Splinters: the final edition
Following Rosemary Bechler's passing last year, we have decided it is time to end the Splinters collective
Splinters, a writing collective convened by Rosemary Bechler and Leonie Rushforth and, from the outset, including Christos Tombras, Samir Gandesha and Iain Galbraith, presented its first edition on openDemocracy in October 2019.
While a manifesto of the collective's aims was never set down in writing, its activity is encapsulated by the Splinters subtitle: "sallies into the here and now".
Subsequent editions were posted every month (except for holiday breaks in the Januarys of 2020 and 2021). Irene Peroni and Chris Myant joined the collective from August 2021. A penultimate edition appeared in October 2021, and then there was silence.
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There were solemn and painful weeks as we mourned Rosemary Bechler's death after a long illness in November 2021, and as we attempted to imagine a future for Splinters without the inspiring personality and guidance of our friend and colleague, without her editing skills and long-standing relationship – including as its editor from 2010 until 2019 – with openDemocracy. After much reflection we have decided to conclude publication of Splinters with the present, twenty-fifth edition. The roughly 120 contributions to the format will be kept as an archive on the openDemocracy website.
Agents of the Slime – Hostile Beings? Language, Nature and SARS-CoV-2
By Iain Galbraith
In my June 2020 contribution to Splinters, 'Slimy Knowledge', I asked in a roundabout sort of way whether there was such a thing as purposeful agency in the viral world, or in other words, whether viruses have knowledge or can follow a plan.
These interrogations were stimulated less by scientific enquiry than by my surprise when SARS-CoV-2 was regularly referred to in the press, even by scientists, less as an insouciant blob of RNA slime than as something akin to a scheming opponent.
Of course the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus is an agent, as far as that word goes: it does things. After all, it can enter a human cell and reproduce (i.e. replicate itself). What is more, the activity of the virus does follow a plan: that is, its genome comprises a repository of encoded instructions without which the virus could not, say, attach itself to a host cell. But how much further does the notion of viral agency carry? When we say the COVID virus can kill people, are we not attributing, for reasons generally emotive or based on our understanding of causation, injurious capabilities or even intent to the narrowly-defined agency of a comparatively simple organism? Conversely, as the worldwide recorded COVID death toll approaches six million, how hard it is to say anything at all about a virus that is killing large numbers of one's own species without seeing inimical agency as its dominant character!
My question, then, is this: in what sense can a viral variant perform the complex manoeuvres implied in "escape" or "retreat" or "overcome a challenge", or in being "forced" by a vaccinated host population to "react by mutating"? Does a virus "in the face of a hostile environment" really "maximise its fitness"? Such phrases can be found in both scientific papers and newspaper articles by science journalists. Anthropomorphism can thrive even in scientific environments because it is so difficult to account for the raw stuff of the universe – for example the nature of viruses – without recourse to language that tells us not what something is but what it is like, an approach generally facilitated by figures of speech (e.g. metaphors) that are grounded in the activities (and bodies) of our own species rather than, in in this case, in those of a virus. For is not Homo sapiens in fact the species that hopes to "escape" extinction and to "overcome the challenge" of its – for reasons best known to ourselves – increasingly "hostile environment"?
My irritation concerning viral agency returned recently on reading a clearly written and informative article by the science journalist and author Laura Spinney ('How does Covid end? The world is watching the UK to find out', Guardian, 29.10.21). The article explains how the "white-knuckle ride of the pandemic phase" will at some stage be replaced by the "calmer waters of endemicity". Fair enough, I thought, enjoying the embodied realism of that "white-knuckled ride", but when she proceeded to the observation that "too many" were still susceptible to the Delta variant, which, she predicted, "will find most of them eventually", should I be thinking of the virus as a hunter-killer-agent? And later on, describing developments that may obstruct our passage to those "calmer waters", she avers: "But as immunity grows in the population, so does the selective pressure for the virus to mutate and escape that immunity". Calling the pressure "selective" admittedly indicates the underlying link between mutation and environment (which has nothing to do with stress-triggered reactions on the part of the virus), explaining why one variant may survive and not another, but it is nonetheless difficult not to see – in that "pressure for the virus to mutate and escape" – some challenged Houdini-variant intent on slipping the ropes.
At any rate, the battle to "escape" extinction is evidently in full swing, and according to WHO's Europe Director, Hans Kluge (03.02.2022), we are fortunate enough to be entering a "ceasefire" that could bring us "enduring peace". The frontline forces on our own side in "the fight against Covid", according to an illuminating article by science journalist Cassandra Willyard, include antibodies that can "flag suspicious intruders for destruction", while "B-cells can recognize a return invader" and "Killer T-cells quickly divide to assassinate infected cells" ('What the Omicron wave is revealing about human immunity', Nature, 02.02.2022). However, these defences may not be effective enough to ensure our victory, as science correspondent Linda Geddes informs us (Guardian, 11.01.2022), for viruses "aim to create as many copies of themselves and spread as widely as possible" and "the virus doesn't care if there are some casualties along the way".
Meanwhile Jerome Adams, the former US Surgeon General, pulls no punches in calculating our chances of survival against the highly transmissible Omicron: "If your enemy uses a weapon that's one-third as likely to kill you, but four times as many people are shooting at you, you're now 1.3 times as likely to die!" (Guardian, 17.01.2022). According to Franziska E. Kohlt, analysing "the impact of war-metaphors" on science communications in the UK during the Covid-19 crisis (SocArXiv, N. 10, 2020), "the warfare narrative provided a guiding framework for the collective response to crisis".
The "ceasefire" spotted by Hans Kluge, however, may give us pause to remember the facts. In my admittedly simplistic version of them, the virus depends on a human host cell's protein synthesis to reproduce. During the process of RNA replication random errors can occur, and we call these errors mutations. Viruses carrying such mutations are known as variants, which are many. While some mutations may hinder replication and lead to viral extinction, a few may produce, in our eyes at least, so-called "variants of concern", not because they are concerned to kill or maim, or even to escape immunity, but because such modifications enable the continued and optimised replication of the virus in a changing environment: to our detriment, as it so happens. Viruses may be agents, but their agency and survival are exhausted in simply being. All else is anthropomorphic attribution.
Which is not to say that anthropomorphic attribution cannot help save lives. Long before our encounter with SARS-CoV-2, a number of papers with titles such as 'Vicious viruses and vigilant vaccines: effects of linguistic agency assignment in health policy advocacy' (Journal of Health Communication, 19.12.2013) had already indicated the apparent benefits to health care management of deliberately assigning agency to both vaccines and viruses. This research shows that perceptions of viral threat severity and personal susceptibility are intensified and self-protective response is more likely to be generated when a message such as "The virus kills people" replaces "People contract the virus", or when vaccines are described as "guarding people". To employ a phrase coined by the philosopher Susan Stebbing (1885-1943), the human agency such turns of phrase reveal certainly shows "thinking to some purpose". Whether that purpose has been not only human but also exclusively humane will be a question future health communications researchers may wish to ask. They will certainly find much evidence of "linguistic agency assignment" in our pandemic era.
When hunters rule the day in France
By Chris Myant
The Sunday morning began badly: Patrick Mignola on the radio defending “la chasse”, the particularly French version of hunting with guns. Mignola is the leader of the MoDem deputies in the French National Assembly. This centrist political movement is the most disciplined of the parties in the French parliament supporting Emmanuel Macron. Its members have voted his measures more consistently than those of Macron’s own En Marche! organisation.
It turned out, though, that when he had been mayor of a small village on the edge of the Alps the deputy mayor had been shot dead by a hunter. A large calibre bullet smacked through the man’s neck a decade earlier almost to the day of Mignola”s interview. The victim was collecting mushrooms as dusk was falling. The hunter said his dogs barked, he turned, saw a “dark mass” and fired immediately. He got off with a modest suspended sentence, a small fine and a five-year ban from hunting.
The idea that you need not hesitate when uncertain about what you are firing at had surfaced in the news just before Mignola came on air. The police officer responsible for firing a tear gas grenade full into the face of 80-year-old Zineb Redouane, at 30 metres range in Marseille on 2 December 2018, had been let off from any sanction by the commander of France’s Police Nationale.
Redouane had been closing the shutters of her fourth floor flat as it was getting dark. The police below were hard at it tear-gassing a demonstration over the appalling housing situation in the city. She died in hospital the day after.
The official police investigators decided that firing that gas grenade had been within the rules but “risky”. Frédéric Veaux, Directeur général de la Police Nationale to give him his title, did not see it that way. Night had been falling when that officer squeezed the launcher’s trigger, Veaux argued. There had been a lot of noise, much smoke and an “insurrectionary atmosphere”. Just a bit of retraining was needed, not any punishment.
We learned all of this by one of those private briefings that have the media reporting official decisions without trying to question them, without unpicking the implications of allowing anyone with a weapon to shoot first and ask questions later.
Mignola had defended “la chasse” saying “we should be able to live together, one with another … In society, one cannot have a single model.” What? Not a question fired back by the interviewer? Having a single model, imposing “universalism”, is just what Macron, the mainstream right, the centre and even much of the old left, have been promoting with increasing ferocity in recent years, a promotion that has paved the way for the explosion onto the French political scene of the viperous, misogynist and racist commentator, Eric Zemmour.
For Mignola, for Macron, what may be OK for a hunter potting a passer-by as night falls is unacceptable when it comes to a Muslim woman in a hijab claiming her rights. Difference that seeks to assert itself is strictly off limits in France today. Unless it is prowling dusky by-ways rifle at the ready. Macron halved the cost of a hunting licence but continues to play ducks and drakes with prejudice against Muslims – supported by votes in the Assembly on Mignola’s part when it comes to new laws targeting Muslims for the offence of being themselves.
To be fair, Mignola broke with his one time political ally Laurent Wauquiez, then the leader of the main right wing party in France, Les Républicains, back in October 2018. Three months later Wauquiez invited Zemmour to the party’s headquarters in Paris telling him before the 500 party members there for the occasion: “You are at home here. Eric is in his home.” Wauquiez lost his leadership role after his colleagues found that snuggling up to this snake still left Marine Le Pen winning the European parliament elections in 2019.
The afternoon saw us off to Seine Saint Denis, the department to the north of Paris proper that is France’s capital of diversity and of poverty. In the crowded train, we were about the only white faces, but when it came to the audience in the theatre all that was reversed. As in the world created by Shakespeare in the play we were to see, his last, The Tempest.
Stripped down to its essentials by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, the text was a platform for a performance of hypnotic human majesty by the actor Ery Nzaramba in the central role of Prospero.
Brook spoke from the stage after the performance about “Shakespeare’s love for humanity in all its varieties”. He had not sought to make “extreme personalities” out of Ariel, the spirit, or Caliban, the “abhorred slave” of Prospero, as other directors have done. For him, “Shakespeare makes us enter a world of the imagination where all human beings are at the same level, for the best or the worst.”
In Shakespeare’s original, Caliban tells Prospero: “You taught me language and my profit on’t/ Is to know how to curse.” Something I did while reading an academic paper entitled “Why do the grandchildren of immigrants from the Maghreb still carry Arabo-Muslim first names?” rather than, the author asked in the text, “the first names of their country of welcome and residence”. May be they should ask the family and neighbours of Zineb Redouane, who continue to seek justice in her “country of welcome”.
By Christos Tombras
Can our totality of knowledge ever be complete and uniform? Such a claim is tantamount to claiming that there is Truth, and that Truth itself is uniform and knowable. But is that the case?
I was reading the other day from the famous letter that John Keats sent to his brothers, George and Tom. It was December 1817, and Keats was contemplating on that amazing quality that a “Man of Achievement” such as Shakespeare “so enormously” possessed. “I mean Negative Capability”, Keats went on, “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.
Today, 204 years or more after that December, it might be a bit surprising and confusing to see something negative being described as amazing. But nothing to worry about. Strictly speaking, what is amazing for Keats is not a negative capability, as such, but rather a capability for the negative; the capability, that is, to find oneself in something negative – in an uncertainty, for example; in mystery; or in doubt – without panicking (my word) and irritably resorting to reaching after fact and reason.
This was something that Keats thought as relating to the arts and the concept of beauty. His claim was that resorting to fact and reason is not an enviable quality when beauty is at stake. It reflected a hierarchy of values – or shall we call it, a bias? – that he shared with many a romantic poet of his time.
Still, things are not black and white, at least not in this way. One can be focused on fact and reason, and still be endowed with this amazing quality of negative capability. Take, for example, Freud. You see him in 1933, quoting Heine’s derisive comment about the philosopher who “with his nightcaps and the tatters of his dressing-gown he patches up the gaps in the structure of the universe.” Freud was trying to address the question of psychoanalysis’ Weltanschauung, or world-view. “As a specialist science”, he wrote, psychoanalysis “is quite unfit to construct a Weltanschauung of its own: it must accept the scientific one. But the Weltanschauung of science […] is marked by negative characteristics, by its limitation to what is at the moment knowable and by its sharp rejection of certain elements that are alien to it.” Science, Freud explained, “assumes the uniformity of the explanation of the universe, but it does so only as a programme, the fulfilment of which is relegated to the future.”
This brings us to a crucial question. Can our totality of knowledge ever be complete and uniform as Freud postulates? Such a claim is tantamount to claiming that there is Truth, and that Truth itself is uniform and knowable. But is that the case?
I wrote, back in 2020, about the fire of Moscow during the Napoleonic wars. I described how Tolstoy, with his acute observational powers could see that truth is but a narrative you construct retroactively. This doesn’t mean to say that truth does not exist, or something. It only states that we, human observers, are hopelessly confused trying to distinguish configurations of affairs from statements about configurations of affairs. If we can’t see the whole truth it’s not because truth does not exist but rather because our grasp of truth involves, and pre-supposes, a first step, a prime mover. In this context, the prime mover is simply accepting that things are.
Back in antiquity, Archimedes would claim that if you gave him the right place to stand he would be able to move the Earth. He was right but also, I think, a little cheeky. In any case, we know today that there is nowhere to stand in order to move the Earth. It’s impossible, for this would entail being able to stand quite apart from our solar system, quite apart from our galaxy, from the whole interstellar space that comprises the cosmos. Indeed from outside the world itself. That’s not going to happen. Not even in imagination.
Medieval logicians defined truth as adequatio intellectus ad rem, or adequation of the intellect to reality. Adequation, however, entails a prior acceptio as Heidegger would point out, and can never be established in a non-circular way.
To generalise a bit, we are beings-in-the-world and there is no meta level on which we can stand to ascertain truth. Much to our frustrated disappointment, for us speaking beings truth is always the outcome of a discursive or language game. Nothing more. Nothing less.
You would think that we could use as much negative capability as we could possibly summon to navigate in this almost hopeless state of affairs. Negative capability should provide us with the strength to cope with the uncertainty, the mysteries and doubts our limited tools produce.
It’s a challenge. Are we up to it?
The more I think about it, the more I see that the most basic, fundamental even, theme that runs through the thought processes of those all-too-certain arrogants, blissful deniers, conspiracy theorists, fanatics, truthers, bigots, and their friends, is their shared negative incapability. Faced with uncertainty and mysteries and doubts they cannot help but irritably resort to whatever facts and reason happens to come their way.
They like to think themselves as searchers for Truth but they can’t see how what they longing for is decisively second to their more primary, fundamental, inescapable need for certainty. That’s their bias. In their hierarchy of values, certainty comes before everything. They are incapable of accepting the uncertainty, mysteries, and doubts, our world is made of.
And it shows.
Real Problems, False Solutions II
By Samir Gandesha
At its core, then, fascist politics is based upon an ethnic understanding of the friend-foe binary and can be seen as running parallel to, but irreducible to a set of polarizations: the aesthetic opposition between the “beautiful and the ugly” the moral opposition between “good and evil,” and the religious opposition of “the sacred and the profane.” While not reducible to these distinctions, Carl Schmitt suggests it is possible that some or all of these oppositions line up in a particular way to reinforce the basic political distinction between friend and enemy.
In 1920, Schmitt’s associate, Ernst Jünger, would publish Storm of Steel, a rivetingly expressionist account of the so-called ‘Frenterleibnis’ (front experience) of the First World War. In what Walter Benjamin would describe as the ‘aestheticization of the political,’ Jünger glorifies the experience of death and destruction in a powerful paen to the masculine military virtues that form such a key component of the world-view of the Freikorps and the bedrock of Nazi ideology.
Such virtues stand in the starkest possible contrast to the effete routinized, rational life conduct of bourgeoisie, first established in the Puritan ethic, the ‘spirit’ of capitalism, Weber described so acutely. What is especially fascinating about this text is the stark tension between the aristocratic dimensions of this experience that unfolds in its early pages, on the one hand, and the ominous suggestion in its final passages of fully mechanized, thoroughly dehumanized warfare. It is as if the book itself, that seeks aesthetic meaning in the midst of an utterly meaningless war, shows up its own futility in the accelerated development of military technologies within that intense four-year period. As Benjamin suggests wryly in his acerbic review of Jünger’s edited volume War and Warriors, “Linking heroism with machine warfare is sometimes a bit hard on the authors.”
Within a decade or so, in the inter-war period, a period of massive geo-political, social and economic dislocation, Martin Heidegger, another thinker who would, like Schmitt but not Jünger, infamously join the ranks of the Nazis, in his early opus Being and Time registered the crisis of meaning most directly. Eschewing historical explanations of such a crisis, because they were not apparently radical enough, in a manner that would influence contemporary post-structuralism and post-colonial theory, Heidegger argues that one ought to look at the tradition of Western metaphysics for its ‘forgetting of being.’
In other words, meaning was in crisis because of a conflation of the human being—the being for whom orientation towards meaning is constitutive—with other mere beings or mere things. Heidegger’s account of the situated, meaning-oriented nature of the human being (what he calls Dasein) implicitly answers Weber’s analysis of the crisis of meaning stemming from the logic of specialization in the sciences insofar as it states that prior to any object or what he dismissively calls “ontic” account of the nature of reality comes the question of the “meaning of being.”
While the historical analogy of the Weimar period clearly has its limits, as previously suggested, one can say that, each in their own way, these thinkers of the German far-right of the inter-war period were responding to the failure of the German Revolution. Each could be said to represent the attempt to address or confront the increasingly abstract nature of modern society as Weber had defined it in terms of rationalization, disenchantment, the domination of a procedural form of rationality indexed to a legal-rational form of authority. Such abstraction, for these far-right intellectuals, led to a deep crisis of political, aesthetic and ontological meaning. Each appealed to political, aesthetic and ontological experience in providing alternatives to the growing power of abstraction in the early twentieth century. Yet each one provides a false or a pseudo-response to the crisis because they failed, like their interlocutor, Max Weber, to get to the root of the matter. This was the increasing domination of capital and what Alfred Sohn-Rethel called the logic of ‘real abstraction,’ which is to say, the domination of the commodity form.
Each of the dimensions of existentialism have returned in a pronounced way today in the contemporary far right. In each of these registers, we see a revanchism and re-solidification of particularistic forms of identity. Put differently, this means the attempt to re-territorialize what had through a constellation of crises amidst the contradictions of a global neoliberal order, become de-territorialized. And such identities have a political, aesthetic and ontological dimension. At the heart of this constellation is certain claim to authenticity which serves to answer the problem of meaning in a period ever-more subject to the violent permutations of logic of abstraction.
What we see with the global spread of neoliberal forms of abstraction, there can be discerned an increasing drive to gain access to the “concrete.” Such concreteness takes the form of the rise of new or atavistic forms of collective identity precisely in such a drive to grasp sources of meaning, including, as I have reiterated in this column on several occasions, in left ‘identity politics.’
The sixth domain or 4000 loaves of bread
By Leonie Rushforth
A recent NATO-sponsored report ‘Cognitive Warfare’ defines the human brain as the sixth domain of war, after land, air, sea, cyber and space. It is, according to the writers, the battlefield of the 21st century. In the words of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) our brains are ‘processors’ vulnerable to hacking by the enemy and every citizen is a potential weapon, the population as a whole ‘an embedded 5th column’.
Manufactured scares about enemy propaganda are as old as warfare and in some ways ‘Cognitive Warfare’ could be seen as only the most recent iteration of ‘reds under the beds’. But there’s a new context the authors of the report are very conscious of: social media are equipping populations with the knowledge and the power to think and act for themselves. The ACT report calls it ‘information overload’ and professes fear for people’s wellbeing, given what it asserts are the human brain’s innate design faults: an inability to distinguish between right and wrong, true and false.
In the world of cognitive warfare, emotions are at the root of the brain’s weaknesses. They interfere with decision-making and, as the report states: ‘it’s almost impossible to stop people from experiencing them’. Capacities like trust and empathy that connect human beings to each other and enable cooperation are singled out as potentially lethal and therefore, it follows, as targets for special ‘management’:
"Products of neurotechnological research can be utilized to affect [amongst other things] trust and empathy...In military/warfare settings these functions can be utilized to mitigate aggression and foster cognitions and emotions of affiliation or passivity… and ‘neutralise’ potential opponents or incur mortality."
Hosing down this murky stuff, we find redesigned versions of ourselves, programmed not by putative enemies but by our own governments to kill anyone we’re told we disagree with.
With what feels like inevitability, ‘Cognitive Warfare’ then turns its baleful attention to the public places where trust and empathy are nurtured and most necessary - public health systems:
"As the current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, public – and institutional public health – responses to novel pathogens are highly variable at best, chaotic at worst, and indubitably costly (on many levels) in either case. To be sure, such extant gaps in public health and safety infrastructures and functions could be exploited by employing "precision pathologies”…
vThe airy gesture ‘To be sure’ is what passes for argument in this sorry document. Here, crucially, it forms a bridge spanning the gap between the implication that public health systems are actually harmful to the societies they serve – so costly (on many levels) – to the destination, where public health systems constitute points of entry for ‘the enemy’ and its precision viruses.
At almost the same time as I came across ‘Cognitive Warfare’ and its vision of the future, I found its antithesis and antidote in 41 interviews with Directors of Public Health published in July by the Local Government Association. Public Health England has since been dismantled, against all advice and in the middle of a pandemic. It ceased to exist on October 1st 2021 and has been replaced by 2 new agencies, the UK Health Security Agency and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, with very different responsibilities from PHE, as their names suggest.
The directors of public health speak of their experience during the pandemic directly, practically:
"We did a round of door-knocking – we visited 11,000 households in total…
"The success was down to the local community – not me. It is their success.
"Everyone has really come together… We roll up our sleeves and get on with it. It is a real privilege to be director of public health here.
"We have a volunteer hub for the vaccination programme so people can put themselves forward for duties such as marshalling. It has been inundated with offers of help.
"As part of the support from the government, the army was also deployed alongside the national surge response team. That was welcomed, but it was important we [in public health] took the lead. We were quite clear about that from the start. We have teams of council officers and volunteers from the local community. They are the ones that are trusted locally. I know there was one day where the army went off on their own to do a street – they soon came back and said we need you with us as we get a much better response."
Local businesses have donated food and services. I remember when we were getting food parcels ready and one of the local bakeries turned up and donated 4,000 loaves of bread. This sort of generosity has continued ever since.
The connecting and networking they describe is civil and civilized. It relies on clarity of purpose and concrete local knowledge – and on imaginative sympathies, the very capacities of our wonderfully elastic, connective brains identified as treacherous in ‘Cognitive Warfare’. It is not strange then, though it is terrible, to find NATO identifying the NHS as a strategic weakness. Pointing out that recent wars have not achieved strategic goals, the report’s conclusion is that in the long run NATO victories and lasting ‘political success’ will depend on primacy in the cognitive domain – ‘Only the human domain can achieve the final and full victory’, a victory whose finality and fullness we are left to imagine and whose real dimensions we must imagine if we are to avert it.
We have watched the NHS being turned into a battleground. As both home to and generator of a radically different way of living with each other from the brutal alternative we face, what remains of our health service is now one of the most serious obstacles to the success of our opponents, who have so much to gain from its destruction.
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