The habitats of superheroes

7 April 2009
Only in en
Blätter says sixty years of Nato is enough; The Hungarian Quarterly asks where the West was when the Wall fell; Res Publica Nowa debates the aesthetics of freedom post '89; Kulturos barai sees Lithuanian music reflected in a broken mirror; dérive compares Metropolis to Gotham City; Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) is not taken in by gene-fetishism; Historein finds twin cities backfiring on Brussels; Merkur gets excited about the subsidiarity principle; Multitudes resists the "subjectivization" of justice; and Vikerkaar looks right of Berlusconi.

Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 4/2009

On the sixtieth anniversary of Nato, Andreas Buro and Martin Singe come down hard on the military alliance. Constructed for the “military implementation and safeguarding of capitalist expansion”, the enemy was obvious for more than forty years. Yet there was no change of strategy when the Cold War ended and the “Partnership for Peace” was implemented. Nato went global and adjusted its operating range accordingly, burying its original principle to act only in case of attack on an ally. Now, write Buro and Singe, the worldwide “protection” of US and European interests tops the agenda and Nato claims it must be capable of acting in any “crisis situation” – regardless of international law.

“Nato has developed into an alliance for the worldwide offensive military safeguarding of ‘vital’ Western interests and neoliberal globalization. This is by no means an ‘aberration’, but rather updates the founding logic quite consistently.”

Given the dominance of the US and its recent strategy to form temporary military coalitions rather than wait for a Nato consensus or even a UN mandate, the scenario for global political development looks grim:

“There is much to indicate that Nato, as an instrument of capitalist expansion, will go on contributing to the destruction of human livelihoods. […] The disbanding of Nato remains an important step in promoting civilian conflict resolution and collective peacekeeping structures.”

Also: Michael Paul and Oliver Thränert really do believe what Obama says and see new opportunities for a significant reduction of atomic weapons. And Tamara Ehs and Gerd Valchars do not believe that cultural homogeneity is the precondition for the formation of a (European) nation, demanding instead the political inclusion of everybody, including non-EU immigrants.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 4/2009

The Hungarian Quarterly 193 (2009)

How far did the West support the transformation of eastern Europe in 1989? In The Hungarian Quarterly, historian László Borhi draws on recently released documents to reveal how western leaders, without exception, deferred to the Soviet Union in their policies towards Hungary. The threat of regional chaos and – misplaced as it might seem from today’s perspective – residual fear of German hegemony, meant an overwhelming support for preserving the status quo as the events of 1989 unfolded.

When George Bush visited Warsaw and Budapest in May 1989, Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze accused him of “trying to alter the balance of power on the continent”; Bush had to assure the Soviets that the US “did not mean to interfere in the relations between Hungary and its allies”. France took a cautious approach to the abolition of the one-party system, worried that acceleration of reforms in the East would weaken the EC as an economic bastion against the US and Japan. Austria, fearing anarchy on its border and even a Romanian attack on Hungary, was firmly in favour of the preservation of the Warsaw Pact – as was Britain, which told Hungary that Soviet security enjoyed priority over reforms in eastern Europe.

“Had the Hungarian public known about the western stance of the preservation of the status quo, there would have been an outcry”, writes Borhi. “The West, in the face of irreversible transformation of the east European scene and German unification, would accept the eventual restoration of self-determination and a full end to communist power in eastern Europe. But continental reunification would be a long and painful process for the subjects of the former Iron Curtain countries.”

Nothing to celebrate: Agnes Heller delivers a damning indictment of Hungarian politicians twenty years after ’89: “When in opposition (all due respect to the exceptions) they do not comport themselves as the opposition to a democratically elected government but as the opposition to a party dictatorship. As if they alone were carrying the flag of honesty against the dishonest. When, on the other hand, they become the governing party (and here it is hard to think of a significant exception) regardless of age they pursue the same paternalistic, populist political game.”

The full table of contents of The Hungarian Quarterly 193 (2009)

Res Publica Nowa 1/2009

In an issue of Res Publica Nowa (Poland) focusing on icons of freedom in the last two decades, Jaroslaw Kuisz comments on two films that show the brutality, fear and loneliness that have accompanied the new political order. In Wladislaw Pasikowski’s Psy (Dogs, 1992) a former security service agent turned respectable post-communist policeman resolves to avenge the death of three colleagues. And in Krzysztof Krauze’s Dlug (Debt, 1999), two young businessmen, trapped into life as mobsters, commit murder, then confess. “If the price of freedom is evil,” writes Kuisz, “and if generations of Poles were left in debt to free will, then the settlement of this perhaps elusive payment may relate to the question of how we should share the freedom we have in common.”

Architecture: Joanna Kusiak examines how the architectural response to the cramped communist-era apartment has been a proliferation of designer utopias with fountains and pergolas named “Marinas” or “Azure Valleys”. Kasia Kazimierowska comments that the real emblem of modern Warsaw is, paradoxically, not its new financial centre or its public TV building, but the Stalinist Palace of Culture – recently declared a national monument. Meanwhile, as economist Tomasz Kasprowicz points out, the tradition of communist-era bazaars (where smuggled jeans, tights, even Kalashnikovs could be acquired) has been defended against the advent of the supermarket. And Magdalena Baran looks nostalgically at the cheap and friendly “Milk Bar” (Bar Mleczny): another emblem of a bygone age.

Media: Gazeta Wyborcza is the “unassailable champion” in the contest for a symbol of the past two decades, writes Res Publica Nowa editor Wojciech Przybylski. It gave history and political independence meaning – though its “mentoring” tone has been a weakness. The tabloid Fakt, on the other hand, is an emblem of the new times, even if it failed to introduce a free-market revolution in news reporting. That role fell to the Internet.

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 1/2009

Kulturos barai 3/2009

Continuing its series “European histories” – the topic of this year’s Eurozine conferenceKulturos barai features articles by Timothy Snyder and Isolde Charim. Snyder, who will speak at the conference, argues that the future of European solidarity depends on a rethinking of the immediate European past:

“Without historical knowledge of the East, European mass publics will be swayed by simple arguments flowing from national prejudice. European leaders, whether they know the facts or not, will be tempted to resort to such arguments in the whirl of domestic political competition. Moreover, it will be very hard for eastern Europeans to believe that they are full partners in Europe so long as their experiences in the second half of the twentieth century are not part of a larger European story.”

Isolde Charim, on the other hand, warns that there is a new myth in the making here, namely that of individual victimhood divorced from political context. Until now, she writes, “it has been possible to achieve a common perspective on the past only through a loss of concreteness and a de-politicization of commemoration, and not through a gain in truth.”

Lithuanian music: Andreas Engström reports from the World Music Days in Vilnius. Engström, editor of the Swedish journal on art music Nutida Musik, is impressed by the standing of contemporary music in Lithuanian society.

Lithuanian music must be interpreted in the context of a discussion about cultural identity that has emerged from the post-Soviet vacuum, writes Engström. “As a consequence of Soviet hegemony, Lithuanian music has for years been characterized by a strong awareness of its own culture and an urge to create a distinctive image. The question ‘What is Lithuanian music today?’ therefore remains, even when the mirror one used to look into has been broken.”

The fact that Lituanian art music has contributed for such a long time to a the definition of what it means to be Lithuanian, might explain why an event such as the World Music Days was met with such interest by the general public, notes Engström. However, what the festival “had to say about contemporary Lithuanian music and culture was that, after all, it is first and foremost European”.

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 3/2009

dérive 35 (2009)

Comics, write the editors of dérive, are both thematically and genealogically inseparable from the city; they “even allow an alternative reading of the history of modernity and its consequences”. The latest issue of the Austrian urbanist magazine combines image and text to do just that.

“Every city is unique, has a certain identity and individual problems – ergo an individually tailored superhero”, writes Jill Meißner. Gotham City is “the ultimate city of crime” and home of Batman, “who at times emits more darkness than evil itself”, and who, when not dealing with crazed super-villains, is the scourge of pickpockets and other street trash. Metropolis, on the other hand, is “the paradigm of a perfect urban space: cosmopolitan, clean, friendly and wealthy” and home of Superman, guardian against colossal extra-terrestrial monsters. “Nothing and nobody from within Metropolis would be an interesting enough adversary for the mighty Superman – except of course arch nemesis Lex Luther”.

It was not always thus: we learn from Meißner that in the early days of the comic, Superman strove for world mastery; an issue entitled “The Reign of the Superman” appeared at the very moment Hitler became Reichskanzler. Alarmed by political developments in Europe, Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel “turned their comic concept inside-out and made Superman a fighter for good”.

The city in children’s literature: The urban environment forms the backdrop for a wide range of children’s adventure stories. Sequential, filmic illustrations that shun conventional viewing patterns are a recent development, writes Ines Wagner.

Also: The closer Elisabeth Blum and Peter Neitzke get to Dubai, the more unreal it becomes: “What appears from a distance to be a city, turns out to be the mere appearance of a city: desert implants, semi-urban fragments, gated housing developments, thematically concentrated controlled entertainment locations, zones of functionality.”

The full table of contents of dérive 35 (2009)

Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 4/2009

In Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin), Bruno Preisendörfer delves into the history of language to prove that the need to find images and metaphors for scientific theories, namely genetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution, has practical consequences: “Genetic information in nature is subject to genetic evolution, while people’s perception of it is subject to cultural evolution. […] One should not confuse natural facts with the metaphors with which, depending on the historical era, they are culturally coded.”

“What,” asks Preisendörfer, “does present-day gene-fetishism have in common with the social Darwinist perception of the survival of the fittest, or with colonialist and fascist racial theories?” The answer: “In that it explains cultural differences with natural differences, justifies social inequality via natural inequality, converts scientific concepts into cultural metaphors, which, via a kind of ‘ideological feedback effect’, are perceived to be in the ‘nature of things’.”

A digital republic of learning? In his article first published in the NYRB, Robert Darnton asks what the future holds after the Google Book Settlement:

We cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public’s rightful domain. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning.

Also: Philippe Leymarie is concerned that Nato, on its sixtieth anniversary, has neither defined its new function nor its relation to the EU.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 4/2009

Historein 8 (2008)

New Eurozine associate Historein (Greece) looks at “the affective turn” in the humanities and social sciences. “How can we examine individual and collective emotional forces and encounters in the contexts of war, decolonization, migration and global injustice?” ask the editors. “What sites of memory, history, politics and theory are generated by such engagement with the various configurations of emotion?”

Critics often bemoan the absence of a “libidinal” dimension in the European identification process, notes Eleni Papagaroufali, yet fail to analyse European Commission cultural policy aimed at “giving Europe a soul”. City twinning programmes are the best example of how “the obligatory becomes naturalized and pleasurable”, and thus “fully enmeshed in [the EC’s] technologies of governmentality”. Yet twinning programmes are not always the occasion for outpourings of fraternal love: when the residents of the south eastern Greek town of Palaia Focea decided to twin with their ancient ancestors in Foca in Turkey, the majority were opposed and Turkish visits marred by “booing schoolchildren”.

Nevertheless, writes Papagaroufali, “twin brothers take the liberty to make their own culturally informed emotional judgments of euro symbols, thus ‘adding’ their own histories to the history of Europe, and consequently revealing Europe’s chronic state of incompleteness.” The European Commission, perhaps wary of such independent initiative, has shifted its policy; it now prefers large-scale, professionally organized events in which NGOs play the middleman between the community and state. “Civil society organizations are expected to be more ‘collaborative’ with the Commission, thus more controllable.”

Also: Alexandra Bakalaki on the performance of the altruistic self; Despoina Valatsou on the production and consumption of personalized historical knowledge; and Jina Politi on the relation between the repression of passion and colonial expansion in seventeenth century England.

More about Historein

Merkur 4/2009

In Merkur, Otfried Höffe writes a eulogy to subsidiarity (the principle that the state should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed at a more local level). Where, at the beginning of the modern state, the principle of fear ruled and states formed to a large degree so as to better deal with the consequences of war and civil war, the subsidiarity principle has now become ubiquitous. According to it,

“trust rules instead of mistrust; willing agreement, rather than rebelliousness, emerged in the place of subservient obedience; fear was substituted by hopeful expectation. The state on one side, the family and the market economy on the other – the two are not opposite, heterogeneous worlds; rather subsidiarity has proven to be a principle of humanity and freedom.”

While the new principle of state improved relations particularly between public officials and citizens, it also infiltrated international politics: “Smaller units, in this case single states, create the greater unity, Europe.” This considered, Höffe manages to wring some positive aspects from globalization:

“Realizing that genuinely global tasks cannot be dealt with by the single state, the latter create the necessary international and supranational institutions: organizational and legislative devices that increasingly turn out to be the building blocks of a world order.”

Wanderlust: Bodo Mrozek writes a short cultural and political history of walking, from the travellers of the Romantic period to popular physical exercise to the fragmented high-tech “walking” of the present, concluding:

“Given walking’s role in the constitution of nationhood, one might guess the following: that if there was a ‘German way’ (deutsche Sonderweg), then it was probably travelled on foot.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 4/2009

Multitudes 35 (2009)

On 11 November 2008, French police surrounded the village of Tarnac. They called it “Operation Taiga”. Simultaneously, raids were carried out in Rouen, Paris, Limoges and Metz. Ten young men and women, members of a self-supporting collective, were arrested. The arrest and the terrorism charges brought against them is meant to create fear, writes Jean-Claude Paye in Multitudes. Though the authorities have no concrete evidence against the members of the group, they are remanding “the charismatic ideological leader”, Julien Coupat, in custody.

Since 9/11, the line between civilian and military law has been blurred. In the EU, writes Paye, the definitions of acts of terror and terrorist organizations are perfectly tailored to penalize ordinary social movements and protests. Intent itself has become a crime. This “subjectivization” of the legal system means that it gives judges the power to decide if an activity or a statement is an act of terror. The imaginary replaces facts and leads to “a psychotic structure, an order which excludes all conflict.”

Avant-garde alien: Marc Bernadot writes on the growing repression of illegal immigrants and the poor support offered to detainees: “These foreigners are the victims of institutional violence exacerbated by techniques of arrest, the management of centres, and finally expulsion.” Yet illegal immigrants represent an avant-garde in the defence of individual and public freedoms. “The police battle against illegal aliens is nothing but a Trojan Horse in a war against the minorities and civil society as a whole.”

Going global: Though the effects of the Internet have been analysed, the Web itself has received little attention, claims Harry Halpin. It is governed by a network composed of an “immaterial aristocracy” of radical democratic “hackers” and corporations such as Google. These networks continually negotiate between the needs of global capitalism and the desires of anti-capitalist netizens.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 35 (2009)

Vikerkaar 3/2009

Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory last year, and the merging of Forza Italia with the post-fascist Allianza Nazionale into the People of Freedom bloc in March, means that the extra-parliementary far-Right is again well placed to influence Italian politics. In Vikerkaar, Daniele Monticelli follows up on Karin Priester‘s survey of the ideological background of the far-Right spectrum in Italy and the careers of its leading figures (first published in German in Blätter 6/2008 and reviewed here).

Monticelli traces the continuity of the Italian far-Right with the Republic of Salò and its contacts to and support from top-level Italian politics. This political atmosphere, she writes, is best exemplified by P2, the secret organization that operated from 1945 until 1981, which could count among its members future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The presence in today’s government of the former Allianza Nazionale and the Lega Nord legitimizes, in the public view, the activities of the extra-parliamentary far-Right:

“In light of the de facto overriding of the role of legislative power, characteristic of the Berlusconi government, of its constant attempts to subject judicial power to the executive branch, and of the prime minister’s ability to directly influence a great part of the Italian mass media, one can understand why Berlusconi’s regime is occasionally described as a new fascism.” Hence, Monticelli concludes, “even though the highly ideologized far-Right discussed by Priester may not play a very prominent role in the current governing rightwing coalition, the populist trend of the far-Right is widespread and must be regarded as an important component of the Berlusconi phenomenon.”

Also: Madis Koiv gives an insight into the traumatic experience of being approached by the one-time KGB and its long-term psychological aftermath; and “Vikergallup” selects the best books by Estonian authors published in 2008.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 3/2009)

Published 7 April 2009

Original in English
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