"The reality I've been referring to..."

26 January 2011
Only in en
Index asks if international attention gets writers out of prison; Esprit talks about the bloody side of heroism; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) calls WikiLeaks an informal truth commission; Ny Tid digs up a 200 year-old quote on new media; Mittelweg 36 explains the enduring fascination of Adorno, Arendt, Benjamin et al.; Kulturos barai keeps it passionately platonic; Soundings finds Europe’s low-wage hinterland still in shock; Gegenworte witnesses a heated dispute between mathematicians; Osteuropa meets Asiatic despots all over ru.net; and Studija seeks the true value of art.

“It is hard to explain why Turkey, the most democratic republic in the region, is in fact not all that democratic,” writes Maureen Freely in an issue of Index dedicated to 50 years of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. “But the hardest job falls to the persecuted and prosecuted writers: from the moment they receive their first mention in the European press, their phones start ringing […] as well-meaning human rights groups from all over Europe offer help without having an accurate overview of the country’s political complexities.”

Freely recounts how Harold Pinter’s attention was drawn to the conditions in Turkey by the arrest in 1982 of the entire executive committee of the Turkish Peace Association. Pinter contacted Arthur Miller and together they set out on a fact-finding mission to Turkey in 1985. Visiting the US embassy in Ankara, Pinter became embroiled in a row with the US political counsellor about the existence of torture in Turkish prisons. “Don’t forget, the Russians are just over the border. You have to bear in mind the political reality, the diplomatic reality, the military reality,” the American said. “The reality I’ve been referring to,” Pinter replied, “is that of an electric current on your genitals.”

Being the story: “The first call is the one you never forget. The person uttering the death threat has spent days preparing for this moment – to let you know that your fate is sealed.” Lydia Cacho, Mexican journalist, feminist and human rights activist, describes what it’s like being at the receiving end of threats and how becoming the news is a double-edged sword: “The threats somehow become as important as the original story.”

This paradox is woven into our daily lives. International recognition sustains us with life, and our dignity demands that we never cease denouncing our persecutors. Their acts of aggression are intended to silence us, wear us out, or distract our attention from what’s really important. Prizes and accolades are converted into shields to protect and forums to express the messages others are trying to conceal.

Also: Margaret Atwood on how “you can take the guts out of the investigative journalists, both figuratively and literally, but so far no one has been able to completely suppress the human urge that’s at least as old as the Book of Job: the need to tell.”

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 4/2010

Does military heroism consist of sacrificing your own life – or of ending somebody else’s? According to Christophe Bouton, “the capacity to die and the capacity to kill are two sides of the same medal, pinned to the hero’s chest”. Soldiers die because other soldiers kill them; self-sacrificing heroes often have blood on their hands. Praise of soldiers, though, has come to focus entirely on self-sacrifice, ignoring the warrior’s function of killing others. Hegel, for example, “glorifies sacrifice, not killing”. Likewise with war memorials:

The monuments to the dead of 1914-18 serve as memorials to ‘death for a cause’ (in this case, for one’s country), but they often avoid the concrete phenomenon of death, which is seldom depicted. They may sometimes show dead or wounded soldiers, but never an enemy who has been killed.

Killing, when discussed at all, is imagined as a primitive urge. Freud argued that the desire to kill (Mordlust) had been suppressed by centuries of culture and was released only by war. But the twentieth century refuted this, argues Bouton: killing – rational and mechanical – is part of civilization. Accordingly, the figure of the hero fades, both as killer and as killed, to be replaced by the image of the passive victims of slaughter.

WikiLeaks: What may seem like a process of pure digital transparency, writes Marc-Olivier Padis, is in fact the result of an alliance between a website of dubious reputation and respected newspapers in five countries. WikiLeaks serves “to demonstrate the added value of the editorial process and its ability to deal with a large volume of sensitive information, reminding us that, despite the collaborative web, commentary on the news is not something accessible to all-comers.” Nonetheless, professional journalists risk being carried away by the deregulated practices of the Internet, says Padis. It remains to be seen how the media can combine this new dis-intermediated world with their own professional practices.

Prison and cinema: The prison film genre makes visible an institution otherwise hidden from public view, writes Alice Leroy in a retrospective of the genre, from official documentaries to inmates’ own productions. The prison film, which has been revitalized by Un prophète (2009), provides space for discussion of how imprisonment “creates violence rather than containing it”.

The full table of contents of Esprit 1/2011

The public discussion about WikiLeaks proves that indignation is a force for both good and evil, writes Remi Nilsen in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo).

In January 2010, Hilary Clinton gave an elegant speech defending an Internet free of censorship and pointing out how free flow of information is a good thing for all societies. Less than a year later, the US and the very same foreign secretary are indignantly doing their best to censor WikiLeaks and its practice of creating a free flow of more or less secret information leaked from American authorities.

What is revealing about WikiLeaks is not so much the content of the individual documents they give access to, but the reactions they have provoked. In less than fifteen years, the number of secret documents in the US has increased from 5,6 million to 54,6 million, a development that should awaken deep worry about the distance between a government and its people, writes Nilsen.

Much of the information revealed is mere “trivia and gossip”; still, it has removed the veil from central power structures, without which they are left with little, if any, dignity. “In a better world, one could see WikiLeaks as a sort of informal truth commission […] that allows us to start again. That the American leaks have led to so much indignation, even among Norwegian local politicians, is not a good sign.”

Also: Felix Stalder on the deeper reasons for the crisis of information security and the new distribution of investigative journalism; and Zeev Sternhell on the anti-Enlightenment currents that first arose in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the idea of the autonomous individual.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 1/2011

In an article on the newspaper crisis and the Internet, Jani Marjanen quotes the Finno-Swedish newspaperman Adolf Ivar Arwidsson, who at the beginning of the nineteenth century criticized arbitrary censorship laws for treating newspapers unfairly: “Are truth and enlightenment more bitter and unpleasant if they appear in a newspaper rather than a book? Does their essence not remain one and the same, regardless of what form they take?”

Arwidsson’s argument is almost 200 years old, published in his own paper Åbo Morgonblad on 16 June 1821. Yet it still applicable in today’s debate on media in the wake of the digital revolution. The form – print or screen – still tends to become more important than content and editorial processes, more important than “truth and enlightenment”.

Are we not, asks Marjanen, seeing a similar upheaval of the media landscape today, which will have profound consequences for how we define concepts such as publisher or journalist? “In Arwidsson’s times these concepts received a new meaning, in our times they are being challenged again.”

Also: Martin Portin on volunteer work in Haiti one year after the earthquake; Peter Lodenius on the welfare-state and privatization of social services; and Fredrik Sonck on Europe’s fading reputation as stronghold for free speech.

More about Ny Tid

In Mittelweg 36, historian Steven E. Aschheim examines why it should be that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, certain Weimar German-Jewish thinkers – Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem and Leo Strauss – are iconic figures of Anglo-American intellectual and academic culture. “To some extent,” he writes, “it can be attributed to an ongoing post-Holocaust commemoration and a rather romantic valorization of German-Jewish intellectuals and their legacy in general. This is, in part, also related to a general attraction to ‘European’ thinkers and what Anglo-Americans often impute to them: passionate intellectuality, critical engagement, and formidable depth.”

However there is more to it than that: “They were all heterodox thinkers. Orthodoxy, of almost any kind, was not an option […] Their diverse projects are not easily pigeon-holed: they all resisted simple ideological classification and were moved by radical impulses. Indeed, they were driven to go beyond the borders in both literal and metaphorical ways. They naturally gravitated to tactics of conceptual and critical displacement and sought to first subvert and then remap accepted cognitive frontiers.”

Postmodernists have been drawn to precisely these qualities, writes Aschheim; yet the Weimar intellectuals will outlive their admirers: “Like the post-moderns, their sense of displacement, of being ‘beyond the border’ is constitutive. Yet their continuing iconicity consists perhaps in their attempt to go beyond that state. In one way or another, they redefined the frontiers and provided us with new moral and intellectual maps which the post-moderns, almost by definition, will not or cannot do.” (Eurozine will be publishing the English version of this article soon.)

A new proletariat? Theoretical debates on the rise of the service-sector economy revealed marked optimism, write Friederike Bahl and Philipp Staab. Daniel Bell, Jean Fourastié, Alan Gartner or Frank Riessman would have shaken their heads in disbelief at the mention of a return of the proletariat in post-industrial society. However empirical enquiry into the existence of a tertiary proletariat revives an entity assumed to have disappeared along with the industrial modern – the working class.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 6/2010

In Kulturos barai, Dalia Leinarte finds an example of the “pure relationship” described by Anthony Giddens as non-binding, honest, and not necessarily monogamous. Aleksandra Kasuba, a Lithuanian-American artist, and Algirdas Julien Greimas, the Lithuanian-born French semiotician, had met back in 1944 in Lithuania, when Greimas tried to persuade Kasuba to flee with him to France. Already romantically involved with her future husband, she declined. Then, over forty years later, they began a passionate correspondence that led to a reunion. Greimas was by this time long married and in poor health; still, writes Leinarte, they managed to attain “transformed intimacy”:

If in traditional interpersonal relationships passion and eroticism are often achieved only through bodily and physical senses, transformed intimacy is capable of revealing other forms of eroticism, through reciprocity and mutual trust, where power games are eliminated. Even though Greimas writes: ‘I imagine you naked among other women’ and Aleksandra responds: ‘I love your every move and I want you as you are, and do not want to let you go, and this is how I stay in your arms’, both understand this eroticism as a form of emotional intimacy and a passion to know each other.

The post-city: As the ideological frenzy of modernism gives way to “content management systems”, societies of discipline become societies of control, writes Daniel Miller. “Modernist culture, organized by the grid (and its subjective correlate: the enlightened master) succumbs to a thousand niche-market cuts. The grid mutates into the web, the imperial/utopian into the molecular/heterotopian. The new media-architecture begins to manipulate smaller units. The birth, from the ruins, of the negative centre, issues the coup de grâce. The centre is robbed of its sovereignty.”

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 12/2010

Economic “transition” in central and eastern Europe has created a “low-wage hinterland on the fringes of the highly developed European core”, writes Carl Rowlands in Soundings. The shock therapy administered to eastern European economies after ’89 decimated indigenous industry, “deliberately engineering recession”, he argues. Economies based on property speculation and asset manipulation arose, in which the role of financialization and debt became crucial. “The overall effect was to create state dependency upon foreign direct investment, and support from the World Bank, IMF and the specially created European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.”

EU Structural Fund money since 2004 has brought no improvement, according to Rowlands: “EU infrastructure projects are dominated by different layers of subcontractors. This creates a process whereby companies chase tenders in a culture of opacity and corruption, based on a system of casualized labour at the bottom. And the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s willingness to lend continues to be dependent upon the debtor states’ acceptance of the privatization of public services.”

Civil society initiatives and covert election funding has served only to “subvert” and “pervert” politics even further, argues Rowlands. Commitment on the Centre-Left to the main tenets of neoliberal economics has been a condition of European accession. “The ideological chaos that has ensued has assisted the emergence across the region of populist and rightwing movements, who have attempted to harness people’s discontent.”

Italy’s moral crisis: Berlusconi’s media monopoly cannot entirely explain his tenuous grip on power, writes London-based historian Andrea Mammone. “What can be seen to be lacking is any kind of public ‘social sanctioning’, such as should deliver a blow to the political class and ruling elites when they behave in an ambiguous, deplorable or damaging way. […] On the contrary, everything seems to be accepted and acceptable in contemporary Italy: from bribes to political ‘clientelism’, from cynical careerism to prostitution, from xenophobic slogans to machismo, from mafia links to wasting public funding. What at one time would have seemed unacceptable now is turning out to be at least tolerable, including in the ethical and moral spheres.”

The full table of contents of Soundings 46 (2010)

The new issue of Gegenworte looks at the role of ritual in academia and research. According to linguist Manfred Bierwisch, advances in scientific knowledge always also relies on non-rational factors: habit, expectation, precedent. “Just as scientific knowledge depends on the methods through which it arises or is discarded, so research depends on the rules governing how agreement over it is reached.” At core, he writes, these rituals are about the procedures of persuasion and counter-persuasion; about the modes of communication that determine what is taken seriously and what isn’t.

Subjectivity and opinion is not only to be found in the humanities and social sciences. “Mathematical logic is certainly the most rational area of knowledge that can be imagined; articles of faith have no place there. Yet I have experienced an anything but unemotional dispute over a dissertation on the algebraic foundation of quantitative theory. The viewpoint of a Warsaw mathematician clashed with the Berlin school; disagreement over what was interesting and new, and what was unimportant and misleading, proved irreconcilable.”

Often, rituals stemming from practice and habit can’t be separated from convictions concerning the validity of theoretical methods; Bierwisch cites the “positivism dispute” of the 1960s (Critical Theory vs. Popperian rationalism). Here, rhetoric is argumentation and ritual at the same time, “since the subject of the dispute is precisely that of the pre-scientific foundation of argumentation. The fact that adversaries recognize one another better through their emblems and formulations than through the nuances of their positions does not remotely diminish the seriousness of the argument.”

Paraphernalia: After the assault on academic rituals by the class of ’68, caps, gowns and graduation ceremonies are making a comeback, writes Karl-Heinz Kohl. Tracing the “balloting rituals” of the Prussian Academy of Sciences – a method of voting-in new members using black and white marbles – through freemasonry and the Doge of Venice all the way back to Aristotle and Ovid, Kohl comes to the conclusion that the anti-ritualism of the 68ers succeeded only in awaking a longing for new rituals.

The full table of contents of Gegenworte 24 (2010)

Russia’s petro-economic upturn brought political apathy and banished public interaction to the sphere of leisure, writes poet and media theorist Dmitri Golyonko in Osteuropa. On the Web, the popularization of entertainment-based social networks went hand-in-hand with the atrophy of meaningful online exchange: “In connection with the Putinist ideology of ‘controlled democracy’, the Internet partly turned out not to be the consolidating force encouraging the inclusion of marginalized and sub-cultural minorities,” writes Golyonko, but “the trailblazer for a model of a way of life that imposes on the population the cult of repressive hedonism”.

“In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Internet has proved to be just as conformist as the print media and radio; like these, it has transported state-stipulated tendencies and values of total control,” according to Golynko. A network like Vkontake (a copy of Facebook) may transport pro-western, “enlightened” values, but one like Odnoklassniki (based on classmates.com) has very different “geopolitical” tendencies: Asiatic, despotic, and anti-progressive. “On the outside, Russian social networks show a mirroring medial surface, however in their sub-medial depths they conceal dangerous and destructive impulses of a sometimes mystical, anarchist or fascist nature.”

Dissent: Lockean liberalism emphasized toleration of religion and other dissenting social practices. Yet in the Marxian critique of liberal freedoms, dissent was seen only in terms of class struggle: social harmony could be achieved in a classless society, not a pluralist one. According to Barbara J. Falk, the severance of dissent and toleration has obscured the liberal roots of the eastern European dissidents:

“The dissident emphasis was on the construction of alternative civil societies designed to reinvigorate the stagnant official public sphere of the party-state; the procedural importance of anti-politics was not primarily designed to engineer regime change. […] At the heart of [the dissidents’] contribution to democratic liberalism are commitments to social solidarity and social trust, the actual practice of human rights guarantees, and a ‘thick’ conception of responsibility dependent upon self-empowerment.” In short, concludes Falk, “the theory and practice of dissent in Central and Eastern Europe resuscitated themes evident in both Locke and Hegel, yet denied by Marx”.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 11/2010

In Latvian art magazine Studija, Peteris Bankovskis takes last year’s art festival in Riga, “Survival Kit 2”, as a point of departure for some rather critical reflections about what art actually is and why there are artists at all: “The history of mankind’s ‘material culture’, as revealed by archaeology, is almost exclusively the history of rubbish.” “Survival Kit 2” does not seem to have made him change his mind. His description of a visit to a “performance apartment” in Upisa pasaza is worth quoting in full:

The people who were hanging around and working there will probably be offended, but I would say that they were indulging in amoral, valueless nonsense. Yet for these necessities they manage to find money to rent an apartment, to attract funds and fellow participants from other countries. I was there during the day, at a time when no ‘performances’ were taking place. On the walls you could study photographs from previous rather idiotic events, but the international company of ‘performance artists’ were occupying themselves around the apartment with the typical seriousness of the current ‘project-writer’ generation, obviously convinced that their activity had a purpose.

The “true” value of art: In the “art market” section, theorist Zane Oborenko asks artists and art historians the million-dollar question: “What is the true value of art?” While philosopher Justins Ions argues that it is impossible to distinguish art from any other activity and therefore it “should not and cannot have a distinct value at all”, composer Stephen Piccolo describes art as “a sort of gym for the exercise of the mind”. At least, he concludes, it helps to keep our neurological systems limber. “This ‘true’ value sometimes coincides with the investment value, but not always.”

The full table of contents of Studija 6/2010

Published 26 January 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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