Category Archives: Criticsm

Threshold Thinking: Where Is the Third World?

Homi K. Bhabha

Globalization, driven by the priorities of financial markets and political majoritarianism, deploys new technologies to encompass those parts of the world that gravitate toward power and privilege—be it in the North or the South. Outside these enclaves lie those who resist the mimetic lure of global accumulation and appropriation; in most cases, their local histories and political circumstances do not permit them to compete for globalization’s glittering prizes. These peoples and countries remain, three-quarters of a century later, the wretched of the earth. Where once the Third World was a challenging call to fight global inequality and injustice—a call to solidarity in the cause of planetary transformation and the redistribution of the balance of power—today, there is callous contempt for “shithole countries” and a peremptory dismissal of “failed states.” In Globalization and Its Discontent (2002), Joseph Stiglitz warned us of the ravaging effects of “free-market fundamentalism,” which, a decade later, has brought in its wake a rash of related fundamentalisms that fester on the global body politic: religious fundamentalism, populist fundamentalism, and xenophobic fundamentalism. Stiglitz reminds us that the IMF’s imposition of “conditionalities” on loan-making to poor countries results in a kind of neocolonial world making. It is invariably justified as establishing free markets, individual freedoms, and economic development in the interests of the “world community.”

The binary opposition between First World and Third World, despite its polarities and pitfalls, generates a dialectical discourse with stakes in an international debate about the definition and distribution of “public goods.” Do universal goods, with their normative implications, disavow “foreign” cultural values and disregard historical differences in favor of First World priorities? Or, in Amartya Sen’s language, should global public goods be construed as “capabilities” tailored to the complex and diverse needs of specific lives? In the context of the Cold War, this dialectical discourse faced postcolonial countries with difficult “international” choices—Which side are you on?—as Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Nonetheless, the dialectical struggle inherent in the project of the Third World represented a conflict of goals and values signified in “contradictions” of contested beliefs and antagonistic economic models.

Today, the dialectical tension associated with the concept of the Third World has given way to a global bipolar dynamic consisting of sectoral profitability, selective connectivity, and accelerated networks of algorithmic advances. Profound asymmetries in opportunity and equality are portrayed as anachronistic problems of parts of the world that resist “coming up to speed” with the global agenda. I am reminded of the truth of Fanon’s riposte to the Eurocentric demand that the Third World should adopt Western paradigms of development: “No, we don’t not want to catch up with anyone.”[1] As the global juggernaut speeds past, the severity of the discontents of globalization are diminished in scale and rapidly disappear in the rearview mirror.

In such a world, the speed of neoliberal capitalist exploitation and expansion generates a narrative of progress invested in networked oases of accumulation and disruptive innovation (to use the business school jargon) that treat the rest of the world as a global wasteland. The endemic and recurrent problems of global justice, global health, global climate change, and global migration somehow slip through these networked chains of neoliberal command. They are looked upon with disdain as anachronistic “works in progress” left over from another time. If the accelerated speed of command and control is the shibboleth of the global world, the solidarity of the synchronic development of ideas, cultures, and opportunities (an optimistic utopian project, it must be admitted) was the keyword of Third-Worldism.

Let’s look through the rearview mirror for a moment and ask, Where was the Third World?

In their introduction to Inventing the Third World: In Search of Freedom for the Postwar Global South, Jeremy Adelman and Gyan Prakash tell of Jawaharlal Nehru taking the podium at the opening of the Asians Relations Conference in 1947, pointing to a map of Asia and declaring: “We stand at the end of an era and the threshold of a new period of history.” The flow of Nehru’s soaring rhetoric moves too swiftly from the “end” of an era to the inauguration of a “new” history. He flies over the fact that to stand on a historical threshold is to place oneself at a point of transition in the duration of the presentsomewhere in between the lessons of the past and the labors of the futureexperiencing the “ends” of colonialism while concurrently devising and deciphering the “means” of postcolonial life worlds to come.

In his conversation with Nehru at the Bandung conference, Richard Wright immediately saw Nehru as a visionary leader who stood courageously on the threshold of a historic transition of power in India, while addressing a similar series of transitions across Asia, Africa, and the Third World. Indeed, there is hardly a finer articulation of the political integrity and ethical aspiration of the idea of the Third World than Nehru’s speech, Tryst with Destiny, delivered on 14 August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of India. Nehru spoke “in the midnight hour” to dedicate all Indians “to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity,” and at the stroke of midnight he dedicated India to the service of the world—the Third World in particular: “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart.” The greatness of the Nehruvian vision, as Wright encountered it at Bandung, lay in its ability keep a tryst with the complexities of historical transition. Nehru sought an “interstitial” internationalism founded on thresholds that linked newly independent states to each other, rather than throwing up geopolitical frontiers and barriers to keep them apart. Solidarity, not sovereignty, is the goal of threshold thinking. Nehru, as Wright quickly saw, attempted to maintain a prescient, if precarious, balance on both sides of the postcolonial threshold: Wright asks,

of what does [Nehru’s] greatness consist? It consists of his being what his country is: part East, part West. If one day Nehru says that the perplexities facing Asia are moral, then he is acting in a Western manner; if the next day he says that the world is gripped by a power struggle, he is looking upon life as an Asian. From his point of view, he is not merely playing with ideas; he is a reflection of what his India is, a halfway house between East and West.[2]

Nehru’s productive and combative ambivalence gives him access to a translational, global cosmopolitanism that is part East and part West, but the Asian perspective that articulates the threshold between East and West—the formative fulcrum—is capable of building a Lebenswelt that is new and different, and this is what Wright heard in Nehru’s speech. As I read both Nehru and Wright, I see an emphasis on the nation—as a threshold of subaltern hospitality accessible to the halfway house—rather than on the sovereignty of the state that frequently bars its windows and locks its doors against the lives and times of others, foreigners, strangers.

Wright’s polarised presentation of the world divided between East and West is as problematic today as it was at Bandung. It has a queasy Kiplingesque echo that I would not entertain. However, “halfway house,” as a metaphor of political and cultural mediation across national borders, is an interesting figure of speech. It invokes the aspirational ambition of the idea of Third World as a political forum of networked regional solidarities that are decentred in the very process of struggling for, and achieving, postcolonial freedoms. Here, in my view, there is an implicit appeal to political freedom as an ongoing process of threshold thinking that arises out of the experiments and exigencies of transitionality in the attempt  to negotiate an intersectional society and an intercultural polity. Perhaps this is why W. E. B. DuBois frequently hyphenates the word inter-national.

The appeal to threshold thinking, when it enters the annals of historical writing, or contemporary witnessing, activates an agency of mediation that writes transition in the language of intermediacy. The intermediate, I suggest, is not “in the middle” but “in the midst of”: an interstitial space of reflection and representation; a gap in time—the time of the threshold—that reaches out for a spatial trope with which to figure transition as history and concept. The mediation among parties, countries, or cultures is often a process of transference across a gap of interests, intentions, and inheritances—not unlike the metaphoric transfer of meaning—in order to negotiate a translation of terms and conditions. The halfway house, configured in this way, is a metonym of mediation: its portals enable  the free movement of peoples and ideas across the threshold. The halfway house, in the way of all metonyms, signifies a “whole” house whose spaces are diverse yet interconnected and whose windows share a landscape but catch the light at different times of the day.

Third World nationhood is a process of developing dynamic, evolving neighborhoods, unhindered by the sovereign possessions of the Cold War state.At their best, these visions of freedom resist the manacles of capitalist and militaristic “progress” legitimized by a moral economy of racial inequality. The political rhetoric of imperial dominance and Cold War dependency are remarkably similar, despite their distance in time and place. They share a racist intent in their enunciations of the prophecy and profitability of Western “progress,” and those recruited to labor in its interests are the very ones excluded from its promise: the colonized are classified as being historically “backward,” while Third World nations are condemned to being inherently “immature.”

Temperamentally, no two postcolonial thinkers could be more at odds than Nehru and Fanon, and yet they share a vision of hospitality that opens doors on both sides of the threshold. Fanon’s conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth is an unforgiving attack on the very idea of Europe as an icon of civility or civilization. “The Third World must start over a new history of man,” Fanon declares, “which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man.” But then, as he utters his last words on the matter, Fanon stands with Nehru on the threshold of a revisionary hospitality—not without anxiety and hostility—and defines a “new humanism” that transcends the sum of the parts. In that act Fanon attempts to suture (not suppress) the wounds of the colonial past: “For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man” (WE, p. 239).

At its best, such threshold thinking in the construction of the Third World—what I have here called interstitial internationalism and elsewhere translational cosmopolitanism—is a lasting challenge to the narrow borders of disciplinary thought. Third World intellectuals are more likely to be engaged with intermediated problems rather than professional protocols. Nehru is a historian, an essayist, and a politician; Fanon, a psychiatrist, phenomenologist, and an activist. Their trysts with destiny are also trysts with the tasks of cultural translation. There are several instances in Inventing the Third World where the displacement of disciplines reveals new thresholds of representation-as-translation across art, culture, and intellectual discourse. The Third World inaugurated new parameters of citizenship—national, not nationalistic—which initiated imaginative forces of transitional and translational cultural agency in the broadest sense.

The ethno-populist systems of power of our global moment impose carceral histories and geographies on much of the world order today: minorities barred from citizenship; refugees barred from borders; speech barred from opinion; dissidents barred from public discourse; protesters barred from the park or the maidan; Black lives barred from protection. The prison house of the present, which exists in more places than we care to name, is an attempt to build walls of exclusion and interdiction where there should be a free and equal passage across the thresholds of public life and its divergent, even disjunctive, social values. This is surely what Fanon proposed as being both the trial and the testimony of an imminent Third World order.

Counterintuitively, Fanon proposes that a sense of “nationhood” must develop from an awareness of the thresholds and transitions that exist between countries, regions, and cultures. It is from this space in-between that the Third World emerges, recognizing differential histories and representing diverse interests that constitute a country, peoples, or a region. The Third World moves beyond the claims of sovereign nationalism and the confines of tribal patriotism. “A national consciousness,” Fanon argues, “which is not nationalism [and] is alone capable of giving us an international dimension” is one in which the national culture is built on the politics of difference—“the outcome of tensions internal and external to a society as a whole and its multiple layers” (WE, pp. 179, 177; my emphasis).

To negotiate these tensions internal and external to a society—to cross and recross these diverse worldly thresholds—opens the door to a politics of radical hospitality in which the idea of the Third World finds its moral compass and its historical moorings.

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.

A version of this post is forthcoming as a preface to and Bloomsbury Academic’s (an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.) Inventing the Third World: In Search of Freedom for the Postwar Global South, ed. Jeremy Adelman and Gyan Prakash (2022). We thank everyone involved there for permission to post the piece.

[1] Frant Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York, 2004), p. 238; hereafter abbreviated WE.

[2] Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (New York, 1956), pp. 165–66; my emphasis.

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Poetry and Translation in Times of Censorship; or, What Cambridge University Press and the Chinese Government Have in Common

Jacob Edmond

What is lost in translation? It’s a perennial concern for someone like me, but it took on a new twist when I was recently asked to approve a Chinese translation of a review of Maghiel van Crevel’s book Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (2008). My review of the original English version appeared in The China Quarterly back in 2011, but I gave permission for it to be translated and published in China following the release of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book, Jingshen yu jinqian shidai de Zhongguo shige 精神与金钱时代的中国诗歌 (2017). This Chinese version of my review will formally be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Modern Chinese Studies (现代中文学刊), but you can already read it here.

A translation of a review published as a review of the translation: the complexities only begin here. Readers of Chinese will already have noted the title change in the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book: “money” (金钱) and “mind” (精神) remain, but “mayhem” has disappeared. That omission also signals a larger one: the Chinese version lacks the chapter on “Exile,” which includes discussion of poems written by Bei Dao 北岛, Wang Jiaxin 王家新, and Yang Lian 杨炼 after the Chinese government’s violent 4 June 1989 suppression of dissent.

No one familiar with working and publishing in China will bat an eyelid at such changes. Yang Lian’s own collected poems were published in China with some works removed and the titles of others changed. “To A Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died in the Massacre” (给一个大屠杀中死去的九岁女孩) became “To a Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died Suddenly” (给一个猝死的九岁女孩). Journals and publishers that engage with China—The China Quarterly and its publisher, Cambridge University Press, among them—face a similar pressure to avoid sensitive topics in disseminating their work in the country.

In approving the translation of my review, I faced the same dilemma that Van Crevel and these publishers and editors face in deciding whether to allow their work to be censored: refuse to change anything and so lose the possibility of addressing a Chinese audience, or make the changes and hope that one’s translated words and the mute marks of censored omissions might communicate better than the total silence of refusal. Van Crevel’s is an excellent book on contemporary Chinese poetry: I stand by my review’s description of it as the “definitive sourcebook.” It therefore deserves a wide audience in China, where its insights are most relevant. Cutting one chapter was the price of that audience.

The pressures and choices are not, of course, the same in every situation. As a large and important source of scholarship, Cambridge University Press and other major international scholarly publishers have a much greater power to stand up to censorship, as their wholesale banning in China would severely inhibit the government’s desire to make the country a world leader in research and higher education. Yet even large multinational publishers often bow to the pressure, as illustrated by Cambridge University Press’s widely publicized decision to block selected articles from The China Quarterly at the request of Beijing authorities, a decision that was only reversed after “international protests, including a petition signed by hundreds of academics, and the threat of having its publications boycotted.” Despite its enormous financial and cultural capital, Cambridge University only refused the demands of censorship because of external pressure, public embarrassment, and reputational threat. For an individual researcher working on Chinese poetry, however, there’s little to be gained and much to lose by refusing to modify one’s work to satisfy the censors.

With a heavy heart and somewhat pained conscience, then, I allowed explicit reference to events like 4 June 1989 to be removed from the Chinese translation of my review. My review retains, however, a discussion of the book’s “major advantage” when compared to “similar studies published in the PRC.” As the Chinese translation by Zhang Yaqiu 张雅秋 puts it, “this book’s advantage compared to similar research published in China is clear: . . . its frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (在中国出版的同类研究著作相比,这本书优点显明:……对相关史实有率直讨论).

The ironies here, of course, abound. The translated review discusses advantages that the book, in the version published in China, no longer possesses. And the reference to Van Crevel’s “ability to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” has been transformed into a vague reference to a “frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (对相关史实有率直讨论). Still, I took small and perhaps false comfort in thinking that my reference to “historical facts” (史实) that cannot be openly discussed in China—though perhaps not quite as explicit as the phrase “sensitive political matters” used in the original review—would be clear enough to any intelligent reader. I also took some satisfaction in how the review highlighted the omissions of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book by referring to the thirteen chapters of the original English version and to the discussion of work by Yang Lian and Bei Dao. Are these the false comforts of people who seek to find righteousness in their own cowardice? Perhaps. It’s a question I keep asking myself and one that I hope anyone else writing about contemporary Chinese society and culture does too.

In writing this piece and reviewing my original review published in The China Quarterly, however, I was surprised to discover something more unexpected and disturbing. Unbeknownst to me, The China Quarterly had also removed my reference to 4 June 1989 when it published my original review back in 2011. I went back to check the final version submitted to The China Quarterly and confirmed that the Word document that I submitted referred to “June Fourth.” However, in the version published, those words had been changed to the “Tiananmen incident.” While June fourth is occasionally (and erroneously, given the much wider geographic reach of the protests and the crackdown) called the second Tiananmen incident, the term Tiananmen incident usually refers to the 5 April 1976 protests in Beijing’s central square and not to the massacre of protesters thirteen years later.

Rather bizarrely and ironically, then, my very reference to the ability of those outside China “to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” had been altered and so disproven. In fact, the Chinese translation now published in Mainland China actually gets closer to my intent than my original review after it was subjected to silent censorship by the editors of The China Quarterly.

It is easy to become worn down or even blind (as I was) to the many silent and insidious operations of censorship in the world today. Perhaps the one advantage of engaging directly with overt censorship in China is that it can make one aware of the broader workings of censorship and self-censorship that operate in contemporary culture. These lessons are, like censorship itself, eminently—and frighteningly—translatable.

Jacob Edmond is an associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (2012) and has published essays in such journals as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled “Master Copy: New Media, World Literature, Iterative Poetics.”


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Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even) A Bachelor Machine for MLA

Somethin’ ’bout sound

Repeatin’ in degree

A voice not mine

Singin’ as a we.


You call it boundry conditions

But don’t put your bounds on me.


Is there more to a ballad

Than weave and dodge and stall?

Some folks say it’s a cokehead’s ball

Some say a cure for all.


We’ve heard it from a nutbrown maid

And from a fellow who every day

Takes the blues from Ghent to Aix.


Some say ballad’s a slow romantic croon

Others an unsophisticated, moralizin’ folk tune

Neither epic nor lyric

A singable narrative atmospheric

Riddled with discontinuity

Usually endin’ in catastrophe.


Bullets have been dancin’ farther back than we can see.

Greeks first cast ballots in 423 BCE.

English ballads been ’round since 13th century.


Blatant rhythm alleges its decree

Fluid dynamics

If you want a God damn creed.


You call it boundary conditions

But don’t put no shame on me.


Fuck your lyric framin’

Fuck your depth of feel

If you’re not willin’ to sing along

Your messin’ with the deal.


Is this just an excuse for doggerel?

Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?

Solidarity is a lonely road

That begins at the inaugural.


Don’t call it boundary conditions

When you put your pain on me.


A little bit south of here, in Washington, D.C.

Next week’s gonna get a whiff of Armageddon

Billionaire racist takin’ over

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Not to mention the Pentagon too.

Wait and see, he’s gonna make the earth

His own private barbeque.


Winner of unpopular vote, FBI’s man

Armed and dangerous with his clan

Got the nuclear codes in his hands

(Nuclear codes in his hands.)


This ballad cannot fix or change

The course of our collective pain

Even makin’ the lyrics strange

Is no guarantee of liberty.


But closer to here than Washington

Is Camden, New Jersey

Home of Walt Whitman

Molderin’ in his grave, you bet

Lilacs wiltin’ on the dooryard

Of these Benighted States.


We raised ourselves on the left

Only to get socked by the right

It’s not rocket mechanics

What we’ve got to do is fight.

I used to have a boarder

Till I kicked that boarder out.


I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On an Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.


The 2016 ballot was stolen

With mirrors and smoke.

The mediocracy, virally swollen

Couldn’t resist a con man’s joke.


Watch as castles made of sand

Become law of the land.


We all know about voter suppression

Twitterin’ lies in endless succession.

The ballot’s in danger, that’s the dope.

But, say?, did you even vote?


The danger that we face

Is not capitalism versus race

But race as capitalism’s sword

To vanquish our fight for all.


What’s to be done?

What’s to be undone?

The ying’s not in the yang.

The pang has lost its ping.


Turns out the ballad’s no place to be

For a self-respectin’ poet like me.


At this MLA convention

The crisis of greatest dimension

Is our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Like we are just a bunch of rubes.


We old-time full timers gettin’ replaced

With terrific young scholars

Doin’ the same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students crippled by debts

In the clutches of banker’s threats


Regardless of our attitudes to Palestinian or Jew

Enrollments are divin’ like flies into glue.


Call it border conditions

But when he stiffed us on the rent

We booted the boundary out.


Neo-illiberalism’s on the rise

Provokin’ all to despise

Scorn, resist, chastise.

But a word to the wise ––

Illiberality comes in every guise.


Free speech may be a barrel of bare-knuckle lies

Mixed with a soupcon of truths gonna die.

But bein’ trigger happy about what can be taught

Will never liberate thought.


To offend or not is not the question.

Neither is transgression, repression, nor discretion.

(Though never underestimate digression.)


These days I keep thinkin’

We ought to boycott ourselves.


This isn’t a poem about politics

About which I don’t have a clue.

It’s a poem about a form

That sputters and cranks, is mortally torn.


Between here and there’s a boundary

I almost found it yesterday

One day I hope to cross it

If history don’t get in my way.


Is there more to a ballad

Than formula and rhyme?

A whiff of a story

Told with in the nick of time?


If there’s more to it than that, my friends

I sure as hell can’t say.

You call it boundary conditions

But I’m not in the mood to stay.


There is no freedom without constraint.

No border that’s not a wall.

Good fences sell for 99.99.

Even cheaper on Amazon.


There once was a little ballad

That didn’t know its name

Didn’t know it’s pedigree

Didn’t know its taint.


This ballad got mixed up in a robbery

And though it wasn’t in the plans

Ended up with blood on its metaphorical hands.


The verdict came down swift as a slap:

100 years for stupefaction

150 for personification.

But with parole it will only be

A matter of time before we see

Langue and all that rigmarole

Back on the streets

Purveyin’ an aesthetic trap.


There is no moral to this ballad

But, hey!, don’t forget:

Our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Quicker than an Xpress Lube.


We old-timers gettin’ replaced

With super young scholars

Doin’ same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students with loans to pay

Turn ‘em into big banks’ prey.


Graduate students: unionize!

Don’t let yourselves be patronized!

Let’s turn over half of bloated university president wages

To tenure-track jobs to counter adjunct rages.


Call it border conditions if you like.

Or call it a struggle for a better life.


Dylan’ got one of those Nobel Prizes

Unsung poets put on more disguises.

Nobels to superstars and pamphleteers!

Not for impecunious balladeers!


If songwriters are poets, poets write songs

A Grammy for Baraka woulda righted many wrongs.

For next year’s Nobel we expect to see

(Havin’ shown class strife as metonymy)

Jean-Luc Goddard tapped for economy ––

The Rollin’ Stones for biology.

As for the Peace Prize, which Norway grants

How ’bout Lillyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt?


A ballot says, this is what we want.

A bullet does that too.

A ballad’s just lousy fantasy

Goin’ out from an us to a youse.


I ha been to the wild wood; mak my bed soon;

I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doun.

Oh, yes, I am poisoned; mak my bed soon

I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doun.


Now at end

Of what to tell

Hailin’ you, friend!

Between us dwell!


I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On the Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.


A ballet’s not a bullet.

A ballot’s no balloon.

But when you add up all we’ve lost

You’ll soon be sighin’ this rune.


Call it boundary conditions if you like

Or call it a struggle for a better life.


Charles Bernstein











First presented at “Boundary Conditions of the Ballad,” at the MLA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, January 6, 2017. (“Boundary conditions” was the theme of the convention).

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From Mr. Chips to Scarface, or Racial Capitalism in Breaking Bad

Curtis Marez

As the acclaimed series comes to a close, critics have routinely repeated the claim of Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, that the show traces Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but the larger implications of the character’s arc are rarely investigated. “Mr. Chips” is the nickname of an initially stern but ultimately kindly English public school teacher in the 1939 film whereas “Scarface” is the alias of Tony Montana, the ruthless Cuban immigrant drug lord in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name.  As played by Al Pacino, Montana is perhaps the most iconic Latino character in Hollywood history, inspiring a host of imitations and homages in film and music. Indeed, the figure of Scarface anchors multiple forms of mimetic desire whereby his fans feel compelled to repeat his best, heavily accented lines (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who”; “Say hello to my little friend”). In analogous ways over the course of 5 seasons Walter White has come to copy the Latino drug dealers he triumphs over.  In fact, the character’s transformation is represented as a kind of “becoming Latino” in ways that presuppose a broader borderland political economy, built on sedimented layers of colonialism, that depends upon the incorporation of low wage migrant labor. Continue reading


September 25, 2013 · 7:16 pm

On Aaron Swartz

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Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

Steven Light

That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.

But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.

Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.

But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.

It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.

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The Sounds of a Familiar Plot/ Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower)

 Adapted by the author from published Dec. 19, 2011, as a reaction to KM Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) who has presented a bill to silence the muezzins. The bill has not passed, at least for the time being.  Ruth HaCohen’s The Music Libel Against the Jews was published by Yale University Press last December.

Noise accusations against minorities are nothing new.   Such an accusation was made against the Jews who lived among Christian communities in the Middle Ages, and in modern times it remains as fresh as ever.  The Nazis sophistically used it to justify the expulsion of the Jews from Germany.

Like the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in Israel, every ethnic, cultural, or religious minority is suspected of embodying and inducing disharmony from the start.  From the “point of hearing” of the hegemonic community, the sounds of the minority grate, they are grotesque, threatening.  According to the Christians, by comparison with the harmony in their churches, what prevailed in the Ashkenazi synagogue was nothing but chaotic shouting.  Sometimes they used images from the animal kingdom to describe what they heard.

The noises, which sounded strident to them, served as the basis for an accusation: the Jews hated “our” harmony so much – so said the Christians throughout Europe – that when they heard an innocent and pure Christian boy singing hymns to the Virgin Mary, they would slit his throat mercilessly.  Later on, when they found that Jews, when given the opportunity, marched in the vanguard of the “decent” musical camp, they attributed this success to forgery and imitation.  Therefore they prevented the advancement of Jewish composers and performers years before the Nazis came to power.  A long time passed before they began to listen to the sounds of the Jews and to find beauty in them, though this was partially “exotic.”  The Jews themselves sometimes rejected their own heritage in embarrassment and adopted the dominant Christian sound.

Prayer in a Mosque in Sakhnin. Silencing the sounds of Islam is a loss to non-Muslims as well. Photograph: Dan Keinan

Particularly in the Arab world a dialogue was created between Jews and Muslims.  They borrowed from one another without raising a fuss.  When composers who had been nurtured in European conservatories arrived in the Land of Israel, they tried to adopt the local sound.  What began as an “orientalist” approach developed into moments of mutual attentiveness.  Examples of joint creativity emerged here and there, and in some places in Israel, such as the Holy precincts of Jerusalem, the tolling of church bells still mingle with the chants of the muezzins, and, on certain days of the year, with the sounding of the shofar as well.

Thus a miniature Utopian area has been created – not harmonious, not organized, but still possessing beauty and uniqueness.  Each religion has its own sounds.  Over centuries and millennia, every religion created its own forms for itself, each different from the others, and each bearing worlds of meaning for its believers.  Clearly a blow to those sounds is regarded by the injured party as desecration of sanctity and profanation of the sublime.  However, the suppression of the sounds of another religion – Islam in this case – is a loss for non-Muslims as well.

True, sounds can be disturbing.  High decibels are shocking and deafening.  During my stay in Zurich, Switzerland, a few years ago, at first the church bells disturbed me with their harsh reverberations four times every hour.  I soon became used to it: I understood that people have been living that way in Switzerland for hundreds of years, and one has to adapt. Unfortunately, a law forbidding Muezzins’ calls in the public sphere is in practice in that ringing country, since 2009.

MK Anastasia Michaeli defines herself as the defender of “noise victims.”  However, her record and that of her party testify to the intention of undermining the legitimacy of the sonic presence of the other religion that dwells beside us. If it is a question of disturbing the peace of one’s neighbors, those, including some Muslims, who suffer from the early rising of Muezzins, might be able to engage in dialogue with neighbors who are not deaf to one another.  The residents of Caesaria, for example, neighbors of the Prime Minister (who actually was enthusiastic about Michaeli’s proposal) spoke to the residents of Jesr a-Zarka (“Netanyahu expresses support for the Mosque Law,” Barak Ravid and Jackie Huri, Haaretz, Dec. 12, 2011), and this led to a reduction of volume in a demonstration of good will without much ado.

Meanwhile, in my office on Mount Scopus, I open my window in the afternoon.  While Jerusalem is bathed in golden splendor, the chants of the Muezzins pour into the Kidron Valley from one minaret after the other, bearing with them a melody of sorrow and longing, and enveloping me.

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IAN BOURLAND’S “Protest 2.0—KONY 2012”

Ian Bourland

17 April 2012

“Protest 2.0—KONY 2012”

In this long season of occupation and in the wake of the fallout of Tahrir Square and the failures of the global community thus far in the ongoing Syrian uprising, there has emerged an unexpectedly potent campaign that takes its cues from the global occupy movements but diverges in a few marked—and potentially instructive—ways.

The first image is a snapshot of the kony2012 website.

On the fifth of March, the San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children released a thirty minute video piece, KONY 2012, that rapidly set the record for “most viral video,” racking up some 100  million views as it coursed through the internet, accelerated by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and alternating barrages of fascination and snark on news aggregation blogs such as Gawker.  The premise of the video was straightforward:  draw attention to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an Acholi nationalist group formerly based in Uganda that has, over the past two and a half decades, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.  The LRA is noted among central African rebel groups for its consistent use of the most heinous of tactics: rape, sexual slavery, mass murder, mutilations, and the abduction and impressment of at least 30,000 child soldiers.  Like the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the ongoing multi-partite conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the LRA’s trans-state crimes against humanity have remained one of those seemingly intractable problems, just beyond the reach of NATO security interests and military capabilities.[1]

Enter Invisible Children, a production company in the guise of a charity, which has organized what is, by all accounts, a truly international community under the premise that an aggregation of young people can give voice to the “invisible” children of northern Uganda.  Until late 2011, the group relied on letter writing campaigns, meetings with congressional delegations, and choreographed rallies (all assiduously documented) in order to pressure western governments to send military advisers and materiel to the Ugandan army, in order to rout the LRA forces once and for all.  The organization also creates full-on documentary work during their visits to central Africa, interviewing children, community leaders, and sympathetic politicians, and it claims to funnel resources for development projects, such as schools, directly to localities.  In effect, Invisible Children aims to pressure conventional state agencies, and also to bypass them.

The 5 March KONY 2012 video was something of a study in narrative tension.  It introduces the audience to the LRA and to Invisible Children by way of two real “characters.”  One is a young Ugandan boy named Jacob, who escaped the LRA, but whose brother was murdered and who subsequently met Invisible Children founder Jason Russell.  The other is Russell’s own son, an angelic toddler who conveniently serves as both a telegenic western youth, and a proxy for the audience itself, which is collectively (but through no fault of its own!) unaware of Kony’s atrocities.  In a remarkably telling bit of cinema verité, Russell shows his son a picture of Kony, and explains that not only is he a warlord, but has also hurt Jacob, beloved of the Russell family.  The moral imperative laid out here is not complex: to know Kony is to know evil, and now that we know Kony, he must be stopped.  Even a child can see that.


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The Subject of Love

Leo Bersani, the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 2012, will be conducting a graduate seminar called The Subject of Love.  The course will run for four weeks from 16 April to 11 May. Here is his course description. For more information, please email Jay Williams, Senior Managing Editor, at


 The Subject of Love
     Concepts and representations of love in certain philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic texts, as well as in film, from Plato to Godard.  If love is constituted by the language used to “describe” it, we might also argue that the construction of love as a psychic reality is inseparable from the elaboration of particular forms of subjectivity.  To represent and to theorize different modes and objects of human love is, at least implicitly, to propose varying structures of selfhood.  A history of amorous discourse reenacts and reformulates the Foucauldian project of tracing “the hermeneutics of subjectivity” in Western culture.  We will be testing this hypothesis first in a few texts by ancient writers (Plato, Sophocles) and then, primarily, in modern works by Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Proust,  Duras, Claire Denis, and Godard.


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Arts of Occupation, Part 2

Responses from W. J. T. Mitchell’s class on Space, Place and Landscape:

Stephen Parkin, “Occupy Walla Walla”

Walla Walla is a sleepy town of 30,000 in far south-eastern Washington State. Its economy is primarily agricultural (mainly wheat and fruits, but increasingly viticulture and wine as well), though many in town are employed at one of the three colleges (a medium-sized regional teaching school, a small liberal arts school, and a community college), at the state penitentiary, or in the growing tourism sector. The town is just large and historic enough (it’s the first permanent White settlement in Oregon Territory) to maintain a slow-paced individual identity in spite of the relatively significant number of students (roughly 3,100 BA students and 13,000 at the community college out of 60,000 total residents in the valley).

We might not expect to see evidence of the Occupy Movement in rural, conservative territory, but Walla Walla–largely on account of the significant student body–hosts an active chapter. Like many medium-sized rural towns, Walla Walla’s cultural center is defined by it historic Main Street which runs for about 3/4 mile through the center of town. (The other social center of gravity is the Wal-Mart Supercenter and its accompanying recent commercial development on the outskirts of town). The Occupy movement, then, holds its demonstrations along Main Street; many protests gather at the cultural heart of the town (at the intersection of Main and First Avenue), while the Occupation (whose permanent physical presence was short-lived) gathered in a small park just over a block away.

In many ways, the above photograph captures much of the symbolic force of OWS. For one, the protesters are strongly identified with Main Street, the icon of contemporary populism (versus the techno-plutocracy represented by Wall Street and the intellectual elite represented by (esp.) elite universities such as the Ivy League). Another point to notice is the plurality of populist positions represented, which the media has gleefully reported as the lack of cohesive “demands” on the part of the protesters (thus entirely missing the reactionary variety of protesting, the protesting because of rather than for): the signs urge us to “amend the constitution,” “tax Wall Street,” “abolish government,” and “support unions.” What this eclectic variety of perspectives shares is its goal: to “save democracy” from putative encroachment by a variety of socio-cultural institutions, from banks and bureaucracy to teachers and unions.

It is also worth noting that the protesters in Walla Walla used tactics similar to those in other protests nation-wide, including peaceful, non-violent protest and the creation of an alternative community (complete with entertainment, food, etc.) in a public place. Furthermore, the demographic of protesters is similar to that of nation-wide protests, with students, aged civil rights activists, and (often unemployed) workers forming the majority of the movement.

In all, these photographs are not much different than those more commonly seen from the encampments in such places as New York, Berkeley, and Denver, except with the important addition that they reveal that such leftist populist sentiments are not merely an urban phenomenon, but have also erupted in rural, conservative, and agricultural communities as well.

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The Arts of Occupation:  A Call for Crowd Sourcing

Critical Inquiry announces a call to assemble a virtual archive of the Arts of Occupation.  We invite our readers to send images in all media, as well as links, anecdotes, brief essays, reports, games, scripts for performance, and videos that will document the aesthetic as well as the tactical and political side of practices of occupation.  We are interested in the “creative” aspect of the global occupation movement, the ways in which it produces new forms of spectacle, space, face, and inscription.  We are asking for our readers’ aesthetic judgments, not just their political views.  What images and statements have impressed them as especially elegant, powerful, salient, eloquent, penetrating, and—well, yes—beautiful?   What specific images (both metaphors and visual images) have had the most impact, and why?    Is there a new image of the crowd  itself, as a bodily presence in a real place, and as a virtual entity, a mass  social movement?  Is there a new image of the individual, at once non-subject and non-sovereign?  How have the media, both old and new, from Twitter to the People’s Mic, produced and reproduced the emergent forms of democracy?   How is the “sensible,” meaning both sensuous and thinkable, re-distributed by the actions and images of the Occupy Movement?

We do not wish to limit the archive to 2011, though this year just past will clearly stand as the historical beginning of a new sense of the words and images associated with “occupation.”  After a half century of thinking of this word as invariably coupled with military occupation, and with landscapes of  conquest and colonization, a new meaning has suddenly imposed itself.   At the same time the image-concept of the camp and encampment has shifted from a site of detention and dehumanization to one of insurgency and non-violent resistance.  “Occupation” has turned from the sphere of power to that of weakness, disenfranchisement, poverty, as well as resistance, insurgency, and creative direct action.   What are the aesthetic aims and effects of lying down under a red carpet at the entrance to a Chamber of Commerce gala? Camping in a public park until the police remove you?  Erecting a tent city in the midst of Tel Aviv?  Shutting down harbors in Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle?  Opening free clinics, libraries, clothing exchanges, media centers, educational projects?  Scribbling slogans, questions, declarations, accusations,  demands, and jokes?  Assembling as an embodied movement on symbolic sites—capitols, city halls, banks, museums, schools, and foreclosed homes.

And, finally, we invite critical and theoretical reflection on the Arts of Occupation.  There needs to be some recognition of the “black arts” of occupation (violence, exploitation, domination) that have mostly characterized the preceding era.  We want to know which arts, and which specific performances, have had the greatest effect in mobilizing this counter-movement?  What have been the failures and successes, and what can we learn from them?

Submit your entry simply by responding to this post.

And to follow Critical Inquiry contributors Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler on the Occupy movement, click on the following links:

Žižek  in the Guardian

Žižek  in the Observer

Žižek on YouTube

Žižek  on Verso Books

Butler on Salon

Butler on

Butler on Worlds of Change


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On Translating Panofsky

Jas Elsner and Katharina Lorenz

[Managing Editor’s note: In anticipation of the appearance of their translation (in conjunction with a substantial essay) of Erwin Panofsky’s “On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts” in the spring 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry, we asked Jas and Katharina for their thoughts on the project.]

Jas Elsner:  I got into the rather recherché business of translating Panofsky by an odd sidetrack.  As an expert in late antiquity, I decided I needed to know more about the critical historiography that brought this concept into being, and especially about the historical and cultural drives behind the invention of late antique art as a topic of scholarly interest in the late nineteenth century.  The key oeuvre for this is the work of Alois Riegl, one of the greatest of all art historians.  Little did I realize at the time that Riegl’s most acute and committed critic throughout the 1920s and early 30s was Panofsky in his German career.  The first key paper in Panofsky’s rethinking of Riegl (‘The Concept of Artistic Volition’, 1920) had been translated in the early 1980s by Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder in this very journal [Critical Inquiry], but the hugely important and difficult essay which developed Panosky’s scheme into a system of fundamental concepts for art history remained untranslated and virtually unread by non-German speaking art historians.  I approached Katharina Lorenz to help me (with what turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever read and in one of the most difficult intellectual enterprises I have ever attempted), and we translated ‘On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory’ (1925) for Critical Inquiry in 2008.  However, as we worked, it became obvious that this piece was only the second stage in Panofsky’s most creative process of philosophical thinking in his German career, and that the brilliant, assured and much more readable essay (originally published in 1932) translated in this issue of CI [that is, the spring 2012 issue]—astonishingly never before translated into English and only rarely alluded to in English-language scholarship—was the culmination of that trajectory as well as the foundation of Panofksy’s theory of iconology.

Katharina Lorenz: I have to say ‘On Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’ was much less of a brain ache than the art theory piece we translated earlier—with regard to its language and use of art historical jargon, but not least because for a classical archaeologist of German training it has the obvious attraction of opening with a piece by Zeuxis, and some en passant sneers against Lessing! Yet, what on the surface is seemingly much more straightforward and easier to grasp in the 1932 paper, in fact drills much deeper into how we deal with pictures than the earlier piece ever could, stuck as it is in its lofty binaries and abstract philosophizing. Indeed, what is amazing is how fresh and insightful the 1932 piece still remains as a meditation on both the problems of description and the limits on subjectivity in interpretation. And yet so many of the wild and wonderful things about it were later lost in the English emulations produced by Panofsky himself in his American career.

JE: Of course, it is precisely the distance between the German and the American models of iconology—both produced by Panofsky and claimed by him to be identical—that is so fascinating.

KL: Equally interesting is the paper’s relative insignificance in German scholarship—which is of course a result in part of the eclipse of Panofsky by Nazi-inflected art history after 1933, and of a subtle resistance to his ascendancy in America in the postwar discipline in Germany.  But even where people did use his work, many a time they refer to the later English versions of iconology (or German paraphrases of it), rather than the first German version, despite the palpable fact that the German essay is much more acute and propositional.

JE: Do you think that this is in part to do with the fact that the English versions of the piece— in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)—are more general, as it were universally applicable, and without the rich empirical base of numerous specific visual examples from which the argument is constructed?

KL: One thing that is really interesting here is how important are pictures to the argument. I am wondering to what extent the 1932 discussion of Grünewald and others, like Franz Marc (which are cut in the American versions of the piece), are essential to Panofsky’s argument. Would the essay have worked in the same way with other pictures? Certainly, his American focus, or entrée, not on an actual work of art but on an action event—the episode of greeting someone on the street, which opens Studies in Iconology—shifts the emphasis of his argument. In the 1932 German version, he had only used that type of social encounter to demonstrate some aspects of his notion of “intrinsic meaning”; but by the time he reformulated the paper in America, it comes to stand in for the interpretive model as a whole. The way Tom Mitchell dissects Panofsky’s use of this social event, and contrasts it with Althusser’s greeting parable, is indicative of the fact that Panofsky did himself and his pictorial enterprise no favours by moving from painting to event. This aside, on a personal level, one thing I find particularly exciting about the 1932 paper is Panofsky’s implicit insight into how thoughts are governed by language (and then again also by images), and how the use of specific choices in language bears upon both interpretation and argument. This, along with the comparison between his choices of language here and those he will adopt in English later, is much more telling of the process his thinking undergoes between German and English than his own statements on the matter later in the 1950s.
JE: I certainly agree with this. But it may also be observed that because the stakes are raised so high by what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s, and by Panofsky’s choice to confront Heidegger in the 1932 paper, the problems of one’s choice of terms, one’s ethics of argument, the limits one should apply to willfulness in interpretation, are more acutely and pointedly raised by the 1932 paper than by most writing in the history of the discipline.

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Report from Norway

Could Bergen’s Concord displace the Oslo Accords? Continue reading

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W. J. T. Mitchell

Was the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011 an act of justice, as Barack Obama claimed? Continue reading

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