The heresy of common sense

14 September 2011
Only in en
New Humanist tracks the tremors after 9/11; Merkur refuses to conform to non-conformism; The Hungarian Quarterly offers no way out of the intractable Roma problem; Osteuropa examines the siege of Leningrad as problematic lieu de mémoire; Samtiden takes comfort in what isn’t happening in Norway; Du venerates Roberto Bolaño; Studija sheds light on the Venice Biennale; Dialogi criticizes moonlighting theatre critics; and Vikerkaar ponders the Finno-Ugric scattergun approach.

In a magisterial essay in New Humanist, Stephen Howe tracks the tremors after 9/11. An expert on the postcolonial landscape, Howe argues that the most dangerous change to the world since the destruction of the Twin Towers has been the emergence of “Islam” as a monolithic cultural identity – a change brought about both by Islamists and their enemies.

Once upon a time, Britain’s inhabitants included several hundred thousand Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – or people with family origins in those countries – plus smaller but significant communities of Egyptians, Turks, Somalis and many more. Remarkably, they have all vanished in the past decade or so. In the places where they used to live, a completely new set of people has replaced them: people called Muslims. This vast act of ethnic cleansing has happened silently, almost without remark.

Ten years on, he argues, we need to resolve that “Islam”, as a singular noun, or “Muslims” as a collectivity are simply not good things to think with or about, let alone for or against.

The caveat that all collective identities are potentially oppressive and dangerous, not just religious, and not least national, ones, surely requires little reiteration. Even so, personally, I’d quite like to see the past decade’s wave of ethnic cleansing reversed. That is, I have no objection at all to Muslim neighbours, friends, fellow citizens – but given the choice, on the whole I’d prefer to get rid of them, and bring back the Sylhetis and Somalis, Turks and Tunisians I used to live with.

After The Office: Ricky Gervais, the man behind the The Office, talks in interview about his new BBC comedy – “Life’s Too Short is a fake documentary about a showbiz dwarf” – but above all whether he thinks that people will be offended by it.

I don’t know why you would ask that question? Is it because the central character is a dwarf? Or is it because you buy into this myth that I am a shock comedian? […] I always expect some people to be offended. I know I ruffle feathers but some people’s feathers need a little ruffling. And remember: just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they’re in the right. Some people are offended by multiculturalism, homosexuality, abortion, atheism – what should we do? Ban all those things? You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.

The full table of contents of New Humanist 5/2011

“Tell the truth!” exhort Merkur editors Karl Heinz Bohrer and Kurt Scheel in this year’s double issue on “non-conformity”. But: “In a society that fears barely anything more than conformity, and in which practically everyone imagines themselves to be a non-conformist, who can call oneself a non-conformist?”

The misfits of public opinion: It seems to be a characteristic of modern democratic society to conform both in how one thinks and how one lives, according to media scientist Norbert Bolz. At the same time, supposedly non-conformist social criticism and “political correctness” have become the standard mode, and NGOs, leftist intellectuals and freethinkers “courted troublemakers”. Bolz takes up the cudgels for the misfits of public opinion:

Ever since the illegitimate was normalized and the normal stigmatized, anyone who has retained their sanity appears reactionary. In truth, however, they only prove their courage to see and say the obvious. […] The reactionary embodies the heresy of common sense in the culture of political correctness.

Autonomy and conformism: Harald Welzer and Sebastian Wessels have researched individual autonomy and conformism and come to revealing conclusions:

Total autonomists are equally sociopathic as personalities that are entirely and exclusively conformist. If, in a highly individualized society, someone or other prefers to consider themselves non-conformist, then in certain circumstances that can be taken as proof of conformity. That doesn’t matter, however, since all the evidence indicates that when things get serious, almost everyone behaves alike anyway. Conformism and non-conformism are basically not much more than categories of distinction and style. They have clear social functions, even if not the ones attributed to them.

Also: Jörg Lau on the US as “republic of outsiders” and some of its more significant examples: Henry David Thoreau, Terence Malick and the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

The full table of contents of Merkur 9-10/2011

“Sometimes I think these people no longer care. They have crossed every limit”, says the mayor of a small village in the northeastern Hungarian county of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén. And indeed, journalist Zsigmond Falusy‘s reportage in The Hungarian Quarterly on relations between Roma and the majority offers little reason to be optimistic about an improvement in the current, dire situation. Falusy meets Jószef Kiss, a fifty-two year old Rom who has spent half his life in prison. A father of thirteen children, he has just been caught poaching the small rodent known as the gopher for its meat, for which he is facing another stretch.

The man turns around in the only room that’s heated, shuffles, tells us to look at this, and look at that. Can you live like this? he asks, four of us sleep in this bed, he says, but [his wife] protests, what rot, only you and I sleep in that bed, and sometimes one of the kids. Alright, alright, he says, and keeps speaking. We watch this gesticulating man, the absurd slippers on his feet, the electrical wiring sticking out from the ceiling, the windows that won’t close properly, and slowly we realize that perhaps he is right: poverty explains a great deal. Perhaps not everything, but certainly a few gophers.

Also in a section on the Hungarian Roma: Titanilla Fiáth, a prison psychologist and counsellor, explains why learning Romanes raised more barriers than it overcame when communicating with Roma inmates: “My choice of language immediately indicates that I noticed the person I am talking to is a Gypsy – irrespective of whether it was this he wanted to bring out in the conversation or, for example, that he is a ‘family man’.” And Péter Szuhay, a curator at Budapest’s museum of ethnography, on socio-economic, political and cultural aspects of the “plight of the Roma” in Hungary during and after communism.

Liszt year 2011: Textual, graphic and archival information about Hungary’s celebrated composer, including a brief musical biography by Mária Eckhardt, research director and founder of the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum; and a continuation of preeminent Liszt biographer Alan Walker’s account of his “journey” through the composer’s life.

The full table of contents of The Hungarian Quarterly 202-203 (2011)

The siege of Leningrad, which began on 8 September 1941 and lasted 872 days, claimed around one million victims, most of whom starved to death. Yet in the German memory of WWII, Leningrad is overshadowed by other urban catastrophes: Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Dresden. In Osteuropa, Jörg Ganzenmüller examines why knowledge of the siege of Leningrad in post-war West Germany was so poor that well into the 1970s schoolbooks were reproducing versions of events established by the Nazi generation.

After the war, German generals apportioned blame for military defeat on Hitler alone: the Wehrmacht was depicted as a professional army carrying out, at great loss and suffering, a war imposed upon it by a fanatic ideologist. The failure to take Leningrad became one example of Hitler’s flawed military strategy, writes Ganzenmüller. The siege was interpreted either as the final station in the Wehrmacht‘s heroic march into the Soviet Union, or the point at which the tide of the war began to turn; however the Russian victims of the siege were omitted in the West German memory.

In the GDR, identification with the former enemy was encouraged: anti-fascism styled the defeat of Nazi Germany as the salvation of the German people, propagating solidarity among fellow members of the community of “victims of fascism”. This enabled greater sympathy for the suffering of the citizens of Leningrad, writes Ganzenmüller; nevertheless, East German historians failed to see Nazi starvation tactics in terms of the policy of annihilation in eastern Europe, but rather the attempt of “German imperialism” to undermine socialist society.

Literature and the siege of Leningrad: Soviet literature paid little attention to a key aspect of the physical and psychological reality of the siege, writes Anja Tippner: hunger. Only the writer Lidiya Ginzburg investigated hunger as a physical, cultural and existential fact, going beyond official memory culture to expand the discussion of the suffering of the population of Leningrad. Like with the Holocaust, writes Ulrich Schmid, the imperative applies that anybody who writes about the siege of Leningrad must bear witness. Even when authors have claimed to write the truth, they follow a normative discourse with established formulae for pathos; only recently have writers of the post-war generation de-heroicized the siege.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 8-9/2011

The latest issue of Samtiden (Norway) was already set when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya, writes Cathrine Sandnes in an updated editorial. The first version took its starting point in the political right-turn in Sweden, but suddenly it was more important to reflect on Norway’s future:

I was not alone in […] fearing for the ordinary Muslim, if it turned out that Islamists were behind it. The only clear thought to seep through the numbness and nausea of those first 24 hours after 22/7 was the relief that an ethnic Norwegian man was responsible. Not because, as someone already tried to insinuate, some of us want to ‘rub in that we were right’. There are in reality no motives behind it other than relief at all the things that are not happening right now. And I’m not thinking about what is going on in self-righteous meta-debates on social networking sites, but of what could have happened physically and concretely out on the streets.

Sandnes concludes with the question: What kind of country do we want Norway to be in 50 years? Hopefully it will still be astoundingly peaceful, she writes. “But if we keep talking as if a country without immigrants is an alternative, or let the participants in the debate get away with linguistic inexactitude where ‘Islam’ unwittingly becomes synonymous with ‘Islamism’ – this is hard to imagine.”

Scoring no points with the ladies: In an article that looks at why rightwing politics is less popular with women than with men, in spite of an increased number of female front-figures, Ingvild Reymert explains simply: “Women have more left oriented attitudes, they work in the public sphere and are more concerned with gender equality. In addition, what is particular to the populist rightwing parties, such as hostility to immigration and the wish for a society regulated strictly by law and order, falls on less than fertile ground with women. A female leader makes no difference when the policies are unpopular.”

The full table of contents of Samtiden 3/2011

Du is the first magazine ever to have been permitted access to Roberto Bolaño’s archives in Blanes – a village in the middle of the “tourist terror on the Costa Brava”, as editor Stefan Zweifel puts it – where Bolaño spent almost 20 years of his life.

The writer has been the subject of myths and legends ever since his premature death in 2003 and the posthumous publication of his bestselling and highly acclaimed novel 2666. Searching in Bolaño’s archives for answers to the riddles and ambiguities of his major novel, what Zweifel finds are notes and photographs, testimony of the writer’s adventurous life between Mexico City, his native Chile and Nicaragua, of his tranquil family life on the Spanish coast, and of a frantic reader and writer – but no answers:

Bolaño seduces us to remove in the same rhythm as himself one item of clothing after the other, first the old hat of the linear and ‘well constructed’ story, then the top button of the high style of avant-garde dandyism. Increasingly naked, we stand there, helpless. By the end, book and reader face each other in all their helplessness, bared and vulnerable, unable to comprehend the other any longer. Like in a metaphysical detective story, one seeks the meaning of the book, but there is none – and so one runs up against… oneself.

Also: Excerpts from the novel Los sinsabores del verdadero policía, a parallel project to 2666; an interview with Bolaño conducted only weeks before his death; and a surprise find from the archives – a short autobiography in letter form from 1986: “I think that a good novelist will become of me.”

The full table of contents of Du 9/2011

“It has happened to me numerous times that, on coming out in an exhausted state from one of the biennials or one of the documentas, I encounter an art critic, curator or journalist firing comments like a machine gun: ‘It’s weak this year… a festival of mediocrity… a heap of material without meaning and an absence of any curatorial idea or guidelines whatsoever…’ My immediate reaction has always been: ‘Why don’t you change your job?'”

Barbara Fässler finds that to review the Venice Biennale in its totality, with its 89 pavilions and 37 collateral events, is simply impossible, “and to pretend to be able to manage this is a form of megalomania”. She admits therefore that the negativity of the critics is probably a kind of survival reflex.

Fässler herself chose to focus on three aspects: the problem of light, the notion of nation and the principle of interaction. She concludes with the Lithuanian Pavilion: In “Behind the White Curtain”, the viewer is invited to choose from 173 works by artists who have been recipients of Lithuanian state grants over the last 20 years. Assistants with white gloves then fetch the chosen works from a depository behind the marquee and place them in the exhibition space, where they stay until the next visitor gives instructions to remove them.

The curator: Laima Slava revisits the early days of the Venice Biennale when “everything seemed so wonderful, rich and unfathomable”, and wonders why each successive curator has been criticized for not being able to fill the shoes of Harald Szeemann, who curated the Biennale three times. The curator exhibitions are interesting, she writes, because they allow us “both to see familiar names from new angles and to discover the unknowns”. However she concludes that, this year, “the difficulty of finding the interesting, the captivating, is becoming increasingly evident”.

The full table of contents of Studija 4/2011

Natasa Kovsca raises a fundamental question about the importance the state places on the promotion of Slovenian culture abroad in her editorial of Dialogi. The sculpture installation “Heaters for Hot Feelings” by Mirko Bratusa is original and contemporary, but the space Slovenia leased at this year’s Venice Biennale is less impressive:

Gallery A+A is not suited for the presentation of relevant artistic projects. Specifically, the gallery that the Slovenian government has leased […] is squeezed into a very narrow, barely metre-wide alley in which two grown people can hardly fit. Similar to this ‘anteroom’ the interior is also cramped, composed as it is of several spaces connected by narrow passages. In short, the gallery is considered by artists to be an exceptionally unappealing and problematic space.

It is indisputable that all works of art are experienced by the visitor in their relationship to space, continues Kovsca, and questions the willingness of the Slovenian state to invest seriously in the promotion of art outside the country. She points out that the Venice Biennale is the most important event for the promotion of contemporary art for countries with an underdeveloped market (to which Kovsca counts Slovenia). She delivers a final blow to artistic diplomacy by claiming that “funding is reserved only for those artistic projects that are to be presented at diplomatic missions and consulates around the world.”

Moonlighting critics: Under the heading “inter-criticism”, twelve experts from around the world discuss the impacts of theatre critics wearing too many hats. Today, critics take on a variety of jobs for financial reasons: they may participate in a theatre production as dramaturge; be on a festival jury; be part of a panel making decisions about financing theatre; or be a producer, university lecturer, adviser, moderator or editor. All of this threatens the ethics of criticism, write the editors, and can lead to a conflict of interests.

The full table of contents of Dialogi 5-6/2011

In interview with Igor Kotjuh, poet and essayist Jaan Kaplinski discusses his relation to the Estonian and other languages. Speaking about his long-term interest in mimetic words and word pairs, Kaplinski suggests that such constructions are associated with a mode of thinking peculiar to the Finno-Ugric language group along with Russian and some Asian languages:

We belong to the peoples or cultures that approach language more sceptically, that don’t regard language as an ideal or even an adequate means of describing reality, ideas or feelings. I’m not very keen on military comparisons, but here one might indeed say that, in western Europe, language is used like a sniper’s gun, in the belief that it is possible and necessary to hit the mark with the first shot, i.e. a single apt word; whereas we tend to shoot several times – at least then one of the shots will hit the target.

What is poetry? “Writing poetry is to give gifts, and that’s why it’s not easy to present poetry as a product,” writes Hasso Krull. “A product is exchangeable value, and exchangeable value is reduced to nil unless it grows. A gift, on the other hand, is preserved only when used – opened, eaten, shared, handed on, given to those who themselves give.” However, in order to make some functional distinctions – to understand why some texts are poetry and others aren’t – Krull turns to literary theory and arrives at three basic features: language, voice and evaluation. These three “architextual axes arrange the diversity of poetic genres into a spatial configuration that appears slightly different depending on the angle from which you observe it”.

McLuhan centenary: Ragne Kouts discusses Marshall McLuhan’s familiar epithet “The medium is the message” (published in Estonian translation in the issue), concluding that social networking and the Internet may allow for the kind of sensory balance that McLuhan was hoping for.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 7-8/2011

Published 14 September 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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