Thursday, December 16, 2010


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

Saturday, December 11, 2010


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

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

[. . .]

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 05, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 04, 2010


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

Mogadishu old port

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

Friday, December 03, 2010


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

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

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

Read more at Projections.