The frothy surf of anxiety

17 August 2011
Only in en
Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) says don’t dismiss Breivik as a madman; Transit asks why political art must be ambiguous; Springerin is optimistic about the Arab spring; Osteuropa reviews the highs and lows in latest Russian fiction; NLO frets about the vampiric turn; Dilema Veche reads Cioran’s Securitate file; Merkur rails against German provincialism; Kulturos barai wants more cultural cooperation in the Baltics; and Cogito interviews Julia Kristeva.

When a teenager ran amok at a school in Finland and killed eight people, Remi Nilsen of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique was contacted by Finnish media and asked if this could happen in Norway. No, he answered hesitantly, how could it? With the shooting on Utøya on 22 July, he finds that the boot is on the other foot: “Is there something extreme in Norway? In this well-functioning society characterized by trust and equality?”

“One defining feature of Scandinavian politics is that the existing social-democratic system is so cherished by the population that all political parties embrace it, even the Right. The racist Right – especially in Denmark, but also in Norway and Sweden – has embraced this model and see immigration, not the increasing inequality created by neoliberal globalization or a gluttonous financial industry, as the main threat against it.”

Anders Behring Breivik’s writings are not the wild fabulations of a madman, says Nilsen. “We have heard most of his views before, many times.”

Rightwing rhetoric: It is certainly tempting to dismiss Breivik as a madman, writes Jonas Bals, Ombudsman for the Builder’s Union in Oslo. Parts of his manifesto are more similar to the ramblings of Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho than to any political philosopher. But it doesn’t stop there. Breivik’s text is “an unfortunate mixture of ideology and megalomaniac fantasy”. The problem is that these are not mutually exclusive, notes Bals, calling Breivik the first Ayn Rand terrorist (after the author of Atlas Shrugged, whose ideas about “rational egoism” have influenced not only Breivik but a long line of rightwing politicians).

The attacks on 22 July would have been unthinkable without an ideological backdrop. “Even if the form of Breivik’s rehash is unique, some of its most central elements are shared by so many that our reaction to it must be political.”

Breivik and “Europe’s crisis”: Slavoj Zizek also warns against not taking Breivik seriously: “The manifesto of this Christian ‘Marxist hunter’ who killed more than 70 people in Norway is precisely not a case of a deranged man’s rambling; it is simply a consequent exposition of ‘Europe’s crisis’ which serves as the (more or less) implicit foundation of the rising anti-immigrant populism – its very inconsistencies are symptomatic of the inner contradictions of this view.”

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 8/2011

Politically engaged art is back, writes Verena Krieger in the new issue of Transit. But easy it isn’t. “Effortlessly accessible political messages have been replaced by complex, ambiguous, heavily encrypted or entirely indeterminate semiotic conglomerates that require from the recipient a high degree of willingness and ability to engage and that even after a long period of interpretative activity cannot be understood to mean one thing in particular.”

Ambiguity in art shares the same genealogy as the notion of the engaged artist, writes Krieger: modern aesthetic theory from Kant to Adorno, Nietzsche to Rancière have all prized “openness, mysteriousness and obscurity” as essential to art. In contemporary artistic discourse, referring to an artwork as “multivalent” is to affirm its quality; the ambiguity of art becomes the unspoken norm.

“A consequence of the rise of ambiguity as symbol of the aesthetic is that political engagement in art has become problematic. Political art seems to have something disreputable about it. An artwork with an unequivocal political message risks being seen as propaganda, thus forfeiting its artistic character.”

Changing media: The digital revolution has been a mixed blessing for the freedom of the press, writes US sociologist Paul Starr – “if we understand that freedom as referring not merely to the formal legal rights but to the real independence of the press as an institution”. Financial strain, fragmenting audiences and the generational divide all weaken the press as agent of accountability: “If we take seriously the idea that an independent press serves an essential democratic function, its institutional distress may weaken democracy itself.”

“More opportunities than dangers have arisen thanks to the Internet,” counters Thomas Schmid, publisher of Die Welt. “In the future, it will be possible to create a much more intelligent kind of journalism, a journalism which will be able to dig much deeper.” Day-to-day sensationalism and political soap opera must give way to coverage of social and demographic change: “A journalism with hope in the future and in its readership must decide to do more than simply splash around in the frothy surf of anxiety that currently prevails.”

The full table of contents of Transit 41 (2011)

In an issue of Springerin entitled “Upheaval Arabia”, Lebanese political scientist Gilbert Achcar draws parallels between the current movements in the Arab world and the “Springtime of the Peoples” of 1848:

The spearhead of the movement are people who care deeply about the creation of a modern democratic society and the institutions belonging to it. They are mostly young, liberal in a political sense and democratic, similar to the youth of 1848. […] Back then, the impact could no longer be stopped, until the democratic changes to which they had long aspired finally came about.

The world is much less despotic today than it was in the nineteenth century, argues Achcar, and there is good reason for modest optimism: “People have begun to overcome fear, which was the best instrument of despotism. No matter what happens in the short term and how elections in the individual countries turn out, there exists the real possibility that a strong democratic movement will form.”

Art in the streets: “The political reality was strongly mirrored in artworks”, write Tunisian journalist Aurélie Machghoul and artist Selma Ouissi. “Over the years, the public also learned to recognize the various tactics behind the artistic forms of expression, in order to read the meaning hidden in the works. A certain complicit relationship developed between the viewer and the artist, one that resembled a guerrilla tactic.”

Since the fall of the regime, theses tactics have taken to the streets, and the most radical and exciting art is now happening in public space: “The front is shifting from armed struggle into culture, where street art becomes a way to influence and to reshape society and politics. Suddenly we began to experience direct and non-violent acts of civil disobedience.”

Also: Daho Djerbal draws parallels between the independence movements in Arab countries in the 1960s and the current political and social upheavals in the region.

The full table of contents of Springerin 3/2011

In 2010, 34 novels reached the final round of the four most important Russian literary prizes. According to Karlheinz Kasper, juries’ decisions have been either unadventurous – the award of Bolshaya Kniga Prize to Pavel Basinki’s Tolstoy biography, its 636 pages of “glossy magazine” prose containing “nothing new” – or scandalously bad – Russian Booker Prize-winner Elena Koljadina’s bodice-ripper Cvetocnyi krest (“Cross of flowers”), a mix of “pornography, religion and Russian history”. According to prominent Russian critics, the dire state of contemporary Russian literature reflects the “intellectual chaos in contemporary post-Russia” and the “advanced decay of literary society”, throwing into question the point of writing itself (let alone reviewing).

However Kasper’s review also brings up some interesting new works. For example, Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Pers (“The Persian”), a metaphysical-theological-scientific novel revolving around the figure of the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov; German Sadulaev’s Shalinskii reid (“The attack on Sali”), an increasingly paranoid-schizophrenic first-person narrative of a Chechen-Russian psychiatric patient traumatized by the wars of the 1990s; Margarita Chemlin’s Klotsvog (“Klotsvog”), about a Ukrainian Jewish woman who, having experienced Sovietization, wartime evacuation and the post-war wave of anti-Semitism, forces her children to conform to Soviet norms; and Vladimir Sorokin’s Metel (“The snowstorm”), a surreal-psychedelic-ecological allegory set in 2027.

Chernobyl: In an article first published in the Belarusian journal Dziejaslou, Barys Piatrovich recalls his intimations of catastrophe in the days that followed the Chernobyl explosion: “I didn’t know anything yet, didn’t have the slightest idea of what had happened, but I well remember that day and that evening in Homel, 26 April 1986, I remember that I was unable to do anything because of the silent scream that, as it seemed to me, filled all the space around me.”

Most of the half-million inhabitants evacuated from the 30km Belarusian exclusion zone and dispersed throughout the Soviet Union died within ten, fifteen or twenty years, writes Piatrovich. “It would have been immediately obvious that something was wrong if whole villages or streets had died out, leaving empty houses behind. As it is, the ‘Chernobylites’ died off quietly, one by one, almost unnoticed, without spoiling the national statistical picture even at district or local level…”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 7/2011

Charting the recent rise in popularity of vampire sagas in US and post-Soviet literature and television, Dina Khapaeva analyses in NLO the significance of the monster as a key contemporary aesthetic phenomenon. While the representatives of what she terms “the vampiric turn” in cultural studies have focused mainly on its psychological aspects, presenting the vampire “as an oppressed and suffering Other”, Khapaeva is concerned with the impact the glorification of the undead has on contemporary cultural attitudes to human beings.

Whilst in the past, vampires personified mystical forces of evil and the reader-viewer was meant to identify with the human heroes fighting them, over the past thirty years vampires have themselves turned into heroes, superior to human beings and representing a new aesthetic ideal. Khapaeva claims that demoting humans to a mere link in the vampires’ food chain marks a radical turning point in relations between humans and vampires, and that “the idealization of inhuman monsters – the undead – constitutes a key step on the road to a radical negation of the value of humanity”.

Compared with the anthropomorphic Gothic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, current vampire literature and cinema reflect contemporary attempts at rethinking the idea of human exceptionalism. Although similar to the Gothic novel and fantasy, the vampire sagas form a distinct genre “marked by a longing for nightmare and an aversion to reality and to the human being”. This aesthetic builds on the legacy of the “nightmare” element in the works of Russian classics such as Gogol and Dostoyevsky, as well as on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasies and the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Tolstoy: Aage A. Hansen-Löwe examines the narratological dimension of death in Tolstoy. When writing about death, “the narrator comes up against the paradoxical necessity of combining the experience of external time-perception with the internal, and of solving this paradox within the narration: to make sliding and flowing tangible states of being”. In order to show more concretely how Tolstoy “writes death”, Hansen-Löwe invokes Dostoevsky. “Both of these masters of thanatopoetics”, he argues, “were working on one and the same paradox: how is it possible to be simultaneously moving decisively forward (streben) and to be striving to die (sterben)?”

The full table of contents of New Literary Observer 109 (2011)

In Dilema Veche (issue 385), Liviu Tofan reads Emil Cioran’s Securitate files. After being perceived as a dangerous element because of his past admiration for Romanian fascism and, later, because he was an intellectual living abroad, Cioran ended up being considered a potential ally, Tofan explains. The Securitate’s naivety stemmed from the fact that, while Cioran was often critical of the Romanian communist regime, he was less vocal than other important Romanian intellectuals such as Mircea Eliade and Eugen Ionesco.

The Securitate certainly did not succeed in its mission, but at the same time it was not terribly bothered by a Cioran who remained relatively silent while abroad. According to Tofan, Cioran’s isolation was neither caused by the Securitate nor could it be broken by it: Cioran’s regret of his “unfortunate” fascist sympathies prevented him from making a return to the public eye.

Hospital reforms: Issue 387 analyses the impact of the current healthcare reforms in Romania, some of which came about as a result of an agreement with the IMF last year. The government is now working on decentralizing the healthcare system, resulting in the closure of unprofitable hospitals around the country and an overall reduction in the number of hospital beds. “The current restructuring is not driven by the healthcare needs of the population but by economic rationales,” explains Vasile Astarastoaie, head of the national doctors association. “The efficiency of a hospital derives not from its balance sheet but from the quantity of health it produces.”

Changing media: Mircea Vasilescu and Constantin Vica attempt to clarify what kind of online media products consumers will pay for in a world where so much information is free (issue 390). What we now refer to as “quality newspapers” could turn themselves into “web curators”, proposes Vica. The value would then be not so much in breaking the news as in interpreting news by providing depth and context.

Norway: Dilema Veche also publishes Remi Nilsen‘s article on the terror attacks in Norway (issue 391).

The full table of contents of Dilema Veche 382-391 (2011)

In Merkur, Karl-Heinz Bohrer launches a tirade against “German provincialism” (in English translation in Germany’s failure to intervene in Libya betrayed a deeper provincialism attributable to lack of colonial experience, he argues: the brutality of German rule in northwest Africa was the result of inexperience in exerting power combined with provincial racism. This “depoliticization of the concept of power” led to the policies of the Nazis, Bohrer proposes.

“One should keep this prior history in mind, in the attempt to accurately identify the apolitical moralism of the current abstention,” he writes. The “radical pacifism” of the majority of Germans is “a counterpart to the former militarism”. “How plausible is it, if someone who has twice set a house on fire declares, when another house is burning, that he will not help put out the fire because he never wants to have anything to do with fire ever again?”

For Bohrer, the “real crux of the provincial mind which feels no sense of responsibility” is a “specifically German tradition to regard the law as an authority with quasi-metaphysical underpinnings, removed from reality, an internally grasped absolute, rather than something which the law has always been in all western civilisations with any experience of democracy: a politically tangible and functional relative quantity – in countries, mind you, with a political legal system which has existed for any length of time.”

Education: An academically ambitious German educator would rather tear himself to shreds than admit that it might be his or her task to uncover and cultivate differences, writes Konrad Adam. To do so would be to contradict the pathos of equality with which an educator strives for recognition, money and posts. The obligation to do more for poorer students is a legitimate mission of public education. But applying the idea of redistribution to educational policy can be dangerous, Adam believes. After all, education is not a zero-sum game in which one wins what another has lost.

The full table of contents of Merkur 8/2011

In Kulturos barai, Zecharia Plavin laments the lack of regional cooperation between the Baltic states: especially in the arts and humanities there are hardly any combined efforts. Lithuanian governmental initiatives are almost solely concerned with strengthening ties with Lithuanians in exile. However, numerous emigrants have left the country with acute feelings of resentment towards various governing bodies. They might suffer from nostalgia but are still drifting away from the country they left behind. This resentment, Plavin suggests, can be channelled and put to good use. But that requires new professional structures focusing on real inter-cultural collaboration.

The new cultural elite? Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social and cultural capital is ill-equipped to describe the celebrity-driven media culture of today, writes Georg Franck in an article translated from Merkur. Attention is the currency of the new media, which like any other asset is profitable only when possessed in sufficient quantity, says Franck.

Celebrities are the new cultural elite. Yet, ranked according to market value, theirs is not a life of sublime indifference: “Their biggest worry is looking after the value of their own capital. They are not even granted the sovereignty of the old elites, who could be secure in the longevity of their status. They are hounded by the idea that their market value could diminish; the minutest dip and they start thinking about the big comeback.”

The capitalist economy of attention is established in “ideal-typical manner” in academia, argues Franck, a market system in which producers deliver prefabricated information to other producers, fresh attention producing new knowledge and so on. “Academics throw information at an interested public in order to gain its attention. They maximize citations like media managers do ratings.”

Also: A summary of this year’s Eurozine conference in Linz: “Changing Media – Media in Change”.

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 7-8/2011

In Cogito (Turkey), Hülya Durudogan interviews Julia Kristeva. The starting point is a restatement of the distinction between the non-verbal “semiotic” or “translinguistic” dimension of language and the “symbolic” language of words and phrases attached to specific meanings. Although some feminists have suggested that the semiotic is essentially feminine and the symbolic masculine, Kristeva is more prudent:

I would claim that we are always four: the feminine and masculine of a woman is not the same as the feminine and masculine of a man. And it is also the role of psychoanalysis to identify these differences so that we can move towards a singular humanity that enables us to cultivate singularities.

However, for both the individual and for society as a whole, Kristeva sees the pursuit of liberty as a fundamental task. This pursuit takes the form of revolt: not negating the past but founding it on a new basis. For feminists, this revolt begins with a re-assessment of what it is to be a woman:

On the analyst¹s couch we know that, whilst we may have concepts of types, of phases, oral, anal, etc., we are trying to find the particular way in which each woman articulates the feminine and the masculine. […] We must continue moving towards a humanity of differences and not a humanity of patterns.

Gay rights: Ali Erol traces the course of LGBT movement in modern Turkey. “LGBT’s struggle for recognition has transformed Turkish society as well as the LGBT society itself,” he writes. Over the last twenty years, LGBT individuals have redefined themselves repeatedly, and are now struggling for the recognition and definition of “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity” in the new constitution.

Also: Tolga Yalur on the definition of hermaphrodism in the Shariah. In the Ottoman Period, hermaphrodites were subject to a set of regulations ranging from clothing to worshipping practices. The sexual discourse of the time recognized only two categories, and those to whom these did not apply were treated as violators.

The full table of contents of Cogito 65-66 (2011)

Published 17 August 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


recommended articles