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Proof of Pudding


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Hard Sell

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

If you have been reading Derrida, you will know that a plausible gesture would be to begin with a consideration of “the question of the preface.” But I write in the hope that for at least some of the readers of this volume Derrida is new; and therefore take it for granted that, for the moment, an introduction can be made.

For anyone new to ‘continental philosophy’, as I was in the 1990s, it seemed to come from a different planet. Even the cover was baffling. What was that – a creature, a map? What were the symbols? And this word, grammatology?

A glance inside brought no peace – chapters such as ‘The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing’, ‘Algebra: Arcanum and Transparence’ and ‘The Exorbitant. Question of Method’. Who was Jacques Derrida? And who was his translator, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak?

Last week I had the privilege of attending the conference Capitalism: Concept and Idea at Kingston University which marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Capital with a two day exploration of how that book continues to engage with, and radically critique, capitalism today.

For all the noble and intellectual reasons I had for attending, I have to admit that a huge part of my motivation was the chance to attend the lecture ‘Capital’s Destinerrance: Event and Task’ to be given by the very Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who had intrigued me so many years before, and who remains an intellectual hero.

Spivak’s was a bravura performance, funny, passionate, generous, engaged, querulous and ultimately inspiring. Ranging from Marx, to the current situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to ways in which the project of political engagement remains vexing, partial, and yet absolutely necessary, it was a thorough going decimation of the possibility of ‘wait and see’, of needing to have all the facts, and all of one’s political pieces in place in order to act.

This, in many ways, characterises Spivak’s work – when she translated Of Grammatology (1967), she was an unknown 25-year-old associate professor at the University of Iowa, and had never heard of Jacques Derrida (five years after the translation came out she was at a conference and a man came up and said “Je m’appelle Jacques Derrida,” throwing her completely – she had no idea even what he looked like).

She was also undeterred by the fact that neither French nor English were her first language, having only left India in 1961. But in her words, as related in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016, “Well, I’m a smart young foreign woman, and here’s an unknown author. Nobody’s going to give me a contract for a book on him, so why don’t I try to translate him?”

The book did get a contract, and remains one of the greatest of all of the translations of Derrida’s work. It remains a clarion call, not only for its content, and Spivak’s astonishing preface, but for the way it throws down a challenge to all intellectual – and political – obfuscation. It is a message that Spivak continues to hammer home in her work and in her words, and puts those of us who continue to defer our intellectual – and political – goals.

The full interview with Spivak can be found here.

From ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ by Hannah Arendt

origins‘Masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls. It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been “spoiled” by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country. Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions.

Both the early apathy and the later demand for monopolistic dictatorial direction of the nation’s foreign affairs had their roots in a way and philosophy of life so insistently and exclusively centered on the individual’s success or failure in ruthless competition that a citizen’s duties and responsibilities could only be felt to be a needless drain on his limited time and energy. These bourgeois attitudes are very useful for those forms of dictatorship in which a “strong man” takes upon himself the troublesome responsibility for the conduct of public affairs…’

Georges Perec at the University of Queensland

I was fascinated to find out recently that the brilliant French writer, Georges Perec, author of books such as Life A Users Manual and A . . . → Read More: Georges Perec at the University of Queensland

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