Organized minimalism

15 December 2010
Only in en
Merkur puts kilometres of cellulose behind it; Blätter proposes national solutions to a global problem; Esprit says EU economic policy is more political than it pretends; Kulturos barai reclaims the Enlightenment mission of the university; Arena argues for Swedish aid not troops; L’Espill sets limits to mass tourism; Osteuropa reports on mudslinging in Hungary; Dziejaslou appeals for Tolstoyan non-violence; and Du finds its distorted reflection in the mirror of Tomi Ungerer.

“Speculations about the future of the book that deal only with the switch from analogue to digital consumption fall short of the mark.” Writing in Merkur, Kathrin Passig categorically dismisses the printed book and poses some obvious questions that tend not to be asked: “The real issues to discuss would be changes in reading habits, reasons for the purchase of the book and the social meanings of book reading and owning.”

One of the most threatened social meanings, according to Passig, is “self-display via bookshelf”: “When the bookshelf only partially represents everything that the owner has read, because a large part of his or her reading might have taken place in paper-less form, then its attractiveness as a piece of furniture diminishes. […] Over the last ten years, my bookshelves have forfeited their function as an extension and concrete materialization of my personality and past. Once the nimbus has been passed, what remains are several cubic kilometres of cellulose.”

Reading itself is subject to irreversible change, writes Passig, as readers used to receiving factual information via the Internet are very likely to loose their “tolerance for textual padding”: “Because a book must have a minimum length, padding material is more common in books than in online publications. The amount of ideas in an average, commercially available non-fiction book seems to me to be equivalent to between three and ten blog contributions. […] Non-fiction texts attempt to do in a roundabout fashion what can be done better by a photo, a diagram, an animation or a video. […] Blogs enable the long-term, gradual, non-linear deepening of a subject. Given this competition to the format, the book form has become more demanding of justification.”

Those interested in text, concludes Passig, will have to openly and actively face the changes: “Whoever […] closes their eyes, puts their fingers in their ears and sings ‘lalala!’ is a worse friend of the book than me with my empty shelves.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 12/2010

The UN climate conference in Cancun may have saved an endangered Kyoto process, yet it came no nearer to extracting concrete commitments for C02 reductions. If the warnings of the late Hermann Scheer are to be heeded, this should come as no surprise. It is false to assume that a global problem requires a global solution, argues the pre-eminent thinker of renewable energy policy (who died in October). Framing climate protection measures as an economic burden requiring negotiation over fair distribution of costs leads to “organized minimalism”. Because, in the cap-and-trade system, exceeding commitments is unprofitable, the minimum in practice becomes the maximum.

A viable system of renewable energy supply must be developed unilaterally and be seen in terms of national and regional economic benefits, Scheer argues; importing cheap alternative energy cannot be an option, however lucrative for isolated suppliers. Moreover, energy legislation should not reflect the existing balance between fossil and renewable energy supply, but be adjusted to prefer the latter. “Both courses of action can be implemented only with the help of political decisions. The first breaks with the way the energy sector has thought and acted until now, turning a closed energy system into an open one that creates space for new initiators. The second is aimed at the structural conservatism of the energy economy.”

The not-so-upright ministry: The clean image of the German foreign ministry during the Nazi era has been shattered by revelations contained in the recent study “The Ministry and the Past”: namely, that the ministry was by no means as “apolitical” as it has successively attempted to portray itself. Norbert Frei (one of the authors of the study) and Annette Weinke argue that its loud reception is not solely due to a controversial evaluation of historical events or ministerial customs.

Thatcher’s children: Britain’s national deficit is “a welcome pretext for an ideologically motivated and risky game with the welfare of millions of people”, writes Michael Krätke of the British government’s austerity measures. Yet “the dominant economic illiteracy is the government’s greatest ally. The majority of the electorate believes the same neoliberal nonsense as the political class – in the land of Keynes, voodoo economy rules.”

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 12/2010

Esprit considers the contradictions inherent in government intervention to protect markets. “Economic legitimacy and political legitimacy can be considered rivals,” writes Valérie Charolles. “Each is seen to have a different relationship with the real world: deliberation and choice on the side of democracy, truth and facts for the economy.” Economics can demonstrate its claims mathematically, at least within the enclosed world of the model, argues Charolles. But it must accept that any model is only one partial picture of the world, and defend the choice of one model over others – something it has often failed to do.

Europe: Over the years, the European citizen has only ever heard of the Commission when it opposes state intervention, writes Laurent Cyterman. During the Crisis, however, state intervention has assumed extraordinary proportions without the Commission’s disapproval. “Which interventions in the economy are allowed and which are forbidden?” wonders Cyterman. Although the EU’s position on economic intervention tends to be presented as a set of strict formal limitations derived from laws and treaties, they are in fact subject to political pressure. This tendency to retreat behind a technocratic facade “can only fuel bewilderment and scepticism regarding the European project”.

Debt: In a section dedicated to the crisis of sovereign debt, which is currently unrolling as the second wave of global economic woe, Jacques Mistral speculates as to what will emerge as the next stage of collapse. The US is likely to experience a budget crisis on the state level, he predicts, while China may attempt more production for domestic consumption in an attempt to make its economy less dependent on world economic conditions. In many countries, governments burdened with debt may start to see inflation as a means to reduce their obligations, an option currently denounced in Frankfurt and toyed with in Washington. According to Mistral, time and expediency may yet loosen attitudes.

Also: A space attractive as it is unstable, the coast testifies to transformations in our connection to place, says Paul Virilio in a wide-ranging interview. A zone of flux, of exchange and interconnection, the seaside is also a place of uncertainty connected to new environmental risks. “Our societies have become arrhythmic. The crisis spans the ecosystem and is repeated in nature, demonstrating the urgent need for a meteo-politics and the management of time. Otherwise we will have instantaneousness and globalization, homogeneity of feeling and synchronization of emotion!”

The full table of contents of Esprit 12/2010

The primary aim of education must be to nurture the ability to reflect, to develop new ideas, and to implement these collectively, writes leading German educationalist and Social Democrat Gesine Schwan in an essay first published in German in Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte and in English translation in Eurozine.

“The knower knows the limits and the hurdles regarding every presumption of certainty better than the person who is merely informed. The knowledge of uncertainty thus indicates progress in understanding. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the ‘Copernican Revolution’ of cognitive theory, behind which so many contemporary rhetoricians of the knowledge society lag, offers the basis for this understanding of education. It is much more modern and above all enlightened than many pseudo-progressive positions that proclaim, without reflection, the knowledge society to be a given fact or even a goal.”

“Cognitive multilingualism”, according to Schwan, is the only way to prevent the specialization of knowledge narrowing our horizons: “Is not the civic-political dimension of the Enlightenment concept of education a possible component – and what’s more, a necessary one – of universal education, and thus a goal of the university? The answer is yes, if we consider it important to see off the danger of partial blindness and structural irresponsibility; if we comprehend the notion that survival on this earth and the suppression of growing violence is connected to moral and political conditions such as freedom and justice […]; and if we bear in mind that the development of a liberal democracy based on minimum standards of justice is a prerequisite for our common survival in a shared world. This would be a fundamental and far-reaching goal to which the economic efficiency and technological transformation of the university would have to be subordinated.”

Liberal conservatism: Lithuanian rightwing intellectuals treat British philosopher Michael Oakeshott as a conservative thinker, writes Simas Chelutka. Yet Oakeshott rejected the tradition of natural law, the idea of the organic state and the public role of religion. Oakeshott’s stress on the present tempers his conservatism, according to Chelutka, while his liberalism appeals for limited power and limited politics.

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 11/2010

In the national debate on Sweden’s military presence in Afghanistan, the idea that Swedish troops might actually kill foreign citizens triggers more protests than when some of “our boys” are sent home in body bags. Yet protests have grown louder after a bomb killed a Swedish soldier in October – the fifth Swede killed in Afghanistan since troops were first sent there in 2002.

In Arena, journalist and former UN observer Jöran Lindeberg criticizes the lack of information about the effectiveness of Swedish military operations. “On 1 January 2010, the government introduced a so-called transparency guarantee for Swedish development aid. Anyone with access to the Internet should be able to get information about the results of different activities. […] This has led the Swedish Development Agency to cut support to the Afghan parliament after the cooperation partner failed to show progress.” A good thing, writes Lindeberg. “But for some reason this openness does not apply to the military part of Sweden’s presence in Afghanistan.” Why this sudden secrecy in a country that sees itself as “the cradle of openness and transparency”?

One should not confuse the withdrawal of Sweden’s 500 troops with the complete withdrawal of all international troops in Afghanistan (roughly 150 000), writes Lindeberg. A publicly available evaluation of the results of the Swedish military presence may show that it would be “more cost effective for Sweden to withdraw its relatively small military force and instead put all the money into its civilian aid programme – which is one of the best in the world”.

Also: Helena Hill notes that in Sweden, 20 per cent of all fathers don’t use a single day of the parental leave they are entitled to. “Sweden is often described as one of the world’s most progressive countries when it comes to gender equality, and the equal family that raises its children together is a fixed part of the Swedish self-image. Why don’t we see that in many respects we live in patriarchal society where men and women still receive confirmation by acting according to gender stereotypes?”

The full table of contents of Arena 6/2010

From an elitist perspective, mass tourism, like mass culture, is nothing but a form of social alienation. Cultured people are convinced that they have nothing to do with the trivial version of the traveller: the tourist. But what is tourism? Who is and who is not a tourist?

From an anthropological point of view, writes Manuel Delgado in L’Espill, whether we think of ourselves as intellectuals or as simple voyeurs, we are all tourists: “those who claim to be travellers or cosmopolitans (but never tourists) try to believe, and to make others believe, that they are not only different, but also distinguished. According to Bourdieu, they are able to identify not only the locals, but also those who are ordinary visitors, who go where they are told, unthinkingly, who understand nothing, who do not enjoy the wonders they see […]. There is no point in this distinction: every traveller unsuccessfully struggles not to be confused with what he or she never ceases to be: an arrogant tourist.”

Setting limits: Tourism, and above all mass tourism, can be a factor of development and environmental conservation or a threat to the quality of life – or all at once. Jaume Terradas, Emeritus Professor of Ecology, explains that the amount of tourists a country can bear is limited: “Local populations must get involved, they must understand that the wellbeing of natural systems is like the goose that lays the golden egg: it attracts tourism. This population should be the immediate beneficiary of income derived from tourism. Civil society and governments need to reach agreements on the basis of knowledge about natural systems, and they need to enforce agreements about how many tourists can be taken in, and where and in what activities.”

A new tourist map: Global warming is an increasing problem for many of leading tourist destinations, but economist Aurora Pedro notes that some regions may take advantage of its consequences. There are signs that a new tourist map is emerging: northern countries will gain in popularity because of more agreeable temperatures; on the other hand, mass tourism will head for the lower prices available in developing countries.

The full table of contents of L’Espill 35 (2010)

In the immediate wake of the “red sludge” catastrophe in western Hungary in October, the Fidesz government was quick to lay the blame on the private owners of the offending aluminium company MAL, reports Karin Bachmann in Osteuropa. MAL at first attempted to deny that the red alkaline sludge contained heavy metals, and when that became untenable, claimed that the poisonous materials had originated during the communist period. The director was subsequently arrested and charged with manslaughter, to great public approval. This popular endorsement legitimated the state takeover of the works, which re-opened only ten days later.

At the same time, writes Bachmann, non-governmental organizations were forbidden to take independent readings of toxicity levels in the area, thereby muzzling critics, above all Greenpeace. The latter’s readings had demonstrated that, contrary to government information, the population was still at risk. Seeing the catastrophe as an opportunity to deliver on its election promise to restore law and order in the country, Fidesz then began pinning responsibility for the disaster on its biggest political opponent, the Socialists (MSZP).

It was in fact the case that the father of the director of the works had been a close friend of the former Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurscány, and during the 1990s had been in charge of the state-owned aluminium company. When this was privatized he had bought shares in MAL. The disaster could thus be portrayed as the result of a “socialist scam”, writes Bachmann. However it has emerged that MAL’s license was renewed in September 2010, despite the directors’ knowledge of technical faults in early summer. Should bribery turn out to have played a role, this could bounce back on Fidesz.

Rightwing extremism: While the rise of the far-Right in the Czech Republic is not on a scale as alarming as in Hungary, there are still reasons for serious concern, writes Miroslav Mares. The milieu today is more politicized than in the 1990s, with targeted actions against Roma, homosexuals and non-conformists replacing spontaneous violence. The Czech far-Right is networked internationally, writes Mares, acting as a “hinge” between German, Slovak and Polish extremists.

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

The Belarusian journal Dziejaslou joins the Tolstoy centenary celebrations, publishing in its latest issue the second instalment of Vital Taras’ two-part article “One hundred years of excommunication. Lev Tolstoy as mirror of our evolution” (pt. 1 published in Dziejaslou 4/2010). Taras refers to Tolstoy’s programmatic essay “What I believe”, which revolves around Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek. For Tolstoy, “the appeal to offer the left cheek when one is struck upon the right is not an appeal to passivity, but rather a call for non-violent opposition,” writes Taras. “Non-resistance is fundamentally a provocation of evil.”

Taras goes on to describe the Russian Orthodox Church’s criticism of Tolstoy’s viewpoint, which led to his excommunication in 1901. It is time this decision be reversed, he argues. Prominent voices from outside the Church are also cited: Lenin, for example, who considered Tolstoy a “risible” figure. “Had Tolstoy lived longer,” Taras conjectures, “and assuming he was not deported from Soviet Russia on the ‘philosopher’s steamboat’ along with the others, he would surely have been declared senile or isolated in Yasnaya Polyana, in the meantime owned by the state, a deserved fellow-worker isolated in a museum bearing his name.”

After a discussion of the judgements of the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, Taras discusses Tolstoy’s relation with Mahatma Ghandi, drawing his article to a bold conclusion with a reference to Tolstoy’s essay “I cannot be silent” (1908) and an appeal for vocal opposition to, among other things, the death penalty in Belarus.

Uladzimir Karatkievic: Another jubilee is honoured alongside the centenary of Tolstoy’s death: Uladzimir Karatkievic (1930-1984) would have been 80 years old on 26 November 2010. Karatkievic is considered the founder of the historical novel in Belarusian literature; his work, which also included poetry, drama and essays, immortalized the landscapes and customs of his homeland. Contributions from Viktar Jarac and Ales Simakou pay tribute to Karatkievic alongside reprints of his own letters.

Also: Numerous living authors are published, including a pre-print of a chapter from Artur Klinau‘s forthcoming novel Salom (“The helmet”).

The full table of contents of Dziejaslou 5/2010

“So boring, a whole life and just one single style,” exclaims Tomi Ungerer in Du, which dedicates an issue to the controversial 79 year-old graphic artist. His immense oeuvre is hard to pigeonhole: children’s books and erotic drawings, illustrations and advertising, social and political satire, and the recurring topic of time and death. “I don’t want to be classified” says Ungerer, who has been living on the west coast of Ireland for the last twenty-five years. “It has to do with my origins in Alsace. Am I a German? Am I a Frenchman? No, I’m an Alsatian. […] This whole relativity – maybe that’s why I need to live next to the ocean. I need my line of horizon, that’s the only fixed reference I have”.

The void: Ungerer’s inspiration and quarry is the world around him, his drawings and collages transforming reality in ways that are both explicit and humorous: “Goyaesque monsters, Daumier-like abominations, mediaeval dances macabres, torturing dominatrices, sex-machines and machine-people, the maimed and the mad, mutations and metamorphoses, all this goes hand in hand with fairytale figures from the Brothers Grimm to Heidi, from the adventurous family of pigs to the enamoured cannibal,” writes Dorothea Dickmann. “Ungerer’s universe would be unthinkable without the fear of the void and the response to this fear – the naive impulse of the why […]. Childish curiosity holds the key to the idylls and grotesques, to the shocks and provocations.”

Critique: Ungerer’s works, playful though they may seem, always contain a critical edge: “For societies that conceal and repress the discomfiting, a man like Tomi Ungerer is a disturbing challenge,” writes art historian Werner Spies. “Ungerer appeals to the possibility of self-awareness. Is what we see supposed to make us laugh or cry? The artist is interested in the mirror image. He wants our reaction to his work to be conscious, to repeatedly be experienced as painful, even. That’s why the indefatigable draughtsman and wordsmith operates without anaesthetic, as it were. He keeps us awake.”

The full table of contents of Du 12/2010

Published 15 December 2010

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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