Books: The idea behind my idea? I've no idea

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The Independent Culture
Introducing ... Feminism, Chaos, Jung, Freud, Marx, Einstein, Quantum Theory

ed Richard Appignanesi

Icon pounds 8.99 each

The art of the propagandist is to create a world without contradiction. This leaves the utopian propagandist in something of a hole, because everything they have to say is contrary to the experience of their audience. The solution is to go deeper into things and show that current appearances contradict the underlying reality. And so ideology is born (or discovered, if you're an ideologist). But this in turn is self-defeating because now the argument is going over the heads of the very people it hoped to influence.

Thirty years ago a Mexican cartoonist, Rius, attempted to close this gap by creating a cartoon strip based on collage to present an introduction to Marxist thought. Chunks of Marx verbatim were pasted alongside a miscellaneous selection of old woodcuts and Rius's simple line drawings of top-hatted bosses confronting men with spanners, pulled together by hand-lettered text. The tone was irreverent; not from any subversive intent, but to show that the great names and ideas that are stuffed into less than 150 pages are nothing to be afraid of. Ruis made it plain he was a self- educated man himself. The reader was learning with him.

First published in this country as Marx for Beginners in 1976, the book and the format were an extraordinary success. Barely out of print since, it is re-published next week as Introducing Marx, along with 11 companion volumes which embrace subjects from Jung to Chaos Theory. (The change from Beginners to Introducing is for various unimportant reasons.)

Market research shows that just under half the readership are students, so it would be easy to draw the conclusion that a format devised to bring education to people who were denied it through poverty has become a crib sheet for an overprivileged elite, too lazy to read books. Easy, but unfair.

To begin with, the comic-book presentation allows more subtlety than a conventional text. Introducing Quantum Theory benefits from being able to integrate diagrams and text to the extent that it goes far deeper into physics than other populist books on the subject. Since its author, J P McEvoy, is at work on Introducing Stephen Hawking, it is worth noting that he is a more effective populariser than Hawking himself. The drama of the comic book also makes for economical presentation. To see the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida montaged as Galileo before the Inquisition to answer the more ill-informed criticism of his work is far more eloquent than pages of argument.

More profoundly, the statement Knowledge is Power can no longer be taken in the naive sense that inspired Rius's project. To see why, turn to the series' current best-seller Introducing Post-Modernism. Its success is small wonder since it is possibly the only accessible book available on the subject, although its author, and the series editor from the beginning, Richard Appignanesi, reacts modestly when this is put to him. There are others, he says, "but the secondary texts tend to be more complex than the original sources". Like Rius before him, he is confident that ideas can be put simply. "What is intra-textuality? It means you keep on re- reading the past."

And the past needs to be re-read, for it seems to be built on shifting sands. History no longer conforms to the certainties, the best example of this being that those who claim it does are now the neo-right, led by the example of Francis Fukuyama. The shifts are reflected by the thinkers who have disappeared from the list, most notably Lenin ("unfortunately," says Appignanesi). Others endure with astonishing persistence. As well as having his own title, Freud manages at least a walk-on part in five of the forthcoming titles. This includes appearances in Introducing Feminism and Introducing Post-Feminism. The only other individual to make both of these titles is Andrea Dworkin.

The two books demonstrate the difficulties the entire project faces almost 25 years on. Feminism is based on an unashamed emotional appeal, making use of a tradition of radical propaganda, some of which will bring the glow of nostalgia for readers who remember the 1970s. It is propaganda in a good cause. Apart from a small army of men whose wives have left them, few could fail to applaud the success of the women's movement over the past 150 years. Post-feminism argues that we may not have as much to congratulate ourselves on as we like to imagine.

In what is supposed to be a post-ideological world where the only refuge is irony, we may need the series more than we think. Derrida himself is among the many living subjects who actively support it. It is not his first foray beyond text. He played himself in Ken McMullen's film Ghost Dance (1983), where he attempted to explain his theories to Pascale Ogier (the beautiful French actress, who died aged 23). "What is the idea behind your idea?" he asks her in a scene that is plainly improvised. She thinks and answers for an entire generation: "The idea behind my idea is that I have no idea."