Inarticulacy

Interesting article from Sam Leith, the author of You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, in today’s Guardian on the politics of Trump’s distinctive language. “How does Trump’s language work? On a purely linguistic level, three things seem striking.”

  1. Trump uses a pretty small working vocabulary
  2. His syntax, spelling and punctuation are – in conventional terms – a catastrophe
  3. The workhorses of his rhetoric are charged but empty adjectives and adverbs

These observations seem very close to those of my own. Leith writes: “To many of us, that looks like a failing. But to some, we might have to accept that it’s a selling point: he doesn’t sound like a normal president, and that’s why people like him.” This preference for Trump’s language is interesting because it reflects a particular kind of political aesthetics. Obama’s overcompensating articulacy, which surely helped him win the elections, contrasts sharply with inarticulacy. They seem to be polar opposites.

Leith thinks that the popularity of Trump’s Inarticulacy has to do with an “electorate so used to politicians being equivocal, and so enraged by it, that the bounce Trump gets from not sounding like that is much bigger than the demerit he incurs for being a clouds-of-smoke-billowing-from-his-pants liar.” I am not so sure this is the case as I can’t remember a time when politicians were unequivocal. The distorting or, at best, blurring of truths with fictions has historically been the cornerstone of liberal democracies anywhere. A recent article in Jacobin magazine features a similar critique. Trump’s language should perhaps not be seen so much as an oddity or a rupture, but rather more like a continuation of liberal political language.

I am in disagreement with Leith’s observation because I think that he sounds exactly like a President. The reason is that the language of a President is not a given or historically stable category. To sound “presidential” is not a fixed reality but contingent on the basis of what a President is expected to sound like in order to become and be a President. Remember that before Obama’s election, one had to be white to be President. One of the “problems” haunting  Clinton was that she was considered “female” (ie. not “masculine” enough). Just like race and gender, language is a contingent and political category. It changes with and on the basis of a political context.

Trump’s lack of structured language is the symptom of stupidity. It is a mode of expression that nakedly exposes liberalism’s absolute disdain for truth and reason. It is the celebration of pure stupidity, understood as a categorical refusal to think. It is true that everyone is stupid sometimes, we all sometimes forget to think, but Trump’s language celebrates stupidity as if liberated from the chains of syntax, spelling etc. Trump’s language tests the very boundaries of signifier and signified. It is just as disconnected from reality as his politics are. But this is not to say that Trump is something novel or unique in this regard. Liberal politics is largely premised on stupidity. No thinking person would voluntarily surrender their freedom to an elected official or freely yield their labour to a capitalist. Surrendering to stupidity is key to the workings of liberalism. It would not work without it. Liberalism suspends thinking which is exactly why it is capable of such violence. It “says it as it is”, without trying or pretending to be interested in what the “is” is. Trump’s alienated and alienating language is the outcome, but perhaps not the definite one, of the cultural expression of liberalism.

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Boomerang effect

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, they become indignant.

They say: “How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will pass! And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them

– Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, on the ‘boomerang effect’ [Choc en Retour] of colonialism

The Gas Chamber during Colonialism

For some time already, I have been interested in the invention and concept of the gas chamber. I am particularly troubled by the idea that this was exclusively a German invention. The argument in the conventional academic literature is that the gassing of air unfolded as a result of the thriving of chemical industry in early 20th century Germany. Huge companies such as BASF, Bayer among others took on a large industrial role in the state-led economic development of pre-WWI Germany. Key here, of course, is the tragic figure of Fritz Haber. Haber, who was of Jewish descent, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process and played a pivotal role in the development of chemical warfare.

This mode of narration, although insightful to some degree, misses a more thorough mode of historicization of the development of chemistry in 19th century Europe. Why is this relevant? I deem it relevant for multiple reasons, some of which I am currently working on in several publications. The first and the one I will write about in this post revolves around the use of chemical warfare in Europe’s colonial setting. It is often forgotten, I would argue for convenient political reasons, that European colonizers engaged in atmospheric violence in territories far away from their own soil.

British troops used gassing, for instance, as a means to discipline populations in India and Palestine. Italy’s colonial violence in Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War was especially brutal (see video below). These atrocities were only brought to light in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethiopia had to wait until as late as 1997 for an Italian apology from then-president Scalfaro. I am currently most interested in the experiences of France, which already at the time of the French Revolution entertained the idea of a gaseous cleansing the Vendees region. The Vendees at the time performed as a testing ground for France’s later colonial wars. About a decade or so ago the French Historian Claude Ribbe wrote a book entitled Napoleon’s Crimes: A Blueprint for Hitler (in French less polemical: Le Crime de Napoléon) which posits the controversial argument that gas chambers were used as a means to exterminate the rebellious black slaves from the French colonies of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Ribbe’s conclusion created (and continues to create) a great stir in France’s political establishment and academic circles. The historic claims have been disputed and politicians have been quick to condemn the book’s argument.

I am not interested in scrutinizing the facts of the work as such, and I see no point in comparing one genocide with another. I find myself largely in agreement with the position that there is strong evidence to suggest that such techniques were used. In fact, I feel quite confident that these were not the only gas chamber experiences at the time. The asphyxiation of Algerians in the French-Algerian colonial war is another example of an early gas chamber. This part of history is completely ignored in French history books. The French Governor-General of Algeria at the time [1845] ]argued that the so-called Enfumades, which imposed “cruel extremity”, were necessary to set a “horrifying example” that could “strike terror among these turbulent and fanatical montagnards” (Bugeaud in Brower 2009: 23).

What I find most interesting, or what I would argue is the idea that Germany’s extermination programme finds its roots in the particularities of Europe’s history. This is perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I think that the gas chamber cannot be said to have been an exclusively German experience because that would ignore the wider historical context in which this metaphysical horror could occur. Why is this important? I am not sure yet of all the possible political ramnifications of this reconsideration or re-narration of history. However, considering the backlash that Ribbe’s publication caused, they could potentially be huge. An inconvenient truth seems to be simmering underneath. Everyone familiar with Europe’s post-WII history, its philosophy and current status in the world knows how important the experience of the gas chamber is. One of the possible consequences, one which is certainly significant, but not the whole story, is the possibility of rethinking German guilt and the enabling of a move towards a reflection on Europe’s own implication in the emergence of the industrial extermination camp.

What for me is at stake is less explicitly political. I am interested in the breath. How it is possible that the practice of gassing was regulated in the West (culminating in the Hague treaties of 1899 and 1907) but deployed as a means to discipline and exterminate bodies in the rest of the world? The fact that some breaths are considered to be more worthy of legal protection than others remains a truth accepted by anyone familiar with more contemporary forms of police tactics.

This is Not a Time for Dreaming

Without the [will] of manipulators and audience alike, puppets cannot sustain an illusion of life – Matthew Isaac Cohen, The Art of Puppetry

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The finished product will be ready at all four locations by January 20, the day on which Trump takes the oath of office and is officially sworn in as president

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Sculptors use hundreds of photographs and measurements in order to gain precise dimensions for their likenesses

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[P]uppetry almost inevitably involves more rather than less ego… Rolande Duprey, one of the manipulators of [Pierre Huyghe’s] This is Not a Time for Dreaming, writes… how puppeteers were requested ‘to “rehearse” certain pieces, [but] when the actual filming came about, Pierre would re-direct and re-rehearse us, changing blocking.’ Huyghe stopped the first performance of the piece before a live audience and a film camera for half an hour to work ‘with the soundman to get the sound right. This would never have happened in real theatre,’ recounted Duprey – Matthew Isaac Cohen, The Art of Puppetry

The reversibility of appearance and reality is the only means of artistic access to the real, Pirandello 

Saying it as it is, without saying it

“Next story.
The last story was of the brain. This one is of the brainless.
His name is Ronald Reagon… He was nothing, an idiocy musically coupled with an incoherence. That’s a bit unfair. He was an incipience. He was unqualified and without content… It was on the receiving end that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content.” – Massumi, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II , 1995
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Sur les Toits

I have meant to write about the Sur les Toits special issue I recently edited for some time now. Unfortunately, however, a lack of time prevented me from doing so.

The filmmaker Nicolas Drolc, whom I mentioned in a previous post, was kind enough to join us for a discussion at Warwick last May. He screened and discussed his movie Sur les Toits. The documentary film focuses on the infamous prison protests in Nancy and Toul (northeastern France) in the early 1970s. The collection I edited was published in Antipode. I am very happy with the end result, it is a very creative and well-composed set of papers written by academics from across the humanities and the social sciences. All of the pieces, including an interview with Nicolas, are open-access and available as PDF downloads from the Antipode website.

This symposium contains a rich collection of contributions based on the screening of the French documentary film Sur les Toits (“On the Roofs”). On a Wednesday in May 2016 I invited the film’s independent maker, Nicolas Drolc, and a number of academics from across Warwick’s humanities and social sciences to the screening of the movie. The result was a friendly and productive discussion on an important, but sometimes forgotten, episode in the history of incarceration.

The film can be bought online from Fnac.

Not in Westminster or Brussels, but an alternative politics can be found right here on the streets

I think that the Brexit forces us to locate ourselves geographically. It compels a reflection on the question where and who ‘we’ are spatially. As a holder of a Dutch passport I have been living in Britain for eight years, but I cannot say that I necessary feel loyal to Britain or ‘feel’ British. Neither do I feel committed to the Netherlands. I pay my taxes, help others because I think it is the morally right thing to do, but I care for neither the category of nation nor state. I have lived in affluent bourgeois areas in Britain, where most people voted to remain in the EU, but I found myself more often living in socially marginalised places where many have opted out. The outcome of the vote potentially means that I will have to move away entirely, because I am suddenly said to be out of place. The borders of geography have shifted and I am now officially an outsider. Unfortunately I am not a fan of Europe either and I don’t think it has histrionically been very fond of me. Europe is not the answer I was looking for, not before Brexit and certainly not after it.

A couple of years ago I spent a few weeks obsessively going through the genealogical records of my mother’s family. My objective was to assemble an archive of where she came from. My father had never been very interested in personal histories. His history, he silently accepted, was firmly rooted in the traditions of Western Europe, which meant that questions of identity were fixed and already answered. But for my mother the question of history and belonging was rather different. Her hunger for more history seemed to rest on a yet to be resolved open-endedness of her identity. I wanted to give her something that could help construct meaning by finding traces of the geography of her ancestors.

My mother considers herself to be Jewish and, therefore, different from those who are said to be Dutch or even European. I grew up understanding the relevance of the holocaust for our family. Neither Warsaw nor Kraków but Auschwitz, I learned as a child, was the first place of importance in Poland. The geography of European history taught in my school was different from the geography of Europe I learned at home. Even now I still prefer brown over blond hair and dark over lighter eyes. Half of our family died in Europe for not looking European enough.

I found out that my mother’s ancestors came from Poland and the Ukraine. They had moved from Eastern to Western Europe because of their prosecution in the pogroms. Yes, those places, too, are a part of Europe’s geography. Upon arrival in the ‘real Europe’, they assimilated as best they could: Latinising their names, adopting urbanised culture, secularising their beliefs and even taking on European cultural identities. Europe has always defined itself by what it is not. Becoming European demands a total sacrifice of places past and future. Being European is a standard to aspire to, a standard which many Eastern Europeans know today is difficult to ever achieve. My Polish and Bulgarian friends often remind me how hard it is to become European. No matter how hard they try ‘Eastern’ always comes before ‘European’. Not attainable for the Poles and certainly not for the Nigerian family that lives next door to me or the lady with a headscarf that lives opposite. One of my students wrote her dissertation with the unapologetic hypothesis that Europe has a colour which always sharply contrasts with anything that is black.

Britain’s exit is similarly a practise of bordering. It is not the British passport that constitutes the line that is drawn between the insider and outsider but its location is situated on the outsider’s very face. I am considered by many people as British, or at least close enough to fit that ideal, regardless that my passport says that I am not. I am an unintentional and an ‘unfortunate’ casualty of the attempt to limit the inflow of less British-looking faces than that of my own. I am European but also not really.

In secondary school, I learnt to love the idea of Europe. I lived in at least 5 of its countries and grew up loving its authors, painters, intellectuals and poets. My European passport allowed me to travel widely both inside the EU and outside of it. I speak 4 to 5 different European languages, or at least I like to think I do, and I even look European, white, dark blond with blue eyes, well almost perhaps. I am educated into liking Europe for what it says and promises it is, and, looking at my face you will probably find in me what a European is supposedly to look like.

Staring at my screen and looking at the images of my ancestors, I can say that I reassemble the European aesthetic much closer than they did. But going through my mother’s genealogy, which is also mine, I know full well that Europe is not a place of inclusion. It excludes and does so violently and murderously. I am constantly reminded that the so-called ‘Union’ was built on hundreds of promises of ‘never again’ but its borders break that promise every day and continue to harm and kill in the thousands, no tens of thousands. The Jew of the past is the Muslim and the refugee of today. No matter how hard they try to assimilate, they remain guests, and are forced to accept a liberalism that is not theirs. Guests of the soil they inhabit, their past taken from them, they have to accept the right of others to insult them, to be marginalised economically and feel isolated socially and geographically.

My liberal friends on Facebook seem surprised by the exit that never should have happened. The EU’s hijacking of Greek democracy, its racist decade-long refusal to expand Europe’s borders into Turkey and now the Ukraine, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, which the Union helped create, all is momentarily forgotten and forgiven, because the middle classes have suddenly come to realise that racism does exist on this (other) small island. Even now, they try to whitewash their hands in liberal innocence, forgetting that it is this distance from the dirt of their own making that has helped to feed the racism they now so utterly condemn and despise. Sheltered in their districts of bourgeois affluence and white privilege they complain about the geographical divide that now separates London from Frankfurt. “I voted remain, I am innocent.” Their children robbed from their futures. It is this social disconnect, feeding into a gaping abyss of racism and xenophobia for anyone that does not feel, speak or look British, which now says that so many are no longer welcome. UKIP, the EDL, Britain First, none would have been possible without the social disconnect that liberal capital creates, maintains and is. Smash capital, and smash racism.

“Back to Europe, you go.” While my mother has chosen to assimilate her Jewishness in Europe’s even more violent alter image that is Israel, I increasingly have come to embrace my Jewishness on the basis of what is not European. I prefer the desert’s dusty winds over the static soil of state territory, the dirt of the diverse working classes over the gentrified green lawns of the bourgeoisie, communist chutzpah over liberal moderate mediocrity. It seems time for labour politicians, intellectuals, universities and all institutions historically belonging and associated to the middle classes to close the gap that has led us to this point, and to re-establish a responsibility of proximity and care. Not to escape in the self-indulging innocence that fortress European Union is, but to organise and go out on to the streets to talk, listen, feel and engage with those we have for so long neglected and today condemn. Political solutions neither can be found in Brussels nor Westminster but should be confronted and countered on the very streets the middle classes historically loathe and avoid.