J M Coetzee, FoeAs part of the Arts One Digital initiative (which I’ve mentioned before, we’re recording various lectures delivered as part of UBC’s “Arts One” program. You can see for instance my lecture on J M Coetzee’s Foe here, in various formats. The project is going from strength to strength, and I’m confident we’ll be able to ramp it up still further next year. We continue trying new things, and this afternoon my colleague Kevin McNeilly and I hope to record a podcast discussion on Foe and Eliot’s The Waste Land.

In the meantime, you may want to check out something I wrote a couple of years ago, on Foe as an “unwriting” of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.


Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen offers something of a counter-factual history of the Cold War. In particular, it imagines the central role of two generations of masked do-gooders: a 1940s cohort of “Minutemen,” most of whom are somewhat ephemeral and more than slightly ridiculous (of “Mothman,” “Dollar Bill,” and “Silhouette” we hear very little) and a 1960s/1970s gang of “Crimebusters” who take themselves a little more seriously and have a much more sinister edge.

The Minutemen are nostalgically portrayed mostly through a faded sepia photo and are clearly out of their depth when it comes to derring-do that goes beyond picking up petty thieves and minor gangsters: at their inaugural meeting, in 1939, one of them nervously admits that “Just thinking about war, it scares me.” The Crimebusters are made of sterner stuff, and feature at least one member who is genuinely superhuman. This is Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist who thanks to an accident at work now has almost unlimited powers to decompose and recompose matter, to mutate and multiply himself, to survive in the harshest environments, as well as to see past, present, and (with some restrictions) future in one instant. It is thanks to Manhattan that (in this version of twentieth-century history) the USA has won the Vietnam War and is able to hold off the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation. Vital for US national security, he is now the only costumed crusader who legitimately pursues his vocation. By the late 1970s, as the US urban infrastructure crumbled and even superheroes were viewed as more trouble than they were worth, all the others were forced to hang up their capes. All but Rorschach, that is, a particularly violent and uncompromising individual whose mask is an ever-shifting pattern of blots and who in one way or another is the story’s central character.

But if this is a novel that stresses decay, disintegration, and the loss of innocence–and it is–none-the-less its portrait of the past is not entirely rose-tinted. For the rot set in early, as did the general sense of ambivalence that surrounds all these supposedly “super” figures. Even in 1939, the sepia-tinged harmony is soon shown to be a sham: as soon as the photo session is over, a bloody fight erupts as the “Comedian” attempts to rape his fellow Minuteman (Minutewoman?) “Silk Spectre,” only to be beaten up in turn by a third of their number, the aptly-named “Hooded Justice.” There never was a Golden Age of heroism, and this inaugural violence and violation comes to taint the second generation of superheroes too: indeed, the Comedian is the only Minuteman to continue on to membership in the Crimebusters a generation later. His amoral cynicism and frank revelry in violence is presented as a constant temptation for vigilante avengers who choose to act outside the law without ever necessarily finding an alternative moral or ethical principle. At best, ultimately the book seems at first glance to endorse a very crude utilitarianism: that conspiracy and deception on a massive scale, not to mention the destruction of (here) the entire US Eastern Seaboard (and the deaths of many millions), is justified by a project to end the Cold War and bring perpetual peace. But this, after all, is precisely the logic of the Cold War itself.

Only Rorschach and (it is implied) the Comedian balk at this simplistic balance of the greater good. Rorschach’s words as he storms out of the utopian hero (or anti-hero)’s Antarctic lair are: “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never Compromise.” But he and the Comedian are killed for their pains: indeed the two deaths bookend the narrative, as it’s the Comedian’s murder that kickstarts the plot, and Rorschach’s death takes place in the final act. Can we to sympathize with their doomed resistance to the calculations of power, however well-intentioned? I think and hope so, not least because the entire story is framed as Rorschach’s (he may have been eliminated, but he has got the word out against all odds), though in some ways this means that the end only takes us back to the beginning. More strikingly, it also means that the resulting ambivalence is extreme, almost unbearable: other characters, not least the second-generation “Nite Owl” and “Silk Spectre,” are much more immediately sympathetic, more “human.” In the end, however, we are asked to sympathize with an ultra-violent cynicism whose most obvious virtue is only that it is not so deadly as a rationalism that ends up indistinguishable from nihilism.

Adiós Presidente!

Hugo ChávezHugo Chávez was perhaps the most influential figure in Latin American politics over the past twenty years. Not only did he have an immeasurable impact on his own country–to the point of changing its name, from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” He was also the first of the left-wing presidents that comprise the so-called “left turns” in the region. And to the end, nationally and internationally alike, he was no doubt the most divisive of figures. In the reaction to his death we see the intense popularity that he enjoyed among significant sections of the Venezuelan people, as well as the inspirational role he played for many as a standard-bearer for a fairer alternative to neoliberalism and US supremacy. But we also see Venezuelans celebrating his demise (albeit less openly in Caracas than at a distance, in Miami) and a more mainstream assessment of his legacy that stresses ambivalence at best if not outright hostility to Chávez’s excesses and idiosyncracies.

If nothing else, the Venezuelan President was also the most colourful figure we have seen in Latin America for a good long while. Literally as well as figuratively: in his bright red beret or his jumpsuits the vibrant shades of the Venezuelan flag, as well as in his political invective or his apparently impulsive gestures and mischievous antics. What other world leader would, from the UN rostrum in New York, describe the sitting US President (George W Bush) in these terms: “Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Or who else would leap at the chance of an international summit to present the subsequent US Commander in Chief (Barack Obama) with a copy of that classic leftist history, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America? Chávez was exuberant, unpredictable, tireless, and both charming and annoying in equal measure. As Lula puts it in a fascinating homage, “he didn’t allow people to fall asleep.” Many of us, however, like a quiet life and King Juan Carlos of Spain surely spoke for many when he asked in frustration: “Why don’t you shut up?” But where the King is now enmeshed in scandal as the Spanish monarchy’s ratings plummet, Chávez seems to have had the last laugh, with even former foes grudgingly paying him their respects.

The Venezuelan opposition hated and despised Chávez. They barely understood why anyone would vote for him–which is one reason why he beat them soundly in every election he fought. Despite coming late to the democracy game–famously, he came to public prominence with an attempted coup d’état in 1992–Chávez quickly got the hang of it. For all the criticisms that he was some kind of autocrat, it’s best to see his continual efforts at mobilization (of his base) and antagonism (of his opponents) as part of a permanent democratic campaign. Indeed, far from the anti-politics of either technocratic neoliberalism or traditional authoritarianism, Chávez is perhaps best understood as the most consummate of politicians. He thrived on politics, in its purest forms: he was energized by its spirit of antagonism; he separated friends from enemies and sought to expand the ranks of both. The middle classes who saw him as such a threat to their livelihoods took the bait all too easily. They’ll find they miss him.

For if anything unites the rancourous Venezuelan opposition–and little does–it is their visceral distaste for the Comandante. Now that their bête noir is gone, they’ll have to face up to the fact that chavismo without Chávez is a little more complicated, and perhaps a little more robust, than they have assumed.

More soon…

Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi, Survival in AuschwitzThe striking thing about Primo Levi’s testimony, Survival in Auschwitz, is that the Germans barely figure in his account at all. It is a book about the Holocaust in which the ultimate perpetrators are almost entirely absent. In so far as they do appear, they are seen from a distance, glimpsed fleetingly, or presented simply as disembodied voices: “a raucous German voice ordered silence. Another German voice rose up in the sudden quiet [. . .]” (148). If the Germans are invisible it is perhaps because they incarnate the abstract logic of the camp, of the diabolical genocidal program. Germany is almost always invoked in terms of general characteristics: “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger” (19); “the Teutonic sense of humour” (40); “The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence”; “their national love of classification” (156). The Germans exist only en masse, not as individuals–though one assumes that there is a “mysterious German bureaucrat who supervises these matters” (138), he is merely putting a general program into practice. And ultimately, neither the program nor the manner of its implementation make any real sense: “No one can boast of understanding the Germans” (139).

Indeed, in a rather strange passage the Germans are almost absolved (or is it that they are all the more condemned?) in that their behavior is presented as more or less automatic, unthinking and unconscious:

The Germans are deaf and blind, enclosed in an armour of obstinacy and of willful ignorance. [. . .] They construct shelters and trenches, they repair the damage, they build, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen. They could not act differently [. . .]. (141)

It’s like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which a scorpion stings and so kills the frog who is carrying him across a river, ensuring that they both will die. When asked “Why?” the drowning scorpion replies “It’s in my nature.”

There is but one exception to the general rule that Germans are not identified or treated as individuals–and it proves not to be such an exception at all. The only German to be described at any length is not one of the SS men, or a camp commandant. He is the civilian chemist, Doktor Pannwitz, who tests Levi on this knowledge of Chemistry before deciding whether to admit him to the relatively privileged “Chemical Kommando.” Pannwitz is the only German in the book to be named or physically portrayed, though even Levi’s description of his features soon refers us back to the generic: “Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them” (105). And the more typical the doctor becomes, the more unfathomable and unreadable he is. Levi tells us that in front of him he feels “like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” (105). But where Oedipus solved the mythical Sphinx’s riddle, Levi (though he passes the Chemistry exam) fails this more significant test:

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he fileld his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany. (105-6)

Ultimately, this is not a book that claims to explain “the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.” That would be, it seems, an impossible task. Hence its focus is on Levi’s fellow prisoners, and not merely because they are the ones with whom he is in most contact. Nor indeed because it is his fellow prisoners (particularly but not solely the kapos and others who are higher up in the camp’s infernal hierarchy) who are most immediately the agents of Levi’s torture and misfortune: for we soon discover that, here at least, there is no solidarity among the downtrodden, that you can trust nobody and forget about any notion of compassion.

The point rather is that, however inhuman and degraded the prisoners become, it is still worth trying to understand them in all their particularity and individuality. Hence the numerous pen portraits of men such as Schepschel, who survives four years thanks to “small and occasional expedients” (93), Alfred L and his “cold life of the determined and joyless dominator” (95), or Elias Lindzin, “the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living” (97). Levi tells us that the camp was “pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment” (87), and in some sense he is as fascinated as anyone in its results, in what it tells us about the human condition, human habits. This is the “meaning” of the experience, if we have to assign it a meaning. But in the end we can learn nothing about the Germans. As far as Levi is concerned, they are fundamentally unknowable.

Nomad Scholarship

murmurationI’ve been dropped a line by someone involved in “an online blog experiment” that brings together what seems to be a class run by Gene Holland and Brian Rotman on “Multitude, Anarchy, Occupy” at Ohio State, plus a graduate student reading group at the University of Washington.

The OSU course description describes its “core question” as: “What are components–affective, proprioceptive, cognitive, material, and (if any) representational–that make a group of individuals a multitude?”

They are interchanging ideas over at Nomad Scholarship and it’s worth reading their discussions. This week, they’re reading the conclusion to Posthegemony, which you can find here.

Update: And now there are a couple of very insightful (and, I’ll admit, rather flattering) posts up, on Posthegemony: Cheryl Gilge’s “multitudinous” and Keith Harris’s “You had me at ‘posthegemony'”.