Irony as painkiller

23 February 2011
Only in en
Osteuropa draws conclusions from Lukashenka’s crackdown; Studija enters Belarus through art’s portal; Esprit finds political Islam subjugating the preacher to the prince; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) revels in Arabic revolts; Arena warns that dropping multiculturalism could be fatal; Varlik debates finds The Satanic Verses still creating waves in Turkey; Vikerkaar is underwhelmed by Sofi Oksanen’s novel The Purge; NZ finds Russian modernization fundamentally archaic; Revista Crítica discusses women in public and women in private; and Ny Tid calls for contextualization, not censorship of the n-word.

In Osteuropa, a roundtable of experts on Belarus discerns Russian influence behind Lukashenka’s crackdown. As David Marples puts it: “Lukashenka can’t have been so stupid as to repress his opponents in this fashion without some sort of external pressure on him, and that pressure must have come from Russia.” A new agreement with Russia shortly before the elections affected the Belarusian leader’s tactics, according to Marples:

If Medvedev said to Lukashenka that Belarus’ participation in the Common Economic Space precluded an active role in the Eastern Partnership, then that cut off an escape route used for the previous two years. But it also offered an opportunity to consolidate his power and get rid of several irritants, since the European response no longer mattered to the same degree as before.”

The turnaround is also a result of internal pressures, according to Rainer Linder: “There is an interest among some parts of the security apparatus to prevent any rapprochement with the EU. The protests were instrumentalized to this end.” So how stable is the Lukashenka regime? “Fairly stable,” according to Arkady Moshes. “A main reason for this is its adaptability: contrary to the clichs, the administration has introduced a number of changes to economic mechanisms and has been able to appropriate the slogans of sovereignty, independence and cooperation with Europe. Because of this, Lukashenka’s support base consists not only of USSR-nostalgic pensioners.”

Culture: Some of the strongest impulses for democracy in Belarus come from the alternative cultural scene. Artists have not always understood their work as political, according to Ingo Petz, but the repressions could change that. Petz cites publicist Iryna Vidanava: “The faade of liberalization has been destroyed. […] The democratic forces as well as culture will have to start operating underground again. But they won’t disappear. I hope that there will now be a greater hunger for democracy. But for that we will need international help and solidarity – more than ever.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 12/2010

The isolation of Belarusian artists means they fail to speak the conceptual language of the internationally networked artworld, writes Ausra Trakselyte in Studija. A recent exhibition in Vilnius – entitled “A Door Opens?” – aimed to change that by introducing Belarusian artists to the Lithuanian public.

Running throughout the works were issues of Belarusian identity and politics: Alexander Komarov’s No News from Belarus, in which text printed using a fax machine gradually fades out; Sergei Shabohin’s A Clear Choice, where viewers are invited to vote “for” or “against” on various political issues, their voting slips ending up in a single ballot box; or Marina Naprushkina’s Anti-Propaganda Office, presenting the artist’s extensive collection of state propaganda.

Yet in Trakselyte’s opinion, the work only goes so far. “The majority of the artists whose work is political attack the situation in Belarus in an illustrative manner, applying irony as a painkiller,” she writes. “But there is a lack of critical artistic praxis aimed at articulating and stimulating discussion. […] There is an absence of more individual, social themes – works expressing an alternative self-confidence.”

The full table of contents of Studija 1/2011

Abdelwahab Meddeb is one of France’s best-known Islamic voices and a strong advocate of laicité. In Esprit, he contrasts this and other forms of secularism to the perspective of political Islam. This latter imagines what Maddeb terms “consubstantiation”: religion and politics as fundamentally different entities, which nonetheless can occupy the same space in society without contradicting one another.

So is the theory. In practice, this coexistence of state and religion often entails the subjugation of the preacher to the prince. In the most extreme case, Saudi Arabia, “the current king, Abdullah, suppressed the clergy after having won, through force, the civil war against Al-Qaeda rebels and their followers”.

Meanwhile in the West, the fear of political Islam is used to stir up Islamophobia. Better to demand no special status for Islam, but insist merely on equal treatment with other religions, says Meddeb: “I would prefer Islam to be able to accept free speech, however harmful, rather than reintroduce laws that will reduce freedom of conscience in the name of respect for belief.”

Laicit: “It has been written into the French constitution since 1946. No political party, no social movement rejects it. […] Nonetheless, laicité in France is presented as being constantly under threat.” How, ask Jean Baubrot and Micheline Milot, can it be both accepted and threatened? In part, because the concept is broad enough to embrace all discussion on the social role of religion. Each political force advances its own views under the name of laicité, and the battleground shifts over time. Fifty years ago, public funding of private religious schools was the key issue; today it is the position of Islam.

“There is no universal model,” write Baubrot and Milot. “Rather, the methods and aims of laicité develop according to time and place. As national situations develop, as democratic values are discussed and challenged, laicité must also be questioned.”

Also: Dalila Senjadji Khiat looks at the architecture of mosques in Algeria, which merge local style with the international influences of global Islam and the colonial past; Pierre Vermeren reports on travels through Algeria; Olivier Mongin follows reform of the constitution in post-revolutionary Tunisia; and articles examining the legacy of Paul Ricoeur.

The full table of contents of Esprit 2/2011

What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the absence of Muslim fundamentalism, writes Slavoj Zizek in an article first published in The Guardian.

In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilized through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong.

But Zizek warns that things may not be as simple as all that. Though the provisional government in Tunisia excluded Islamists and the radical Left, the long-term antagonism is precisely between those two. “Even if they are momentarily united against the regime, once they approach victory, their unity splits, they engage in a deadly fight, often more cruel than against the shared enemy.”

Western liberals’ display breathtaking hypocrisy in their reactions to the revolts, he finds. When the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, their reaction is concern. “Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: ‘There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.'”

The African paradox: The background for the uprisings in North Africa is more basic than religion, writes Remi Nilsen in his editorial. That the continent is so rich in natural resources while the populations grow ever poorer is of course the main component. In Algeria, it is almost impossible to be a law-abiding citizen and sustain an acceptable standard of living. The paradox is even more striking south of Sahara: in Congo, for instance, the vast natural wealth is largely in foreign ownership. If the revolutions succeed, the next challenge is to achieve economic independence.

Also: Truls Lie on how the films Burma Soldier, You Don’t Like the Truth – 4 Days inside GuantÁnamo and WikiRebels each uncover how many state powers choose violence as a means to govern while claiming that they fight for a better world. “But is it not cynicism to allow the greatest number of killed and injured in an armed action to be civilians?” asks Lie.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 2/2011

2010 was the year that critique of multiculturalism gained momentum, writes Per Wirtn in Arena, referring to Angela Merkel’s declaration in October that Germany’s attempts to build a multicultural society had “failed utterly”. (More on Merkel’s and David Cameron’s attacks on multiculturalism here, here and here.)

Wirtn finds the distinction between multiculturalism as lived experience on the one hand and norm on the other both unclear and dangerous. “To refrain from using the term multiculturalism to refer to a positive political norm is a fatal mistake.” Words have an enormous impact on public debate; even though it is possible to criticize several aspects of the term multiculturalism, it has come to mark the willingness to live in open societies characterized by immigration. That’s a political achievement, says Wirtn.

In a heated European debate, it now sounds as if intellectual liberals are broadcasting the same message as Geert Wilders. Even though they mean different things, they use the same vocabulary. Who stands to gain from that confusion?

Sweden’s responsibility for the war in Bosnia: Fifteen years after the Dayton agreement, which marked the end of the war in Bosnia, it’s high time for Swedish society to discuss its own responsibility for the bloodshed in the Balkans, writes peace and conflict researcher Markus Balzs Gransson.

In the early 1990s, EU membership was a central aim of Swedish foreign policy. As a consequence, Sweden, “a country that during the Cold War rarely missed an opportunity to speak up against international cruelties, suddenly went quiet in the face of a brutal and unjust war on its own continent.”

Our self-image as a state on the side of justice and peace is tainted by how we acted during the war in Bosnia. We uncritically supported a European policy that undermined international law and prolonged the suffering of the Bosnian people.

Also: Catrin Lundstrm and Lena Sohl on the return of the housewife (“Even if, as Anna Anka puts it, they might have to give their husbands a blowjob every morning, that’s more part of a business relation than a sign of traditional gender relations”). And a themed section on psychoanalysis.

The full table of contents of Arena 1/2011

23 years after it was first published in English, The Satanic Verses is still making waves. At least in Turkey. Recently, a previously unknown publisher announced that a Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel will soon appear (the book has never been published in Turkey, largely due to fear of reprisals). The announcement immediately stirred a heated debate on Islam and free speech. It also fuelled another bitter argument around the planned visit of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipul to Turkey. In January, Naipul was scheduled to attend a literary event in Istanbul, but after an intense media campaign branding him an anti-Islamic fundamentalist, resulting in a very hostile atmosphere around the event, he decided to cancel his visit.

Is Islam in general and The Satanic Verses in particular still taboo in the Turkish literary world?” ask the editors of the latest issue of Varlik. “Islam is of course not taboo”, writes Iskender Pala in a reply that then becomes somewhat more ambiguous: “However, The Satanic Verses is less a work of art and more a book deliberately produced to stir anti-Islamic feeling, to disparage religion, to ridicule faith and to disrespect sacred values.”

In the opposite corner, Buket Uzuner suggests that “the fact that a work of fiction like The Satanic Verses still cannot be published in Turkey indicates the lack of free expression and free press”; and zdemir Ince demands that “The Satanic Verses are published and carefully protected by the state and the law. Today’s Muslims need such an experience to train themselves in self-control.”

Finally, Abdlkadir Budak asks us to remember “how, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a state that feared that a bunch of socialist youngsters would take over the country. Now, is there an Islamic world that will crumble to dust if nudged by Salman Rushdie or Naipul? Being sensitive is one thing, being scared is another.”

Multiculturalism: Tahir Abaci emphasizes the multicultural character of the Turkish province Anatolia. People there have been able to soften up the rigid structures of monotheistic religions and instead practice religion as non-political ethics and folklore, he argues. Yet the ordeals of the transition from a “religious community” to a “nation” are still very much present, as are the conflicts between different ethnic, religious and political groups. These conflicts are also played out in the field of culture:

There are claims that many Kurdish or Armenian folk songs were ‘pirated’ and translated into Turkish. I asked some proponents of this theory whether there are no folk songs originally in Turkish that have been translated into Kurdish or Armenian. I asked them whether Kurdish or Armenian singers were never influenced by Turkish songs. Do we really have to perform cranium tests on songs too?

The full table of contents of Varlik 2/2011

Vikerkaar devotes an issue to Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen’s bestselling novel The Purge, a twentieth century epos exploring political terror and sexual violence against Estonian women across three generations. Linda Kaljundi notes the novel’s ambiguous status between fiction and history, suggesting it is too biased to qualify as history and too popular to be great fiction.

The concern for historicity, however, seems characteristic of Estonian reception of the novel, writes Kaljundi, who finds that The Purge is not so much a new view of Estonian history – as Oksanen herself has characterized it – as a reinvention of Estonian historical fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. Typical for this genre is an idealization of life in pre-war independent Estonia and black-and-white sketches of the “goodies” and the “baddies”, portraying Russians as a cultural Other set apart by their lack of personal hygiene, poor table manners and criminal tendencies.

Eneken Laanes approaches The Purge as an unusual piece of trauma fiction that deviates from the serious style characteristic of that genre. “The pop-cultural borrowing that makes The Purge a thrilling read also prevents it from operating as historical trauma fiction, or at least makes this text about ethics ethically problematic.”

Also: Jacques Rupnik‘s 2009 essay on neoliberalism in post-socialist Europe, with an afterword on how the current crisis creates a division no longer between East and West but North and South.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 12/2010

In NZ, contributors discuss whether the modernization programme launched by the Russian government two years ago resembles Gorbachev’s perestroika. Those who see similarities between the two claim that, in the same way that Gorbachev followed the socialist line, Medvedev is trying not to deviate too far from his predecessor’s course. Those, on the other hand, who see the post-Soviet reforms as intrinsically different argue that modernization has a better chance of succeeding in the disintegrated society of today, where the government itself acts as the main entrepreneur.

The new patriotism: In his 2009 speech outlining plans to modernize the national economy, Medvedev stressed the need for innovative technology and infrastructure, new management and administration: “Modern Russia does not repeat its own past. Ours is a truly new age”. However this policy “tries to re-brand Soviet nostalgia as the new Russian patriotism,” argues Il’ya Kalinin. In another speech on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War”, Medvedev segued from the flaws of the old state economy to the heroism of veterans. “Modernization is destined to win because its subjects descend from victors”, Kalinin comments dryly.

Archaic innovation: Nostalgia is an infant dream of omnipotence, observes Denis Dragunskiy in a discussion of the “archaism” inherent to the modernization project, whether in architecture, urban development or corporate culture. The Skolkovo research centre, hailed to become the Russian Silicon Valley, is an emblem of nostalgic modernization, writes Dragunskiy: a giant state institution behind a fence. Modernization always contains archaic influences, but especially in Russia, where the mix of the postmodern and the obsolete resembles the 1980s “steampunk” movement, where modern technology is packaged as vintage.

Historical modernity: According to historian Kirill Kobrin, “progress exists for its own sake”, a race forwards with no goal apart from being faster and more modern. Because this idea is incomplete, the first moderns resorted to keywords such as “power”, “nation”, and “the need to rebuff attack”.

The full table of contents of Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) 74 (6/2010)

In Revista Crítica, Teresa Martinho Toldy reconsiders the private-public dichotomy in religious and secular societies. According to the prevailing idea, religion is a private matter outside politics. But the separation between public and private, Toldy says, has been challenged by Islamic feminists, as it was in the past by western women’s movements inspired by Christian values. We thus have to interrogate assumptions that underlie the discussion on women’s rights and adopt a more complex perspective. This must interrogate both “the universality of western rationality” alongside a postmodern “cultural relativism” that, in the name of respect for cultural and religious diversity, undermines human rights and specifically “women’s human rights”.

Flvia Biroli’s analysis of media representations of Brazilian women in politics serves as the basis for a broader discussion of stereotypes that continue to associate women with the private, representing them as strangers and interlopers in the public sphere. It remains to be seen whether the election of Dilma Rousseff as president of Brazil will help change this prevailing perception, she writes. And Alba Alonso analyses the recent introduction of intersectionality to EU equality policies and describes measures taken in Portugal to coordinate the action of different equality mechanisms.

European neighbourhood: The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) launched in 2004 is an ambitious project of normative, discursive and instrumental structuring that seeks to extend the principles of democracy and international cooperation to neighbouring countries in the South Caucasus. Despite the fact that the idea of a “European family” has found an echo, writes Licnia Sim‹o, other factors have hindered the success of the ENP: an excessive focus on security, which undermines the idea of Europe as a community of principles and values, the lack of prospects for EU integration, and failure to meet the needs of these states.

The full table of contents of Revista Crítica de CiÊncias Sociais 90 (2010)

In Ny Tid, Fredrik Sonck reports that the planned publication of a new edition of the Swedish children’s classic Ture Sventon in Paris (first published in 1953) has been cancelled. The publisher Rabn & Sjgren wanted to censor the word “neger” (negro) and replace it with something “more suitable”, such as “coloured” or “black”. After a veto from the Swedish Writers’ Union, who owns the copyright, the publisher chose not to re-issue the book. While the Writers’ Union acknowledge the racist character of the controversial word, they stressed that it is also “part of our cultural heritage” and suggested an explanatory introduction or footnote instead of changing the wording.

The Ture Sventon case is just the last in a long international line of similar cases, ranging from Tintin in the Congo (more here and here) to Pippi Longstocking and Doctor Doolittle. In the new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the word “nigger” has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with “Indian”.

Fredrik Sonck is outraged and calls the tendency destructive. “If a publisher wants to be on the safe side, he can always resort to footnotes and prefaces […] In the case of ‘neger’, censorship is clearly an overreaction. Today, its racist character is so obvious that it’s no longer controversial. Children do not become racists by reading that Pippi Longstocking’s father is a ‘negerkung’ (negro king). But children do become stupid if adults are not ready to explain and discuss what has been read.”

And even if you did get rid of the word ‘negro’ before the ‘king’,” adds Sonck, “the text would still smell of colonialism. A novel is more than just words.

More about Ny Tid

Published 23 February 2011

Original in English
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© Eurozine


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