"Digital Scheherazades"

22 November 2005
Only in en
Osteuropa sees the good and the bad in informal politics; Samtiden finds Norwegian reporting on the US one-sided; Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) celebrates the rise of women and the media in the Arab world; Rigas Laiks makes us all look normal; FA-art discovers a future for the punk generation; and Varlik joins the debate on Jean-Paul Sartre.

Osteuropa 10/2005

Informal processes play a key role in politics. Their scope can reach from inofficial consulting agencies to corruption and mafia-like practices. Informality in politics, it seems, appears where formal institutions are wanting. However, informal politics need not necessarily be bad.

The new issue of Osteuropa looks into the mechanisms of when, where, and why informal politics play a major role in a democratic society. They not only infiltrate formal workings of democracy, says political scientist Silvia von Steinsdorff, looking at good and bad informality in East and West. At times, they can compensate for democracy’s weaknesses. Citizens should not only see the democratic procedures as legitimate but also the outcomes of politics. Informal practices in eastern and central Europe, she claims, follow their own rules, feeding on the legacy of centralized socialism and the side effects of the transformation process.

Sociologist Rafael Mrowczynski, in looking at the Soviet Union, shows that the socialist society followed the model of decentralizing centralization of economic and social activities. This emerged as inofficial networks developed within the complex hierarchies in the administration of the party state organization. He concludes that the increasing independence of these structures of interaction with respect to the centre was an important factor in the collapse of the socialist system.

Informal rules and practices are also omnipresent in Ukrainian politics, claims Kerstin Zimmer, sociologist in Marburg. The private and public spheres in Ukraine are barely separated, which leads to the misuse of the resources of the state apparatus for power politics, she says.

Case studies from the forestry sector show that hybrid administrations, in other words, administrations that for survival reasons have taken up commercial activities beyond their regulatory functions, facilitate the misappropriation of public resources for private use. In her article, “State, market, shadow economy: Survival strategies of Russian state institutions”, political scientist Barbara Lehmbruch illustrates how informal politics have corrupted Russia’s market economy. However, she concedes, in many respects they have allowed the state to fulfil its duties and responsibilities.

Also in the issue: a special focus dedicated to the recent parliamentary elections in Poland, in which the SLD, previously the party in power, suffered a spectacular defeat at the hands of the conservative and eurosceptic PiS and the liberal-conservative PO.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 10/2005.

Samtiden 4/2005

American politics are at the centre of world debate; Nato member state Norway is no exception. However, just like in other European countries, information about Uncle Sam comes mostly via national – Norwegian – media.

For one month, from mid-August to mid-September 2005, freelance journalist Jan Arild Snoen followed five major Norwegian dailies’ coverage of the US, filing daily reports on Samtiden‘s web site. Now, in the latest issue of the Norwegian journal, he summarizes his project, and heavily criticizes his colleagues for being biased – or rather, for all being biased in the same way.

Snoen – who has declared that, were he an American, he would have voted for George W. Bush in the last elections, and would have supported the war in Iraq – shows how facts are selected to fit the Bush-critical narrative. Even if individual journalists are doing a good job, we have a collective problem when all journalists sympathize with one side of the American debate, he writes. “It is, of course, not anti-American to be against George W. Bush. However, the fact that for the ordinary Norwegian reader, who gets all his or her information via the Norwegian media, it seems utterly incomprehensible that anyone can vote for this man – that is a real problem.”

Jan Arild Snoen’s daily commentaries have been archived and can be read online (in Norwegian), including links to the lively debate triggered by the project.

Also to look out for: a long and adventurous interview with internationally renowned peace researcher and UN adviser Johan Galtung, who strikes a blow for dialogue, even with the Wahhabites and the Talibans; two texts on the connections between literature and life (Nikolaj Frobenius and Adelheid E. Seyfarth Guldbrandsen); and a Norwegian translation of Jens-Martin Eriksen‘s and Frederik Stjernfelt‘s interview with two of the figureheads of Serbian nationalism.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 4/2005.

Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 11/2005

Highlight of the November issue of German Le Monde diplomatique is author and sociologist Fatima Mernissi‘s article, “On Arab women who build ports“. The title refers to Shaikha Lubna al-Qasimi, United Arab Emirates minister for planning and economics. Al-Qasimi, the nation’s first female minister, was awarded the post on the back of her success in the modernization and digitization of the Port of Dubai. Al-Qasimi is one of many women across the Arab world to have risen to the top of government and business. Why is it, asks Mernissi, that Arab men are beginning to invest in women’s talents?

A clue lies in the mythical figure of Scheherazade, narrator of “The Arabian nights”, and a rare female heroine in Islamic mythology. One of her stories tells how Princess Zubaida had a water duct built on the road to Mecca for the refreshment of weary pilgrims. Zubaida was a factual figure; the events occurred in 170 AH (786 AD), and indicate the unprecedented power granted to her by her husband, Prince Harun al-Rashid. Al-Rashid was a progressive: as the one to introduce paper production into the Arab world, he wanted Islam to become a culture of communication, rather than a military might.

According to Mernissi, male Arab elites today have the same ambition. She is delighted at journalist Hugh Miles’ prediction that Al-Jazeera’s new English language service will soon rival the BBC and CBC: it is vastly preferable, she says, that competition between East and West be conducted through the media, rather than with bombs. And spearheading the Arab world’s cultural mission are today’s “digital Scheherazades”.

Elsewhere in the issue: “Shadow-state Gasprom“. Sonja Margolina, author of “Wodka. Trinken und Macht in Russland”, writes on how the Russian oil giant is controlled by a coterie of Putin loyalists intent on reinstating Russia’s superpower status. Their answer to the recently completed trans-Caucasian pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast was the deal made with the outgoing German government to pipe oil to western Europe under the Baltic Sea. In denying Poland and the Baltic States transit privileges, says Margolina, Gasprom is using its pipelines to bend neighbouring countries to its will.

And: a dossier on nuclear politics in the run-up to this week’s IAEA meeting in Vienna. Georges Le Guelte of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) looks back on the progress of the international Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1968, the NPT divided the world into two camps: those countries who had conducted nuclear tests, and those who agreed not to imitate them. Today, the NPT has 189 signatories. Nevertheless, the nuclear powers’ control over worldwide production remains tenuous, as developments in North Korea and Iran show.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 11/2005.

Rigas Laiks 11/2005

The theme of the latest issue of Rigas Laiks is the bizarre (in literature, politics, and religion). The articles and interviews in the issue portray people who have deliberately altered their concept of reality to such an extent that, in contrast to them, we are able to recover our own sense of normalcy.

“The joy of small places” by Pauls Bankovskis deals with the portrayal of Latvians and Riga in world literature of the past decade. The main source of inspiration for the article is “Thicker than water“, a story by Gina Ochsner published in The New Yorker. She draws a phantasmagoric picture of a small village not far from Riga, populated by immigrant Russian Jews, who are habitually humiliated by Latvian nationalists.

The story opens in an almost apocalyptic fashion: “In the spring of 1988, Vasya Brkic, waking from a dream in which she was a wolf, bit her husband’s neck and killed him in the bed they shared. The following spring, Marti Cosic, a saxophonist in a klezmer band, went crazy and killed his fellow band members – all seven of them – then beat himself to death with his saxophone.” Bankovskis criticizes Ochsner’s idea that such a village could exist, putting it down to “either the ultimate ignorance or an amusing case of artistic license”.

Moving even further into the bizarre is an interview with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the Republic of Kalmykia (an autonomous republic in Russia), and perhaps one of the strangest personalities in world politics. In addition to leading this small, oil-rich nation, Ilyumzhinov is also chairman of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), a friend of the Dalai Lama, and a millionaire. “I walk at the fore of the Kalmyk nation, and it’s not befitting of a leader to ever look over his shoulder. A mob is a mob,” says Ilyumzhinov, whose political career has long since become a jumble of facts and fiction.

Ilmars Zvirgzds’ article “The Utopian” describes a recent visit to Latvia by Vissarion, the leader of the Last Testament religious sect and self-proclaimed Son of God. His Siberian Sun City, where he lives with a thousand of his fanatic followers who gave up all of their worldly possessions to start anew, is allegedly destined to be the only place that will survive Judgement Day. Provided that faith can exist without reason, Vissarion’s maxim should suffice to live by: “Listen to your conscience, be childlike, and let your heart, not your mind, show the way.”

The full table of contents of Rigas Laiks 11/2005.

FA-art 59 (2005)

The literary quarterly FA-art, established in 1988 by students of the University of Silesia in Katowice, focuses on young Polish and central European literature. Each issue typically contains prose and poetry, cultural essays, reviews, and polemics. Once a year an extended edition is published devoted to new literary trends in central and eastern Europe (previous editions have covered Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, and Slovenia). In addition, FA-art has published several volumes of prose and poems. Iconoclastic and rebellious, the quarterly openly contests Polish mainstream literary journals, challenges critical establishment, and promotes the literary avant-garde.

In the latest issue, Rafal Zieba reflects on the fate of the punk generation, thirty-somethings whose cultural and political initiation took place during the alternative-rock boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s, against the background of political change, cultural revolution, and economic transformation, Zieba’s band “The Fluffy Bears” (a reference to the 1980s punk hit) remained outsiders. They did not jump on the bandwagon of post-communist politics, failed to adapt to the pro-business culture of the market economy, and chose to ignore popular trends promoted by the mass media. Yet Zieba’s article is not a typical lament for another “lost generation”. Rather, it hails personal integrity, healthy scepticism, and irony as remedies to the confusing reality of society in transition.

In an insightful essay, Pawel Stangret analyzes the artistic manifestos of Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), painter, art theoretician, and above all a leading innovator in twentieth-century Polish theatre. Thoroughly researched and elegantly argued, Stangret’s re-examination of Kantor’s art and language reintroduces the reader to the complex methodology, convictions, and artistic inspirations of the founder of the Krakow Group and the Cricot 2 theatre. Among other issues, Stangret discusses Kantor’s polemic with English stage designer Edward Gordon Craig, as well as his attacks on the institutionalization of theatrical revolution and the absorption of the avant-garde into the mainstream.

Further articles include: reviews of Dubravka Ugresic’s “Fording the stream of consciousness” and Elfriede Jelinek’s “Women as lovers”; and three editors of “FA-art” – Dariusz Nowacki, Krzysztof Unilowski, and Krzysztof Soloducha – polemicize Michal Witkowski’s novel about gay subculture, “Lubiewo”.

The full table of contents of FA-art 59 (2005).

Varlik 11/2005

Turkish journal Varlik joins the debate on Jean-Paul Sartre surrounding his centenary this year. His synthesis of philosophy and radical politics made JPS the prototype of the twentieth-century intellectual: “He is philosophy expressed in the state of exhilaration”, writes Yücel Kayiran, “he is socialness”. As a poet well-known for his “philosophical” style, Kayiran himself has a debt to acknowledge to Sartre.

Cem Devici, political philosopher at the University of Ankara, makes more modest claims for Sartre’s legacy. He points out that when the philosopher died in 1980, European, and above all French intellectuals had rejected Sartre’s humanism: metaphysical and essentialist, it committed all the cardinal sins of post-structuralism. In his essay, Devici exhumes the remains of Sartre’s humanism.

Sartre belonged to the era of the organic intellectual, when philosophy was thought to be universal knowledge, untainted by the social and political. Essayist Yasar Günes argues that Sartre distinguished himself from his contemporaries in admitting the susceptibility of his own discourse to political inconsistency. In this respect, says Günes, the philosopher spanned the passage into postmodernity. Completing the Sartre item: Ismail Demirodöven on “man” and “society”; Mehmet Rifat on Sartre’s vulgarization; and four philosophers answer questions on Sartre past and present.

Elsewhere in the issue: authors remember the recently deceased writer and poet Atilla Ilhan, a cult figure during his lifetime because of his Kemalist-republican politics. Hasan Bülent Kahraman, social scientist at Istanbul Sabinci University and former Radikal journalist, looks behind Ilhan’s public persona at a private man who, despite his extroversion, doubted the possibility of overcoming loneliness. And finally: literary critic Semih Celenk on Harold Pinter, whose political campaigning, including criticizing human rights violations in Turkey, has attracted as much attention as his work for the theatre. Which Pinter received the Nobel Prize, asks Celenk: the playwright or the campaigner?

The full table of contents of Varlik 11/2005.

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Published 22 November 2005

Original in English
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