Thursday, December 16, 2010


I seem to have helped inspire some kind of science fiction role-playing game. I'm not sure I understand it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


This account of the recent protests against tuition fee increases in the UK is fascinating, especially given its source: the Economics editor of the BBC's flagship current affairs program, Newsnight.
Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations - UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex - the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

[. . .]

When there are speeches, the university students often defer to the working class young people from sixth forms, who they see as being the main victims of the reform. With the Coalition's majority reduced by 3/4, as I reflected earlier, it is unprecedented to see a government teeter before a movement in whom the iconic voices are sixteen and seventeen year old women, and whose anthems are mainly dubstep.
I have no idea how accurate this account is--I'm a long way away from the protests myself--but it would be quite something it it were. The protests against the initial introduction of fees (which took place when I was at university) were nothing like this.

Meanwhile, the picture of Charles and Camilla's shock at being caught up in the melée, and their realization that they are perhaps not so insulated from ordinary people as they may hope, is quite extraordinary:

Frankly, this may be the only good reason to have a royalty still: to provide images such as this one.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I wonder whether it is the pressure of the Nobel prize acceptance speech itself, which marks the point at which the writer is thrust into a new form of public celebrity, or the burden that Latin American literature takes upon itself to be politically engaged where other literatures do not feel the same need, but it's notable how little Mario Vargas Llosa has to say about literature in his recent Nobel lecture.

The speech is entitled "In Praise of Reading and Fiction," an echo no doubt of Vargas Llosa's own book, In Praise of the Stepmother, which is by chance one of his least obviously political books. But it might equally have gone by a title such as "In Denunciation of Authoritarianism," for beyond some well-worn homilies about the power of fiction ("Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better"), and a little bit of incidental autobiography, Vargas Llosa has more to say about politics than anything else.

In denouncing authoritarianism, the Nobel laureate takes the opportunity to launch pot-shots at Cuba (of course), but also Venezuela's Chávez and Bolivia's Morales, as well as indulging in a long digression whose main purpose is to denigrate Catalan nationalism.

Generally, it's interesting how Vargas Llosa constructs and tries to balance his various audiences. He speaks in praise of Spain, the country of his current residence and citizenship, and presumably the comments on Catalonia are a function of his self-positioning as a specifically Spanish intellectual. But he also appeals to his Peruvian roots and tries to deflect the charge that he has in any way betrayed them by moving to Europe and taking up with the former conquistadors who did so much damage to Peru's pre-Columbian cultures. And he further has to present himself as a fully cosmopolitan, global figure whose ties to any one particular place are necessarily weaker than his allegiance to the world republic of letters.

And yet, for all his purported praise of reading and fiction, ultimately his investment in the world republic of letters (that "false representation of life") always has to cede to the greater calling offered by the res publica itself. Why, for instance, does he feel compelled to tell us that "Latin America has made progress", that "We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before," and that "if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present"?

He has, after all, much less to say about the state of Latin American literature; indeed, his literary references are all at least half a century old: to José María Arguedas and Juan Rulfo, to the Boom writers "Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso," when not to figures such as "Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust." His literary narrative is soaked in nostalgia; but when it comes to politics he feels the need to renounce all lost loves (socialism, above all) in the name of a paean to democratic progress and a concomitant warning against the excesses of the contemporary "left turns."

Literary dreams are, apparently, to be indulged; political dreams, however, are to be disparaged.

Finally, it may be a strange kind of false modesty (or justified by the fact that the prize itself presumably attests to his pre-eminence in the field), but Vargas Llosa make precious little reference to his own works of fiction. He says somewhat more about his love of the theater, and still more about his work as a journalist.

In short, it is as though the Nobel laureate himself shared some of the fear of literature that he projects upon those in power. He claims that "all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear [literature] so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it," In fact, this is at best a half-truth: as many literary and cultural historians have observed, Latin American literature is a good a place as any to research the ways in which elites use the written word to their own advantage. From the privileged role of the church and letrados under colonialism, to the "foundational fictions" of the nineteenth century that continue to imbue the virtues of citizenship in contemporary school curricula, literature has historically been as much handmaiden of power as its opponent.

In sum, Vargas Llosa seems to want to confine sedition to fiction: literature, in his conception, invokes romantic images of the past, with sweet memories of big-nosed grandfathers and enthusiastic Uncle Luchos. When it comes to the present, however, he steps outside this literary role so as to curb the foolishness of those who have not followed his example in putting behind them their youthful dreams.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Again let me point to my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo's excellent blog, "Space and Politics". And particularly to his recent entry "Una historia espacial del Kirchnerismo, 2001-2010", which is essentially an outline of the movements of the Argentine multitude over the past ten years.

I do wonder, however, about the declaration with which he begins this entry, that "politics takes place fundamentally in the streets, in the struggle for the control of public space." I wonder about it for a number of reasons:

First, and most banally (but not the less significantly), we have over the past few years seen significant public demonstrations, not least the million-person march against the Iraq war in London, which had almost no visible effect. Indeed, they were cynically used by the likes of Tony Blair as further argument for the war, with the notion that if so many people were against it then the so-called coalitions post-imperial adventures were clearly not merely opportunistic pandering to the people.

Or to put this in more theoretical terms, I fear as I've noted before that there's a temptation to indulge in a spectacular politics (that very much includes an attempt to "take" the streets) when perhaps politics is really not (any more) about spectacle at all.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, not only does that assertion that all politics is fundamentally about the control of public space ignore the politics of the private sphere (to which feminism, for instance, has always pointed), it also passes over the homologies between private and public space noted by anthropologists such as Pierre Bourdieu in his analysis of the space of the Kabyle House. Control of public space is very often rooted in patterns established in what is apparently "private" space, in spaces that seemingly don't count as political precisely because they are bracketed off as private.

Third, then, surely a still more fundamental political practice is the demarcation of the distinction between public and private. In other words, there is a prior (and still eminently political) struggle over the distinction between the two, and over who decides which spaces are public (and so, supposedly, political) and which spaces are "merely" private.

One of the distinguishing features of both neoliberalism on the one hand and the multitude on the other (and so one of the points of convergence between the two; let's say for the moment that neoliberalism follows or reacts to the multitude in this) is that both tend to erase this mooted distinction between public and private. With the rise of biopolitics, and the society of control replacing that of discipline, all spaces are now equally and immediately political, not merely the traditional public spaces of the street or (archetypically for populism) the plaza. The plaza is empty, as Maristella Svampa observes, but politics continues.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


The Saturday photo, part XIII: I've been browsing some of the photos of Mogadishu on Flickr. It is, of course, a quite spectacularly ruined city. But, as with (almost?) all ruins, not without its beauty. This is the old port:

Mogadishu old port

Recently I ordered my own copy of Robert Ginsberg's strange book, The Aesthetics of Ruins. It's strange for many reason, and that strangeness is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it's apparently a self-published labor of love. But it is to my mind the most interesting book on ruins yet written.

Friday, December 03, 2010


Steve Stekeley's 1948 Noir The Scar (also known as Hollow Triumph) is perhaps most notable because its leading man is Paul Henreid, who six years earlier had played the part of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Beyond that, The Scar is at first sight an eminently ephemeral movie, easily forgettable. But it's interesting in so far as it problematizes the very process of memory and recognition.

Henreid's character in Casablanca is a Czech resistance hero who is strangely both the center of the plot and utterly marginal. For though the film ostensibly revolves around Laszlo's efforts to flee the Nazis and seek asylum in America, what we remember is the tension and romance between Ingrid Bergman (playing Laszlo's wife) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the bar-owner who has the letters of transit that would make Lazslo's escape possible.

Similarly, in The Scar, Henreid again plays a character who fades from view... the difference being that in this film Henreid also plays the character who replaces him. Moreover, this is a film about the replacement itself, and the effect that it has (or, oddly enough, doesn't have) on the audience.

Read more at Projections.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Interrogative Mood coverPadgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood is many things, but probably not a novel. Still, it asks us to consider the question of what makes a novel. Not that this is the only question it asks.

For the book is composed solely of questions. Every single sentence it contains ends with a question mark. So, more fundamentally, it asks us to consider what makes a question--and if some questions are more questioning or more questionable than others.

Powell tells us that the motivation for exercise was the fact that he continually received, as director of a university program, a series of email messages phrased as questions:
Is it time for the director to have a chat with the provost? Do we recall what the dean promised us last spring? Would it be prudent to assume that history will not repeat itself?
Whatever else these missives were--gentle cajoling, injunctions that feared to reveal their disciplinary status, the sign of a boss who had drunk the management-speak kool-aid--they were surely not really questions.

And so it is with The Interrogative Mood, which interrogates the very act of interrogation, without of course (as in the best interrogations) ever giving up any easy answers.

There are sentences that are open-ended investigations of a theme, attempts to resolve some kind of mystery: "Is there charity? Can there be reason?" (112); "Is semaphore still used at sea or has it been displaced by the digital age?" (113); "Could Oswald have done it alone?" (148). But these are very much in the minority.

Very many more of the text's questions are more like the prompts found in an examination or interview: "Do you know what the longest military siege in history was?" (57); "How fast do the fastest birds fly?" (123); "Have you read much philosophy?" (26); "Can you read music?" (66). And of course: "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?" (69), a question that usually expects no reply.

But the questions soon take on the tone of an examination gone wild: "Is it correct to say that an orange is eponymous? Why is a banana yellow and not banana?" (67); "Is life better or not better now that for the most part we live it without a daily concern with ramparts?" (70). They frequently indulge in wordplay and logical games: "What color is your crowbar?" (92); "Are you more at ease in a veneer of civilization or a true hardwood of barbary?" (114); "At what point is a gosling a goose?" (133)

Sometimes, moreover, the questions seem to reveal more about the questioner than they ask of the person questioned: "Isn't wool a marvel?" (9); "Are you as fond as I of cobalt glass?" (59).

Above all, what the questioning reveals is that a pronounced nostalgia suffuses this interrogative mood. We're often asked about the past, and about memory: "Do you recall, and did you ever try to use, all-metal roller skates that strapped on over your shoes?" (25); "Doesn't it seem as if the boardgame called Chinese Checkers was once popular and has now disappeared?" (116). One of the book's longest sentences concerns the long-vanished roller skates and laments that childhood toys now involve "some Kevlar/Teflon-ey wheels, a microchip gyroscope, a laser level, a GPS, a twenty-four-hour customer-service hotline" and so on (65).

No wonder that it goes strangely unquestioned that there must be some "kernel" to "the demise of the world as we knew it" (117).

It is as though this book, so full of questions that turn out not to be questions, ultimately despaired of the very grammatical or linguistic shift on which its existence depends. It is as though it rebelled against its very condition of possibility.

I sympathize with the disquiet that Padgett evinces with the new voice in which bureaucracy speaks: all apparent concern and solicitousness, questioning and asking us to question ourselves, encouraging self-correction as though denying the very existence of a power that could impose resolution from above. But I'm not sure that there is anything very new here.

Language has always been both a means by which power simultaneously operates and disguises its operation. But it has also always provided the possibilities for excess and contradiction that, as this book wryly exemplifies, subvert power's presumptions and show how precarious is its grip on language. Don't you think?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


A particularly fine video (amazingly, it seems it was shot with only one camera) of the Catalan tradition of building castells:

There's much to be said here about bodies, tall buildings, sovereignty, and community. Indeed, in some ways these castles are almost literal embodiments of the famous frontispiece to Hobbes's Leviathan. A multitude constitutes the temporary illusion of sovereignty.

So what's fascinating is the discipline and coordination invested in the construction of these human towers. But also their inevitable precariousness.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The University of Minnesota Press asked me to write a brief entry that would be a sort of "introduction to Posthegemony" and that would ideally touch on current events. This should soon appear on the Press's blog, too.

How do we explain the success of the "Tea Party" movement within the US Republican party?

Its supporters claim that it is very simple: the American people, they argue, are fed up with unwanted government intrusion in their lives and the slide to socialism (or something like it) under the presidency of Barack Obama. The "Tea Party Patriots", for instance, address the "Citizens of our Nation" who "were disgusted that your government ignored your will so egregiously."

Or in the words of of the founder of "Regular Folks United: The Bully Pulpit for Regular Folks" (whose contributors include the now iconic "Joe the Plumber"), he started the website
after many years of feeling like real people were getting lost in the shuffle of political battles. Republican talking points. Democrat talking points. What about Regular Folk talking points? I was tired of elitists (yes, they are on both sides of the aisle) pretending they were doing things to help “regular folks” while they were really, most often, trampling on regular folks’ freedoms and taking their money for some bloated inefficient government program.
In short, we see an almost classic case of populist insurgency: ordinary people rising up against the distortions and manipulations of "politics as usual."

But there is nothing particularly simple about even classical populism. And as liberals are surely by now tired of pointing out, there is no shortage of distortion or manipulation on the part of the Tea Partiers: it is almost bewildering to realize, for example, how many still believe that Obama is a Moslem born outside of the United States. When there is such disagreement over the basic premises of the discussion, there seems little opportunity to have the kinds of debate usually associated with political discourse.

More significantly, many of those who are funding the movement are far from ordinary in any sense of the term. Jane Mayer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long piece about the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers who have piled millions into the cause. With friends like these, it is no wonder that the "regular folks" of the Tea Party find themselves campaigning to continue the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy (those who earn above $250,000 a year). In other words, we also have a classic case of people fighting fervently for their own exploitation as though it were their liberation.

The theory of hegemony is designed to untangle such complications. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who first elaborated the notion that capitalism's survival relies on the fact that people willingly give their consent to political movements that work against their best interests. Social domination depends, he argued, upon consent as much, if not more, than upon brute force or coercion.

In the mid to late 1970s, Gramsci was rediscovered and hegemony theory was further refined by the Argentine Ernesto Laclau before it was taken up with great enthusiasm by British Cultural Studies. Soon "hegemony" became cultural studies' core concept. It is not surprising, moreover, that the concept came into vogue during another moment at which populism seemed to rule the day: with Peronism in Argentina, and then Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and the USA.

Laclau's motivation was to distinguish between a progressive populism of the left from a populism of the right. For surely the left could not give up on the self-declared "ordinary" people that were the focus of cultural studies' own iconoclastic anti-elitism. (Recall that for Raymond Williams, the founding principle of the discipline is that "culture is ordinary.") And yet ultimately hegemony theory fails in this task: most recently, with On Populist Reason, Laclau simply abandons the project by identifying populism with politics as a whole.

My argument in Posthegemony is that hegemony theory mirrors populism and is therefore unable fully to understand (let alone oppose) it. In parallel, I also show that civil society discourse has a similar relationship to the neoliberalism that it claims to critique. We therefore need some other way to think about politics, if these two foremost instances of progressive social theory are incapable of grasping the two major political movements of the past thirty years.

I call this new way to think about politics "posthegemony."

Posthegemony turns from the Gramscian dichotomy between coercion and consent, to look instead at the subterranean influences of affect, habit, and the multitude that underlie all so-called hegemonic projects.

It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of "hearts and minds." And it should be equally clear that the notion of a "people" (of "regular folks" or the "Citizens of the Nation") is a construction that enables interested parties (the Kochs or others) to appropriate the power of a multitude that would otherwise threaten them as much as it unsettles any representative of constituted power.

Posthegemony, then, is a novel form of political analysis (which draws on the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Negri, as well as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben). But it also perhaps points towards a new political project, whose aim would be to liberate the multitude from its own subjection to the popular.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


As should be evident, I'm revamping the page design of this blog.

I've run into a bunch of hitches in the process.

Normal service will, I hope, be resumed soon.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Occasionally, I admit, I get a little blasé about the open web and open education.

For instance, when I started using blogs in the classroom, it seemed like a big deal. Both the technicalities and the idea itself were fraught with worry. Now (thanks in large part to the work of Brian Lamb and his team), blog aggregation seems a cinch.

Students are increasingly comfortable with the technology. And they are pretty happy about opening and maintaining an online reading journal, and commenting on the entries made by their classmates. These days it all works fairly seamlessly, and seems hardly to be a matter for further comment. In just about every class I teach, blogs are required, and that’s that.

The same is gradually becoming true with asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Thanks in part to the fact that I have returning students who have already worked with Wikipedia in my classes, as well as thanks to the fact that I’ve done it before and I have a fair idea of how things will turn out, getting students to contribute to the encyclopedia isn’t quite as fraught with anxiety and excitement as it was the first semester I tried it. Then, we were really flying by the seat of our pants. Now, it’s more or less (not yet completely) simply another component of the course. Look, for instance, are the posts for a recent class on magical realism.

But occasionally I’m reminded that it is indeed a big deal.

The other day, in Barcelona, while preparing for my informal presentation on “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” for the Drumbeat festival, I thought I’d have a look at the page hits for the article on Mario Vargas Llosa, an article that my students completely rewrote and brought to featured article status.

It was one of the successes of that project (though again, after we got a first featured article, the other ones didn’t seem quite so special any more). And I figured that it had probably got quite a few page views in the past month or so, given that Vargas Llosa had recently been awarded the Nobel prize.

I remember clearly the day I first found out that you could see page view statistics for Wikipedia articles. I came into class and asked the students if they had any idea how many people were reading their work. Instead of the usual assignment of an exam or term paper read by exactly one person, their professor, they were now writing for a real public.

They were shocked to find out (for example), that the Gabriel García Márquez article that they were rewriting was read by something like 1,500 people a day: 62,000 a month, or close to three-quarters of a million people a year. That really gave them a sense that what they were doing mattered in some way.

Back in 2008, the Vargas Llosa article was getting close to 500 hits a day: over 11,000 a month or around 140,000 a year. Not shabby, and several orders of magnitude more of a readership than any academic article will ever get; better indeed than most best-selling novelists.

In September of this year, the statistics were broadly similar: page views per day ranged from 288 to 674, mostly a little under 500. In October, things changed.

On October 7th, the day the Nobel prize was announced, 116,700 people viewed the page. 116,700 people read my students’ work. this was the first point of reference for the public looking to find out more about the new laureate. And presumably the knock-on audience was much greater still, as the article will no doubt have been also the first point of call for journalists, news organizations, and others looking quickly to find out and broadcast information about the winner.

It’s marvelous that the article was (and remains) a featured article, which had gone through the most rigorous hoops Wikipedia provides to ascertain that it is well-sourced, reliable, well-written, and comprehensive. This is what my students wrote, after 1,225 revisions over the semester.

And 116,700 read it.

The next day, the number of readers went down: to a mere 60,000. And now the readership has settled at a mere 2,500 or so a day: a little shy of a million a year. Reading my students’ work.

I should be less blasé about this.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Where techno-utopianism meets neoliberal for-profit education. See how seamlessly they fit together...

This is an advert for Kaplan University (via Anya Kamenetz):

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poshegemonía (cont.)

It exists! Spotted in a bookstore in Buenos Aires... photograph by my friend Brian Lamb:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


My post the other day on the recent Mozilla Drumbeat festival seem to have resonated with others... more what I had to say about language than about the political ambivalence of the open-source and open-education movement, but there we go.

I thought I'd expand further on the language issue. (I'll have more to say on the political ambivalence later.)

In her comments on my previous post, Nicole Harris says:
I don't think it is unusual for a European conference to be hosted entirely in English. English is ... often an expected outcome when you are bringing people together who don't share a common language.
Yes, but. The conference's unthinking monolingualism was especially pronounced in this case:

  • Catalonia is a place where the politics of language are everywhere evident and on the surface. It is impossible to go anywhere in Barcelona without being aware of the consequences of speaking one language rather than another.

  • It may be true, as César notes in response to Brian Lamb's write-up of the conference, that Barcelonans are "so used to it that we don’t realize anymore"; the same point was made by my friend Jaume Subirana. But wasn't Drumbeat supposed to be different?

  • Indeed, the whole point of the Drumbeat festival was openness and participation. Having the conference partly in a public space was therefore, I took it, a political and strategic decision. Cathy Davidson, for instance, made a big deal of it in a pre-conference post in which she said that "since we will be located in an actual tent out in Placa dels Angels, the gorgeous plaza in Raval, between the Museum of Modern Art and the FAD, we will involve random participants traversing the square in our learning activities too."

  • But how is such openness advanced if everything is in English? How many "random participants" took part in the HASTAC activities, especially when, as another HASTAC representative admitted, she "only noticed @HASTAC flyers were all Eng after arriving"?

  • Surely any organization that declares it's devoted to openness, participation, breaking down borders, and so on, should be aware of the politics of language.

  • Yes, there are plenty of conferences held in Europe that presume to transcend or ignore their local contexts. (The annual gathering of the good and the great and the wealthy at Davos is surely the premier example.) But Drumbeat tried to do something else, however confusedly: it occupied public space in the square, and yet had surprisingly rigid security to prevent outsiders from entering the building itself. It talked the talk, but only in English.

The broader political issues about the relationship between open-source, open-education, and neoliberalism are more important. But, when it comes to language, I don't want to adopt the cynical whining adopted by Fred's comment to my previous post, which said that my observations were "largely true, but not very interesting." How did the enthusiastic desire for insurgency at Drumbeat so soon become bored acceptance of the way things are always done? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Monday, November 08, 2010


My friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo has started a blog, entitled "Space and Politics" ("Espacio y política"). I highly recommend it.

To date, Gastón has been mainly concerned with what he calls the "birth of Kirchnerism," that is, the multitudinous energies unleashed in the wake of the death of Argentina's ex-president Néstor Kirchner, and the way in which Kirchner's ghost now haunts (and energizes) Argentine politics.

In a post comparing Peronism's mythic 17th of October 1945 to the day of Kirchner's death on the 27th of October 2010, Gastón writes:
Just as after 1945 it was clear that Perón was not alone, the principle message of the 27th of October is that from now on Cristina Kircher is not alone. There is a multitude mobilized behind her, that within hours showed that it could take over the country's main public spaces when it felt that the government was in danger in a moment of possible weakness. Obviously this energy didn't just appear out of thin air, but it was only with the emergence of a multitude that occupied public space that such popular support was transformed into a political vector worthy of respect.
It's worth reading the whole thing, though in short I'd say that Gastón's tone is a little more celebratory than mine would be. In the UK over recent years there have been a series of high profile deaths (from Diana to John Smith or Robin Cook, or even David Kelly) that at the time seemed to change everything... but looking back at them now, the public affects that they provoked seem strangely anomalous. Indeed, if anything any changes that they provoked have been only for the worse.

None of which really goes against Gastón's thesis that the death of Néstor Kirchner has provided a space for the multitude to appear in a new way. My doubt is not so much about that, but rather about the way that (as Gastón himself suggests) such affects are all too soon and all too easily re-channeled for the sake of constituted power.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Pulp's "Common People" in Catalan, performed (by a group called Manel) in the Boqueria market, Barcelona:

Thanks to Jaume Subirana for this, and for his (and his family's) splendid hospitality in Barcelona.


Vivimos tiempos poshegemónicos: la ideología ha dejado de ser la fuerza motriz de la política y la teoría de la hegemonía ya no refleja con exactitud el orden social actual. La crítica ideológica –es decir, el análisis de los discursos en busca de distorsiones producidas por efecto de operaciones ideológicas–, se ha vuelto superflua. Esto, al menos, es lo que Jon Beasley-Murray plantea en este apasionante libro, basado en el análisis y la crítica de los discursos culturales. A partir de una minuciosa investigación histórica de los movimientos políticos latinoamericanos del siglo XX –desde el populismo clásico a los movimientos nacionales de liberación, las nuevas corrientes sociales e, incluso, las relaciones entre cultura y política que ellos encarnan–Beasley-Murray desgrana tres aspectos fundamentales del concepto de poshegemonía: el afecto (examinado desde la perspectiva de Gilles Deleuze), el hábito (derivado de la noción de habitus de Pierre Bourdieu) y la multitud (noción tomada de Antonio Negri). Para aquellos interesados en los estudios culturales y en las ciencias sociales, pero antes y sobre todo en América Latina, Poshegemonía propone un fascinante recorrido para el cual el autor efectuó un profundo trabajo de campo en El Salvador, Perú, Chile, Argentina y Venezuela, por un lado, y en aquellos lugares donde habitualmente desarrolla su labor profesional: Canadá, Inglaterra, Irlanda y Estados Unidos, por el otro.

Get it here.

Friday, November 05, 2010


I'm currently in Barcelona, for an event called the Drumbeat Festival, organized by Mozilla, the folk who bring us Firefox. Sponsorship and support are also provided by the Macarthur Foundation, tbe Carnegie Foundation, and Creative Commons, among others.

The event's themes are "Learning, Freedom and the Web." It's quite a hybrid of academics, teachers, educational technologists, programmers, hackers, and others. It's a diverse and sometimes chaotic collection of activities. I've met a few good people, and there are no doubt some interesting ideas buzzing around.

Some quick, perhaps contrarian, thoughts...

  • The event has essentially been parachuted into Barcelona. There is almost no Spanish (all the signage, for instance, is completely monolingual English), let alone Catalan. There is certainly no attempt at simultaneous translation. There's no sign of any local organizers. As Liz Castro puts it, it's "pretty surreal being surrounded by Americans and English speaking Europeans right in the center of Barcelona". Frankly, the festival might as well be in Timbuktu, or on the moon. Barcelona provides local color and evening diversion, is all. The strangest instance of this imposition of English upon the landscape is on the map that all attendees were given: we're told of some rooms that are on the "fourth floor (push 3 in elevator)." Um, you mean in fact this is the third floor. Yes, they count differently over here, but it's bizarre that the organizers feel the need to re-map and redescribe the local environment so thoroughly.

  • Not unrelatedly, there's an awful amount of money swishing around here. This event can't have been cheap to put on, and plenty of the organizations represented here have clearly shelled out plenty for the privilege.

  • Even so, in a rousing opening session yesterday morning, we were told that we were disruptive forces, who were gathered to participate in the "joy of insurgency." The session at which we told this had the feel of a religious revivalist meeting, or (perhaps better) an American sales convention: hyped-up applause at every point, led by an over-excited MC. It seemed rude to disrupt the so-called disruption, so fully were we expected to buy into it. Now, I'm a fan of joyous insurgency as much as the next insurgent (it's much better than the miserable sort, after all), and in fact I liked Cathy Davidson's mini-keynote in which the phrase was introduced. What makes me suspicious is how enthusiastically everyone felt able to be coerced into it. Surely it couldn't last?

  • And indeed, later that day I went to a couple of sessions on "badges." The idea is interesting: how to come up with other forms of credential for non-traditional or extra-institutional learning. Should not people have confirmation of the skills they learn as they participate in wikis or other online communities, as they teach themselves programming or facilitation? Shouldn't blogs or even twitter feeds be counted as achievements in some way, and rewarded with some kind of symbolic capital? The problem of credentialling is indeed worth discussing. Unfortunately, the discussion soon devolved into ideas as to how to replace university degrees... with modes of assessment that were more "granular" (involving closer surveillance, no doubt) and more transparent to students' future employers. Better still: shouldn't businesses and corporations have input into the ways in which universities constructed and awarded credentials? Shouldn't, in short, capital be more fully involved in determining the shape of tertiary education? Shouldn't universities be more fully instrumental for commerce? No wonder that the role models suggested for these new credentials were those well-known insurgents... Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

So, Drumbeat is full of well-intentioned people, full of energy. But the insurgent optimism of the opening session lasted all of a couple of hours, soon turning into the dystopia of how to realize more fully an over-surveilled society of control, without anyone seeming to note the contradiction or (at best) tension between the various elements of the Mozilla / Open Education vision.

The fact that all this is taking place in an Anglophone, North American bubble that crassly rewrites even the basic signs of the environment into which its resources and money have been dropped, is perhaps not unrelated to the event's rah-rah enthusiasm and (so far as I could tell) blithe refusal to consider nuance, contradiction, or complications to its techno-utopian vision.

Update: and now a follow-up here.

Further update: Ha! For all the championing of disruption, I note that neither this post nor its follow-up are featured in Mark Surman's otherwise comprehensive collection of Drumbeat links. (Now, thanks to my pointing this fact out, Surman has finally added them.)

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Minnesota are offering a 30% discount off Posthegemony (i.e. selling it for $17.50 rather than $25.00) if you order the book from their website, using discount code MN71040. This offer expires February 1st, 2011.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


It's perhaps only appropriate that the last post on this blog was entitled "stuck." For there has been a long silence since, as though the blog itself were indeed stuck.

I hope to rectify this situation and publish a few more posts in the near future.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Postmodernity does strange things to time. We feel, for instance, that we live in a world in which everything is speeded up: it's hard to keep up with the pace of innovation, the ever-new updating of technology, the merry-go-round of fashion, the wildfire rapidity of the media, the voraciousness of the TV and blog-driven news cycle, the instantaneousness of email and the Internet, and so on.

And yet while some things speed up, others slow down. Above all, the literal transport of people and commodities is getting slower rather than faster. In the air, the mid-twentieth century vision of supersonic passenger travel is long tarnished and dusty: Concorde never became a going concern and was retired with nothing to replace it; most contemporary jets are flown at less than their top speeds, so as to conserve fuel. The same goes on the seas: as The Observer recently observed, modern cargo shipping is now geared towards "super-slow steaming," and trading vessels take longer to cross the oceans than did nineteenth-century sailing clippers. Meanwhile, on land, the density of traffic in contemporary cities means that road traffic has actually slowed as cars have replaced horses as the primary means of transportation: in London, for example, the average off-peak vehicle speed dropped from 12 to 10mph over the course of the twentieth century.

Don Delillo's Cosmopolis takes such paradoxes of speed and time and would run with them if only it could. Unfortunately, however, its tale is set in a stretch limo that takes all day to cross midtown Manhattan from East to West. So it crawls, instead, albeit very luxuriously, stuck in traffic. But there is plenty to distract us within. For this is a limo that is fully equipped with plasma screen TVs, a microwave oven, a toilet, marble floors, cork-lined walls to keep out the ambient noise, even a map of the solar system on the underside of the roof. It may be a slow ride, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Indeed, if there is a cosmopolis here, it is not New York, however much the crosstown journey manages to take in a presidential motorcade, a rapper funeral, an anti-capitalist riot, and myriad other encounters in between. It is, rather, the wired automobile as a node for the receipt and transmission of information: some of its screens show the currency markets in real time; others display the news from across oceans and continents; still others are closed-circuit TVs that repeat (in fact, anticipate) what's happening in the car itself.

It's possible that the cosmopolis may become smaller still: at one point the limousine's owner, a twenty-something plutocrat by the name of Eric Packer, uses his wristwatch to hack into various financial systems and wipe out someone else's multi-million dollar wealth. This same watch has a camera that is "a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost pure metaphysics" (204). At the novel's end, it is on the watch screen that Packer sees or foresees his own death. It's perhaps a sign of the novel's (or the author's) slight datedness that this digital aleph is a watch rather than a smartphone. In any case, the idea remains the same: space and time can become so concentrated in one point that perhaps it doesn't matter how slowly we travel in physical space. Or equally, thanks to this instant availability of information, there's no longer anywhere to run in any case: the car can stand in for the office; there are ever-fewer in-between spaces where we might be out of range of the call of capital.

We might say that the limousine incarnates a smooth space of capital flows that is folded within a rather stickier space of midtown traffic jams and public disturbances, even if (as the novel suggests) these can be effects of the system itself: a turbulence that is innate to the market.

But still the body and its cloying materiality intrudes: the point of the whole lugubrious journey is that Eric is a billionaire in search of a haircut. En route, he also has regular meals as well as a prostate examination and at least three sexual encounters. Some of these diversions can be more or less easily accommodated within the vehicle's sedate progress along 47th Street: the doctor who examines Eric's prostate is picked up from the sidewalk and does his business in the car while his patient talks to one of his financial advisors. More generally, Eric's security detail, under the command of a terse man named Torval "whose head seemed removable for maintenance" (11), are trained to cover his every move and report on the latest warnings from a higher-level "complex" that studies possible threats and dangers to the slow-moving voyage.

Gradually his protection unravels, and Eric finds himself reduced to a naked body on a West Side street--though still as yet in the service of the image, for the occasion is a film shoot for which he has become an impromptu extra. The story doesn't end there, however, and in a derelict building even as he dreams about "the master thrust of cyber-capital" and its promise "to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment," Eric finds that "his pain interfered with his immortality" (207). His pain is "too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn't think, to computer emulation" (207).

Moreover, the past also intrudes. Packer's paid theorist has told him that "the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing" (86). And yet it turns out that Eric's slow march westward is towards the past, not the future. He has been heading towards one particular barbershop, bypassing many others that are more conveniently located, for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity. Despite all his obsession with change and his constant impatience at the fact that even language cannot keep up with the pace of technology, he chooses to return to the barber who has always cut his hair, and who cut his father's hair before him. He is drawn to the repetition and to the patina of age: "This is what he wanted from Anthony. The same words. The oil company calendar on the wall. The mirror that needed silvering" (161).

The body is not yet as far in the future as it wants to be, Delillo suggests. And yet it is precisely this temporal lag, this sluggardness, that provides comfort. It's only in the barber's chair, seeing himself in the mirror (rather than in the various CCTV screens that have surrounded him all day), that Eric finally "remember[s] who he was" (165). Here he can speak, confide in people and trust them: "It felt right to expose the matter in this particular place, where elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men's faces. This is where he felt safe" (166).

Eric is wrong, of course. He is not safe in the past, which catches up with him in the form of a vengeful former employee that he himself has long forgotten (if he ever really knew him). But even Eric's sticky, all too corporeal end is a matter of putting things right. In the end, Cosmopolis is a paean to memory, and to the stickiness of both things and the language used to describe them.

But in a pitiless analysis of its language and style, James Wood excoriates this novel, and not without reason. He's right, for instance, to say that what he calls the story's "nineteenth-century heart" is never fully animated. In the end, we don't really care for or about Eric Packer and his fate. What stays with the reader is the surreal, postmodern shell, rather than the turn to humanism that Delillo wants us to take alongside his unfortunate but unlikeable protagonist. So be it. Some novels crawl along and never quite reach their destination, getting stuck along the way.

Still, Wood goes too far when he argues that "Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form." This book, and others like it that present us with what we might term a science fiction of the now (a vision of the future set firmly in the present day), supplement rather than compete with cultural theory or criticism. The attempt may not finally come off, but for all his techno-dystopianism what Delillo is offering is something along the lines of the plasma screens that line Eric Packer's limousine: a version of what is to come that is almost infinitesimally but (precisely for that reason) uncannily ahead of what we actually have to live through in our own lives and bodies. This is what science fiction does, and it can only do so as fiction (rather than as futurology), with the freedom to speculate and to invent, if also therefore to fail.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


America can be a maddening and frustrating place. Indeed, what is best about America--its boundless optimism and energy, its refusal to listen to naysayers--is also precisely what is so maddening. Moreover, this is as true (perhaps more so) of those who are not-quite Americans, who are in the process of becoming American. After all, nobody believes more in the American Dream than those who have yet to face up to the American Reality.

But the point of the American Dream is also that it is so often unfazed by its encounter with reality. Dave Eggers's Zeitoun is a tale of one immigrant's experience in America: a man who sees the very worst of that country, but who (we are told by the author recounting the story) still stubbornly continues to believe. Indeed, is this not why Eggers, a writer otherwise notable for his sense of nuance and irony, not least about the fashionable overuse of the term "irony," has chosen Abdulrahman Zeitoun as the subject of his latest book?

The concluding words of Zeitoun, which are the last part of the "Author's Thanks," are dedicated to Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, who by this point we know have been through an appalling experience in New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina and (more horrifying still) the security services' ferocious over-reaction in the aftermath of the hurricane. Eggers rightly praises the couple's courage, which "knows no bounds," but then concludes by upholding "their faith in family and country [that] renews the faith of us all" (337).

Yet this is a story that, by rights, should destroy any faith in country, even as it does very much remind us of the virtues of family--in this case what is very much a translnational and transcultural family whose shared passion is more the water that divide (and link) different countries, rather than any one homeland in particular.

The Zeitouns are Syrians who, we are told, repeatedly try to turn their backs on the sea, but to no avail. Abdulrahman's father, Mahmoud, was born on Arward, "the only island off Syria" where "most boys grew up to be shipbuilders or fishermen" (23). Mahmoud himself worked on cargo boats criss-crossing the Eastern Mediterranean until one day he fell off a schooner's main mast and found himself at sea for two days, clinging to a barrel, until he washed up ashore again in northern Syria. From that day he moved to the mainland, searching for a house as far inland as possible, and pronounced an edict that none of his children would go to sea. But in the end he settled on a home not fifty feet from the shore, and his sons were soon following his wake in their fascination for the water.

An older son, Mohammed, became a long-distance swimmer. Another, Ahmad, became a sea captain until he settled down in Malaga, Spain. Other Zeitouns found their way to Saudi Arabia. Abdulrahman himself spent ten years serving on multinational crews from Greece to Japan, Lagos to London, until eventually finding himself in the USA where he settled on dry land, met and married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and had three children. In New Orleans, he became a successful businessman as owner of a company of painting contractors and manager of a collection of rental properties. But his attempt, too, to turn his back on the sea failed when Katrina swept through, broke the flimsy levees, and let the waters flood in.

As Kathy and the kids, along with most of the city's population, seek safety and shelter elsewhere, Zeitoun stays. With the stubborn optimism of a hard-working immigrant, and as someone with no great fear of the elements, he felt he could do better weathering the storm and looking after his property. In the eerie silence that followed the hurricane, he paddled through the flooded streets in an old canoe, giving help where he could to its stranded inhabitants. He rescues people from their houses and feeds abandoned dogs, all the time bemused and angered by the failures of the police and other authorities who speed around in fast and noisy fan-powered boats. In his canoe, slowly and quietly navigating the waterlogged streets, Zeitoun is more attuned to the faint sounds of trapped home-owners and pets. But even when he does pass information on to the police, they seemed peculiarly uninterested in humanitarian rescue. Born out of paranoid fears of a city out of control, the official mandate, it seems, is security.

Here Zeitoun is caught up in a decidedly un-natural tragedy. Along with a couple of other fellow-survivors, he is forcibly apprehended by a posse of armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a secure facility that has been swiftly constructed in the downtown bus terminal. Known as "Camp Greyhound", with its open, wire-fenced cells, its prisoners' orange jumpsuits, and its guards' callous insensitivity, the place bears more than a passing resemblance to other sites of extraordinary force and discipline such as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Indeed, Zeitoun soon finds himself an exemplary subject of the current US state of exception. His detention, at the hands of a Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been folded into the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, abrogates all the conventional safeguards of a liberal judicial system. Zeitoun is not registered, not read his rights, not given access to a lawyer or a telephone. For all the world--and for his wife who has taken refuge in Arizona as much as for his brothers and sisters in Syria or Spain--he has simply disappeared. He has become a non-person. This is Kathy's worst fear: as the Moslem wife of an American born in the Middle East, "she had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules" (252).

Zeitoun spends almost a month incommunicado but unarraigned, uncharged, in Camp Greyhound and then the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. His companions, less lucky still (and with less property as security to secure bail when they are eventually charged), spend up to eight months incarcerated. When he finally managed to reunite with his family and return to the devastated city, at least the worst he has to face is mere incompetence: FEMA give them a trailer to live in, but no keys to access it. But there is never any attempt to compensate him for his experience. A lawsuit seems pointless: "Zeitoun's ordeal was caused [. . .] by systemic ignorance and malfunction. [. . .] This wasn't a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten" (307).

With the suspension of all the usual guarantees, with the conversion of the state into a rogue force unconstrained by liberal niceties, "anything could happen. Anything had happened" (314). Or as Zeitoun reflects during his imprisonment, "there was something broken in the country, this was certain" (262).

Eggers tells us that Zeitoun's conclusion is that "New Orleans, his home, needs no speeches, no squabbling, and no politics. It needs new flooring, new roofing, and new roofing, new windows and doors and stairs" (323). Perhaps we can take this two ways. If politics is simply equated with speeches and squabbling, then fair enough; and yet that means that New Orleans (and the USA as a whole) needs as much as anything a new politics. A new political constitution has to be built, even if it is never finished, just as a city is never ultimately completed but always in a process of (re)constitution.

Eggers, however, reads this anti-politics as an affirmation of "the faith of us all" in America. For Eggers, the system merely requires supplementing with charity--and the book's profits are to go to a mixture of good causes under the umbrella of a "Zeitoun Foundation." We need to go back to work, he suggests, with our faith in America renewed, ultimately unquestioned. And he uses this tale of a Syrian American immigrant and his family, a people of waters and the trade routes that are global rather than national, to articulate his decidedly conservative patriotism. Moreover, it is a patriotism that the story of Zeitoun--and that of so many others who have been caught up in a state of exception that itself knows no borders--should by rights decisively negate.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Towards the end of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Chip, one of the central characters, muses about a script he has been trying to write, which is entitled "The Academy Purple" and concerns the sexual shenanigans between a college professor and a female student. His revelation, which comes as he is trudging towards a desolate Baltic border post trying desperately to get home from Lithuania in time for Christmas, is that the script's problem is a matter of tone: he recalls another character's comment that the chaotic situation in Eastern Europe was merely "tragedy rewritten as farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he'd written a thriller where he should have written farce" (534).

With this, Franzen indicates his awareness of the problem of tone that afflicts his own novel. In the final analysis, I think, the story we're reading is intended to be tragedy: it concerns a family with a father who is rapidly slipping into dementia; a mother afflicted by remorse, frustrated desire, and a sense of social inferiority; and three children who are all, in one way or another, a mess, not least the middle child Chip who has been thrown out of his job in a New England college precisely for his sexual shenanigans, but also the elder son Gary who is caught between nostalgia, pity, and contempt for his parents, and the younger sister, Denise, who fiercely guards her privacy only to discover it has long been compromised.

Franzen writes sensitively about the problem of aging--both the increasing helplessness of old age, and the dilemmas of middle age--and the ways in which family relations and roles are forced to shift as time goes on, against the resistance of entrenched habits and prejudices. His first-person-perspective portrayal of dementia is particularly good, catching the disorientation and the uncertain processing of affect into emotion as an old man tries to make sense of sensory stimuli that he can't immediately interpret. Here, for instance, is the erstwhile patriarch as he tries to eat lunch:
Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you'd be able to grasp it again a moment hence. [. . .] which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days among the unchanging historical roots of things" (66).
And yet much of the book, especially those sections devoted to Chip and to his mother, Enid, is rewritten as farce and is concerned less with the "historical roots of things" than with a rather superficial (if quite funny) mode of entertainment. Chip's misadventures at college, for example, come straight from the campus novel genre à la David Lodge, while almost any scene involving Enid soon becomes a comedy of manners for which the character plays simply the rather obvious role of hectoring mother and/or judgemental snob with not quite enough status to carry her snobbery off. Here she is, for example, on a cruise where even the most tragic of episodes are ultimately played for laughs:
She veered to a cushioned bench and slumped and did, now, burst into tears. God had given her the imagination to weep for the sad strivers who booked the most el-cheapo "B" Deck inside staterooms on a luxury cruise ship; but a childhood without money had left her unable to stomach, herself, the $300 per person it cost to jump one category up; and so she wept for herself. She felt she and Al were the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich. [. . .] But then, through her tears, she saw a sweet thing beneath the bench beside her. It was a ten-dollar bill. Folded once. Very sweet. (309-10)
To put this another way: some characters are given the possibility of self-awareness, and so allowed redemption (this is the case of Denise and even, surprisingly, Chip); others are denied self-awareness, and this is their tragedy (Alfred); but for others, Enid above all, the failure to understand themselves and their world is merely the occasion for humor.

There's nothing necessarily wrong in a book's slipping between tragedy and farce. And there are passages of both in The Corrections that are very good indeed: I liked Denise's story, for instance, whose elements of high bedroom farce (as she has an affair both with her boss and with her boss's wife) add to rather than detract from its meditations on the role of a younger sister and daughter who is devoted to her work but not so good at connecting with people.

The problem, rather, is that too often the shift between genres, between the two moods in which the book is written, appears almost arbitrary or a matter of indecision rather than discretion. Of course, in this sense the novel accords with the affective dilemma signalled by the phrase "I'm not sure whether to laugh or to cry." All messed-up families (and no doubt all families are messed up) can be viewed either with amusement or with despair, and when you are involved in them you often have to alternate between these responses in order the better to survive them. And yet here, too often we do know when we're supposed to be laughing and when to be crying: it is not so much that we can't resolve the difference between tragedy and farce, as that the way we are led between the two of them is a matter of re-writing, rather than re-reading.

Re-reading tragedy as farce (or vice versa) would be quite a different experience from the repeated exercises in rewriting (however virtuoso) that characterize Franzen's book. But the novel would have to do better to persuade us, for instance, that the fact that that midwestern town in which Alfred and Enid still live is called St Jude, for the patron saint of hopeless causes, is less of an easy joke than the naming of the "Deepmire" hospice in which Alfred ends up.

It is not that there has to be some hidden depth to the names, some solid substance attached to the signifiers, though this is a book that has much, at times, to say about the real, and the relationships between images or indices and things: "How could people respond to these images," wonders Enid at one point, "if images didn't secretly enjoy the same status as real things? Not that images were so powerful, but that the world was so weak" (303). But the mother here is too quickly identified with the image, just at the father is too quickly identified with the "roots of things," which is after all no more (and no less) than another image.

More generally, too often the names and the images (and even the things) that Franzen conjures up are too one-dimensional, allowing for only one reading or affect at a time, rather than forcing us, as in the best literature they do, to hover uncertainly between many, to realize their multiplicity.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I learn from "Thinking Blue Guitars" (and now also from obituaries such as The Guardian's) that the distinguished British literary critic Frank Kermode is dead.

Years ago, as a student at King's, I wrote a dissertation on "Cambridge English." My aim was to undertake a Bourdieusian analysis of the university's English Faculty, to see the disputes that had marked it in terms of the clash between different forms of capital and prestige.

It was a fun project, and along the way I tried to contact a number of people connected with significant episodes in the Faculty's history. I wrote, for instance, to L. C. Knights, one of the last surviving members of the Scrutiny group, and though he was too ill to travel or correspond at length, he did send me a couple of nice letters written on a mechanical typewriter, with his own somewhat shaky ink corrections.

And I phoned Frank Kermode, who was happy enough to talk to an (over-)eager young undergraduate such as myself, and invited me round to dinner. I drove up from London to Cambridge, to meet him at his house on a leafy lane somewhere out near Homerton.

I don't remember much about that evening, except that dinner was roast chicken followed by port with an apple accompaniment, and that Sir Frank (newly knighted) was extraordinarily generous with his time and his conversation. We talked about the impact of Theory on Cambridge, the so-called Structuralism affair with Colin MacCabe (though Kermode emphasized that MacCabe was never, in fact, fired or, as Wikipedia currently has it, denied tenure), about figures such as Raymond Williams and Christopher Ricks, and in general about the rather turbulent period from the 1970s to the (then) present of the early 1990s. For our chat was right around the time of the campaign, led largely by the more reactionary elements within the English Faculty, to deny Jacques Derrida an honorary doctorate.

What I remember most was a comment towards the end of this long discussion about the various feuds and fights that had occupied the sundry members of the English department almost from its origin. Ultimately, Kermode observed, all of this was of little consequence. Somewhat surprised, I asked what did matter, then? Oh, he replied, as far as the university was concerned the Humanities as a whole were almost irrelevant. We were like paddlers in the shallows. The immense sea of resources and attention belonged to the Sciences.

I don't think that this sense of marginalization concerned Kermode particularly. It was merely a reminder of how little was at stake in academic politics, and an attempt to dampen down my youthful impulse to see all this in terms of heroic narratives involving (pro-Theory) angels battling (anti-Theory) demons.

I also wonder now whether both his sense of perspective and his choice of aquatic metaphor were inspired by his experience in World War Two, when he served in the Navy in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and was on the Hood off Iceland, shortly before it was sunk by the Bismark. Such memories might also have made him regard the shallows as sometimes a rather better place to be than the deep sea.

Meanwhile, if anything characterizes Kermode's own criticism, it is surely its restraint and delicacy but also its astuteness, its almost deceptive modesty as Kermode tenaciously pursues some subtle textual point.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Ethan Canin's America America is, as its title suggests it sets out to be, a Great American Novel. It ambitiously portrays a vital part of the core of US society over several generations... indeed, to trace the process by which what was once vital becomes sclerotic and corrupt, and what was once core becomes marginal. Moreover, it shows us the dark underside of even the most refined elements of North American civilization--to demonstrate how it was always in some sense corrupt, and how violence underpins (both undermines and enables) the best of intentions. And yet Canin's aim is not so much to denounce as to explain, to portray the inevitable ambivalences that undo and sustain American liberalism. Finally, the novel is also, simply, great: it's a quite marvellous achievement, beautifully written, with an extraordinarily measured and thoughtful tone.

The story begins in 2006, with a funeral in small-town upstate New York. Senator Henry Bonwiller, a beacon of New England progressive politics, has died at the age of 89. An impressive crowd turns up to pay their respects, as the establishment mourns the loss of one of its own but also (as with any figure who has made their share of enemies as well as friends) to ensure that he is at last safely dead and buried. Among the crowd is Corey Sifter, middle-aged editor of the local paper, the Speaker-Sentinel, but here now for personal rather than professional reasons. Sifter's life has, we discover, long been bound up with that of the deceased senator. So although the newspaperman initially presents himself as something of an outsider to the social elite gathered by the graveside, it soon emerges that he, least of all, is hardly untainted by the slight whiff of scandal that still surrounds the Bonwiller name.

The novel then shifts to the early 1970s when Corey, as the sixteen-year-old son of a local plumber, is called in to help fix a broken sewer on the estate of a prominent landowner, Liam Metarey. Metarey is taken by the young boy's industriousness and desire to please, and so gradually hires him to do more and more jobs around the estate. Soon young Corey is also invited into the house itself, and not always to work. Gradually he becomes the older man's protegé, enjoying a remarkably intimate relationship with the entire Metarey family, though always with the recognition that a vast gulf of class difference divides him from them. Frequently, this combination of intimacy and distance, with all the awkwardness that attends it, plays out in Corey's relations with Metarey's young daughters, Christian and Clara. Clara, particularly, likes to tease the young interloper, both to remind him of his subordinate status but also to indicate her interest in whatever he's up to.

But Corey isn't really up to anything particularly nefarious. He is portrayed (though we should remember that this is all from his own perspective) as a hard worker who merely likes to be liked by these people who have had so much power and influence in his community. Indeed, Sifter presents himself as rather naive, and the point of narrating his story in extended flashback is so that the middle-aged man can judge the youth he once was, not so much for his drive and ambition but more for not asking enough questions about the circles he finds himself frequenting. Everything comes to a head as Metarey decides to back a rising political star for what will turn out to be a campaign for the presidency. And so we turn to Senator Bonwiller again.

Bonwiller, it turns out, is something of a Ted Kennedy figure: well-meaning, perhaps, and voice for the unions and the working class, but tragically flawed. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, Bonwiller's political hopes are derailed and, more to the point for the novel's purposes, Corey finds himself involved in the attempt to cover up the scandal. Again, it is not that the young man is calculating in his actions; more that his unwittingness is what makes him useful, and what allows him to be used. Fundamentally, the novel is telling us that neither ignorance (on Corey's part) not good intentions (in different ways, on the parts of both Bonwiller and Metarey) are sufficient alibis. Corey finds himself at the dark heart of a political morass that brings tangible human suffering. The fact that he only realizes this later (and perhaps never fully realizes it at all) is no proof of his innocence.

It's perhaps inevitable that a Great American Novel should be a tragedy that involves the loss of innocence, the failure of high-minded aspirations, and the slip of social masks. Here, the tragedy is threefold: it is Bonwiller's, it is Metarey's, and it is Corey Sifter's. In the end, however, the Bonwiller story is mere pretext or catalyst. The real interest lies in the relation between Metarey and Sifter, as the servant comes to stand in for the patriarch's missing son. For almost despite himself, Sifter comes to be an inheritor, both literally and figuratively. Metarey pays the the young man's education, for instance; and ultimately (a fact that isn't revealed until we are a long way into the narrative), Sifter also marries into the family. Sifter "makes it," and if he never achieves quite the same position as Metarey had, this is merely because that position can no longer be filled or is no longer relevant: the big estate is sold off, and developed for suburban housing and fancy apartments. As Corey's father says on surveying the scene, "That's the way progress is. It's always half criminal" (375). But of course, as Corey himself replies, it alway was half criminal: "that's a hell of a lot of land for one family" (376). Any inheritance is mixed: it's right that there should no longer be local oligarchs such as Liam Metarey; but the fact that they have disappeared doesn't mean that the mark they've made in the American way of life is gone. It's merely buried, a trauma lying in wait to be rediscovered by succeeding generations.

Ultimately, this is a book that's more about history than about politics in the strict sense of the word. Or rather, it is about politics as affect, as the bid to either harness or forget deep-rooted feeling, "a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reasoned" (394), and about history as it is constituted by affects and habits that are never fully available to consciousness. By this, Canin is referring both to the fickleness of the potential campaign donors who have to be wooed by lavish parties and also to the engrained habits and affections of ordinary people. Sifter spends the entire course of this tale trying to understand such processes of loyalty and betrayal: ultimately he himself is both the most loyal and the most traitorous of all. He feels, it's suggested, that it's only with a certain distance that he can sift (as his name suggests he should) through his legacy--America's legacy--to piece together the clues of the scandal of violence at its heart. But in distancing himself from his own roots, he also loses sight of the "ingenuity of the American working class man" (436). There is here no Copernican position from which any final judgement can be made, except for the realization that we are all guilty whether we know it or not.

Sifter recognizes that in the end there is no redemption for him. And not because he has been himself bad, but because he'd "been involved in something--not that [he] did something, but that [he] was involved in something--something unforgivably wrong" (332). The only hope is for a subsequent generation: both his own daughters and a young woman reporter with who he has a rather similar relationship of mentor and protegée that he once enjoyed with the thoughtful and generous Mr Metarey. And yet it is was precisely because of such thoughtfulness and generosity that Sifter had become embroiled in the unspeakable evil at the core of the narrative. And it was precisely in order to make amends, to leave a good legacy, that Metarey had embroiled him in it. In lieu of redemption, then, even for subsequent generations, we are left merely with a few reflections, deliberately limited, homely, and simple:
that love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation's salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us. That we never learn the truth. (455)
This is truly a brilliant novel, not least in the restraint that leads it only to these quiet conclusions, a restatement of "the old verities" that we will necessarily have to forget before we can re-learn them. It is, moreover, in the best sense a deeply humanistic novel: about the making and unmaking of humanity itself.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Stewart Home is something of a cult writer, and as such rather an acquired taste. Not that he wants to make it easy to acquire the requisite taste. Indeed, Jenny Turner suggests in her review of 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess for the London Review of Books that the reason this novel is so full of lurid and not particularly erotic hard-core sex scenes is that
It’s an insurance policy taken out against the possibility that a reader might somehow get past all the other blocks and barbs put in to repel her and find the text beautiful, or identify with the narrator, or otherwise recuperate the work in the conventional way.
I feel sure that this insurance policy works well enough, though it no doubt helps that most of the rest of the novel is a mishmash of unconvincing characterizations, half-baked book reviews, snippets of cultural theory, and inconsequential action that hardly adds up to a plot.

Still, there is something fascinating about the book, in perhaps the same way that bad pornography can itself be simultaneously a source of horror, wonder, and not a little humour. Moreover, 69 Things is a bracing challenge to what we may like (as well as dislike) about the dominant model of English novel-writing today.

On his own website, Home describes himself as "radically inauthentic" and characterizes his work "across a variety of media including performance, music, film, writing, installation, graphics etc." as follows:
I have attempted to continually reforge the passage between theory and practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the private and the social.
In this line, the intent of 69 Things is very clearly to breach the boundaries between (for instance) high and low culture, good and bad taste, and narrative and cultural criticism. In itself, of course, it fails in this attempt because it does, after all, fall too easily under the label of "cult" fiction, which is the category that is allotted precisely to such works that set out to undo the very practice of categorization. And yet despite this almost pre-emptive move by which the market of cultural taste marginalizes any threat to its overall mechanisms of classification and hierarchization, the very violence and obscenity of Home's writing is still perhaps enough to give at least pause for thought. This, presumably, is the basis for Turner's rather grandiose assertion that "I really don’t think anyone who is at all interested in the study of literature has any business not knowing the work of Stewart Home."

The novel's premise is that a little-known cult novelist called K. L. Callan (apparently, Home's own birth name) has written a book entitled (yes) 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, in which he outlines a grotesque conspiracy theory concerning Princess Diana's death and the subsequent fate of her body. According to Callan, "Diana had actually been strangled to death Thugee-style at Balmoral by an unknown assailant," the security services had than passed on her corpse to Callan himself, and he in turn "decided to take Diana around the Gordon District Stone Circle Trail as a means of luring tourists to the prehistoric delights of ancient Aberdeenshire." Rumour had it, what's more, that Callan's interest in Diana's corpse was more than simply touristic; many assumed "that he was the last man to give the people's princess a proper seeing to" (67). On the tracks of this bizarre story, then, a man called Alan (who had once been known as Callum) has decided "to repeat the heroic journey detailed in 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess" (67), testing its feasibility by hauling a ventriloquist's dummy by the name of Dudley, weighted down with bricks for true authenticity, to all the sixty-nine stone circles described in the original text. He also takes with him a woman, called Anna Noon, whom he has met by chance in an Aberdeen bar; it is she who tells most of the tale we are reading, and she also who is the primary object of Alan's (and sometimes, most disconcertingly of all, Dudley's) sexual attentions at each of the prehistoric sites they visit. Along the way, Alan tells her about books and she reads his library as he is slowly disposing of it, preparing for his death. For Alan has come to Aberdeen to die, and Anna's role is "to help him act out his death" (1).

So we have a gross send-up of the many conspiracy theories that circulate around contemporary celebrity, alongside the image of a prolonged death by narration or by reading as Alan passes on his literary prejudices: "Alan admired Kathy Acker but said he could never read through to the end of her books" (16), J. G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights "didn't have a lot to recommend it" (47), Robert McCrum is a "literary time-server" (78), W. G. Sebald a "voyeuristic professor" who purveyed "clichés and inanities" (96), while Julian Cope's "drug-addled brain appeared incapable of producing coherent thought" (98), and so on. Interspersed between these snatches of guerrilla literary criticism are the numerous sex scenes, whose tone can vary within the same paragraph from parodies of delicacy ("My love descended upon me like shadows at dusk enveloping a pretty country town" [114]) to hard-core cliché ("I felt his dear hands groping between the lips of my palpitating sex [. . .]. I murmured that Alan should fill up my cunt, how hot it was in its longing for his prick" [114]).

In the process, as both literary student and sexual object, Anna experiences something of "an exchange of subjectivities" (23). Or as she puts it later, "Alan was melting into me. [. . .] If I could not expel Alan, then I had to gather him up, not to imprison him but to integrate him into my being" (141). And that is Home's challenge, too: the other side of the avant-garde's inevitable recuperation by the cultural marketplace is that even the most shocking of texts have somehow to be integrated, if not imprisoned. Home is daring us to "gather him up."

I don't think that the means by which Home will be recuperated is through humour: for all its plentiful flashes of a rather dark and mordant wit, 69 Things is not particularly funny. So I'd disagree with Nicholas Lezard (to be fair, reviewing a different Home novel, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie), who comments that "what's lovely about Home is that he uses laughter to make you think". There's nothing very "lovely" (or, indeed, "homely") about Home; his aesthetic of shock means that the affect here is almost all intended to be negative.

Other means of gathering up the avant-garde are either critical praise or public indifference, and surely Home gets plenty of both. But the combination of distastefulness in 69 Things, combined with its forceful assertion of a decidedly eclectic taste (all those harsh judgements against mediocrity!), puts the onus on us, its readers, to reconsider our own likes and dislikes. "OK," Home seems to be saying, "so you don't like this. Fine. What do you like, and why? Be as aggressive about your tastes as I am about mine."

Finally, this is of course also a book about ruins, and about what can be done in and with ruins: take the corpse of a dead princess on an extended walking tour; converse eruditely about books and history; fuck and be fucked. The one point at which (I think) Anna Noon has a rather brighter idea than Alan is where she suggests that the two could (mis)treat other cultural sites just as they were scandalously acting out in and on the prehistoric remnants of north-east Scotland:
I suggested that we should visit all the supermarkets in Aberdeen and treat these excursions in much the same way as our trips to stone circles. Alan insisted that it would be difficult to have sex in those stores that lacked customer toilets. I told him that he was missing the point, which was poetic, he had to imagine himself living 3000 years from now and pretend he was visiting ruins. (103-4)
This is also the "poetic" force of Home's book as a whole: that we should view the hallowed (and the unhallowed) institutions of the contemporary cultural marketplace as though they were ruins, act out their demise, and feel free to do in them what we like.

YouTube Link: Stuart Home on 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess and the market.