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Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Françoise Meltzer

 

Tzvetan Todorov—the literary theorist, historian, philosopher, structuralist and essayist—died in Paris at the age of seventy-seven in February of this year. His importance to every one of these disciplines and subjects to which he turned his attention is enormous. A Bulgarian born in 1939, Todorov emigrated to Paris to do graduate work and was the student of Roland Barthes. His Bulgarian experience under Soviet communism gave him a mistrust of “everything the state defends or that is related to the public sphere.”[1] But the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 changed that mistrust: “I felt like I was no longer conditioned by those childhood and teenage years living in a totalitarian world.” Thus it is unsurprising that Todorov’s intellectual trajectory took a strong turn toward ethics and politics beginning in the early eighties (as if sensing the end of Soviet communism) and continued until his death.

tzvetan-todorov-150-g

Todorov famously began as a structuralist, well-schooled in the Russian formalism of the twenties and the Prague School of Linguistics of the thirties. Early in his career, he translated the Russian formalists into French, Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes (1965). One might say that his form of structuralism is politically “safe” to a certain extent, searching as it does for repetitive patterns and deep meanings that are frequently unrelated to their manifestations (plot events and narrative systems, for example) and certainly unconcerned—at least overtly—with the hegemony of the state. Literature and Signification (1969) continued in this vein and also put him on the map as the scholar who created a renaissance in rhetoric.

Todorov continued with structuralist analyses, which he combined with semiotics and a study of narrative systems (along with Gérard Genette, Barthes and the early Fredric Jameson). For this approach to narrative, in collaboration with Algirdas Julien Greimas and Barthes, Todorov coined the term narratology. All types of narrative, he wrote, “pertain less to poetics than to a discipline which seems to me to have solid claim to the right of existence, and which could be called narratology.[2] The sentence is taken from an article, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” which analyzed what Vladimir Propp had called “functions” (in Russian fairy tales)— the succession of recurring plot elements that Propp showed could be mapped, or listed, in succession. Todorov added, contra Propp’s system, that the relationship between the units (or functions) cannot be only one of succession, but must “also be one of transformation.”[3] For example, a narrative may present events at the beginning of its récit, but the reader will see them differently if the same events return at the end. And yet even this syntactical power of transformations is not what is to be valued most in a narrative, adds Todorov. Narratives can be further broken down into the gnoseological type or of the mythological type; more layers need to be added to parsing any given plot events. Even in the early seventies, then, he was already drifting away from structuralism and its ancestors, the Russian formalists. Though Todorov continued in semiotics, structuralist approaches and narratology—for example, his 1971 The Poetics of Prose, which continues to analyze narrative (récit) on which the article in question draws— something else was brewing.

Well-known and much admired in France, by 1970 Todorov had authored many books and had helped to found, with Genette, the journal Poétique. In the same year, shortly before the Poetics of Prose, one of Todorov’s works was so immediately important and successful, that it was added to the French school curriculum the year after the book’s appearance, and is still there today. That book is The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. This is not the place to summarize Todorov’s famous argument. Suffice it to say that to this day, no student or scholar can write on the fantastic without alluding to Todorov’s seminal work on the subject.

But, to repeat, something else was brewing. Todorov’s early life under communism had profoundly marked him: “Today I believe,” he said in a late interview, “that my initial interest in questions of form and structure in literature . . . was closely linked to the fact that debating ideas was impossible in a totalitarian country.” If you wanted to say anything about literature in that context, he continued, you had the choice “between serving the purposes of official propaganda and focusing on the formal aspects of the text alone.” So he concentrated solely on the formal aspects of texts. By the early eighties, however, as Soviet communism was collapsing, Todorov was changing. In 1982 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other appeared in France (the English translation two years later). The book, a type of echo and counter-response to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, examines the Mesoamerican Indian population confronting the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century. Tocqueville, curiously enough, had written that while the Spanish had been horrible in their treatment of native populations, they were nonetheless unable to eradicate the native populations of North America. The United States succeeded in doing this, continues Tocqueville, “with felicity” and “without shedding any blood.” This appalling and absurd conclusion notwithstanding, Todorov writes his study with a different question: to what extent did the fact that the Aztecs had no notion of the Other, and that the Spaniards had a very clear and (let us say) xenophobic and racist one, contribute to the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and the Caribbean? Could it explain the Aztec passivity in the face of the brutal conquerors? Todorov mainly consulted the archives of Columbus and “then of his contemporaries and companions.” Todorov concludes his work with the following: “For Cortés, the conquest of knowledge leads to the conquest of power. I take the conquest of knowledge from his example, even if I do so in order to resist power.”

As of Conquest, Todorov will deeply engage in the issues of ethics in the political realm. He does not believe that history obeys a system, he writes in conclusion, but believes rather that “to become conscious of the relativity . . . of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”[4] If Michel Foucault explored the tectonic shifts that occurred and caused changes in varying power structures in varying eras and discourses, Todorov is more optimistic; he believes that uncovering historical “shifts” can create a shift in itself, such that an event can be wrested from its underpinnings and historical behaviors can be somewhat modified in turn. “I myself,” says Todorov in another interview, “aspire less today than in the past to produce a text reducible to its theses; I try to enrich it with stories, other people’s or my own, and, as we know, stories give rise to interpretations, not refutations.” As one reader of Todorov puts it, he teaches us to eradicate, or deeply to question, the binary of “them and us.” What will follow will be rooted in ethics: On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought (1989); Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (on the “social schizophrenia specific to totalitarian regimes,” 1991); A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer ’44 (on the French Resistance’s killing of thirteen pro-Nazi militia and the Nazi revenge murder of thirty-eight Jews in Saint-Armand, 1994); The Fragility of Goodness (on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews, 1999); A New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2003, two years after September 11 and on the eve of the Iraq war); Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between (his intellectual autobiography, 2002)—and too many other books and articles to mention here.[5] “Only totalitarianism,” writes Todorov, “makes it obligatory to love one’s country” (a statement we would do well, at present in the United States, to keep in mind).

“From now on,” writes Todorov in 2007, “I will stick by and large to the humanist family. This unique perspective prohibits me from any claim to an evenhanded clarification of the other families: I shall systematically privilege one of the voices in the dialogue of the past.”

This, from a man who had, in the first half of his career, carefully avoided polemics. The same year, he published Literature in Danger, a manifesto that argues that current trends in criticism have made it an “object of closed, self-sufficient, absolute language,” a “smothering corset” enclosed by “factual formal games, nihilistic whining and solipsistic egotism.” Literature must be freed from the “formalist ghetto that is of interest only to other critics.” Formalism, nihilism and solipsism are endangering the literary enterprise, he wrote.

Todorov’s greatest influence was Raymond Aron, but also, again just to name a few, Michel de Montaigne, Benjamin Constant, Jean-JacquesRousseau, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mikhail Bakhtin, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (whom Todorov translated), and Edward Said. Human rights, Islam, the question of Europe, economic conditions, racism, genocide, the Holocaust, humanism, colonization, fanaticism, ethics and moral philosophy—these were, to name the most salient, Todorov’s passionate concerns as of the early eighties. Rather than attacking other critics, “who are not there to contradict you and you can ridicule the person to your heart’s delight,” Todorov came to prefer a more measured and solitary approach: “Asserting your conception of the world without worrying too much about other people’s conceptions seems to me at once more difficult and more interesting.” As his friend Thomas Pavel put it recently, what Todorov wished to express above all in his writings was “his simple and sincere friendship for humanity and its cultures.”

After the murder of a French priest last year in France, Todorov remarked, “To systematically bomb a town in the Middle East is no less barbaric than to slit somebody’s throat in a French church. Actually, it destroys more lives.” He was against all forms of fanaticism, from the left or the right: “Certain ideological stances could be defined as the simple refusal to recognize this or that boundary,” he wrote, as if anticipating contemporary arguments about borders. His approach to history was ethical; his concern was with how to treat the representation of other cultures; he believed that self-knowledge develops through knowledge of the Other; and he held that goodness can exist even in the evilest of contexts.

In his eulogy to his teacher, “The Last Barthes,” Todorov noted that he owed his mentor a great deal. And now, after Barthes’s death, writes Todorov, “I will owe him more every day.” Todorov opened his Barthes encomium with these words: “He belonged, in France, to that small group at the top of the intellectual pyramid; he was one of those writers whose books you were always supposed to have read, books which could become the subject of conversation among strangers.”[6] The same may be said of Todorov, and a great many of us will continue to owe him more every day.

 

[1] Sewell Chan, “Tzvetan Todorov, Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil, Dies at 77,” New York Times, 7 Feb. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/europe/tzvetan-todorov-dead.html

[2] Tzvetan Todorov, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” Diacritics 1 (Autumn 1971): p.44.

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (Norman, Okla., 1999), p. 254.

[5] All dates refer to the original French publication.

[6] Todorov, “The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 454, 449.

 

TODOROV and CRITICAL INQUIRY

The following essays (and interview) by Todorov were published in past issues of the journal.

“The Verbal Age,” trans. Patricia Martin Gibby, Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 351-71.

“The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 449-54.

“Critical Response: ‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture,” trans. Loulou Mack, Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986): 171-81.

Interview with Danny Postel, “Moving Targets,” trans. Gila Walker, Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 249-73

(Danny Postel’s interview is available to read for free on our website http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu)

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Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

David Palumbo-Liu

In “The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying ‘No’ to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality,” an essay derived from his op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Gabriel Noah Brahm makes a number of pronouncements regarding the death of this and the lack of value of that. One core element of his essay regards a concern we share—the new presidency of Donald Trump and the notion of a posttruth and indeed even postreason age. However, we differ in terms of what or who might be responsible for this state of affairs. Brahm argues that disdain for the truth began with postmodernism and other associated intellectual ills. Happily, according to him, the academy has now been delivered from such evils by a historical shift evident in the recent votes in Philadelphia at the meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Brahm’s argument is that the votes at the Modern Language Association help us understand a fundamental shift away from political correctness, which Brahm describes as:

The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

He declares “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology” based on the fact that the Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. As coeditor, with Cary Nelson, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Brahm has more than a passing interest in the topic.

To seriously address the issue of Brahm’s assertion that Israel is a “progressive cause” would take more space than allotted here, but readers interested in pursuing that line of reasoning, as expounded by Brahm and others, can refer to the volume just cited. Part of what I would say in response can be found in my review of that book, published in Symploké.

Instead of getting involved in what Brahm himself argues is a “complex” issue—Israel-Palestine—I will use this opportunity to focus specifically on what actually happened at the MLA, as those events occasioned Brahm’s op-ed.

I argue that much of what transpired at MLA smacked of the white-supremacist tactics and thematics we associate with Trump (amongst them his signature attacks on “political correctness,” which indeed sound a lot like Brahm’s), and that, pace Brahm, it is precisely the fields Brahm associates with “p.c.” that provide us with the tools we need to understand what happened in Philadelphia and also what is going on with our new presidential administration.

Let us thus turn to “the facts” and not Brahm’s opinions. Let’s look at two public debates which took place on the floor of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA that show the use of Trumpist tactics and thematics—in both cases the truths and facts that Brahm wishes to rescue were explicitly suppressed by the so-called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which trampled on precisely those rights. Rather than, as Brahm glosses the events, “effectively vindicat[ing] both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will,” the antiboycott vote exhibited the antiboycott side’s political will precisely to abrogate academic freedom and academic responsibility, to shut down dialogue and is so doing violate the basic premises of academic inquiry.

First, a resolution was put forward that decried the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, and placed the blame for that on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now the Palestinians themselves and various international human rights groups have indeed borne witness to both these groups impinging on their rights—I have no argument there. But conspicuous in its absence was any mention whatsoever of the state of Israel and its own responsibilities in this area.

That resolution, put forward by the antiboycotters, is completely of a piece with the argument voiced by the white supremacist Trump campaign that “black on black” killing is more to blame for black deaths than police violence, which is in turn of a piece with the violence of the US state as exemplified in the so-called justice system and the prison industrial complex. In much the same way, denials of academic freedom to Palestinians are an essential part of the virtual apartheid system that exists in Israel and indeed preserves Israel in its current form.

Resolution proposer Russell Berman’s disingenuous offer to table the resolution in a spirit of “reconciliation” was seen by many for what it was—a desire to prevent even discussing the question of whether or not Israeli state policies might play any role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Debate of the issue would inevitably have exposed facts about Israel’s constant violations of academic freedom that its supporters are eager to keep concealed. The bad faith of Berman’s offer of “reconciliation” was made patently clear when, despite the calls to allow debate, he refused to withdraw his motion to table the resolution and discussion of it indefinitely.  At that moment of silencing, the bad faith behind the claim that we should not boycott institutions because we want to preserve “dialogue” was exposed; at that point a free inquiry into the “truth” was terminated by those attesting to argue “for scholars’ rights.”

In removing the possibility of discussing such a fundamental issue, Berman and those who voted for his motion violated one of the basic principles of something they always hold out to be our beacon: liberalism. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Those mounting analyses of political and cultural phenomena from the standpoints of postcolonial studies, studies in race and ethnicity, and others Brahm associates with “political correctness” are not “expressing” “indignation” when they see such blatant acts of hypocrisy emanate from self-anointed guardians of the liberal west—they are issuing an indispensable analytical critique that, among other things, helps shed light on how the rhetoric of “reconciliation” may be used to cover the tracks of exertions of raw power.

Second, the antiboycott resolution that, having been passed by the same assembly, must now be voted on by the general membership, demands that the MLA “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” This resolution amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutionally protected form of free speech (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 1982). The resolution makes even the act of endorsing, in a nonbinding manner, a boycott of Israel impossible—the MLA would be acquiescing to the same kind of silencing we saw in Russell Berman’s motion to table discussion on Resolution 3 indefinitely.

Given that Trump has vowed to destroy BDS, if it passes that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him, and at the expense of its own members and of their right to deliberate the issue. But beyond that, passing that resolution would also set a terrible and destructive precedent—it would mean that it is permissible to deny MLA members the right to comment on what the United States Supreme Court holds to be a basic right.

In both of these cases and many others during the convention, scholars engaged in critiques of colonial knowledge, of gender epistemologies, of privilege and power and race had more than enough material upon which to shine a light. In numerous other scholarly associations that do not regard histories of race and colonialism merely as matters of “trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” the logic and justice of the boycott has made itself felt. These associations not only engage with the facts of racial discrimination and injustice that the Trump administration is likely to make all the more urgent in both Israel and the US but also recognize that the study of these facts requires scholars also to take action for justice. In this, they represent not the past, nor a “trend,” but an indispensable and permanent element of both current and future scholarship.

Indeed, no matter what the general membership decides in the spring, it’s hard to imagine that even if the antiboycott measure is passed this will be a sign of the “end” of anything—the Modern Language Association voted down a resolution to support the anti-apartheid boycott after all. With truth comes power, and the more this issue is debated, the stronger the case for BDS appears. This is why opponents of the boycott resolution felt debate had to be tabled and a resolution to deprive scholars of their right to free speech introduced.

While the move to table the resolution placing the blame for Palestinian suffering solely on them was voted passed by the Delegate Assembly, one should note that the margin of that vote was exceedingly slim: eighty-three “yes,” seventy-eight “no” to table—it passed by the narrowest margin of any of the resolutions, five votes.   The antiboycott resolution also won by a very small margin—eight votes out of a total of 194 vote cast. The vote against the resolution to endorse the BDS call was the widest, seventy-nine “yes” ; 113 “no.” However, it is important to put this in perspective. That a small handful of volunteers could muster a 40 percent vote in favor—with both presidential candidates, the governor of New York, numerous state legislatures, two hundred college presidents, twelve past presidents of the MLA, and major Israeli organizations aiding indirectly or directly the other side—is remarkable. And with the Trump administration bent on endorsing more settlement building, and more violations of human rights, it is highly likely that the pro-boycott side will grow in strength.

 

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The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying “No” to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Gabriel Noah Brahm

In Philadelphia recently (7 January 2017), Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only seventy-nine delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup de grace comes in June, with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal—which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to ninety-three—to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.

And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.

Second, it was a victory for facts over trendy “post-truth” epistemology—a rejection of the “alternative facts” put forward by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, in their trumped up charges against the Jewish state.

And third, it signaled the waning of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large, among citizens appalled equally by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.

P.C. and BDS Are Dead Letters

Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p. c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, or global capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p. c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.

So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum—or rather it comes out of precisely the kind of vacuum of informed judgment that p. c. labors to produce.

It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (ultra-left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision, and injustice of this Manichean myth-making, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly—in effect if not in intent—against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.

Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy around the world.

The anti-BDS vote thus effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudoacademic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p. c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the association’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.

Twitter Politics: The Alt-Left Learns from the Alt-Right that Learned from the Alt-Left

It wasn’t just Trump voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional universe, one in which everybody’s preferred “narrative” all by itself (cut loose from actual states of affairs) competes to convince the credulous, was imagined long ago at places like Yale, Duke, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated the move from truth to “post-truth” decades ago, with what were then au courant doctrines of simulation, deconstruction, discourse and social construction of reality.

Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed, Twitter, and in the blogosphere. At a time when both presidential candidates and scholar-activists, like Steven Salaita and his supporters, make names for themselves with ribald tweets and vulgar blog posts, serious scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately for both Israel and the MLA, a return to common sense, common decency, reason, and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention this year. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.

For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.

They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the discriminatory nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.

It worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts, period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.

R. I. P. Identity Liberalism, Long Live the MLA!

So, is this the end of business as usual for the past twenty-five years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has tended to crowd out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues?

Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused, in a much-discussed op-ed, that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if only real liberals—in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law—took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p. c. identity politics coupled with neglect of class-based concerns) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future,one in which an outdated faux radicalism that has only ever appealed to a tiny minority of citizens no longer drives our American politics into a ditch, maybe!

I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters on the left, in the last presidential election, didn’t seem to find stale identity-politics-as-usual very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appears tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on its list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”

Israel is a Progressive Cause: Put on Your Pussy Hats and Stand With Us

As a “Western” democracy and standard-bearer of a flawed liberal humanism, in a region not known for it, Israel attracts more than its share of critics. But as leading French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, has lately reminded, it is in many ways a “model democracy,” in fact. A place where minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights are respected as equal under the law, and freedom of speech flourishes even under daily threat from terrorism. As a defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of the war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, Israel should attract admirers.

While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over anti-Semitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. One sees more clearly than ever that BDS—understood as a symptom of a floundering p. c. agenda—is not primarily a “left versus right issue” but rather an occasion for people of integrity, across the board, to stand together for basic intellectual liberty and fundamental pedagogic, professional, and civilizational ethics. This will be key, in the years ahead, to a robust defense of the humanities in terms of the meaning and value of a “liberal education.”

That I personally canvassed for Hillary Clinton in my community (a tiny blue dot in a sea of red) may not be relevant (so did a lot of other people, it wasn’t enough). However, that I also signed a petition to help bring up for a vote at the MLA an emergency resolution—in solidarity with a similar AAUP statement, wary of the new administration vis–à–vis the humanities and supportive of diversity in education—serves as another indication of what I, for one, see as at stake in this discussion.

Perhaps, too, it gives a sense of where the other side is coming from. For, when in Philadelphia I spoke to the urgency of opposing “discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin,” several of the leaders of BDS stood up to speak dismissively—with contempt, even—of the measure. Indeed, it is fair to say they addressed its principled stand with derision. One BDS supporter, sounding a bit like Trump in tone, even mocked it as “namby-pamby.” At least they didn’t say it was for pussies, in spite of their tough-guy rhetoric.

Just Say No to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Now that the President on the United States has instituted a policy of discrimination against refugees and other immigrants on the basis of nationality, the only consistent position is to oppose such discrimination in all its forms.

In this regard, the MLA membership as a whole has the opportunity to send a message, while finally closing the door on distracting debates aimed at singling out one small nation-state as the sole object of a scholarly organization’s ill-informed foreign policy. As Cary Nelson has shown, in an article aptly titled “The BDS Disinformation Campaign at the MLA,” a tendentious case for smashing the Zionist Entity was riddled with false claims from the start. The tissue of “alternative facts” presented in support of the pro-boycott proposal, submitted by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd, thus also helped sink BDS in Philadelphia.

Over the summer, as fair-minded MLA members at large prepare to vote on the (antiboycott) measure that did pass the DA—Resolution 2017-1, proposed by Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman—some will want to go back and peruse Nelson’s detailed article for themselves, comparing it to the shoddy materials the BDSniks proffered. Others will simply conclude that in principle judging this sort of thing is not the business of the MLA—and so will vote a priori to endorse the antiboycott resolution, for that reason alone.

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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

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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How to See Palestine: An ABC of Colonialism

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Visiting Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the oppression. It was clarifying to see how the occupation operates and how little it cares what others think of it. It was humbling to see what being an activist really means and how privileged academic activism seems compared to the daily litany of harm to which any person in Palestine is exposed.

I saw elements of many different visual regimes struggling to cohere into what might become a new form. Surveillance is universal, but it’s not a panopticon because the jailers are all too visible. Religion is the justification for settlement, as it was under high imperialism, but there is no desire to convert the unbelievers. Counterinsurgency seeks “full spectrum dominance” but expects the insurgency to be permanent unless its conditions of possibility are removed.

The one thing everyone on all sides agrees on is that it’s all about land—who owns it, who can farm it, live on it, use the rainwater that falls on it, mine the minerals below—and so on. Whatever this is, it’s patently a form of colonialism. So, I decided to use my impressions to create an ABC of occupation.[1] Unlike Nicolai Bukharin’s classic ABC of Communism, this is not a program. It is a report back on the heart of visuality’s own contradiction. That is to say, Palestine is an actually existing possibility for the general condition of social life in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the election of Donald Trump clarifies this issue somewhat. The complicated ways in which someone willing to discuss Palestine gets produced as anti-Semitic surely pale by comparison with the insertion of Stephen Bannon, an old-fashioned Jew hater into the White House.

Perhaps the success of a campaign based on the promise of a “beautiful” wall, xenophobia, hatred of Islam and Muslims and a willingness to separate existing populations will help people understand why Palestine is an example not an exception.

Perhaps.

 

A is for Area A

The regime covers the territory with signs, expressing its intent (fig. 1). These signs are posted wherever Area A, under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), borders with what the regime considers to be the state of Israel. Apparently, the Hebrew and Arabic versions are at variance. The English message is clear: Palestinians are dangerous. Red alert. Less obvious is that Area A covers only 18 percent of what is still referred to as the “West Bank” in a series of increasingly isolated pockets, centered on the Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Nablus. No functional state can be made from these islands. The “two-state solution” is visibly impossible.

mirz_1

Although Area A signs are quite common, there are no others. Where do you enter Area B (largely considered defunct on the ground) and Area C, now considered to be some 63 percent of the West Bank? There are no signs other than the change of rules of engagement and the appearance of settlements, settler buses and the settlers themselves. Palestinians seem to know, as do the settlers and the Israeli Defense Force. So the Area A signs are really for people like me, or Israeli leftists, venturing into the West Bank. I don’t think they work. I hadn’t been there long before the sight of an Area A sign made me relax and feel safe.

 

B is for Benjamin

Here is a sign of colonialism if there ever was one (fig. 2). It depicts the wolf emblem of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Massive in size and posted high above the ground, it is positioned on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, notionally running through Area C but extensively used by tourists going to the Dead Sea. However, according to legend, Joshua assigned this area to Benjamin. So what the sign indicates is that Oslo may have designated the land for Palestinians, but God had already given it to the Jews. Posted signs indicate that the area is officially known to the regime as Judea and Samaria. Benjamin’s land.

mirz_2

The Benjamin sign is only in Hebrew, a message for the colonists alone. But its visual message is clear enough. The howling wolf arcs his body over a cluster of white houses with red roofs, set against green grass and trees. The imperial echo of the Roman wolf cannot be missed. The empire protects. The houses are recognizably those of the illegal settlements that cover every hilltop in the West Bank, which all have such red roofs, in part to make them visible to the Israeli air force as settlements.

The grass and trees transform the scene into an evocation of American suburbia, the picket-fence view of the world. When I took this picture, the temperature was 115 farenheit (45 celsius). Any greenery in a Dead Sea settlement—and there is plenty—is both an ideological production and an environmental fabrication that relies on appropriated water. 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area use one-third of the water accessible to the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank (estimated at over 2.5 million).

 

 

C is for City.

Cities are the testing ground for what is now in formation. Hebron, a notionally Palestinian city, has become the front line of settler colonialism in Palestine. The settlers are expanding, street by street, using their mix of the carceral state, religion and military force. To visit Shuhada Street, formerly a shopping hub of the Palestinian neighborhood, you have to pass through a forbidding checkpoint. The street is closed, all Palestinian shops barred and sealed. Settlers and soldiers patrol to make sure you know who’s in charge.

Although the street has been closed for years, it was nonetheless disturbing to see Stars of David painted on the closed doors, as if in active forgetfulness of those other times and places where such stars were painted on Jewish shops to different ends (fig. 3). More disturbing yet was the thought that perhaps the ends were not that different after all.

mirz_3

At that moment, a settler started to film us from the other side of the street. Losing my temper, I walked towards him, holding my phone so as to film him. He retreated, only to return with a soldier a few moments later. Nothing was said, but the point was made: we were photographing on their sufferance. We left in short order.

 

D is for Desert

In the Naqab desert (called the Negev by the regime and within what Palestinians call the forty-eight, meaning the 1948 border), Bedouins at the village of al-Aqarib told us how their village had been destroyed ninty-eight times by Israeli police (over one hundred times as of October 2016). Their crops have been sprayed with Round Up from the air. The Jewish National Foundation plants millions of trees over as much of the Bedouin land as they can, aided by well-meaning environmentally inspired donations from the United States and elsewhere.

The Bedouin’s animals are arrested as they graze by the Green Patrol—an ecological unit of the regime—and the Bedouin are forced to pay heavy fines to retrieve them. How so? The regime has declared 85 percent of the Naqab to be state land or environmental reserves, so any person or animal setting foot in these areas is trespassing. The camels are arrested just like anyone else. Despite these conditions, we were treated to a lavish and delicious meal at al-Aqarib, according to the dictates of hospitality. A week after we left, the structures were demolished yet again.

 

G is for Giraffe

The Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi has called Israel a “carceral state.” A metonym of this condition, and its complications, can be found at Qalqilya zoo. Qalqilya is almost entirely surrounded by the Separation Wall, as a result of its involvement in the first Intifada. Despite this embattled status, it has within it a zoo, one of the few functioning public leisure spaces I saw.

Like most zoos, its containment of animals is grim. A brown bear paced in his cage relentlessly, as if wanting the Palestinian visitors to see his confinement as their own. Most dramatic is the separate museum that contains a number of stuffed animals. They died in the Intifada, as in the case of the giraffe, who lay down in fear during gunfire, causing her to die from her own blood pressure (fig. 4).

mirz_4

It transpired that she was twelve months pregnant (out of fifteen), and so the zoo director, Sami Khader, turned taxidermist to preserve them. Their spindly bodies are perhaps indicative of his emergent skills or maybe testify to the emaciated condition of the animals under siege. You might see them as martyrs, nonhuman victims of the occupation, or as surrogates, waiting until Palestine is free to welcome other giraffes. It’s a poignant story, and there’s a film being made called Waiting for Giraffes and a published book called The Zoo On the Road to Nablus.

But there were very few visitors other than us to the museum, not least because there was an additional charge for admission. And then there’s always the occupation. During the Intifada the animals that did survive were forced to eat leaves from the trees and other local plants. At some point later, Dr. Sami (as he is known) decided to take animal food and other equipment from Israeli zoos. To do so is to break the boycott of Israel. Palestinians condemn his action.

Is sustaining a public resource and keeping animals alive a reasonable cause? Or is a boycott a boycott? Palestinians demonstrate time and again a long-term steadfast resistance, known as sumud in Arabic, to their own material and physical detriment. There is no simple and painless answer to this dilemma, which is the condition of being under occupation. The proper solution is, of course, an end to that occupation.

 

S is for Settlement

Perhaps the strongest impression that a visitor to Palestine receives is how many settlements there are in the West Bank. No one should imagine that they all can be removed in some future two-state solution. That’s why I initially put West Bank in quotation marks: there is no West Bank. As we were driving, we once went into a valley where there was no settlement. Surprised, I glanced at my watch. It was twenty-five seconds before the next settlement became visible.

Settlement landscape in Palestine is not hard to read because it is intended to dominate and intimidate (fig. 5). The settlements occupy hilltops to command a dominant viewpoint all around. The windows of the buildings face out to have as many eyes engaged in this monitoring as possible. They are close together for supposed safety, built behind defensive walls on land cleared of trees. There’s little left to tell you that Palestinians once farmed the land. Even the slow-growing olive trees have been cleared to make way for fast-growing pines.

mirz_5

The pines are cultivated for timber, but they also serve to make the settlements look established. And they remove a resource from Palestinians. Locals told us that the Israelis had sedated and removed even the local wildlife, like deer and eagles. I have not been able to independently verify this account, but the absence of wildlife was notable.

In this valley, though, one farmer has kept a foothold. Using Ottoman-era documents to demonstrate ownership, the family has been able to cling to their land. Their goat pen is visible at bottom left. Thousands more were not so “lucky.” Their land is gone, appropriated or made useless. The Bedouin at al-Aqarib have similar documents that have not helped them.

 

T is for Tell es Sultan

A ‘tell’ is the name for an archaeological mound created by an abandoned human occupation (fig. 6). In Tell es Sultan, just outside Jericho, the British architect Kathleen M. Kenyon excavated human settlements reaching back to 10,000 BCE. That’s the very beginning of the Holocene, the now concluded window in which stable climatic conditions allowed for settled agriculture and what we call civilization.

mirz_6

Kenyon’s signature “stratigraphic” style allows us to see the unfolding of human possibility from that early period, via the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages to the Romans. Her vertical method emphasizes these changes over time, rather than allowing for a horizontal exploration of how people lived in any one epoch. The discoveries of tombs on the north side of the site were in fact made by Palestinians from the ‘Ein-as-Sultan camp that held 20,000 refugees after 1948. In 1967, all but a thousand or so were expelled into Jordan. The British Museum where some of Kenyon’s objects are now housed makes no reference to the Palestinian role in discovering the tombs or to the camp, which is visible if you know where to look in the site photograph provided. No one does, they all rush past to get to the Egyptian “mummies,” human remains on display for tourist consumption.

Everything changes. An urban civilization fell circa 2530 BCE. It was not restored until 1900 BCE. The big white tourist buses arrive and take a look at what they incorrectly believe to be the fallen walls of Jericho and leave. When you look up at the mountains above you realize what a mote in the eye of geological time these little ripples have been.

 

 

Q is for Qalqilya

Everywhere you look in Palestine, there’s detritus—discarded packaging, demolished housing, unfinished settlements, abandoned cars, electrical components, and trash and waste of all kinds. In Area C, most of the West Bank, no one is authorized to pick up trash—the PA has no authority, and the IDF could care less. In the refugee camps the United Nations steps in. Elsewhere, it piles up or people burn it, contributing to the omnipresent smog.

At the Qalqilya checkpoint at the end of the day, after the last few workers have returned around 7:30 at night, crossing back into Palestine from Israel where they work, no one hangs around (fig. 7). To be sure of getting through in time for work, people will begin queuing again at 2 a.m. to be well-placed when the checkpoint opens at six. It processes one person at a time. Around four thousand will go through.

mirz_7

And so coffee cups, soft drink bottles, bus tickets, and candy wrappers pile up, signs of lives lived in transit (fig. 8). As they sediment into the ground, the impermeable plastics and metals will await some future archaeologist, one who will note with surprise the sudden collapse of a short-lived but apparently consumer-oriented society. They will puzzle over the fences and walls; what purpose could they have served? Perhaps a new legend, like that of Joshua and the walls of Jericho will have been created. It’ll be a long wait for these new investigators; evolution takes place in deep time. The plastics, metals, and rocks won’t mind.

mirz_8

 

Acknowledgements

I visited accompanying the art activist group MTL and with the generous support of many Palestinians, especially Habshe Yossef. I would also like to acknowledge the decolonial activist group Zochrot for arranging my meeting at al-Aqarib. The full web project is still being worked on by techs at USC for security. When available it will be  here. For the time being I have made a PDF of the project that you can access, with either the full text or just the introduction.

That said, all the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

 

[1] These are selected entries from the full ABC available at scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/mirzoeff/index

 

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New Essay from Danny Postel

Danny Postel, a frequent contributor to this blog and the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, has an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which he reviews Laura Secor’s new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examines Iran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.

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The Liquid State

By Jason Adams

 

Solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters… for power to be free to flow, the world must be free of fences, barriers, fortified borders and checkpoints. Any dense and tight network of social bonds . . . is an obstacle to be cleared out of the way. Global powers are bent on dismantling such networks for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity, that principal source of their strength and the warrant of their invincibility.

—Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity)

 

A number of recent articles have focused upon the central culpability of Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder in deposing Flint’s democratically-elected city council and appointing Darnell Early, the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who presided over the unilateral decision-making structures that gave rise to the sourcing of lead-tainted water supplies in the now-famous Flint Water Crisis. A similar number of response pieces have drawn upon Matthew MacWilliams’ University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll of 1,800 respondents, finding that authoritarianism was the single most important factor in the public’s support for Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.

If a shift away from public support for representative democracy and towards more authoritarian modes of government is the driving factor in both cases though, what is at work on a more general level, that undergirds this shift in our time? What my book Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance argues is that such questions cannot be answered without an attentiveness to both political economy and the cultural and technological relations that provide conditions of possibility for such outcomes. In short, if we live in a culture describable by Douglas Rushkoff as one of “present shock,” in which a disposition of “presentism” (or as I prefer, “immediatism”) prevails over one concerned with past and future, in what form might that be expressed politically?

A few of the more perceptive commentaries have come close to answering this via foregrounding the influence of the Michigan-based right-wing think tank The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the development of Governor Snyder’s EFM policy. Writing in Salon, for instance, Paul Rosenberg notes that “what’s happening now is rooted in a state-level attack on democracy . . . [based upon The Mackinac Center’s agenda to] consistently shift the framework of policy debate in a given ideological direction.” Similarly, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow describes Snyder’s EFM policy as “the single most radical policy” in all of American history, one which also derives from a think tank that targeted Michigan professors who uttered Maddow’s name in personal emails.

While Maddow is incorrect—the emergency manager policy at a minimum, is not as extreme as legally-enshrined slavery was—the policy is nevertheless of a piece with it on the level of the unrestrained structural authority thereby enabled, in a form that conjoins the culture and technology of our time with a neoliberal policy apparatus. That apparatus, of course, is one that The Mackinac Center not only celebrates, but directly cultivates through the development of policy documents like the one that lead to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Director of Labor Policy Paul Kersey’s Reconsidering Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act: Restoring Balance to Public Sector Labor Relations.

Initially focused on eliminating public sector labor union influence, The Mackinac Center’s January 2011 document articulates how EFM laws like the Snyder-championed House Bill 4214 could “end with the state appointing an emergency financial manager.” Of course, the effects of such a fundamental shift in governance structures would be felt much more broadly than just labor relations: and, as the think tank noted in March 2011, “The Mackinac Center in January highlighted four ways that the law needed to be improved. The new law implements all of them [HB 4214]”. These included: protecting the EFM from litigation; increasing the scope of the manager’s authority to cover all areas; allowing the manager to move around charter provisions; and, giving the manager more opportunity to reform union agreements.

In effect, what Zygmunt Bauman has described as “liquid modernity” was being written into actual state policy: policy in which, given that the EFM could both enact and suspend laws willy-nilly, “all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice.” First and foremost, of course, this includes the right of the citizenry to enact policy themselves, either through referendum, or through elected representatives. The withdrawal of this right produces a new state-form that, even if its temporary, emergency nature eludes a single, ultimate definition, is certainly articulable as a liquid state, one in which no rights or other guarantees are fixed interminably, and which can be edited and revised as easily as a Wikipedia page could be.

The Flint Water Crisis makes more clear than ever then, that some form of postdemocratic “emergency government” has been introduced, one in which the first and most extreme consequences are reserved for working-class, minority-majority communities in the first world, as they already have been for some time in the third world. Of course, the ongoing epidemic of summary executions meted out by local police departments already set the pace for a full understanding of this development over the past several years, but the potentially fatal poisoning of thousands of children, the elderly, and others lacking fully-functioning immune systems does so with greatly-intensified force.

In our time, legally-sanctioned mass murder in the form Lauren Berlant refers to as “slow death” is becoming normalized on cultural level, such that more often than not, the perpetrators of such acts go unpunished. This is particularly clear upon revisiting the legitimation rhetoric used when Governor Snyder and The Mackinac Center replaced numerous, popularly-elected municipal governments across the state of Michigan with EFMs. In the Flint case, prior to Early, the initial EFM was Michael Brown. Consider then, the following Op-Ed in which The Flint Journal defended Brown’s appointment in January 2012, amidst widespread public outcry:

Some are equating Brown and his colleagues in a half-dozen other local governments in Michigan to dictators. That’s harsh, but with an element of truth. With a swipe of his pen and state approval, Brown can make major changes in city spending, personnel and negotiated contracts; eliminate or combine whole city departments and even merge the entire city with its neighbors. So, yes, we can see why emergency financial managers make a lot of people uneasy. We are reassured, though, from what we’ve seen in Brown’s first report to the state. It’s almost entirely composed of ideas that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to city affairs for the past two or three years. No surprises, but plenty of ideas that were born here. Nobody had the political will or the power to enact them. That’s what’s different now. Brown can make them happen.

In short, The Flint Journal reassured riled-up city residents by appealing to the canard of localism, reassuring them that, even if the newly-appointed EFM was in fact making decisions in a manner that displaced popular authority, he was nevertheless doing so with full awareness of local opinions and desires, “ideas that were born here”. The question this raises however, is whether that in and of itself, is sufficient as an explanation: does an appeal to local needs and supposedly pre-existing desires itself adequately legitimate the unilateral form of EFM-based policy-making, as opposed to duly-elected policy-making via the city council? And if so, is it not simply on the basis that he can make them happen faster, “with a swipe of his pen”, than a deliberative public body could?

****

Legitimations of authoritarianism and the rise of the “authoritarian personality” of course, have been a central concern for social and political theorists dating back at least to the horrors of Nazi Germany, so their reappearance in media outlets like The Flint Journal today should give us pause. As noted, we are living in a time of the liquid state, one in which political authoritarianism with a decidedly opportunist bent is rearing its head to a degree that was previously unimaginable in the US, much as it has been around the world since WWII. What is different today is that there is no substantial counterbalance as there had been in the leadup to fascism in Europe, which means that would-be authoritarians have a much freer hand to create impermanent, “liquid” structures entirely distinct from the attempt at authoritative permanence and solidity experienced there.

Would Flint have seen EFMs displacing the democratically-elected city council in the absence of the larger cultural and technological milieu of Rushkoff’s presentism, or my immediatism – a culture of instantly-deployed social media posting and cellphone-based text-messaging that has displaced the norms associated with periodical media in print and broadcast form? Perhaps, but the fact that US society has grown increasingly comfortable with unmediated, willy-nilly decision-making on an individual level – decision-making that isn’t slowed down by the periodical rhythms of public or representative deliberation so as to instead, simply decide as quickly as possible – probably also has some reverberations on a collective level, too.

A liquid economy is one in which, as Marx and Engels famously argued (picked up on by both Bauman and Marshall Berman), “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… [thus] all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… [and along with this transition,] the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”

Of course, whether this liquification, this constant revolutionizing of the means of production and relations of production simply amounts to capitalists automating production lines and firing workers such that they are disemployed en masse, or police officers engaging in summary execution rather than sending a court case through the established channels, or EFMs sourcing public water from a poisoned/poisoning supply rather than carefully vetting the range of options, ultimately makes little difference. In all cases, the common denominator is that the process of the decision has become liquified and rendered capable of circumventing any form of interlocution. As a result, the EFM’s decisions are made “with a swipe of his pen”, rather than a popularly-elected group of representatives that might deliberate, and agree or disagree.

Of course, the flip side of such a liquid economy is that it is not simply a matter of culture and technology speeding-up “too quickly”. The point is not to argue in favor of slowing down compared to the print- and broadcast-based culture and technology of the past, but to instead think through the manner in which the weapons of the bourgeoisie might become the weapons of the proletariat. US and world political economy will almost doubtlessly remain at speed going forward, no matter what interventions might be made at this point. Thus, the real danger lies in the failure of the working- and middle-classes to match the capitalist speed-up with a speed-up of their own, one that resituates, redirects, and redeploys what doing so is about, on the most basic of levels.

Before that can happen though, we need to understand not only the political and economic sources of the current malaise, but also the cultural and technological sources. Snyder’s EFMs were legitimated in several sources on the basis that “a single manager can respond to problems quickly, as meetings and board approvals are unnecessary.” And of course, as Marx reminds us in the Grundrisse, the origins of such developments cannot be separated from an economic system mobilized by the most efficient disposal of time, which in the US case is historically coupled with the authoritarian nature of American federalism, mobilized by figures like John C. Calhoun to justify slavery.

But the concept of the liquid state also exemplifies the insights of Deleuze and Guattari’s much-cited work A Thousand Plateaus on the question: today, they argue, “the totalitarian State is not a maximum State but rather, following Virilio’s formulation, the minimum State of anarchocapitalism.” While the more common assumption today is that communism and fascism formed the totalitarian nexus of the twentieth century that more enlightened twenty-first century liberalism avoids, they point to Pinochet, whose Chicago Boys-inspired, proto-neoliberal state apparatus served as a central inspiration for the installation of dictatorship in Chile.

Whether the Flint Water Crisis is best read through the lens of the liquid state or minimum state totalitarianism is an open question, but the resistance to representative mediation in states like Michigan today is clear, especially in working-class, minority-majority communities. The fewer the elected officials, the more quickly decisions can be made: temporal expenditures can be greatly reduced once election campaigns, civil deliberation, intergovernmental negotiation, and related features of representative democracy no longer constitute an obstacle to decision-making. In this respect, a minimum state can indeed be authoritarian, despite the fact that economists who call for less government frame the argument as a matter of intensifying liberty.

In a liquid environment, governance is no longer slowed down by a majoritarian citizenry to which elected rulers are at least formally accountable, nor to other officials with whom they are expected to share decision-making processes. Rather, governance operates at the velocity appropriate to the economy of which it is an expression: that of speed at the speed-limit, of instantaneity. This is seen especially clearly in that in the name of empowering the “will to enact,” governor-appointed officials on the level of the state replace the elected city council persons who are the supposed hallmark of representative governance and local governance in particular.

And, reducing their lengthy, necessarily mediated deliberations to the immediate, unimpeded decision of a single, unchallenged “decider”—a boss, in short—arrives amidst the rising influence of real-time culture and technology, an influence that intensifies especially when combined with the liquid economics of efficiency and austerity. The rhetoric of urgency need not even be articulated, since both are already culturally and technologically presupposed: as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt famously argued, representative democracy is insufficient to deal with the emergency situations since its essence is to “permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”

What the emerging liquid economy demands then, is a particular politicization of immediacy that relies upon the emergent habitus it inculcates in order to justify an increasingly authoritarian mode of both state and economy. But as the role of The Mackinac Center in the Flint Water Crisis clarifies, it cannot do so without developing a significant rhetorical defense of authoritarian modes of governance that nevertheless, do not fundamentally depart from already-existing assumptions amongst the well-inculcated US populace, particularly about the sacrosanct status of the free market—or more accurately, the liquid market. Where the free market claims to enhance the freedom of all given sufficient personal talent and effort, the liquid economy no longer guarantees anything, since “the people operating the levers of power on which the fate of the less volatile partners in the relationship depends can at any moment escape beyond reach.”

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Free-market ideology is famously Austrian in character, and is centered around two central figures: Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. While Mises was the one who most explicitly flirted with fascism, the architects of Michigan’s liquid state and liquid economy are closer to Hayek, conceptually. And unsurprisingly, they are as deluded about what the “road to serfdom” amounts to culturally and technologically as they are politically and economically. Isaac M. Morehouse, Director of Student Leadership at The Mackinac Center, for instance, champions Hayek’s claim that economic planning is unsupportable, since no single individual can attain sufficient knowledge about all the unique contexts in which needs would be identified and resources allocated.

Celebrating Hayek’s influence upon Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Morehouse suggests that the success of self-edited Wikipedia pages demonstrate that the identification of needs and allocation of resources must be left up to separate, autonomous individuals to discover, bringing dispersed knowledge together in an efficient and expedient disposal of time that brings many actors into a convergent state within which they might isonomize the production process. Under cultural and technological conditions of immediacy, Morehouse opines, the entries would be continuously updated as new events occur, so that “the” encyclopedia would never be outdated but would always be updated with the latest information, unlike the quickly-outdated artifacts previously produced under print capitalism.

Much as with the liquid state and liquid economy then, liquid media are those in which publication is “increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive and fugitive,” including, obviously, categories previously catalogued with some solidity, by the print-based encyclopedias. As Morehouse explains, “most often the edition on your shelf has facts and figures that are already out of date and can never keep up with the rapidly changing world.” Insofar as Wikipedia entries are temporally superior in that they are altered in “real-time” just as Facebook pages and blogs trump periodicals because they are updated “instantly,” Morehouse claims they exemplify the Hayekian claim that “millions of individuals’ localized knowledge freely pooled together is greater than any central authority could compile alone.”

Never mind, of course, that the same Mackinac Center that published Morehouse’s article on the folly of allowing economic planning to be performed by “any single individual” also lobbied for the decidedly single individual that is the centerpiece of EFM policy over the course of the past decade—asking as far back as 2005, for instance, “Can Detroit’s Problems Be Corrected by an Emergency Financial Manager?”, with ample funding from the billionaire families behind Amway, Walmart and other major corporations. And yet, perhaps this disjuncture between democracy and dictatorship within the Mackinac Center’s output is itself evidence of the centrality of liquidity as a structural element of the contemporary period, one that becomes at least temporarily describable as “minimum state totalitarianism” in situations like the Flint Water Crisis.

The Mackinac Center’s deployment of the liquid dynamic then, is giving rise to new forms of power and authority in the state, economy, and media alike that support the definitions of liberty they employ, but with added twist. Despite appearances, the legitimation of Hayek via Wikipedia is not at odds with the more explicitly authoritarian discourse that confronts working-class and middle-class people in the realm of mortgages and student loans. Efficiency, expediency, and liquidity are all beyond dichotomies of democracy and dictatorship, since the emphasis is not on one or the other, but on the zone of indistinction between them, that which makes them all possible in a given, unpredictable situation. The rise of EFMs provides one of the clearest examples of the manner in which the immediacy of contemporary capitalism is not only about democratically empowering dispersed individuals to pool collective knowledge into digital entries, but is also on an ideological level, deeply antidemocratic in nature.

In other words, the new media environment is one in which, as David Weinberger’s book title insists, Everything Is Miscellaneous: digital culture is producing a “digital disorder” in which all that was previously defined according to the hierarchies of space are now recontextualized according to the immediacy of time, the fluidity of the modern. Weinberger asserts that ideological categories that came into being in the era of print capitalism are dissolving into a post-ideological, virtual space just as democracy and dictatorship dissolve into one another as well. As people use Wikipedia and other user-generated media to define political ideologies, political terms and political networks, each of the old categories becomes as subject to the vicissitudes of individual idiosyncrasy as does the liquidity it ensures between democracy and dictatorship.

This is especially the case since at the same moment that immediacy has enabled the spread of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, liquidified economic imperatives have enabled ideologies of efficiency and expediency to supplant Keynesian and print- and broadcast-bases for representative democracy. The ideological success of the once-marginal Austrian wing can certainly be attributed in part to what Paul Virilio calls the culture of reflex, in which rapid-fire dissemination is prioritized over the content of what is disseminated. Whereas in the past, parliamentary and extraparliamentary political movements alike relied upon predictable, periodic intervals separating publication and organization, today the Mackinac Center celebrates the immediacy of communication which blurs all rhythms and distinctions.

In doing so, it produces a generalized miscellaneity within which political categories are opened to relativization and resignification, while an anti-interpretive, anti-intellectual discourse reigns over what is then resignified. Given the simultaneous legitimation of an at least temporary dictatorship, it is also no surprise that references to liberty rarely mention their relationship, or lack thereof, to the more explicitly egalitarian domain of democracy. And while The Mackinac Center’s ongoing critiques of democracy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] reveal explicit hostility to equally enfranchised, shared decisionmaking, by avoiding such references in public discussion on the part of the representatives like Governor Snyder whom they support, an emergent liquid state is enabled to reinflect terms such as liberty that would otherwise be signified differently.

In this manner, policy agendas such as the installation of EFMs and the call for the deactivation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are understood as advancing rather than obstructing the image right-wing think tanks disseminate of “liberty.” And it is, of course, little distance from that point to further posit that representative democracy itself constrains liberty and should thus be abolished and replaced with some other state form preferred by dominant economic forces. As a result, in the name of liberty, the freedom of to engage in it is restricted, while a postdemocratic, immediatist movement is primed for expansion in the form of the liquid state.

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