Thursday, July 27, 2006

Empire will eat itself

Historian Hermann Lebovics published (what is presumably) an extract from his current book, Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies. His previous book, Bringing Empire Back Home, looked at how France's loss of empire did not stop at its borders, but instead continued into domestic politics, where various social and regional groups questioned the domination of the state in daily life. His new book is more timely, applying the same sensibility of the effects of empire on domestic politics to question how imperial endeavors undermine democracy in Britain, France, and United States.
Today, a bit more than a half century since the postwar tsunami of decolonization, we are seeing systematic efforts in former imperialist nations to rehabilitate their colonialist pasts. Just two examples of many more: Niall Ferguson has devoted the energy that his Scottish ancestors used to build the overseas empire to retrospectively defending it. And acknowledging that Britain is no longer in a position to carry the white man’s burden, he has newly endorsed Kipling’s call for the United States to do so. His imperial revisionism is not unique ...

At stake in all this imperial nostalgia in Britain, France, and the US is the contemporary renewal of a hoary anti-democratic domestic project imported from the colonies. So quite aside from sympathy or indignation that we might feel in behalf of the colonized when Westerners tell them that their domination was good for them, we might consider the corruption of our own democratic institutions that we have suffered and may continue to suffer.

Forget Lenin; the antidemocratic offensive began long before democracy had been institutionalized. The founder of the Anglo-American theory of representative government was of course John Locke. Remember, he argued that participation in government was the right of all those who had a stake in the commonwealth, i.e. who owned property. So, rather than fighting civil wars as the English had just done in his day, the disenfranchised should acquire a “fixed interest” in the land and become full citizens. But in an era when Dutch engineers were being brought in to add a just little more cultivatable soil to the British Isles, where was this land that Locke offered as his solution to the question of political rights? Why, in America, where there was plenty of land ready to be worked and so possessed. Locke, who lived from colonial investments, avidly followed the “discoveries,” and served as the equivalent in his day as Britain’s minister for colonies, meant “America” as a synecdoche for the colonial empire then taking shape. But—as he knew better than most Englishmen of his generation—these were not empty lands ...

Oh, yes, it was legitimate to remove the Indians for they didn’t use money, Locke’s benchmark for a commonweal united by a social contract. Nor did American Indians maximize production, which sinfully wasted what God had provided human kind. The point is not Locke’s quaint coin trick and Calvinist apologia for Indian-removal—that would have happened without his imprimatur—but rather the more historically interesting point that he ballasted parliamentary liberalism by assuming imperial control of exploitable resources of conquered overseas societies. Since Locke, Western societies have promised their discontented non-owning classes more and have looked covetously at their imperial holdings and spheres of influence in search of fulfillment of the promise. That the strategy didn’t, doesn’t, always work—history can be chancy —is evidenced by the rising price of gasoline in the US as a result of our Iraq debacle. The temptation of empire is the permanently structured economic danger to democracy. Let’s move forward some centuries, for a clear view of the related social risk ...

As part of a project to repair French cultural unity after years of pre-WW II social division, German occupation, and near-civil war over Algeria, Charles de Gaulle appointed the writer André Malraux to establish a new cultural ministry. Who would staff it and how would it work? In the late 1950s and early 1960s the colonial empire was dissolving, putting several thousand colonial administrators out of work. Malraux asked one of them, Emile Biasini, to recruit colleagues to work in the new French culture administration: “What you did in Africa, can you come back and do it in France?” “Sure,” said Biasini, “it’s just a matter of adapting.” And the colonial administrators did their best to shape French culture ...

Lebovics article provides more examples rather than principles, giving the readers the opportunity to ponder democracy's legacy on their own. Nonetheless, there are three ways that empire seems to pull out its foundation:
  • compromise: creating exceptions to democratic principles and practices for application
  • importation: establishing institutions and administrative practices that can be applied domestically
  • involution: decolonization does not erase the illiberal, anti-democratic institutions and practices meant for empire; rather it repatriates them, brings them home, so that they co-exist alongside domestic institutions, but no longer have an external object
The last point will be familiar to fans of Ortega y Gasset, whose Spain devolved from glory to fascism as the intruments of repression found their way back to Madrid (see Invertebrate Spain.) (And as I pointed out recently), Earl Shorris sees the preservation of Spain's feudalism in Mexico's difficulties achieving full democracy. Lebovics poses the problem of imperialism more succinctly by depicting it not as a paternal relationship in which the imperial power provides its experience to the world, but a discourse between the domestic and the imperial project. Ultimately, there is no perfect transfer of democracy to empire, and the empire itself comes back to degrade whatever perfect democracy once existed.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Sarkozy-ization of the Spirit

French footballer Lilian Thuram in Les Inrockuptibles on France's immigration policies (quoted in Le Monde) (click here to read extract):
C'est incompréhensible : on est en France, un pays dit civilisé, et l'on accepte que des gens soient expulsés, j'allais même dire "déportés" (...) Quelque chose est en train de s'immiscer dans la société, petit à petit, et qui voudrait que ceux qui n'ont pas de papiers aillent mourir ailleurs. Je ne comprends pas que les gens n'y voient pas un problème. Ils apprennent à être cyniques : il faut faire du chiffre, on est noté au nombre de personnes expulsées... Tout cela voudrait dire qu'un étranger aurait moins le droit de vivre que les autres ?"

Translation:It's incomprehensible: we are in France, a civilized country, and we accept that people expelled, I would say "deported" ... Something is working its way into society, little by little, and there are people who want the "undocumented" to go elsewhere to die. I don't know why people don't see this as a problem. They have learned to be cynical: we must look at the numbers of people who have been expelled ...

[ETA]: Global Voices Online links to blogging about the recent conference in Rabat between European and African ministers on migration; and I guess that the EU has decided it needs its own border patrol (of the shores, of course.)

Chance Encounters

Urban Appointments: A Possible Rendez-Vous with the City by Brian Massumi (HT: Space and Culture) (click here to read extract):
In the everyday course of things, the sites of the city can be trusted to keep their appointments. A skyscraper can be counted on to be in the right place at the right time in order to serve as a landmark. A train station or government building will faithfully fulfill its promised function, on schedule. There are regions of known possibility surrounding each of the building types or infrastructural elements composing the city – ways of featuring in the lives of those who enter them or pass them by that are as conventionalized as the types are generic. For each generic, there are regulated rhythms of passage into and out, more or less predictable patterns of circulation around, and strict zoning and ownership limitations on what can affix to the external envelope that stabilizes its public mode of appearing. The regularity of a building's regime of transition creates a backdrop against which any unexpected arrival will stand out. The background, however, does not simply disappear under the weight of the anomaly. In fact, it rises to the surface and reasserts itself in and through, in addition to, the unaccustomed gesture. For example, projecting an inside scene on an outside wall actually strengthens the feeling of exteriority. Nobody is fooled into thinking that it is no longer a façade. But few seeing it will be untouched by the strangeness of seeing the inside out. The uncanniness of the feeling brings a sharpened awareness of the façade's exteriority, but with a twist: not as it normally presents itself. Exteriority resserts, with new and added effect: in a special effect.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dreams are free, Motherfucker!

Near the end of We Jam Econo, Mike Watt considers the relationship of his friendship with D.Boon and music:
This whole thing with D. Boon and his mother–this idea that you make up your own entertainment and your own activities–I think it was really intense on us, you know, this whole idea of DIY and stuff.

I guess there is a debate over this. You want things for young people to do so they don’t get in gangs and in trouble. But if things are too set up and stuff, you end up running ... creating an army of robots anyway, you know?

There comes a period when you’re gonna have to come up and do things, you know? Become your own person. Pick your own friends. Your own guys you want to build dreams with and stuff.

Big change in my life, meeting D. Boon.
It is the obvious lead-in to “History Lesson part II”, the song that placed the friendship of D. Boon and Mike Watt squarely in the history of punk–“punk rock changed our lives.” The song was a statement of affirmation that starkly contrasted the negativism and poseurism of the evolving hardcore music scene. Michael Azerrad even noted that punks read “History Lesson part II” as an insult. As much as they are considered icons of the underground of the 1980s, the Minutemen (and some of their SST labelmates) rejected the white rage that fed many local music scenes.

I wonder: what will be the place of the underground in the history of American popular culture? Will it merit any mention against the popular music produced for mass consumption?

Obviously, my problem is with the conceptualization of popular culture in an era of mass communication and the choices made by cultural historians in obtaining “thick descriptions.” Music produced for mass consumption reaches larger audiences, but what they convey is as easily forgotten as received. Marketing figured prominently into its popularity.

On the other hand, the music produced by the underground achieved a different kind of popularity: not in the sense of profit and distribution, but spontaneity of expression from the lowest levels. Culture made by the people for themselves–popular culture that was distinct from high culture. Because it was known to only a few, it achieved an intimacy between performer and audience that eluded the other kind of popular music (which is what Azerrad wants us to believe.)

Popular cuts two ways: the ideas received by the people and the ideas made by them. Even if the underground had a small audience, it might still have the capacity to move popular culture. Indeed, bands like the Minutemen could attract large crowds to clubs just below the Hollywood sign. “Hollywood” could be ragged and unique or polished and homogenized.

The question not only arises in the 20th century. A recent book in Germany history examined the hymnals used by German Catholics as a window to their mentality. The results would surprise few: ultramontane, rural, traditional. This image of German Catholicism, seemingly mirroring Pius IX’s worldview, leaves out the progressive tendencies that arose from within: the social activitism of the Moenchengladbach Richtung, or the capitalism of the Cologne Richtung. German Catholics exerted pressure on the course of religion that were not represented by the conservatism of the hymnals.

The underground may become a footnote or page in a book not yet written. The music of the 1980s will be known for selling optimism and materialism–all those things generally associated with Reagan’s America. The history of popular culture in the 1980s will, hopefully, contend with the “alternatives” that contrasted those prosperous years. Punk rock did change our lives.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

They murdered the Archduke!

Actually, it's Berlin's Love Parade.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Suicide Kings and Terrorists Wild!

Does "Israel practice the most aggressive form of terrorism," as Lebanon's PM has claimed? Normally, I'd measure the actual use of violence, whether the actors intend to use fear to effect change or not. But those clever humans, not being dictionaries, will take any solid concept as a metaphor, and no word has morphed, etymologically, as much in the past half-decade as terrorism. A filibuster is political terrorism. Environmentalism is eco-terrorism. Criticism of American business is economic terrorism. Could rape and all forms of sexual violence in Iraq be called terrorism? The metaphor of terrorism has become so overused, overpowering the original meaning as to come to mean opposition, resistance, inhumanity, or just plain evil, programming a response of ultimate disdain and indignation. The role of fear is ignored. Because of those clever humans, etymological drift can have profoundly seismic consequences. The instability of the definition of terrorism may be working against the war against terrorism itself, American imperialism and security being lumped together with Iran's and North Korea's militarism, to the point that just aggression and terrorism may no longer be incompatible.

Random Notes

farPhew! Getting back to regular blogging is difficult. Baby Elias is high maintenance. At least I have been able to read some novels, notably Sigrid Undset's Gunnar's Daughter (about sex and violence at the end of the Viking Age) and CF Meyer's The Saint (an interpretation of Thomas Becket as a convert and hero to the suppressed Saxon majority of England.) Currently, Maryse Condé's epic Segu, about the decline of the Malian kingdom with the encroachment of Europeans and Islam, is grabbing my attention.

Some of the notes that Condé strikes are present in "The Sufi Shaykh" by Ibrahim al-Koni, featured in Words without Borders look at Libyan literature. Reflecting the real conflicts between Islamic clerics and "fetishists" over slavery and marriage, the extract highlights the tensions caused by imposition of cosmopolitan religion over traditional practices.

"Tragedy on the Araxes" profiles an unfolding archeological tragedy in Azerbaijan. The government has been demolishing the cemetery of Djulfa and its distinct khachkars (burial monumnets) in an effort to remove evidence of Armenian settlement in the country.
... most of the famed khachkars are from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the town was at its most prosperous as a stop on the silk and spice trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean. After the forced resettlement of 1604, the graveyard endured, and was visited by travelers from within and outside of the Caucasus over the next few centuries. They saw slabs of pink and yellowish stone, between six and eight feet high, intricately carved in relief. Most khachkars, which were believed to aid in the salvation of the soul, were decorated with crosses and representations of Christian holy figures, as well as depictions of plants, scenes of daily life, geometric designs, and epitaphs in Armenian ...

... In 1998, the Armenian government claimed that Nakhichevan's Azeri authorities were deliberately wrecking the cemetery in an act of symbolic violence and had destroyed 800 khackhars. The Armenians appealed to UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), trying to get "the entire international community up in arms," according to deputy culture minister Gagik Gyurdjian. UNESCO responded by ordering an end to all destructive activity in Djulfa. However, the demolition began again in 2002, according to RAA and local witnesses. The last remains of the cemetery were obliterated this past December. Over a period of three days beginning on December 14, 2005, a large group of Azeri soldiers destroyed the remaining grave markers with sledgehammers, loaded the broken stones onto trucks, and dumped them into the waters of the Araxes. That is what witnesses who watched the devastation from across the river in Iran say happened ...

Andrew of AIR, friend of this blog, has the new History Carnival. Check it out.

[ETA] I bought a copy of We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen. Very cool look at one of my favorite bands, perhaps the best to ever come out of Southern California, and certainly the most musical and literate post-punk/hardcore outfit. Essential for anyone who read Our Band Could be Your Life.

[ETA, part deux] I hope that people have been keeping up with Joel's 'Word Catcher Tales', his musings on Japanese language and culture, at Far Outliers. A few weeks ago he mused on the geographical mentality of humans to see some places as being up, others down, with reference to power rather than position. (Of course, I added my two cents.)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

My Baby and Art Blakey

How to deal with a fussy baby? My wife and I were confronted by this problem for the third night in a row. Young Elias seemed to be revving up for another fit of crying and screaming with brief pauses of hiccups and sneezes, a heartbreaking cycle for we new parents. Last night we could see the cycle beginning again. I picked up young Elias, and carried him downstairs, hoping that the jiggling and the swaying would put him back into that happy fetus mood.

As I entered the living room, the disc on the CD player changed. Suddenly, Elias'’ ears perked up to the call-and-response that begins "“Moanin'."” His attention locked onto the rolling, bluesy piano riff and the chordal cadence, so reminiscent of gospel music: –ummm-hmmm. Then as the band launched into a full swing, Elias' eyes lighted up. I danced with him around the room. Then, I laid him across my lap, kicking the beat with my left foot and tapping the swing with my right hand against his side. Elias seemed to understand Jazz, even as the soloists diverted from the melody, and his mood continued through the next song, this one from Hampton Hawes'’ Seance session.

This story has another beginning. Several months ago I announced that my wife and I were expecting. For six weeks we prepared for the birth (the reason for my very light and sporadic blogging), keeping complicated plans to a minimum, eating out perhaps a bit to much. Finally, our son was born:
Finally, congratulations to our colleague, Nathanael Robinson, and his wife, Karen. On Friday evening, Elias William Robinson weighed into the world at 7 lbs. 14 ounces. ... Young Robinson will grow up multi-lingual. You can count on it.
Labor and delivery were anything but smooth. Twice induced, my wife was, as the OB ironically remarked, in labor for five days. In truth, labor was fourteen hours--–fourteen painful hours that included a failed epidural and a cesarean section. I watched, worried, feeling powerless. But in the end, I was surprised by the big smile that covered my wife'’s face as she held Baby Elias for the first time. ("And Sarah said: 'G-d hath made laughter for me'"?)

Both mother and child spent four days cooped up in the hospital and were ready to break out on Independence Day. Despite undergoing surgery, my wife has had no inclination to stay in bed or isolate herself in the house. We've been out several times with the Elias, shopping in crowded stores and eating out at our favorite sushi restaurant.

This may or may not have overstimulated him. Elias has been quiet on all our outings, sleeping almost all the time. Only the noisy traffic on Main Street in Northampton upset him. His fussiness could have been caused by the change in environment, the formula we use to supplement his diet, or his young digestive tract. Regardless, it reached epic proportions late Thursday night in a screaming fit that lasted two hours; his diaphragm should be explored as a renewable source of alternative energy.

Why would Jazz, of all possible music, calm him down? Mozart and other Classical/Enlightenment era composers are usually recommended for the impressionable (although I wonder what the parents think of the music they force onto their children.) In utero, I played a few records, some jazz, some folk, some 19th century chamber music. A few times, I held my acoustic guitar up to my wife's belly and sang (especially "Railroad Bill.") Perhaps he was influenced by the repeated viewings of "O Brother, Where art Thou" (have you read the lyrics to "Big Rock Candy Mountain"?). He enjoyed it all.

He also kicked a lot. Not yet born, Elias could keep Karen up for days with his bouncing back and forth. To some, this was a sign of a future footballer--the soccer kind. An interesting idea, but given how little we are intercompetitivempetetive sports, I doubt that would come to pass. One friend of ours haintriguingntrueging forecast: Elias will be a drummer!

Both my wife and I are musicians. Indeed, we met as musicians, working in a Goth band in Connecticut. Although we have some talent, we are not known for our ability to hold down a beat. My own forays on the drum kit have been laughable, and the only song I could play with any metricality was Robyn Hitchcock's "Oceanside."

Speculating about how are children will grow up may be a new tradition--when you don't have to follow in your father's or mother's footsteps, the possibilities are endless. Certainly, I've had fun thinking about young Elias as an adult. If our influence rubs off on him, it might be as a scholar or as a traveler. With my love of foreign languages, I'd bet that Elias will grow up to be a linguist. But seeing him engaged by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, swinging through one of the funkiest, most soulful, 'blackest' pieces in Jazz, I could see Jazzy fingers sprouting from those small hands. Perhaps a bassist, like William Parker, or a trumpeter, like Louie, Dizzy, Lee Morgan, and Roy Campbell.

Drums? ... Here's to the next twenty-two years, Elias!