Splinters: June 2021 – sallies into the here & now
This month: Covid-19 and the question of freedom...
Street Opera III: Interiors, sponges on the slope...
We’ve just won a three-year transparency battle against Michael Gove’s department.
Can you help us keep fighting government secrecy?
Covid-19 and the question of freedom
by Samir Gandesha
While the Corona virus pandemic is and has been catastrophic in ways that we have yet to even begin to come to terms with – and indeed may yet never fully come to terms with – it reveals some important and surprising truths about our shared world.
For example, it shows the way in which neo-liberal capitalism is riddled with myriad “pre-existing conditions” (I thank Derrick O’Keefe for this formulation), conditions that, were society to be understood as an individual seeking new private coverage from a health insurance company – without question, she would be denied coverage.
The pandemic shows us, as well, that what we may think of as individual freedoms are closely bound up with the larger context of social relationships and institutions that make them possible.
Observing public health protocols, for example, might at first appear to be an irritating, frustrating, even unbearable, limitation to a range of freedoms we previously took for granted.
We may start out, therefore, by thinking that public health protocols pit our individual rights against society as a whole. We are free, according to this logic, in exact proportion to the absence of such regulations.
This was the justification for neo-liberalism and, further, Margaret Thatcher’s outrageous claim that “society does not exist.” Her point was that forms of mutual obligation over and beyond market relations simply could be disregarded – the notable exceptions, of course, being family and church.
Thatcher’s claim was what moral philosophers refer to as an ought dressed up as an is; an imperative masquerading as a declarative. Insofar as it constituted unnecessary, irrational friction for the smooth operation of market transactions, society ought not to exist.
The only obligation we owe one another is to make good on our contracts. In other words, our relations with others were to be understood as entirely transactional and hence an exact inversion of the Kantian precept that we ought to treat others always as ends and never as means. The freer we are to engage in such transactions the freer we are as such.
Such freedom is understood as part of a zero-sum game. Just as in the relation between two firms vying for the same market share, assuming if we can the absence of collusion, the benefit of Firm A is in exact proportion to the cost of Firm B. Similarly, individual agents are construed as so many firms in ferocious competition with one another; your loss is my gain and my loss is your gain. There are, in other words, clear “winners” and “losers.”
This is precisely why demagogues such as Donald Trump are so uniquely suited to our neo-liberal moment: they cannily attract socio-economic “losers” who imagine themselves as “winners” by identifying with figures like him who are able to deceitfully project victory. As President 45 exclaimed in a 2016 speech in Albany: “We’re going to win so much you may even get tired of winning!”
Safety and freedom
If we think it through more carefully, however, it becomes clear that, in following public health protocols, we care not only for other members of society, but we also care for ourselves. By adhering to these admittedly difficult measures we contribute not only to keeping others safe but also, in doing so, we keep ourselves safe.
To be clear: the protocols intended to protect others, also protect ourselves. Other-regarding actions are also at the same time self-regarding ones. The game is, in other words, not zero-sum at all.
Safety is a condition for the possibility of freedom. Not its limitation.
In following public health protocols, we not only help to bring down the numbers of fatalities but also those of critical cases. With the reduction of the numbers of both, we reduce the burden and stress on healthcare facilities. If such an objective were not urgent enough, we might also cast our minds in the direction of the very probable scenario of the consequences of an over-burdening of the public health care system as well as its ancillaries such as mortuaries, crematoria and cemeteries.
A prolonged crisis of public health infrastructure could be reasonably expected to cause large scale anxiety, fear, panic, civil unrest and, possibly, the breakdown of social institutions as such. Such a breakdown would, inevitably, affect us very deeply, by placing our rights and freedoms, which are dependent upon those social institutions, at risk. It could, of course, place our very lives in danger.
Freedom cannot be understood as possessed by isolated, heroic individuals in a state of first nature that becomes, somehow, optimized in what has become the second nature of the market “laws” governing commodity exchange.
Rather, freedom is a thorough-going historical product of the mutuality of social obligation and recognition via a constellation of social institutions whose very existence Thatcher denied.
It must never be forgotten, then, that genuine freedom, which ought to be cherished and fiercely protected, is not an individual but a social and collective accomplishment.
by Christos Tombras
Late in May 1938, an 82-year old Sigmund Freud and his family were in Vienna eagerly awaiting the final details to be sorted before they could leave their country for good. There was no Austria any more. Its March annexation into Nazi Germany had just been overwhelmingly approved by plebiscite on April 10: 99.7%.
For the rest, this was a very difficult and dangerous time. At some point, Freud’s daughter, Anna, received an order to present herself at the Gestapo Vienna Headquarters. Not entirely sure of what she was to expect there, she equipped herself with enough Veronal to take care of things if needed.
With a lot of help of influential friends locally and abroad, and a lot of resilience, the Freuds were finally able to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles, one by one. Towards the end of May, Freud had to sign one final paper, in which he had to state that the authorities had not ill-treated him or his family. Freud signed, adding this comment: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”
The irony was lost on the SS officer collecting the statement, and the Freuds were finally allowed to board their train on June 4. They arrived to London, via Paris, on June 6.
Three decades later, in Paris, things were far from settled. It was a tumultuous time both in the general context of French society and politics, and also within the narrower context of French psychoanalysis.
By then the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had already been giving his Seminar for a number of years. The seminar of 1969-70 was to be the one in which he would present his theory of discourses.
What he proposed was truly radical. Building on Freud’s discovery of the workings of the unconscious mind, he described the speaking being as always – and unavoidably – ex-centric: In whatever you say, in whatever you do, driven as you are by whatever drives you, you are just inhabiting a façade, a made-up identity on which the Other is mirrored. There is no way of escaping this. The position you occupy is always a position carved for you within the network of the discursive structures you find yourself involved in. As you speak, you reveal yourself as a subject of the ultimate Other: language. That’s the predicament of the speaking being, Lacan said. Once inside, always inside. Your only hope, if there is one, is not to be found in breaking the halters of language. That’s not going to happen anyway.
One of the favourite pastimes of the Nazi mobs before the war was to burn books. They burnt Freud’s books as well. “What progress we are making”, he is reported to have commented. “In the middle ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”
Humour, however, is of limited use in dark times. With the war approaching, Nazi extremism and antisemitic atrocities were already a source of inspiration across Europe, and in Britain. In November 1938, the editor of Time and Tide magazine contacted Freud, by now established in Hampstead, North London, and invited him to contribute to a discussion of anti-Semitism. Freud was not eager to participate. This is what he wrote as a response:
“I came to Vienna as a child of 4 years from a small town in Moravia. After 78 years of assiduous work I had to leave my home, saw the Scientific Society I had founded, dissolved, our institutions destroyed, our Printing Press (‘Verlag’) taken over by the invaders, the books I had published confiscated or reduced to pulp, my children expelled from their professions. Don't you think you ought to reserve the columns of your special number for the utterances of non-Jewish people, less personally involved than myself?”
On the 3rd of December 1969, Lacan was invited to speak at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes. When he arrived, the amphitheatre was almost full.
Many wanted to hear what he had to say; others intended to use the opportunity in order to protest. Addressing each other as ‘comrade’, they protested about everything: the authorities, cops, society, the university credit points, psychoanalysts, priests. Lacan was not spared. Someone called him a clown, and demanded that he do his public self-criticism there and then. Someone else suggested to transform the lecture into a “wild love-in” and started undressing.
“If the university is to be overthrown” someone is heard saying, “it will only be from the outside, with others who are on the outside.”
“So then, why are you inside?”, they ask him.
“I am inside comrade because I want people to leave. I have to come in and tell them.”
“You see!” exclaims Lacan grabbing the opportunity. “It’s all there my friend. To get them to leave, you enter.”
“Lacan, let me finish! It’s not all there. […] If we think that by listening to Lacan’s discourse, or someone else’s we will obtain the means to criticise the ideology that they are making us swallow, we’re making a big mistake. I claim that we have to look outside to find the means to overthrow the university.”
“And what then? You think that when you leave you become aphasic? Tough luck my friend. Even after you leave here you continue to speak. That is, you continue to be inside.”
The lecture goes on, as does the shouting.
The event was approaching its conclusion. “If you had a bit of patience”, Lacan was now saying, “and if you really wanted our impromptus to continue, I would tell you that always, the revolutionary aspiration has only one single possible outcome – of ending up as the master’s discourse. This is what experience has proved.”
The reaction, captured in a surviving recording of the lecture, is loud: clapping, laughing, shouting.
“What you aspire to as revolutionaries”, continues Lacan barely audible now, “is a master. You will get one.”
Street Opera III: Interiors, sponges on the slope
by Iain Galbraith
Two greenish-yellow sponges waiting near the edge of the grey tarpaulin, that is, on the slope caused by the uneven structure of whatever lies beneath. The slope is closer now than it looked before, and more demanding than when the sponges were not yet there. I mean, from here the slope is higher and steeper than when I was standing up and looking down at the grey tarpaulin from above, the two sponges still in my hands.
A tarpaulin without sponges probably attracts less attention than a grey tarpaulin with two yellowy-green sponges, which are wet now and possibly, more slowly than the eye can see, slipping down the slope. My intention should be to remove the sponges, thereby returning the tarpaulin and whatever lies beneath it to a before-time that includes me while at the same time making all parties invisible, including myself.
These are two brand new, previously unused sponges. Their holes are connected to all holes everywhere, and are older than human error. It is not my part to concern myself with whatever is beneath the tarpaulin. My task concerns the visible surface only. I have thought this through as far as it goes. It is a curse. Whatever happens here must always happen at the edge of the grey and white, or to be more precise, at a distance, longer or shorter, from the white border that hems in the grey part of the tarpaulin.
What is happening under the tarpaulin is a matter that does not concern me, or at least not on Wednesdays. Sometimes I do think of it when I am not here, standing outside in the street, or in the shop, or talking to one of the men at the corner. In the street they are always digging holes and the men stand around and watch. Whether I really needed two sponges today I can't yet tell. I put the two sponges down on the slope to wait there till after I had wiped a string of dry, grey-white spots from the dark timber floorboards along the front of the white tarpaulin edge. I suppose they came from a spilling – milk for instance, or semen. Or something splashed from inside?
What are the sponges waiting for now? If I picked up the sponges, removing them from the surface, could I put an end to this? I wish I had thought of this problem before I left the sponges on the tarpaulin. If I could only return to there, things would certainly look more promising. In the first place the sponges are waiting for the cleaned surface to dry, now that the white spots have vanished. In the second they are waiting for me waiting to remove the sponges from the slope in the hope that this will end.
I would certainly be willing to introduce any changes before the owners returned. I do not want sharpnesses from outside to pierce this space and make these difficulties more visible than the pictures will make them. All actions are always already visible. Thoughts not entirely. My task, as I keep telling myself, is go back and return things to the now-point before the sponges were introduced.
It is light on the unevenness of the shiny surface that could attract somebody's attention. I could put the light off and draw the blinds. Anybody could be here and do this but there is nobody else who can do it now. I know there is the watcher and the watched. The owner will soon return. I must go out and sell something now.
by Rosemary Bechler and Leonie Rushforth
Was 9/11 the first time you became aware of the impact of media spectacle on our lives? A few of us, including fans of Godard and the Glasgow Media Research Unit, will have followed Situationist debates around Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and the May ’68 events. Fewer still might have absorbed the critique launched by Douglas Kellner of Debord’s “neo-Marxian perspective on hegemony” for failing to see that media spectacles could also be contested. But nowadays we all need to be much more literate about the timing and presentation of “those attention-grabbing occurrences that we call ‘news’.”
Will the UK be able to “open up fully” on June 21? Will the Indian variant put a spanner in these works? Whatever the data, Johnson is keen on sticking to this date, (conveniently preceded by Joe Biden’s visit to Britain from June 11 -13 for a meeting of the G7), so that he can distract the British people with ‘best friends’ and ‘good news’ stories, presumably until they have forgotten to care about the handling of covid-19, roughly estimated to coincide with the promised public enquiry in the spring of 2022.
Very occasionally, as Gerry Hassan reminded openDemocracy in his heartwarming article on May 18 – ‘It’s not often you defeat Priti Patel’: Will Glasgow be a wake-up call?’ – people manage to give the powers that be a taste of their own medicine.
He is reporting on the spontaneous uprising of the Kenmure Street local community in Glasgow a few days earlier that had prevented the deportation of two young Sikhs by the UK Border Van police. The media spectacle crossed the globe on twitter, but Hassan is only able to tell us the true scale of Patel’s defeat because he lives “one minute away” and responding to the call to join the protest, was “met by friends and acquaintances I had known for three decades”:
First he fills us in on just how organised this spontaneous uprising was, with the ‘Van Man’ from Glasgow’s No Evictions network arriving within minutes to secure the next eight hours of stand-off and gathering support:
Then he introduces us to “my turf” in all its diversity – to Glasgow, “an arrival city for communities from around the world – Irish, Italian, Pakistani, and Sikh, to name only the most obvious”; Pollockshields – “Glasgow’s and Scotland’s most diverse, multi-cultural community… also home to rich mix of arts, culture, and younger folk”; and not least to “Glasgow Southside’s proud tradition of opposing racists and fascists”.
But he closes with a warning that this is not the last we are going to hear from the infuriated Home Office and Conservative politicians on this issue.
* * *
And he was right. The initial reaction was somewhat hasty – according to a BBC reporter, a Home Office source condemned the evidently peaceful protestors as a law-breaking ‘mob’. But the word was quickly picked up in the Telegraph report, despite an abundance of social media clips showing a masked, good-natured and largely seated crowd surrounding the police van all day that pretty successfully neutralised the state’s first attempt at a re-cast.
A week later, on May 19, the Home Office released images of its more considered response – pictures of a National Crime Agency raid in East London, targeting ‘high-harm offenders’.
Tweets accompanying the above image explain that the two men arrested were ruthless traffickers. Never mind the chef and mechanic the Pollockshields protestors had defended with the chant: These are our neighbours! Let them go! – this picture tells us you never know who you’re living next door to. Those people you nod to when you’re hanging up the washing? You don’t in fact live in a community. These could be your neighbours, these and the ‘rapists and murderers’ Patel referred to in her speech to right-wing immigration think tank Bright Blue on May 24.
On the East London raid, Patel elaborated; the men arrested were offenders ‘treating innocent lives as a commodity, lining their pockets while people die.’ (a risky turn of phrase you might think, in the light of new facts emerging revealing Patel’s part in securing huge PPE contracts for Tory friends and contacts).
On this occasion the Home Secretary was present in person, or in persons, like the medieval conception of the king’s two bodies, the actual mortal body and the symbolic body that ensures continuity of power.
Hers the only face not obscured by pixellation, she is there to be recognized and to make doubly sure wears a uniform with ‘Home Secretary’ emblazoned on the jacket pocket. She is the embodiment of the deporting border-controlling state.
In a refining detail, she has kept on her everyday shoes, reminding us of the other incarnation of the Home Secretary – a woman of the material world with her feet on the ground, daughter of immigrants whose actions (NB Kenmure St) cannot possibly be anti-immigrant. Drama, history – essential spectacle.
Postscript – significant dates
The Kenmure St arrests in themselves contained a menacing element of government theatre – further proof if any were needed of the Government’s interest in dates. They were timed to take place on Eid al-Fitr. The significance will not have escaped Muslims living in Pollockshields.
June 21, Opening Up Day. This of course is not any old day. It’s the summer solstice, the longest day and the beginning of summer, a portal – the dreamy midsummer night when human beings are free to transcend the limitations of their world and enter new ones. The Prime Minister, as we have recently learned, has been busy writing a biography of Shakespeare.
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