Every bastard a king

10 March 2010
Only in en
Mute navigates the mediarchipelago; Osteuropa locates Khodorkovsky’s Rubicon; Samtiden warns a species headed for self-destruction; Ny Tid goes gender neutral; Dilema veche considers fast-food religion and other less fashionable phenomena; Vikerkaar recommends social democracy as antidote to Estonia-ization; Arche has seen Lukashenka’s economic policy somewhere/ before; Revista Crítica uses biography for empowerment; and Ord&Bild measures the distance between us and the living.

Mute 14 (2009)

In Mute, Daniel Miller writes in dystopic-dyspeptic mode on the depletion of public space and the atomization of digital society: “Everyone at the centre of their own virtual universe. Every bastard a king.” As the “ideological frenzy” of modernism gives way to “computerized content management systems”, and as global megacities render the urban grid and its certainties obsolete, societies of discipline become societies of control.

“Modernist culture […] succumbs to a thousand niche-market cuts, whipped raw by Chris Anderson’s ‘long tail’ and decomposed into tribes by Mark J. Penn’s ‘microtrends’. […] The new media-architecture begins to manipulate smaller units. The birth, from the ruins, of the negative centre, issues the coup de grâce. The centre is robbed of its sovereignty.”

Miller envisions a “mediarchipelago” of discrete worldview-confirming web communities, globalization as fracture: “The new architecture of power creeps into homes and offices, locking the door to connect to a server in Moscow, shattering the self through the proliferation of windows, and syncopating the rhythm of the public/private divide.”

The hive: Gifford Hartman describes how boxed bees are imported from China, awoken out of their winter hibernation in the California summer, and set to work pollinating the world’s largest almond plantations. Organisms become as pliable as the information flows that order the global trade, he writes. Yet human fate is also tied up with that of the bees quite literally, because bees pollinate our crops. A collapse in the bee population would be fatal for humans.

The full table of contents of Mute 14 (2009)

Osteuropa 1/2010

Osteuropa publishes the correspondence (English in openDemocracy) between Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oligarch and Russia’s most debated prisoner. “For some you’re a fighter and an important political figure”, Ulitskaya writes, “for others a monster”.

“I think of myself as a Voltairean”, Khodorkhovsky replies, “a supporter of free thinking, of freedom of speech. Yeltsin was my ideal in this sense, as G. A. Yagodin was before him. Working with them did not inspire any feelings of inner protest in me. The destruction of [the independent TV channel] NTV became my ‘Rubicon’.”

But before that, objects Ulitskaya, “you had somehow managed to go on working closely with a government which was increasingly losing any sense of decency”. Khodorkhovsky’s answer is frank: “I took a long time to understand the importance of human values. It was when I did, that I rebelled. This was in 2001 – the NTV affair and the uprising was ‘on its knees’. But then the question arose at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs: what comes first – property or freedom of speech? NTV’s debts to Gazprom were real. At that point I came to the conclusion that the one can’t exist without the other, and I gave NTV 200 million dollars. Which was then used in the charges against me.”

“I am not a revolutionary. If NTV had been preserved, perhaps I would have paid less attention to the other events. In general, I would not have wanted to ‘stand out’, and I would have left ‘politics’ to more active ‘comrades’. Just as I always had. But this time I couldn’t do it. I felt as if I were being strangled.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 1/2010

Samtiden 1/2010

In Samtiden, Danish writer Carsten Jensen cites his eleven year old daughter, who asks: “Will I have children? And what about grandchildren?” She is worried about the future of the earth, surrounded as she is by reports of a planet in crisis. She genuinely wonders if there is a future at all.

“We are not the first civilization to face the threat of collapse. It is possible that our predecessors in the art of self-destruction, highly developed civilizations such as the Mayas or the Cambodian Khmer, saw themselves as the only real humans, and therefore thought that the end of their way of life was the end of the world. The difference between them and us is just that this time, it is true.”

Today, continues Jensen, there is a global middle class with a radical rhetoric but a conservative lifestyle. “They are the self-nurturing children of the present with a strong and inconsequential empathy towards a whole range of global issues, who in their own lives oppose all and any change. […] The question ‘Will I have children?’ has no meaning to them, since they have never seriously worried about the future.”

Tepid calls for change are insufficient, writes Jensen. “In times of war, entire populations have been able to join forces and demonstrate unprecedented courage and discipline.” This is what we need now. But by the time the consequences of global warming are strong enough to really frighten us, it will be too late, he fears.

Also: Sven Egil Omdal on the fall and possible rise of the news media. He suggests redirecting financial support directly to journalists rather than continuing to penalize advertisers and readers with increasing prices for decreasing quality. And Geir Gulliksen feels that calling himself a man is too limiting and looks for a reapplication of language that allows for a wider spectrum of maleness that includes female qualities.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 1/2010

Ny Tid 9/2010

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Helsinki-based Finno-Swedish weekly Ny Tid publishes an issue dedicated solely to gender equality. The most striking thing with this issue is not the articles as such, but the use of gender neutral personal pronouns throughout the magazine. Instead of “han” (Swedish for he) or “hon” (she), authors use the invented pronoun “hen”.

Hence, as the acclaimed illustrator of children’s books Linda Bondestam welcomes the interviewer Angela Oker-Blom into her home, the scene is described like this: “Everything in hir surroundings serves as material for the illustrated stories that ze fills with strange creatures born out of the magical encounter of the pen with the paper.”

Rita Paqvalén sketches the history of this practice and explains its purpose. In the English language context, writer and activist Kate Bornstein – who was born Albert and underwent a sex change operation in the 1980s – has loudly propagated the use of the gender neutral pronoun “ze” and its possessive form “hir”. In Swedish, the pronouns “hen” and “henom” were introduced in the 1990s, but are barely used outside queer-feminist publications such as the magazine Ful.

“Pronouns make gender, they freeze flexibility and diversity”, says Paqvalén. “The sometimes playful but always fundamentally serious attempts to circumvent the use of gender specific pronouns can highlight language’s limiting, performative and normative practices. Practices that sometimes don’t fit and therefore hurt.”

More about Ny Tid

Dilema veche 311-314 (2010)

Romanian yuppies, following western trends, have been turning to feng shui, yoga and New Age, reports Dilema veche (issue 315). These new forms of “religion with substitutes” (a pun on the coffee available during the Ceausescu period) ignore fundamental questions about the human condition and instead provide immediate recipes for wellbeing.

Nevertheless, attempts to count ecology among these “fast-food religions” are vigorously resisted by Remus Cernea, the leader of the Romanian Green Party. In an exchange with Cristian Ghinea, he insists that “it makes rational sense” to be green. Countering philosopher Stephen T. Asma’s claim that, as classical religions decline, people channel their guilt and frustrations through ecology, Cernea argues that “just because passion and faith are elements of religion doesn’t mean that they are always of a religious nature”.

Jazz: Contributors to a dossier on jazz (issue 312) discuss why in Romania jazz is even more marginal than elsewhere. “Jazz is a movement, not a musical genre”, comments Paul Tutungiu, a trader of jazz CDs. “It needs work, participation, effort, schools, teachers, events, tradition, talent, a respectful audience, clubs, advertising.” Musician Mircea Tiberian adds (in issue 315) that, “the jazz phenomenon appeared in Romania late, in a hostile environment, under the dictatorship. When it finally had the chance to profit from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the global crisis in music began, with attention switching to the visual arts.” Yet despite the legal, economic and cultural obstacles faced by jazz musicians in Romania, success stories do exist. Jazz musicians, notes Tiberian, willingly “pay a social price for the happiness of living in the musical land of uncertainty and free expression.”

Also: Cultural anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu describes how the market economy has created a new, profit-driven human nature (issue 311). The presumption of innocence, where people act on the basis of honour, has been replaced by a presumption of guilt, where people act on the basis of self-interest. With the fading of honour as a core value, social trust is lost. Societies make up for this through legal safeguards and quality controls.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 311-314 (2010)

Vikerkaar 1-2/2010

In Vikerkaar, Marju Lauristin reflects on the future of social democracy in Estonia. “The moral core of social democracy is the concept of inalienable social rights based on human dignity”, she writes, in particular that of the less well off, the old, and the disabled.

Unfortunately, the Soviet experience means Estonians associate social democracy less with solidarity and the redistribution of public goods than with class struggle and shortages, regrets Lauristin. While there is growing awareness of the inadequacy of purely economic success, there is still a yawning gap between the verbal acknowledgement of social values and their political implementation.

In most European countries, Lauristin argues, the old fear of poverty has for some time been tempered by a fear of immigrants and violent conflict. “But what are the new fears against which twenty-first century social democracy should brandish its sword? In a globalizing world focused on profit, Europe is falling into the grip of a fear very familiar to Estonians – the fear of cultural extinction. This fear drives growing conservatism and isolationism, […] reinforcing cultural borders with myths and walls.” Social democracy, with its tradition of solidarity, can advance dialogue between different cultures and encourage transnational cooperation in averting new global threats.

“Fear of the irreversible pollution and decay of the social and mental environment essential for human development, the threatened state of humankind under the sway of unlimited market competition deprived of foresight, may prove to be the force that gives new impetus to social democracy and make it attractive in the eyes of new generations.”

Sci-Fi: Jaak Tomberg considers how the pace of technological progress has led to the convergence of realism and science fiction. “The alienating and frightening novelty of industrial technology, formerly the main source of inspiration for science fiction, has, as a result of the convergence of reality and the technological sublime, been transferred to cultural reality as a whole.” The only way to write science fiction nowadays is to write about the immediate present; realistic descriptions, as illustrated by extracts from William Gibson’s novels, produce a “science-fiction feeling”.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 1-2/2010

Arche 11-12/2009

In Arche, Andrej Dynko infers the health of the Belarusian economy from official statistics, which despite political distortion, represent basic tendencies. Overall, he writes, the economy is not performing too badly. Nevertheless, Belarusian exports have been hit hard and foreign debt (above all towards Russia and the IMF) could soon reach 20 million dollars, or 36 per cent of the GDP. That would be a record, writes Dynko, working out at 2050 dollars per citizen, “including infants and kolkhoz pensioners”.

A sharp increase in the price of Russian gas – though Belarus still gets a hefty discount – only partly explains the trade deficit and level of borrowing. Another factor has been an expensive programme of economic modernization. By using credit to create the basis of a modern economy, Lukashenka is following a strategy similar to that of Gierek in Poland, Tito in Yugoslavia and Ceausescu in Romania. In the short term it is about reacting to the economic crisis, in the long term about cementing political power.

Nevertheless, there are factors for change in Belarus, writes Dynko: along with the desire for modernization, there is the fear of Russian capital and a growing consciousness of national identity. Taken together, these are preparing the ground for a political re-orientation. “Given the continuous rise of foreign debt”, however, “immediate political changes are out of the question.”

War of myths: The main topic of the issue is the conflict-ridden Belarusian historiography. Several authors heavily criticize a book by the historian Ihar Marzaliuk, which sets out to junk the myth of national rebirth in Belarusian history writing. Vasil Auramenka calls for more tolerance among the proponents of the various historical schools and political camps. After all, “the war of myths” is a war over ideas, waged between historians and historical schools, and not between politicians, parties or common people.

The full table of contents of Arche 11-12/2009

Revista Crtica de Cincias Sociais 85 (2009)

In Revista Crítica, Elsa Lechner advocates “biographical practice” as a way to allow sociological subjects to articulate themselves. Referring to her research on migrants in France, Portugal and Brazil, Lechner writes that, “the production of a new discourse about oneself and the world, the transition from silence to the articulated word, goes along with a process of resilience that allows subjects to reconstruct themselves. Such a process may consist in the simple resistance to oppressive conditions, in the overcoming of difficulties, or in true emancipation.”

Lechner proposes bringing together researchers and laymen with a view to creating a civic epistemology, to the co-production of knowledge, and to the construction of social cohesion. “From a social-political point of view, biographical work with migrants is a way of implementing a dynamics of empowerment. It consists in giving people the power, liberty and information that will allow them to make decisions and actively participate in the collective. […] To empower means in this sense to recognize everyone without exception as being indispensable, thus preventing exclusion.”

Dynamics of diversity: In an article on the “narrow straits of the Portuguese economy”, José Reis argues that the dominant discourse on globalization obscures the importance of the dynamics of diversity that are a vital aspect of all economic organization. Reis offers a diagnosis of the situation of the Portuguese economy against the background of the economic and financial crisis. The Portuguese economy remains based on the extensive use of labour, lacks innovation and suffers from mismanagement. As a result, there is no fair redistribution of wealth. This can only be corrected by a rise in productivity, argues Reis, which would produce a greater degree of redistributive justice.

Also: The mismanagement of water resources in Brazil as case study of the elitist and technocratic approach to environmental problems; the social and political effects of the economic crisis on the industrial region of Sao Paulo; and the decline of the phonographic and publishing industries as social spaces.

The full table of contents of Revista Crítica de CiÊncias Sociais 85 (2009)

In an Ord&Bild issue entitled “Distance” – the first under the auspices of newly appointed editor-in-chief Martin Engberg – Peter Gärdenfors writes about the importance of having a broad outlook on life. “Adopting to life on the savannah, our ancestors were faced with new challenges. They had to cover large distances, and the search for food called for long-term planning. Ecology forced early humans to broaden their outlook in time and space. But the forces of selection also influenced their inner worlds. The story about the origin of human reason is intimately connected to how man has been able to broaden his horizons.”

Gärdenfors, professor of cognitive science at the University of Lund, is convinced that a wide horizon makes us more rational and more ethical. If so, what does this mean for today’s education system? The classic ideal of a broad education (Bildung) cannot be realized without a certain type of curiosity that allows the individual unlimited freedom to choose his or her own routes to knowledge. That is very far from a system focused on what is immediately “useful”.

Technological distance: In philosophical yet exquisite prose, writer and mathematician Helena Granström describes the symbolic space created by technology, where everything has to be mediated: nature through art, emotion through language, language through writing. Here, the presence of the other must be transmitted in his absence, via phone or television: “What does your body know about that of the other when you have never touched, what does it know about his doubts when doubt is nothing but a word, what about his longing when his longing is a sign on a screen?”

There is always a sign, says, Granström. Always a technology. “Between you and the living there is always something dead.”

Also to look out for: Emma Eldelin on the stereoscope, “a revolution in the history of seeing”; Leif Holmstrand on the pornographic novel Hogg by Samuel R. Delany, which has recently been published in Swedish translation; and, something of a sensation, a previously unpublished poem by Willy Granqvist (1948-1985).

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 5/2009

Published 10 March 2010

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


recommended articles