Pirouetting on the edge of the abyss

20 June 2012
Only in en
Esprit asks where the artists and writers are in times of crisis; Akadeemia revokes universal laws of progress; Blätter scents the winds of change blowing across the eurozone; Kulturos barai contends that small is more beautiful than ever; Samtiden says that Norway is at war, but the Norwegians don’t know it; Mittelweg 36 analyses imperial violence; Springerin claims cultural studies were overhyped but underrated; Rigas Laiks interviews Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s model modern statesman.

Esprit 6/2012

“Are artists ignoring the crisis?” asks Alice Béja, introducing an issue of Esprit on the arts’ response to economic crash. No, she says, they are just taking the time they need to react: dancers are beginning to “pirouette on the edge of the abyss” while film zooms in on the individual.

Béja makes a telling comparison with art of the Great Depression. When Roosevelt insisted that photographers and writers “document the crisis, show it, […] give the suffering a face”, they produced lasting, “iconic” work. “The need to represent the crisis […] allowed America to doubt its myths but also to get back on track.” Where are today’s Dorothea Langes and John Steinbecks? “The militants of the Occupy movements have at least understood that they need to make our crisis visible.” With time, Béja suggests, new national stories will emerge.

Cinema: Carole Desbarats compares American film-makers’ alacrity in producing crisis stories with their circumspect French counterparts. The rapid forging of the verb “to nine-eleven” to film disaster stories shows Hollywood’s readiness to incorporate tales of catastrophe. It’s a short step from the gangster, the private dick or the cowboy to the figure of the lone trader. The French response is more muted and the scope mainly restricted to the family circle, writes Desbarats. However, French auteurs could simply be “avoiding the direct approach and preferring the oblique”. Moreover, the figure of the abandoned child seems “to crystallise today’s sense of injustice”. Unlike Shirley Temple, contemporary depictions of children are not seductive – yet recent European films are “swarming with them”. “This is no time for happy endings,” Desbarats warns.

Greece: “Aporia and helplessness are the principal characteristics of the Greek intelligentsia today,” according to Georges Prévélakis. Greece’s 1981 entry into the EEC marked the point when the rot set in, “a sort of premature ‘end of story’.” A push to westernize meant the abandonment of ancient Greek in schools, indeed of all Greek literature predating 1981, “cutting the ties linking the different eras of Greek culture”. The Greekness of Greek art faded and “conformism triumphed”. “Could the crisis be an opportunity in disguise?” asks Prévélakis, insisting that the economy should not be blamed for problems in arts funding. A new critical attitude could herald a return to the “heroic generations” of the interwar and postwar periods. “For now, however, Greek culture appears suspended in a no-man’s-land between old and new.”

The full table of contents of Esprit 6/2012

Akadeemia 6/2012

“Triumphant historical unidirectionality is not only simplistic and wrong; it may also be extremely dangerous. The whole history of humankind testifies that there is no final form of social, political or economic arrangement and that no domination is eternal.” In an impressive article in Akadeemia (Estonia), Rein Müllerson rejects both historical Marxism and free-market capitalism, with their faith in ineluctable progress, as surreptitiously “voluntaristic”.

The economic crisis as nail in the coffin of the neoliberal project? The ascent of “authoritarian democracies” as slap in the face for Anglo-Saxon liberalism? So far, so anti-humanist. However Müllerson hasn’t given up the struggle: “One of the important causes of equality’s defeat at the hands of economic egoism has been that the rigidities inherent in its pursuit have blunted equality’s appeal as a goal”. The problem is that, in a global world where “capital benefits from a race to the bottom”, equality is much harder to obtain.

“When social democratic or even socialist parties come to power in European countries, they are unable to continue traditional welfare state policies. The right and right-of-centre policies that until recently were trumpeted as the panacea for all socioeconomic ills (no more bust and boom, only boom) may have bankrupted the western world, but the left and left-of-centre parties have been unable to offer any plausible answers to today’s challenges.”

Also: Mari-Liis Madisson explains the semiotics of conspiracy theories; and Uno Veismann records deported German scientists’ contribution to Soviet aerospace and rocket technology.

The full table of contents of Akadeemia 6/2012

Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 6/2012

“In May, the revolt against the fatal austerity policies began”, writes Michael Krätke in Blätter. Several European governments, above all François Hollande’s France, have opposed the rigid precepts of austerity, notes the economist, while only Germany sticks to the state doctrine of “save at any cost”.

“To stubbornly confuse cause and effect, to explain the global financial crisis as a ‘crisis of national debt’, to seriously believe that one can get out of a crisis like this by saving: these are quirks of the German mainstream that now even IMF economists make fun of.”

So far, Merkel’s policies have only led to higher debt, lower economic output and more unemployment. “Ironically”, continues Krätke, “the central argument for budgetary discipline has always been intergenerational justice. We must save, otherwise the youngsters, the upcoming generations, will have to bleed for our life of luxury. Economically speaking, that’s plain nonsense, however in Germany its fervently believed and constantly repeated. In fact, what we are doing is sacrificing a generation of young Europeans on the altar of an economic dogma.”

Direct democracy: Buoyed by the Occupy movement, political philosophers like Ernesto Laclau, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière have made headway with their demands for a more radical and direct democracy. Yet their emphasis on the political as “pure spirit of struggle” and “means without a political end” flirts with the reactionary fascism of people like Giovanni Gentile and George Sorel, argues Karin Priester. And, of course, there lurks the spectre of Carl Schmitt: “Ever since the Weimar Republic, ‘the political’ has exercised a particular fascination on the right and on the far-Left, who see in it the counterpart to parliament as ineffectual talking shop.”

Also: The trade unions’ answer to the crisis of the EU crisis can only be “more Europe, but different”, say Klaus Busch and Dierk Hirschel; and Thilo Bode and Katja Pink argue that German transparency laws aren’t doing their job and that citizens still need to fight to keep check on power.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 6/2012

Kulturos barai 6/2012

Kulturos barai (Lithuania) continues its series of interviews with unorthodox thinkers, in the latest issue talking to the US priest, politician and social activist Bob Massie. Recently elected president of the New Economics Institute, Massie explains to Almantas Samalavicius how the ideas of Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, can inform a transition – as the NEI website puts it – to “a new economy that gives priority to supporting human wellbeing and Earth’s natural systems”.

“It is quite remarkable that so many different parties have reviewed the recent financial crisis and come to the conclusion that traditional forms of capitalism are deeply flawed and major reform and restructuring are needed,” says Massie. “As with many other movements that have sprung up around the world, the recognition that we need to create an economic system that respects planetary limits and pursues justice and sustainability will take time to establish itself.”

Also: Virgilijus Cepaitis responds to a documentary screened on Lithuanian television on the eve of its national independence day on March 11, entitled, “How we played the revolution”. “I was a member of the Sajudis initiative, a member of the Sajudis Parliamentary Council, but I don’t remember anyone playing anything. One can say that two rivers are flowing in Lithuania – one of them makes a loud noise made of politically correct words, beneath which runs another, deeper river that has already helped to get through the turbulences of history.”

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 6/2012

Samtiden 2/2012

In an issue of Samtiden featuring several articles on Norwegian security and foreign policy, editor Catherine Sandnes notes that most Norwegians don’t realize, or at least “don’t feel”, that NATO member Norway “has been at war for the last eleven years”. One reason for this is obvious: the war does not take place in Norway, but in Afghanistan. But just as important is that the Norwegian presence in Afghanistan has been sold to the public as everything but a war. Instead, the military operations “have been defined as a kind of ‘preparation for peace’, as democratization, the liberation of women, or education”.

Ten years ago, at the start of the conflict, Norwegian soldiers referred to such values when talking about their presence in Afghanistan: they worked to secure access to clean water or a safe way to school for young Afghan girls – “not that different from Norwegian aid workers”. Recently however, they have begun to emphasize that they have actually been in a war and deserve to be honoured. “The gap between these two versions says a lot about how naive expectations were when they entered the conflict.”

A small country in a multipolar world: The first to notice that the US is losing ground in the global power game are small countries that have relied on the Americans for their security, writes Asle Toje. In a very readable article on the development of Norwegian foreign and security policy after the Cold War, Toje, research director at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, claims that too much money and attention has been spent on the so-called “policy of commitment” (engasjementpolitikken) instead of traditional military defence. Taking US security guarantees for granted, Norway’s self-perceived “exceptionalism” became the sole guide for its foreign policy, whose aim is to portray the country as a humanitarian, peaceful and environmentally progressive model for others to follow.

“The biggest problem with Norwegian foreign policy in 2012 is that there is too much of it,” writes Toje. “The policy of commitment was developed in a specific historical context that belongs to the past.”

Also: A 23-page feature-cum-interview on and with Olav Christopher Jenssen, one of Norway’s most internationally renowned artists.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 2/2012

Mittelweg 36 3/2012

Mittelweg 36 analyses the violence that characterized imperial wars, focusing on the “asymmetric wars without rules” from the Spanish Conquista to the western wars in the “Third World” in the twenty-first century.

“Colonial war is when hordes of Africans armed with spears get mown down with machine guns”, writes Dierk Walter in his editorial, preferring the term “imperial war”, also used by Wolfgang Knöbl. Knöbl looks at the role of violence in the establishment and stabilization of imperial dominance, above all in the European “discovery of the new world”. Until now, he writes, postcolonial theory has barely entered German language sociology, a deficit he undertakes to correct.

Knöbl comes to the conclusion that although the brutality of imperial regimes is beyond dispute, “white” power was only able to establish itself because the invaders “made use of infrastructural conditions and factors”. Military success was thus dependent on “cooperation and collaboration with the indigenous population”.

Also: Matthias Häußler and Trutz von Trotha study the small wars in German southwest Africa, advocate looking at brutalization “from below” rather than fixating on the higher ranks (rulers, commanders and leaders). And Dierk Walter addresses the problem of capitulation in imperial war, a topic that in fact does not exist, since the idea of “surrender” is generally highly inappropriate. Communication in this act plays a significant role, he points out: “To falsely assume that an armed enemy wants to surrender could be as fatal as believing that one would receive pardon.”

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 3/2012

Springerin 2/2012

In Springerin (Austria), Annette Baldauf recalls the heyday of cultural studies: “Cultural studies wanted to lend to those finding themselves back in marginalized positions instruments that might help them gain insights into the power-based construability of their identity. The postulate ‘diversion via theory’ calls for a view of theory as tool for political action and social transformation.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, the cultural studies approach became increasingly influential in artistic and intellectual life. “But, as a result of this success at a higher level, did cultural studies lose the decisive struggle for political change?” asks Baldauf. “In its attempt to combine culturalism and structuralism, did cultural studies lose sight of historical inscription and thereby subtly prepare the way for neoliberal mythologies?”

Anarchy: Süreyyya Evren draws a drastic comparison between precarious working conditions and sadomasochistic interactions. In a post-Fordist world, mutual trust ought to be the key to living in uncertainty, yet trust seems to be what lacks the most between precarious workers and their business partners.

Precarity and post-Fordism prove that forms such as fluidity and flexibility are per se not emancipatory. While they can be used as political weapons against hierarchies, they can just as well be used by the system to the advantage of its own hierarchy.” Evren proposes an interpretation of anarchism as alternative: “In anarchism, politics is more broadly defined. It includes all aspects of the everyday, culture, arts, struggles and so on. Anarchism, in other words, doesn’t just mean being against the state. The supposed dominance of theory over practice is also rejected.”

Cultural publishing: Simon Worthington, publisher of Mute magazine, looks at media change and attendant difficulties for niche media, outlining ways to ease the publishing process for cultural and academic journals.

The full table of contents of Springerin 2/2012

Rigas Laiks 6/2012

Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the very image of the modern statesman: a former Radio Liberty journalist with a psychology degree from Columbia, a younger, funky-looking second wife and penchant for “alternative rock”. Taking time out for some trans-Baltic banter with Ieva Lesinska, editor of Rigas Laiks (Latvia), Ilves enthuses about progressive online healthcare systems, citizens’ data rights and how online form-filling can do away with bureaucracy.

But some of his views could be seen as rather less liberal. His stance on integration of Estonian Russians, for example: “Clearly, integration is an issue that has to be dealt with; on the other hand, Estonia as a previously occupied country is not going to give automatic citizenship. It was an occupied country and everything else follows from that.”

And his stance on security policy could certainly be interpreted as hawkish: “Defence spending is not simply a response to threat. We are investing heavily in the air base here – it’s a good thing to have a genuine NATO infrastructure in your country, not just using old Soviet bases but having a real state-of-the-art modern air base.”

And for a professed Europhile, Ilves is distinctly pragmatic as regards the Greek question: “If you have a democracy, you have to do what the electorate wants, and it is going to be very difficult for responsible countries that have been playing by the rules to put up with bailouts if the electorate is not willing to go along with it. You can understand why the Finns are annoyed, why the Germans are annoyed, but they are richer than Greece. You can imagine what we feel here, bailing out the Greeks when we are poorer than them!”

The full table of contents of Rigas Laiks 6/2012

Published 20 June 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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