Concrete touched by Mies

3 November 2010
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New Humanist takes the ism out of Humanism; Merkur calls for collective responsibility; Host discusses modernism with novelist Simon Mawer; Studija looks at the shimmering layers of Latvian abstract art; Mittelweg 36 analyses the brave new world of the elderly; NLO reads Solzhenitsyn, anti-progressivist warts and all; Arena questions some persistent myths about human trafficking; Edinburgh Review says the party is over in austerity Scotland; Revista Crítica examines memory and representation in post-dictatorships; and Sens Public embraces the Biblical paradox.

“Who won the Pope wars?”, asks New Humanist editor Paul Sims in an attempt to assess the final score after the recent visit of Benedict XVI to the UK. This was the first papal visit to the UK since 1982 and the event was mired in controversy. Not only was the cloud of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church hanging over the state visit; in his first statement on British soil the Pope appeared to put his foot in it.

Then Pope “reminded us that, in remembering our heroic stand against the ‘Nazi tyranny’ which, lest we forget, ‘wished to eradicate God from Society’, and reflecting on the ‘the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century’, we should ‘never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.’ Had the Pope just compared non-believers to Nazis?”

But Sims’ final assessment comes out rather balanced: “Catholic commentators spoke of a ‘Benedict bounce’, the start of a new golden age for Catholicism in Britain […] Meanwhile the National Secular Society declared that in the contest between secularism and religion the ‘battle lines are being drawn’. For the middle ground in all this, bizarrely, we could do worse than look to the words of the headline act. The reasonable dialogue between faith and reason the Pope called for in Westminster seems a long way off but, no matter who proposes it, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Against humanism: In a long essay that has already had readers of the confirmed secularist magazine cancelling their subscriptions, moral philosopher Mary Midgley makes a case against a type of Humanism that lets the human species take the place of God: “Of course that species is immensely important to us, simply because it is our own. We are quite right to love, honour and cherish it and to concern ourselves deeply about its future. But what sort of an ism does this give us grounds for? I am sorry but I have to say […] that I still do not see any reason why that particular form of concern should be called humanism, nor what work that concept is needed to do.”

On the New Humanist blog, Paul Sims explains why Midgley’s article was published: “Not because we are against humanism but because we think arguments for humanism will be all the better for being sharpened against those of the very best opponents.” He quotes the reaction of a reader who did not cancel his subscription: “Great issue. I loved 50% of it, and violently disagreed with the other 50%. Perfect journalistic balance.”

The full table of contents of New Humanist 6/2010

Merkur publishes an appeal by the German bestselling author Bernhard Schlink for more social responsibility. Schlink cites Heinrich Heine, who coined the notion of “responsibility” (replacing the notion of “duty”) and called for a life “with the sense of one’s serious duties, one’s responsibilities both towards the world of one’s fellows and the world beyond”.

This general and comprehensive notion of responsibility has been lost, says Schlink. In its place has come responsibility directed only towards specific systems considered important by the individual – a culture brought about by capitalism:

It is impossible to ignore the fact that capitalism has created a culture of responsibility in which the predictable and avoidable damage caused by economic activity is supposed to be borne by those affected, or palliated by the state and society; a culture in which responsibility is narrowed down to the perception of one’s own role.

We need a new culture of responsibility writes Schlink. “The culture of responsibility that is lacking is a culture of responsibility in the systems, one which is not concerned solely with the functioning of that particular system […], but rather takes into account the effects of system-immanent activity on other systems and society as a whole.”

Also: The land of milk and honey doesn’t bring happiness, but rather threatens freedom and the quality of life, writes Rainer Hank. And Jens Soentgen offers a minidrama about the ecologically correct way of drinking a glass of mineral water.

The full table of contents of Merkur 11/2010

British author Simon Mawer has used the history of Brno and the personalities connected with the city in two of his novels. His latest, The Glass Room, loosely based on the story of Mies van der Rohe’s famous Villa Tugendhat, was recently published in Czech to a very favourable reception. Host editor Marek Seckar talks with the writer about real and literary buildings, about Brno, about arts and science.

“I do think that the modernist programme was a very noble one, a programme of progress, the idea of equality, universality, internationalism,” says Mawer. “The fact that you create a style of art, architecture, which doesn’t stem from a particular society, from a particular culture, is amazing in itself. And that’s what created the Landauer house [Mawer’s fictional version of the Villa Tugendhat…] And then, of course, you get the other side which is the human condition and the disasters that human culture, human society impose on the people who had created the house, who lived in the house; the fact that humans are not transparent, that humans are not logical, rational, that you can design something like this room that we are in, which is modernist, and you are trying to let in the light, and you didn’t succeed.”

The Villa Tugendhat, a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, is currently under reconstruction. Had Mawer been to see it recently? “Last Tuesday when I was in Brno I had a guided tour around the villa. It was an extraordinary experience. Even now, when it’s closed. We even went to the basement where I had never been before. We saw all the machinery – the heating system, the pumps – all working. You can see the skeleton of the house. They have taken out all the floors, down to the concrete. Concrete that Mies van der Rohe had touched.”

The full table of contents of Host 7/2010

Barbara Gaile received her academic education in times of total chaos in former Soviet Latvia and was probably the first to graduate from the Art Academy with abstract compositions.

“I finished the academy with completely abstract works,” she says in interview with Liga Marcinkevicha. “I remember as if it was yesterday how Imants Vecozols [professor at the Latvian Academy of Arts] barged out in the middle of my examination. He felt insulted that something like this could happen. In the final years at the academy you learn figurative composition – that was interesting, but I realized that it didn’t attract me. I wasn’t drawn to Latvian figurative painting.”

Gaile has avoided being personally dragged into domestic debates about abstract painting, pronounced to be incompatible with the Latvian nationality according to artists of the older and intermediate generations.

“It is hard to believe that in such an intolerant cultural environment it could have been easy to continue with what had been begun and to achieve the level we see today in Barbara Gaile’s compositions,” writes Marcinkevicha. “But to me Gaile’s paintings seem like spaces of experienced emotions and finished thoughts, because each layer of pigment laid down is like a person’s lifetime in which every new experience forms the next layer.”

Also: Does Latvian artist Auseklis Bauskenieks belong to the avant-garde, or does he belong only to himself? asks Janis Borgs; and Lithuanian sculptor Gintaras Didziapetris talks about the simple life he leads in Vilnius, about his responsibility to do something that makes sense to himself, and that he is more interested in finding out what we know than in showing us what he knows.

The full table of contents of Studija 5/2010

Germany, like elsewhere, is haunted by an “apocalyptic discourse on population”, write Silke van Dyk, Stephan Lessenich, Tina Denninger and Anna Richter in the current issue of Mittelweg 36, dedicated to the sociology of ageing and old age. Yet in recent years a second discursive strand has been added to the debate on “ageing populations”, “shrinking societies” and “the burden of old age”: “the jubilant discovery of the resources and the potential of age, [where the elderly] are no longer seen as a supposed bad omen, as problem children in need of care, but as a chance and as a promise, as the source of self-salvation for an ageing society.”

“Does this mean that, under the aspect of demographic change, old age is soon to experience an improvement in social status?” ask the authors, who go on to provide an analysis of recent media and political discourse on the topic. “The elderly” addressed in this discourse are aged between 50 and 65; these “best agers”, although their creative and innovative abilities are somewhat reduced, can still be employed for the good of society. A win-win situation supposedly arises, where the elderly are integrated into society, and voluntarily “perform services that local governments cannot – or can no longer – pay full time staff to do”. Ultimately, according to the proponents of this theory, the social use of “inactive resources” will produce a positive image of ageing and old age.

The authors detect several blind spots and contradictions in this public discourse: “That old people are probably able to imagine their social integration being achieved in ways other than via the exhaustion of their potential, that the social use of potentials might perhaps not even be adequate to affording the wellbeing of old people, or that providing integration and acknowledgement can also sometimes bring with it economic costs – all that is more or less omitted from the discourse.”

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 5/2010

“Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s historic stature has served to magnify the artistic, intellectual and ethical complexity of his works”, write the editors of NLO in an introduction to a section reappraising the late novelist.

This writer was a dedicated opponent of modernism who nevertheless fits into the spectrum of voices within the space of Russian and European modernism; a moralist who admired the morally problematic novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Mikhail Bulgakov; a fighter against totalitarianism who on occasion expressed sympathy for some of the premises and practices of authoritarian states of the past or present; the purveyor of a universalizing ethical message whose public discourse was ethnocentric and highly argumentative.

Developing the critique, Joseph Pearce places Solzhenitsyn’s religious, anti-progressivist worldview within the twentieth-century conservative tradition, citing the Russian’s Anglo-American “confrères”; Harriet Murav examines essentialist and organicist conceptions of national identity in Solzhenitsyn’s controversial treatise Two Hundred Years Together; and Richard Tempest explores the author’s overt and covert (dis)engagement with Russian and European modernism.

Autofiction: French theorists, ever concerned with being one step ahead of the game, have come up with the concept of autofiction, writes Masha Levina-Parker. A “monstrous” hybrid of the referential and fictional, of the literary and theoretical, autofiction has become the object of heated polemics among French academics. What is predominant in autofiction: the “auto” or the “fiction”? Is autofiction a postmodernist phenomenon or a new stage in the development of a universal literary supra-tradition evolving since antiquity?

Also: Andrey Ranchin ironically compares the somewhat bleak celebration of Gogol’s bi-centenary in 2009 with a magnificent and pompous celebration of the Pushkin anniversary the same year.

The full table of contents of New Literary Observer 103 (2010)

In the international debate on human trafficking, a restrictive approach to migration as a whole is often proposed as the best way to stop the illegal trade in human beings. Indeed, the most important legal document in this field, the UN protocol on human trafficking, clearly recommends stronger control of migration as a way of dealing with trafficking. Wrong, writes migration expert Lisa Åkesson in Arena: Research shows that restrictive immigration policies and tighter control lead to even more trafficking and make the situation of the victims worse. “The more difficult and expensive it becomes to get into western Europe, the deeper the migrants sink into debt, and the more they depend on the help of others to cross borders. This increases the risk of them becoming victims of violence and exploitation. The only chance of getting rid of a large debt might be to sell sex.”

Tighter border controls and visa regulations will never stop people from trying to improve their lives by migrating, writes Åkesson. What such measures do result in is an increase in the value of these people – as commodities on the trafficking market.

Trafficking is about people’s dreams of a better life – and about what happens to those dreams when they encounter obstacles in the form of tightened migration controls. International migration policies fail to recognize this. In the EU, the construction of Fortress Europe is presented as an act of mercy towards the victims of trafficking. An extremely vulnerable group is being used to legitimize measures that make their situation even worse. This is deeply immoral.

Also: In a themed section on the Left and the economy, Swedish pundits try to answer the question as to why the Left has failed to make use of the financial crisis to present a coherent economic alternative to capitalism. Anna Hellgren’s simple but far reaching answer: “Because they can’t.” Not only has politics in general lost most of the means to regulate the market, the Social Democrats of the “Third Way”-type are very much responsible for that policy of deregulation, writes Hellgren.

The full table of contents of Arena 5/2010

In Edinburgh Review, political commentator Iain Macwhirter predicts that Conservative Party cuts will weaken the Scottish National Party in the Holyrood elections in May 2011. “It has long been the nationalist game plan to wait until there was a Conservative government in Westminster, bent on cutting the state, and then use popular hatred of the Tories to prise Scotland out of the UK. But unfortunately, history came up with something rather different in 2010: a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition in Westminster with Liberals placed largely in charge of Scottish affairs, and offering more powers to the Scottish parliament.”

Instead of engaging in “knee-jerk oppositionism”, the SNP has identified 1.6 billion pounds worth of cuts to the public service sector: a responsible decision, but one that is “likely to be devastating in a country where the public sector accounts for more than half the economy”. Now, writes Macwhirter, Scottish voters will turn to Labour as their champion. Labour has already launched “populist” attacks on the SNP, calling them the “Tories’ little helpers”, and, for Macwhirter, all the signs point towards a minority Labour government in Edinburgh in 2011.

Anything but ordinary: Author Janice Galloway reveals her lifelong fascination with Pieter Breugel the Younger, whose love of the “ordinary”, she believes, chimes with the Scottish character: “Scottish countryside is harder to tame than Flanders, perhaps; our history more bound to pragmatic cannyness and seesaw governance, but we are equally fascinated by folk as opposed to the notionally Great and Good. Mine is a country of strong egalitarian sentiments yet unsentimental contradiction. […] That Breugel saw people as significant in themselves – unexplained and various and simply being – was what rang home”.

The full table of contents of Edinburgh Review 130 (2010)

The latest issue of the Portuguese social sciences journal approaches the topic of violence, memory and representation via enquiries into post-dictatorships in Latin America. A focus on state violence and state terrorism runs alongside the question of justice in contexts of political transition. Drawing upon Holocaust theory as a paradigmatic framework for analysis, António Sousa Ribeiro emphasizes the issue of the reconstruction of identities in post-traumatic contexts, focusing on the issue of testimony as a space of translation and the production of authority:

Testimony offers a space where language can be reconstructed and, therefore, where a new sense of authority and a sense of community can emerge. The survivor claims the (albeit precarious) possibility of a future for him or herself as an author capable of articulating private memory via a collective discourse. As a performative act, testimony represents a dialogical event, where new meanings can emerge from the unsayable.

Also: A comparative analysis of transitional justice situations in Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru and Romania; enquiries into the strategies of state terrorism in Argentina, in particular regarding the question of the desaparecidos, the “missing persons” abducted and, in most cases, killed by the forces of repression; questions of representation of extreme violence in public discourse, but also in literature and in the cinema; women whose relatives have been killed during armed violence as a social movement with growing impact in Brazilian society; and the question of violence in the imaginary of the Portuguese far-Left in the final years of the fascist dictatorship.

The full table of contents of Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais 88 (2010)

No Bible translation can capture every nuance of the text. Biblical language is poetic and elliptical, replete with anagrams, transposition of sounds, alliteration and wordplay. Particularly difficult are the numerous “enantiosemes” – words or phrases that can be interpreted with two opposite meanings. Such devices are not unique to the Bible, but are present in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and other ancient languages. In an issue of Sens Public devoted to language and translation, Josette Larou-Tondeur takes a fresh look at these “problems”.

It is natural to think of them as practical difficulties of translation, and to minimize their impact. Larou-Tondeur proposes that we do the opposite, that we embrace the paradox as carrying religious and spiritual meaning. “The words of the Bible abound in paradoxes, which are dismissed because they destabilize. But repeated shocks are necessary for all development, be it intellectual, psychological or spiritual.”

This phenomenon is better known in the tantric religions of South Asia. There, the simultaneous presence of opposite meanings “destroys the habitual system of reference: it breaks through the profane universe to reach a spiritual and mystical universe which requires detachment from the world”. Mircea Eliade put this “union of opposites” at the centre of his theories of religious experience. Perhaps the effect of paradox in the Bible is similar, suggests Larou-Tondeur, deepening meaning and experience?

Idiom: Electronic translation tools may be the only way to meet the current demand for quick, cheap translations of large volumes of text, but they generally fail when confronted with figures of speech. Céline Vaguer tests two common translation programs and finds neither can accurately render into another language even half of a list of French idioms.

The development of idioms may be common to most or all languages, but the specific idioms chosen are a reflection of the culture associated with some language. So, for a human translator, “learning a language means learning a culture”. Vaguer suggests that the way forward is to systematically collect this human knowledge, developing large multilingual lexicons of phrases. These could then both form the basis for printed dictionaries, and be used to improve machine translation tools.

The full table of contents of Sens public 13-14 (2010)

Published 3 November 2010

Original in English
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