There's no neutrality of living

7 March 2012
Only in en
Osteuropa asks Alexy Navalny how he intends to restore Russia’s greatness; Mute lends protest political articulacy; Dilema veche welcomes Romanian dissent, as far as it goes; Blätter warns that Fukushima has only just begun; Dziejaslou publishes Uladzimier Niaklajeu’s prison poetry; La Revue nouvelle untangles Belgium’s university reforms; Vikerkaar reads Agamben on friendship; and Merkur says there’s no alternative to filtering.

Osteuropa republishes in German translation a discussion between the writer Boris Akunin (real name Grigory Chkhartishvili) and Alexy Navalny, controversial figurehead of the Russian opposition, first published on Akunin’s blog and on the website of the radio station Echo Moskvy.

Akunin begins by challenging Navalny on the question occupying many observers: whether he is a nationalist wolf in liberal democratic clothing. What does Navalny mean when he advocates a “Russian nation state”? Does he stand by the demands of the nationalist “Russian march”, in which he participated last year?

“In the nation state, the source of power is the nation, the citizens of the country, not a feudal elite that issues slogans about conquering half the world and global dominance, and with this sauce cover up the fact that they are robbing the population. We need the state so that it allows its citizens a socially secure and dignified life and defends their individual and collective interests. The nation state stands for Russia’s European path of development, our common – nice and comfortable and at the same time stable and reliable – European home. And by the way: every single word of the manifesto of the NAROD movement I would still sign today.”

Does he regret the collapse of the Soviet Union? No, Navalny says, it was the corrupt Soviet nomenklatura that drove the country into poverty and oversaw the break-up of the (by then) non-existent empire. His ambition is rather to restore Russia’s strength after the ravages of communism and its aftermath: “It is an historic fact that our country – Russia – was the core of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. This country remains, it is still the dominant country in the region both economically and militarily. Our task is to maintain and to consolidate this. […] We shouldn’t draw up special plans for an expansion, our job is instead to become strong and rich domestically, then our neighbours will automatically come into our sphere of influence.”

An alternative to Putin? This discussion does little to dispel suspicions of plus ça change.

Vaclav Havel: From pacifist to cheerleader for US foreign policy (NATO membership, Kosovo, Iraq), from dissident thinker to purveyor of “political kitsch” (Vaclav Belohradsky), for many Vaclav Havel sums up all that went wrong with the ’89 generation. Nevertheless, right up to his death, Havel continued to pursue a consistent ideal, writes Stefan Auer.
“To be sure, Havel changed after 1989. Havel the president acted differently from Havel the dissident intellectual. But he remained more truthful to himself than many of his critics recognized. As a political thinker, Havel was always suspicious of abstract ideals. It is for this reason that he became such an astute critic of all political ideologies. Havel understood as well as anyone that principled moral actions do not always bring about the desired results.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 1/2012

“Well, the first thing I want to say is, politics my arse.” Mute‘s front-cover title, superimposed over a picture of looters helping themselves to the contents of a newsagent, sums up what the issue is all about: protest and (lack of) political articulacy.

Most protests are framed as the expression of partial interests but really they address the same issues, argues Sarah Taylor. Student protests in the UK and the winter and summer riots are connected: “We will only hear the ‘wider echo’ of the student protests when anger can no longer be muffled in days out at Westminster, articulated in simple slogans, or separated into causes – when a riot can no longer be just a student riot, and a struggle can no longer be just an education struggle.”

Work: Demetra Kotouza seconds this in her analysis of the constant decline of the value of work: “It has become difficult to pose even defensive wage demands in a way that is effective and proportionate to capital’s attack. The intense struggles that continue to take place have a feeling of despair, of hitting a wall.” Faced with this hopeless situation, protest seem to become more general and less focused on particular groups or demands.

“This is confounded by the fact that there is no longer a singular, unifying working class experience that would generate a common identity on one side of the class struggle. The global and local zoning of production, and increasing precarization, has fractured working class communities pushing, in the West, a large section into chronic unemployment and to survival through informal and illegal economies. In the global South, significant populations have been forced to emigrate to the West despite brutal repression.”

Riot: Howards Slater focuses on new forms of protest and the “unrecognisable demos”, in eleven brief sections putting forward a description of rioting and looting as a general form of protest. “One thing can be said with a modicum of certainty: the recent riots of August 2011 were political. What can be meant by political in this instance? Well, maybe something as straightforward as taking action in the street, getting beyond the idea of a ‘neutrality of living’.”

The full table of contents of Mute 18 (2012)

“While the numbers were not great, it is important that people protested for many days in a row, in numerous towns, and that they ‘gained a voice’,” writes Mircea Vasilescu of the anti-government protests that erupted in Romania in January (415). At the same time, the protesters gave expression to “a sad state of confusion”:

“People are tired of lies, of a lack of real reforms, of the aggressive style of the current leadership, which is incapable of dialogue and decent communication with its citizens; they are tired of poverty and of not seeing a way forward […]. People express disgust with politics in general but, in fact, those taking to the streets, and not only they, are tired of the way politics is done in transitional Romania.”

Nevertheless, there is no alternative to political solutions, argues Vasilescu. The protests have not been strong enough to intimidate political leaders and civil society has not proved it is capable of organizing and bringing new energy to the public sphere. This means that, “the government will just wait it out until the protesters get tired”.

“A grand national consensus along several simple principles” could be the answer, proposes Ovidiu Nahoi (413). These might include limiting the power of the president according to constitutional principles; public debate before any major law is brought to parliament; reducing the number of executive decrees; transparency and democratic control over public spending; and transparent party financing.

Privacy: Sociologist Mircea Kivu recalls people’s idiosyncratic transformation of living space as a survival strategy under communism (415). The communist regime took to extremes the modernist principle of standardized housing: thin walls allowed for no privacy; there was no space for kitchens because the socialist (wo)man was not to waste time cooking; laundry was to be hung in common areas and apartments offered space for little else but sleep. Reacting to the smothering of privacy and individuality, people responded by closing their balconies, painting their doors, and dividing up spaces inside their apartments. These alterations had terrible aesthetic consequences, but they were necessary for life.

Communist rock: “What in the West was music for the masses over here was music for a handful of people,” writes Aurel Mitran (411). “When in the West rock was starting to enter classical concert halls, we were introducing it into school gyms. This is why Romania never had a punk movement.”

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 408-415 (2011-12)

Japan’s post-Fukushima protest-wave departs from the nation’s staunchly pro-nuclear tradition, writes Sebastian Pflugbeil in Blätter; it could herald a liberation from top-down information about nuclear power similar to that which took place in Germany after Chernobyl. Nevertheless, independent attempts to assess the safety situation at the plants and the surrounding environment cannot compete with an organized campaign of disinformation by the Japanese authorities. “One year after the catastrophe, there is no detailed mapping of the contamination that might genuinely assist the decision on whether to evacuate. That certainly has to do with the fact that the Japanese government is doing all it can so that citizens do not leave the region.”

The government is exploiting deeply engrained patriotism in questionable ways, writes Pflugbeil: advertisements call on people to support the region by buying foods produced there; prefectures are being pressurized to “dispose” of contaminated rubble left behind by the tsunami; conservative doctors tell people that fear of radiation is more damaging than radiation itself. At the same time, as the journalist Suzuki Tomohiko has revealed, the Yakuza are heavily involved in hiring clean-up workers – often homeless people or those with unpaid debts – to do the nuclear industry’s dirty work. “That the ignorance of the population is encouraged is not specific to Japan,” adds Pflugbeil, referring to the “systematic repression” of discussion of the effects of a nuclear catastrophe in Germany.

Neo-fascism: In the 1930s, fascist parties were enlisted by the middle class as protection against class war; today, such a prospect does not exist, argue Gerd Wiegel and Guido Speckmann. Nor is there the same sense of national humiliation that fuelled fascism in Germany; on the contrary, relative prosperity and social atomization disfavour the rise of a new mass movement along fascist lines. So does that mean that fascism is no longer a threat? Not entirely, argue Wiegel and Speckmann:

“The ethnicization of social questions is the far-right parties’ secret of success; with it, they are currently able to occupy the political field better than the socialist Left. This racism, which is primarily visible in anti-Muslim form, might not be sufficient to justify talk of fascist-oriented parties in the traditional sense, but that is no reason to underestimate its danger. This lies above all in its appeal at the centre of society – and in its astonishing compatibility with other political programmes.”

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 3/2012

Dziejaslou (Belarus) publishes a fifteen page poem by Uladzimier Niaklajeu. One of Belarus’ most high profile poets, Niaklajeu is better known internationally as an opposition candidate in the December 2011 presidential elections. The picture of him lying unconscious on the ground after being beaten up during a demonstration went around the world. In his new work, he manages to synthesize poetry and politics – it came about between 25 and 31 December 2010, while Niaklajeu was in a KGB prison.

The poem bears the title “Prison” and plays on the fact that both the Belarusian word for prison, turma, and the word for freedom, volya, are both feminine. The imprisoned poet sees himself torn between the seductress Turma, a devious snake who constantly slips from one skin to another, and Volya, the ideal of freedom.

Turma accompanies him constantly, sharing his daily life and even controlling his dreams – more and more she suppresses his beloved and whispers to the poet: “You will learn to love me”. Between the prison walls, inhabited by the spirits of former prisoners, by Volya and Turma, the poet gradually loses his sense of certainty and orientation. Heroic-pathetic tones are struck – for example when the holy blood of freedom is spilled – but who could blame him, given the conditions under which the poem arose? The Belarusian PEN has nominated Niaklajeu as a Nobel prize candidate as a way of protecting him.

Also: Siarhiej Shapran writes on Belarus’ best known prose writer, Vasil Bykau. In the concluding essay in a series that began in Dziejaslou 2/2011, Shapran discusses not the major novels or short stories, but rather the development of Bykau’s script for the three-part television production Long Versts of War (1975). And historian and cultural scientist Eduard Dubianiecki laments the decay of high culture in Belarus and the globalized world as a whole; seeking in vain for the great minds of the age, he finds only “global schizophrenia”.

The full table of contents of Dziejaslou 55 (2011)

Planned reform of the higher education system in francophone Belgium follows and in some ways undoes the 2004 Bologna decree, according to contributors to the March issue of La Revue nouvelle. The brainchild of Jean-Claude Marcourt, higher education minister and vice minister-president of the Government of the French Community, the reform envisages a reorganization of all higher education establishments in francophone Belgium around five geographic poles (Brussels, Walloon Brabant, Namur, Hainaut and Liège-Luxembourg) and five universities. The reform would also create a single Brussels-Wallonia “academy” of research and higher education. However, as Jean-Emile Charlier notes, this idea has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the education minister’s pronouncements on “the necessary regionalization of education”.

As much as the debate on the future of education in Belgium has been “enclosed within a war of religion”, as Charlier puts it, the views of those within education have also not always been taken into account. The reform was the subject of a round table, whose conclusions are examined in detail by Miguel Souto Lopez and Philippe Vienne. Often opinion was divided, and participation by the Catholic universities was minimal. Even where there was consensus, such as on a preference for freedom of association on common projects over the compulsory association, this was not reflected in the “Marcourt note”, which differs significantly from conclusions of the round table.

Perhaps it is little wonder that the Catholic universities have stayed away. An analysis of the potential winners and losers from the proposed reform by Jean-Émile Charlier and Frédéric Moens shows a clear trend: “It is diffcult to avoid reading these figures in philosophical terms. Indeed, only the institutions with a Catholic tradition are penalized, while all the others see their status increased.”

Khmer Rouge: More than thirty years after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, the publication last year of two memoirs by French witnesses – one a prisoner of “Comrade Duch” who ran camp S-21, the other an observer at Duch’s recent trial in Phnom Penh – presents an opportunity to reflect more closely on the Khmer Rouge, writes Bernard de Backer. Quoting Thierry Cruvellier’s book, Le maitre des aveux, he notes that, “The Duch affair is the first international trial for communist crimes.”

The full table of contents of La Revue nouvelle 3/2012

“Friendship is a nuance, but a nuance upon which one’s whole life may depend,” writes Tonu Onnepalu in Vikerkaar. “A nuance it is sometimes wiser to leave untouched if you want to retain it. One degree past the mark, and it no longer feels right. And that’s it – there’s nothing left.”

Literature has very little to say about friendship; the only thing it is possible to say has already been said by Michel de Montaigne: “Because it was him, because it was me.” Perhaps, suggests Onnepalu, this is because literature begins where there is drama; friendship enters drama only through betrayal – usually of love: “This is indeed the moment when friendship rises to the height of drama, but it remains the only moment, because at the same time friendship ceases to exist.”

Agamben: Daniele Monticelli looks at Giorgio Agamben’s essay “L’Amico”, placing it in the context of his broader work. Although references to friendship are hardly found in Agamben, it is connected in important ways with a central theme in the philosopher’s thought: “The last paragraph of the essay gives us the hint – picked up by a more attentive reader in its first lines – that connects friendship to the question that has been central to Agamben’s work for the last couple of decades: What makes man a political creature? What forms the basis of the being-together or common life (vita comune) of human beings?”

Agamben’s sovereign exception is not just another name for the already trivialized idea that communal identity presumes the drawing of a line between “us” and “them”, writes Monticelli: “The sovereign exception, on the contrary, blurs the boundary between the internal and the external.” Why? Because particularity – identification through a particular group – is replaced by singularity – the “whateverness” that defies all categorization, making each individual what only he or she is. “Singularity, just like friendship, defies identification by any of its actual qualities, which would at once determine its place in a certain class, group, or community.”

Also: Johanna Ross on friendship between women; Tonis Kahu on relationships within rock bands; and Jaan Kaplinski on his conversations with Estonian philosopher, theologist and folklorist Uku Masing.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 1-2/2012

In his book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that search engines’ selection of online content according to individual preferences prevents our exposure to views we do not share and information we do not actively request. But filtering is what the conventional media do and always have done, counters Christoph Kappes in Merkur: “Given the information explosion, knowledge increase and media diversification, there is no alternative to filtering in order to participate in modern, digitized society. The only question is how these filters operate.” Indeed, unlike conventional media, search algorhythms do not filter information out “but open up a potentially unlimited number of filtered views”. Moreover, to see preference-based filters as an obstacle to accessing “pure” information underrates the many other ways in which information mutates online:

“Most discussions about the role of filters mistakenly assume that information is something given. According to this view, as long as filter C functions ‘correctly’, information proceeds from A to B. That’s naive because the chains of information processing are multifarious and in each phase, alongside filtering, very different procedures occur: enrichment with new information, translation into other worlds of thought and language, perspective changes, reformatting of all kinds, compression, shifts of emphasis, and so on. Some phases aren’t altered by digitization at all, others more strongly, others still are substituted entirely, so that it’s only possible to have a serious discussion on the basis of a total model of all actors and their operations. At the moment we’re still a long way from that.”

Soviet Italy: Stephan Wackwitz, director of the Goethe Institute in Tbilisi, explores the Georgian capital. The pastel-shaded hillside villas alongside Socialist prefab buildings, the vineyards, fruit trees and cypresses, the busts of Soviet poets and women clad in black, the well-dressed families taking Sunday strolls along poorly-repaired pavements… all this and more brings to mind the Italy of Berlinguer and cheap holidays. Most fascinating, however, is the bizarre hulk of the TV tower, which reminds him of the final scene of Fellini’s 8 1/2:

“Doesn’t the demonic scaffold under which 8 1/2 ends, at night illuminated by thousands of lights, look like the television tower of Tbilisi? Or, it occurs to me, like the futuristic prestige glass-and-steel constructions with which the Saakashvili government demonstrates its modernity at the edges of the medieval old town? Autobiographical (and openly narcissistic) as 8 1/2 is, the film functions as a precise sociological description of Italy back then, and as a political-aesthetic prophecy about countries that today resemble the Italy of the early Sixties.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 3/2012

Published 7 March 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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