Sudden and slow-acting poisons

9 May 2012
Only in en
Mittelweg 36 re-reads Jean Amry on torture; Free Speech Debate takes on hate speech laws and superinjunctions; Esprit enters the French debate on incest; New Humanist says rationalism won’t stop witch hunters; Merkur makes the case for binding quotas for women; Wespennest calls for more women essayists; Osteuropa considers the future of European security; Lettera internazionale decolonizes the European mind; and Sarajevo Notebook seeks out the golden oldies of Roma pop.

“Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world,” wrote Jean Amry in his iconic essay “Torture” (1965), recalling his torments at the hands of the Nazis as a member of the Resistance. Torture, Amry concluded, was not “an accidental quality of this Third Reich, but its essence”.

Re-reading the essay in Mittelweg 36, Dan Diner seeks to explain why Amry – who, after all, also experienced Auschwitz – should have emphasized torture over annihilation in his characterization of Nazism. His choice can be understood in the context of French public debate at the time, argues Diner. The Algerian communist and publisher Henri Alleg had recently published his own expos, based on personal experience, of torture at the hands of the French military and public outrage was running high.

Still, why did Amry submit his experience of genocide to the “discursive hegemony” of torture? “The ‘testimony of the body’, as he designated the torment of torture, also offered a collateral gain: his torture promised recognition as a political opponent of the Nazis. The phenomenon of mere annihilation – of sheer extermination, of biological extinction – had, in contrast, no political meaning whatsoever.”

Politics and austerity: “A progressive politics will not be able to mobilize a sufficient majority for the defence of the welfare state if it doesn’t also the campaign for the necessary reforms.” In what is part-endorsement, part-refutation of Tony Judt’s appeal to the lost values of social democracy, Michael Ignatieff advocates more solidarity and closer regulation of the financial sector over punitive taxation and cartel-like behaviour in the public and private sectors alike.

Ignatieff criticizes political parties for catering to vested interests and for playing off winners against losers: “Progressive politics in an age of austerity must be about convincing the majority who cling to what they have that their future depends on solving the problems of the large and growing minority of weak states, poor regions and disadvantaged groups.”

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 2/2012

Free speech advocates opposed to the prohibition of hate speech underrate the harm hate speech causes, argues Jeremy Waldron in a contribution to Free Speech Debate. He is responding to Timothy Garton Ash‘s argument for a “robust civility” that obviates the need for intervention by the authorities. “Once we understand the harm that hate speech may inflict, we are in a better position to grasp the argument in favour of the legislation that restricts it,” Waldron counters.

“Legislative attention to hate speech is like environmental legislation; it seeks to preserve a very elementary aspect of the social environment against both sudden and slow-acting poisons of a particularly virulent kind. Of course, we hope that attempts to underline the social order will be met with strong responses that are, equally, exercises of free speech. But legislation may be necessary, because there is no guarantee (and it is little short of superstitious to think that there is a guarantee) that more speech is an effective answer to hate speech.”

Contra: Waldron’s argument privileges an interest over a fundamental right, responds Ivan Hare. His analogy between hate speech legislation and environmental laws is flawed: “the polluter is not exercising a fundamental right, but the contributor to public discourse is.”

A divine right? The use of “superinjunctions” in the UK to prevent media from publishing details about the private lives of public figures has been widely condemned by free speech advocates, who see them as a privilege of the wealthy and inimical to the public interest. A recent parliamentary report has, however, backed the judgement of the British courts, even recommending that breaches of privacy by online media be “filtered”. Eric Barendt defends the report against its critics:

“It is too easy for journalists and other commentators to assume that everything they write is protected by the fundamental human (and legal) right to freedom of expression (or speech). It is not, though of course much of it is. It is far from clear that celebrity gossip or speculation, however accurate, about really intimate matters deserves the protection of a free speech clause.”

More about Free Speech Debate

After more than 200 years absence from the French Penal Code, incest was criminalized in January 2010. The article’s repeal eight months later re-launched a long debate: “Should incest be prohibited by law?”

In Esprit, Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu traces the development of the incest taboo through the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when it became “a symbolic presence at the gateway between nature and culture”. Foucault called it the ultimate taboo, “remaining unspoken, its existence denied”. Back then, incest as such was not a punishable offence, only incestuous rape. Although gestured towards, legislation was “by the back door”. The exclusive authority of the father and his family’s privacy remained priorities.

When the 2010 law was adopted, representatives of incest victims said it did not go far enough, while psychoanalysts objected that it breached or even annulled the taboo’s symbolic dimensions. Ambroise-Rendu concedes that “the majority of victims and associations are fairly indifferent to Oedipus Theory, but concerned about a social reality”. What they wanted was more clarity, not less, and indeed the law was withdrawn for failing to define “the particular family relations within which a rape or sexual attack may be called incestuous”.

“Our historical treatment of incest has broadly privileged silence and censure,” writes Ambroise-Rendu. In the nineteenth century, it was a crime that judges “blushed to name”. However, the late twentieth century brought watershed: a swing to focus on victims’ testimony and their psychological suffering. This created new risks of “irrational and disproportionate response”. Despite the new awareness, “prohibition is not powerful enough”. Perhaps taboo and law can work together?

Changing media: If fanfare about the digital revolution is fast becoming a clich, “the author remains the big missing element”. Ccile Madel and Nathalie Sonnac have interviewed twenty-five French, British and American authors and offer ten key areas of reflection, including widening the definition of books, flexibility of working strategy, the advent of new kinds of authors and contentious questions around piracy. If “authors are revolutionizing the creative economy”, then “we urgently need to know them better”.

Euro crisis: Central European responses to the euro crisis have been marked by a total absence of regional solidarity, writes Jacques Rupnik. Differing national situations explain varying perceptions of the crisis’ risks and remedies and can be seen in terms of political lessons learned.

The full table of contents of Esprit 5/2012

The appalling case of Kristy Bamu, a 15-year old boy tortured to death by his family, who believed he was a witch, received much attention in the UK earlier this year and suggests belief in malign spirits is becoming widespread not only in Britain but in many countries in Europe. Only last month, the small town of BorˆÇs in Sweden was rocked by the second case of violent child exorcism in just a year.

Writing in New Humanist, Sarah Ditum claims that what lies behind the Kristy Bamy case is not just tragic, private delusion. “The belief in evil as an active, independent agent, capable of possessing an individual or being controlled by them to harm others, is a rarely acknowledged but implicitly mainstream part of Christianity.”

Churches have a unique ability to influence these child abuse cases, writes Ditum. Not only for the worse, but also for the better:

“For those who believe in spirit possession and witches as material truths, the world is conceived as a battle between the forces of good and evil with children caught in the middle. To protect children, it’s not enough to launch a second war between belief and rationalism: faith is the cause of this abuse, but it may also be the only way of reaching and helping many of the victims.”

Is your brain rightwing? In the past half decade, a new field of science has emerged: “neuropolitics” or “political neuroscience”. Using brain scans, researchers are finding differences in both brain structure and brain responses between the political left and right. For example, people on the right have been found to have a larger amygdala – thought to govern our responses to fear and threat – than people on the left.

Given its highly controversial nature, asks Chris Mooney, should we take this research seriously? After discussing some of the limitations (the complexity of the brain, the small samples sizes of the studies etc.) Mooney’s answer is yes. These brain studies don’t stand on their own, but are part of a larger picture that also includes psychological divergences between left and right that have been documented repeatedly over decades. “There is simply no running away from scientific knowledge,” he concludes. “But interpreting its meaning is something else again.”

The full table of contents of New Humanist 3/2012

In Merkur (Germany), Beate Rössler makes a strong case for binding quotas for women in all areas of society. More than thirty years after the introduction of anti-discrimination laws and gender-specific support programmes, women are still massively underrepresented in finance, politics and academia. There’s no denying this, writes Rössler. The only reason why many young women (and men) are still arguing against quotas is that they have been brought up in “an illusion of equality”.

Summing up the legal and statistical arguments for (and against) affirmative action, Rössler, professor of philosophy in Amsterdam, comes to the conclusion that there is a moral obligation to introduce quotas for women:

“Any liberal democracy has both the duty and the mandate to restore justice when faced with unjust social conditions. […] Every man and woman can in principle accept – has to be able to accept – that binding quotas are a rational means to achieve more social justice. Quotas do not infringe on any right. On the contrary, they are necessary to counteract structural discrimination. Freedom has the same value for men and women only when it is no longer limited by disadvantages in the working environment.”

Merkur itself is not exempt from Rösslers critique:

“While collecting material on quotas, reading articles and statistics, searching the Internet for recent legal developments in Europe, I stumbled on the February issue of Merkur. The authors: only men. That’s of course anything but amusing. Is it really a coincidence that journals with a generalist focus (Merkur‘s subtitle is ‘German journal for European thought’) only have male contributors?”

Also: In an issue featuring more female contributors than usual (4 out of 13), Nina Verheyen asks when individual achievement started to be considered a social virtue. Finding its roots in the rejection of the traditional social code at the end of the nineteenth century, she disagrees with the orthodox view that achievement is a “bourgeois” virtue. In fact, the internalization of achievement as collective norm is a relatively new and simultaneously classless phenomenon, Verheyen argues.

The full table of contents of Merkur 5/2012

In Wespenstiche, a series of columns published on the website of the Austrian journal Wespennest, Lena Brandauer strikes a very similar note to Beate Rössler in Merkur (see above). Looking at the representation of women in literary and cultural journals, Brandauer notes that the situation is at least as bad there as in society as a whole. The difference between the number of male and female contributors is especially marked in the essay genre. While the rate of women authors is around 25 per cent when it comes to literary contributions, very often only one – or even none – of the essays in an issue is written by a woman.

How is this possible in otherwise self-critical journals? Apart from the fact that most editors of cultural journals are men – and men read men and move inside male networks – Brandauer points to two factors specific to the essayistic genre.

The first has to do with the relations of production. While the essay is a prestigious genre, located somewhere between literature and academia, it doesn’t fit into any existing programme for financial support. This means that only an author who has a secure income can afford to spend the time it takes to write a text as complex as an essay. “It is still the case that it’s more difficult for a woman author to meet the temporal and economic requirements of the essay genre.”

Second, the subjective perspective of an essay – the “I” which speaks – is not as gender neutral as one might think. Obviously, writes Brandauer, women are, now as before, less inclined to take a stand in the public sphere.

Her conclusion: “When it comes to cultural journals, the call for quotas for women is anything but obsolete. It is as topical as ever.”

More on Wespennest

Russia’s overtures to a security cooperation with the EU and NATO shouldn’t be taken at face value, writes Yuri Fedorov in Osteuropa. “The so-called ‘Medvedev initiative’ aims at re-arranging and replacing the extant institutions and norms that govern security relations both in Europe and in the larger space ‘between Vancouver and Vladivostok’. […] At the same time, Russia makes no secret of the fact that the real purpose of the initiative consists in limiting the activities of NATO and in particular in halting its expansion.”

Though neither Europe nor the US has anything to gain by not cooperating with Russia over nuclear proliferation or counter-terrorism, Fedorov is convinced that willingness to negotiate a new security policy would be interpreted by Russia as sign of weakness and result in new demands.

Civilian power: Vladimir Handl focuses on Germany’s transformation from safety risk to generator of prosperity and democracy: “The eastern central European countries should have an interest in Germany wanting and being able to build the EU into a civilian power. In order for that to happen, the EU needs to have a workable foreign, security and defence policy and the prospect of political union. […] If that doesn’t happen, then the likelihood will increase that Germany will focus on bilateral relations with other big countries. In the long run, this could lead to Germany’s retreat from the concept of civilian power.”

OSCE in crisis: Losing influence in central and southeastern Europe, the OSCE has also failed to significantly increase its activities in the post-Soviet realm, writes Andrei Zagorski. Despite the wishes of many western states, the authoritarian regimes of the post-Soviet realm see OSCE presence as unwanted interference. The organization must wait for a second wave of democratic upheavals before it can again champion the values of democracy and the rule of law.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 2/2012

Western idioms “tend to think of language as a natural logic, bearer of reason and rationalization,” writes Lettera editor Biancamaria Bruno. “Thought and word are therefore separated in an irreconcilable and paradoxical duality, thereby hiding a tautological truth: there is no thought without language and words are not uttered without thought.” Poetry and translation, as much of the rest of the issue goes on to propose, make this separation impossible.

Decolonizing the European mind: Armando Gnisci draws parallels between the two arts: “poets translate into language that which isn’t language” while the poetry reader carries out a kind of “hermeneutic translation”. The language of poetry (be it written or oral) forms thought, believes Gnisci, quoting Brodsky that “literature is the only form of moral insurance a society can have”. Expanding on douard Glissant’s notion of creolization as constant process of linguistic, societal, and intellectual mixing, Gnisci suggests “a decolonization of the European mind […] through our multiple and Creole coexistence with migrants to Europe from all over the world”.

Creolizing the Brothers Grimm: Christiana de Caldas Brito, a native Brazilian writing in Italian, presents a modern-day fairy tale in which a little girl enters the dark imaginary of the Brothers Grimm stories, saving Hansel and Gretel from a sorry fate, evidencing language’s power – in this case being able to rewrite fate – and making the process of creolization complete. It is not only languages and people that are mixed, but also the imagination, supporting the belief that it is we who have power over our own language, and by extension our own being in the world.

The full table of contents of Lettera Internazionale 111 (2012)

Researching Yugoslav Roma music, Philip Knox and Nathanial Morris tour the Balkans in search of the real thing. They find it in Skopje, in the person of Esma Redzepova – the self-styled Queen of Gypsy music. From the ghetto to a Nobel prize nomination, Esma is a charismatic contrarian who claims never to have produced “anything but Roma music of the utmost purity, uncontaminated, as it were, by any outside influence”.

Esma’s pursuit of the essence of Roma music has led her to India: her singing style, write Knox and Morris, “seems designed to emphasize the resonances between the Romani language and Hindi, both derived from a common ancestor, Sanskrit.” Indeed, Roma culture during the Tito era received a form of official endorsement via political links between Yugoslavia and Nehru’s non-aligned India: cultural imports, above all Bollywood (which was cheaper than Hollywood), encouraged Roma musicians to explore their ancestral heritage.

Yet, even though Esma denies it, there was always “a layer of institutional racism” against Roma during the communist period, write Knox and Morris. It drove many to seek out the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Belgrade, where a Museum of Roma Culture is about to reopen on the outskirts of the city. And while Esma is still a star, in her old age singing most nights, other Roma musicians have been less fortunate:

“While the vast majority of Yugoslav Roma have lived for generations in settled communities, they are in some ways still a nomadic people, driven by political and economic forces to keep wandering in search of freedom, safety, and the opportunity to make a better life. Sadly, this is also true for many of those musicians who had defined the golden age of Yugoslav popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. For every artist we tracked down, there were many others who were impossible to trace, who had left only echoes and rumours behind them.”

Anatomy of swearing: Bernard Nezmah offers a morphology and semantics of bad language; Ashley Montagu analyses the Shakespearean curse; and Predrag Lucic examines the “swearing poetry” of Janko Polic Kamov.

The full table of contents of Sarajevo Notebook 35-36 (2012)

Published 9 May 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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