"When in doubt..."

21 February 2006
Only in en
Esprit X-rays the French "No"; Critique & Humanism sets its sights on the city; Mittelweg 36 links violence and civil society; Rigas Laiks questions clichés about sex trafficking; Arena challenges the party poopers on the conservative Left; FA-art translates young Swedish writers; and Vikerkaar has a laugh.

Esprit 2/2006

For progressives in France, the first setback of 2005 came with the “No” to the European constitution in the referendum of 29 May. But though the no-vote may have been the expression of a general desire to return to the bosom of the nation, other events, namely the rioting in the suburbs and conflict over the commemoration of the Algerian occupation, scarcely indicate a national renaissance, remark Esprit editors Olivier Mongin and Marc-Olivier Padis. In an issue entitled “European doubts, French uncertainties”, they pose the question: “What will become of the nation in the context of a France marked by a Gaullist prime minister, by a considerably weakened Europe, and by a nascent world bearing the imprint of recent history?”

In a section on “Europe without a constitution”, political scientist Christian Lequesne argues that France is by far the most hostile country in Europe to EU enlargement. Only now are the French realizing how much their attitude towards Europe lags behind those of other Union members, he says. And Pierre Hassner and Bruno Tertrais discuss “New Powers, new menaces”: Europe has been sidelined by Asia’s ascendance on the international scene and new responses by the US to terrorism, they say. Moreover, Europe has failed to recognize the hierarchy of the terrorist menace and to respond effectively.

Turning to “France’s political dilemmas”, Esprit conducts an X-ray of the French no-vote. A panel of regular contributors consider what more lies in store for democracy in France before the end of the current presidential term. Also in this section: Socialist politician Lucile Schmid says that while the state largely became aware of discrimination prior to the urban rioting, it failed to follow up with any real action.

The full table of contents of Esprit 2/2006.

Critique & Humanism 20 (1/2005)

Bulgarian Critique & Humanism travels near and far in its range of “Images of the city”. Bringing together art historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political historians, the issue looks at the city from all angles. Topics range from George Orwell’s urban imagery to visual, symbolic, and social changes in Sofia since the late nineteenth century.

“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists […] Waiters and shop-workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.” Quoting Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), political historian Vittore Collina points out that this description brings forth two very important aspects of urban imagery: “The symbolism that changes the face of the city, and the quick passage from the streets and buildings of the city to the people, their relationships and their behaviour.”

Collina emphasizes the difference in Orwell’s works between the “city of men” and the “city of stone”, between the inhabitants of the city and the buildings, streets, and churches. He finds that The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) balances the city of men and of stone: “A belching chimney or a stinking slum is repulsive chiefly because it implies warped lives and ailing childhood […] The beauty or ugliness of industrialism hardly matters. Its real evil lies far deeper and is quite ineradicable.”

Looking more closely at Critique & Humanism‘s home territory, sociologist Valentin Danchev asks what Sofia’s “united metropolitan symbol” actually symbolizes; Elitza Stanoeva traces the new organization of urban space brought about by the construction of Sofia’s tram network (1901-1934); and Milena Iakimova argues that the advent of officials and clerks introduced a new social inequality in the city space of late nineteenth-century Sofia.

The full table of contents of Critique & Humanism 20 (1/2005).

Mittelweg 36 1/2006

The concept of civil society gained momentum in the 1990s when many credited it with the rapid collapse of eastern European communism. In the Western world, civil society is considered a universal remedy against individualization and political disenchantment in modern societies, and even seen as a bulwark against an overpowering capitalist economy.

Civil society, it is generally held, generates values such as tolerance and pluralism and thus is an important foundation for democracy. On the other hand, it domesticates conflict and violence, and what’s more, sets the boundaries for violence.

Mittelweg 36 discusses the relationship between civil society and violence. Historians Arnd Bauerkämper, Dieter Gosewinkel, and Sven Reichhardt introduce the topic by examining the normative dimensions underlying current definitions of civil society. They call for a new perspective on the concept that includes a look into the power relations within civil society organizations and an examination of the opposing concepts to civil society.

Sheri Berman, political scientist at Columbia University, shows that rather than promoting democracy and social harmony, civil society can, under certain conditions, play a key role in facilitating violence, social conflict, and the rise of anti-democratic political movements. Wolfgang Knöbl, sociologist at Göttingen University, argues that theories of civil society have difficulty explaining divergent levels of violence within and between societies. And Dominique Colas, political scientist at the Sciences Po in Paris, traces the concept’s origin in Greek political philosophy and its history through the various conceptual systems that made use of the term, from Aristotle to Marx.

Also to look out for: Anton Holzer on “sensationalist curiosity in war photography”. The Austrian photo-historian analyzes the relationship between photography and violence by situating images from Abu Ghraib and other war images within a larger context of media history.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 1/2006.

Rigas Laiks 2/2006

“Sex trafficking has become such a familiar story that the story itself is a victim of the clichés endlessly used to retell it,” finds British journalist Tim Ochser as he accompanies a British television crew filming a documentary in Latvia. “Sex trafficking is often called a modern form of slavery […] But where our idea of racial slavery is dramatically represented by noble-looking, shiny-skinned black men being loaded onto wooden ships in chains, the sex slave acts of her own, deluded free will, crossing legitimate borders. Her desperation and naivety are her chains.”

To compare sex trafficking with slavery is misleading, says Ochser; all they have in common is “their shared motive of sheer greed”. Instead, it “illustrates the shocking hypocrisy in our attitudes towards sex and the utter poverty of our imagination that we can only conceive of it as a form of modern slavery rather than a grotesque consequence of the intensely sexualized culture we have created.”

Also to look out for: a letter from Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, to friends back in Europe on his disturbance with being asked, “You ok?” The Northern Californian “nursing complex” troubles Gumbrecht because he sees in it “the nightmarish potential of a society where every cultivated person (and ‘being cultivated’ starts with reading self-help magazines) wants to take over a nursing role”, which ultimately produces “an extreme shortage of potential patients”.

The full table of contents of Rigas Laiks 2/2006.

Arena 1/2006

Arena has developed into the most influential Swedish magazine for intellectual debate on radical politics. “Cosmopolitanism now!”, the battle cry of a recent attention-grabbing essay by editor Per Wirtén, represents an attitude characteristic of “Arena”: a radical critique of nationalist over- and undertones in Swedish politics, not least within the Left.

Such Arena articles have resulted in a broad public debate about nationalist and isolationist tendencies within the Swedish Left, a typically Scandinavian phenomenon that was previously criticized only by politicians on the Right.

With this debate still raging, Arena now brings up another critical topic that is bound to meet with strong reaction from both ends of the political spectrum: the ever closer ties connecting the conservative Right with a new type of conservative Left.

The theme of the cover story in the current issue is the conservative reaction to postmodernism in Sweden. Relativism and rationalism are losing ground while moral values and religion are back on the political agenda; and the interesting conflict is not between societies but within societies. Fanny Söderbäck, Martin Aagård, and Magnus Linton ask how Jesus has become the new hero for the American and Swedish Left.

But it is not all about religion. The conservatism of the Swedish Left is just as visible in its contempt for pop-cultural phenomena such as docu-soaps and dance culture, writes editor Magnus Linton in his lead article. “Those who don’t dance are the same people who used to find it charming not to be able to use email or sms”, writes Linton, who continues with biting irony: “As authoritarian future-phobics worry and complain, iPod culture is musicalizing cold societies in a way that will make those who do not dance seem as enlightened as those who cannot speak English. This development is not unproblematic, but one result is a progressive transformation of power; it destroys our most valued social norm – to be in control – as quickly as it revalues our most feared: to lose it.”

Also of interest: Devrim Mavi, of Turkish heritage and head of the recently founded Swedish feminist party, is interviewed on racism and colonial attitudes among European feminists. And in the essay “Cultural cannibalism”, Rasmus Fleischer, one of the protagonists in the rapidly expanding free-software movement, describes Brazil’s leading role in reforming copyrights and transforming global trade to the benefit of the urban poor.

The full table of contents of Arena 1/2006.

FA-art 60-61 (2-3/2005)

Having covered in previous issues current literary trends in central and eastern Europe, Katowice-based literary quarterly FA-art turns to Sweden.

The Swedish project is a collective undertaking of a group of young translators who met at a workshop at Södertörn University College outside Stockholm and includes short stories by Mats Kolmisoppi, Johannes Sjögren, Malte Persson, Titti Persson, Hans Gunnarsson, Anne Swärd, Lena Andersson, and Daniel Sjölin. Born in the 1970s, they constitute the youngest generation of Swedish prose writers. Not only have they challenged the literary establishment, but – as the selection proves – also contested the grand narrative that is often considered, at least abroad, to be a strong Swedish tradition. Middle class, urban, and anarchic, they – to a Polish reader – combine an interest in language with a re-examination of themes such as childhood and adolescence, politics and society, and human alienation, defined through the prism of the ethical crisis in postmodern and post-industrial societies.

Outside the focus: novelist Stefan Szymutko reflects on his new book, Aunt Cila’s Tomb, examining his literary method against that of his master, the great Polish writer Teodor Parnicki; Igor Stokfiszewski deconstructs young Polish literature, theatre, and cultural norms in post-1989 Poland; and Krzysztof Unilowski discusses political leanings of young Polish literati in the context of Poland’s swing to the right.

The full table of contents of FA-art 60-61 (2-3/2005).

Vikerkaar 1-2/2006

“Anyone who wishes to talk about stupidity must fulfil the prerequisite that he himself is not stupid; and therefore demonstrate that he considers himself clever, though it is generally held to be a sign of stupidity to do so.” Thus Robert Musil in his classic speech, On Stupidity (1937), translated in Vikerkaar‘s latest issue, “Stupidity, foolery, and laughter”.

Other wise meditations on stupidity and serious essays on laughter include Estonian philosopher Enn Kasak’s claim that the brashest kind of stupidity has an appearance of ill-applied rationality: “As soon as I know what it’s like to be wise, I know too what it’s like to be stupid. As soon as I feel I’m wise, I’m in fact stupid.” Nevertheless, writes Kasak, stupidity is something essential to human nature, maybe even mankind’s defining talent.

Another philosopher from Tallinn, Eik Hermann, writes on “The valuation of laughter: Play, ludics, and jokes”, emphasizing the role of laughter in dealing with existential alienation. Proceeding from Spinoza, he argues that it expresses a vital force and is even a condition of meaningful knowledge. Reviewing theories of laughter and describing various types, Hermann elaborates his own apology of laughter, in which it is described as something “social, ecstatic, almost orgiastic”.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 1-2/2006.

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Published 21 February 2006

Original in English
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