Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

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In defence of the apparently indefensible (or, French ‘intellectuals’ did not ruin the West and can we please stop postie-bashing because it’s not actually terribly helpful thank you)

Note: I decided to write this post because I got tired of trying to explain my position on discourse, reality, truth, and why Foucault is not to blame for the rolling shit-show that is US politics right now on Twitter in 140 characters. And then my 800 word blog post turned into a 4000 word essay. Sorry about that. Tl; dr version: truth is a social construct but that doesn’t mean anything goes. But the long version contains turtles and an Adam Savage gif, so do please read on…

 Let me get a couple of things straight before I begin. First, I am not A Philosopher. I am not (often) a thinker of profound and important thoughts (not nearly often enough, anyway), nor do I consider the work that I do to be in the realm of philosophy, or even ‘grand theory’. I am not A Theorist either; I am, at most, a theorist with a lower-case ‘t’. I theorise, a bit, about the nature of the things that interest me and the relationships between them. It helps me make sense of the world and that’s about as far as it goes. So I am probably woefully underqualified to write this post. But here I am, because being woefully underqualified to write about postmodernism[i], and truth, and facts, and the world in general, doesn’t seem to stop a whole bunch of other people doing it and if they’re having their fun I want some. (Plus, the way you get qualified to write about Stuff is to write about it, amirite?)

Second, I have (quite unfairly, I admit), used bits of Helen Pluckrose’s recent essay on ‘How French “intellectuals” ruined the West: Postmodernism and its impact, explained’ as a sort of intellectual sparring-partner in this post, just because it offers such a full account of the charges laid at the door of postmodernism, and how this intellectual movement has affected truth, and facts, and the world in general. It’s unfair because Pluckrose’s essay is just the latest in a line of similar types of argument, and I could just as easily have chosen to respond to any of those. But I chose this essay because I am lazy and it popped up on my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and when I read it I thought: No. No more. No longer. For this, I cannot stand. So, again, here I am, to address what I see as the four key points of argument she presents in an effort to discuss the things I want to discuss about postmodernism, and truth, and facts, and so on.

1. ‘the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive or, as they would term it, deconstructive way’

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Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

Truman and Churchill in Missouri

Churchill’s Westminster College audience, March 5, 1946 (Life/Getty Images)

This year is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, a.k.a. “Sinews of Peace,” a.k.a., the Fulton address, which means that we will soon be hearing all about it once again. The speech is central to the iconography of the Cold War, of anti-communism, and of Anglo-American specialness. Countless historians, biographers and rhetoreticians have examined almost every aspect of it: when and where it was written, whether it was pre-approved by others, including President Truman, and, indeed, how it was received. On the last point, we know that the speech was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. The reactions tended to be politically and ideologically determined. Conservative politicians and the media praised the speech for its realism about the nature of the postwar settlement: at last someone had the courage to publicly say that the victor nations could not forever be friends.  In contrast, most liberals, socialists, and communists condemned the speech as inflammatory. With so many hopes pinned to the newly created United Nations Organization (UNO), the last thing the world needed was geopolitical tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, they argued. But that was not all. Some leftists went further still. Churchill’s notion the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “fraternal association” constituted the ultimate sinew of world peace smacked of racial supremacism, they said.

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Let’s Talk About the “Ugly Briton”: Shashi Tharoor on Winston Churchill

October is always a good time to catch up on one’s correspondence from July.  “FYI,” noted a friend though FB’s messaging system, linking to this:

The video’s title, “Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations,” sums it up.  The other videos from the same debate event are worth watching, too, but Tharoor’s is quite simply a must-see for anyone interested in the British Empire.  Indeed, you have probably seen it already.  With 3 million views, 6000+ comments plus what seem to be hundreds of reactions by all kinds of people in all kinds of media of communication, this one 15-minute video alone can legitimate Oxford Union Society claim’s that it aims “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.”

Why is it that Oxford Union struck social media gold with this debate but not with some others (“socialism does (not) work,” anyone)?  Even if it is safe to assume that “many” people would be familiar the reparations argument in general and even that “some” would be familiar with Britain’s reparations to the Maori, the fact is that “no one” had given a fig about the case for Indian reparations [1].  My scare quotes are meant to signal that these quantifications are relative.  It was a century ago that Dadabhai Naoroji, known to some as the Grand Old Man of India, argued that “immediate” self-government, a.k.a. swaraj, would constitute Britain’s “reparation”.  But this is precisely the point: reparations-talk becomes itself only when subjected to a sufficient degree of metropolization or mainstreaming [2].  White academics like Boris Bittker started paying attention to the legal argument for “black reparations” only in 1969, after James Forman famously stood up in a New York City church to argue that white churches owed a lot of money to a lot of people.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.



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