Escape and the University

Position paper for panel on “Universidades”
Latin American Studies Association
New York, May 2016

“Escape and the University”

edupunk

“Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young,” declares the subtitle to Anya Kamenetz’s book, Generation Debt. A second, rather longer but more explanatory subtitle, explains why this is so: “Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers.” Who is to blame, then? Well, the “rich geezers,” of course, but more to Kamenetz’s point is the palpable sense of betrayal that she feels towards the university system. For it is the rising cost of tuition–“two or three times faster than inflation for three decades” and “four times more than median family income in the 1990s” (19)–that means that students have to take out loans. Upon graduation, burdened with an average of $24,000 in loan debt, not to mention thousands of dollars of less secure debt such as unpaid credit card balances (5), they discover that all the investment and sacrifice has apparently been in vain. The few jobs on offer are “bad jobs,” often in retail or services, with no long-term security and little in the way of benefits of any kind. Then, as Kamenetz puts it in staccato style: “Layoffs. Underemployment. Flat incomes. No health insurance, no retirement plan, no paid vacation. Unaffordable housing. Moving back in with Mom. Turning thirty with negative savings and no assets.” (xi). Young people, if Kamenetz is to be believed, feel locked into a track leading to inevitable failure and disillusion. Yet these are not slackers, but well-intentioned, hard-working young men and women who aspire simply to the modern benchmark that they should do at least as well as, if not better than, their parents. Moreover, they bear no particular animus towards those who do succeed or have succeeded in the past: they merely want their own chance at prosperity. Hence it is higher education that emerges as the villain of the piece: it is increasingly seen as mandatory (“over 90% of high school graduates of all backgrounds say [. . .] that they hope to go on to college” [5]), but provides ever-fewer rewards. With rising tuition and declining financial aid, students drop out or finally emerge saddled with an impossible debt burden and deep resentment for the university’s broken promises.

Now, Kamenetz’s is far from the first generation of young people who feel let down by their elders and cheated by their institutions. Where it differs is in its response to this perennial problem of contemporary youth. Rather than (say) turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, or rather than starting a punk band (the Sex Pistols, after all, were keen to tell us there was “No Future” back in 1977), the advice offered in Kamenetz’s subsequent book, DIY U, is to continue to pursue an education, but at the institution’s margins. As much self-help as critique, DIY U follows its analysis of the lamentable state of the university sector with a final chapter that is a “Resource Guide for a Do-It-Yourself Education.” The key, it turns out, is to come up with a “personal learning plan” (137) and then to scour the Internet to make that plan a reality. So Kamenetz directs her readers to a multitude of sites from the Internet Archive to YouTubeEDU, TED Talks to Peer2Peer University. If you want more structure to your DIY education, she even suggests an online degree from somewhere like Western Governor’s University or Excelsior College. Moreover, true to her philosophy that an education can and should be provided online, Kamenetz has created her own website, “The Edupunks’ Guide” (http://www.edupunksguide.org; right now apparently offline, but also available as a free download, “copyright Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”), which provides links to everything from “personality tests and quizzes” to a list of “college credit services” that allow you to complete an otherwise abandoned formal degree program. Both in the book and on the website, Kamenetz’s tone is enthusiastic and upbeat: her aim is to transform disillusion into enthusiasm for alternative means to fulfill for yourself precisely the promises that she feels the university system has broken. Hence, her website tells us, “It’s never been a more exciting time to be a learner” as the Internet offers “new methods of content delivery, new platforms for socialization, and new forms of accreditation.” Or as she puts it in her book: “Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, vocational, experiential, and self-directed learning” (x). At times it sounds as though she has swallowed all the management jargon of university administrators–but taken it against the grain, as a prompt to exit the institution.

Kamenetz’s concerns echo, without fully overlapping with, those expressed by a series of tenured faculty who have their own reasons for disillusion with the university system. Thomas Docherty, for instance, argues in Universities at War that “money has systematically replaced thought as the key driver and raison d’être of the institution’s official existence” (ix). Ellen Schrecker, meanwhile, in The Lost Soul of Higher Education (subtitle: “Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University”), traces the history by which (she argues) universities have been “evolving into ever more bureaucratized organizations with an increasingly market-oriented set of priorities that reinforced the university’s long-standing hierarchical structures while weakening its traditional intellectual and educational commitments” (154). And it is for similar reasons that, in a recent essay, Alberto Moreiras argues for an exodus from the institution. “The space of the university,” he tells us, “is today politically unproductive and is blocked or kidnapped in favour of an Empire of money alone.” Speaking from what he calls “the autumn of life,” and a sense of tiredness or indeed “terminal boredom,” Moreiras declares that he “want[s] now to think about other things. Ex universitate.”

All this is another way of saying that the university is posthegemonic: it no longer has the same grip on the imagination of student or teacher alike. Its economic role comes to trump any ideological function that it may once have had. And yet precisely for this reason it looms larger than ever: more and more institutions are designated universities; increasing numbers of students enroll in them; far from being the remote “ivory towers” or cloistered communities of yore, they take up more and more space in our social, economic, and political landscape. The university becomes, perhaps to Kamenetz and Moreiras’s dismay, ever more inescapable. The mistake, however, would be to imagine that it was ever other than posthegemonic. As Ivan Illich put it in his critique at what was surely the height of the university’s prestige (after several waves of post-war expansion, yet while the institution’s relative autonomy was apparently unimpeachable), the school system as a whole has always been less about any hegemonic project and more about the inculcation of particular habits, the fostering of a limited range of affects, and the construction of a determinate mass subjectivity governed by its relationship to transcendental hierarchy. “Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction,” he claims, “they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. ‘Instruction’ smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope” (Deschooling Society 39). The only difference, perhaps, between then and now concerns the ubiquity of the university, the near-compulsory extension of schooling a further three or four years, and the full acceptance even by critics such as Kamenetz of the injunction to training and instruction (self-improvement, self-advancement) even in our so-called leisure time and at our own expense.

The question, it seems to me, is this: not whether we can escape the university, but what escapes its current configuration, and the extent to which we can further facilitate and encourage such escapes either within or without the classroom. In the first instance, that means working with, rather than against, students’ own sensation of frustration and dissatisfaction, their own feeling that they have been short-changed that parallels (even if it does not repeat) our own. Perhaps here we’ll find the inkling of a desire to constitute something new, something beyond the usual complaints, something that would go further than the rather limited aims outlined by Kamenetz. Perhaps here there’s the hint of some kind of constituent power. For ultimately, students have been cheated of their chance to be students, rather than merely consumers, cogs in the machine, or fodder for the employment markets. As Docherty observes, the commercialization of knowledge “attacks the student as student, replacing her with the student-as-consumer who is indebted financially but not ethically” (59). For all the money they put into the system, students have been denied the right to think, to be treated as people who can think for themselves, inside or outside the institution. But as they register their discomfort and unease, they also start to exercise their power. They are bored, too, even by all the university’s attempts to appease and (merely) entertain them. It’s time for them (and us) to create something new.

works cited

  • Docherty, Thomas. Universities at War. London: Sage, 2015.
  • Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1996.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers–And How to Fight Back. New York: Riverhead, 2006.
  • —–. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010.
  • Moreiras, Alberto. “Maquinación ex universitate.” https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/ponencia-para-coloquio-la-universidad-posible-santiago-de-chile-18-21-abril-2016-por-alberto-moreiras/
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Homage to Catalonia I

Homage to Catalonia cover

George Orwell is probably the most famous English political writer of the twentieth century. As such, it is surprising, in Homage to Catalonia, to read him telling us that, at the front of the Spanish Civil War, “the political side of the war bored” him (208). He says of his initial impressions of Catalonia that

the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names–PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (197)

This book, then, part memoir and part political analysis, documents a change in Orwell’s perspective, a form of politicization. For, in his words, “everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later” (198). Homage to Catalonia is, as much as anything, an account of how and why Orwell took side, and began to view the array of political acronyms as more than just some alphabet soup. For it turns out that the war had everything to do with politics–“it was above all things a political war” (197)–and so boredom or disinterest are no longer viable options. It is in the name of politics that a certain–largely fictitious–narrative of the conflict had been propagated, and it is likely that it is in the name of politics that the Republic would be lost.

Yet, if this is the message of the book, Orwell remains strangely ambivalent about it. He tells us, at the start of his first extended disquisition on the internal struggles between Anarchists and Communists, that “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” As he notes, he separates out the analysis from the memoir “to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters” precisely so that the disinterested reader can pass over them and continue following Orwell’s personal journey unperturbed. In other words, in this conflict in which “everyone” has to take sides, the reader is carefully shielded from this responsibility. In fact, in later editions of the book the “political” chapters are relegated to appendices, pushed even more to the margins of the main narrative. But does this not allow precisely the depolititicization, or refusal to engage in politics, against which Orwell’s book is otherwise written? Orwell wants both to protect us against the “horrors of party politics” and (if we are curious to read through the appendices that contain them) to tell us that they are essential to any understanding of the situation in Spain–and indeed, Europe as a whole. At one and the same time, the book both directs us to the centrality of political disagreement and aspires to shield us from it.

It may then be better to think of this as an infrapolitical book, in the sense that it is about what is simultaneously a necessary link and an absolute breach between war and politics. The Spanish Civil War is at the same time a thoroughly political war and absolutely non-political at the same time. The “horrors” of politics are both inevitable and to be avoided if at all possible. Orwell has both to show the connections between the “common decency” for which he came to fight (197) and the political machinations that make it both possible and impossible, and at the same point to keep them utterly separate. This is, of course, an impossible task, which is why in some sense this is an impossible book, fractured and somewhat absurd. But it is in that fracture that we see the struggle between politicization (taking sides) and commonality (common decency) played out, which are the stakes of the war itself, which ultimately can only be understood in these infrapolitical terms.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: Homage to Catalonia II; Spanish Civil War novels.

Coup in Brazil, Protest at LASA

fhc_golpista

At the annual Latin American Studies Association Congress in New York. This year is the Association’s fiftieth anniversary, and as part of the celebrations they planned a special event in which former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso would discuss democracy in the region.

But in Cardoso’s own country, democracy is in trouble, as President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT) has been impeached in circumstances that are dubious at best. And as Perry Anderson notes, in his essential article “Crisis in Brazil”, Cardoso doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of hands in the mess:

Due to preside over the case against Dilma on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was Gilmar Mendes, a crony Cardoso had appointed to the Supreme Court, where he still sits, and who has never made a secret of his dislike of the PT. But Dilma was lesser prey. For Cardoso, the crucial target for destruction was [former PT President] Lula, not simply for reasons of revenge, however much this might be savoured in private, but because there was no telling, given his past popularity, whether he might be capable of a political comeback in 2018 – when, if Dilma survived till then, [Cardoso’s party] the PSDB should otherwise be able to count on steering the country back to a responsible modernity.

There’s more, much more. Read the whole article. (David Miranda offers a rather briefer sketch in The Guardian.) But the point is that Cardoso is hardly the person to be lecturing anyone about democratic process.

So various petitions were circulated, calling on LASA to withdraw its invitation. Rather than doing so (and defending its decision on the grounds that it “cannot endorse a particular side”), the organization apparently simply changed the title of the session. But in any case, for whatever reasons of his own, a couple of days before the congress was due to begin, the former president indicated that he was no longer able to attend.

Still, the banners had already been painted, the t-shirts printed, so a brief demonstration took place nonetheless, as the photo above indicates. “FHC Golpista” translates as something like “Cardoso, coup-mongerer.” In some ways it’s a shame that Fernando Henrique ultimately chose to decline his invitation; it left the protest a little at a loss. More generally, though, as the Left is in crisis throughout the region (voted out in Argentina; impeached in Brazil; in meltdown in Venezuela) it’s good to remember that, whatever the undoubted failures of left-wing parties and leaders, there are always external forces looking for their chance to pounce.

Stasis

Agamben, Stasis

Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.

Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:

it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)

For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).

To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.

The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

Luna de lobos

Llamazares, Luna de lobos

Julio Llamazares’s Luna de lobos reads a little like a story of one of the so-called Japanese “holdouts,” soldiers who continued to fight the Second World War long after the official end of hostilities. In this case, though, the post-Civil War stragglers keep fighting not because they are unaware that the war is over, but because they know that in fact it isn’t.

At first, there are four of them: the narrator, Angel; Ramiro, who quickly establishes himself as the group’s leader, and his brother, Juan; and Gildo. They have been fighting on the Republican side in Asturias, in Spain’s Northwest. When the front collapses in the Autumn of 1937, they find themselves too far from the zones of continued Republican control (either around Madrid and further South or in Catalonia to the East) and a long way from the French border. So their only option is to take to the hills, near their home villages, hoping for some kind of support from their family and friends, without ever being able to go back home so long as the fascist civil guards remain in their pursuit.

Their tale is recounted in four parts, each a snapshot of a distinct year as the war comes to its conclusion and then the post-war reprisals continue: 1937, 1939, 1943, 1946. They are armed with machine gun and pistols, and make some small incursions on the hamlets in the valley, but these are mostly defensive or to secure food and shelter. Even before the war as a whole is over (and despite a vague plan proposed by one of their contacts), it is abundantly clear that they are fighting not for the Republic but for their own survival. And as time goes by, one by one they lose this war, too. Juan is the first to be killed, as he disappears on a quest to see his mother and bring back food and blankets. Then Gildo, betrayed and ambushed as they desperately try to rustle up money to bribe a local stationmaster to get them on a train to freedom. Then Ramiro. Until finally there is only one.

As this small remnant of the Republican army gradually diminishes still further, it becomes increasingly spectral, less and less human. Almost from the start, they are compared to animals, particularly the wolves of the novel’s title. They may still be alive, but theirs is a “bare life” indeed. They become ever more cut off from the community, as those who initially help them out (a shepherd who provides them with a sheep, a doctor who attends to a wound, for instance) become increasingly reluctant, either for fear of reprisals or in hope that they will simply go away. Towards the end, Angel imagines that in his years haunting the villagers he has become a “legend,” renowned as a man “indomitable and invisible [. . .] observing them from somewhere [. . .] immortal as his shadow, distant as the wind, astute, intelligent, invincible” (136). But when finally even his sister rejects him, having allowed him to rest in what is almost literally a subterranean grave under the farmyard, he realizes that he is at best an unquiet ghost, and that those who are still fully in the land of the living would rather he disappear once and for all.

Ramiro, before he dies and while he still has revenge of his own to enact, tells the local priest that the holdouts are “like God: we see everything from up there” in their hidden cave high on the hillside (93). And the narrator, the last of the group, is an angel by name and perhaps also by nature when he tells us he has “descended” at last, to visit his father’s grave (137). But he is also aware he has become “a pest for real,” “a pest whose proximity spooks both humans and animals” (125). He stands in no doubt for a memory that has to be erased for his loved ones to lead anything like a normal life. In the end, indeed, you can’t help feeling sympathy for them. His soul, he tells us, is “white” but also “rotten” (145). He is the living dead, a zombie as much as a revenant. When his sister tells him that “this land has no forgiveness. This land is cursed for you” (151), she is speaking out of simple realism.

But then there is the performative contradiction of the novel itself. It seems to be arguing for forgetfulness, in favour of the wholesale oblivion to which the Republican cause was consigned at the end of the war. It makes little effort to ingratiate either the so-called wolves or the lost cause as a whole with us: we are told, for instance, that Angel was once a teacher, but have little sense of his past life and still less idea as to why he took up arms for the Republic. The case it seems to be making is the same one made by the villagers, that these men are better off dead, that the past should remain firmly past. And yet it does so precisely by resurrecting these restless ghosts, by returning to their still-fresh graves. For something to be forgotten it first has to be remembered, and Luna de lobos is as much about remembering the collective edict to forget as it is about repeating it.

Espoir: Sierra de Teruel

From the Encyclopédie Larousse:

Espoir est le seul film de l’écrivain André Malraux, par ailleurs auteur d’un roman intitulé l’Espoir, consacré au même thème.

Montré clandestinement en 1939, ce pamphlet sobre et lyrique n’est sorti qu’à la Libération, précédé d’un commentaire de Maurice Schumann. Plus que d’une œuvre de pure propagande, il s’agit de l’une des premières tentatives françaises (réussie) de cinéma-vérité. Auteur complet de son film, qu’il a écrit, dialogué, réalisé et même monté, Malraux use des images et des sons de la même manière qu’il se servait des mots dans la Condition humaine. Pour lui, le contexte socio-politique est un personnage à part entière. Il prend soin de décrire la guerre d’Espagne comme un catalyseur de passions vécues non pas par des individus isolés, mais plutôt par une communauté déchirée dans sa chair. En ce sens, il annonce le reportage tel qu’il s’est développé à l’occasion de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’instigation de photographes comme Robert Capa, fondateur de l’agence Magnum en 1939. En outre, Malraux évite le piège dans lequel tombent souvent les écrivains cinéastes : les grands discours moralisateurs.

Espoir est une chronique dépouillée qui tend à ressembler le plus possible aux actualités cinématographiques de l’époque, sans en reprendre le ton sentencieux. Les faits sont là et les images se suffisent à elles-mêmes, l’une des qualités primordiales de cette œuvre étant l’habileté avec laquelle les documents pris sur le vif sont intégrés aux scènes de fiction pure. La distribution composée d’inconnus renforce encore cet aspect et confère aux différentes anecdotes une authenticité qui sait ne jamais tricher avec la vérité des sentiments.

Cette osmose est sans doute due à la dérive d’un projet qui ne devait constituer initialement qu’un post-scriptum au roman écrit en 1937. Les deux œuvres n’ont d’ailleurs finalement que très peu de points communs, sinon cette passion de la liberté qui allait conduire l’auteur dans les rangs de la Résistance.

See also the film’s IMDB page.

Days of Hope II

André Malraux

If the problem that André Malraux’s Days of Hope poses is that of the confrontation between the virtues and emotions of human subjectivity–hope, courage, enthusiasm–and a new form of mechanized warfare that puts a premium on objective technological efficiency, this is complicated by the fact that the very opposition repeatedly breaks down. For on the one hand the machines cannot be so easily reduced to an instrumentalized, technical logic. And on the other hand, the figure of the human is constantly in danger of disappearing or of being subsumed into a more general and impersonal landscape of affect. In short, the machines seem to take on a life of their own, while the men (and women) fighting the war have trouble holding on to their appearance of individualized identity.

Some of this blurring of the machinic and the human is a matter of perspective. After all, Malraux shows us the war from the air, a point of view that might be imagined to offer a broader and more objective panorama, but which in practice simply confounds established certainties. Hence when the Republican Flight brings along a local peasant, to help them locate a hidden Falangist airstrip, at first his local knowledge of the terrain proves useless, as he is unaccustomed to looking down on it from above: “His mouth half-open, and tears zig-zagging down his cheeks, one after the other, the peasant was straining every nerve to see where they were. He could recognize nothing” (395). But more broadly, even for seasoned pilots, from the air things take on a different aspect. On one of their early mission, for instance, they see a road “studded with little red dots. [. . .] too small to be cars, yet moving too mechanically to be men. It looked as if the roadway itself was in motion.” This turns out to be a column of Fascist lorries, but to see them as such requires the pilot to have “a gift of second sight: seeing things in his mind, not through his eyes.” And even then, he retains the impression that the landscape and infrastructure itself has come to life as he observes a “road [. . .] that throbbed and thundered–the road of fascism” (86).

But even closer to the ground, the distinction between the animate and the inert is often hard to discern. At one point, for example, during the defence of Madrid, we are provided with the perspective of a fire-fighter named Mercery high up on his ladder, who imagines himself battling “an enemy with more life in it than any man, more life than anything else in the world. Combating this enemy of a myriad writhing tentacles, like a fantastic octopus, Mercery felt himself terrible inert, as though made of lead” (342). Shortly thereafter, machine-gunned by a Fascist plane, he is described as “living or dead” as he “still clung to the nozzle of his hose”–as though the border between life and death had here become strictly undecidable, or perhaps (however briefly) irrelevant. Elsewhere, even the confrontation between infantry and tank, which is otherwise staged as the classic clash between man and machine (for faced with the tank only the dynamite-laden “dinamiteros [. . .] can face the machine on equal terms” [197]), is also put into question. At Guadarrama we discover that “a machine can seem startled on occasion.” Faced with anti-tank machine guns, “four of them–three in the first line, one in the second–tilted up simultaneously with an air of puzzlement: ‘What on earth is happening to us now?’” (310).

And at the Battle of Teruel, things are further complicated by the deployment of a loud-speaker, a machine that talks: “inert, yet alive because it spoke” (381). Later, as the noise of battle dies down, it is described in personifying terms: “the loud-speaker had been waiting for this lull” (384). More generally, the technology of mass reproduction–represented here by cartoon characters such as “Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck” (368)–conjure up “the modern fairyland, the world in which those who are killed all come back to life” (369). Technology both brings to humanity death and destruction but also offers the world forms of (re)animation that trouble the very distinction between human and inhuman, living and dead.

If then the machines increasingly take on a life of their own, what distinguishes the human? At the best in the novel, the men and women who populate it eke out a fairly shadowy and precarious existence. Again, this is partly a function of the recurring aerial perspective: from on high or far off, people either disappear are easily dehumanized, for instance (in the case of deserters going over to the enemy) appearing to be no more than “insects waving their antennae” (305) or (in the case of Fascists flushed out of the forest) adopting “the same panic-stricken scamper as the herd of cattle they had just stampeded” (398). Again, however, even on the ground they tend to dissolve into the environment: “shadows,” “ghosts,” “wraiths,” and “shadowy forms” in the Madrid mist, for example (265, 266, 267, 270); or collectively constituting “a frenzied mass” (204) or a “panic-stricken mob [. . .] like leaves whirled together and then dispersed by the wind” (225). Even in terms of the novel’s own representational strategy, which constantly jumps between locations and discrete episodes, there is little attempt to give many of the characters much realist depth or rounded individuality; they tend simply to incarnate particular positions or singular attitudes, becoming spokespeople for (say) Anarchism or Communism, or exemplary instantiations of stubbornness or self-sacrifice.

If there is something that, for Malraux, can (still) be said to be distinctly human, it is perhaps the face. This perhaps is why the novel repeatedly recurs to the human face, and to the notion that the face somehow stands in for individual character (men are variously described, for instance, in terms of a “jovial solid-looking jowl” [9] or a “predatory face, hook nose, and twinkling eyes” [18] and so on), and also more generally for shared humanity. In an atmosphere frequently characterized by gloom and indiscernibility, Malraux often has faces suddenly revealed or lit up, as for instance when an explosion at Toledo catches a group of dinamiteros “open mouthed, their cheeks lit by the livid purplish sheen of flame and moonlight mingled [such that] each saw the face that he would wear in death” (199). Or when an aeroplane is caught in a searchlight and “a sense of comradeship in arms pervaded the cabin flooded with menacing light; now for the first time since they began the flight, these men could see each other” (234; emphasis in original) and as a result, in the aftermath, each of the crew “had vividly before him the picture of the features of his comrade as they had been thrown into relief for that brief moment” (235). There is something about the face of the other that gives us both his (or her) truth, and reminds us of some shared commonality.

Except, of course, that warfare also destroys the face and our perception of it. On the one hand, the novel repeatedly gives us instances of blindness, either permanent or temporary, which make it impossible to see the face. And the face of the blind is also somehow grotesque, we are told: the father of the blinded airman Jaime tells us that he “can’t bear to look at his face” (279). But war also mutilates its victims such that there is no face to be seen. This is what happens to Gardet, another airman, whose plane crashes towards the end of the book: his face is “slashed wide open from ear to ear. The lower part of the nose was hanging down.” As a result, would-be rescuers flee from the sight, and Gardet muses “If I look at my mug just now, I’ll kill myself” (409). Even bandaged up, the effect is that of “a tragic bas-relief of Armageddon” (411).

Throughout, then, Malraux tries to maintain the distinction between human and machine (as well as between the human and he animal), but ultimately the war puts such differences into question. More likely, we end up with a variety of hybrid combinations of man, machine, and nature, in which what is presumptively object is animated and gains features of subjectivity (such as affect and agency), while men and women defer or abdicate some part of their subjectivity as they take up their places in the “endless flux of things” (423). Sometimes these hybrids are empowering, as with the case of the pilot who “feel[s] the contact of the stick, welded to the body, identified with it” (401). Sometimes they are grotesque, as with the battering ram used at the siege of the Montaña Barracks, a “strange geometrical monster” (32) wielded by men on either side of it, one of whom dies under fire and “slump[s] across the moving beam, arms dangling on one side, legs on the other. Few of his companions noticed him; the battering-ram continued lumbering slowly forward, with the dead body riding it” (33). Here, man and machine, animate and inanimate, dead and alive all come to constitute a collective apparatus of war in which any categorical distinctions are untenable if not irrelevant. This complicates any notions of fraternity. Yet such is modern warfare. And in so far as war teaches us how to live (Manuel, perhaps the novel’s major character, tells us that “a new life started for me with the war” [428]), it is also, quite simply, modern life.

See also: Days of Hope I; Spanish Civil War novels.

Primera memoria

Matute, Primera Memoria

In Ana María Matute’s Primera memoria, the civil war is doubly displaced. In the first instance, the novel is set entirely on an island in the Balearics, so while the conflict rages on the mainland, news comes only indirectly via the newspapers and the radio. In the island’s atmosphere of “hypocritical peace,” the conflict comes to seem ghostly or “phantasmatic: far away and close up at the same time, perhaps more fearful because it couldn’t be seen” (15). The narrator, a fourteen-year old girl named Matia, finds herself stranded there as she is visiting her grandmother when hostilities break out. A brief vacation turns into months of isolation in a world she doesn’t fully understand. Second, Matia’s sense of distance from both her surroundings and the war is exacerbated by her youth. Her extended stay coincides with a point of transition as she hovers on the threshold of adulthood but has yet quite to put childish things aside. The war is most certainly an adult affair and Matia has her own preoccupations as she is forced to study alongside her fifteen-year-old cousin, Borja, who with his mother (Matia’s aunt) is likewise unable to return to the mainland. Their tutor is an ex-seminarian, not much older than them, called Lauro. The two of them escape from their family and Lauro as often as they can, to indulge in all the usual activities of coming of age and extended vacations: idling, smoking, drinking, conspiring, exchanging confidences in hushed tones, and fighting and finding love with the local youths. All this leaves little time to worry too much about the war’s progress.

And yet, distant and displaced as it is, the war pervades everything. There is a marked sense of tension throughout the island, and an undercurrent of violence and hatred. The young people have their own war among themselves, which pits them against each other along battle lines that clearly inscribe class difference: young Borja, future inheritor of his grandmother’s estate, ropes in on his side not only his cousin Matia but also the local doctor’s son and the children of his grandmother’s majordomo; against them are arrayed a ragtag group of kids from the local village, including the sons of the blacksmith, the carter, the carpenter, and the washerwoman. But their conflict also invokes older enmities, as they scrap on the site where years before the island’s Jews had been burned alive. Cruelty and suspicion are all around, as if burned into the landscape by the harsh and unforgiving sun.

It is just that the conflict remains mostly repressed, a matter of rumour and innuendo. But if the truth were told, the lines of alliance and enmity would be more complicated than they first appear. Matia’s and Borja’s fathers, both fighting on the mainland, are ranged on opposite sites of the conflict: the one a Republican, the other a colonel with the fascist forces who (Borja proudly boasts) “can order whoever he feels like to be shot by a firing squad” (58). What’s more, when Matia and Borja come across a dead body, a man shot by the local bully boys for supposedly being a “red,” it slowly emerges that the victim’s family is strangely entwined with their own. His son, Manuel, may well be Borja’s half-brother, both of them (Manuel knows and Borja likes to think) bastard offspring of a distant and somewhat mysterious relative, Jorge de Son Major, who has broken off from the family and is now a semi-recluse who shelters behind his property’s high walls, attended to only by an aged retainer. The kids pluck up their courage and visit, hoping perhaps for some kind of resolution, but inside the walled garden all they find is further confusion and mockery: a hall of mirrors in which nothing is quite as it seems and Jorge urges a parody of matrimony on Matia and Manuel while the retainer (Matia thinks) “poison[s]” them with his guitar music. No wonder that Matia should conclude that the “pathetic grown-ups” are “dirty and kitsch” (154), and that she should cling on to childhood (her doll, fairy stories) as long as possible.

So the truth will not be told. The novel ends with a dramatic scene of confession and revelation that in fact serves only to muddy the waters still further. Meanwhile, Borja effectively blackmails both Lauro and Matia, in his cousin’s case by threatening to denounce something that isn’t in fact true, but that is perhaps all the more believable as Matia herself has been trying to get Borja to believe it. As a result, Matia becomes complicit in the expulsion of her friend Manuel from the island. This is a punishment that, given the ill will and malice that infect the place, might almost be taken to be a liberation. But Lauro’s fate indicates otherwise: as Borja and Matia’s long vacation finally comes to an end, he enlists in the army only (we are told by a narrative voice that occasionally interjects to indicate that all this is a memory from long ago) to be killed at the front just a month later. There seems little chance of relief in this novel marked by claustrophobia, fear, suspicion, hysteria, malice, and hatred.

However much the children are repeatedly escaping–they avoid the war by being on the island; they slip away from their lessons and from their imperious grandmother–they end up all the more tangled up in everything. Displacement is an illusion, if it doesn’t just make things worse. This is a bleak book, and while you may want to applaud its refusal to indulge in the kind of moralizing search for heroes that mars other narratives of the war, when you realize that it’s merely the first in a trilogy you have to hope that things get better in the subsequent volumes. But the fact that their titles are Los soldados lloran de noche (Soldiers Cry by Night) and La trampa (The Trap) suggests that they probably don’t.

See also: Spanish Civil War novels.

Days of Hope I

André Malraux

Hope is at best an ambivalent sentiment: it both resists and recognizes doubt. “Hope springs eternal,” but we “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It is also strangely passive: when we hope something happens (or that it doesn’t), we are acknowledging that it is somehow beyond our control. When we hope, we lay ourselves open to circumstance and fate. So hope is both resilient and fatalistic: hope against hope.

Something of this ambivalence can certainly be seen in André Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel, L’espoir (translated variously as Man’s Hope or Days of Hope). On the one hand, the book tracks the first few months of the war, before factional infighting had destroyed a Revolution whose “driving force,” one of Malraux’s characters tells us, “is–hope” (37). On the other hand, even at this early stage the Republic’s weaknesses are clear and it often seems as though hope is all its adherents have, and even that is “gasping to survive, like a man who is being throttled” (44). It’s all too easy for an apparent cause for optimism to be revealed as nothing more than a “charitable lie” (93). Malraux’s characters are therefore torn between a self-defeating realism and a hope they know (not so very) deep down to be impossible and self-deluding. Hence the revolutionary spirit is described as a “Apocalypse of fraternity” (100). It embodies all the virtues of human sociability and commonality, but for that very reason it is doomed: “the apocalyptic mood clamours for everything right away. [. . . But] it’s in the very nature of an Apocalypse to have no future. . . . Even when it professes to have one” (102).

Hope alone, then, is insufficient, not least because this (Malraux suggests) is a new kind of war: “a war of mechanized equipment”; and yet the Republicans are “running it as if noble emotions were all that mattered!” (98). But Malraux doesn’t allow this question to be fully settled. Instead, his characters continuously argue (at times, bicker) about the role of technology, organization, and efficiency in determining the war’s outcome. For the intellectual, Garcia, for instance the problem is that the Revolutionaries are taking the Russian Revolution as their model, forgetting that this was not so much “the first revolution of the twentieth century” as “the last of the nineteenth. The Czarists had neither tanks nor ‘planes; the revolutionaries used barricades. [. . .] Today Spain is littered with barricades–to resist Franco’s warplanes” (99). Later he points out that, whatever bravery the disorganized Republican militias may demonstrated, “mass courage in the field [. . .] can’t stand up against ‘planes and machine guns” (176). And as for the Republicans’ ragtag airforce, endlessly waiting for Russian planes that never come (while Hitler and Mussolini ensure that Franco is endlessly supplied), as Garcia says to the airman Magnin: “I doubt if you expect to keep your Flight up to the mark on a basis of mere fraternity” (102). For Garcia, “this would be a technicians’ war” (98).

By contrast, however, other voices vouch for fraternity, courage, and hope, even in the cause of a losing side–and even, indeed, if they ensure that the cause itself is lost. The anarchist Negus, for instance, declares that “it’s courage gets things done. Cut the crap!” (171). And from a rather different perspective, Hernandez, a career army officer who refuses to join Franco’s mutiny, declares that “a world without hope is . . . suffocating. Or else, a purely physical world” (195). Speaking of the militia, who too often resemble a disorganized and ineffective rabble, he says that “if nothing in you responds to the hope that animate them, well then, go to France, there’s nothing for you to do here” (196). And to Garcia, Hernandez asks “What’s the point of a revolution if it isn’t to make men better?” and argues that it can be brought about by “the most humane element of humanity.” (180). To which Garcia responds that “Moral ‘uplift’ and magnanimity are matters for the individual, with which the revolution has no direct concern; far from it!” (183). But even Garcia concedes the dangers involved: that “a popular movement, or a revolution, or even a rebellion, can hold on to its victory only by methods directly opposed to those which gave it victory” (102). For to lose hope it to give in to cynicism, and to put one’s faith in technology is to put efficiency and effectiveness on a pedestal, and ultimately you are a hair’s breadth away from fascism, at least as it is defined here: “The cynical action plus a taste for action makes man a fascist, or a potential fascist–unless there’s loyalty behind him” (143).

There is, however, perhaps a third option, beyond this opposition between dignified humanism on the one hand and technocratic pragmatism on the other. For the technology that does indeed pervade everything in the novel (almost always, for instance, there is a radio on somewhere in the background) has effects that are as much aesthetic as military. There are frequent comparisons with the movie industry, for instance: Madrid is described as “an enormous film studio” (36); an in Toledo “the fierce light of a film studio played on ruins like the wreckage of a temple of the East” (161); the aviator Scali is compared to “an American film comedian” (118); Hernandez’s friend Moreno’s face is described in terms of its “screen-star symmetry” (195). And at the very end of the first part of the novel, when Hernandez is facing a fascist firing squad, he thinks of it as some kind of grotesque cinematic scene: “yes, all was ready for the camera” (220).

All of which suggests that the true stakes of the war (and the revolution) may not be so much moral or political as in the realm of representation. Hence, listening to “the strident triumph of fraternal unity” as a parade of troops goes by, the American journalist Slade comments that “There’s a spark of poetry [. . .] in every man, and one day he has to come out with it” (37). His friend, Lopez, replies that “we’ve here right now a mob of painters” and argues the need for a revolutionary art or “style” that’s “got to be something definite, not a vague abstraction like ‘the masses’” (38). “One day,” he continues, “that new style of ours will catch on in the whole of Spain, just as the cathedral style spread over Europe, and their painters have given Mexico a revolutionary fresco style” (40). And so perhaps this is where Malraux’s hope is invested: the Republicans may indeed lose the war, and the Revolution may indeed be doomed (may have to be doomed for it not to become itself simply the mirror image of the fascism that opposes it), but somehow an aesthetic style may survive these losses, and take hold not only in Spain but also far beyond.

See also: Days of Hope II; Spanish Civil War novels.

San Camilo, 1936 II

Cela, San Camilo

There are radios throughout Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936. One of the major characters, the ardent Republican Engracia, even has a boyfriend who repairs radios. But they often go unheard. At the crucial moment at which the news comes through that a “part of the army in Morocco has risen in armed rebellion” (152) it seems that nobody is listening. We are told of the maids Paulina and Javiera, for instance, that they “always have the radio on, but turn it off whenever the news begins, it’s so boring” (153). When more information starts to come through of events in North Africa and the Canaries–and at the novel’s first mention of Franco–it’s said that “few people listen to the radio, and fewer still at eight o’clock in the morning, at that time hardly anyone thinks of listening to the radio [. . .] you really have to be a morning person and the inhabitants of Madrid tend not to be morning people, it’s not worth it” (157). So it takes some time to register what is going on.

In fact, even by the end of the novel (almost two hundred pages later), it is hardly clear that many, if anyone, have really registered that an epochal change has taken place, a historical rupture opened up. The first mention of the phrase “civil war” comes a good fifty pages after what, with hindsight, would become known as its outbreak, and even then it is presented as a future possibility that might yet be averted if the army would only “bring peace and prevent all these events from degenerating” (213). But there is some vacillation here: if peace still has to be brought, does this not imply that war has already broken out? Amid all the uncertainty on which Cela’s novel thrives, the very border between peace and war becomes diffuse, undecidable. In the book’s epilogue the narrator’s uncle, Jerónimo, declares that “we Spaniards live in a start of permanent civil wars, in the plural, all against all, but also in an inhospitable civil war against ourselves and with our wounded and suffering hearts and battlefields” (358). But this sounds more than anything like a Hobbesian state of nature, as if the problem were that there is no Spanish “civil society” at all, no nation over which contending sides could fight.

And indeed, Uncle Jerónimo comes out against the nation, but in favour of the patria or fatherland: “the fatherland is more permanent than the nation, and more natural and flexible, fatherlands were invented by the Great Creator, nations are made by men, fatherlands have a language with which to sing and trees and rivers, nations have a language that’s for promulgating decrees” (357). In short, in Jerónimo’s hands–and the epilogue is given over almost entirely to his voice alone, in contrast to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that characterize the book until that point–the novel shifts from what I early called infrapolitics to an avowed antipolitics whose (in fact, merely disavowed) political investments are clear enough. For Jerónimo is less opposed to politics than he is to the liberal institutions of the nation state that he–like Franco–is quite prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of a notional “fatherland” whose purported legitimacy and authority are given by God himself. Hence also the novel’s rather chilling final lines, declaring that “whatever you think this is not the end of the world, [. . .] this is but a purge of the world, a preventative and bloody purge but not an apocalyptic one [. . .] we can calmly go sleep, it must be very late already, I assure you that suffering is less important than how you conduct yourself, let’s go sleep, it must be very late already and the heart gets weary with so much foolishness” (366). All is well, please move along, nothing to see here, just a little housecleaning and the fatherland will rise again.

There is a logic to this conclusion, if we take what has gone before, with Madrid portrayed as a hotbed of licentiousness and prostitution, as a sign that the stables now need to be cleaned out and the corruption of politics erased. This is more or less the argument of Paul Ilie who, in a remarkably angry article (I have seldom seen one angrier) on “The Politics of Obscenity in San Camilo, 1936, claims that Cela goes out of his way to portray the Republic as obscene so as to justify the (eminently political) rejection of politics. At the same time, Imre points out, Cela wants to have his cake and eat it: what he provides is “political pornography” that “seeks to titillate bourgeois taste by means of verbal prurience, immoral suggestiveness, and sado-erotic anecdote” (51, 47).

But instead of dwelling on the all-too familiar hypocrisy of this rhetorical tactic, another way of reading the novel would be to emphasize the ways in which the final epilogue doesn’t so much follow on from what has gone before as attempt to capture it, ultimately without success. For something always escapes–and here, that something is plenty. To put this another way: the epilogue is a betrayal of everything that makes the rest of the novel so fascinating and worthwhile, even if it is a betrayal that has been building from the start, long planned from the very moment at which Cela gives us his narrator staring at the mirror, idly masturbating, wondering whether to sleep with a prostitute who smells of “grease and cologne” (14). All this is obscene enough, indeed, but it is what gives the novel its substance. Without it, there would be nothing; by contrast, the transcendent fatherland peddled by the epilogue is a paltry fiction indeed. This has hardly been a novel of “trees and rivers.” It’s not the betrayal that defines and constitutes the book; it’s what is betrayed.

And whatever one thinks of governments and decrees, in fact these are hardly the key elements of the community (however corrupt) that San Camilo, 1936 depicts. If anything, it’s the call and response of radio and multitude that defines the historical situation that Cela outlines. For in the end “in a city of a million inhabitants it’s enough that a couple of dozen listen to the radio, if the rumour comes from a dozen different sources it floods the city in a couple of hours” (161). Rumour, the voice(s) of the anonymous multitude, a collectivity that fucks and shits and fights and stumbles, is what gives life to history and to the city, and ultimately to the novel that parasitically tries to capture it, too.