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.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.