This is the editorial from the eighteenth print issue of The White Review, available to buy here.
In 1991 the poet and novelist Eileen Myles, interviewed in this eighteenth print issue of The White Review, ran for office as president of the United States. It seems unlikely that any editor of this magazine will ever run for high office, though given the current chaos on both sides of the Atlantic it would be foolish to make any firm predictions. In the presumably permanent absence of direct legislative influence, we are faced with the pressing question of how a magazine can contribute to a democratic process which seems everywhere under threat. The temptation is to throw the meagre weight of this small institution behind policies and strategies that reflect our own convictions, and to transform it into a mouthpiece for the dissemination of ideas that collectively communicate a coherent and actionable political position.
Yet, as this country recovers from the most divisive political event in a generation, we might pause to consider the responsibilities of the magazine as a space for open dialogue. The campaign to remain in the European Union failed in large part because it presumed the self-evidence of its case and shied away from antagonistic discussion in favour of a browbeating insistence that the political establishment (and such institutions as the IMF) knew what was right for our communities. In Brexit’s wake it became routine to hear expressed (and rare to hear challenged) the conviction that an outright majority of the population were incapable of making a decision in their own interests, when even the most cursory glance at that dysfunctional, autocratic union revealed good (which isn’t necessarily to say sufficient) reasons for leaving. The implication that a large part of the citizenry does not deserve the franchise is deeply troubling.
In retrospect, it might be that the overwhelming consensus of the literary and art establishments in opposition to Brexit was a symptom of weakness rather than strength. Our magazines and art spaces have always operated as arenas for the exchange of disruptive ideas, forums for what the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has termed the ‘agonistic’ practice of democracy, and it is a cause of concern when they succumb to the same narrow range of recycled opinions that we encounter through our social media feeds. Perhaps it is occasionally the responsibility of the artist, editor, curator to promote opinions that do not in fact reflect their own, to frame and instigate thought rather than guide it; perhaps we might be more conscious of our own unacknowledged prejudices. This is not to say that all opinions are equally valid, but rather that they should be refuted or rejected rather than simply suppressed.
The engagement with art and literature is one means by which we come to understand as partial and conditional our perspective on the world, and thereby to recognise that a functioning democracy depends on the accommodation of diverse opinions which might never satisfactorily be reconciled. The magazine might serve as a model, albeit on the smallest imaginable scale, for a pluralistic society in which conflicting voices can be heard and contradictory opinions expressed without any loss of legitimacy either for the project or the individual. Art can, as the novelist and activist Garth Greenwell recently pointed out in an interview for The White Review, enable an ‘empathy’ that carries a deeper, though less immediate, political effect than that which is achievable through wangling over policy. In the variety of aesthetics, conceptual preoccupations, styles and themes gathered within these pages we hope the reader will be introduced to new ways of thinking about the world, and discover some means by which we might change it.