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Reading between the lines

'Loser and still champ'

Tessa Mayes listens in on Diana's mourners

  • 'Diana' by Julie Burchill, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, £20 hbk

  • 'Diana, Princess of Wales: How sexual politics shook the monarchy' by Beatrix Campbell, The Woman's Press, £ 7.99 pbk

Who knows what goes on inside the minds of Diana worshippers? After the car crash in Paris there were tears for her memory and vitriol for the 'assassin' paparazzi and the cold-hearted royals. Many people deposited flowers, sweet-smelling remembrance candles, toys and messages of condolence outside Kensington palace. And two others chose to write books heralding the subversive nature of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Columnist Julie Burchill wept after remembering a personal note of thanks she had received from the princess. She identifies with HRH as a famous woman, mother, divorcee, and as somebody who never settled in her situation. Veteran feminist Beatrix Campbell never met Diana, but critics have attacked these feminist accounts as being too personal, too ready to label everything about Diana 'good' and Charles 'bad'.

In the Sunday Times Anthony Clare objects that the duo read too much of themselves into the story. The 'agonised saga of Diana and Charles' becomes 'a clinical case history to be examined and re-examined, so as to help them find out how it is to be properly human' (14 June 1998). In the Daily Telegraph biographer Philip Ziegler writes that Diana contains nothing new about Diana 'but it reveals all too much about Julie Burchill' (13 June 1998).

In both books Diana is celebrated as a victim who used her femininity to survive patriarchy, monarchy, sexism, abuse and her husband. In this icon of dissent the authors see radicalism everywhere: in Diana's being (a beautiful, witty, warm, young woman and mother with sentimental feelings), and in her doing (speaking about her tragedies, challenging her husband and the monarchy). In Burchill's words: 'Loser and still champ.'

It is not surprising that Diana is taken as a symbol of something new. After all, who wants to defend the Queen? Diana's tell-all style was different to that of the more secretive and reserved Windsors. In an unpre-cedented move for a royal wife she publicly attacked the future King's affair with another woman and the activities of his courtiers ('the enemy') in the Panorama interview in 1995. She embraced fashionable causes such as Aids and the abolition of landmines, while Charles attacked modern architecture and defended traditional values.

Although both authors are cautious about labelling the aristocratic 'thicky Spencer' a radical feminist and republican in life, they argue she had popular resonance, behaving as if she was 'one of the crowd'. In death Diana 'ignited a republican sentiment', according to Campbell (p3). Sexual politics had shaken patriarchy and the monarchy, she argues, something which even the Labour Party had failed to do.

For Burchill, the 'People's Princess' (she claims to have invented the term) had 'spirit'. We are asked to bathe in the glory of the royal taboo-breaking babe simply because she ruffled feathers. She out-royaled the royals by commanding more media airtime and opinion poll support than them. She out-Aidsed the Aids supporters by being the first high-profile woman to campaign with her gloves off and to touch the ill. In Australia she even managed to turn republicans into union flag-wavers, God bless her! It's almost as if it doesn't really matter what she did as long as this English rose did it all differently to those foreign, 'numb, dumb, dinosaur' Windsors (p86).

But Diana was no problem for the establishment. Although they may have recoiled from her new age excesses, her approach keyed into what the royals were already trying to do in their own awkward way: modern- ising 'the Firm'. Before Diana's death the Queen had already agreed to pay for fire damage to Windsor castle, sell the royal yacht Britannia and cut the allowances of some lesser royals. Now she visits McDonald's, while Prince Charles affects a concern for the homeless. Diana helped do some slick, stylish PR work for the new polit-ical values which has eased the establishment's transition into the twenty-first century.

The Queen's biographer, Ben Pimlott, questions too whether Diana was all that remarkable. In the Times he writes that the 'mass psychosis' aimed at supporters of good causes reappeared beyond Diana when Linda McCartney died this year. Both authors fail to consider 'Diana's dependence on the aura that surrounded the family she joined' (25 June 1998). They begin the debate about what made Diana so popular but fail to find the answers.

The answer lies in the fact that Diana was part of a new emerging establishment. For the Queen of Hearts to be applauded for her victim status requires an audience who already support those values. Her constituency - the New Labour government, Aids and homeless charities, Hollywood campaigners and feminists - is viewed as eclectic. But they all have one thing in common: they support the cult of the victim. And Diana was the uber-victim.

The Burchill-Campbell thesis - that women suffer in silence and Diana did them a service by speaking out - is a throwback to the fifties when discussion of women's suffering, such as domestic violence, bulimia or post-natal depression, was taboo. But not now. Victim-speak is fast becoming the main language in which social problems are discussed, rather than something that is kept private.

And Beatrix Campbell is the champion of a victim-centred worldview. 'By telling her story', she insists, 'Diana joined the "constituency of the rejected" - the survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from world wars and pogroms, from Vietnam and the civil wars of South America and South Africa, from torture and child abuse' (p203). So now it seems Diana's marriage difficulties were on a par with the Nazi gas chambers. What was that Campbell was saying about the royals being out of touch with reality?

Disclosure: media freedom and the privacy debate after Diana, edited by Tessa Mayes, is published by the London International Research Exchange media group

Faking it

  • 'Intellectual Impostures', Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Profile Books, £ 9.99 pbk

In 1996 Alan Sokal published a paper entitled 'Transgressing the boundaries: towards a hermeneutics of quantum gravity' in the US cultural studies journal Social Text. Famously, he then announced that the paper was a hoax: it was just a collection of fashionable jargon and quotations strung together without regard for sense or logic. That it could be accepted for publi-cation was intended to show up the shoddy intellectual standards in 'postmodern' thinking about science. Intellectual Impostures, written with fellow physicist Jean Bricmont, is the book of the hoax. Emboldened by revealing Sokal's work to be nonsense, they now to do the same for a variety of other thinkers.

The goal is 'precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too)' (p5), but the book is aimed at a group of intellectual practices rather than a group of individuals; at impostures - acts of fraud and deceit - rather than impostors. Outside of mathematics and physics, which Sokal and Bricmont claim as their areas of competence, the authors make no claim as to the quality of the works they criticise, and formally suspend judgement except to point out that such sloppy thinking should provoke a closer study of the rest of postmodern thought to see if the same symptoms are present.

The original hoax hit the headlines and quickly became known as the 'Sokal affair', adding an air of Continental scandal. However, Intellectual Impostures goes much further than showing that the likes of Jacques Lacan and Jean Baudrillard don't know their quarks from their quasars. Certainly Sokal and Bricmont hand out accolades, such as that for 'the most perfect example of diarrhoea of the pen', a passage which 'as far as we can see means precisely nothing' (p165). All this is entertaining enough and is no doubt good for sales. But their 'criticism does not deal primarily with errors, but with the manifest irrelevance of the scientific terminology to the subject supposedly under investigation'(p11).

It is the failure to explain the significance of chaos theory to 'the end of history' (Baudrillard) or of Einstein's relativity to urban geography (Virilio) which leads Sokal and Bricmont to the conclusion that scien-tific theories are being invoked solely to impress the reader. The explanations of the (ir)relevant science given by Sokal and Bricmont do enough to show that it has nothing to do with the study of society. Anybody is welcome to draw analogies or use words in a new sense, but then they should explain themselves rather than rely on the ignorance of the reader to produce an impression of profundity. Gödel's theorem has no implications for the study of society, the axiom of choice cannot be used to study poetry, and topology has nothing to do with the human psyche. When it comes to these subjects the postmodernists should shut up.

The one area where it is legitimate (and important) for social scientists to concern themselves with natural scientific ideas is in the study of science itself. But on this ground Sokal and Bricmont's critique is at its best. They attack 'epistemic relativism' - the idea that science is just a 'myth', or one equally valid story among many others. They situate these ideas as a reaction against the attempt by Popper and the Vienna Circle to formalise scientific method, and divide them into two parts: 'either (a) valid critiques of some attempts to formalise the scientific method, which do not, however, in any way undermine the rationality of the scientific enterprise; or (b) mere reformulations in one form or another of Humean radical scepticism.'(p58) These two aspects are thoroughly mixed up in the writings of the postmodern sociologists and philosophers of science, and Sokal and Bricmont do a good job of separating them out.

Their starting point is a discussion of 'radical Humean scepticism', the position that logic alone can never allow us to draw definite conclusions about the world. We can always imagine some way in which we might have been deceived. But as Sokal and Bricmont point out, that is no reason to believe that our understanding of the world really is illusory. The main work that they undertake is to show that most radical scepticism is, at its heart, of this Humean sort. Through a critique of both Popper's formalism and of postmodernist relativism they are then able to present a coherent picture of the way in which science advances. Experience plays a key role in developing a scientific methodology, which can then be rationally justified.

Sokal and Bricmont are at pains to emphasise the specificity of their criticisms. To claim more would have taken a bigger book. Despite this, the assessment of the origins of relativist ideas and underestimation of their influence is a weakness in their book. If what matters to them is to win an argument for progress in science and in society then they have made a good start, but they will have to go further in exploring the connections between the ideas they take up here and wider trends in society.

Joe Kaplinsky

'It's only human nature after all'

  • 'Why real men don't iron: the real science of gender studies', Anna and Bill Moir, Harper Collins/Channel 4, £ 12.99 pbk

Why men don't iron: the real science of gender studies, Anne and Bill Moir, HarperCollins/Channel 4, £12.99 pbk

Why Men Don't Iron, the book of the Channel 4 series, is intriguing and, as its jacket states, 'controversial' and 'funny' (although I tended to laugh more at it than with it). The strength of the book lies in its description of the ideological and cultural outlook of our times. The authors show how everything that can be associated with masculinity - from the competitive ethos to experi- mentation and risk-taking - is being derided today, while everything that is traditionally associated with femininity - from being emotionally literate to being cautious and having a commitment to safety - is being championed. But like the very people they criticise the Moirs take for granted the idea that there are great differences in behaviour between the sexes. And these differences, they say, can be accounted for entirely by nature.

Men have a 'natural' hunger for beef, we are told, while women prefer lentils, fruit and wholesome grains. Men are born to thrive on competition and risk-taking, while women are born to be cooperative and cautious. Men naturally seek to dominate nature and women are more likely to converse with nature. To force men to go against their nature, and act like women, we are told, is counterproductive. Men will only suffer, and as a consequence so will women, who have no interest in being surrounded by dysfunctional males. Basically, the authors expect nature to do their job of making the case for masculinity.

Their arguments about why it is in nobody's interest to encourage men to share responsibility for housework really take the biscuit: 'Men get bored more easily. His biology has equipped him with sensation-seeking qualities that build empires and take him to the moon, but also make him shy away from dull tasks. The low serotonin and high dopamine addiction that is so useful at his work can be a disaster in the home, because he simply cannot concentrate as well as she does. Domestic chores are simply not exciting enough a challenge to turn on his frontal cortex, and so he is liable to burn the shirts as his mind strays in search of something to relieve his boredom.' (p252) Now there's an excuse for dodging the ironing if ever I heard one.

Of course, men and women are biologically different - with some differences more obvious than others! The sexes are also genetically distinct: men have an X and a Y chromosome and women have two X chromosomes - genetic differences that have been found to shape, but do not determine, biological differences. Men and women also behave differently. Whether the differences are as clear-cut and inflexible as the Moirs assert is a different question. But it is not necessarily the case that just because genetic differences between the sexes can explain some biological differences they can also explain behavioural differences.

There are a host of questions that would be interesting to explore in relation to how biology may impact upon society. But this book takes us no further in understanding this relationship. Rather than explaining any of the mediating links between genes and behaviour, the authors make assertions that demand great leaps of the imagination. The extent and the exact nature of the neurological differences between the sexes is open to debate. However, even if we were to accept the authors' descriptions of physiological differences between the sexes, such as differential serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, they cannot be attributed directly to genetic differences. The brain's neurotransmitter levels are also affected by a host of environmental factors. The Moirs only pay lip service to this.

Another worthwhile avenue for exploration is the nature of the selective pressures that may have existed in our evolutionary past to give rise to the genetic differences between the sexes. The Moirs merely assert that men have lower serotonin levels and fewer serotonin receptors in their frontal brain due to the benefit it gave them as hunters in the past. This is a relatively convincing 'just so' story. But it is scientifically illegitim-ate to then make the point that 'men need challenges and, lacking mammoths to kill, he will satisfy himself with the exploits of Manchester United'.

To extrapolate directly from physiological sex differences to sex differences in everything from aggression to eating habits explains nothing. Natural differences between men and women may well be the raw material out of which behavioural differences are made. But if there are any mediating links between biology and society this book does not explain them. In fact, the arguments put forward by the Moirs are as anecdotal, unconvincing and banal as those of the cultural theorists that they so despise.

Helene Guldberg

Risk society

  • 'Age of insecurity' by Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson, Verso, £ 16 hbk

  • 'The corporation under siege: exposing the devices used by activists and regulators in the non-risk society' by Mark Neal and Christie Davis, Social Affairs Unit, £ 9.95 pbk

Elliott and Atkinson's Age of Insecurity and Neal and Davies' The Corporation Under Siege both look at insecurity in the modern economy, but from very different points of view. Elliott and Atkinson write for the pinkish Guardian, while Davies and Neal are hardened cadres of the free market Social Affairs Unit.

There is a lot of sharp insight in Elliott and Atkinson's book, especially about the evasions of the left. They show how the left has sought out new foreign saviours since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the twin fantasies of Clintonism and Europeanism. As Age of Insecurity intelligently argues, the implications of either a new Atlantic alliance of the left or of a 'social' Europe are both hostile to democracy: 'With its deflationary single currency and economic dictatorship of central bankers [the EU] is not and never could be the progressive internationalist organisation many on the left believe it to be.' (p180) Elliott and Atkinson are also critical of the way that the judges come to play an ever greater role in ordinary people's lives. Elsewhere they show how modern trade union officers are more likely to be using the law to tie down employers with equal opportunities legislation than fighting openly for their members' interests.

This is where Age of Insecurity is at its best, in describing the threat to civil liberties and democracy that are intrinsic to new forms of state rule. But the weakness of the book is contained in the formula 'freedom of capital, control of labour' (p184). This sounds plausible, with its echo of the old leftist formula 'free market, strong state'. However, as Davies and Neal more than adequately demonstrate, the European superstate is just as interested in tying up industry in red tape as it is the workforce. Their account of the environmentalist-driven and fear-provoking regulations is an insight into the current sources of state legitimation. Where Neal and Davies fail is that they do not understand that the pressure for regulation comes not from without, but from within industry. It is the employers' own failure of nerve that leads them to crave ever more state regulation. These regulations are not holding industry back, but providing a rationale for industry's own unwillingness to invest and develop.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998



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