Author Archive

Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”. New Delhi: Routledge 2013

In Kaur on March 2, 2013 at 12:15 am

Reviewed by John Hutnyk.

This book both begins and ends with comics, but the sting is not in the tail. Rather, throughout, the disturbing words of Oppenheimer, lifted from the Bhagavad Gita, hover threateningly – it is in the title, so you know the quote will come in the text, it is relevant on every page, but it waits, with much foreboding, like the sensibility that drives the author and the immense power of the topic: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. It is not until the very last pages that these words make their doomsayer appearance, and here is the books merit. You had me at the get go.

The book ostensibly starts with the story of a twelve-year-old boy reading a comic about a nuclear-powered superhero and I am immediately thrown back to the cartoons of my own childhood where Prince Planet, ‘with a medallion on his chest’, was all-powerful, and nuclear of course. Which naturally enough prompts an adult question: why do comic heroes in particular have such an intimate relationship with atomics and is this an ideological get-em-while-they’re-young marketing strategy or something still more aberrant? Vigilantes, law and order, planetary survival, all underpinned by a new supernatural power to rival the gods.

Beneath this mild-mannered speculation a far harsher reality of cancer deaths and poverty, a health care system wholly insufficient to requirements and a legal and legislative morass that allows criminal loopholes like an x-ray machines leaks gamma rays. Raminder Kaur’s survey of all things atomic in India is very welcome, and indeed urgent. The questions she asks press at the time, relevant both to Nehru and now: ‘how entwined are the (grand) children of the midnight hour of independence to a perception of the minutes-to-midnight scenario in the city?’ (Kaur). The city in question is Mumbai, with its nuclear research facilities and reactors. This urban anthropological study stands out as a compelling, relevant and insistent call to notice.

An archival investigation of the bomb in Bombay (the city’s old name allows the alliteration). The book documents Indian responses to atomic science from Gandhi on Hiroshima to contemporary vernacular cultural responses to geopolitical brinkmanship and the Indo-Pak tests of 1998. Along the way, newspapers, cinema, oral testimony, and as already noted, comics, and cartoons, provide the fissionable materials.

It is an anthropological study, but not so anthropological that the disciplinary protocols get in the way of the storytelling. There is one short graphing of the odourless, invisible, maleficence of radiation onto the way anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard described ‘witchcraft’ among the Azande, but the analogy is not pushed too far – since there is no consensus that radiation might be a ‘natural philosophy’. Nevertheless, the gesture of reference to one of anthropology’s ancients will be approved by some.

What has India thought of nukes? The early newspaper reportage in India after Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also a record of critique of colonialism and superpower machinations. An anti-American strain across India in response to ongoing atomic ‘tests’ in the Pacific, but on another plane there is also a Ghandian-Hegelian ‘spirit’ that posits an alternative to militant atomic science (strange bedfellows, Gandhi and Hegel) in ‘atma’, ‘stayagraha’ and ‘ahimsa’. Is this a staging of soul, truth and non-violence over against the destroyer of worlds? This is further strained through a kind of mad dialectical adaptation of H.G.Wells’ story ‘The World Set Free’  and forecasts of another war, this time nuclear, needed before humanity steps back from a mutually assured destruction to renounce war altogether. All this at the same time that Nehruvian socialism and Congress non-violence also joined hands with H.J.Bhabha’s Nuclear Energy Commission and the warm glow of technological advance was adopted to nurture the nation. A Third path through science and non-alignment would be the promise of a progressive post-independence future.

Yoga, Vishnu, Hanuman, space flight, chemistry, the Vedas, global warming, commercial markets, tilak paste, the films of Arnand Patwardhan, research reactors, spills and leaks, saffron, suits, signs and risk, the range of topics bombard us with a terrifying and convoluted story. Yet the text never leaves off worrying at its main theme – the atomic narrative as it appears from the perspective of the (many) peoples of Mumbai. Whether this be from the window of a mega-city skyscraper, from a lab in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), a middle-class activist daughter’s household, or over a tiffin box lunch or shared tea at a stall, the view from atomic Mumbai is the story of the city retelling itself. Much more than a travel-guide or urban history, in this atomic perspective we get to know the city intimately, and – for give the pun – to its core.

Continue reading this review: NXRB Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”


Review Essay: Thinking with Berger, Global and Local/Dialogue.

In Papastergiadis on April 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from New Literatures Review, 27: 1994)

Review of Nikos Papastergiadis 1993 Modernity and Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s Writings Manchester: Manchester University Press

I imagine him straining over the shoulder of the rider to watch, through blurred eyes and at hell-raiser speed, the approaching bend. On the road up a wild mountain, a motorcycle roars towards an adopted village, with a passenger from the city; another visitor, another stranger come to visit, a visitor among others. Drink lubricates words well into the night, and after a working day in the fields it is memories that evoke an evening of talk. To be remembered. Remember John Berger? In a book which defies the safety of conventional biographies, Nikos Papastergiadis has given us a memoir of the writer in exile.

Much more besides. This study, Modernity in Exile, also takes up theoretical and political issues that have importance beyond the specific exile of a certain Berger. This review is difficult to keep on track, the road twists and turns, other themes emerge and vie for attention. In more convoluted terms; what is at stake is a conception of dialogue that will speak to/with difference and name the violence that attends our global condition.

Perhaps Berger was always in exile. As an art critic and columnist for The New Statesman, before his decision to leave England in favour of life in a remote French village, Berger was already an oppositional figure, even amongst the oppositional critics of the British left. His art criticism was always more than an orthodox art history; connecting the “life” of a work with the lives of viewers, he tried to challenge the gap between freedom and alienation. His longer writings were even more difficultly poised; he was interested in both the success and the failure of Picasso, where others either (and only) praised or scorned. He was, importantly in “the midst of the cold war” (NP:39), someone who resisted the easy symmetries of exclusive positions. He was, he claimed, both a Marxist and a Romantic. To all of this Papastergiadis attempts to remain faithful in his retelling of Berger’s positions — which makes Modernity in Exile a difficult and rewarding book.

Berger’s work spans more than forty years, and deals with so many of the critical issues of our time that the study of his oeuvre easily becomes a kind of kit-bag for rethinking the epoch. Modernity in Exile began as a doctoral dissertation in politics at Cambridge. Here, Berger was assigned only a secondary role in the earliest drafts (NP:191), before a gift fell across Papastergiadis’ path, enabling scattered thoughts to be woven together and held fast. In Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, writes Papastergiadis, “we do not see England through the estranged eyes of an exile, but rather with the alienated eyes of a local who looks up at an exile and from there looks down at his culture” (NP:156). A crucial moment. I like to think of this book as crafted by a writer carrying quotations in cupped hands to the workbench, choosing their position with care. This work reads like a mosaic of ideas so arranged. At another point Berger is seen to write himself autobiographically into the novel as the character Janos, for whom “a perpetual distance between England and Hungary casts a shadow over any neat reconciliation of the two” (Berger quoted in NP:151). To follow the itinerant thoughts of this book, always with a danger of becoming lost, offers the promise of an arrival if there is a thread to hang on to — Berger is that thread. Leading somewhere? Where? This is not Ariadne, guiding Theseus through the labyrinth created by Daedalus.[1] There is no linear development or step by step guide to Berger, and Papastergiadis offers “no totalising text, no definitive essay, not even a strict code” (NP:37) — and yet the sense of Berger is tracked throughout. How is this possible in the “absence of an established discipline that can examine the dynamics of displacement in modernity”(NP:4)?

Perhaps it can be achieved with an emphasis on what can be shorthanded as “the dialogical relationship”; the dialogue between author and subject which carries Berger away, and which organises the trajectories of each of Papastergiadis’ chapters. It is “a dialogical mode of writing” which may be capable, for both Berger and for this biographical study, of avoiding “the pitfalls of critical distance, appropriation and displacement, which tend to dominate so much of contemporary writing on the other” (NP:4-5). The pitfalls include certainty, arrogance and the self-serving authority of objectivity, and these are to be avoided by an empathetic approach which requires “a code of interaction between the self and the other that admits the reflexivity of both positions” (NP:5). It is by attention to this dilemma of the other that, for Papastergiadis following Berger, the “gift of empathy” allows a “heightening of new subject positions in the dialogue with the excluded” (NP:16). The possibility of a dialogical turn in literary and cultural studies has a long history, and its place in contemporary theory has frequently been rehearsed.

Berger struggles “to find a sympathetic space within modernity in which identity can be relocated” (NP:181). Dialogue is not a neutral “exchange”. Still it may be possible for Papastergiadis to invoke the metaphor — and its incommensurability — to help bring out a critique of those who profess to engage equally (take turns) with “others”. It is evident that any simple acceptance of the “dialogic turn” is an ideological creation of a speaking exchange which occludes differences — it is clearly the burden of Berger’s work to struggle with this problem. At the same time, that social commentators like Berger, and indeed Papastergiadis, are also bound up within cultural and political forms which condition “dialogic” encounters may sometimes be overlooked in enthusiasm to find a path out of this mesh.

This Exilic Shuttle

In Modernity in Exile, a sustained confrontation and detailed exploration of the methodological status of any more complicated understanding of dialogue is cunningly displaced into debates about positioning and metaphor. This text on Berger has a guiding metaphor, or at least a series of related metaphors grouped around one found, with more than rustic irony, amongst the village life of Berger’s retreat…  continue reading NP review


On the Need to Supplement Ethnography

In Ang on April 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from The Sociological Review 1998)

Ang, Ien 1996 Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World, Routledge, London.

Although restrained in tone where scaremongering might even have been appropriate, Ien Ang’s comment on a ‘wider recent trend in the advertising community’ where anthropologists are hired to do ‘observational research’ on the ‘minutiae of consumer behaviour’ (Ang 1996:63) is most interesting where she links this trend to the growing popularity of ‘ethnography’ among critical cultural researchers. Job prospects there might be. However, anything insidious and new about this is past its use by date, as such compromise was long ago factored in to the methodologically vaguery of ‘ethnography’. Evidence for this could be gathered from a brief survey of what, even in Ang’s presentation, passes as ethnographic method here. Anything from a few unstructured interviews in a studio, through to deep ‘hanging out’ seems to be gathered under the one term. Methodological discussions were nearly always only camouflage for those who hadn’t yet done their research or those who hadn’t quite got the results they expected (of course both these epistemologically thought-provoking predicaments are preferable to that of those who found exactly the right questions for the answers they already had).

A key to the book, all of chapter five serves to set up the final coup de gras in favour of ethnography as a tool of use for both audience studies and for capital, showing that statistical and mechanical methods of viewer behaviour assessment fail and every new technique has only raised yet more complicated questions. Necessarily, Ang ignores here the notorious ‘failures’ of ethnography and instead simply presents the horribly all-too-real scenario of anthropology in the direct employ of commerce with merely a side glance to the epistemological debates that have destabilised ethnographic practices within that discipline. It would not do to simply condemn such recruitment of anthropology to commerce (television studies of course will still have to struggle to be considered ‘real’ anthropology vis a vis witchcraft, pig-exchange and kinship taboos) on moral or ethical grounds, but neither is it enough to say this is ‘perhaps thought provoking’ (Ang 1996:63). Instead, it is necessary to choose and push a political programme.

Ang raises questions that could be recruited for such work, especially where she asks what is the politics of an ethnographic rendering of television audiences (Ang 1996:71). The drift towards ethnographic methods is considered in part a response to the crisis within the industry around the reliability of ratings research, but unfortunately Ang leaves ‘aside’ the economic and institutional aspects of this crisis. There is much work that could be done here, but in this context more deserves to be said about the institutional role of ‘ethnography’, and the theoretical debates and context in which it becomes possible on the one hand for educational and media researchers to show a heightened interest in the method, and for anthropologists to have spent the past twenty years fighting over its very plausibility.

In a footnote – indeed the first of chapter two, and one so important I don’t see why it is not in the text proper – Ang notes that the term ethnography ‘within anthropology’ refers to ‘an in-depth field study of a culture and its inhabitants in their natural location, which would require the researcher to spend a fair amount of time in that location, enabling him/her to acquire a nuanced and comprehensive insight … [and] … enabling him/her to produce a “thick description” of it’ (Ang 1996:182). She admits that ‘most qualitative studies of media audiences do not meet these requirements’ (Ang 1996:182), though she still considers use of the term ethnographic justified. From any familiarity with debates ‘within anthropology’ it would be clear that not that much anthropological research fits her strict definition of ethnography either. The deployment of essentialisms like ‘a culture’ and ‘its natural location’ returns us to an, admittedly not too distant, anthropological past which simply does not wash. A quick survey of some of the conventional and now dated (e.g. Geertz, see Hutnyk 1989) critiques of ethnography notwithstanding, Ang’s discussion is rather tame on the role of ethnography, though her inclusion of a citation of Talal Asad makes the important point that ‘the crucial issue for anthropological practice is not whether ethnographies are fiction or fact … what matters more are the kinds of political project cultural inscriptions are embedded in. Not experiments in ethnographic representation for their own sake, but modalities of political intervention should be our primary object of concern’ (Asad 1990:260)

Where Ang cites Meaghan Morris there is perhaps more scope for the kind of ethnographic political interventionism that Asad envisions, but Morris’s rather jaundiced abstractionism defeats the purpose. She may have a worthy point, that ‘thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variation’ (Morris 1988:20 – she says this is her ‘impression’) but in Ang’s ‘freely translated’ précis this becomes just the ‘impotent generalisation’ that ‘the ethnographic perspective on audiences has led to a boom in isolated studies of the ways in which this or that audience group actively produces specific meanings and pleasures out of this or that text, genre or medium’ (Ang 1996:136). Resistance has disappeared in the reformulation and the mockery of everyday life as merely the locus of many forms of coping, or of complexity, fails to move the argument forward.

Ang makes a good point that the ‘existence of diversity’ is not … continue reading

‘No one likes us, we don’t care’

In Robson on March 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Review by Les Back

Review of Garry Robson “‘No one likes us, we don’t care’: the myth and reality of Millwall fandom” Berg Publishers, 2000 203pp.

There aren’t too many sociological books that make their way into the Christmas stocking.  In this, and many other respects, Garry Robson’s study of Millwall football culture is exceptional.  Up and down the Old Kent Road friends and relatives of the Millwall faithful, stretching far and wide in South London and its peri-urban hinterlands, will have bought the book for their loved ones.  To date Millwall’s Club Shop alone has sold 340 copies, almost 40% of the annual sales.  There is something deeply significant about this phenomenon that goes beyond its content in a narrow sociological sense.

While the focus of the book is on the culture and fortunes of this much benighted football club, the arguments contained within it have a much broader relevance.  Millwall, a club that has never really had much success on the pitch, is an iconic emblem of all that is seen to be disreputable in the English game.  For the police, football bureaucrats, officials and opposing fans alike the merest mention of those two syllables is enough to evoke associations with hooliganism, violence, bigotry and racism.     The end result is the ‘Millwall myth’ in Robson’s diagnosis. Much of this, he points out, is a product of the urban imagination of the moralists – some of whom have been members of the British Sociological Association – that project these meanings on the club.

Yet, at the same time it is precisely the ‘anti-charisma’ that is associated with the club that makes it attractive to its devoted to fans.  It is also why the Millwall faithful have resisted the currents of embourgeoisment and pacification that are prevalent elsewhere in the game.  It is this defiant self-affirmatory power that is captured in Lions’ rallying cry – “No one likes us we don’t care.”

In 1989 Richard Hoggart wrote: “Each decade we swiftly declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.”  Tony Blair recently stated that the “class war is over.”  While English society is as brutally divided by class as it has ever been, we simply don’t have a language sophisticated enough to describe and understand the ways in which these divisions express themselves.  This is where Garry Robson’s book is a major advance.  He uses football, and the collective forms of ritualisation that are brought to life in its theatre, as place to read histories of class, community formations and patterns of embodiment.

Millwall’s fan culture was forged in industrial South London where both the docks and riverside ‘entrepreneurialism’ provided an economic base for its communities.  The echoes of this history resound in the patterns of culture established within Millwall fandom, even though these economic foundations no longer exist.  Fans that have uprooted and moved to Kent, Surrey, Sussex and beyond can make the impassioned cry that ‘South London is Wonderful’.  The result is an intense localism that no longer necessarily requires actual residence.   Drawing on Christian Bromberger’s notion of the ‘collective imaginary,’ Robson shows how Millwall itself becomes the medium through which class affiliations and belongings are felt and lived.

Robson’s book draws substantially on theorists like Bourdieu, Bernstein and Bloch but he achieves something of a unique synthesis of his own.   Central to his theory of class is the notion of the ‘recursive’ in which patterns of culture are sustained in motion and through performance.  The structures of feeling that are produce through song and ritual are brought to life in the doing through a process of illocution.   These forms of masculine culture are anchored in the body. One of my favourite parts of the book is where he applies this to ‘the bowl’, both a way of walking and a form of urban cultural habitation.

In this sense Robson’s book give us a whole range of new ways of thinking about the relationship between class, masculinity and culture.  All of this accesses cultural patterns beyond the realm of language and ‘the discursive.’  He points to the ways in which class refuses to be buried, no matter how hard Tony Blair and New Labour might try to commit it to the graveyard British social life.  These patterns of culture and class affiliations endure precisely because they are reproduced through embodied means and the passionate commitments that are engendered in the relationship between Millwall’s iconic status and its devoted fans.

I gave Garry Robson’s book to a neighbour.  Tony is a lifelong fan of the club, a season ticket holder and ‘Millwall through and through.’  He read the book attentively.  “I finished the book you gave me,” he said on a drizzly night in South London.  “That blokes is ‘aving a laugh ain’t he.”   I said I didn’t think so and pushed Tony on the historical detail contained in the book.  “He’s obviously ‘one of us,’ Tony conceded, “but he writes like he’s swallowed the dictionary.”  Despite this Tony recognised himself in the book and enjoyed it regardless of the dense and eloquent theorising.  Many Millwall fans have been perplexed in the same way.  Yet, they all concede that this book is written by “one of their own” who demonstrates an intimate knowledge Millwall fandom from the inside.

What Robson achieves is to make the bourgeois mores of the academy recognise and take seriously a maligned plebeian culture on its own terms.    He is both a part of that culture and at the same time he serves as its translator.  The paradox is that while he is successful in making intellectuals and theorists take something like Millwall seriously, the price is that the book is less accessible to the very people it aims to represent i.e. the working-class fans themselves.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In a literary sense the book ‘outdoes’ sociological metalanguage on its own terms, so that its arguments can take a rightful place at the high table of cultural theory.  Yet at the same time his non-academic readership of fans and supporters are also challenged and forced to view these familiar rituals through another lens.  For some, this means thinking about their passion for football in different terms.  We can be sure that this Christmas, in a pub somewhere on the Walworth Road, Garry Robson was signing copies of his book for people who are unlikely to ever see the inside of a university.  While it may make many post-structuralists wince, this book deserves to become an immediate classic in the field.

While there is Light – Tariq Mehmood

In Mehmood on March 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Review, by John Hutnyk, reposted from the Weekly Worker 512 Thursday January 22 2004

Face up to the fight

Tariq Mehmood, ‘While there is light’, Manchester, 2003, Comma Press, pp220, £7.95

The travails of those who fight imperialism are long and brutal. Families torn asunder, friendships stretched and broken, lives crushed against the bars of prisons and the kicks of cops. Tariq Mehmood’s novel mixes clarity of reflection with bittersweet agonies and a pained lament for loss. The loss is not only consequent upon the cruel conditions of an updated and as yet unfinished Raj – though the ways the legacy of colonialism plays out on the workings of northern England and north Punjab are not simply contemporary – and the lament is not just for the family, but for the stalled and failing political movements that would be a possible resistance. Against the several significant historical backgrounds that shape the (so-called) post-colonial condition, Where there is light recounts the tale of Saleem Choudry returning to his parental village in north Punjab. The novel utilises three texts to tell its multi-sited tale – the first: a letter the disgruntled labour-migrated worker son writes to his mother, but which she cannot read; the second: the cassette tape recording the heart-torn and weary mother prepares for her son as she faces death, to which he cannot listen; and the third: the police-violence-extracted ‘confession’ which identifies Saleem as the ringleader of the Youth League fighting racist skinheads in Bradford in the early 1980s. In these contexts, characters recount – more or less lyrically – various predicaments. The legacy of the partition violence with which England left a parting gift of train-filled bodies, hacked to death in sectarian frenzy, is one memory. An unrelated consequence is the position of disaffected youth, whose heritage could be the anti-colonial and workers’ movement but who, through seduction and distraction, are disconnected from their romantic and revolutionary roots. In place of the movements they try to build are the old religious hypocrisies that are but the first cry of an oppressed mass, misled by a self-interested leadership with thought only for comfort. Saleem is arrested as a ‘terrorist’. This is a fictionalised account of what came to be known as the case of the Bradford 12, when Asian youths were charged with conspiracy after the discovery of petrol bombs. Saleem, out on bail, is flying back to Punjab to see his mother. A letter he had posted in a drunken rage the day before follows him through the post. He arrives too late to meet his mother (hospitals full of shit while the government builds atomic bombs). Scenes of lament and a difficult homecoming to a place that is no longer home are punctuated by a harrowing account of the arrest scene in Bradford and the interrogation, with full English police-style beatings, in the lockup before the trial. The story works in these multiple places and concurrent times, along the way providing a meditation – angry, not passive – on a range of difficulties that are the lot of the ‘returnee’ to the site of colonial extraction. Saleem was sent to England as a boy to earn money for the family, from that country where the streets were paved with gold (but they were not). Returning to Pakistan, the sex scene in the movie The saint is censored, the passport and customs officers impose their delays and extract their percentage cut, the dilemma that values the life of a fly but not of kin relations is matched by the alacrity with which friends, and devout community leaders, pursue the duty-free booty with which Saleem returns. A well read tourist might recognise this lot, but not likely. Self-mocking mockery of mock pieties, perhaps the portrayal of the whisky running business scam is the most blatant example of a hostility to religious hypocrisy that must be replaced by a more organised resistance. There are positive portrayals: the old mates from school who have not forgotten the one who left – even as they make merry with the desire to go themselves. In one sequence the contract that requires one both to give and take is considered fair trade for the prize of entry to Valaiti (Britain), despite full knowledge of what the prospective migrant will be forced to endure. Foreign, Valaiti poison (cigarettes) is even better than local lung-rasping pleasures. The one who inducts Saleem into the subtleties of communist solidarities – poignantly a white father who rescues him from a beating at the hands of his fascist son – is clear and insightful in his analysis of the mill workers and who profits most from those who labour under capital. Payara Singh tells of the heroes of the Punjab: of Uddam Singh and Baghat Singh, who fought the colonials with no thought for their own gain – a history that Saleem has to struggle to preserve – if you do not understand your past, how can you have hope for your future? The Manifesto is quoted, thought the words are mislaid. Solidarities become a major theme. In the end those interrogated in the youth movement betray each other under duress, but we know the wider campaign mobilised a larger alliance and won the case for the Bradford 12, establishing self-defence as a legal defence in law. This is particularly important to remember today, as alleged ‘terrorists’ are routinely detained in the UK, profiled again as the enemy by the jihadis, Bush and Blair. By the end of the novel Valaiti has become England, Saleem is not a Trot but he reads, the cops know they are not going to win the case (but they make the charges in any case) and the movement continues. Saleem does not know all that yet, but his personal resolution – he plays his mother’s tape, reads the letter, signs the forms – mean a realisation: that his history is one that requires him to face up to the fight (while there is light). He will return to struggle again.

John Hutnyk

Review of Bernard Stiegler ‘Taking Care’ and ‘Technics and Time’

In Stiegler on March 7, 2012 at 10:21 am

Reviewed by John Hutnyk. Must note that this is a partial/impartial review. Sadly, but perhaps sensibly, my section on Animals in Bernard Stiegler’s work had to be ruthlessly cut back for lack of space in the journal it was destined for (New Formations). The rest of the article will be available later in the year (its on Marx and Steigler, a critique of Stiegler’s use of ‘proletarianization’) but you can write me to get a draft. Here is the bit that was just cut out, with a new – perhaps too frivolous – first line… even if the rest is a bit frivvy too…

Animals Graze (a family drama) with Bernard Stiegler.

Let us go to the zoo with philosophy – favourite places for family outings – and look at the animals. There are a huge number of creatures to see – owls, eagles, lions, even a mole in Marx (well grubbed). The animal of choice, for Stiegler, is the stag that, both vigilant and grazing, can protect its young as it nibbles away at the undergrowth.

‘A grazing animal, for example, a stag (a forest herbivore …) is vigilant at the same time that it grazes, first with regard to the possible proximity of predators; it can, moreover, even while grazing and protecting itself, also protect its young, as well as its grazing mate, who is herself protecting her young.[i]

This is Bambi in the bourgeois family but not the only animal example Stiegler offers (not surprising given Derrida’s fascination with beasts[ii]). In his autobiographical-theoretical book Acting Out, Stiegler refers to a flying fish to describe his experience of incarceration in prison. This entailed a separation from the world that allowed him to contemplate his milieu ‘as does a flying fish, above his element’.[iii] Certainly not your average jail-bird, Stiegler then plunged into philosophy. The animal metaphors are further consolidated when he writes of the radio, television, internet and audiovisual electronic technologies that engender repetitive behaviour like that of a ‘herd’ in Nietzsche’s sense.[iv] And of course the privileged animal in Stiegler’s work is the eagle picking away at Prometheus’ liver, the poor old partisan of recurrent time and order barely thanked.[v]

These animals become interesting when Stiegler calls for a new political economy and reviews several ways of overcoming tendential decline of profit rate, leading to a discussion of bears: In the nineteenth century the rate of profit was maintained by secularisation of belief via calculable science and technique, the new social projects of schooling, nationalism, health etc., progressively exported globally (on the back of astonishing violence); then in the twentieth century, by means of consumerism and capture of protentions through channelling of attention by way of new media, ‘psychotechnologies’ and service industry-entertainment industry expansion. To this would need to be added colonial markets, imperialism, war and the mining, metals, industrial agriculture, war and the arms trade, plus financial services.

Indeed, it is with reference to the last of these that Stiegler suggests the recent crisis is a collapse of the older moves to avoid the rate of profit’s decline, a collapse that occurs through short termism, time of knowledge and of investment erased, proletarianization of retention as loss of knowledge extensive. There is a contradiction that cannot be bridged – the rate of profit falls again. But the question to ask here might be if this is still to have understood, in Marxist terms, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a crisis of credit and an exhaustion of the fundamental expansion which had previously been the bulwark against credit problems? Looking to Stiegler’s characterisation of capitalism as system of protentions, should this not rather be understood in a larger geo-political continuum? For the nineteenth century the key strategy is colonial expansion and its economic plunder, for the twentieth century war and global militarism, for the emergent twenty-first century terror and control?

The tendential fall in the rate of profit is described curiously by Stiegler as something Marx posits in a particular way, but that Marxists, and ‘probably Marx’ did not understand it this way; that is: capitalism as ‘a dynamic system threatened by a limit that would be reached if the bearish tendency to which the very functioning of the profit rate gives rise were to achieve completion’.[vi] I am particularly interested in this bear. An animal that Marx does not reason with, according to Stiegler, even if this strange beast does not invalidate Marx’s identification of the tendency.

First of all, is it a bear? Does Stiegler get what Marx has in mind here?

Keep readingStiegler continued.

Originally posted here.

Review of Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala (Columbia University Press, 2011)

In Vattimo on February 29, 2012 at 11:17 am

Review by Sophie Fuggle – click the title to go to the page and see the book cover and Mdm Mim cartoon.

Review of Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala (Columbia University Press, 2011)

At the end of In Defence of Lost Causes, Žižek calls for a return to the egalitarian terror of the Stalinist regime as the only option for circumventing the imminent expiration of the planet. His deliberate misreading of Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s ‘enlightened catastrophism’ along with his avowal that this will most likely fail (in accordance with the Beckettian maxim) does little to convince despite his compelling argument for being done with the weak thought that has paralysed the intellectual left for so long.

This seems to be just a substitution of one set of atrocities for another. And at the same time I am also left wondering whether much of the apparently incendiary remarks made by the intellectual left – calls to revolution, insurrection and terror à la Robespierre as a response to the cuts, crises and general fucked-up state of the world under the shadow of neo-liberalism – don’t actually continue to embody the ‘weak’ thought of the 80s and 90s.

First off – it seems highly unlikely that today’s tenured academic has the wherewithal to organise anything other than a seminar series and sometimes even that proves too much. Or the guts to carry out the systematic violence demanded by the type of revolution they appear to be advocating. Standing up to a colleague in a departmental meeting or writing a nasty book review is not tantamount to operating the guillotine. Academic discourse takes place within certain conditions of possibility and strives to maintain these conditions which is really a safe playground where a lot of overgrown children can kick sand in each others faces, fight over whose turn it is to go on the swing and still be friends when the bell rings.

Second, and this is really the point being made by Vattimo and Zabala, is revolution or insurrection a genuine possibility and, moreover, genuinely desireable? The police brutality during the protests over tuition fees in the UK at the end of 2010 and more recently at UC Davis during a rally against, erm, police brutality should make it clear that there are more than enough mercenaries for hire prepared to do the dirty work of those with power and wealth.

Coupled with the continued growth of the war industry, that marriage of convenience between global, deterritorialised flows of capital and nation-state building, anyone planning a serious affront to capitalism needs to think carefully about the tools or weapons at their disposal. Security, torture and imprisonment are now all part of the service industry and as such can all be outsourced to the cheapest bidder. Someone, somewhere will always be willing to do the job. Even Macbeth managed to put together some sort of army against MacDuff.

Direct physical opposition which while it might begin peacefully enough must eventually lead to violent confrontation in the form of evictions, arrests, kettling, pepper spraying, water cannons and beyond. The bottom line of fighting back is that capitalism has the missiles and is happy to use them.

So where does dispensing with the ‘might is right’ principle leave us? Back at ‘weak’ thought, it appears.

Here I can’t help but think of the fight between Merlin and the witch, Madam Mim, in the Sword in the Stonecartoon. As Madam Mim transforms herself into increasingly larger, more threatening creatures, Merlin’s somewhat ad-hoc magic turns him into ever smaller, more useless animals. The weak thought in the face of the ever-growing, fire-breathing monster of capitalism.

Where we are repeatedly reminded by Vattimo and Zabala that ‘the weak are the discharge of capitalism’, weakness should not simply be taken as a state or position of passivity. Instead what is at stake is a process of weakening which needs to be carried out upon existing political, social and economic structures. And herein lies the role of hermeneutics. Interpret the world again and again in order to resist prescriptive forms of truth which have totalising function. This means engaging in conversations not staging dialogues (which always presuppose given positions and conditions of possibility).

Keep reading the review of Vattimo.


In Boothroyd on February 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

Reviewed by John Hutnyk

Dave Boothroyd’s book “Culture On Drugs” (2006) is a sound and entertaining read, and is just as much a carefully argued account of the influence of various substances on theory and theorists across a wide field – Freud and Cocaine, Benjamin and Hashish, Sartre and hallucinogens – as it is a commentary on, and plea for, a narco-analytic turn in culture theory. Good. All the way through the book there were important questions raised and important answers offered – and experimental writing is approved here and there (but perhaps not adopted in the text as much as might be anticipated).

All that said however, I think there was something held back…for example, I expected something on Marx and the opium wars: old beardo advocated that the Chinese not prohibit homegrown manufacture of the stuff so as to thereby undermine the East India Company’s efforts to force their trade advantage via Indian producers. So basically Marx comes out in favour of legalising Class As! And while I think I would have preferred – or is it that I fear – an extended treatment of Sartre’s experiences with amphetamine sulphate (those huge books on Flaubert, more on Flaubert than Flaubert wrote himself), I do appreciate Dave’s attempt to cover all the bases in an even handed way. Especially when he works through the Freudian cocaine versions. Freud as experimenter and advocate; Freud as liberated by use; Freud as promoter.

But it was weird to be reading this text just a day after writing out my own notes for a piece on Irma’s injection as mentioned by Slavoj Zizek in his little starter book on Lacan. (on Zizek, see here and here). Irma’s story – Freud’s first dream analysis – is cited in an admittedly perfunctory way by Zizek in order to explain Lacan’s contribution to Freud’s insight that the melancholic is ‘not aware that he has lost the lost object’ as a realization [by Lacan] that it is not an inability to mourn a loss, so much as a loss of desire for an object that he may still possess, but which has lost its efficiency, that governs melancholia.

This might have been a great opportunity to consider Freud’s own melancholia and mourning in relation to the Irma dream. And here there is much more to be said about the figure of Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow [somehow Dave leaves out the second part of his hyphenated surname]. It is this E-v-F-M to whom Freud had recommended the ‘superdrug’ cocaine in large quantities, as a substitute for morphine, which Ernst then took in large intravenous injections and became more dependent upon the marching powder than on the M he was into in the first place. So much into it that he died of related complications of the substitution (or what could be caled a ‘speedball’ syndrome, thanks uncle bill). All so far just a footnote… but what if the guilt Freud exhibits in relation to the faulty diagnosis of Irma’s injection in the dream that founds psychoanalysis (in The Interpretation of Dreams Irma has pride of place) were to be read in relation to the later guilt (some 80 or so pages later) that Freud reports in a footnote in relation to Fleischl-Marxow’s death? We are familiar with displacements in the dream work, so why not here find the symptomatic explanation of Irma in the text of the dream book itself, and Freud’s feelings of responsibility for having introduced his (ten years) older colleague to the drug that would allegedly kill him – though it was more likely to have been a dirty needle, as also noted in relation to the diagnosis of Irma herself. Perhaps I am not expressing this well, but I would be lying if I did not share a little in the melancholia of having read Dave’s book, seen mention of E-v-F-M, and yet not seen the connections laid out as clearly as they so seemed to me when we read (thanks Carrie, Nicola, Atticus, Miriam, Saul) theInterpretation in our reading group back in 2001 (on its 100th anniversary). It could be that Freud’s loss of his colleague is one he can only admit via a displacement in a dream that forces itself down Irma’s neck. Indication – that Irma should be prescribed some of that very same acetate.

So, narco-analysts to be deployed – the deflection of Irma into the text of Lacan deflects once again a forensic investigation that would explain both Freud’s interest in injections and Irma’s throat, and might lay some blame where blame might-maybe-ought to lie. Dirty needles, guilt and melancholia – time perhaps to lift the lid off this (La)Can of worms, and get back to work…

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