Monday, December 05, 2011


As I arrived at work this morning, someone I didn't know shouted my name from across the street, and then came running over. He wanted to give me a bottle of Prosecco, for my talk last month on "From Access to Interactivity" at "Access 2011." Many thanks to the librarians. Fine people!

And then this afternoon, the folk from the Modern Language Association were in touch. I've won a prize! Well sort of: an honorable mention. For "an outstanding book published in English or Spanish in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures."

Here's what they say:
A study that moves elegantly and daringly from political theory to cultural analysis, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America puts Latin America on the map as a complex region in which hegemony, habit, and affect are constantly being contested and renegotiated in response to the vitality of the multitude. Jon Beasley-Murray does this through a series of engaging discussions of contemporary theorists who dialogue directly with Latin American test cases highlighting the relation between Peronist populism, hegemony theory, and the limits of civil society. With clarity, intellectual rigor, and conceptual sophistication, Beasley-Murray seeks to challenge the dominant critical paradigms of the cultural-studies-oriented humanities and social sciences.
I think I may be drinking that Prosecco tonight.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The Saturday photo, part XVII: in Hawaii, at Honolulu International Airport:

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I pass this poster every Monday, in the building where I teach a class on Human Rights. Seeing it always induces a kind of cognitive dissonance, as my class is explicitly not a defence of human rights, but a critique. I happen to think that that's the business of universities: critique, questioning, critical reflection.

Anyhow, the poster is an advert for UBC, featuring a solitary figure on a mountain top and with the slogan "Human Rights Defended... From here." I have little idea what it's supposed to mean, and there's not a word of explanation either on the poster itself or anywhere on the UBC website. The image certainly doesn't seem to have much to do either with the university or with human rights.

Any ideas?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Here's the keynote address I gave recently to "Access 2011: The Library is Open": "From Access to Interactivity".

You can also, if you are so minded, watch a video of me delivering the talk.

It's about Borges, libraries, library fines, open source, primitive accumulation, and difficulty, among other things. What follows is the opening paragraph or two:

Librarians have seldom been paid a handsome wage. At the Miguel Cané Library, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Almagro Sur, in the late 1930s the going rate was some 210 Argentine pesos a month. On the other hand, it could hardly be said that the work was particularly taxing. The library assistant tasked with cataloguing found that he could do his job in an hour or so each day, which left plenty of time for reading, thinking, and writing. Sometimes he got to thinking about the library itself, or about the place of the library in the world. He thought, for instance, that in some ways the library was a mirror of the world: after all, if you wanted to find out about some aspect of the world, you could come to the library and look it up. The library had books of Geography, History, Physics, Maths, Literature, Art: every conceivable topic. It might be an unprepossessing building in the suburbs of a city in an obscure Southern Hemisphere country, at the periphery of civilization, but a library had everything. You could spend your life there, without ever exhausting what it had to offer. If the library was big enough (and the assistant librarian imagined a library that had every book ever published, and perhaps even every book that could conceivably be published) you could even get lost in it. The library was a labyrinth, but also a rather miraculous thing, a double of the universe.

In September 1945, the library assistant published a short story about just such a miraculous double of the universe, hidden in an obscure corner of Buenos Aires that was nearly as unlikely as the Miguel Cané library itself. In this story, the narrator, a rather awkward and shy middle-aged man, discovers that an acquaintance of his, an aspiring but not very talented poet, has a secret. He still lives in the house where he grew up, which is located on a non-descript city-centre street. But the house harbors a surprise: on the staircase in a basement under the dining room is an object that is only some “two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained within it” (Borges, “The Aleph” 283). This is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281). This strange, mysterious thing takes the logic of the library to the limit: it is the absolutely universal contained within an extremely limited, compressed and particular space. The poet calls it an “Aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the number one in Hebrew, which in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is the number that contains all other numbers. As the narrator tells us of his encounter with the Aleph, in it he “saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid [. . .] saw horses with hand-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand” and so on and so forth (283). He is practically struck dumb by the experience: “I had a sense of infinite veneration, infinite pity” (284).

But if the Aleph is a fantastical version of the library, a library that takes up the smallest amount of physical space but encompasses the entirety of the universe, there is one significant difference between the two. The library is public, while the Aleph is private. The incompetent poet emphases, “his words fairly tumbl[ing] out,” that “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school” (280). It’s his prized possession, and he keeps it absolutely to himself, hiding it from everyone else. He only shows it to the narrator in desperation, as his landlords threaten to tear down the house and so destroy the basement, the staircase, and the secret they harbor. But the narrator, having seen this precious thing, is struck by a fit of jealousy and refuses to help the pathetic poet’s campaign to preserve his precious property. Cruelly, the twist in the tale comes when the narrator refuses to admit that he has seen unusual at all in the cellar, and suggests therefore that the poet must be suffering from some kind of delusion. He should “take advantage of the demolition of his house to remove himself from the pernicious influence of the metropolis [. . . ]. I clasped him by both shoulders as I took my leave and told him again that the country--peace and quiet, you know--was the very best medicine one could take” (284). The poet will pay the price for keeping his Aleph secret, a private hoard rather than a public good: by prohibiting access he has sacrificed even his own opportunity to enjoy this miraculous discovery. He will be laughed out of town as a madman if he so much as mentions the existence of this all-capacious universal library.

The universal and all that comes with it--the university, the library--is always in peril if it is treated as private possession rather than common treasury. It would be nice if we could conclude that, by contrast, it is in safe hands if it is the property of the state. But shortly after publishing the story of the Aleph, its author, the library assistant, was summarily fired and offered in compensation only the post of “the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets” (qtd. in Williamson, Borges 292). Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer (and incidentally also the country’s most famous librarian), was out of a job.


Monday, October 31, 2011


I wrote recently that Borges's fiction is often structured around scenes whose drama derives from the structural logic of the cinema. And some time ago, in a reading of a number of stories from Historia universal de la infamia and Ficciones I suggested that their guiding logic was often an accumulation of almost imperceptible (and seemingly random) deviations from the norm.

Putting these two observations together, I think we see how there are various possible relations between what we can call the logic of minimal deviation and the structure of the cinematic scene. Sometimes one leads to the other, sometimes the two complement each other, sometimes they are in tension, and so on. At times Borges seems to be asking how much deviation (or how many minimal deviations) are required to provoke a scene. At other times he wonders how many deviations any particular scene can handle. And there are still other cases in which he proposes that it is only by making a scene that the logic of gradual accumulation can be brought to a halt.

Take "La muerte y la brújula," for instance. Here the detective, Lönnrot, carefully and slowly follows the "periodic series of bloody deeds" (147; 147), each of which is but a slight variation on its predecessor, until he arrives at the climactic scene that gives (renewed) sense to the series itself. Or "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which begins with a paradigmatically cinematic scene: a dinner with Borges's friend Bioy Casares, a glance at a mirror that provokes a citation and then the fruitless search for its origin. This then opens up a concatenation of curious circumstances, each one of which could easily be overlooked: an additional encyclopedia article, a package from Brazil, a compass packed in a crate of table service, a dead man who owns an unusually heavy metal cone. Together, however, they constitute a new world.

Or, for another type of relationship between the scene and the imperceptible deviation, see "El milagro secreto" ("The Secret Miracle"). This is the story of Jaromir Hladík, a Czech scholar who is captured by the Nazis in Prague in early 1939. He is soon tried and sentenced to death by firing squad. In the interval between the sentence and its execution, Hladík reflects upon his life's work and the fact that it is soon to be cut short. He asks God for a year in which he could complete his masterwork, a verse drama entitled The Enemies. It hardly seems that this wish is to be granted when the characteristic scene of the firing squad is assembled: a bare yard, soldiers hanging around waiting for the appointed hour, the offer of a final cigarette, a cloud in the sky, a heavy drop of rain. But then all of a sudden "the physical universe stopped" (172; 161). And Hladík is indeed given his year, in the course of what for everyone else is but an instant, in which he can work out in his head the completion of his play. When finally he finishes his task, chooses the last epithet, "the drop of water rolled down his cheek. He began a maddened cry, he shook his head, and the fourfold volley felled him" (174; 162). Here, then, the scene contains the imperceptible deviation that in turn allows for the concatenation of revisions in which the book is completed before we then return back to the scene for its dramatic conclusion.

Either way, however, I think that what's at issue for Borges is the connection between habit or the routine, with its many repetitions none of which is quite like the last, and drama or the exceptional. How does the dramatic scene, with all its novelty, arise from routine repetition? Why is it that we are suddenly confronted with a decision or choice that only in retrospect we can understand has been a long time brewing in all the vagaries of chance? Or how, by contrast, does the scene itself become routinized or habitual? For after all, in Hladík's case, the firing squad scene was absolutely unexceptional from the point of view of those at the other end of the gun. Is then drama just habit viewed from some other perspective, whereby the otherwise imperceptible variation suddenly comes to take on unusual significance? And cannot even the most compelling of scenes, or the most vital of confrontations, be reframed such that the differences they invoke become strangely inconsequential?

So, for example, in both "Tema del traidor y del heróe" ("The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero") and "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" ("Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"), the most imperceptible of differences are suddenly given dramatic import. And we will see above all in two stories in El Aleph--"Los teólogos" ("The Theologians") and "Emma Zunz"--how distinctions that are quite literally matters of life and death can, with a sudden twist of perspective, suddenly come to matter not in the slightest.

But in Ficciones the emphasis is on how habit and its banal repetitions can, like the mirror against which Bioy Casares warns us in "Tlön," produce monsters.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


My aim was to write a post a week this semester about Borges, much as I did a few years ago for José María Arguedas. I'm behind, but hoping to catch up. Here is what I have written to date:


  • chance ("The Widow Ching--Pirate," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The South," and "The Library of Babel")


Saturday, October 29, 2011


Historia universal de la infamia manifests Borges's interest in performance: the ways in which the self is not a given, but is rather a role that we play. Sometimes we play no other role than the one we are given, which is why perhaps it seems so true to us, and why we easily confuse what is after all mere habit with some kind of abiding essence. At other times, however, characters find themselves faced with a decision: will they act this way or that. This is a dramatic choice between the different selves that they could potentially be. Perhaps infamy itself is precisely the result of some such decision, a deviation from an allotted role in favor of some other performance.

Almost all the stories in the collection revolve around some kind of imposture. Most obviously, "El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro" ("The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro"), which is based on the Tichborne Case, a nineteenth-century cause célèbre in which one Arthur Orton claimed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. Borges observes that Orton's performance gained credibility from the fact that he was in so many ways so different from the person he claimed to be: where Tichborne had been slim, dark-haired, reserved, and precise, Orton was fat, fair-haired, outspoken, and uncouth. Borges's point is that presumably an impostor would try to copy at least some elements of the original he was mimicking; the very fact that there was no such attempt at impersonation seemed to prove that Orton must be the real thing. The best disguise is no disguise at all; in the best performance there is no distance between the role being played and the person playing it.

"El impostor inverosímil" features an eminence grise in the shape of Orton's accomplice Ebenezer Bogle, who plays the part of Tichborne's manservant. When Bogle dies, Orton quite literally loses the plot and ends up "giving lectures in which he would alternately declare his innocence and confess his guilt" (40; Complete Fictions 18). Borges calls Orton Tichborne's "ghost," presumably in that he shows up after the latter's death, like some kind of strange revenant. But it is surely equally true that Orton himself is haunted by Tichborne. By the end he has spent so longer playing the role that it's as though he's know quite sure who he is, and he will let the public decide: "many nights he would begin by defending himself and wind up admitting all, depending on the inclinations of his audience" (40; 18).

In "El asesino desinterado Bill Harrigan" ("The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan"), there is no third party: neither the eminence grise nor the ghost that compelled Orton's transformation. Or rather, there is but it is impersonal, mechanistic: New York tenement boy Harrigan turns himself into the cowboy out West who will be Billy the Kid by acting out melodramatic models provided by the theater. In turn, he will become an iconic part of the myths of the Wild West propagated by Hollywood.

Borges suggests that the History he is telling us is a series of "discontinuous images" that he compares a movie. But it is even better described as a series of scenes in the cinematic sense: briefer than a theater scene but more dynamic than any single image, the filmic scene is a situation in a single space defined by mise-en-scène, a dramatic confrontation, and the position of camera angles or lines of sight. Indeed, the scene is very often the basic unit of Borges's fiction. (In this collection, think particularly of "Hombre de la Esquina Rosada" ["Man on Pink Corner"] or the ending of "El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv" ["Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv"].)

Here the key scene is the moment of transformation of Harrigan into Billy: a notorious Mexican gunfighter named Belisario Villagrán enters a crowded saloon that is outlined with cinematic precision and visuality ("their elbows on the bar, tired hard-muscled men drink a belligerent alcohol and flash stacks of silver coins marked with a serpent and an eagle" [64; 32]); everyone stops dead except for Harrigan, who fells him with a single shot and for no apparent reason. Again, the visual detail as the Mexican's body is slow to register the indignity: "The glass falls from Villagrán's hand; then the entire body follows" (65; 33). In that moment, Billy the Kid is born "and the shifty Bill Harrigan buried" (66; 33).

But even if it is Bill's "disinterested" (unreflective, habitual) killing that turns him into a legend, there is always a gap between that legend and his behavior. He may learn "to sit a horse straight" or "the vagabond art of cattle driving" and he may find himself attracted to "the guitars and brothels of Mexico" (66, 67; 33, 34), but a few tics from his East Coast days remain: "Something of the New York hoodlum lived on in the cowboy" (66; 33). The task of replacing one set of habits (or habitus) with another is never quite complete. But it is not as though Harrigan were the "real" thing and Billy the Kid a mere mask. Rather, it is that the new performance is informed by the old one. As always in Borges, there is never anything entirely new under the sun, even the scorching sun of the arid Western desert.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Edwin Williamson's Borges: A Life is the standard biography in English. But it is, sadly, not a good book.

Williamson is frankly obsessed with Borges's sexual history. The irony is that there really isn't that much to be obsessed about: Borges had a whole series of crushes on various women, but so far as one can tell they were very seldom consummated; he didn't marry until he was almost 68; and both Borges himself and the women with which he was in one way or another involved were almost all very discreet and have left little in the way of written record of their relationships.

Inevitably, then, Williamson is reduced to conjecture. There is much talk about what "must have" or "may have" been the case: "the truth may have been that he needed to feel close to the woman he loved" in order to write his longest fiction, The Congress (279); "he may have blamed Perón for coming between him and" a woman he asked to marry but who refused (332); the violence of his reaction upon hearing that another former crush was to marry someone else "must surely have been due to the symbolic significance of the occasion" (358); the woman who would become his second wife "must have been a soothing presence" from the time he first met her (370). And so on and so forth.

More seriously still, and in lieu of any other evidence, Williamson turns to Borges's writing and reads it often as though it were almost directly confessional and autobiographical. So, for instance, almost any number of the earlier fictions are read as barely-disguised accounts of a putative love triangle between Borges and fellow writers Norah Lange and Oliverio Girondo. So Williamson has much to say about the "autobiographical subtext" of the novel outlined in "El Acercamiento a Almotásim," which "can be discerned without difficulty" and features "a woman--Norah Lange--[who] seemed to represent a higher truth" (180). Likewise, in "Hombres de las orillas," the protagonist's "mysterious passivity suggests that Borges himself was at a loss to explain why Norah Lange had left him for his rival" (172). Moreover, most of Borge's contributions to the newspaper Crítica are "a cryptic record of his feelings and attitudes to Norah Lange" (195). Meanwhile in "The Aleph" Williamson once again zooms in on an "autobiographical subtext" which, apparently, "alludes to his thwarted love for Norah Lange" (202). And reading the books described in "Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain" we are told that "as with everything Borges wrote, there was an autobiographical subtext [. . .], a grieving heart beating in the depths of the narrative, as it were" (215).

Admittedly, the biographer's bias may well be to read the work in biographical terms. But the problem is that, here, such reductive interpretations edge out any other possible reading. Williamson has little if any concern for the aesthetic dimensions to Borges's poetry or prose. Indeed, he evinces scarcely any interest in literature at all. Everything has always to shed light on the life. And yet, especially in the case of Borges, it should surely be the writing that counts. For, however you look at it, the life is frankly not that interesting. This was a man of habit and routine: he lived with his mother until her death at the age of ninety-nine, and with their maid for another nine years thereafter; for decades he dined two or three times a week with his friends Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; though he travelled both when young and when old, for the middle 35 years of his life from 1924 to 1961 he never once left the River Plate. If his romantic life was, as it seems, characterized by a series of fantasies and self-delusions, then it is precisely the creative power of fantasy that is of interest, not the banal details of who didn't do what with whom.

Again and again, Williamson comes out with the notion that Borges was looking for a "new Beatrice" to enable a "Dantean vision" of literature as a "project of salvation through writing" (243). There may be many ways to read Borges, but this is surely among the least interesting, and least productive.

Or perhaps it is the second-least interesting and productive. For Williamson's other major idée fixe is even more ponderous. This is the theory that Borges's life and art were guided by the struggle between the "sword of honor" bequeathed him by his mother, with her anxiety about her criollo heritage and breeding, and what is either the "dagger of desire" (359) or the "dagger of rebellion" (463) inherited from his father, who was not particularly rebellious but who did once try to encourage his son's sexual initiation (via what seems to have been a rather traumatic encounter with a Geneva prostitute). Borges struggles between the choice either to live up to his somewhat invented patrician upbringing, an image carefully nurtured by the woman that Williamson simply calls "Mother," or to risk Mother's wrath with any number of possible personal or political betrayals of family and class. This is the "deep-seated conflict between sword and dagger" (144) that structures Williamson's biography.

In practice, the endless invocation of the "sword of honor" or the purported conflict between sword and dagger is a heavy-handed refrain, a blunt dichotomy that on the one hand steadily unravels (is it a dagger of desire or of rebellion, or is perhaps the opposing term to honor in fact "the solipsism fostered by his father's library" [435]) and, on the other, has to be endlessly restated precisely to ward of the threat of the unraveling. Frankly, by the end I was thoroughly sick both of "Borges's Dantean dream" (429) and of "the ancestor's sword of honor" (44), "the ancestral sword, associated with Mother" (145), "the oppressive authority of the ancestral sword of honor" (211), "the sword of honor his mother held dear" (286), "Mother's ancestral sword of honor" (318) and all the other slight repetitions of the same simplistic basic concept.

Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of Williamson's book is the way in which it takes one of the most sophisticated and subtle writers of the twentieth century, a man whose writing is always alive to complication, ambiguity, allusion, uncertainty, and undecidability, and writes a Life that not only shows precious little curiosity about that writing (or about literature in general), but also precious little understanding of it. This is a book that might was well have been written with a sword or a dagger. It's a hatchet job, not in the sense that Williamson denigrates his subject (au contraire, he is if anything far too forgiving, not least about Borges's anti-democratic impulses and his many political mis-steps of the 1970s and 1980s), but because it is as crude as anything written with a hatchet has to be. And that, in the end, is the worst denigration one can offer to a writer as careful, as precise, as subtle, and as sophisticated as Borges.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


The Wednesday quotation, part XVI: Stephan Collini from his excellent, if frightening, account of recent UK government policy on higher education:
The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you "want" – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from "the student experience") are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. ("From Robbins to McKinsey." London Review of Books 33.16 [25 August 2011])

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


If Borges continually returned to his first book of poetry, endlessly tinkering with it and republishing it in slightly different form so that it would truly prefigure "everything that he would do afterwards" (Obras completas 33), his approach to his first book of prose was quite different. He refused to allow Inquisiciones ("Inquisitions," 1925) to be reprinted, and indeed the story goes that he bought up old copies so that nobody else could get their hands on them. This book, and the two following collections of essays that Borges treated with equal disdain, circulated in grubby photocopies, passed between fans like underground Samizdat. It was only after the author's death that his widow permitted their official republication.

So Borges seemed to want to expunge these early essays from his literary career. And yet he named his most famous book of essays, published over a quarter of a century later, in 1952, Otras inquisiciones: "Other Inquisitions," a title that alludes to the existence of the earlier book, however much he had tried to repress its memory. As James Irby notes, the later collection's
curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. "Other" can mean "more of the same": more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But "other" is also "different," perhaps even "opposite." ("Introduction" to Other Inquisitions)
Why would Borges want to turn his back on these initial forays into prose? They are, perhaps, too florid and baroque for the mature author's taste. The language employed is formal, complex, and often almost archaic. But I don't think it's merely a matter of style--which could in any case be amended, as with the early poems. I suspect it's more a matter, as Rose Corral argues, of Borges wanting to distance himself from his early "criollismo," that nationalist strain within his work that sought "to recover and at the same time transform the great Argentine tradition of oral literature, that is, the gauchesque" ("Acerca del 'Primer Borges'" 158). In the 1930s and 1940s, Borges will transform himself into the great cosmopolitan intellectual, best-known for his "games with erudition, his mix of authentic and apocryphal citations, his astonishing mosaic of allusions, his universalism as an imaginative strategy, his literary fabrications" (158). Such a transformation required the suppression of his initial Inquisitions.

Yet Borges never completely abandons the criollista strain in his work (we will see the continued obsession with violence and primitivism in a story such as "El Sur," for instance), and equally it is not as though the other, cosmopolitan and erudite, Borges is missing from this early collection. Far from it. So if there are two Borges ("Borges and I"), it's not so much a matter of a split between "early" and "late," but more a tension that is present throughout his career. We can trace a constant play between on the one hand what we might call the "materialist" Borges whose avatar is the tight-lipped gaucho and, on the other, the rather more familiar "deconstructionist" Borges whose figure would be the labyrinth of linguistic signifiers in constant flux.

Of course, this divide is immediately complicated (and to some extent undone) by the fact that the gaucho is very much a literary creation, a mythic apparition, and that Borges is always fascinated by the possibility of giving solidly material form to his verbal jeux d'ésprit.

Meanwhile, another (and perhaps not unrelated) characteristically Borgesian tension becomes visible within Inquisiciones: the presence of a strikingly singular tone or "voice," which articulates a series of arguments that withdraw any claim to that voice.

To put this another way: it's quite remarkable how fearless Borges is in these literary "inquisitions." He covers a huge swathe of cultural territory, from the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo or the relatively obscure seventeenth-century English author Sir John Browne, to paragons of European modernism such as James Joyce, Miguel de Unamuno, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as Argentine and Uruguayan writers Hilario Ascasubi or Fernán Silva Valdés. In each case, the young Borges is unwavering in the self-confidence of his own critical judgments and achievements: "Quevedo is, above all, intensity" (48); "I am the first Hispanic adventurer to have reached Joyce's book" (22); "Silva Valdés [. . .] is the first young poet to bring together Hispanic culture as a whole" (69).

And yet if, in these somewhat swashbuckling (some might say pompous...) raids on the literary canon, Borges is happy to talk about "Hispanic culture as a whole" ("la conjunta hispanicidad"), elsewhere, and no less stylishly or unremittingly, he undercuts the notion that we can speak even of "the self as a whole" ("el yo del conjunto," 93). Borges categorizes, judges, dissects, and dispatches: he puts other writers in their place. But the "I" that makes these judgments is always somehow out of reach. It's no longer, it seems, even a matter of "Borges and I": Borges may remain, a literary figure associated with a series of definitive judgements; but the "I" fades away or, better, fails ever to coalesce in the first place.

The clearest instance of this tension is perhaps found in "La nadería de la personalidad" ("The Nothingness of Personality"). Here, like a refrain, Borges repeatedly claims that "There is no such coherent I" (93, 94, 96, 98, 103) and that "The I does not exist" (102). And yet these adamant declarations can only be made by an "I" that insists on the coherence of the case that it is making. The first three sentences, for instance, all begin with verbs in the first person singular: "I want [. . .]. I think [. . .] I want [. . .]" (92). The self is nothing, but this essay--and indeed the entire collection of essays--only finds coherence precisely in the presumption of an articulate self defined in terms of stylistic brillo and argumentative panache.

And does this second tension map onto the first? Is it not the essence of the Argentine criollo to perform his individuality with brillo and panache, even as he argues that such individuality is necessarily a fiction?

Monday, September 12, 2011


Rights are mainly a matter of declarations. They are, in short, the product of a speech act. Undeclared rights are not rights at all. Hence the history of human rights is also a history of their repeated enunciation and articulation, from the Magna Carta on. But a declaration also implies an audience, and a process of interpretation. Hence, alongside this history of speech acts is a parallel (parasitical?) history of interpretation and commentary. Often the modus operandi of that commentary is the laborious process by which an event is reconstituted and reimagined: What exactly did the framers mean?

And if a declaration is an event, an irruption onto the scene of political discourse (dated: 1789, 1948...), then usually interpretation is the province of an institution (a Supreme Court or similar), whose judgments may or may not come to be seen as events and so new declarations, that have in turn to be interpreted in subsequent institutional deliberations. Such is the temporality of rights discourse: the violent irruption of the event is followed by the (quite literally) stately progress of deliberation and interpretation.

But some events are less eventful than others. The "Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms" is, frankly, a bit of a damp squib. It comes late to the scene of rights declarations (which were piling up thick and fast by the middle of the twentieth century). Belatedness is not itself a curse: the more recent a declaration, the more likely it is to declare a new right, and thus to up the ante of the game of eventful articulation. The Canadian Charter, however, manages to be both almost entirely derivative and singularly Canadian at the same time.

The derivativeness is in the first instance linguistic. And I don't merely mean the phrases (e.g. "the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment") clearly lifted from other, similar documents. More to the point, and despite being described as a document that articulates the values around which the Canadian people can unify, the Charter's language is distinctly uninspiring.

It doesn't help that the document's very first clause is the famous "Limitations" clause that states that the rights that follow are "subject [. . .] to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." This may seem like an eminently sensible and pragmatic reminder that rights are mutually limiting: the right to free speech, for instance, is limited by the right to non-discrimination; hence bans on hate speech. But it sure takes the wind out of the Charter's rhetorical sails.

Imagine the crowds that surged on Parliament Hill, urged on by the slogan "Fight for your Rights! Subject only to Such Reasonable Limits Prescribed by Law as Can Be Demonstrably Justified..." Actually, you can almost imagine an Ottawa crowd moved by such a slogan. Hence the distinctively Canadian tone of the Charter: so very sensible and self-limiting. Quite unlike the US Bill of Rights, for instance. And the Canadians not only begin with a "Limitations" clause; they also end with a "Notwithstanding" clause, which basically means that the Parliament or a provincial legislature can suspend almost any of the Charter's provisions for (a renewable) five years.

In short, if every rights regime comes into being and operates between the twin pressures and temporalities of an insurgent event on the one hand, and that event's institutional interpretation and assimilation on the other, it's very clear to which of the two Canada's Charter leans: it's a tool of state management much more than it is the result of popular struggle. Its time is not that of revolution (still, by contrast, hard-wired into the US Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen) but of pacification.

And so no wonder that Harry Arthurs and Brent Arnold can conclude that the Charter is essentially useless:
Progress towards the vision of Canada inscribed in the Charter has generally been modest, halting, non-existent, and, in some cases, negative. What we claim is that the Charter does not much matter in the precise sense that it has not – for whatever reason – significantly altered the reality of life in Canada.

[. . .]

Canada’s political culture today is less vibrant, less democratic, than it was a generation ago.

[. . .]

The plight of Aboriginal peoples has not been much ameliorated, if at all. The project of multiculturalism, which is mentioned but not given prominence in the Charter, has seemingly gone off the boil. Immigrants – despite new guarantees of their legal and equality rights – seem to be having a tougher time integrating into society and the economy. ("Does the Charter Matter?" [Review of Constitutional Studies 11.1 (2005)]: 38, 111-112)
And why exactly has it had so little impact, or has what impact it has had been mostly negative? Essentially because it substitutes fictive abstract equality for real material differences. This, after all, is the fundamental move of all rights discourse, from the founding conceit of moving from natural to civil rights. Again, as Arthurs and Arnold put it:
If one were to establish a gradient that descends from the most affluent to the least affluent members of society, one would find at each point on that gradient not only lower living standards, but lower levels of educational attainment, health, personal safety and security, civic participation, political influence, and respect from police and other state officials. Moreover, as one descended the gradient, one would almost certainly encounter members of Charter-protected groups in ever-increasing numbers. [. . .] The best prospects for greater progress towards the equality values of the Charter would therefore be to redistribute wealth.

[. . .]

Of course, the Charter was not designed to transform Canada’s political economy. On the contrary, when it was adopted, its architects took considerable care neither to protect property nor to redistribute wealth. (113-114)
But is this not what all rights declarations do? It's not merely that the Canadian Charter happens to be one of the least interesting and least effective instances of such rights discourse. It also demonstrates to us something shared by all such discourse. For it always ultimately is a matter of replacing popular struggle with bureaucratic institutions.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Borges's first book was a collection of poems entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires, published in 1923.

One might expect the title to refer to the "fervor" or the hustle and bustle of a city undergoing rapid expansion in the early years of the twentieth century: thanks to mass immigration, Buenos Aires grew by 75% during this period (Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica 18). But Borges's city is strangely subdued and depopulated. Practically every other poem has a reference to "shadow" ("the bank of shadow" [39], "fear of the shadows" [57]) or to "ash" ("a little ash and a little glory" [44], "between the ashes and the fatherland"), not to mention death (the poems "Remorse for Any Death" [53], "Inscription on Any Tomb" [55]), boredom (52), and solitude (67) and so on.

If this is the modern (or even the modernist) city, more than anything else it reminds one of French photographer Eugène Atget's famous portraits of deserted Parisian streetscapes. And if Borges is an urban flâneur, he is one who avoids the city-center streets, "unpleasant because of all the crowds and fuss." He prefers rather to wander the suburbs and indeed the very edge of the city, where the deserted lanes are "full of promise for the man on his own" (37).

And yet Borges has told us that where there is one there are always also at least two. "I am alone and I am with myself" as he puts it here (65). Or even many: his is a "solitude populated like a dream" (69). One is already quite enough of a crowd, because every "one" (or everyone) is divided, split, multiple.

And so it is too with Fervor de Buenos Aires. This is a book that is many, written by more than one. For though it was Borges's first book, he also continually returned to it: as Kate Jenckes observes, there are at least four versions of the text (from 1923, 1943, 1969, and 1974), all of which are significantly different and none of which can be regarded as fully definitive (Reading Borges After Benjamin 7 and 141n6). The one I am reading is from the Obras completas (though again there are many iterations of Borges's "Complete Works," none of which are complete; mine is from 1992). This comes with a prologue dated August 1969 in which Borges admits to having edited some of the poems but claims that he
felt that the boy who wrote the book in 1923 was already essentially--what does "essentially" mean?--the gentleman who now either resigns himself to what it says or corrects it. We are the same; we are both skeptical of failure and success, of literary movements and their dogmas; we are both devotees of Schopenhauer, Stevenson, and Whitman. As far as I am concerned, Fervor de Buenos Aires prefigures everything that I would do afterwards. (33)
It's worth mentioning, though, that in the original Spanish that final phrase ("todo lo que haría después") could just as easily be translated "everything that he would do afterwards." Borges and I (and he): which is which? Which wrote this book, and which wrote what came after?

Equally, if we come to this, Borges's first book, to understand the origins of his writing career, which version should we be reading? Is what I have read (and quoted), revised in 1969, really the "origin"? Even the order of the collection varies according to the date of publication. Beatriz Sarlo makes much of the fact that the first poem to appear is "La Recoleta," about the Buenos Aires cemetery of that name (Una modernidad periférica 18). But as Jenckes points out, in other editions (including the one I am reading) this is actually the second poem printed, not the first (140n3). Quite literally, the point of origin is murky and unstable. We are starting our reading of Borges here (if we ignore for the time being the fact that we already started), but we can't be entirely sure as to where this "here" is. As soon as we reach out to it, it divides and multiplies.

Should this slipperiness be cause for concern? Borges is in some ways essentially slippery. Note above, for instance, that at the very moment that he justifies his editorial interventions by claiming that he and his younger self are "essentially" the same, he also has to question what is meant by "essentially." He states and undercuts his case at one and the same time. For after all, was the boy ever even "essentially" the same as himself at the time: "I am alone and I am with myself" (65).

For Borges, the true mystery is not this endless division and uncertainty. Time passes, things change, moment to moment everything is up in the air; neither language nor reason can hold things still within their prisons of representation or categorization. I is always another. It could not be otherwise. No, the real surprise is that despite all this mutability and malleability, some things somehow do seem to remain the same. It may be mere illusion or habit (though what could be less illusory than habit?), but we do think--or better, as Borges puts it, feel--that we incarnate some kind of singularity that is more or less the same today as it was yesterday or as it was (in Borges's case) 46 years previously. Hence then the
wonder in the face of the miracle
that despite the infinite play of chance
that despite the fact that we are but
drops in Heraclitus's river,
something still endures within us:
unmoved. (50)
This surely is the Spinozan conatus to which "Borges and yo" already made reference: the striving to endure within what is otherwise endless flux, bubbling fervor.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


What does it mean to "read Borges"? What are we even endeavoring to read?

"Borges" is a cipher: a proper name that stands in for a set of texts with which that name is associated. It's a figure or speech or language, a form of metonymy: part stands for whole. The author's name, printed on the front of each book, stands in for a series of texts from Fervor de Buenos Aires to Libro de arena. Perhaps we know that this proper name is at best a convenience: as Foucault would say, it's an "author function"; it's a fiction, or something that arises from fiction. It is "a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize or the exclusions that we practice" ("What is an Author?" 110). The author is, in short, the product of our reading; in reading Borges we also construct the fiction of Borges as author.

This process, by which we make the author's name stand in for the texts to which it is attached, is, however, a rather useful fiction, which forestalls cumbersome circumlocutions. The name simply helps us classify and identify this set of texts, and to differentiate them from others. Let's not ask too much of this operation, or hold it to impossible standards. We know that in any case each and every word we use is in some sense a cipher: an arbitrary sound or mark on a page that we customarily agree is associated with a particular concept. That association is undoubtedly tenuous, sustained more by tradition and habit than by logic. There's always something unstable or partial about any statement we try to make in any language. But for convenience's sake, and to save time, we say we "read Borges" rather than going into the specificities of our task at each and every mention. If we can never be fully exact, however precise we try to be, then let's simply accept some imprecision.

And yet the fact that we have chosen to read only texts that bear the name of Borges suggests rather more than a matter of mere convenience; it smacks of obsession. There is something obsessive and perhaps hallucinatory about trying to read Borges. We will inevitably imagine we glimpse traces of some other Borges that is not some mere textual effect: a Borges that is more than a proper name, a placeholder metonymically standing in for something else. The ritualized habit of saying "Borges" has its own effects. We will start to think we see a figure that is rather more substantial than a mere figure of speech.

As so often, Borges anticipates us. His short piece "Borges y yo" is about precisely the way in which a text--textuality--seems to connect a proper name with the traces of another ghostly (if allegedly more substantial) presence. Borges the public figure, the name, the signifier that enables literary categorization and literary classification, conjures up also this other figure who likewise likes "hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson's prose" (61; the translation I'm using is Norman Thomas di Giovanni's, found here). The two Borges overlap but never fully coincide. The one is unimaginable without the other. The schemes of the one justify the existence of the other: "I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature, and that literature is my justification" (61; translation modified).

The twist of course lies at the end the tale: it is just when we think we might have arrived at the figure who lies behind the plot, the Borges that is more than mere proper name, that we discover what could well be merely another literary artifice. For if we assume that the "I" of "Borges and I" is the writer himself, the story's last line makes us think again: "Which of us is writing this page I don't know" (62). This forces us to re-read the story: so strong is our impulse to imagine authorial presence, we have no doubt neglected the possibility that the "I" of the story is the convention, the literary placeholder of convenience. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Why would we have imagined that in this story--and this story alone--we should have direct access to some other Borges who lies behind that authorial function? Only because "Borges" directs us to think so, before then pulling the rug from under our feet. Yet it is equally likely (and perhaps more fully Borgesian) that the "Borges" on whom the "I" comments (and about whom he complains) is the writer himself. And why shouldn't the proper name try to rid himself (itself?) of the referent to which he or it is supposed to refer? The life of a signifier is "a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man" (62).

And in the end our job as readers, as readers of Borges, is to track down that literary artifice, rather than its presumed author. Not that we can easily tell the difference.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


A few more reviews of Posthegemony have now appeared. I will respond to some of the points they raise, but in the meantime, here are the responses the book has received to date:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Michael Barnholden's Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver is not a great book. But it's a useful corrective to the notion that this city is (or even should be) immune to social disturbances. This June's bit of social disorder may have been unusual, but it was far from unprecedented. Even the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot was far from the first of its kind--or the most significant.

We learn, for instance, that when it comes to sports riots it's the 1963 and 1966 Grey Cup (Canadian Football) riots that were Vancouver's largest, at least in terms of the number of participants and arrests. The 1963 melée started with a bit of over-zealous policing in the Castle Hotel beer parlour, and ended with 319 arrests, mostly for public drunkenness but also for unlawful assembly.

But it's not just sports games that provoke Vancouverites to manifest their discontent. They also riot over music (the Rolling Stones Riot of 1972; the Guns 'n' Roses Riot of 2002) and even good old-fashioned politics. Or rather, bad politics as much as good. Barnholden's survey begins with anti-Asian riots in 1907, when Chinatown and Japantown were both trashed. But they are followed swiftly by the Free Speech riots of 1909 and 1911, when the city authorities came down hard on agitation and organization promoted by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies).

An annotated list of other disturbances follows. There were then unemployment riots in the 1930s, anti-internment protests in the 1940s, counter-cultural riots in the 1970s, and anti-APEC riots in the 1990s. Barnholden doesn't restrict his survey to the streets: he points also to a long history of prison riots at the BC Penitentiary.

So this is a useful aide mémoire to a century's history of violent social protest (or protests that have been violently repressed) in Vancouver. Ultimately, however, the analysis of these incidents is both superficial and dogmatic.

It's dogmatic in that the book provides us with a fairly schematic class analysis that purports to explain each of these incidents equally: "What all these events have in common is that they are essentially episodes in a larger 'class war' between the 'governed' and the 'governors'" (18). And yet the very use of scare quotes around the key terms "class war," "governed," and "governors" already suggests that not even Barnholden really believes what he's saying. Though class undoubtedly plays an important part (not least in the panic that arises when property is destroyed), almost each and every one of these outbursts of violence is rather more complicated than a simple face-off between governed and governors.

And the book is superficial precisely because it doesn't want to get into complexities. Supposedly, we're told, its aim is to redescribe these incidents from the bottom up, "to reread and rewrite a people's history" (15). But this is a history that doesn't, for example, involve interviewing any actual people or doing much if anything in the way of archival research. Instead, we get a précis of contemporaneous press reports followed swiftly by the ritual declaration that of course it was all about class.

Beyond the clichéd denunciation of capital, there's hardly any attempt to embed this series of rather varied violent confrontations within a broader narrative of the city and its class politics, working class history, race relations, or the impact of mass culture (to take only a few obvious elements). By highlighting the brief, spectacular moments in which violence flares and glass is broken, Barnholden reminds us that there is a history to be told here. But he doesn't tell it.

Monday, August 22, 2011


June's riot here in Vancouver was gradually being forgotten (we realized that the sky hadn't in fact fallen down on our heads), but then the disturbances in England rather rudely brought it briefly back into consciousness.

The observation that other people riot too (and the sky doesn't fall down on their heads, either) should give the lie to some of the more ridiculous reactions to our own little affray. "World class" cities are just as likely, if not more so, to experience social disturbance of this sort. And I doubt anyone likes the English any the less (or any the more) than they did before the violence broke out. In the end, for better or worse--for better, I think--Vancouver's just not so very special. It's much like other cities its size in many ways. But with more mountains (and more rain).

It was strange to see elements that had marked Vancouver's riot reaction mirrored or repeated in London. It's true that in the British capital nobody was quite so stupid as to suggest that the rioters were somehow not the "real" Londoners. But there were some other tricks that they may have picked up from us.

For instance, there was an attempt make an exhibition of ostentatious community spirit by coming out with brooms and cleaning up the streets the morning after. But, as here, they found that the bulk of the work had already been done by municipal crews in the early hours. Local councils such as Croydon and Hackney politely said "Thanks but no thanks" though they took people's phone numbers just in case. Not that it's likely they ever got in touch later: public sector cuts already mean that there's nobody even to manage volunteers. Unable to show off their civic virtue by volunteering, then, as in Vancouver people had to make do with scrawling graffiti or sticking post-it notes on boarded-up windows to convey their messages of pride and social scapegoating.

The big difference between Vancouver and England emerged in the courts. In London and Manchester all-night sittings of magistrates meant that hundreds of people were processed within days (effectively, hours), and some extraordinary sentences were handed down while everyone's pulses were still racing: four years for a Facebook update, for instance, even though it was fairly obviously a joke (in however poor taste) that led to no violence at all.

Seeing the speed with which these grim punishments had been doled out rather woke us up over here as we were led to wonder if anyone had actually been charged over our own riot, some two months later. It seems in fact that two people have been charged, but none so far convicted. The police are still building their case,

The good citizens of Vancouver have reacted rather shame-facedly to this disparity between trigger-happy England and dilly-dallying Canada, asking why the wheels of justice couldn't turn a little faster over here. But I'd have thought we might be proud of the fact that we haven't resorted to the kneejerk response of what are effectively kangaroo courts under pressure from political rhetoric and general public hysteria.

In British Columbia, we still hang on to old liberal shibboleths such as the principle of the separation of powers. If we're going to be smug (and we are), let's be smug about that for a while.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Recently my friend Jerome Baconnier launched The Publishing Eye, a multimedia publishing operation that styles itself "visual culture for the conscious mind." But this is also a visceral art that is emphatically affective and immediately appeals to (or rather, assaults) the physical senses. It is equally, then, visual culture for the embodied mind.

Take the Publishing Eye's most ambitious undertaking to date, a hardback comic book by NeMo Balkanski called The FIB Chronicle. This is a beautiful object, with high production standards: glossy paper, robust binding, clean and crisp images. Perhaps then this is why the front cover has to be wrapped with police-style crime-scene tape warning that "this is not for children." "Beware," it seems to be saying: "Don't let a pretty cover fool you."

Indeed, on second glance the cover is not quite so pretty. What seems at first to be simply a generically noirish scene turns out to be the depiction of an interrogation with strong undercurrents of torture. A cartoonish pig is trussed up, its eyes black and blue and its face bloody, while all around, much more realistically drawn, are the shadowy figures of men in suits and uniforms. It's as though the cute little animal of some classic children's story has unexpectedly wandered into a darker and more violent world.

Or perhaps the cover is an indication that the conventions of the comic genre itself are to be mistreated and abused. Is the point that they will "squeal" and tell us what they know? Or are we just to glean some guilty enjoyment out of the exercise?

What follows, within the book's elegant covers, are a series of short strips (each usually no more than a couple of pages long) that raucously parody popular cultural genres such as the police procedural, the private eye, the war story, or the fairy tale. The loose frame is the notion that these are secret files from the clandestine "Fabulous Investigations Bureau." But the common theme is a scabrous anti-humour that effects a kind of scorched-earth assault on the very enterprise of drawing comics.

The very first story, for instance, features a "Detective Harddick" who while taking a shit in a back alley accidentally interrupts a man attacking a scantily-clad young woman. Somewhat to the detective's surprise, the would-be killer runs of and his victim is saved. "Oh, How can I ever repay you?" she asks the cop in the final frame. "Well, how about a blow job?" he replies as they walk off arm in arm.

The drawing here is in the manner of Robert Crumb--an artist who is not exactly kid's fare, but who is never quite so abrupt or so scathing. Instead of Crumb's stoner antics or (increasingly) world-weary reflections on everyday life, Balkanski gives us psychopathic violence and institutional incompetence, sleaze, and corruption, leavened only by the toilet humor of public defecation. Nice, it isn't.

One of the book's very last strips also deals with the topic of an unexpected salvation with a bitter aftertaste. Here, the drawing style is closer to the tradition of surreal or stylized European animation. Jan Švankmajer, say. The setting is an un-named and undated wa: it could be World War II, it could be the more recent Balkan conflicts; an epaulette suggests the Croatian flag. An executioner and his sidekick are about to cut a man's throat. But the trace of a "small ray of innocence" induces madness and allows the would-be victim to go free. Striding off, the reprieved man shouts out "Eat Shit and Die." The end.

I can't say that this is exactly my cup of tea, but that's not really the point. It's not supposed to be anybody's cup of tea. Some, however, will take to it more easily than others. At times the stories seem to blur the line between a critical parody and indulgent fantasy. Or rather, this isn't a critique: it's an attempt to provoke revulsion; the danger is that the reader may be tempted to identify with (or rather, not to disidentify from) some of the many sad passions that the book lays bare. A parody of (say) misogyny or homophobia can be uncomfortably close to the real thing.

Still, this is an undoubtedly brave first "Publishing Eye" venture. It probes the limits of the comic-book form, and if it makes its readers squeal then I think that Jerome will be happy enough.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


The Saturday photo, part XVI: a flower arrangement, taken by Gavin Larner:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Almost a week ago, shortly after Vancouver's hockey riot, a number of presumably young people, in many cases very likely still drunk or high on adrenalin, stumbled to their computer keyboards and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to boast, no doubt also to exaggerate (and in some cases to invent) their contributions to the evening's antics, they celebrated the disturbance and their part in it. With dodgy syntax and an even shakier grasp of spelling, they gloried in the violence.

If you live in Vancouver, there is every chance that you know their names and what they said. Their updates have been plastered on the numerous "name and shame" social media vigilante sites. One of them has even had his status update set to music, in a song that denounces him as a "fucking moron." They have been forced to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, and even go into hiding as a tide of righteous vengeance sweeps the Lower Mainland.

At around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, a rather larger number of presumably somewhat older people, who in many cases had enjoyed a beer or glass of wine or two in front of the TV and high on adrenalin, also went to their computers or grabbed their laptops and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to broadcast their views on the scenes of disorder, looting, and overturned cars in downtown Vancouver, they cheered on the police's part in the disturbances. Often invoking the hockey chants that had resonated throughout our team's playoff run ("Go Canucks Go!!!") they called for still more violence, if need be unaccountable to any authority, to be rained down on the troublemakers.

(Fortunately, the Vancouver Police Department didn't hear or listen to these calls, and beyond the use of tear gas and pepper spray generally refrained from physical violence against the crowd.)

Whether you live in Vancouver or not, there is little chance that you remember this second group of people's names and what they said. Their updates received their share of "likes" at the time, but are quickly fading into history. Nobody calls these upstanding citizens morons. None of them has had to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, let alone go into hiding. It seems that there's no problem glorying in violence so long as you pick the right team, and join the tide of righteous vengeance rather than going against the flow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


This week a small group of people have profoundly embarrassed some of us here in Vancouver. They have behaved unthinkingly, in a sort of mob mentality, with their small-town ways and their hysteria fanned by the local media. They cheer on violence and gurn for the cameras. And before that, there was a riot.

Let us be clear: the riot was a pretty pointless affray, a needless and eminently avoidable commotion that deserves no celebration.

The riot was not started by anarchists--though it's impressive that anarchism is still, apparently, in the twenty-first century the political scapegoat of choice, and that this should be the first stereotype to which the city mayor turned. It was not political, except in the most indirect of ways. As my colleague Gastón Gordillo puts it, "the nihilism that fueled the riots is that of a popular culture that places victory in sports above anything else, in an expensive and corporatized city that does not offer its youth other sources of collective passions and identifications." Larry Gambone argues that the riot was the expression of anomie on the part of the Canadian banlieus, disaffected young people who "have no future and somehow know that. Future means working in Walmart. Future means never being able to afford a dwelling in the Vancouver area even if they scored a half-way decent job." But this seems to be contradicted by the news that (for instance) one of the most high profile pictures, of a young kid trying to set light to a police car's gas tank, is in fact of a star athlete, son of a surgeon, headed to university on a scholarship.

No, the rioters were simply Vancouverites. As far as I could see, they were a fairly representative cross-section of people, men and women, of all races, all social classes, and a range of ages. They were psyched up by the occasion, much hyped by the media, and some of them had been drinking for hours. Most importantly, at least by the time that the trouble spread to the Bay department store (focal point of the riot and now of the subsequent memorialization), the police had abandoned the streets and gone into full riot mode at blockades set up on the periphery. In the space carved out by this upping of the ante, things accelerated as people found that they could do what they wanted without any immediate repercussions. They were soon acting out fantasies engrained in popular culture and modeled by millionaire sportsmen on the ice. For some, it must have felt like a carnivalesque moment in which anything was possible: an intoxicating notion, especially for the intoxicated. The media, city council, and police had together constructed a temporary state of exception--that, indeed, is what "reading the riot act" is all about. Criminalized in advance, with the cops lobbing tear gas at them from some blocks away, plenty of young people (though still by far the minority of the crowd) took advantage of the situation to break windows, set fires, turn over a few cars, and loot a couple of downtown Vancouver's larger chain stores.

The main troublemakers--or the people who most egregiously filled the vacuum left by the forces of law and order--will no doubt be charged and prosecuted, and rightly so. I have no interest in defending the rioters. But it's worth looking at what they did, before all traces of the violence are swiftly swept away. It's significant that almost all the crime was against property, rather than against people (apparently the majority of the personal injuries were caused by the police tear gas and pepper spray). Also that the damage was remarkably localized and selective: the Bay was a magnet for looting probably not only because it is an establishment icon (the former Hudson's Bay Company once had quasi-state powers under the British Empire, much as the East India Company did in the Orient), but also more banally because its ground floor show-rooms have easily-portable items of high value: perfumes, bags. This wasn't a riot in which people were carting off consumer electronics or food. It wasn’t a riot of professionals or of the poor. Again: it was an opportunistic riot of ordinary Vancouverites.

But, with the exception of a few dissenting voices (here's one; here's another; and one more), almost all the post-riot response has aimed at denying this perhaps unsettling fact. And so the embarrassment begins.

The dominant post-riot response in the media and on the Internet has been that of a self-righteous lynch mob. And they have the cheek to call themselves the "real" Vancouver.

This "real" Vancouver cheers on violence. There have been those who have used the event as an excuse to call for state repression: "How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?" I have heard plenty arguing that the riot shows that Canadian society has become too liberal, too tolerant. This is no doubt music to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ears. The headline on the front page of the Vancouver Province was "Let's Make Them Pay," encouraging the online vigilantes who have set up Facebook groups and and websites to post images of alleged rioters in a sort of dystopian social media society of surveillance. Big Brother meets the Wild West meets Mark Zuckerberg. Nobody talks of civil liberties or little principles such as the presumption of innocence. And this is from people who claim to uphold the rule of law. Their unthinking hypocrisy is breath-taking.

For hypocrisy is the order of the day among the up-standing citizens who are so keen to express their dismay, moral outrage, and embarrassment at the so-called thugs, idiots, morons, hooligans (choose your own pejorative) who supposedly conjured up the violence out of their back-pockets with a couple of cigarette lighters and (it's rumoured) balaclavas.

This "real" Vancouver carves the city up into an "us" versus a "them." The double standards are everywhere evident on the boarded-up windows of the Bay that have become an impromptu shrine to civic pride and social scapegoating. The same photos that circulate online are plastered up with the slogans "We Are All Canucks... Except this Prick." Or "We Are All Canucks... Except this Jerk." Graffiti claiming "We Love Vancouver" and "We are One Family" is unironically scrawled next to declarations that the rioters should "Get Out of Town and Stay There." The city is to be made whole again by banishing its undesirables and denying that they ever had anything to do with an "us" that is pure and virtuous thanks only to this kneejerk demonization.

This "real" Vancouver pits downtown against the suburbs, "real" fans against supposed anarchists, heroes against hooligans, and actively undoes the social solidarity previously promoted through the ubiquitous propaganda that "We Are All Canucks." Frankly, though I've been following the team, I've never felt much like a Canuck; I'm not paid anything like their stratospheric salaries, for a start. The slogan was always an artificial imposition (already, Graham Lyons persuasively argues, a "mob mentality") that tried to deny any social differences, all the better to sell us a uniform of over-priced jerseys. But those differences have been re-asserted, quite literally with a vengeance. We now have Canucks and anti-Canucks, Vancouverites and anti-Vancouverites, angels and devils in a devastatingly simplistic (and violent) division between good and bad. And the "good," the "real" Vancouverites who set to work to clean up the post-riot debris pose for the cameras in a mirror image of those gurning in front of burning cars they so quickly replaced.

There's nothing particularly wrong with civic volunteerism, of course. Let's just hope that this is not simply a spectacular frenzy that is repeated only every seventeen years. Let's just hope that these same people move on to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside, the neighbourhood that is Canada's poorest postcode, located just a few blocks from the site of this week's disturbances. Sadly, I doubt it. Street-cleaning, moreover, is normally the preserve of municipal crews--who were indeed already on the streets and already in action before the night of rioting was even out, long before any of the much-ballyhooed good citizens showed up. Those people deserve our gratitude, too, as much if not more than these once-a-decade volunteers; more so if anything, as they have to clear the debris after every drunken Saturday night in the Granville Entertainment district. But nobody seems to mention them. Again, it is no doubt music to Harper's ears, as he strips our public services, to hear the fantasy that trumpets volunteerism instead of properly funded social programs as the cure to civic ills.

This "real" Vancouver depends upon fantasy: the fantasy that cheering for a professional sports team is some kind of noble cause rather than, as my colleague Alec Dawson sadly notes, complicity in "an endeavor devoted to turning public goods into private wealth." But above all the notion of a "real" Vancouver builds on the fantasy that violent exclusion will somehow make this a "world-class" city. One of the most ridiculous, if sadly not atypical, articles published this week was written by Matthew Good (I kid you not, that's his name) for the Guardian: his shame, he tells us, is provoked by the question of "what [. . .] the national media is going to be saying? Or, for that matter, foreign media?" But as the article's commenters repeatedly point out, there's no better instance of provincialism than this small-town worry about image, this all-too Canadian concern that people should like us. "World-class" cities prove their status mostly by not worrying about whether or not they are perceived to be world class. And for good or ill, it would be hard to name a major world city (Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City) that does not have its history of riots and social disturbances. Real cities, unlike this fantasy of a "real" Vancouver, have social tensions, divisions, disagreements, off-days and on-days, that sometimes erupt in violence, sometimes not. It's the dream of purity, of niceness untroubled by difficulty and difference, that reveals continued provincialism. We saw this already with the Olympics, and the effort to present an image of the city that erased its homelessness and drug problems in favor of the literally incredible myth of "Super Natural British Columbia."

All this should be obvious enough. A moment's reflection would reveal that the riots tell us something about the city, a city that is rather more real than the so-called "real" Vancouver. The post-riot discourse also tells us something, of course. As UBC student Miriam Sabzevari eloquently observes, it tells us that there is a significant minority who "have a need to feel morally superior to others—and when an opportunity comes to bask in our superiority, we actually become quite relentless in it."

These are people who really should know better. They are the ones who embarrass me.

Revised and republished at the Tyee.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011


Last night in Vancouver a small group of young men, watched and urged on by a large crowd, indulged in a frenzy of violence. And then afterwards there was a riot.

Hockey has a very ambivalent--and increasingly anguished--relationship to violence. This is a sport in which fights are permitted if not condoned, and which is only now debating whether or not to outlaw "hits" (that is, shoulder charges at speed) to the head of opposing players. This is a sport in which roughing up the opposition is an integral part of the play and major injuries are common: the league's best player has been out for most of the year with a concussion. In the season's penultimate game, one of the Vancouver Canucks had his back broken when he was rammed into the boards that line the ice long after the play had moved on; the player who hit him didn't even get a penalty. Every such incident provokes prolonged discussion of the finer points of the game's ever more complex rules governing which types of violence are acceptable (and when), and which are not. There is no real thought, however, of eliminating the violence altogether, as it is acknowledged that it is a large part of the game's popular appeal.

This Stanley Cup finals series between Vancouver and Boston was particularly nasty, with a lot of bad blood between the two sets of players. Boston were the more physical team, and tried to impose their style of play on Vancouver, who were drawn into replying in kind. There were big, violent hits on both sides, as well as endless hacks, slashes, and punches. Much of this went unpunished thanks to some rather inconsistent refereeing.

And then there was a riot. But by contrast with the discussion prompted by the on-ice fighting, the commentary on the post-game violence has been singularly un-nuanced. The people downtown have been uniformly condemned as "idiots." One Facebook status update I saw urged on the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: "Go VPD Go!!! Go RCMP Go!!!" Another was scarier still in its unabashed call for an authoritarian crackdown: "How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?" Who are the thugs here? Who are the ones calling for more force, more violence?

The post-game violence was just about as predictable as the violence during the game itself. The last time the Vancouver Canucks had been in this situation--in 1994, when they had likewise lost a Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals--also led to destruction and looting. This West Coast city is pretty laid back about most things, but when it comes to hockey apparently we like to riot. There had been much talk in the media and elsewhere about the possibility of a repetition of the events of 1994. Indeed, the riot had been talked up almost as much as the game itself. In the interval, however, the success of the Winter Olympics last year seemed to suggest that Vancouver could now deal with large and exuberant crowds in the downtown core. In the event, however, none of the lessons of the Olympics were learned. In fact, overshadowed by folk memories of 1994, it almost seemed as though the police wanted a riot; as far as I could see, at least, they were doing their best to provoke one.

I watched the game with some friends in an inner city suburb, the West End. As it happens, they live very close to what had been the epicenter of the 1994 disturbances. But as I went out, half an hour or so after the hockey had finished, there was no sign of any trouble. Some people were milling around, but the streets were pretty empty. No doubt many had gone home early, both disappointed in the score and worried about the much-hyped prospect of violence. Though there had reportedly been up to 100,000 people downtown to watch the game, very soon afterwards there were far fewer people out and about. The crowd was certainly nothing like the size it was after the Olympic gold medal hockey game last year, when at times it was impossible to move down some of the city's main thoroughfares because of the sheer numbers of bodies blocking the way.

I made my way further downtown: things were quiet and calm everywhere until a block or so away from what might be the heart of the city, the intersection of Georgia and Granville, where a fairly raucous crowd was gathered outside the Vancouver outlet of that Canadian icon, the Hudson Bay department store. Even here, however, the streets were never too busy to traverse. I could easily have kept on walking; at no point were pedestrians at risk. Around me were a wide and representative selection of the city's inhabitants: young couples; women dressed to the nines with high heels accessorizing their fitted Canucks jerseys; businessmen in suits; old as well as young; many South and East Asians, reflecting Vancouver's racial mix. Apart from the very old and the very young, it was a pretty representative cross-section of the community. Perhaps surprisingly, there was not much obvious public drunkenness. There was a sense of expectation and some anxiety, a recognition that circumstances might change, but in general people were relaxed: at a loose end, hanging around, waiting to see what might happen. An occasional cheer would go up, and there was some commotion right next to the plate-glass windows of the Bay, but in general at this stage it was quite safe to be out and about.

There were no police to be seen. This was quite different from the Olympics, when the police had been everywhere, interacting with the fans. My understanding had been that here, too, the strategy was to be "part of the crowd." But, if it had ever been implemented, by this point that strategy had clearly been abandoned.

The first indication I got of a police presence was when people started running past where I was standing on the corner of Georgia and Granville, coming from the direction of the stadium, and I caught the whiff of tear gas. The panic soon stopped and the crowd stabilized again, but it seemed that if they were doing anything the police were merely provoking these blind flurries from somewhere on the Eastern perimeter. Meanwhile, across the street at the Bay, there were periodic attempts to smash the window. But this was a slow, episodic process--it appeared that there were security guards within the building who managed mostly to keep would-be looters at a distance. At almost any point, this crowd could probably have been dispersed. The number of people actively looking for trouble was very small indeed; the rest were merely at a loose end, uncertain which direction to go.

After another rush, another distant volley of tear gas, and so another panic, it looked as though someone wanted us to move. I wandered a few blocks south, up Granville Street, where I finally caught my first sight of the police: a small group of officers standing at the intersection of Granville and Smithe, who seemed at as much of a loss as to what to do as the crowd. Further up Granville, however, were more clouds of tear gas, prompting people to move back towards Georgia. We were now being gassed from two sides. If there was any particular direction that the police wanted us to move, it wasn't too obvious--and the small group I saw made no effort to tell us what to do. There seemed to be little if any coordination.

Meanwhile, someone set fire to a rubbish bin on Granville. As there was nobody to stop it or put it out, the fire burned merrily away. People took pictures. In fact, just about everyone had a camera out most of the time; later, I even saw someone holding up an iPad to get a record of events in front of a police line. I drifted back down the street. Shortly, another bin was alight, in front of London Drugs. Across the way, after an agonizingly long time, people at the front of the crowd by the Bay had finally managed to get in to the store and were raiding the perfumery department. A detachment of cops, I suddenly noticed, were hunkered down in the SkyTrain station opposite, making no moves to come out and deal with the disturbances. They had apparently decided to give up these few blocks of the downtown core, and let the store's private security guards take the brunt of any violence. Meanwhile, the tear gassing was surely provoking more bad feeling, and whenever the police helicopter, hovering up above, shone its searchlight in our direction people turned around and gave it the finger. In short, rather than preventing the trouble it felt rather that the police were provoking it.

It was now dark and I thought I'd start making my way home. It was unclear how to do this, though: there was no traffic and so no buses or taxis. I thought I'd walk East, try my luck with the SkyTrain if it was running, and if not I'd try to pick up a taxi in the nearby suburbs of Gastown or Yaletown. Heading down Georgia, though, I ran into a rather more significant police presence: the riot cops were now on the scene, some on horseback, standing in front of (but as far as I could see, otherwise doing nothing about) a rather larger street fire round the corner, on Richards. They charged the crowd a couple of times, pushing us up the street where another cordon of riot police prevented us turning East on Robson. Near the next intersection, there was another fire in an alley. A man ran to it with a fire extinguisher, trying to tackle the blaze. Nobody helped him out.

Meanwhile, the police had drawn back along Richards Street, making their previous charge seem rather pointless. Indeed, their various barricades obeyed no obvious logic, not least because it was easy enough to avoid them by slipping down an alley. The provided a fairly intimidating image, yes, not least because many of the cops had their weapons out. But they surely weren't making much of an impact on crowd management. One cordon put down their shields and started putting on their gas masks. I decided I'd seen what I wanted to see and had had enough of being tear gassed, so continued with my plan to head towards the Georgia Viaduct. Along the way I asked one of the policemen if the SkyTrain was still operating. He had no idea.

Walking along Georgia, towards the stadium, I came across more smashed windows (a Budget rental car office; a BMO bank) and two burned-out cars. I think these were the two vehicles that were making most of the TV news. I had earlier passed a bar in which people were happily drinking and watching on big-screen TVs the footage of what was supposedly going on outside. Again, however, it was completely safe on the streets: the only points at which I'd felt at all uncomfortable had been when we'd been tear gassed and/or charged by mounted and shield-waving riot cops. I passed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and headed down Dunsmuir towards the SkyTrain station, which was indeed open, but my way was blocked by yet another cordon of riot police. They said I had to do around: so I went half a block, up an alley, and back again. It's as though the cops were actively making it difficult to leave downtown, for no obvious reason.

In contrast to their absence on the streets, the police were present in force at the SkyTrain stations, picking off people for questioning if they felt they looked suspicious. Again, this seems to have been their plan: to occupy the periphery and let a rather small section of downtown Vancouver riot, while they lobbed in the odd tear gas canister and observed from the sides and on high. It seems obvious to me that this made things much worse, rather than better: it did nothing to stop the violence, and criminalized the whole crowd, succeeding only in irritating the vast majority of people, who were mere bystanders hanging out because there was little else to do. Frankly, I'm surprised that the disturbances weren't worse; most of the crowd behaved remarkably well, considering that from almost the outset the forces of law and order had decided to treat them as though they were really, as the media alleged, some kind of mob.

Of course, it's easier to portray the people on the streets as a mob, and blindly to cheer on the police, than to think about the violence with any kind of nuance or self-reflection. This demonization of the post-game violence is no doubt a safe outlet for the pent-up energy of so many disappointed Canucks fans: they have a target for their frustration, and they can feel so very civilized in expressing their anger. It's easier to grab this moral high ground, to claim that the so-called rioters do not represent Vancouver, than to stop and consider the ways in which violence is engrained in this sport on whose bandwagon they are hitched, or the conditions that gave rise to the post-game disturbances--and the many ways in which it could have been avoided. But let's give these concerned citizens some slack. They need their moment of mindless outrage, too.

Republished at the Tyee.