A place with no present

7 November 2012
Only in en
Wespennest fathoms Europe’s Mare nostrum; New Humanist takes the bigger picture on blasphemy; Kulturos barai talks to Norman Lillegard about the vices of others; Merkur can’t see Germany in the role of European hegemon; Mittelweg 36 reads Monopoly as cultural script; La Revue nouvelle says no thanks to think-tanks; New Literary Observer charts gender politics in twentieth-century Russia; NZ asks what happened to Russia’s liberalization; and Esprit takes a recce of urban public space.


Entitled “Mare nostrum?”, the new issue of Wespennest (Austria) approaches the Mediterranean from various angles, aiming to look beyond its many myths and projections: “The authors are just as concerned at looking closely at the Mediterranean as a hybrid and contradictory space as they are committed to the project of a cultural community of Mediterranean countries, one built not on power politics but on solidarity”, writes Christine Lötscher.

Room without a view: The mythical Mediterranean of the tourist imagination masks a reality of debt, stagnation and social decline. Yet, writes Jurica Pavicic, the region colludes in its own downfall, trading in former glories while acquiescing to political and economic exploitation.

“A place with no present, marooned between past and future. A future postponed like a promise of progress never kept. And a place of the past – which the Mediterranean worships, celebrates and sedulously records, just as every society with an inglorious present us carefully cultivates its better past. That past is often the object of an unhealthy cult, partly because it’s a substitute for the present’s irrelevance and failure, and partly because it’s part of a commercial exchange. Today, the Mediterranean subsists by trading its former self on the market. It lives off its past because it has no present. And it has no present because it is all too dependent on its former self.”

After the revolutions: Europe’s view of the revolutions in the Arab world is bedevilled by archaic, post-colonial attitudes. If we cannot shed these and continue to think only of material gain, argues Franco Rizzi, we shall remain on the sidelines and watch the Arab awakening turn into a twilight of renewed discontent:

“From the earliest phases of its construction, Europe has regarded the Mediterranean with a mixture of voluntarism and a sense of guilt stemming from colonial and post-colonial policy. This, however, hasn’t stopped it thinking up interventionist policies for those countries on the southern side that would favour their development while remaining anchored in a colonial-style logic. At the same time, political discourse was gearing up along ideological lines that did not take account of the trauma these countries had suffered following imperialist European foreign policy and subsequent decolonization. As with other painful episodes in Europe’s past – the Holocaust for example – no one ventured to embark on undoing this tangle.”

Also: Slavenka Drakulic visits Venice turning Disneyland and finds “the tune of the future” in Bari and Lampedusa.

The full table of contents of Wespennest 163 (2012)


Controversy around the film “Innocence of Muslims” has prompted a return to a hard line on the question of blasphemy legislation from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In New Humanist (UK), Paul Sims reviews the debate in Britain, warning against the trap of censorship while encouraging criticism of the motives of offenders.

“Those of us who value freedom of speech must defend it consistently, and not just when the voices raised against it are Islamic. It is entirely possible to defend free speech while questioning the motives of those doing the offending. We can and should differentiate between legitimate art, such as The Satanic Verses, or serious historical enquiry, and crass provocations like ‘Innocence of Muslims’. We should not be shy to condemn statements or acts, if we believe they have been created with malicious intent. But we should not join in calls to ban them.”

Pakistan: Those calling for a global blasphemy law should heed the lessons from Pakistan, writes Beena Sarwar. The rising number of blasphemy charges in the country (Pakistan’s blasphemy laws derive from colonial-era legislation), particularly against minority and lower caste Christians, are the product of “the politics of envy and status” in which religious extremists “seek to stir up religious passion for their own ends”.

“In this febrile atmosphere, further inflamed by Muslim indignation about America’s drone policy on their borders, and the outrage generated by perceived slander coming from the West, feelings around blasphemy have been raised to a new fever pitch and politicians have been queuing up to prove their Islamic credentials.”

Rushdie: “When The Satanic Verses left its author’s desk it became not a means of making sense of the migrant experience but a weapon to be wielded by Islamists in their wars with each other, with secularists and with the West.” Reviewing Salman Rushdie’s memoire Joseph Anton, Kenan Malik misses the broader frame. The memoir “provides a blow-by-blow account of the meetings, the arguments, the feuds, the emotions,” he writes. “And yet that detail is rarely used to explore the bigger social, cultural, political and intellectual changes that the Rushdie affair has wrought, or at least symbolized.” (In his 2008 article “Shadow of the fatwa”, Malik summarized his own take on the Rushdie affair.)

The full table of contents of New Humanist 6/2012


Kulturos barai (Lithuania) continues its series of interviews with intellectuals who work against the grain, in this issue talking to the philosopher Norman Lillegard. The discussion starts with a consideration of whether Christianity can still teach us anything. Lillegard, while criticizing fashionable irreligiosity, is also well aware of obstacles standing between religious thought and the non-believer: “Part of the reason is that the religions don’t simply propose items to believe; rather they propose a re-evaluation of all values, a way of thinking about what is valuable that may seem like nonsense to secular minds.”

So can western philosophy fill religion’s place as an aid to those disillusioned by the values of unlimited consumption, continuous progress and failing economic dogmas? While the Socratic tradition of “wisdom and edification” has never died out – “today there are whole industries devoted to pondering, and sometimes recycling, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche” – “in Anglo-American contexts all of that is still a minority affair, even though many of these figures have more appeal to people outside professional philosophy than does analytical philosophy.”

But is on the subject of relativism and political correctness that Lillegard really gets going: “Intolerance, along with racism, sexism and homophobia, are the only vices that seem to matter, and, inconsistently of course, they are regarded as real – that is to say not relative – vices. And it seems that they are always vices that other people have. They are known to be vices by virtue of having been identified as such in contemporary currents of ‘thought’ in the dominant social ideologies. So there is a strong connection between conformism, plain thoughtlessness and currently fashionable relativisms.”

Memory politics: It would be very Christian to forgive those responsible for Lithuania’s various historical tragedies, writes Egle Wittig-Marcinkeviciute. But “the oldest moral foundations of western civilization” demand that, “we should not regard treason as something we can just forgive. We need to name things as they should be named.”

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 10/2012


In Merkur (Germany), Werner Link argues against those that see Germany on the way to becoming a European “hegemon” (see Christoph Schönberger’s article on “The unwilling hegemon”). The “anti-hegemonic ratio“, he argues, is anchored in the Nice and Lisbon treaties that rule the weight of votes, and in the monetary union, which is conceived as a counterweight to the US dollar:

“It’s important to bear in mind that, in political relations between the big European powers, the prerequisite for balance is not equality of power or power-political symmetry, but the complementariness of various power relations in various areas of politics. European integration is a pan-European project that cannot be reduced to a single area – not even the economic, no matter how important it may be.”

Secularization: The success of evangelical sects in Latin America, Asia and Russia, the rise of Catholicism in Africa, and the spread of political Islam, have all prompted talk of a “return of religion”. Yet that would only be possible if religion had disappeared to begin with, writes Jürgen Kaube, referring to the current discussion about circumcision in Germany:

“The circumcision debate is significant as an example of religious arguments in a secular society because it reveals the modern paradox of insisting on an individual decision on religion while denying this individualism, through concepts such as ‘cultural identity’ or ‘people’, to the individual itself, i.e. the child.”

Also: Steve Sem-Sandberg analyses the fragile relationship between fiction and Holocaust reality in his book The Emperor of Lies. (Sem-Sandberg has previously written about this in Eurozine: “Even nameless horrors must be named”.)

The full table of contents of Merkur 11/2012


The game of Monopoly as “cultural script” illustrates the defects of a wider understanding of the economy as market place in which property changes hands, argues Aaron Sahr in Mittelweg 36 (Germany): “The captains of industry and finance have long since ceased to think in static terms such as ‘profit’ and ‘loss’. Instead they care about cash flow. Incoming payments are invested and service loans that have covered previous expenses. In the rule they concern themselves with liquidity, or at times of crisis with solvency.”

A more realistic approach would see money creation as a “process of negotiation of provisional arrangements, in which private and state actors go into debt for indeterminate periods of time”. This wouldn’t be so much fun for Monopoly players – who would probably be tired out “before the first street was even sold” – but better for society as a whole: “It’s difficult to integrate cooperation in the confrontational setting of a game with winners and losers. That’s no different in societies. However they must acknowledge and understand the conditions of a credit-based monetary system.”

Occupy: The Occupy movement resembles nineteenth-century American populism in its anger at the avarice of bankers and financiers and its notions of majoritarian democracy. Where it differs from the old Populists is in its attitude to the state, writes Charles Postel.

“Unlike the 1890s, in the 2010s the largest governmental agencies no longer deliver the mail, but instead deliver drone missile strikes on villages around the globe, or supervise the prison-industrial complex that holds over two million Americans in steel and concrete cages. The distrust runs deep, and many Occupy activists embrace a vision of creating non-statist, non-hierarchical, networks for the modelling of new possibilities of social transformation. This vision is frequently described as anarchist, but it more closely resembles a variety of anarcho-syndicalism in that it is collectivist in a non-coercive and consensual sense.”

Tea Party: America’s rightwing activist movement combines participatory engagement and political experience with severe misinformation and intolerance of opponents, writes Vanessa Williamson. How can well-educated and intelligent grassroots activists have developed such wildly inaccurate visions of American public policy?

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 5/2012


La Revue Nouvelle (Belgium) focuses on the paradoxes raised by populism and the part played by experts and think-tanks. Luc Van Campenhoudt’s introduction defines the problem: “Populism and expertise, each in its own way, challenges the notion of democracy as power shared by all and founded on equality. In the case of populism, the people know what is good for them but, far from taking charge themselves, hand over responsibility to some charismatic leader deemed to be the perfect incarnation of the popular will. In the case of expertise, the people do not know what is good for them: action must be taken by experts, for they alone are capable of conceiving rational policies. In short, these are two inverse forms of elitism for, in both cases, the people are, knowingly or otherwise, deemed to be incapable of taking control and are thus stripped of their status as the central and final source of power.”

Think-tanks? No thanks: Albert Bastenier points to the relationship between evolving views of democracy and the role of think-tanks. The first points to the importance assumed by experts of all kinds and the need to question the bases of their expertise and the relationship between their knowledge and the knowledge, skills and experience that resides in the population as a whole. For Bastenier, democracy remains an on-going project: its definitive form has yet to be achieved. Consequently: “Instead of the form of representative government created by elections, democracy becomes the mere expression of the consent an elite acquires to exercise power in the name of the people”.

In a second article, Bastenier excoriates the Belgian think-tank Itinera, asking whether such bodies are truly a fundamental element of independent political analysis or merely thinly disguised neo-liberal lobbying machines. The focus is on a 2011 Itinera paper on immigration and multiculturalism which, he claims, merely repeats the intellectually cynical received wisdom and ignores the ambiguity of the cost-benefit analysis of migration in relation to employment. Not only do members of such think-tanks have a tendency to assume expertise in all areas, but their purpose “is not intellectual stimulation but the diffusion of views that chime with the political programme that they uphold and aim to stabilize, so that it may become the intellectual framework within which decision-makers will implement public policies that affect us all”.

The full table of contents of La Revue nouvelle 10/2012)


In an issue of New Literary Observer (Russia) on changing gender politics in twentieth-century Russia, Natalia Pushkareva chronicles the shifting perceptions of femininity and family values from 1917 to the present.

In the early Bolshevik period, she writes, “the striving for totalitarian androgyny was best expressed by the clichÈ ‘the Soviet person’ – a term that not only did not exclude but in fact, assumed, essentialism and sexism.” New legislation simplified marriages, divorce and child registration procedures (as well as access to abortions) to such an extent that women were able to apply for a divorce by postcard, and the registration of paternity was based solely on a mother’s written statement.

However, in the mid 1930s the state re-imposed traditional values and easy access to abortion was followed by a complete ban. During the war women temporarily took on more responsible positions previously reserved for men, only to be forced out of them again once the war ended. Grandmothers came to play an indispensable part in Soviet families after the war, as most women had to work to make ends meet. Perestroika and the end of communism brought about the end of state-imposed policies, with Soviet gender values coming under fire both from Orthodox Christian positions as well as western-oriented feminist discourse. “However annoying it is to admit for the powers-that-be, in the Internet era it is not possible to maintain full control over citizens’ everyday private lives,” Pushkareva concludes.

Homosexuality: According to some studies 1000 people annually were imprisoned in the Soviet Union every year between 1934 to 1991 on the charge of “sodomy”. French sociologist Arthur Clech charts the social status and acceptance of homosexuals in Russia from the “golden period” (coinciding with the Silver Age of Russian literature) between 1905 and 1917 to harsh repression under Stalin, when “Soviet society, striving to create a ‘pure’ bright future tries to stamp out ‘illnesses’ such as homosexuality, completely denying its right to any, albeit criminal, life.”

Soviet Cinderella: “The country girl was in service, her face covered in soot”, sang Soviet film star Liubov Orlova in the popular 1940 musical comedy Bright Path. In this life-asserting story of a Soviet Cinderella, writes Alitsa Klots, the heroine undergoes “a journey from a peasant girl to textile factory, whereby domestic service is just a transitional phase between the ‘peasant’ past and a ‘workers’ future”. The heroine’s “metamorphosis was not just a magic fairy tale but a model, albeit rather glamorized, of social mobility that existed in the Stalin era”.

The full table of contents of New Literary Observer 117 (2012)


How significant is the damage to Russia’s electoral authoritarianism inflicted by the wave of street protests that swept Russia in late 2011 and early 2012, asks political scientist Vladimir Gelman in NZ (Russia).

While the liberalization under Medvedev amounted to no more than a “cosmetic correction of the existing ‘rules of the game’ or a changing of labels”, it has nevertheless raised expectations on the part of the elites and the population. Meanwhile, the authorities “focused primarily on decorating the faÁade, without attaching enough importance to the growing number of cracks appearing in the grey reinforced concrete structure.”

The main lesson learnt by the regime is that any liberalization, even if only virtual and discursive, poses a threat to the status quo and therefore “tightening the screws” is the only way to retain power. Although the protests have not seriously undermined the balance of power, Gelman expects it to grow increasingly fragile, “with new cracks appearing in the regime and increasing the risk of it ending up buried under the debris”.

Art: Alek D. Epstein explores the impact of the imprisonment of Pussy Riot on contemporary protest art and institutional self-organization. Concluding his amply illustrated survey of works by Russian artists in blogs, journals and street actions inspired by – and often just as provocative as – Pussy Riot’s own scandalous performance, Epstein predicts that the continued persecution of the women will encourage further protest. “While the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot activists has ‘helped’ enrich Russian art with many significant art works, it has to be stressed that the sooner this bacchanal of repression is over, the better both for the young women themselves and for the country as a whole.”

Elections: The reintroduction of direct elections for Russia’s regional governors – abolished by Vladimir Putin to strengthen the “power vertical” – is one of the few reforms surviving from Medvedev’s presidency. Irina Busygina and Mikhail Filippov argue that the reintroduction of gubernatorial elections, “though an important and inevitable step in the direction of a genuine federal system, is clearly not sufficient”, since institutions can only function effectively if they work together in a unified system.

The full table of contents of Neprikosnovennij Zapas 84 (2012)


“You can’t put a pedestrian on ‘silent'”, observes editor Alice Béja in Esprit (France), arguing for genuine “shared space” with room for chance encounters. Olivier Mongin agrees, but highlights misunderstandings of the transformations underway. For him, “Public spaces are above all suffering a crisis of visibility”, their functions vanishing into private or virtual spaces, thus “making issues of access paramount”.

Mongin compares the public square – occasionally reclaimed from virtuality out of political need – with the street, “automatically considered the ideal public space”, yet increasingly given over to well-meant attempts to revive “village spirit”, as authorities occupy streets with festivals, leaving nowhere for “the anonymity dear to Baudelaire”.

Pedestrianism: Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin takes issue with “new discourse favouring ‘soft’ transport” – walking. We are losing the public spaces that are genuinely public, in which all kinds of unregulated and connected walking could be done, she argues. Neither shopping malls nor “historic centres” are ideal for the untrammelled walking politicians should have in mind when promoting pedestrianism, she argues; today, “pedestrians are restricted to the realm of heritage zones”. Meanwhile, privately-owned public spaces abound, further widening the gap between the public and political, and the private and commercial. The fragmentation of public space is mirrored in politics, argues Ghorra-Gobin. The solution: a state-metropolitan partnership channelling “subtle alchemy between the national and the local”.

International law: Mireille Delmas-Marty and Alain Supiot debate the pros and cons of the internationalization of law. European countries, they argue, are right to fear loss of legal sovereignty to greater and unregulated international forces. However, their notion that this is a worldwide experience, the dominant trajectory for most countries, is mistaken: “The US, Brazil, India, China and Russia have largely escaped internationalization of their law.” “Europe’s bad example sees it widely derided as a legal monster”, writes Mireille Delmas-Marty.

The full table of contents of Esprit 11/2012

Published 7 November 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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