Tuesday, December 30, 2008


No Country for Old Men coverCormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is driven by the taut language of the thriller, which stops to provide details only when it comes to machines and armaments:
The dead man was lying against a rock with a nickel-plated government .45 automatic lying cocked in the grass between his legs. He'd been sitting up and had slid over sideways. His eyes were open. He looked like he was studying something small in the grass. There was blood on the ground and blood on the rock behind him. (17)
This laconic style suits the landscape in which it is set: the deserts, highways, and motels of Texas bordering on Mexico. It seems to be a wide-open land of big skies and long distances. In fact, this very openness means that there are few places a man can hide.

The novel's plot is suitably skeletal. A drug deal has gone wrong, and a Vietnam vet by the name of Llewellyn Moss, out hunting antelope, comes across the wreckage: bodies, abandoned cars, packages of heroin, and a briefcase packed with several million dollars in used hundred-dollar bills. Moss takes off with the cash, and soon enough just about everyone is after him: Mexican drug gangs, a fearsome contract killer, and the local police. The ensuing chase criss-crosses these dusty badlands, and takes Moss over the border to Mexico, where he gains brief respite in the local hospital having thrown the cash-laden case over the side of the border bridge. But from the start Moss seems to be aware that all his efforts will be in vain. This is not a story with a happy ending.

Interspersed through the narrative are the melancholic and world-weary commentaries of the sheriff who's always one or two steps behind the bloody action. Ed Tom Bell is also a military veteran, but of the Second World War not Vietnam. Close to retirement, Bell laments the changes that he has seen over his years of service, and laments his inability to prevent the trail of destruction that is snaking through his territory. Indeed, the novel's opening vignette sees a captured criminal strangle one of Bell's deputies with his own handcuffs and then calmly walk away. Perhaps then it's for the best that there is no climactic confrontation between the forces of law and order and the killers that they are ostensibly out to stop. As Bell notes,
I think for me the worst of it is knowing that probably the only reason I'm even still alive is that they have no respect for me. And that's very painful. Very painful. It has done got way beyond anything you might have thought about even a few years ago. (217)
But the sheriff's irrelevance is such that even his semi-philosophical musings are, in the end, far off the mark. He complains about the young with their "green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language [their grandparents] couldnt even understand" (295), but these grouches about youth fashion hardly touch on the real evil that McCarthy has let loose at the center of his novel.

Indeed, ultimately we learn very little about the contract killer, Anton Chigurh, who is the book's true anti-hero. As Bell notes, "the reason nobody knows what he looks like is that they dont none of them live long enough to tell it" (192). At one point, as Chigurh finishes off his final (and apparently superfluous) assassination, McCarthy appears to suggest that this human killing machine simply obeys a higher order of principle and morality, more in tune with the way of the world and the brutal dictates of fate: "I have only one way to live. It doesn't allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps" (259).

But in this landscape in which only the powerless speak, indeed in which speaking is an indication of impotence, this brief attempt to ventriloquize power is unconvincing. For McCarthy, power is violence and violence is, quite literally, unspeakable. He has conjured up a monster, or rather a personification of his view of nature as monstruous, about which he finally has nothing to say. He merely points: Look, while you can, through this novel, at an image that in life would leave you for dead.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Alphabetical Africa coverUpon mentioning recently that I had just finished Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, I was accused of having a taste for "novelty" books. I replied that this novel was more John Cage than "Laughing Gnome": a sustained exercise in minimalism and constraint that tries to say something about the form itself.

The constraint is simple enough: the book's first chapter contains only words that begin with the letter "a." A typical extract: "Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture..." (1). The second chapter adds words that begin with the letter "b," the third adds those that start with "c," and so on until only with the twenty-sixth chapter can words start with any letter of the alphabet. But then the process is reversed. Gradually the number of permitted words decreases until the final, fifty-second, chapter again consists of nothing but words beginning with "a."

The plot takes us from Antibes to Zanzibar, on the trail of what emerge as a couple of jewel thieves, Alex and Allen, who themselves are pursuing the mysterious Alva, who seems to have made off with their loot following a bungled kidnapping in the south of France. Of course, the mystery takes a while to unfold, because for instance the fact that Alex and Allen are "killers" cannot even be mentioned until chapter eleven, when words beginning with the letter "k" are first permitted. A shady Queen Quat (could she perhaps be Alva in some new disguise?) is the focus of much interest in the central part of the book, but necessarily fades from view after chapter thirty-five.

The reader is constantly aware of what can and cannot be said, of the gradually expanding and then contracting field of signification. First person narration is only possible once "I" can be uttered; definite articles and third-person plural (they, their) have still longer to wait; and second-person address is only fleetingly available.

Perhaps Abish's greatest technical achievement, indeed, is maintaining a remarkable stylistic consistency despite the very different resources available to him at distinct points of the novel. Even when, briefly, all the constraints are lifted, he still writes with enigmatic terseness: "Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back" (64). It is as though when the full richness of language is available, we fear being overwhelmed by detail; we need to sit back. Meaning and sense-making are possible only thanks to constraint, to a recognition that not everything can be said, at least not all at once.

The book is clearly about representation: its arbitrariness and its slippages. But it is not about representation alone: there is a constant sense that Africa is slipping away, but also that it is somehow now physically wasting away. Abish acknowledges that there is something particular about Africa, and its colonial and postcolonial history, that enables fantasy and seems to wither the real: "Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess, and now to a shrinking land mass" (58). And Ernst van Alphen argues for a subtext of genocide and counter-insurgency.

Finally, there are the mistakes, the points at which the rigid representational strictures are breached. It's tempting to regard these as accidents, but some are so blatant they seem to be calling out: in a chapter in which words beginning with "s" are supposedly now banned, "for she's a jolly good fellow, for she's a jolly good fellow" (105). These errors point less to the impossibility of the task that Abish has set himself, than to a perverse, perhaps unconscious rebellion against the project. "I," for instance, will make its way where it has been outlawed (138, 146, 147).

In short, both Africa and the alphabet become fields on which the dramas of order and disorder, rebellion and domination, pattern and singularity are played out. The book calls out attention both to grids (linguistic, geographical, political) and to their limits, and ends up with the perhaps utopian gesture of invoking "another Africa another alphabet" (152).

Sunday, December 21, 2008


This happened on my block. Right now there's a scorchmark on the concrete wall, and some flowers and cards that people have left.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


For what it's worth, the PDF files for the book have now been updated. They include pictures, too!

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Rodríguez book coverCarmen Rodríguez’s and a body to remember with is a collection of short stories about tears and loss, but finally also laughter and love. Though clearly autobiographical in many ways, the story it tells of an activist who has to flee Chile for Canada in the wake of Pinochet’s coup is narrated through fragments, glimpses of a life marked by resistance and exile. Hence the protagonist's name (when it is provided) is variously Estela de Ramírez (19), Silvia (112), Yolanda Cárcamo (129), and Laura Arzola (154): there are continuities between these figures, but also displacements and differences. The book's Spanish translation, De cuerpo entero ("With the Whole Body"), suggests fullness and plenitude, but the stories themselves resist such a sense of completion.

To put this another way: there's a tension here between a narrative of lack and a narrative of excess.

Clearly, the coup and the exile that follows are deeply traumatic. In the final story, "a balanced diet," the narrator tells of how she heard that her partner had been killed by the Chilean military. Her reaction is immediately visceral: "The vomit came out of my body in the same instant that I realized that Mario was one of the executed ones. Everything became an immense black stain sprinkled with coloured lights" (156). Years later, she would like to think that she is no longer affected in the same way, but her body betrays her: "What's it like to be dead Mario [. . .] I can talk to you without crying [. . .] oh well yes I still cry and probably I will cry for the rest of my life. . . ." (162).

Perhaps the most somber story is one that features another woman, Gloria. Its narrative progresses like a short film, tracking slowly around the room of a house in Vancouver: the camera eye passes over a desk, a dresser, a bed, posters on the wall, until it finally comes to rest on the body of a young woman and her suicide note.

Elsewhere, however, the book's stress is on the ways in which exile and resistance also make for accretion, even multiplication, and a liveliness that laughs in the face of dictatorship. As Rodríguez puts it in her Foreword, "My heart trespasses over borders and stretches over a whole continent to find its home at the two extremes of the Americas: in Chile and in Canada" (14). Or, to return to the collection's concluding story in which two friends meet up once more after "twenty years of absences, a whole life of absences," the stress is not on what has been lost but on the joy that results from the re-encounter: "obviously the military did not count on this good memory, this love: they did not count on this immense desire to live, this propensity to laughter" (165).

Throughout, then, the movement that Rodríguez describes is from loss to excess. Canada itself is, at first, nothing but a black (or white!) hole, a country that Chilean characters cannot even envisage: they can imagine Argentina, they can imagine England, the USA, even Switzerland, but Canada induces no connotations at all. Gradually, however, this "hole called Canada began to take possession of Estela de Ramírez's stomach, chest, throat, head, ears, and mouth" (21). It becomes embodied, and she becomes embodied in turn. When finally the opportunity arises to return to Chile, she hesitates. She is now attached to Canada, part of Canada, too: both legally (as a newly-minted citizen) and, more importantly, affectively. In the crisis that ensues, in which "she realized that her body was the hole and the whole was her" (35), I think the point is not so much that she has identified with nothingness, and so with absence; rather that what was previously absence has now been given substance.

So, finally, this is a book marked by the conjunction "and" that is precisely the sign of addition: Chile and Canada; loss and discovery; death and life; the past and the present; "a mind and a body to remember with" (159; my emphasis).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is pop analysis: both the analysis of pop, and analysis that aspires to the status of pop. Hence the informality of the style, the (faux) confessionalism, the intermingling of sacred and profane, high and low. A "low culture manifesto" (as the book's subtitle has it) is not quite so "low culture" both because of its self-reflexivity and because of its more or less knowing nods to the entire lineage of cultural manifestos.

If we're going to have pop analysis (and why not, I suppose), personally I prefer Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby to Klosterman. Perhaps that just says that I prefer it when things are more obviously leavened with fiction, with a plot however baggy.

Moreover, Klosterman's conclusions are too pat, too unsatisfying. The essay I like best is probably the one that actually refers to Hornby: a rant against football (sorry, "soccer") as an un-American, indeed unsporting, sport because supposedly it's too egalitarian: "it's the only sport where you can't fuck up. An outcast can succeed simply by not failing" (89). Even so, this is a nice conceit, but it doesn't add up.

Klosterman has clearly never himself played football, let alone found himself subject to the classic humiliation of being the last to be picked for a playground team. Watching but one football movie (I happened recently to see There's Only One Jimmy Grimble) should be enough evidence that suitably sporting hierarchies are as rigidly enforced, perhaps more so, in football as anywhere else.

Indeed, if anything it's the other way around. It's precisely the fluidity of football (which Klosterman translates as "running about and avoiding major collisions" [89]) that makes the comparisons all the more insistent.

Put this another way: as a non-native, I'm always struck by the specialization promoted in US sports. For instance, the fact that American Football has a completely different offensive line from its defensive line; or that the "special teams" only ever come onto the field for a few minutes of each game. Or in baseball, the phenomenon of the "closer," who will pitch at best the last couple of innings; my thought is always that if he's so good, he should be on from the start.

In British sports, such as football but also even cricket, the all-rounder is much more highly valued: the midfielder who can move up or play deep, the striker who can play with both feet, the batsman who can also bowl, for instance. Yes, there are still specialists (and even perhaps increasingly so: David Beckham became little more than a taker of free kicks), but the same players stay on the field the whole time. Even the very best fast bowler has to bat from time to time; there's no equivalent of baseball's "designated hitter."

All the more so, then, in playground and high-school games in which the notional playing positions are all the looser: the fact is that in football, a player is at every moment at least potentially judged as part of entire team, rather than simply as one part in a fragmented team apparatus.

Meanwhile, this is probably a moment to give a nod to my friend Grant Farred, whose book on football, Long Distance Love, has just been published. And also to point out with some pride that I figure (albeit un-named) in the book's very first paragraph.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


The point of Gordon Burn's literary non-fiction profiles of serial killers is, on the face of it, and judging by their titles, to render them ordinary. Hence Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is to be shown to be "somebody's husband"; and Fred and Rose West, inhabitants of Gloucester's "house of horror," are to be be shown "happy," albeit "happy like murderers."

Peter and Sonia SutcliffeBut, at least in the book on Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, this strategy rather backfires. Burn finds no link between the Ripper's ordinariness and his horrendous and unprovoked assaults on women. Indeed, the dislocation is all the more horrendous. For instance, Sutcliffe is driving home with a friend one night in 1975 when he spots a woman he thinks may be a prostitute:
slipping out of the car, he quickly caught up with her and mumbled a pleasantry about the weather before striking her twice on the back of her head with a hammer. [. . .] Back in the safety of his own car, he appeared "unusually quiet" to Birdsall; when asked what had taken him so long he replied that he had been "talking to that woman." (145)
Perhaps Burn is reluctant to try to get inside the murderer's head not merely because of a reluctance to dramatize, but also because of what becomes the theme of the ensuing 1981 trial when the Ripper is eventually caught: in Burn's words, it is not so much Sutcliffe who is up in court as the discipline of Psychiatry, which is subject to a "ruthless" and "damaging" examination at the hands of the prosecution lawyers (335). As Sutcliffe's defence rested on a plea of diminished responsibility because of schizophrenia, the courtroom had to ponder the "philosophical riddle: Was he a sane man pretending to be mad? Or a mad man who thought he was sane? Or a mad man who thought he was sane and was pretending to be mad?" (350).

The court's verdict eventually was that Sutcliffe was sane: bad, not mad. The prison system, however, soon relocated him to the secure mental hospital, Broadmoor, where he has been ever since. It is as though the criminal justice system itself were in two minds, strangely and ironically schizophrenic about the issue. Burn himself, then, comes down on no side: his exhaustive, nearly 400-page book never really answers (or even properly addresses) the riddle to which it points.

Burns book coverHappy Like Murderers is a more successful book. Perhaps this is because Burn has learned a lesson or two from the other great chronicler of the Ripper case, David Peace. Burn's account of the Wests is inflected with some of the stylistic gestures that mark Peace's fiction, not least the repetition of key words and phrases, the quick switches between locales and genres, and the use of free indirect discourse through which to imaginatively recreate characters' thought processes and affects.

Or maybe it's just coincidence that Burn seems to have something like the measure of Fred (not so much Rose, perhaps unsurprisingly): and his clue comes from a stylistic tic, the fact that Fred repeatedly referred not just to people as things, but also to things as people. As Burn puts it:
In his many weeks of police interviews after his arrest in 1994, he would repeatedly refer to the body of a murdered person as "it" and to inanimate objects and materials and pieces of equipments--a cattle ramp, a paddling pool, a patio slab--as "him." "As the end of the slab sunk, you put more soil under, or gravel, to level him. As the body sinks, then the slab was tipping. . . Pea gravel. (175)
Hence Burn's observation:
All through [West's] life he would invest his deepest and most complicated emotions--all his most difficult and disturbing thoughts--not in people, but in things. Places and things. People as things. (105-106)
So it's not really true that West was "emotionally null" (405). It is not affectlessness that is at issue here, as indeed Burn's title also indicates; rather, it's the horrific consequences of a very particular regime of affect.

Friday, November 07, 2008


I seem to have been podcast. Eat your heart out Ricky Gervais.

In my case, the podcast is mainly about how I don't like WebCT and similar educational technology, but do like Wikipedia.

Friday, October 31, 2008


The irony of "Woman Hollering Creek," the titular story in Sandra Cisneros's collection Women Hollering creek and Other Stories, is that its central character's tragedy is to have fulfilled her dreams without realizing it, having misunderstood or misinterpreted the object of her own desire.

Cleófilas is a young Mexican woman who crosses multiple frontiers: in marrying one Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez she is taken not only across "her father's threshold" but also "over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado--on the other side" and so to a new life in the United States (43). But she hopes for still greater transformations: "What Cleófilas has been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion" (44).

Hence the frontier that she most keenly feels is the translucent but stubbornly real distinction between her life and the world depicted in the commercial culture that lies on the other side of the shop window. She desires above all the emotional intensity that she senses lies on the other side of her television screen, "the kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one's life" (44).

Sadly, it seems, Juan Pedro is not the man to provide this soap opera exhilaration. Though Cleófilas likes the sound of her new hometown, Seguín, Texas, which resonates with "the tinkle of money" and inspires in her the notion that "she would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele" (45), the reality is that life in Texas is marked by "dust, despair" without even the compensation of a "leafy zócalo" or "huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday" (50). This is a privatized despair, particularly claustrophobic for women, who have to learn "to depend on husbands" (51). But the menfolk can offer no salvation: they too are ground down, and they take out their own disappointment on their women. Juan Pedro starts slapping his wife around; Cleófilas comes to realize that "he doesn't look like the men on the telenovelas" (49).

Beset by her husband's violence and indifference (he doesn't even "music or telenovelas or romance or roses" [49]), and fearful of an even darker undercurrent of murder and death, Cleófilas turns to the creek that borders her world: named perhaps Woman Hollering or Woman Weeping (La Gritona or La Llorona) it seems to articulate what she herself can still barely make out. For she has found passion and emotional intensity: but only in the form of passivity and suffering. And she is indeed living the life of a telenovela, "only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight" (52-53).

Pregnant (for a second time), Cleófilas goes for an ante-natal check-up, where her bruises are all too evident. The doctor examining her calls a friend with a plan to spirit the battered woman away from her husband, back to the rather different despair incarnated by life back home with her father and brothers again. As the two would-be rescuers chat about the situation, the inadvertently confirm the souring of Cleófilas's dream: "Yeah, you got it. A regular soap opera sometimes. Qué vida, comadre. Bueno bye" (55).

We live the scripts that popular culture provides for us, Cisneros suggests both here and throughout this entire collection, if not necessarily in the ways we might originally hope or anticipate. Sometimes we can adapt them to our own ends; after all, Cleófilas's putative saviors feel that they too are part of the same soap opera. That goes as much for the confident and aptly-named Felice who, in her own car, drives her hesitant charge out of town and over the creek, hollering in resonance with its unusual name and ceaseless flow.

Cisneros neither celebrates nor damns either telenovelas or Barbie, Marlboro Man or Flash Gordon or the litany of popular singers that thread their way through these stories. She understands the seduction of this commercial culture and also the way in which it provides a sort of common set of feelings that unsettles geographic or linguistic borders. And in the end, even the cheesiest of soap operas or the tackiest of song lyrics remind us indeed of the utopian injunction to affect and be affected that Cisneros, too, appears to embrace:
One way or another. Even if it's only the lyrics to a stupid pop hit. We're going to right the world and live. I mean live our lives the way lives were meant to be lived. With the throat and wrists. With rage and desire, and joy and grief, and love till it hurts, maybe. But goddamn, girl. Live. (163)

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air conjures up the strange half-light of the northern summer, which also stands in for the half-remembered aura that is memory's version of the past. It is a tale of Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories, back in the 1970s. It is a book about nostalgia and loss: a loss only made worse by the fact that what is lost was never really possessed in the first place; it is the loss of what might have been or what should have been.

The story centers around a radio station and its unlikely employees: a semi-alcoholic acting manager suddenly promoted when the boss leaves town without warning; two young women who turn up unannounced looking for a job; an older woman receptionist who is the only one to stay on in this town of transients; a technician who hints at barely-concealed violence; a book critic who finally, and perhaps belatedly, discovers tenderness and love; and an indigenous woman who is at turns sympathetic and scathing about the presence of these white folk, all of whom are in some way lost in her ancestors' lands.

The issue of the land, and who owns it or has the rights to it, forms the rumbling political backdrop to the book's plot. A federal inquiry is underway into a proposed pipeline that would be built through the Arctic, the biggest private construction project in history. For perhaps the first time, however, the native people are being asked for their opinions and are starting to find their collective voice.

And if the land is the book's backdrop (or subsoil), it is the apparently more insubstantial and fleeting qualities of voice and air that are front and center. Hay is interested in the way in which the voice can take on a life of its own, not least in the long nights through which a small team of broadcasters reach out to whoever may be listening, sleepless in the endless twilight.

On the radio, the presenters are invisible, but have to project a sense of presence and personality to an audience they have to imagine, literally, out of thin air. They are faced with the stark contrast between the tiny studio in which they speak into their microphones, and the vast tundra over which the radio waves will travel. They have to learn the trick that an older radio hand describes as "trying to be almost yourself. [. . .] You're giving a performance as your natural self" (114).

And off air as much as on, each character, wounded and withdrawn in different ways from the previous lives that led them to seek refuge in the far-distant north, likewise struggles with the effort of performing their "natural" selves. They endeavor to make connections with the people around them, to get beyond their shynesses and inhibitions, their fear of (once again) losing out or becoming hurt. They learn to produce and to desire, to connect and to go beyond themselves.

The story's centerpiece is a trip to the so-called barren lands, a desolate and uninhabited stretch of tundra on the other side of Great Slave Lake. For five weeks four friends canoe and camp in this remote wilderness, following the tracks of a disastrous early twentieth-century expedition that perished through starvation. This voyage is both the consummation and the downfall of their precarious community. At its end, nothing is the same, and they have to face up to the reality of "irretrievable loss" (303): first the sound recordings patiently gathered over the course of the expedition, though as nothing ever really decays at this latitude, there's the possibility that someone will stumble across the tapes one day; and then an abrupt death that comes (again, literally) out of thin air.

A concluding couple of chapters offer a brief coda on the characters' lives some years later: the transients all leave the Northwest Territories almost as soon as they return from their canoe expedition; two of them do pick up where they left off, though they are perhaps unaware that there was ever anything to leave off; but even the reconciliation and repose they manage to achieve remains troubled by the sense that this is still a substitute for what might have been.

The world is changing. Sometimes for the better, as with the final judicial report that at least delays the pipeline that would transform the Arctic's delicate ecology. But sometimes for the worse, feels the character who had been the radio station's acting manager in Yellowknife, as television's literalness and homogeneity forces out the mystery and localism of radio. At the end, when he hears of one more death, and one more irretrievable loss, even though he has by now cemented new bonds the most comfort he can achieve is when "for some reason the tangle in his heart let go a little" (363).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


This somehow seems to encapsulate everything wrong not just with educational technology, but also with the university today.

Let's take a closer look. Starting with the following map:

What is this? It's a map of the UK, from Google maps, with an apparently random number of cities and town marked (Bolton and Slough, but not Manchester and Newcastle). On the left hand side, under the legend "uk city pop test," the city and town names are provided in alphabetical order, with "population" and a figure. Beside each name is a checked box.

What earthly use is this map? None, as far as I can see. The population information is correlated with geography, but not in such a way that it might be useful. A series of population figures have been recontextualized, to give the appearance of added value, but in fact provide no clear benefit to man, bird, or beast. What is the principle of selection of these particular towns and cities? How does the geographical correlation add to our understanding of UK demographics? What in fact does this map and its accompanying table tell us about geography, population, or the UK? Nothing.

And yet, this map is presented to us as "kewel" (whatever exactly that means), and a host of apparently otherwise rational people are celebrating the fact that this is supposedly "good shit," "awesome," "amazingly cool," "a fine thing indeed," "awesomely nifty," and so on ad nauseam. One commenter even reported "I think my head just exploded". He (or she) is not the only one.

So why the plaudits? Well, it has to do with the process by which the map was produced which, in short, involved taking some data from a Wikipedia article and subjecting it to various repackaging and transformations, using technical devices such as RSS feeds. The presentation of this process is interspersed with comments such as "lurvely" before the final "kewel" conclusion. My friend Brian Lamb then tells us that this is an instance of "data literacy".

But not only is the final product bafflingly useless. And not only has, along the way, much of the data (on cities such as Manchester and Newcastle) apparently been lost. It is also clear by looking at the original Wikipedia article--and only by looking at the original Wikipedia article--that the data requires commentary and explanation for it to be effectively understood.

For you might be surprised to learn, if you actually read the data on the map above rather than staring agog while your head exploded, that London is apparently eight times larger than any other city in the UK. The UK, in this rendering, comes to appear more like a country such as Chile, in which Santiago is practically the only city of any note, than the collection of regions with which anyone who has actually visited the place is familiar. How has this strange distortion come about?

Well, by reading the Wikipedia article, in which virtually each and every figure comes with some kind of note, and in which the entire list has a seven-paragraph explanatory introduction, it soon becomes clear how the very definition of a city and city population is a tricky construct. The Wikipedia text explains the difference between city councils, local authorities, conurbations, and so on. It notes, for instance, the difference between the population of Manchester (at 394,269, well below that of Bristol's 420,556) and Greater Manchester (at 2,244,931 well above that of Greater Bristol's 551,066). The Wikipedia article also has footnotes and references, as well as a thriving discussion page, all of which are essentially for any "data literacy" worthy of the name. That is, a data literacy that does not dispense with literacy per se, replacing explanatory text with "kewel" ejaculations and exploding heads.

Yet the very first step in the process led to the map above was to strip the figures of their accompanying text.

It seems that neither Tony Hirst, the person who set this operation into motion, nor any of those who are blithely praising his work, bothered to think about the data itself or what it meant. That, indeed, as Hirst himself has repeatedly stated in response to my comments, "wasn't the point." But if someone can advocate, and others can gasp at, such mangling of data without even thinking about what happens to that data in the process, believing it to be somehow beside the point... well, that's a textbook case of data illiteracy as far as I'm concerned.

The final product is a swish little graphic that turns out to be totally meaningless, much like the visual data points for which USA Today has become notorious. Moreover, this re-presentation of the data in fact distorts of UK geography: in so far as it does in fact hold minimal meaning, it elides all the subtleties of the original source so as to end up as a vapid misrepresentation.

I'm reminded of nothing so much as the various swish repackagings and representations of debt, by which dodgy high-interest loans made out to poor people in heartland USA became class AA securities traded in decontextualized form by people who thought of themselves as the smartest people in the room. In the world of high finance and complex derivatives, too, what mattered only was the "kewel" ways in which figures could be abstracted from people and contexts, mashed up and resold in dashing and "awesomely nifty" ways.

The chickens have come home to roost for this fundamental corruption in the banking and finance sectors. Of course, a little educational technology mashup "goodness" can't be as important or as harmful, right? It's only knowledge and education that's at stake here as the university parodies the neoliberal landscape that it sets out to imitate, rather than critique. This is the university of excellence once more, but now in the sense of Bill and Ted's "excellent" adventure: a couple of goofy guys saying "kewel" as the lights go out on the institution's real mission.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (the first Mexican-American novel in English) is centrally concerned with the notion of “good government”--and its absence from the nineteenth-century USA. Indeed, at some points the problems facing the country seem to be the fault of government per se “If we were to trace our troubles to their veritable source,” the novel’s narrator declares at one point, “we would often reach, more or less directly, their origin in our lawgivers. Not only the dwellers of the frontiers, not only the victims of lawsuits, not only--“ (201).

Here, however, the train of thought is interrupted. The narrator breaks off to declare “But I am no political philosopher. I am wandering away from my humble path” (201). And that path is, ostensibly, a romantic comedy of domesticity and manners.

The narrative opens as the life of the Norvals of New England is transformed when Dr. Norval returns to his family from an expedition to the American Southwest with a young Mexican girl named Lola he has helped to rescue from a band of border Indians. The doughty and upright Mrs Norval is shocked and upset, but the unwelcome arrival is rather sweetened by the fact that the girl brings with her a million dollars’ worth of gold ore and precious stones. Much of this loot has to be kept in trust until Lola comes of age and/or is reunited with her missing father. In the meantime, however, there is plenty that can be appropriated by the family, whose daughters are soon arrayed in the latest fashion and riding out from a New York mansion in the finest carriages. There is even enough money to be spread around family friends and acquaintances, and to outfit entire companies for the Union side when the Civil War breaks out.

The bulk of the novel then charts the ways in which money and warfare expose the frailties and hypocrisies of WASP respectability. The story’s greatest rogue is a lawyer turned preacher turned military man by the name of Mr. Hackwell, who circles the Norvals, their womenfolk, and their money, like a hyena who has sniffed out the stench of moral corruption and is anxious to reap the profits. Hackwell contrives to seduce Mrs Norval into a clandestine marriage once her husband takes off on yet another voyage, while trying to engineer nuptials between her son, Julian, and Hackwell’s own sister, Emma. All the while he lusts after the young Lola, who develops into a striking beauty as she matures, made all the more desirable by the potential dowry that she bears with her.

Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita point out that money and machinations thereby lead to “the fall of Republican motherhood” (“Introduction” xxviii) and “the violation of the marriage contract” (xxxi). But this is also an allegory of broader social disturbances, just as the arrival of Lola and her wealth points to the US acquisition of over half of Mexico’s mineral-rich territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. As Sánchez and Pita observe, the novel exposes “the degeneration of democratic values and the faltering of the republican ideal” as a whole (xlv). Democracy is a myth, rights are proclaimed only to be abused and ignored, and there is “no informed consent of the governed [. . .] but rather corruption and influence peddling everywhere, even in the highest circles of government” (xlv).

The novel is indeed scathing about the state of the American res publica. Mrs Norval’s sister, Lavinia, travels to Washington to enquire about her brother, Isaac, a prisoner of war in a Southern camp. She discovers, however, that her government is happy to let its citizens languish if it should mean increasing pressure upon the Confederacy’s capacity to feed even its own people. Moreover, Isaac in particular has been removed from any list of prisoners to be exchanged because he once had a run-in with a powerful politician. Private pride (as well as ambition and indifference) is allowed to over-rule any sense of compassion or responsibility.

Lavinia had previously “believed all she had read in printed political speeches” (106); soon, however, she reluctantly comes to share in the cynicism expressed eventually by almost all the novel’s admirable characters. Julian too, for instance, who is threatened with dismissal from the army despite his heroic record, and then studiously ignored when he tries to press his case before the President, soon finds himself learning a “bitter philosophy [. . .] from the leading men of his country” (215).

In short, precisely at the moment at which the United States is forging some of its most potent discourses of self-justification and exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Empancipation Declaration, Ruiz de Burton reveals their bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Figures such as Mrs Norval may continue to declare that theirs is “the best government on Earth” (67), and to rail against both foreigners and popery; but she is insulated by wealth and blinded by the return of long repressed desires that dance around her, Ruiz de Burton suggests, like “unbottled imps” that have particular and “abundant fun” in Washington (148). As the social contract is revealed to be a sham, any putative hegemony is replaced by the new habits of wealth and the impish antics of misguided desire.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Go and read a blog written, it would seem, by US Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin: Welcome to the Palindrome.

It's fairly well done, and reminiscent of Private Eye's "Dear Bill" letters, "The Secret Diary of John Major," and so on.

Politics today requires the display of personality, the revelation of an inner soul; but the souls bared on the sofas of "Good Morning" or in the subsequent autobiographies are so manifestly a work of public relations that satire fills the gap.

For more on Palin, and the politics of affect, see The Pinocchio Theory.

Friday, August 15, 2008


There is no hegemony and never has been. We live in cynical, posthegemonic times: nobody is very much persuaded by ideologies that once seemed fundamental to securing social order. Everybody knows, for instance, that work is exploitation or that politics is deceit. But we have always lived in posthegemonic times: social order was never in fact secured through ideology. No amount of belief in the dignity of labor or the selflessness of elected representatives could ever be enough. The fact that people no longer give up their consent in the ways in which they may once have done, and yet everything carries on much the same, only shows that consent was never really at issue. Social order is secured through habit and affect: through turning the constituent power of the multitude back on itself. It follows also that social change is never achieved through any putative counter-hegemony. No amount of adherence to a revolutionary creed or a party line can ever be enough. The fact that people no longer believe in radical change in the ways in which they may once have done does not mean that everything will carry on much the same. Social change, too, is achieved through habit and affect: through affirming the constituent power of the multitude. But change is not a matter of substituting one program for another. The multitude betrays the best-laid plans.

Read more.... (long .pdf file)

Thursday, August 14, 2008


The fiction of hegemony is more threadbare than ever. The myth of the social contract is over. In place of coercion or consent, both of which depend upon granting transcendence to the state, posthegemony substitutes affect, habit, and an immanent multitude. Politics is biopolitics: in fact, it always has been, but today more clearly than before neither civil society nor the state are sites of struggle or objects of negotiation. At stake is life itself. One the one hand, increasingly corrupt forces of command and control modulate and intervene directly on the bodies of ordinary men and women. On the other hand, everyday insurgencies of constituent power reveal a multitude that betrays and corrodes constituted power from the inside, overflowing and escaping its bounds. The outcome of this confrontation is uncertain: constituent power may still fold back against itself; the line of flight that escapes may become suicidal; the multitude may turn bad and become monstrous; or perhaps, just perhaps, Exodus may lead to what Negri terms “the time of common freedom” (The Porcelain Workshop 161).

Read more.... (long .pdf file)

Saturday, August 09, 2008


The Saturday photo, part VIII: "Christophe Colomb appaise une revolte a bord."

In fact, I'm trying to get any further information about this image, which comes from the Library of Congress. It seems to be a nineteenth-century French lithograph by someone called Turgis. Any information about the lithographer would be most welcome. Or about the original picture of which this is a print. Or any suggestions as to how about going about finding out such details. Thanks.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


It seems to me that there are three, perhaps four, types of introduction for a book:

1. The arresting anecdote. This introduction revolves around with some kind of anecdote or story that in some way encapsulates the themes or concerns that are to be explored in the pages that follow. It might begin: "The morning of October 10, 1492, dawned bright and clear..."

2. The straight talk. This introduction outlines the argument of the book. It is essentially the book crammed into twenty pages, rather than two or three hundred. It might begin: "This book is about..."

3. The self-reflective gaze. This introduction discusses the book, and perhaps its style, as a way to explain the processes that led up to its writing, or to forestall criticism. It might begin: "I first had the idea to write about..." Or maybe: "Some will say that the time for a book of this nature is long past..."

4. The missed opportunity. This introduction is less about the book itself, than it is a separate essay about the topic that the author now realizes he or she would have wanted to write about. It might begin any old way.

NB in all four cases, the last three or four pages of the introduction are probably taken up with a chapter-by-chapter outline (a paragraph for each chapter) of what is to come.


Monday, August 04, 2008


Even empires seek validation. No power can subsist on coercion alone. Hence Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's famous distinction between "hegemony" and "direct domination." Hegemony is "the 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant social group" (Selections from Prison Notebooks 12). Direct domination is exercised by "the apparatus of state coercive power which 'legally' enforces discipline on those groups which do not 'consent' either actively or passively" (12). Hegemony, in fact, is primary: for Gramsci, power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily, "in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed" (12). Coercion supplements consent, rather than vice versa. Hegemony is, in Gramsci's view, the bedrock of social order. It is through the pedagogical activities of intellectuals in civil society that the state maintains its grip over the exploited, and the dominant group cements the "prestige" that it "enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production" (12).

Read more.... (long .pdf file)

Saturday, August 02, 2008


The Saturday photo, part VII: Lagavulin distillery as seen from the Port Ellen to Kennacraig ferry.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Civil society theory has flourished in the social sciences in recent decades, and enjoys great influence with non-governmental organizations, social democratic think-tanks, and the like. This second chapter is a critique of that theory and the practices it fosters, arguing that it assumes a liberal compact that is too easily overtaken by its neoliberal radicalization. I first discuss the various definitions of civil society, and the reasons for the concept’s popularity: it names a sphere of mediation between state and market, private and public, and also brings with it an aura of normativity. Who would not want a more “civil” society? I go on, however, to criticize the term’s deployment, through a close reading of political theorists Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato. Their theorization of civil society reveals the concept’s profound ambivalence: it is presented as a moderating, mediating force, but depends upon what they call the “democratic fundamentalism” that drives the social movements that constitute civil society itself. For all that these movements are championed as the expression of democratic rejuvenation, they also are to be policed and curtailed to protect both state and market in the name of political and economic efficiency. I argue that the neoliberal state outflanks civil society theory with its cult of transparency that bypasses mediating institutions and breaks down the boundary between society and state. Neoliberalism and its diffuse sovereignty herald a revolution in reverse, a fundamentalism purged of affect. But that repressed affect always returns, and in counterpoint I offer an account of the Peruvian Maoists Sendero Luminoso and their relations with the neoliberal regime of Alberto Fujimori. Sendero’s baffling ferocity challenges any theory of civil society, and provide a foretaste of the global war on terror that we are all living through now.

Read more.... (long .pdf file)

Friday, July 18, 2008


Hegemony theory has become the ubiquitous common sense of cultural studies. This first chapter is a critique of both by means of an examination of their shared populism. After defining and historicizing the field, I embark on a close reading of the Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau, whose version of hegemony theory is the most fully developed and influential for cultural studies. Laclau’s definition of hegemony is embedded in a series of reflections on populism, especially in his earliest book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, and in his latest, On Populist Reason. I trace the development of Laclau’s theory, showing how from the start it simply mimics the logic of populism. Laclau sets out to differentiate between a left populism and a populism of the right, a distinction that would be essential for cultural studies to make good on its political pretensions, but ultimately he fails to establish such a difference, even to his own satisfaction. I then move to the relationship between populism and the state, and show, again through a reading of Laclau, how hegemony theory and cultural studies alike repeat the populist sleight of hand in which a purported anti-institutionalism in fact enables the state apparently to disappear. Hegemony stands in for politics, and screens off the ways in which states anchor social order through habituation, under the cover of a fictional social contract. Throughout, in counterpoint, I offer an alternative account of the Argentine Peronism from which Laclau’s theory stems.

Read more.... (long .pdf file)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


When Latin American modernization projects fail, or when their ideological legitimation falters, authoritarian regimes often step in to complete (or to further) their agenda. Though authoritarianism is defined by its contempt for consensus (for which it substitutes coercion), it does not give up on discursive legitimation altogether; it merely prioritizes efficiency over hegemony. Authoritarianism's legitimation may still take its cue from populism's project of national popular redemption. Authoritarianism comes to be the pursuit of hegemony by other means once populism has defined hegemony as the model for the political--or rather, once populism has defined hegemony as politics by other means. Military rulers seeking justification by appealing to populist understandings of hegemony give an ironic twist to the martial understanding of politics implicit in the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Authoritarianism literalizes what, in cultural studies at least, is the figurative conceit of defining the pursuit of hegemony as a war of position. Thus the Argentine military president Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966 appeals to national unity, arguing that "the cohesion of our institutions [. . .] ought to be our permanent concern because that cohesion is the maximum guarantor of the spirit that gave rise to the republic" (qtd. in Loveman and Davis, The Politics of Antipolitics 195). Equally, handing over to what would become Perón's second administration, "in his farewell address to the Argentine people in 1973, General Alejandro Lanusse felt obliged to thank his fellow citizens for their patience with a government that had not been elected" (Schoultz, The Populist Challenge 20).

Saturday, July 12, 2008


The Saturday photo, part VI: a phone box near Loch Gorm, Islay.

Meanwhile, I'm now back in Vancouver.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Cultural studies and civil society theory purport to be progressive projects, liberatory alternatives to the dominant social order. Yet cultural studies’ concept of “counter-hegemony” only reinforces all the populist assumptions upon which hegemony rests, leaving the state unquestioned. Likewise, for all its talk of “society against the state,” civil society theory also merely entrenches state power, by excluding other logics that might unsettle sovereign claims to legitimacy and universality. In short, both appeal to and uphold constituted power, instantiated in and exercised through representation. Constituted power is the transcendent power of the sovereign subject, but it is a delegated power: it is the result of a prior articulation (in cultural studies’ terms) or mediation (for civil society theory). Constituted power draws its strength from an immanent constituent power that precedes it, and which it claims to represent. Hence the power that a political order exercises is always derivative, and that order is itself the creation of constituent power. In the words of the Abbé Sieyès, who first formulated this distinction in the context of France’s 1789 Constituent Assembly, “in each of its parts a constitution is not the work of a constituted power but a constituent power. No type of delegated power can modify the conditions of its delegation” (“What is the Third Estate?” 136). For Sieyès, the constituent assembly was to harmonize these two modalities of power: to ensure that government was well constituted. But the very notion of good constitution presupposes a distinction between the constituent and the constituted. Indeed, this split is at the heart of what Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker term the “paradox of constitutionality”: that the people, the presumed subject of power, are denied access to it; “the power they possess, it would appear, can only be exercised through constitutional forms already established or in the process of being established” (“Introduction” 1).

Read more... (long .pdf file)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Constituent power is continuous and everyday. Appearances, however, are deceptive: in appearance, constituent power emerges only in moments of crisis, in the transition from one political order to another, soon thereafter to disappear. As Negri notes, "once the exceptional moment of innovation is over, constituent power seems to exhaust its effects" (Insurgencies 327).

The normative regulations of constituted power are more familiar than is the uproarious intensity associated with constitutional assemblies, when constituent power is glimpsed in full force as it intervenes decisively on the political stage. But for Negri, this "appearance of exhaustion" is simply "mystification"; in fact, "the only limits on constituent power are the limits of the world of life" (327, 328).

Constituent power "persists": once a constitution is declared, it goes underground; unseen, it continues to expand until it erupts once more to interrupt constituted power, forcing drastic changes in social relations. Capital responds with a series of class recompositions that it presents as natural; the state reacts with periodic refoundations that it presents as simple renegotiations of some original social pact.

At each stage, the multitude is beaten back, temporarily defeated, "absorbed into the mechanism of representation" (Insurgencies 3) and so misrecognized as class, people, mass, or some other docile political subject. But even such misrecognitions, Negri claims, signal an "ontological accumulation" (334). Being itself is transformed through the "continuous and unrestrainable practice" that is the multitude's everyday, permanent revolution (334).

A focus on constituent power, then, rather than on the different forms taken by constituted power, opens up "a new substratum" of history, "an ontological level on which productive humanity anticipate[s] the concrete becoming, forcing it or being blocked by it" (232).

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The multitude is common. It is ordinary and everyday, and it is also both the product and the producer of shared resources. It comprises what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker term the "hewers of wood and drawers of water": a "motley crew" of apparently disorganized labor (The Many-Headed Hydra 40, 212).

Though Negri sometimes flirts with an almost Leninist vanguardism, the multitude rebels against party organization or the privileging of so-called advanced sectors. The exercise of constituent power is a matter of habit, not training, indoctrination, or even will. The multitude seeks connections based on what we already hold in common; its polyvalent powers of connection open up new bases for commonality.

Negri and Hardt reverse the narrative that claims that capitalism has already destroyed the commons, and that privatization is now rampant, especially after neoliberalism. They argue that we have more in common now than ever before, and that the stage is set for the "common name" of a Communist liberty to come. The love of the common people is to ensure this transformation of what is now either private interest or public command into an immanent utopia.

And yet it can be hard to distinguish the multitude from the actual dystopia of Empire. Hardt and Negri oppose the multitude's commonality to Empire's corruption, but their analysis of corruption is confused and contradictory.

Indeed, the common and the corrupt often overlap: both are products of informal and unsupervised networks. Again, the multitude is ambivalent and the state has no monopoly on corruption. The principle of commonality suggests that there can be no categorical distinction between multitude and Empire: if constituted power is merely a particular (de)formation of the constituent, the point is rather to distinguish between such formations, to find a protocol by which to set apart bad from good, rather than to affirm the multitude at every turn.

When it comes to the multitude, Negri's projective Marxism too quickly renounces critique.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


The Saturday photo, part V: with Peter Hallward in a Vancouver bar, following his talk on "Haiti and the Politics of Containment."

This blog has been once more in the doldrums for too long. More is to come.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


GibraltarThe Wednesday quotation, part X: I have just, rather belatedly, learned of George Sassoon's death.

I met George a number of times, many years ago, on the Isle of Mull. On the first occasion, it was the morning after what had evidently been a long night in which he had set out to disprove, by direct and copious scientific experimentation with himself as the guinea pig, the notion that whisky and oysters were a combination fatal to the human frame. He wrote the Island's telephone directory, which included an entry for his cow. He would talk of tram parties in Vienna with Erich Von Daniken.
Despite increasing illness from a slow-moving cancer, George Sassoon remained interested in many aspects of life. He liked to attend conferences on extra-terrestrial activity, and wrote a number of articles on the subject.

He was also a keen student of international affairs, advocating a solution to the problem of Gibraltar that involved offering Spain a reciprocal enclave in southern England - perhaps Dover or Folkestone - which would become a centre for bullfighting and other facets of Spanish life. ("George Sassoon". Daily Telegraph [March 17, 2006])

Saturday, April 26, 2008


There's much talk from the educational technology community about both Wikis and Web 2.0, as well as about the use of third-party applications or sites such as Wikipedia. There's also been a fair amount of excitement about my Murder, Madness, and Mayhem project.

But I notice that in practice not many of these folk are very active on Wikipedia itself. Look for instance at the edit histories of BrLamb (talk about modest!), Nessman, Jgroom (more respectable, that), or even Downes (perhaps especially these three edits!).

So I officially and publicly issue my Wikipedia EduTech challenge: that representatives of the EduTech community work on any one of the many lamentably poor articles in their field, and get them up to at least Good article status, ideally Featured article status, within the next sixty days.

Better than simply lamenting their awfulness, eh?

I issue this challenge to the following individuals: Gardner Campbell, Stephen Downes, Barbara Ganley, Jim Groom, Brian Lamb, Scott Leslie, Alan Levine, Chris Lott, D'Arcy Norman, and David Wiley.

Obviously, others should feel free to join in (Henry Jenkins? I know he's seen this page...), but that's already quite a team. Sixty days is generous!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Looking for Wikipedia's Featured Article number 2000?

Look no further.

I'm so proud of these people!

Monday, March 31, 2008


“Life and Letters”
(Beneath the Bathtub, the Ocean)

David's Death of MaratWhen we first meet the General, he is in the bath. But this is not so much a place for cleansing refreshment and revitalizaton: it is more of a watery grave. As the General’s loyal aide and manservant, José Palacios, catches sight of his master floating naked with his eyes open in the bath’s purgative waters, he believes that the great man has drowned.

Not that the General’s demise is marked by tragedy. On the contrary: Palacios reads on the semi-submerged body before him the signs of an “ecstacy” that is reserved only for those who are no longer of this world. The General is known for his habit of bathtime meditation; he has now simply gone a step further, and entered a state of blessedness that is no longer mortal, no longer human. No wonder Palacios approaches with trepidation, fearful of coming too close. The General is his master, but the master’s death promises not liberation but rather a new form of enchantment. Palacios softly calls to the inert form in the tub, fulfilling his orders to wake the General up even if he senses that the great man is now beyond the call of a human voice. Palacios’s is a voz sorda: a lowered or whispered voice, but also literally a deaf voice, an unhearing sound that calls out without the expectation of response from an unhearing ear.

In fact, however, the supposed corpse in the bath does respond. The General Simón Bolívar (for it is he) emerges from his stupor, his state of enchantment, and with unexpected force and grace he rises from the waters. Yet even this sudden rush of energy is compared to the “spirit of a dolphin”: an animal that leaps above the waves only to fall back down almost as soon as it has appeared. The General Bolívar, asleep or awake, is in his labyrinth. And in the book that this incident introduces, Gabriel García Márquez’s El general en su laberinto, the great Latin American Liberator will remain always on the verge, hovering somewhere between life and death, reason and ecstasy, the dazzling surface and the deadening deep.

And so also, perhaps more importantly, the General as García Márquez depicts him is also endlessly hovering between his mortal body and his impulse to mastery, between the material depradations of his encroaching illnesses and his continued ambition to construct and consolidate a united Latin American republic. Throughout what will follow, an account of his watery passage down the Magdalena river from upland Bogotá to the Caribbean sea, the General is, in other words, rather precariously suspended between biology and politics, the two poles, as Roberto Esposito observes, of what we have come to call biopolitics. Simón Bolívar, the body in the bathtub, is the biopolitical subject par excellence.

Read more... (.pdf document)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Wikipedia logo"Was introducing wikipedia to the classroom an act of madness leading only to mayhem if not murder?"

At present, wikipedia hovers at the fringes of academia, like an unwelcome ghost. Wikipedia's aims are eminently academic, concerned with collecting, storing, and transmitting knowledge. Judging by the number of the site's articles and readers, it has been remarkably successful at promoting a culture of intellectual inquiry. Yet it is fairly consistently derided by academics themselves.

Still, everybody uses it, in one way or another, even if they might want not to admit to the fact. Above all, our students use it, openly or otherwise (as they are often explicitly told not to cite wikipedia article in term papers), but without necessarily knowing how it works. They are told that wikipedia is bad, but they are not often told why; and of course, they find it an incredibly useful resource.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008


FreeloaderThe Wednesday quotation, part IX: A traveller is shocked to learn that they speak foreign in France.
Not only did no one not speak the language, they had also seen us as just a bunch of freeloading backpackers, which is the complete opposite of what the pilgrimage is really about. ("Language Barrier Scuppers Walker", BBC News)
This guy seems to have as much difficulty with English as with French. And how exactly was his "pilgrimage" "the complete opposite" of freeloading?

Monday, March 03, 2008


Still more Roa Bastos...

The Body

"Usted mismo, Señor, dice que los hechos no son narrables" (568)

As much as this is a book about language or power, it is also a book about the limits of both, which it identifies at least in part with the materiality of the body. Indeed, even history, in so far as it is a narrative of or about power, finds its limit in the physicality (and corruptibility) of the matter that constitutes us. In fact, the book's broad narrative could perhaps be summarized in terms of an attempt to use language to stave off the bodily dissolution threatened by the anonymous decree, an attempt ultimately doomed to failure as the Supreme recognizes the futility of the struggle to impose narrative on events.

The main body of the book (and that the book also has a body is not insignificant) ends with a conflagration engulfing the Supreme's papers, and a vision of the dictator's body consumed by worms. We take, I think, this to be the conflagration that has partially destroyed the texts with which the compiler constructs the novel we have before us. That the compiler is continually forced to interpolate comments (more frequent in the final pages than hitherto) indicating the state of these texts (burnt, illegible, missing) reminds us that language has to be incarnated in some physical medium for it to be transmitted. We are constantly reminded that literature has a real (not simply an ideal) presence, that the letter is also material, and so subject to the vicissitudes that may befall all material things. At the same time, the partial survival of the Supreme's papers point to another, contrasting aspect to the letter's materiality: the fact that the dictator is unable fully to destroy his papers demonstrates that once committed to paper his thoughts have a stubborn presence that cannot easily be revoked. In short, the paradox of materiality is that it is both obstinately resistant to change and yet also always mutable, never self-similar.

Likewise, then, the Supreme's predicament might be described as a combination of the fact that his written or spoken dictates are insufficiently powerful to provide him with absolute power over the Paraguayan social body, yet his words will inevitably prove more durable than his own decaying flesh. On the one hand, his power is not powerful enough; on the other, his power far outstrips his own body.

Traditionally, one way in which to conceptualize this second dislocation between the mortality of those who wield power and the presumed eternity of power itself revolves around the concept of the "king's two bodies." As a subject of power, the king's body is incorruptible and immortal, transcending any particular individual (hence the instantaneousness of transition articulated in the declaration "The king is dead, long live the king!"); as a human subject, however, it is recognized that the king's body may suffer illness and decrepitude. The separation between "yo" and "él" that we see in Roa Bastos's novel expresses therefore not only a linguistic complexity, but also a material doubling. Yet even in this neat solution to the question of power's materiality, problems arise in the intricate relation between these two bodies. What happens, for instance, when the king seems to go mad (as with George III)? And, more fundamentally, rather than preserving an ideal, untouchable body is not this doubling itself a form of monstrosity?

As an attempt to resolve these contradictions, the Supreme's discourse therefore attempts a constant dialogue between language itself and materiality. Yet this is always inevitably a failed dialogue, as there can be no dialogue between language and what is not language; by definition a dialogue can only be established within language. The material will always remain forever mute and (at least in part) unknowable.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


More on Roa Bastos's Yo el supremo...


"En cuanto a mí veo ya el pasado confundido con el futuro" (369)

I the Supreme is a historical novel in more than one sense of this phrase. In the first place, it is a novel set in the past: Roa Bastos has chosen to write about a figure who had been dead over a century by the time of the book's publication. In this sense (and not unlike even the "pulp fiction" of, say, a Catherine Cookson) the novel functions to animate or dramatise--bring to life or "make real"--a period with which its readers will have no direct experience. Historical fiction works (and finds much of its justification) because of the way in which the license allowed to the novelist enables him or her to fill in the gaps left the historical record, to give us some imagined sense of what it must have been like to live in a particular epoch or now past period by giving us the emotions, voices (often interior or psychological) voices and motivations that have not survived in the archive of historical documentation. Here, the historical novel points to and makes use of the deficiencies of other forms of history.

Second, however, this novel also quotes and uses these same historical sources; it is not merely set in the past, it also provides us with excerpts from many of the kinds of documents that professional historians also use to shed light on the actual events and figures that it also treats fictionally. Often therefore we are presented both with a fictionalized version of situations or happenings and (by means of the footnotes, a device more usually found in texts that are thought to be factual) also a version of those same situations as they have been recorded in documents, letters, and publications of the nineteenth century. On several occasions these different accounts seem to contradict each other: to be more precise, the "compiler" presents the historical record as a correction to the account that is presented in the voice of the Supreme. Here, the novel would seem to be pointing to the deficiencies of either memory (if we take the Supreme's narrative at face value as a remembrance of incidents in which he has played a part) or fiction itself.

Third, then, this is also a novel that thematizes history as one of its key concerns. This thematization takes place on a number of levels, one of which involves the way in which the Supreme (above all in his "perpetual circular," an ascription that also has something to say about the writing of history) narrates the historical foundation of the Paraguayan republic, and his role in the construction of the nation, in part to justify and legitimate his own hold on power in the (novel's) present. At the same time, prompted by the reminder of his mortality that opens the story (the "historia" in Spanish), the Supreme is also concerned to establish a sense of his legacy to the country. Hence there is a concern with history as it is written (and as it is therefore perpetuated), as opposed to history as it is (mis)remembered in an oral tradition. The novel thus repeats (or mirrors) on another level some of the concerns that we have also seen shared by the compiler, that is, the difference between memory (or myth) and written, documented, history.

Finally (though there is as always much more that could be said), the novel is historical in the sense that it was written at a particular historical conjuncture (now over thirty years past), that is, the epoch in which dictatorial or military regimes ruled in many Latin American countries, not least Paraguay (under Stroessner), and at a point when Argentina (where the book was written) was also about to be subject to the military coup of 1976. We can therefore read the book in the light of the historical context of its production--as well as the context of a literary history for which, some argue, this is the last great modernist novel of world literature (or the first great postmodernist novel of Latin American literature).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Some old notes on Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo el supremo, which follow on from a previous post on dictation, which dealt with language in the novel:


Dr Francia"Here the generality of the people is embodied in the State. Here I can affirm with perfect reason: I-am-the-State, since the people have made me their supreme potestate" (166)

In the first and last instance, I the Supreme is a novel about power. As we have seen, the title itself is a declaration of power and authority: power is here made to speak, performatively. The first person declares himself to be first among the equals that constitute the republic in a relation of apposition that is to go without saying, for "I, the Supreme" presupposes the initial foundation "I am the Supreme." This foundation is to be taken for granted; the Supreme insists that he (and only he) has the right to speak as supreme authority. He is the state.

But as we have seen, the novel also revolves around the fact that the parody found pinned to the cathedral door threatens to undermine this assumption of supreme power. It would seem that somebody is attempting to usurp the Supreme's right to absolute authority by forging his authorship of state decrees. Hence the book threatens to undo the assumption contained within its title, and the Supreme finds himself forced to justify and so (re)legitimate his place as head of state. The novel unfolds as an anatomy not only of power but also of (potential) counter-powers.

The dictator reasserts his right to supreme authority not only through repression but also by narratively re-enacting the history of the state's coming into being, its struggle for independence first from Spanish rule and second from the threat posed by the neighboring states of Argentina and Brazil. Thus the Supreme re-tells the story not only of the battles but also (more importantly from his standpoint) of the negotiations in which he played a key part in maintaining Paraguay's autonomy as the various parts of what was previously the Spanish Empire reconstituted themselves as sovereign nations. The establishment of Paraguayan sovereignty is represented as a process that is both material and discursive, a question of force and persuasion. Even the most absolute of dictatorial powers feels the need for discursive legitimation.

We should note particularly that the discourse to which the dictator has recourse establishes Paraguay as a distinctively modern state, and thus the Supreme's power as a specifically modern power, in so far as his narrative is one that invokes the people as the source of legitimate power. Rather than the divine right that was invoked to justify monarchical power, the Supreme appeals to the notion of a social contract as elaborated by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, he signals that he is more modern than the Argentina delegation who come to Asunción with their talk of power politics and pragmatics. He is frustrated that there is not more opportunity to talk further about the principles of political philosophy and their adaptability to the nascent American republics: "I would have liked to discuss at that moment the principles of the Social Contract as applied to our countries" (205). Paraguay was, after all, the first Latin American republic, and the Supreme's concern is in part how to found this new type of regime from the ashes of a discredited Empire.

Rousseau's notion of the Social Contract is an attempt to legitimate the State through reason and consent, rather than tradition (or theology). A newly independent Paraguay has no republican tradition on which it can draw (and has turned its back on the church). All that remains is reason, and it is important to recognize therefore that the Supreme is a profoundly rational man in so far as his power is founded upon reason's dictates. This is so even as and when we see his reason dissolving or becoming unreasonable. We should still see that his attempts to consolidate his power have also to be presented at attempts to ward off the irrational. And after all, in so far as his power is undercut, it is never by reasoned argument, but rather by parody, multiplicity, or material decay (of either his body or his text).

What we have, therefore, is a hyper-politicized version of Borges's concern with the limits of reason. In the person of the Supreme, the Borgesian preoccupation with reason and order is immediately also a concern with the legitimation of the social. The crisis that afflicts the dictator (and if this is a novel about power, it is also a novel about power in crisis) concerns the extent to which not only his will but also rationality itself can be imposed upon a recalcitrant world. There is an echo of Hamlet, here quoted in the dictator's conversation with the Robertsons--"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will!" (129). The Supreme's wager is that he can invoke a republican power that supersedes the things of heaven and earth: "I am the final judge. I can decide how things will go. Contrive the facts. Invent the events" (196).

In a sense, then, dictatorship is presented not so much as the power of the individual counterposed against that of the people, for the people, the State, and the individual are a single entity incarnated in the body of the people's supreme representative; rather dictatorship here involves the attempt to assert the power of reason over that of history.