Dolan Cummings: editor

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Ideas in London. He has edited two collections of essays, The Changing Role of the Public Intellectual (2005) and Debating Humanism (2006).

As editor of Culture Wars, Dolan writes about books, films and theatre. Having developed the Round Table Rumbles theatre debates at the Edinburgh Fringe in the early 2000s, he continues to organise regular arts discussions through the Culture Wars Forum. He is an occasional contributor to radio and television as a commentator on various cultural and political issues. He is also a member of the radical humanist Manifesto Club.

February 2012

The dangerous book for women and men

The efforts of two critical Bible scholars to bring their expertise to bear on contemporary debates in which the authority of the Bible is regularly invoked or assumed are undermined by their haughty dismissal of anyone else who ‘feels qualified to interpret the scriptures’ without sharing the authors’ learning, and in particular their knowledge of Hebrew

June 2011

Blood ties and beyond

Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra first appears as an overweight Fonz, but fortunately this won’t last. The opera’s prologue features the two events that will transform Boccanegra from a lovestruck pirate into a compassionate statesman.

MusicOpera
May 2011

Love your enemies… but don’t let them eat you

In response to questions, Harris asked, seemingly bewildered, why anyone should be afraid of the idea that scientific experts might determine human values. One answer is that we value democracy; and science, for all its other merits, is not democratic. For the very same reason we object to theocratic rule, we are right to be suspicious of ‘scientistic’ pronouncements.

March 2011

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan!

The promise of the city, like that of Independence, was real – and perhaps still is. There is a tragic quality to Prakash’s account, but the gradual demise of the Modernist dream in the second half of the twentieth century should not be seen as inevitable or even, perhaps, final.

January 2011

Interest-free?

Hind effectively conflates Kant’s notion of public reason as a scholarly ideal with the whole idea of public participation in politics. The effect is to restrict severely what counts as properly ‘public’ participation, and even public opinion.

September 2010

The politics of secularism

While faith flourished in secular America, radical anti-clericalism in Europe was historically a reaction to its relative lack of secularisation. It is ironic that ‘secularism’ (increasingly implying a suspicion of faith rather than mere neutrality concerning religion) has become a kind of official ideology of Europe’s ruling elite and intellectual class.

May 2010

The politics of aspiration

It is one thing to point out that individuals acting on their own cannot realistically hope to triumph over deeper social realities, quite another to suggest that the desire to do so is immoral or antisocial. Solidarity ought to mean shared aspirations for a better society, not mutual self-sacrifice in a zero sum game. Affirming individual aspirations and asking how they might be met collectively would cut against many assumptions and prejudices that are deeply entrenched in contemporary British politics.

The taboo subject everyone’s talking about

There is something charade-like about the whole business of talking tough on immigration. The ‘debate’ is fundamentally dishonest. The fact is that when politicians discuss immigration, they are not engaging in a political debate, but trying to pre-empt debate.

April 2010

Free speech: yes, it really is that simple

In advocating reform of the libel laws rather than their repeal, all the speakers at the free speech hustings missed an opportunity to stand up for free speech. At best, they are vainly seeking to ‘democratise’ censorship, so that libel laws are not so transparently stacked in favour of powerful interests.

The leaders’ debate and the imaginary public

Last night’s debate was excruciatingly boring, and surely impossible to watch in good faith as a simple voter wondering which party to vote for. We all become commentators if only for our own entertainment, and we should not make the mistake of thinking there is a ‘real’ public out there made up of less sophisticated souls hanging on the party leaders’ every word.

All power to the soviets?

There are two major problems with the Conservatives’ approach. The first is that it sidesteps the many things the government can and should be doing, abdicating responsibility before the party even forms a government. The second is that governments can’t create or even foster civil society, which is defined by its independence from government. The political class is the worst-placed section of society to start talking about this.

Breaking out of the grey

The election campaign so far merely confirms that the current crisis is not merely ‘economic’, but societal. With no substantial debate about the nature of contemporary capitalism, let alone any alternative, the political class drifts along in a dream world, while the rest of us can only hope things are not as bad as we fear they might be. Who needs catastrophic climate change?

March 2010

A manifesto for the imagination

Naturally, the moral of Burton’s story is that freedom and imagination must triumph over conformism. As Alice’s father told her, all the best people are completely bonkers. But the moral is no less appealing for being predictable, and there are a few suprises and twists in the telling of the story.

Film
February 2010

Is anyone in charge any more?

When it comes to relationship problems, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The clash is made stark between a traditional institution like marriage, based on taken-for-granted expectations and obligations, and a therapy culture based on constant reflection and the quest for individual self-realisation.

Film
January 2010

You can’t buy freedom

Franklin employs a commercial metaphor: liberty as something to be traded for safety, or, by implication, any other desirable abstract noun. It captures well the naivety with which liberty is often discussed, the failure to understand what freedom really means.

December 2009

Romantic capitalism

Contrary to Rand’s image of heroic capitalists as beacons of integrity and thrusting enterprise, the capitalist class has shown itself in recent years to be every bit as snivelling and mendacious as the worst of the collectivist villains in Rand’s fiction. Who’s been raking in all that bailout money, after all?

November 2009

Fanfare for the common man

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell looks like a murderer, and doesn’t mind too much that people speculate in whispers about his violent past. But in Mantel’s telling, Cromwell is no cynical bully. He get things done because he believes in them, or at least, as in the case of the king’s divorce and remarriage, because he believes they serve a greater purpose.

Fiction
August 2009

The depraved genius of John Calvin

You don’t have to embrace either theological pessimism or evolutionary fatalism to acknowledge that human history since the Enlightenment has dealt many blows to a simplistic belief in progress and human perfectibility. Indeed it is those of us most committed to social and moral progress who must take this most seriously, look into the depravity in our own hearts, even, and not repent but resolve to go on.

July 2009

‘We were all right.’

Perhaps the real tragedy is the lack of any channel for Jim’s aspirations other than a chance encounter with a dodgy salesman. But actually, the moment when this security guard starts looking in shop windows as a potential consumer, rather than just someone paid to guard stuff for someone else, is a moving one.

Film
June 2009

They’re kids! They tell people!

An interview with Dave Cullen, author of a definitive new account of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, exploring what really happened, the role of the media in perpetuating myths, and the peculiar truth about psychopathy, terrorism and self-aggrandizing violence.

Choosing life

It is striking that when we discuss ‘drinking culture’ in contemporary Britain, the connotation is invariably negative. In fact, a ‘drinking culture’ is a good thing. For most of us, drinking is essentially a social activity, rather than an individual pathology, and the social character of drinking is a natural moderating influence.

BooksEssays
March 2009

Marines make do

What would it be like to find yourself in a humvee in the desert in the middle of Operation Iraqi Freedom, surrounded by grunts who speak in an impenetrable military argot littered with code words and acronyms, and who don’t know what’s going on anyway? It would be confusing, that’s what. Welcome to Generation Kill.

Where Raskolnikov went wrong

We live by a fundamentally social morality, viewing our own actions through the eyes of others, while making constant judgements about the actions of others: good or bad, on the right side or the wrong side. As Tilly puts it, assigning credit and blame ‘dramatises a moral division of the social world’

Books
January 2009

All hail the President of the World?

Obama managed some genuinely inspiring lines about the productivity of American workers and the inventiveness of American minds, but in the short term at least it is the borrowing power of the American state that he’ll be drawing on in a bid to recover the US economy, and by extension the world economy.

Knowing me, knowing you

If bourgeois liberalism is guilty of neglecting the complexities of human experience and the social constraints on individual subjectivity, today’s therapy culture, even when informed by supposedly hard science, is no less guilty of constructing an idea of human nature on the basis of partial and one-sided impressions.

December 2008

The birth of science as theatre slept

Adriano Shaplin’s play for the RSC dramatises the historically-documented animus between Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society, and the invented prism of theatre is an intriguing one.

Obamanomics: the triumph of hope over imagination

Obama’s economic team is stacked with, er, economists. Bringing in ‘the experts’ is presented as preferable to being governed by ‘ideology’, but this is to put a lot of faith in the ‘dismal science’.

November 2008

The puppy in the White House

A McCain victory would likely have reinforced illusions in ‘what might have been’, while the realities of an Obama administration are likely to be more sobering.

Lead on, Macduff: McLeadership and the real thing

Both the fetishisation of strong leadership and the reaction against it stem from a one-sided focus on leaders as personalities, and neglect of the other side of the relationship.

Capitalism, the financial crisis, and us

In order to develop a more incisive critique of contemporary society, it is necessary to consider not only the particular nuances of the financial economy, but also the broader historical context, and the relationship between capitalism and wider social and political forces.

October 2008

On a promise? Obama glides on

As is usually the case, the final presidential debate was a competition to seem more ‘presidential’ than the other guy. In these terms, Obama won, confirming his frontrunner status, but rather undermining his claim to represent substantial change.

McCain and Obama: whipping who-knows-what?

McCain’s choice of the words ‘you-know-what’ might indicate more than coyness. For all the candidates’ eagerness to have out a vigorous debate, it is still not clear exactly what is at stake in the campaign. McCain’s and Obama’s tentative strategies for dealing with the financial crisis resemble competing brands rather than representing competing worldviews.

September 2008

Taking a break from politics to fix capitalism?

To the extent that the banking crisis has become an election issue, it concerns the generic character traits of the candidates, and their perceived ability to handle ‘a crisis’, not any political differences in terms of ‘this crisis’.

The scene is set: the phony culture war election

While the red-blue divide is still conventionally seen as a sublimated or distorted form of the left-right divide, it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘culture’, or more accurately lifestyle, is all that’s left.

Cops and dealers (and The Wire)

Venkatesh and Moskos both put themselves at the centre of their respective narratives, and thus make much more of the cultural gulf between cops and dealers on one hand, and academics and writers on the other.

July 2008

Wrestling with angels

In considering how America might understand itself more honestly, Faludi goes back to the genesis of anxieties about terror in Puritan New England, and makes a qualified but unexpected and thought-provoking defence of the Puritan ethic and its possibilities.

Beyond the dogma: the real abortion debate

While acknowledging that nobody ever sets out to have an abortion for fun, Ann Furedi made the case boldly that abortion can be a morally good thing, as opposed to a ‘necessary evil’. This position is rarely heard, but it is crucial to any serious debate about abortion.

April 2008

You won’t fool the children of the ‘revolution’

Dismissing political opponents’ ideas on the basis of ‘guilt by association’ means adopting a less critical approach than if one actually sets out to argue against them.

March 2008

Piano rage

In the end, Four Minutes bears an unlikely resemblance to the Eminem movie 8 Mile. Just as Eminem’s character Rabbit invests himself completely in his ‘one shot’ – the few minutes he has to express himself in a rap competition – Jenny must live a whole life in the four minutes she has to perform at the piano competition.

FilmMusic

What is (Jewish) literature?

What is a Jewish book? The short answer might be that it’s a book by a Jewish writer, or perhaps a half-Jewish writer. Adam Thirwell says he feels half-Jewish, though it’s his mother who’s Jewish, which qualifies him to be wholly Jewish. But then, writing in the Jewish Quarterly (which is a quarter Jewish?), Thirwell says he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as Jewish literature, or presumably a Jewish book, any more than there’s such a thing as Italian literature – or an Italian book?

Cynical capitalism, cynical anti-capitalism

In the run-up to Christmas last year, German churches and trades unions joined forces to protest against the loosening of the country’s traditionally restrictive opening hours for shops. Berlin’s city administration, run by Social Democrats and reformed Communists, had passed an amendment allowing shops in the capital to open every Sunday in December, despite objections in terms of both religious tradition and the perceived interests of shop staff.

December 2007

Defending the Terror

Maximilien Robespierre was a fearless critic of tradition and incorruptibly committed to liberty: a million miles from today’s webcam jihadists.

October 2007

In defence of ‘radicalisation’

Critiques of Hizb ut-Tahrir focus less on its dodgy mishmash of politics and religion and more on its intense intellectualism. But what’s wrong with devoting oneself to the battle of ideas?

August 2007

What is a radical reader?

Rather than addressing a movement, they addressed other radical thinkers who were perplexed and disoriented by the demise of movements of the left in particular – the organised working class, and anti-imperialist movements. If ‘being radical’ had once been shorthand for supporting these things, this meaning was now all but redundant, and the term was up for grabs. It still is.

July 2007

The truth is not enough

Hind’s argument is made with admirable clarity, but I’m not sure how many of the ‘clowns and anarchists’ he invokes see themselves as champions of Enlightenment as he suggests. Hind claims a clash between two ideas of Enlightenment, rather than the phoney war between faith and reason, is the ‘great divide’ in contemporary politics, but he makes rash assumptions about the people he thinks are on his side, who include many avowed antagonists of Enlightenment.

June 2007

The erosion of civil liberties under New Labour

This is an entertaining film that highlights a number of important issues and worthy campaigns, but it does not get under the skin of New Labour-style authoritarianism in the way that authoritarianism is getting under the skin of British society.

May 2007

What’s left of Christianity?

Just as the demise of the political left forces us to rethink what is at stake in politics, and how we might seek to shape the future, the transformation of religious thinking raises important questions about the meaning of truth and morality, the nature of authority, and indeed what it means to be human.

When to Walk

The novel is a bid like a ‘taking your pencil for a walk’ drawing: what’s important is not where the pencil goes, or where it ends up, but the picture it leaves behind. And what is left behind is a portrait of Ramble in four dimensions.

Fiction
March 2007

The wrong kind of freedom

The conclusion of Adam Curtis’ three-part BBC series is that liberal democracies have diminished our humanity, not by deliberately setting out as the Communists did to make a perfect society, but simply by organising around an impoverished notion of freedom.

February 2007

D’you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang?

What matters is not simply bums on seats, but the engagement of a particular audience. Before any artform can be universal, it has to be particular. It is particular scenes or artistic milieux that give birth to new ideas, and also keep a tradition alive; without them, tradition quickly degenerates into heritage.

Music
December 2006

Why? What happens when people give reasons… and why

Tilly shows that it is a mistake to counterpose ‘the real reason’ for anything to a false ‘story’. The best explanation is not one that is plucked from the ether of objectivity, unsullied by human hands, but one that resonates with specific human concerns.

Books
November 2006

When did ‘radicalisation’ become a dirty word?

I was aware that Hizb ut-Tahrir have an aura of controversy, but to my mind being banned by students’ unions and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes is not necessarily an indication of malevolence.

October 2006

Free speech is more than a slogan

Those who suggest limits on free speech are in effect opposing rational debate - and painting a dim picture of humanity.

August 2006

Persae

This is an incredibly downbeat play, almost breathtaking in its pessimism and negativity, but Badham isn’t making it up; it is the logical conclusion of much contemporary thought about the war on terror and life in general.

Theatre

The Hamlet Project

The project works, if only by inviting the expectation that this time Hamlet will actually do something. Benjamin Askew and Robert Donnelly in the lead role(s) dramatise Hamlet’s inner turmoil, sharing his lines, which often seem here to take the form of an argument between the two Hamlets.

Theatre

Jesus: the Guantanamo Years

The general problem is that irreverence about religion is just not intrinsically funny any more. The portrayal of Jesus’ ‘dad’ as a silly old duffer is maybe funny the first time, but in an overwhelmingly infidel society there is little edge to be had from such cheekiness.

Particularly in the Heartland

What sets the show apart from the standard liberal critique of religious America is that it does not set out to disillusion. Its attitude is instead one of wonder and empathy. The musical interludes are highlights of the show, with the group bursting into dance routines like the kids of FAME.

July 2006

The Bee

The final twenty minutes or so of the play are an obscene ballet set to the chorus from Madame Butterfly, a pas de deux between Kathryn Hunter’s insane Mr Ido and writer-director Hideki Noda’s own Mrs Ogoro, a picture of feminine resignation

Theatre
June 2006

Red

It’s hard to work the play out, and harder to know if it’s going to be worth your while. Red has just returned from a war, apparently traumatised by the experience, though in the abstract world conjured by the play it’s not clear what might have been considered normal.

Theatre
May 2006

The Overwhelming

‘Stop the killing, and worry about the political implications later’, one might have said at the time. Well, we didn’t stop the killing, but it is later. The Overwhelming is an invitation to reflect on some hard questions about Rwanda.

Theatre
April 2006

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

The largely unnoticed elephant on the carpet in the contemporary debate about intellectuals, which is left undisturbed by Collini, is the end of the Cold War and the demise of ideological politics.

March 2006

Other Hands

Steve is a bit of a loser, a would-be freelance IT guy who in fact spends most of his time playing video games. His partner Hayley is a successful business consultant. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is strained, and both toy with other options. Laura Wade takes this fairly conventional premise and makes it interesting by introducing repetitive strain injury as an elaborate metaphor for her characters’ feelings of self-estrangement and frustration.

Theatre
January 2006

The Gabriels

The Gabriels is political theatre in the old-fashioned sense of a forum within which a real-life debate can be brought to life and pondered by the audience, with a familiar combination of political and personal conflict animating the relationships between the characters.

Theatre
September 2005

‘Let’s call it what it is: it’s queer’

Shaplin disapproves of theatre that ‘immerses its audience in a prescriptive emotional reality’ and instructs them in moral responses by unravelling characters to reveal ‘fatal flaws’ and so on. This is why, having once championed violence as a means of asserting theatre’s physicality, he is now wary of its use for cathartic effect.

June 2005

What Good Are the Arts?

If artistic merit is relative only in the same sense that ethics or politics are relative, it is hard to see the point in making such an argument.

March 2005

You’ve got a tongue in your head after all

‘While I’m dealing with an Irish situation with people living very claustrophobic lives for what they believe to be a noble cause, there are universals. I would like people to view it as human beings: imagine if I was in those circumstances, which side would I be on, and how would I have reacted?’

February 2005

BAC-chat: critics, audiences and the importance of the café bar

Jubb sees something absurd in the way we read a review in the Guardian, for example, with such reverence. Imagine fifty or sixty people going to the café bar after a show, he says, and instead of discussing the show with each other, listening while one expert holds forth.

January 2005

Art, comedy, and defying the expectations of the critics

‘We like that very personal feel, and that feel of blurring genres. One of the reasons for going into comedy was that we didn’t know what was going to happen there and we thought it would be a challenge.’

October 2004

The trouble with being human these days

The demise of social ‘narrative’ has not led to greater individual freedom, but to unreflective conformism to what is considered to be human nature.

April 2004

Looking forward to a ‘golden age’

The current prejudice, that criticisms of novel developments must imply a desire to return to the past, indicates a profound lack of imagination in contemporary society. Ideas don’t crash to Earth from outer space or appear in capsules from the future, but emerge from a critical engagement with the present informed by what happened and what was written in the past. This has nothing to do with ‘turning the clock back’ or ‘returning to the past’, a made-up version of reaction that obscures the fact that real conservatives are people who want to defend the status quo.

February 2004

Cherry - (Man Booker Prize 2004, Longlist)

Steve’s story is implausible, but it’s hard to tell whether we’re dealing with a sci-fi novel or a delusional narrator, or both (or indeed whether our narrator is even reliably delusional).

Fiction

The Line of Beauty - (Man Booker Prize 2004, WINNER)

Hollinghurst is frequently described as Jamesian, but at the risk of offending latterday aesthetes, to be Jamesian in today’s social and political climate is a very different thing from being Jamesian in Henry James’.

Fiction
December 2003

You’re so vain, you probably think this book is about you

Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture is neither an attack on the counselling profession nor on what they dismiss as ‘self-help’ culture, but a critique of our diminished view of humanity.

May 2003

What is knowledge?

The idea that teaching and research are in conflict corresponds with a particularly impoverished model of knowledge, which is revealed in the phrase ‘knowledge creation’. This presents universities as factories of knowledge competing with think-tanks and other private institutions.

March 2003

Why is life so unfair?

Some thinkers have always had ethical doubts about the pursuit of knowledge. Today these often take the form of concern about the consequences of technology, for example cloning. But Neiman pares things down to a single, more profound fear. If we understand the world and all its faults, are we then stuck with it? By explaining evil, do we justify it?

Judaism and Enlightenment

Adam Sutcliffe’s basic argument, that Enlightenment thinkers had a confused attitude to Judaism, is made abundantly (and repeatedly) clear over the course of this scholarly and highly readable book.

February 2002

Fingersmith - (Man Booker Prize 2002, SHORTLISTED)

‘“It’s a girl,” I say. And when she hears that she cries out with all her lungs: “Then God help her! For the world is cruel to girls! I wish she had died, and me with her!“‘

Fiction
February 2001

The Politics of Art

Society cannot function without visual art, said Gustav Metzger, after spending an hour and a half apparently arguing for the extermination of humanity.

Culture Wars was included in creativetourists’ Top 25 UK Arts & Culture Blogs 2009.