"Spreading the wit virus"

3 July 2007
Only in en
Roots tries to turn foe into friend; Osteuropa re-reads the Gulag; Mittelweg 36 cross-examines the secondary witness; Arena enters the DJ booth; Merkur critiques cultural criticism; Revolver Revue passes judgement on Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll; and Host lists Georges Perec's obsessions.

Roots 21-22 (2007)

How can it be, asks Denko Maleski in the new issue of Macedonian journal Roots, that the primary concern of Macedonian politics is not, as in most other European countries, economic and democratic development, but instead the fear of being annihilated? The causes for this “Macedonian safety dilemma” are not primarily external, but internal, claims Maleski. Antagonistic groups – some insisting on Macedonia’s “Bulgarian history”, others (pro-Serbian) stressing the “Macedonian present”, and others still concerned with Alexander the Great and the “antique Macedonia” – cultivate the fear. There cannot be any real political peace in Macedonia until these groups, through dialogue, decide to put an end to the animosities.

Maleski, however, is pessimistic:

“Unfortunately there will be no reconciliation, because if that happens, then these groups will lose their place in politics. Should the hatred stop, then politicians would have to become normal representatives of normal people in a democratic setting. That is why the hatred must be nurtured: the hatred against the ‘forger from Nebregovo’, against the ‘killer of Macedonians from Strip’, against the ‘communists’, against the ‘Bulgarian-lovers’, against the ‘Arnauts’…”

“The Macedonian safety dilemma springs from our heads”, Maleski concludes. “The solution must come from that very same place.”

Wit against exclusion: In a section inspired by last year’s Eurozine conference “Friend and foe. Shared Space, divided society”, Pajo Avirovic says that wit is the best weapon against those who treat diversity as a threat rather than a possibility. A “wit virus”, he suggests, should be spread among those rigid ethnic, religious, or linguistic systems that turn neighbours into monsters and potential friends into foes.

Avirovic recalls an incident that took place in Sarajevo before the war:

One day there was graffiti on the main town post office: This is Serbia.
The next day, somebody sprayed over the graffiti and wrote below it: This is Croatia.
This graffiti met with the same fate as its predecessor: This is Bosnia.
On the fourth day, this graffiti was also crossed out. Below, somebody had written with red spray paint: You fools… this is a post office!
This graffiti was not erased by anybody.

The full table of contents of Roots 21-22 (2007)

Osteuropa 6/2007

The growth of Russian national self-confidence has seen a concomitant decline of interest in the history of Soviet repression, points out Anna Hartmann in a survey of Gulag literature. “The toppling of the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in front of the KGB headquarters on 22 August 1991 was an important symbol of victory for civil rights campaigners, but it marked an end rather than a beginning of public engagement with the past. […] The legal persecution of the culprits never took place. On the contrary: the failure of perestroika brought with it the rejection of the belief […] that the battle against forgetting was inseparable from the battle for civil society.”

If Russia is preoccupied with the present, and revelations about the Gulag have long ceased to be sensational in the West, then what is the relevance of Gulag literature today? According to Hartmann, “While the new confidence of Russian society may not be burdened by painful repression and self-legitimation, it must address the past, otherwise there is the danger it will disappear. […] For Soviet society and culture, the camp was no marginal phenomenon, but central. If one follows the thesis of many Russian intellectuals that in the Soviet Union […] release from the camps merely meant a change from a ‘restricted’ into a ‘more spacious’ zone, then the whole of Soviet society can be understood as the world of the camp.”

Re-reading Shalamov: Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) comes up for special re-reading in this issue of Osteuropa devoted to the Gulag. Despite the moderate success of Kolyma Tales in the West during the 1970s, Shalamov was unable to follow in the slipstream created by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. In Russia, too, his work boomed during perestroika but fell off abruptly in the 1990s.

Ulrich Schmid accounts for the muted reception to Shalamov’s work in its rejection of the slightest artificiality (even including rewriting) and refusal of any distancing, on the part of author or reader, from the text. Shalamov famously criticized Solzhenitsyn for allowing a cat to appear in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – it would swiftly have been eaten, he pointed out – or allowing prisoners to eat with spoons – they ate from the bowl. In 1971 Shalamov wrote of Solzhenitsyn that “his occupation is that of the businessman, closely tied to personal success.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 6/2007

Mittelweg 36 3/2007

In Mittelweg 36, Christian Schneider considers the unreliability of so-called “secondary witnesses” to traumatic experience. “To bear witness means to create successors, to establish a genealogy. […] In Germany, the process of bearing witness to the Holocaust is about establishing a genealogy of victims – which at the same time means a genealogy of innocents.”

Max Horkheimer and other Jewish intellectuals who returned to Germany from wartime exile took it upon themselves to speak from the perspective of the victim. “This self-imposed duty was not only the essential legitimation for returning to the land of the culprits, it was also a programme of teaching that, like no other, influenced the politically receptive academic youth of the postwar period. It remains one of the least understood social-psychological peculiarities of Germany that precisely these people, trained to resist, copied their teachers in everything – also in adopting the position of spokespersons.”

The second generation, writes Schneider, plays a key role in conveying experience from the generation of victims to subsequent generations. But the second generation is failing in its task, he writes. “[…] This position [of secondary witness] is padded out by victim fantasies […] that are not based upon experience; it imitates extant positions of experience. The position of the secondary witness, that of the initiated, the inducted, is essentially priestly, shamanistic. However, priests or shamans do not convey history, they announce supra-historical truths. Or – seen critically – illusions and desires.”

From the Protest Chronicle: Wolfgang Kraushaar reconstructs heated scenes inside the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus in 1985, when the Jewish Association occupied the stage in protest at what they saw as the anti-Semitic caricature of the leading figure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod [Trash, death, and the city].

Also to look out for: Louise du Toit on the failure of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do justice to women rape victims; and Bernd Greiner on John Lewis Gaddis’s Cold War, which he calls a “triumphalist salvation history”.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 3/2007.

Arena 3/2007

The European debate about multiculturalism has started to regress, writes Per Wirtén in a short but inspiring editorial in Swedish Arena. The debate following the murder of Theo van Gogh, the bombings in London and Madrid, and the riots in the French banlieues is necessary, but it has turned into categorical rejection of any type of multicultural policy. Arguments that used to come from the conservative Right are now repeated by liberal or leftist intellectuals.

What unites many of the harshest critics of multiculturalism, writes Wirtén, is a longing for simple answers, an exhaustion with shifting perspectives, postcolonial theory, and ambivalence in relation to the European Enlightenment heritage. “Bombs always have a stupidifying effect, especially among European intellectuals.”

But reality is not simple, says Wirtén, and it’s now time to take a stand against the description of multiculturalism as something that confines people to clearly defined and petrified communities. “The multicultural society is not a mosaic but a mobile and dynamic society formed around political public spheres, where people’s identities are multiple and open. Cosmopolitanism does not solve any conflicts – we have to live with them – but it is a framework for negotiation, dialogue, and decision making.”

DJ and club culture: In most European metropolises, the DJ has developed from anonymous table turner to superstar. But in Sweden, DJ and club culture is still treated as marginal and even suspicious. Why, asks broadcaster Mats Almegård in a section on “DJ power”, does official Sweden turn its back on one of its great music exports? While the recorded voice of Per Gessle (Roxette) welcomes visitors to Stockholm at the Arlanda International Airport, internationally renowned techno producer and DJ Adam Beyer is hardly recognized.

Elin Alvemark talks about her (successful) attempts to end male dominance in the Stockholm club scene, and gender theorist Ann Werner analyzes the same phenomenon: how the power games taking place in and around the DJ booth form gender identities and concepts of normality.

The full table of contents of Arena 3/2007.

Merkur 7/2007

In Merkur, Siegfried Kohlhammer observes the shift in Chinese nationalism towards the victim perspective: “Any act perceived to be hostile to China, be it criticism of the repression of the Uyghur minority, the reception of the Dalai Lama by the European Parliament, or criticism of exaggeration of the Nanking Massacre, is reproached for ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people’.” The central paradigm of Chinese victim nationalism is Japanese imperialism and above all the massacre of Nanking, when in 1937 anywhere between 100 000 and 300 000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed by the Japanese army.

“Until the 1970s, the Maoist policy of permanent revolution smothered the anti-Japanese feelings evoked by the massacre. With the normalization of conditions and the economic upturn, these feelings could return – sometimes stronger than the government would like. Since then, the government has had to strike a balance between promoting anti-Japanese sentiment, as the strongest force uniting the Chinese people, and maintaining beneficial relations with Japan. […] The student movement, on the other hand, has tried to appropriate anti-Japanese nationalism for itself and to discredit the government for having a Japan-friendly attitude.”

What is independent thinking? In a wide-ranging essay, Karl-Heinz Bohrer laments the absence of independent thinking and the descent of Kulturkritik [cultural criticism] into antipathy: “One must say that Kulturkritik became above all a German speciality. The reason was probably that German society, divided into small states, had no sense of being the genuine object of political agency, let alone imperial self-representation. While the British made history, the Germans philosophized about it.”

Also to look out for: Kenan Malik, AC Grayling, David Cesarani, Gillian Slovo, and others discuss the political fashion of saying sorry, the translation of a BBC debate broadcasted in April 2007.

The full table of contents of Merkur 7/2007.

Revolver Revue 67 (2007)

Czech journal Revolver Revue runs a review of Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, at the National Theatre in Prague. At first, Terezie Pokorna is underwhelmed by the all-Czech production of the play:

[…] The “Czechoslovak” story of non-violence that finally triumphs over violence was forcibly and unscrupulously extracted from Rock ‘n’ Roll. […] If one can talk about an interpretation at all, then it is in the spirit of the now widespread […] and superficial view of Communist totalitarianism. However, it is the work of the Prague production team that smacks of thematic faddishness, and not that of the British playwright, who probably contributed to the fight against communism in Czechoslovakia more than all the artistic staff of today’s National Theatre put together.

However, Pokorna goes on to recognize a genuine critique made by the play that saves it from its unimaginative staging:

The key to the text is not to be found in the reminiscences of the flower-power period of the 1960s […] but in the conclusion of the play, where Stoppard […] confronts contemporary Britain […], which has lost its traditional pillars, has allowed itself to be dragged along by a cynical media, and whose worst aspects are admired by those countries that had the opportunity to put to use their first-hand experience of Communism, but that threw it away.

Also in the issue: Documentary filmmaker Miroslav Janek, in an essay on time and editing, writes that “perhaps it is despair that provides the driving force for an editor and director to complete a film”.

The full table of contents of Revolver Revue 67 (2007).

Host 6/2007

Georges Perec’s love of lists and “inventorying” places him among the likes of Borges, Rabelais, and Verne, writes Jan Stanek in Host. “The elaboration of lists is the most immediate expression of the desire to subdue the world, though only by means of words – and Perec himself declared this as one of the stimuli for his writing. ‘There is something lofty and frightening in the notion that nothing in the world is unique enough not to be included in a list.'”

Perec’s work oscillates between obsession with completeness and incompleteness, writes Stanek. Perec’s A Void [La disparition (1969)], a novel famously omitting the letter e, represents both systematic incompleteness and the principle of accumulation: accumulation of omissions, saturation through the incomplete. “In a certain sense, the entirety of Perec’s writing is necessarily entre l’exhaustif et l’inachevé, representing a movement between a successful exhaustion of what the accepted rules of writing allow and the inexhaustible, ‘unfinished’ reality which is above all a reality of one’s own memory.”

Also to look out for: The 1960s were the height of Czech literature’s influence on politics, and Host looks back at the symbolic climax of this: the 1967 congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers.

The full table of contents of Host 6/2007.

This is just a selection of the more than 60 Eurozine partners published in 33 countries. For current tables of contents, self-descriptions, and subscription and contact details of all Eurozine partners, please see the partner section.

Published 3 July 2007

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


recommended articles