Splinters: March – short essays on the here & now
This month: The Left Contra Critique... HIGH-VIS.... Of Reasons and Causes... AGAINST EXTINCTION III – a revenant... Confusing green signs
This month's splinters:
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
The Left Contra Critique?
by Samir Gandesha
There are many signs within the realm of art and literature that critique and criticism are under attack by what presents itself as ‘the Left’ today. While there are no doubt profound countervailing tendencies, not least the grass roots movement crystallizing around Bernie Sanders’ nomination bid for the Democratic Party’s candidacy, what we have seen, by and large, in response to its long-standing crisis is a sense of melancholy deepening on the Left.
If, according to Freud, mourning involves the gradual withdrawal of libido from the lost object, then melancholia entails a turning against itself of the subject who guiltily takes on blame for such object loss. What this has entailed is an endless turning of elements of ‘the Left’ broadly understood, against itself – as we saw recently in the demand from certain LGBTQ+ organizations that Bernie Sanders distance himself from the admittedly problematic yet extremely valuable endorsement by MMA fighter and comedian, Joe Rogan. What seems to elude those who make such calls is that the point of electoral politics is to win rather than to lose elections.
In a manner quite consistent with Carl Schmitt’s denigration of the liberal emphasis on discussion and debate as well as the more politically engaged gesture of “critique” enabled by an open and agonistic public sphere, the identitarian Left increasingly seeks to impose a kind of dictatorship of its own as to what is morally permissible and what is not. As with Schmitt, there’s a shifting of the terrain from procedural categories to existential ones, from the argumentative articulation of truth claims and counter-claims grounded in logic and evidence to ontological ones grounded in proprietary claims to ownership of experience and highly questionable categories of “existence.”
In a sense, this is the reanimation of the deep-seated quarrel between categories of “consciousness” and “being.” In the first, art works are adjudicated in their truth and falsity: in the second, the language is of a granting or denial of the right of certain groups to their very right to exist. Epistemology or what can be known, on the one hand; and the a priori epistemic violence of speech acts on the other.
Perhaps the best example of such left-wing melancholy can be found in the furore surrounding the Russian-American Communist painter Victor Arnautoff’s mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The mural dating back to the early 1930s was the first of its kind to depict this most iconic of founding fathers in a less than iconic light.
It is a twelve panel, meticulously researched work covering all the walls and stairwell of the entrance to the school. The mural ( see above) is an exemplary instance of a style of fresco that consists of applying paint directly into wet plaster – the so-called “buon” style. It took some ten months to complete.
What’s particularly interesting about the mural is the way it actually centres enslaved African-Americans, working class revolutionaries and Indigenous peoples while at the same time marginalizing its subject, George Washington, in a kind of inverted ‘great man theory of history.’ One panel depicts Washington standing over the corpse of an Indigenous person, giving orders for the catastrophic westward expansion of the Republic, another of enslaved African Americans. Criticism, here, would attend to the truth of the mural, its refusal to present a monumental, legitimating account of the shining US “City upon a Hill.” In contrast to such an account, Arnautoff brushes history against the grain so as to reveal the utterly barbaric truth of the American civilizing mission. This, by any account, is an exemplar of politically engaged art.
Today, however, calls have been made for the Arnautoff mural’s destruction, because the work fails to depict these communities in ways that its self-appointed representatives consider to be appropriate. As mentioned above, these calls take place in the complete absence of democratic mechanisms. It is a version of the Bolshevik idea, democratic centralism, yet without the “democracy.”
Nonetheless, there will be those who reasonably disagree. The answer, as in the case of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2017), therefore, is not to destroy the art works themselves but, rather, to subject them to relentless and ruthless immanent criticism.
Here the pertinent question would be: Does the work subvert itself by, on the one hand, intending solidarity with the oppressed, yet, on the other, by presenting them as objects rather than as subjects of history, and therefore reifying them in the process? This, it can be argued, is precisely the role of art criticism and political critique: understanding the fractured unity of the true and the false. Perhaps it was because of this alliance between art and political criticism that, as his first act as Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels outlawed the former in order to annul the latter.
by Leonie Rushforth
From the beginning the Gilets Jaunes were a surprise and a provocation. Living in by-passed places, struggling in an economy that appeared not to recognize or need them, they were people unused to political activity and wary of those who were. The diversion of roads around their villages and/or the disappearance of local transport meant that they were also entirely reliant on their cars for survival. Small wonder then that a proposed hike in fuel tax set off immediate spontaneous protests in November 2018. They chose as a focus not the marooned mairie but the roundabout performing its triage a small distance away or the motorway exits and entrances and péages, where another form of vehicle tax is collected. In these liminal places they made sure they could not be overlooked.
As months passed and the movement did not disperse as predicted, it became harder to see what was going on not least because there was so little serious reporting by the media. One thing clearly observable from the outside however was the high-vis jacket – having for years performed the paradoxical trick of conferring invisibility on the wearer, it had been transformed into a symbol of resistance. Everyone began to take a second look at the wearer of a yellow jacket.
On the roundabouts, the GJs exchanged stories and information and found individual lives becoming intelligible in a broader context, as many of them have testified. In Francois Ruffin’s film J’Veux du Soleil!, he interviewed people in GJ groups across the country throughout December 2018, stopping wherever he found a gathering. People talk about what they missed, what they needed, and the slow erosion of social relations which had left them prey to a feeling of humiliation so intense many had begun to leave the house as little as possible.
While the roundabout groups confronted the GJs with each other and the reality of shared experience, they have confronted the rest of France with a stubborn presence that has proved more politically astute than expected. Groups routinely dismissed as chaotic expressions of the chronically disaffected or as gaggles of ignorant Le-Pen-voting ‘deplorables’ began to make their own films and released them on YouTube; these recorded discussion that was both urgent and exploratory. One thing they insisted on was the need for time to find out where they were heading. There was scant reporting by the French media of the general assemblies which brought 100s of local groups together to discover common demands and to forge a common programme. The public has been encouraged to dismiss a phenomenon the French establishment has taken trouble to make sure no one sees much of.
In January 2019, evidently fearing a truly radical debate was under way despite these efforts, Macron launched his Grand Débat in which he hoped both to eclipse the deliberations of the GJs and to create and conduct the authentic voice of the French people. More photo-op than serious exercise in democracy, it produced no compelling next step and no one can now remember what its findings were. Macron’s next initiative was to precipitate the pensions crisis – which did produce something memorable: the coming together of the GJs and the French unions.
If the GJs have been starved of attention by the media, they have not been spared by a police force licensed to act with impunity. Very serious injuries have been inflicted from the outset: many involving the loss of eyes and hands. The assaults have been brutal and completely unreported in official channels.
The blackout has extended beyond France to the rest of Europe and the UK where press coverage has routinely insisted that whatever is going on is subsiding; a recent article in The Guardian took the nursery view that anyone asking questions about the lack of information was making a great fuss about nothing. What protests? What violence? Don’t be a goose!
But here they bloody well are – as the GJs say and keep on saying: ON EST LÀ! ON EST LÀ! If it’s not the confident revolutionary rallying cry Ça ira!, it is a defiant assertion of presence, a refusal to go back behind the front doors. The song is also being taken up by some who might not until recently have seen their interests coinciding with the GJs’ – hundreds of lawyers in the Palais de Justice in Paris last week for example.
Along with their experiments with new democratic structures – ongoing with the 5th Assemblée des Assemblées taking place in Toulouse next week – the most dangerous achievement of the GJs so far is they have come into focus as political actors, citizens of a republic with no answer to the questions they’re asking but violence.
Of Reasons and Causes
by Christos Tombras
The story was first mentioned by Artemidorus of Daldis in his Oneirocritica (2nd century AD), but has become more widely known because of Freud who wrote about it.
The year was 332 BC. Alexander of Macedon was at the gates of the prosperous Phoenician port city of Tyre. He wanted to take control of the port and as a pretext he requested to offer a sacrifice to Heracles’s great temple inside the old city. Unsurprisingly his request was met with a refusal. He was angered, and decided to enter by force.
The Siege of Tyre had now been going on for some long, frustrating months. One night Alexander had a puzzling dream. He dreamt of a satyr, a creature of ancient mythology, resembling a man with a horse’s tail and ears, and an erect phallus. The satyr was dancing on Alexander’s shield. Alexander woke up puzzled and called Aristander, his seer, an accomplished and respected interpreter of dreams. On hearing the story, Aristander was able to decipher it easily. He divided the word satyr (“σάτυρος”) in two: “σα” (which means “yours”) and “Τύρος” (“Tyre”). The message from the gods is clear, Aristander announced. Alexander would only have to persist with the siege, and Tyre would be his. Alexander was very happy with this message from the gods. He doubled his efforts and, eventually, he managed to conquer Tyre.
Freud reports the story in his Interpretation of Dreams. He was interested in it because he had his own theory of dreams – just like Aristander. Both agreed that a dream has an origin or a cause. For Freud, Aristander’s insight was correct: the dream was never about the satyr. It was a play with words. Freud only disagreed in regards to the origin of the dream. Rather than taking it as a message from gods, as Aristander claimed, he thought it should really be taken as a reflection of Alexander’s own frustration. Tyre was not his, but he wished it were. Hence the satyr.
In other words, for Freud the cause for a dream doesn’t come from outside. It is a wish that belongs to the sleeping subject; a dream represents the disguised fulfilment of this wish, and prevents any disturbance that it could have brought. At the end, the wish is fulfilled, and sleep can continue. A win-win situation.
Freud’s point of view represented a profound change in perspective from antiquity. But this change did not start with him. Freud belonged solidly in the long line of thinkers that began with Descartes. The Cartesian subject, i.e. the subject of Cogito that inaugurates modernity, seeks certainty and trusts that certainty can only come from within, from one’s own faculties of reason. As such, the Cartesian subject is a subject of science. By the time Freud comes into the picture, the world – at least the world of modernity – has come to accept that the speaking being can have some choice in regards to their desire. The dreaming subject is no longer seen as a passive receiver of messages; the dreaming subject is an active agent in whose mind a number of sometimes contradictory thoughts and desires struggle for dominance. It’s the subject’s choice whether they will do something with their desire. They can own it or discard it. But it is theirs. Or, as Lacan put it, the subject of psychoanalysis – i.e. the Freudian subject – is the subject of science.
There is a catch here, of course, first pointed out by Wittgenstein.
Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Wittgenstein said, is exactly that: an interpretation. It can offer us retrospectively an explanation of some reason behind some dream. It cannot establish the cause that brought about this specific dream. The same applies to the whole of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis explains and interprets; it cannot speak about causes. Human beings can reason at length about their actions, but the actions and all accompanying reasoning cannot be thought in terms of causality. To put it differently, we can discuss, agree, disagree, and even be convinced about our reasons; but, strictly speaking, we can’t do that with causes. Reasons and causes are not on the same level of reference. Causes are on a meta-level.
This was at the heart of the thought experiment I outlined last time, with the lottery numbers and the demon who knew them before you even had the chance to write them down. The very moment we decide to carry out an experiment seeking to probe the assumed causal chain behind a human action while still remaining on the level of action ourselves, the programme to establish causality falls apart. We can only be invited retrospectively to interpret and understand our actions.
To paraphrase some other motto of Lacan’s, one cannot have the pie and eat it.
AGAINST EXTINCTION III - a revenant
by Iain Galbraith
A couple of weeks ago a railway worker walking an embankment less than two miles away from where I live found a dead she-wolf beside the track. For several days afterwards I had goose-flesh whenever she entered my mind. It wasn't a cadaver I was thinking of but the sight of her loping along the tracks towards me. Goose-flesh? Piloerection is the terminus technicus, an involuntary contraction of the arrector pili muscle which causes hairs to stand on end when we experience cold or certain strong emotions, such as fear, sexual arousal or euphoria.
This often quite enjoyable goosy fleshly experience is known to many European and Slavic languages, and therefore, we suppose, to the people who speak them: in German it is "Gänsehaut", in Italian "pelle d'oca" in Polish "gęsia skórka" (all three translatable as goose-skin). But since I was reading a local paper in a warm kitchen when first I encountered the wolf, excluding cold as a possible stimulant of the reflex, which strong emotion had I actually felt? And was it a single emotion or complex? In short, what did my goose-pimples signify?
You may have seen a plucked goose (if not, substitute turkey, preferably cold), and we all know how a wolf loves a goose. Hmm! Are sexual arousal or euphoria ‘inappropriate’ in this scenario? Does it have to be fear? I know I could satisfactorily explain those pimples by claiming that the news of a wolf nearby had made my flesh creep, or had given me a momentary pang of dread. For this is the expected emotion, triggered by activation of the amygdalae (nuclei close to the hippocampus, identified as essential to the sensation of fear), conducive to the practicalities of running away, yelling for help, pulling the trigger of a gun. And yet fear is a feeling I can normally distinguish from euphoria, sexual arousal or indeed pimples: this can't be gooseflesh, something would tell me, because geese don't creep. If fear was an ingredient of the emotional cocktail, then it was not the kind of fear I feel when crossing a road in the teeth of roaring traffic.
It is perhaps worth explaining that I do not live in an alpine area, nor at the edge of one of those enormous fairy-tale forests that still cover 32% of the country, nor in the kind of rural area in which, as people here quaintly say, "the hare and the fox bid each other goodnight". On the contrary, I live in a city of some 280,000 residents within the second largest metropolitan area in Germany, a densely-populated region of 6 million. This was the first wild wolf to have been registered in Wiesbaden since, apparently by the end of the 18th century, the species was driven to extinction here (and in much of the rest of Europe too), a status "achieved" as the culmination of attempts to exterminate it since the Middle Ages. That said, this was the third dead wolf to be found here in six weeks, if not in the city precincts, then in the surrounding region. And all three wolves died as a result of collisions with traffic, the most recent hit by a train.
Wolves are highly adaptive animals, but it is difficult for any animal to gauge the speed of mechanical vehicles. Wild wolves have good reason to shun humans, but their wanderings often fatally intersect with our thoroughfares. Dedicated research has shown that the species is nonetheless widespread in Germany, with 105 packs, 25 pairs and 13 territorial individuals registered in 2018/19, and some 400 cubs born in that period. These figures point to wolves that have settled in Germany since 2000; they do not account for dispersed wolves – such as the lone migrant found by the rail track. These may travel as much as 400 miles from their natal packs in search of a mate and are often, if killed and genetically analysed, traced back to populations in the Alps, Balkans or the Central European plains.
I am convinced it was the strange familiarity of this revenant that momentarily unhoused me rather than the mystery of her provenance. While the wolf's uncanny return marks the absence since 1989 of the militarized zones along the borders between eastern and western Europe, its most ruthless period of extermination was conducted during the era of transition between primitive accumulation and the establishment of modern capitalism. Enclosure made the increase of pastureland a servant of the Industrial Revolution, with industrialized killings not long behind. An almost inexplicable euphoria, the piloerectile triumph of the goose: might this underline the crisis in that unnatural state of affairs where "sheep, which are naturally mild", as Thomas More wrote in Utopia, "may be said now to devour men"?
Confusing green signs
by Rosemary Bechler
Stand up the real Boris Johnson! During the speculation around the UK Cabinet reshuffle, one Jonathan Chait quote from the New York Post in July, 2017, set me thinking:
Six months into his presidency, foundational republican concepts remain as foreign as ever to Trump. He believes the entire federal government owes its personal loyalty to him, and that the office of the presidency is properly a vehicle for personal and familial enrichment.
On personal loyalty, could Trump’s systematic attempt to sweep out officials perceived to be disloyal in the “biggest assault on the nation’s civil service system since the 1880’s” as reported in this week’s New York Times be a large clue in fathoming what Cummings has in mind for the UK civil service? Was Sajid Javid, last of the Remainers in a top office of state, indeed an early UK guinea pig for Johnny McEntee-type plans (from the Office of Presidential Personnel) to choose the deputies of cabinet secretaries from now on?
Re familial enrichment, no clear parallels. True, Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, inadvertently leaked to the BBC that in early February he met the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, bearing messages regarding the UN COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow, and the possibility of his son visiting China to attend COP15 on biodiversity in Kunming in October. But the brief altercation that ensued between Downing Street and the Foreign Office could hardly be compared to US controversy over Ivanka Trump and her Chinese trademarks. The meeting was “not surprising” said one Government official – after all Stanley Johnson was “an environmentalist.”
Only last October, wearing their Extinction Rebellion badge, he had indeed addressed the protesters in Trafalgar Square as “extremely important”, and reassured them that the Johnson family were “totally united” on climate change.
This is where the PM becomes a tricky man to read, for only two days previously, Boris had joked about ignoring advice “from the security services” not to cross Whitehall for a book launch, because they “said the road was full of uncooperative crusties and protesters of all kinds littering the road” with their “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”. He told his Policy Exchange audience, that he had asked himself what Margaret Thatcher, who risked so much to recapture the Falklands, would have done?
It transpired however that Johnson had been presiding over a major step in taking Extinction Rebellion (XR) very seriously indeed, one which when exposed at length in The Guardian, caused a wave of incredulity and indignation. This was the inclusion, defended by Priti Patel, of the climate crisis group as a “key threat” alongside far right movements, in a series of counter-terrorism assessments and widely-distributed training documents encouraging intelligence gathering. Participants in Prevent training sessions for medical staff, council housing officers, teachers and college staff over the autumn of 2019 had been taken aback to find XR and Greenpeace included.
Further groups listed with no known link to terrorist violence included Stop the War, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, vegan activists, anti-fascist groups, anti-racist groups, and an anti-police surveillance group. But as Netpol pointed out, it was XR that was singled out in July 2019 by Richard Walton, a former Scotland Yard head of counter-terrorism, in a 73-page report published by the lobby group – Policy Exchange – arguing that it was led by “dangerous extremists”, whose “underlying extremism” had been “largely obscured from public view by what many see as the fundamental legitimacy of their stated cause”.
Looking again at the Policy Exchange book launch clip of Johnson on the exaggerated XR threat, his hosts might well have thought that the joke was on them.
But tear our gaze away and listen instead to the words of the great non-violent peace activist, Angie Zelter, in 2008:
“Peaceful protest should be facilitated by the State who need to enact a Bill of Rights enshrining our rights to peaceful protest even when it might disrupt (in a nonviolent manner) work or proceedings against which the protest has organised and even where free speech might "offend".
Civil society need to be given these rights in order to bring to public and government attention matters that they are not responding adequately to and to provide a social feedback mechanism that in itself can do much to relieve societal tensions.
The limits to be placed on the right to protest should be those limits that are on any kind of behaviour and should be covered by the normal rules of society and legislation, i.e. those that inhibit violent physical acts. This is important because all protest should be nonviolent and also because protest should be encouraged in order to provide a focal point for alternative voices and strategies for exploring ways out of the many complex and serious problems of a world entering climate chaos, wars, poverty and environmental collapse.”
On everything from ‘domestic extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ to predictive policing, intrusive surveillance and hate speech legislation, we have forgotten what Zelter knew: that we should value non-violent dissent (or as my colleague Samir Gandesha refers to it, “critique”) as “a social feedback mechanism” crucial for the health of a democracy – not as the preparatory stage for terrorism and disaster.
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