Habsburgia reduced to its urban core

1 December 2010
Only in en
Transit encounters eastern Europe with Tony Judt; Polar advances (critically) into a brighter future; Critique & Humanism debates the challenge to democracy; Springerin dissects the Solidarnosc logo; Samtiden sees the Norwegian pendulum swing from diversity to assimilation; Vikerkaar finds charlatans thriving at scientific conferences; Roots joins a readers’ circle interpreting Marx anew; and Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) works out in cyberspace.

Transit pre-prints an exclusive excerpt from Tony Judt’s book Thinking the Twentieth Century (forthcoming in August 2011), in which the late historian reconstructs his political-intellectual development and discusses with co-author Timothy Snyder the “deep structure” of twentieth century history. The excerpt deals with Judt’s encounter with eastern Europe in the 1980s, which took place on both an intellectual and a personal level as Judt came into contact with Polish and Czech dissident circles: “I found myself in the course of those years slipping comfortably into another world, taking my place upon an alternative timeline: one that had probably been there implicitly lurking below the surface, moulded by a past of which I had only ever been half conscious.”

Judt depicts western Europe’s intellectual relations with eastern Europe during the 1970s and ’80s as the history of ideological disillusion (Kolakowski hovers over the entire discussion). After ’68, the western Left began either to identify with the “respectable Marxism” of Gramsci et al., which “came at the price of detachment from the actual history of the twentieth century”; or it took up the cause of dissidence and its westernized, literary offspring: the idea of “Central Europe”. The latter, argues Judt, “was the image of ‘Habsburgia’ reduced to its urban core”, a Central Europe stripped of “its problematic history and internal conflicts”; or as Snyder puts it, “the ugly reality”. Not only that: “serious currents of thought” in the region were ignored.

“Central Europe has so much big and problematic history in the twentieth century that its more subtle intellectual and social and cultural currents are virtually invisible to outsiders,” says Judt. “Eastern Europe doesn’t just want sympathy and support; it wants to be understood. And it wants to be understood for itself, rather than for the western purposes to which it can be applied. And my experience of engaging with Central Europeans of all kinds, at every political and generational level, from the Sixties through the Nineties, was always defined by their sense of not being understood.”

Market mysticism: Roman Frydman and Michael D. Goldberg excoriate the faith in the “rationality” of markets: “Economists’ incoherent premises have led them to embrace absurd conclusions — for example, that unfettered financial markets set asset prices nearly perfectly at their ‘true’ fundamental value. […] Unfortunately, many officials worldwide came to believe this claim, known as the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’, resulting in the massive deregulation of the late 1990s and early 2000s that made the crisis more likely, if not inevitable.”

Also: Cornelia Klinger analyses justice as precondition of modernity in terms of the revolutionary tricoleur of freedom, equality and fraternity.

The full table of contents of Transit 40 (2010)

“Today, optimism about progress seems passé,” write the editors of Polar, introducing an issue entitled “A better tomorrow”. “If there can be no going back to a golden age of the past, then things should at least remain as they are.” Yet “our society will only be able to muster the strength to make the necessary transformations in the social and ecological fields if we re-discover and re-formulate the notion of progress”.

If anything carries the banner of progress today, it is digital communications technologies. However the effects of the new technologies are ambiguous, write Isa Jahnke and Dorothea Voss-Dahm. In the educational field, for example, necessary attempts to incorporate digital media have over-emphasized technology per se, with the result that the majority of students are able to use the new computer systems in “an operative sense, [but] lack the competence to understand or perceive the problems associated with personal data, how it is processed and possibly abused”.

Generational divides along the lines of digital technologies negatively affect the world of work. In the IT branch, where internationally networked staff bid for contracts tendered internally, “digital natives” see project work as “the continuation of their existing communicative model” and thus have the competitive edge over older colleagues. Yet “whether technical innovations accompany social regress or progress depends on how the differing generational media competence is used and embedded culturally.” The innovative and democratizing potential of digital technologies remains an empty promise without the older generation’s “ability to anticipate consequences, its critical approach to things and persons”.

Public sphere: Web 2.0 is a world without controversy and discussion, according to Geert Lovink in an interview first published in Broadsheet magazine. Of course, some blogs do provide valuable commentary on daily news, but that does not necessarily create a rich and diverse public discourse. “If you already know what you want to achieve, and have the ability to create organizational ‘crystals’ (as Elias Canetti calls them), then Web 2.0 is a perfect set of tools. But if you find yourself amongst a scene of busy youngsters and vague people that have a hard time navigating the contradictory complexities of late postmodernism, then it’s most likely only to be a short-lived adventure.”

Also: The failure of the philosophy of history in the revolutionary Marxist sense has meant that the philosophy of history has been consigned to oblivion wholesale. History, however has continued. The result is that we now lack an “image” of history that allows us to date the present, argues Arnd Pollmann.

The full table of contents of Polar 9 (2010)

An English language edition of Critique & Humanism, entitled “Challenges to representative democracy today”, brings Bulgarian philosophers and theorists to an international audience. The aim of the issue, write the editors, “is not to take basic terms and concepts of political philosophy and social theory for granted, but to critically test and revise them in the light of the new challenges facing contemporary societies”.

Boyan Znepolski considers the intellectual trajectory of French sociologist Luc Boltanski. The “pragmatist turn” in the critical sociology of the 1980s is reversed in Boltanski’s more recent thought, writes Znepolski, as new and complex forms of domination demand that sociology reclaim “critical exclusivity”. “Social critique has become radicalized, shifting to the left, and when viewed from its new perspective, Habermas proves to be in the zone of conformism. The very idea of communicative rationality aimed at reaching consensus, that is, civic unity, proves to be largely discredited and impossible.”

In Boltanski’s analysis, capitalist “displacements” to the world of work fundamentally alter the class structure of society: “The dominant class cannot be identified clearly in social and ideological terms, nor can its domination be clearly deciphered. […] In this situation, critical sociology seems to have no other option but […] to critique democracy in the name of democracy.” Here Boltanski differs to other critical social theorists of his generation in advocating social change within the framework of democracy. “If this endeavour fails,” writes Znepolski, “then the other idiom of social critique will take the upper hand — a radical critique where the first condition for unlocking the social imagination is disassembling the restrictive emblem ‘democracy’. After Luc Boltanski comes Alain Badiou.”

Agonism: “The dominant tendency in liberal thought is unable to envisage the pluralistic nature of the social world, with the conflicts that pluralism entails, conflicts for which no rational system could ever exist,” writes Chantal Mouffe. “One of the main tenets of this kind of liberalism is the rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason. No wonder that the political constitutes its blind spot.”

Mouffe’s notion of agonistic politics — or antagonism “tamed” — has long been recognized as an alternative to normative concepts of the political. In a new text, she demonstrates that concepts of agonism deriving from Arendt and Nietzsche downplay the antagonism that is constitutive for the political: namely, the possibility for the agonism between “adversaries” to become antagonism between “enemies”.

Media and politics: The marketization of the media combines with digital technology to create a political order determined by public opinion, writes Ivaylo Ditchev. For political decision-making, the question whether opinion is right or wrong becomes secondary to its legitimacy as a form of feedback.

The full table of contents of Critique & Humanism 35 (2010)

“The role played in […] system changes by a particular type of ‘political design’ has all too often been overlooked”, write the editors of Springerin in an issue on political (graphic) design: “It is high time to move this segment of graphic quotidian culture into the centre of active remembrance in order to fill an important gap in the critical-materialist history of such sea changes.”

The emblem of the Solidarnosc movement, designed by Jerzy Janiszewski in 1980, has become “the iconic logo of twentieth-century social history”, writes Keiko Sei: “The logo had such a power for trade unionists and other activists that it was used and copied by a myriad of citizens movements throughout the entire world. […] It probably influenced the course things took, possibly altered history — it was political design”. Yet political design in and of itself does not trigger political or social change, continues Sei, citing Lawrence Weschler’s analysis of Solidarnosc: “Political images need to possess authority in order to function, however they can only reproduce the authority and authenticity of the political context that produced them. They cannot give life to empty politics, and empty politics will deprive them of their own life. Strong politics enables strong images and vice versa.”

Yet the importance of the logo for forming the community of the Solidarnosc movement was as great as was the speed with which it became the object of conflict after 1989, write Maks Bochenek and Aneta Szylak. In 1990, Lech Walesa denied the Solidarnosc newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza the right to use the logo. This and other quarrels revolved around “the misuse and formal distortion of the icon, which not only served the purposes of politics or the public sphere, but was also used by marketing strategists. On the other hand, the constantly changing holders of political office, who built their programmes on the anti-communist foundation, claimed their exclusive right to be identified with the Solidarnosc symbol, and at the same time denied other groupings this same right.”

The full table of contents of Springerin 4/2010

In the spring of 2009, it was decided that Norwegian police would allow officers to wear religious headgear, writes Aina Hammer in Samtiden. The ensuing media debate turned into such a storm that the minister of justice and the police, Knut Storberget, was hospitalized from the pressure. The debate split into two groups: the “uniformity group” who thought that minorities in Norway should adapt and the police should be faith-neutral, and the “diversity group” who believed that the incorporation of symbols would lead to increased trust in the police among the minorities. Eventually, the decision was reversed and the uniform remained uniform. But why is either important, and where do the ideals come from? asks Hammer.

“When the state of Norway was first established, there were two culturally different groups within its borders — Sami and Norwegians. The national minorities have a long history and can be divided into kvener, skogfinner (“forest-Finns”), travellers, Jews and Roma. The first three have a place in Norwegian history dating back to the 1500s. […] The Sami is a national minority in a human rights sense and they are also indigenous to Norway.”

Cultural plurality is, in other words, nothing new. And Norway has once before attempted to forcibly assimilate a minority — the Sami people — by prohibiting their language in school, forcing their children to attend boarding schools where only Norwegian was allowed to be spoken, and forbidding Sami language in church services and among civil servants. “It is a chilling example of how far one was willing to go in order to erase the cultural characteristics of a minority.”

“Ever since the attempts at Norwegianizing the Sami people turned out to be an erroneous integration strategy, there has been widespread political agreement that the principle of mirroring the population [in employment policies] is the right path to follow. Are we now seeing the pendulum return to assimilation politics or does the police debate represent a unique case?” asks Hammer in cautious conclusion.

Small fish, big pond: The Norwegian minister of foreign affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, on how a country like Norway defends its national and international interests in times of change and how it retains its integrity under pressure.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 4/2010

Predicting the future, suggests Hasso Krull, is like riddling a riddle — it amounts to unfolding what is implicit in the present, just as the riddle’s answer lies hidden inside it, rolled into it from outside in. The future is born out of what we want in the present.

The desire to know the future has prompted different cultures to employ different kinds of divination; of setting out, in the form of a riddle, what is implicit in the present, and then explicating it. However, in all types of divination, be it ancient ritual or modern scientific prognosis, the personality of the diviner plays an important role. The prophet must be someone who is not only familiar with tradition and history, but also maintains a certain distance to what might seem obvious to others.

But what if the prophet, the diviner, is not impartial? What if he himself formulates the riddle with an eye to the solution he aims to get? “This is the risk run, in particular by modern scientific prognoses, where experts themselves collect the necessary data, choose (or even invent) the method appropriate for their analysis, and finally interpret the results.”

A frightening case in point is provided by the debates of the last 15 years over climate change, claims Krull. Each research group seems to predict exactly what those who finance it expect, and each ominous result is countered by a new research project refuting it. “Nowadays you don’t recognize the charlatans by their moving tables or by their gazing into coffee dregs — no, they are holding scientific conferences! This means that before listening to an expert opinion, we should first obtain an expert opinion about the experts.”

Be happy! Literary critic Jaanus Adamson reads Susan Sontag, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, trying to find out whether it is possible to be happy, and how happiness relates to morality, in the face of the suffering and death.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 10-11/2010

Macedonian Roots republishes Anders Ramsay’s Fronesis essay on how to read Karl Marx in the twenty-first century. Now that Marxism is dead and buried, so it goes, we can read Marx afresh. Yet to do so, writes the Swedish sociologist, old interpretations of Marx need to be corrected. Among them, that which sees money and credit as surface phenomena, based on Marx’s naturalistic understanding of value as being inherent in a commodity. This strand of Marxism overlooks the contemporary role played by credit in the reproduction of capital.

Read properly, “Marx’s critique of political economy enters right into the centre of modern social science, and one can no longer so easily discard it as an obsolete paradigm of production, as a philosophy of consciousness, or of the subject, or of anything of that kind, as is done by convention within the neo-platonic theory of communication.”

Time has finally come for a reception of Marx, not “beyond Marx” (as Negri would put it) but “beyond Marxism”.

Also: In “Geopolitics of memory”, meanwhile translated into six languages, Tatiana Zhurzhenko suggests that before we talk about European solidarity, we need to trace the emergent fault lines running through eastern European memory. The controversy around the statue of the Soviet soldier in Tallinn in April 2007 provided a striking demonstration that Russia remains both an external and an internal factor in the national narratives of the post-Soviet space. Here, history is used to lay claim to European identity and as a means of emancipation from Moscow. In the former socialist satellite states, meanwhile, nationalists are using their opponents’ communist pasts for political capital.

The full table of contents of Roots 33-34/2010

Steffen Moestrup travels for Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) as an embedded journalist with the Danish national team to the World Cyber Games in Los Angeles, the virtual world’s answer to the Olympics. Full of scepticism he asks himself how the gamesters can live from playing computer games? Is it a sport? And where does the body come into it all?

“The first physical meeting with the players lived up to my prejudices. A group of pale, thin, young men await me at the airport. Computer games is something one outgrows, I’ve always thought. It’s a phase one has to get through as a boy and a teenager. A lot of my youth was spent playing computer games. Titles such as Civilization, Monkey Island, It Came from the Desert and Wings turn up in my mind when I think back on the lost years. Time that feels lost is exactly what I connect with computer games. […] It was as if the games were just a way of passing time while one waited for something better to happen.”

The content of the game doesn’t mean much, admits Thomas Glimski, one of the team members. “It’s rather the feeling I get when the game is on. The adrenalin kick is immense.” Moestrup recognizes this statement from his time as a sports journalist: after watching a round of World of Warcraft he too can feel his heart pounding and the need to cheer as “his” gamester does well.

By the end of the tournament, Moestrup is convinced. Though the attempt to get computer gaming into the Olympics in 2008 failed, he believes that only two things are needed for it to become an Olympic discipline: firstly, turning it into a spectator-friendly sport, and secondly, getting the press on board.

Also: Slavoj Zizek on Europe’s “sensible racism”: “Though camouflaged as a defence of Christian values it is in itself the biggest threat to the Christian heritage” warns Zizek; and Alexander Carnera reminds us of Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher who insisted on a distinction between philosophy and theology, faith and science.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 11/2010

Published 1 December 2010

Original in English
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