American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”


Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest. Continue reading

Sour Lips: A Review

Anyone who followed the controversy over the fictitious Gay Girl in Damascus blog, created by Edinburgh-based US graduate student Tom MacMaster writing as Amina Arraf, might have despaired of the prospects of subalterns speaking for themselves. Female, lesbian, Arab, and an anti-Assad protester, MacMaster’s Amina quickly became a posterchild of the Arab Spring for a wide swath of the liberal media and activist blogosphere. For those cognizant of contemporary critiques of homonationalism against the backdrop of pervasive homophobia, Amina’s dispatches from the frontline seemed a perfect embodiment of left liberal fantasies about the possibilities for progressive sexual politics in a time of revolution. Yet if critics such as Joseph Massad have been accused of dismissing subjects who don’t conform to their theoretical predilections, the Amina hoax gestured at an opposite, if no less insidious, temptation: that of desperately seeking subjects who confirmed theoretical utopia.

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Something in the Way of Things

Hip-Hop Head

When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.

Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.

William Connolly suggests that the political condition of late-modernity is to experience this impasse without means to bridge the gap.

In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.

Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.

The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.

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The Olympic Semiosphere

The chafing constraints of a thesis prevent any original reflection on our hallowed Olympic moment (not least because Rahul has already said so much, and so well). There was little to better Iain Sinclair’s apt diagnosis of “a wonderful national hallucination: a beautiful conjuring between William Borroughs and Charles Satchi…the combination of paranoia and advertising run wild” (a clip worth watching for Jon Snow’s outraged ignorance at the origins of the Olympic Flame [clue: Nazis]). Reports had filtered through that the economic miracle was not as originally billed, with talk of Central London’s ‘ghost town’, stimulating a description elsewhere of the Olympics as an “economic bomb deployed against world cities”. And now there is the most welcome return of K-Punk. At length:

Welcome to the Hunger Games. The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London – 2012 preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city – are being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence. Any disquiet about London 2012 is being repositioned as “griping” or “cynicism”. Such “whinging”, it is claimed, assumed its proper place of marginality as the vast majority enjoy the Games, and LOCOG is vindicated…

…But once the Olympic floodlights are turned off, most will switch back from an attitude of mild interest to indifference towards even the most dramatic Olympic sports, never mind those many Olympic sports which plainly have limited specator appeal. This isn’t the point though: disquiet about London 2012 was never necessarily based in any hostility towards the sports. Enjoyment of the sport and loathing for LOCOG and the IOC are perfectly compatible.

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality.

Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism. The BBC’s own Caesar Flickerman (the interviewer who extracts maximum sentimental affect from the Hunger Games contestants before they face their deaths in the arena) is the creepily tactile trackside interviewer Phil Jones. Jones’s “interviews” with exhausted athletes, are surely as ritualised as any Chinese state broadcast. Emote. Emote again. Emote differently. Praise the crowd.

And, just in case you somehow missed it, the irrepressible CassetteBoy:

How Many Buddhists Are There in Northern Ireland?

Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening extravaganza was many things, but one thing it was not was a history lesson. If you were looking for any acknowledgement of the place of empire in the British national narrative, you would have had to concentrate quite ferociously during the hauntingly beautiful Abide With Me section, sung by Emeli Sandé, to see Akram Khan’s dance troupe mime the whipping of slaves (1:21:04 into the BBC’s coverage of the event). It’s possible that I simply imagined this because I was looking so hard. Anachronistically, moments before, Empire Windrush had arrived on stage, without context, like a Caribbean cruise ship blown off course (Columbus revenge). Two moments that you would have missed if you’d blinked, leaving you mystified about how the opening ceremony, Team GB, and indeed Britain itself had become such a multiracial spectacle.

In the reams of mostly laudatory commentary that has followed the ceremony, some have suggested that it might not have been appropriate to stage imperial conquest and plunder on an occasion that was meant to welcome the world to London. The insinuation that opening ceremonies should be mind-numbingly ‘fun’ is belied precisely by what made this one meaningful. Boyle deserves credit for trying to do history—any history at all, however potted—and indeed what makes his exclusions telling and problematic was precisely the emotional depth and maturity with which he was able to stage historical trauma (the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, 7/7) and individual vulnerability (children in hospital, the references to children’s literature evoking the darkness of growing up) without detracting from the spirit of celebration. Yet some traumas are clearly easier to commemorate, some dead easier to remember, than others. Boyle’s history was curiously blinkered, resolutely domestic, almost wilfully blind to anything that happened outside this ‘green and pleasant land’. (An alternative potted history entitled ‘How to Keep Your Land Green and Pleasant’ might read ‘Step 1: export surplus population, preferably of the lower orders, preferably to places quite far away; Step 2: export dirty industries; Step 3: repeat step 2 for as long as you are able to.) The problem may have begun with the title—Isles of Wonder—that foreshadowed the geographically circumscribed view of history with which we were presented. Indeed the extraordinary, infuriating and continuing dilemma of British identity is that only the cultural right does geographical justice to Britain’s role in forging the modern world, albeit in registers of racism and supremacism. If Boyle’s historical imagination is anything to go by, the left, it would seem, prefers amnesia.

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Dr El-Khairy, I Presume?

We’re on a roll now. On Friday, Omar became the fourth of us to ascend the greased pole of academic accreditation since we began cultivating this little corner of the internet. Forever more to be known as Dr El-Khairy, his burgeoning cultural insurgency notwithstanding. The work in question? American Statecraft for a Global Digital Age: Warfare, Diplomacy and Culture in a Segregated World. And who said it was good enough? Faisal Devji and Eyal Weizman, actually. So there. And I have promises in writing that he will be telling us more about it all real soon.

What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

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