Tuesday, November 30, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010


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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


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

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

Normal service will, I hope, be resumed soon.

Friday, November 12, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And 116,700 read it.

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

I should be less blasé about this.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


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

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poshegemonía (cont.)

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 06, 2010


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

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


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

Get it here.

Friday, November 05, 2010


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

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

Some quick, perhaps contrarian, thoughts...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: and now a follow-up here.

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010


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