Splinters: February 2021 – short essays on the here & now
This month: February....
Reinhard's Tale: in search of an absent tense...
SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES...
Kamala, Angela, and failed revolution.
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
by Christos Tombras
It’s already February. Eleven months into this pandemic that is gradually transforming our lives into a less and less recognisable video conference-call / reality show.
“Look at this”, my friend Patrick says. He is reading an old issue of The Atlantic, a true hardcopy one, made out of ink and paper. He found it buried underneath piles of other, more recent (and perhaps more relevant) printed material: newspapers, mail order catalogues, HMRC notifications, sundry bills, half-read books, magazines. “It’s about Reiki”, he says, talking to no-one in particular. “You know what Reiki is, right? That energy hocus pocus blah blah blah they do with their hands to heal you. It doesn’t work, it says. And yet it does. Or so it seems, anyway. Placebo or something. Here!”
He hands me the magazine.
It’s already February. In a few days, Trump’s second impeachment Senate trial will begin.
At the moment of this writing, the gesture to have Trump impeached for a second time is predicted to be of little or no real consequence. There simply aren’t enough Republican Senators willing to muster whatever is left of their conscience and vote to indict Trump. The trial carries, of course, a huge symbolic weight, and as such seems to be well worth the effort. Or so everybody says. Well not everybody, but you get the point.
I was writing last time about the hope and promise of modernity, the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect qua objective observer in the world. The basic premise of this promise was the recognition that if we are to study and understand the world, we need to leave all subjective biases behind. This was a suggestion, but then became a rule, an imperative.
Predictably, a war ensued, a true war, whereby the forces of objectivity and rationality were fighting against what was seen as the forces of subjectivity, mysticism, fear. What began as a research methodology became an ideology. The world of reason against the bleeding hearts and artists. A moral choice. An ultimatum of sorts.
There are no subjects. Only objects. Reject all subjective particulars in the name of the objective universal, or else!
The ultimatum of modernity.
Examples abound. Think of the laws of history. They can describe, presumably, the fates of all humanity, they can explain who did what, when, and why; and also, crucially, they can tell us where this all is going: to Socialism perhaps; or, instead, to the end of history. Wherever it might be going, one thing is clear. In the grand design of the future your own subjective suffering is an aberration, an unimportant, or irrelevant detail at best. Some of us will be the unlucky ones, yes, but in the big picture it doesn’t matter. A starving family in Ukraine in the 30s? Forget it. A middle-aged traditional school teacher beaten to death on the high street during the Cultural Revolution? Big deal.
It works the other way round too. Even when society and economy are seen as far too complex to be organised successfully and the grand designs are forgotten or rejected, the neoliberal promise of effortless prosperity brought about by the self-regulating forces of the marketplace has the exact same effect, the neglect of all particulars in view of the unavoidability of the universal. It’s the same paradigm.
One does not need to look far in order to find examples. Thinking about the poor, neglected child looking forward to become a bit older in order to join a gang? Just an unlucky lad. Or the overworked van driver working long hours in the distant hope that he might be able to pay off his shark loans and start his own van business? He didn’t like school when he should, you see. And what about the young female actor enduring all kinds of humiliation and sexual advances hoping to break big? Vanity, what can you do?
As M. Thatcher aptly put it, there is no such thing as society.
No wonder, then, that people become alienated and fearful. They see an iceberg and they turn against it. They can only see the tip, of course, but they don’t care. It’s enough that they see something. They don’t see paradigms or ideologies. They only see the ultimatum. Or rather, sense it. They see “experts” and their scientific arrogance; they see elites and their inhuman machinations; they see world-wide machinations and their ruthlessness; and so on and so forth. Immersed as they are, they too, in the all-pervasive paradigm of modernity, some of those people decide to hold on to each other, become emboldened by their own attempts at universal truth, and start building their own conspiracy theory Titanics, in the hope that they can now avoid the iceberg, now that they have seen it.
They cannot avoid it.
As the poet says, Everybody knows that the Plague is coming, everybody knows that it's moving fast. Everybody knows, that’s how it goes.
I read this article about Reiki after all. It was actually quite interesting. I am not converted to Reiki or anything, but I did like the ending. “Every once in a while,” the person who wrote it says, “friends will hear that I’m Reiki-trained and ask whether I’ll ‘do it’ on them. They usually ask whether it’s real, and I say I don’t know, but that at a minimum, I’ll have spent some time quietly and gently focusing on the idea of them being well. They usually answer that this sounds good.”
Placebo, no doubt, as Patrick said. But at least the subject is back. As a subject, not as an object. To me too, that sounds like a good starting point.
Reinhard's Tale: in search of an absent tense
by Iain Galbraith
One morning towards the end of last April I awoke to the sound of an absence. In fact it was noise from the street I heard. This was the end of the first lockdown (some hoped of the pandemic). However, the cars and drills, loud as they were, themselves constituted a palpable absence: that of auditory sensations experienced since the departure of similar street noises weeks earlier. And now this interim absence of noise, or presence of other sounds, was itself absent. What I was missing was the quiet allowed by the grounding of fleets of aircraft and overnight disappearance of other automated means of travel and transportation.
Into another lockdown, I hear that double absence outside my window again: absence of noise (not entirely convincing today), and absence of the noiselessness which that noise replaced. But how much of this complicated scenario is actually outside rather than 'inside'. The absence of noise and silence is a product of experience: an absence of sensations we have known and now remember. "What we have no access to through experience," wrote Nietzsche, "we have no ear for".
I sometimes think English grammar lacks the facility to accommodate satisfactorily these quasi-paradoxical spatial and temporal relations. Perhaps another language has more subtle arrangements for describing phenomena whose complexities might warrant the use not only of the present, but also of an absent tense. Some absences may not seem substantial enough to require much more than the mere negation of 'be', but the absences I am referring to are essential. We know the absence of noise under lockdown to be the sound of persons supporting life, in their own interest, but reciprocally to protect others. As such, it is a profound and substantial silence we mean: the sound of an empathy, a democratic consensus, a solidarity. Absence of the living we experience as loss and personal diminution, yet the absence of jet engines is hardly a deathly hush. In fact we might hope – desiring survival of life on this planet – that some absences audible to us now (that of heavy traffic) anticipate future human life.
Thinking of how our minds and languages represent relations between past, presence and absence, and of how our understanding of these may alter our view of future outcomes, I am reminded of an episode (entitled 'The End of the Future') in the second 'book' of Edgar Reitz's film series Heimat, a fifty-nine-and-a-half-hour epic of German life between 1848 and 2000 (and my Corona-lockdown, box-set project). Previous episodes, set in Munich in the early 1960s, had seen a group of students and musicians gather night after night in a villa owned by a woman whose father, a wealthy publisher, had cheated a Jewish friend and colleague out of his property during the Nazi era. The childlike daughter, professing ignorance of her father's ill-gotten gains, runs an 'open house' for these young bohemians: an attempt to shore up her selective memories of an untainted, pre-war family life. For the students, many from provincial homes, the big-city villa becomes a site of friendship, love, music and all-night discussions.
One alumnus of this institution, Reinhard, an aspiring film-maker, returns from a year-long trip to South America to find the villa gone: razed in a welter of speculation and fraud. All that remains of his 'second home' is a large hole and pile of rubble. Overwhelmed by loss Reinhard attempts, and fails, to film this absence: the hole in the air where the villa once stood – haunted, he imagines, by the spirit of the place. Later, after an affair with Esther, the granddaughter of the cheated Jewish previous owner of the villa, Reinhard himself disappears, apparently forever. We hear the lapping of small waves on the shore: in one moment we see him bobbing gently in a boat on the Bavarian Ammersee, in the next he is gone. In the bottom of the boat lies a discarded film script entitled Esther, in which he had intended to reveal the fraud and treachery of the older generation, but in which, so Esther tells him, he has falsified her life to suit his own ambitions. He is told, not only by Esther, that he is a fake, believes he has no talent, and finds no way out.
But is his apparent drowning in fact a perfect work of art? The incorporeal incorporation of a mood he sought to represent, the 'absent tense' itself? At any rate, his body is never found. Standing in the hole where the villa once stood, the composer Hermann, one of the main characters in this series, exclaims to his grieving friends: "Why behave as if all is lost? Nothing is lost if you only open your eyes and ears." Hermann emerges from past disasters to reinvent himself. Reinhard, it seems, attempting to capture loss in a box, has drowned in despair.
SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES
by Leonie Rushforth
The Mayor of London’s surprise drone and firework display on New Year’s Eve featured the image of a muted microphone, familiar to users of video conferencing services as a tiny icon at the bottom of a computer screen. It appeared in gigantic form above the deserted O2 Arena, along with words many Londoners will have recognized: You’re on mute! – the shout out to someone starting to speak on a call without un-muting their microphone.
If it was intended to be a shared joke about life under lockdown, it wasn’t one designed for key workers who have not been working remotely – nor it seems for anyone watching south of the river Thames. In the context of the more far-reaching effects of the pandemic, it was actually a perturbing reminder of the ways in which we have all been silenced.
The display hovered and sparkled over hospitals experiencing the beginning of the terrible second wave of the pandemic, hospitals staffed by doctors and nurses under injunction not to speak to reporters or on social media about what was unfolding in the wards.
As the second wave broke over London and rapidly moved outwards into other regions, health workers, pushed beyond endurance, began to defy the ban and to speak out as individuals or through groups like the Doctors’ Association UK and EveryDoctor. These accounts began to pick up more followers and to connect NHS frontline staff directly with the public.
One almost immediate effect of this kind of information circulating more freely was to put much greater pressure on the BBC and other MSM to report more accurately on what was/is happening and to begin to challenge official government press accounts. As a result the sane voices of Independent SAGE – the group of scientists, public health experts, behavioural scientists and statisticians that has been broadcasting COVID analysis and advice on YouTube weekly since May 2020 – finally broke through to the MSM in January 2021.
Then teachers found their collective voice – tested to the limit by government incompetence and dishonesty through three gruelling school terms and finding themselves about to be offered up as the next group of sacrificial heroes. An online meeting called by the National Education Union to discuss the chaotic situation facing schools at the beginning of January, was watched live online by an unprecedented 400,000 people.
British Gas workers, on strike against the imposition of new work contracts enforcing longer hours and with no increase in pay, have been making short films of their individual protests, involving their families and their British Gas vans, and then releasing them to growing audiences on social media.
In an ostensible response to the UK reaching an official count of 100,000 Covid deaths, the Prime Minister adopted a tone of contrition at a 10 Downing Street press briefing and aired a new sensitivity to the grief so many people have experienced. He apologised. It was a well-timed piece of theatre. The following day’s headline pictures of Johnson’s head bowed in what he likes to refer to as sorrow will perhaps stand in for the expression of collective grief for a while, for some, but the same voice can still be heard online advocating the herd immunity strategy that led directly to so many deaths. Johnson’s chummy words urged people to just take it on the chin.
Closer to home, and when it’s not raining, my neighbours have been gathering in a small group in the afternoons since the summer. They stand well apart with cups of tea to talk. Their voices make the constantly shifting kaleidoscopic pattern that is conversation. It carries all experience and in these winter months is visible on the air.
Kamala, Angela, and failed revolution
by Samir Gandesha
Over several years now, ghosts of fascism have escaped their twentieth century crypts and come to haunt our present. With the global Covid-19 pandemic, however, we face the prospect of our “Reichstag Fire” moment. This was an arson attack on the German legislature exactly four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor that the Nazi’s immediately claimed was the result of a communist plot. It became the pretext for their seizure of power (Machtergreifung) and total co-ordination of the state (Gleichschaltung).
As noted recently by the Economist, close to a dozen states from Azerbaijan to Togo have already used the pandemic to arrogate more power to themselves. Indeed, this development has been particularly visible in Washington, Budapest, and Delhi. If the pandemic could be seen as our Reichstag Fire moment, then the attacks on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 might be regarded as Kristallnacht, portending the catastrophic violence to come.
Nevertheless, as I argue in the Introduction to my book Spectres of Fascism (Pluto, 2020), one must always be careful when using the word “fascism.” The term is often used so indiscriminately – especially on the Left – to vilify one’s political opponents, that it is in continual danger of losing all meaning. In what sense, then, can we say that what we are witnessing throughout the globe is the re-emergence of fascism?
Writing in the pages of the New Left Review three years ago, Dylan Riley (2018) argued trenchantly that if we compare twentieth century fascism with contemporary authoritarians such as Trump across four axes: geo-political dynamics; the relation between class and nation; developments within civil society; and political parties – there is no persuasive evidence that what we are confronted with today is anything approaching fascism. Indeed, according to Slavoj Žižek’s influential gloss on Walter Benjamin, the authoritarianism that we see around us today does not arise in response to what could be called a “failed revolution.” Of course, there were the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, but these did not come remotely close to challenging the domination of capital.
Perhaps the one image of failed revolution that might portend fascism is precisely that which is taken to signify its apparent defeat. This is the inauguration of Ms. Kamala Harris as Joseph Robinette Biden’s Vice-President. But surely, liberals will retort, such a claim is at best far-fetched, at worst preposterous and not a little dangerous. How could the first Vice-President of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth (at least for now), the daughter of an Indian woman, Shyamalan Gopalan and a black Jamaican man, Donald Harris, possibly represent continuity rather than a clear break with the Trump administration?
Well, ghosts and spectres, as Freud has shown, are a species of the uncanny or das Unheimlich which signifies that which is both strange and all-too familiar. The uncanny is also the preserve of the figure of the double.
Kamala Harris – the former San Francisco prosecutor and California Attorney General who infamously could scarcely contain her glee as she announced her intention of jailing parents for the truancy of their children – has a rather striking double. More than her highly contested claim to progressive credentials, the key thing about Harris’s past, as Briahna Gray, writing in The Intercept, points out, is that:
“To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system. As Paul Butler, former prosecutor and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, told the Guardian, ‘as a lawyer who went to law school with a goal of helping black people and using my legal skills to make things better, the realization that the law itself was a mechanism to keep African-American people down was frightening.’ ”
Harris’s double, then, is none other than Angela Davis, a woman whom the US government sought to convict on three capital felony charges over the infamous Marin County insurrection, which is the topic of Shola Lynch’s brilliant 2012 film Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. Had she been convicted, Davis would have been executed. A former longstanding member of the US Communist Party, Davis has since devoted the greater part of her life to what has become one of the most pressing questions in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement: abolishing what she has called the “prison-industrial complex.” Kamala Harris’s own radical parents were part of the legendary Berkeley reading group on the Black Radical tradition out of which the Black Panthers were formed in the early 1960s at a time when global revolution was very much on the agenda. As Princeton historian Donna Murch reminds us in her book, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI at the time, called the Panthers the single greatest threat to the US state and set about murderously eradicating its leadership.
The radical potential of what the Combahee River Collective famously called “identity politics,” in which the valence of class, race, gender, sexuality and other aspects of identity coalesced in a genuine challenge to the structure of US racial capital, has now become transformed, as commentators such as Adolph Reed Jr. and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have pointed out, into a project to place “Black faces in high places”. Fully incorporated and neutralized, it has become little more than a neoliberal career strategy for the managerial class.
Therefore, if the Biden Administration lacks an ambitious agenda of re-distributing power, wealth and opportunities, the anger and frustration that has been building over the past four decades, immeasurably bolstered by the intersection of the effects of the attacks of 911 and the financial crisis of 2007-09 – a glimpse of which we witnessed on January 6 – will be truly cataclysmic.
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