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Anything but democracy

Blätter suggests a way to make Europe future-fit; Lettera Internazionale likes the pace and plurality of the South; Fronesis prefers the critique to the critiqued; Dilema Veche finds Europe in thrall to a nationalist minority; Dziejaslou consults augurs and magic realists; Res Publica Nowa asks what Poles want of their leaders; Multitudes enters gaseous modernity; and Du bursts the neuro-bubble.

Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 10/2011

From the outside the EU still appears attractive, but from within it is "considered the merciless executor of an unjust austerity regime that clouds the perspectives of the younger generation", writes Claus Leggewie in Blätter. It is essential, he argues, to redefine Europe as a project for the future:

Why not bring the three things together that at the moment interest young adults in Europe most: a basic sympathy for the democratic revolution in the Mediterranean space, strong support for more environmental and climate protection, and the opportunity for an energy changeover. Could a project that – both in a metaphorical and literal sense – brings new energy to Europe both north and south of the Mediterranean fill the vacuum?

Leggewie pleas for a genuine Euro-Mediterranean partnership, a "European industrial and social policy on the basis of renewable energies that stimulates entrepreneurial fantasies and offers the business basis for a timely and self-selected generational project both in Europe's interior and at its peripheries. [...] If new industrial centres evolve in North Africa then this also offers sub-Saharan neighbours opportunities for development; the energy-political one-way traffic in the direction of the North would become a developmental-political transfer to the South, with advantages to both sides."

Democracy is a key factor, writes Leggewie: it is in Europe's own interest to support democratic movements in the Arab world and beyond. "The more democratic the world becomes, the greater the likelihood of a new era of global cooperation that at long last addresses the urgent problems of the planet and leaves upcoming generations in the South as well as the North with a fair chance of a good life."

Also: Jens Mattern on the re-elected Polish prime minister Donald Tusk's EU-friendly policy of "peace and stability"; Gerhard Kraiker on the structural irreconcilability of capitalism and democracy; and Alex Demirovic, Lothar Wenzel and Martin Allespach on why trade unions can still be a valuable instrument for political participation and empowerment.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 10/2011

Lettera internazionale 108 (2011)

"Moving the centre of the world" – with this appeal of Ngugi wa Thiong'o in mind, Franco Cassano reflects on the cultural potential of the South. The northwestern, globally dominant economic and cultural model has evolved into a turbo-capitalism that damages the experience of the individual just as much as it threatens society as a whole. The South places the value of slowness and longevity in opposition to the speed of economic processes that take hold of and deform human behaviour. Experiences like love, if it isn't reduced to buyable love, and food, when not degraded to pure fast food, but also the acquisition of knowledge or reflection, do not allow acceleration.

The South offers as an alternative the model of multi-temporality, which admits both acceleration and deceleration. Yet, as a Mediterranean space of experience of separation and mediation, it above all stands for the plurality of traditions and life-forms, against any kind of universalization of a single form of society, as practiced in the West. The South "proposes a conception of life that wishes to dominate neither nature nor other cultures [...] by freeing itself from the Faustian obsession of having to seek water on Mars instead of on Earth, and protecting it and distributing it in an equal manner."

Wikileaks: "The aim of the Wikileaks publications", writes Slavoj Zizek, was "to lead us to mobilize ourselves to bring about a different functioning of power that might reach beyond the limits of representative democracy". After all, this system is never "neutral" and reveals its character as mere appearance in times of crisis, unable to convey the real will of the population. Today "we face the shameless cynicism of a global order". "Through actions like the WikiLeaks disclosures, the shame is made more shameful by being publicized."

Also: According to Abdelwahab Meddeb, important new laws introduced by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia indicate that the Islamic world is moving towards a separation of religion and the state.

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 108 (2011)

Fronesis 36-37 (2011)

"Critique is often propounded as an ideal in our society," write the editors of Fronesis (Sweden), introducing a double issue on critical thinking from Kant and Marx to contemporary media critique. "The development of mass media and social media over recent years has meant greater possibilities for criticizing power and injustice. Nevertheless, there are those who argue that the space for critique is shrinking. Cultural journalism, it is said, has been recast as a kind of 'journalism about culture', producing lists of bestsellers and author portraits. Cultural and social discourse in general has been described as a meta-debate where the primary objective seems to be to reaffirm established positions through the use of certain conceptual markers rather than to achieve political change."

Literary critic Anders Johansson refuses to see the value of critique in its potential to prescribe a utopia, be it social, political or aesthetic. Criticism shouldn't be seen as an "auxiliary discipline", he says in a discussion with philosopher Sharon Rider and gender theorist Malin Rönnblom. "Even if all critique is secondary to the object it is criticizing, it is simultaneously a genre of its own – its raison d'être is just as complex as that of the arts. I would argue that literary critique, in the widest possible sense, is today potentially more interesting and more challenging than the fiction it relates to. The latter is often so deeply and unreflectively immersed in its own autonomy, absorbed by fulfilling the demands of its own circle of life, so preoccupied by the false liberal individualism that permeates society, that it lacks critical power."

Critical thinking, Johansson concludes, isn't necessarily about influencing the ideas of people in order to change their behaviour. "We do not need yet another intellectual who claims to have discovered what is false and informs the unenlightened how things really are. If thinking is to be critical it has to be more self-critical than that."

Also: Bulging sections on classical schools of critique such as Marxism, critical theory, psychoanalysis and Foucauldian genealogy; and – for the first time in Swedish – Focault's "What is critique?"

The full table of contents of Fronesis 36-37 (2011)

Dilema veche 392-398 (2011)

The EU's decision to exclude Romania and Bulgaria from the Schengen space was based neither on European law nor the democratic will of European citizens, writes Ovidiu Nahoi in Dilema veche (397). Instead, the rejection was the work of the Dutch Party for Freedom and the True Finns. The two nationalists parties, writes Nahoi, were able to exert pressure on their governments and bring about the negative decision in the European Council – despite Romania fulfilling all the technical prerequisites required by the European Commission and Parliament.

Similar political pressure from the True Finns caused Helsinki to make EU financial assistance to Greece conditional on Athens depositing collateral for loans in Finnish banks, writes Nahoi. The Finnish demand was then copied by the Slovaks, Austrians and Dutch. "Two parties that have received barely two million votes between them have taken advantage of the weakness of their countries and imposed their decisions on 200 million Europeans," writes Nahoi. "This can be called anything, but not democracy."

Romanian gold: The long term aspirations of the Canadian company Gold Corporation to mine the gold reserves at Rosia Montana in Romania, thought to be the largest in Europe, have been thwarted by widespread public opposition to the companies proposed use of cyanide in the processing. The Romanian government is in favour, however. Rather than opening up the subject for proper public debate, writes Mircea Vasilescu (394), it is promoting the project with grandiose rhetoric:

An ancient national mythology is evoked, that of a Romania blessed by God. Figures of billions of euros superimposed over this mythology may give many the impression that 'our gold' is already in our pockets. Instead of rationally debating what the mining of these gold resources could bring to the country (in terms of money, health and the environment), we are looking at Rosia Montana as if it were a gift sent from the heavens.

A museum of communism? Andrei Plesu is perplexed by opposition to plans for a museum of communism in Bucharest from Romanian new-left intellectuals, who fear the museum will simplify and vilify communism (396). The museum is nowhere near existence, yet has already become "an ideological and political demon".

The politics of no alternatives: Former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky talks about the workings of power in post-Soviet Russia (392).

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 392-398 (2011)

Dziejaslou 53 (2011)

"Spring, Anatolia, Easter" is the suggestive title of Alies Kirkievich's short essay in the current issue of Belarusian journal Dziejaslou. The subtitle, however, is unsettling: "Prison yard philosophy". Kirkievich was one of the many to have been imprisoned after the brutally repressed protests surrounding the presidential elections in December 2010.

The essay was written on 20 April this year, while the author was in prison. Through the barred window of his cell he sees an aeroplane in the clear blue sky and wishes he was in Anatolia. When a second condensation trail crosses the first, it occurs to him it must soon be Easter. He reads the signs in the sky like an augur the flights of birds.

Someone in the yard who gets shat on by a bird goes free the same day. The probability is around two to three. The third person doesn't believe in oracles after that.

Belarusian magic realism? After several years' pause, Ihar Babkou reports back with a new novel, the promising first part of which is published in Dziejaslou. As to its genre, the author gives away the following:

Literary critics would probably talk about a utopia, the more excitable ones perhaps about a meta-novel or Belarusian version of magic realism. The author himself so far hasn't come up with a more appealing and adequate term than a spider's-web novel.

Also: Poetry including the entirely non-political "Coloured Revolutions" by the brilliant Viktar Zybul; "Theses towards an unwritten review", an essay by Leanid Halubovich lauds the highly-rated debut collection of the young poet Vital Ryzkou; and the continuation of a study by Siarhiej Sapran on the widely unknown "dramatic" fate of Vasil Bykau's play and film scripts.

The full table of contents of Dziejaslou 53 (2011)

Res Publica Nowa 15 (2011)

In anticipation of the Polish elections (won by centre right Civic Platform party), the Autumn issue of Res Publica Nowa analyses the hopes and expectations of the public, as well as political and cultural issues surrounding perceptions of political leadership. "For many of us, making an electoral choice is like waiting for the goldfish to bite," comments the editorial introduction. "We are looking for someone to fulfil our wishes, take the responsibility, make decisions on our behalf, offer vision, restore faith in the state, make us feel liberated from the duties of citizenship for the next few years."

Wojciech Przybylski emphasizes the importance of creating a mood of hope together with a persuasive vision for development. "It is a case of establishing faith in the future in a climate of uncertainty and fear – the factors that erode social capital." Politically, the aim must be to provide a framework for the growth and improvement of public institutions, to establish an appropriate role for the state in people's private lives, and to look at future perspectives for the EU and other neighbouring states. "European political uncertainty is nearing its apogee and it's becoming clear that in its current form the EU can't last."

Women and leadership: In the Polish media, women are persistently portrayed as fearing or avoiding power and political responsibility – even though training courses for female candidates seeking positions in local government are heavily oversubscribed. Writing on women as leaders, Elzbieta Korolczuk remarks that Polish culture is "tied to a vision of a macho leader who 'executes' power, 'exerts pressure' and keeps society firmly in hand". Instead, a leader should inspire, be a good negotiator and encourage others to work together.

National leadership: Political scientist Dominique Moïsi discusses in interview the part played by the nation state in a world motivated by fear. "Even in the absence of national self-determination or independence, the state is an emotional point of reference associated with defence – both from evil and from others." The symbolic role of a leader such as the British constitutional monarch is crucial in giving the community a sense of continuity, Moïsi argues.

Universities: Gesine Schwan on Enlightenment definitions of learning and the economic value of "cognitive multilingualism". The ability to reflect "is a prerequisite for higher education if it is to be both open to the future and capable of surviving in it. At the same time, it is an essential feature of education in the broad sense of 'culture'."

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 15 (2011)

Multitudes 46 (2011)

In Argentina, a professor is sued for translating Derrida. In South Korea, citizens demand local production of medicine. Blind campaigners call for access to Braille versions of books. In Multitudes, Gaëlle Krikorian introduces the global movement linking these and other campaigns sharing the ideal of equal access to art, science and technology.

The Access to Knowledge movement does not call for revolution. Most of its members do not consider themselves radicals, but adopt a utilitarian approach." Nor, for the most part, do they see themselves as representing a group distinct from the public, more as "organizing among themselves in defence of interests which they consider representative of the public in general". Their enemy is the existing legal system of "intellectual property". Created when the owners of intangible rights attempted to find a common term with which to defend them, the "supposedly coherent concept encouraged the emergence of an alliance mobilizing against the enforcement of rights to 'intellectual property'.

Rhythmanalysis: Power is exerted by structuring the rhythms of life, writes Frédéric Bisson. But "the rhythmic element of power in late modernity is not simply the uniform acceleration of cultural speed. [...] Accelerando is a variation of tempo, not of rhythm." Once, we might have said that capitalism generated monotonous repetition in place of the overlapping rhythms of society, the factory timetable replacing the interaction of the solar, lunar and cultural calendars. Now, "the liquidity of working time (we work weekends and holidays), reinforced by technology (we work from home), has destroyed the periodic alternation which separated work from leisure. We no longer leave work. The Sabbath no longer exists."

The opportunity for resistance is "through a kind of suspension, a floating or gaseous time permeating liquid time. We bring private life into work, we create interstitial spaces between the hours, fleetingly, in the corridors, with colleagues, with ourselves."

Also: Multitudes' editors praise the Spanish indignados and see in the Wall Street occupation an internationalization of the movement. And René Montgranier (1912-2005), nom de plume of politician and economic administrator René Tourenq, sets out the case for a tax on financial transactions – in an extract from a book published in 1985.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 46 (2011)

Du 10/2011

Neuro-marketing, neuro-economics, neuro-ethics, neuro-enhancement – not only is the brain the centre of scientific attention, but brain research "has triggered an unexpected faith in science and risen to the rank of modern ultimate authority," writes editor Stefan Kaiser in Du.

"For the last ten years or so, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used for visualizing the brain, its structures and changes in neural activity," explains Michael Böhm. "The technique presents the brain as a pulsating mass covered with coloured spots, providing the fascinating sense of being able to see into the head of a living person. When the red light goes on because the person is happy or angry, or when this can be stimulated by images and substances, then the explanation is close at hand that human beings act unconsciously and without free will. In a culture dominated by images, that seems intuitive and popularizing." Scanning the history of theories of consciousness, the mind and the self, Böhm finds that nowadays apparently hard scientific facts are becoming increasingly attractive:

Given the pressures, upheavals and crises that the complex global world harbours, and given the disillusion in the idea of progress and an absence of comforting transcendence, it helps to point to cells and fibres and to say: that's the brain – human beings don't think and feel with it, they just react with it.

Also: Hans Burkert marvels at neuroscientists who believe that deviant behaviour can be explained on the basis of the size of the Hippocampus or limbic system – and who even advocate replacing judges in court with scientific witnesses. And leading neuroscientist Lutz Jäncke puts his profession in relation: "Large parts of the public think that wherever there's a 'neuro' then what's being provided is hard science that is per se objective. [...] Neuroscience is either useful or useless depending on where it offers its insights."

The full table of contents of Du 10/2011


Published 2011-10-12

Original in English
© Eurozine

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