The invisible guillotine
Magyar Lettre Internationale 84 (2012)
In a Nordic issue of Magyar Lettre, Andri Snær Magnason tells of Iceland’s decline and fall from high-interest banking miracle to candidate for state insolvency. It was when the Icelandic government began developing a taste for heavy industry combined with financial deregulation that the country started straying from its predictable yet benevolent path of modernization, Magnason writes. Early in the 2000s, work began on a massive aluminium smelter owned by the US company Alcoa, together with the hydro-electric plants that would power it. The construction-fuelled boom made a few people astronomically wealthy: “We regularly heard reports of how rich our nouveau riche were,” writes Magnason, “but not how much they owed. The Icelandic state was almost debt-free and, for most, Iceland was still a traditional Scandinavian democracy.”
As the first wave of investment ebbed, Icelandic banks raised interest rates to attract billions of euros from private savers in the UK, Holland and Germany – loans guaranteed by the Icelandic population without their knowledge. Another five year energy plan was unveiled, this time from 2010 to 2015, that would power two new aluminium smelters – but things never got that far: “Economists speak of the invisible hand of the market, correcting the market when an imbalance arises. In Iceland, the imbalance had become such that an invisible guillotine was formed. Practically all the power attained by a few individuals evaporated overnight.”
Literature: Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón explains why he chose the seventeenth-century naturalist and non-conformist Jón Gumundsson the Learned as the historical basis for the protagonist of his book From the Mouth of the Whale:
“Jón the Learned was one of the very few people who described how an entire cosmology was taken away from the people. Their whole existence became unstuck, and the same must have been true when Christianity was adopted in Iceland. I think it must also have applied, to some extent, to the fall of communism in the East. In a way, that also gave me a reason for telling this story now. The way I felt about the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the Left was deprived of its voice and therefore its purpose, or made to believe that, anyway. This led to an ideological gap that made turbo-capitalism possible and set in motion the great wave of greed that we experienced in Iceland.”
In translation: Poet Ida Börjel confronts us with our favourite national prejudices; environmental historian Sverker Sörlin discusses scientific renegotiations of humanity and nature; and literary critic Jonas Thente rounds up new Swedish fiction.
The full table of contents of Magyar Lettre Internationale 84 (2012)
Free Speech Debate May 2012
In Free Speech Debate, the multilingual website based at the University of Oxford, political scientist David Erdos outlines the tensions between free speech and European privacy legislation. A new EU data regulation directive seeks to harmonize national approaches and places greater emphasis on effective enforcement. Yet it fails to relax restrictions on collecting and distributing data that, writes Erdos, is often innocuous. Moreover, it strengthens requirements on data collectors (amateur photographers included) vis-à-vis data subjects and data protection authorities.
Despite existing exemptions for journalistic, artistic and (to a lesser extent) research purposes, there is still much debate about the interpretation and application of these categories. Compounding the confusion, writes Erdos, are national variations, ranging from no exemption to complete exemption, along with ambiguity about geographical remit. “This is not solved by the new regulations and given the growing challenges posed by socio-technological change confusion is liable to worsen.”
Hate speech or free speech? Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar condemns as inauthentic a “Sharia-based Islam” that executes blasphemers and prohibits the publication of un-Islamic thoughts. Yet Kadivar also wishes to enforce a distinction between diversity of opinion and “even blasphemy” – which an “authentic” Qur’anic Islam tolerates – and the ridiculing or scorning of Islam:
“The requirement of a sane world is mutual respect among humans. It is not possible to insult and ridicule the beliefs, i.e. the holy book and the prophet, of one-fourth of the world population without having to bear the consequences of the violent and extremist reactions of some conservative adherents to that faith. […] Just as the execution and punishment of an apostate should be annulled, the insult and mockery of religion by atheists and non-believers should be officially recognised as a crime.”
Climate science: Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and member of the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells Maryam Omidi that climate change “sceptics” also enjoy the right to free speech, yet advises the media to take more care in identifying the credentials of “experts”. Despite being misrepresented by fanatics as a Malthusian (by supporting renewables he wants, they say, to slow economic growth and therefore to cause famine), Schellnhuber remains phlegmatic: “There is little that the relentless hum of the global warming denial machine can do to further erode public interest in climate change.”
More about Free Speech Debate
Res Publica Nowa 17 (2012)
In a European Championship special, Res Publica Nowa (Poland) explores links between sport and modernization, and ways in which loss of trust in the notion of progress has come to be reflected in this increasingly privatized, and privately enjoyed, “small-scale model of life”.
The capacity of sporting events to shape collective feeling and concentrate huge swathes of the population around a single purpose makes sport the perfect tool for shaping a society, strengthening a system, creating an image or promoting a lifestyle, writes Jakub Ferenc. Totalitarian regimes have found it particularly useful. It was exploited by Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and successive Soviet leaderships to integrate communities, prepare them for military action, or establish a strong image abroad.
But sport can also offer an experiential education in participation and social inclusion. Xavery Stanczyk points out that, in inter-war Poland, it was widely viewed as a crucial factor in the implementation of social and cultural change. It demanded socialization, education, institutionalization, new forms of interaction and hierarchy, and established new benchmarks for ethnic, regional and class identities. Konrad Burdyka, meanwhile, looks at the controlled injection of sporting opportunities, particularly football, into rural areas after the Second World War, seeing it as a hallmark of the passing of the peasant class. “Profound cultural change is reflected in the multi-dimensional space that is amateur, provincial football”. In rural communities, football remains a vital factor in the lives of people experiencing a transformation of group identity, following changes in infrastructure or the disappearance of traditional social hubs like churches, schools or factories. Football culture is “another symptom of ‘festive post-tribalism’ in the Polish provinces”, writes Burdyka.
The stadium: A round-table discussion on the symbolic significance of the modern stadium and its Greek and Roman prototypes makes reference to historian Henri-Irenée Marrou’s remark that the classical era was ruled, like our own, by a quest for personal happiness – with a perspective “restricted to the temporal and the earthly”. Today, the world’s sports stadiums may not compare in capacity to their classical counterparts, or consolidate and command the communal spirit in equal measure. Yet, as symbols, they rise above streets, cities and quotidian expectation like outsize centrepieces mounted on the altar of mass festivity.
The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 17 (2012)
Ny Tid 21-22/2012
Last week, under the heading “Finland’s repressed concentration camps”, Ny Tid (Helsinki) published two articles by Marcus Floman about a dark chapter of Finnish history. During the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944) with the Soviet Union, Finland detained political prisoners in several concentration camps. It is a well-known fact that more than 20,000 Soviet citizens and about 500 Germans and Hungarians were incarcerated during this time, but that between 500 and 700 Finns were also imprisoned is something that has hardly been talked about, writes Floman.
He bases his articles on a book by Allan Asplund, which was published in Swedish in 1949 and has only now been translated into Finnish. Asplund, who was a journalist at Ny Tid, spent 1281 days in different concentration camps and prisons. He tells about abuse and starvation that lead to the death of many political prisoners.
In this week’s issue, Fredrik Sonck follows up on Floman’s articles:
“Allan Asplund was politically active on the Left and a pacifist; that seems to have been the reason why he was detained. The evidence against him was thin. Other prisoners were not even politically active; their only crime was to have a Russian surname or to have published a poem in a leftist paper. In his memoirs, Asplund sometimes idealizes Soviet society and writes off the Finnish leaders as fascists tied to the Nazis’ apron strings. There are good reasons to say that he was naive and saw the world in black and white, but […] his book is a shocking account of cruelty, abuse, torture and starvation that neither Hitler nor Stalin can be blamed for. Nor can it be described as isolated excesses committed by individual soldiers. It was all part of a culture, of a system, within the Finnish army, and it was sanctioned by the political leaders.”
It’s high time for Finland to deal with this part of its past, Sonck concludes.
Also: Peter Lodenius talks to Turkish intellectual and journalist Murat Belge.
More about Ny Tid
A recent series of exhibitions of Renaissance portraiture prompts medieval historian Valentin Groebner in Merkur to challenge the presumption – a combination of artistic myth and marketing jargon – that the portrait captures “individual identity”. The exhibitions do not testify to “the triumph of individuality”, he writes, rather to the ability of the painter to produce images that could “reproduce themselves”. “A southern German merchant or a scholar around 1480 could, thirty years later, become a holy Joachim; a court fool of the sixteenth century could, two hundred years later, become a Hamburg pirate.”
Despite Fichte’s proposal in 1796 that every citizen carry a passport that contained not only a precise description of him but also a portrait, it was only with the rise of the photographic police archive that physiognomy came to serve as proof of identity. Notwithstanding photograph’s inadequacy to the task – as George Bernard Shaw put it in 1902, the camera makes from one person “authentic portraits” of at least six people – a quasi-religious faith in the congruence between portrait and portrayed meant it was preferred over fingerprinting.
“Insofar as the word ‘identity’ refers to anything at all, then it is to reproduction and comparison, to series,” Groebner writes. “It derives from the Latin word identidem, meaning ‘similar’. It never had anything to do with uniqueness. […] In media historical terms, it’s a clear cut case. It is not the unequivocal and authentic that has a long and dignified history, but the non-authentic, the fake image, into which a successfully reproduced physiognomy inevitable transforms.”
Critique and crisis: Beware of concluding from the current economic crisis the end of capitalism, cautions Werner Plumpe. Citing Schumpeter’s theory of long waves of economic conjuncture, the economic historian sees in contemporary critiques of capitalism two quite different movements. While socialist critique has tended to correlate with phases of depression, arguments that capitalist consumption destroys the human soul have proliferated during upward cycles. “The combination of conservative and radical critiques of capitalism seems to be a phenomenon of the last third of the twentieth century, which today is mixed with middle class self-critique, liberal self-doubt and a sure journalistic sense for marketable topics. Given the economic forecasts, we shouldn’t assume that this bubble will burst any time soon.”
Soldiering: A newly-erected memorial to Germany’s dead soldiers prompts Thomas Hettche to ask why society today knows no appropriate way to deal with war and violence. The answer requires a return to Carl Schmitt’s theory of enmity and Ernst Jünger’s WW1 memoirs Storm of Steel.
The full table of contents of Merkur 6/2012
In a long article which won the Best Essay Prize of the Slovenian Book Days, writer and politician Tone Persak considers the place of art in today’s world. The essay is part of the ongoing polemic in Slovenia following the fusion of the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Education. Persak sees this local political event as part of a much wider global shift. “The civilization that reached its peak in the nineteenth century, and its ethical collapse in the twentieth, has run its course, and we have long been living in the transition to a new civilization – and all the indications are that it will not be ‘European’. This has all manner of implications for art as well, at least for art as we have known and understood it in Europe.”
Hegel’s 1832 Lectures on Aesthetics are the most succinct statement of a vision giving art a role comparable to science or religion, writes Persak. Hegel, though, was writing within a tradition of the nation-state which is now losing ground to a more individualist, consumerist conception of art. “We no longer live in an age when thousands of people could gather for [the poet Simon] Gregorcic’s funeral” as happened in 1906. Instead, the role of art is captured by events such as in Maribor, European City of Culture 2012. Art is reduced to a facet of tourism, or the creative industries, or even hobbyism – despite the best efforts of activist artists. Even such a trenchant thinker as Slavoj Zizek can be reduced to little more than a “trademark” for Slovenia, comments Persak.
“We are painfully coming to realize that after independence, in which culture played the leading role, politics has pushed culture aside. […] Politics refuses to engage art in any dialogue on serious social issues, and art seeks to be heard in the marketplace instead, abdicating what was once its elite position in society.” Globalism encourages this process by promoting a commodified mass culture. But art has been part of the human condition since the cave painters; we might imagine an end of art in Hegel’s sense, but all this really means is the end of the world of nation-states.
Also: Mojca Pucer writes of her time living in the Boudoir Rouge, the studio-apartment set up by the Finnish artist Ulla Karttunen in Montmartre. “The idea that art might step down to the level of everyday reality awakes unease: every last part of our privacy, of our intimate life, might be observed and put on show.” And actress Sasa Pavcek talks in interview about theatre’s place in Slovenia, her admiration for the British playwright Howard Barker, and her experiences of stigmatization and liberation when starting her career as a single mother.
The full table of contents of Sodobnost 4/2012
Dziejaslou 57 (2012)
In Dziejaslou (Belarus), artist, journalist and author Ales Taranovic launches a tirade on modern art and the mechanisms of the art market, railing at self-appointed geniuses with no technical ability who sell on the market for horrendous sums, and at collectors with no sense for art interested only in big names and high returns. The decline of art, the dumbing down of the public and the rise of unscrupulous charlatans all started with the ’68ers, Taranovic believes, despairing of the prices that artists like Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon fetch at auction. Still, at least “they were painting something on canvas that resembles human beings, instead of cutting up the canvas, or burning it, or pouring acid over it or dispensing with it entirely.” Clearly, Taranovic has little time for abstraction, let alone conceptual art…
“For many years I’ve had the impression that we are all part of a vivisection experiment that has one single goal. When this goal is reached, when all that counts is the slogan ‘so bad it’s good’, they will take off their art historians’, journalists’ and patrons’ masks and cry: ‘Look how we duped those fools!'”
In Belarus, by contrast, art is still “healthy”; artists demonstrate a professionalism that is no longer to be found in the West. After Malevich there were no more genuine modernists in Belarus, and the Vitebsk School (founded by Chagall in 1919, who appointed some of the leading Russian avant-gardists as teachers) has had more or less no lasting impact in Belarus, Taranovic writes with relief.
Oswald in Minsk: Siarhiej Astraviec reviews Aljaksandar Lukasuk’s documentary novel Trace of a Butterfly, which has just been awarded the most important independent literature prize in Belarus. Lukasuk, director of the Belarusian channel of Prague-based Radio Liberty, reconstructs Lee Harvey Oswald’s stay in Minsk between 1960 and 1962. Woven into the novel are secret KGB protocols as well as Oswald’s personal records and the memories of acquaintances. Norman Mailer, who did extensive research in Minsk for his Oswald biography in the 1990s, also plays and important role in the book. The reviewer Astraviec praises the author’s meticulous pursuit of the traces left in Minsk by the “butterfly” Oswald and compliments him on the successful form in which he has presented his research.
Also: The impressively laconic and sharp-sighted “Pointings” by Ales Razanau – short, haiku-like poems that for a long time have been one of his trademarks.
The full table of contents of Dziejaslou 57 (2012)
In Arena (Sweden), Stefan Jonsson searches for the political meaning and potential of one of the most discussed concepts of the early twenty-first century: the precariat. He notes that “‘the precariat’ seems to be sociology’s term for what political theory calls ‘the multitude’, which in turn is related to ‘the subaltern’ of postcolonialism, which touch on the Marxist ‘proletariat’, which specified even more diffuse categories such as ‘the masses’ and ‘the poor’.”
Perhaps these are just different ways to describe one and the same underclass, Jonsson asks, suggesting that what these concepts capture might actually be the very “subject of democracy”.
The material form that most precisely embodies the global condition of the precariat is the container, writes Jonsson. In the TV-series The Wire, he finds an emblematic scene showing workers in the harbour of Baltimore opening a container and being overwhelmed by the stench of the dead bodies of 19 young women from eastern Europe.
“Here the two opposite poles of that global labour market that shapes the precariat are confronted with each other. On the one hand, the human trafficking that ends in death, on the other, wage labour with its job security and accompanying social rights, which ever more people are prepared to risk their lives to achieve. The well-organized dock workers in Baltimore – who, in despair, have to accept how they are gradually being replaced by machines – against the 19 women – who, just as desperate, let themselves be locked up in a container.”
In defence of relativism: Magnus Linton defends relativism against critique from both left and right. “The worst thing about the neo-absolutist trend in all political camps is not that it makes people more afraid of persons with other worldviews, but that it makes people more afraid of the future.” Today, notes Linton, the critique comes mainly from anti-Islamists. “Hatred of relativism, combined with conspiracy theories of an imminent take-over by Muslims, is right now the only really strong common denominator of the European xenophobic movement.”
The fact that there are no absolute truths – the relativist standpoint – does not mean that there are no truths at all. It just makes things a bit more complicated: “Is it wrong to kill people? Often. Is the hijab a sign of the oppression of women? Sometimes. Are drugs bad? For many. Does a Swede speak Swedish? Usually. Is the sex trade wrong? It depends. Can men get pregnant? Apparently.”
The full table of contents of Arena 3/2012
Multitudes 49 (2012)
Multitudes (France) devotes an issue to the sociology of migration, taking its starting point in the concept of the “transmigrant”. The term was introduced in the 1990s to mark the replacement of “immigrants”, whose lives were characterized by a painful process of assimilation, by “transmigrants”. The latter settle in another society without giving up ties to their countries of origin, taking part in the economic, political and cultural life of both.
Anne Querrien observes in her editorial that “migration has completely ceased to attach to the normative figure of the worker temporarily employed in a factory or on a building site in order to be able to send money home. Migration has become the community project of a village or a circle of friends, who send out the strongest among their number to defy the border crossings and forge an itinerary which the others can follow.”
Chinese: Alongside the term “transmigrants”, current migration research also uses the historically-loaded concept of the diaspora, despite diaspora’s original association with “exile” becoming increasingly weak. Thus, Emmanuel Ma Mung focuses on Chinese migrants’ trade relations with their homeland, emphasizing that one can’t actually refer to a Chinese diaspora, since “the stories of the groups concerned and the periods of immigation are different; in this migration movement there is no homogeneity that would permit talk of uniformity”.
Turks: Not so with Turkish migration, writes Stéphane de Tapia, which has a strong cultural connection to the country of origin. Economic relations between the diaspora and the homeland are based upon this strong cultural tie. De Tapia outlines the phases of Turkish migration, referring to a “migratory field” that forms around the country of origin, giving all Turkish diaspora movements a structure.
Catalonia: Dominique Sistach follows the routes of sexual transmigration and conditions of institutionalized mass prostitution in Catalonia.
The full table of contents of Multitudes 49 (2012)
La Revue Nouvelle 5-6/2012
In an issue of La Revue Nouvelle (Belgium) on regional development, Benoît Lévesque surveys the cyclical relationship between crises and social innovation. The current economic crisis is different because “our world is disintegrating such that a return to old ways is now impossible”. Lévesque describes three fundamental fault-lines along which our world has cracked: “between the economy and society, between the economy and finance, and within finance itself” – that is, between long- and short-term financial interests. Environmental concerns further complicate the picture.
However, “another world is possible – or at least thinkable” thanks to those for whom the crisis constitutes “an urgent invitation to bring about a great transformation, a non-violent revolution, even,” writes Levesque. Such transformation should follow two trajectories at once: “top-down, through the alter-globalization lobby, and bottom-up, in the form of myriad essentially local and community-dependent experiments and initiatives”. Considering the effects, both disastrous and beneficial, of globalization, Lévesque sees the alter-globalist perspective as a chance to “de-globalize by devolving some economic activities to the regions” and also to “re-globalize” with a new openness and an emphasis on “greater equality between North and South”.
Also: Pascal Balleux and Éric Dufranne explore tensions between forestry and hunting in the Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse region, Belgium’s “green boot”; and Giorgio Tesolin looks at a business hub set up from scratch in 1986, in the Allier region in France, to be named “a rural centre of excellence” just twenty years later.
The full table of contents of La Revue Nouvelle 5-6/2012