Thursday, December 13, 2012


Here is my contribution to a recent workshop on "Beyond Walls: Teaching and Learning in the Open." This was part of UBC's Open Access week.

I start from a brief discussion of my Wikipedia project from a few years ago, Murder, Madness, and Mayhem. I go on, however, to a more general discussion of the role of the university at a time when there is both increasing production of the common and ever new attempts to construct new enclosures that would restrict and commodify our common knowledge and intellect.

In particular, I talk about the possibilities for a program I'm teaching on at the moment, Arts One. More on this soon...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


It's been too long since I last posted... I hope to tend to this blog a little more in the new year.

In the meantime, this is simply to point to another review of Posthegemony, by José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra in the Revista de Estudios Hispánicos (46.3 [October 2012]: 577-78).

Ruisánchez's strikes me as a fair assessment. He concludes:

En parte gracias a Posthegemony resulta inaplazable pensar las implicaciones entre estudios culturales y populismo, así como la alianza entre la teoría de la sociedad civil y el status quo neoliberal. Pero no creo que mediante un abandono total de sus aportaciones anteriores. Acaso allí se muestra la ansiedad del primer libro. El uso de la tríada afecto/hábito/multitud está lejos de llenar el espacio que se genera con la demolición de la alianza hegemonía/teoría de la sociedad civil/estudios culturales; hay que saber usar las ruinas. Su abandono total es el producto más obvio del capitalismo académico, acaso más temible y aliado de la hegemonía neoliberal que otras prácticas que se critican en el libro. Si finalmente es difícil discernir entre multitud e imperio o entre buena y mala multitud (257), ¿qué las vuelve un horizonte deseable para la teoría y la práctica actuales?

Friday, October 26, 2012


Beyond the fact that they make for a rather more attractive package, the many illustrations in the Norton edition of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation rightly turn our attention to the poem's obsession with things, with physical objects.

On every other page, facing the text itself, are bowls, ships, goblets, shields, arrows, helmets, jewelry, chainmail and the like, all lovingly photographed for our visual pleasure. The pictures neatly reflect and resonate with the poem's own concern with objects that are sometimes so distinctive that they even earn a name for themselves--such as Hrunting, the weapon lent to Beowulf before his fateful encounter with the monster Grendel's frightful mother. Hrunting is described as "a rare and ancient sword," an "iron blade" whose "ill-boding patterns had been tempered in blood" (1458, 1459-60). It fits well with the warrior's "mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail" and his "glittering helmet [. . .] of beaten gold, / princely headgear hooped and hasped / by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders" (1444, 1448, and 1150-52).

In the gift-exchange economy of Dark Ages Europe, heroic deeds and political alliances lead to the accumulation of still more stuff. Once Beowulf has slain the monster and his mother, a grateful King Hrothgar promises that "for as long as I rule this far-flung land / treasures will change hands and each side will treat / the other with gifts" (1859-61). And good as his word, he showers the young prince and his men with artifacts of the highest quality so that by the time Beowulf heads for home he is "glorious in his gold regalia" and their ship is "cargoed with treasure, horses and war-gear" (1881, 1897).

Beowulf has already himself presented Hrothgar with a thing of considerable value: not merely the service he rendered in ridding the land of its demons, but also the hilt from a sword that he had grabbed during the melée in the mother's watery refuge. If anything this "relic of old times" is even more impressive and fascinating than Hrunting, with its "rare smithwork" and its "rune-marking correctly incised" and its engravings in gold that tell the story of "how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants" (1688, 1679, 1695, 1689-90). This is an object that can be read to reveal something of days long gone by. The weapon's adornment is more than mere decoration or ostentatious display; it recounts the history that makes the weapon necessary in the first place.

Likewise the hoard guarded by the dragon in the later sections of the poem also comes from an epoch long before the time when the action the narrative describes takes place. It is buried by the last survivor of a once-great civilization who realizes that, with the community that gives it meaning gone, "his joy / in the treasure would be brief" (2240-41). Interring "all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving" this last survivor consigns them to the earth, from which the raw material had originally been taken: "It was mined from you first / [. . .] I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup" (2248, 2252-54).

In pre-capitalist societies, treasure is not fully fungible. It doesn't circulate with ease--only as the result of either heroic action or as pillage of war. When the community founders, the meaning it confers wavers and is soon lost. Indeed, when Beowulf in turn dies, he has nobody to whom he can bequeath his armour. With his funeral, his treasure will be consumed as "his royal pyre / will melt no small amount of gold: / heaped there in a hoard" (3010-12).

All that is left is the rather more precarious medium of speech and song, the lament of the woman mourner who cries out in "a wild litany of nightmare and lament" (3152-53). And of course the poem, Beowulf: passed down orally for a couple of centuries before it is transcribed somewhere around 1000AD, whose one manuscript copy is almost itself consumed by fire in 1731, and which now survives, a precious object in its own right, in the British Museum. As the Museum website explains, "the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care."

Fortunately, mass production and the publishing industry ensure that the text and this beautiful book now circulate freely, if at a fairly hefty price. A New York Times bestseller and sumptuously illustrated edition, this is a coffee-table book of distinction. No doubt more displayed and admired than read, it shows that cultural capital and presumed status still adhere to and are conveyed by objects as stubbornly today as in feudal Britain.

Monday, October 22, 2012


If Oedipus has a tragic flaw, then it’s surely beside the point to talk of “pride” or the like. Or at best it’s incidental.

For what’s striking about Oedipus’s predicament is how hard he has tried to avoid it. It’s not as though he ends up killing his father and sleeping with his mother by accident, out of some negligence or lapse. Rather, he’s spent the better part of his life trying to ensure that he never sees his parents again. All from the very best of intentions.

Oedipus is in every sense of the term (except the one that counts) a “good guy.” He works ardently for both public and private good, and is loved by all for his efforts. He wears his heart on his sleeve and never shirks responsibility: “Here I am myself [. . .] I am Oedipus” (7, 8). Called upon to resolve the trauma Thebes is suffering, to rid the city of the plague, he pledges to do his best in every way, and to put all of his formidable energy to work. He feels his people’s pain: “I have wept through the nights, you must know that, / groping, laboring over many paths of thought” (78-9). He’s no distant tyrant, savoring the delights of power and luxury. He feels personally invested in the search for the old king Laius’s murderer, even though it happened before he arrived in the city, even though it would be easy enough simply to blame the people who were there then for burying the trauma at the time.

In short, Oedipus is the very model of the ideal modern politician. Would that there were more like him. And not only because at the end he (almost literally) falls on his sword for something that was not really his fault, assuming responsibility for a disaster he never intended to bring about and circumstances that he could never have avoided.

Except that the irony is that if it weren’t for his impeccably good intentions, everything would undoubtedly have turned out very differently. It was only because he fled Corinth, seeking to avoid his fate, that he met Laius at the crossroads. And it was only because he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, so freeing Thebes from the monster’s malevolent presence, that he can marry Jocasta and taint her, too, with the blot of incestuous union.

In other words, it’s not just that his good intentions don’t save him. They are what get him into all this trouble in the first place. They are his tragic flaw.

All too often over the past decade or so, politicians have tried to cloak themselves in the defence of good intentions. Some years back David Runciman wrote a marvelous article about Tony Blair, who appealed always to his own high-minded humanitarianism and sense of conscience as exculpation for the disasters that ensued on his watch. Indeed, in part this was precisely his justification (for example) for the war on Iraq: yes, the people in their hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets against military action on such a shaky foundation. But the Prime Minister argued that the fact that he went to war anyway (whether or not he "sexed up" dodgy dossiers and the like en route) showed that he was not some populist swayed by the views of the many. He was a principled man who followed his own sense of right and wrong.

My colleague and friend Max Cameron at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions would no doubt applaud this concern for morality and ethics amid--and against--the tumult of democratic politics.

There's no need to doubt the intentions. We might even be prepared to admit that Blair was and is a "good" man. Precisely the kind of good person that some want to see more of in politics. But if Blair's example alone isn't enough, then Oedipus the King reminds us of the bad that good men do.

Or to put it another way: this is a further argument against meritocracy, our contemporary form of what the Greeks themselves called "aristocracy."

Monday, October 15, 2012


[This is a response to Timothy Brennan's keynote presentation, "The Problem of Unevenness: Peripheral Aesthetics and Imperial Form," presented at the "Negative Cosmopolitanisms: Abjection, Power, and Biopolitics" conference, Edmonton, Alberta, October 2012.]

“Peripheral Modernism. A Response to Tim Brennan”

Tim Brennan provides us with a provocative, forthright, and challenging presentation. Indeed, though one hesitates to call it “ironic,” given the rather critical things that Brennan himself has to say about irony (which he claims “is based on the subject setting itself up as supreme”), it is notable that a paper that opens by excoriating a “combat mode” of theory is itself strikingly combative. Brennan takes shots at entire swathes of the contemporary Humanities: at the “graduate students and young professors” who mistake theory for combat, but also at those who prefer a “radical indecisionism” that is either complementary to or indistinguishable from (or perhaps merely “athwart”) the pseudo-radicalism of their colleagues. He goes on to argue that “a kind of neo-Socratic position [...] is everywhere around us today in the academy,” a stance that is in fact not a stance but is rather designed only to “establish [the speaker’s] superiority over the supposedly rough, impetuous, and naïve adherents to actual positions.”

Everywhere Brennan sees what he terms “louche” theorizing: “an intentionally cloudy, squint-eyed perspective [...] secretive writing, words intended for initiates and hidden from the vulgar public.” No names are provided, but apparently Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory is a hotbed for this stuff: a mere “simulacrum of revolution”; “a romance with death”; Humanists who are “against humans”; “conservatives of modernist literary cast.” It’s worth unpacking this last very condensed series of epithets: it’s not enough to say that they (we?) are (secretly, unbeknownst even to ourselves) conservatives; we are also unoriginally “cast” from a single mold whose deformity can be traced back to the pernicious influence of both modernism and literature. By contrast, then, Brennan offers us idiosyncrasy and originality (“it has not generally been recognized [...] it has gone completely unremarked”) that is saved from quirkiness or the pernicious conformity of mere novelty by its steadfast refusal of both modernism and the literary “double-entendre.” Brennan calls on distinguished forbears--the Marxist intellectuals of the interwar period, above all--in order to break free from the “irony” that, he alleges, “inhibit[s] our ability to make sense of the imperialist common sense of the present.” He proposes instead an anti-imperialist common sense that has no truck with the “effeteness of literary modernism.” In brief, I don’t think that an “anti-imperialist” common sense is much improvement on an imperialist one; and I’m suspicious of all homilies, and suggest that you should be, too. But back to Brennan’s project: naturally enough, cosmopolitanism is out (being merely the “literary ethos” appropriate to “the imperial aspects of globalization”). Again, however, it is surely ironic that he marshals in support of this anti-cosmopolitan, anti-literary, anti-elitism a “who’s who” of third-world literary intellectuals, practically all of whom are male, middle-class, and ethnically privileged, from Chinua Achebe to César Vallejo, Alejo Carpentier to Mo Yan.

Read more... (pdf file)

Monday, September 24, 2012


As Rodgers and Hammerstein might have put it: How do you solve a problem like Medea? But of course if Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music turns out to be not such a problem at all, in that her carefree ways make her a bad novice nun but a terrific governess and mother, in Euripides's Medea the title character is the very image of a "bad mother" and in significant ways the problem that she represents is never fully resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

But what is Medea's problem? Is it that she is an outsider in Corinth, to which she has fled with her husband Jason and their small children, unable to fit in or be accepted? Is it indeed that she is a non-Greek, a barbarian, who has to be expelled for the sake of social order and collective harmony? Is it that she is a woman, whom Jason feels he can drop in favour of a rather more advantageous match with the Corinthian King's daughter? Or is it that she is not enough of a woman, that she doesn't know that her role should be submissive and accepting in the face of Jason's pragmatic actions to maintain his fame and his legacy? Is she too emotional, too hysterical and so allows herself to be carried away by her anger and desire for vengeance, enough so as to commit the terrible act of murdering the King, the princess, and worst of all her two young offspring? Is she a monster? Is she crazy?

Or is her problem, by contrast, that she is too rational, too clever even for her own good? That far from turning away from or refusing the conventions of Greek democracy, she takes them to their limit, to the point at which the social contract is itself shown to be insane, unnatural, and monstrous?

In essence, Medea's complaint is that Jason has broken his contract with her. She insisted he make a promise to "love / and honor" her because, aware of the fickleness of familial and affective ties (having herself betrayed her father and killed her brother), she "thought only great oaths would keep / him bound" to her (163-66). Medea believes in such contracts, and believes that the Greeks do, too. Hence she also presses the Athenian King, Aegeus, to "restate [his] promise" that he will give her shelter in his city "as an oath. Only then will I feel secure. [. . .] An oath / Will keep your promises safe against / [her enemies'] powerful inducements to give me up" (725-26; 729-31). And indeed, despite what she has done, at the end Aegeus does provide her sanctuary in Athens. An oath is a solemn thing; the Corinthian Chorus agrees that, with Jason's (literal) disavowal of his bond to Medea "the spell of trust is broken" (444). The danger is that as a result everyone sees that trust is "merely" a spell, a form of words with no power over reality. If Jason's betrayal goes unpunished, then the putative basis of social order, the entire framework of civic incantations and declarations, may come to seem null and void.

Medea, in short, kills her children (and so ruins Jason and destroys his lineage) in order to uphold the social contract. Her claim is that our actions should not be guided either by passing whims or short-term pragmatism. The spell of trust must be maintained by insisting on the harshest of consequences for those who break it. And if Medea is an outsider, this only proves that those who most insist that society keeps its promises are those who have only the promise to depend on. Medea can't make any claims otherwise on affect, habit, or the connections that she could count on if she had grown up in the Greek polis, rubbing shoulders with neighbours and citizens.

But by insisting on the point, Medea inadvertently reveals that the contract is not fundamentally the basis of Greek sociability at all. The Corinthians are aghast: they admit that Medea is consistently in the right, that she has indeed made her case and invoked all the logic and reason that is on her side. Her clever use of argument bears out her threat that her "words / will pin [Jason] to the mat" (592-93). Yet the Chorus protests that her "justice [is] too harsh / for Jason's heartless crimes" (973-74). They plead for mercy, for the suspension of the law rather than Medea's single-minded determination to see the proper consequences follow Jason's precipitating actions.

To put this another way: the Chorus argues for the logic of exception, for the sovereign decision that comes not from following the law but from suspending it. They also thereby reveal the dirty little secret of Greek democracy (and perhaps democracy tout court): that in the end its promises are always at least potentially worthless; that the struggle for hegemony, for consensus, is but a distraction; and that those in power will always ignore the rules if it suits them. In the end, this is the problem of Medea.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


The Odyssey is structured around repeated dramas of (mis)recognition: who is he? what is this? who am I? But no recognition scene is more crucial than the one in which Odysseus finally reveals himself to his son Telemachus. For this is always more a story about fathers and sons than it is about husbands and wives.

Penelope is at best a foil: her task is to keep a place open for the rightful head of the household, and therefore to fend off the suitors' attempt to fill the void left by her husband's long absence. But by the time that Odysseus returns, Telemachus finally has a claim to that spot, as is shown by his curt treatment of his mother in Book One: "So mother, / go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, / the distaff and the loom [. . .] As for giving orders / me will see to that, but I most of all: / I hold the reins of power in this house" (1:409-414). The irony, of course, is that it is precisely by tending to "the distaff and the loom" that, in the long span during which Telemachus has been growing up, Penelope has in fact surreptitiously been holding the reins of power--or rather, preventing anyone else from taking them up.

But by Book Sixteen, Odysseus is back and ready (or as ready as he will ever be) to take his place and reassert order in what has become a household turned upside down, in which the guests have abused the code of hospitality by which Greek society is shown to cohere. The suitors have to be killed because they have confused the roles of host and guest. Odysseus will be the unwanted guest, the beggar at the threshold, who asserts his right to host--and to deny hospitality.

Telemachus, however, takes some persuading that his father has returned. Though Athena returns Odysseus to his former appearance (perhaps making him look still more like the younger man who originally embarked to war against Troy: "taller, supple, young" [16:197]), the son assumes that his transformation indicates divinity: "this must be some god [. . .] surely you are some god who rules the vaulting skies!" (16:202, 206). Even after "long-enduring" Odysseus clarifies twice--"No, I am not a god [. . .] No, I am your father" (16:209, 212)--his son continues to be skeptical. "No, you're not Odysseus! Not my father! / Just some spirit spellbinding me now [. . .] you seem like a god who rules the skies up there!" (16:220-21, 228). It is only after our hero repeats himself once more that Telemachus finally accepts that his father has finally returned.

What then? How does one treat a man, as opposed to a god? If the poem repeatedly confuses the distinction between divinity and humanity (if a son cannot recognize his father, who can be sure who is what?), then what is the key difference?

The answer is simple: you ask a man to tell you his story.

As soon as Telemachus has it clear in his mind that he is dealing with his father rather than a god, he comes out with all sorts of questions: "What sort of ship, dear father, brought you here?-- / Ithaca, at last. Who did the sailors say they are? / I hardly think you came back home on foot!" (16:252-54). And these questions echo the queries put to Odysseus by the loyal swineherd, who never doubted that the man before him (even if he didn't recognize him) was a mortal like himself: "Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents? / What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors / land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are? / I hardly think you came this way on foot" (14:215-19). In turn, these questions also echo the myriad queries made of any guest throughout the epic. Nestor to Telemachus: "Strangers--friends, who are you? / Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?" (3:79-80); the queen of the Phaeacians to Odysseus: "Who are you? Where are you from? / Who gave you the clothes you're wearing now? / Didn't you say you reached us roving on the sea?" (7:274-76). And so on and so forth.

Men tell stories. They tell stories about themselves, their ships, their crewmates, their clothes. And of course they also tell stories about their exploits, their families, their gods. This is how they reward the hospitality they receive. More importantly, this is what makes them human. And there is nothing more human, then, than the Odyssey itself: one long story about men, ships, crewmates, clothes, exploits, families, and gods.

The gods themselves do not tell stories. The appropriate reaction to a god is not to elicit narrative, but (as Telemachus makes clear) to make them promises of gifts and sacrifices: "Oh be kind, and we will give you offerings, / gifts of hammered gold to warm your heart" (16:207-8). Men tell stories about gods; the gods accept sacrifices from men.

So stories--discourse, narrative--are essential to human intercourse. No wonder every guest is asked to tell his tale. And in an oral culture, he tale told is all the more important: it is the performance of narrative that assures our humanity. But at the same time, the recognition that performance can also be "only" an act, a tall tale, a means of deception, provokes great distrust and ambivalence. Odysseus, after all, tells great stories. But even after insisting to the swineherd that he "hate[s] that man like the very Gates of Death who, / ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies" (14:182-83), he goes on to tell the most elaborate of whopping falsehoods about "hail[ing] from Crete's broad land" (14:228).

Tale-telling is what makes us human, and how we relate to each other as humans, but it is also inherently unreliable, untrustworthy.

It is no surprise then that the only two characters who recognize Odysseus on their own account are either strangers to language (the master's loyal dog; 17: 330-31) or do so by reading some rather more material sign. The old nurse, Eurycleia, is washing her former charge down when "in a flash, she knew the scar" (19:445) left on his knee by a boar many years earlier. Eurycleia reads Odysseus's body directly, and as such is the only human to sound out the truth before the king himself makes himself known to them.

The mark on the body, a sort of primitive writing of injury and affect, shows up the precarious humanity of the tall tale that is The Odyssey itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:
I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

[. . .]

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, "The Naked and the TED ". The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Watching this footage (which I've just come across) gives me goosebumps.

It comes from a pro-Sandinista solidarity concert held in Nicaragua in 1983, billed as a "concierto por la paz centroamericana." The soundtrack was released as "April in Managua." I used to own the cassette version, which I was given in Honduras sometime around 1988. I practically wore it out listening to it.

Wikipedia tells me that Alí Primera, the singer here, died a couple of years later, at the age of 42, which only adds further poignancy to this video.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Guy de Maupassant's "Toine" is (much like "The Little Cask") something of a parable of economic theory.

Toine, the eponymous innkeeper, is the very model of productive consumption. He is the biggest fan of his own product: the cognac that he calls "extra-special," which he declares to be "the best in France." His zealous praise of his own produce gives him his nickname, "Toine-My-Extra-Special," and his loquacity and cheeriness draw customers from miles around, "for fat Toine would make a tombstone laugh."

But what makes him special (and presumably what makes him cheery) is also his prodigious appetite, which is itself a marvel for visitors to this out-of-the-way hamlet, sheltered in a ravine from the ocean winds: "merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him."

This consumption, however, is not simply wasteful or a drain on his resources. It is in fact what makes his business profitable. Consumption and acquisition are happily mixed in Toine's gregarious nature: "His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash."

Toine is a poster boy for profitable sybaritism. He is a living rejoinder to miserliness on the one hand, and the Protestant work ethic on the other.

And this is surely what irks his wife. She is angered by the fact that her husband "earned his money without working." The story's narrative, then, is devoted to her efforts to turn him into something more like a laborer: to reap profit not from his consumption but from a more stringent (and more morally acceptable) program of regimentation and discipline.

So she makes Toine into a broody hen.

Laid up after an apoplectic fit (the fruit of his excessive enjoyment, though it hardly slows him down: he sets up a regular domino game by his bedside and he would still "have made the devil himself laugh"), Toine is forced to keep his wife's chickens' eggs warm. For the long, anxious gestation season, his movements are even more radically restricted: he can no longer turn to left or right, for fear of "plunging him[self] into the midst of an omelette."

As time goes by, Toine, whom his wife has long regarded as more beast than man ("You'd be better in the sty with along with the pigs!") comes more and more to identify with the animal kingdom. There's something almost Kafkaesque about his gradual metamorphosis, if not into a pestilent cockroach but into a mother hen. His arms become like wings, under which his precious charges shelter.

And becoming animal is also (here at least) a becoming feminine: he manifests "the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother." No wonder that his is an "unusual sort of paternity" as he is transformed into "a remarkable specimen of humanity."

But the story is not so much about Toine's gradual animalization, and more about simply his increasing recognition of his animal status. For Maupassant treats all his characters as, frankly, beasts: Toine's wife "walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of a screech-owl"; his friend Prosper, whose idea the entire stratagem is, has "a ferret nose" and is "cunning as a fox." Another friend is if anything less human still: he is "somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree."

So perhaps Maupassant's final word is that, whichever economic regime they favour, and whether they choose the moral virtue of restraint or the sybaritic pleasures of unlicensed consumption, in the end all of his characters are animals. Either way, what you have are simply various modalities of affective labor. It's just that some are more in tune with this realization than others.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The Wednesday quotation, part XVII: Nathan Heller on TED:
TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. ("Listen and Learn: The TED Talk Phenomenon". New Yorker [July 9 and 16, 2012]: 73.)
I really dislike TED. For what it's worth, there's nothing I dislike more about it than the cult of the nauseous Sir Ken Robinson. But that's just a symptom, one among many. We could put it this way, rewriting TED's trademark slogan: they're not ideas, and they're not worth spreading. They're merely balm for the neoliberal soul, a cynical veneer of supposed intellectualism to leaven the effects of the market.

Friday, August 17, 2012


On a weeknight last year, my friend Alec and I found ourselves at the bar of Vancouver's newly renovated Hotel Georgia. This small bar, in an out of the way corner, is quiet at the best of times and downright sleepy on a Tuesday night. It is a good place to talk and hear yourself think; it has no televisions, no piped music. We had some cocktails and vowed we would be back.

A week or so later we did indeed return, and once again sat up at the bar where we briefly chatted to the bartender about the cocktail scene in Vancouver, asking him for suggestions of any other places he thought we might like in the city. He mentioned a couple of names and we went back to our own conversation. But just as we were leaving, the barman presented us with a sheet of hotel notepaper. This turned out to be a list of fifteen bars and restaurants titled, with something of a flourish, “Derek's Top Picks.” We thanked him and knew we had a mission.

Over the following months, we gradually made our way around all the establishments listed. When I proposed one of Derek's picks as a place to meet, I would explain that “It's on the list.”

We discovered that the list was fairly eclectic. Some places were high-end restaurants, others were dedicated cocktail lounges, while still others had few if any pretensions. Some were busy and full of hipsters; others were quiet and laid-back. Some specialized in classic cocktails, others advertised their creativeness with new recipes and bold combinations of flavours. But they all, without exception, made us some great drinks.

We often sat up at the bar and chatted to the barstaff. At first, we'd try to explain our mission and the fact that Derek had recommended them; everyone knew him, and bartenders often said they felt honoured to be included among his top picks. But we soon discovered we had no need to offer excuses. Cocktails are back in fashion these days, and a city like Vancouver has a vibrant community of increasingly knowledgeable mixers and consumers.

Finally, we finished our mission. We had tried all fifteen of Derek's top picks. We had a hard time ranking them, but some favourites included The Diamond (all wood and brick on a second-floor in Gastown), the Clough Club (which we went past a couple of times before noticing its understated façade), and the Keefer Bar (if it weren’t for the live music that chased us away). But it was time to report back.

We made our way to the Hotel Georgia and asked after Derek. The guy serving at the bar said that Derek had moved on; he was no longer with the hotel. He was not exactly sure where he was now. We exchanged a few words about this somewhat strange circumstance, but left it at that. It was only when the bartender had to go elsewhere for a minute or two that the other punter sitting at the bar turned to us and said “They don’t want to say it, but Derek is dead. Nobody knows exactly how or why, but some say it was suicide.”

And so it turns out. Derek Vanderheide, the 36-year old bar manager at the 1927 Lobby Lounge, had died back in March, while we were still following the route set out in Derek's Top Picks.

Naturally enough, there is now a cocktail in his honour: a mix of bourbon, rum, orgeat syrup, bitters, and Herbsaint anise liquor. But for Alec and myself, the legacy of our very brief encounter with Derek is his list, his knowledge of the local bar scene, and his passion for cocktails, which prompted us to experience the city in new ways.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


I also rather like this review, which is a pretty astute synthesis and translation of the book's main concerns. It ends:
La importancia de una propuesta co- mo Posthegemony ha sido reconocida, por ejemplo, en el hecho de haber alcanzado la única mención de honor que otorga el Katherine Sin- ger Kovacs Prize del MLA para las publicaciones del 2010. Pero sobre todo porque, en las múltiples cues- tiones que despierta, deja abierta la puerta para caminos que aún que- dan por transitar.
Francisco Angeles, Reseña. Revista de Crítica literaria latinoamericana 75 (2012): 510-514.

Monday, July 23, 2012


“We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 4).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


A blast from the past. Here I am speaking at Virtual Futures, Warwick, 1995:

Virtual Futures 1995 - Jon Beasley-Murray from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

But you know what: some of this made its way eventually into the book, Posthegemony.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Review of François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. Trans. Deborah Glassman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus surely has some of the most remarkable opening lines of any work of philosophy or cultural critique. First published in France in 1972, just a few years after the demonstrations of May 1968, its stylish bravado immediately reminds us of the attitudes struck by student agitators, and proclaims that their radical energies persist: “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, as other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id.” The original French is even more striking, playing on the fact that “id” and “it” are both “ça” (“Ça fonctionne partout . . . Quelle erreur d'avoir dit le ça.”). “It” is a machinic unconscious that is defined not by what it represents, but by what it produces: “Everywhere it is machines--real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (Anti-Oedipus 1). The question “what does it mean?” gives way to “how does it work?” As Deleuze and Guattari go on to declare in their second enquiry into “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” A Thousand Plateaus: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (A Thousand Plateaus 4). They therefore refuse any attempt to derive meaning from biography, to reduce the work to its author(s). Indeed, they disclaim authorship as anything but a matter of arbitrary convenience and custom: “Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. [. . .] We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied” (A Thousand Plateaus 3-4).

Read more... (.pdf file)

Friday, June 29, 2012


Alberto Moreiras has written a very nice article on the recent LASA Congress. It mainly comprises a series of reflections on the function played by the Congress itself and the trajectory of Latin American cultural studies over the past decade (a true "Latinamericanism since 9/11"). It then ends with some reflections on the discussions in San Francisco, via a rather promising account of posthegemony:
La posthegemonía es una modalidad de práctica teórica en la que caben innumerables tipos de análisis y tomas de postura, pues no es ni normativa ni prescriptiva: es sólo, y por lo pronto, el lugar de un posible encuentro capaz de generar pensamiento nuevo.

[. . .]

El término incluye de antemano su posibilidad crítica y resulta tan apropiado para pensar problemáticas estatales, es decir, en el registro del estado mismo y de la política de estado, como intra- o extraestatales (microfísicas comunitarias, regionales, ciudadanas o rurales, o bien macrofísicas de la globalización y su impacto), de marea rosada o neoliberales, populistas o no. Y en la medida no menor es que su productividad crítica está lejos de reducirse al pensamiento de lo político: constituiría también una herramienta fundamental para pensar la cultura, y con ella todas las modalidades de presentación de lo visible (estéticas, poéticas) al margen de postulados meramente identitarios. Tiene la capacidad de intervenir en cuanto crítica del conocimiento porque es antes que nada crítica de la ideología, y tiene la capacidad de proponer rearticulaciones políticas e intelectuales de todo tipo.

Alberto Moreiras, "¿Puedo madrugarme a un narco? Posiciones críticas en la Asociación de Estudios Latinoamericanos". FronteraD (June 27, 2012).

Thursday, June 28, 2012


“Prospero’s Book: On John Beverley's Latinamericanism After 9/11
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.
-- The Tempest, Act 5, Epilogue
John Beverley presents himself as the grand old man of Latin American cultural studies. And not without reason. He was there at the outset in the early 1990s, and has figured in almost all of the significant discussions and debates--about testimonio, subalternity, representation, the politics of location--that have marked the field’s trajectory since. He has been equally instrumental in building the infrastructure of the field. At Pittsburgh, he helped organize the various conferences that brought together significant players associated with cultural studies in Latin America. And he has directed the dissertations of numerous graduate students who have gone on to become important voices themselves. Throughout, Beverley has often shown remarkable generosity of spirit: though his own intellectual and political positions have been clear and often trenchant, he has seldom found the need to impose them on others. He has always welcomed dialogue and disagreement. If there are no “Beverleyites,” that is to his credit: he has never forced anyone into his own mold. But as time passes, he increasingly feels that he is part of a generation that is the last of its kind: the last that can remember the heady days of armed struggle and revolutionary enthusiasm; the last, he suggests, with a personal link to a politics that was truly a matter of life and death. As such, Beverley is perhaps understandably concerned for the future of the field once that link is finally broken. Even among his peers, too many have given up the fight, have turned instead to reactionary neoconservatism; meanwhile, the young are too easily tempted by ultraleftism or other “infantile” disorders. In Latinamericanism After 9/11, then, we can imagine him as a “venerable old teacher,” who with “a firm voice--a masterful voice capable of seizing an idea and implanting it deep within the listener’s mind”--sits us down to listen to him.

Read more... (on

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


A rather good review of Posthegemony from Charles Hatfield, one of the few so far that has (I think) got what I was trying to do in the book.

The review mostly consists of a smart summary, followed by a pertinent criticism: In continuing to stress the "primacy of the subject" Hatfield asks whether the book then "duplicates, albeit in a radical and ethereal form, the crucial logic of Latin Americanist identitarianism." I'd answer "maybe," especially in that I think it is worth defining a Latin American multitude.

It then ends with some very flattering words:

Posthegemony is a book of major theoretical importance and profound political and disciplinary implications. It ranks high within the crowded field of recent work on the relationship between culture and politics in Latin America. Beasley-Murray’s book will be a main point of departure for our most important debates for many years to come.

Charles Hatfield, Review. MLN 127.2 (March 2012): 404-406. (Or here, as a .pdf file.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


The video the MLA made for the Seattle Convention, featuring Posthegemony...

Friday, January 27, 2012


Unlike the cathedral, Nikkei Place, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, is a rather impressive building, set in an attractive garden on a quiet suburban Burnaby street. Yet what's inside is something of a disappointment.

Beyond the nice garden, elegant façade, and airy foyer, the building is essentially little more than a souped-up community centre, with the usual array of rooms to rent at prices we are assured give excellent value for money.

The museum itself is simply a small room off the foyer, and apparently there's no permanent collection. The exhibition when we visited was "Tenugui: Design Excellence in Japanese Daily Life," a display of Japanese cotton hand towels accompanied by a short video, some prints in which these towels feature, and a couple of other bits and bobs.

The exhibition is pretty and informative enough, don't get me wrong. It takes an everyday object that can no doubt easily get overlooked, and shows both the multitude of its uses (hand towel, headscarf, glass cleaner, handkerchief...) and the way in which its simple but elegant motifs, usually either abstract (dots, circles, lines) or drawn from nature (flowers, grasses, seeds, suns), always exceed its utilitarian functions. This is a design philosophy of unobtrusive adornment: an apparent contradiction in terms that structures everyday life in Japan.

But the strange thing is that this is indeed an exhibition about Japan. Given that we are at the Japanese Canadian National Museum, it's odd that there's no attempt to address the Canadianness of the Japanese Canadian experience. What new uses or meaning accrete around tenugui outside of Japan? What new motifs appear as the cloth is transculturated or appropriated into other visual traditions? (There was at least one design with penguins; are there any with polar bears, beavers, or hockey pucks?)

In short, instead of providing a window into "the history of Japanese Canadians" (as the museum's mission statement has it), we have instead a dehistoricized celebration of one small remnant of the Japanese motherland. It's as though the hand towels themselves, with their ordered repetitions, were a synecdoche for a vision of Japanese culture in its entirety as always the same, intact in all its incarnations.

It's not surprising that a diasporic community should have such a nostalgic and idealized vision of its cultural roots. But I'm not sure why it should be enshrined so uncritically in an institution that has at other times had so much more interesting things to say.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


We tried to get to the Bill Reid Gallery, but it's closed Mondays and Tuesdays so will have to wait. We decided to check out Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral, instead. Oddly enough, almost the first thing we saw on entering was a collection of three Bill Reid prints, which are on display at the back of the church, just under Susan Point's "Tree of Life" stained glass window.

Christ Church has to be the least impressive cathedral I know. Indeed, it's less impressive than the majority of British parish churches. In part that's because it's now so comprehensively overlooked by the office towers that surround it; in fact it has to be one of the lowest buildings in downtown Vancouver. But even before it was outpaced by the city in which it is set, it can't have been the most prepossessing of structures. At the best of times, the building seems to hug the ground, as though afraid of both heights and, more generally, public interaction. The style is Gothic Revival without the Gothic's sense of the vertical. It's testament to the surprising timidity of Britain's imperial ambitions here at the turn of the twentieth century: it's as though Vancouver's early settlers were (already) afraid to make too much of a statement.

As the building is so non-descript, it's therefore no great surprise that in 1971 most of the congregation agreed to have it torn down, a plan that only failed after wider public disapproval.

But the cathedral has its redeeming features, and you have to be one of the few who actually go inside to appreciate them. It's understandable that not many cross the threshold: they are hardly enticed to do so. Because of the church's squat horizontality, you imagine that its interior could very easily be oppressive: the soaring heights of the traditional Gothic cathedral are what draw your eyes up and impart the impression of transcendence. But Christ Church is saved by the fact, first, that someone had the good sense to paint the interior walls white (though they weren't always that way) and, second and more importantly, that the exterior stone gives way to wood once you are inside. The ceiling is made of cedar planking, while the beams and floor are old-growth Douglas Fir. The floor is particularly striking and beautiful, and it's shocking to think that for fifty years (before a 2003/2004 renovation) it was hidden beneath fiberboard and linoleum.

Inside the cathedral, then, there is little of the sense of weightiness or frigidity that sometimes attends nineteenth-century churches built in the Gothic style. The wood is warm and welcoming, and the soft light that survives the heavily stained glass (not to mention the persistent Vancouver rain) is transformed from gloom to glow.

It would have been nice had the architecture taken still more from the vernacular West Coast tradition. If anything, if you are looking in Vancouver for the sense of awe and grandeur that a cathedral is supposed to impart you are more likely to find it in the Arther Erickson design for the Museum of Anthropology's main hall, whose concrete and glass is based on indigenous post and beam. (In nearby Victoria, you might look to the Empress hotel!) By contrast, Christ Church feels homely and domestic at best. But the fact that it does feel comfortable--that it isn't simply forbidding in its awkwardness--has everything to do with the care taken on its upholstery, if not on the structure itself.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Someone has uploaded footage of last year's Vancouver riot and put it to music (Allegri's "Miserere") sung by my brother.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


A very quick visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery this afternoon only gave us time to zip around some of the current exhibit "Shore, Forest, and Beyond".

This is the private collection of a local property developer (turned cultural philanthropist) and his wife, and it focusses on British Columbian art from nineteenth-century indigenous masks and carved wooden chests to contemporary conceptual photography. Rather incongruously, it also includes a significant number of works on canvas by the Mexican muralists (Rivera, Siquieros, Orozco, Tamayo). The fact that these pieces sit very uneasily with the rest of the collection was highlighted by the fact that several of the labels were quite blatantly wrong: the title of Tamayo's "Figura de pie," for instance, was translated as "Pious Figure" rather than "Standing Figure," which gives rather a different impression of what that picture is all about.

As for the British Columbian art, there were a large number (over twenty) of Emily Carrs, from different stages of her career. Which only served to remind me how little I like this most iconic of West Coast artists. In the catalogue Audain himself writes that originally he didn't think much of Carr, but that he came round to her by way of a comparison with Gauguin: "what Gauguin had done for the landscape and people of Tahiti, Emily Carr had done for the Northwest Coast" (24). But this is a back-handed compliment at best. It only underlines both artists' exoticization of difference, and the way in which they frame the cultural and racial other within a vision of a lush natural habitat. And the viewer knows (but the artists never show) that this habitat is shortly disappearing thanks to modernization and indeed the early stages of the development that will subsequently give Audain the cash to buy up the pious inscription of what that development supposedly destroys.

Of the BC modernists, I rather preferred Edward Hughes's depictions of maritime activity--ferries, fishing vessels, and the small ports that dot the province's coast and outlying islands. They are painted with an apparent naiveté, but it is precisely the somewhat naive attention to detail (the baby's pram on the wharf, the boat's name "Imperial Nanaimo") that makes them rather more reliable records of the process by which indigenous culture was edged out in the Pacific Northwest.

And when it comes to the painting of nature, I was pleasantly surprised by Jack Shadbolt's "Butterfly Transformation Theme 1981," a large canvas in six panels that revisits the butterfly motif and transforms it into something between an exuberant celebration of natural vitality and an almost pop art revelry in artifice and abstraction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


This afternoon to the Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, which as I have mentioned before is one of my favourite galleries in the Lower Mainland, with a great little bookstore specializing in photography.

But right now the gallery is between exhibitions, so we had to content ourselves with the North Vancouver museum downstairs. The woman there commented that she hadn't expected anyone to come in today, what with the snow and all. She turned the lights on specially for us.

The permanent exhibit is small but interesting, charting North Vancouver's history from its establishment as a logging camp called Moodyville in the 1880s, though to its industrial heyday as port and home to shipyards in the mid twentieth-century, and now its post-industrial stress on tourism as gateway to Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour ski resorts, as well as the rather tacky Capilano Suspension Bridge which bills itself as "Vancouver's top attraction."

The museum always has a temporary exhibit, too, which is often very thoughtfully put together and curated. Right now the show is "Made in B.C.: Home-grown Design," a survey of British Columbia's products from (predictably) the staples of timber and shipping to graphic design, architecture, transport vehicles, school yearbooks, stamps, and goodness knows what else. Still, it's rather obvious that in fact British Columbia has never been a place in which very much got produced: its economy has been based on the extraction or cultivation of raw materials (strangely, though, I saw no mention of the current top export, BC Bud) or on the movement of goods.

Now, if anything, the province's major product is the image of Vancouver itself, built up and burnished through international extravaganzas such as Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. No wonder Vancouverites were so embarrassed when a bit of street disorder seemed to sully the city's supposedly good name. We worry about our city's sparkling image the same way residents of Detroit care about the car industry or Venezuelans keep half an eye on the price of oil.

For better or worse, Vancouverites have always aspired to be good citizens, or to seem so at least. One of the most striking objects in the "Made in B.C." exhibition, and just about the first thing you see as you enter the room, is a cardigan knitted by a (male) worker employed by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway sometime at the turn of the twentieth century. As part of the design he had stitched the names of the various towns at which the railway stopped. It's not quite a tattoo, but it's close: a gesture of bearing witness to his employer's achievements on his own body. This may look like hegemony, but of course to call it that only begs the unanswerable question: "What was he thinking?"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Today to Burnaby Art Gallery, which has a show of works on paper by Takao Tanabe.

I'd never heard of Tanabe, but I liked what I saw. The pictures were mainly landscapes, mostly of Canadian scenes (the West Coast, the Rockies, the Prairies), often verging into abstraction.

I liked best the series of pictures of the Prairies, which were on the cusp between landscape and abstract: graphite on dark paper, a thick line roughly outlining the horizon and maybe rain above or grass below.

Burnaby Art Gallery was interesting too: occupying an old mansion house that has more than its fair share of history; the building was previously used variously as a monastery, a cult's headquarters, and a fraternity house.