Arrighi II

Giovanni Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling 2” is, frankly, rather disappointing. I commented on “Hegemony Unravelling 1” in an earlier entry. This second installment continues the argument that US global dominance is in terminal decline, and compares the end of this particular capitalist “spatial fix” with the successive declines of Genoa, the United Provinces, and Great Britain, each of which anchored earlier “cycles of accumulation.”

Unlike Hardt and Negri, however, who likewise claim that the current global system is shortly coming to an end, Arrighi believes that it will merely be superseded by a new system, this time with China in the driving seat: just as the US was the beneficiary of European wars in the first half of the twentieth century, so it is “China” that is “the real winner of the War on Terrorism” (115).

But as for “whether this ‘victory’ can translate into a new global spatial fix and what such a fix will look like” (115), Arrighi declines to elaborate. He has even less to say about the “less violent and more benevolent alternatives” that he invokes in his article’s dying breath (116).

Meanwhile, of hegemony in the Gramscian sense of order secured through consent, all Arrighi adds is the notion that the US has, since Vietnam, moved from offering protection against real external threats to operating a “protection racket” that provides security only from threats (real or imagined) that it itself generates. Hence states such as Japan and Germany, acting as rational actors in the global game of fiscal and political trust, have withdrawn their support from US overseas adventures, leaving the global hegemon for the first time to shoulder the military, political, and economic costs of its imperial project: “the failure of George W. Bush to make US clients pay for the second Iraq war [. . .] can be taken as a sign that by then the United States had lost both hegemoney [i.e. the ability to extort tribute] and hegemony [i.e. legitimacy]” (112).

The rise and fall of empires obeys, for Arrighi, the logic of some profound universal and transhistorical set of laws. There’s precious little room here for agency on the part either of the dominant or the dominated. Occasionally it is suggested that Bush’s neoconversative team made mistakes, for instance by “pushing” the American protection racket “too far” (113), but really it hardly seems to matter as, Arrighi suggests, US decline is as inevitable as, in retrospect, was the sun setting on the British Empire a century or so ago.

And as for the notion that subalterns (the proletariat, the Third World, or whatever) might become historical actors: well, Arrighi seems to be saying, forget about it.


[A rare, I hope, instance of me meta-blogging…]

Something very odd is going on with technorati.

I’ve been a little frustrated, as over a week ago it seems they stopped indexing this page, just when I was in the middle of retrospectively adding tags to previous posts. I wrote several emails to their support, but no answer.

And I’ve been keeping essentially all my posts on the front page here until technorati spiders come and index it–even though that breaks my feed.

It’s all been a bit of a pain. Most of all, in that, in a fervor of thinking that this tag business was in fact a good thing (partly having been convinced of their worth by Brian Lamb of Abject Learning), I’d spent quite a while adding all those tags…

(I suspect that some algorithm had determined that so many new tags in such a short time meant that my blog was a spam blog; but 10 seconds looking at it should, one might have thought, have convinced a human observer otherwise…)

In further frustration, I cc-ed the last couple of my emails to David Sifry, technorati’s founder and CEO. He wrote back and said he’d look into the problem personally. Which is kind of cool, but it would be easier on him if his minions were more efficient about responding to support queries.

Now, meanwhile, for a bunch of different tags that I’ve been using it’s showing all the posts as having updated 21 hours ago. Check out mormons, say, or, most strangely of all, last100, a tag of my own creation (referring to a class I teach) that right now shows 8 empty entries, all apparently posted exactly 21 hours ago. Though others such as martin parr still don’t show up, let alone, I’m especially sad to say, posthegemony.

I have no idea what’s going on.

[Update: well, that bizarreness seems to have passed. But they still ain’t indexing this blog… Oh, and there’s still something odd with the tag last100.]

[Update: this is very close to being a story with a happy ending… The vast majority of my tags were indexed sometime overnight. Still problems with a few, however, that I have created: arrighi, indigenism, and new left review, for instance.]

[Update: and those tags are now fixed… Normal service to be resumed.]

Abigail’s Party

Alison Steadman as BeverlyRay Carney on Mike Leigh’s television drama, Abigail’s Party:

There is no realm of “truth” underneath or distinguishable from the realm of “falsehood.” There are no secrets to exhume. There are no psychological depths to mine–or at least none that matter–in Abigail’s Party. No one is being deceitful. No one is covering up anything. That would simplify understanding. We could dive down and discover the truth as we do in films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca. The situation Leigh imagines–here and in all of his work–is far more complex. There is no escape from slippery, shifting, multivalent surfaces. There is no realm of unsullied, uninflected reality underneath. Everything is mixed. We must live in the flux….

Indeed, it’s the fact that everyone says what they think in this film that makes it so painful to watch. Which shows that this postideological flux has everything to do with affect (the barbs, the resentment, the worry, and the drunkenness of suburban social interaction) and habit (the pettiness, the gender roles, the classification by taste, and the drunkenness again).

Popol Vuh

Mayan skullThe Popol Vuh, “Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life,” is also a book of death. For it is at best the record of an absence. Its anonymous authors tell us at the outset that they are writing the history and myth of the Quiché people precisely because

there is no longer

a place to see it, a Council Book,
a place to see “The Light that Came from Beside the Sea,”
the account of “Our Place in the Shadows,”
a place to see “The Dawn of Life.” (63)

They conclude in similar vein:

This is enough about the Being of Quiché, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost. (198)

The Popol Vuh itself, then, can only supplement or stand in for a lost or inaccessible text, a missing plenitude irrecoverable in the wake of Spanish conquest. Hence the ambivalence of the book’s final lines, which assert either that this substitution has been successful in recapturing the lost history that it retells, or that the supplement can be no more than an epitaph to an independent existence now irredeemably extinguished: “everything has been completed here concerning Quiché, which is now named Santa Cruz” (198).

Something of this impossibility inheres in all subaltern texts: they recognize that the power of naming (a power continually underscored within the pages of the Popol Vuh) escapes their grasp. At best, the subaltern can hope to insinuate him or herself within the codes established by the dominant, perhaps to upset or relativize that discourse of power, at least slightly. At best, the subaltern aims at a precarious reinscription within or between the terms structuring the new doxa.

Mayan Death GodAt the same time, with the Popol Vuh–and the same goes for the Incas with both Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios reales and Guaman Poma’s Primer Nueva Corónica–there are very definite limits to the sympathy such a text can incite. For what it laments is not the fact of domination per se, but simply its relocation. These books lament the destitution of indigenous sovereignty, but above all they also mourn the fate of a native aristocracy usurped.

The Popol Vuh is a genealogy of the Quiché state, a record of its noble houses and lordships, and a celebration of its (former) power to exact tribute from surrounding tribes:

What they did was no small feat, and the tribes they conquered were not few in number. The tribute of Quiché came from many tribal divisions.
And the lords had undergone pain and withstood it; their rise to splendor had not been sudden. Actually it was Plumed Serpent who was the root of the greatness of the lordship.
Such was the beginning of the rise and growth of Quiché.
And now we shall list the generations of lords, and we shall also name the names of all these lords. (194)

The last lords in the list have Spanish names: Don Juan de Rojas and Don Juan Cortés. They themselves now pay tribute to the Spanish, rather than receiving it from their fellow indigenous people. Like many native aristocrats, however, Juan de Rojas and Juan Cortés sought accommodation with the Spaniards, hoping to maintain their rights to local domination under the aegis of European imperialism. And, as translator and editor Dennis Tedlock notes, the Popol Vuh itself may well have been a crucial implement in the case that the local lords made as they tried to establish dialogue with their new masters:

Juan Cortés, whose duties as Keeper of the Reception House Mat would have included tribute collection had he served before the coming of [conquistador] Alvarado, worked constantly to restore tribute rights to the lordly lineages of the town of Quiché. In 1557 he went all the way to Spain to press his case, and it could be that he took a copy of the alphabetic Popol Vuh with him. (56)

Interestingly, the subjugated tribes are described twice as a multitude, at least as they are ventriloquized by the scribal aristocrats of their subjugators: “Don’t we constitute a multitude of people?” (166); “Aren’t we a multitude?” (169).

The real absence, then, is surely not the defeated state nobility whose destruction these texts bemoan; it is rather the constituent power that they themselves repress, in a form of anticipatory counter-insurgency.

But what can we say of constituent power in pre-Columbian societies, when constituted power has so thoroughly mystified its origins in the few texts that are available to us?

families (Parr II)

The Presentation House Gallery has a great bookshop for photography titles. I picked up another Martin Parr book: From Our House to Your House.

This is a collection of home-made pictorial Christmas cards, from the 1930s to the 1990s. There is the usual cavalcade of outdated fashion, poor taste, and even worse humour. Families arrayed in their Sunday best, stiff and upright, or laboriously showing off their skills as performers or musicians. The 1979 card from “The Ritchie family”: full colour, appalling clothes, dubious mantelpiece ornaments, porn-star moustaches. The 1980 card from Merrily and Dick Gifford, their children “Debbie, Deanna, Dick, Dan, Daurie, Ann, David, and Dicksie” all lined up by the side of the pool.

Most extraordinary, however, are the image manipulations. Often these entail distortions of scale: a family playing among outsize Christmas baubles, for instance. And there’s a peculiar fascination with the notion of giant children who have their parents, literally, in the palm of their hands.

From Our House
These cards (and their attendant Christmas letters) are the means by which American families presented themselves to the world, to their extended network of friends and acquaintances. But the cracks and faultlines within those families are also all too visible, all too painfully on show.

[Update: I note that Sydneysiders can see Martin Parr talk on October 8th.]


Colonial logic often suggests that the further one travels from the metropolis, the further one returns back to a semi-forgotten past.

ChristchurchThe Commonwealth semi-periphery, for instance, is cast as a redoubt of mid-century English innocence. Writing in The Times, Arnie Wilson cites what he calls “that traditional Kiwi joke: ‘We’re about to land in Auckland — please put your watches back 50 years.'” Victoria, British Columbia, has also been described in similar terms.

In the periphery itself, travelers are apt to find Dickensian exploitation, feudal simplicity, Stone Age barbarism, or even prehistoric lost worlds, depending upon inclination.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) is a classic narrative of this spatialization of time: its narrator has to undertake a tortuous journey through a maze of Amazonian waterways in his quest to find the origin of music, the primitive foundation of melody and rhythm. At each turn he peels back decades, centuries of time passed and forgotten by “civilized” man.

But, as Mary Louise Pratt shows in her reading of Alexander Von Humboldt’s travel writings, precisely the same gesture positing the Third World as some primal past also frames it as the site from which the future will be born. If Latin America was “a primal world of nature, an unclaimed and timeless space [. . .] whose only history was the one about to begin,” then it could also be envisaged as “point of origin for a future that starts now, and will rework that ‘savage terrain'” (Imperial Eyes 126, 127).

It is because America is our past that it can be, in Hegel’s famous words, “the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.”

For Pratt, it is Humboldt who most persuasively and influentially articulates this sense of the Americas as a continent pregnant with possibilities for investment and growth:

On the eve of Spanish American independence and the eve of a capitalist ‘scramble for America’ not unlike the scramble for Africa still to come, Humboldt’s Views and his viewing stake out a new beginning of history in South America. (127)

Humboldt’s portrayal of the American landscape in terms of its dynamism, worked over by the “occult forces” of geology and climate, resonates as much with “industrialism and the machine age” as it does with the “spiritualist esthetics of Romanticism” (124). The region’s immense forests, mountains, and plains constitute a natural factory: a complex mechanism characterized above all by its productivity.

After all, doesn’t Humboldt’s sketch of Chimborazo resemble nothing so much as a nineteenth-century factory, complete with its innards dissected and delineated according to the natural division of labour, and its serrated roof topped by a chimney belching smoke into the blue sky?

Pratt quotes from the Preface to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which predicts an age in which:

the inhabitant of the banks of the Oroonoko will behold with extasy, that populous cities enriched by commerce, and fertile fields cultivated by the hands of freemen, adorn those very spots, where, at the time of my travels, I found only impenetrable forests, and inundated lands. (qtd. 131)

And as she notes, in this description of an “ecstatic future counterpart” who will see the results of “rapturous nature” harnessed to industrial commerce (131, 130), Humboldt’s discourse is ultimately affective. “Humboldt sought,” Pratt tells us, “to pry affect away from autobiography and narcissism and fuse it with science” (124).

In the jungles of Latin America–and this is how its landscape differs from the English Lakes or French Alps beloved of other Romantics–affect is envisaged as combining with science and harnessed to capital in the name of a utopian future of industrial enrichment.

new left review

A satisfied customer writes…

I doubt anybody has been waiting with very bated breath for the second installment of my thoughts on Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling”.

But I, at least, have been waiting for the relevant issue of the New Left Review. And as of yesterday it had yet to arrive.

I therefore emailed the NLR, asking if somehow my subscription had lapsed. They replied almost immediately telling me that no, I was paid up, promising to (re)send issue 33 straightaway, making efforts to ensure that delivery of issue 34 would be expedited, and informing me of the code by which I could access articles from their website.

It so happened, by strange coincidence, that today issue 33 finally turned up.

Still, full marks to the journal’s subscription department for customer service.

So subscribe. You won’t be left in the lurch.


wood s lot points us to Jeremy Ravi Mumford’s “The Inca Priest on the Mormon Stage”, an interesting essay on Mormonism, nineteenth-century indigenism, and images of Inca society. Mumford shows how the early Mormon leader Brigham Young acted out his religion’s claims to respectability through a performance of Incaism.

This in the context not merely of familiar elegies for the vanished noble savage, but a more particular construction of Inca society befitting US (and Mormon) self-imagination:

An Enlightenment revival of Hispanic scholarship had made English-speaking readers familiar with the Inca Empire as a profoundly alien society, yet one that was in many ways admirable. The Inca, according to much of this literature, were authoritarian in their politics but that authoritarianism produced admirable order and happiness. The success of Sheridan’s Pizarro in 1799 created a new wave of interest in the Incas among English speakers. The next year saw the publication of a children’s dialogue about the Incas, with lines such as: “Excellent people! Who can avoid respecting them?”

Of course, it should come as no great surprise that the Incas have also been eulogized, not least by the great early twentieth-century Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, as incarnating a form of primitive Communism. Indeed, of all pre-Columbian societies, the Inca Empire offers most ideological malleability: I don’t think that quite the same range of claims has been made for the Aztecs, for instance.

What struck me about Mumford’s essay, however, is that there really is something to the comparison between Incas and Mormons, in this if no other regard: both are groups upon which social parables are played out with remarkable frequency.

Take Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a book for which a murder in American Fork, Utah, provides the canvas on which to assay quasi-philosophical conjectures about “violent faith” and, indeed, the nature of life itself:

If I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why–which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to live. (341)

As befits a writer on mountaineering, Krakauer has long “yearned” to say something about death, violence, and sublimity, and it’s in Mormonism that he feels he’s found a suitable subject, whereas for instance the autobiographical reflections framing Into the Wild were rather forced onto a tale of Boy’s Own anomie gone wrong.

Gary GilmoreBut Krakauer’s book pales beside the granddaddy of them all, Norman Mailer’s epic The Executioner’s Song, which tracks the movement from petty thievery to careless murder to the point at which judicial execution became once again enshrined as apex of the American way of life (and death). Mailer shows how, despite the best efforts of liberal organizations such as the ACLU, Gary Gilmore summoned forth the new authoritarianism, a new “admirable order.”

The thousand and more pages of Mailer’s door-stopper cast this drama of, first, robbery and killing and, then, lawyering and killing, as “Eastern voices” responding to “Western voices.”

And the West to which the East responds, the West that shapes the neo-conservative constitution of order through firing squad, electric chair, and lethal injection, is the West of Provo, Spanish Fork, and Salt Lake City, the West of Mormonism, the West to which Brigham Young led his people in transcontinental Exodus.


Travel writer Tim Cahill tells us:

I am frightened by the jungle. I am frightened by the sickly sweet odors, by the moist darkness, by the dank fecundity. I am frightened by the chaos: green things lash about in slow motion, choke off lesser plants, rise towards the sun like those subconscious horrors that sometimes bubble up into the conscious mind. (Jaguars Ripped My Flesh 42-43)

He is writing about the rainforest of Northern Amazonia, more specifically the “Mundo Perdido” that straddles Venezuela and Guyana, and a clearer instance of Latin America as the West’s unconscious would be hard to find.

[UPDATE: OK, I’ve found one.]

Nor could one hope for a better example of the way in which the unconscious is cast in terms of (feminine) sexuality (and vice versa, of course): “sickly sweet odors,” “moist darkness,” “dank fecundity.” Not that there is anything very unconscious about these associations for Cahill. A little later, in a shallow canyon high up on Mount Roraima, the plateau mountain that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, he strips off his clothes and, standing “naked under the unfamiliar sun,” informs us that “it seemed to me that the smooth, rounded, dripping rocks, the puddled depressions, the archways and spires, all had overtly sexual connotations.” What follows is a patch of rather purple prose that ends with “a terrible roar of release” as water from the plateau cascades down the mountainside (56).

It is often suggested that psychoanalysis is complicit with the colonial imagination. But although (as a good Deleuzian) I’m skeptical of many aspects of Freud’s work, it can also obviously be invoked to analyze and criticize colonialism’s own fantasies and desires.

The thing about the unconscious is that it is at the same time both alien and strangely familiar, intimate: unheimlich. What is frightening about the unconscious is also what is frightening about the self.

Cahill admits that the Latin American landscape (its populace, too, while we’re at it) functions for him as a kind of Rorschach blot: “there was a cavernlike quality to the canyon, and the mind does not allow such shapes to go uninterpreted” (55). But it is not as though such projections are “merely” imaginary. Or rather, the point is that they have real effects. As Cahill says of Conan Doyle’s story, “his fantasy [. . .] was so compelling that it gave the area its name” (44). Moreover, Conan Doyle’s fantasy motivates Cahill’s own trip to the region, otherwise a wholly senseless enterprise, particularly at the time of year he is there:

The urge to climb Mount Roraima in the rainy season is simply inexplicable without reference to psychiatric literature–and the tales of adventure one reads in childhood. (45)

The notion that the tropics drive unwary travelers mad is a familiar one; but so is the idea that they must be a little unhinged to be there in the first place.

And Cahill finds a fair few other foreigners who have either been adversely affected by this particular heart of darkness, or who were some way round the bend already. Not least the Latvian “hermit” Laime who “for nineteen years [. . .] had lived alone in the jungle, nineteen years alone with his thoughts” (48). But the prime example is Cahill, who is introduced as an anonymous third person, as though unrecognizable even to the author himself: “the gringo was sweating in the humid heat, and he began babbling in incoherent Spanish. [. . .] the big one with the beard, he was a writer named Tim Cahill” (40, 41).

The tropics, as so often, are a place where men (less often women) go to find themselves, to find the truth of the stories they heard as children, to find and confront their culture’s primal fears. But they are also a place where outsiders too easily lose themselves, either figuratively or literally. The last person who had tried to climb the mountain in the rainy season was “a solitary hiker from Caracas who had supposedly died in the frigid rains there” (53). And Cahill and his friends dice with death at least twice, at the outset when they are stopped by a Venezuelan army patrol (“‘They almost shot us,’ I said, incredulous” [41]), and at the end when the pilot due to fly them back over Roraima crashes his plane on the way down to meet them.

Cahill ends his account with an image of the dead at Jonestown, whose story he had covered some years previously, and so an image of “all those bodies bloating in the heat and the rain” (59). The tragic end to the People’s Temple saga, a tale of misplaced faith and mass suicide, comes to represent all the fears of what Latin America will bring out in us.

Jim Jones's cabinthe jonestown report