Transcendent and instinctively transgressive

4 April 2012
Only in en
Index looks back on forty years of free-speech campaigning; the Esprit asks “Où en sont les philosophes?”; Visegrad Insight unites central Europe’s disparate parts; Kulturos barai talks to Gerard Delanty about citizenship and heritage; Samtiden attempts to shake Norwegians out of euro-complacancy; Lettera internazionale locates the new in the new protest wave; Syn og Segn shifts the focus from climate back to the environment; and Merkur historicizes the concept of real-time.

“Just because a writer is committed to fighting injustice in his or her society, there’s no guarantee that his or her work will have artistic value. But once the role of literature as ‘witness’ is established in the minds of the public, it makes it more difficult to dissociate literary merit and the social or political value of the text. Index provided a forum for banned writers to demonstrate the role of literature, both good and less good, as unsubmissive, contrarian, transcendent and instinctively transgressive.”

Thus writes Robert McCrum, associate editor of The Observer, in the fortieth anniversary issue of Index on Censorship. Its pages include first-time English translations (including “Thoughts on fasting”, the article by imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Chen Wei used as evidence against him last year), highlights from the archives (including Solzhenitsyn, Rushdie, Gordimer, Bulgakov), short “manifestos” (including Aung San Suu Kyi, Abbas, Veran Matic, Andrej Dynko) and “longviews” from those involved with Index over the years (including Judith Vidal-Hall and Ursula Owen).

The hate-speech fallacy: As cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose was principally responsible for commissioning the cartoons that ignited the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006 (more here). In an extract from his 2010 book Tyranny of Silence, he examines how the presumption of a causal connection between anti-Semitic propaganda and the Holocaust set in motion a human rights dynamic that has ended up its own worst enemy.

The reaction, starting at the Nuremberg trials, was to prosecute hate speech. However this ignored the fact that, in Weimar Germany, insulting communities of faith was already a punishable offence. The repeated prosecution of Nazi propagandists actually aided their cause:

“One might forcefully argue that what paved the way for the Holocaust was the ban on hate speech, in so far as it handed Streicher and other Nazis a glorious opportunity to bait the Jewish community in the German courtrooms and in a national press, which otherwise would have spared them precious little ink. For the democrats of the Weimar Republic, a far more effective strategy would have been to address Nazi propaganda in free and open public debate, but in Europe between the wars confidence in free speech was running low.”

Also: Kenan Malik on how, between the Rushdie affair and cartoon controversy, commitment to free speech has weakened: “40 years after the founding of Index on Censorship, our task today is not just to defend free speech but to liberate it from the shackles of bad faith.”

What better way to equip us for that task than by making available online all the back issues of Index from 1972 onwards?

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 1/2012

From its enshrinement in school curricula to the insights of its greatest practitioners, philosophy in and from France has always played a major part in French “exceptionalism”. The current issue of Esprit examines the state of philosophy in France today, its problems and its relations with new disciplines.

Compartmentalization: Philosophy, writes Frédéric Worms, is in “genuine danger” of splitting apart along the lines of its three main areas of practice: university research, teaching in schools, and mainstream public debate. While the differentiation of these areas is as fundamental as the Socratic dialogue, conflicting impulses to address different audiences is “leading to disconnection and confusion”.

What to do? Work in brain-activity imaging, leading to the concept of “neuronal man”, has stimulated new debates within and between philosophy’s different spheres. Similarly, new work in the philosophy of history has made waves in all three and sparked new conversations between them. The key, argues Worms, lies in “reinforcing connections between the realms” without seeking either to reunite or to redefine them.

The continental divide: Guillaume le Blanc surveys connections and disjuncts between “French theory” and “American philo“. Countering the often warlike tone between the two traditions, he proposes that bridges be built based on the “mishearings” inevitable in translating philosophy. Locating “French theory” as an American invention of the 1970s, he describes how it arose not through bad translation, “but as a refusal of translation”. American philo, meanwhile, has introduced a range of new “narrativities” into French philosophy, including queer and subaltern theory. The value of each tradition lies less in their relation to each other than in the value of their borrowings to their adoptive cultures.

Also: For Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, crisis has become a permanent feature of our age: “the nerve centre, the crux of our era and our existence”. Not only economic, crisis dominates every realm of experience and is therefore properly within philosophy’s remit. And Jean-Christophe Goddard profiles the new EuroPhilosophie Masters programme on “French and German philosophy in the European space”, organized by a consortium of universities under the Erasmus Mundus programme. “Institutional and theoretical practice cannot be disentangled”, he finds: doing traditional philosophy in this new setting, his students have already registered significant “theoretical shifts”.

The full table of contents of Esprit 3-4/2012

In the first issue of Visegrad Insight, a title jointly edited by Eurozine partners Res Publica Nowa (Poland), Host (Czech Republic) and Magyar Lettre Internationale (Hungary), Jacques Rupnik examines how differing national situations across Central Eastern Europe explain varying perceptions of the euro crisis’ risks and remedies.

A general identification with the northern European “creditor states” – the crisis has altered the region’s “mental map” – reflects the region’s relative success in avoiding the recession (Hungary excluded); nevertheless, governments have felt the strain of a push-pull movement with respect to EU policy.

Rising head and shoulders above their regional neighbours, however, are the Poles, who during the euro crisis have proven to be the better Europeans. Referring to foreign minister Sikorski’s famous Berlin speech of 2011, Rupnik writes:

“At a moment when Sarkozy and Merkel, under pressure to manage the crisis, are inadvertently and fitfully moving towards federalism by another name, it is the minister of a eastern central European state that knows as well as any other what it means to regain national sovereignty that has provided a real lesson in being European. […] The Weimar triangle – France, Germany and Poland – has for a long time been looking for a raison d’être. The Polish response to the crisis suggests that it might exist, and may thus help provide the framework for a future European architecture.”

The velvet divorce: Martin Simecka reflects on differences between the Czech and Slovak national cultures. They begin with the language (“listening to Czechs speak you feel that they are literally revelling in their language”, while “Slovak imposes discipline and accuracy on the speaker”), and include newspaper circulation (proportionally twice as high in the Czech Republic), attitudes to nature (one is still liable to encounter wolves and bears in Slovakia’s forests while the Czechs killed off theirs at the end of the nineteenth century), and approaches to corruption (it’s no coincidence that Czech waiters write bills by hand while Slovakian receipts are electronic).

Yet Simecka was no cheerleader for the Czecho-Slovak split and makes short shrift of claims that it serves as a blueprint for the dismantling of the EU: “People tend to forget that the only reason these two nations parted so smoothly was that they shared a common desire to be united with the European Union.”

Also: Poet and critic Katarína Kucbelová on Slovak’s fiction’s return to terra cognita after the shock of the 1990s and the flight into parallel postmodern universes it provoked; and Kacper Poblocki on why the hero of Leopold Tyrmand’s 1955 novel The Man With White Eyes (1955), a vigilante who patrols the city upholding public mores, represents the superego of central European urban society.

The full table of contents of Visegrad Insight 1 (2011)

In Kulturos barai (Lithuania), sociologist Gerard Delanty argues in interview that the notion of post-national citizenship is not as far-fetched as some might think:

“Almost every country nowadays recognizes that persons other than nationals have rights, such as human rights; in the countries of the EU, these rights have now been incorporated into national law. The result is a pluralization of nationality. Such developments should be seen less in zero-sum terms, as either present or absent, but as a matter of degrees.”

Moving on to a discussion of Europe’s cultural and religious constitution, interviewer Almantas Samalavicius asks whether fear of cultural hegemony prevents European leaders acknowledging Christianity’s place in the European heritage. Delanty’s response: “The conflicts of the early modern period over the confessional identities of the European states established long-lasting tensions and much of modernity emerged in opposition and renunciation of the Christian heritage. To state that Europe is defined by Christianity is too straightforward.”

And what about the East-West question? How has the ascent of eastern Europe influenced the self-image of contemporary Europe? “Any account of the European heritage will today have to include the historical experience of those parts of Europe that were shaped by the Ottoman and the Russian empires,” Delanty argues.

Historical debates: Egle Wittig-Marcinkevicute takes issue with liberal and leftwing intellectuals who express their hatred of national monuments in terms “typical of the Nazi worldview and rightwing populists”; and Algirdas Patackas says that the “lost crown of Vytautas the Great” – “lost” both in real and mythological terms – is a question more complex than Lithiuanian historians think.

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 3/2012

So far, Norwegians have reacted calmly to the European crisis. “As if it didn’t concern them at all,” notes Cathrine Sandnes, introducing an issue of Samtiden entitled “Eurocalypse now”. When the recent European unemployment figures were presented (in Spain, half of the population under 25 has no job), newspapers focused on the latest low-carb diet, which seems to be the hottest topic in Norway right now. “This absence of the European crisis shows that, for the average Norwegian, the EU is somewhere else than here; geographically close, but in people’s minds far far away.”

A Norwegian debt crisis? According to Financial Times columnist Martin Sandbu, the Norwegians would do well to try to understand the real causes of the debt crisis. They would then also start worrying about the consequences for Norway.

Sovereign debt, which is usually described as the sole cause of the euro crisis, is only part of the problem, writes Sandbu. What the hardest hit countries have in common is not disastrous state finances à la grecque (before the crisis, Ireland and Spain had been model students) but high total debt – public and private.

This shows that the measures taken to solve the crisis – public spending cuts – will be insufficient if not counterproductive. It also shows that Norway is not the exception it believes itself to be. In 1999, the average debt of a Norwegian household was 120 per cent of its disposable income. In 2008 it was 198 per cent. The relative increase is higher than in the US during this period. In Norway, property prices have risen 35 per cent in the last five years; in the US they fell 33 per cent.

Sandbu concludes: “The last housing- and bank crisis twenty years ago made life in Norway somewhat uncomfortable. In view of today’s European prospects, we should consider ourselves lucky if it stops at that.”

Also: Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 78 people in Oslo and on Utøya, is far from the apolitical enigma that many seem to want to make him into, writes Danish author Jens-Martin Eriksen. Breivik is a politically motivated rightwing terrorist and his attacks part of a wider movement critical of modernity.

The full table of contents of Samtiden 1/2012

In the course of history, people have not been silent when confronted with injustice; today, however, their demands have increased. Writing in Lettera internazionale, Raffaele Laudani explores the evolution of popular dissent. “What distinguishes the indignados movement from other historical forms of disobedience is the way it conceives the political conflict.” While past movements limited themselves to identifying injustice and placing institutions in charge of finding a solution, the current protest wave “expresses a more directly political rejection”. The new movements have found other places to demonstrate – not only the “physical spaces” of streets and squares, but also the “infinite alleyways of the Internet”. However, writes Laudani, they have yet to find a science capable of serving their philosophy, in order to transform their political ideas into action and “fill the gap between being and having to be”.

A love that dares not speak its name: Behind the financial façade of the current crisis lies a deeper, existential crisis, according to Maurizio Viroli. It is a crisis of values, one of which is political freedom. “Political freedom lives where citizens serve an ideal; in communities where individuals serve an individual, political freedom dies.” Loyalty to individuals requires less effort and less conviction than identifying with the personae civitas of the political community. In Italy, writes Viroli, love of freedom – a necessary condition of civil liberties – is all too often pronounced in a whisper.

The European empire: In the shadow of past empires, Europe expands its perimeter, signs more treaties with neighbouring states and sets the three monotheistic religions side by side, writes Gian Paolo Calchi Novati. “Nevertheless, the borders that cut through Europe and the Mediterranean have not disappeared (just think of the tragedy of the Balkans)”, he writes, they have merely moved, causing new “clashes of civilization”, new forms of fundamentalism, and “unequal integration” for those who don’t belong to the “world of the winners”.

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 110 (2012)

Climate has gone out of fashion, writes Eirik Frøhaug Swensen in Syn Og Segn (Norway). In 2007 – the year when climate change really entered the political agenda, and Al Gore and the UN climate panel won the Nobel Peace Prize – there were hopes that climate would become the banner under which the environmental movement could reinvent itself and gain broad popular support. But this did not happen. New surveys show that people’s interest in climate issues have decreased dramatically. Instead of mobilizing the masses, the focus on climate change has resulted in indifference.

“The fight against climate change has become detached from practical environmental policy; to keep focusing on the climate will not help but rather hinder progress in the field of environmental protection,” writes Swensen. He suggests that we instead need to start talking about “the environment” again.

Ever since climate change entered the public debate, there has been a widespread feeling that unless everyone acts together – the international community, the UN, everyone – there will be no results. Measures taken both by individuals and individual countries has thus lost significance. This is part of the explanation of why people are becoming less and less engaged, writes Swensen:

“Instead of limiting the discussion to carbon dioxide emissions of the transport sector, one should focus on concrete measures that will reduce local pollution. This would sell much better.”

Also: Ola Stemshaug criticizes the historically uninformed naming policy for oil fields and oil rigs off the Norwegian coast, and Mathilde Walter Clark seeks to understand why Danish film (Lars von Trier, et al.) is so successful abroad while Danish literature is not.

The full table of contents of Syn og Segn 1/2012

The cult of the present “isn’t only about forced speed, about the acceleration of technical, social and economic processes, but also and above all about the temporal structure of what is presently perceived to be present.” In Merkur, Michael Esders offers a history of the concept of real-time, popularized in the 1980s by Paul Virilio, who argued that modern communications technologies dissolve the distinction between past, present and future. Friedrich Kittler rejected Virilio’s distinction between a simulated present and “natural”, chronological time, citing the original meaning of “real-time” as the ability of a computer to complete tasks according to pre-set temporal units. “The misunderstanding of the concept was the prerequisite for its stigmatization,” comments Esders.

While real-time has faded from media theory, Esders observes, it has boomed elsewhere: as a management method (for the instantaneous processing of orders), in the speculative economy (where automated transactions occur in nanoseconds), and in political discourse (the Pirate Party uses the term in connection with its idea of “liquid democracy”, where political decision-making takes place outside established parliamentary processes).

The web as metaphor and model of knowledge “has replaced that of the chain, which has predominated for centuries”, writes Esders. “René Descartes, for example, used it at a central point in his Discours de la méthode. Logic requires the successive development of thought, stringency involves necessary delay; however the close-knit web corresponds to the image of immediate insight: everything refers to everything else, at this very moment.”

In praise of bureaucracy: The Greek crisis is the result of “the absence of an understanding for orderly administrative procedures as a prerequisite for successful economic management and a functioning democracy,” argues Ralph Bollmann. Likening the EU to other “benevolent empires” – the slim yet efficient bureaucracies of the Roman and British empires – he argues that, “more than any other institution, bureaucracy is in a position to manage the problems of a complex society. […] Every politician who calls for the reduction of bureaucracy is assured of an applause, and ‘technocrats’ are generally considered cold and heartless. However an imperial system’s lack of emotionality is what, ultimately, constitutes its humaneness.”

The European merger: Benno Heussen observes the question of European integration from an unusual vantage point: as a lawyer with experience of company mergers. The reasons that these often fail are comparable to the problems facing Europe. Cautioning against naivety he is nevertheless optimistic about the process of unionization. Necessary to any success, he writes, will above all be the establishment of “flexible interfaces” that allow for leeway in difficult situations.

The full table of contents of Merkur 4/2012

Published 4 April 2012

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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