Friday, 31 December 2010

Public space and public sphere: notes on reading Don Mitchell

A curious shift, which could perhaps be referred to as a spatialization of radical politics, has been taking place for some time now. More and more the idea of public space seems to be taking the place of the idea of the public sphere as a focus of radical political action. To put it simply: defending public space sounds more radical and less conservative than defending the public sphere. Why has this come about?

This shift has largely - but not entirely - gone unattended by theoretical attention. Many writers simply use one or the other of the two terms, leaving it to the reader to make inferences about the relation to the other term. Others who use both terms have often treated the relation between them as unproblematical. I myself (in a text soon to be published in Japanese in Impaction) recently wrote that the politics of public space more or less corresponded to participation in the public sphere (unlike the politics of other spaces, such as "autonomous spaces" or "no-man's-lands", which I claimed demanded a quite different conception of politics). However, I now realize that the relation between public space and public sphere is more complicated. The idea of a simple identity between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere is probably mistaken. What, then, is the relation between public space and public sphere? Is there a separate politics of public space and how would it differ from that of the public sphere? Is public space more favorable to radical politics than the public sphere, and, if so, why?

Let me start with clarifying roughly what I mean by "public sphere". When we use this concept we usually have in mind a sphere of social life, distinct from the state and the official economy, in which citizens deliberate on their common affairs, often in a conflictual tension with the political system, and bracketing circumstances deemed to be of only “private” relevance. Such a definition would, I believe, accord more or less with classical thinkers of the public sphere or public life such as Jürgen Habermas or Hannah Arendt. An implicit ideal for participating in these deliberations has often been that of the "responsible" citizen who adopts the viewpoint of the whole, aiming for consensus by arguing from the point of view of what is best for all. It has often been pointed out that the "public sphere" is a despatialized concept - space is not a necessary ingredient in it. What matters in public deliberations is primarily what is said by whom, but not so much where.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two factors that might explain why public space is increasingly seen as a more promising ground of a radical questioning of the established order than the public sphere. The first explanation has do do with historical conjuncture. The public sphere is often said to have followed a trajectory of increasing inclusivity. Although exclusive and elitist, the repeated challenges to it by various "counter-publics" (Nancy Fraser) have contributed to its gradual expansion. Public space, by contrast, seems to have followed a different trajectory, with recent decades witnessing a tightening of controls and surveillances that have made public space more inhospitable and exclusive. This divergence of trajectories is almost certainly part of the background to the fact that public space today seems to attract more radical energies than the idea of a public sphere.

The second factor has to do with the differing content of the politics of the public sphere and that of public space. To illustrate this difference, let me introduce the philosopher Jacques Rancière and the geographer Don Mitchell.

I will start with Rancière. Although he doesn't use the term public space (as far as I can recall), his idea of publicness is akin to such a conception. His belief in disagreement or dissensus as constitutive of politics doesn't sit well with the idea of a "public sphere" as developed by Habermas, but it doesn't imply a rejection of publicness per se. To Rancière, politics no longer rests on any faith in rationality or hope of consensus, but it does involve making oneself heard and visible in public. "There is no consensus, no unmutilated communication, no final settling of accounts of injustice. But there is a shared polemic place for treating injustice and demonstrating equality". The "public" defended by Rancière in formulations like these is not the idea of a "public sphere" so much as a "place" or public space where disagreement can be publicly manifested.

People's Park, 2008
Now over to Mitchell, whose The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (The Guilford Press, 2003) I've been reading during the vacation. This is a forcefully argued, persuasive and well written book. Using examples such as the struggles around homelessness in the contemporary USA or the struggles around People's Park in Berkeley, he shows that public space often plays a role that is far more central and essential in politics than can be conveyed by despatialized concepts such as public sphere. But what does he mean by public space? Although the concept is itself contested and political, it is possible to discern at least three usages in Mitchell's text.
To begin with, the term public space sometimes appears in what could be called the conventional sense of public grounds such as streets, parks or city halls. Public space in this sense corresponds more or less to what is designated as public by authorities. With Lefebvre we could call this a "space of representation".

Mitchell also uses the term in a second, more emphatic sense. Elaborating on Lefebvre's terminology, he calls public space in this sense a "space for representation". What really makes a place public in this sense is the presence of struggle. Public spaces are not simply given; they don't consist simply of the places designed or planned to be "public". As examples such as the struggle around homelessness or the free speech movement show, public visibility for disadvantaged groups can often be achieved only by taking a place and making it public (Mitchell 2003:35). Like Rancière, then, he shows that politics in an emphatic sense arises only when people appear in places where they are not meant to be and put forth their claims in an act which upsets the order. This, he argues very persuasively, has practically always been the only way disadvantaged groups have been able to make people listen.
“Being ‘unruly’ often is a prerequisite for getting heard at all” (ibid 54) 
“Without the occupation of the space, without taking it... the kinds of protests that came to a climax in Tiananmen, Leipzig, Seattle or People’s Park would have remained invisible. The occupation of space is a necessary ingredient of protest” (ibid 148f)
Space itself, then, is often crucial for politics in a way that falls out of view with despatialized concepts like the public sphere. Hopes for "immaterial" spaces like the Internet to develop into an alternative route to public visibility have been overblown. “What is remarkable about the web... is just how little public visibility it has” (ibid 147).

There is, in addition, also a third and more subdued sense in which "public space" appears in Mitchell's book, namely as an everyday and very material arena for daily life. Here the public space is not identical to officially designated public space (space of representation), but neither is it a place for struggle or the visibilization of disagreement (space for representation). It is simply a space to be, to relax, to sleep or take care of other bodily needs, which can be very far removed or even hidden from any public eye - one thinks of parks or empty buildings, where homeless people or squatters manage to find shelter. One could describe it as space appropriated for material living (a kind of mix between Lefebvre's spatial praxis and representational space) rather than for visibilization. The value of public space in this third sense is particularly great for homeless people, since it provides a place to be and live for people lacking private housing. Again it is the materiality of space is crucial. Against those who would point to cyberspace as a new form of public space, he points out what would be lacking in such a space, namely that we wouldn't be able to live there: "there is literally no room in the internet’s ‘public space’ for a homeless person to exist – to sleep, to relax, to attend to bodily needs” (ibid 147).

Whichever of these three senses one looks one finds a political significance different from that of the public sphere. Public space in the first sense is not necessarily political at all since it corresponds to an image of urban life preferred by authorities and planners in which subaltern groups will largely be invisible. Politics in a limited sense - for instance, campaigning by professional politicians or orderly demonstrations by established and recognized actors - can of course be permitted, but that is hardly enough to produce a vibrant public sphere. To become political in the more emphatic sense, public space will have to be turned into a space for making oneself heard or visible. Neither in that sense, however, would publicness necessarily have much to do with rational discourse or the search for consensus. It could be a scream.

In the third sense, publiness consists in keeping spaces open for people to use and make a living - activities close to what Braudel called "material life" that often take place in comparative silence and outside the public spotlight. This aspect of public space too is of political significance, although it has not much to do with either visibilization or deliberation. Raymond Williams helps us bring out this significance. Although we should be wary of romanticizing pre-enclosure villages, he writes that nevertheless "when the pressure of a system is great and is increasing, it matters to find a breathing-space, a fortunate distance, from the immediate and visible controls. What was drastically reduced by enclosures was just such a breathing-space, a marginal day-to-day independence, for many thousands of people” (The Country and the City, 1975:134).

Rancière and Mitchell suggest at least two explanations of what might make "public space" more attractive to a radical politics than the "public sphere". Firstly, participation in public space entails no aspiration for consensus. Its publicity often consists in visibility rather than the practice of common deliberation, and its aim is often to upset order rather than to communicate.

Secondly, public space does not exclude the material and bodily aspects of life. In public space a coexistence of different forms of life is possible despite the fact that bodily or material aspects of life - aspects often excluded from view in the "public sphere" as belonging to the "private" realm and lacking public interest - are kept in full view. It arises between people of flesh and blood, not between abstract citizens (cf Mitchell 2003:134). The freedom opened up by a fully open public space would approach that freedom to difference which Lefebvre set up as a goal of urban politics rather than the freedom to deliberate, criticize and make decisions in common envisioned by Habermas.

I passing, perhaps I should point out that classical thinkers of the public sphere like Habermas and Arendt are fully as appreciative of the possibility of an opening up of politics or of the "public" in undesignated places as Mitchell or Rancière (Arendt, for instance, writes in The Human Condition that the agora shouldn't be confused with a particular place but is something that arises anywhere that people speak up for a common cause). What matters, however, is that the "public" that opens up is clearly a space in the case of Mitchell: by speaking up in a certain place, one is not merely making a claim in the abstract but also claiming a right to be where one is and use that space.

Let me end with two critical comments to Mitchell. Firstly, I wonder if he is not overtaxing the idea of "public space" somewhat. Can public space in the three senses above - as institutionalized space, as a space of struggle, and as a space for the survival of homeless people - really be subsumed under the same concept? Isn't the relation between the different kinds of politics associated with them at least as problematical as that between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere? Here I can't help thinking that my attempt to distinguish public space in a limited sense from "autonomous zones" (corresponding to spaces for struggle) and "no-man's-lands" (corresponding to spaces for living) might be useful since it would make the concept of public space a bit less unwieldy.

Secondly, I wonder to what extent "public space" is free of the drawbacks of "public sphere". Mitchell argues that material space is essential to politics since disadvantaged groups have no other way to make themselves visible than to intrude in or occupy space where they are not meant to be. But visible to whom? Isn't the answer - "the public sphere"?  If so, isn't the politics of visibilization dependent on or part of the politics of the public sphere? Couldn't one say that public space is simply one of the imput-channels into the deliberative processes of the public sphere? This seems to be especially so to the extent that the aim of visibilization is to claim "rights" that can be guaranteed by courts or state authorities, as Mitchell emphasizes. To this, Mitchell could of course reply that public space is not just one imput-channel among others, but essential for politics since many struggles that don't take place in public space won't be given attention at all. In that sense, the relation of dependency would be inverted: the public sphere would depend on well-functioning and open public spaces.

Despite this rejoinder, the fact remains that public sphere and public space are entwined in each other. Mitchell is right that aspiring for participation in the public sphere through, say, the Internet won't be enough for visibility in many cases. But conversely, participation in public space will clearly also not be sufficient by itself. The "street" is not in itself enough to ensure visibility. Just think of how common it is to hear protesters complain about the lack of mass-media attention!

To the extent that visibility is the aim, I see very little prospect for any neat separation of the politics of public space from that of the public sphere. The emphasis on visibility and representation almost by necessity presupposes a public sphere. This is not to say that all kinds of politics of public space do. As mentioned, there is also a kind of politics related to public space that doesn't necessarily aim for visibility or representation. What Hakim Bey calls a "temporary autonomous zone", for instance, is not necessarily established for the purpose of representation. Space can also be occupied for realizing different ways of living, a "prefigurative politics", in which the exercise of autonomy might be just as important or even more important than visibility. Such a politics would also be freer of the entwinement with the politics of the public sphere.

I really should stop my criticism here. My aim hasn't been to find any faults with Mitchell or Rancière - if anything, I feel a deep sympathy for their writings - but rather to clarify to myself why I don't feel persuaded by the ideal of public space which I read into their writings. In another entry, perhaps I will have reason to return to them and give them the praise they deserve.  

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Heterotopias and dead zones

I need to put down a brief thought after having read the book on heterotopia edited by Dehaene and De Cauter (Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, London & New York: Routledge, 2008).

What strikes me is the movement of the concept of heterotopia itself. In Foucault, who made it famous with his lecture on "other spaces" in the 60's, the concept is notoriously multifaceted. It is a fusion of incarceration and ship, a place of exclusion as well as a place of adventure. Despite the bleakness of the image of heterotopia conjured up by his many examples, it is clear that he is fascinated by them, by the otherness they offer. The light his lecture throws on his work on prisons and asylums is of great interest. As critics have remarked, however, his concept is also very ambiguous. It's hard to use, and furthermore it is unclear to what extent he considered heterotopias as places of resistance.

In Dehaene and De Cauter (as well as to most of the contributors to their volume) the concept noticeably shifts. It becomes, perhaps, somewhat clearer, although it is still far from unambiguous. Just as in Foucault, it is still a largely ahistorical concept - rather than tracing a history of the forms and shifting functions of heterotopias, they attempt to assemble its meaning through a juxtaposition of examples. The greatest shift, however, lies in the dilution of the scent of otherness in the concept. To Dehaene and De Cauter, heterotopia is delineated by the sphere of culture as exemplified by art, sports, leisure and the sacred. Theoretically, they try to define it as the sphere of activities that fall outside Arendt’s typology of labor, work and action. If labor and work belong in oikos, the private world of the household, and action belongs in agora, the political “space of appearance”, then the heterotopias constitute a “third space” beyond oikos and agora. Examples of this kind of space include the church, the theatre, and the stadium. The borderline to what we ordinarily refer to as public space is thus not very sharp (I think one needs to recall here that the agora was never denuded of sacred or ludic elements). Their heterotopias are communal, publicly recognized and often given prominent urban visibility through  monumental buildings. They are largely institutionalized spaces, often given official backing and funded by wealthy citizens (today, the authors claim, golf clubs can be heterotopias). Hence, their concept of heterotopia seems to be a far cry from the ephemeral wasteland, the suddenly appearing interstice, the homeless and squatter communities which the original conception of Foucault still seemed to encompass.

Maybe this is what prompts Gil Doron to reject the concept in favor of the notion of dead zones in one of the best and most thought-provoking contributions to Dehaene's and De Cauter's volume (“‘…those marvelous empty zones on the edge of our cities’: Heterotopia and the ‘Dead Zone’”). What are dead zones? First, he likens them to the desert. He then discusses derelict land, using an arena near the sea in Tel Aviv as example. This area was called “dead zone” by the city planners. It was, however, a place where Palestinian fishermen had used to live before being driven away. There was also a ruin of a Roman fortress, dilapidated warehouses from the 1930s, and the area was often used for rave parties, bonfires, fishing, sex, and graffiti. “While the planners portrayed the area as a void, the city authorities were trying to evict a descendant of one of the Palestinian fishermen, who was claiming back the family hut and had opened a small café in it” (p205).

Pointing out that many so-called dead spaces are populated is important. To call them “tabula rasa” is a prelude to colonization, as in the foundation of Israel. They can be shanty towns or squathouses or areas used by homeless immigrants. Such places “are rarely empty but… they have been portrayed as empty… for economic, social and political reasons” (p 207). “These spaces are named ‘dead zones’ when the hegemony wishes to reuse them” (209).

Here’s a passage that makes dead zones look just like the way I describe the "no man’s land" Kamogawa riverbanks and that also recalls what Ogawa Tetsuo says about wastelands being the place where art is born. 
Omitted from many of these empirical reports and theoretical texts is the fact that most of these terrain vagues have been populated by marginal communities and they have certain physical and non-physical qualities that are unique to them. These places also present history (rather than represent it), foster creativity and nourish the aesthetics of ruins; they are a habitat for wildlife and plants, places in which the body has to adapt to its environment rather than being cuddly choked by its surroundings. In short, these zones are a space of suspension, of solitude and silence within the bustling cities, sites that are a viable alternative to the heterotopian public space. (p204)
Significantly, he distinguishes these zones from heterotopias. If heterotopias exist everywhere, the dead zone is their residue. Unlike the heterotopias the dead zones have always been sites of transgression and excess. The heterotopias can tolerate dead zones but not vice versa – blind spots and openings can exist in heterotopian spaces like shopping malls, cinemas, hotels, gardens or gated communities, but when heterotopias intervenes in the dead zone “it either takes it over or pushes it aside: as with the colonies, the garden in the desert... In heterotopias the sacred is present, but the dead zone is profane and everyday. Unlike the heterotopias, which are exclusionary, the dead zone is always open, although entering there can be ‘at your own risk’" (p210f).

To summarize: to Doron the heterotopias stand for an institutionalized and officially recognized alterity, existing as dream and compensation, while the dead zone is the remainder, the leftovers. The dead zone - one could perhaps say - is the real exteriority, not only as conceived and dreamed.

I will continue discussing this some other time. Let me just say that I'm pleasantly surprised by the many convergences I find in Doron with what I have been trying to explore myself with the idea of "no man's land" (Solà-Morales' idea of terrain vague is another similar notion), and that I find much of interest in the meandering history of the idea of heterotopia from its suggestive multifariousness in Foucault to its clear contraposition to dead zones in Doron.

Redistribution of production

Another article about Japanese NEETs (Not in Employment Education or Training)...

When I read articles like this I can't help thinking that one day a better society will come, where many people who today feel miserable for being out of work will be able to find worthwhile things to do rather easily, even if they are unemployed - things like writing, or cooking, or building things, or taking care of others, or just helping in with whatever - and all that would be valued. It would not be looked down on as idle or useless or as mere preparation for "real" work.

The precondition for that, however, is a redistribution of resources not only for consumption but also for production. Not production of whatever, but of things that will be valued by society, that will be recognized as good and important. People today who are unemployed do have access in a certain sense to means of production - they have their brains, their muscle power and perhaps even tools and material to work with - but what they don't have is the possibility of producing things that will be valued by society. No matter how hard they work, they will be looked down upon as a burden for others. Distributing money - the means of consumption - is certainly necessary to help these people get by in today's society, but it won't be enough since it won't free them from dependency.

The word "dependency" must be used with care. Employed people too are dependent. The dependency I am talking about is not dependency on welfare or the benevolence of other humans. I am talking about being dependent on the labor market. The root of that dependency is plain to see. Historically, people only became dependent on the labor market when they lost access to the means of production, for instance by being driven from the land through enclosures. The so-called idleness of the unemployed is a symptom of our dependency on the labor market just as much as the work (or overwork) of the employed. Liberating them from their idleness by grooming them for another bout of precarious employment by job-coaching will not free them from this dependency.

This is no advocacy of self-sufficiency or independence from the productive activity of others. The problem is not the division of labor per se, but having access to the means of production. Let there be division of labor - that's fine!

The solution is not to limit oneself to activities that sell. Such a world would be intolerable. We know it isn't true that only such activities are valueable. The solution can only be that every meaningful and useful activity be awarded value.

That would include activities like music, poetry or drama, or the writing of books and blogs, or household work, or planting flowers and vegetables, or caring for the elderly, or the building of barricades (Benjamin's favorite example of unsalaried work), or Marx' famous "criticizing in the afternoon". All of these are activities that usually don't sell - but we all know that they are worth a damn. It isn't true that they are valueless.

If our deepest hunches don't accord with the facts - desto schlimmer für die Tatsacken!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Wallerstein, Amino, Harvey

Some of you probably already know, but let me start by recommending this anyway: Its a site where you can read and subscribe to Immanuel Wallerstein's bimonthly commentaries to the contemporary world scene (as seen from the perspective "of the long term").

Lately I’ve been reading some of the older well-known texts by Wallerstein, Robert Brenner etc. The occasion has been my preparations for a course next spring. Partly this has been a rereading of books I once read as a student. This has been a pleasant exercise, which has suggested some interesting possible connections and similarities.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how similar the debate between world-system analysts and their critics is to the debate in Japan between Amino Yoshihiko and Araki Moriaki – with one side leaning towards emphasizing the role of trade and transborder traffic in the birth of capitalism, and the other side focusing on the class relations between landlords and peasants and more or less staying within the bounds of the nation-state as a unit of analysis. The template for the Brenner-Wallerstein debate, the classic debate on the ”transition from feudalism to capitalism”, is similarly structured with Paul Sweeney on one side and Maurice Dobb on the other. 

Braudel and Wallerstein, 1977
In these debates the proponents of the ”trade”-side, although part of a broadly Marxist tradition, have usually been viewed as heterodox and marginal to this tradition. Sweeney is less of a ”good Marxist” than Dobb, Wallerstein less than Brenner, and Amino is certainly less so than Araki. The role of the French Annales school as a catalyst of Marxist heterodoxy in these debates is interesting and deserves to be pointed out. World system analysts like Wallerstein and Arrighi endorse Fernand Braudel, Sweezy relies on Braudel’s forerunner Henri Pirenne, and Amino’s historiography is often compared to that of the Annales historians (although he was unaware of them when he developed his ideas).

There are also differences (of course) between Amino and world-system theorists. Wallerstein somewhere mentions the debate on the ”Asiatic mode of production” among Soviet scholars as one source of inspiration for world system analysis. However, far more than Wallerstein (or any of the classics dealing with this issue, such as Wittvogel), Amino has contributed to clarifying this concept. Above all his discussion of the role of the emperor in promoting ”non-agricultural” activities such as trade have shown how conductive such a mode of production in fact is of a certain kind of capitalism. He's also better than either Wallerstein or Brenner in bringing out how inappropriate labels such as ”feudalism” are when applied to societies or periods as a whole, entities which are inevitably much more complex composite formations in which feudal social relations can co-exist with ”Asiatic” as well as capitalist elements.

Speaking of Japan, it is gratifying to note how the Brenner-Wallerstein debate links up with the old "capitalism debate" (shihonshugi ronsô) among Marxist scholars in prewar Japan (as well as, incidentally, to what appears to have been a similar debate in Latin America mentioned by Wallerstein as the background of the emergence of dependency theory). From the theoretical vantage-point of people like Brenner or the Japanese Kôza faction, countries outside of the industrialized West are not yet part of capitalism, and rather than aiming for socialist revolution they should concentrate on overcoming feudalism and achieving economic development. To Wallerstein and the Rônô faction, by contrast, so-called underdeveloped or non-Western countries can already be considered part of a fully capitalist world. We can note that the position of the Rônô faction was considered a heterodox one in Japan, departing from the “official” Comintern standpoint of the time.

Part of the air of heterodoxy of people like Amino or Wallerstein springs from their unmistakable and, to many, provocatively positive view of the ”market”. To Amino the market is a space of muen and an area of relative freedom for outcasts, lepers and other marginals. Wallerstein claims that capitalism is possible only by virtue of oligopolistic or monopolistic tendencies that run counter to the ideal of a free market (in which, he claims, profit would be impossible). 

In rejecting the identification of capitalism and market economy Wallerstein relies on Braudel (see Wallerstein's "Braudel on Capitalism, or Everything Upside Down", The Journal of Modern History 63:2, 1991), and no one is as eloquent as Braudel in expressing the incompatibility of the market with capitalism. I can only recommend the reader to have a look at his Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century (especially volume one and three) for the wonderful formulations that express his evident nostalgia for markets, the local beehives of fairs, shops, and transparent transactions – a world on ground-level that exists apart from the forbidding ”commanding heights” of the properly capitalist economy, a shady world in which the great capitalist predators roam, controlling the international flows of capital shielded from public view.

What people like Brenner, Araki or Dobb might ask is what role production plays in the distinction between capitalism and the market. In fact, the image conjured up by Braudel is of an economy in which trade and finance play the central role - with labor being largely confined to a third level, that of everyday "material life". The sinister nature of capitalism seems to derive more from secrecy, ruthlessness and power than from the fact that workers are exploited. Here we approach one of the most central points of difference between the antagonists in the abovementioned debates. Their definitions of capitalism are not identical. While the exploitation of wage labor is central to most orthodox Marxist definitions, Amino, Wallerstein, Sweezy, Braudel and the Rônô all appear to be interested primarily in capitalism as a trade-based, profit-driven activity. 

In view of this wide definition, it is not surprising that, to them, capitalism goes far back in history. Locating any proper temporal limit when capitalism starts has in fact usually been rather difficult for these scholars. Amino discovers capitalism in the exchange taking place already in primitive times. The Rônô-ha faction argued that capitalism developed in Japan long before the Meiji Restoration. A forerunner and fellow-traveller of world-system analysis like A. G. Frank claims that a trade-driven "world system" (without the hyphen) has existed for five thousand years. Wallerstein himself settles for around five hundred years since earlier long-distance trade had been more episodic and production for such trade less systematic. 

To their critics, by contrast, capitalism is defined not by trade but by a particular class relation, involving capitalists extracting surplus through the employment of free wage labor (and, in order to prevent the fall of the rate of profit, the drive to constant improvement of the means of production). The two sides in the debates, then, seem to arrange themselves somewhat along the old divide of “production” versus “circulation” as the source of value in Marxist theory. The fact that these debates seem to connect up with one of the central problems in Marxist theory, that of the value form, was one of the most pleasant realizations I had while reading these texts.

This brings me to a final point – a point which I think suggests a contemporary relevance for these debates about the origin of capitalism. In works like A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey famously claims that today’s capitalism is increasingly relying on on an ”accumulation by dispossession” rather than on extracting surplus through the wage-relation (an idea which has influenced Hardt and Negri). Such dispossession includes, broadly, all kind of appropriations of value that is produced outside the capitalist system proper – including the redestribution of already formed wealth from the poor to the rich, the commodification of natural resources such as water or forests, the exploitation of the knowledge of indigenous peoples or the privatization of public goods provided by states. Although the exploitation of labor (through precarization, the intensification of work or outsourcing of production to places of weak labor rights, or the colonization by work of so-called leisure time) is an undeniable fact, capitalism is increasingly relying on taking rather than producing wealth for its accumulation of capital

As Harvey points out, this is a return to what Marx called ”primitive accumulation”. The idea of such accumulation, Harvey suggests, shouldn't be seen as a dubious myth about the violent origins of capitalism. It is a process that is constantly repeated today and that perhaps is even necessary to keep capitalism alive. That capitalism isn't limited to systems of wage labor may sound like an un-Marxist idea, but the idea of ”primitive accumulation” shows that not all value in capitalism needs to be derived from wage labor, even from a Marxist point of view. As Wallerstein points out, the capitalist world-system works comfortably with all kinds of relations of exploitation – from slavery to wage labor, and from serfdom to unpaid housewives. 

"Accumulation by dispossession" would certainly be easier to fit into a world-system analysis than into the theoretical framework of its critics. World-system analysis could also supplement Harvey's analysis in important ways. His portrait of "neoliberalism" is rather insensitive to regional variations (his analysis of China is one example) which I am pretty certain could be better captured with a world-system model.

I admit that my attempt to link together the debates on the origin of capitalism to the theory of the value form really should be done with much more care. What makes people like Wallerstein so heterodox is in part that their theories no longer rely on a Marxian theory of value. But in order to theorize any linkage between world-system analysis and "accumulation by dispossession" properly, clearly some form of reworked theoretization of value is necessary. Above all it would be interesting to look further into the relation between the labor theory of value and the idea of primitive accumulation in Marx. That Brenner rejects the very idea that Marx ever seriously considered ”primitive accumulation” to have had any basis in reality looks symptomatic of the uneasy relation between these two theoretical ideas (see Brenner’s “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review I /104, July-August 1977, p.66f). While exchange and labor can't be neatly separated in Marx' theory of value, it seems undeniable that a stubborn tension exists between these two elements.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"Badlands of the Republic" - three quotes

Mustafa Dikeç's Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy (Oxford: Blackwell 2007) is a really excellent work for understanding the revolts in the banlieus in France. I don't have time here to dwell on all its strong points. Let me just quote three passages I liked particularly much:

Firstly, I was happy to see that he is courageous enough to see the revolts as something deserving of the same respect as ordinary social movements, although they are not social movements in the conventional sense.
They are neither pre-conceived nor organized, and they are not articulated as collective efforts aimed at transforming the established order. However, […] they are not intrinsic acts of violence either. They all mobilize with a demand for justice and as reactions against perceived injustices. ‘Let justice be done’ or ‘J’ai la haine’, as was heard – again – during the revolts of autumn 2005. (Dikec 2007:152f)
Secondly, he points out that what motivates the revolts are inequality, discrimination and repression - not religion.
[S]tating that the revolts were ‘ethnic’ (dark skin) or religious (Islam) is almost as absurd as stating that the May 1968 uprisings were ‘ethnic’ (white) or religious (Christian). There was nothing to suggest that the revolts were ‘ethnic’ or religious. (ibid 176)
Thirdly, a penetrating remark on the meaning of republicanism.
The problem is not that republicanism is inherently incompatible with diversity. The problem is that the republican imaginary is so white and so Christian that any manifestation of discontent […] quickly evokes concerns about the values and principles of the republic. This is the paradox of actually existing republicanism in France. When those who do not quite fit in the republican imaginary mobilize, the principle of equality – otherwise strongly defended – gets displaced by a preoccupation with ‘ethnic’ origins and religious affiliations - otherwise strongly criticized. Rather than a defence of the equality of all its members regardless of ethnicity or religion, republicanism becomes a denial of diversity. (ibid 177).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Murakami Haruki, reality, trauma

A just read Murakami Haruki's essay in the New York Times, "Reality A and Reality B".

Note first the inversion: something has happened which has made the real world change places with the unreal. The unreal, contrafactual world of what never happened has become more real to us than the real world we’re inhabiting.

The analogy seems to be that of traumatization. In a traumatized state, the ego is trapped in the past, which is more real than the present, which has turned into a meaningless and indifferent chaos. The structure of the inversion is the same.

Note Murakami's huge ambitions, which almost seem to border on hubris or at least on the heroic. Words must be coined, he asserts, that help connect past and future. The task he sets himself as a teller of stories is, in other words, the healing of the world – its recovery. The teller of stories takes on the role of a healing angel or boddhisattva surveying the disaster.

Many have written a lot about the shift from detachment to commitment in Murakami’s writings in the 90s. In the 80’s, he could still write – as he does in his masterpiece Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World – how life is like a beach where junk is washed ashore by the waves and then washed back into the sea.
When I look back over my life so far, I see all that junk on the beach. It’s how my life has always been. Gathering up the junk, sorting through it, and then casting it off somewhere else. All for no purpose, leaving it to wash away again.[…] This is all my life. I merely go from one beach to another. Sure I remember the things that happen in between, but that’s all. I never tie them together.
Here too an inversion has occurred. And it occurs on many planes. Compared to the earlier text, detachment has turned partially into commitment, acceptance of discontinuity into a stoic groping for words that tie together, and self-chosen isolation has turned into the shouldering of what almost appears as a communal task. But underlying it all is a continuity – a chilly sadness at what one of his contemporary soul mates, Thomas Pynchon, called ”the spilled, the broken world”.

I won’t venture further here into the many questions that open up here. Let me just say that I think there is much that speaks for a view of the world as traumatized, just as Murakami suggests. I once wrote that being an angel was revolutionary. That may sound silly. But in a traumatized world, it’s true.

Kristianstad is in the NY Times!

Thanks to its recycling of waste, this city uses essentially no oil, natural gas or coal to heat houses or industries:

We live in the aftermath of an alien invasion

Krugman directed my attention to this funny piece, "Invaders from Mars", by the science fiction writer Charlie Stross.
"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.

  Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?
  Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...
  The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.
  Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)
  Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.
  Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.
  Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.
  For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.
  We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
  In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Krugman thinks this is so 60s - today we're living in the age of kleptocrats rather than technocrats; "the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit".

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

This may sound a bit ridiculous, but...

It's December and most people seem rather tired. Let's try to be as kind and lenient towards each other as we can!

Monday, 6 December 2010


Does anyone remember the 1992 currency crisis? The speculative attacks on the lira, the crown, the pound, and the franc? That was when people said: only joining the euro would prevent national economies from being easy prey to financial speculators.

In those days speculation was about the value of the currency, today it is about loans, credit-worthiness, and investors getting their money back. But still, it's the same old domino game: Iceland, Greece, Ireland. And next - Portugal, Hungary, Spain or Belgium? The irony is that this time it is largely because of the euro that countries are vulnerable. Those that never joined – like Iceland – seem better positioned for recovery than those that did.

But "countries" are perhaps the wrong unit to use. Another irony involved here is our commonsensical belief that a crisis for capitalism must also be a crisis for the capitalists. Remember Marx and his idea about the expropriators getting expropriated? That was before mechanisms were invented to nationalise the crises and pass on the bill to tax-payers. The process whereby economic crises have been redefined into crises for "countries" is certaintly not innocent and would be well worth a discourse analysis. Sometimes I wonder whether the fact that today's capitalists don't need keynesianism anymore is not best explained by the fact that they've become just as adept at making money out of economic downturns as out of upswings.

So what economists ought to think about is: how can crises be turned into crises for the capitalists again, without anyone else having to suffer?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

RSF on wikileaks

One of the most sensible things I've read so far about Wikileaks:,38958.html ("Wikileaks hounded", Reporters without borders)

From the text:
We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed. [...] Reporters Without Borders can only condemn this determination to hound Assange and reiterates its conviction that WikiLeaks has a right under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to publish these documents and is even playing a useful role by making them available to journalists and the greater public.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Krugman and the Irish

Paul Krugman's written a good article to read à propos today's protests against the Irish austerity plan.

I wish more economists would think like this. Above all, I wish they would devote some time to figuring out a way for national economies to be rescued or bailed out without at the same time rescuing the financial elite that by rights ought to have been hit hardest by the mess they've caused.

What's most depressing about all this - including the earlier protests in Portugal, France and Britain - is the utter helplessness of the protesters. The big political parties as well as the big newspapers have already agreed that the poor will have to be sacrificed again. There's contempt in the air, and it's so thick it's suffocating. The crisis that ought to have been visited on the rich is turned into yet another occasion for transferring wealth to the rich from the poor. The is class-war, no doubt about it - and it's waged from above, by an almost invulnerable elite against everyone else in society.

While this sad war is raging, in Sweden the government coalition is more popular than ever (the conservative Moderate Party alone getting an all time high 37% support in the latest opinion survey). Uh-hum, yes, a remarkable number of Swedes seem quite happy about things! A smug feeling is gaining ground. We think we've been spared. We're feeling grateful to Reinfeldt and Borg for their superior handling of things. And we've totally forgotten that the unemployment rate is still close to 10%. This is how hegemony works. There are convictions everywhere, but they rest on amnesia and stupidity - and in their fringes one feels the smell of cynicism and timidity.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Reading Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City

I’ve just read Kevin Lynch’s classic treatise The Image of the City (first published in 1960). I won’t write anything here about the five elements in the city image that are quoted so often: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Instead I will discuss the peculiar way the book has of making the city into a work of visual art.

Lynch’s emphasis is clearly on cities as aesthetic objects. Moral or political concerns are bracketed: the form of the city is focused; as for people they figure either as part of this form or as audience – an audience which, one feels, is primarily that of a spectator moving around in the city, rather than an inhabitant living or working there.

Furthermore, the aesthetics is of a peculiar kind: ”This book will consider the visual quality of the American city [and especially] one particular vusal quality: the apparent clarity or ’legibility’ of the cityscape” (Lynch 1960:2). By legibility he means the ease with which parts of the city can be recognized and people orient themselves through sensory cues from the environment, for instance by identifying districts, landmarks or pathways. Clarity or legibiliy, he argues, are vital for creating the impression of beauty, offering emotional security and spiritual well-being, and thus heightening the ”depth and intensity of human experience” (ibid 5).

Here already, one feels Lynch is taking a bit too much for granted. How about the beauty of labyrinths, for instance – the beauty of passageways in which to get lost? How about the brutality of clarity?

And why this emphasis on the visual quality? Remember Henri Lefebvre, who affirms all senses except the visual in appreciating the city and for whom the visual is linked to the ”space of representation” of urban planners and social engineers, to an official space imposed from above on the lived or perceived space of everyday users and inhabitants.

To the extent that Lynch urges us to privilege the visual perspective, isn’t he in fact urging us to be content, as users, to adopt the perspective of the planner, identifying with the master? To be sure, Lynch admits that ”there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment”, but he hastens to add that this can be so only under two conditions: that there is no ”danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out” and that the labyrinth or mystery ”must in itself have some form that can be explored and in time be apprehended”. ”Complete chaos”, he adds, ”is never pleasurable” (ibid 5f). Admittedly, he agrees that planners shouldn’t fill in all details. What is needed is not a ”final but an open-ended order” in which the ”observer himself should play an active role... and have a creative part” (ibid 6). Clearly, however, he thinks that the main, defining features of the city image should be provided by city planning.

Maybe he is right that complete chaos is not pleasurable, but he makes it sound as if such chaos would result unless planners didn’t exist to guarantee overall visual legibility. But is that really true? Does our fear of chaos really mean that we must rely on city planners creating such legibility for us? Surely, order can also be created from below. We all find our favorite paths, neighbors tell us where to find things we are looking for, and in unfamiliar surroundings kind strangers often help us find our way. The question is: ”legibility” for whom and provided by whom? What ”legibility” tells a homeless person where to find shelter for the night?

I look forward to reading his last work, Wasting Away, which promises to be a very different work.

Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press.

Herodotus and hubris

After all I’ve read and heard about Greek historians using the ideas of hubris and nemesis as a recurrent explanation for each and every disaster, it comes as a pleasant surprise to read Herodotus’ chapter on Egypt in his Histories.

Take Amasis, the pharaoh who finally – after a long and succesful reign – has the bad luck to be invaded by the Persian king Cambyses. Not only is he wholly lacking in hubris; he’s also the epitome of a relaxed and likeable fellow without desire for glory or power and without self-conceit. When his advisors berate him for his frivolous afternoon amusements, he gives a sensible reply which calls to mind modern theories of the advantages of ”slack”:
"Archers", Amasis replied, "string their bows when they wish to shoot, and unstring them after use. A bow kept always strung would break, and so be useless when it was needed. It is the same with a man; anyone who was always serious, and never allowed himself a fair share of relaxation and amusement, would suddenly go off his head, or get a stroke. It is because I know this that I divide my time between duty and pleasure."
In addition, and in contrast to many of the other kings depicted in the histories (take Deioces who cunningly engineers his own rise to the status of God-King or Cyrus who already from childhood likes to commandeer others around), there is something almost comically unplanned in Amasis’ rise to power. By the same token, he appears to have done nothing to deserve the catastrophe that befell him as Egypt was swallowed up by the Persian empire.

Herodotus may not always be very reliable, but I still like stories that don’t fit with the dominant ideas in a work. Whatever fails to fit dominant interpretations and theories always have the feel of reality.

An interesting paradox: Contrary to ideas of truth as coherence, it’s not those facts that fit with a theory or an overall pattern that give the strongest impression of reality, but facts that don’t fit and must be left unexplained.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Polos: Heidegger and the state

Some remarks at a seminar last week set off my curiosity. Polis as polos? The state as a “pole” around which the uncanny performs the movement of a swirl?

The seminar was about Heidegger. The presenter talked about two texts based on the wartime lecture series Parmenides (1942/43) and Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister" (1942) in which Heidegger claims that the Greek polis is derived from polos, or pole. Polis cannot be understood simply as what we today call a state or city-state, as a system of power ruling a specified, bordered territory. As polos, it should be understood as an unsettled abode of Being around which everything turns. His example is Antigone, "the most uncanny", whose passionate and unreasonable insistence on giving a burial to her brother imperils the state and the safety of its citizens.

Intrigued by these remarks, I decided to have a look at Parmenides. The part about polis comes in the midst of a discussion about the relation between aletheia and lethe (truth/unconcealing and forgetting). The essence of the Greek polis, Heidegger claims, is grounded in the essence of aletheia. “Polis is the polos, the pole, the place around which everything appearing to the Greeks as a being turns in a peculiar way”, a pole which “lets beings appear in their Being” (Heidegger 1992:89). He goes on to claim that the root of the word polis is identical with the Greek word for "to be", pelein: "to emerge, to rise up into the unconcealed” (ibid 90). The polis should therefore not be understood as a state or city-state, but as “the abode of the essence” of Greek humanity, as “the abode, gathered into itself, of the unconcealedness of beings” (ibid 90).

Then comes an interesting passage. Being, he points out, is essentially strife, a welling up of the uncanny:
If now, however, as the word indicates, aletheia possesses a conflictual essence, which appears also, in the oppositional forms of distortion and oblivion, then in the polis as the essential abode of man there has to hold sway all the most extreme counter-essences, and therein all excesses, to the unconcealed and to beings.
This, he asserts, explains “the frightfulness, the horribleness, the atrociousness of the Greek polis” (ibid 90).

On the very next page, however, he adds that despite this atrociousness the polis cannot be understood as evil. “The essence of power is foreign to the polis, with the consequence that the characterization of power as ‘evil’ finds no ground there [...] No modern concept of ‘the political’ will ever permit anyone to grasp the essence of the polis” (ibid 91).

These are dense passages. Two immediate thoughts:

Firstly, the final passage on how “the political” (understood as a struggle for power) fails to capture the essence of the polis sounds like an attack on Carl Schmitt, who in The Concept of the Political had defined the essence of politics as residing in the choice of friend and enemy. It's easy to use passages like this to conjure up the image of Heidegger as a pacifist recluse withdrawn from politics - as Heidegger himself does in texts like "Overcoming Metaphysics" (written during the war but published in 1954) where he laments the planetary "struggle for power" and criticizes it for bringing about a night of the earth and an oblivion of Being (ibid 1993:82f). In texts like these, the "attentiveness to Being" comes forward in a guise that is seemingly extricated from the logic of domination. But a "pacifist" interpretation like this quickly runs aground on Heidegger's own characterization of the polis as an abode of atrociousness, horror and strife. Clearly, what Heidegger criticizes is not violence and domination per se - only violence and domination that happens to be accompanied by blindness to Being.

Secondly, the fact that the passage on the “horribleness” and “atrociousness” of the polis is written in the winter 1942-43 makes one wonder: is this exegesis on the Greek polis really as irrelevant for the modern state – especially the Nazi state – as Heidegger claims?

To be able to venture a guess I need first to place the statement in context. By 1942 Heidegger had long withdrawn from active support for the Nazi regime. If we go back to 1935, however, we can see that ideas very similar to that of the polis and polos are expressed already in Introduction to Metaphysics. This is the text where he notoriously endorses the "inner truth and greatness" of the National Socialist movement. Here too we find discussions of Antigone and the uncanny (defined as the "unhomelike", unheimische, which throws us out of the accustomed and familiar) and of the polis as "the ground and place of human Dasein itself” which cannot be understood as "state" or "city-state" in a modern sense (ibid 2000:162).

If we look at the 1942 text Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” the discourse on polis and homecoming is even more closely intertwined with present-day politics and the ongoing war. Despite his disillusionment with the National Socialist regime Heidegger still identifies the fate of the oblivion of Being with the fate of the struggle of the German people. The American entry into the war amounts to a "self-destructive" attempt to "annihilate" the "home" (Heimat) of Western philosophy. The task presented to the Germans is, by contrast, to overcome the oblivion of Being associated with metaphysics and the reign of technology. This overcoming must occur, not by uselessly denying or rejecting metaphysics but by coming to "know the essence of its truth" (ibid 1996:53). This in turn implies a pious "homecoming through the un-homely" or in other words as a German rediscovery of itself through the Greek "fire from the heavens" invoked in the first line of Hölderlin’s hymn. Only in that way can the Germans  remedy their onesided proclivity for clarity and order, and their tendency to become “carried away by the provision of frames and compartments, making divisions and structuring” (ibid 136). By returning to the Greeks and encountering what is foreign to them, Heidegger hopes that the Germans will be able to excel in "what is proper to the Greeks", namely the "fire from the heavens", and in that way even surpass the Greeks. “It could be that a ‘guest-house’ and establishment might be founded and built for the gods, one that the Greek temples can no longer approach” (ibid 124).

Such a homecoming through the Greeks would imply a recovery of the Greek polis, which - like in the Parmenides text - is defined as polos, the "swirl in which and around which everything turns” or as “that realm and locale around which everything question-worthy and uncanny turns in an exceptional sense" (ibid 81). Again he repeats that the polis cannot be understood from the vantage point of modern idea of the state. Therefore, he adds, it is ridiculous to make the Greeks “appear as the pure National Socialists” avant la lettre (ibid 80). On the contrary we must “think the state and the city from out of their relation to the polis” (ibid 82). This sentence is the key to how Heidegger understands the relationship betweten the polis and the modern state. That it is mistaken to project back any modern conceptions of the state on the polis does not mean that the polis is irrelevant for our understanding of the modern state. On the contrary, the polis is the historical archetype of the state or the political. The implication would seem to be that Heidegger leaves open the possibility of a political act of "foundation" in modern times through which the polis - understood as a abode where people gather since they perceive it as a site where Being manifests itself - is resurrected. Considering the world-historical role he still accords to the German people at this stage, it would seem that he is hoping for the German Reich to be the agent of such a foundation. This was in fact the promise he had once perceived to be inherent in the National Socialist movement as its "inner truth and greatness" but which, he now seems to be lamenting, the National Socialist movement has sadly forfeited.

If it is true that in 1942 Heidegger envisioned the German Reich as harboring the possibility of reapproaching the Greek polis, understood as a "pole" or abode of the unconcealedness of Being, then we can be forgiven, I think, for understanding his brief remarks on the “atrociousness” of the polis in 1942-43 as an allusion to the same, indeed very atrocious Reich. Here, however, a new problem arises. If he in fact endorses this infusion of "uncanny" energies, of the "fire from the heavens", into the modern German state, then it is hardly possible to interpret the remarks on "atrociousness" as an indictment of the horror of that state. In fact, we would have to concede that Heidegger is perfectly logical and true to his premises when he asserts that the polis (the Greek one as well as the possible German one) is free from "evil", despite its horros.

The resulting picture of the state is very ambivalent.

On the one hand, Heidegger opens up for the possibility of grasping the state itself as an abode of the "unconcealment" of Being. In its origin or essence, the state is not a formal organization or system of power, not a smokescreen thrown up by the ruling classes, but something as primordial as poetry or religion. As the speaker at the seminar I attended argued, such a way of grasping the state might make it possible to grope for a new way of providing "human rights" with a foundation without having to rely on law or jurisdiction. What is primordial and essential in the polis is not the border or formal criteria of citizenship, but taking "care” of the territory in which one dwells. Whoever dwells there, and who acts in such a way that he or she takes care of this abode, also belongs there. Antigone belongs to the state as much as Creon, von Stauffenberg as much as Hitler, and today’s sans-papiers and vagabonds belong to the modern nation-state as much as the formal citizens.

But by liberating the state from its own legal morings, we end up, as in Schmitt, with a picture of the state as above the law. Taking “care” will always involve the possibility of states of “exception” or emergency - the torture of dissidents, camps, eugenics, genocide. We end up in political theology, and not only in a narrow Schmittian sense, but in a wide sense in which the state literally takes on divine properties.

We can illustrate this with what just might have been one of the sources of Heideggers idea of the state as a "pole": the East Asian identification of imperial power with the pole star, the immovable mover around which the universe turns, the "abode" of the first principle of Tao before its bifurcation into yin and yang. This originally Chinese idea was notoriously used to underpin the prestige of Hitler’s comrade-in-arms: the Japanese "Heavenly sovereign", whose name, tenno, incidentally, is derived from the Taoist divinity thought to inhabit the Pole Star configuration. As became apparent with the intense criticism of the "organ-theory" of Minobe in the 1930s, the tenno came to be viewed as transcending the formal state apparatus rather than as part of it, as a divine embodiment of the eternal "national body", kokutai, rather than a mere head of the transient political system, seitai. To the young and idealist Japanese fascists who felt free to assassinate "liberal" politicians in the name of the Emperor in the 1930s, the latter was indeed a "pole" around which Being manifested itself regardless of illegality. Heidegger’s philosophy of polis would suit them as a glove fits the hand. Let me repeat that nothing in this philosophy condemns power-struggles or violence per se, only such struggles or such violence that is accompanied by an oblivion of Being.

No, the polis is not polos. I prefer a formal state to the conception of the state as an abode of Being, because a formal state is a state which can be rejected and stepped out of. Heidegger’s claim that polis is not the structure opposed by Antigone, Creon’s rule, but a movement that incorporates her opposition is perverse. The perversity lies in the implication that even the state’s victims and dissidents are complicit in its rule, unable to escape it. Von Stauffenberg becomes complicit with Hitler and the refugees hiding from the police complicit with the migration authorities that seek to expel them - all mixed up in the same swirl. Believing in divine monsters is questionable enough, and identifying them with the state is even worse.


Heidegger, Martin (1992) Parmenides, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

- (1993) “Overcoming Metaphysics”, pp 67-90, in R. Wohlin (ed) The Heidegger Controversy. A Critical Reader, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

- (1996) Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

- (2000) Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Moderate Party - the missing link

Having watched the news about yesterday's general election (the results can be seen here), it's clear that a blame-game is already starting, firstly, concerning the bad result for the Social Democrats (the lowest in 96 years) and, secondly, concerning the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a rightist populist party with neo-nazi roots which managed to enter parliament for the first time ever.

To the first question, two often repeated replies are: 1) the Social Democrats suffered from the party's "red-green" alliance with the (formerly Communist) Left Party and the Green Party which alienated traditional Social Democratic voters, and 2) the personal lack of popularity for the Social Democratic party leader Mona Sahlin, especially compared to the prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, party leader of the Moderate (conservative) Party.

However, consider a few facts. Firstly, even without the "red-green" alliance the Social Democrats would have had to cooperate with the Left party and the Greens if they had been given the mandate to govern. Just a year ago the Social Democrats seems to have a large and secure lead over the rightwing coalition, at a time when Sahlin led the party and the "red-green" alliance was in place. Clearly, the question about the Social Democrat failure is more complex than the most popular answers suggest.

Answers to the second question - about the success of the Sweden Democrats - range from simply acknowledging the failure of the "integration policy" to blaming the market oriented economic policy of the government for having generated anxiety and discontent that is discharged on scapegoats like the immigrants.

There may be some truth in these answers, but there is one additional, obvious answer which is not heard so often, namely the Moderate Party's ideological march into the political center, which has opened up a vacuum on the right which the Sweden Democrats have been able to exploit.

That this ideological move is the key to the strenght of Fredrik Reinfeldt's "new moderates" is something we have grown used to hearing ever since their first electoral success in 2006, when they toppled the Social Democratic government of Göran Persson. Abandoning many of the overt signs of conservatism, profiling itself as close to the concerns of common wage-earners and even going so far as to call itself Sweden's "only Labour Party", the Moderate Party has had considerable success in outcompeting the Social Democrats on the own turf. Disguising neo-liberal tax cuts a a reform for making it "profitable to work" and redefining the shrinking of the social safety net into a responsible policy for "guarding the core of the welfare" has helped the them gain support of many voters in the political middle regions, especially those who benefit from the tax cuts and have been lucky enough to keep their jobs.

It turns out, therefore, that the two big questions concerning the difficulties of the Social Democrats and the growth of the Sweden Democrats are linked. And the name of that link is the "new moderates".

But if that's true, what explains the weak support in public opinion polls for the Moderate-led coalition just a year ago? Well, my guess is that continent factors have played a large roll. The main effect of the Moderate march into the political centre has been to create a more advantageous terrain for them in challenging the Social Democrats, but it hasn't automatically guaranteed that the challenge would succeed. As far as I can see, the fall in public support had much to do with self-inflicted wounds such as the truly catastrophic reform of the unemployemnt insurance, which triggered a flight from the insurance system just before the onset of the worldwide economic crisis, the heated debate about the FRA law (the impopularity of which helped catapult the Pirate Party to the EU parliament) and the many glaring mistakes that were made when the Health Insurance system was reformed. The best explanation of why public opinion turned since last year is the strong economic recovery after the crisis that started with the Lehman shock in 2008 which has contributed to the high levels of trust and confidence people feel for Reinfeldt and his finance minister, Borg. All the previous fiaskos are forgotten.

Yes, contingent factors - which means that the importance of factors like Sahlin's personal popularity or the "red-green" alliance are probably a bit exaggerated.

A third question much discussed in news programs is how Reinfeldt will be able to govern without making himself dependent on the support of the Sweden Democrats. A solution favored by many political commentators is for Reinfeldt to reach out "across the bloc border", preferably towards the Greens but perhaps also to the Social Democrats, in order to secure a majority. So far, however, the Greens seem intent on declining such overtures. Since cooperating with the Sweden Democrats has been ruled out, the most likely alternative seems to be for the government to reply on "jumping majorities", i.e. provisional arrangements from issue to issue.

The Greens should not be faulted for declining Reinfeldt's invitations. To do so is not at all irresponsible, as some commentators seem to be suggesting. To actually cooperate with Reinfeldt would mean granting him and his Moderates a comfortable seat near the political center, which would make it very difficult for a Social Democratic or Leftist government to challenge him. The only one benefitting from such an arrangement, apart from the Moderates, would be the Sweden Democrats, who would be free to thrive and expand in the vacuum created on the right.

Predictions are risky, but let me venture one nevertheless. I predict that the results of the election - in combination with the Green refusal to cooperate with Reinfeldt - will prod the Moderates to move back towards the right-hand end of the political spectrum. That will give the opportunity to the Social Democrats to recover some ground in the center.

PS (added 22/9): It seems we're headed for instability and jumping majorities. That's fine. For each party to demonstrate its separate identity and to emphasize the conflicts and differences that separates it from other parties is surely preferable to a situation in which established parties huddle together in an indifferent mass in the center. Such cooperation would kill polititcs in all areas except one, that of "integration", which would be elevated into the axis mundi of politics - which is exactly what the Sweden Democrats want.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Van Gennep's The Rites of Passage

I must confess that before reading this classical work I only knew of van Gennep through Victor Turner, which perhaps explains why I was surprised by quite a lot in it. And I don't just mean the differences in the way Turner and van Gennep use the term liminality (which is much broader in Turner who sees it as a component of practically all rites and much else besides). I'm also pleasantly surprised by van Gennep's extraordinary sensitivity to the “feel” of places, in particular in relation to situations involving crossing frontiers or thresholds, doors etc.

I'm stunned by how much here that might have been a direct inspiration to Amino Yoshihiko (and perhaps also Orikuchi Shinobu). Take Amino's fascination with the dôsojin, the stone objects placed outside villages in medieval Japan. In similar fashion, van Gennep writes about natural objects like rocks, stones or trees which could mark “magico-religious” borders or frontiers around premodern communities and which almost universally were associated with the phallus (van Gennep 1960:15f). The discussion about the “mana inherent in all strangers” (ibid 34f) is also echoed in Amino. The idea of muen seems to bear directly on the juridical license given to young people in transitional or liminal periods.
During the entire novitiate, the usual economic and legal ties are modified, sometimes broken altogether. The novices are outside society, and society has no power over them, especially since they are actually sacred and holy, and therefore untouchable and dangerous, just as gods would be. (ibid 114)
Hence the young could steal and pillage at will at the expense of the community (something van Gennep illustrates with examples from Liberia and the Bismarck Archipelago). Another similarity: take Amino's hypothesis that medieval Japanese covered their face with veils, straw hats or fans whenever they felt that they were in the presence of the sacred. He could well have taken his cue from Van Gennep, who writes that people in the ancient world veiled their head “to separate themselves from the profane and to live only in the sacred world” (ibid 168).

Another idea which seems directly translatable to Amino's discussion of muen is van Gennep's description of the zones between polities or communities, such as deserts, marshes or forests, which he describes as liminal zones with a sacred quality which were “sacred for the inhabitants of the adjacent territories. Whoever passes from one to the other finds himself physically and magico-religiously in a special situation for a certain length of time: he wavers between two worlds” (ibid 18). In Greece, such zones were used for market places or battlefields. Generally, such zone were free and open for anybody, a commons where everyone had full rights to travel and hunt.

There were also temporary magical zones. Such zones, which functioned as asylums, could be established between strangers by greetings, for instance by “pronouncing a word or a formula like the Moslem salaam” (ibid 32). Sometimes mere sight constituted sufficient contact for such a right of asylum to arise: “The Shammars never plunder a caravan within sight of their encampment, for as long as a stranger can see their tents they consider him their Dakheel”, e.g. he becomes protected (Layard, quoted in van Gennep 1960:32).

Why am I interested in this? Because I'm interested in exploring how a phenomenology of the sacred could be put to use in today, in our society. I strongly suspect that we can't do without such a phenomenology if we want to articulate a convincing idea of how we experience freedom. Freedom is not a principle or a political system, but neither is it a mere feeling. Freedom as an experienced reality is perhaps best described as a world, or realm of existence, lying beyond mundane considerations of utility and power and hence antithetical to capitalism and the state. The borderlines of that world are not sharp, to be sure, but as van Gennep shows, they were hardly sharp in premodern societies either. We can't see them clearly, but we can feel them - somewhat in the manner we feel changes in the air, or in temperature. Dérive is one way to track them down.

van Gennep, Arnold (1960) The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge and Kegal Paul.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Taussig and Turner

I felt a bit bothered by Taussig’s criticism of Victor Turner in Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, so I had a look at a few of the books by Turner I happened to have at hand, The Ritual Process (Aldine Transaction, 2007) and From Ritual to Theatre (PAJ Publications, 1982), to see how fair the criticism is.

First, here’s what Taussig writes. Describing the “sensory pandemonium” of the yagé nights among Colombian shamans and healers as akin to the production of dialectical images or montages in Benjamin’s sense, he adds that “the movements and connections involved here between self and group are not susceptible to the communitas model that Victor Turner postulated as a universal or quasi-universal feature of ritual” (Taussig 1987:441f). He then quotes the following passage from Turner:
In flow and communities what is sought is unity, not the unity which represents a sum of fractions and is susceptible of division and subtraction, but an indivisible unity, ‘white’, ‘pure’. ‘primary’, ‘seamless’. This unity is expressed in such symbols as the basic generative and nurturant fluids semen and milk; and as running water, dawn, light, and whiteness. Homogeneity is sought, instead of heterogeneity [and the participants] are impregnated with unity, as it were, and purified of divisiveness and plurality. The impure and sinful is the sundered, the divided. The pure is the integer, the indivisible. (Turner, from Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, co-authored with Edith Turner, Columbia University Press 1978)
Taussig adds:
Impregnating people with unity may fit well with certain fantasies of maleness and fascism. Certainly the communitas features of the yagé nights are the antithesis of this whiteness, this homogeneity, this soppy primitivism of semen and milk and the unified and the pure. Against that the yagé nights pose awkwardness of fit, breaking-up and scrambling, the allegorical rather than the symbolist mode, the predominance of the left hand and of anarchy. (Taussig 1987:442)
So, is Taussig’s criticism fair? In fact, Turner is far from clear about to what degree he sees unity as a necessary feature of liminal experiences, the experience of “anti-structure” or communitas. Although the quoted passage strikes me as extreme, it’s not hard to find other passages describing communitas in terms of unity. For instance, describing what he calls “spontaneous communitas” (as opposed to “ideological” and “normative communitas”) he writes that “[i]ndividuals who interact with one another in the mode of spontaneous communitas become totally absorbed into a single synchronized event” (Turner 1982:48). Elsewhere he describes communitas as “homogeneous”, “relatively undifferentiated”, and “unstructured” (ibid 47, 2007:96, 132).

At the same time, Turner, somewhat inconsistently, also writes: “For me communitas preserves individual distinctiveness – it is neither regression to infancy, nor is it emotional, nor is it ‘merging’ in fantasy” (ibid 1982:46f). And recall how he describes liminality, a quality he closely associates with communitas and anti-structure: “Characteristic of this liminal period is the appearance of marked ambiguity and inconsistency of meaning, and the emergence of luminal demonic and monstrous figures who represent within themselves ambiguities and inconsistencies” (ibid 113). Here we hear nothing of oneness or unity. Liminality seems must more closely associated and communitas to ambiguity, play, and insecurity. 

What Taussig’s criticism reveals is the rift that seems to run through Turner’s thinking about communitas – the fact, in other words, that the way he describes liminality doesn’t always accord with the way he describes communitas.

The problem seems to be this: Turner describes communitas both as a unity in which distinctions are dissolved, and as a unity in which the distinctions are preserved. Several passages suggest that his model of communitas is that of religious grace. Grace itself, however, is closely modeled on love, and one of the most striking qualities of love is surely the presence of an overflowing sense of oneness which paradoxically coexists with a sharpened eye for the uniqueness of the other person. As Adorno states in his aphorism about "Sabbath eyes", love seeks oneness, and yet wants the other person just the way he or she is: "The eyes that lose themselves to the one and only beauty are sabbath eyes. They save in their object something of the calm of its day of creation" (Adorno, Minima Moralia, Verso 1987, p 76).

What should be criticized in Turner, then, is not really that he equates ritual with the experience of unity – for as we have seen he is very ambiguous on this point. What should be criticized is rather that he models the experience of communitas on that of love without clarifying the riddle of how the seeming opposites of unity and individuality can coexist in it. 

P.S. Having read Image and Pilgrimage, I must admit that Taussig's criticism is not unreasonable. Their views on pilgrimage are completely at odds, one stressing homogeneity and the other heterogeneity.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987)

Putting down this book I ask myself how much I remember of it. As much as the scattered memories of a long voyage after having returned home. Or as much, perhaps, as what one remembers of a dream when awake. 

How much do I know of what this book seemed to be about while I read it - the Putomayo Indians, the Colombian rubber trade, colonialism, torture and healing, and shamanism? I remember the “space of death”, the space of terror that cannot be reduced to rational economic motives, the image of a predatory capitalism that has derailed and reassembled itself as the monster it imagined the natives to be. I remember the crossings of Joseph Conrad – who suddenly appears so petty bourgeois and narrow-minded – and poor Roger Casement. I remember the long, horrible discussions about whether the slavery along the Putomayo was really slavery or merely “debt peonage”, as claimed by the rubber barons, repugnant success stories like Julio César Arana, head of the Peruvian Rubber Company. And I remember thinking: how fuzzy and even non-existent the borders are between slaves, traders, wage laborers and family members. Just remember all the countless daughters who have been sold by their parents, in countries where slavery was nominally abolished centuries ago. And how fluid these categories are in our society today as well! I remember the sadness I felt when I read about people like Rosario, Marlene and her father, or Santiago. 

I also remember another point of interest: Taussig’s insistence that the dreamlike mist surrounding these historical memories, reports and colonial fantasies should be retained and not reduced away. Like Conrad, we - the searching critics - should “penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality”, and like Benjamin, we should approach interpretation in a combined act of “reduction and revelation” (p 10). Myth is subverted by myth. Unlike the immanent criticism of Adorno, this is not a rational endeavor, taking aim at the intellectual closure of identity-thinking. It’s an emotional voyage in the style of Benjamin, relying on a visual or perhaps a tactile groping one’s way through fog or through dream, hoping for a dialectics to be set in motion which will guide us towards awakening. 

What would get lost if we tried to reduce away the mist would be the “sense of reality crucial to the moral character of social relations”, which is diffused through society, providing it with its emotional props and supports. Society, Taussig suggests, is not only served by explicit ideologies, but also by a “poetics of control”, an “implicit social knowledge”, or by what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling” – a “communal possession with all the firmness that structure suggests, yet operating in the most delicate and least tangible aspects of our activity” (p 288, 366). The task of the critic is to engage this reality, making it crack open through the skilful applicaton of dialectical image and montage, and thus tapping into and releasing the “creative power of chaos” underlying it. 

I think here of Helena Flam, who writes about how social structures are upheld by “cementing emotions” like gratitude or loyalty, but also by feelings of shame or fear. Social movements must operate with “subversive counter-emotions” to shock, disrupt and undermine the emotional structure of the status quo and release "subversive counter-emotions" like anger, pride, hope and wonder (see the volume Social Movements and Emotions, edited by her and Debra King and published at Routledge 2005). 

Criticism, Taussig suggests, is "sorcery". It proceeds through the medium of the dream. And why? Because it’s the only way out. The dream is reality, or at least it structures reality.

And I remember the descriptions of the Colombian shamans' yagé nights (the quip, which I read somewhere, that Taussig is a high theorist who writes like a beatnik is true). I also remember, but more vaguely, the attempts to theorize these nights. They belong with the sacred, taking place as a communal ritual, but lack the “unity” which Turner sees as characteristic of the communitas of ritual: “the movements and connections involved here between self and group are not susceptible to the communitas model that Victor Turner postulated as a universal or quasi-universal feature of ritual”. Against the fantasies of unity, “the yagé nights pose awkwardness of fit, breaking-up and scrambling, the allegorical rather than the symbolist mode, the predominance of the left hand and of anarchy” (p 442). Instead of unity, there is disunity, as in the montage as theorized by Benjamin. The yagé night is marked by radical heterogeneity. It is a “sensory pandemonium”, a dance of leaping shadows, a “chaotic mingling of danger and humor”. You don’t know how they will turn out. You will laugh, but you will also vomit and feel sick. Everything is hallucinatory and intense, but also full of unexpected, dreamlike reversals, connections and juxtapositions. So much laughter. “It belongs to the family of the pun”, Taussig quotes Barthes. “It is on the side of carnival”.

The book too is like a dream. It cannot be pinned down to any of its constituent parts. It’s a montage. It points beyond itself.
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