not just red. It has a certain aroma, shape and so on but these various features do not have any necessary connection to one another.

A similar kind of understanding applies to the kind of dodgy syllogizing that goes along the lines of:

Hostility towards Jews is anti-Semitism

Israel is a Jewish state

Therefore hostility towards Israel is anti-Semitic

It might be thought to be a problem when Jews are hostile to Israel because an anti-Semitic Jew sounds a little odd – but, no, this is not a problem because they are just self-hating Jews and as such they deserve a place on the Jewish S.H.I.T. list (‘Self-Hating and/or Israeli-Threatening’). Not surprising, then, to find Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on this list.

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Desiring Hegel

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Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure. The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody. The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.

What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’. Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.

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The Rest Of You Are Just Visiting

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Book Review: London's Overthrow, China Miéville (Westbourne Press)

Moving from China Miéville’s novel Scar to his non-fictional London’s Overthrow involves a change of scale not unlike something you find in Gulliver’s Travels. In his novel, the second of the New Crobuzon trilogy though not set in that metropolis but in the superbly realized Armada, Miéville’s prodigious imagination runs riot. The science-fictional citizens of Armada, an urban-like but maritime pirate city made up of countless ships physically and politically joined together, are not the twee middle-class elves and hobbits of Lord of the Rings and nor do daft dragons feature as the baddies although there are plenty of grotesque creatures that belong to some nightmarish version of the wilder fringes of Greek mythology.

There is almost too much to contend with and you are at first overwhelmed with a surfeit of fantasy (consider skipping the first five pages and the various interludes, returning to them when you get your reading breath back) until places, people and plot begin to take fixed shape. There is an awful lot happening and the neologisms and conceptual inventions flow so thick and fast that you yearn for a glossary and a map at the back of the book. The plot builds to a metaphysical climax when Armada reaches the Scar, the ontological void that Miéville calls the wound in reality, a place where Žižek’s Real speculatively materialises itself, a realm where contingency is an absolute. There are many scars in Scar, physical and psychological, but this is the ultimate incision.

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Wideawake Philosophy


Book Review: After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux (Continuum, 2008) & Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)

In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, when he was working on what would become Finnegans Wake, James  Joyce points towards what he is now trying to do in his writing by saying that some things cannot be expressed in ‘wideawake language cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Quentin Meillassoux’s style of writing, when it comes to philosophical argument at least, is decidedly pre-Wake for his book After Finitude is characterized by a lucidity and correctness that Joyce was quite capable of but nonetheless had put behind him. Meillassoux writes in a way that is not typical of Continental philosophy and what sets him apart from many of his peers perhaps helps explain why he has gained such praise for his work; for some he has already earned a place in the hallowed pantheon of ground-breaking French philosophers. A remarkable achievement for someone whose reputation is largely based on just one book, although dedicated followers of French philosophical fashion can train their truffle hounds to dig up a scattering of essays, excerpts of an unpublished text, The Divine Inexistence, and a second book, The Number and the Siren, about Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés. Is the Meillassoux phenomenon just another cliquish storm in a Parisian teacup or has something explosively new appeared?

The manifest of works of continental philosophy usually indicates intellectual freight of a heavy and bulky kind and one that sometimes requires cognitive apparatus, like set theory in the case of Badiou’s Being and Event. So it comes as welcome relief to know that After Finitude, a mere 128 pages long,  is one of the more reader-friendly texts of recent French philosophy and that its basic argument is put forth with crystal clarity. The book’s author is not one to wallow in words and there is an intellectual impishness to the writing that adds to its attractiveness.

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Chewing the Bullet: Henry James & A Portrait of His Novel

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Even if The Portrait of a Lady has not been read, viewers of the rather fine Jane Campion film with Nicole Kidman —  a movie mercifully free of period-drama trumpery — will be familiar with the story. An inexperienced but likeable young American woman, earnestly in love with her own liberty, journeys toEurope; there she rejects two proposals of marriage, sensing that either of them would curtail the adventure of setting out on life’s exciting odyssey. Freedom, she feels, becomes her. All very Emersonian, until in Italy she meets and pledges her soul to a man whom she thinks singularly complements her own exceptionalism; but from this high point, where she had fondly hoped they could together look down generously on the world, she falls to ground and comes to realise she has married not just a hollow and mercenary dilettante but a malevolent narcissist who demands the sacrifice of her life spirit. She had thought she was free but the sordid truth that her husband married her for her money puts paid to her imaginative idealism and she confronts the truth of her marriage and the catastrophic collapse of her American Dream.

Michael Gorra’s enjoyable account of The Portrait of a Lady is very reader-friendly given his easy-going and often personal tone, and his gloss on the novel is interspersed with a mini-biography of the writer. Gorra calls the structure of his own book ‘dialectical’, using the term loosely to capture the way he focuses on key incidents in the novel before bouncing off these moments to acquaint us with episodes in the life of James as well as the history of the novel’s publication, from its initial serialization in magazines to its first book publication in 1881 and the author’s revisions in 1906. Addressing the style of The Portrait of a Lady, Gorra contrasts its series of dramatic scenes, pregnant with meaning, with the multi-plotted, knotted style of a novelist like Dickens and in the course of Portrait of a Novel there are neat commentaries on key moments from James’s text. He draws attention, for example, to the Godless universe that comes to the fore in the scene between the dying Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph:

There are many deathbeds in Victorian fiction, some full of prayers…. Many of them show us characters sunk in fear, and others hit a high note of hope. But I have read no such scene so entirely untroubled by the hereafter as this one; its originality lies in what James feels himself free to leave out. Neither Ralph nor his father speaks of God, and they do not call a clergyman at the last.

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The Fowlest Place


Book Review: Edmund Spenser: A Life; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide and The Faerie Queene in five volumes. Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press, 2012)   When I thought…

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Waiting for the Wake


Book Review: Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon. Typically Dadaism as a movement extolling anti-art, the irrational and chaotic finds a very narrow berth in Ireland but in its…

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