A world as narrow as a coffin

22 August 2012
Only in en
OpenDemocracy debates the greatness of the “Great British Summer”; Glänta visits the whitest spot on the map; Schweizer Monat talks to Richard Sulík, Europe’s Jehovah’s Witness; Free Speech Debate explains why the EU’s harmonization machine should stay away from history; La Revue Nouvelle loses sleep over Europe; Vikerkaar examines the dark side of exported democracy; Esprit spends time with Simone Weil, our contemporary; Lettera internazionale feminizes collective memory; Merkur looks at how German intellectual debate got to where it is today; and Letras libres reads the “ex-centrics” of Spanish language literature.


Three days after the Russian magazine Russky reporter published Marina Akhmedova’s literary reportage on the drug scene in Yekaterinburg, the editors received a warning from the media regulator Roskomdadzor, who accused them of promoting the use of narcotics and demanded that the article be pulled from the magazine’s website. Open Democracy Russia reacted promptly and published an English translation of Akhmedova’s text just a few days later (re-published in Eurozine).

Anyone who reads this harrowing piece of journalism will immediately realize how absurd Roskomdadzor’s accusations are. How can lines like these be seen as “promotion of narcotics”?

“They check intently who is getting how much, and count out the eyedrops. If I ran right now into the middle of the kitchen and bellowed at the top of my voice, they would not turn round. Their world extends only a few metres and has the cooker and its hood at its centre. It is not a world within the world: it is their entire world, a world as narrow as a coffin, but all-encompassing for those who live in it, a world which follows its own laws. In it there are neither saints nor sinners, no thieves or benefactors, only the harsh laws of survival. There is no truth, no certainty about anything, not even that the sun will rise tomorrow.”

Olympic response: The “Great British Summer” – diamond jubilee, Olympic Games – has rekindled British pride through a marriage of tradition and modernity. According to polls, British patriotism in Scotland and Wales has increased and the UK public is overwhelmingly positive about the Games’ impact on society. “To still be talking about ‘reclaiming the flag’ from the far right misses the point,” writes Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future. “We did not need these Olympics to prove that you can be black and British, however happily the established fact was reinforced. […] Perhaps it is a comfortable rationalization of liberal anxiety about national pride to think of this as rooted in concern for the ethnic minorities – but that depends on continuing to ignore the evidence about what most non-white Britons think, with, if anything, slightly stronger feelings of British identity and pride than the white majority, on average.”

More about openDemocracy


Rising temperatures and melting ice have resulted in a renewed interest in the Arctic region in recent decades. New oil and gas fields attract the attention of countries around the world; when, in 2007, Russia planted a titanium flag at the bottom of the sea at the North Pole, some observers feared a new Cold War, this time over the natural resources in the Arctic.
Last year, Eurozine partner Osteuropa charted arctic politics in a voluminous logbook (Osteuropa 2-3/2011 was featured in the Eurozine Review). Geopolitics also dominates many of the contributions to Glänta‘s new issue, focusing on “the whitest spot on the map”.

Where is the Arctic? Though everyone seems to be talking about the Arctic, there is no consensus about what and where it is, writes political scientist and economic historian Carina Keskitalo. She shows that the current image of the Arctic is just as contingent and ideologically tainted as the old conceptions of the mythical North Pole. The Arctic is often defined as everything north of the Polar circle. But why? asks Keskitalo. This line is just as arbitrary as any other and the vast area that it demarcates is so heterogeneous – including parts of welfare states such as Sweden, Iceland and Finland, as well as the North Pole – that any single “Arctic policy” is bound not only to fail but to do more harm than good.

War in the Arctic? Will the struggle for natural resources lead to war? No, say German political scientists Christoph Humrich and Klaus Dieter Wolf: “The international escalation of a conflict in the Arctic is very unlikely.” Yes, there are considerable resources of fossil fuel in the region, the legal situation is often unclear and many states have vested interests there. But the economic profit for an individual state will, in the end, simply not be big enough: most of the oil and gas reserves are located in areas where the legal status is undisputed and are so difficult to exploit that international cooperation will be necessary to make production profitable.

Also: Patricia Lorenzoni notes the colonial contrast between the white North Pole and Congo’s heart of darkness; Magdalena Haggärde and Gisle Løkken propose a new Arctic mythology; and an excerpt from Judith Schalansky’s poetic Atlas of Remote Islands.

The full table of contents of Glänta 1/2012


Richard Sulík, leader of the neoliberal Slovak party “Freedom and Solidarity” and the man credited with devising Slovakia’s flat tax system, talks to Schweizer Monat editor Réne Scheu about his party’s refusal to support the extension of the EFSF, a decision that brought down the Slovak government coalition last year: “We made our position clear on the EU rescue fund from the outset. Then the prime minister called a vote of confidence – and we remained true to our principles and said no.” Could the coalition partners not have voted with the opposition to extend the fund? “Yes, and I even suggested they did so. But it turned out differently. I call it primitive blackmail.”

Sulík, who refers to himself and his fellow eurosceptics in the European parliament as “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and “members of a European avant-garde”, offers a profusion of unconventional views on Europe’s current woes. Just one example, on the ECB and the question of purchasing of state bonds: the problem is the bank’s overt willingness to lend, combined with a bias towards the southern European states, says Sulík. Launching into Merkel for moving the goalposts on the rescue fund, he advises “learning again how to save”. Talk about being more loyal than the King!

Information society: “Much of what makes our lives today easier and more pleasant, what allows us to know things about the world that would otherwise have remained hidden to us, and to see one another as fellow human beings, is thanks to quick and cheap information and communication.” Political economist Guy Kirsch and computer scientist Jürg Kohlas see information society as a blessing, or at least want to “give it a chance to be a blessing”.

But avoiding blind faith in technology means facing up to its dark sides: “Many of us live in a world that scares us precisely because we are informed about so much that affects and can affect us, be it for good or bad. In this situation it is understandable, though not very helpful, that we address our fears by raising our information levels.” Another worry is the distrust aroused by the market in personal data. “That this increases the more the state succumbs to the temptation to gather, to save and to compare private data, is not without its impact on the liberality of the state and the character of the individual: citizens become subjects – fearful and potentially stubborn and rebellious.”

The full table of contents of Schweizer Monat 7-8/2012


“The European Union is one giant harmonization machine,” write Claus Leggewie and Horst Meier in Free Speech Debate. In a Framework Decision, the European Council talks about combating racism and xenophobia by making it illegal to publicly condone, deny or grossly trivialize crimes of genocide. But so far the EU has resisted the temptation to form a common historical policy. Indeed, memory laws are the wrong way for Europeans to remember and debate their difficult pasts, argue Leggewie and Meier. Europe needs a pluralism of memory policies – which is why 23 August is a good candidate for a truly pan-European day of remembrance:

“It was on this day in 1939 that the Third Reich and the Soviet Union forged the ‘Hitler-Stalin Pact’ with its secret protocol and thus inaugurated the de facto division of labour between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the occupied territories of eastern Europe. 23 August thus puts in question the current day of remembrance – 9 May (1945) – in eastern Europe, for 9 May marks the day when this region was liberated from Nazi terror only to fall prey to a ‘red’ occupation.”

To make 23 August a pan-European holiday would endorse a “thoroughly anti-totalitarian yet balanced consciousness of European history, without pushing for any ‘harmonization’ or even legal measures against wrong or offensive views of history”, they conclude.

More about Free Speech Debate


How has our “European dream” turned into “anxious insomnia”? Introducing La Revue Nouvelle‘s dossier on the euro crisis, Paul Géradin contends that an initial “lack of intellectual analysis” continues to hamper Europe. All contributors “agree that Europe must go on”, he says, but “everything depends on what is meant by this and what is at stake in the current slump”.

Hour of truth: Pierre Defraigne talks of risk endlessly passed on in the guise of “financial innovation”. In the 1980s, the game changed for market capitalism due to three main forces, he writes: the IT revolution; the globalization of production; and the advent of China as a fully-fledged player in the world economy. “The foundations for today’s crisis within a crisis were laid.” Defraigne takes a dim view of European policy: “The sole unifying factor common to the EU’s twenty-seven states is the single market, a paltry federating force for such a heterogeneous Europe.” Because the eurozone’s “structural faults” have “only come to light due to the crisis”, its governments limp on towards a halfhearted, unwanted federalism. For Defraigne, the “hour of truth has arrived” to create a newly democratic Europe.

Citizens first: If one of the primary causes of the Union’s malaise “arises from the poor articulation, imbalance even”, between the national and European levels, “creating a halo of opacity” over its every action, then the solution must lie in strengthening the European institutions to correct the imbalance, writes Olivier Dupuis. Among his proposed reforms are a return to the European Council’s original designation as a “committee of wise men”; the elevation of the Council to the status of a “Senate”; and the strengthening the European Commission by giving it “a true captain”, a president elected through open voting, rather than by today’s “baroque” system. The aim is to put Europe’s citizens back at the heart of its processes.

Also: Michaël Maira detects “congenital malformations” in Europe’s economic and monetary union, diagnosing the crisis as “an opportunity to legitimize the European project” – a chance not to be ignored if the cure itself is not to prove fatal. For Robert Cobbaut, the fault lies in an outmoded adherence to individualist, neoclassical theory. The answer is to abandon the theory in favour of “cooperation and solidarity at every level”.

The full table of contents of La Revue Nouvelle 7-8/2012


The revival of neo-Kantian theories of universal peace has led to intellectual justification of foreign “interventions” whose results have nothing to do with democracy, writes Rein Müllerson, eminent Estonian jurist, in Vikerkaar. Evidence suggests that democracy does not precede peace but vice versa and that, even were it possible to implement, a global democratic order would not necessarily be more peaceable. “The European international system has radically changed; we may say that instead of remaining Hobbesian, it has become Kantian. However, this does not mean that democracies, even vis-à-vis other democracies, act in the same way beyond such an international system.”

“When used as an export item, there is a serious problem with this soft and humane face of Enlightenment’s legacy,” Müllerson argues. Commenting on the use of military drones, he finds the Democrat position no different in substance from the “arrogance” of the Bush administration, summed up in the notorious comment by a Bush aid that, when we act, “we create our own reality”. “Such a mindset is not harmless,” says Müllerson, “and though it may indeed help create new realities, these often have nothing in common with the one that Washington intends to create.”

Perennial differences: Tonis Saarts distinguishes two incompatible characteristics of Estonian politics, both of which have their roots in the “Singing Revolution”: the nationalist “defence democracy” and citizen-centred democracy.
“The former has deeply conservative roots, giving pride of place to ethnic nation-statehood and external security, while the latter coincides with the western European notion of democracy, one that is multiculturalist and emphasizes liberal-democratic citizenship.” The conflict between the two models of statehood and democracy has not disappeared over the last twenty years, writes Saarts; on the contrary, it continues to define the logic of Estonian politics.

However, “the fundamental and everlasting conflict between these two visions should not be regarded as an infantile disease to be quickly grown out of”, Saarts concludes. Rather, “knowledge of these models enables us to understand the peculiarity of Estonian democracy. As long as both camps continue to respect the basic rules of democracy, the tension between the two visions propels the democratic processes forward.”

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 7-8/2012


The current issue of Esprit leads with an editorial criticizing French politicians’ belief that everything is marvellous just because the presidential and parliamentary elections delivered a coherent result. In reality, say the editors, “a fire is smouldering under the ashes: extremists are making progress, a moderate electorate is lost within a bipartisanship that has crushed the centre, and the need for a different kind of politics, previously supplied by the Greens, cannot find an institutional outlet.”

Simone Weil: Frédéric Worms justifies the assertion of the title of a dossier on “Simone Weil, our contemporary”, exploring parallels between the French philosopher, who died in 1943 at the age of 34, and her actual contemporary, Albert Camus: “What they shared […] is both to have seen the opposition in our existence between two absolutes.” Weil never read Camus and the two never met. In fact, a meeting might have been disastrous, speculates Guy Samama, because of Camus’ love of the female form. Instead, Samama imagines a meeting of their souls. They had many passions in common, but one that is sometimes overlooked is the theatre. Weil wrote a play, Venice Saved, in 1940, which has much in common with Camus’ 1949 play The Just. Both works were inspired by the war and the Resistance, and have plots that concern the overcoming of tyrannies.

Weil has inspired many people, and their interpretations of her and her work are widely divergent; she is everything from a mystic to a champion of workers’ rights. Taking Maurice Blanchot’s reading of her work as his lead, Olivier Mongin tries to make sense of the link drawn by Blanchot (aware of criticism levelled at Weil for her silence on the fate of the Jews while working alongside De Gaulle in London during the war) between Weil and Jewish mysticism. Nadia Taïbi, meanwhile, asks what Weil sought from direct experiences, such as factory work. It is a path that links Weil to another writer she never met: George Orwell. Alice Holt explores the commonalities in terms of style and theme in their work.

The full table of contents of Esprit 8-9/2012


“Writing the prehistory of possible futures is only possible with the mediation of another woman”, according to philosopher and gender studies expert Rosi Braidotti in Lettera internazionale. Connoting the woman’s experience of “being in the world” with memory and narration, she emphasizes women’s special role as mediators who feed their narratives – which male symbols are mostly unable to represent – into the collective memory. Braidotti’s tool for a theoretical approach to the “female subject” of the “category of woman” is the concept of nomadism:

“On the one hand, the stress is placed on the materialism of the body and thus on sexuality and sexual difference and, on the other, on the importance of the nomadization of every difference, in order to avoid the re-composition of stable formations of the subject woman,” she writes. It is necessary “to regard the process of the becoming-woman of a subject as a political and ethical project, and therefore as an open and concrete process”.

Memories: Agnese Moro, social pyschologist and author, talks to editor Biancamaria Bruno about her book Un uomo così (“A man like this”), in which she tells the story of her father Aldo Moro and remembers his kidnapping and murder in 1978. Referring to women as “bearers of memory”, she emphasizes the female influence in networks such as the Archivi per non Dimenticare (Archive against forgetting), an organization making accessible documentary sources on terrorism, political violence and organized crime.

Humanism: Rita El Khayat believes in the positive impact of European humanism, which she says can rescue the “women of the southern Mediterranean coast”, draped in their burqas, from “drowning in the black treacle of crude oil”.

RIP: Lettera internazionale’s founding editor Federico Coen died on 7 July 2012.

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 112 (2012)


In Merkur, political scientist Helmut König sketches an intellectual history of post-war (West) Germany. Intellectual currents can be characterized along generational lines, he argues, the Weimar generation practising hermeneutics and the “flak helper” or “sceptical” generation of ’45 – and later the ’68ers – conducting ideology-critique. While hermeneutics, König writes, was uninterested in “breaks, paradigm changes, epochal boundaries and upheavals”, ideology critique insisted on “reflection” and “renewal”: “That everything simply continues as it is, also after the civilizational breakdown of the Shoah, was seen by ideology critique as the continuation of catastrophe even after its end.”

With the historical turn of the early 1980s, epitomized by the Historikerstreit, ideology critique for the first time engaged with German history – a topic it had until then avoided in favour of “the systematic problems of metaphysics, Schelling’s theory of nature and Hegel’s concept of history, or the Marxian analysis of the value form”. Once West Germany had begun to reckon seriously with its past, writes König, ideology critique could drop its suspicion of politics and turn to topics of identity, history and remembrance, at the same time “discovering the political ideas and traditions of the West”.

“Hermeneutics and ideology critique were essentially German phenomena within the boundaries of the philosophy of consciousness and the subject. There now began a search for new bases of experience and judgement, action and consensus. The construction of systems was no longer the central motivation of philosophical thinking but rather interest in the solving of problems.” A shift towards the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition, writes König, introduced a “linguistic turn” in German philosophy: “philosophy became the philosophy of discourse and thereby itself discursive”.

In today’s intellectual debate in Germany, König concludes, generational divisions are no longer markers of difference: instead, factors such as ethnicity, religious affiliation, geography and class are decisive. “Many of these differences appear neither modern nor post-modern, but rather as emergency reactions meant to counter the latest political and social effronteries. The situation as a whole isn’t going to get any easier to survey, in other words.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 8/2012


The new issue of Letras Libres reads escritores raros, or “strange writers”. The label is borrowed from the anthology Los Raros, published by the Nicaraguan modernist Rubén Darío in 1896, which Juan Pablo Villalobos identifies as the source of the myth of “the strange ones” of literature. Introducing the dossier, he cautiously gets to grips with the notion of literary strangeness, avoiding platitudes such as “authors ignored by critics” or “unknown to the broad readership”. Instead, Villalobos proposes the image of the “ex-centric”, designating writers who operate outside the centre, in other words the literary canon or, more precisely, who create “another centre” for themselves, taking their readers with them. “We like the strange because of its secret character, because of an intuition that pushes us to the prohibited”, he says. “We like monstrous writers who combine the impossible with the forbidden.”

Strange ones: The dossier unearths personalities such as the reclusive Juan Emar, author of the five thousand-page novel Umbrál (“Threshhold”), for whom “living in books” became a reality; Jorge Baron Biza, who got over the experience of three family suicides to write his autobiography El desierto y su semilla (“The desert and his seed”), then jumped out of a window three years after its publication in 1998; or Pablo Palacio, whose novel Un hombre muerto a puntapiés (“A man trampled to death”) verges on madness, with figures like a “double-women”, witches and cannibals.

Editor and muse: Zenobia Camprubí is remarkable for the closeness with which her own literary work was interwoven with that of her husband, the Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez. Camprubí’s oeuvre consists almost entirely of diary entries about the couples’ literary cooperation and her illness. She was his “first and most important editor” and his “active and energetic muse”. “My wife is the real winner of the Nobel Prize”, said Jímenez in 1956.

The full table of contents of Letras Libres 8/2012

Published 22 August 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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