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I don’t get it. Here’s Laurie Penny today in the NS:

“No sex. No drugs. And no leaders”, the New Statesman‘s cover story this week, tells the intimate story of the winter student uprisings of 2010, putting human faces to the mob that has so terrified the right-wing press. It is the longest and most high-profile feature I’ve worked on to date, but that’s not the only reason it’s been so difficult to write.

Over the past few months I have become, and remain, deeply embedded in the student movement in the UK and Europe. Many of the young people who feature in the piece – on whose activities I’ve been keeping meticulous notes, and who are of a similar age and political attitude to myself – have since become as close to personal friends as observational subjects ever can be. It’s not a question of going native so much as finding all the other natives have suddenly come out of the forest to take on the invaders. This has stretched my objectivity to its limits. I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait.

The trajectory of journalistic dispassion is fraught with misunderstanding and lies. Even if utterly dispassionate, objective journalism were an obtainable or desirable standard, I would gladly set that standard aside until such time as I found myself no longer working in a world that contains the dangerous reactionary partiality of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the rest of the Murdoch Empire. It is, nonetheless, important for liberal writers to retain distance where corporate flunkies refuse to, less our romanticism – and left-wing politics are, at heart, always romantic – be mistaken for propaganda.

Hmmm… Someone explain to me how this sort of navel-gazing judiciousness jives with her tweets and facebook updates about “snogging boys” down at the UCL Occupation back in December? Very hard to understand.

If a male journalist was tweeting about getting off with girls at the Occ, he’d be fired no? Dunno, maybe I just take it all too seriously.

(Look, I’d stop. But you should see the volume of email and the like that I get encouraging me to continue….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 26, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Posted in occupations

21 Responses

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  1. speaking, still, as a fan of this blog, albeit one who’s sort of weirded out–what i don’t get is why you keep focusing on this, in this way. so people are concerned about laurie penny and how she’s seen in some quarters as the voice of the student movement, or about the way she may have handled people’s information badly or was otherwise irresponsible as a journalist–which i don’t know much about, but i’m willing to believe in that possibility; i live in the US and so definitely not among the crowd of people who apparently have stories about such things. fine. have we really reached a point where it’s important to police her personal twitter account, by saying that if she were a dude (which: she isn’t; male privilege: she doesn’t have it) her tweets would be problematic? what is being accomplished here? and isn’t it reasonable to assume the reason you’re getting such a high volume of mail encouraging you to keep up the ad feminam attacks on laurie penny is just that there’s a lot of misogyny on the left?


    January 27, 2011 at 1:26 am

  2. Maybe it’s more a suspicion of what seems to be the cultivation of a public profile, and its appeal to a ‘youth market’? All this “we’re the kids and we’re not taking it anymore” schtick is starting to grate. Its where activism rubs up against ‘hip’ journalism’s tiresome search for the ‘new punk rock’ (there’s much older, and very male, pundits who appear to be falling into that trap too).

    There are much more vulnerable people about to suffer devastating cuts, but it appears their plight doesn’t warrant the romance of ‘being on the ground’ with them. They don’t have a generational soundtrack, they’re not as ‘photogenic’ and, I fear, not as instantly appealing to the 18-25 market that New Statesman etc. are trying to target. I’m not dismissing the student campaigns at all, but policies proposed for unemployed parents or the disabled are so appalling I’m still finding them hard to believe. Penny did write about them at times, but my cynicism about journalists sees her current writing as a slick career move rather than a campaign.

    I don’t see it as ‘misogyny’ at all – there are great campaigning left-wing journalists who would have to travel to Wall St. or war zones to get the kind of ‘hype’ Penny is currently getting. It may be part of the sickness of our mainstream media, but it seems to me that Penny is all too willing to play their game.


    January 27, 2011 at 5:12 am

  3. PS.

    Here’s a ‘hypermasculine’ version of Penny, ready for his close-up in the spectacle:

    Like Penny, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing much more of him on TV; whether the government falls or not.


    January 27, 2011 at 5:38 am

    • w.kasper, everything in your second paragraph i agree with–what i find striking is that so much energy seems to have been devoted, not exactly to blog posts articulating such points at length, but rather to discussions of how laurie penny is probably a bad person, possibly because she kissed too many boys and talked about it too much online. i mean, my reading of the final line in this post is something like: “yes, i know an anti-penny vendetta with insinuations about her personal integrity is a dubious use of everyone’s time, but you all love it so much!” and i’m just wondering if it’s self-evident that people love it for reasons we can all get behind. finding someone like l.p. overhyped, and asking why that might be, is one thing, but this feels to me like something else.

      as for the analogy with the daily mail’s bodybuilder…she’s been writing about feminism and left politics since 2007. this isn’t exactly a movement or a spectacle she surprised anyone by getting interested in.


      January 27, 2011 at 7:02 am

  4. JR –

    It’s certainly not misogynist, this stuff. I’m sure we’d all have been creeped out just as much (or even more – but that’s another question), as I implied above, if it’d been say a male Guardian journalist doing the same thing.

    but rather to discussions of how laurie penny is probably a bad person, possibly because she kissed too many boys and talked about it too much online

    I certainly don’t care a bit about what LP gets up to personally – I’m concerned with certain grating contradictions between described (ie written up, publicized) behavior and then the sort of piece that I quoted above. It has nothing to do with “being a good person.” It has to do with sort of trying to take up two incompatible stances at once…. and personally profiting by playing both sides.

    And, god, I don’t “police” her “personal” (is that the right word for it anyway?) twitter account. Every single thing that I’ve mentioned – including even the piece above – has been pointed out to me by someone else, often but not always by people centrally involved with the occupations.

    But in general – let’s be very clear – it isn’t “personal integrity” that I’m interested in except insofar as “journalistic integrity” is a facet of that.


    January 27, 2011 at 7:33 am

  5. One other thing to say for now. JR wonders above about why I “focus” on this issue, and seems to suggest that this focus is itself unfair or itself a symptom of misogyny.

    The quick answer to this is that I was and am annoyed by people – in particular but not exclusively journalists – who seem to be to be exploiting the occupations for personal gain of one sort or another. There were of course other journalists doing this sort of thing, and I know some of the stories involved with that, but not enough to say anything on here or, for complex but real reasons it would be counter-productive to say things on here. There was for instance a guy from the Guardian – forget the name – who hung around the occupation I was a part of repeatedly announcing how “onside” he was, how he should be trusted to stay in sensitive meetings etc but then, later, proved himself to be an incredible self-serving asshole in a truly disgusting way. But again this is a messy story that I only know a bit of and one with implications that prevent me from feeling comfortable discussing it. In this case, on the other hand, I’m talking about what I’ve read on a twitter feed with more than 10,000 subscribers and an article in a major magazine.

    As someone said at the occupation – don’t trust journalists bearing gifts. And without evidence to the contrary, I think it’s a very safe maxim. Their interests are not our interests.

    So sure, LP isn’t the only one, but it’s the case that I know the best and certainly the most prominent to come of the whole affair. I happen to think that the things that I’ve pointed out about her above and elsewhere are emblematic of an important problem.


    January 27, 2011 at 7:58 am

  6. As a woman who’s also spent some time writing on feminism and left wing politics, I don’t find the criticism of Laurie Penny as it currently stands to be misogynist – though I’m not naive enough to think that there aren’t plenty of men on the left whose sexual politics leave a lot to be desired.

    From a distance – I’m not in the UK – Penny’s brazen self-promotion seems to me deeply, troublingly at odds with everything that a truly radical moment like the UK student protests promises. Individualism vs collectivism, for a start. I’ve had enough experience myself in student movements over the years to be very, very beware of journalists, particularly “sympathetic” ones. The New Statesmen is not The Daily Mail, but Penny’s painful balancing act – her characterisation of herself as “liberal journalist” is pretty telling – shows her hand. Journalists want stories, with their name attached. Radical movements are, at their best, very far from being a story.

    As Kaspar notes above, she’s willing to play the game. You don’t get as far, as fast as Laurie Penny simply by being a good writer – certainly not a woman writer in a male-dominated environment. She clearly wants to be a media star, and that tells us a lot about her priorities.


    January 27, 2011 at 9:07 am

  7. JR – thousands of people write about left politics and feminism every day. What I look out for is who jumps in and rides the wave at the right time, and what they gain – personally – from it. The TV cameras were in London, certain self-elected networks and professions had a stake in it, certain commentators attract extra ‘hits’ with their two penneth. Fine. I’ve got no problem with people organising and protecting their interests, or wanting to be heard. What I’m suspicious of is whether it becomes an opportunity to effect meaningful changes or just another ‘playa’ seizing a chance to play the spectacle for personal prestige. I’ve read some of these people (including LP) long enough to be suspicious.

    ‘As someone said at the occupation – don’t trust journalists bearing gifts.’

    Journalists (and police) are professional types that inspire little faith from me. I speak from personal experience, recent history and the what I know about the ‘public sphere’.

    Some of the same people now giving us impassioned reports were quick to dismiss other mass protests not too long ago, or indeed completely ignore the less glamorous (and most importantly, less publicised) protests that take place all the time. These cuts will adversely affect people aged 0 – 100. A lot of them aren’t using twitter, they don’t blog, and they’re still as ignored as they ever have been. There are times when a big platform can be a liability to wider concerns.


    January 27, 2011 at 9:20 am

  8. PS. The analogy with the bodybuilder was to note that some people’s main priority is their own PERFORMANCE rather than mass movements. It ain’t just the young either – see Slavoj Zizek for a ‘superstar’ example.


    January 27, 2011 at 9:33 am

  9. Some of the same people now giving us impassioned reports were quick to dismiss other mass protests not too long ago

    Agree, as I do with much of what you’ve said above. That’s been half-fascinating / half-annoying to watch. Folks who a few months ago were getting over by pissing on demonstrations now are tweeting enthusiastically from the barricades without missing a step. More pirouetting going on than in Black Swan etc.


    January 27, 2011 at 10:41 am

  10. It has indeed been fascinating to watch – especially when you re-read years of ‘archives’ and realise how so much of it has been moving according to the whims of the spectacle, as much as a stack of old celeb magazines at the dentist.

    I’m a fan of much of it – but hardly subscribed to it as intellectual leadership (a sidenote: I’m wondering how ‘important’ certain writers get if mainly read at the workplace – my cynicism seem more acute if I read it in leisure hours. I suspect Penny’s assumed audience is a tired student at a call centre night shift).


    January 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

  11. realise how so much of it has been moving according to the whims of the spectacle, as much as a stack of old celeb magazines at the dentist.

    Exactly. I imagine we might be talking about the same person or persons. For instance, one example of the sort of thing that’s always really bothered me (and I’m sort of working on a post about this right now) is a kind of mindless oscillation between a kind of “burn it to the fucking ground” apocalypticism and vague (but situationally unambivalent) support for social democratic reform. If the institutions (per the descriptions that I have in mind) are fatally compromised by capitalism, why the fuck are you supporting the student who want to preserve them. But…. nevermind – the logic of the celeb magazine and a lack of responsibility for one’s claims rules the day. All down the memory hole anyway.

    It’s cynical at worst, mindless at best – and fatally open to cooptation in either case. Pragmatic answers are hard to come up with and not always all that fun to read compared to, you know, watching trailers of Terminator films etc.

    Zizek is of course the foreman of this sort of thing. Why anyone who would – say – save public education or public heath systems would find inspiration in him is beyond me. So symptomatic of a period when the issues felt so distant because the rising tide was still rising. But now he looks utterly ridiculous or worse – the recent comments on “liberal multiculturalism” have teetered past the border between left revisionist critique into a different and scary thing.


    January 27, 2011 at 11:24 am

  12. As stated on my own knee-jerk rantblog, post-humanist cyber accelerationism is very effectively put into practice by the pentagon, the stock market and the banks. They also have their own contradictory nostalgia – for the 19th century.

    As for the resistable rise of Slavoj: Ideologically, the 00s were a peculiar, bewildering time, for which I’ll make allowances. The sense that were was ‘nothing new anymore’ gave space for any number of gimmicks. I’m not going to pretend I was immune to a lot of it.


    January 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

  13. Zizek is the Christopher Nolan of philosophy.


    January 27, 2011 at 11:42 am

  14. Ads – ‘It has to do with sort of trying to take up two incompatible stances at once…. and personally profiting by playing both sides.’

    Don’t you think that with this statement you describe precisely the performative role of the journalist?

    LP’s methods should not be beyond critique. But the strongest criticism of her methods that you present appears to be that she misquotes / de-contextualises. It’s a legitimate crit but also a cliché, everyone thinks journos misquote (I used to be one).
    It becomes a stronger criticism if you think journos ought to perform the role of guardians of a just and truthful public space (with the ethical considerations that might attend such a role).The trouble is journos don’t perform this role, it’s a fiction that they do. Ads, I think that you would acknowledge this.

    I’m not sure that people read the New Statesman for its ‘objective’ news or comment. Therefore, doesn’t LP’s ‘struggle to be objective’ (the apologia prefacing her feature) represent a surrender to precisely the sort of liberal ideology that would have us believe that the media acts as a facilitator of a just and truthful public space?

    In which case we are left with her arguments. Does she make or report any good arguments? Surely this is the most interesting yardstick by which to judge her journalism.

    PS –You are right to advise your students to be wary of journos. But perhaps you need to go further and urge them to see the media in more instrumental terms. To view journos, not as fellow travellers, but as useful distributors of opinion.
    I now work in PR and it seems to me that this is fundamentally the relationship that spin doctors, marketeers, advertisers and journos share.

    Paul H

    January 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

  15. Paul H –

    I agree that the validity of her polemics are an ‘interesting yardstick’, but if so many cracks appear in her performative ‘persona’ (in such a short space of time), doesn’t that become a liability to what she claims to support?

    Right-wingers have already seized on her hypocritical ‘job ad’ – and they have a vested interest in undermining anti-Tory protests. Sadly, their criticism has some validity – and the Right always seize on the personal, especially as their socio-economic arguments become increasingly ludicrous.

    The problem with personality-led politics (which is what Penny is magnifying) is that personality is inherently contradictory and subject to sidetracking from the bigger issues. Whatever your opinion of them, I was particularly surprised when the SWP actually rose to ‘debating’ her faddy musings – surely there’s much bigger fish to fry (especially when her argument seemed to be: don’t read them, read me! I’m much more ‘with it’.)

    It’s an ongoing problem of media – and journalism – but this is a time when so much of the ‘symblic order’s’ authority is open to undermining (the usual spin is faltering here and abroad).

    Consider how less vulnerable Wikileaks would have been if it didn’t play the ‘personality game’. Their anonymity made them little more dangerous. Giving it a media ‘face’ has created all kinds of problems that have only served to divert attention from the content of the leaks themselves. The column inches devoted to what ‘left-celebs’ think of Assange’s character is a predictable game of the spectacle.

    Apologies if I’m using up too much of your ‘blog space’ to discuss this, but apart from the usual right-wing thugs, this is one of the rare places with a healthy skepticism about her and her methods. I’m genuinely shocked how many people (who should know better) seem to playing along. Maybe its the nature of media circles or ambitious networks, mabe its a ‘London thing’, maybe its the law of the spectacle – but perpetuating their ‘rules’ is hardly radical.


    January 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm

  16. Similar point made here on misquotes and the objectivity/subjectivity passage quoted above:

    Tigre en Papier

    January 28, 2011 at 9:34 pm

  17. i’m sorry, i thought i was done commenting here and irritating everyone; but a couple of things. from my perspective, it looks like laurie penny wrote a column in which she tried to address the difficulty of thinking of herself as a journalist when she had strong affective ties to many of the people she was writing about, and added that journalistic “objectivity” was a model she had issues with anyway (which maybe is dismissable as “navel-gazing”: OK). then a.w.p. wrote a short post essentially reiterating that idea, the idea that objectivity is a questionable standard, especially when you’re writing about people you have close ties with, perhaps even so close that you’ve been physically intimate with some of them–only reiterating it sort of cagily, as if it weren’t something l.p. herself had brought up. when i tried to throw in the idea that this hunt for “cracks in the performative persona” might not be completely unrelated to a long history of similar hunts determined in part by the gender of the performers, the immediate response from a.w.p. was: “it’s certainly not misogynist, this stuff” (which, i don’t know, is just a remarkably confident assertion for an author to make). and, again, i agree with so much of what was said in subsequent comments–but frankly it’s frustrating to me that that conversation, a real conversation about what laurie penny’s rise to prominence is arguably a symptom of, could apparently come only as a spelling-out, after someone tried to ask exactly what was going on in a short oblique post mocking her twitter account.

    secondly (and maybe less importantly), a.w.p., i was a bit taken aback by your complaint about those who used to be “pissing on demonstrations” and are now more enthusiastic about them. people change their minds about things–isn’t it fair to say you did? not that your long post from mid-november was just pissing on anything; it was a thoughtful and moving articulation of your ambivalence about the milbank protests and what they represented and i liked it a lot. but then you became less ambivalent, and i liked reading about that too.

    finally, laurie penny is not julian assange (!), and while i fully agree with w.kasper that the personality game is a bad game for wikileaks to’ve played, i just can’t go along with the claim that “the column inches devoted to what ‘left-celebs’ think of Assange’s character” are nothing but “a predictable game of the spectacle.” assuming we’re talking about the same column inches (which we may not be, but i think we are)–that’s not just the spectacle at work, and it’s not even really a conversation about someone’s “character” (however much either right-wing opponents of wikileaks, or rape-belittlers like naomi wolf, might try to spin it that way): it’s a conversation that needed to happen, about the left and its often very shitty way of dealing with situations where people within it are accused of rape.


    January 29, 2011 at 5:07 am

    • (fucked up the italics. sorry.)


      January 29, 2011 at 5:09 am

  18. RE; Wikileaks
    It was a conversation that needed to happen. But it still diverted attention about who was killing who, who they wanted to kill next and how they decide who gets killed (thousands upon thousands of people, right?). The ‘left’ (not exactly a coherent community) spent a lot of time debating the actions and responses to Julian Assange – far more than, say, the widespread, organised rape commited United Nations troops in Haiti. Or worse, what Naomi Wolf or Michael Moore thought about Assange and his accusers – the usual media trope of obnoxious celebrities demanding our comment. Racism is a conversation that ‘needs to happen’ – do we need Mel Gibson (or even Henry Louis Gates) to spark debate? That’s how the spectacle works.

    RE: Pissing on demonstrations. There are those who are widely read (and arguably quite influential), who worked to create a ‘persona’ that dismisses demos as ‘outdated’ (In the interests of trying to sell themselves as ‘new’). Some even made very harsh criticism of others using ‘outdated’ campaign methods. Not just ‘reservations’ – outright dismissal (while also promoting ‘thinkers’ that were basically neoconservative – or worse) Yes, people change. But it’s a matter of how and when they change. From a celebrity marriage to and assassination, I’m always suspicious enough to think why now? What do they gain? Where were they before? That’s how the spectacle works.


    January 29, 2011 at 9:42 am

  19. Can someone please tell me what “jives” means?


    February 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm

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