Friday, 27 November 2009

Rivers and lakes

The famous "Hyônenzu" (Gourd and catfish, ink painting by Josetsu, probably dating from the early 15th century, detail shown above) is often descriped as one of the most enigmatic artworks of Japan.

I recently came across an article by the historian Higashijima Makoto which throws an interesting light on this painting. It discusses the idea of "rivers and lakes" (gôko or kôko) as an early form of public in Japan. Higahijima shows that the expression "rivers and lakes" was popular in the Meiji era when it was used much like we would use "public sphere" today. Thus participants in the movement for freedom and popular rights were called "wanderes of rivers and lakes", to publish something was called "asking the rivers and lakes", the expression "learned men of rivers and lakes" corresponded to a Lesepublikum, newspapers used "rivers and lakes" in their names etc.

The expression itself derives from Zen Buddhism and is closely linked to the idea of wandering about without fixed abode or home. In medieval Japan it was used for instance in the expression, "the scattered people of rivers and lakes" (gôko sanjin), which stood for people not bound by village society, travelling freely and transcending the community, and who were often despised by the people of the community. According to a 16th century Japanese-Portugese dictionary, "scattered people" was a derogatory term for people lacking a domicile, while "rives and lakes" itself stood for despised or humble people of no account. Travelling artists were part of this group. Needless to say, it also appears close to the group of Japanese outcasts ("hinin", or non-human, a term which in medieval times was used in a broad sense for all people who moved outside the life of the settled community, such as monks, beggars, artists, lepers etc).

Among medieval Zen monks, however, the wandering among "rivers and lakes" was not despised at all, but a wistfully glorified ideal. Thus we find the monk Gidô Shûshin (1325-1388) in his old age rejecting the prestigious office of head priest of Nanzenji with the following verse:
To an old man like me, a head priest is a fish in a small pond.
What bliss to be set free and depart for the rivers and lakes!
Here wandering among "rivers and lakes" obviously connotes freedom. The bliss of “rivers and lakes” also became a popular motif in Zen inspired painting. A famous example is Sesshû’s “Haboku sansui” (1495)

To Zen monks, Higashijima writes, landscapes like these "were an image of freedom, of a utopian world".

Another popular way of expressing this idea of freedom was by depicting a fisherman and a fish, and here we arrive at Josetsu’s "Hyounenzu", which is often interpreted as a picture of a man who tries to catch a fish in a gourd. In the light of Gidô's rejection of the shôgun's offer, Higashijima writes, the man is the shôgun and the fish is the Zen monk.

We can add, I think, that Nanzenji can be seen as the gourd. Gido rejected the offer in 1386, and earlier the same year Nanzenji had been elevated to top of the hierarchy of Rinzai Zen temples in Japan, in rank even exceeding the "five mountains", i.e. five main Rinzai Zen temples in Kyoto. This, I think, is an important part of the background to why Gidô describes it as a "small pond". Small ponds that appear big are in fact the best traps.

A friend who is teaching at a university in Sweden once told me about how anxious he felt everytime he left the department for a longer period of time, since power struggles were constantly going on and he never knew what the situation would be like when he returned. There are few things I dislike so much as power struggles. Struggles can be important, but not power struggles, struggles for power. I abhor them, not only for the pain they inflict, but also because of what they do with people who get caught up in them. Institutions have a way of imposing themselves on us as if they were the entire world, but in reality they are nothing but gourds or small ponds. Freedom is the big sea.


Higashijima, Makoto (2002) “Kô wa paburikku ka?” (Is ‘kô’ the ‘public’?), pp 37-48, in Sasaki, Takeshi & Kim, Tae-Chang (eds) Kôkyô tetsugaku, Vol. 3: Nihon ni okeru kô to shi, Tokyo: Tôkyô daigaku shuppankai (University of Tokyo Press).

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Riots 7: Do you think we might join hands?

Here’s another long entry, which I write to follow up my previous notes on riots and bring them a little closer to if not a conclusion, then at least a semblance of order.

Part I: Negri, the Invisible Committee, and Rancière on the riots

So I am suggesting that the riots could be seen as part of a striving for autonomy. Fine, but haven’t I left a whole lot of questions unanswered? If the rioters are out after autonomy in the face of the spectacle, pride in the face of exclusion and the police, purveyors of an economy of “theft and gift” in the face of the neoliberal market, wouldn't then solidarity with the precarity movement – at least with its anarchist or autonomous wing – appear natural, logical? Why then don’t we see much more cooperation and solidarity between them? Are the differences between the “autonomy” of the rioters and that championed by the activists too great, perhaps even unbridgeable? A clue to this can be gained from what the activists and intellectuals of this movement themselves have to say about the riots.

Let us start by listening to what some of the more well-known intellectuals. I don’t think there is any more need for me to pay any further homage to Badiou (see this previous entry). I will instead give some (brief) attention to Negri, Rancière and the Invisible Committee. I can state already here that I am critical of all of them.


This interview with Negri – conducted at the time of the Paris riots in 2005 – is perhaps best known for his statement that the cars burned because their owners didn’t go out to defend them. As a whole the interview offers an instructive contrast to Badiou. Like Badiou, Negri is an enthusiastic supporter of the rioters (albeit with reservations: it fails to qualify fully as a proper “insurrection”), but for different reasons. To Negri, the rioters are in need of a theorist since they lack political awareness: “This movement wants something, but it does not yet know what it wants” (Negri 2005). He has no qualms about stepping in as their interpreter. The riot, he states, is above all a revolt against the neo-liberal Empire (that is how I understand his talk about the “crisis of Fordism”, “economic globalization” and “neoliberal cuts in public spending”).

This interpretation is substantiated somewhat in Commonwealth (coauthored with Hardt, 2009), but the basic message is similar: the "urban jacquerie" of the 2005 riots was an expression of indignation in the banliues, the “emblematic space of the precarious worker”. But as a challenge to empire it is insufficient. A revolution needs institutions to make itsself lasting and effective and ways must therefore be found of moving from jacqueri to organization (Hardt & Negri 2009:239, 245f, 259).

While not necessarily wrong, this is a perfect example of an ideological explanation: an explanation that could have been made without listening to the rioters themselves, that fits the theory just a little bit too well, and which teaches us nothing about the riots. In fact, it is highly predictable to anyone familiar with Negri’s theories. Despite the frequent appearance of the riots in the book, I can't help suspecting that the riots never mattered much to Negri, at least not the way Seattle or Genova did. An example of this is that they appear to have left no imprint on his and Hardt’s theory of the “three cycles” of protest in the anti-globalization movement (the first inaugurated by Seattle, the second by the anti-war mobilizations in the wake of 9.11, and the third by Heiligendamm). Let me conclude by saying that I think the texts by Negri mentioned here exemplify a widespread tendency among radical intellectuals to close their ears to the rioters. As far as I can judge, the latter have been quite ready to formulate their demands verbally, above all their complaints against the police. Instead of taking them on their word, however, commentators have been prone to lament their lack of political awareness, meaning a lack of explicit antagonism against neo-liberalism or global capitalism. As I’ve already stated, I believe that Badiou is one of the few radical intellectuals who has been honest enough to see the riots as fully justified even if they’re “only” motivated by a desire to get back at the police for once, or, in other words, even if the rioters lack all but the most rudimentary awareness of or interest in global capitalism.

The invisible committee

The “invisible committee” is already famous as the collective author of The Coming Insurrection and as a group that carries on the Situationist legacy in France. Unlike Negri, the authors of this book explicitly accord the “flames of November 2005” an exemplary, paradigmatic value. “Those first joyous fires were the baptism of a decade full of promise” (The Invisible Committee 2009:24). The book is full of statements endorsing the riots. For instance, seeing teachers whining about their school being burned downn on the evening news, the authors “remember how many times, as children, we dreamed of doing exactly this” (Ibid 38). Above all, the tactics of the rioters offers a model to be followed:
Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack. The fires of November 2005 offer a model for this. No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition… but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action. (Ibid. 113)
However, I am skeptical of the authors’ idea of these riots. I see the riots as rooted in a desire to act out anger, get revenge and restore pride. I don’t see them as a model for any calculating, strategic plotting to topple the spectacle as the authors of this book seem to do. It's easy to feel sympathy for Coupat – one of the alleged authors – after his arrest, but I feel far less sympathy for the book. To be frank, I’m a bit downcast at what these authors have done to the Situationist legacy. No longer is the spectacle to be combated through détournements, shocking happenings or poetic terrorism. The structure is to be physically immobilized by striking at its vulnerable supply lines, in the style of guerillas. Sabotage becomes the primary means of liberation, a far more non-communicative means of combat that any of the Situationists’ acts of symbolic violence. I may be naïve, but I really like the ideal of everyone – and I mean everyone – having fun together. This is an ideal the Invisible Committee has thrown on the garbage heap.


If we turn to Rancière, finally, we find a rather hesitant and ambivalent attitude to the 2005 riots. On the one hand, he believes that the riots come short of real political action since they have failed to put forward a “political proposition” directed at their opponents with whom they share the social field (Rancière 2006a). They are therefore lacking something – a kind of verbal self-consciousness – that would be necessary for true politics. But on the other hand we should remember, as he stresses in another piece that also briefly touches on the riots, that politics to him is about the configuration of the “sensible”, of what can be perceived as possible. It is not something purely or merely verbal. It has to do with the senses. Politics is not simply a clash of words. It starts with “dissensus”, the contention that “there is not one reality”. Far more than being a merely verbal disagreement, dissensus is about “reframing the very field of the given, of the sensible, the intelligible and, consequently, the possible. It is about putting in the unique common world of the consensual logics several worlds, conflicting worlds” (ibid 2006b). To Rancière, such a clash of worlds happens above all through the process of “subjectivization”, the self-definition in public of previously neglected or invisible groups (the “part of the uncounted”) which upsets the field since they refuse pregiven categories. Applying these ideas to the 2005 riots, he opposes interpretations such as Finkelkrauts (see my discussion in this entry), who see the rioters as guided by a consumerist ideology. These voices all sees the rioters as caught up in a single “world” or “police” taken as a configuration of the possible, a neoliberal world in which the market is absolute or a given. What emerges from Rancière's texts is therefore a deeply ambivalent picture. Doesn’t his rejection of interpretations such as Finkelkraut’s imply that the riots have at least taken important steps towards a true “politics” in his sense? He claims not to regard the riots as politics, but this seems unfair from the point of view of his own theory of politics as the emergence of other worlds. At the very least, one should concede that they meant a big no, the appearance of a huge “dissensus” that shook the established field.

The contrast to the Situationist International

What triggered my excursus into what these radical intellectuals have had to say about the riots was the obvious overlap between some of their concepts and what the rioters seemed to be doing. For instance, the seemingly pointless burning of cars can easily be understood as taking pleasure in the confrontation itself, regardless of future goals. Isn’t this similar to Negri’s strategy of autonomous separation, desertion or exodus rather than dialectical conflict? Isn’t he too interested in delineating the idea of a social movement less interested in appealing to or demanding things from authorities than in the creative formation of a new life, in being able to lead their own life while having as much fun as one can, without having to feel like victims? Aren’t autonomists and rioters alike groping for forms of public confrontation that eschew classical forms of “voice” and political participation? Aren’t they both rushing in the direction of an exit or desertion of the established field of political dialogue – an exit which, however, doesn’t take the form of quietly withdrawing to some alternative sphere of living, enclave, or subculture, but which instead, in the manner of Rancière’s “politics” always simultaneously involves a challenge and confrontation that necessarily appears provocative and outrageous from the point of view of the existing “police”? Despite this overlap, however, none of the radical intellectuals discussed above seem interested in discussing these similarities.

This attitude contrasts to that of the Situationist International, which in 1965 greeted the Watts riots in L.A. as a “rebellion against the commodity” driven by the “demand to really life” which momentarily realized an economy of “theft and gift”. The important thing was that this was done “in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities” (Situanionist International 2006:197). Famously, they also wrote that the riot was the first rebellion in history to justify itself with the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heat wave” (Ibid 200). That is to say: the Watts rioters didn’t riot because they were victims, because they lacked something which the state could give them. They rioted because it was their pleasure, because they were no slaves, but free people who didn’t have to put up with anything. I feel a great deal of sympathy for this way of looking at the riots. Unfortunately, however, it’s not easy to come across similar views today of the riots in recent years in the banlieus or suburbs of Europe.

Part II: A way towards convergence

So is there any prospect of a fruitful convergence, alliance or even fusion between the movement of the immigrant youth and that of autonomist radicals? Here I can only sketch an answer. I take for granted that the reader will understand that most sketches end up in the waste basket.

To the "progressive" Left an alliance between a variety of immigrant organizations or immigrant movements is certainly possible and the fact that such alliances already exist is a welcome development. But whatever was expressed in the "movement" of the rioters, and I for one can't help feeling that this "something" was extraordinarily important, appears to me to be rather far from the "progressivist" camp. Commentators have already pointed out a number of differences between what we can call the standpoint of the "rioters" and that of the "leftists".

For instance, Alain Touraine points out two differences between the suburban riots of 2005 and the wave of student protest which erupted the same year. The first is the difference in social position.
The immigrants are wholly disoriented and set fire to cars since they can’t articulate themselves and lack advocates. The students by contrast are far more privileged and receive enormous support through their unions. Despite this the immigrants and the students share the feeling of discrimination and exclusion: the suburban youth have already stood outside society for a long time, while the students fear an impeded future, which could just as well turn them into excluded tomorrow. (Touraine 2006)
This portrayal of the student protesters is in keeping with his disparaging view of today’s precarity movement as driven less by political hopes than by fear of the future, by the desire to protect the rights and concessions they have already won. This difference in social position is important. However, it is also important to point out that this defensive posture is not shared by the autonomist/anarchist wing of the precarity movement. Unlike workers and students fearful to lose their privileges, this wing ought to be a a possible ally of the immigrant youth. In Japan too it is possible to discern two wings of the precarity movement: one making up the so-called “anti-poverty” movement and the other being animated rather by what could be called a “viva poverty” ethos (a largely anarchist ethnos which I’ve already given some glimpses of in connection with Dame-ren and Kubikubi Café).

Touraine also points to a second difference, namely that suburban riots are better seen as cultural struggles than as social movements. While the rioters rebel against social and economic exclusion, the exclusion is also experienced as cultural and the protest against poverty is therefore also a call for cultural recognition (Touraine 2006). This statement is vague, but as I’ve remarked in my previous entry, I agree that culture plays an important role in the riots, albeit a should underline that this is better seen as a wholly new culture, a culture in the process of being produced, rather than any stereotypical cultural essence. I don’t believe at all that a recognition of culture as a central element of struggle should be an impediment to cooperation between rioters and activists. I won’t enter into the difficult question of how compatible the various version of an alternative culture are that these groups may produce. Certainly there is a risk of cultural collisions – for instance regarding limitations on the freedom of women – but there are also signs of new cultures and lifestyles being born which are shared across ethnic borderlines.

A third possible difference is indicated in the rather condescending view of the riots that can be found among many commentators on the Left. We have already seen that Touraine describes the riots as “wholly disoriented” and lacking the ability to articulate their demands. Comments like that are surprisingly common. Negri and Ranciêre make similar comments, as we recall. And Zizek writes that “the recent revolt was just an outburst with no pretense to any kind of positive vision” (Zizek). Wiewiorka remarks that the riots “produce no discourse… they are typically crisis behaviours, and not at all a movement” (Wieviorka 2005). Even Lapeyronnie, one of their most understanding interpreters, thinks that the alienation of the rioters from the political system means that they remain caught in a helpless dependence on the political system from which they try to elicit understanding and concessions (Lapeyronnie 2006). The list can be made to go on and one. I’ve already stated several times that I believe that views like these are unfair, especially among activists of autonomous persuation who are the ones who more than anyone have advocated strategies of exodus, flight and desertion as better suited to the resistance of the multitudes than using established channels of protest. To the extent that the riots were motivated by being loyal to one’s desires – for instance, restoring one’s sense of pride by making fools of the police and authorities – they share the motivations of much anarchist and autonomist activism.

To summarize so far, I believe that the differences which various commentators have pointed out between the rioters and precarity activists are valid above all for those precarity activists engaged in the kind of struggle highlighted by what I have called the “progressive” interpretation, that is, the movement for social inclusion, for gaining or preserving a variety of rights and guarantees or livelihood and official support. If one instead compares the rioters to the activists oriented towards anarchism or autonomy, the differences almost melt away. Doesn't this suggest an affinity? Just as there are ways in which a "progressive" left might join hands with "respectable" immigrant organizations, might there not be room for a comraderie of rioters and autonomists? I am not saying, as the Invisible Committee, that the tactics of rioting is always right. I think that depends on the degree of oppression. All I'm saying is that I do think it would be good if the marginals, minorities, the discriminated and the dropouts could come together and help each other a little more often - and that the obstacles might be less serious than we think.

Part III: Freeters and immigrants

I will finish the entry by stating briefly why I believe that the problem of the solidarity between freeters and immigrants will become more pressing in Japan in the future. Here is my prognosis. After the media and opinion storm which has been continually growing in strength in recent years against the “reforms that went too far” – a common expression used for the deregulations and privatizations which reached a climax under the premiership of Koizumi – Japanese authorities are bound to take at least some measures to ameliorate the working conditions or freeters and other irregular workers in Japan. To the extent that their situation improves, it seems logical to expect that companies will respond by increasing the flow of immigrant labour. The DJP – the most important governing party in Japan – will probably welcome that development and may also try to further it through legislation. How will the freeters active in the precarity movement respond to this situation? Two difficulties can be predicted. Firstly, it may be harder to gain the support of the general public when the “victims” of precarity are no longer Japanese. There is a danger of growing nationalism. Already today groups like Zaitokukai (see this previous entry) have appeared. Secondly, there will be difficulties in creating a sense of solidarity within the movement between freeters and immigrant workers. Until now, freeters have been able to portray themselves as marginals and excluded. “Poverty” has been a personally directly felt (“mijika na”) problem, a problem of which they could feel themselves to be the direct victims or people most directed concerned (“tôjisha”). Among freeter activists there is also a rather widespread distrust against philanthropy and people who “support others” out of “compassion” or idealistic motives (“dôjô shite hito o tasukete ageru”). Being a “tôjisha”, a directly concerned victim, is often said to the most authentic way of participating in a movement. However, isn’t there a risk that this rejection of “compassion” and “helping others” will be used to justify cold-heartedness and indifference to the situation of immigrant workers? If freeter should concern themselves only with their “own” problems, should they simply drop out of the movement when their own situation improves? Will they be able to shed the jargon about the primacy of being a “tôjisha”, or will they perhaps be able to formulate some new conceptual framework in which they and immigrants will both be “tôjisha”?


Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Negri (2005) “Finally a Little Revolt”, interviewed by Jacopo Iacoboni (orig. La Stampa 2005-11-12)

Invisible Committee, The (2009) The Coming Insurrection, Los Angeles: semiotext(e).

Rancière (2006a) “Our police order: What can be said, seen, and done”, interview by Truls Lie, Eurozine (contribution by Le Monde diplomatique)

Rancière (2006b) “Misadventures of Universality”, paper presented at the Moscow Biennale's Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art, 17 November 2006

Situationist International (2006) “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, pp 194-203, in Knabb, Ken (ed. & tr.) Situationist International Anthology, Berkeley: the Bureau of Public Secrets.

Touraine (2006) “Explosion möglich”, Die Zeit 2006-03-23, Nr. 13-23 (March)

Wieviorka, Michel (2005) “Violence in France

Zizek, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Riots 6: Culture

Let me return to where I left off in "The Riots 5" and focus a little bit more on the role of the concept of culture in the interpretations of the riots.

One reason I’ve chosen to focus on culture is my impression that that it’s been neglected for a long time by the Left. Placing importance on culture, however, doesn’t necessarily imply nationalism or communitarianism, or what I’ve called culturalism. Neither does it have to imply any demotion of the importance of socio-economic factors. Culture can be seen as an important element in all revolt as well as in all attempts to secure autonomous spheres of living.

It’s time, therefore, to clarify that the culturalist interpretation is not alone in paying attention to culture. What characterizes this interpretation is that it reifies the cultures of immigrant populations, essentializes them, and believes that such essences somehow “explain” the riots. The most glaring weakness of culturalism is that the so-called “failure” of the integration of immigrant populations is taken as a corroboration of the persistence of (virtually ahistorical and indestructible) cultural essences or “traditions”. It overlooks the fact that immigrant cultures are created or reshaped in the host country. No culture, and especially no immigrant culture, is ever intact, and immigrant communities are practically always marked by a tremendous destruction of tradition, including the erosion of parental authority.

A first step towards correcting the culturalist interpretation would be to pay attention to what Durkheim called “anomie”, a state in which cultural norms are no longer binding and in which individuals suffer from a lack of cultural guidance. As many sociologists who have employed or elaborated on this concept point out, it is a useful tool not only for explaining suicide (as in Durkheim’s famous study), but also many other forms of criminal or “deviant” behavior. One of my favorite examples of good use of this concept is Inoue Shun’s interpretation of the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: the white colonizer who ends up as a brutal mass-killer despite his reputation back in Belgium as an eloquent humanitarian. Put simply, all norms – including the veneer of “civilization” which Kurtz managed to maintain as long as he was surrounded by his familiar European environment – need a social environment and bereft of that environment anomie occurs. That was no humanitarian “core” to Kurtz’ personality, but neither is there any core to the personality of any of us, since we all need society or social interaction to maintain our civilized facades. The concept of anomie, when put into use in a social interactionist context, is simply an enormously useful tool when it comes to understanding not only how seemingly civilized Europeans could turn into barbarians as soon they became colonial overlords, but also what happens to immigrants who are more or less forcefully uprooted from the contexts which once maintained their “traditions” and at the same time prevented by social exclusion from finding suitable substitutes in the countries where they end up. In such a context, the new norms that they manage to construct by themselves, by discovering new solidarities between themselves and new ways of living, in fact offer the best hope not only for them when it comes to leading meaningful lives but also for their “integration” into the surrounding society.

But the correction of the culturalist interpretation cannot stop here. In fact, the conservative discourse has hardly disregarded the factor of anomie. Indeed, as soon as a riot occurs, the familiar lament about moral crisis, societal breakdown and mindless hooliganism is never far away. What the conservative discourse does, however, is that as soon as the problem of anomie pops up, it tends to switch over from a culturalist to a security interpretation. Anomie becomes viewed as the seedbed of crime which needs to be contained and mastered. Rather than disregarding anomie, the conservative discourse tends to oscillate incoherently between the images of widespread normlessness and the existence of intact foreign cultures rejecting mainstream values, in the process conjuring up a horror fantasy worthy of prewar anti-semitism at its most grotesque: jihadist imams and juvenile gangsters fused into a single person.

Against this kind of scaremongering one should point out that the rioting youth already appears to have taken great strides in overcoming anomie. The organized, ritual character of the riots has often been pointed out, a fact which is perhaps most strikingly evinced in the controlled character of the violence, which is practically never aimed at humans, only at things such as cars and public buildings (see for instance this article by Lapeyronnie for an analysis of this).

But how do we go on? To start with I think we can agree that culture needs to be addressed a lot more by writers critical of the conservative discourse. If we look at the advocates of what I have been calling the “progressive” interpretation, I can’t help feeling that their way of addressing the issue of culture is often both unconvincing and unhelpful. I do find points of interest in their writings, especially when they are based on extensive research – like say the works of Gilles Kepel, who I think has made very important contributions and whose warning that the “fate of Islam” to a great extent will depend on the outcome of the “most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in these communities of believers on the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities” (Kepel 2004:8). However, Kepel’s focus seems to be exclusively on whether or not “Muslims” will be able to endorse the already pre-existent democratic values of the European host societies. This blindness for whatever novelty in terms of culture or values that might be born out of this “war” is unfortunate, but reflects a widespread tendency among “progressive” thinkers to focus almost entirely on the “democratic” or “republican” values of the host culture and their fondness for the claim that the rioters of the banlieus are in fact animated by precisely these values and that the riots are therefore in keeping with the best of European traditions. Thus Emmanuel Todd argues that the young people rioted precisely because they had integrated the republican model, including “fundamental values of French society” such as freedom and equality.

I am convinced on the contrary that the phenomenon is typically French. The racially mixed young people of the Seine Saint-Denis fall under a tradition of social uprising which is frequent in French history. Their violence represents also the disintegration of the African and North African families in contact with the French values of equality. (Todd 2005)

With their revolt, the insurgent youth have integrated into the French tradition. And they're treated by the police just like any other revolutionaries. Despite Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s absurd rhetoric, the police and the population haven't lost their nerve. If the events can be brought to an end more or less peacefully, France will wake up and say to itself: this revolt doesn't mean the failure of the French model. On the contrary, it shows that it works. Because that's what we call assimilation in French. (Interview Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.11.2005, quoted here)

I have the impression that statement like this have become a kind of staple argument among progressive thinkers. Thus Ulrich Bech too argues that the riots are not caused by a lack of integration. On the contrary:

These assimilated youths whose parents were immigrants scarcely differ in their desires and attitudes from their peers in their country of immigration. They are closely affiliated. And this is precisely what makes the racism of their exclusion so terribly bitter for these very heterogenous youth groups, and so scandalous for everyone else. The paradox is this: a lack of integration in the parent generation defuses, and successful integration of the second generation intensifies the problems and conflicts. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15.11.2005, quoted here)

Similarly Sébastien Peyrat claims that the young rioters are inspired more by the slogans of the French revolution – freedom, equality and brotherhood – than by the traditions of their countries of origin (Dagens Nyheter 2005-11-04).

These arguments might seem striking, but I can’t help feeling that they are rather empty of content – like so many readymade rejoinders you can use in a debate. The reason is that what counts are French (or Swedish, German or European) values is itself highly malleable and that the very constitution of a “tradition” can only be made in retrospect. Today the labour movement is certainly considered to be in agreement with fundamental European values, but was it a hundred years ago? How fundamental were the values of freedom and equality in 1789? Here’s a harder nut for you to crack: was the autonomia movement in Italy in the 70’s in agreement with European “tradition”? Were the black panthers in agreement with American democracy? In fact, the very idea of a “tradition”, or reassuring people that nothing fundamental is changing or that the riots don’t really challenge anything fundamental, is an anti-concept. It is an anti-concept since it is too blunt, too empty and too malleable to be used as a tool for thinking.

Let me point out that my intention is not to criticize Todd or Beck or anyone else in particular, only a certain rhetorical figure, a kind of staple argument that I think is being heard perhaps a little bit too often by critics on the Left and which I think is unhelpful for the simple reason that it cannot withstand being thought about.

So how should culture be thought about? Here is my suggestion: rather than seeing the riots as caused by cultural essences or by anomie, and rather than seeing them simply as a continuation of a “revolutionary” European tradition stemming from 1789, I would like to see them quite simply as the expression of a process of cultural creation. As Todd explains, they originate in the encounter with local European values and circumstances. They don’t spring out of any finished ethnic communities. They don’t reflect action patterns or norms of the countries of origin. They are ad hoc, created here. The creation of novelty is reflected in the emergence of new languages and of new solidarities based on the shared sense of marginalization and exclusion. Leaving the banlieus, they enter France. Leaving Rinkeby or Angered or Rosengård, they enter Sweden. If progressives stress the fundamental agreement between this process of cultural creation and the host societies, it can just as well be interpreted as a move towards autonomy, in the sense of being an attempt to walk for oneself, without maps or models. The rioters are not driven by hatred of the West, but neither are they “integrated”. What do I know about the wonderful variety of tongues in which they get their ideas? Freedom from the spectacle – isn’t that the flip side of not being “successfully integrated”?

But I won’t end here. What could I reply to a person who pointed out that an autonomy marked by misery, poverty, criminality, violence, war, unemployment, escalating prejudice and conflict would be crippled, never free of anomie or the drawbacks of exclusion? To revolt may be good and justified, but won’t it antagonize the inhabitants or the surrounding mainstream society, inflaming racism and prejudice? But is the response of mainstream society really the responsibility of the rioters? Isn’t the question of how mainstream "Swedes" or “French” should react a question the members of these mainstream populations ought to pose to themselves? I don’t have any illusions. I am sure that many Swedes who could have sympathized or identified with rebellious youngsters of their own colour – thinking “this could have been me” or “this could have been my children” – are unable to feel the same closeness to immigrants. But even if I don’t have illusions, I have hope. I hope that despite the geographical and cultural distance that separates them from the refugee, they will still be able to think that this could have been me. I wasn’t born in Afghanistan or Bosnia. I wasn’t born a Jew under Hitler, but I could have been - if fate had willed differently. In another time or another place, I could have been anyone of the people I am now in a position to help. Now let me finish with a piece of preaching: whenever you feel threatened by someone, ask yourself if you would like to change places with him. If not, is he really an enemy?


Inoue, Shun (1985) “A Choice of Nightmares: On Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, pp 335-49, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 6.

Kepel, Gilles (2004) The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Lapeyronnie, Didier (2006) “Primitive Revolt in the French Banlieues: Essay on the Fall 2005 Riots

Todd, Emmanuel (2005) ”Interwiew on the ’French riots’

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A prey

Yesterday the TV (I forgot which channel) happened to be switched on while I was working. The head of a murdered woman has been found in northern Hiroshima prefecture. I seems to be the head of a 19 year old student from Shimane, Hiraoka Miyako, who was reported missing some days ago. We see photographs of the dead woman, people who knew her are interviewed, more and more details about her life are revealed. We learn that she was a good and diligent student, interested in issues such as global poverty, that she participated in an NGO-led study circle and that she dreamed of travelling abroad. But suddenly, we are told, she quit her study circle. We get to hear intimations, suggestions of rumours, people seeing her with unknown men. Without telling us anything explicitly, we are obviously led to believe that she "got herself into trouble"...

Let me ask you a few things, journalists.

If she "got herself into trouble", are we perhaps to conclude that it was her own fault that she got murdered?

If somebody gets murdered, is it the victim who is to be judged or is it the perpetrator?

If somebody gets murdered, is it normal procedure to start digging up every little detail of her life and make it public? Is it decent to offer her up to the TV viewers for public dissection?

If somebody gets murdered, does she lose all her rights?

The murdered girl was a victim. A victim such as anyone of us could one day be. To associate with unknown people is normal. We've all got the right to do that. To change one's interests is normal. To get oneself into trouble is also fully normal. We have all done that. Yes, each one of us, even you. The murdered girl just happened to get killed. It could have happened to any one of us.

If we get killed, would we want journalists like you to report about our lives?

I am questioning your professional ethics here, journalists. Please think about what I'm writing. Just give it a minute. And ask yourself if you are proud of what you are doing.

Chin wa ningen ni arazu

Did anyone forget Hirohito's (Emperor Showa's) "declaration of humanity" was just a personal declaration that didn't include his ancestors?

Outside Meiji Shrine in Tokyo we read: "Deities enshrined: Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shôken". Here's another reminder. Last month there was a festival here in Kyoto called the "Festival of the Ages" (Jidai matsuri). It consists in a long procession of historical figures and ends with, or rather culminates in, two mikoshi (portable shrines) enshrining two deities: emperor Kammu and emperor Kômei.

Oh, if anyone's interested in the scholastic niceities surrounding the entire issue of the emperor and the purportedly secular postwar Japanese state, there are lots of good literature around. A good place to start is Fujitani Takashi's Splendid Monarchy and "Electronic Pageantry", his article about the Shôwa emperor's funeral in the Journal of Asian Studies 1992, 51:4. Or why not Kitano Homare's recent essay in the August issue of Impaction if you read Japanese? And if you think this is just a Japanese problem, read Kantorowicz' The King's Two Bodies...

But this is not the place to get too un-whimsical. Here's my (very democratic) solution: why don't we all get divine? Let the emperors be "akitsukami", "arahitogami" or "ikikami" if they want too. Why not? Of course the emperors are gods. We are all gods!

Chin wa ningen ni arazu!
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