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A Moment of Austerity: Neoliberalism in the Metro of Athens

January 22, 2015 - 06:31
Tags:  Greece, Syriza, Tsipras, Athens, politics of austerity, economics

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I,...

I didn’t hear the man name the illness he suffered from as I took my seat in the metro one Sunday this month. I was on my way to the elegant suburb of Kifisia where prosperous Athenians for more than a century have built their houses to escape the summer heat. My family and I, recently arrived in Greece, were invited for lunch.

The metro was more crowded than I remember from previous visits, with bodies and backpacks pressed against each other. Were there fewer trains running because of the severe cutbacks? More people taking public transit because of their own dire financial situations? I was not really sure.

But this was Greece after five years of depression-type austerity with 25% unemployment and double that among those under 25. And the man in the train making his way through the crowd seemed one of them. Even before I saw him I could make out his plea: “Friends, it is with embarrassment that I speak to you,” he said, his voice breaking. Not being able to work, he could hardly afford his drugs. As a result, he was forced to sell pens. “Please don’t abandon me and turn away,” he added as he pushed his way through the crowd. 

Too horrified to be confronted so painfully by the poverty imposed on him by the government, the IMF, and the European Union, I did turn away. But I noticed the passenger across from me reach for her bag. Before she offered him the coin, the younger woman standing behind her whispered: “Mammá, no, not 50 cents, give him a Euro.”

In one week I had seen plenty of misery in Greece’s train of misfortune. Apart from protest slogans covering public and private walls, the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, and the soup kitchens – all relatively new here -- it is the generalized distress that has struck me. If you wish to know what national anxiety feels like come here.

It is not the trauma of war, say in Syria, or of state/guerilla-sponsored terror experienced by Colombians for years but one of economic free-fall. For six years the people of Greece have been the subjects of economic experimentation in austerity. To be in Greece right now, unless you are super-rich, is to live with threatening vertigo. At any moment you could lose your footing and fall into the predicament of the anonymous man in the metro, not being able to afford your electricity or even pay for your food. Pei​na (hunger) read the little cardboard placard one man had next to him outside of the station.

Taxes have gone up while salaries, wages, and benefits have been cut back severely. Overall pensions have been cut by as much as 45% and wages have come down 38% since 2009. The GDP has shrunk by 25%.  Almost a third of the population is without national health insurance, 32% is under the poverty line, and about 18% is unable to meet its food needs.

This is the country where the project of neoliberalism, which began with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to undo the infrastructure state is the most advanced. This politics uses the “crisis” as an opportunity to enact a draconian program of economic and social engineering. As a result there is a level of despondency I have rarely experienced.

I don’t want to reduce a whole society to an economic crisis. People work, have coffee, promenade, visit friends, and enjoy themselves. They have their lives. The sun is bright and we are experiencing what Athenians call Halcyon Days, the warm, cheerful days of January.

But you can’t avoid talk of the ikonomiki krisi. A taxi driver told me he was fed up. Not normally a leftist, he was going to vote for the radical party Syriza headed by the forever-young-looking, charismatic but fear-provoking Alexis Tsipras. The driver did not necessarily believe in Syriza’s program but felt so disillusioned and sold out by Greek and European politicians that he was willing to try anything.

This is why for many here (and outside of the country)  Syriza's win in the elections of Sunday, January 25 represents a symbolic and national rejection of austerity.  (It is the first time a radical left party has come to power in western Europe, a revolutionary event in itself.) Things are so bad that many middle-class people, conservatives even, were ready to take risks at the polls. At the same time, they recognize that Greece has little independence and less space for maneuver, terribly indebted first to European banks and now to European governments who have lent it money to survive. But with no economic activity, crippling taxes, the borrowed money is used to pay the interest rather than for the electricity bills of the many who live without power. 

Of course, Greeks know that the country borrowed heavily during the good times, that the money was not always spent wisely, that politicians were corrupt, and that the elites never paid their taxes. But they rightly complain that they had nothing to do with all of this. And they have no sway over the economists of the IMF or the Troika, the European bureaucrats in charge of restructuring Greece’s economy and of overseeing the loan program. What many feel is economic insecurity.

I saw this again in the restaurant that afternoon, hidden in the fresh pine forests of Kifisia. “With extraordinary food like this,” I asked my friends, “why are there no other customers here except for us.” “No money,” one chimed immediately in English!

The word “money” reminded me of the sick man in the metro. I had not bought a pen from him. But on the way back, he was there again as if to remind me. “Please, my friends, don’t abandon me.” But this time I paid attention to his words and could make out that he was 43, suffering from Parkinson’s. As he approached us, so unsure in his gait, I asked my son to buy a pen. And with my lowered eyes, so he could not see me, I added, “Adrian, give him a Euro.”

Will change ever come, I wondered, as my son pressed the coin into the man’s shaky hand?

#Marx21c

January 19, 2015 - 03:31
Tags:  Marx

1. Leaving the Twentieth Century

What might a Marx for the twenty-first century, a #Marx21c, look like? Perhaps as different to that of the nineteenth century as this era is from that one. These are some personal, impressionistic reflections on what that might look like.

The Marxism that I know is part of my life through four kinds of experience: the party, the popular front, the avant-gardes and the university. Each offered its own possibilities and limits for Marxist thought and practice.

My apprenticeship was the period from the late ‘70s through to the ‘90s. It was a time of modifiers. The existing language for describing the situation accreted a layer of suffixes and adjectives, but the language itself didn’t change. The situation was postmodern, or postfordist, or it was late capitalism, and a bit later it would become neoliberal.

None of these are adequate descriptions. The situation could only be named structurally, with the modified term denoting only that it was somehow different to the other term, to the recent past. It wasn’t modern, Fordist capitalism any more. Not the least problem for #Marx21c is to create a new language.

Back to the ‘70s: I was really a pretty poor candidate for cadre training, but I learned a lot from party school. The Marxist texts we studied had at one and the same time to be grasped abstractly and also applied to the situation at the time. It was in retrospect a good training for my attempts to be a writer in three quite distinct kinds of media, and as three different kinds of Marxist.

As a journalist, writing for daily newspapers or the radio in Australia, I belonged to the late twentieth-century version of the popular front. The task was first and last to show how certain local and particular struggles connected, how feminism, gay liberation, the environment, anti-racism and the class struggle were not the same, not reducible one to the other, but could be coordinated.

Having read some Antonio Gramsci at party school came in handy. He had already thought the question of hegemony, of rule by consent. He had thought the role of intellectuals, in either maintaining a national culture or challenging it, of articulating a national-popular counter-hegemonic bloc.

Maybe it was because the party no longer existed, or could no longer exist, that I also spent some time in avant-gardes of one sort or another, putting out our little journals and tracts and manifestos. This involved learning quite a bit about the print trades, about how to make video or radio. It was a great education in the tactics and mechanics of communication. Then the internet and computers came along, and it got even more fun.

Having read some Guy Debord in the context of the avant-gardes had its uses here. He had already thought about how to keep a group interesting, how to use theory as total critique, how to use the resources of art for something other than just more art.

But being only a passably good journalist and a quite terrible artist, quite naturally I ended up in the academy. I had the good fortune to fall into teaching media, which at the time could be pretty much anything you wanted it to be.

Having read some Althusser as a student came in handy. He appeared to have a method for working in a specialized academic field and yet assessing work there against a general Marxist method. And yet having never really intended to end up in academia, I had not really educated myself for such a vocation.

As an undergraduate in the ‘80s, I studied with whoever seemed interesting in each department, usually with Marxists or post-Marxists or other aberrant thinkers. I had rarely gone to class. I was too busy being a not particularly effective organizer. I spent my study time in the Current Serials section of the library, following the debates across a number of diverse journals, from New Left Review to Economy and Society to Screen.

In the academy back then it was amusing to talk to the Althusserians, who said that Marx’s theory of alienation was nonsense, but not to worry, as the theory of surplus value was still solid. Then if one talked to the neo-Ricardians, they would then tell you that the theory of surplus value was nonsense, but not to worry, as Marx’s theory of alienation was untouched by this! It was as if each of the disciplines were slowly digesting the whole extra-academic scope and sweep of Marx’s thought, and making it safe for the protocols of their particular field.

To understand how this worked, it certainly helped to read some Foucault. My introduction to his work was an unusual one. Homemade translations were pressed into my hands by self-described “nasty street queens” who had come up through Gay Liberation. This was, among other things, an important avant-garde, with a clear critique of the institutions of knowledge/power.

Having ended up in the academy in the ‘90s, I wrote some popular front books, about the globalization of the news media event, about the culture wars, about the popular as understood in social democracy and popular culture. But these were rearguard actions. We were losing. What could be described provisionally as the neo-fascism so prevalent in in our own times was starting to establish itself already.

The principle affect of so-called neo-liberal culture is that for me to win, you have to lose. It’s a zero-sum game. This is already a blow to any culture of solidary, be it social-democratic or otherwise. Neo-fascism is much worse than that. For me to win, it is not enough that you lose. You have to suffer. Identity comes from the other’s suffering, even death. This was already becoming again a legitimate thought in the ‘90s. If the Balkan Wars could teach the West anything, it was that neofascism was at the heart now of our cultures, too.

But that was the ‘90s. I emigrated to New York in 2000. I no longer had access to a national popular cultural space. As a passably articulate, semi-educated white man from the provinces, there was practically nothing I could not do in Australia. So I wrote for a national newspaper. Broadcast on national radio. Appeared before the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of a team giving a report on the internet and public policy. I was not so much a public intellectual as a public idiot. It was easy to appear in the hegemonic space and say something idiosyncratic, in and against it.

I exchanged that for a life of teaching in upstate New York all week, and then driving the four hours back to Brooklyn. It was a life of intellectual isolation. But it was a good time to try to tackle two things together: One was an accounting for what the avant-gardes I had experienced in the ‘90s had been all about, and the other was to use that rather marginal but precocious form of practice to rethink what a critical theory might be for the new century.

A word on those avant-gardes. Sydney back in the eighties had been an excellent host for the production of avant-gardes, because it still had a bohemia. It was cheap to live in the city, because in those days, people with money still preferred the suburbs. There was enough work for when you needed it, in commercial media or the “entertainment” trades. You could scrape by on unemployment benefits or the government student allowance so long as you worked on the sly a bit. There were plenty of big, cheap communal households, and not a few squats. So one could devote the bulk of one’s time to reckless living, trying to make art in the media of one’s choice, or trying to change the world.

The down side: Sydney was – and is – provincial. The nearest global capital was Tokyo. Others brought back reports from the old pilgrimage centers of London and Paris, or the more recent one of New York, but it was Tokyo were I went to learn how provincial I was. I never learned the language. I taught myself enough French to keep up with new writing, but it was the psychogeographic study of the everyday life of Tokyo, combined with reading as much Akira Asada in translation as I could find, that for me was an intimation that this could no longer be called “late capitalism” any more. It was early something else.

That was the ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s there was the internet. It was suddenly much easier and cheaper to keep in contact with the bohemian node in the interesting cities of the world, to know of and play with their avant-gardes, or at least those that were oriented towards questions of media. But then aren’t all the avant-gardes that matter not really about literature or painting, but media? The Futurists were about media, and so was Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, mail art, and the Situationist International. And now one could make contact with their successors via dial-up modem.

The avant-gardes of the ‘90s went by many fluctuating names. It helped to have read some Deleuze and Guattari. It really did seem rhizomatic. There were deterritorializations but also reterritorializations. These days it is assumed we were naïve about all this, but look back through the archives and you’ll find this clearly was not so. The internet avant-gardes lived through the Balkan wars, through the first internet stock market  and bust, and through the machinations of state and corporate telecoms. Before Snowden’s leaks about the NSA was Echelon, a global internet surveillance project, rumors of which had leaked.

Among the avant-gardes of the ‘90s, I felt closest in this world to the art, theory, and politics hackers of Nettime, or nettime.org. It was based on a listserv, and deliberately set itself against the atheoretical techno-optimism emanating out of Northern California. In the theory world, there were two extreme positions, both resolutely non-Marxist, but both insisting on a kind of unidirectional liquidation of the old social formation. On the one extreme, Nick Land’s delirious optimism; on the other, Arthur Kroker’s cool pessimism. But more interesting to me were those who were looking more closely at avant-garde practices, and building concepts that might account for the novel features of a world made over by an emerging digital means of mediation.

It was useful in this context to read some Geert Lovink. A Nettime co-founder, he came out of the squatting scene in Amsterdam and Berlin, and spent the ‘90s travelling Europe and the world making connections and writing astute reports on the successes and failures of attempts to build an avant-garde culture or politics on the new tools. He co-founded the nettime.org listserv in 1995.

Over the next five years, Nettime would host a critique of leftism (i.e. Frankfurt school media theory), formulate the practice of tactical media, spawn and reject net.art, and invent a practice for itself of collaborative filtering of texts. It existed in a prickly series of intersections with cyber-feminist and anti-colonial listservs such as Faces, 711, and Undercurrents, and lists in languages other than English.

And so: after emigrating to New York in 2000, I was cut off from the popular front activities that occupied a lot of my time in the ‘90s. I simply had no intuitive understanding of American cultural politics, and no entrée to its media spaces even if I had. But it seemed like a good time to try to theorize what the avant-gardes had been up to, and what they implied for #Marx21c. This resulted in two books, A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007).

 

2. From Late Capitalism to Early Something Else

“Information wants to be free, but is everywhere in chains.” That is the central proposition I tried to argue in A Hacker Manifesto (2004). The development of the forces of production took a qualitatively different turn when information became digital. Information turned out to have some strange properties. It is not immaterial, and yet its relation to any given material substrate can become arbitrary. The cost of copying it becomes very low. What Debord and the Situationists called détournement, the copying and correcting of information, becomes a social movement in all but name. Information wants to be free.

But it is in chains. There was a mutation in the means of securing class power through private property. Property became more abstract. It passed through privatizing land, then the mechanical means of production, and now the digital means of production, in the various forms of intellectual property. A new ruling class was trying to assert its control over the entire value production process by controlling information rather than the physics of the production process directly. I called them the vectoral class: their power is in securing the vector along which information moves as both command and feedback.

The commodification of information produces not only a new possessing class but a new kind of dispossession. Information is alienated from its direct producers—what I called the hacker class. Unlike the worker, the hacker does not produce more of the same, but produces what is qualitatively different. Whether in the sciences, the arts, engineering, design, or even Marxist theory, the hacker class produces what Bateson called “the difference that makes a difference”—information.

In the early 2000s most of the world was still occupied with agricultural labor, and industrial labor was if anything expanding, particularly with the manufacturing boom in China. It was more a question of how the vectoral class was trying to control the production of value as a kind of third layer of domination, over and above agriculture and manufacturing. There is a struggle, among other things, between different kinds of ruling class, vectoralist and capitalist.

There seemed to me clear evidence of a struggle over who controlled information. At the time, I thought the struggle to free information from privatization was a strategy that challenged vectoral power. And it did. But the hacker class, and the social movement beyond it to free information, won the battle but lost the war. The vectoral class regrouped on higher ground. New “business models” emerged which actually depended on information being free, but which captured and commodifed the metadata about it. That is pretty much were we are now.

I had noticed another aspect in A Hacker Manifesto, although I had not adequately stressed it: what I called the infoprole, but which others covered with the term precarity. It was becoming clear that vectoral power could extract information directly from everyday life, and not just from labor. The infoprole was giving up information in exchange for nothing. The vectoral class could even exploit nonlabor.

Take a look at the top Fortune 500 companies, and it is clear that in one way or another they are now mostly in the information business, with the actual mechanics of making things being increasingly subcontracted, or based on short-term leasing and contractual obligations. The oil companies are in the information-prospecting business. The car companies make most of their money in finance. The big box stores are logistics companies. The drug companies are patent farms. The big retailers all sell the same cheaply made crap but carefully manage their intangible brands. Big finance is in the information asymmetry business. All this is before you even get to the tech sector.

I also argued in A Hacker Manifesto that the state would increasingly be oriented to policing information as well as physical entities, for example by data surveillance. Its job would be to control the relation between signs and referents. This would oblige forms of counter-power to be a bit more oblique about themselves, to refuse identity, to hide in plain sight. Politics would be about connecting the spaces of everyday life to this increasingly abstract terrain of information. I had the border-hackers and floodnet as the avant-garde examples to go on. Occupy and Anonymous would later encounter and work creatively with this doubled terrain.

The problem with commodifying information is that it is hard to insist on its value when it is free. Whole new gift economies of unprecedented kinds had emerged, and threatened to escape the enclosure of commodified information. This is why I thought it interesting to look at games. My interest in the then-emergent cultural form of games had been much enriched by meeting the game culture avant-garde via some of its leading exponents, including Eric Zimmerman, Katie Salen, and later Class Wargames and the Radical Software Group.

Gamer Theory (2007) is not really about computer games, or not only. It is about how the whole of everyday life starts to seem game-like. It was a critique in advance of what would later be called “game-ification.” Everyday life increasingly appears as a zero-sum contest. One’s job, one’s dating habits, one’s consumption patterns all come to have, in a rather unclear and imperfect way, some of the qualities of games. They all become subject to the pursuit of trophies of no inherent value, which one is taught to want simply because others are also told they want them.

This was before the era of the cellphone as platform for an endless market in “apps,” which could double the space of the city with a grid of data, making over the whole of everyday life as a game board, but it was after the era of GPS and global logistics, in which all the resources of the planet could be valued, bought, sold, and committed to production processes, as if the whole thing were a giant Monopoly board. Gamer Theory was about the whole world becoming a gamespace, one enabled by the information vector, controlled by a vectoral ruling class.

If there is an art form that best captures this twenty-first century situation, it is the computer game. In Gamer Theory, I made the somewhat counter-intuitive argument that a good game is something like a neoliberal utopia. It is where the promises of the vectoral class are actually kept. In a game, there really is a “level playing field,” where winners really do get the trophy on their merits. If there is a critical leverage to be had from games as a media, it is that the world is an imperfect copy of the game, not the other way around.

Gamer Theory looks at the ways games model a range of subjectivities not through their content but through their form. Here I was extending those formal analyses of the novel and cinema that were part of the Marxist tradition from Lukács to Laura Mulvey. I was interested, for example, in repetitive, ahistorical time, which can be started over. Or in the phenomenology of targeting, in which games train a capacity to detect a hard border between friend and foe—something all too evident in the “GamerGate” controversies of 2014.

In short, A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory took the avant-gardes of the ‘90s to be experimental practices which, in their clash with emerging forms of commodification and class power, revealed something of its contours. Then, by digging through the archive of Marxist theories-past, it might be possible to build on those experiences and produce the concept of the historical situation they revealed.

Already in A Hacker Manifesto, I saw modern history as a process of increasing abstraction (not unlike what Bernard Stiegler calls grammatization). There I stressed how the alienation of the world from itself through the commodification of information opened a rift between the world as physical layer and the world as information layer.

In Gamer Theory, I took this up via a study of the game SimEarth. The “realistic” mode of that game models climate change. Within the game, there is a more or less accurate model of climate, but the game has to run on a computer, and the computer draws energy. The model is at odds with the vector that makes it possible to exist at all.

Those two books were, in short, already about what is now more commonly called the Anthropocene, that historical situation where the combined effects of vectoral power on the physical infrastructure layer of commodification undermine its very conditions of existence. But from where in the Marxist tradition could one draw the resources to think about a situation that is on the one hand about more and more abstract forms of the commodification of information, and on the other about more and more concrete problems of destabilized earth systems? To answer that, I felt I had to turn back to the archive, and proceed in a more academic manner rather than an avant-garde one.

 

3. Expanding the #Marx21c Archive

A central problem for #Marx21c is that as commodification becomes more abstract, the concrete comes back to haunt it in the form of the metabolic rifts characteristic of the Anthropocene. What resources do we have for thinking this?

It was to uncover some such resources that I embarked on what I think will be a four-book series that reads the twentieth century through its more or less forgotten Marxists. Two of these books will be on Marxists who engaged with the natural sciences, and two with those more interested in the media arts. What unites them are questions of apparatus.

As Alex Galloway has pointed out, one of the surprising features of A Hacker Manifesto is that it is not a blanket critique of the abstracting forces of information technology. If anything it is an accelerationist book that wants to push that process even further. Part of the subsequent project, then, is to find resources for ways of extending the Marxist project that are not about negation or resistance.

In Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I try to revive the forgotten figure of Alexander Bogdanov, who was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolsheviks, before Lenin threw him out. Bogdanov constructed an ambitious project for the self-education of the working class in the task of organization. In his utopian novel Red Star he had strikingly anticipated the problem of climate change, and in his Tektology he had already begun to grapple with the idea of a biosphere, and the problem of organizing social forms in relation to their points of vulnerability in an unstable natural world.

Molecular Red also tells the story of Andrey Platonov, a rare modernist writer-engineer of genuine proletarian origins, whose extraordinary (anti)novels tell the story of the Soviet Union from the point of view of everyday, lowly comrades, trying to build the means of production for Lenin’s leap into communism. Platonov, besides his genius as a writer, is to me a great theorist of the basic organizational problems of combining and motivating labor in and against its struggle with nature and techne. In Bogdanov the central question is how to organize as labor; in Platonov, the central question is how to organize as comrades.

In a project I am grappling with at the moment, I want to extend this Marxist counter-narrative through the ‘30s and ‘40s. But rather than look at Marxists whose background and interests were literary and philosophical, I want to look at those whose engagements were scientific and technical. This story centers on three British Marxists, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham. These were all first-rate scientists and original theorists, particularly of the way scientific work was being incorporated into new production processes, able to transform matter on a molecular and even sub-molecular level.

Only a philosopher such as Heidegger could make such a glib announcement that “the essence of technology is nothing technical.” To Haldane, Bernal and Needham, technologies all have very specific properties, understood and produced in a subtle dialectic with the natural sciences. Bridging the gap between what became of Marxist thought and the struggles within scientific fields—by a branch of what I call the hacker class—seems imperative to me in the current historical situation. We know about the Anthropocene, about climate change, about ocean acidification, and so on, only because of knowledge produced in the natural sciences.

The anti-science critique is now on the right: it is in the hands of denialists who knowingly or not work for the fossil fuel industries. It is crucially important to realize that the situation calls for quite different tactics in the politics of knowledge. The fellow travelling of critical theory with Heideggerian late romanticism must come to an end. Hence in Molecular Red and the subsequent work I want to restore that part of the #Marx21c archive where Marxist thought is in dialogue with the sciences, as it is in Helena Sheehan—although my version is rather less orthodox.

The work on the early twentieth-century Marxist archive is about the sciences, while the work I did on the later twentieth century looks at the Marxist-inflected avant-garde. Both are, in different ways, about problems of the “aesthetic,” broadly understood as problems of perception. How do science and media, as forms of techno-industrial apparatus, affect how the world can be known and changed by collective praxis? That question, in my mind at least, is the thread through this body of work.

When I wrote A Hacker Manifesto it had seemed obvious to me that the central category in Debord’s work was not spectacle but détournement. But this did not seem obvious to others, and in attempting to explain it, I ended up writing two and a half books about the Situationist International. They became for me one of the most useful counter-traditions for understanding the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this was because, at their best, they lacked any interest in either the casuistry of leftist groupuscules, or in the steady careers of those of us in academia or the media. They had a certain license to say and do as they pleased, and they used it well.

I told it as an ensemble story. Besides Debord, Michèle Bernstein had made a valuable contribution to think about love and sex and everyday life outside of the strictures of private property, and without the masculinist privileges of the so-called sexual revolution.

Asger Jorn had already artfully explained the difference between what I would later term the hacker class and the working class, as the distinction between making new forms and filling given forms within the production process.

Constant Neiuwenhuys had, with his New Babylon, created the greatest Marxist-accelerationist utopia of all time. He vividly understood that the second industrial revolution of information technology would redesign the whole geography of base and superstructure. These were some of the heroes and heroines of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011).

In the rather more bleak sequel, The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso, 2013) I tell the story of what the Situationists did when the revolution of the ‘60s did not come to pass. They dug in for the long haul. Debord and Viénet made some very fine Marxist-Situationist cinema. Alice Becker-Ho constructed the elements of an alterative to semiotic theories of language, one that emphasized not the free play of the sign but its fugitive, constrained, and secret qualities. Raoul Vaneigem revived Charles Fourier’s utopian vision of the everyday.

The spectacle is no longer the centralized, planned extrusion into the world of images of the production process. It fragmented and disintegrated into the pores of the everyday. As Debord predicted, it no longer even much pretends to promise the good life. But here, in the later lives of his comrades, were strategies for hiding in plain sight.

Apart from Constant’s brilliant reading of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, the Situationists did not pay a lot of attention to science and technology. And so to complete this raid into the byways of the archive, in Molecular Red I paired the chapters on Bogdanov and Platonov with a late twentieth-century story, the central figure of which is Donna Haraway. What is unique about her work is that it combined a close reading of Joseph Needham’s organicist biological thought with Marxist critical theories and the practical experience of feminist struggles around reproductive technology and the life sciences.

Particularly useful in my mind is her careful unpacking of the promiscuity of metaphors of race, gender, and class as they pass between social and technoscience domains. And yet for all that, Haraway is able to hold on to a sense of the sciences as kinds of real knowledge, telling constrained stories within strict disciplinary protocols.

On my reading, Haraway and some of her students, collaborators, and followers have unknowingly revived something of a Bogdanovite-Marxist theory and practice of knowledge—one that is alive to the way metaphors pass between domains, but where this in itself does not disqualify research from being knowledge. The task is not to expunge metaphor, but to use it better.

In the Harawayesque work of Edwards, Karen Barad and Beatriz Preciado, there is an understanding of how knowledge/power emerges out of not only metaphoric and conceptual work but also out of a specific apparatus. The particular kind of realism that this line of research might support is a realism of the sensations produced by controlled experiments in a given situation with a given apparatus. The knowledge of the sciences is both real and historical in this view, and the result of collective effort with a means of production—as it should be in any Marxist theory of knowledge and science.

This strikes me as a more promising line of work for #Marx21c than the more rationalist approach which takes mathematics to be a sort of essence of science and which no longer has anything to say about the forces of production of science, namely the apparatus, and the relations of production within which they function. I have chosen to emphasize the forces of production, but I think this line of thought can be placed in dialogue with those more interested in the relations, as in the work of Philip Mirowski. It does however point away from that hyper-rationalist line that descends through Althusser to Badiou and Meillassoux, not to mention the latter’s hyper-rationalist critique in François Laruelle.

The historical situation thus calls for versions of a Marxism that can account for three things:

Firstly, new forces of production, particularly in information.

Secondly, new kinds of class interest, relation, and conflict that stem from the evolution of the private property form to subsume information.

Thirdly, new kinds of knowledge about the world, based on the application of information as a means of production in the sciences, about the totality of effects of global commodity production on the biosphere. Hence the subtitle of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.

My attempts at actually writing Marxist theory in A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory depended on drawing together experiences of avant-garde practices with what existed as the canonic Marxist and critical theory texts of the time. That was a body of work which brought Marxist thought into the domain of media theory, in dialogue with others who were trying to think what came out of the Nettime years, including Wendy Chun on control, Alex Galloway on protocol, Lisa Nakamura on subjectivity, Lev Manovich on formalism, Coco Fusco on empire, Eugene Thacker on biomedia, Richard Barbrook on strategy, and Trebor Scholz on digital labor.

My later, historical works are a kind of dialectical complement, bringing a Marxist media theory and practice perspective into the received ideas about what the canonic Marxist works actually are. It is in effect a rewriting of that canon as one finds it, for example, in Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, or Goran Therborn. Those versions of an archive seem to me to have been determined by the objectives and experiences of the postwar new left. Those are no longer our perspectives and experiences.

A new past is called for, as a resource for a new situation. Or rather pasts. Razmig Keucheyan has offered one useful remapping, but there could be others. Rather than posit another apostolic succession, maybe it is a question of trying to map what Needham would see as a field of possible permutation and elaborations on Marx that differentiate in all directions from his work but are still organized by it. But to do that, perhaps we could take another look at the resources of the archive, and think again about ways to access it.

 

4. The Marx-field

After Debord, we can think of two ways of articulating pasts to presents via the archive. One is quotation, which works from past to present, in which the legitimacy of a statement rests on its anchoring in statements from recognized authors in the past. This is the standard practice of the humanities academy. It gives the academy a conservative tendency. This is of course not always a bad thing. It is a guard against fashion. But it can also set scholars, even Marxists ones, up to play what Lyotard called language games with the archive and with each other, games that no longer have anything to do with any situation outside of them.

The other path is détournement. As Keston Sunderland has shown, détournement was part of Marx’s own practice. Marx constantly copies and critically corrects the epigrammatic illuminations of his age. Détournement works first from the present situation, and only then selects cuts from the past and brings them into the present, copying and correcting in the direction of possibility. Practiced as scholarship, détournement can at least begin from the question of the historical situation. It is a matter of articulating a common task for this situation, and for that task to call out of the past the resources for organizing thought and action in the present. In the era of digital means of production, the twist on class conflicts that this brings, and the facts of the Anthropocene that can no longer be considered as secondary, must be drawn into the very heart of thought.

Back in party school, I started reading two kinds of Anglophone Marxists, both of which branch off from the economic history of Maurice Dobb. One was the history from below school of E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and others. This later diversified into the non-national perspective of Peter Linebaugh and the feminist historiography of Sheila Rowbotham. Related are the Eric Hobesbawm’s sequence of synthetic historical books on the 19th and 20th centuries, which are more like slices through the totality than the view from below.

All of this was a context for discovering C. L. R. James and Eugene Genovese on the history of slavery. Here one might locate the great Australian contribution, European Vision and the South Pacific, by Bernard Smith, a book I still find more useful than Foucault for explaining the formation of knowledge out of forms of apparatus.

The other Anglophone school is what I would call the Ricardian-Marxists, such as Ian Steedman. Rather than Hegel it was Ricardo and political economy that was the parent tradition for Marxism in this view. Political economy became an object of both critical, historical study, but also one amendable to formal and mathematical analysis, where the central question was the dynamics of class struggle over the distribution of the surplus and its relation to growth and qualitative change.

The Ricardian-Marxists constructed a very different set of problems and analyses to the Hegelian-Marxists. From this much issued, ranging from Lukács and Adorno to Debord and Moishe Postone. The problem is that it can often get caught up in a metaphysics of essence and appearance. Either the value-form of capital, or the totality of social relations that commodification produces, is taken as an unvarying essence. Change is only apparent, a matter of appearances, just circulation, or just distribution.

In these Hegelian-Marxist theories the essence of capital is always the same. Their core belief, never quite consciously articulated, is that capital is actually eternal. The eternal capital can be negated, but only by that which arises within and against it. That agency could be the working class, or the party, or failing that, all that negates it is an aesthetic or philosophy itself. As the prospect of even those purely formal negations recede, this negationist school lapses into despair or quietism. Moreover, it has surprisingly little to say about actual historical change, since all such change is only phenomenal, and in essence capital is eternal.

One might expect the Spinozist-Marxists to have come up with a better alternative to this, and for a while it looked like they had. The Althusserians dispensed with the essence-appearance metaphysic. They acknowledged the reality of all three “instances” of the social formation: economy, politics, ideology (or culture). They saw the economic as determinant only in the “last instance.”

Like the Hegelians, the Spinzoists could be obsessed with method, with purely textual, hermeneutic techniques for guaranteeing the validity of Marxist theory. Both are variants of the practice of quotation. Despite all their differences, the Hegel-Marx and Spinoza-Marx crowds had a mutual interest in insisting on the legislative role of theory. To this day the descendants of both, from Badiou to Zizek, insist on the primacy of philosophy, and have a tendency to discount in a most unhelpful way the autonomy of other modes of knowing.

The Althusserian flavor of Spinozist-Marxism at least legitimated the study of politics or culture as relatively autonomous instances of the superstructure. This gave rise, particularly in France, to a Jacobin Marxism. Althusser’s students, such as Nicos Poulantzas, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and Regis Debray, tried in very, very different ways to produce theories of politics, as did Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The world of production seemed to be one of the mere satisfaction of needs, whereas politics held out the utopian promise of transformative action. Unfortunately this left unexamined the very transformation of the whole social formation by new forces of production.

In the Anglophone world, Althusser both strengthened and transformed an emerging cultural Marxism. This had its roots partly in the Marxist historiography of E. P. Thompson, in the radicalizing of Leavisite literary study by Richard Hoggart in Raymond Williams, and in the English reception of Antonio Gramsci. Stuart Hall took that tradition and brought it into contact with Althusser, to produce a tactical, low theory of culture, without guarantees.

Laura Mulvey and others took Althusser’s legitimizing of the autonomy of the cultural sphere, and also his insight into the usefulness of semiotics and psychoanalysis as tools of analysis specific to the cultural instance and analogous to the critical political economy through which the economic instance could be analyzed. In both the Hall and Mulvey flavors of cultural Marxism, headway was made in the analysis of culture, but reduced, under the influence of Roland Barthes, to the status of text. The apparatus had a somewhat vestigial status in screen theory, and even less presence in post-Hall cultural studies. This was not a tradition well equipped to understand the transformation of the mode of production of culture itself in the digital age.

The Italian version of Spinozist-Marxism at least tried to come up with a language to describe the experience of labor in the late twentieth century, even if its perspective was limited to the overdeveloped world of Italy and France. Where Althusser had insisted on a close reading of Capital, Antonio Negri’s practice of quotation based itself on Marx’s Grundrisse, although in his case perhaps with too much, rather than too little, textual fidelity.

It resulted in some temporary descriptions: the formal subsumption of the lifeworld under capital became the real subsumption. Collaborative labor began to engage the general intellect. A heterogeneous kind of labor was described under the rather unfortunate term immaterial labor. Meanwhile, a feminist critique of this conceptual scheme opened up the question of affective labor and unpaid labor.

The “real subsumption” of Marx to Spinoza was soon to follow in the collaborative work of Negri and Michael Hardt. In Empire they developed a new language that connected Negri’s experience of Italian Workerism with Hardt’s of Latin American counter-imperial struggles. This succeeded for a time in providing a language for a counter-globalization movement. This new internationalism was no small achievement. However, the language of empire and multitude, of constitutional and constituent power, reproduced on a global scale the limit of Italian workerism, which was always to see the living labor of the worker as a privileged moment, and hence to render secondary the complexity of the forces and relations of production within which labor was enmeshed.

The most expansive attempt at a synthesis of the Spinozist and Hegelian version of Marxism was surely the work of Fredric Jameson, which folded the autonomy of the cultural and political instances back into a more diversified concept of the totality of a more or less Hegelian kind, drawn in particular from Sartre. The high point of its influence was Jameson’s famous essays on the postmodern. This did not really break with theories of eternal capital. Jameson’s point of reference for what was actually going on in production remained Ernest Mandel. Still, Jameson at least got to the point of registering new symptoms on the horizon of “late” capitalism that might point to a theory of “early something else.”

Franco Moretti surely stands next to Jameson as one of the most distinguished literary critics in the Anglophone world, and like Jameson is a Marxist, although descended from a different strain. I am not too familiar with the work of Della-Volpe and Colletti, other than as a parallel school to the Althusserians in their rejection of Hegelian Marxism. In Moretti, this emerges as a synthetic sensibility as broad as Jameson’s. Where Jameson’s famous slogan is “always historicize!” then Moretti’s might be “always geographize!” Lately his techniques of distant reading have proven a useful tool for conducting social-scientific experiments on the literary corpus, and are a forerunner to the now widespread digital humanities.

Moretti however lacks any critical or dialectical appreciation of these very tools and procedures. He ably uses these tools to show the homologies between the literature of past centuries and their mode of production. Yet there is nothing in Moretti about the mode of production that makes this kind of criticism possible in our own times. The apparatus of “big data” simply appears. Here he makes no advance beyond Jameson’s invocation of Mandel.

In the analysis of the economic sphere, a much more useful body of work after Mandel appeared in the form of the regulation school, in the work, for example, of Michel Aglietta and Alain Lipietz. This had the advantage in trying to think empirically and theoretically the mutation not just of productive forces but of whole regimes of regulation and reproduction. The major triumph of this approach was an account of the virtuous circle of Fordism, in which new modes of production and consumption coincided, providing a systematic account of what Guy Debord had so elegantly called the society of the spectacle. The regulation school also gave a systematic account of the breakdown of Fordist regulation, even if the designation of its successor as post-Fordist did not quite succeed in giving it an affirmative and distinctive analytic quality.

The regulation school had also had a pragmatic answer to one of those intractable debates in Marxocological thought: the value-price controversy. Nowhere in Capital does Marx give a convincing answer as to how surplus value is expressed as profit. The neo-Ricardians simply dispensed with surplus value, which enabled them to produce a rigorous economics of the relationship between growth and the distribution of surplus between classes. Here they built on the pioneering work of Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson, and others. The regulation approach kept the category of surplus value, but stressed the difference between value and price as a signature feature of capitalist regulation. Thus, the distortion of value, as a measure of production for need, by production for exchange, could itself be a critical tool of analysis.

The Monthly Review school of thought, of Baran and Sweezy, had already abandoned the category of surplus value, and had tried to think the features of monopoly capitalism as a form distinct from the liberal form of Marx’s time. But perhaps the signature contribution of this journal to thinking the present came later, in the work of John Bellamy Foster. In Marx’s Ecology, he built an original Marxist theory with what to my mind is really a détournement of Capital Vol. 3, where Marx begins, but does not really think through, the category of metabolic rift. This is in essence the Anthropocene, the transformation on a planetary scale of the molecular composition and distribution of the biosphere. The gap between value and price here becomes total.

This insight can be usefully juxtaposed with one that otherwise has nothing in common with it, and that came principally out of the journal Multitudes—namely the emergence of an era of cognitive capitalism, increasingly invested in the production of subjectivity. Here the work of Yann Moulier Boutang, Maurizio Lazzarato, Franco Berardi, and Tiziana Terranova might be mentioned. However, this school of thought is still stuck in the language of the modifier, of qualifying the essence of capitalism rather than really asking what the conditions of possibility of its transformation might be.

A rather virulent but useful critique of this work comes from Beatriz Preciadio, who draws in significant ways on Donna Haraway. Preciado asks what becomes of Haraway’s cyborg bodies—amalgams of flesh and info and tech—in an era that does not just make information a force of production, but applies information to the pharmacology with which it remakes the body, as well. Commodification makes not just subjectivities but bodies in its image. Preciado takes the paradigmatic worker of this era to be the sex worker.

Perhaps to historicize now means to think about what historicity is implied in the very category of capital itself. If one cannot (at least as a thought experiment) think the conditions under which this might no longer be capitalism, short of the revolution of one’s desires, then it is not an historical category at all. It is merely a term for the ruins of a fallen world, awaiting the return of its messiah, which is pretty much where things end up in the work of Agamben, and even in the elegant tracts of Tiqqun. How, then, might capital be thought as historical rather than eternal?

There is a resource to be drawn on here from the school of political Marxism. Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and others turned away from the “neo-Smithian” approach to world systems of Wallerstein and others, and instead thought the origins of capital as a more local, European phenomena. What is of interest in their work, outside of historiography, is the idea that there have already been two eras of commodification. The first is based on privatizing land, the second on the factory system as a further extension of the abstraction introduced into production by the commodification of land.

Thus, there have been two ruling classes already, based in turn on rent and then profit. Ricardo’s great work stands at the boundary where the land-owning class was defeated and subsumed into a more properly capitalist ruling class. The political Marxists would not go this far, but to me this begs the question: if there have been two eras of commodification, why not a third? One with its own distinctive forms of property, forms of exploitation, and forms of extracting a surplus? One based on surplus information, inequalities of information, and control of data via metadata?

Political Marxism insists on a Eurocentric story for the origins of capitalism, but that does not mean we have to accept that world history remains dominated by what transpires over the Atlantic. Perhaps Europe, America, and Japan are now what the Situationists called the over-developed world, trapped in forms of rent seeking behavior. Perhaps theirs is a ruling class in decline, in that while it retains and even accumulates power, it can no longer coordinate its efforts through the state and open up new forms of regulation and growth. The failure to transition out of a carbon-based economy is a clear symptom of this decline.

Just one example of what might be required now to think world history in Marxist terms is to account for China. Is China capitalist? It is a question which doubles back, in that any answer to it at the same time sharpens a definition of what capitalism might actually be, and whether it is to be understood narrowly or broadly as a category. I note with interest that Michel Aglietta has turned the regulationist method to this question.

While there are many other parts of the world that are both historically significant and have local Marxist traditions, China is the one I try to follow, having spent some time there during the ‘80s, doing psychogeographic research in its cities and travelling its railways while reading Deng Xiaoping.

Hence I find the work of Wang Hui of particular interest, as an instance of a distinctive new left position in and on China (although he and his co-thinkers resist that label). Wang artfully uses the Marxist commitment to solidarity and equality of the revolutionary period in China as a critical wedge not just against the inequalities of the present, but against those of the past too. He holds the Chinese Communists of the past accountable to their own Marxism. This work also skillfully negotiates between importing Western Marxism (or other theory) and too strong an insistence on distinctly Chinese analytic categories. It is a model of sophisticated #Marx21c work that is cosmopolitan but not Eurocentric.

One could put this alongside what is now a debate between the subaltern studies school from the Indian subcontinent, and Vivek Chibber, its strongest critic. In different ways, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesth Chakrabarty and others have confronted the universalizing project in which Marxism participates with its own dependence on prior categories of the metropolitan pole and its colonial other.

Regrettably, I know very little about Marxist work outside the West. What little I know about Latin American Marxism comes through Bruno Bosteels’s efforts. I still don’t know what to make of the impressive project of Kojin Karatani to rethink the historical sequence of modes of production as actually modes of exchange. Clearly a #Marx21c will have to be a collaborative, global project in many languages, sensitive to core-periphery inequalities. It is a project that calls more for new modes of organization than for new theories.

I know even less about the embedding of Marx in the social sciences. When Marxism acclimatized to the Anglophone world, one of the assimilations that took place was to its peculiar brand of philosophy, and thus analytic Marxism was born. It started perhaps with Maurice Cornford, and G. A. Cohen’s controversial but to me persuasive defense of a certain kind of vulgar Marxism.

This then cleared the way for an empirical and social-scientific Marx in the hands of Jon Elster, John Roemer, and in particular Erik Olin Wright. The latter’s detailed work on class greatly refined an ongoing debate on how not just to think but to study class as a category. His later work on actually existing utopias is a necessary corrective to the approach to utopia that looks to Ernst Bloch and is far more transcendental and poetic.

In the twentieth century, Marx’s thought found its way into a wide range of disciplines and languages. This process of adoption was also one of adaption, where Marx became a name that could be said at least in the margins of certain formations of knowledge/power. This had however, two consequences.

First, it meant that while one could adopt a Marxist position within a given space of writing and thinking, all of these separate adaptations of Marx were less and less in useful dialogue with each other. What could only be called academic Marxism became so acculturated to its various disciplines and languages that its various versions started to take as a given the academic division of labor within which it was formed. Thus the Hegelian-Marxists and the analytic-Marxists, for example, ended up with little to say to each other.

Secondly, it meant that the agenda for Marxist thought often arose within the disciplines. Sometimes mostly formal problems or language games occluded any larger agenda, even within a given national culture, let alone the larger transnational situation. Thus the cultural Marxists thought cultural problems, the Jacobin Marxists thought political problems, the regulation school thought economic problems—all separated from each other. In the absence of powerful social movements, let alone an organized working class, professional agendas prevailed.

In the era of the Anthropocene, perhaps more than ever a #Marx21c needs new forms of organizing and coordinating collaborative knowledge projects. It needs ways of keeping in dialogue speculative and empirical work, work from different disciplines, in different languages, from metropolitan cores and peripheries.

Three agenda items in particular seem pressing:

First, the central problem of metabolic rift, which points towards the horizon of the Anthropocene, and the need to re-engage Marxism with the natural sciences.

Secondly, what some call semio-capitalism or cognitive capitalism, but which I had described in quite other terms in A Hacker Manifesto, as the hint of a new mode of production, based on information as a new force of production, and with a new ruling class, the vectoral class. This prompts the need to think about what kind of transformation of the forces of production may rise to the level of a qualitative break.

Thirdly, a dislocation in space, but also perhaps in time, of the object of analysis. Spatial and temporal boundaries and continuities, cores and peripheries, could be rethought, and not least to understand how the engines of world history may now be far from the West.

 

5. The Marx of the Avant-gardes

So much for an academic #Marx21c. What about the avant-gardes? Perhaps there is something to be said for the total and bracing critique of Manfredo Tafuri, for whom all of the avant-gardes were stalking horses for capital, all diverting social struggle into formal “solutionism,” all merely delaying the advent of total revolution. But there is a way that such an absolute perspective lends itself to quietism as much as activism. The avant-gardes necessarily fail, but more to the point, they never give up.

Here there are some competing methods to choose from and think about developing in the twenty-first century. The practice of quotation, the standard academic method, becomes optional. The one I know the most about is détournement, but there are others. This comes down to a question of what one considers form.

Twentieth-century Marxist aesthetics was obsessed with formal methods. They took the means of production of art to be more or less given. Within the work that such a process produced, they sought to transform the experience of the work by attention to its formal properties.

The dominant idea here is that an audience can be brought to the point of a radical cognition by a formal procedure. It could be one that interrupts an expectation. It could in this sense be negative. Or it could affirm another formal principle altogether, one that refuses those which simply mirror the dominant ideological forms congruent with the commodity.

What I will here call the style of interruption or negation might be thought of as the school of Adorno. The task of the work here is to refuse the extorted reconciliation of the culture industry, where every song begins and ends on the same note, where every story is a happy ever after. The aesthetic, as Jay Bernstein maintains, in the spirit of Adorno, is the domain of the qualitative, of that which is excluded in advance from the calculus of exchange value.

But there are other aesthetics with which Marxism has had a dalliance. The epic theater of Brecht ends up in the alienation-effect produced in later Godard films. The historical novel, which for Lukacs narrates the totality of historical action as seen from the margins by minor characters, becomes the historical cinema of Visconti.

A particularly interesting case is the art of the popular front, of the counter-hegemonic struggle for cultural leadership, in Gramsci’s terms. Here one might locate some but certainly not all of Pasolini. His books and films combine an historical axis with a kind of theological one. His work, unlike that of bourgeois novels and films, does not exclude the heavens as the locus of a popular affect of justice and redemption. There is of course something backward-looking here. It is not pre-bourgeois elite art that is the source of the non-commodifed culture, as in Adorno, but the pre-capitalist underclass.

In his later work, Pasolini despairs for the disappearance of these popular sources of another way of life. His last work, the unfinished queer-Marxist masterpiece Petrolio, pointed to a path beyond this. Interestingly enough, it also concerns the oil and gas industry, and gave a convincing answer for the involution of the state into its concentrated spectacle form, as described by Debord. In Petrolio it is clear that the state monopoly industries such as oil and gas are producing a new form of state-capital monopoly formation, in which—contrary to the neoliberal proposition—state and capital are inextricably entwined.

Pasolini’s genius was to become at one and the same time a marginal and a popular figure, a one-man dialectic of the singular and the universal. But his work still inhabited the confines of the culture industry, which is decidedly in retreat. The culture industry is giving way to what I call the vulture industry. The latter no longer even feels the need to make spectacle for us to consume. We are supposed to make it for each other—unpaid—while it collects the rent. To understand this trajectory, the school of détournement, which asked formal questions in a more basic way, might have its merits.

One can start here with a vulgar and reductionist reading of Benjamin, particularly the infamous text on mechanical reproducibility. Here Benjamin began to grasp the potential of the cinema as a means of production of perception. The mass-produced image is partway to an organization of the senses through which the people really could make history, at least with the perceptions of their own choosing, if not quite the means. The elasticity of tempo and scale and the capacity to edit perceptions into narrative, metaphoric, and conceptual patterns; all point to a non-rationalist means by which labor could be self-organized into a totality able to perceive itself making its own history, in and against nature, and through all these senses and sense-making forms of cognition. Benjamin grasped the potential, and what is essential, about technological prosthesis for forward movement in history. Tragically, of course, none of this came to pass.

Interestingly, Platonov had similar ideas, and like Benjamin drew on short-lived experiments in the Soviet ‘20s. His factory of literature anticipates the collaborative filtering of the Nettime era, and is still a bold plan for balancing a distributed with a hierarchical means of discovering and filtering images, stories, moods, and ideas out of everyday discourse, and organizing them into synthetic, multi-authored perceptions of the state of historical development.

It was Debord who articulated the concept of these practices as détournement. His model was the great late-romantic poetry of Lautréamont—one of the patron saints of the Francophone avant-gardes. Debord and his comrades quite correctly saw how the copying of cultural material, its correction in the direction of hope, and the combining of different materials, were all components of a practice as yet to be invented, via which the people could make, if not history, then the precondition for it: the history of their own culture as a collective and collaborative project.

Détournement as practiced by the avant-gardes is no respecter of authorship or copyrights. It treats the past not as an apostolic succession but as a literary communism, or in today’s terms, a commons. It breaks down the Chinese firewalls of information recuperated by intellectual property. From Kathy Acker to Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith and Stewart Home, this avant-garde has evolved as a counter-economy of practices which grasp through their actions what the abstraction of information has made of the cultural archive.

What these more recent practices highlight is the transformation, from the era of the culture industry to the vulture industry, of the whole space of culture as détournement. It became a social movement in all but name in the late twentieth century. Not too far into the twenty-first, détournement was recuperated into commodity production, with the capture of the energies of the gift culture of information into higher-order forms of capture. Here the more subtle techniques of latter-day practitioners are instructive. Goldsmith’s Ubu.com, for example, an invaluable compendium of avant-garde audio and video, is simply not visible with certain search engines, to prevent them from recuperating access to this material as a basis for its ad-based business model.

There are of course other avant-garde strategies. Reaching back to the hyperbolic language of the futurists are the Accelerationists. This has its roots in a school that appropriated Marx not into a Hegelian or a Spinozist register, but a Nietzschean one: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. After the failure of May ‘68 as a negation of capital, they sought other means of thinking its supersession. Deleuzian desiring-machines, Lyotardian libidinal economy, Baudrillard’s fatal strategies were all procedures that affirm and push forward the dynamics of capital.

The first wave of Accelerationist thought and art pushes these strategies even further. A second wave interestingly reacts against the Nietzschean note, and tries to reconstruct a rationalist and non-populist project that still seeks the reconciliation of reason and the real, but no longer in the guise of human reason. For the rational to meet the real is to shed the fleshy impediments of the human and integrate it into machine cognition. (Although the Accelerationists appear not to know it, this was J.D. Bernal’s program of the ‘20s.)

This is still an interesting project, if somewhat limited in scope. It usefully abandons the now rather vain hope in an agent of negation, and bets the farm on the forward momentum of what it still largely imagines to be an eternal capitalism. The focus on a hyper-rationalism seems at one and the same time a useful corrective to the Nietzschean excesses of the late twentieth century, although one which seems curiously resistant to thinking its own will to power.

There is a promise of a re-engagement with the natural sciences here, but conceived in rationalist fashion, and making something of a fetish of mathematics. It moves in quite the opposite direction to that line that runs from Marx and Ernst Mach to Bogdanov to Haraway, which calls for a rather more empirical engagement with the means of production of the natural sciences, not to mention with science studies, which over the last thirty years has produced a convincing body of work that fatally compromises any attempt to impose a philosophical rationality on the sciences. (Of that work, Donald MacKenzie seems least hostile to Marxism.)

Strangely enough, the irrationalist strand of Accelerationism held out one possible set of concepts which has been all but erased. One might think that of all the avant-gardes, nobody belongs more in the dustbin of history than the Surrealists. Yet they were one of the conditions of possibility for Bataille’s general economy. The brilliance of this was grasping the centrality of the unreturnable gift of sunlight to the biosphere. The beginnings of a general theory of the Anthropocene reside in that insight. Alan Stoeckl, in his book Bataille’s Gift, and Reza Negarestani, in Cyclonopedia, independently opened up a useful line of thought on this, one which the latter appears unfortunately to have abandoned.

The Surrealist note lives on too in various attempts to construct a mytho-poetics for the times. The followers of Benjamin might fall into this camp; these include Susan Buck-Morss and Esther Leslie, whose work on Soviet utopias and German romantic science, respectively, open up new perspectives. Meanwhile, Michael Lowy, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, and Robin D. G. Kelley have kept the flame of those who connected a non-Stalinist Marxism to the surrealist project of the revolution of desire. To this Edward Soja adds the thirdspace of urban hybridity, and Andy Merrifield his own flavor of magical-Marxism.

In a strange way, the surrealist impulse became, of all things, analytic rather than mythic, in the hands of the Lacanians. The Lacanian approach used to be in dialogue with cultural Marxism, but lately seems to have become independent of it. Castoriadis bent this back toward a creative rather than analytic project, in his concept of the imaginary institution of society. Chiara Bottici refines this in her studies of the imaginal, and Stephen Duncombe’s work contains a wealth of examples of attempts to work the affective and mythic terrain of American culture in progressive directions. What remains to be done here perhaps is to connect the practices of liberation in content of the surrealists with the liberation of form that descends from the Situationists and others under the sign of détournement.

The legacy of the Situationists points in at least two directions. One is a theory and practice of détournement. The other is a radical critique of capital and spectacle that points toward total revolution. The latter strand is advanced by groups advocating communization. This entails a trenchant critique of all popular front strategies, a refusal of the party form, a rejection of the working class as itself a compromised product of capital, and an analysis which insists on an immanent communism.

One version of this has Heideggerian overtones—the Tiqqun group, already mentioned. The Endnotes collective, and the French groups it draws upon, do not.  Endnotes No. 1 begins with a root and branch rejection of the politics of the popular front. It is an interesting analysis, but if these are indeed times of neofascism, then tactically I think what needs more development are ideas and sentiments that can scale, rather than such incendiary analyses, bracing though they are. There is, however, a lively poetics growing out of this strand at Commune Editions.

Needless to say, such avant-gardes, when not collapsing into academia, now collapse towards the art-world. The Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings, and Claire Fontaine would be representatives of that tendency. We all have to make a living, I guess. As Chris Kraus has argued, the art-world, for all its problems, might be more open as a space in which to do critical work than the academy.

It does not seem inappropriate to me to consider the now forty year old project of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde. Besides being a key port of entry for French and Italian (post)Marxist thought into the Anglophone world, Sylvère Lotringer’s selection, translation, editing, and presentation of that work seems to me an advanced work of détournement in its own right. It gathered momentum by selecting elements of Foucault, Baudrillard, Guattari, Lyotard, and others that might serve as tools for articulating a radicalism not of labor but of desire.

This gave rise to a second moment of this avant-garde, which absorbed the conceptual force of that work, but took issue with the universal and masculinist master-speakers who presumed to speak in the place of what was supposed to be a horizontal and plural field of radical or resistant desiring-machines. Kathy Acker was a parallel development here, but it was Chris Kraus, both as Semiotext(e) editor and author, who took this turn. Her work connected both to a distinctive, non-academic kind of feminism, and also to questions about the art-work as work, and hence of labor. As seen on the ground, this labor attempts to create aesthetic practices which no longer make art, but aim higher than that, at forms of survival.

Failure is a keynote of Krausian avant-garde practice. Here it echoes a note from the queer avant-gardes of the early twenty-first century. Judith (aka Jack) Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure transmutes Stuart Hall’s cultural Marxist low theory into a queer one. José Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia repurposes the theo-Marxism of Ernst Bloch, and Kevin Floyd does the same for Lukács in the Reification of Desire. While these are academic works, they draw on the twenty-first-century spaces that took the place of bohemias, and the avant-gardes of sexual politics that have endured, survived, and sometimes even managed to flourish there in dim times.

A certain sensibility that might be called Marxist has also had a role in creating an African diasporic avant-garde that has some independence from forms of both Black nationalism and also more potentially essentialist forms of Negritude. Cedric Robinson made race rather than class a central dimension of a global analytic of struggle. Paul Gilroy elaborated this into a workable concept of the Black Atlantic. Isaac Julien, building like Gilroy in part on Stuart Hall, is just one of a number of artists who have been able then to work in a transnational, diasporic space outside of both national and Black nationalist formations. This might be just one instance of the internationalist commitment of Marxism and its interesting and productive after-effects.

The poetics journal Lana Turner has been conducting a very interesting dialogue about the avant-garde, including many crucial voices which decenter or reject such a construct. There is as yet no synthesis of those avant-gardes whose locus is the perceptual, the technical, the rational, and the corporeal. Perhaps there never will be. And yet perhaps one role that Marxism(s) might find here is in negotiating between the fragments of practice. It is a question of seeing in this a Marxism which can be in-between various positions rather than above them.

Marxism may not work any more as a Jamesonian high theory, as a kind of master-code that always rises above other critical and constructive practices. Rather than specialize in being a meta-discourse, perhaps it might instead specialize in being a translation practice. Here Emily Apter’s insistence on the limits to world literature and the nuances of translation practice might be a good model. This of course calls for a quite different kind of capacity with language. In relation to the avant-gardes, it might mean a Marxism that tries to grasp each in turn as certain kinds of worker or hacker practices, in and against certain particular means of production of aesthetic form and value.

 

6. The Party and the Popular Front

I am agnostic on the question of organizational form. As an ex-communist, I consider my “party” to be those who are also now in some sense “ex”: excommunicated, expelled, or just extremely indifferent to such experiences.

All politics is local, so I can only remark on what I can see around me in New York. I admire those who, like Jodi Dean, want to revive the party form. I also admire those who, like David Graeber, have thought and practiced contemporary forms of horizontality. Astra Taylor, Nick Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross, and others developed Strike Debt out of the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street, in various ways showing how activist scholarship can work. The journal Tidal is a product of this movement. But in an era when none of the once-mighty political forms of the left are functioning particularly well in New York, or the United States more broadly, it seems to me prudent to support all attempts to build something new in their wake.

However, it does seem timely to ask what might take the place, not just of the party, but of the popular front. I take seriously the view that the current situation is not just a form of neoliberalism, but of neofascism. The ruling class of our time does not see any reason to make concessions to labor, given its disorganized state, and has successfully disorganized and scattered the critical impulses of other class fractions. It is intent now on pressing its advantage.

It may have no choice. The engines of development of commodification appear in some ways to be stalled. The ideology of “disruption” and “innovation” and the “pivot” seem to be designed to mask the real absence of a coherent project of creative destruction on the part of the ruling classes. They can see no way forward but by cannibalizing those parts of the social formation in the over-developed world that are its support systems. Thus education, heath, public housing, transport, and social security—those social-democratic achievements which are also the conditions of viability of the over-developed world—are all one after another to be sacrificed to the perpetual growth engines of commodification.

This is where the Situationist term (also used by Paul Gilroy) of over-development has its uses. The United States, Japan, and Western Europe are not a developed norm against which under-development is to be thought. Rather they are an over-development, a process of commodification gone past some point where a qualitative transformation might have rescued these social formations from an impending neo-fascist fate.

Apart from their centrality to finance and capacity to project military violence, the states of the over-developed world may no longer be all that central to world history. It may be time to think the problems of living in them as problems of a periphery. I think it is the case that in the over-developed world, a new kind of vectoral ruling class emerged, one that tries to control the whole production and consumption chain through ownership and control of information. But it is not necessarily the case that this is a leading historical development. It may yet prove to be a reactive one.

It is crystal clear that as we go deep into the Anthropocene, a radical transformation of the means of production has to happen. This is not just a question of swapping out energy systems, but also a full deployment of information systems at least partly on a basis other than a market-based quantification. Abstraction has reached the point where it has commodifed, and thus alienated, all the resources of the earth. Thus while at one end the political question is always local, on the other we urgently need an approach to organization at the scale of the gamespace of global infrastructure itself.

How does one occupy an abstraction? That was the question I had about Occupy Wall Street as I was sitting in the middle of it. Unlike Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek I would not oppose the large-scale organizational question to the small-scale one. Thinking scale in this manner may actually be something that the development of an information infrastructure of the vectoral era has in fact quite transformed. This is an era where infrastructure is not a little network of big things so much as a big network of little things. The question is how to transform that in a direction that can sustain life, that can put an end to unnecessary suffering – to give the old Fabian formula.

Here the Marxist strand of geographic and urban studies may have its uses, in rethinking the spatial forms in which local and global, concrete and abstract might interact. Henri Lefebvre is a key figure here in thinking capital as the production of space. This approach was much criticized by Manuel Castells, who usefully maps the transition from a global space of places to a space of flows. Lefebvre was then revived by David Harvey, although all of this might contribute to the politics of the right to the city.

How vectoral power changes cities was already becoming clear in Mike Davis on policing, Sharon Zukin on gentrification, and Saskia Sassen on the service labor of the new global city. Andrew Ross has rather presciently shown how environmental justice plays out in a city like Phoenix, likely to be particularly hard-hit by climate change. Maggie Grey tracks the farm labor of upstate New York to show how the productive space on which the city depends extends way beyond it. Owen Hatherley’s revisionist history rescues from oblivion the achievements of social democratic public housing.

Rethinking forms of politics, or forms of action after politics, for the overdeveloped world might call for a placing of the city back in its geographic field, into what Gearóid ó Tuathail calls a critical geopolitics. While not explicitly Marxist, I think there is a #Marx21c aspect to the work of Keller Easterling and Benjamin Bratton. Here the old diagram of base and superstructure acquires new layers. Bratton’s concept of the stack shows how information technology functions to delaminate geographic, economic, and political layers. Easterling’s studies of free trade zones and broadband infrstructure outside the old metropolitan core shows how the patterns crafted by digital design embed themselves directly into vast tracts of territory, creating cut-and-paste urbanisms, sometimes overnight.

Thus in the dialectic between party and spontaneity perhaps what we are seeing is an effect of relatively new geographies over which the vector can articulate quite distinctive relations between the local and the global and between the abstract and the particular. A #Marx21c urgently needs tools with which to think the contours of the infrastructure in which all forms of social life are embedded—particularly at a time when none of them seem sustainable or resilient.

There are, and will necessarily be, many different kinds of #Marx21c. It is not a tradition, or an apostolic succession. It is a field of differences and similarities, which unfold outwards from the moment of Marx in all directions. The means via which contemporary Marxisms relate to the past is also plural. Not all take the form of quotation, that legitimating mark of academic modes of discourse. It will necessarily develop all four modes discussed in this essay (which probably map onto the four discourses Jodi Dean extracts from Lacan), but which may well create yet others.

What the times call for is not yet another Marxist theory, of whatever stripe. Rather, the pressing question is one of forms of communication between different practices in the name of Marx. For too long these have been captured and separated by academic modes of communication. Let’s invent a new theoretical practice as Althusser called it, but one where his rather controlling, top-down approach remains optional. Let’s have a proliferation of low theories instead.

Finally, let me hasten to add that the mapping offered in this essay is personal and provisional. It is based entirely on memory, and a closer engagement with any of the texts mentioned here will reveal resources not even touched upon in this account. We have hardly even begun to explore what these and other veins of Marxist work might yield by way of crystals of insight, when set to the task of understanding and engaging with the present situation.

Leaving the Twentieth Century

January 10, 2015 - 16:42

What might a Marx for the twenty-first century, a #Marx21c, look like? Perhaps as different to that of the nineteenth century as this era is from that one. These are some personal, impressionistic reflections on what that might look like.

The Marxism that I know is part of my life through four kinds of experience: the party, the popular front, the avant-gardes and the university. Each offered its own possibilities and limits for Marxist thought and practice.

My apprenticeship was the period from the late ‘70s through to the ‘90s. It was a time of modifiers. The existing language for describing the situation accreted a layer of suffixes and adjectives, but the language itself didn’t change. The situation was postmodern, or postfordist, or it was late capitalism, and a bit later it would become neoliberal.

None of these are adequate descriptions. The situation could only be named structurally, with the modified term denoting only that it was somehow different to the other term, to the recent past. It wasn’t modern, Fordist capitalism any more. Not the least problem for #Marx21c is to create a new language.

Back to the ‘70s: I was really a pretty poor candidate for cadre training, but I learned a lot from party school. The Marxist texts we studied had at one and the same time to be grasped abstractly and also applied to the situation at the time. It was in retrospect a good training for my attempts to be a writer in three quite distinct kinds of media, and as three different kinds of Marxist.

As a journalist, writing for daily newspapers or the radio in Australia, I belonged to the late twentieth-century version of the popular front. The task was first and last to show how certain local and particular struggles connected, how feminism, gay liberation, the environment, anti-racism and the class struggle were not the same, not reducible one to the other, but could be coordinated.

Having read some Antonio Gramsci at party school came in handy. He had already thought the question of hegemony, of rule by consent. He had thought the role of intellectuals, in either maintaining a national culture or challenging it, of articulating a national-popular counter-hegemonic bloc.

Maybe it was because the party no longer existed, or could no longer exist, that I also spent some time in avant-gardes of one sort or another, putting out our little journals and tracts and manifestos. This involved learning quite a bit about the print trades, about how to make video or radio. It was a great education in the tactics and mechanics of communication. Then the internet and computers came along, and it got even more fun.

Having read some Guy Debord in the context of the avant-gardes had its uses here. He had already thought about how to keep a group interesting, how to use theory as total critique, how to use the resources of art for something other than just more art.

But being only a passably good journalist and a quite terrible artist, quite naturally I ended up in the academy. I had the good fortune to fall into teaching media, which at the time could be pretty much anything you wanted it to be.

Having read some Althusser as a student came in handy. He appeared to have a method for working in a specialized academic field and yet assessing work there against a general Marxist method. And yet having never really intended to end up in academia, I had not really educated myself for such a vocation.

As an undergraduate in the ‘80s, I studied with whoever seemed interesting in each department, usually with Marxists or post-Marxists or other aberrant thinkers. I had rarely gone to class. I was too busy being a not particularly effective organizer. I spent my study time in the Current Serials section of the library, following the debates across a number of diverse journals, from New Left Review to Economy and Society to Screen.

In the academy back then it was amusing to talk to the Althusserians, who said that Marx’s theory of alienation was nonsense, but not to worry, as the theory of surplus value was still solid. Then if one talked to the neo-Ricardians, they would then tell you that the theory of surplus value was nonsense, but not to worry, as Marx’s theory of alienation was untouched by this! It was as if each of the disciplines were slowly digesting the whole extra-academic scope and sweep of Marx’s thought, and making it safe for the protocols of their particular field.

To understand how this worked, it certainly helped to read some Foucault. My introduction to his work was an unusual one. Homemade translations were pressed into my hands by self-described “nasty street queens” who had come up through Gay Liberation. This was, among other things, an important avant-garde, with a clear critique of the institutions of knowledge/power.

Having ended up in the academy in the ‘90s, I wrote some popular front books, about the globalization of the news media event, about the culture wars, about the popular as understood in social democracy and popular culture. But these were rearguard actions. We were losing. What could be described provisionally as the neo-fascism so prevalent in in our own times was starting to establish itself already.

The principle affect of so-called neo-liberal culture is that for me to win, you have to lose. It’s a zero-sum game. This is already a blow to any culture of solidary, be it social-democratic or otherwise. Neo-fascism is much worse than that. For me to win, it is not enough that you lose. You have to suffer. Identity comes from the other’s suffering, even death. This was already becoming again a legitimate thought in the ‘90s. If the Balkan Wars could teach the West anything, it was that neofascism was at the heart now of our cultures, too.

But that was the ‘90s. I emigrated to New York in 2000. I no longer had access to a national popular cultural space. As a passably articulate, semi-educated white man from the provinces, there was practically nothing I could not do in Australia. So I wrote for a national newspaper. Broadcast on national radio. Appeared before the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of a team giving a report on the internet and public policy. I was not so much a public intellectual as a public idiot. It was easy to appear in the hegemonic space and say something idiosyncratic, in and against it.

I exchanged that for a life of teaching in upstate New York all week, and then driving the four hours back to Brooklyn. It was a life of intellectual isolation. But it was a good time to try to tackle two things together: One was an accounting for what the avant-gardes I had experienced in the ‘90s had been all about, and the other was to use that rather marginal but precocious form of practice to rethink what a critical theory might be for the new century.

A word on those avant-gardes. Sydney back in the eighties had been an excellent host for the production of avant-gardes, because it still had a bohemia. It was cheap to live in the city, because in those days, people with money still preferred the suburbs. There was enough work for when you needed it, in commercial media or the “entertainment” trades. You could scrape by on unemployment benefits or the government student allowance so long as you worked on the sly a bit. There were plenty of big, cheap communal households, and not a few squats. So one could devote the bulk of one’s time to reckless living, trying to make art in the media of one’s choice, or trying to change the world.

The down side: Sydney was – and is – provincial. The nearest global capital was Tokyo. Others brought back reports from the old pilgrimage centers of London and Paris, or the more recent one of New York, but it was Tokyo were I went to learn how provincial I was. I never learned the language. I taught myself enough French to keep up with new writing, but it was the psychogeographic study of the everyday life of Tokyo, combined with reading as much Akira Asada in translation as I could find, that for me was an intimation that this could no longer be called “late capitalism” any more. It was early something else.

That was the ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s there was the internet. It was suddenly much easier and cheaper to keep in contact with the bohemian node in the interesting cities of the world, to know of and play with their avant-gardes, or at least those that were oriented towards questions of media. But then aren’t all the avant-gardes that matter not really about literature or painting, but media? The Futurists were about media, and so was Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, mail art, and the Situationist International. And now one could make contact with their successors via dial-up modem.

The avant-gardes of the ‘90s went by many fluctuating names. It helped to have read some Deleuze and Guattari. It really did seem rhizomatic. There were deterritorializations but also reterritorializations. These days it is assumed we were naïve about all this, but look back through the archives and you’ll find this clearly was not so. The internet avant-gardes lived through the Balkan wars, through the first internet stock market  and bust, and through the machinations of state and corporate telecoms. Before Snowden’s leaks about the NSA was Echelon, a global internet surveillance project, rumors of which had leaked.

Among the avant-gardes of the ‘90s, I felt closest in this world to the art, theory, and politics hackers of Nettime, or nettime.org. It was based on a listserv, and deliberately set itself against the atheoretical techno-optimism emanating out of Northern California. In the theory world, there were two extreme positions, both resolutely non-Marxist, but both insisting on a kind of unidirectional liquidation of the old social formation. On the one extreme, Nick Land’s delirious optimism; on the other, Arthur Kroker’s cool pessimism. But more interesting to me were those who were looking more closely at avant-garde practices, and building concepts that might account for the novel features of a world made over by an emerging digital means of mediation.

It was useful in this context to read some Geert Lovink. A Nettime co-founder, he came out of the squatting scene in Amsterdam and Berlin, and spent the ‘90s travelling Europe and the world making connections and writing astute reports on the successes and failures of attempts to build an avant-garde culture or politics on the new tools. He co-founded the nettime.org listserv in 1995.

Over the next five years, Nettime would host a critique of leftism (i.e. Frankfurt school media theory), formulate the practice of tactical media, spawn and reject net.art, and invent a practice for itself of collaborative filtering of texts. It existed in a prickly series of intersections with cyber-feminist and anti-colonial listservs such as Faces, 711, and Undercurrents, and lists in languages other than English.

And so: after emigrating to New York in 2000, I was cut off from the popular front activities that occupied a lot of my time in the ‘90s. I simply had no intuitive understanding of American cultural politics, and no entrée to its media spaces even if I had. But it seemed like a good time to try to theorize what the avant-gardes had been up to, and what they implied for #Marx21c. This resulted in two books, A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007). 

 

This post is the first installment of a four-part essay.

Coming Soon: Colloquies

January 10, 2015 - 12:03

Over the next several weeks, Arcade will introduce Colloquies, the feature we’ve developed over the past year with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  A new model of intellectual exchange, Colloquies gathers recent and forthcoming work on an emerging topic, from informal to peer-reviewed.  The feature intends to enrich conversations in the humanities by sharing ideas across modalities (e.g. books, journals, lectures, multimedia) and institutional boundaries; perhaps most important, it invites its readers to become contributors.  Among the first set of Colloquies are “The Nature of Literary Being,” curated by Nancy Ruttenburg; “Modernism’s Unfinished Business,” curated by Rey Chow; "Imagining the Oceans," curated by Margaret Cohen; and “21st-Century Marxisms,” curated by Adam Morris.  We’re eager to show Colloquies to the world, and will welcome your participation.

Should Comedy be a Religion?

January 8, 2015 - 14:41
Tags:  Comedy, theology, television, divine grace

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I )

Let's try a thought experiment. What if comedy were a religion?

 

Instantly theology would get a lot simpler. No need to defend the lifestyles of ancient desert-dwelling zealots, no need to imagine an afterlife or complicated cycles of rebirth, no need to evangelize with the sword when you could simply try to make your audience laugh. For a postmodern subject this idea is super-appealing. To take a potentially serious and tragic question like the meaning of human experience, and treat it lightly or irreverently: isn't this something we already do well? Our playful and silly works of art are already among our most valued: we defend The Interview against malicious hackers, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo against murderous terror. Aren't the terrorists themselves guilty of blasphemy?

The spiritual benefits of Comedyism seem as appealing as the political. Laughter cuts through every spiritual chain—depression, anxiety, isolation, fear. It feels free when you can laugh about something rather than being crushed by it. Laughter can build a community, a communion of the suddenly-surprised. It lights up the brain; it reverses the chain of command; it gives you sympathy with the outsider. Comedy works best when the oppressed mock their oppressors, when fixed gender roles are reversed, when lovers are reunited and the fool becomes a king. Everything wrong is made right for an hour, here in the green world of Arcadia.

But maybe it's too hasty to imagine that a religion of Comedy would be politically progressive, precisely suited to modern tastes. Satire can make fun of entrenched hierarchies, but it's just as easily turned to making fun of stupid weirdos who offend against some standard of taste, or mocking anybody with a new idea. And the cruelty! Maybe we are cheating death when we laugh at cruelty, folly, and humiliation—or maybe we just like dumping on losers. Thank Comedy those people aren't us! There but for the grace of Comedy! And ugh, the gross parts—the shit and the mud and the fart jokes. Lower than that, even—mockery of celebrities, the cheapest laugh.

Comedy may be liberatory, but it's not a democracy. There is no equality in comedy. There is a priestly caste: those who can make others laugh. It's a spiritual gift bestowed absolutely without merit. What is more existentially unfair than being born without a sense of humor? And like other kinds of communities, the Church of Comedy is built (at least a little) around exclusion. Laughter can hurt and divide, while it binds others together—the ones in on the joke. The pain of being laughed at; the pain when no one laughs at your jokes—these are a form of social death. Those who succeed though are briefly Nietzschean supermen: the brave and amazing, for at least ten seconds.

Comedy doesn't get the big movie awards—it's fleeting, it's low, it can't be sold abroad. It's hard to translate across cultures, and the contemporary references that create instant community can also decay quickly, leaving the joke pointless and uncool. Telling a joke is like playing with fire: one moment you've created a fountain of delight, the next you did something wrong and you're about to get ripped apart on twitter (or worse). You can spend your whole life devoted to it, but with each joke you have to start completely fresh. ("Dying is easy; comedy is hard.") Works and grace don't always do the trick, so maybe the theology isn't so simple after all. Fallible, stupid, and yet joyful, comedy is a very human magic.

"I Crave the Law"

December 20, 2014 - 09:54
Tags:  Ferguson, I Can't Breathe, Black Lives Matter, justice, law

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I ) and Flickr (...

Act IV, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice takes place in a courtroom. Antonio, our relatively nondescript title character, cannot afford to pay back the loan he took from Shylock, and Shylock is asking the Duke to honor their contract, which grants him a pound of Antonio’s flesh in the event of forfeiture. Portia, acting as Antonio’s lawyer for complicated reasons regarding the play’s love-plot, grants Shylock’s legal right to the flesh but asks him to forego his claim in the name of mercy. It’s a famous speech: Portia opposes divine mercy, something like grace, to temporal justice, urging Shylock to consider “That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation” (IV.1.197-8). We’re all sinners, in other words, redeemed only by God’s mercy -- so isn’t it our duty to show mercy and forgiveness to our fellow men?

     A fine, poetic speech, 22 lines long, full of lovely metaphors and rhetorical paradoxes. Shylock’s response is curt -- two lines, two sentences -- and much less often quoted, yet has always stuck in my head with particular force:

“My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,

The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (IV.1.204-5, emphasis added).

     Shylock’s position in this scene is easy to read as cold and cruel -- and Portia isn’t wrong: he’s not being merciful, not showing any sympathy for Antonio as a person, not turning the other cheek. In the context of the play, this is meant to evoke a conventional contrast between Judaism and Christianity -- between the letter and the spirit of the law -- that Shakespeare sometimes reinforces and sometimes calls into question. Momentarily bracketing the political significance of this scene for Renaissance England, though, I want to use it as a jumping-off point for some reflections on the current situation of the justice system in America.

     “I crave the law”: the phrase has always struck me for its surprising vulnerability and emotional urgency. We Americans -- we white Americans, for reasons that will become clear in a moment -- are used to thinking of the law much as Portia does: a dispassionate system that disregards personal attachments. We respect the law, we honor the law, we obey the law -- but crave it? This passionate yearning not only feels oddly mismatched with the dry legal code; it also seems to suggest that the speaker lacks the law, is somehow outside of or excluded from it. For us, by contrast, the law is as pervasive and life-giving as the air we breathe; we don’t need to crave it -- indeed, we barely need to think about it.

     For us, the law is the air. But what about those Americans who, as we’ve been hearing with increasing urgency, can’t breathe? Though the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner caused intense pain and anger throughout the African-American community, there’s a reason, I think, that the protests began in full force only after grand juries failed to indict Brown’s and Garner’s murderers. White Americans, whose rights the law is built to safeguard, know that having laws does not mean that no crimes will ever be committed; it does not even mean that no criminals will ever go free. But we expect that those crimes will be acknowledged as crimes -- that the law will condemn those who break it, who break us. We expect, in other words, that in the event of a murder, the law will reassure us: “your life matters.” When Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo were not put to a trial, the law spoke just as clearly to African-Americans: “your life doesn’t.” The distinction here is important: it’s not that Wilson and Pantaleo were found innocent of a crime. That verdict would have been wrong, but it would have been a verdict. What happened, instead, was that the law essentially declared: “the murder of African-Americans is not even a crime.”

     There are surely some white Americans who actually agree with this sentiment, but I’m not speaking to them. I’m talking, instead, to those who agree that Wilson and Pantaleo should have been indicted, but are uncomfortable with the size, urgency, and radicalism of the demonstrations across the country. Or to those who feel that these cases are attributable to a relatively small number of racist cops rather than to a broken system. Or to those who have their doubts about the legality of Brown’s and Garner’s killings, but feel that if the victims broke the law too -- even the pettiest of laws -- it somehow evens out. To these white people, I say: I know where you are coming from. The law feels just to us; we are more inclined to believe that an individual has transgressed than that the law itself is blind to such a fundamental crime as the taking of human life. It’s truly scary to think that the law could be so unequally enforced and prosecuted, but it’s equally scary to contemplate systemic change to the justice system, because what will become of our safety -- white people’s safety, right now the supreme good acknowledged by the law?

     And so some white people call for peace, restraint, quiet; we ask African-Americans to turn the other cheek, again; we ask them, in essence, to show us mercy. And here’s where Shakespeare comes in handy. He helps us see that only those who are already protected by the law can afford to show mercy. When the Jewish Shylock demands that the law be enforced equitably for all inhabitants of Venice, it is the Christians -- tacit beneficiaries of Venetian law -- who suddenly decide that law, after all, is not the most important thing; mercy is. In The Merchant of Venice, we feel this appeal for what it is: a bait-and-switch, a strategic attempt to shift the terms of a debate that Portia, on strictly legal grounds, would lose. Let’s be honest enough to recognize the same impulse in ourselves whenever we prioritize order over justice, when we try to transform righteous anger into subdued mourning. We, white Americans, are sheltered by the law, and can therefore imagine that we don’t need it, that it doesn’t play a crucial role in establishing our personhood and valuing our lives. People of color, and especially African-Americans, know better. Personhood is not a gift from God or an innate quality; it is a process of continual recognition and care on the part of the state, the community, and, not least, the law. African-Americans have long been excluded from this process. Go read articles by activists of color, and listen to their speeches, and attend their marches; they know best how we can help them achieve justice. And as you watch the demonstrations unfold, stronger and more insistent every day, remember that the protesters aren’t marching against the law, but in its name. They call upon it. They crave it.

Beyoncé's Second Skin (Part II): How to Be ***Flawless

December 16, 2014 - 08:30
Tags:  Anne Cheng, Beyonce, female labor, feminism, music, Pop Culture, primitivism, surfaces

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, ...

Cross-posted to my blog.

I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion.

The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale?

     —"The Blanket," Moby Dick

In my previous post, I argued that Beyoncé: The Visual Album is a spectacle of occluded labor, putting on display not quite the labor nor its product but the hiding of that labor, the acts of partitioning (or what Emily Lordi called "boundaries") that make for Beyoncé's whiz-bang she-can-do-it-all appeal.

As I suggested earlier, this is not just a matter of demystifying care work, sex work, beauty work. It's not a Dove ad. All of this work is crucially bound up in time, from the "forty-five minutes to get all dressed up" to the ironies of the bonus track, "Grown Woman," wherein adulthood allegedly liberates you to do "whatever I want." This is particularly evident in the repeated references to Beyoncé's childhood hometown, Houston, and in footage of Beyoncé performing as a child, which all insist that one is not born, but rather becomes, Beyoncé.

Josephine Baker

Here I want to draw on Anne Cheng's analysis of Josephine Baker, and especially of Baker's representation as a shiny, metallic object in her studio photographs:

This is indeed the first time that black skin is, and can be, glamorized. But the point here is not just that Baker assumes a look that has traditionally and ideologically been reserved for white femininity—an amazing and notable fact in itself—but also, and more important, they raise a nexus of intriguing questions about the surfacism of black skin at the turn of the twentieth century. ... Her seminudity is invariably accompanied by three visual tropes that have become her visual signatures: animal fur, that almost ubiquitous gold cloth, and dark shadows. We can dismiss these ornamental details as the clichéd conflation between animalism and dark, racialized female sexuality. But by now we are sensitive to the complications of skin and surface in Baker's art. Does human skin (both literal and displaced by the tropes aforementioned) in these images act as decoration or cladding? Is 'blackness' ornament or essence? ... From her famous lacquered hair, known as the 'Baker-Do,' to the expanse of gleaming skin in her studio photographs, Baker sheen is an integral part of her iconography. (110-12)

Cheng's reading of the modernist surface that Baker's skin epitomizes—both nakedness and decoration—helps to make sense of the surfaces in BEYONCE: The Visual Album.

Beyoncé in "Partition." The nearly-nude body (but is that a leotard and tights? skin or cladding?) has the image of animal skin projected onto it. No attempt is made to suggest that this is "really" her skin: this is a surface among surfaces, subject to light.

The production of the glittering surface that is the Beyoncé-image is perhaps nowhere more ostentatiously performed than in "***Flawless," feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The very title announces the song's contradictions: flawless with asterisks, flawless with a footnote, with qualifications. Those asterisks are stars, too; they signify sparkle and shine, but the shiny thing here is "this diamond (flawless), my diamond (flawless), this rock (flawless), my rock (flawless)": the diamond ring that marks Beyoncé's marriage to Jay-Z, itself (regardless of the actual contents of their personal lives) its own kind of flawless performance. This is the song that announces Beyoncé's avowal of feminism. And one of its centerpieces is a gorgeous diamond wedding ring.

 

Elie Nadelman, Man in the Open Air, c. 1915

Here, Bildung, marriage, and feminism explode—and are catchy. Contradictions act like glinting facets, throwing off light. As in the Elie Nadelman sculpture "Man in the Open Air," bare skin and clothing form one smooth surface. As Cheng describes the sculpture, "He is hermetically sealed in a flawless skin that pours down from his bowler hat through his lithe figure down to his toes sinking comfortably into the metallic ground: body, vestment, environment as one" (9-10). It's not for nothing that Beyoncé wears four pairs of pantyhose while performing. Patting her flawless thighs, she says: "you've got to keep it supported!"

The song is framed by footage/audio of a television competition in which a child Beyoncé, as part of a girls' ensemble, earns only three stars for her performance, thereby losing the competition to long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew.*

Long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew

 

When the frame opens, we have only the child performance, which lays the ground for, and complicates, the opening lines: "I know when you were little girls"—this accompanied, in the video, by a comic Bambi-eyed blink—"You dreamt of being in my world/Don't forget it, don't forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches."

Who could be the addressee of these lines but Beyoncé herself? A Beyoncé, that is, who is not herself, one who is a (potentially plural) "you." Claudia Rankine has recently shown how mobile and activating the second person can be: here, self-estranging, Beyoncé addresses a plural "you" who has her history and who once aspired to become herself. "I know" becomes the admonishment to "you": "don't forget it/Respect that." Who are the "bitches" who should "bow down"? Whoever they are, they're being told to respect the past dreams of little girls.

When the song continues, it's to claim the right to "have it all": "I took some time to live my life/But don't think I'm just his little wife./ Don't get it twisted, get it twisted;/ This's my shit;/ Bow down bitches."

In the video, at the word "wife," Beyoncé raises her left hand, in a gesture that is, for her, iconic; this is the hand of "Single Ladies," ostentatiously unsingle and, indeed, well populated with rings, too many to make any particular ring stand out. What is being shown here is not a wedding ring but The Hand: she may be married, but first she made what was famously called "one of the best videos of all time" (*shrug*). This is a classic "having it both ways" moment, one of many throughout the album.** And, I want to suggest, "having it both ways"—self-determining feminist artist and objectified Hot Wife, both "I" and "you" in the same sentence,—is repeatedly figured through a "flawlessness" that is not the less hermetically sealed for being explicitly and visibly constructed.

Sampling a TEDx talk in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian-American novelist, notes reprovingly that "because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage," Beyoncé piles on signifiers of respectable feminism mere seconds after calling no one and everyone and possibly herself "bitches." And once Adichie has done her part and pronounced a definition of feminism, the outlandish claims to flawlessness begin: oneself, one's diamond ring (four times), one's looks tonight. The slightly rushed, out-of-time "goddamn, goddamns" that end these verses, the injunctions to "tell him" and "say," the marginally too-energetic dancing in these citations of flawlessness reveal the seams while also showing how tightly and impermeably they are sutured shut.

Nothing could be more ironic, then, than the repeated avowal, "I woke up like this": we've just seen the footage of her long struggle toward becoming Beyoncé. Even being "so goddamn fine" is a constructed process rooted in the family: "My mama taught me good home training; my daddy taught me how to love my haters; my sister told me I should speak my mind; my man made me feel so goddamn fine." The video closes with the awarding of the three stars that lead to the girls' defeat on Star Search. Yet those three stars don't direct personal history toward psychologization or interiority; rather, they route it toward surface and sparkle: three stars that become the shine of being "***flawless." Thus, as Emily Lordi puts it, "If I never expected to see so much of Beyoncé’s own skin in all my life, [neither] do I experience her self-exposure as self-revelation." It's her (flawless) skin and it isn't (it's four layers of stockings). Bildung here does not lead to "Reader, I married him," although she does marry him, unrepentantly, and shows off the diamond to boot. Rather, it leads to something closer to Thea's magnificent and forbidding impersonality at the end of The Song of the Lark: consummate artist, you cannot tell what and where is her skin. You just see the shine.

 

Beyoncé in "Ghost"

*No offense to the actual members of Skeleton Crew, who have gone on to haircuts and a better life.

**The album is sprinkled with strange intensified variations on being "barefoot in the kitchen"—inappropriate or reappropriated convergences of the kitchen and sex. In "Drunk in Love," "We woke up in the kitchen saying how the hell did this shit happen"; in the same song, Jay-Z's immortal and hilariously Seussian line "your breastesses are my breakfastes" turns sex back into feeding, even nursing. In "Jealous," Beyoncé sings, "I cooked this meal for you naked." Is that supposed to be sexy? Or just abject?

Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. Edited by Sherrill Harbison. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

About That Bass

November 16, 2014 - 15:27
Tags:  pop music, race, history

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, ...

     In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James asks why slave masters routinely tortured and injured their slaves, that is, why did they deliberately harm their own property? James reminds us that slave masters did so because no matter how much they degraded their possessions, the black people bearing the torture nonetheless retained the full measure of their humanity, with all of the dignity and resistance that went along with it. Slave masters beat and maimed their slaves in order to protect themselves. They sought through their daily violence to subdue the rebellious spirit of people in chains. Slave masters regularly whipped slaves for minor infractions and poured salt, alcohol, and hot ashes in the bleeding wounds. They poured burning wax over their bodies, poured boiling sugar cane on them, set them on fire, and roasted them over slow fires. They filled them with gunpowder and blew them up. They buried them in the ground and covered their heads with sugar or honey so that ants and flies would eat the flesh off their faces. They made them eat excrement or drink urine. Many of these tortures were common enough to have names: blowing up a slave was called “to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger.” And of course they forced them to work for the benefit of the master, forced them to have children to increase the master’s property, and forced them to try to accept their inferiority.        After the long history of torture and degradation that accompanied slavery and after emancipation, black people were kept in the margins of society through the continuation of racial terror. White mobs routinely tortured and killed black people for questioning white supremacy. Black people were denied their basic rights—the right to educate their children, the right to choose where they should live, the right to be paid fairly for their work, the right to move freely within society without fear of being abused, the right to be treated with human decency. The continuing disinvestment in black communities, the continuing criminalization of blackness, the continuing devaluing of black life are all part of a systemic problem that continues to push African-Americans to the periphery of American society.        Something that we may recognize as black culture emerged out of and to make sense of these social realities.  By black culture I mean more than the literature, art, or music made by black artists that has played such a key role in the development of American culture in the last four centuries. I mean more than the styles, postures, and sensibilities created in black milieus that have transformed American popular culture. I mean everything, including the distinctive vernaculars associated with African-American people. Everything, including how black people talk, is related to their coping with and sometimes even flourishing under the burden of white racial terror. White racial terror.        And so when I hear a wonderfully catchy song like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” I feel conflicted. The song is bubbly and happy, harmonic and rhythmic, playful and positive. Only a snob or a monster wouldn't like that song. But the song not only depends on the musical genres developed in the Black Atlantic, Trainor’s voice itself is inflected by black patterns of speech. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s a free country, as they say. But it does gall more than a little that the people that benefit today from the history of racial terror get to mimic the voices of the victims of that terror. White people can sound “black” if they want, no one can tell them otherwise. But they do so fully aware that they don’t have to bear the burden or the consequences of black history. So fuck those people.   Piece cross-posted with Pop Erratic

In Search of Lost Soundscapes

October 29, 2014 - 15:16

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images (I ...

I write in my rental apartment on Rue de Seine in Paris, while trying to simultaneously ignore the tolling of the church bells in my vicinity as well as the continuous barking of my next door neighbor, Georges. I have never seen him or his owners; however,  given the permanent scolding I hear, he must do things well behaved dogs should only do outside. After some weeks in the former abbey precincts (here), I can discern between the sharper and impatient tolling of Saint Germain, and the most distant, thunder-like bang of Saint-Sulpice and Notre Dame. Sometimes, I almost wait to hear the famous “cris de Paris” from Balzac’s works and I wish we had repositories of sounds. As in any other old European city, the Parisian soundscape is a palimpsest of still-active echoes, long gone or never heard of in other places, a chunk in an imaginary geologic audio-scale that visualizes the historical age of each ear stimulus.  According to the success of the app called Hanx Typewriter, there must be others who, like me, experience some sort of auditory nostalgia.In the age of soundbible.com, pdsounds.org, audioeffects.com, for instance, what impossible-to-reproduce, non-metallic sounds do I want to hear again, what experience do I want to relive?

One writer was at his best when describing, like a seismograph, the effects of the urban soundscape. Precisely at 1 am on 1 January 1909, Marcel Proust’s new year’s resolution or, better said, demand was about noise: "Je vous remercie de tout mon coeur de votre belle et bonne lettre et viens vous demander au contraire de laisser faire à partir de maintenant tout le bruit que vous pourrez" ("I send you my heartfelt thanks for your kind and beautiful letter and I ask you, on the contrary, as of now, to give up all possible noise…", my transl., 22). He writes this in Lettres à sa voisine (2013), a bouquin comprising the author’s recently discovered corespondence with Madame Williams, his upstairs neighbor on the third floor on 102 Boulevard Haussmann. She is the main culprit for Proust’s anguish; his direct complaints to her become the pretext for his inexhaustible observations of Parisian life at the turn of the 20th century and its lack of auditory quality. The tiny volume abounds in details on what we may see as acoustic phobia, a condition turning noise into a frightening and obnoxious character in its own right. Among bookish references to his own writing, Virgil, Victor Hugo, Gerard de Nerval, John Ruskin, Paul Verlaine, and a wide cohort of musicians, Proust finds time for repeated complaints -- in an otherwise unctuous epistolary manner -- about daily and nocturnal activities in his arrondissement. Neighbors can be a bearable nuissance, while construction workers, electricians and contractors, with their yellings, demolishements, and repairments are profoundly disturbing. Between two “evils,” Proust complicitously writes to Madame Williams, once these workers are gone after having become part of his routine noises, he would feel the ensuing silence as abnormal and would regret their ruckus as some sort of “lullaby” (ibid., 39).

In fact, in his magnum opus, À la Recherche du temps perdu, Proust internalizes and maps areas of external world by privileging hearing at the detriment of the other senses. The chasm between inner and outer self is rendered acute in his notations about domestic and public existence in the modern age, which feature noise as the main intrusive “benefit.” In Discourse Networks (1985), Friedrich Kittler articulates the relationship of technology to the modernist aesthetics via what he calls “Aufschreibesysteme.” We have well documented books about the adventures of the ear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the exposure to telephony, telegraphy, phonography, cinematography, and the technologies of speed, such as cars and trains. The two main realms in À la Recherche du temps perdu, represented by the upper class (the Guermantes) and the bourgeois (the Verdurins), are distinct in terms of social status, milieu and even geographical placement; the new age of modernity engulfs them both in the novel. In this context, external factors, such as aleatory sounds, are part of a newly created, free-for-all, deregulated public sphere, which belongs neither to aristocracy, nor to les nouveaux riches.

Metaphorically speaking, noise is what Michel Serres calls a parasite. This notion, in his words, an “intellectual operator,” has to do with any disturbances produced in a system. It coagulates itself at the crossroads among biology, anthropology, and communication theory (Serres, 18). Like parasites, random sounds always interrupt, distract, and are situated between order and disorder, as links in the chains of relations through which usable energy is spent. As such, noises are operators of irreversible time, the same lost time Proust laments, the time of nostalgia, entropy, and death.

Noise engenders listening strategies and acoustic associations. Various intermittent noises acquire an inherent synaesthesic quality for they are connected in the narrator’s mind to his perception of the change of seasons. The repetitive whistle of the trains in the night meddles with young Marcel’s bedtime routine and announces a brave new world of places and deeds. The banging of the window in the room where Albertine sleeps scares Marcel like a violation of a sacred silence. The bustle of the street functions as a fine-tuned membrane that mediates between the writing self and the outer world. In general, noises both separate and connect Marcel’s subjectivity to what he calls “la vie extérieure.” Even a banal hissing of a pipe has a value in constructing and deconstructing memory in the text :[i]           

Finally, as in his letters to Madame Williams, Proust sometimes imagines the total suppression of noises (“des suppressions de bruits qui ne sont pas momentanées”), such as, he says, in the case of people with auditory impairments who cannot perceive the crackling of wood in the fireplace or the rambling of the tramways on the street at regular intervals. The “chastity of silence” can turn objects into beings without cause. In this complex fictional world where every connection seems to be a necessary one, random sounds do not lead to narrative deciphering, unlike the madeleine that reminds of Combray, the paving-stone that recounts Venice or the steeples that make Marcel think about young girls. Gilles Deleuze associates sounds in general with his third circle of signs, those that are out there in need for a reading key. However, in À la Recherche du temps perdu, instead of the remembrance of other objects or beings, noise triggers the very process of mental self-focalization, the author’s and our own awareness of how involuntary memory functions.

            A longer version of this post will appear as “Cherchez... le bruit! Marcel Proust in Service of Modern Communication” in Inmediaciones de la Comunicación y las Humanidades, No. 9, Montevideo, Uruguay (Fall 2014) 

 

References

Proust, Marcel   -- Lettres à sa voisine, Paris: Gallimard, 2013

Deleuze, Gilles. Proust et les signes, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971

Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004

Serres, Michel. Le Parasite, Paris: B. Grasset, 1980

           

[i] The original reads:

Et au moment où je raisonnais ainsi, le bruit strident d’une conduite d’eau tout à fait pareil à ces longs cris que parfois l’été les navires de plaisance faisaient entendre le soir au large de Balbec, me fit éprouver (…) bien plus qu’une sensation simplement analogue à celle que j’avais à la fin de l’après-midi a Balbec (…) (Le Côté de Guermantes in Œuvres complètes, Paris: Edition Gallimard, Pléiade, 1987, 452)

As this passage has stayed in my mind since the time I took a Stanford graduate seminar devoted to Proust, I agree with Josh Landy’s interpretation of the water-pipe sound as a fading away hypotactic device for memory’s remarkable capacity of regaining sensations by way of signs: “Although the first part of the sentence makes it clear that this sound is what provides the link to today’s sensory experience (a similar noise, made by the plumbing in the Guermantes’ residence), it recedes, in the second half, into the background. (…) for involuntary memory is only possible on condition that the sensation is eminently forgettable, so that the intellect overlooks it and fails to record a (voluntary accessible) memory.” (Landy, 2004: 452). 

 

Eating and Thinking with Alice Corbin Henderson on Remembrance Day

October 22, 2014 - 10:48
Tags:  Remembrance Day, Alice Corbin Henderson, Poetry magazine, In Flanders Fields

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II...

One of my favorite parts of Willamette University is Zena Farm—a five-acre, student-operated farm that is part of a larger, 305-acre property that includes a forest and a small observatory in Oregon’s Eola Hills just about ten miles west of campus and Salem proper. Overseen and managed by W.U.’s Sustainability Institute, the farm is a laboratory for all sorts of cool interdisciplinary, place-based learning experiences. It sells produce at a campus farm stand during the school year. And it’s the site of the Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture—a residential, credit-granting program that mixes hands-on learning with field trips, independent projects, and academic study in the theories and philosophies of sustainable agriculture.

Out at the farm having lunch with students and the program leader one afternoon this summer, I happened to notice a handwritten poem (pictured here) tacked to the side of the refrigerator. It’s called “Kristen’s Grace” and reads:

The silver rain, the shining sun
The fields where scarlet poppies run
And all the ripples of the wheat
Are in the bread that we now eat.

And when we sit at every meal
And say our grace we always feel
That we are eating rain and sun
And fields where scarlet poppies run.

For me, the “scarlet poppies” of “Kristen’s Grace” immediately called to mind the poppies of John McCrae’s famous World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” (about which I blogged a year ago), and so, intrigued by the apparent distance between World War I and what’s generally going on at Zena, I decided to do a little poking around. Who was Kristen, and was this her poem or her grace—or both? Might the poppies really link back to McCrae, World War I, and the buddy poppy, or was I just reading like an English major reads? And, if the poem’s poppies did link back to McCrae, how would that affect how to read “Kristen’s Grace” today, especially in relation to the farm’s mission?

I quickly discovered that Kristen was a student who worked on the farm one summer and that, while this was and perhaps still is her grace, she wasn’t the author of the poem. In fact, as my casual online searches revealed, it’s a verse not uncommonly cited and used by sustainable foodie types—and sometimes by feminist types who see in the scarlet poppies a figure for menstruation—and it’s usually titled “The Harvest” and attributed to Alice Corbin Henderson.

So who, you might be wondering, is Alice Corbin Henderson? Well, if it’s the Alice Corbin Henderson I expect she is, then “Winter Harvest” not only links us to McCrae’s poppies and Remembrance Day but also to Poetry magazine, where Henderson (1881-1949) was an editor and close associate of Harriet Monroe in the magazine’s early years, co-editing with Monroe three editions (1917, 1923, 1932) of The New Poetry anthology. Henderson (pictured here) graduated from high school in Chicago and entered the University of Chicago, but due to her susceptibility to tuberculosis, she relocated to Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans for the remainder of undergraduate school. (Henderson’s mother died of tuberculosis when Alice was three.) Upon graduation, Alice moved back to the Windy City where she took classes at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, in the process meeting and eventually marrying William Penhallow Henderson, an Academy instructor and notable Arts and Crafts artist who, among other things, was working on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens Project. Alice worked with Poetry and she also wrote poetry; her first book Linnet Songs was published in 1898 when she was seventeen years old.

Because of Alice’s persistent health concerns, the Hendersons relocated to the more pulmonary-friendly climes of New Mexico, settling in Santa Fe and becoming central figures in the area’s art scene that included Witter Bynner, D.H. Lawrence, Mary Austin, and eventually Georgia O’Keeffe. By 1925, at least, poets were meeting weekly at the Henderson residence to read and discuss their work, and it’s quite likely that Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden dropped by for one or more of these meetings over the years. (How much you wanna bet that Ansel Adams also popped in more than once while he and Austin were working on Taos Pueblo?)

Alice continued to work for Poetry from Santa Fe, but that work—and her own poetry—became less and less the focus of her attention, as she and William became increasingly interested in New Mexico’s Native and Chicano cultures and histories. She and William were among the cofounders of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (1922) and the Indian Arts Fund (1925). Many native artists visited their home. William produced and acted in plays to support Indian drought relief efforts in the 1920s. Alice helped organize the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and became a librarian and curator for the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art—housed in a building designed by William. Alice also edited New Mexico: Guide to the Colorful State (1940), one of the American Guide series books sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression.

That’s all very interesting Wiki-like biographical stuff, you might be thinking, but what about those scarlet poppies in “The Harvest”? Well, a pretty good argument can be made, I think, that not only do Henderson’s poppies allude to the poppies that McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” made synonymous with World War I, but that that allusion makes “The Harvest” a pretty striking poem about our relationship to food sources, not to mention one of the most disarming “popular” poems that I’ve come across in a while.

During World War I, Alice worked as publicity chair for the Women’s Auxiliary of the State Board of Defense and wrote about the war as well. Here is her poem “A Litany in the Desert,” for example, which appeared in the April 1918 issue of the Yale Review:

I.

     On the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains there is a great welter of steel and flame. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     On the other side of the water there is terrible carnage. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     I do not know why men fight and die. I do not know why men sweat and slave. I know nothing of it here.

II.

     Out of the peace of your great valleys, America, out of the depth and silence of your deep canyons,
     Out of the wide stretch of yellow corn-fields, out of the stealthy sweep of your rich prairies,
     Out of the high mountain peaks, out of the intense purity of your snows,
     Invigorate us, O America.
     Out of the deep peace of your breast, out of the sure strength of your loins,
     Recreate us, O America.
     Not from the smoke and the fever and fret, not from the welter of furnaces, from the fierce melting-pots of cities;
     But from the quiet fields, from the little places, from the dark lamp-lit nights—from the plains, from the cabins, from the little house in the mountains,
     Breathe strength upon us:
     And give us the young men who will make us great.

It’s kind of counter-intuitive to think that the same person who wrote “The Harvest” also wrote “A Litany in the Desert” and that a “modern” poet was moving back and forth between the rhyming quatrains of the former verse and the long, Whitman-like, Sandburg-like free verse lines of the latter. But the spirit linking them—an interest in the local (what Vachel Lindsay called “the new localism”), the connection between the social and environmental, the suspicion that modern urban life separates the human being from her food source and leads to environmental and social catastrophe, the religious genres informing them both—comes from the same place, right?

So here’s the kicker. Setting “The Harvest” in its historical context (World War I), intertextual literary context (“In Flanders Fields”), authorial context (“A Litany in the Desert”), and Henderson’s philosophical/ethical framework about human beings’ relationship to the land reveals it to be a much more sobering poem than it initially appears—and much less optimistic than the dream of sequestered, uncontaminated valleys, canyons, prairies, snows, fields, and mountains in “A Litany in the Desert.” In fact, “The Harvest” is a downright gruesome couple of quatrains, probably written after the war, about what we eat and what we confront when we think about food systems and where our food comes from.

Indeed, Henderson invests the bread of the poem not just with pleasing natural phenomena (“rain and sun”), but also—as represented by the poppies that McCrae’s verse made so famous—with the blood of modern war that runs red like the poem’s “scarlet poppies run.” This is not a poem about menstruation. Rather, it’s a poem about a sort of cannibalism—about how the bread that we eat “at every meal” contains as one of its ingredients the war's dead, both during wartime and in Europe and in the present moment and location (“every meal”) of the poem’s grace in which, as line four says, we “now eat.” The “harvest” of the poem’s title thus refers to the wheat mentioned in stanza one and to the harvest of wartime death. (It’s hard not to think that Henderson knew Timothy H. O’Sullivan's famous Civil War photo A Harvest of Death.) There are no “quiet fields” any longer—not in Flanders or in New Mexico, and one can no longer argue “I know nothing of it here.”

While nature may, as Whitman imagined in “This Compost,” “[grow] such sweet things out of such corruptions” and “[renew] with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,” the collective narrator of “The Harvest”—who has a memory, self-consciousness, capacity for reflection, and an ethics that the environment does not—can’t help but “feel” differently, as such corruptions don't in fact disappear but persist in the waterways of our histories, hearts, and minds. Saying grace, of course, as Kristen at Zena was probably aware, is both a giving of thanks and a plea for forgiveness. Unable to forget that we not only eat the silver rain and the shining sun but also the bodies and blood of the war’s dead, the narrator of “The Harvest” is thus grateful for the former while making every meal into Remembrance Day by asking mercy for the latter.

Preferences among preferences

October 7, 2014 - 05:37

We has them.  I want a cheezburger, and I can has cheezburger, but I don't want to want one.

Thomas Schelling and George Ainslie, among many others, use the story of Odysseus and the sirens to illustrate strategies of commitment in strategic interaction, strategies by which we disclaim our most highly ranked preferences.  Odysseus knows that no one can resist the siren-song lure of the Sirens’ song.  But he wishes to hear the song.  He therefore instructs his sailors to fill their ears with wax, so that they won’t hear it, and to bind him to the mast so that he cannot react to the song by forcing the sailors to change course.  He is binding a future version of himself whose preference he know will differ from his present preference – which is to resist the temptation of the song.  He knows that his preference will change, and he is preventing his changed preference from overriding what he also knows is the better, higher payoff, longer term preference that he now has.

This has become a standard example in the literature of behavioral economics.  But what I would like to add is the further idea that Odysseus has yet another preference, which is a preference for his preference to change.  Odysseus knows that the Sirens’ song will make him want to succumb, and he wants to want to succumb.  But he doesn’t want to succumb.  Binding himself is a way of experiencing the desire to lose himself in their singing without fulfilling that desire so completely that there will be no more self to lose, without fulfilling that desire so completely as to lose the experience of its haunting elusiveness in the all-too-present recognition that it is a mere trap.  He desires its elusiveness to his own desires (as Swann desires the little phrase), which means desiring not to fulfill his desire to catch it.  He wants to miss it, and miss it intensely, and therefore experience its essential absence, as Beckett wants to miss his love, and therefore experience her essential absence and therefore love her:

I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning the first and last to love me 

And compare Basho:

Even in Kyoto
hearing a cuckoo
I long for Kyoto
             (trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Odysseus’s affective and qualitative experience is one of preferring to have a preference not only different from his current preference to resist yielding to the Sirens’ song, so that he’ll want to yield to that song then: he wants as well for his future preference not only to be frustrated but to feel frustrated, since the inability to yield to temptation is part of the longing he longs to feel. (Ainslie elsewhere describes what he calls the management of longing, which means managing to keep longing going.)  So Odysseus prefers not to yield to the Sirens’ song, but also prefers a future where he will not to yield to the Sirens’ song even while preferring to yield to it, where part of the content of the preference to yield to the Sirens’ song is a hopeless preference for a preference not to yield to it.

In the same way it’s part of the pleasure of smoking that the cigarette trumps our desire not to want it: “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.  It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.  What more can one want?” (Wilde)  What more can one want than to be unsatisfied?    Not smoking offers a satisfaction (or end to longing) that can’t compete with the frustration of that satisfaction that smoking offers. Smoking when we want to smoke frustrates our desire not to want to smoke, recruits the longing not to want to smoke into a longing for smoking’s exquisite way of leaving one longing.  It’s so insidious because the pleasure of smoking includes the very preference not to take pleasure in smoking.  Odysseus wants to feel the pleasure of wishing the Sirens’ song were not so irresistibly beautiful, so he wants to hear a song that will make him wish he didn’t want to hear it so much.  He binds himself because he does not want to yield to the song, but does want to want to yield to the song, to yield to a song that will make him want to yield despite wanting not to yield.  Gathering terms, this gives us the following near-paradox: he prefers to the preference he has now – not to yield – not having the preference he has now, but having instead a preference for the preference he has now.

I love this kind of inconsistency in preference in literature, where you’d prefer not the preference you have but to have the preference that you have.  We’ve seen it in Beckett, and we can see something similar in a lovely, funny moment in China Mieville’s The City & the City.  The vaguely Balkan detective narrating that noir novel and his assistant Corwi are working themselves to exhaustion:

I stopped and bought us coffee from a new place, before we went back to the HQ. American coffee, to Corwi's disgust.

"I thought you liked it aj Tyrko," she said, sniffing it.

"I do, but even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care."

Here, very simply, not having a preference is ranked higher than his actual preference.  But on what scale? Not a scale of preferences, but maybe on a scale he prefers to the scale of preferences.  This is a microexample of the authentic mode of the noir detective, broken and defeated, but unbroken and undefeated by being broken and defeated.  Its simple complexity is really a complex simplicity, and that's just what Kant says aesthetic achievement is: the resolved irresolution of preferences among preferences.

Tags: Richard JeffreyGeorge AinslieKantHomerSirensUlyssessmokingProustOscar WildeThomas SchellingpreferencesChina MiévilleBeckettJane HiirshfeldBashoSocial Network: Picture description: 

Odysseus, bound and ghostly as his men row him past the Sirens.

We Run Computers Well, But Can We Run Ourselves?

September 18, 2014 - 15:30

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

While riding on a bus across the campus of Stanford University one afternoon, almost everybody I saw was staring into his or her iPhone or talking on it. Long a familiar sight, this struck me not only as the spirit of Silicon Valley but also as the Zeitgeist of the contemporary world. Driven by the widening gyre of digital connectivity, everybody seems frantically engaged in some nonstop networking with friends and pals. The very air we breathe is overcast with a wire/wired cloud linking one individual to another. This engrossing obsession with staying connected is very odd in a university setting. A university means some universal learning agenda to forge a public of citizens and a forum of shared values and knowledge. It is supposed to foster a collective, civil interchange of ideas and discoveries. Stanford’s garden-like campus provides numerous corners and nooks for group gathering, convenient for sustained play and unfolding of ideas and knowledge. Bathed in the California sunshine, some discussions take place in these academic enclaves. Unfortunately, while this kind of seminary gathering with face-to-face engagement does happen, it is the scene of wired iPhone connectivity among a gathering of students, “alone together,” that dominates the campus.

    Even in the classroom, when students are supposed to listen to lectures or articulate their thoughts in discussion, many are looking at their computer screens and surfing the net. Once in a film class I screened a very educational and entertaining Chinese film. When I moved to the back of the classroom, however, I found quite a few students who had 2 or 3 windows open on their computer screens, simultaneously watching 2 or 3 films. No wonder students had hard time following the storyline and the message of the film for the course. Multi-tasking invades the classroom and has scattered students’ attention and defused their brains in an infinite sprawl of bites and images. Like swimmers tossed around by waves in a tumultuous ocean, they desperately yet excitedly clutch at something to keep afloat.

    The fun part aside, desperately clutching at something may reveal a fear of being left alone in this world and left behind in ever-renewable novelties. Biologists tell us that humans are hardwired in their genes to hang on to their partners. Yet it is precisely this so-called innate trait that defeats culture and higher education. It is not the genes but rather culture that shapes a human being. Culture is an overcoming of nature, a shaping of instincts in transit to society, or we would be eating each other in the jungles.

    Yet culture is glaringly absent in digital connectivity. In clutching at multiple digital floats on a confusing sea of bites and images, one may not have to confront the empty core of one’s personality, moral integrity, or engage in a moment of reflection on life’s meaning. When one feels empty and drowning for lack of an anchor to one’s life, it may help a bit to drink mind-numbing liquor and listen to thunderous music. Engaging in connectivity for its own sake seems like taking drugs or alcohol: it is more addictive than therapeutic. It works as momentary relief or evasion. But when you wake up in the morning, the yawning abyss of value and culture—what is the point of it all—is staring at you.

    Does ubiquitous connectivity really bond people into a vibrant, sociable community? In my view, digital connectivity seems hell bent on breaking society into pieces, affirming what German philosopher Kant called “asocial sociability.” This is a travesty of society, with ceaseless clashes of myriads of private interests and bigotry huddling in a false public sphere, condemning society to my backyard, my face, my space, my video. This is more damning in a setting of higher education. Genuine connectivity would mean getting deeply connected with traditions and innovations in science and liberal arts. It involves getting deeply immersed in enduring themes, slow-cooked thoughts and rooted sentiments. Past thinkers and scientists have attempted answers to life’s urgent questions, only by standing on their shoulders can students really make themselves better members of a community. A student needs to be connected with foundational narratives, histories, and ideas that constitute his or her own identity and culture. This connection does not mean one should learn culture, as one grasp the skills to run a computer. Genuine connectivity means one achieves an appreciation of one’s values and meaning, which leads to a self-understanding of one’s place in the community and society. Far from being a social skill, the mannerism of a “people person,” connectivity is an understanding of essential human relations and mutual trust. Cultivating human beings who are capable of maintaining a meaningful, public life is the ultimate goal of university education.

    Indiscriminate wired connectivity is a dubious idea. It not only disconnects students from their community and human values but also leads to a polarization and fragmentation of society. As things now stand, more and more people know how to run a computer or device, but the writings on the wall indicate that humanity is becoming less and less able to run itself as a whole.

 

Ban Wang, Stanford University

 

How Not to Teach China in America

September 18, 2014 - 15:21

     Some critics characterize the U.S. not as a nation but as an empire. Although it is difficult to convince anybody loyal to the empire that he may be an “imperial subject,” I find much evidence of what may be called the “imperial attitude.” “Imperial” does not simply mean superior or number one; it simply means my culture is all under heaven. Although Cola-Cola or Hollywood may sound like “world culture,” it is thoroughly American and hence national in origin, a product of a particular place and time. Yet this is precisely what eludes the imperial attitude, which assumes that what originates in America is not only American, but a universal norm. This mentality resembles an airy, all under heaven mindset criticized by Liang Qichao, the most important Chinese thinker at the turn of the 20th century. Liang charged that Chinese, in the long shadow of the dynastic empires, did not know who they were as a people who badly needed to become a nation and a state. They knew their families, kin, and communities, all under the mandate of Heaven, but they did not know themselves as a people. For the imperial attitude, there is only genealogy, no history; there is the patriarch, no political representative; there are private affairs, no public good.

     Today, American students indulge in this pre-political, imperial mentality, which is utterly at odds with the image of the citizen. This attitude affects their understanding of a foreign culture. As professor, I tell stories of Chinese culture to students. The culture in question is dubbed Chinese, which has national character and is not easily equated with “international culture.” Understood in the sense of a certain national origin, of public activity, of a narrative of political events and a collective drive to forge a people’s destiny, the idea of national culture may be extremely alien to the imperial attitude. Writing against the self-advertising spectacle of pan-African culture, Franz Fanon argues that every culture is primarily national, rooted in the political struggles of a people on the ground. American Marxist thinker Fredric Jameson also contended in regard to China that an individual’s fate in a third-word culture points to a collective project. But culture, defined as a collective project of a people, is being replaced by a denationalized, cosmopolitan flatness, and so when “Chinese” is brought up, you may be accused of being a bloody nationalist.

     In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom diagnoses the obsessive inner-directness of American students under the rubric “self-centeredness.” Students are preoccupied with their relationships, sexuality, and career prospects, and “the affairs of daily life rarely involve concern for a large community in such a way so as to make public and private merge in one’s thought” (84). Students are free from the constraints of country, religion, family, politics, and ideas of civilization, which to them seem to be tragic, burdensome entanglements of the past. American culture is not “experienced as a common project but as a framework within which people are only individuals, where they are left alone” (85). Dropping all cultural belonging, all communal ties “external” to the individual, they only worry about making it economically in the marketplace and about seeking personal fulfillment, success and status in society. Culture, true to the concept, cannot be so individualistic and are is the bottom of the identity of a human person. But individualistically performed culture regresses to a realm where the human person resides in a naked state of nature, stripped of all cultural and national backgrounds and memories. In treating other cultural traditions, this stripped down attitude leads to a bland globalism that permits anything as long as it does not infringe on the individual’s rights and privacy. If the individual can freely shed his own culture and history, he also stands at an equal distance from other cultures, because culture is now regarded as nothing but a playground to project personal choices and give vent to self-expression. My teaching experience tells me that Bloom’s diagnosis, written in 1987, of this cultural narcissism is very much alive, but this feature has taken on the guises of multiculturalism, globalization, hybrid ethnicity or other labels that exacerbate the individualization and trivialization of culture, hollowing out the political realm premised on a public of concerned citizens, which is anchored to national tradition and history.

     This imperial, de-nationalized stance treats China in five ways. First, China is a commodity; it may be a flavor of food in a multinational buffet or a source of pleasure, like the pleasure derived from dating a pretty Chinese girl. Secondly, students may act like a connoisseur of national geographical exotica, seeking to satisfy his touristic wanderlust. Thirdly, utilitarianism may also motivate him, prompting him to see China in terms of market value and profit in global capital expansion. The questions of China’s own way of socio-political development, its historical trajectory, and its national identity are of no concern. Fourthly, students may view China in the capacity of a therapist, believing that as a pathological case, China is a maladjusted country that needs to receive shock therapy for it to become normal. Finally, still absorbed in his personal self-interest, he may contemplate China as a canvas to project his own ego, his attitudes, feelings, and preferences.

     This self-absorption shuts students out from geopolitical events of the day and immures them from the ongoing drama, narratives, and traumas that keep Chinese studies scholars focused on Chinese history and culture.

 

Ban Wang, Stanford University

  Tags: ChinaEast and Westcross-cultural communicationSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I

Looking at Africa, Looking at Ourselves

September 8, 2014 - 11:48

I remember the sense of vertigo when, as a graduate student, I approached Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” For the text presented me with a new way of seeing Africa and literature. It was as if, like a traveler in front of a marvelous but intimidating vista, I was no longer sure of my footing.

Achebe’s essay seemed to arise from a tradition separate from the French poststructuralist criticism I was being introduced to. Here was a literary author who, without the daunting discourse of theory, forced me to rethink my understanding of the world. Having loved Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a student and having been dazzled by Francis Ford Coppola’s reworking of the film as “Apocalypse Now, I had to take to pause.

Until my encounter with Achebe’s essay, I, like many readers, interpreted Heart of Darkness from the perspective of the European protagonists, never having thought about the Africans in the novel or how Africans themselves might react to it. Achebe’s essay, originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, made me confront my own blindness.

Achebe revealed new landscapes. He showed that Conrad, though critical of colonialism, relied on formulaic portrayals of Africa that ended up dehumanizing the continent. He used Africa as a symbol of darkness devoid of real people working, living, and dying, while he employed Africa as a backdrop for the exploration of European metaphysical problems. As he argues, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Achebe calls Conrad a racist and concludes his essay by referring to the novel “as an offensive and deplorable book,” so despicable that he can’t understand why it is celebrated in the West as a masterpiece in the English language.

As much as I learned from this essay, I was troubled by the easy association Achebe makes between the narrator in the novel and the author of the novel. Although Achebe acknowledges the double narration in the text and subtle ironies at play, he shows insufficient sensitivity to the ambivalence and contradictions at work in literature. The virtue of literary language is that it cannot be frozen in its signification. Novels – Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Passage to India, have a way of deconstructing what they are representing and cannot be easily reduced to racist tracts.

My initial misgivings were reinforced when I returned to the essay in May of this year as guest of the Department of Language and Literary Studies at Kwara State University, Ilorin, Nigeria. During my second encounter with Achebe’s essay I was able to identify more clearly something else that troubled me as a student – the potential this essay has to cordon off rather than promote literary communication. Achebe rightly points out that Conrad uses Africa as a “setting for the disintegration of the mind of Kurtz,” eliminating Africa as an actual place where people lead their lives, dehumanizing in this way an entire continent. But Achebe’s incisive criticism also puts into question the possibility of engaging with the Other, something that I was trying to do at the time.

During my month’s stay in Ilorin, I posted blogs ( I , II ) about my experiences and wrote long private reports to family and friends. Was I using Africa as a backdrop in my engagement with the people I met, institutions I encountered, and ideas introduced to? Does not all comparison begin with the self as the base? Can one write about another society without at the same time reflecting on the self? Is not all travel writing as much about the self as the place visited? It seems to me that when we write about a particular location we engage in a dialogue of self and other, turning that place into a reflection on the self and the other. I don’t know whether this can be avoided and whether this avoidance is even desirable. For true empathic understanding comes out of this dialectic.

Travelers, Achebe says, even those not blinkered by xenophobia, can be “astonishingly blind.” This is true in that we are all influenced by the societies we live in. It’s impossible otherwise. No one can escape historical circumstance.

In a brilliant reading of Things Fall Apart the eminent critic and comparatist Francis Abiola Irele shows that Achebe provides an image of Africa as a “living entity and in its historical circumstance,” one unprecedented in literature. Nevertheless Irele identities a disjunction between the tribal society of Umuofia Achebe portrays and the detached narration of the novel. Achebe’s western education and Christian upbringing determine a narrative point of view marked by aesthetic distance, in contrast, say, to the active engagement of a traditional storyteller. Achebe’s challenge is to use the novel as form and the English language to describe a society for non-Igbo readers. The same can be said of all writers who portray their own societies to an audience unfamiliar with them.

The narrator of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek uses a cool, remote discourse to depict the peasants of a Cretan village as ruled by chthonic passions, ritual murder, laments, and, vendettas. This discourse makes the peasants understandable to American students but to Greeks they seem ethnographic portrayals. Turkish critics tell me that Orhan Pamuk employs the techniques of postmodernism to represent political Islam as aesthetically comprehensible to western publics.

So the question I would like to pose is whether one can represent the Other to an outside audience while avoiding the charge of exoticism? I confronted this issue myself in the reception of my Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture. Inventing National Literature. After its publication in 1991 there appeared an angry article in the Athenian mass-circulation daily, To Vima, which accused me of offering a superficial and untrue picture of Greece for the benefit of western readers.

Does this mean we should not attempt to portray the Other or enter in a conversation with those beyond our doorstep because someone may find this portrayal strange and “false”? Achebe was pressed on this by Caryl Phillips who asked if he meant that “outsiders should not write about other cultures.” No, Achebe insisted. “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometime see what the owner of the house has ignored.” But he added, “they must come with respect and not be concerned with the color of skin or the shape of the nose.”

Fair enough. We should be mindful of the egregious misrepresentations of the past, which converted other societies into symbols with extraordinary explanatory power. But we should not let these past attempts to portray the Other stop us from entering someone else’s home and initiating a dialogue with its owner. Obviously we will know less of the place than its inhabitants. But how else can we understand each other and appreciate perspectives different from our own other than by risking a conversation?

Tags: AfricaChinua AchebeNigeriaThings Fall ApartRepresentationthe OtherSocial Network: Picture description: 

Photo Gregory Jusdanis 

Back to School with Anne Campbell

August 26, 2014 - 15:38

A little less than a year back, I wrote about Edgar Guest, the longtime poet of the Detroit Free Press who published a poem in that paper seven days a week for thirty years. The national syndication of his verse made Guest a household name, got him dubbed the “people’s poet,” turned him into a popular speaker, and made him a very rich man even if it didn’t secure him a place in scholarly histories of American poetry. Indeed, after mentioning Guest as part of a Modernist Studies Association panel a few years back, I happened to run into a prominent poet-critic in the airport and, in making small talk about the panel while we waited for our flights, he confessed that until my talk he’d never even heard of Guest. By contrast, my mother-in-law owned several of Guest’s books before she moved out of the family house and into a retirement home; when I was helping her move and opened them, other poems by Guest that she’d clipped from newspapers and magazines and stored between the pages came fluttering out.

If the poet-critic I just mentioned had never heard of Guest, it’s probably safe to say that he’s never heard of Anne Campbell either—the poet whom the Detroit News hired in 1922 to better compete with the Free Press. Called “Eddie Guest’s Rival” by Time and “The Poet of the Home” by her publicity agents, Campbell would go on to write a poem a day six days a week for twenty-five years, producing over 7,500 poems whose international syndication reportedly earned her up to $10,000 per year (that’s about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, folks), becoming a popular speaker in her own right, and proving that neither the Free Press nor Guest could corner the market on popular poetry. Indeed, a 1947 event marking her silver anniversary at the News drew fifteen hundred fans including Detroit’s mayor and the president of Wayne State University.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Campbell lately. For starters, I’ve been working on an essay about women’s poetry and popular culture for the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry, and Campbell’s clearly a central part of that history. Then I had the excellent good fortune of meeting Campbell’s granddaughter, who’s been very helpful in sketching out some of the details of Campbell’s life for me. Anne was born in rural Michigan on June 19, 1888, possibly finished high school, married the Detroit News writer and future Detroit city historian George W. Stark when she was twenty-seven, had three children, performed and recorded regularly with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra doing readings during intermissions in the 1930s, read on local and national radio, was active with the March of Dimes, and with George was a fixture of Detroit’s cultural life and friends, of course, with Guest. She published her first poem (where else, right?) in the Free Press when she was ten, won a state prize for a Memorial Day story and poem when she was fourteen, was first paid for her poetry when she was seventeen, gave a popular talk called “Everyday Poetry” on the Lyceum circuit, and published at least five books of poetry, one co-written with George. (For a bunch of blurbs and publicity materials about her, check out the pamphlets here and here.) She died in 1984.

I’ve also been thinking about Campbell because it’s back-to-school season, and, along with a new Trapper Keeper, I just purchased the card pictured here, which features Campbell’s poem “Visitin’ the School” and is identified as “A Souvenir of Anne Campbell’s Visit to Your School, Compliments of The Detroit News.” (The back of the card is blank, by the way, but it has glue marks on its four corners, suggesting that someone saved it in his or her poetry scrapbook; in fact, I've seen poetry scrapbooks dedicated entirely to collecting Campbell's poems.) Here’s “Visitin’ the School”:

Oh, dear, I feel like sich a fool

When folks come visitin’ the school.

I never git my problems well,

An’ jist can’t read an’ write and spell.

 

When teacher asts me to recite,

Although I try with all my might,

I feel the red burn in my cheek,

An’ my throat swells so I can’t speak.

 

My both knees shake an’ sweat rolls down.

An’ nen when I see teacher’s frown,

I git so scared, I wish fur fair

That I was any place but there.

 

When I git big an’ have a boy

I’ goin’ to make his life all joy.

No matter what the teacher’s rule,

I’ll not go visitin’ the school!

It’s an odd little poem, isn’t it? It's kitschy in a way that Daniel Tiffany’s recent book My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch can help us to understand, and although the second and third stanzas don’t disclose the exact content of the recitation, they nevertheless call most readily to my mind the history of poetry memorization and recitation that Catherine Robson takes up in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem; seen this way, “Visitin’ the School” is thus a poem about poetry.

But under the cover of innocence—the kitchiness, the schoolroom, the slightly baby-talk language, the rudimentary rhymes, etc.—I think Campbell's poem’s got something more going on. Noteworthy for how it doesn’t assign a gender to teacher, student, or classroom visitor (thus making a role in the child’s predicament available to all students, teachers, and classroom visitors), “Visitin’ the School” is super concerned with the subject of reproduction: whether or not the child’s oral expression can be reproduced in print; whether or not the child can faithfully reproduce what “teacher asts me to recite”; how the child will “git big an’ have a boy”; and, ultimately, how the child vows to not reproduce the cultural practice of “visitin’ the school.”

Locating a voice of protest and dissent in the child—the weak, scared, young, and nearly voiceless (“my throat swells so I can’t speak”) subject put under pressure by multiple forms of surveillance—Campbell’s poem becomes unexpectedly politicized, questioning, rather than confirming, the legitimacy of normative educational practices. If we do not hear this protest, it’s not because it’s not there, but because we who teach and visit classrooms at all levels fail to afford its apparently rudimentary poetic expression—by someone who “jist can’t read an’ write and spell”—the seriousness it deserves. As school begins, and as many of us may feel moved to lament the poor writing skills our students bring with them, that’s a lesson worth keeping in mind.

Tags: Anne CampbellModernist Studiespoetrypopular cultureSocial Network: Picture description: 

Publicity Brochure c. 1931

Poor Russians, or Putin's Complaint (An August Meditation II)

August 13, 2014 - 11:25
Poor Russia! Look how Russia has been humiliated by the West when NATO expanded to include its erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies and its former Baltic possessions, not to mention the promise to bring Ukraine into the EU, thereby threatening the 1500 mile-long border Russia shares with Ukraine. Isn’t Russia vulnerable enough already! Besides, shouldn’t a former empire – 63% of Russians believe Russia is a “great power” – be  able to exercise its influence over the territory it used to control while an empire? How can the Americans and the Europeans be so callous with such a peace-loving, cooperative, exceedingly friendly – and great – nation? How could Russia not feel vulnerable and threatened by the rich and powerful West? Doesn't the West understand that Russia has been on its knees far too long and now must rise again? Besides, who can take Ukraine seriously as an independent state, especially with a third of its population speaking Russian?   These are, in a nutshell, the sentiments of those both outside and inside Russia who advocate humoring Vladimir Putin with regard to Ukraine. For home consumption, the Kremlin and its media toss out red meat about the Nazi takeover of Ukraine and, in the words of the Speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, “the genocide of the Russian people” there.[1] The campaign for the dehumanization of the Ukrainians (“fascists,” “Nazis”) has been going on for months, including the WWI-style favorite propaganda myth of the Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a Russian child in Slaviansk. The report appeared on Channel 1 on July 12 and is still there.   Much of this rhetoric is predicated on the alleged deep, unbridgeable antagonism between Russia and the West. But first of all, Russia v. the West is a false dichotomy and Russia v. the EU, even more so. None of the EU member nations, separately or together, are interested in territorial expansion into Eurasia, nor NATO whose primary function has been to guarantee Europe’s post-WWII borders, nor its leading member, the United States. Putin himself has repeatedly proclaimed Russia to be a European power and seemed committed to this 300-year-old vision until he began to pivot towards Russian nationalism in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Still, the ambiguity persisted with profound political and economic implications. The difficulties the EU has been having with the sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows the high degree of Russia's integration into the web of EU economic and cultural relations. Visa-free travel for Russians to the EU was about to be negotiated when the Crimea debacle put everything on hold. Indeed, by historical reckoning, Russia's integration into the West since the fall of communism has been truly fast-track and, as it appeared, perhaps, a little too fast-track for the EU, given its long hesitation in responding to Russia’s blunt aggression in Ukraine.  

  But what about the issue of NATO expansion? When I was in Moscow in June, a die-hard Putin opponent told me he was sure that US and/or NATO had been planning to establish a military base in the Crimea and Russia’s take-over of the peninsula was meant to prevent it. I did my research. Apparently, the US requested a few years ago to be integrated into the old Soviet early warning system for missile defense against Iranian ballistic missiles. It is this request that has been morphed by the Russian propaganda machine into a menacing American plan to establish a military base on the Crimean peninsula. I have no doubt that a satisfactory arrangement could have been reached to allay Russia’s fears that the anti-missile defense system, still in the works, targeted at Iran, was “dual-use” and could have been pointed at Russia.

  But what about the more general argument that seems intuitively right: Shouldn’t Russia feel legitimately threatened, as it is surrounded by NATO members? Seen from the United States (except through Sarah Palin’s windows), Russia may not loom too large (compare the 2013 US military budget of $640 billion to Russia’s $88 billion); however, seen from Western Europe, Russia’s might is far more menacing (Russia spends about twice as much on the military as do France, the UK, or Germany). Russia, in fact, is the unrivalled European superpower in the military, nuclear, and, increasingly important, the hydro-carbon sense. Such a high-profile military posture is pretty hard to maintain while standing on one’s knees. Furthermore, let us not forget that for half a century following WWII, when the Russians – or, rather, their leaders – held their heads high (under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko), Russia’s legal antecedent, the USSR, oppressed its citizens and turned the countries of East-Central Europe into de-facto colonies. Who can, then, blame Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as the Baltic states that had been occupied by the Soviets under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, for scrambling to assert their national sovereignty at the first historical opportunity and securing their statehood by joining NATO and the EU? Is there any rational reason for Russia to think that these nations are poised to start nibbling at Russia’s territory?

  That there is no NATO threat to Russia should have become obvious even to the most thick-headed analyst in the wake of the Georgia War of August 2008. Resulting in loss of territory for Georgia, this conflict demonstrated that no outside power had the inclination (some say the ability) to challenge Russia in Russia’s own back yard, Senator McCain’s hollow saber rattling notwithstanding. In fact, the opposite argument has been legitimately made: the West’s demure reaction to Russia’s shenanigans in Georgia was realistic -- and a singular factor in Putin’s calculation when he decided to move into Crimea.  Today, according to NATO’s internal documents, disclosed in Der Spiegel on 19 May 2014, NATO lacks the ability to defend its members among the Baltic states, should Russia choose to invade them.

  The threat to Russia from the West, then, is literally a travesty: the reverse is true, if one understands “the West” as a stable political order that has governed European borders since WWII and, by mutual consent, since the collapse of communism. The "threat from the West" is nothing but a propaganda myth, a dusted-off  old Soviet saw about "capitalist encirclement" and the looming external enemy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev, Edward Shervadnadze and Alexander Yakovlev did a lot to demystify it but, apparently, not enough.

  Now, as under communism, this propaganda assault on the people, amplified by the craven, state-controlled Russian media (with very few digital media exceptions) is meant to shore up the legitimacy of the political class and its leader, who have proven incapable of setting their country on a course that would diminish its monumental corruption and narcotic dependency on the export of hydro-carbons. As a result, Putin and his United Russia Party, the political machine he jerry-rigged from the rubble of the Soviet one-party national-security state, are feeling vulnerable. The world has changed, and Russia’s new cosmopolitan elite, the so-called creative class, that has arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has established itself economically in the prosperous oil-rich Russia, instinctively resists Putin’s authoritarian and increasingly ineffective rule. One common denominator of their protests was their sense of humiliation at the corrupt political process, a violation of their citizenship. After their protest demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, Putin turned away from this natural constituency for a modernizing leader, instead embracing the nationalism of the “silent majority” – populist, socially conservative, sanctimonious, and not infrequently chauvinistic. This must have been a desperate move on the part of the man who had previously condemned Russian chauvinism as a dangerous force that might lead to the break-up of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Russian Federation. A student of history, Putin has to be aware that the Russian empire of the Romanovs fell, in part, because of the autocracy’s embrace of exclusive Russian nationalism. Is today's Russia next?

  No need, then, to feel sorry for Russia or the Russians as victims of the powerful West. Rather, as throughout much of Russia’s history, Russians continue to be the victims – surely undeservedly – of their own government. True, there are many Russians, affected by the imperial visions of the Kremlin propaganda machine, who have been assiduously imagining themselves standing on their knees under the diktat of the evil West. Even under the best conditions of partnership, according to some of them, the West has treated Russia as a second-class citizen in the world community. This is what Tony Blair picked up during his friendship with Putin in the early 2000s: “Vladimir later came to believe that the Americans did not give him his due place (my italics, GF). Worse, he saw them circling Russia with Western-supporting 'democracies' who were going to be hostile to Russian interests.”[2] In a recent interview, Putin’s crony, billionaire Timchenko, echoed such sentiments and declared that his Western business partners had always treated him as “second league.” Complaints such as these, needless to say, involve what Max Weber called “the prestige of great powers,” ever hungry for self-aggrandizement and extra recognition, not the dignity of individual citizens. The former must have the pyramids and the most fearsome weapons; the latter, property and respect.

  Few will deny that the average middle-class Russian has been enjoying the best standard of living in all of Russia's history, replete with vacations abroad, separate apartments, country dachas, and late-model German, French, and Japanese automobiles. Aleksander Yakovlev used to say that Soviet citizens could not feel free because they did not own any property, for him the necessary condition of freedom. By this token, many of his compatriots may feel free these days and indeed they do hold their heads high. For years now, my undergraduate students at Stanford who have gone to Moscow to study alongside their Russian counterparts have complained that they felt a bit diminished by their colleagues’ off-campus spending habits. Yes, these are elite students, but I also remember my Stanford undergraduates traveling to study in Russia in the 1980s and telling me how shocked they were by the limited horizons and economic insecurity of their Russian counterparts. The 1980s are long gone! In my seven days of pounding the pavement in Moscow (after a twelve-year absence), I was able to spot only one Russian Zhiguli sedan, the most ubiquitous vehicle in Moscow circa 2002, but I noticed that Bentley has a  dealership in the, yes, Revolution Square next to the Kremlin (in case you are wondering, you can get one, slightly used, for just half a million dollars). Luxury cars aside, as individuals, middle-class Russians feel as proud and dignified as at any time since 1917, whatever their politics. It is the political class that runs the country and its leader Putin, a deeply corrupt regime, presiding over a profoundly corrupt bureaucracy, who feel the need to buck up their sagging prestige with a “little victorious war” while conjuring up the spectre of the big bad US and NATO and the “fascist” Ukraine.    Surely, there may be an occasional clash of interests over this or that tariff or import/export issues, but there has not been a fundamental antagonism between Russia and its Western partners. Quite the opposite. The new, post–Communist Russia was embraced by the West, cautiously, to be sure, but embraced nonetheless, as well as aided considerably by governments and NGOs as it struggled with the transition from Communism. It was the United States, to use just one example, that was the strongest supporter of Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

  The benign international climate, perhaps, the most benign in all of Russia’s history, the absence of actual military threat from the West or elsewhere, and Russia’s deep integration into the EU seem to have been taken by Putin’s government for granted while Russia had a free hand in preventing a newly independent nation from electing the government it likes and the form of economic modernization it chooses. This is what happened in Ukraine (and before it, in Georgia). By some accounts, Putin's decision to annex Crimea was an intemperate reaction to the sudden resignation of Ukraine’s president after months and months of popular protests against him. A sly tactical move taking advantage of Ukraine’s weak care-taker government, the annexation of Crimea was strategically an irrational act: it produced the opposite effect of anything one could wish for one’s own country – it diminished rather than enhanced Russia’s security by turning the world’s most powerful nations, economically and militarily, against Russia. But above all, it united  against Putin the politically and ethically diverse, as well as historically fractious, Ukraine and forced the EU states, ever a quarrelsome lot, to step back and agree, at last, on some concerted action to raise the stakes for Putin in his “big game” and to force him to reconsider his policies. After all, who wants a super-power bully in the EU's own back yard, a bully on the scale of a Stalin or a Hitler? With Western support for Ukraine now assured, Putin's adventure is liable to result in continuing turmoil on Russia’s borders that Putin himself may not be able to control – and a substantial strengthening of NATO’s Eastern and Northern borders. Poland used to have about a dozen US soldiers stationed on its soil prior to the annexation of Crimea. There are now about 500 US and NATO troops there and more are coming.

  The analogy with Hitler's Germany and the 1930s has been surfacing repeatedly since the annexation of Crimea (first made on 1 March 2014 by Professor Andrei Zubov of the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations). Well, similarities stare us in the face. The Germans, some Germans, did feel sorry for themselves. To paraphrase the rhetoric of the day: Oh poor Germans! The Treaty of Versailles brought our proud nation to its knees! And now Germans must rise! Hitler saw to it. Germany got up and raised its head. This rising from the knees began in March 1936 with the re-militarization of the Rhineland in direct violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Putin’s annexation of Crimea invites itself as an analogy: he violated the solemn agreement made by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States with Ukraine which agreed to get rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for the affirmation of the inviolability of its present borders (The Budapest Memorandum of December 1994). Back in 1936, no significant reaction followed from the international community, except for phony outrage while Hitler’s action merited an iron-fisted push-back. This was appeasement Act 1. Two years later, Hitler swallowed Austria. No reaction followed. That was appeasement Act 2. The analogy today would be the take-over of Eastern Ukraine by the Russian-sponsored irregulars, who have their sights set on a still larger chunk, the entire “Novorossia,” including Odessa. Act 3 was, of course, the Munich Agreement and the resulting fall of Czechoslovakia – the archetypal appeasement. Here we must gasp at the analogy: the Munich moment was followed by WWII; further appeasement of Putin raises the spectre of WIII.

  To be sure, analogies are imprecise, which is why they are analogies, not equivalences. Putin is no Hitler. In Putin's case, what seems to be driving his expansionist agenda is not so much the wounded pride of the son of a former Great Empire (there is that, too, and yes, it hurts), but his fear for his own position as a head of state with his apparent aspirations for a life-time tenure. Back in 2011-12, when he realized in the wake of the shamelessly rigged parliamentary elections that he no longer enjoyed political support among the professional and cultural elite of the capitals (the cosmopolitans), he turned to the anti-cosmopolitan silent majority. Members of this constituency are far easier to convince of the just causes for their resentments (xenophobia, ethnic prejudice), as they have been sidelined during Russia's most recent spurt of modernization (a common enough phenomenon in the age of globalization and all too familiar to us in the United States – just watch Fox News). Putin spoke to them in language they could well understand, ratcheting up the rhetoric of incitement: first, the persecution of Pussy Riot, then the jailing of the demonstrators in the 2011 and 2012 protest rallies, and now the crescendo proclaiming Ukraine a nest of fascists.

  Of course, if you happen to run into Putin in your neighborhood bar and ask him, "why, Vladimir, why did you do it?" He would say he was afraid, not for himself, but for Russia, lest it disintegrate in a political free-for-all, and for that reason and it alone, he had to tighten the screws and start the little bloody war. But motivations, ultimately, are beside the point. A nationalist bully is a nationalist bully - whether because of the “stolen victory” in the Great War (Hitler’s well-known beef) or the insufficient magnanimity on the part of the Cold War victors (Putin’s whine). For unless a bully is stopped right away, his appetite will grow as it feeds on appeasement. To wit, unless Putin is stopped through diplomacy and other forms of soft power, including sanctions, we – meaning all of us here and in Russia -- will soon be staring into the new guns of August, and this is not a prospect that any of us will enjoy.

  August 10, 2014

Berkeley-Stanford

P. S. My August Meditation I is here: Be Aware of the Quiet Days of August.

[1] Naryshkin’s speech in Belgrade on 5 May of this year.

[2] Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life (Toronto: Knopf Vintage Canada, 2010).

 

Tags: Aleksander YakovlevappeasementMunich 1938LocarnoVersaille Treatycreative classCrimeaHitlerMax WeberNational humiliationPutinRussiaUkraineWorld War ThreeSocial Network: Picture description: 

Pork delivered. Moscow. June 2014. Copyright © by Gregory Freidin

 

Social Science and Profanity at DH 2014

July 26, 2014 - 08:40

I recently returned from the DH 2014 conference in Lausanne. I went to give my brief (my brief brief) for getting serious about social science methods in digital humanities under the title “Let DH Be Sociological!” The conference offered plenty to think about on this theme. Also I got accused of wanting to “dumb down” an entire field of study…so that’s got me thinking too.

I won’t rehash the whole of my short talk in this post—in fact, a longer [sic] version is to be found online in the abstract, with the few significant changes I made visible in the final set of slides. Basically, I think we should situate quantitative methods in DH (which are currently going under names like “digital methods,” “distant reading,” and “macroanalysis”) in the context of one of the large-scale transformations of literary study since 1970 or so, its steadily growing and now dominant concern with the relation between the cultural, the social, and the political (let’s call it the cultural turn for short, though I don’t mean to identify the transformation of literary scholarship with the roughly contemporary historiographical shift of the same name). This turn is common knowledge, but it’s kind of fun to count it out, as I tried to do in the talk.1

One of the major challenges of the cultural turn has been the dubious relation between the handful of aesthetically exceptional texts literary scholars have focused their energies on and the large-scale social-historical transformations which have come to be the most important interpretive contexts for those texts. Do these texts tell us, as clues or symptoms, everything we can learn about the systematic relations between society and literature, or, for that matter, about the systematic development of literature considered just as a body of texts? 2 Haven’t we had good reason, ever since the canon debates, to doubt the coherence and comprehensiveness of the body of texts professional scholars happen to value? The cultural turn itself, then, might motivate us to search for other methods than those developed for interpreting the select body of texts.

What disciplines are concerned with systematically analyzing, using quantitative techniques, the relationships between patterns of culture and patterns in society? The social sciences: sociology, anthropology, political science… Not coincidentally, these are also disciplines in which the relation between quantitative and qualitative methods has been the subject of rich, lengthy, century-long debates. My own particular example was the way digital humanists making use of topic modeling are finding themselves facing the classic challenges of content analysis. How to reduce the complexity of a large body of texts in a reliable and informative way, how to scale up interpretation, how to validate a content scheme…The social-scientific methodological debates are now our debates. And quantitative and mixed-methods digital literary studies are in a position to radically expand and enrich the scope of the sociology of literature.

I saw some wonderful presentations at DH that were doing just that. Elizabeth Dillon and Julia Flanders presented a fascinating talk on planning text markup in light of research questions for the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. With the right markup, an archive can help to answer questions about cultural systems that link race, economy, and genre, or that allow us to map imagined and physical geographic spaces, or that let us trace changes in representations over time. And all of this not in a few hand-picked examples but across the archive. A team from the Stanford Lit Lab gave a fantastic presentation on reconstituting the eighteenth century British literary field from generic labels on title pages. Tim Tangherlini and David Mimno demonstrated how an algorithmic classifier of a collection of Danish folktales could yield remarkable anthropological conclusions about both story themes and story-tellers (not to mention the story-collector, too). Graham Sack showed some results from an ambitious attempt to apply agent-based modeling to the literary marketplace. Natalie Houston showed some techniques for probing the field of Victorian poetry, which promise to allow us to see large-scale trends in versification choices. Also from the annals of field-mapping was Carolina Ferrer’s short paper on applying bibliometrics to the MLA bibliography to understand canon-formation in the Americas (a topic which is naturally close to my heart). I missed the live version of Lauren Klein and Jacob Eisenberg’s discussion of how to analyze the evolution of topics in a 19th-century U.S. newspaper archive, but fortunately they have placed their talk online.

Such work breaks down the boundary between social science and “the humanities” (particularly the literary humanities; as someone at my panel pointed out, this boundary is less marked for historians). And well it should: this is just how we will answer some of our most interesting and urgent questions about the historical and contemporary role of culture. But we might also ask: what does that boundary protect? 3 Why indeed would someone be moved to say that my argument for the adoption of sociological method in DH is an attempt to “dumb down” digital humanities?

It would be more accurate (and would help to explain the animus, I think) to say that such methods threaten to profane the digital humanities. 4 Humanists, especially literary scholars, still often treat their objects as sacred texts, which can only be rightly handled by those who have been purified and trained in the correct methods. Treated reverentially, such texts, and their priests, promise something special, inaccessible by profane means. For example, they might allow priests some share of that “creativity” which infuses the original work, or some qualitatively exceptional, irreconcilably subjective experience, or some privileged species of meaning. 5

The digital as such is perfectly compatible with the sacredness of the humanistic text. The prominence of digital hypereditions of canonical authors (say: the Whitman Archive) makes the point. So, however, does the ambivalence with which many “distant readers” discuss their methods: there appears to be a strong temptation to frame such methods as a mere supplement to “close reading,” which remains the ultimate goal. Let us take a symptomatic example. In his DH 2014 keynote lecture, Bruno Latour repeatedly invoked the idea that the real value of the digital for the humanities would be to create a better close reading (a term he used repeatedly). The elaborate technical and institutional apparatus he created for his own Inquiry into Modes of Existence allows a remarkable “distant” view of the many readers and interpretations of his work, a few glimpses of which he gave. But he insisted repeatedly that the ultimate goal was to ensure a “close,” that is faithful, interpretation of his argument. Indeed, I could hardly ask for a better image of the sacerdotal than the video clips Latour showed us of the seminars on his book, in which the serious and credentialed readers voiced their views in the presence of the author. 6

This is not the only methodological route the digital affords us. Though it might preserve the sacred text, to be touched only by the sacred method (close reading) exercised by those who have been purified (the humanist, individuum ineffabile), it also might help us into an expanding universe of dirty methods, with their bags of words, their noisy classifiers, their obviously reductive models, their coding schemes (markup) planned in advance for counting. It might displace questions of value with questions about the systems that produce value. Instead of the priestly “reading” it might shift our attention to the study of readers and their readings. And so on… The more this transformation happens, the more humanistic research draws closer to social science in method as well as in object.

And here is the reason for going around saying “let DH be sociological, exclamation point”: these other methods can and do produce knowledge about subjects that matter to the community of scholars. Digital or not, quantitative or not—these oppositions are actually secondary. The boundary between sacred humanities and profane social sciences is a barrier to the production of knowledge. Let’s have profanity all around.

  • 1. The mini-content analysis in the talk was based on a topic model which I have not otherwise made available. If you really want it, get in touch with me by e-mail. Otherwise, I’d prefer people explore and analyze the 150-topic model of the same corpus Ted Underwood and I have put online as part of our Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies project. We discuss the cultural turn a bit in our article.
  • 2. In my view, even the latter is not so secretly a question about the social life of literature.
  • 3. DH allows us to revisit, and reiterate, the argument John Guillory makes in The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism, to which everything I have to say is embarrassingly indebted. Guillory’s essay is a good place to go for an explanation of the way disciplinary boundary-drawing tends to produce overblown claims about the epistemological privileges of one discipline or another (not to mention ludicrous caricatures of the disciplinary rivals).
  • 4. Here begins a little armchair Durkheiming. Sorry.
  • 5. In Bourdieu’s memorably scornful terms: “Why are those who try to advance our knowledge of the artwork and the aesthetic experience so hounded, if not because the very ambition to produce a scientific analysis of this individuum ineffabile and of the individuum ineffable who produced it is a mortal threat to the pretension, so common…and yet so ‘distinguished’, of thinking of oneself as an ineffable individual able to have ineffable experiences of this ineffable thing?” Les règles de l’art, 12. “Scientific” (scientifique), it must be remembered, covers that wide domain of the sciences humaines which we do not easily encompass with a single English term.
  • 6. Latour insisted that this social closure was the point of the digitally-enhanced close reading. And in this he offered good, if somewhat (intentionally?) ironic, evidence for his other major argument, that the digital can help to lay bare more segments of the networks of practices and agents that have always been involved in producing cultural texts. I suggest that the digital apparatus “underlines” (as Latour would say) quite a few aspects of the priestly institution of the grand theorist. Though he repeatedly insisted he wasn’t a digital humanist, Latour spoke a language his audience knew well.
Tags: dhsociology of literatureprofanitySocial Network: Picture description: 

Noli me tangere. Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524. Wikimedia Commons.

Four Stones After Slavery

July 17, 2014 - 11:43

The four small stones we dredged up from the river and placed in my knapsack began to weigh me down with African history.

I had gone with Shola, a friend, and Johnson, a colleague, to the ancient Yoruba sanctuary of Osun. Located in the remnants of high primary forest in southern Nigeria and home to the white-throated monkey, the grove constitutes the only surviving Yoruba sanctuary, a place still revered by many people, and the location of an annual festival held in July.

The sanctuary is set along the meandering river of Osun and dedicated to the goddess of fertility, Osun, a central figure of Yoruba cosmology. Restored by the Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger, it represents an important religious place for Yoruba people in Nigeria and the diaspora.

And it is with this diaspora in mind that I visited the sanctuary. Willys, a Brazilian colleague at Kwara State University where I was teaching in May 2014, had asked us to collect these stones from the river. He planned to take them to his home province of Bahia as presents to families who still worship the goddess of Osun and who feel a connection to the sanctuary. This was an astonishing discovery for me – that there exist descendants of slaves in Brazil today who remember Osun and its cosmology. This surely is proof of the indomitable human spirit.

So we delivered the stones to Willys; in his suitcase they made their own peregrination from Ilorin, to Lagos, Johannesburg, Sao Paolo, and finally arriving at Salvador da Bahia, taking part in a larger dispersion of people, faith, and material culture.

When I returned to Ilorin I picked up a book that made more connections between this area of Nigeria and Salvador da Bahia. Slave Rebellion in Brazil by João José Reis describes how in Salvador da Bahia Africans from Ilorin and surrounding regions fomented the largest slave rebellion of the Americas.

Many of these slaves were Muslim, some fluent in Arabic. Retaining knowledge of the language, they wrote down the Koran in Brazil from memory, taught it to their sons and passed it down through the generations. Unbelievably they achieved this without the knowledge of the Portuguese authorities or the plantation owners.

The rebels saw in Islam an alternative, unifying ideology that promised them freedom and envisioned a free Bahia for Africans. Some quixotically believed they would commandeer ships to take them back to what is today western Nigeria.

The insurrection broke out on Ramadan of 1834 and came to be known as the Mâle Revolt, as the Muslims of Bahia were called Mâle from the Yoruba imale, meaning a Yoruba Muslim. It was squashed by the authorities, who sought to destroy African Islam as a distinct, organized religion in Brazil. Some organizers were put to death while others were deported to Lagos. But slavery was abolished in 1851 partly because of this rebellion.

In an amazing example of turn-around, João José Reis will give presentations in October in Ilorin to an audience that will include descendants of the Yoruba Muslims who planned and partook in the rebellions.

But for me there were more links to be made. Before I left for Nigeria, Prof. Nayib Abdala, a colleague from the University of Cartagena where I taught in May 2012, suggested I read Changó. The Biggest Badass, (Changó. El gran putan) by the Afro-Colombian author, Manuel Zapata Olivella.

Little known even in Colombia, this is a difficult and challenging work, encyclopedic in its knowledge of the African diaspora and cyclopean it its ambition to represent the people of Changó, the Yoruba god of thunder, war, and sexuality. Part lyric, part epic, part novel, part ethnography, it defies the laws of genre as it also disobeys western notions of chronology.

The book proposes an Afrocentric view of the five-hundred-year experience of the African diaspora. Starting in places such as Osun, it follows the harrowing passage across the Atlantic, and the arrival of Africans in Cartagena, the entry point to the Caribbean and Latin America. Chapter Three, the “Vodou Rebellion,” chronicles the successful slave insurrection in Haiti while the subsequent chapter deals with the various wars of independence in Latin America and the leading role played in these rebellions by people of African descent. The book ends in the United States with the civil rights movement where Changó takes the form of figures like Malcolm X.

Changó. The Biggest Badass blends history and myth, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the supernatural with the natural world. As Zapata Olivella says in the Preface: “Forget about the boundaries between life and death, because in this saga you are the prisoner, the discoverer, the founder, the liberator.”

But what unites the five disparate chapters are the “African Orichas, [deities] and the dead ancestors who refuse to recognize the limits of the centuries, of geography or death.”

And this is why on every page Zapata Olivella portrays African defiance and rebellion against enslavement. When a freed slave in Cartagena is brought to the Inquisition on charges of practicing African witchcraft, he is tortured (in the chambers I had actually visited two years earlier) and burned at the stake. But he remains rebellious. And as the flames consume his body, his spirit rises up, becoming one with the “Orichas and Ancestors.” And the chapter closes with these lines:

Let no one feel himself a slave,

For the brand on his buttock,

A night in chains Does not enslave the soul.

The Brazilian recipients of our stones breathe this soul, confirming Zapata Olivella’s vision of an undying diaspora and of the inexhaustible power of Changó. And I, an outsider to this drama, could only count the ties between Ilorin and places in the Americas, each link becoming more illuminating and more hopeful.

Tags: African diasporaBrazilChangóIlorinSlave rebellionsBahiaOsunYoruba sanctuariesManuel Zapata OlivellaNigeriaSocial Network: Picture description: 

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Gregory Jusdanis and freeimages.com ( I )

The Symphonic Subject: Beethoven, Hegel, Adorno

June 22, 2014 - 09:15

On a chilly October day in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte's army laid waste to Prussian troops on the outskirts of Jena, a university town in central Germany. The sounds of his canons reverberated through the town, providing a sound track for the young philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as he put the finishing touches on a work that would change the course of history.

The Phenomenology of Spirit would be published the following year, a book of such suggestive power that it helped engender Marx and Engel's scientific materialism, Alexandre Kojève's vision of postwar European universalism, and Francis Fukuyama's argument for neoliberal capitalism as the natural end of history. As Hegel sat at his desk, finishing his epic story of how the human Spirit comes to full self-consciousness and absolute knowing, he imagined that history was coming to an end: the French emperor bringing with him a new form of government that would shatter for ever the hold of feudal lords on men's wills and that of an archaic church on their souls; and Hegel bringing them a new form of thought, a philosophy that could grasp the very movement of thought itself, and that could therefore never be surpassed.

In December of that year, a young composer, already the toast of Vienna and recognized heir to its musical royalty, Mozart and Haydn, would premiere his Violin Concerto in D Major. Finished in haste and almost too late for the premiere, the Concerto was at first not a success, and the soloist slated to perform it inserted some of his own music out of frustration.

Although Hegel was wrong about history having come to an end on that chilly October day, he was not wrong in sensing that he had articulated an idea that would dramatically change the way philosophers would conceptualize coming to know the world and themselves. Likewise, the music that Beethoven would begin to create from around 1803 on also signaled a fundamental change in human history.

These changes, one in philosophy, one in music, are profoundly related.

As the philosopher and music theorist Theodor Adorno wrote in his fragmentary notebooks for a never-completed project on Beethoven: "To say that Beethoven's music expressed the World Spirit, that it was the content of that Spirit or suchlike, would undoubtedly be pure nonsense. What is true, however, is that his music expressed the same experiences which inspired Hegel's concept of the World Spirit.”

What does it mean to say that Beethoven and Hegel were expressing the same experiences, when the former composed his world-changing music and the latter penned his world changing philosophy? Adorno was clearly not referring to the casual, particular experiences of two individuals as they grew to manhood in different parts of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What he meant, rather, is that they experienced the same historical moment—in the sense of how culture at large was changing and articulating that change in different ways. As he put it, "Beethoven's music is an image of that process which great philosophy understands the world to be. An image, therefore, not of the world but of an interpretation of the world."

In making this argument, Adorno was trying to move our understanding of how music communicates away from the commonplace idea according to which we listen to music and it in turn generates images of the world. Instead, he insisted that Beethoven’s music be understood as an image of an interpretation of the world, and specifically of the process that great philosophy understands the world to be. That process that Beethoven's music communicated in its own language was the same process Hegel's philosophy tried to express: the process of human consciousness coming to understand itself.

For Hegel, Spirit can only achieve true knowledge when it stops seeing itself as separate from the world it is trying to understand; when it has learned that every empirical experience of the world already contains within it the entire history of consciousness and all its incessant change.

For Adorno, Beethoven occupied a position of privilege between the genius of Mozart and the experimental excesses of the Romantics. Beethoven came on the scene at a moment when the conventions of the classical style still ruled; he “composed as he wanted” in the face of those restrictions, hence opening the doors for all to follow him, while at the same time removing the very constraints that helped make him unique.

The conventions that Beethoven exceeded from within are a musical version of historically specific knowledge, the particular instances that Hegel's consciousness discovers along the path of history. His innovations, the concussive effects of his musical creations as they broke those conventions, were his version of Hegel's consciousness freeing itself from the bounds of time and place and reaching for the universal.

In the dialectic of knowledge that Hegel composes in the Phenomenology, again and again consciousness discovers that some inert, particular aspect of its existence, which it apparently comes upon for the first time, is itself already the dynamic result of the history that led up to this encounter. By coming to know this new thing, consciousness is already something else and is, together with that new thing, both destroyed and preserved in a new form, itself subject to new encounters.

In the Violin Concerto, as well as in the famous Pastoral Symphony that Beethoven premiered only two years later, we find, Adorno writes, “the idea of expressing tranquility through motion.” How is it possible,” he goes on to ask, “that in Beethoven, even where antagonistic moments are simply absent, as in the closing movement of the Pastoral—symphonic tension is nevertheless created? Through the transition to the general. This happens, however, precisely through an act of subjective will…. and in this we also find the rupture, the secret negativity."

What Adorno was perceiving in Beethoven was a musical expression of the sort of revolution in thought that Hegel's work initiated. For Hegel, the transcendental anchor that holds Spirit's identity intact was no longer God, the soul, or even an Ego or internal subject perched in the back of our brains witnessing our lives and history march by. The core of Spirit's identity over time was nothing but time itself; the movement of thought grasped as change; a subject becoming itself and only then discovering the past that it makes its history through an act of subjective will. In its musical manifestation, this is the very idea of symphony; the whole work that subsumes and gives identity to its parts, its components, its movements. In Adorno's words again, "In the Beethovian form the present creates the past."

The idea of the pastoral is, in fact, the perfect setting for revealing this aspect of Beethoven's musical philosophy. Arcadia, the bucolic Golden Age, a prior and perfect time lost forever to man's destructive urge to change nature. Beethoven's pieces don't convey or represent such an image, but by their structure and movement they elicit the emotional complexity of modern society's relation to such virgin tranquility. The past does not predate us, pristine and uncorrupted; the present creates the past as its lost predecessor, positing and depositing there its desires and broken dreams. We create Arcadia and are already longing for it, nostalgic for it. Our desire is always laced with sadness, even as we construct out of it our greatest works of beauty.

This version of the return to nature had a personal meaning for Beethoven, and one soaked in an almost unbearable pain. In 1802 Beethoven moved from the fourth-floor flat he had been renting in Vienna's third district out to the town of Heiligenstadt, a picturesque latticework of stone streets running through corridors of low-slung buildings painted in the gentle yellow beloved of the Hapsburg Princes, and nestled among the gentle hills and vineyards that abut the famous Vienna woods to the city's north. Beethoven's doctor had advised him to make the move in order to create a distance between the city with its constant bustle and the ever-worsening ringing in Beethoven's ears, which would gradually and irrevocably deprive him of his greatest, most vital sense.

For Beethoven, the tranquility of Heiligenstadt was simultaneously a retreat from the world of his fellow men and a banishment into the silence of his ever-growing solitude. As he wrote in 1802 in a letter to no one in particular, which he would keep with him in secret until his death in 1827, "born with a lively, ardent temperament, also susceptible to the diversions of society, I was, at an early age, obliged to cut myself off, to live my life in solitude; if, once in a while, I attempted to set all this aside, oh how harshly would I be driven back by the doubly bad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was no possible for me to say to people: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf; ah, how would it be possible for me to reveal a weakness in the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others, the one sense that I once possessed to the highest degree of perfection?" Thus was the tranquility of his country idyll at once a constant reminder of his loss, his solitude, and his burning desire for communion with his fellow men. "Forgive me if you see me draw back from you," he continued, "when I would gladly join together with you…. For me there can be no recreation in people's company, no conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas."

Hegel believed that music was the highest form of sensual art, going the furthest in Spirit's quest to free itself from the constraints of the material world. From there spirit's journey could only be carried further by the word, first in poetry, finally in a philosophy that learned to grasp the movement of thought itself.

Adorno appreciated the idea but ultimately questioned the hierarchy. Could it not be, he wondered, that music itself is the highest form of human expression, freed as it is not only from the material weight of any given moment of expression, but also from the particularity of the words and concepts that poetry and philosophy cannot exist without? He could always best experience Beethoven's music, Adorno claimed, when he read it in silence, the way Beethoven must have composed it already in the years when he put the notes of the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony to paper. Those notes, issuing from the curse of an unimaginably cruel irony, approached an idea and a set of emotions that could be painted in colors or described by words. But could words or images fully express the wrenching simultaneity of happiness and loss, desire and its unattainability that Beethoven's "tranquility through motion" affords us? Even these words are mere approximations and but the vaguest interpretations, a scaffolding from which, perhaps, to glimpse a fragment of what may be—just may be—the truth of what Beethoven gave us.

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Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Wikipedia (I) and the Noun Project (I)

We have never been inside: on Peter Sloterdijk's "In the World Interior of Capital"

June 10, 2014 - 11:04

 

This is the first Sloterdijk I've read, though I've always been attracted to the title of Critique of Cynical Reason because it's got the word "cynical" in it. This volume promises a similar iconoclasm: has the critique of grand narratives, centerpiece of post-totalitarian Europe, itself "already hardened into a comfortable meta-grand narrative" (4)? His proposal really is grand: a philosophy of globalization divided into a "history" of crazy risk-taking ("disinhibition") and Western imperial expansion from 1492-1945, and a "post-history" in which electronic simultaneity and decolonization together create a space of "inhibitions," instant feedback, and the "obligatory contrition" (10) enforced on nation-states by international courts of law.

Anyone who likes Adorno's aphorisms will enjoy Sloterdijk's wordplay, and his habit of connecting seemingly random details into overarching stories: the "theory of the pirate," the excurses on Jules Verne and Rilke, the idea that if we switch to solar power, the "romanticism of the explosion" will look in retrospect like "energy fascism" (231). It's a delightful book, with weirdly defamiliarizing observations on every page. The book's most vivid section is its depiction of the risk-taking world of the first European explorers, and their literally delusional belief in their own success. Mutinies (and depressive, self-critical thoughts) must be violently suppressed: "Had the Portuguese Magellan ... not overruled the objections of the next men in command, marooning and executing Spanish nobles along with the other rebels, he would not have made it unmistakably clear to his people what it means to be on an unconditional outward voyage" (82). This relentless and quasi-psychotic forward orientation survives in modern business practices: "the crews on the discovery ships were the first objects of naïve and effective group modelling processes that were redescribed in the present day as 'corporate identity' techniques" (81).

Team-building exercise: Magellen dealing with mutineers

In this stage of globalization, no one can stop the "unleashed visionary energy of the entrepreneur-charlatans. Today, as yesterday, all of these live off their productive errors ... Through their auto-hypnotic talents, practical natures manage time and time again to build up empires around themselves from self-deceptions that succeed in the medium term" (83).

Sloterdijk thinks philosophy has underestimated the conflict between the land-bound and the sea-borne in Western thought: to really build your society and economy around ocean navigation, you have to make your culture portable (so explorers beneath foreign skies can still feel like natives of their country of origin), insure everything, speculate constantly, accept that "enlightenment begins at the docks" (87). The medieval universities and the landlocked countries overestimate the importance of nations, of Boden, of dwelling, and they merely look provincial. But Sloterdijk is so persuasive in his slighting of Heideggerian provincialism and his description of the psychotic-entrepreneurial mindset of globalizing Europe that I found the second half of the book, when he describes life inside the giant Crystal Palace of modernity, a little disappointing.

Global "haves" from Disney's Wall-E: freedom, whatever

This Crystal Palace was clearly built by visionary psychotics (though fully insured!), so it's not clear how life inside got so dull. Sloterdijk's Crystal Palace is like the spaceship in Wall-E, with its fat entitled humans—though of course far less equitable, since so many people today live outside the world of consumer dream. (Whether the global outsiders are being exploited—whether this economic inequality is in fact necessary to consumer society—isn't clear.) Inside the dome, modern subjects engage in various security-enhancing projects culminating in the desire to become a global celebrity. Despite the humor here, I'm not a big fan of the implication that modern society is decadent—it flattens out real political gains made in this century by (for example) women, non-European races, and alternate sexualities into mere consumer choices. Ho hum, women can vote now.

If you live in a glass house, you want to throw stones at the glass house. Glass houses are fragile and ridiculous. But what if you think you live in a city instead? Or perhaps a civilization? Maybe civilization is super-violent and unsustainable ecologically, but it's also been, thus far, the vehicle of all human liberation. I'm looking forward to reading more Sloterdijk: the first volume of Sphären (translated as Bubbles) is already out and the other two are on their way. But is there an apocalyptic death wish in that title, with its suggestion that bubbles gotta pop? What if some of the things in consumer society create genuine pleasure (an argument debated by Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean in Reading Capitalist Realism)? Humans live in society—as Sloterdijk does point out, we cannot survive in the empty void. Maybe humans actually breathe more freely in cities, in connected groups open to the air.

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Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images TheNountProject ( I, II)

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