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Ernst Jünger and the Search for Meaning on the Industrial Battlefield

23 Oct

This is the first in a series of posts on the German war veteran and author Ernst Jünger that draw on research I have presented at seminars at the University of CambridgeUniversity of East Anglia  and University of Sussex over the last year or so.  [Edit: The follow-up posts can now be found here and here]

A complex and controversial character, Ernst Jünger is mostly known today for the vivid autobiographical account of life in the trenches of the Great War he penned in Storm of Steel, one of the defining literary works produced by its veterans. Alongside its unapologetic celebration of war, it contains an unflinching, at times clinical, description of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the advent of modern industrial war. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the text has lost none of its evocative power and is likely to remain a lasting document of the soldierly experience.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Jünger’s subsequent writings, published throughout a long life that ended in 1998 at the ripe old age of 102, are however far less well known in the English-speaking world and many of them remain untranslated to this day. And yet I want to argue that, as problematic a figure as he is, the trajectory of Jünger’s thought and work is worthy of our attention in that it crystallises in a particularly stark and vivid fashion some of the tensions and internecine struggles of the twentieth century. Jünger liked to refer to himself as a seismograph registering the underlying tectonic shifts that prefigured the tremors of his age and in the often exalted and rapturous form that took his writings they can indeed be read as a wilful exacerbation of contemporaneous trends, his failings as much his own as that of his times.

Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technology and instrumental rationality that appeared to reach their paroxysm in total war. Inheriting his philosophical outlook from Nietzsche, he understood the problem of the age to be that of nihilism, of the devaluation of all values and the increasing inability to posit any goals towards which life should tend after the ‘death of God.’ He came to view the domination of technique as central to the growth of nihilism, a proposition that appears in an inchoate but nonetheless suggestive form in Nietzsche’s own writings. This Nietzschean perspective would so come to dominate Jünger’s outlook and work that Martin Heidegger would not hesitate to dub him ‘the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche.’[1]

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The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

16 Sep

What should we make of the fact that Bradley Manning has become Chelsea, that Glenn Greenwald is gay, that David Miranda loves a man enough to submit to the harassment incurred by his partner’s work, that Greenwald’s detractors sought to tarnish him by association with—of all things—a porn company? Possibly nothing generalisable, except that gender is doing work here.

There has been no shortage of voices denying a straightforward connection between sexual orientation, gender identity, and patriotism. (Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this is that there isn’t one.) San Francisco Pride Board notoriously repudiated Manning’s election as a Grand Marshall in the 2013 Pride in that city, declaring: ‘even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike—will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.’ That statement has not been retracted, notwithstanding its now patent inaccuracy in light of the prosecution’s inability to cite any evidence that Manning’s leaks led to any deaths and the court’s decision finding her not guilty of the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’. Kristin (formerly Chris) Beck, ex-US Navy Seal who recently announced her gender transition, has been harsher in her condemnation of Manning: ‘For this person, whether male or female to use gender identity to act “BADLY” is a slap in the face to me and everyone who does not fit the “Binary Gender Norm.” It is not an excuse for anything illegal or unjust.’ Pablo K is right to point out the dangers of the temptation, for those who see a link between sex/gender and truth-telling, to make the reverse move—’to relegate Beck to a minority report, and so to re-inscribe the hierarchy of authenticity, this time with Manning as the actual face of resistance, and Beck the mere puppet of militarism’—while pointing out, also, that the gap between these contrasting appropriations is constitutive of the space of contemporary politics. So let’s talk politics.

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Pacific Redemption Songs

18 Jul
Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

Keskidee 13

Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.

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Constructing National Security: U.S. Relations With India and China

14 Jul

Jarrod HayesA guest post from Jarrod Hayes on his forthcoming book. Jarrod is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2003 he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in astrophysics and political science. He completed his Ph.D. in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California in 2009. Prior to joining the Georgia Tech faculty, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma. His areas of scholarly and teaching interest focus on the role of social orders in shaping international security practice. His scholarship appears in the European Journal of International Relations, German Studies Review, International Organization, and International Studies Quarterly.


Srdjan originally approached me about doing this guest post six months ago. So my thanks to Srdjan and the gang for their patience and for giving me an opportunity to discuss my forthcoming book Constructing National Security: U.S. Relations With India and China, set to come out with Cambridge University Press in September (available on Amazon for a discount). What I would like to do is discuss a bit of the background of the book project before addressing the substance of the book and conclude with some of the implications and questions raised by the work.

The book initially started as a project on the democratic peace. When I was in graduate school, I was captivated in my very first semester (Introduction to IR theory with Robert English) by the law-like regularity of the phenomenon—loads of papers and books demonstrate that democracies do not fight each other (see among others my 2012 article in the European Journal of International Relations, also Harald Müller and Jonas Wolff’s ‘Many Data, Little Explanation’ in Democratic Wars: Looking at the Dark Side of Democratic Peace and Ungerer’s 2012 review in International Studies Review). In part owing to how the subject has been investigated (more on that below), academics have lost perspective on the significance of the phenomenon. Security seems to be everywhere, and applied to almost everything. The initial impetus for the highway system in the United States was national security. President Dwight Eisenhower’s avowed purpose for building the massive transit network was to facilitate the movement of U.S. military forces in the event of a land invasion. Two years later security was used to justify education policy in the form of the 1958 National Defense Education Act. The list goes on. Almost any topic one might think of has probably been included under the rubric of security. The democratic peace, however, points to a notable exception. As reams of evidence indicate, democracies have been consistently unwilling to label their peers as security threats. The puzzle is obvious: how is it that democracies have avoided constructing each other as threats while so many other subjects have been labeled as such.

US Army Books

The significance of the democratic peace is self-evident in my opinion. As I read more of the democratic peace (DP) literature, however, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the collective effort to identify the forces that generate the phenomenon. Methodologically, regression-based studies dominate the field. While these studies have been invaluable in establishing the claim that the democratic peace phenomenon exists, by their very nature they are able to demonstrate only correlation, not causation. Not surprisingly, what effort these studies do make towards understanding and explaining the democratic peace focuses on causes — norms and institutions — that could be quantified, sometimes through tenuous proxies. Yet, because the quantitative nature of the studies does not enable access to causal forces, the mechanisms behind the democratic peace remain shrouded in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly given my educational background, I was particularly dissatisfied with the theories and causal assumptions that underlie them in the literature (for the sake of brevity and focus, I will not go into this critique in depth, but interested readers can find it in my 2012 article in the European Journal of International Relations). My dissatisfaction with the literature, specifically with its tendency to brush by the big questions of how the democratic peace is possible, led me to begin pursuing my own theory of the democratic peace.  The book is the result, although it has since grown into an effort to understand how identity shapes security outcomes in democracies.

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part III

11 Jul

Following Part I and Part II


The court is incompetent

The ICTY is constantly criticized for its organizational and procedural shortcomings, but is it fatally “incompetent”? To the extent that it resonates with ex-Yugos this charge must be made in the abstract only – the living ICTY is incompetent compared to the ideal ICTY. Compared to national legal venues, especially as they operated until recently, the court is indispensable, however (more on this below). Further, the ICTY is perceived as the big fish court, and the ability to get those “most responsible” is regarded as one of its strengths. And yet, much of this hard-earned reputation is being squandered in a series of rulings that acquitted some very big and very nasty fish.  Even its supporters feel like the ICTY has lost its mojo.

Consider the Momčilo Perišić case. Here the Yugoslav National Army commander who was first convicted (27 years in prison!) for aiding and abetting war crimes perpetuated by Serb forces across the river Drina, and then completely acquitted by the Appeals Chamber. Logistically and financially supporting génocidaires may not be a crime after all! Putting aside the inability of the prosecutor to ever establish a clear chain of command going from Belgrade to Pale and Knin respectively, this ruling changes the current legal understanding of the principle of command responsibility so decisively that it will almost surely protect many miscreants in the future. Some have even used it read back past ICTY rulings, breaking the chains of causation that lead to Belgrade (“this is a posthumous acquittal of Milošević!”) as well as Zagreb, and blaming  the massacres on the small fish (what’s next? Isolated cases of extremism?).

smallfry

Then there is the acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo, and that particular joint criminal enterprise (the presence of witness intimidation, note, was mentioned in this ruling). Next, the Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač decision. The 2011 Trial Chamber ruling convicted them to 24 years for their role in, among other things, the joint criminal enterprise to expel the Serb population in Krajina following the 1995 Operation Storm (with Tudjman as the enterprise’s CEO again). Then, earlier this year, the Appeals Chamber ruled, in a split decision, that no such joint criminal enterprise existed (as well as that some Mladić-style military actions might be ok, but let’s put that aside for now). And last, the Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović case: the ICTY found no qualms with their arms dealing, bankrolling para-military formations and otherwise supporting of the Serb administrations in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, and, above all, no evidence of conspiracy to bring about the removal of the non-Serb population from any part of the former Yugoslavia (the rest of their ghastly dossier, so much of which is easily accessible via YouTube, fell outside the court’s scope).

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part I

9 Jul

I don’t recall when I first heard of Radovan Karadžić, but I know it wasn’t any time before the run-up to the first democratic, multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, with sarcastic endearment called Rašo in my family, emerged as the leader of something called the Serbian Democratic Party, one of the three main “national” political parties that were formed to steer us away from Marxist politics and economics and towards Western, liberal, democratic capitalism.  I do recall voicing scepticism about their promises, and trying to convince my eight grade classmates that ‘national’ really meant ‘nationalist’ and that with “them” at the helm Bosnia would soon look like Lebanon rather than Switzerland. And forget Lebanon, one only had to look over to Croatia to see what parties with the same names were doing, and how well that particular Westernization was going. I remember arguing that there was an alternative, pointing to Ante Marković (a.k.a. Antara, but with slightly less sarcasm) and his “reconstituted” Commies (and to drive the point home I pasted Union of Reform Forces of Yugoslavia campaign posters all over my room).  But there was no alternative, not really. Not with the bad guys in Belgrade, far more powerful than Marković, itching for “armed battles,” and not with the vast majority of citizenry successfully interpellated into political, mutually exclusive Muslims, Serbs & Croats. A Cerberus coalition of said national parties won the elections in November 1990 and took us all to hell.

karadzic_AP

Fast forward to June 2013: it’s a Monday morning and I am looking into Courtroom 1 of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Karadžić, sitting behind a huge glass screen, is complaining about some key meaning lost in translation. He appears uncomfortable, at least compared to the other nasty blast from my past: Vojislav Šešelj, a.k.a., Šešo. In the 1990s, he was Serbia’s one-man version of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines; today, Šešelj is the tribunal’s bête noire. Those who follow the life of the ICTY are familiar with his mixed-methods approach to delegitimizing the court and its proceedings. Hissy fits, impossible demands, hunger strikes, insults, bullying, speechifying, filibustering. Then there is the regular uploading of confidential court documents onto http://www.vseselj.com‎ such that the names of protected witnesses are no longer protected. This certified political scientist (while writing a PhD dissertation on fascism in late 1970s Šešelj apparently spent a year teaching at the University of Michigan) knows how to assess the power of the strong as well as of the weakHe has repeatedly justified his behaviour as “only politics” (“this court is political, I am political, and I am here to destroy you”). And whenever he gets convicted of contempt of court (twice or thrice now), he laughs it off: “I don’t care, I am having the time of my life.”   

He was on fire that morning as well. Invited to Karadžić’s trial as a key witness, Šešelj manages to waste hours of the court’s time on stories that feature, among other things, Swedish prostitutes, Serbian folk heroes, and European medieval history (I paraphrase again, this time from my notes: “Magdeburg, the city that’s now flooded, yes, make sure it goes into the court’s record just like I explained in my book and on my website: it was the Croat armies that massacred its citizens back in 1631”). The little time devoted to answering the questions posed by the prosecutor Alan Tieger – Karadžić, recall, is indicted for genocide; extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; terrorizing of, and unlawful attack on, civilians; and taking of hostages – testifies to Šešelj’s focus and impeccable memory. “Absolutely not,” he concludes, Karadžić had nothing to do with any conspiracy to ethnically cleanse parts of Eastern Bosnia. “What happened was a natural population transfer, that’s all.” Continue reading

The Office Of Blood; Or, ‘The Act Of Killing’ (2012)

3 Jul

The images and scenes we discuss below are not those of a conventional film plot. Nevertheless, *spoiler warning*.


Act Of Killing Anwar Screen

It’s hard to know how to write about The Act Of Killing, the unsettling, surreal, humanising, nauseating portrait of an Indonesian death squad that is generating such interest. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and the mainly anonymous Indonesian crew (anonymous for fear of retribution) have conjured something quite extraordinary into the world. Laced with caustic insights into atrocity, empathy, memory, commodification, artifice, power, solidarity, fear, self-deception and play.

One million people were killed in Indonesia in the mid-60s following a military coup. The massacres which aimed at obliterating “communists” (along with ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) have been largely undocumented, with many of the perpetrators occupying prominent positions in the Indonesian government. Without wishing to give too much away or to channel and pre-empt the multiple, contradictory emotions that it is bound to elicit, the main conceit is a film within a film where the murderers re-enact their murders, all the while debating whether to recreate this method, or whether that victim would have cried out in that way, and sometimes whether they might just be showing us too much truth in their performances of the past. At one point there is the satisfied declaration that these scenes of re-articulated horror will be seen as far away as London! Part voyeurs, part students, we are thus implicated in their narratives, viscerally. Aghast, covering our eyes, retching when they retch, laughing guiltily at moments of shared humanity.

The Act Of Killing is a deliberate move from the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ to the ‘theatre of the oppressor’, a move that is challenging not simply because we – those ostensibly passive spectators – are made to face deeply uncomfortable ‘truths’ but also because it is above all a movie that painstakingly documents what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, called the ‘banality of evil’. Whilst there is nothing anodyne or sanitised about these gruesome renactments, they are almost flippantly juxtaposed with the mundane rituals, pedestrian encounters, and even moments of compassion and kindness that make these men all too human. The result is an audience suspended between empathy and disgust, between acceptance and incredulity, and between the absurd and the quotidian.

The Act Of Killing, for us at least, is a gut-twisting manifestation of sometimes nebulous socio-political insights. Insights such as Agamben’s ‘camp’ or Foucauldian ‘state racism': concepts that suddenly unfold themselves before us on film, embedded as they are in a context otherwise deeply unfamiliar to us. But although seemingly focused, somewhat narrowly, on Medan, Indonesia the ambit of The Act is far greater: it offers a compelling commentary on the connate imbrication of capitalism, commodification, legality, sexual discrimination, racism, and their inescapably violent manifestations. It is less a document-ary about Indonesian history than a meditation on violence, memory and subjectivity themselves, a provocation made universal precisely because of its lingering gaze on these few aged torturers.

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