Splinters: August 2021 – sallies into the here & now
This month: Spectacle of Terror 1...
Oblivion adds tragedy to death...
Dreams coming true...
"No one really knows": practical knowledge and uses of ignorance...
Bikinis or shorts – a matter of choice...
When saying No isn’t enough: an aggrandizing identification
This month's splinters:
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Spectacle of Terror I
by Samir Gandesha
In a celebrated passage of Confessions, St. Augustine asks: “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know: but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not.” When one asks: What is terrorism then? If no one asks us, we know: but if we are desirous to explain it to one that should ask us, plainly we do not know. Images of terror are ubiquitous yet no term is more contested and more opaque than ‘terrorism.’ We both know and do not know what it is. Terrorism’s effect – which, of course, principally lies in its affect – is transmitted and felt not via the event-like eruption violence of itself, but via the spectacular threat of its purely arbitrary, contingent random manifestation. Terrorists don’t trade in fear as such, insofar as fear takes a specific, finite object, but rather an infinite atmospheric anxiety. We might look to Guy Debord to shed light on the spectacle of terror.
As is well-known, in his epochal Society of the Spectacle, published over fifty years ago, Debord divides the spectacle into its concentrated and diffuse forms. The former is that of fascism, in which the spectacle revolves around the cult of personality of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. The latter manifests itself in post-war consumer society, dominated by advertising images in which the worker participates not simply in the shadowy realm of production but also in the glittery realm of consumption, which is how capitalism manages to solve, within the framework of the nation-state, its accumulation crises.
In his 1988 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord identifies a third form – a synthesis of the first two: “This is the integrated spectacle, which has tended to impose itself globally.” Such a spectacle is characterized by five main characteristics: incessant technological innovation, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, an eternal present. Uncannily anticipating the advent of a truly planetary form of capitalism, Debord argues that the integrated spectacle entails “the globalization of the false and the falsification of the globe.” If the third form of the spectacle entails a hybrid of the concentrated and diffuse, we might recognize it today in the form of neo-liberalism mediated by ever more rigid and bureaucratic forms of international law and international organizations – a “democratic deficit” that goes well beyond its original European referent.
The “globalization of the false and the falsification of the globe” that the integrated spectacle heralds ought to be understood, in terms of the rise of the shifting role of the U.S. state. Terror here, remains simultaneously exterior yet also interior to the integrated spectacle. It is in the phenomenon of terror and its construction by the state that we see the various elements of the integrated spectacle. As Debord argues:
Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results (emphasis in original). The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.
It is not difficult to see the way in which the five elements of the integrated spectacle crystallize in the contemporary on-going ‘War on Terror’: 1. Incessant technological renewal: the production of new knowledge/power about terrorism and concomitant discourses of securitization, specifically in the following areas: (i) systems integration; (ii) biometrics; (iii) non-lethal weapons; (iv) data mining and link analysis technologies; (v) nano-technology.
- The development of such technologies is one important axis of the integration of state and economy, often referred to as “military Keynesianism,” and, as we’ve recently witnessed, the staggering increase to the US military budget bears this out.
- As the terrorist threat looms, there is an increase in general secrecy. According to the ACLU, the fifth worst abuse of state power since the attacks of 11 September 2001, is the increasing reliance on secrecy to block legislation from judicial review.
- The spread of unanswerable lies has become endemic in the form of “fake news” since the advent of the Trump Presidency and, of course, the state has always relied on the dissemination of the false. However, the use of the 9/11 attacks to justify the Bush regime’s restructuring of US power in the “New American Century,” and, in particular, the invasion of Iraq, required, it could be argued, an especially deliberate policy of lies.
- Finally, the integrated spectacle was, as suggested above with the other forms of spectacle, the unfolding of the logic of reification and therefore the present made eternal. Another way of stating this, in the wake of the dominance, lies within the integrated spectacle of the power of the purest logic of commodification, namely money-capital or finance, the literal colonization of the not yet via derivatives and futures markets.
What, then, does Debord have to teach us about terror?
Oblivion adds tragedy to death
by Chris Myant
“There are three kinds of men: the living, the dead and those who sail the seas.” Anacharsis, a wanderer from the northern shores of the Black Sea said to have been the first foreigner awarded Athenian citizenship around 600BCE, is credited with first formulating the thought. This version in English was on a panel at the very start of an exhibition this summer celebrating Homer’s hero Ulysses and his vast poem, the Odyssey.
Ulysse is the first show put on in a fine new public gallery in the town of Draguignan, the Hôtel départemental des Expositions du Var, the Var being the French department of which Draguignan was once the capital. That honour is now given to Europe’s biggest naval base, Toulon down on the Mediterranean, the sea where Ulysses had his adventures.
Excuse the “men” in the English offered by the gallery, the word “homme” in French is one of those traps in the language that block any simple removal of its patriarchal heritage. It does for both man, men and for people in general. Human rights becomes droits de l’homme much to the disappointment of many in the Ligue de droits de l’homme, the country’s main civil rights organisation, who would prefer it to speak of droits humains.
It is in the name of those rights that the league has been protesting loud and clear over the role French military vessels, based in Toulon, have been playing in enforcing the murderous Fortress Europe policy, the way successive French governments have tried to sabotage the “law of the sea”, that moral rule by which those afloat should always try to save their fellow human beings in danger on the waves.
Ulysse covers, step by step, the escapades and escapes of Homer’s hero as he sought to return to his home in Ithaca in the wake of the Trojan Wars. His companions died at the hands of monsters, were killed in different battles or just drowned in shipwrecks, sharing the fate of many thousands of migrants from Africa over the last two decades. In the first half of this year, the recorded number of those drowned has gone up, according to the International Organisation for Migration, to 741 on the main route between Libya and Italy.
The total may be just a fraction of the real number, the agency said. “Hundreds of cases of invisible shipwrecks have been reported by NGOs in direct contact with those on board or with their families.”
And there, in Draguignan, was a witness to such events. A potter, somewhere in the Greek world of the Mediterranean of 740 to 720 BCE, crafted a wine jug, big-bellied and narrow-necked like those used to this day. Around its body, they painted, black against the light brown clay, flamingos and racing dogs. But around its neck, they portrayed a galley up-turned, its crew drowning amid the fishes. It is the oldest representation of such a tragedy that I have seen.
As the potter caressed the clay with their brush, they were acting out of known experience, recording not a mythical happening, not something that ended the lives of others of whom they knew nothing and cared less, but a lived reality that, at the time, formed a core part of the life of the far-flung, Greek-speaking Mediterranean population.
When they listened to the verses, many in Homer’s audiences knew that they, too, would taste the dangers as well as the salt along the routes Ulysses had taken. It is that participation in a shared peril that made the fiction of this poetry so powerful. The form it took may have been that of mythical invention, but the content was of human tragedy, too real then and still so today.
Regrettably, the creators of this exhibition did not take the plunge and explore this relationship. It would have given the art, ancient and contemporary, they have collected from museums and galleries around the world a poignancy and impact, a cutting modernity, way beyond the repetition in the catalogue of the stale claim that Ulysses and his story “are the very source of our contemporary culture”[i].
This remains the paradigm by which the show is constructed and the Odyssey is explained. At a time when the government in Paris is taking Priti Patel’s blood money to maintain its blockade of migrants at Calais, when it is calling on Frontex to patrol the Channel as its does the Med, when volunteer rescue ships saving the lives of those setting out from Libya face French official bureaucratic obstruction if not worse, this seems in complete contradiction to the moral core of Homer’s tale.
The authors of the catalogue see Ulysses’ return home as a “victory over death and oblivion.” So it was. So too will be the moment when Europe chooses to take Anacharsis at his word and share its life and future with those out on the seas that lap its southern shores.
[i] Voyage dans une Méditerranée de légendes : Catalogue de l’exposition Ulysse, edited by Milan Garcin, Hôtel départemental des Expositions du Var, Draguignan, 2021.
Dreams coming true
by Christos Tombras
In a memorable scene of South Pacific, a 1958 film based on a post-war musical, Juanita Hall’s character, Bloody Mary, sings about dreams. We see her sitting between a young John Kerr’s Lieutenant Cable and France Nuyen’s exotic Liat. There is a love story in the background.
“You've got to have a dream”, Bloody Mary sings while Liat dances with her hands. “If you don't have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?”
Years earlier, in the morning of 24 July 1895, a young Sigmund Freud wakes up from a dream: one of his patients, “Irma”, was not doing too well. Freud is worried that he might have made a medical error and has to consult two of his friends, both doctors.
This dream occupies the whole second chapter of his 1899 seminal, Interpretation of Dreams. Freud uses it as a clinical example to illustrate his method and theory of dream analysis. He was perfectly aware of the symbolic importance of that first dream’s analysis, and he writes to his friend and colleague W. Fliess that someday in the future a marble memorial tablet would be placed on the wall of Hôtel Bellevue, where he had spent that night. “In this house on July 24, 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigmund Freud.”
“I see little prospect of it”, he added modestly.
Predictably enough, a tablet was installed at the site some years after Freud’s death. As fate sometimes decrees, it survived the actual Hôtel Bellevue, which has since been demolished.
Freud’s theory of dreams was the first that claimed that a systematic understanding and deciphering of a dream’s intention, function and language is possible. His method – free associating on the various elements of the dream and drawing connections between the associations rather than the original elements – has been followed by millions of psychoanalysts all around the world and has made possible the deciphering of countless dreams since that fateful July evening in 1895.
Or has it?
Dr. John Allan Hobson, an American psychiatrist and dream researcher who died early in July this year, has claimed otherwise. Hobson is more known for his discovery of R.E.M. (Rapid eye movement) during sleep. His general research programme had at its basis an attempt to quantify brain events and study their correlation to the mental events they give rise to.
Hobson claimed that dreams are but by-products of the brain’s functioning. They are fables that we humans say to ourselves. They appear to say something meaningful, but in reality they just represent our feeble attempts to attribute meaning to random firings of our brain neurons thereby making some sense out of non-sense.
In 1975, exactly eighty years after Freud’s Irma dream, Jacques Lacan was giving lectures in the United States. At some point, he spoke at MIT before an audience of mathematicians, linguists, and philosophers. Noam Chomsky, the already famous American linguist philosopher and activist, was in the audience. Unconvinced by Lacan’s presentation, Chomsky asked a question on thought. What is a thought? Or something like this.
“We think we think with our brains” said Lacan. “Personally, I think with my feet. That's the only way I really come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something. But I've seen enough electroencephalograms to know there's not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain”.
Remaining unconvinced, this is what Chomsky has to say about Lacan, several years later: “I kind of liked him”, he admits. “[But] I thought he was a total charlatan, just posturing before the television cameras the way many Paris intellectuals do.”
If, taking Lacan’s claim seriously, we accept that no trace of a thought can be seen in the brain, then we can assume that there would be no trace of a dream either. In the brain we wouldn’t find thoughts, or dreams; we wouldn’t find virtue, or vice; we would find no wishes, no memories, no desires, no longings.
In a way we can guess that Lacan would be rather sceptical about Dr. Hobson’s research. In the brain you can only find brain events, neuron firings, electrochemical interactions, and such like; what sort of correlation was the man expecting to study?
This may all sound a bit bizarre, I realise, but is so only if we fail to remember what a thought, a dream, a wish, a memory, a desire, or a longing, are. These are not biological entities. They are meaningful aspects of the life of a human being, a person like you or me, who tentatively work our way through the maze of our everydayness. Granted, they are mental entities, and behind them there are corresponding brain events, no doubt about that. Our mental life would not be possible without them. Yes.
But our thoughts and wishes and desires and the like they are not what they are, in isolation. You can’t see them in the brain, because they can only become what we think them to be within the internalised discursive sphere in which we operate. Not outside it. We think our thoughts are our own, inherently private; but they are not. They are empty vessels that source their meaning from the discourses in which we partake.
I guess this might have not been what Bloody Mary, Juanita Hall’s character in Southern Pacific, had in mind, but I think it’s on the spot:
You've got to have a dream.
If you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?
“No one really knows”: practical knowledge and uses of ignorance
by Iain Galbraith
In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87) Immanuel Kant points to a melancholy paradox in the relation between the growth of practical knowledge and the insight thus acquired into how little we know:
The observations and calculations of astronomers have taught us much that is wonderful; but the most important lesson that they have taught us has been by revealing the abyss of our ignorance, which otherwise we could never have conceived to be so great. (trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 1929).
This paradox is as ancient as our need for guidance in the unbounded darkness of our disorientation. Myth and religion have provided stories to live and die in. God will show us the way, preach theocracies. In a secular world politics propounds reasoned routes. Democracies as we know them leave millions to find their own orientation, with more or less help from the state. Practical knowledge, however, has not gone away.
The mythical figure of the helmsman has always offered an enticing conceptualisation of political leadership. I am thinking not only of China’s “Great Helmsman”, or Plato’s “philosopher king” in command of the “ship of state”. For the promise of reliable guidance might also appeal to citizens of modern democracies. No need for captains here: rotating shifts of bosuns could combine their experience, forethought and insight and pilot us through stormy seas.
Indeed, the more a democracy lives up to its name, in which “the people” themselves attain sovereignty in the matters of state, the more “common” (shared and universal) the sources of orientation must become. In effect it really will be the cook, as Lenin famously proposed, who must learn to govern, not just another Old Etonian. But whether knowledge comes from the lodestar or the herb, anybody seeking to safeguard the common weal must earn public trust.
Mythical figures, charismatic or humble, may remind us of early twentieth-century irrationalism. In consequence we might be forgiven for thinking of the present – overshadowed by public health and ecological crises of stupendous magnitude – as a period whose leaders have shown surprisingly willing to listen to (and be seen in the company of) an array of immunologists, virologists, clinicians, epidemiologists and other experts. The appearance of attention to rational discourse has come to characterize government attitudes and personas.
At one level, the evidence of a scientific turn in presenting the discourse of global threats and their possible avoidance may be readily perceived. Scientists in unprecedented numbers have found common cause in modelling the impact of global climate change on different aspects of our lives on this planet, as well as lending their collective efforts to averting the ravages of the Corona pandemic. More significantly, however, it is clear that the scientific community no longer views itself as a technical stratum merely, but instead, in almost every country, has responded vigorously to the need for scientific spokespersons capable of communicating knowledge in a range of media. These representatives of their disciplines and fields of research, in some ways similar to the public intellectuals of decades past, seek to explain new research to a receptive public; through work in advisory committees and campaigns from Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion, they pursue the translation of epistemological progress into progressive policy.
However, the problems of translation can undermine trust between leadership, science and public. Experts’ statements are taken out of context or used to obfuscate. If her claim had not been so inept, much nuisance under the cloak of nescience could have been caused exploiting Dido Harding’s contention at the beginning of February that “none of us were able to predict” the mutation of the virus. Mutation is simply what viruses do; they create mutations without intelligence or intention. Some survive, some don’t, depending on circumstance: selection. Dr Mike Tildesley, a pandemic modelling expert on a government advisory panel, obviously knows this, but when his sensible warning against the risk of lifting coronavirus restrictions on July 19 claimed that the combination of high case numbers and high levels of vaccine protection “does kind of challenge the virus … and gives more potential for it to mutate into a form where the vaccines are less effective”, he inadvertently created an intelligent virus. The Guardian (10 July) and dozens of other media translated: ‘A UK government advisor has warned that high Covid-19 vaccination rates could “challenge the virus to mutate” and make the jab less effective.’ Here be monsters.
Similarly, Graham Medley, chair of the Sage sub-group on pandemic modelling, in an excellent exposition (Guardian, 26. July) of the complexity of case numbers, let go the phrase: “we are in uncharted territory”. This is a dramatic metaphor, conjuring the chilling but thrilling terra incognita into which British colonists have intruded since the sixteenth century. Two days later the Health Secretary Sajit Javid claimed that “no one really knows” where the numbers would go next, confirming his previous claim (Financial Times, 6 July), that the country was about to “enter uncharted territory”. Myths of this kind bid for tribal cohesion. We shall come out victorious and richer for the exploit. Because we have before.
Bikinis or shorts – a matter of choice
by Irene Peroni
Being fined for “improper clothing” after choosing to wear shorts rather than skimpy bikini bottoms, might seem perverse.
Norway’s female beach volley team, who lost the bronze medal match against Spain at the recent European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria, are tired of having to don revealing bikini bottoms at tournaments.
They tried to have the regulations changed ahead of the event, but to no avail.
When the team offered to pay the fines in order to play in thigh-length tights before the games kicked off, they were reportedly told they could incur unspecified measures, which they feared might entail being disqualified according to Norwegian state TV NRK.
So they dropped their protest. But in their final game, they went ahead and entered the pitch with the shorts they use for warming up, which they consider their uniform of choice.
They will now have to pay the disciplinary commission 1,500 euros for disobeying their ruling. And the ruling is quite specific.
The International Handball Federation regulations even specify that bikini bottoms must have “a close fit and (be) cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The sidewidth must be of a maximum of 10 cm”.
It is hard to claim that such an attire boosts performance when the players themselves say they feel almost naked and uncomfortable, conscious of the fact that while they do pirouettes, photographers “take pictures between your legs”.
“The panties are quite small, so it is not pleasant when they go a little astray,” Norwegian player Katinka Haltvik told Norwegian daily Dagbladet earlier this year.
Just to make matters worse, men wear loose-fitting tops and shorts – which clearly does not hamper their performance.
Yet what Norwegian papers dubbed “the panty crisis” finds an odd counterpart in a beach volleyball attire row, where athletes were fighting for, not against, wearing a bikini.
Two female players from Germany, namely Karla Borger and Julia Sude, threatened to boycott a tournament in Qatar earlier this year after the Gulf country made it clear that they expected participants to wear T-shirts and knee-long shorts, “out of respect for the culture and traditions of the host country”.
“We are there to do our job, but we are being prevented from wearing our work clothes,” Borger reportedly told a German radio station, adding this was the only time a government had told them "how to do our job".
Their boycott was partly motivated by the heat, which would definitely be an issue, the players explained.
But the organizers in Qatar proved to be much more reasonable than international beach volley authorities in the more recent row: they eventually allowed athletes to play in their bikinis if they chose to do so.
So, who should decide what is proper and improper? And by what criteria, because women athletes are becoming increasingly tired of being told what to wear by male heads of sports federations whose agendas do not always seem to have the athletes' best interest in mind.
The two cases
All the protagonists are fit female athletes, roughly the same age, wearing a similar attire, coming from two European countries with compatible traditions and mentalities: Norway and Germany.
In both episodes, the girls felt they did not have a choice but abide by the rules, or stir up a controversy.
Both sets of rules were, unsurprisingly, drawn up by men. In one case presumably in order to make the games more enticing for male viewers; in the other to comply with tradition and religion, imposing modesty.
Male-dominated organizations have been denying women their right to choose over their own bodies for centuries – but by doing so nowadays, they seem to be discrediting themselves and facing a growing number of protests by disgruntled players.
Meanwhile, the love/hate relationship with the bikini should perhaps remind us that if a revealing outfit can be a western woman’s symbol of emancipation and her sister’s source of embarrassment and discomfort, we should drop the Eurocentric belief that wearing a headscarf is always and unequivocally a sign of submission. You do not help a woman become emancipated by removing her headscarf – you do so by granting her freedom of choice.
When saying No isn’t enough: an aggrandizing identification
by Rosemary Bechler
In my last Splinter, I recommended two retrospectives on Brexit’s fifth anniversary exploring the ‘monocultural National Us’ which now has Britain in a neck-hold. Ian Dunt spells out the identity mechanism which underpins it: ‘You were with us or against us. This is the creation of a homogenous group, with a shared consciousness and a general will, which is mystically interpreted by the leader.’
How does this work? It is a fictional identification between the individual and a much stronger version of ourselves, often a strong leader full of derring do who encourages us to see ourselves as the Real People, enshrining the People’s Will: alternatively a premier league football team; or the nation itself. In the case of Anders Breivik, the massacre of the sons and daughters of the social democratic political class made him the saviour of his nation from an incoming tide of Norwegian multiculturalism. This is an aggrandizing mechanism. A National Us possesses superior power, force or force of number, and a sense of impunity.
The strong leader claims he is able to break any rules we might feel constrained by in order to defend Us. This is necessary because it addresses an undertow of humiliation and loss of status experienced by the individual member. The strong leader encourages Us to see ourselves as undeservedly under threat from Them, an existential foe. Not only in Brexit Britain but in countries worldwide from Italy to India, we see the recent springing up of aggrieved majoritarianism, threatened by Muslims or migrants whose numbers are often vastly exaggerated into swamps and invasions. It is important to note that as with racism, the enemy are all tarred by the same criminal or otherwise threatening brush. It is the same with the Us: individual members have no distinct qualities. A large range of often quite conflicting affiliations to a Brexit strategy for the UK was rendered monolithic by May’s very successful slogan, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. What mattered was that Brexiteers knew who they were – the monocultural National Us – and didn’t need to be told what that meant by anybody.
Crucially, the monocultural National Us feels at once superior and under threat. Every football cup final offers plenty of opportunity for both, a potentially lethal combination which ultimately leads only to violence. When it comes to football, there is the well-known spike in cases of domestic abuse after big games, regardless of whether they are won or lost, although increased by a defeat. In the case of that Jewish National Us – the Zionist state of Israel – it has led to decades of violence against the Palestinians.
So what shouldn’t a progressive opposition do?
Chris Grey expounds brilliantly on the Brexit referendum result – “ ‘the 17.4 million’ used as a battering ram… to treat 16.2 million like dirt” and the escalating impact of this ongoing identification in the “weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman”. His conclusion is that the emergence of an exclusionary English tribe is the “real cancel culture of recent years”. But his title – When the Country Cancelled Half its Citizens – makes a crucial mistake. This is understandable shorthand for a Remainer who by the time they demanded a second ‘People’s Referendum’ had become aware that the polls were now giving them a 52% reverse advantage. But from the point of view of their opponents, there is all the difference in the world between ‘half the citizens’ and the 52% majority the Leavers had achieved in the original referendum result. Voting is an exercise in force of number combined with winner-take-all. And that 4% advantage made them the Real People, and should have ensured the total erasure of the Them voice forthwith. To them, that is what democracy means.
Herein indeed lay the tragedy of the organised UK Remainers. Despite the early warning sign of the violence that issues from enemy images, which was the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP, they chose to follow exactly the same etiolated concept of democracy. Contrary to drawing on the cosmopolitan impulses for which they were frequently decried, and opening up a debate which could mobilise the vast range of Remainer views on Brexit that might even have infiltrated the minds of the undecided, they sought a slim numerical advantage in a ‘People’s Vote’ that would reverse and thereby erase the first referendum result. The Remainers became one hostile block. As one openDemocracy author commented, “I have never heard anyone speak up for those who think the EU is a terrible thing but on balance, the UK should stay in for a little while longer and figure out the best course of action calmly.”
Far from trying to persuade the broad range of people who might have been persuaded by a deeper debate, for example, about soft and hard options on Brexit – a choice skilfully withheld from Parliament by the Tory leadership throughout the Brexit years – they treated all Brexiteers with the same revulsion, declaring them all ignorant losers, too stupid to realise that they were destroying the advantages and prosperity of the Real People – the Remainers! The single exception to this – a tour made by Caroline Lucas to ‘listen to Leavers’ – was rapidly engulfed by the resulting rush to tug-of-war in which two aggrieved majoritarianisms locked horns over a prostrate and fragmenting UK.
So what should progressives have done?
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