After dropping out of Cambridge University and running away to sea, Phil Cohen played an active role in London’s counter culture scene of 1965–78. He subsequently became an urban ethnographer and gained an international reputation for his research on issues of race, class, and youth culture. For the past forty years he has been involved with working-class communities in East London documenting the impact of ‘regeneration’ on their livelihoods, lifestyles, and life stories, culminating in two books on the impacts of the 2012 Olympics: From the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (2013) and the edited collection London 2012 and the Post Olympics City: A Hollow Legacy? (2017).
Currently he is research director of LivingMaps, a network of activists, artists, and academics developing a creative and critical approach to social mapping. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of East London and a senior research fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London.
In addition to his academic writing, Cohen is the author of Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile (2013) and a collection of poetry and fiction, Graphologies (2014).
Archive That, Comrade! Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance
Author: Phil Cohen
Publisher: PM Press/Kairos
Page count: 160
Subjects: Archive Studies/Politics
Archive That, Comrade! explores issues of archival theory and practice that arise for any project aspiring to provide an open-access platform for political dialogue and democratic debate. It is informed by the author’s experience of writing a memoir about his involvement in the London underground scene of the 1960s, the London street commune movement, and the occupation of 144 Piccadilly, an event that hit the world’s headlines for ten days in July 1969.
After a brief introduction that sets the contemporary scene of “archive fever,” the book considers the political legacy of 1960s counter culture for what it reveals about the process of commemoration. The argument then opens out to discuss the notion of historical legacy and its role in the "dialectic of generations.” How far can the archive serve as a platform for dialogue and debate between different generations of activists in a culture that fetishises the evanescent present, practices a profound amnesia about its past, and forecloses the sociological imagination of an alternative future? The following section looks at the emergence of a complex apparatus of public fame and celebrity around the spectacle of dissidence and considers whether the Left has subverted or merely mirrored the dominant forms of reputation-making and public recognition. Can the Left establish its own autonomous model of commemoration?
The final section takes up the challenge of outlining a model for the democratic archive as a revisionary project, creating a resource for building collective capacity to sustain struggles of long duration. A postscript examines how archival strategies of the alt-right have intervened at this juncture to elaborate a politics of false memory.
“Has the Left got a past? And if so, is that past best forgotten? Who was it who said, ‘Let the dead bury their dead’? Phil Cohen’s book is a searing meditation on the politics of memory, written by someone for whom ‘the ’60s’ are still alive–and therefore horrible, unfinished, unforgivable, tremendous, undead. His book brings back to life the William Faulkner cliché. The past for Cohen is neither dead nor alive. It’s not even past, more’s the pity.”
—T.J. Clark, author of The Sight of Death
“This is Phil Cohen, the irrepressible agent provocateur, at his majestic, top-ranking best: reminiscing, time-travelling, subverting easy nostrums too many of us buy into without a second’s thought. With much care and beauty he explores how we have it within us to make the past live, looking all the while to the future. There is darkness here, but so too a tough intelligence. The street communard comes of age. But not too much.”
—Bill Schwarz, author of Memories of Empire
“In examining past, present, and potential in archival practice and theory, Phil Cohen draws on his own activist past and the history of left politics since the 1960s, especially but not only in the UK, and brings to bear theories and arguments from a wide range of European thought. Politics and the personal weave in a continuing dance as he tells stories, classifies and analyses, and asks questions about what people remember and forget.”
—Anna Davin, History Workshop Journal
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