How it eats, mates and swims

22 June 2011
Only in en
Esprit rediscovers the spirit of ’68 across the Mediterranean; Blätter says Germany needs help becoming European again; Mute exposes austerity’s flawed logic; Glänta classifies everything; Merkur finds denouncing Nazis neither big nor clever; Mittelweg 36 sees little new in Germany’s new middle-class protest movement; Samtiden thinks intellectuals should exercise less and smoke more; and Host resists making another statue out of Czeslaw Milosz.

“The first effect of the Tunisian revolution”, writes Antoine Garapon in Esprit, “was to liberate speech”. Discussions long forbidden burst out into “a frenzy of debate, an eagerness to state opinions on everything and to make demands”. His report from Tunisia is one of several in the issue coming to terms with a wave of revolutions that, the participants insist, are still in their early stages. The mood is intense, proud, euphoric, nowhere more so than among the Tunisians:

They exude a kind of militant freshness, a belief that the future is hopeful and that politics is essential. Throughout my journey, I was struck by a curious feeling of reversal: I found the same frenzy of debate as in 1968, the same serious, deep vocabulary as in the French Revolution, the same aspiration for the future as among our intellectuals. But this spirit has crossed the Mediterranean. Today it is the Tunisians who have a lesson to teach us, a lesson which we perhaps once shared but which has faded in our memory: a lesson in politics.

Egypt: From Cairo, Hind Meddeb writes of Radio Tahrir, a radio station that emerged during the protests. It was founded by a group of Egypt’s most privileged youth – those who were able to live and study abroad and who had already pursued successful careers in media and the arts. Its output reflected and amplified the culture of the street protests. No-holds-barred debates crossed social boundaries. The music of Tahrir Square – the new hip-hop scene, the ad-hoc groups catapulted to instant success – was brought to a wider audience.

Tahrir Square is already a tourist attraction, but the radio station, like the political movement, continues to be needed. Its founder, Wael Omar Sayedalah, found himself arrested shortly before publication of this issue:

The methods of the old regime continue. The police state and its system of intimidation remain in operation. Three months after the revolution, Wael knows that everything remains to be done. The journey from the fall of the dictatorship to the arrival of democracy will be long and difficult.

Also: A timely analysis of the rebellion in Syria, uncovering a conflict which has only become more extreme in the weeks since it was written. The focus of protest is not in the middle-class centre of Damascus, but in slums and poor cities, writes Leïla Vignal. Far from being a “Facebook revolution”, this is a movement rooted in strong social, professional and family networks, and driven by the increasing brutality of the government.

The full table of contents of Esprit 6/2011

Has Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 dictum that a reunited Germany would become a “destabilizing rather than a stabilizing force in Europe” come true after all? Writing in Blätter, Ulrike Guérot, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, observes a new euro-scepticism in the country that for the last six decades has been the driving force of European integration. Nowadays, 63 per cent of the German population have little or no trust in the EU, while “the reflexive pro-European discourse of German elites has disappeared.”

Important to understand, says Guérot, is that Germany is undergoing a process of “reinvention”: the impact of reunification can only now be appreciated, while the models of the Bonn Republic no longer function. “However there is no new national narrative that could describe what Germany should be or should want to be – and the place it wants to take in Europe.”

Germany needs help to become European again, writes Guérot. “The best way to convince Germany to continue striving for a global role with and through the EU would be if other big EU-states were to show a little more effort themselves to make their decisions in the interests of Europe, to avoid giving Germany the feeling that it is being exploited.”

Decade of fear: Fear of the mere possibility of a new terrorist attack in the decade since 9/11 has been used as a “means to transform national politics and the world-political rules of the game,” writes Bernd Greiner. This goes not only for the US, where George W. Bush ruled out the constitutional division of powers (a tradition continued by Obama), but also for EU member states that enforced existing security laws or enacted new ones:

After 9/11, the “imperfect liberal state” has had to compete with “the fantasy of security, with the ideal of a secure world, […] with imaginary perfection”, writes Greiner. “Or more precisely, with an expansive and tendentially totalitarian logic of prevention. Yet the end of this downhill path would be the transformation of the liberal state into an authoritarian state.”

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 6/2011

Earlier this year, the UK journal Mute had its grant from the Arts Council of England cut by 100 per cent as from 2012. The new print issue provides a striking analysis of the “political and economic truths” (surely not only in the UK) that led to “imperative” cuts in public funding. They range from “the wasteful state sector must be cut back to make room for private investment, competition and efficient services” to “cutting benefits will get scroungers working hard like the rest of us” to “increased student fees constitute a socially progressive graduate tax in all but name”.

The raising of the fee-cap from £3,290 to £9,000 per year constitutes a risk-free programme of social exclusion, in which the middle and upper classes are charged a ‘fair’ rate for an education that will allow them to reap the economic benefits of employment in a newly desaturated graduate jobs market. The excluded working classes will be generously relieved of the tax burden of supporting their high-born compatriots, while that second group’s greater access to education resources will relieve them of the need to compete with or live in the same areas as their one-time beneficiaries.

Contain this! Felix Stalder analyses the interaction of WikiLeaks and traditional news media:

What we can see is a slow, structural transformation of the public sphere in which the old news media is complemented by new actors, designed to address the weaknesses of the mainstream media while making use of its core capacity to bring stories to lots of people. All in all, the process of investigative journalism is reorganised and, one can only hope, reinvigorated.

The unbearable lightness of art: The art of our financialized times often resembles the weightless mobility of capital. But, asks Anna Dezeuze, how does the unbearable lightness of certain art works differ from the loaded lightness of “precarious” art?

The full table of contents of Mute 17 (2011)

The new Glänta issue is devoted to “classification”. Collecting texts on everything from Aristotle’s anomalies to George Perec’s “Brief notes on the art and craft of sorting books”, from racism in Brasil (“the country without racism”) to Isidore Isou’s lettristic “kladology”, the issue itself is nevertheless impossible to classify. Very interesting is a long essay by photographer Erik Nilsson, who provides an exposé of court cases against animals: from politically tainted trials – as when a parrot was charged with counter-revolutionary activities in Paris in 1792 – to the more recent lawsuit against the gorilla Koko, who was charged with sexual harassment, having told (using signs) some of his keepers to show their breasts.

Charting the gesture: Trond Lundemo describes the complicated endeavours of various technologies, from the early days of chronophotography to today’s 3D blockbusters, to capture and classify gestures and movement, and their biopolitical implications.

In 1952, the German Institut für wissenschaftlichen Film initiated the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica, a megalomaniac attempt to form an inventory of all the movements of all species of the planet: for a specific sort of fish, the archive would represent how it eats, how it mates, how it swims and so on. As with so many other similar endeavours, the project ran up against organizational and above all methodological and technical problems; what remains today is around 4000 films of about two minutes each.

Even though the limits of any attempt at a universal classification of gestures and movements become obvious as soon as it has to face the challenge of the particular, current developments in the digital field are potent enough and point in a rather worrying direction. Today, digital video surveillance is confined to the analysis of static frames. However, cutting-edge “motion capture” technology actually analyses the movement itself, independent of the visual appearance of the body. “When motion capture becomes applicable outside a laboratory or studio environment, making it possible to track the body in motion in an everyday setting, new dimensions of surveillance open up,” Lundemo concludes.

The full table of contents of Glänta 1/2011

In Merkur, Bernhard Schlink deplores a “culture of denunciation” in which historical judgements are informed by contemporary morality. Denunciation arises especially when dealing with the Nazi past, as evidenced in a recent history of the German Foreign Ministry: criticism focused precisely on the authors’ lack of objective reserve and their explicit moral condemnation of the ministry’s involvement, greater than previously acknowledged, in the crimes of the Nazi regime.

The denunciatory tendency, argues Schlink, results partly from falsely attributing today’s knowledge to historical protagonists: “The more we know about the Third Reich, the less we know about how people lived and experienced things, about what was thought and felt.” But today’s disinterest in taking an “inside view” also stems from the fact that many personal testaments of the Nazi generation indeed served as self-exculpation. The ’68ers attempts to break down these arguments met with great resistance and the Nazi generation was understandably seen as the “enemy”.

“Today, however, they are dead. […] Telling their story as it was no longer requires courage.” Historical denunciation gratifies rebelliousness and satisfies conceitedness, writes Schlink. And it isn’t contained to history either: “The process of historical reckoning has levelled the divide between past and present; when the past is measured according to the standards of today, the impulse to denounce and to expose […] extends to the present.” No present moment, when it becomes recent past, can withstand denunciation, argues Schlink; there will always be new subjects about which to be morally scandalized.

A French intifada: Merkur translates an essay by Nidra Poller, first published in The Middle East Quarterly, in which the Franco-US journalist sees equivalences between western liberal support for Palestinian radicalism and official French toleration of migrant violence:

In a transposition of the Middle East peace process mentality, the failure of integration is blamed on France just as the failure to create a Palestinian state is blamed on Israel. The Palestinian cause is forgiven for sixty years of aggression; delinquent immigrants are acquitted of responsibility for their antisocial behaviour and self-destructive strategies. Hamas attacks Israel for years on end; then Israel finally retaliates and gets its nose rubbed in the rubble; housing projects are dilapidated by their own delinquent residents only to be displayed as proof of social injustice. International opinion looks the other way as Hamas imposes Shari’a law in Gaza; the media close their eyes as thugs impose their law in the projects.

The full table of contents of Merkur 6/2011

Conflict over the development of Stuttgart’s railway station has resumed as Deutsche Bahn presses ahead with building work following the refusal of Baden Württemberg’s new Green government to compensate for further time lost.

In a timely issue, Mittelweg 36 draws together analyses of what has been widely seen as a new middle-class protest movement in Germany transcending party political boundaries and united around an interest in preserving the status quo. The negative connotations of such a characterization are summed up in the neologism Wutbürger (literally “anger citzen”), coined by Der Spiegel. Yet are the protests really new, middle class or apolitical?

Wolfgang Kraushaar, historian of social movements, begins by refuting the novelty of the Stuttgart 21 protests. From the pacifist demonstrations of the late 1950s to the bourgeois anti-bourgeois movement of the 68ers and single-issue citizens initiatives of the 1970s, protest has been a constant feature of post-war (West) Germany. This tradition is not to be equated with “revolution”: after the dead ends of political terrorism, it was a short route for the Green Party from “anti-party party” to permanent parliamentary fixture.

Opposition to large-scale construction projects is also not new: comparable protests in the late ’70s and ’80 all mobilized a broad cross-section of society. In Stuttgart, however, there have been no signs of the left extremist involvement whose violence marred earlier protests. Instead, writes Kraushaar, Stuttgart’s Wutbürger are predominantly well qualified, ecologically committed veterans of the protests of the ’70s and ’80s: in other words, they are neither the middle class nor apolitical.

What the Stuttgart protesters might justly be accused of, however, is a certain romanticism, writes Kraushaar. Support for a popular referendum on the issue suggests a desire for a “utopia of identity of rulers and ruled” that might work in small communities but “is barely realizable in complex societies”.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 3/2011

n one of several compelling articles in the new issue of Samtiden on the changing habitus of the intellectual, sociologist Arve Hjelseth notes that the writing and reading class has exchanged coffee house culture for the cult of the body. In recent years, Norwegian intellectuals have followed state-endorsed advice about physical exercise, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

That CEOs, bankers and the upper middle class in general exercise more, smoke less and live more healthily than the rest of the population is old news. But writers, artists and academics? The paradigm shift that Hjelseth identifies consists in the fact that cross-country skiing, running and cycling can now be converted into symbolic capital – also among intellectuals. And it seems that these people can hardly put on a pair of jogging shoes without writing about it; on their Facebook pages or in their books.

Hjelseth is far from happy about this development: “the body grows stronger, but the mind weaker – at least less critical”. Smoking might be a way for a teenager to revolt against his parents’ authority, but it can also be a way for artists to oppose social disciplining. “When the intelligentsia put their cigarettes away, they also lose an important symbol of critical opposition. If they want to uphold their oppositional position they badly need new symbols. Cross-country skiing is not a serious candidate.”

Norway and its oil: Last week, a report from BP suggested that the Norwegian oil reserves will not last longer than eight years, much fewer than previously presumed. Thina M. Saltvedt, senior oil analyst at Nordea, still thinks that Norway should use its competitive advantages more actively. Not a member of OPEC, Norway should use its oil “as a strategic tool” to stabilize prices and thus “secure investments in new oil production capacity and contribute to the development of renewable energy”.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 2/2011

Introducing an issue of Host commemorating the centenary of the birth of Czeslaw Milosz, Lucie Zakopalová presents a critical survey of the Polish poet’s life and work. In communist Czechoslovakia, where Milosz was known only in samizdat, the publication of his book The Captive Mind in 1983 (thirty years after it was written) was a major event. However Milosz’s reception in Poland was more ambivalent, a result of a lack of understanding and the distance created by decades of exile.

Milosz refused to become a prophet and to conform to a politically correct discourse: he said and wrote whatever he wanted,” writes Zakopalová. “The worst thing that could happen to him would be to turn him, against his will, into a marble statue. Milosz is a poet of many different levels, the author of exceptional, brilliant, great and less great poetry; as a philosopher he is surprising and irritating in equal measure; and though his novels show that epic literature was not his strongest suit, the intricate detail of his short fiction exerts great charm. His texts are alive and volatile, and depending on the modality of our approach – poetic, essayistic, philosophical, historical, sociological or theological – they always reveal a different face. If, however, we start looking for a unifying element, a single unifying face and definition of Milosz, we will end up carving just another marble statue.”

Interview: In an extract from an extensive interview with Milosz recorded in the 1990s, Polish literary historian, critic and translator Stanislaw Beres probes many sensitive issues in the author’s life, including his early days of French exile and his cooperation and subsequent falling-out with the seminal Polish exile journal Kultura. Asked why he left France, a country he seemed destined for, Milosz replies: “Looking at my life I see many events I don’t understand and can only explain as the effect of the hand of Providence. If I had stayed in France I wouldn’t have become the poet I am today, I wouldn’t have become a professor of literature and I wouldn¹t have received the Nobel Prize. ”

Central Europe: Josef Mlejnek claims that “Milosz was fundamental to the notion of ‘Central Europe’, although these days it is Milan Kundera who often, unjustly, gets all the credit. Yet it was Czeslaw Milosz who first delineated and defined this region. Kundera’s view is overly politicized and limited to the Czech context, too attached to the construction and myth of Czechoslovakia.”

The full table of contents of Host 5/2011

Published 22 June 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


recommended articles