Splinters: July – short essays on the here & now
This month: How far is a social distance? ...
Axioms of choice... ANTI-SONG...
The Part that Has No Part ....
Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit? Part Two
This month's splinters:
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
How far is a social distance?
by Iain Galbraith
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
(Robert Frost, 'Home Burial')
A short while ago we visited some friends for a meal. This was within the rules in Germany. Wary of infection yet desperate for dialogue, we intended to barbecue – until the rain drove us in. There was heightened conviviality after months of isolation. No handshaking or hugs, to be sure, but once we got going the 1.5 metre rule flew out of the window, leaving any aerosols behind it.
Meanwhile in town it seemed nothing had ever been amiss. Barely a mask in sight, congregations of laughing youngsters, groups of men smoking, queues outside the ice-cream parlours. They must have heard the good tidings: "From the summer, a gradual recovery should get going, making for 4.9% growth in 2021", the German Council of Economic Experts, also known as the "Five Sages", had announced. Does the coronavirus listen much to sages? “The virus is still in our country", says Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, "and if we give it a chance to spread, it will take it”. Yesterday the German R-rate rose to 2.88. This morning a regional lockdown was re-imposed in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, whose premier, Armin Laschet, has been among the more voluble accelerators of a "return to normality". He wants to succeed Mrs Merkel at the CDU party conference in December.
By December, according to UNICEF, the effects of coronavirus could force another 100 million children in South Asia into poverty. There is relief as we make our way "back to life" (Robert Frost) – but an uncanny sense of obscenity too. The loved ones of some 470,000 victims of the pandemic are in mourning. With so much grief, what space for joy? But was it not ever thus? Or when did the bad old days end? And what of the much-invoked "return to normality"? How do we get there? Is it in the past or future, and how far away?
I decided to consult a map. A friend had phoned and suggested a walk in the forest. After treatment for cancer during the corona crisis he is now in remission, savouring the joys of survival. The map showed me that the road he had proposed cut out of town and swept along the edge of the woods in a series of deepening loops. Among the trees I saw footpaths but, curiously, no breach between road and forest. The mapped loops were like jostling bubbles, or clusters of cells pressing on an organ, or a representation of time in which the insistent past makes inroads into the present, its palpable pressure contained only by a thin membrane. The unity of time, place and social relations is more complex than Special Relativity. An image, a sound, a word, apparently arbitrary, may trigger the involuntary piercing of a membrane that separates us from otherwise remote events.
"Social distancing" for example (since 24 March the WHO has asked us to call the distance "physical"), may return us to various forms of segregative "normality" we have known. Set the clocks to 1960. I remember three separate Churches for the 700 souls in our village. On my first day at primary school I was asked if I supported Rangers or Celtic. Innocent of the consequences, I asked my father. He said Rangers was the correct answer; though unreligious himself, he knew his place was on the Presbyterian side of the West of Scotland sectarian abyss. Catholics and Irish were out of bounds. "Tinkers" (travellers or gypsies) were objects of abuse and, not infrequently, violence. I remember a loved person telling me to take a coin out of my mouth because a "black man" could have touched it. Of course these sectarian and racist chasms were buttressed by conventional class and sexual distancing (the pill had not yet arrived). Children were quite a different species from adults, and women from men. The picture emerges of a kind of karstic social landscape, riven by fissures and sinkholes. Social distancing was rife in 1960. This was normality, therefore largely unaddressed.
It is difficult to describe the widespread sadness reported by people in various kinds of social confinement today. We might however consider it as the result of disrelation under conditions of segregation. Allow me to cite two witnesses with experience of the West of Scotland "karst". According to R.D. Laing, whose major work The Divided Self was published in the year I entered primary school, “What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.” The philosopher John Macmurray, who published Persons in Relation a year later in 1961, also described a probable cause of confinement sadness. "The personal", he writes, "is constituted by personal relatedness. The unit of the personal is not the "I", but the 'You and I'". The isolated, segregated, or otherwise non-relating personality is therefore a painfully divided and diminished entity.
If we must "return to normality", let us walk in relation. Multi-insular virtual contact has nothing on responsible personal community.
Axioms of choice
by Christos Tombras
The headlines did not conceal the excitement of the journalists. There were 53 excess events observed in the XENON1T Dark Matter Experiment. They were unexplained and additional to the 232 anticipated by the theory. They could prove the existence of axions, hypothetical solar particles resembling photons, and also provide evidence for the existence of the elusive dark matter. They could indicate that there is a whole world, above and beyond the one described by the so-called standard model of particle physics – hence the excitement.
Axions were first hypothesised in the 70s, in an attempt to clear up some problems involving axial quantum symmetry anomalies. Their name evokes axioms – fundamental statements, or propositions, in mathematics and logic – but in reality they were named after Axion, a then famous brand of laundry detergent.
For some philosophers of science, falsifiability is the fundamental feature of any scientific endeavour. Karl Popper considered this to be the criterion that would demarcate science from pseudo-science. His critique of psychoanalysis (and Marxism) was famous in this respect. The claims of psychoanalytic theory, he argued, cannot be properly tested because the theory is equipped with all necessary conceptual tools to turn everything to its opposite – if needed. Psychoanalysis is a belief system, he concluded, that is, non-scientific.
Addressing such criticisms, Freud countered that psychoanalytic hypotheses are tested all the time in the clinic, by competent practitioners. Still, Popper was not convinced. Clinical observations are not concrete facts, he said, they are “interpretations in the light of theories […] and for this reason they are apt to support those theories in the light of which they were interpreted.”
That is, this is all circular.
Scientists hope now to be able to comb through the mass of collected data and weed out possible sources of error. There are three possible explanations of the unexpected 53 detections at XENON1T. It might have been a case of contamination of the experimental setting; of some yet unaccounted feature of current theories; or indeed of an indication that axions do exist. There are now three possible ways forward: to ignore the data and start anew; to adjust current theories; or to bring in a general overhaul of the standard model of particle physics. The debate has just begun.
In contrast to axions, which are hypothetical and have yet to be proven, axioms do not need a proof at all. They are true by definition. Or, better, you assert they are true. And that’s it. But axioms are not cast in stone. You can pick and choose. As soon as you have finalised your choice, this has consequences, results. Different axioms lead to different results. It’s the results that indicate whether your choice has been a successful one or not.
Axioms form the bedrock on which conceptual and theoretical structures of mathematics and logic are built. As such they are not falsifiable. They are prior to any methodology of falsifiability.
What do data show? Do they represent facts? Do we ever have access to facts? Is it ever possible to see things as they really are? The answer might seem obvious. We only need to keep our eyes open and our minds free from biases.
But is that indeed so? What are facts if we consider them outside some framework of understanding? Take the 53 excess events. Are they facts? In what sense? Or perhaps the raw data collected by the detector. Do they represent facts? Can they say anything to anyone who does not have a competent working knowledge of the experimental design and its underlying theoretic assumptions?
Assuming that Popper was correct in his response to Freud, i.e. that clinical observations cannot constitute evidence because they are interpretations in light of theories, then what can we say in the case of the experimental design that allowed the detection of 53 excess events? Are they not interpretations in light of theories? Are they not, as such, apt to support the theories in light of which they were interpreted?
It would appear that the general interpretative framework of the standard model of quantum physics is not falsifiable as per Popper. Or, perhaps, it is the case that Popper’s criterion of falsifiability needs to be a little refined.
“I was reading your piece regarding conspiracy theorists”, my friend GG said the other day, “and I have a problem.”
“You claim that what motivates conspiracy theorists is a ‘need to keep a check on fear and despair’. That’s fine with me. But then you add, ‘Perhaps not only them’. Not only them? Then you can only mean ‘us’. Is this not opening the doors to alternative facts and a dangerous relativism? I am not happy with that.”
Admittedly I am not happy with that either. It feels wrong and counterintuitive. But a response is not so easy. Indeed it is impossible unless we decide to look a bit more closely at the one thing that is missing from the discussion. It’s missing because it is taken as self-evident.
I am referring to truth.
We need to look at truth a bit more closely.
by Leonie Rushforth
The sky delivered a bewildering blue
day after day. The blossom frothed too soon.
We woke in the small hours – startled –
as if we’d dreamed we were lying in crosshairs,
as if now nothing could be taken as read.
Overnight the old had vanished,
the furniture of home been rearranged.
Predators sold off their holdings in airlines.
Biopharmaceuticals with beautiful names
made landfall. Only the early birds
cottoned on to the cashing out, the cashing in.
From inside our structures of feeling
we listened to neighbours, the sirens,
the squeal of a gate, the binmen working
their way down the street, the empty playground.
We learned to re-learn minutes and distances.
There grew an unspoken understanding
that we were losing more than we could see
going. Then from our seats in the theatre
of numbers, we watched the tragic drama
of eugenics play out in graphs. Confusions
were seeded, privacies filched. Exhaustion
settled like dust on the kind. We noticed
the encouragements to dislike China
become more cheerfully insistent.
The swifts screamed in. New leaves fluttered
in the only crowds. The first rose was ahead
of itself but we the people lagged behind
while the frail died in thousands. People wed
to the idea they could still take advantage
of the passing hours to better themselves
merely followed the lead of their leaders,
whose barefaced intent was to steal a march.
All that was metaphor returned to the body.
Permissions were given. Parties broke out.
The street found itself applauding the dead.
Then the costs were too great to be counted.
Steadfast gatherers of facts lost their minds,
scientists the prize of their innocence;
the troubled exchanged their messages like birds,
at dawn. We flocked to the sea. Impunity smirked
at the podium, on the record, in uniform,
on camera, in front of the skull and crossed bones.
News of the decomps was allowed to seep out.
The borders were closed to shore up the fears.
Payrolls were purged, bullies fully insured.
We reeled through June. The roses exploded.
The Part that Has No Part
by Samir Gandesha
Widely regarded as the first film made in Black Africa, Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) by Ousmane Sembène provides an immediate glimpse of post-colonial reality. Made in 1963 on Sembène’s return from the Gorkii Studios in Moscow, it portrays one day in the life of a cart driver in Dakar, Senegal. Its formal minimalism enables Borom Sarret to reveal several layers of complexity.
In approximately only 18 minutes it discloses the structural violence, established and consolidated through colonial class and gender relationships that live on, uncannily, in the post-independence period. It is a vivid and crystalline cinematic depiction of what, just two years earlier in Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon had called the “pitfalls of national consciousness” – the way in which such an imaginary serves to mask the real, ruthlessly exploitative relationships among the citizens of newly “liberated” states. It casts doubt on the now ubiquitous idea, at least in the global north, that the abstraction of racial identification alone could ever be the organizing principle of solidarity and therefore politics.
We follow the driver, whose interior monologue is delivered by Sembène himself, while he transports a series of passengers and materials to their various destinations. The cart driver considers the exertions of an unemployed man futile and irritating; he is even less sympathetic to a severely crippled yet reasonably affable beggar whose request for money he ignores: “there are so many of them, they are like flies.” Yet, the driver is more than happy to pay the well-fed and well-dressed griot or folk singer, who builds up the driver’s ego ideal by his ingratiating and obsequious praise of the warrior-identity of his ancestors.
Then there’s the solemn father whom the driver transports with the corpse of his infant child to the cemetery only to be turned away because his papers are not in order; he, we learn, is a “foreigner.” The artificial borders of the “nation-state” constructed ex nihilo by the colonial powers continue to enact their violence, unremittingly, on the most vulnerable. The driver carefully places the corpse of the child on the ground and drives away, leaving the bereft father to suffer alone.
The narrative begins to tighten with the approach of a well-dressed and apparently wealthy African man who wishes to be taken to the formerly French quarter of Dakar – the Plateau; here, cart drivers require special permits. The man is moving to the Plateau, he tells the driver. The camera pans in the direction of the former European quarter to reveal a shockingly different cityscape. As the soundtrack shifts from the syncopated rhythms and xalam (lute) of traditional Senegalese music to eighteenth century European classical music, sand and rock give way to paved streets, the horse-drawn carts to orderly modern automobile traffic. In a few short miles, we traverse centuries.
As soon as the driver nervously enters the Plateau, he is confronted by a scowling police officer who promptly issues him a fine, confiscating his cart. Writing out the ticket, the officer steps on the wagoner’s medal, most likely for the driver’s service in the French army. Meanwhile, the wealthy passenger absconds in an awaiting car. In this single gesture, racial solidarity is revealed for the myth that it is. The police are there to protect the wealthy Blacks from poor Blacks, whose labour power is nonetheless required for the production of wealth; the inclusion of the worker is premised on their spatial exclusion. They are what Jacques Rancière calls “the part that has no part.”
The driver returns home with his horse, devastated and bewildered. His wife rises, hands him their infant child to look after, promises they will have food that evening and leaves. According to Manthia Diawara, the Director of NYU’s Institute of Afro-American Affairs, the common interpretation – consistent with themes in Sembène’s other films – is that she is off to participate in sex work, here accepted as a legitimate form of labour; sex workers were proletarians to be neither stigmatized nor condemned, as they were, of course, by the imams.
Today, in the global uprising amidst the Covid19 pandemic against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous state violence and the related re-emergence of fascism, Borom Sarrett can be seen, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, to be blasted out of the continuum of history and shot through with “now time” (Jetztzeit) in at least three ways.
First, as I have recently argued in my book Spectres of Fascism (Pluto, 2020), the return of fascism provokes a reconsideration of Aimé Césaire’s theory of endocolonialism – fascism as the application of techniques of domination perfected in Europe’s African and Asian colonies to the European context itself.
Second, at the same time, however, the brutalities of policing cannot be reduced to “White supremacy” alone, but must also be situated in class and gender relationships. The role of the police is to protect private property, which is to say the separation between the worker and the means of production. Separation from the means of production is the condition for the possibility of exploitation, as workers must sell a labour power rendered abstract, temporally quantifiable and measurable. Borom Sarrett’s wagoner is literally deprived of his own means of production at the moment that his cart is confiscated. The abstract violence of this gesture forces his wife – both means of production and worker in one – into the sex industry in order to engage in socially reproductive labour.
Third, the police maintain the specifically spatial separation common to virtually all African cities, between the natives’ quarters or the “Medina,” on the one hand, and the settlers’ quarters of the "Plateau,” on the other, taken over, as Sembène shows us, by the post-colonial African bourgeoisie.
Today, in the West, but especially in North America, we see the intimate ties between fascism and an increasingly militarized police apparatus. We see the brutal over-policing of Black people in US and Canadian inner cities and Indigenous peoples in their own territories, in particular. What Fanon calls the “well-built town” of the settler anticipates the White “gated community” fortified by increasingly privatized and militarized police forces which function, for all intents and purposes, like armies of occupation in the precincts of the poor and indigent. A society of separation; a society of the post-colonial spectacle.
Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit? Part Two
by Rosemary Bechler
“Our great grand-children, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory
out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.”
J.B.Priestley. ‘Postscript’ to the BBC news. June 5, 1940.
Another way of posing this question is to ask: where have all the Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsays gone? – the mastermind who pulled together the massive fleet of over 800 disparate vessels which during nine days ultimately saved 338,226 men from certain annihilation. That, of course, immediately brings you up short at the uniqueness of “one of the finest naval officers of the twentieth century” as First Sea Lord Sir Michael Boyce hailed him, along with the little mystery, frequently raised in modern accounts, of “why Ramsay has not received the public recognition he deserves.”
Delving further, these two points appear intimately connected. In 1935, after only four months, Ramsay had shocked his superiors by asking to be relieved of his duties as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, whom he privately likened to Mussolini, when they fell out over how the fleet should be administered. Backhouse firmly believed in centralised control: Ramsay advocated for delegation and decentralization to better allow commanders to act at sea. But the very qualities which nearly torpedoed his promising Navy career, putting him on the Retired List by 1938 – “the stubborn self-assurance that he was always right, the impulse to circumvent authority and take the initiative” as Patrick J. Kiger describes him – made him a perfect fit for Dunkirk. He had sought Churchill’s help for reinstatement without success in 1937, but as war loomed in August 1939, Churchill appointed this by now “lesser luminary of the naval establishment” flag officer-in-charge, to shape up long-neglected naval operations at the British port of Dover.
According to Kiger, on May 19, 1940, a British government haunted by Gallipoli still regarded evacuation from the French coast across the English Channel as unthinkable. They “put some additional staff and 36 vessels, including civilian Channel ferries, at Ramsay’s disposal. That was all.” By May 22, the rapidly upgraded plan of the unthinkable drawn up by the War Office went up in smoke when Boulogne and Calais came under attack. Dunkirk was the only option left. Still, Ramsay was informed, they would delay the decision on evacuation for another two days. Having accepted a catastrophic loss of most of their army, the top brass in London now wondered if 45,000 men could be saved. Churchill was braced for “a colossal military disaster”.
Luckily, from May 20, Ramsay and his team had been doing what he did best: creating his own meticulous plan with the improvisational skill to alter it in real time, working the phones relentlessly, ignoring bureaucratic channels and slashing red tape. Four hours before he was finally given the official ‘go ahead’ on May 26, he “quietly started sending out the ferries from Dover and the small boats from Ramsgate Harbour, about 20 miles north, so that they wouldn’t get stuck in a cluster off the coast and become sitting ducks for German dive-bombers.” On May 29 alone, Ramsay rescued 47,310 soldiers, more than the War Office had envisioned for the entire evacuation. Even he thought the result was “beyond belief.” It enabled Churchill in his famous June 4 speech to claim that this retreat was the opposite of a capitulation, evidence of a national and imperial resolve that merited American support. No wonder he described it as a “miracle of deliverance.”
Churchill heaped praise on Navy and Merchant Navy command, and the industrial effort of the seven-day working week. Warming to his militaristic theme, he also warned the country that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." There was no mention of the role of the civilian ‘small boats’ that ferried soldiers from the beaches to the deeper waters where larger ships waited for them. No acknowledgement that ‘Dunkirk spirit’ to this day marks the divide between the Phoney war and the “People’s war”, thanks to Ramsay’s ingenuity in unleashing a fantastic response from British people determined to save lives. That task was left to J.B. Priestley on June 5.
This is where my old school friend, Penelope Summerfield takes up the story in her fascinating account of 'Dunkirk and the Popular Memory of Britain at War, 1940 – 58', to be visited in Part 3. And what is most fascinating about it is that from the beginning to the end of the contestation over the meaning of ’Dunkirk Spirit’, a contestation that arguably has not ended yet, the real row is over the role of the British people, class collaboration and people power.
Get our weekly email