Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beautiful Ground

The week started inauspiciously with a few calls for papers (for the RPA and De Philosophia, the latter being the graduate student journal at the University of Ottawa), and Devin's review of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood (which appears to be the final post in our Haiti series), and ended with the deaths of Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, eulogized by Devin in "Howard Zinn, 1922-2010" (forgive the title; he wrote it before his 10am class on Thursday) and by Sean Moreland's "Some Thoughts on the Salinger Legend."

So it became a week of reassessing the contributions of two important American authors. Let us then add to those the death of the French militant Daniel Bensaïd in mid-January (I knew his work best through his debates with Alain Badiou). Tariq Ali writes, in the Guardian UK,
Bensaïd, who has died aged 63 of cancer, was one of the most gifted Marxist intellectuals of his generation. In 1968, together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, he helped to form the Mouvement du 22 Mars (the 22 March Movement), the organisation that helped to detonate the uprising that shook France in May and June of that year. Bensaïd was at his best explaining ideas to large crowds of students and workers. He could hold an audience spellbound, as I witnessed in his native Toulouse in 1969, when we shared a platform at a rally of 10,000 people to support Alain Krivine, one of the leaders of the uprising, in his presidential campaign, standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).

Bensaïd's penetrating analysis was never presented in a patronising way, whatever the composition of the audience. His ideas derived from classical Marxism – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, as was typical in those days – but his way of looking at and presenting them was his own. His philosophical and political writings have a lyrical ring – at particularly tedious central committee meetings, he could often be seen immersed in Proust – and resist easy translation into English.
  • On a more personal note, I've heard through the grapevine that the Winter Semester at CSU Stanislaus might soon be ended. It's too bad: the short, four week January semester allows you to get a class over with in a short time (and redistribute a yearly course load to make it more manageable), or, if you are so inclined, to take nearly two months off between the Fall and Spring semester.
  • Finally, to lighten the mood, watch "Jed's Other Poem." The video has an interesting story: originally an unauthorized production, V2 retroactively hired its creator, which made it an official video. Grandaddy comes from my hometown (a place of which most of us have mixed feelings), and this song has always had the uncanny effect of calling forth memories and images of the place, some mentioned in the song ("staring at the Tiki floor"), others only tangentially associated. Enjoy:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Salinger Legend

"...the only people he ever really wants to meet for a drink somewhere are all either dead or unavailable. He says he never even wants to have lunch with anybody, even, unless he thinks there’s a good chance it's going to turn out to be Jesus, the person – or the Buddha, or Hui-neng, or Shankaracharya, or somebody like that.”
~Franny and Zooey

When I read the news of J.D. Salinger's death the other day, it struck me with a kind of mild surprise. It caught me off guard not because it was untimely (after all, he was 91, a ripe old age by pretty much anybody's standards), but because it was there so baldly, incontestably, definitively, pervading the news, infesting the internet.

Salinger, who like Thomas Pynchon persistently embodied James Joyce's description of the writer as rooted in “silence, exile and cunning,” would doubtless have been irritated, but unsurprised, by all the attention. It is completely irrational, I realize (especially given the recent return of his name to the news for litigious reasons), but some long stretch of my subconscious expected that Salinger's death would occur like that of a nameless monk in a distant monastery - shrouded in quiet, calm, and unacknowledged by the currents of busy bodies surging outside. The world would learn of it only much later, ripples of rumour moving outward first, followed by a gradual revelation of the fact.

Aside from being a testament to my persistent Quixotism, this imaginary tendency also raises what I think is an interesting point about Salinger's literary celebrity. A number of the obit-esque bi(bli)o-notices I've read over the past couple of days have referred to the death of a "legendary" American author (you can read one of the better ones, from the New York Times, here).

Legendary is an adjective aptly pregnant with ambiguity, isn't it? I'd like to consider Salinger's career in terms of three inter-related meanings of this epithetic term.

The semi-omniscient OED's first definition of the term is one that Hemingway, who befriended Salinger while both were in Europe during the Second World War, could well understand the often tragic consequences of: "Pertaining to or of the nature of a legend. " While this is the primary denotation of the word, it is likely not the sense most commentators intend, as there is little doubt of Salinger's existence as a historical personage, unless you happen to be some kind of pomo-onto-anarchist. Still, as my own ideation of his death and numerous ritualistic public eulogies attest (check out The Onion's apt satiric take here), the St. Salinger legend exerts an appeal far larger than the fact of a privacy-loving man.

And, I have to ask myself, who am I to deny Salinger's sainthood? While the contentious biographies by his daughter and ex-wife testify to his selfishness and oddity, they serve only to reinforce that, like his invention Buddy Glass, Salinger was a writer “and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man."

The second definition of legendary offered by the OED, which I'd imagine is the one primarily intended by all those journalists and bloggers applying it to Salinger, is "celebrated or related in legend." This sense of the word simply speaks to the enormity of Salinger's reputation, his canonical status, as an American author, and it is this sense of legendary that led, unfortunately for Salinger, to the one previously described.

Salinger's best-known achievement is of course his discovery or re-creation of the language of adolescent alienation in the mid twentieth century through The Catcher in the Rye's eternally-teenaged rebel with all kinds of goddam causes, Holden Caulfield. This book alone insured Salinger a secure position in the history of American letters, and its history of mixed institutional prescription and proscription (being one of the most frequently assigned as well as most frequently censored novels ever written) places it alongside other contentious American classics (all of them, ultimately, are!) such as its chief pre-cursor, Huckleberry Finn, and its many descendents, including Kerouac's On the Road and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Salinger confessed in the few interviews he gave that the novel involved a great deal of autobiographical content. His early-admitted feeling of relief at having got Holden off his chest, however, quickly soured into a feeling of resentment at the incessant invasions of his privacy the novel's popularity precipitated. He had shared his boyhood with Holden, and through Holden he had shared it with the world, which seemed to want only to gild it, geld it, and refuse to either live it or give it back.

Following Holden Caulfield, Salinger invented and invested himself in the Glass household, with his creation of the sometimes sage and saintly, but ultimately suicidal, Seymour Glass and his family, especially his younger brother and sister, Franny and Zooey. Salinger's devotion to this fictional family has been derided as narcissistic, obsessive and tendentious by many critics (including such an expert on literary narcissism as John Updike). Such complaints seem to me amply addressed by a passage from Seymour: An Introduction:
“You can’t argue with someone who believes, or just passionately suspects, that the poet’s function is not to write what he must write but, rather, to write what he would write if his life depended on his taking responsibility for writing what he must in a style designed to shut out as few of his old librarians as humanly possible.”
Putting Updike et al as well as academic critics (OK, I'm having a moment of masochism here) who mourned Salinger's movement away from "broader social issues" in the place of old librarians does not exactly require a Herculean feat of the imagination. Besides, the greatest testimony to what Salinger achieved with his unflaggingly affectionate portrayal of the neurotically precocious Glass house is the degree to which it casts its long, prolix and lovingly inflected shadow over a great deal of contemporary American literature and film. In particular, the intimate, minute and sometimes startlingly diffuse depictions of the Incandenza family in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (compare, if you have a chance, Franny and Zooey's convos with those of Mario and Hal, especially) and Wes Anderson's quirky quasi-aristocrats in The Royal Tennenbaums leap immediately to mind as creatures which can only be seen through Salinger's Glasses.

This brings me to the OED' s third meaning of legendary, the one that is really primary where Salinger is concerned: "Of writers: Relating legends." This is, after all, what Salinger did to call down like some vampiric curse the two earlier senses of the word: he related legends, stories which gathered together striking perceptions of the world which in turn gathered together millions of readers who felt they could relate to them (those perceptions), which caused them (those readers) to (mistakenly, maybe) try to relate to the writer who managed, maybe without even knowing how he'd done it in the first place, to relate them (those readers) to themselves. While I'm not going to get any closer to making an embarrassing polemic elegy ala "Lycidas" out of Salinger's death than I've already done here, I can totally relate to that.

So...the knowledge that although Salinger the grouchy, reclusive writer guy is gone, the legends he related live on, however phony and cliche it may sound, is sufficient grounds for a certain quiet bliss. A bliss which reminds me of the end of Franny and Zooey's long phone conversation about the Jesus prayer and other matters sacredly profane:
“A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself.”
That's how I'm listening to the buzz about the Salinger legend, now. Like a kind of dial tone, an echo of the silence Salinger himself finally gets to directly hear.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

A People's History of the United States is probably the most important history book I have read. It was required reading for a course taught by a professor named Al Smith that I took at Modesto Junior College in the late 1990s. American history, but for this kind of American history we read Zinn and Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror, which was to compliment Zinn's history from below with a history of the relationship between immigration and how we think of the people who make up the United States. So whole class on history with no great men ('It's not made by great men,' I would later hear in one of Gang of Four's funkier and punchier tunes...).

Zinn took history and stood it on its feet. Chronicles of war and great deeds become a constant series of attempts to oppress or calm the fires of social struggle, but the guiding thread is the resilience of people acting from the basic conviction that their rights and their justice won't be realized because these things have been written down on a few dusty documents. They have to be fought for. Zinn was right their in midst of it: like Vonnegut, he learned the right lessons from war's injustices, at Spellman he was radicalized by the growing civil rights struggle at the cost of his job, and then wrote on of the earliest books critical of the Vietnam War, VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967; A People's History of the United States followed in 1980. He stayed involved, kept writing, kept pissing off other people in his profession and academia for a refusal to be a specialist and to keep to a small academic niche. Some of this is documented in You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Even up to a few weeks ago, he wrote of Obama,
I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
It's in the second paragraph there: Zinn's saying 'presidents are not much. Kennedy dragged his feet with civil rights, Obama's going to do the same without a movement to push him, because a movement makes history.' Not these teabag jokers but a movement.

A few years ago in Toledo, Ohio, I met Zinn's friend, and scholar and activist in his own right, Staughton Lynd. At an informal discussion he brought up Howard, and I said that his book was probably one of the most influential on the way I thought about history. Staughton smiled, paused, and turned to everybody else to drive home his point: "Do you see?" he said (I apologize but this isn't verbatim), "They won't give him the time of day in academia, and everywhere we go people are reading A People's History, and it changes their lives." A bit in jest; it's not like Zinn was blacklisted. By this time he had already retired. But Staughton's point is that we pay for our convictions. We can write the chronicles of great men, or the histories of people as they demand to be heard, as they demand, and sometimes win, justice. When you don't take the well-worn road to academic comfort and ideological conformity, the other road's going to be difficult. As I'm sure we all know, it's a worthwhile trade off. But at least for us, still young, angry, and able, Howard Zinn walked it first.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Damming the Flood

Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2008) is a powerful indictment of imperial intervention as it seeks to destroy popular resistance to globalized exploitation (which includes forcing open local markets and the production of cheap goods through an exploited and non-unionized labor force). Much of the content has been discussed in recent posts (here and here) and so this isn't going to be a traditional book review. Instead, I want to focus on three points in which Hallward's analysis is incisive:

1) The Haitian people are the subject of their history and not the object. Nowhere in the text does Hallward treat them as victims. Instead, when their political gains are temporarily reversed by intervention (read: well-funded coups), Hallward treats these reversals according to the amount of effort required to temporarily halt popular movements.

2) Violence will not be judged against a neutral background. Hallward refuses to accept a framework that judges the violence of Lavalas against a background that assumes that exploitation and imperial intervention happens in a non-violent context. Hallward repeatedly shows how any pro-Lavalas or pro-Aristide violence takes place in a context where a much better armed opposition act as aggressors. In fact, the remarkable point is the relative lack of violence committed by the state under pro-Lavalas leaders.

3) Non-governmental Organizations are not neutral. This is a difficult point to get across. First, it probably has to do with the neutral sounding name, when many of these groups could properly be called, in the case of Haiti, Ideological Counter-state Apparatuses. Hallward shows how the operation of NGOs allows 'rich countries a morally respectable way of subcontracting the sovereignty of the nations they exploit' (179). While some of these groups do respectable work with the poor and exploited, the problem remains that their primary responsibility is to the sources of their funding, which means that they function according to a mandate set not by the people of Haiti, but to rich donors outside of the country. Instead of directly giving foreign aid to the government, where it has the possibility of being utilized according to a plan (here health, there jobs, there education), these tasks are privatized, fragmented, and often rely on elite contacts for local distribution, which reproduces class inequality.

This last point is especially important as NGOs (or ICAs) swarm Haiti after the earthquake, although when reading about the situation it is important to consider how non-Haitian aid and intervention makes victims of Haitians, that is, makes them objects of their history and not subjects through the destruction of local solidarity.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CFP: Radical Philosophy Association Conference 2010

Call for Papers: 2010 Radical Philosophy Association Conference at University of Oregon

Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational

University of Oregon in Eugene , Oregon
November 11th-14th, 2010

Deadline Extended to April 1, 2010.

Call for Papers
The Radical Philosophy Association Conference Program Committee invites submissions of talks, papers, workshops, roundtables discussions, posters and other kinds of conference contributions, for its ninth biennial conference, to be held at University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon on November 11-14, 2010.

In the spirit of collaboration, and in the recognition that radical philosophy is often done outside traditional philosophical settings, we invite submissions not only from philosophers inside and outside the academy, but also from those who engage in theoretical work in other academic disciplines – such as ethnic studies, women's studies, social sciences and literary studies-and from those engaged in theoretical work unconnected to the academy.

We especially welcome contributions from those often excluded from or marginalized in philosophy, including people of color, glbt persons, persons with disabilities, poor and working class persons.

Conference Theme
With the US engaged in imperial wars around the globe and amidst the collapse of the most recent mode of global capitalism, we at the Radical Philosophy Association have found reflection on violence both timely and imperative. The theme for our upcoming Ninth Biennial Conference will, therefore, be “Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational”. Unmistakably, violence shapes our social world. Oppressive systems are founded in and maintained through violent action. Capitalism demands and enforces conditions of starvation, brutalization, and alienated experience. Patriarchy thrives on the threat and reality of physical and sexual assault and pervasive psychological debasement. Racist and colonial structures demand occupation, enslavement, and incarceration. The systemic violence of capitalism permeates quotidian existence to such a degree that we are inured to its effects and only become aware of it when we are awaken to it by the exceptional violence of state terror or the terrorism of the powerless.

Violence penetrates deeply into our contemporary consciousness and it permeates our everyday experience. From 'torture flicks' to 'first-person shooter' video games, from sexual fantasies to nightmares, our psychology is informed by violence. Further, many believe that violence is the only or most effective means of overcoming the systems and oppositions that shape our social world. From reactionary violence perpetrated in the name of religious and ethnic identity to liberatory violence undertaken with the intent of creating just and legitimate social structures, violence is seen as a means to 'radical' political ends.

For these reasons we invite submissions that answer questions about the nature of violence and its role in our social world. What is violence? What kinds of violence are there? How do systems of oppression perpetuate or institute violence? What role does violence play in human psychology and social structures? How do we represent violence and what do these representations make possible or impossible? Is non-violence a form of violence? Is revolutionary violence legitimate? Under what conditions is it legitimate? Does the recourse to violence for political ends perpetuate the cycles of violence? What are the differences between violence and political power? Does the birth of the new social order require a violent upheaval?

We, thus, invite submissions for the Ninth Biennial Conference of the Radical Philosophy Association: “Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational”.

In keeping with the spirit of radical thinking embodied by the RPA, we encourage submissions that employ formats and media that challenge the standard conference presentation. For instance, we urge presenters to use formats that allow for greater interaction between participants and audience (e.g. presenting an outline, rather than reading a paper), and that emphasize collective inquiry (e.g. organizing a workshop).

Please note that participants will be selected for at most one presentation (talk, workshop, poster session, etc.) during the conference; submissions should be presented with this in mind. (This limit does not include chairing sessions.)

Please submit all the information requested:

Affiliation-or independent scholar, activist, educator, etc.
Title of proposal
Nature of proposal (talk, workshop, other)
Abstract of 250-500 words only
Equipment needs

(Note: Due to the length of sessions, we will only consider panels of NO MORE THAN three persons.)

Name of panel contact person, and of each panel member
Address of all panel members, including email
Affiliation-or independent scholar, activist, educator, etc.-for each
Title of panel proposal
Nature of proposal (talk, workshop, other)
Abstract of 250-500 words only
Titles of individual papers
Abstract of 250-500 words for each paper (if relevant)
Equipment needs

If you would be willing to serve as a session chair, please indicate this on your submission form. Session chairs are responsible for timing presentations, and ensuring that each presenter gets her or his fair share of the available time.

All submissions must be submitted electronically by March 1, 2010 . UPDATE: April 1, 2010.

Submissions should be in an email attachment (.doc) sent to (send abstracts not completed papers)

For further information, contact the conference Program Committee:
Eduardo Mendieta, Chair:
Jack Green Musselman:
Brandon Absher:
Jessica E. Peters:
Alex Pienknagura:
Maurice Hamington:

CFP: De Philosophia

And for those who work at the last minute:

De Philosophia: Call For Papers/Appel de textes

(le message francais suit)

De Philosophia: Call For Papers

The editorial staff of De Philosophia and the Graduate Philosophy Student
Association at the University of Ottawa are proud to announce the

6th Annual Graduate Student Conference
in Philosophy at the University of Ottawa
March 26-27, 2010

New deadline for submissions: January 31, 2010

Keynote Speakers:
Jeff Noonan, University of Windsor
'Contemporary Life-Crises and the Tasks of Philosophy'


Mitia Rioux-Beaulne, University of Ottawa
'Matérialisme et production des idées : le cas de Diderot'

Please address all correspondence and submissions to:

For updates and the submission policy, visit:

De Philosophia: Appel de textes‏

Le comité éditorial De Philosophia en collaboration avec l'Association des
étudiants(es) diplomé(es) en philosophie de l'Université d'Ottawa annonce
la 6ième Conférence annuelle des étudiant(es) diplomé(es) en philosophie de
l'Université d'Ottawa

26-27 Mars, 2010
Nouvelle date limite pour les soumissions: 31 janvier, 2010

Conférenciers(ières) invités(es) :

Mitia Rioux-Beaulne, l'Université d'Ottawa
Matérialisme et production des idées : le cas de Diderot


Jeff Noonan, University of Windsor
Contemporary Life-Crises and the Tasks of Philosophy

Veuillez s'il-vous-plaît nous faire parvenir vos soumissions et toute autre
correspondance à:

Pour mises à jour et la politique de soumission, consultez :

Sunday, January 24, 2010

More on Haiti

A few more articles, from various perspectives, on 'disaster capitalism' in Haiti. And since this is a Sunday, a link to Devin's review of Badiou and Zizek's Philosophy in the Present.

Peter Hallward on US Imperialism:
Most credible journalists have emphasised the remarkable levels of calm and solidarity in the midst of this catastrophe, but the UN and the US emphasise the dangers of looting and rioting. They talk about the need to avoid another “Somalia”.

Very soon this starts to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more desperate things get, the more likely it is that the whole reconstruction effort will unfold as a military operation, with UN officials and American commanders – rather than the Haitian people – in charge.
Jeb Sprague, on Haiti's Classquake at Counterpunch.

Benjamin Dangl, on how corporations and mercenaries are viewing the disaster. He takes an example pointed out by Naomi Klein about the Heritage Foundation, which as
"one of the leading advocates of exploiting disasters to push through their unpopular pro-corporate policies," issued a statement on its website after the earthquake hit: "In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti's long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region."
And some youtube:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Philosophy in the Present

Philosophy in the Present (Polity, 2009) is a recent translation of talks given by Badiou and Zizek in Vienna in 2004 and published in German in 2005 as Philosophie und Aktualität. Ein Streitgespräch.

I'm not going to give a review of either Badiou's or Zizek's contributions, because much of what they say has been taken up by them in other works. Badiou offers some initial comments about the conditions of philosophy (if you haven't heard, they are politics, art, mathematics and love), and then he reproduces his "Eight Theses on the Universal," published previously in Theoretical Writings (edited by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, Continuum, 2004).

Zizek's essay largely re-affirms Badiou's stance in general, and presents his argumentation for why we should reject the concept of totalitarianism: that it presents a false equivalence between the egalitarian project of communism and fascism. In addition, the concept of totalitarianism, for Zizek, blocks a more "appropriate socio-politicial theory with which we can analyse these of course deplorable phenomena like Nazism and Stalinism in their own conceptuality as projects" (57). Basically themes that have been treated more extensively in his other work (like, I suppose, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?).

The discussion between the two is more entertaining than it is a contentious debate.

Despite the repetition, or because of this repetition is here more accessible, Philosophy in the Present is being touted as an introduction to Badiou and Zizek. However, I don't think it is very useful in this function, not just because the texts are unpolished, or that they don't introduce new material, but primarly due to Peter Engelmann's introduction. Keep in mind what I have said above, and read:
It was not after all very long ago that we talked about what the role of the philosopher Karl Marx had been in the totalitarian regime of Russia, and later the countries of the Soviet bloc. Wasn't the mass murderer Pol Pot an intellectual educated in Paris? How many people were humiliated, expelled and murdered during the Chinese Revolution? [...] the participation of intellectuals in the crimes of the twentieth century weighs heavily on the self-understanding of this social group, at least insofar as it maintains a practical memory of history (viii-ix).
Now, is not the purpose of an introduction to introduce something of either Badiou or Zizek's theory of political commitment? Because this passage ignores, or is a deliberate evasion of, both of their extensive bodies of work, which reject the ideological frame that naively blames intellectuals for political purges or that assumes consensus around the meaning of the Chinese Revolution, not to mention the false equivalence of Marx, who did not live to see any communist state revolutions, with Pol Pot, other intellectuals, or obviously Mao. I find it bizarre, and disappointing, that two philosophers who are sharply critical about revisionism (like Badiou's unapologetic position about his Maoism) let a book be published that is prefaced by such revisionism.

A more honest, and more productive, procedure for the introduction isn't to critique intellectuals for their participation in leftist politics, but ask how intellectuals continue to participate in maintaining and affirming the status quo of liberal democracy. This question isn't too abstract, being that the French media created the nouveaux philosophes, and it actually functions to introduce something of what makes both Badiou and Zizek interesting, rather than recycle platitudes about leftist intellectuals.

Thus, for introductions, instead, I recommend Badiou's Ethics, and perhaps Zizek's most current title (but the clock is ticking...) First as Tragedy, then as Farce (our review is here), or, of course, The Sublime Object of Ideology.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti and Imperialism

I just want to add to our two previous posts (here and here), one more statement about disaster capitalism and imperialism, really some more background to Haiti's place in the Western world (I've deliberately used this term), or more specifically, how it is understood within Western ideology. Haiti, we should recall, won its independence as the first successful slave rebellion in 1804. When the country established diplomatic ties with France in 1825 it came at the cost of 150 million francs. Zizek summarizes the situation (in a review of Hallward's book Damming the Flood):
Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray).
Then, there was a coup led by the United States, France and Canada (See Engler and Fenton's Canada in Haiti)-- can you guess one of the reasons?, and continuing impovershiment ever since, partially through forced neo-liberal structural adjustments. My concern is not that they will become a victim of disaster capitalism, because there is a long history of that already, but that they will again be forced into continuing "structural readjustment" that will continue to constrain their ability to undertake political reform. That is, when foreign soldiers (peacekeepers) aren't their to constrain them. Nevertheless, we should not call, as Hallward and Zizek stress, Haitians victims. Instead, as Zizek writes,
The Lavalas movement [which included Aristide] has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.
It's a familiar story; change the names and we have been told the same things regarding violence and corruption about Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and even Brazil. Now that a natural disaster has opened Haiti to international aid, let's hope it doesn't come at the cost of already existing political solidarity.

Update: See also this short article on the role of USAID in these structural adjustments.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Partners in Health and the crisis in Haiti

Regarding the ongoing crisis in Haiti, I recommend that people wishing to donate check out the Boston-based group Partners in Health ( PIH has been on the ground in Haiti for over two decades, has seen significant small-scale successes in its operations and aid models, and is thus in a great position to help. The group is also notable for espousing a community-centred, solidarity model of aid, not simply a top-down charity model. From the web site:

At its root, our mission is both medical and moral. It is based on solidarity, rather than charity alone. When a person in Peru, or Siberia, or rural Haiti falls ill, PIH uses all of the means at our disposal to make them well—from pressuring drug manufacturers, to lobbying policy makers, to providing medical care and social services. Whatever it takes. Just as we would do if a member of our own family—or we ourselves—were ill.

As Devin pointed out in the previous blog of the day, there is a danger that the situation in Haiti will become another case of "disaster capitalism". It's vital that groups and approaches focusing on community organizing, solidarity, and the overcoming of the crisis by Haitians themselves be given a fighting chance - especially in a situation which may all too easily degenerate into a nightmare of misery-fueled primitive accumulation.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Peter Hallward on Haiti's Plight

Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2008), has published a critique ("Our Role in Haiti's Plight") of the policies of neo-liberalism and interventionism in Haiti's politics that have contributed to human cost of the recent earthquake. Hallward writes:

The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of 7 May 1842 may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap ­Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, mostly recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.

What is already all too clear, ­however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the "poorest country in the western hemisphere". This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.

Now, I know what some of our readers may think of this kind of criticism. They will ask, is it not time to put aside our political differences and contribute to the poor and downtrodden, to the victims of this disaster? However, we should reject this false dilemma: to help the victims it is necessary to grasp their historico-political situation: a long series of Western interventions and concomitant impoverishment of a majority of Haitians.

One wants to hope that Haiti will not be forced, at some point in the process of receiving aid, to accept more neo-liberal reforms as a condition for receiving it. If this seems outlandish to you, read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, especially page 487 (Chapter 19) and following.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

High-brow horror novels

When it comes to books and movies I'm something of a horror buff, but I'm rather finicky about what precisely, to me, constitutes good horror. Over the past year I've had the good fortune to stumble across some amazing horror fiction - the kind of stuff that is rightly considered world class literature first, horror fiction second. What follows is a brief summary of the top two highlights.

1. Yukio Mishima, "The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea"
(Vintage, 1994, 192 pages)

Mishima's stands out as one of the most beautifully crafted, as well as profundly frightening and disturbing tales I've ever read. The story centres on a 13 year old boy, Norobu, whose widowed mother begins a relationship with an idiosyncratic, sympathetic sailor. Influenced by "the chief", another boy his age who commands a group of like-minded boys with his eerie charisma, Norobu develops a nihilistic, creepily detached attitude which increasingly colours how he deals with his mother's new love. This leads to a shocking climax which is, in my opinion, among the best in fiction. What makes the novel so profoundly good is the convincing way in which Mishima crafts the boy and the sailor; those familiar with Mishima's other works, especially the more autobiographical "Confessions of a Mask", will recognize something of the author's own idiosyncrasies in both. Mishima's abiding obsessions with death and sex - one might say, with the real - turn an otherwise prosaic blend of coming of age story and mid-life crisis story into a vision of hell.

2. Cormac McCarthy, "Child of God" (Vintage, 1993, 208 pages)

Those who know McCarthy through the popular film "No Country for Old Men" will probably expect his fiction to be violent and terse. What they probably won't expect is the sheer extremity of the violence, and the fact that he delivers his tales in a lyrical, Faulknerian language that is practically unmatched. Moreover, the actual novel version of "No Country for Old Men" is arguably the least challenging of his works, and in this sense it is not representative. One should look elsewhere in his corpus to get a true measure of his aesthetic abilities; "Child of God", beautifully written and far less imposing than his masterpiece "Blood Meridian", is a good place to start. "Child of God" tells the story of Lester Ballard, a strange, dispossessed Tennessee man who slowly goes insane and resorts to murder and necrophelia. The tale is all the more chilling for the extent to which Ballard's descent is rendered plausible by his loneliness and material deprivation. McCarthy paints squallor and degradation with a loving attention to detail that makes his worlds as real as they are horrifying.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Virtual Badiou

There's nothing like catching up on correcting exams to ruin a weekend. That's what I get for putting it off until the last minute. However, you don't have to let it ruin your weekend. Matt can be found here, writing about Osamu Dazai, and Jason discusses miscegenation in the colonial context. Or, you can check out Alain Badiou's new website,, which at the moment is promoting his forthcoming La philosophie et l'événement, a series of discussions with Fabien Tarby. It also has a link to a debate, published in Le nouvel observateur, between Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Miscegenation in the Colonial Context: Defying Imperial Inclusion and Exclusion

I recently bought a used set of English flashcards published in the late 1970s. The reverse side for the word “Miscegenation” reads “Marriage between people of widely differing races” and the example sentence “Miscegenation has never been favorably regarded in the United States.” Pondering over the harmful cultural implications of such a definition I thought of a book I recently read by Ann Stoler. She shows that interracial relations are not limited to the cultural sphere and in fact have played a central role in colonialism and political power. In Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Power, published by the University of California Press in 2002, Ann Stoler demonstrates the importance interracial relationships played in the development of colonial structures of power.

This work advances several arguments and employs excellent and revealing photos. Within these she notes that many colonial cultures structured access to power and privilege through the construction of racial dichotomies. What happens when the racial hierarchies are complicated by a grey zone of biologically and culturally mixed people? Stoler indicates that, for one, the distribution of the wealth developed by the colonial enterprise becomes knotty, which catalyzes a change in the social construction of identities. Stoler’s contention is that in the colonial context of the Javanese heartland of Indonesia, the categories of inclusion and exclusion became untenable as they had previously been defined and that those in possession of power and wealth sought to stem the tide of miscegenation.

The culture of colonialism that Stoler describes in her first five chapters is one which develops to suit the needs of a European body of profiteers. This is convoluted by the reality that, for various reasons, the early period of colonialism forbade the migration of European women to the focal points of resource development and extraction. The corporate bodies in these spaces instead preferred their European subordinates to take on concubines to serve as domestic servants, sexual objects, and cultural instructors. One consequence of this was the development of mixed raced progeny. This complicated not just the distribution of wealth through the construction of self and other in the periphery but also the categories or ‘units of analysis’ in the colonial encounter, which brings us to Stoler’s theoretical argument.

Ann Stoler, an anthropologist, produced this text as a history but also one which attempts to advance the theory of history through a thorough going analysis of its methods. By aptly describing the unique position of ethnically and or culturally mixed persons in the periphery she showed how certain units of analysis are in and of themselves insufficient for describing the particulars which develop in any particular encounter. She insists though that she is not interested in merely throwing out the categories of description developed thus far. Instead she argues that it is through the process of examining the dichotomies and theoretical demarcations of postcolonial theory against and within the archive that new insights can be gained. She takes the construction of the European self, juxtaposed with the attempts to mutually construct a colonial other, as one example, and complicates it by pursuing those individuals who don’t fit entirely in either category. Moreover, she looks at the effect of the sites of intimacy on the macro-culture and the implications for the maintenance of a system of gross exploitation: the imperial project.

By reexamining certain categories, such as the self and other, or ‘white prestige’ over time and up close in the archive she is able to produce new ways of seeing the development of social, cultural, and economic systems. She shows that instead of these categories revealing the realities of the cultural encounter they reinforce what we as researchers expect to find and thus reproduce the same levels of description. Her discussion of the complexity of racial inclusion and exclusion in the colony further enhances her own theoretical position of the grey zone in mobilizing theory. Her approach seeks to re-energize theory by reconfiguring the way we approach them: critically.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Osamu Dazai

Though I've admired Japanese cinema for years, I'm a latecomer to Japanese literature. Aside from an abiding interest in haiku, I've only recently begun to scratch the surface of what I'm discovering is an immensely rich and distinguished tradition ("Tale of Genji" is considered by some to be the world's first novel, centuries before Chaucer!).
I've kicked off my exploration with some works by pre-war / post-war author Osamu Dazai, for no other reason than that his titles grabbed me (e.g. "No Longer Human", a better translation being "Disqualified from being human"). This was perhaps an odd place to start, since Dazai's small body of fiction chronicles the decay of traditions and, to be sure, some of the personalities and personality types rooted in those traditions. Nonetheless, Dazai strikes me as someone who had an excellent grasp of and ability to convey the world he was losing; hence the reader is treated to a humane and beautiful treatment of traditional forms in decline. Dazai, who died in 1948, seems to have been decades ahead of his contemporaries in cinema; the dissolution he conveys, and the honesty with which he conveys it, prefigures that of the Japanese new wave.
Dazai's works are intensely personal. He seems to spread himself out over several characters in a given novel, and these are dissolute, desperate people (Dazai committed suicide by drowning at the age of 38, having survived numerous prior attempts). His novels don't make for light reading; the economy by which he conveys his images and thoughts is, however, breathtaking.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Revisiting Monk, Rethinking Césaire

It's January 3rd, and it's also time to break our silence here at the Notes Taken. As many of you have experienced, the winter holidays are a slow time if your calendar is oriented around academia. It's a good time to put off things you don't want to do (like correcting exams), even if it is also necessary to delay starting any new projects.

And regarding books, the calendar new year doesn't mean much. Our new year is much closer to the release of Spring catalogs.

Nevertheless, the start of 2010 will perhaps allow me to revisit a theme that I discussed last year. In October I wrote that
Biographies of musicians, even in jazz, can be a mixed bag. Reviewing for the New York Times, August Kleinzahler writes that Robin D.G. Kelley,
the author of “Race Rebels” and other books, makes use of the “carpet bombing” method in this biography. It is not pretty, or terribly selective, but it is thorough and hugely effective. He knows music, especially Monk’s music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are handled expertly. The familiar episodes of Monk’s career are all well covered.
In retrospect, I should have written that I find both biographies and music journalism a mixed bag, but I chose to point readers toward Kelley's new bio of Monk instead. Kleinzahler, as shown by the choice of the 'carpet bombing' metaphor seems overwhelmed with the material. Fortunately, David Yaffa has reviewed the same book for The Nation, and he pronounces a stronger verdict:
Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive, necessary and, as of now, definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original offers a Baedeker of sorts. Jazz may be filled with fascinating characters, but it has inspired relatively few exemplary full-length biographies. (Among the exceptions are David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; John Chilton's Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz; Linda Kuehl's unfinished With Billie, assembled by Julia Blackburn after Kuehl's death; and John Szwed's So What: The Life of Miles Davis.) Kelley is, in many ways, a rarity. While many music journalists write amateur history, Kelley is an eminent historian at the University of Southern California.
I highly recommend reading Yaffa's review, and the others he has written for The Nation. He's engaging and not afraid to through the reader for a loop or two (see his piece on Ornette Coleman), while striking the often difficult economy of prose required for reviewing books. And I say that in full cognizance that we're running a site on book reviews. I just want to add two things to the section of Yaffa's review that I have quoted:

First, I think the list of exemplary biographies ought to include John Szwed's Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra and Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Szwed does the difficult work of tracking down Sonny Blount's earthly origins, and Porter is unafraid to reproduce sheet music to show the progression of Coltrane's style and technique.

Unlike Coltrane, I think that Sun Ra and his Arkestra remain under appreciated. Sure the cosmic messages and costumes can stretch one's credulity, but Sun Ra is a great and unconventional piano player (or rocksichord player; I'm listening to Night of the Purple Moon right now), while John Gilmore's tenor is both bluesy and out there. In fact, this might be the problem some critics have with Gilmore's playing: there is not a gradual sense of progression (as in Coltrane); Gilmore, from the late fifties onward works simultaneously within a swing/blues style and with squawks, honks, register leaps and the high end of the altissimo range.

Second, when I first read about Kelley, I couldn't figure out why his name sounded familiar. When the department contracted me to teach Great Philosophers, I found out why: I had decided to include Aimé Césaire for a perspective on colonialism, and along the way rediscovered that Kelley wrote the introduction for the English translation of Discourse on Colonialism.

Kelley illuminates the framework in which Césaire wrote, the extent of his influence, and (most importantly for the students of my course) deals with the Discourse's positive references to the Soviet Union. Kelley is not immediately dismissive, which is usually how communism is dealt with these days; he reminds the reader of the hope inspired in the Third World of the 1940s 1950s by the idea of communism/socialism. I find that my students have very little knowledge of the Soviet Union, as many of the first year students were born after 1989, but I suppose that this is better than all the misinformation that I grew up with. Whether Césaire will be jarring for them or not, perhaps he will allow them to see how, far from being a relic of the 20th century, colonialism continues, in a different and less obvious form, in the 21st.