Thursday, 22 December 2011

Graeber Debt Jubilee

Earlier this autumn I was reading Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years (Melville House, 2011). Seeing the euro crisis unfold in real time while reading was a awesome experience, giving me a weird feeling of experiencing the end of the world with a voice-over.

As an aside, let me confess that the news coverage of the euro crisis right now is giving me feelings of suffocation. Everywhere panic is stirred up, as if the big catastrophe that needed to be averted at all cost would be a break up of the euro-zone. But isn't the genuine catastrophe what is happening right now: whole populations sentenced to austerity without a trace of democratic process, and a power grap by the few, conveniently legitimated by the "crisis"?

Graeber's book is brilliant. It simply should be read. Like always with his works, it is never boring. He's always generous, letting the reader feel smart and come to startling new understandings on almost every page. He writes well, and explains well.

Here it won't be possible to summarize the book. So let me just gesture towards some of the things I liked: first, there are the wonderful first pages about the Garden Party in London, where Graeber gets the innocuous comment: ”Surely, one has to pay one’s debts” - a statement one might say that the entire book tries to problematize. From there the big arguments unfold: the idea that virtual money is the original kind of money (not cash or bullion), the criticism of the myth of barter, the distinction between communism, exchange and hierarchy as the three basic forms of economic morality, and the suggestion that history alternates between epochs of bullion and epochs of credit. Among the titbits are things like the claim that Europeans never "reverted to barter" after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the speculation that patriarchy originated in the horrified reaction against the Mesopotamian credit economy, the portrayal of the corporation-like Buddhist monasteries in China, or the startling account of the origin of the Bank of England.

Along the way, an anthropology of economic relations is built up which is used to show that barter, taken as the prototype of the "market" by classical economics has historically only been typical of relations between enemies or strangers, people who had no interest in building long-term relations with each other. Barter is a behavior close to war. Members of the same community have practically never used barter to exchange things; they share them or give them away, saying "I owe you one". In other words, they live in a credit economy.

Money existed in so-called "primitive" communities too, but was embedded in human relations, functioning as approximate credit units. Even when existing in material form, it was seldom used in daily transactions, tending to be reserved for special occasions – such as marriages, funerals or alliances – when there was some important rearrangement of relations between people. This kind of money Graeber calls ”social currencies” and the economies in which they are employed ”human economies”. What happens when such economies give way to commercial ones – when obligations turn into debts? The result can be debt peonage, as in Mesopotamia, or slavery, as in ancient Greece or Rome.

An important argument is about the role of the state and especially of military force. Money is credit money, i.e. IOUs or, basically, debt. It functions as money as long as it is redeemable. In principle, an IOU can be issued by anyone (such as the "tally sticks" used in medieval England or the scraps of signed paper that circulated as notes in China), but usually they only become recognized as money when they're backed by the state. Even when issued by the state, money remains debt. When states first issued coins it was to pay for their armies. But how could states ensure that this money would be redeemable, that there would be markets where the money would be accepted? By demanding the money back in taxes, ensuring that markets would grow up around the armies. The ability to raise taxes in turn rested on the ruler's means of coercion. Armies, then, were crucial to the creation of money and markets. Ultimately, it is the state's ability to back its IOUs with military force that underlies its ability to create money.

Graeber broadly divides history into three epochs of credit and two epochs of bullion. The most ancient economies were credit economies. In Sumer and the Mesopotamian empires, a typical pattern emerged whereby conflicts over debt were resolved or mitigated through periodic “Jubilees”. Credit led to debt peonage, which in turn provoked resistance in the form of indebted peasants joining the nomads – like in the Biblical “exodus”. Institutionalizing the “Jubilees” was a way for the empires to avoid losing their populations and to minimize their vulnerability to nomad attacks. This early credit age, however, were succeeded by the gruesome Axial age (the age of the Roman, Maurya and Han empires) when coins dominated. During the Middle Ages credit again became dominant in Europe, India and China. This was followed by the age of modern bullion-based capitalist empires, which lasted until 1971, when the Nixon shock inaugurated a new age dominated by credit. According to Graeber, it matters a great deal what kind of epoch it is. Bullion-dominated epochs have generally been warlike. Coin or cash is tailor-made for hostile relations, when you will never see each other again. Credit, by contrast, is more suited to peace and stability, since it presumes the possibility of reliable long-term relations.

A seemingly paradoxical fact, repeatedly stressed by Graeber, is that usually in the past, the ages of virtual credit money were accompanied by institutions designed to protect debtors (such as the Jubilee), but the most recent such age is different. Today institutions like the IMF instead function to protect the creditors. Graeber doesn’t really present a solution to this riddle, merely suggesting that the new age of credit is still rather new and that things are still up for grabs. With a little effort, we might still make this an epoch in which debtors rather than creditors will be protected. ”It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee” (p390).

Here’s my one objection to the book. The fact that we live in a credit-based economy today is indisputable, but that is hardly ground for hope. Credit economies only need to be “humane” to debtors so long as the state or system of coercion is weak. Only then must they must presume some basic trust or faith in the debtor. Today, however, states have developed to such an extent that trust in debtors can be dispensed with. Credit cards are accepted and loans are granted, not because of any trust in the debtors, but because the system will guarantee repayment. Debtors can no longer escape to the desert, but will be tracked down electronically. Even if they can’t pay, banks are too big to fail. What matters is not whether one lives in an epoch of cash or credit, but the strength of the system, its general growth prospects and its apparatus of coercion. This suggests that the idea of epochs of credit and of bullion is just a surface phenomenon, hiding more crucial processes going on elsewhere.

Just look at Greece, which is caught in a cage. The recipe of slashing growth prospects to reduce debt is about as reasonable as robbing a worker of his tools and then tell him to work until he has repaid his debt. To me it seems this is neither an age of bullion nor credit, at least not if credit is supposed to mean trusting each other, being humane, and caring for the long-term relation. Credit today means trust in coercion. It means: I trust the jailors above all, and if I trust you, it's because I trust your fear of the jailors and the strength of the fetters in which you will be caught.

So we see: the catastrophe is not the potential default or a break-up of the euro zone. The catastrophe is that a system has already come into being which we think is so important that we are sacrificing whole populations to ensure its functioning.

But there is one weak spot in the system. Unlike mutual trust, trust in coercion is a one-sided trust that is found above all in the creditor. It needs to be complemented by fear and anxiety on the part of the debtor. Fear of the crisis and of failure, panic at the prospect of default and of a rebuke from the rating agencies. This anxiety and fear is part of the catastrophe.

Part of the cure could be that we ask ourselves: do we really need to feel so anxious and fearful? Humane societies don’t need growth. To be humane and civilized means to behave decently and kindly even in hard times. Often these qualities are most real and strongest among so-called losers and failures. True barbary is strongest among those who strive to be on top or who struggle to avoid losing. If you want proof, just look around the world, or even just at Europe.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Making things public (according to Latour)

I'm not well read in Bruno Latour, so I write this not to assert any standpoint, but more, really, to clarify my impressions to myself and to test them against any criticism they might invite. 

I've just read “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: or How to Make Things Public”, Latour's introduction to an exhibition catalogue edited by himself and Peter Weibel (Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Karlsruhe: Center for Art and Media / Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2005). It's an intervention in political philosophy, written as an essay in the good old style - stimulating, well-written, erudite. He criticizes mainstream political philosophy – from Hobbes to Habermas – for neglecting "things" - and pleads instead for an "object-oriented democracy”, a Dingpolitik.

He points out that the old word ”Thing” originally designated a type of archaic assembly, as in Icelandic Althing (suitably located on a desolate site in the middle of a fault line). ”Thus, long before designating an object thrown out of the political sphere and standing there objectively and independently, the Ding or Thing has for many centuries meant the issue that brings people together because it divides them” (p13). The central idea is that what creates a public is not shared values or principles or any basic shared agreement, but the existence of a pressing concern that divides us: "we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible or wish to fuse together but because we are brought by divisive matters of concern into some neutral, isolated place in order to come to some sort of provisional makeshift (dis)agreement” (p13).

So disagreement unites. As he points out, demos and demon share the same root, the Indo-European da-, to divide (p14).

At this point, one might ask if a public or a people are united only by disagreement, or if they also have something else in common. While the overall thrust of Latour's argument is certainly to stress the constitutive role of disagreement, he does add one more factor, which is crucial - the sharing of territory. ”Hence, the people, the demos, are made up of those who share the same space and are divided by the same contradictory worries” (p16).

Despite the concession to territory, Latour's conception of the public is thin, building on little but mutual disagreement. Rather than a unitary assembly, such politics would be an assembly of assemblies, by necessity constantly on the verge of dissolving into parts (an "assembly of disassembling"). As he points out, the difference between following the way of the "demon" - multiplying difference and disassembling - and that of the "demos" - multiplying occasions to agree, assemble and share - is thin as a knife (p30). One way to deal with the inconclusive nature of public deliberation is to be modest and acknowledge our insufficient cognitive capacities. ”The cognitive deficiency of participants has been hidden for a long time [...]. We were told that all of us – on entering this dome, this public sphere – had to leave aside in the cloakroom our own attachments, passions and weaknesses” (p20). Hence Latour's slogan: ”Disabled persons of all countries, unite!” (p19f).

A public tolerant of diversity needs to avoid the dream of unity and totality which he associates with "the phantasmagorical spheres, globes, common good and general will that the Leviathan was supposed to incarnate” (p24). Instead, he argues, it needs to be "phantom-like" (an expression derived from Lippman's "phantom public"). To illustrate what this might mean, he refers to an artwork, The Phantom, designed by Michel Jaffrennou and Thierry Coduys:
It’s activated by the movements of the visitors throughout the show so that each spectator is simultaneously an actor in the show and the only screen on which the whole spectacle is projected. By moving through the various exhibits, the visitors will trigger various captors that will be used as so many inputs to trigger outputs which will give a vague and uneasy feeling that “something happens” of which the bystanders are responsible but in a way that is not directly traceable. Politics will pass through you as a rather mysterious flow, just like a phantom. (p24)
If we compare to Jürgen Habermas, a striking trait of Latour's conception of the public is that it has no need for any underlying agreement, no shared language rules and no shared orienation to consensus. Apart from territory, it seems constituted by nothing by disagreement. This is at least formally a similarity to Jacques Rancière's conception of the public as a polemical place for the manifestation of disagreement. At the same time, the differences to Rancière are both striking and instructive.

Latour's demos or phantom public
would not be a "body politic" 
For instance, behind Latour's stress on disagreement one senses his concern with globalization, the global multitude of voices who no longer comprehend democracy ("Listen to the Japanese tradition... Listen to the Jivaros... Listen to the jihadists", p25). The global is what cannot be united under one roof. "Where would you assemble the global? Certainly not under golden domes and kitsch frescoes where heroic senators and half-naked Republics are crowned by laurels descending from clouds" (p20). Thus he discards the old metaphors for the public, the "spheres" or "domes". Yet, whether we like it or not, today the shared territory that brings people together is the global. Demonstrations against globalization show how a divisive issue brings people together, even if they wish to differ. The globe is where we all co-habitate: "we are all in the same boat" (p27).

To Rancière, by contrast, disagreement has nothing to do with global diversity. It springs from the injustice of the social order. This is why he, unlike Latour, presents the Ding, the cause of disagreement, as something that is visibilized only with the disruptive political act of those who have no part in the established order. Latour, by contrast, tends to present it as a pregiven and shared object of worry. This difference explains their radically different visions of politics. In Rancière the political event that constitutes the public is a rupture of the order. Latour, by contrast, presents dissent as constitutive of a new kind of phantom-like regular politics. Rancière's vantage-point is that of the excluded part, while Labour takes the perspective of the already, at least more or less, included, who only need to admit of their own weaknesses and insufficiences. Vantage-points are important. To theories too one should pose the question: cui bono?

Let me move to a theoretically more central point. Does Latour present a tenable, persuasive account of how publics work? To me, he vastly overestimates the role of disagreement. Whenever we see people assemble or gather together, it is usually on the basis of the existence of shared norms. To use his own example of the Althing, among Icelanders this shared basis was provided by custom; there was implicit agreement about where to go and how to deal with divisive issues, where to seek allies, how to present one's cause and what compensations were reasonable to claim for damages. Iceland, then, does not at all illustrate how the existence of a pressing divisive concern is enough to force people together. Would more contemporary examples - like the climate crisis - be more persuasive? Hardly. A climate summit too procedes along certain formal, agreed upon rules. Disagreement alone is not what constitutes the gathering.

Latour acknowledges that there are matters of global concern that inspire actions not based on shared rules - as when fundamentalists resort to violence out of resentment at the injustice of existing forms of representation (p25). But here the question arises: why does the Ding sometimes bring us together to fight and sometimes to talk? Why do some people talk, rather than resort to violence? Surely, there are many more factors than mere disagreement that play in here and that make people constitute publics.

A final point of disagreement with Latour concerns the role of norms needed to create egalitarian forms of interaction. In classical conceptions of the public - e.g. in Habermas or Arendt - publics are arenas where people are able to interact on the basis of an "egalitarian semblance". In old Iceland, this semblance was vouchsafed by custom and by the fact that it was already a relatively egalitarian society, lacking both king and state, in which the "thingmen" were independent, wealthy peasants. In today’s more stratified societies, the semblance of equality is instead created by a systematic bracketing of real inequalities in status, wealth and power. People are expected to behave "as if" equal when engaging in public discussions, regardless of actual inequality. Latour says nothing about how his phantom publics would deal with inequality. To the extent that these too depend on an egalitarian semblance, I would argue that they too need to rely on shared norms for bracketing - and, if so, they cannot be constituted solely by disagreement. There has to be some normative common ground.

Of course, it's quite possible to conceive of publics without egalitarianism. Nancy Fraser, for instance, argues that "subaltern counter-publics" shouldn't opt for maintaining the semblance of equality, which in fact conceals real exclusions and hierarchies, but for a strategy of "unbracketing". Only in the disruptive effect such "unbracketing" has on the mainstream public sphere - effect similar to those of "politics" in Rancière's sense - do real chances appear for the empowerment of excluded groups. Latour's slogan about the disabled persons of the world and his argument that we all ought to be more open with the weaknesses, attachments and passions that we for so long have hidden away as ”private” suggests that he too conceives of the public as something that ought to dispense with bracketing. Formally, in terms of a typology of publics, he would belong with Fraser and Rancière. Unlike them, however, he does not conceive of unbracketing as provocative or aggressive. To him, unbracketing is not needed to challenge social injustice, but in order to direct attention to our own weaknesses. He never touches on the issue of injustice, the very reason why Fraser and Rancière focus on unbracketing. So how would a Latour-inspired public deal with injustice? How would aggressive forms of unbracketing that challenge the privilege of the included be viewed and managed in such a public? Can such calls be managed by an ethics of mutually respecting our disabilities? Or by letting them pass through us as a  "rather mysterious flow, just like a phantom”? What appears to me to be left out - or am I misreading him? - is the question of how people not only react to an issue, to a "thing", but take it upon themselves to make it an issue, into a "thing" which the general public can no longer afford to ignore. This act of creating the divisive issue seems to be the core of politics.

Friday, 4 November 2011


My thoughts go to Greece. No referendum, the politicians say. Only stability, stability, stability. Seldom has it been so clear what suffering stability means

Nazim Hikmet's beautiful poem from 1930 - quoted at the beginning of a 2008 proclamation from the uprising in Greece.

If I do not burn
If you do not burn
If we do not burn
How will darkness come to light?
(Nazim Hikmet, “Like Kerem”)

(Thanks to Kaz Sagrada for passing this on)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

What is the relation between the public sphere and public space?

Right now I'm trying to put together a theoretical piece for a presentation next week. It's going to be about the relation between the public sphere and public space.

Here's a brief summary of part of what I'm going to say.

Many have suggested that the relation between the two concepts is insufficiently researched. Here I would like to 1) suggest two reasons why this might be so, 2) propose a rather simple model that might clarify the relation, and 3) briefly discuss some conclusions that might be drawn. In particular, since some theorists seem to be suggesting that the idea of public space is more suited to a radical politics open to the excluded or disadvantaged than that of the public sphere, I will try to evaluate that claim and indicate in what ways it might hold true.

1. Why the confusion?

To begin with, the public sphere is not at all an un-spatial concept. Habermas cannot be accused of neglecting the physical places or mediums in which the public sphere has developed - private homes, for instance, or coffeehouses, salons, assemblies, street, theatres, or newspapers. What is true is that the public sphere is not necessarily linked to any particular place or medium. It is also true that the relation to space has become further blurred by so-called globalization (and the growth of "diasporic public spheres", "transnational public spheres", "global public sphere moments" etc). The indeterminate relation to space is, I suggest, one important reason for the confusion regarding the relation between the concepts of the public sphere and public space.

To at least begin to clarify the confusion, I will argue as follows. Although not necessarily linked to any particular physical space, the public sphere can surely be described as a social space - a particular kind of social space characterized by political deliberation about common affairs. Using a concept of space that is socially rather than physically defined should be fine. As I will show, concepts of public space are in fact also usually socially defined.

A second reason for confusion is that there are two kinds of theories of public space. Both use the term "public space" but they do so in opposite ways.

On the one hand, there are theorists of urban sociability like Erwin Goffman, Georg Simmel, Richard Sennett, Lynn Lofland, or Jane Jacobs. What they have in common is that they all link ”publicness” to concrete urban space. But there is no real link to the public sphere, to politics. What matters is that people are visible to each other, not that they talk or discuss. What they research is how strangers behave when they share a space where they are mutually visible to each other. What sustains "publicness" is the system of norms that regulates this interaction. Goffman's "civil inattention" is a well-known example of this norm-guided behavoir. Jane Jacob's Hudson Street "ballet" is another example. The formal etiquette between strangers which Sennett sees as so crucial to the publicness of the ancient régime is a third.

On the other hand, there are scholars like Jacques Rancière, Don Mitchell or Bruce d'Arcus, whose main interest is in "dissent public space" (this is d'Arcus' term). I've already discussed their idea of public space in a previous blog entry ("Public Space and Public Sphere: Notes on Reading Don Mitchell"). Common to them is that they see publicness as arising through acts that manifest or visibilize dissent. If the theorists of urban sociability see publicness are maintained by an intricate system of norms, the theorists of dissent see it as erupting when the norms are disrupted.

The former group of scholars associate public space with norms of bracketing - or systematically disregarding - differences in status among people. Where all are strangers, there is no high or low. We refrain for inquiring to deeply into the background of the strangers we meet. By doing so, we maintain the semblance that everyone is equal. The second group of scholars, by contrast, associate publicness with un-bracketing, with the "uncivil" taking or occupation of place where injustice is visibilized. Rather than bracketing marginalization, oppression or status differences, they are brought out into the open.

2. Contention and bracketing: a model

A solution requires that we start, not from the dichotomy of "sphere" and "space", but by investigating two dimensions of "publicness" which I believe are more fundamental.

As I argue in "Public Space in Recent Japanese Political Thought and Activism: From the Rivers and Lakes to Miyashita Park" (forthcoming in Japanese Studies 31:3, December 2011), two dimensions are constitutive of the public in classical theorists like Habermas and Arendt: verbal contestation and the bracketing of dependencies and inequalities in wealth and status. Typically, deliberations in the public sphere rest on the presence of both of these two dimensions. Deliberation can be seen as a form of communication in which contestation is moderated by the norms of bracketing, which are necessary in order to create a semblance of equality among the participants. Bracketing is thus ambivalent: it is thanks to bracketing that egalitarian arenas can be created, but it also prevents real inequalities in wealth, status and power from being openly thematized and challenged.

To summarise, the public is not only a realm of free and open communication or debate, but also an arena in which important parts of social life are systematically bracketed in order to create a semblance of equality among participants. This means that the public – against the commonsensical view – must be viewed not only as an arena of debate and communication. It is also constituted by a certain silence, a ‘bracketing’ that is needed to prevent it from dissolving back into the ‘real’ world.
Interestingly, challenges to the exclusivity of the mainstream public sphere have come from two directions, one emphasizing more thoroughgoing forms of bracketing (Karatani Kôjin's defence, in Transcritique, of bracketing as crucial to a Kantian public can be seen as one version of this) and another emphasizing more unrestrained forms of contestation (here a good example is Nancy Fraser's subaltern counterpublics and her advocacy of "unbracketing").

An important point here, which I feel it is necessary to stress in order to grasp the function of bracketing more fully, is that there are multiple public with alternative norms of bracketing. Bracketing thus openates also in the subaltern counterpublics. There's a sociological classic, The Hobo (by Nels Anderson), that provides a wonderful insight into the camps (or "jungles") of the homeless people in early 20th century America. Just as the Simmelian salons or Habermasian coffeehouses, these were egalitarian and "democratic" arenas. People exchanged information and told stories over the fire. But they never inquired too deeply into a person's name or previous life. Just as in the salons and coffee houses, they bracketed each other's background.

Let us now try relating the various theories of public space and public sphere to these two dimension.

The "classical" theories of the "public sphere" (or "public realm") are found in the upper right quadrant, i.e. they are theories that stress both bracketing and contention. Grasped from its spatial aspect, we might call it "space for deliberation".

We can also observe that the most influential theories stressing "public space" fall into two distinct groups, which have very little in common.

So we see: the classical theories are not radically divorced from the theories of public space. They share the stress on dimensions such as bracketing or contestation. Hence the first difficulty of separating and counterposing "public sphere" and "public space" in a clearcut fashion.

The second difficulty stems from the fact that theories of public space are not uniform. "Public space" is a catchword for very heterogeneous conceptions. These tend to fall into two camps, which are mutually more opposed to each other than either are to the theories of the "public sphere".

To summarize: the reason that the relation between public sphere and public space is so hard to clarify is that the public sphere arises in the convergence of bracketing and contestation, i.e. that it requires a mixture of both elements. Conceptions of public space arrange themselves in two compartments on either side of this.

3. Some consequences

Theories of public sphere have been criticized for being exclusive, hierarchical, and too restrictive. Some - most explicitly Don Mitchell - seem to propose "public space" as a more radical notion, more open to the excluded. What conclusions can we draw?

Well, public space theory exists in two forms which both "radicalize" certain aspects of the "public sphere". Some point to spaces that provide refuge from "real" social status, others to spaces for contesting and renegotiating the order.

At whichever of these two senses of public space one looks, one finds a political significance geared to those excluded from or disadvantaged in the politics of the public sphere. Are we then entitled to conclude that "public space" is more suited to be the focal point of a radical politics than the "public sphere"? The correct way to put it is surely that public space is not inherently radical in itself, but rather a crucial and irreducible element in all politics. What goes beyond the regular politics of the public sphere is not space in itself, but rather acts that use space to unbracket or visibilize inequalities or to construct arenas based on alternative forms of bracketing.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Strange times

Reuters has an article about debt cancellation, citing the idea of the jubilee. So now we have established economists and politicians warming up not only to the Tobin tax and alternative currency systems, but the jubilee as well! The motive, of course, is to "jumpstart the economy", or, in other words, to save capitalism. But, still, I think interesting opportunities are opening up here!

On debt cancellation:

On local exchange networks/alternative currencies:

Tobin tax:

By the way, I'm reading Graeber's Debt right now. Hope to be back with a report later.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Parrhesia: notes on the public sphere, power and death

Yesterday I reread Foucault's lectures on parrhesia (collected in Fearless Speech, a booklet published by semiotext(e) which is also available  here under the name "Discourse and Truth"). Rereading them I was struck by the penetrating light they throw on issues such as free speech, public speech and the public sphere in today's world.

Parrhesia means to tell the truth, or literally "to say everything". In particular, it means speaking truth in the face of power, even at the risk of your own life."Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth" (Foucault 2001:15f). Parrhesia usually comes from below and is directed to those above. In Hellenistic times the parrhesiastes, or truth-speaker, was  a person who spoke the truth to the sovereign. To be sure, the use of free speech in the agora of Athenian democracy was also referred to as parrhesia, but the imagery informing Foucault's discussion seems Hellenistic rather than Athenian. In any case, the Athenian agora was hardly a space where speeking was without risk. As Arendt states in In The Human Condition, it was a place where "courage and even boldness" was needed for public speech (Arendt 1958:186).

Speaking truth in the face of power – who can help thinking that this sounds so much like Foucault? Especially in its late, Hellenistic version, the parrhesiast is also someone who appears fundamentally alone, left to his own devices in the confines of the sovereign's court and without help from any well-intentioned public sphere prepared to listen to reason.

Using parrhesia as a model for public speech may sound outrageous. Aren't we all today - at least in so-called democracies - free to speak of whatever we like without having to fear reprisals? However, the attitude of speaking truth even when you risk your own life is not so divorced from our understanding of the public and of public speech as we might think at first. One implication of reading parrhesia as a model of public speech is that making something public would be tantamount to declaring: "I know that speaking here might get me killed. Therefore, I speak only because I have already put myself in the position of someone who is dead. I am dead to my status and to the norms and obligations that define my place in society and bind me to it. I therefore speak as a person who has left society, as an outsider, or as a ghost".

The public, I would suggest, arises when we speak from the vantage-point of the dead. We might even go a step further and risk a definition of the place or standpoint from which public speech becomes possible. This space is a liminal space or no-man's-land. We might also call it a sacred space, because sacrality has usually been considered a property of spaces where the voices of the dead can be heard. With Amino Yoshihiko we can say that it is characterized by muen since it is a place in which we must behave as if our relations with the secular world had been severed.

Foucault's parrhesiast par excellence is Socrates. Apart from him, perhaps the court jester is the most famous figure of the parrhesiast in western tradition. In Japan, a similar role was played by children, whose “truths” according to Amino were tolerated since they were considered apart from humanity, sacred or, in a sense, dead. Foucault is quite right in seeing parrhesia as an important line in the genealogy of criticism. In Christianity it is picked up not only in the form of confessions, but also in the idolization of martyrdom. In the self-immolation practices that have become an established protest method all over the world truth is again linked to death or the readiness to die.

Parrhesia? (H. C. Andersen, The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration by A. Rackham)

Just as truth is linked to death, it is also linked to ghosts. In literature, the fear of ghosts often seems to be linked to their ability of speaking the truth. Take the example of the ghosts visiting Richard III in Shakespeare's play: he fears them because they are the only ones who know the truth and can speak it.

In the Japanese Nô dramas, the standard pattern revolves around ghosts who tell the truth and by doing so finally become able to achieve liberation. Typically, a wanderer (the waki) encounters a strange person (the shite) who starts to tell a story about a tragic event ending in death. The shite then changes shape, becoming a terrifying demon who declares himself to be the story's tragic protagonist, now a ghost who is unable to leave earthy existence because of his lingering passions and desire for revenge. The film Seppuku (directed by Kobayashi Masaki, 1962) follows a basically similar pattern. The first half corresponds to the part of the Nô drama in which the background is recapitulated by the shite (here the hero played by Nakadai Tatsuya), who hasn't yet revealed his true nature. Then the crucial unmasking takes place and he transforms himself symbolically into the "ghost" of Motobe who confronts the assembled retainers with the truth, achieving a spectacular and bloody vengeance before finally succumbing to a "second" and final death. The film, by the way, is a masterpiece. The music is wonderful, composed for the biwa (or Japanese lute) by Takemitsu Tôru.

Nakadai Tatsuya in Seppuku (dir. Kobayashi Masaki 1962)
Perhaps it's not so strange that the early medieval "publics" in Japanese history were also places linked to death. The ikki (egalitarian leagues formed for military purposes) were formed by drinking "divine water" symbolizing the cutting of ties to the secular world. The rengakai (poetry gatherings), which were well-known for their egalitarian character, originated in poetry meetings held below blossoming cherry trees (hana no moto renga). Presided over by itinerant priests, these meetings would be attended by commoners as well as warriors or even retired emperors, all hiding or "bracketing" their secular identity behind straw hats or veils. These places, as the historian Matsuoka Shinpei points out, had the quality of muen. Cherry trees were thought to be passage-ways between the living and the dead, or even points of entry to the land of the dead which was thought to be located beneath them. Flower-viewing parties as well as these poetry gatherings in turn went back to the even older tradition of “Yasuraihana”, a celebration involving dancing and playing music that was a call for the flowers to stop falling and at the same time a pacification of dead souls that could bring disease.

To return to public speech, it goes without saying that holding up parrhesia as a model of public speech carries with it the risk of idealization. Foucault points out that, early on in Greek thought, doubts appeared concerning the negative aspects of parrhesia - is everybody entitled to use it, or should it be limited to people of a certain quality or education; and how about the possibility of parrhesiasts being mistaken about the truth (Foucault 2001:72)? Furthermore, parrhesia also poses the problem, from the parrhesiast's own point of view, of its limited efficacy. No matter how much the parrhesiast might hope that "dying" to the material circumstances that tie him or her down to a particular place in society will enable the voice to travel freely and reach the ears of everybody, in real life that voice may well be smothered. Nothing says that people will listen even if the parrhesiast forfeits his or her life. If you want a public, it’s not enough with courage and free speech. There must be people who can hear you, and who are willing to listen. And you must be willing to listen to them.

Using Habermas' expression, we could say that there can be no public speech without a public sphere. Still, Foucault does elucidate a fundamental dimension of that public sphere, namely the operation of bracketing. To participate in the public sphere you need to bracket your everyday dependencies, power-relations and status in real life. This is an aspect stressed by many of the theorists of the public sphere or public realm. Habermas points out how important it was for the formation of the early bourgeois public sphere that discussions could be conducted in the coffeehouses and salons without regard for rank or status. Arendt too stresses that bracketing, or "play-acting" is necessary in public in order to create arenas where all participants can participate as peers of equals. Speaking about the Greek isonomy (equality), she writes:
Isonomy guaranteed... equality, but not because all men were born or created equal, but, on the contrary, because men were by nature... not equal, and needed an artificial institution, the polis, which... would make them equal. Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons. (Arendt 1977:21)
Bracketing is of course only a temporary operation. Once deliberation is over, the game of tolerance will end. What Foucault adds to the discussion of bracketing is again related to death and risk-taking: remember that when you leave the agora, you are back in the web of dependencies again, and then you might have to run for your life!  
For unlike isonomia (the equality of all citizens in front of the law) and isegoria (the legal right given to everyone to speak his or her own opinion), parrhesia was not clearly defined in institutional terms. There was no law, for example, protecting the parrhesiastes from potential retaliation or punishment for what he or she said. (Foucault 2001:72)
A striking image of the risks awaiting the parrhesiast once he or she has stopped speaking might be found in Zhang Yimou's film Hero (2002). This is a film that revolves around the dialogue between the emperor Shi Huang-di and the would-be assasin in which truth is finally disclosed. This dialogue, which takes place in the dark and totally empty courtroom of the emperor, can be seen as a compressed public sphere à deux in which deliberation drives the narrative forwards towards a gradual revelation of truth. Like all public spheres, it has the semblance of peace. Speech rather than violence becomes the centre of action, a fact epitomized by the assasin's decision not to kill the emperor. As he finally leaves the courtroom and descends the gigantic stairs down to the palace gate, he is outside the sacred circle of speech and ready to be sacrificed. The film ends with his death as he is nailed to the closed palace gate by a rain of arrows. What was bracketed is un-bracketed.

Public sphere (Hero, dir. Zhang Yimou, 2002)
That unbracketing must take place once speech is over has, of course, not been ignored in liberal political thought. Already Kant made the distinction between public speech, where one was free to make public use of one's reason, and activities in mundane life outside the public, where one had to "obey". What was needed to protect the speaker and facilitate the use of public speech was thus, firstly, the establishment of a "civil" public culture in which words would not be met by violence, and, secondly, to find institutional mechanisms for counteracting the unequal distribution of power (through checks and balances, procedures for anonymous voting, and so on). Already Athenian democracy came up with ways to prevent the centralization of power, such as lottery and anonymous voting (ostracism), that protected citizens from the danger of having to expose themselves publicly.

What distinguishes Foucault from liberal political thinking is his reluctance to rely on either on the presumed civility of modern publics or on institutionalized mechanisms for counteracting power. Like the parrhesiast, he clings to the "truth" carried forward by the word, by public criticism, even as he sees through the power relations operating through the public. His stance is therefore characterized by a very curious ambivalence in regard to public speech, which is on the one hand the carrier of explosive "truths", but on the other hand lacks the medium that would be required for these truths to be transmitted properly, namely a well-functioning public sphere. Lacking a medium in which truth can survive in disembodied form, it must take refuge in the body of the person who knows the truth. Parrhesia remains relevant to us today, because - as Foucault points out - that truth insists on being spoken, even at the cost of putting the body at risk. A paradoxical result of truth's embodiment is that the (potentially) dead body also becomes the logical position from which truth must be uttered.

Of course, I am not claiming that Foucault is trying to apply the idea of parrhesia directly to today's situation. What he claims is merely that it forms an important part of the roots of the "critical" tradition in Western philosophy - a tradition to which Foucault can surely be counted:

And I would say that the problematization of truth which characterizes both the end of Presocratic philosophy and the beginning of the kind of philosophy which is still ours today, this problematization of truth has two sides, two major aspects. One side is concerned with insuring that the process of reasoning is correct in determining whether a statement is true (or concern itself with our ability to gain access to the truth). And the other side is concerned with the question: what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognize them. With that side which is concerned with determining how to insure that a statement is true we have the roots of the great tradition in Western philosophy which I would like to call the "analytics of truth". And on the other side, concerned with the question of the importance of telling the truth, knowing who is able to tell the truth, and knowing why we should tell the truth, we have the roots of what we could call the "critical" tradition in the West. And here you will recognize one of my targets in this seminar, namely, to construct a genealogy of the critical attitude in the Western philosophy.
In addition, nothing stops us from trying to recognize parrhesia as a theme of continued centrality even in today's world. The best and most liberating kind of protest often has the quality of parrhesia. We find it in the gays or lesbians who decide to come out in public. We find it in social movements, especially in their early stages when people decide that they must speak up. We find it in writers and intellectuals too, at least in those who are ready to face unemployment and risk their social standing. We find it in Mrs Poyser, when she finally decides she's had enough and, after years of humiliation, erupts in protest and gives her landlord a piece of her mind (see the lovely description in Scott 1990:6ff). The public of such courageous, decent people is also a liminal space, a space in which they have no longer anything on which to rely but themselves.

Walter Benjamin describes how, in moments of revolutionary upheaval, the dead will come to join the struggle. No wonder, once you stop trying to survive, you can speak freely. Your companions are now the dead, the comrades of the past who have returned to join you again to help you build a better future.


Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah (1973) On Revolution, London: Faber and faber.

Foucault, Michel (2001) Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson, Los Angeles: semiotext(e).

Matsuoka, Shinpei (2004) Utage no shintai – Basara kara Zeami e (The Body of the Banquet: From Basara to Zeami), Iwanami shoten.

Scott, James (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

James Scott and the anarchist history of Zomia

Like James Scott's other books, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009) is interesting and has a simple message that sticks in the reader's memory. It will certainly stick in mine for a long time. Many hills and mountainous regions in South-East Asia were first populated by refugees. These mountains functioned as a no-man's-land, as a refuge for people fleeing the state. The so-called "tribes" inhabiting these hills and mountains have often been portrayed - especially by the agricultural "paddy kingdoms" from which they escaped - as barbarians or backward populations stuck at a primitive stage of social development. But as Scott points out, the hill peoples were not backward or primitive at all. They knew only too well what civilization amounted too: taxes, forced labor and conscription. They knew civilization and had freely chosen to escape it.

Since the book is well summarized by Scott’s own abstract for a conference paper, I’ll start by quoting that:

The hill peoples of mainland Southeast Asia have been viewed, until recently, by scholars and valley peoples, a ‘backward population’ that has failed to make the transition to settled, wet-rice cultivation and incorporation into state structures. This paper, instead, treats the hill-dwellers as essentially a maroon, runaway, state-fleeing population which has, over the past two millennia, peopled the hills. Moving away, especially from Han expansion, into this ‘zone of refuge’, hill people are best conceived of as a “state-effect”. Their social structure, agricultural practices, and cultural values make most sense in this light. The concept of “escape agriculture” is introduced to explain how swiddening and foraging are practiced, in large part, because they are resistant to appropriation, unlike irrigated, wet-rice cultivation which is tailor-made for appropriation. The concept of “escape social structure” is introduced to account for practices of dispersion, fission, and acephaly designed to evade capture by slave-raiding and incorporation into state structures. The history of conscription, warfare, epidemics, crop-failure, taxes and corvée in the valley states is examined to show how they may account for patterns of demographic flight from lowland state cores. Much of the distinctiveness of the “hills” as an agro-ecological and cultural zone, I argue, stems from the fact that the hills have been populated by those who have voluntarily fled or have been driven out of the alluvial valleys. (Abstract to the paper “Zomia as a ‘State-Repelling Space’”, to the conference ”’Zomia’ as a Framework for Conceiving Scholarship on Upland Mainland Southeast Asia”).
The word "Zomia" used by Scott refers to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and lower ranges that run from the Central Highlands of Vietnam through most of Laos, southwest China, northern Thailand, northern Burma, and into Northeastern India. It was originally coined by van Schendel and is derived from “zo” which means “hill” in some dialects along the Burma-India/Bangladesh border (Scott 2009:14).

Scott's portrayal of hills and mountains is that it can be linked to ideas I've been interested in myself, such as those of no-man's-land or the common. The people depicted in his book flee to spaces that are still free to use - leftover spaces that offer refuge and access to subsistence resources. Scott calls them “non-state spaces” – “locations where, owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority” (Scott 2009:13). Such spaces were always the subject of derison from people adopting the point of view of the "civilizations" of the plain. In Vietnam, people without a fixed abode or ancestral place were stigmatized as “people of the four corners of the world”, while the Chinese described the Lahu of Yunnan as “people of the mountains, forests and streams” (ibid. 102f). The colonial and early postcolonial regimes, like the classical states, considered these areas
terra nullius or inutile
, in the sense that they did not even repay the costs of administration in terms of grain or revenue (ibid. 340 n16). Not surprisingly, civilizational discourses of all kinds - such as the Chinese distinction of "raw" and "cooked", or the Western idea of civilizational progress - come in for grinding attacks by Scott. Such views, Scott emphasizes, disregard that statelessness can be a deliberate choice.

For this choice to be possible, however, open and equal access to subsistence resources was crucial. “Common-property land tenure and an open frontier are… the material conditions that underwrite egalitarianism" (ibid. 279). Such access made possible the foraging and swiddening which Scott calls "two major state-repelling subsistence routines". The rice paddy, by contrast, is ideal for the ruler: not only is rice the crop that feeds the greatest population per area unit, but it also ties the peasantry to the place, it imposes a regular, collective rhythm on life, and it can easily be confiscated or burned or destroyed as retaliation. By contrast, in the hills sweet potatoes or cassava could be grown individually, without need of cooperation, according to the needs of the family, almost anytime during the year. It could be grown by swiddening farmers in the hills, out of reach of the eyes of officials, and being below ground, it could not be easily harmed (ibid. 207). The Irish, Scott remarks, chose to cultivate the potato not only because it provided many calories but also because it could not be confiscated or burned (ibid. 196).

Among the conditions that facilitated escape were also "a large open frontier" with access to open stateless spaces, mobility, peripheral location, a flexible social structure that could change size and institutions, availability of crops that could be used in the mountains, and knowledge of foraging, hunting, swiddening or pastoral nomadism.
Being surrounded by plentiful "stateless space" and lacking the capability to check people's freedom of movement, it is no wonder that ancient states were desperate for means to keep or increase their populations. This certainly puts the famous Chinese philosophical texts in perspective. I'm thinking of when Mencius says that if rulers are benevolent and virtuous, people will flock to them out of their own accord, from all directions, as water flows downwards.

There is a way to win the people; win their hearts and you will win the people. There is a way to win their hearts; amass what they want for them; do not impose what they dislike on them. That is all. The people turn to the benevolent as water flows downwards or as animals head for the wilds. Thus the otter drives fish to the deep; thus the hawk drives birds to the bushes... (Mencius, tr. D. C. Lau, Penguin, 2004:81)
Even while reading Mencius, I remember I was vaguely reflecting on the social background of such statements. Clearly, this must have been a period when the population in general was much more "nomadic" and less settled than it would later become, much more ready to move if it didn't please it to stay. Their freedom to move gave them leverage. What Mencius was saying was basically that rulers had to be benevolent because otherwise their subjects would escape, to the mountains or elsewhere.

States didn't just rely on virtue, however, to prevent population loss. They also systematically tried to block escape routes. Echoing an old suggestion made by Owen Lattimore (which is today supported by scholars such as Christopher Beckwith), Scott argues that the Great Wall was as much for keeping the population inside as to keep barbarians out (ibid. 110). The state also tried to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands or - as in the case of the Legalists - to systematically starve the population into grain or paddy rice farming by separating them from the open commons (ibid 72). As the wars of the Burmese and Siamese kings show, states went to war to capture populations and force them to relocate in the paddy deltas.

Gradually the agricultural kingdoms and empires grew in size and power, pushing back the frontiers of the "stateless" areas. Scott's book contains much historical material illustrating this process. Chinas' southward expansion, for instance, was accompanied by brutal military campaigns of expulsion and extermination that created wave after wave of refugees of various origin, often lumpted together under the name "Miao". Scott points out that this term was applied indiscriminately to almost any acephalous people on the frontier and that "miao" hence lacked any specific ethnic identity over time (ibid. 140). Generally, Scott adopts a radical constructivist view of ethnicity in his work, pointing out that ethnicity and tribes are state-effects rather than natural givens. “Ethnicity and
‘tribe’ begin exactly where taxes and sovereignty end” (ibid. 114f).

Rather than being primitive and unaquainted with civilization, many of the hill peoples that populate today's Zomia are people who actively fled civilization. Many are descendants from refugees escaping civil wars and strife in China such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) or the Panthay Rebellion in Guizhou and Yunnan (1854-73). For instance, many Chinese entering northern Siam in the late nineteenth century were remnants of the Taiping forces. Even as late as in the 20th century, defeated Kuomintang troops ettled in what is today known as the Golden Triangle, where they came to control much of the opium trade together with their hill allies. In 1958, under pressure from Chinese party cadres and soldiers, fully one third of the Wa population crossed the border from the People’s Republic into Burma seeking refuge (ibid. 154).

What is the situation for non-state spaces today? Private property and the modern national state have eradicated them. Sovereignty now reaches all the way to the border of the next state, the hills are increasingly incorporated into the state-space for the extraction of various resources and cultural assimilation is encouraged. Demographic factors are making valley people migrate into the hills, engulfing them and bringing with them their state (ibid. 11f).

Certainly, one might fantasize about new zones where state control is weak. Criminal networks, black economies, moments of chaos, situations when the apparatus of control is overburdened and breaks down, as during the recent urban unrest in Britain. We might even try to imagine ways to increase our subsistence knowhow in order to become less dependent on the regular labor market or our employers. I cannot help recalling here a book I read a year ago, Boku wa ryôshi ni natta (I became a hunter, 2008). It's written by Senmatsu Shin'ya, a former student activist in Kyoto who kept fowl and pigs on the university campus and who is now a hunter, using traditional methods to catch deer and wildboar in the mountains. Although he claims to have dropped out of political activism, in the light of Scott's book his life-style is political indeed!

If I should voice one objection to Scott's book, it would be that it is not entirely clear what the "state", "government" or "sovereignty" is that the hill people escape. States are not only integrated by taxes and forced labour, but also symbolically. If I look at Japanese history, for instance, there are many "hill peoples" that have been regarded as primitives or outcasts and who also in other respects appear comparable to the ones described by Scott. But as Amino Yoshihiko and others have pointed out, many of these peoples have played important roles in symbolically underpinning imperial power through their association with the religious or sacred power of the hills - for instance through being employed as religious specialists on ritual occasions or through special offerings to the court in exchange for which they would be offered imperial protection. This mechanism is connected to a fact which Scott does discuss at length - namely the fact that the hills were also the abode of holy men and women, prophets and hermits. What I want to suggest is that the exchanges between the hills and the imperial centre often made the hill populations part of the symbolic edifice of the state, and this, it seems, was also a role that many of these people relished. While I realize that it is unfair to use Japan as a case to criticize a work on South-east Asia, a question I would like to pose to Scott is whether he sees any similar symbolic mechanisms of incorporation in the societies he studies. If he does, does the "art of not being governed" also extend to how such mechanisms can be evaded?

Scott's book is rare in trying to look at history from a non-state perspective, taking the side of the "primitives"", "mountain peoples" or "nomads" who have always been looked down on by the "civilized", settled peoples of the plain, the empires and the paddy-kingdoms. In seeing through the self-conceit of civilization, it belongs with other refreshing books, such as Marshall Sahlin's Stone-age Economics, Pierre Clastres' Society against the State, the books of Amino Yoshihiko or the essays of Bruce Chatwin.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Conflagration in Britain

When I saw the first reports from the unrest in Tottenham, my first thought was that it followed the classical pattern of urban disorder in Britain and France in recent decates, with an act of police brutality triggering the conflagration. A difference to what happened in France 2005 was that this time no-one tried to describe the unrest as an immigrant riot or race riot. It seemed like a riot by all the young people, regardless of race, who had ended up socially excluded and with no future. Was there hope in this, I wondered - hope that race and religion would be forgotten and common experiences of exclusion would unite people? But another difference, less hope-inspiring, was the sheer scale of the violence in London, and the fact that people trying to stop fires or protect their shops were among the victims. By contrast, the riots in the banlieus had seemed comparatively controlled, rational or even ritualized, the violence being directed against the police or against cars, but not really against any other unrelated people.  

As I've written before about the riots in France, the causes of urban unrest are seldom exhaused by economic grivances. Economic marginality is certainly an important background factor. But to say that economic betterment is all the rioters want seems unconvincing. In episodes of unrest, the paramount desires seem to be those of freedom and respect. To pay back against humiliation, to restore "justice" and to revel in new-found freedom almost always seems like more important concerns to rioters than economic deprivation per se.

Some commentators have argued that the brutal cuts and austerity measures of the present Cameron government cannot have caused the riots since they haven't really started to have effect yet. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the measures were an important factor anyway, not for economical reasons, but as a final insult and proof of the establishment's arrogance and contempt for the lower classes.

That pur joy and revellation in freedom is an important factor in rioting is apparent from the following gleanings from various texts on the riots.
It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about. Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. (Laurie Penny, "Panic on the Streets of London", Open Democracy, 9 August 2011)
At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere. [...] It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. (Will Wiles, "Riot Thoughts")
Everyone was on a riot, just goin’ mad like, chuckin’ fings, chuckin’ bottles. . .it was good tho’. . .it was good fun . . . ‘course it is! [...] Yeah. . .it’s the governments fault . . . conservatives whatever, whoever it is, I dunno’. We’re showin’ the police we can do what we want. That’s what it’s all about (interview with riot girls, BBC)
The second quote above continues with a statement on how frightened the author feels about the breakdown of  rule of law, since that is a rule he benefits from. The interview with the "riot girls" seems to have been the object of much derison on the net, but aren't what they are doing simply that they are celebrating freedom in all its ugliness and beauty? Against the tendency to idealize freedom and turn it into a harmless slogan, these quotes are, I think, a good a reminder of how explosive this ideal really is. Whenever freedom is realized, it tends to frighten people or scandalize them.

Let me return to the comparison between the unrest in Britain with the 2005 riots in France. Sophie Body-Gendrot has written a lucid analysis about it. She expresses one of the similarities in a laconic sentence: "What is striking is that these youths ask for nothing." This is indeed a striking, important fact. It's true that they don't ask for anything, they act. What's happening is that they take the opportunity of freedom as it offers itself, trying to expand it and keep it alive. They know that no one is ever going to help them with that. They can't ask anyone, since no-one can do it except they themselves.

Pointing out that the desire for freedom, or joy in freedom, can be an important factor behind riots is not to defend them. I too would have felt frightened by looting and arson. As a researcher, however, I think it is undeniable that much rioting is simply impossible to understand without taking this desire - along with the desire for respect - into account. That said, I also admit that I do have a weakness for this desire, that I find comfort in how strong and pervasive it has proven to be (even though I do not approve of all the manners in which it has been realized), and that I do wish that all downtrodden souls will have the opportunity at least once in a lifetime to feel the joy of freedom. It goes without saying that no one else should come to harm and that the freedom must be shared with others.

To return to Body-Gendrot, she also mentions a few differences between the urban unrest of Britain and Frace. Apart from the fact that racial conflict seems to play so little role in the British unrest, she also discusses the different configuration of Paris and London - affluent Paris being like a "medieval fortress" with outbreaks taking place at the margins while the boundaries of London neighbourhoods are more porous - and the differences in public reaction to the riots in Britain and France which reflect differences in political culture. The only thing I wonder about in her discussion is the seeming discrepancy between the early part of her paper that stresses how much rioters usually have in common with other residents in their neighborhoods (whim whom they share the same "reservoir of grievances" regarding police harassment, poor housing and lack of jobs), and the middle part that mentions their "detachment from their communities that allowed actions without remorse".

End of blogging for today. A privilige of writing a blog is that you can indulge in impressions and on-the-spur comments, without having to be systematic or reaching conclusions. Writing a blog can be very dreamlike, but such dreamlikeness is also true of reality itself.

A friend found this Google map linked to by the Guardian. A snapshot of the situation in London on Monday night August 8. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Hangenpatsu, Kimigayo and idyllic talk in Tokyo

A few days ago, I went to Osaka to take part in the demonstration against nuclear power ("Natsu Datsu-Gen-Patsu sound-demo").

One thing that surprised me was the participation of young people in black robes who looked like Buddhist priests. First I thought: no way they can be real priests. After all, they had fancy-looking straw hats - except of one of them, a muscular sunburned fellow with a Hanshin Tigers towel tied around his head. Some had sneakers instead of the customary zôri sandals. I complimented them for their nice outfit and asked why they had dressed up like that. "It's because we are priests", they answered. It turned out that they belonged to the Ôtani-ha of Jôdo Shinshû (True Pure Land Buddhism).

As the demonstration started, the air was rattled by the hard sound of a bongo drum and the priests picked up their black and white flags (nobori). With the text "We take our refuge in Amitabha Buddha" (Namu Amida Butsu), they nicely and incongruously complemented the "Hasta la victoria siempre" of the Che banner further ahead. Many participants were carrying sunflowers, the new symbol of the anti-nuclear power movement. The priests had placards on their backs with images of the Buddha and texts in the Osaka dialect like "Watashira mo iikagen okoru de" (We're angry too).

"We too are angry" (picture borrowed from the blog Raita M no nikki)
Perhaps it's only one of my own private idiosyncrasies, but in so-called "sound demos" I always enjoy the live music - drums, saxophones, or any instrument really - best and try to walk as close to it as possible. The priests had brought various things from their temples which they used as instruments. One of them made a sharp penetrating sound with a metal bell in the shape of a bowl (o-rin) and another had what looked like a small mokugyo (a wooden instrument in the shape of a fish).

As we approached Namba, near the end of the demonstration, I got my second surprise when the DJ started to play Kimigayo, the controversial national anthem. As far as I could see, nobody protested. Maybe it was only in my imagination, but the entire demonstration seemed to grow quiet, as if in deference. It felt a bit like a sports event. Although I had felt stupid when I asked the priests why they were dressed like priests, I think I felt even more stupid walking along with the demonstration to the solemn tunes of the anthem and wondering why I was participating in this spectacle.

I later found a participant report ("Afugan Iraku Kitachôsen to Nihon") that mentions that the anthem was accompanied by a change of slogans, something which I hadn't noticed from where I was walking. The new slogans included "We are neither right nor left, just ordinary citizens", "Please, participate in the demonstration regardless of whether you are right or left" and "Let us sing Kimigayo in a normal way, without being coerced". As the blog author points out, the intention behind the arrangers is easy to sympathize with. Surely, the entire citizenry are victims when a nuclear accident occurs.

However, if the intention was that everybody should be able to participate regardless of ideological conviction, then why on earth play the Kimigayo at all?

What I think needs to be said clearly is that the idea that a national anthem is "neutral" and stands above politics is a delusion. My intention is not to single out the Kimigayo in particular, despite its controversial status. The same can be said about any anthem. If I had participated in a demonstration in Sweden, and the organizers had suddenly decided to play the Swedish anthem, I for one would certainly have refused to walk along. Playing a national anthem is divisive - just as divisive as playing an overtly "leftist" or "rightist" song - for the reason that nationalism is itself an ideology, propagated for political reasons by political actors in all modern states.

My intention today is not to criticize nationalism - although that is an ideology I detest. What I want to point out is simply that the idea of trying to use nationalist symbols to reach out beyond ideological barriers is unworkable.

Not only does it seem insensitive towards the Korean or Taiwanese participants in the demonstration. Doesn't it also seem like an almost intentional affront against those on the left who have long fought against the ordinances forcing teachers to stand in fron of the Hinomaru-flag and sing the Kimigayo in school? Such an ordinance was in fact passed by the Osaka Prefectural Assembly on June 3, less than two months ago.

Maybe it's time for a brief digression into the history of ideas here. As I said, my intention is not to single out Kimigayo as worse than any other anthem. Looking specifically at the Japanese context, however, it's possible to trace back the idea of Kimigayo's "neutrality" to the distinction between the kokutai (national body) and seitai (political body), with the former standing for the nation organically united under the emperor while the latter stood for the institutions of politics, such as parties, assemblies or govenments (I recommend this piece by John Brownlee for a brief history of the idea of kokutai from the Meiji era onwards). Using this ideology, it became perfectly logical for nationalist zealots in prewar Japan to assassinate prime ministers and other politicians in the name of the emperor, hoping to "dispel the clouds" that had hidden the imperial sun.

The ideology was also expressed in the official prewar doctrine that Shintô was not a religion - a doctrine that sounds like a funny curiosity today but which had real political import, since it meant that citizens and colonized subjects could be forced to participate in emperor worship without violating the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Meiji constitution. Although so-called "State Shintô" was abolished after the war (and Shintô is today officially regarded as religion), I don't think it is farfetched to claim that the ideas behind it still live on in the widespread "common sense" that nationalism is not a political ideology. It is on the basis of this "common sense" that teachers are today forced to resign if they refuse to sing the Kimigayo or stand in front of the Hinomaru flag. An obvious continuity exists behind such events today and the famous incident in 1891 when the Christian Uchimura Kanzô was fired as a teacher after refusing to bow to the portrait of emperor Meiji and the Imperial Rescript on Educaction.

Korean schoolchildren worshipping at a Shinto shrine. Freedom of religion?
The effect of portraying things like anthems or flags as "non-political" or "non-ideological" is to marginalize dissent and rob it of legitimacy. After all, if these act of standing, singing or bowing are essentially non-political acts, how could they possibly go against the political or religious convictions of anybody who's in his right mind? And if they do, surely those oddballs must be somehow so "different" from to rest of us reasonable, mainstream citizens that we don't need to pay much attention to them?

But let me end by shifting subject. The last three days we've spent in Tokyo, and, oh how idyllic it has been. My heart goes out to everyone we've met there. Some day, perhaps, I'll write more about the places we visited - Asakusa, Kanda, the countryside in Saitama, and peaceful Enoaru Café, the best café in Tokyo.
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