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The Birth of Critical Inquiry: An Interview with W.J.T Mitchell

Editor W. J. T. Mitchell shares his story about the journal’s beginnings and early history. 

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October 9, 2018 · 12:53 pm

On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Marjorie Perloff

Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key:  Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community.  Or so we may conclude from the dozens of serous reviews devoted to The Kraus Project in the autumn of 1913.  Most of these reviews—for example, Michael Hoffmann’s in The New York Review of Books– treated Kraus as a fascinating—but finally flawed—polemicist, whose virulent critique of the Hapsburg monarchy and especially of the media was perhaps too extreme—and certainly too local—to retain its satiric punch today.  One notable exception is Eric Banks’s long and richly documented piece in Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2013).

Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre:  it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media   When Franzen compares Kraus’s dichotomy between the Germanic emphasis on literary content versus the French concern for form to that of the “sober” and “functional” PC versus the “cool” and “elegant” Apple, one feels that the author is being little more than frivolous.   And it is never clear why The Kraus Project chooses, as its texts to be translated and annotated, the two youthful essays “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912).  The critique of the great German lyric poet for his excessive Francophilia is, to my mind, one of Kraus’s least successful literary essays; and the Nestroy essay can’t mean much to contemporary readers, who are not likely to have heard of the obscure nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist.  But then, Franzen uses these essays only as the jumping off point for his own wild and whacky commentary, interspersed with glosses by the scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann.

There are fascinating aperçus scattered throughout this collage-commentary: Franzen is, for example, very perceptive about Last Days, which he calls “the strangest great play ever written,” and remarks, “At first glance, it can be mistaken for postmodern, since the bulk of its 793 pages consists of quotation; it’s unabashedly a play about language.  Kraus maintained that, with the exception of the Grumbler-Optimist scenes and the verse fantasias, every line spoken by it several hundred characters was something he had personally heard or read during the First World War” (p. 257).  Yet, Franzen argues, “what makes the play modern, rather than postmodern, is the figure of the Grumbler, who in most respects is indistinguishable from Kraus himself.  His friend the Optimist keeps coming to him with fresh phrases of propaganda and journalism, trying to persuade him that war is a glorious thing and is going well, and the Grumbler aphoristically demolishes every one of them. . . His coordinating subjectivity is too central to be postmodern” (257).  This description of the roles of Grumbler and Optimist strikes me as quite accurate but it is also the case that the Grumbler’s didactic summations become tedious–he is indeed Kraus’s mouthpiece—and undercut the play’s dramatic power.  And since didacticism is hardly a characteristic of Modernism, my own conclusion would be that The Last Days is best understood as a postmodern work manqué.

The Kraus Project, in any case, is not likely to bring the Austrian writer a new readership:  its technique—translation, commentary, commentary on the commentary by others—is too confusing, its conclusions about politics conclusions about politics too idiosyncratic. But I applaud the book’s publication because it has certainly succeeded in enlarging the discourse about Kraus’s writing, if for no other reason than that the reviews, responses, and letters to the editor have brought new facts to light.  The most important of these is that there is a new translation of Last Days of Mankind.  In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:

1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…

I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus!  But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay.  It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.

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January 13, 2014 · 9:38 am

Allan Sekula

ALLAN SEKULA     1951-2013

Terry Smith

During the last hour of the overnight ferry journey from Karlskrona, Sweden, to Gdynia, Poland, the port of Gdansk enters then entirely fills your horizon. For centuries one of the great, and most-contested, seaports of the world, it was in 1980 the birthplace of the Solidarity uprising. As Poland embraces “turbo-capitalism,” its most visible parts have erupted into energetic life. Even the ferry takes a full half hour to disgorge its cargo of trucks.  Remembering Allan Sekula’s fascination with this place, and its role within his major series of photographs Fish Story 1989-1995, we know to take such self-serving narratives with skepticism, to treat their fabulating with reserve, to look around us (as we do within his photographs) for the work that is actually being done––or not done when it should be done––by skilled individuals and dedicated machines. Continue reading

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August 15, 2013 · 4:24 pm

On the Zimmerman Case Verdict . . .

 Charles W. Collier

 

            I have discussed the Zimmerman case at some length in “The Death of Gun Control: An American Tragedy,” 40 Critical Inquiry (forthcoming 2014); available in advance of print publication as Critical Inquiry Web Exclusive at:

http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/the_death_of_gun_control_an_american_tragedy

            Obviously I discuss the Zimmerman case most specifically in Part 2.  But I would also point to the discussion in Part 4, where I go into the broader historical background of what I call “a radical and expansive American philosophy of freedom that dates back at least to the early nineteenth century.”  If you look at the Bill Bell cases I discuss in note 58, you begin to see what a departure this was from the English background to our law, and specifically from the English doctrine of the “duty to retreat”:

          In 1885, for example, the highest court in Texas overturned a second-degree murder conviction in a self-defense case–not because the jury had been told the defendant had a duty to retreat, but because the jury had not been told the defendant did not have a duty to retreat:

            [T]he defendant, if unlawfully attacked by the deceased, was not bound to retreat in order to avoid the necessity of killing him. . . .  [T]he law of this State does not require retreat under any circumstances.

          Even more remarkably, when the case was retried, that same court overturned a manslaughter conviction because the jury had not specifically been instructed that the “reasonableness” of self-defense “must be determined by what might have appeared reasonable to the defendant at the time of the homicide, and not by subsequent developments as laid before the jury in the shape of evidence.”

 

This is where “Stand Your Ground” came from!  The contemporary sources I find most helpful in understanding this departure from English law are Dimsdale, Turner, and Tocqueville, as in notes 60 and 99.  Essentially (they are saying) you cannot expect the rugged frontiersman–literally, out to conquer a new world–to have the placid temperament of an Illinois corn farmer.

            As for the Zimmerman case verdict, “I told you so” (Part 2):

 

            Trayvon Martin’s killer, a certain George Zimmerman, displays more than his share of grandiosity, narcissism, and racism.  But he has other things on his mind, too.  In the United States ca. 2012, on a dark and stormy night in Florida, there is no reason to presume that Martin is unarmed.  It is not obvious.  In fact, the opposite presumption may be more accurate:  that Martin is armed.  (In Florida, the local inhabitants increasingly settle their arguments over girlfriends in bars and children’s basketball games with heavy weaponry.)  That is precisely why news accounts made a point of emphasizing that, in this case, the presumption was rebutted:  As it turned out, Martin was, in fact, unarmed.

            But Zimmerman does not know this yet.  He worries out loud over the phone to the police dispatcher:

            [T]here’s a real suspicious guy . . . .  This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.  It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about. . . .

            Now he’s just staring at me. . . .

            [N]ow he’s coming towards me. . . .

            He’s got his hand in his waistband.  And he’s a black male. . . .

            Yup, he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands.

But even if Martin has a gun, so too does Zimmerman.  Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, if Zimmerman feels threatened he can shoot first (which he does) and ask questions later.  (It is, after all, a dark and stormy night.)  He is “justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat” in his home, in a vehicle, or indeed in “any other place where he . . . has a right to be.”  (Deadly force may be used if he “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself . . . or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”)  In a society in which anyone and everyone may have a gun, Zimmerman certainly doesn’t want Martin to shoot first–nor does the law require him to take that chance.  With ever more guns in circulation, it becomes ever more “reasonable” to suspect (or fear) that someone else has one–and to shoot first!

. . . because a man cannot tell, when he seeth men proceed against him by violence, whether they intend his death or not.

In this Hobbesian “war of all against all,” “there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation;” thus, it may be “reasonable” to attack one’s neighbor preemptively, if self-defense might later be inadequate for self-preservation.  Here is fertile ground for miscalculation; the criminal law and the law of large numbers work together to ensure that such miscalculations are many, regular, and predictable.  (And, under Florida law, they may be justifiable or excusable too; Zimmerman was so worried about guns that he went back to Martin’s lifeless body, and moved it–“to check for weapons.”)

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July 16, 2013 · 11:14 am

News from Gezi Park, Istanbul; Don’t Forget the Penguins as the Ice Floes Melt

Mick Taussig 
           The Occupy Idea took off in Istanbul like wildfire, albeit with its own trajectory and historical roots.  I have been here five days since June 14 and every day, or rather night, something new happens. I cannot pretend to give a synthetic overview, of which I am sure there are many on the internet, but bearing in mind our little book on Occupy being launched tonight in Chicago, I will try to make a rough sketch of what I have been part of and has been told me by Turkish friends, emphasizing what could be learnt by people in the USA.

            It may seem strange to begin by saying that Istanbul hands down is the most beautiful city I have ever visited and I mention this not only because Istanbul deserves this accolade but because of the threat posed to this historical crossroads by the voracious  capitalist development now tearing at its heart.

            The plan to radically alter the main square—Taksim Square—and demolish adjoining Gezi Park with its lofty trees so as to build a shopping mall in an area saturated with malls and no green space, gives you an idea of what I am talking about.      

            You also have to understand that Taksim Square is like the nerve center of the nation, symbolically, with its monument to the founders of modern Turkey and the scene of bloody battles on May Day over the decades.  You might also note that Gezi Park was built over a military establishment, itself built over an Armenian cemetery, destroyed many decades back as part of erasure of memory of genocide on which modern Turkey was built.  The symbolic weight of the site is crushing and awe inspiring.

            The festive and pacifist air of the sit-in to protect the trees starting May 27 took a radically different tone when the police raided the protesters and forced them out a few days later using a hurricane of tear gas and water cannons. But as people poured into the area, the protesters regained the park and held it in a most extraordinarily carnivalesque way for some ten days during which it became like Occupy in Zuccotti Park, except that Gezi Park is ever so much larger and there were ever so many more people.

            There was no mic check—the crowd is huge—hand made signs were everywhere, an organic garden and flower garden was made in one corner with IV drips for the plants, innumerable tents were pitched, there was a free book exchange, and many posters of political parties. Turkey is alive with political tensions as the Islamist party in power is challenged by the old secular nationalists of the founding of modern Turkey thirsting for revenge, with the Kurdish party in the wings, all taken by surprise by this new uprising.

            Throughout my time here I hear of protesters wishing to form a new party, but the overwhelming sense I get is that that is considered a joke for, like Zuccotti, the movement is largely outside that idea and practice of politics. It is, rather, a deeply rooted, cultural movement that no one could have predicted. Like Marx’s Old Mole of Revolution, Occupy type movements surface in unexpected places throughout the world.

            The size of the crowds pouring into Gezi Park in the ten days, especially after work hours, was overwhelming. I cannot possibly do justice to this. It was like the sea had broke loose. Watching TV it seemed like most of Istanbul was pouring into the park walking in on freeways and across the bridges over the Bosphorous. 

            The park was filled with free water bottles and food and on the steps many street street vendors set up stalls selling swimming goggles for protection against tear gas and water cannon spray (said to contain pepper spray as well), and hard hats. I saw one display of hard hats for sale in a wide arc on the ground, white hat, blue hat, white hat and so forth.

            Outside the park felt like May 68 in Paris to me. Reality had cracked. There was the ordinary everyday sitting in the cafes drinking a beer, listening to stories about the past few days, and yet there was also this air of unreality seeping through one’s body. A beauty parlor had a sign in the window: “Pepper Spray is Good For Your Skin.” You always feel on edge, that everything could change in an instant. This is not just war, I think, but the whole so-called system is ready to explode and a new way of life. The imagination has been unleashed. At the same time the government is rounding up radical leftists from their homes and disappearing them.

            People walk past in the brilliant sunshine with hard hats on, side by side with the occasional tourist and curious citizen. Shopkeepers stand in their doorways. The large luxury hotels around the park allowed protesters to use their bathrooms and in some infirmary’s were installed—later attacked by the police using tear gas. Starbucks was smashed for not providing refuge

            Strange things happen. Many signs in the park declared the president to be the “son of a whore.”  Next day a number of prostitutes turned up saying “we would never give birth to such a monster.” It became un-cool to use sexist language in the park and at the barricades when the fighting started again. For the first time (I believe) the LGBT presence was made manifest, as well. There were as many women as men in the park and fighting on the streets after the park was attacked the second time.

            A striking feature was the role of football club fans with their chants and maneuvers rooted not only in team support but in the neighborhoods from which the clubs sprang, something we never saw in Zuccotti. At one point a mobile crane was stolen by the Bashiktash fans and used to attack a police water cannon truck, rocking it from side to side until the police fled. Next day the truck was for sale on ebay.

            Then there was the pianist in the park. A friend writes me: On Wednesday night, a day after the big police attack of Tuesday and the night when we thought they may empty the park because there had been a lot of police presence, there was a piano concert. The pianist was Davide Martello who left from Sicily with his piano in his truck, travelled through various countries in Europe. His concert started in front of the statue in Taksim but then the piano was carried to the barricade at the Gezi Park entrance and became part of the barricade. He played songs from “Imagine” to “Ciao Bella” and the group of football fans around him cheered him on. He was wearing a helmet against tear gas canisters like the rest of us and right behind this in the tent of the Kurdish party, there was halay (Kurdish folk dance, which is part of every demonstration and is thus extremely politicized). Later when the police kicked us out of Gezi on Saturday the piano, along with the pianist, was “arrested” too.

            The street fighting was intense, as you must have seen. There were direct confrontations all night long for many nights with police using tear gas, and the demonstrators building barricades and hurling stones. Protesters were very afraid because arrest could mean disappearing forever. The battles would rage down side streets with people drawing the police into a cat-and-mouse game. The Governor of Istanbul—made famous for ordering massacres in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey—said on TV that police would be using live ammunition.

            Then last Monday things seemed to change. A General Strike was called by many unions (with limited success) and people walked around Taksim square and adjoining streets in small groups but not fighting. Bear in mind that just like in guerrilla warfare in which the state can never tell who is a peasant and who is a rebel, so here they could not tell who is “just a pedestrian” and who is a street fighter.

            Then a 34 years old performance artist and dancer, Erdem Gündüz, stood sock still and expressionless for many hours at the square. Others joined.  The streets filled with these (barely) living statues. Talk about uncanny! And what were the police going to do. Arrest stiller than still people. Well, that’s what they did but still more people joined in this death-in-life tableau. It was amazing to walk past row after row of deathly still, erect, unmoving people, and this happened, I believe, in many other parts of this city of 14 million people.

            Then the forums started at 9 at night in different neighborhoods, rich and poor, throughout the city. They had begun, tentatively in Gezi Park before the final attack. Then the brilliant move was to fan out in the neighborhoods, First there were three and last night twelve. The crush of the one I attended in a park with a deep amphitheater was intense. The moon was getting full, the night balmy, and people enjoying each other’s closeness. They used the hand signals of Zuccotti park—but far more enthusiastically and on a grand piano a Kurdish song was played and also a piece written especially for the struggle. It was wonderful to hear that music, so precise, so other-worldly, floating through us into the dark sky. The national anthem was sung which angered my friends greatly. (Note that there is an intense libidinal attachment to the current prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan. TV caught a 70 years old woman supporter of the prime minister saying “We are the hairs around Tayyip’s arsehole.”) Using a battery powered megaphone people debated whether to figure out the next move or whether to engage in a more philosophical discussion. The night before, so I was told, gay issues, previously taboo, had been aired. At another moment a young man with long hair said he felt uncomfortable about standing under the national flag for which he was expected to die (remember military service is obligatory for men, and conscientious objectors, I am told, are likely to be tortured and raped in prison).  

            Then a group of people dressed as penguins made a brief appearance before marching away in Chaplinesque fashion, the penguins having become a proliferating, albeit comical, symbol of the mighty power of this proto-fascist government, every day more sinister, because CNN-Turkey had days earlier refrained from showing the intense police violence by showing The March of the Penguins.

            Don’t forget the penguins as the ice floes melt.

 

           

 

 

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June 24, 2013 · 12:59 pm

The Seductive Killing Screen

Rachael Thompson

 

In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to youtube.com. The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNNJJrcIa7A. An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.

In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire.  Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. 

Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.

The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.

UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.

When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons. 

Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.  

Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.

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June 17, 2013 · 8:43 pm