Thursday, November 23, 2006


Via Left Turns? (and also my colleague Max Cameron), an interesting article on "democracy promotion," and specifically Canada's role supporting and providing an alibi for US "overt operations" in Latin America: "Canada's Contribution to 'Democracy Promotion'".

democracy cartoonWith a particular focus on FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Anthony Fenton describes Canada's role as a National Endowment for Democracy "proxy" in "this new genre of political intervention into the affairs of the nations of the Global South."

The article is of special interest to me in part because (along with Max) the other day I met up with Carlo Dade, a former World Bank employee who is described here as "a FOCAL senior advisor" and "the main point person for FOCAL’s 'Canada and the Rebuilding of Haiti' program." Dade is quoted quite unabashedly arguing for Canada's proxy role in support of US policy objectives in Latin America:
The U.S. would welcome Canadian involvement and Canada’s taking the lead in Haiti. The administration in Washington has its hands more than full with Afghanistan, Iraq. . . This is a chance for Canada to step up and provide that sort of focused attention and leadership, and the administration would welcome this.
Dade was a nice enough guy to have a beer with, but it was indeed quickly apparent that his version of "democracy" was unashamedly tied to free markets and private sector interests.

Canada's role in these overt operations, to push a particular formula of social governance on Latin America, is legitimized by the linguistic slip that ties the country's self-image of itself as a "civil society" (in the sense of peaceable and polite) to the concept of civil society, or Hegel's "bürgerliche Gesellschaft" (bourgeois society), as a bulwark against authoritarian states and radical social movements alike.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Titarenko, Untitled (Boy)"I'll keep in touch," they say, you say. But as with all metaphors, it's a porous and ineffable boundary that separates what's in and what's out of touch. Perhaps it creeps up on you after a while, perhaps you catch note of it while it's happening, seemingly unstoppable like a glacier slowly falling towards the sea: you've lost touch, you're losing touch, you may even be losing your touch.

I'll phone tomorrow; I'll send that email tonight; you promise yourself. But the first deferral makes the second easier, and so progressively until you no longer remember what you might have said, what you might have written.

In part it may be because now there are so many more ways to keep in touch: letter, phone, email, instant message.

You can look up addresses and phone numbers with lightning speed: the other day I was naively shocked by how easy it was to locate people at, and even more by how much more information (and for only $39.95) US Search could offer me.

Plugging in my own name, I saw US Search had details of 22 former addresses. Had I really moved so much? I wondered. And so the feeling with which that left me was more a sense of being irrevocably out of touch, now with my own life, with all that I had managed to forget even about myself.

It's like the strange shock of looking at old photos, seeing yourself among a smiling group of people, and realizing you have no idea who these others are: people who obviously meant so much, so intensely, at one point, but who have now drifted irredeemably out of your memory.

There's something brutal, then, about technology's power of memorialization and recall, when set alongside our own dwindling capabilities to keep in touch with the many now nameless individuals who at one point touched you, whom you at one point touched.

And with all the power we now have to remedy these deficits, increasingly we allow it to fall into disuse. When was the last time I sent or received a letter? Or did much with email beyond barely trying to keep abreast of my inbox?

Perhaps we teachers are (if we allow ourselves to be) especially susceptible to this sudden shock of realizing how much we have lost touch. The other day I stumbled across a sheaf of essays that students had forgotten to pick up a couple of semesters ago. Looking over the names of my former students, while some images suddenly flashed back into view, I realized how many names I could no longer put a face to, how many of their personalities and characteristics had been obliterated in my attempt to learn the names of ever new student cohorts each semester.

But somewhere here is simply the same old, same old vertigo of modernity: the experience of rapid change, even during one lifetime, the sense that expanded social circles and social mobility casts its shadow in transience and oblivion.

And no wonder paranoia becomes our age's defining neurosis, generating on the one hand the conpiratorial theses that suggest everything is connected, and on the other hand the worry that if I have lost touch it's somehow their fault. But at least if they're all after me, then they're thinking about me after all.

Titarenko, Begging Woman
images by Alexey Titarenko

Crossposted at Act 13. Touch.

Monday, November 06, 2006


To return to my first post in this series... There I suggested that rights could be seen as "surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked." I suppose I mean by this that rights discourse produces a series of texts within which can be read (albeit in coded form, perhaps) a history of struggle and repression. Those texts would include both rights declarations (the UN Declaration and so on) and also the reports produced by rights organizations (such as Amnesty).

Two issues therefore arise:

First, the mechanisms of encoding. These are perhaps successive. For instance, what happens as pain is expressed or transmitted first affectively (paradigmatically, in the scream; see John Holloway on this), then narratively (say, in testimonio), and then as a legal plaint (taking rights discourse to be a version of juridical deliberation)? How, in other words, is the discourse of rights produced? Looking at this would involve understanding the ways in which struggle and repression become encoded, enter into various types of representation. I think it's out of a concern with this process that Deleuze argues for the importance of jurisprudence:
Creation, in law, is jurisprudence, and that's the only thing there is. So: fighting for jurisprudence. That's what being on the left is about. It's creating the right.
One would have therefore also to think further about the theory of representation at work here. Deleuze argues in terms of "creation" rather than a perhaps more customary emphasis on the dislocation between referent and sign.

One would also consider all the various groups, institutions, and (in short) agencies in all senses of that word that contribute to the mechanics of rights discourse: the role of human rights groups, for instance; or the relays between international bodies such as the OAS or the UN; or the part played by truth commissions and the like.

Second, however, why think of rights discourse as the final text, as an end product? Indeed, though rights as often presented as goal as they are assumed as origin--hence the notion of "fighting for" or seeking to gain rights--it's surely best to see them as an instrument, as one more cog or chain in a much broader arrangement. After all, does anybody really care about the right to (say) shelter, privacy, or free speech? No, they care for the achievement of those goals. In rights discourse, this is finessed as the distinction between an exercised and an unexercised right; but an unexercised right is dead, useless.

What then (and here I'm inspired by some discussion at Serena's blog) of rights discourse as one part of a broader mechanism of social justice? Rights here (as Peggy implies) would be the abstract moment bridging two concrete practices: crime and its punishment.

A few concerns:

First, all this sounds worryingly dialectical, as the abstract universal mediates concrete particulars.

Second, would the above not also apply to law tout court? (What difference is there between rights and law? Are rights not just a (fictitious) model for an entire legal constitution?)

Third, such talk of mechanisms seems to obscure the importance of interpretation.

Fourth, we shouldn't forget the sovereign instance (state or divinity, or even the idea of the human) that ultimately guarantees the possibility of any such mediation.

OK, for a moment there I thought I might be on the road towards salvaging rights, now as mechanism rather than discourse. Perhaps not.

Magnetic Aids to Skaters to be installed in the London Parks during the Skating SeasonBut it might be worth figuring out how the machine of rights discourse functions, and how it compares with the machine of state power or sovereignty.

Reading about the 1954 Guatemalan coup, I'm struck by how much what the CIA cobbled together was a Heath Robinson contraption (Rube Goldberg machine for North Americans) constantly in danger of breaking down, but finally anchored by US President Eisenhower's say so.

How different is that from (what would be more charitably described as) the network by means of which human rights abuses are charted, publicized, and acted against? I'm thinking here for instance of Amnesty's decentralized collection of letter writers, assiduously (as I imagine them) sending postcards off to jailors and generals throughout the Third World. But again, does this network not also depend upon a sovereign instance as anchor?

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Reading Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer's now classic account of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, Bitter Fruit, comparisons with the United States' more recent adventures in regime change and nation-building are inevitable.

anti-Arbenz rebelsAs in Iraq, toppling the Guatemalan government proved easier than many expected. Indeed, in 1954, and despite some nervous moments, US provision of air power to its small proxy army meant that the overthrow of reforming (and democratically elected) president Jacobo Arbenz was almost too easy. On being debriefed by the CIA operatives who orchestrated the coup, and hearing that the rebel force had suffered only one fatality in the whole process, "Eisenhower shook his head, perhaps thinking of the mass slaughter he had seen in World War II, and muttered 'Incredible!'" (218).

What's striking, in fact, is how modern were the methods used to bring down Arbenz. Beyond buzzing the capital and strafing a few provincial towns, the CIA relied for the most part on PR and psychological warfare. In short, their aim was to sow fear--or better, terror--within the country, and to ensure complacency outside. Precisely in its paucity of casualties (and loyalist forces themselves only lost "a total of fifteen soldiers, with another twenty-five wounded" [194]), the coup was very much a media event, complete with the US ambassador feeding the foreign press (dis)information over drinks at Guatemala City's American Club (186).

Together with the covert operation to topple Iran's Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the coup against Arbenz marked a departure for the CIA, which under Truman had since its foundation in 1947 mainly confined itself to passive intelligence gathering: but with John Foster Dulles as head of the State Department, the Agency had "embarked on an activist course" (100). One might speculate that had the outcomes of these two operations been different, the US might have thought twice in subsequent years about such aggressive intervention in overseas jurisdictions. As it was, however, "the CIA as an institution got a renewed lease of life" thanks to its apparently almost effortless success (228).

But that success was short lived. Schlesinger and Kinzer quote "the 'official' historian of the coup, Ronald Schneider," as saying that "in the light of subsequent events it might reasonably be considered little short of disaster" (227). They also cite a former advisor in the US Embassy to Guatemala: "Having a revolution is a little like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You don't know where it's going to bounce or where it's going to go" (227).

For, in the first place, the US had installed a military class that was almost comically divided and fractious. Though they, in conjunction with the influential United Fruit Company, had set up Colonel Castillo Armas to be the country's putative "liberator," soon a rather squalid power struggle erupted. Castillo Armas, chosen in part "because he was a stupid man" was in fact the Americans' third choice, and he soon had to face the contending claims of various other army leaders, not least General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who eventually came to power upon Castillo Armas's assassination in 1957.

Second, and in part because of the precarious legitimacy of the regimes subsequent to the coup, the history of Guatemala since 1954 has been remarkably violent and bloody. The country holds the dubious distinction of being the first place to see the practice of "disappearing" political opponents, a fact that Greg Grandin underscores in The Last Colonial Massacre (which I review here) and also in an interview on the University of Chicago Press website:
In March of 1966 [. . .] over thirty leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed between March 3 and March 5. Their bodies were placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific from US-supplied helicopters. Although some of their remains washed back to shore, and despite pleas from Guatemala’s archbishop and over five hundred petitions of habeas corpus filed by relatives, the government and the American embassy remained silent about the fate of the executed.
More generally, though the 1980s genocide in the Guatemalan highlands is relatively well known, as Bitter Fruit (as also The Last Colonial Massacre) makes evident, this was merely the culmination of years of slaughter: more than 30,000 people "abducted, tortured, and assassinated" in the 1960s and 1970s (247); already by 1976 René de León Shlotter can speak of "a spectacular form of violence" over the previous two decades, notable for its "intensity--the high number of victims and the cruelty of the methods used" (qtd. 250).

Third, however, Grandin also argues that the coup was
perhaps the single most important event in twentieth-century US-Latin American relations [. . . leading] to a radicalization of hemispheric politics. [. . .]

The overthrow of Arbenz convinced many Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists that the United States was less a model to be emulated than a danger to be feared. Che Guevara, for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor and witnessed firsthand the effects of US intervention. He fled to Mexico, where he would meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban Revolution. He taunted the United States repeatedly in his speeches by saying that "Cuba will not be Guatemala." For its part, the United States promised to turn Guatemala into a "showcase for democracy" but instead created a laboratory of repression. Practices institutionalized there—such as death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies—spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades.
In some ways, the whole cycle of violence that will later lead to such concern for human rights in the region starts here, in 1954. In other ways, it's in Guatemala more than anywhere else that we see the clearest continuity with the kinds of practices documented by Bartolomé de las Casas as early as the 1530s.

But again, if only the US had taken to heart at the time the lesson that regime change is easy; yet political legitimacy and stability cannot be assured thereafter.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


A pointer to a new(ish) blog: Left Turns? Progressive Parties, Insurgent Movements, and Alternative Policies in Latin America. It's an investigation into the so-called "turn to the Left" in Latin America, from Chávez in 1998 and on through Kirchner in Argentina or Bachelet in Chile to, most recently, Lula's re-election in Brazil and the prospect Ortega might return to the presidency in Nicaragua.

The blog is one element in a broader project, with which I'm involved in collaboration with (among others) Max Cameron, Eric Hershberg, and Andy Hira. For more on that project, see our conference proposal.

As is probably too obvious, I'm more or less responsible for the "insurgent movements" element. I had to sneak "insurgency" in somehow. Here's how we describe that section:
From Venezuela’s Caracazo of 1989 to Mexico’s Zapatista campaign from 1994, and from the Argentine protests of December 2001 to the Bolivian protests that came to a head in October 2004, a multitude of new movements have emerged, often marginal or even actively opposed to traditional organizations such as unions or NGOs. Some of these spectacular displays of popular protest quickly disappeared. Others created the conditions for the electoral successes of a new breed of leaders. Each has often appeared spontaneous and surprising, generating new strategies of protest and grassroots self-organization or appropriating old tactics in new ways. We will ask how far left-leaning governments are expressions of such social insurgencies, whether they translate movement demands and desires into action, or whether rather they function as reactive pressure valves: venting steam, but little else. In other words, as well as examining the differences between left parties and movements across national and cultural borders, it is also necessary to examine the tensions between social movements and the electoral campaigns that claim to be their vehicles.
The "multitude" is also smuggled in there; again perhaps too obviously, I'm interested in seeing how much this so-called "left turn" fits with the framework that poses constituent against constituted power.

More is to come, including some cross-posted entries from here to there and vice versa.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Marguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture examines the relation between language and state violence. In some ways it's a companion piece to Diana Taylor's Disappearing Acts, which analyzes a similar connection between performance and terror, also focussing on Argentina.

The New York Times has an online version of the book's first chapter, whose title is likewise "A Lexicon of Terror", and where we find her most sustained examination of the role of language under Argentina's military regime of 1976 to 1983.

War is PeaceSince Orwell at least, we've been familiar with the concept that authoritarianism impacts language, bending it out of shape and introducing a whole series of figures and double meanings that violate common sense: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. Doublespeak. And in "Politics and the English Language", for instance, Orwell insists upon linguistic clarity as a remedy to political obfuscation: in so far as "the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy."

But as Feitlowitz observes, while the Argentine junta made use of language's slipperiness precisely in the service of something like Orwellian doublespeak (e.g., in a distortion of human rights discourse, "We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right"), they were also quite self-conscious and wary about the sign's inherently arbitrary relation to its referent. In the words of Admiral Emilio Massera, with which Feitlowitz opens her chapter, "Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason" (19).

So in that "the whole regime was intensely verbal," as Feitlowitz contends, with its "constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews" such that "Argentinians lived in an echo chamber" (20), not only did the junta remake language, it also opened up the possibility that its own language could be turned against it. Indeed, this was (as Taylor argues) something that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo realized: that they could take the regime's rhetoric about the centrality of the family and women's role as nurturers and guardians, and turn it against the practices that separated mother from child through kidnap and torture.

There are two possible positions: one insists on clarity and common sense against the obfuscations and euphemisms of overweening power; the other thrives on the fact that even the most powerful cannot fully control their language (or anybody else's).

The problem is that Feitlowitz never fully chooses either one of these possibilities. And as such, she constantly falls prey to the worst of all worlds. Consider her chapter's conclusion:
The repression lives on in [. . .] aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people's very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. [. . .] When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary [between inner self and the outside world] breaks down. [. . .]

We must pay attention to this dis-ease, we must document its signs. We must make an artifact of this Lexicon of Terror, so that it will no longer be a living language. (62)
Here is a denunciation of language's aberration expressed in the most aberrant of language. Is it not, after all, a form of "doublespeak" to use such a richly figural, metaphoric mode of expression as to refer to language's "scars," its bruises, punctures, and wounds? And while we're at it, why does this linguistic cure depend upon killing a "living language"?

How far, after all, are we from the Argentine junta's own metaphorical analogies, condemned by Feitlowitz, to the "cleanliness and health" that they propose to bring to an Argentina purged of political aberration (33)? If Massera is wrong to appropriate what Feitlowitz terms "Neo-Nazi 'germ theory'" when he declares that "we must cleanse the country of subversion" (33), is it not equally problematic to portray language itself as a body whose sickness is to be cured or as a life that is to be euthanized . . . especially when it is metaphorical aberration that is to be purged, linguistic excess to be eliminated?

In other words, Feitlowitz uses metaphor to argue for de-metaphorization.

We should either use metaphor or denounce it. And if it turns out that we cannot rid our language of figures, then perhaps there's a limit to the political blame we can pin on figuration per se. All the more so when we've borrowed our most powerful figures from those we claim to be condemning.

(Paul de Man's "Semiology and Rhetoric" [JSTOR access required] has something to say about this, too.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


The Giant of Ljubljana was giving a talk on campus today.

In advance, some lack of coordination was obvious, in that his lecture clashed with one by Simon Schaffer. The two events were organized by people who one would otherwise have thought should have been in some kind of communication with each other.

I went to the first thirty minutes of Schaffer's talk. Entitled "Single Vision and Newton's Sleep," it was good: on the politics of optics, Blake, Newton, Hobbes, and so on. The argument revolved around scientific and political attempts to make one appear many, and many to appear one. Sadly, I had to miss his conclusion, as I sloped off, making my way to the theatre where Zizek was to be speaking.

On arriving, ten minutes early, I find a group of disgruntled intellectual types milling around. Apparently the place is already full, and nobody more is to be admitted. I chat to a couple that I know.

Then, seeing a fairly dissolute figure in the middle distance jog up to the building and start peering into the windows, seeking access, I comment "Actually we seem to be in the right place, as Zizek is also shut out." "Who? Where?" they ask. And I point to the man himself, trying to catch the attention of somebody inside so that he can enter and give his talk.

A minute or so later, from another door, nearer us, one of the so-called organizers emerges and asks if anyone has seen Slavoj. "Yes," I say, "he's over there." "Where?" I am asked, again. "Which one is he?" "The guy at the end there," I reply, "who's trying to get in."

So the so-called organizer goes up somewhat nervously and asks "Slavoj?" With this interpellation presumably successful, the two head back in to the theatre.

And still the rest of us remained outside, unhailed.

Zizek in happier times. He's the one in white.