Blind Date

blind-date

The premise of Blind Date is that Mimi, a thirty-something year old French woman recently arrived in town, has been stood up at a bar. She therefore invites a member of the audience to take on the role of her date for the ninety minutes that follow: at the bar, in a car back to her place, at her apartment, and then (if the rest of the audience decides that this is what they want to see) wherever the two of them end up five years later. Last Thursday, at the Vancouver ArtsClub, I was that audience member brought up on stage.

This was not entirely a surprise. I was aware of the general concept in advance, and open to the possibility of taking part. Before the show was due to begin, the actors (as well as Mimi and her date, there are a couple of other roles to play) circulated through the lobby, chatting to audience members and asking them, and whoever they came with–their “real” dates–whether they were willing to be “maybes” for the evening’s performance. Tess Degenstein, the (magnificent) actress playing Mimi, was already in character, trading smalltalk and probing consent. But it was only after we had taken our seats, and the show had started, that the night’s blind date was called upon.

The essence of the show is improvisation, and the recognition that first dates are always a matter of performance: reacting and responding to the person you are meeting; shaping what is hopefully an attractive image of yourself for them; but also (if things go well) helping them to perform well for you. A date is a joint production, and if it goes well it is because both parties have helped that to happen, and helped the other to make it happen, too. A date is successful if you manage to come close to being the best “you” you can be; but also if you allow the other person to be the best “them.” Here, in the theatre, though, the stakes were doubled: I was not only to perform for Mimi; the two of us were also performing for an audience of which I had been, until very recently, a part. But the part that I was now playing distanced me from them, and I felt a responsibility to put on a good enough show, not least for my (real) date, Fiona. If anything, the stakes were tripled, in that I was of course aware that my partner on stage was also acting, and that I should perform for her by picking up on her cues, as we both (presumably) set out in some way to entertain. Was my performance up to the occasion?

The set-up dealt with the split between the actor and their role by establishing that either of us could call a “time out,” and we would step out of our roles and move to a space to the side of the stage, where we could discuss the ground rules and check in with each other (or the audience). But at the same time, one of the principles of the production was that I should “be myself,” with the one proviso that I should pretend that I was single. Similarly, Degenstein afterwards told me that everything she had revealed about herself during the show was true, with the one exception that she is not, in fact, French. We were both, then, playing ourselves; or rather, our selves at but one remove. But isn’t that always the case on a date, for which one of the most important roles we play is authenticity and honesty, but in which we try to be authentic to the person that we would like to be, or like to be seen as being? And what or who that person is depends often on the feedback provided by our partner, who is playing precisely the same game of aspiring to be true to the person that we would want them to be.

A date then fails not so much because we are not who our partner wants us to be (or vice versa), but when we decide that we do not want to be that person. It fails when we are no longer “maybes,” when we no longer want to perform, and substitute being for becoming.

Again, on stage all this was complicated by an uncertainty about who I was performing to: the character (Mimi); the actress (Tess); or the audience. There were plenty of misfires as the two of us tried to establish a rhythm, to figure out where the other wanted to take things, or where they wanted to be taken.

Like a “real” date, the performance is structured by a tension between spontaneity and habit. On the one hand, the show can go anywhere: every night is different; it stretches the practice of improvisation as each time one of the principal characters is taking part for one performance only; we could take the conversation and the outcome (not least in the coda five years into the future) in almost any direction. On the other hand, that “almost” is important: the show is clearly divided into pre-established scenes and set pieces; characters and situations were introduced to which we had to react, from deciding who would pay the bar bill to who would sit where in Mimi’s apartment; there were pathways to choose between rather than complete freedom of choice. In short, the creativity and innovation of improvisation are constrained not only by your partner or audience, but also by the way-stations and routines that help you manage what would otherwise be an abyss of unlimited possibility. Such habits help to manage uncertainty, in life as much as on stage: there will be a bill; the decision to go home or not; to end the night chastely or otherwise. Customs and conventions circumscribe and help to determine all these decision points. Ultimately, every date (every play) comes to one of a limited set of dénouements: tragedy or comedy; satire or farce.

A few days after going to Blind Date, I watched “Bandersnatch” which, with its “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, also encourages audience participation, giving us all a series of choices to exercise, moments of improvisation and creativity, if along pre-determined pathways. Similarly, the Black Mirror episode is different each time; every viewer has the chance to see or experience something that nobody else experiences. But with the TV show, if you don’t like an outcome you can always go back and try again. Not so with the live performance (and not always so with a date!). I admit that over the past few days I have been repeatedly struck with l’esprit d’escalier: things that I might have said or done that could have been better, wittier, more entertaining, or whatever it was that I was searching to be.

At one point in our onstage conversation, while we were still struggling to find common ground, Mimi (or Tess) said that she enjoyed reading. Still unsure about the distance between character and actor, I expected her to mention something French, but she said that one of her favourites was TS Eliot, specifically The Wasteland. You might think this an admission to kill just about any date, but she went on to explain why: that she liked the poem’s multiplicity of voices, even if she didn’t feel she understood the whole thing. I could have said then (but didn’t; I let the cue drop and, I think, mumbled something indistinct) that Eliot’s working title for the work was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. Which is in turn one of Eliot’s many allusions and references, in this case to Dickens and Our Mutual Friend, to a performance conjured up by one of that novel’s characters from the most mundane and routine of occasions: reading the newspaper; “And I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” With these voices or voicings, as well as with all the other citations and references that pepper Eliot’s poem and make it, indeed, so intimidating and difficult, is an attempt to give a sense of life and wonder to the everyday, to keep us on our toes and think critically about the roles we are constantly performing so that they are not completely overtaken by habit.

Blind Date is not The Wasteland. Far from it, and that is no doubt a good thing, too. But I liked the way in which playful improvisation and high modernism briefly and unexpectedly met in that moment, in a space of equally unlikely and apparently contradictory encounters: between performance and authenticity, innovation and habit. Because in the end that is what we want from a date: a flicker of improbable and eye-opening connection; a surprise or two, just as Mimi (and perhaps Tess), and the audience (and definitely I), had no idea what we were getting into.

Laughing Len

Leonard Cohen

The first time I heard of Leonard Cohen was when I was fifteen, back in 1985. Though strictly speaking, the first song I heard was neither written nor performed by him.

I had been sent to South London to stay with my uncle for a week or two, the summer after finishing my A-Levels. My uncle, however, had his own plans the night I arrived, and they clearly didn’t include me. So he gave me the addresses of a couple of his friends, whom he encouraged me to visit. Gamely, I set off to knock on the doors of these people I had never met, and who hadn’t a clue as to who I was. But I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed in, nobody even batting an eye at the apparition of this slightly lost young boy from up north who announced he was Andrew the hairdresser’s nephew.

I soon found myself installed in a cluttered living room, lined with couches. People came and went. I was no doubt offered a beer or two. The air was hazy with smoke. There had been some kind of party the night before, and the floor was haphazardly piled high with LPs–some in their sleeves, some not. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But rather than listening to the stereo, my host, Steve, was strumming his guitar. Older–my uncle’s age–bearded, somewhat grizzled, but with lively blue eyes, he seemed to emanate obscure knowledge like some sort of shaman. I asked him if he knew any songs about the Spanish Civil War. He played “The Partisan,” Cohen’s version of a song (in fact) originally about the French Resistance. It was more than close enough for me.

And Steve carried on playing Cohen songs: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Perhaps “Bird on a Wire.” It turned out that, in this company at least, some of these tunes were made for singing along: “So Long, Marianne,” for instance. Cohen would prove to be the soundtrack, the shared memory and experience, for a whole new world I was stepping into. For this was just the first of many such informal, impromptu gatherings over the next decade or so, as I returned to South London and eventually came to live nearby. Parties, gatherings before or after going to the pub, Sunday afternoons, weekday evenings. Almost always a guitar, almost always Leonard Cohen.

So for me, however much Cohen’s image and even many of his lyrics suggest solitude and isolation, missed encounters and regret (“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?”), my experience of his music has almost always been as part of a crowd. Even when I think of what is surely his most devastating song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what comes to mind is an extraordinary performance by my uncle himself at one of these late night get-togethers. More recently, I’ve joined such communal, cathartic sing-a-alongs here in British Columbia with people such as my friend Max and his family. Still, listening to Cohen takes me back to cluttered, crowded, smoky living rooms in South London, when it didn’t matter how badly you sang–it hardly seemed to matter to Leonard–but that you sang with (shared) feeling.

Cohen’s mantra was always that of the “beautiful loser.” His claim: that the damaged, the disfigured, the disappointed, the defeated also have a right to hope again, without ever denying their pain and hurt. That, even at the lowest points of life (Joan of Arc at the stake; Isaac on his sacrificial pyre), there is some solace to be found, some chance for redemption if not salvation. There might even perhaps be an opening on to an ecstasy that’s decidedly immanent, part of this world. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Moreover, Cohen’s view was that that it is only in these depths that true solidarity and empathy are to be found. Our tragedy is that we are all in fact losers, lost whether we know it yet or not. But this is also our triumph, so long as we remember to sing along when the time comes:

It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes:

“Please don’t pass me by,
Please don’t pass me by,
For I am blind, but you can see,
Yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
Oh please don’t pass me by.”

Cohen is gone now. He’d say that at best he was only ever passing through. But so are we all: “sometimes happy, sometimes blue.” The point in the meantime is to keep alive the spirit of hospitality that I associate with my first encounter with his songs. And to maintain the sense of commonality, the recognition that our fates are necessarily intertwined, too easily forgotten by those who happen not (right now) to find themselves in the gutter. No better way than to invite someone to sing with you. This is music for sharing.

“Then we’ll come from the shadows.”

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.

David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust

“Hey that’s far out, so you heard him, too!”

It was a schoolfriend, Si Shoreman, who introduced me to David Bowie. I was fourteen, and he was a couple of years older. In fact, I’d been pushed up a year or two, so everyone was a couple of years older, and seemed to know more than I did about everything that counted: that is, girls and music. And Si Shoreman seemed to know more about these vital issues than anybody else I knew. It helped that he had an older sister (this was an all-boys school), and especially that she had an extensive record collection that he was free to pillage.

I would bug him about what he knew, and he would make me tapes: The Jam, The Specials, The Who (he was a bit of a Mod and into two-tone), but above all one day he told me about “Space Oddity,” a song that impressed me in part because it was as old as I was. And then he brought me a tape with two albums each a decade old: Hunky Dory on the one side, Ziggy Stardust on the other.

These two albums astonished me. I’d never heard anything like them before. But they also started me on an adventure into the history of music. They opened up a space between the Ancient History that was the 1960s, and a present that seemed all too familiar. This wasn’t my parents’ generation, but nor was it properly mine. It was an intermediate zone that I could make my own.

After all, I knew what was in the charts at the time: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Wham, the Human League, and so on. I’d even heard the hits from Bowie’s Let’s Dance: “Let’s Dance” itself; “Modern Love.” But this was the first time I’d had the sense that a contemporary singer had a back catalogue, or that today’s music had a history that could be explored. That the most important thing wasn’t to know the current top ten. That there might be other ways to think about and appreciate music–and perhaps even culture in general.

Bowie’s music was a particularly good place to start exploring. It offered more questions than answers, and to point strangely away from itself, to other realms. Why, for instance, on Hunky Dory did a telephone ring at the opening of “Andy Warhol”? (At first I thought this might be a rare slip on Si Shoreman’s part.) Who, more importantly, was Andy Warhol, and why would we want to “tie him up when he’s fast asleep, send him on a pleasant cruise.” I’d heard vaguely of Bob Dylan, but how was he “every nation’s refugee” and who was the “same old painted lady” who could be sent back home by a couple of his songs? What was “Crowley’s uniform” or “Churchill’s lies”? Who were the “Bewlay Brothers” and what was their “Mind-Warp Pavilion”?

Ziggy Stardust was oddly more accessible. It offered connections between these fantastic images or arcane references and the life of a suburban teenager. Wasn’t that what “Starman” was all about: the notion that another world could open up, but close by, near at hand. Or “Five Years,” in which the apocalypse is announced in the most banal of surroundings: “Pushing through the market square.” Or the album’s splendid final song, “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” which opened with the kind of ennui and dissatisfaction with which I was all too familiar (“the wall-to-wall is calling”) but ended with the promise of shared understanding and community: “You’re not alone!”

David Bowie led to more David Bowie: I avidly collected all his records, searching out rarities and oddities. The different covers of The Man Who Sold the World. The gatefold sleeve version of Aladdin Sane. “Heroes” in German. The soundtrack to a BBC production of Baal. Interview picture discs. The stray singles, in 12″ as well as 7″.

Mostly, these rarities were filed away and never played. What I actually listened to were the classic albums, each of which had its own associations and intensities, related to when I first listened to it at length. Aladdin Sane I first heard on a youth weekend in North Wales. David Live, with its fabulous medleys and covers, I played on repeat on a trip to Cambridge. Diamond Dogs was linked to a few days I spent in South London, in and around the youthful stomping ground of Bowie himself: Bromley, Beckenham, Penge. I visited the Three Tuns pub, where he’d founded the Beckenham Arts Lab. He was so close I could almost touch him.

But Bowie also led me outwards again. To the artists that he’d listened to, that he’d met or worked with, whom he’d influenced in turn. Mott the Hoople, Marc Bolan. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Philip Glass, Ryuchi Sakamoto. Or in other genres, everything from Friedrich Nietzsche to Nicholas Roeg, Kahlil Gibran to Laurens van der Post. I remember taking notes from a biography of Bowie, putting together a list of all the books, singers, or film-makers mentioned, determined to track them down and check them out.

I was far from being the world’s biggest Bowie fan. Still, for about a decade I was probably a bigger fan than any of my friends. But this was hardly an esoteric interest, and Bowie’s output was sufficiently broad and varied that everyone knew and liked some part of his repertoire. So my memories are always of listening (or singing along) with other people, of my obsession with Bowie being also collective and expansive, a way of making connections.

At school, people might bring in a guitar: someone could play “Queen Bitch”; someone else, “Life on Mars.” Later, there was the time that my friend Charles was staying with me, and decided to listen to every single Bowie album in my collection in chronological order, a mission that took days. Or when I was driving friends back late after a day trip to Brighton, returning to South London (by now we had moved there, to Bowie heartland), listening to Ziggy Stardust on maximum volume, speeding up the M23. But as the album wasn’t over by the time we got home, it simply made sense, in the middle of the night, to continue on to the centre of town and pay our respects to Heddon Street, the site of the original photo shoot for the Ziggy album cover.

Heddon Street

Heddon Street, which I have visited countless times, alone or with varied groups of people, is a pretty good image for what Bowie meant to me. When I started going (it’s been gentrified since) it was a run-down cul-de-sac, which in the album picture looks like ground zero for whatever disaster has led to an urban dystopia. Yet in fact it’s just round the corner from the upmarket shops of Regent Street, and a stone’s throw from the tourist trap of Piccadilly Circus. You could have passed its entrance a hundred times and never realized it was there, but once you knew, you felt like you were the possessor of some semi-secret knowledge, a slight but significant deviation from the everyday and the mainstream.

Ducking through an archway, you would escape the Regent Street crowds to slip into the deserted alley, gradually making sense of your surroundings: so this is where the photo was taken! You’d see the nameplate that still said “K. West,” and just past that a telephone box with graffiti on the wall: “I love Bowie.” “Ziggy was Here.” And you knew that not only had Ziggy been here, but other people like you, who had heard him, too.

After Posthegemony

aniversario

Paper given at “Reflecting on Latin American Studies: Perspectives From 25 Years of Scholarship and Practice”
The 25th Anniversary Conference of the UNC/Duke Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, February 2015

“After Posthegemony”

It would be hard to underestimate the impact on me of the Duke/UNC Program in Latin American Studies (as it was then still called). I arrived at Duke in 1994 without any specific intention to study Latin America: I was interested rather in theoretical questions that involved authors such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, and Antonio Negri. But I soon found Latin American Studies to be a productive setting to pose those questions, and the Duke/UNC Program a hub of lively and challenging discussion on precisely the issues that my questions sought to address. How best to think about political agency and organization? What roles were played by culture on the one hand and the state on the other? What concepts best illuminated and explained both contemporary and historical social movements? Asking such questions in the context of specific political and social conjunctures in Latin America, from populist mobilization in Argentina to Maoist insurgency in Peru, forced me continually to reconsider the formulation of my concerns and what was at stake in my investigation, as well as preventing (I hope) my replies from becoming too arid and abstract. The path I took was formed by chance and serendipity: Peronism, for instance, became a key part of my dissertation owing to the fact that I took an inspiring class on the topic with Danny James and Alberto Moreiras; I became fascinated by Sendero Luminoso thanks largely to the opportunity provided by a Ford Foundation-funded exchange with a parallel consortium of institutions in Peru.

I was above all motivated by the fact that the structure of the Duke/UNC Program gave such latitude to student initiatives, and that we had so much input into shaping the intellectual agenda. This was because of the key role played by working groups, run collaboratively with faculty mentors. So Alberto and I, with the help of many others over the years, organized a long-running and very active group on “Culture and State in Latin America,” which became a vital part of the professional and intellectual experience of an entire cohort of graduate students. We invited countless visiting speakers, organized numerous workshops, and contributed to or co-sponsored myriad other events. But the heart and soul of the group were our regular meetings in the house that was the then home of (what was) the Duke Center for Latin American Studies, where we read and debated texts, fuelled by endless supplies of snacks, beer, wine, and pizza, as well as the odd cigarette that would lead program administrator Natalie Hartman to chide us for leaving the butts strewn on the ground outside. These were intense meetings and they made for an experience that has certainly stayed with many of us. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to say that the “Culture and State” group has had a quite profound effect on an entire field, an impact that is registered in the first place through a whole series of subsequent publications by former working group members. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of those who planned the Duke/UNC Program with such a central role for student/faculty collaboration, and the trust (and resources) that those who administered the program, Natalie Hartman especially, put into our activities.

In my case, what came out of my involvement with the Program and my experience with the “Culture and State” working group was a dissertation, subsequently heavily revised into a book, on “Posthegemony.” Indeed, the concept of posthegemony was first articulated, so far as I am concerned, as part of an event organized in part under the auspices of the Center for Latin American Studies: the 1998 meeting on “Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges,” which was also (somewhat notoriously) the last hurrah of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. In any case, it is in Posthegemony that I ultimately managed to combine the theoretical questions that had first brought me to Duke with the experience in Latin American Studies (and Latin America itself) that led me to refine and even rethink those questions. The book is an ambitious one (in its earlier incarnation as a dissertation, it had a subtitle proclaiming that its historical scope was from October 10, 1492, to April 13, 2002) in which a theoretical argument contesting the concept of hegemony, as made popular in cultural studies, and the notion of civil society, as found often in the social sciences, runs (almost) parallel to studies of socio-political conjunctures in Argentina, Peru, Chile, El Salvador, and Venezuela.

Along the way, I try to articulate a new way of thinking the grounds of politics, and the relationship between culture and state, in terms of affect, habit, and multitude. I argue, in brief, that instead of focusing on ideologies, in the sense of meaningful (mis)representations of social reality, and on discourses, in the sense of systems of significations and beliefs, we would be better off thinking about politics in terms of dispositions of bodies that are animated (and managed) by flows or blockages of energy that never fully enter into conscious calculation or understanding. I further suggest that would-be hegemonic projects that claim to underwrite the legitimacy of a state-centered constituted power are anchored on the simultaneous repudiation and appropriation of a more fundamental constituent power that constantly exceeds their grasp. My mantra, the slogan that repeats throughout the book across its various contexts from the initial moments of Spanish colonization in the Americas to the so-called Latin American “left turns” of the past twenty years, is that “something always escapes”: something escapes both the institutionalized organization of political movements and the concepts and theories (hegemony theory, civil society theory) that are invoked to explain and understand them.

Read more… (.pdf document)

David’s Dirty Diaper

It turns out that I am an artist. Who knew? And this is my art:

David's Dirty Diaper

It is currently exhibited as part of a “Dirt Museum” temporarily on view at the Lobby Gallery of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.

The genesis of the Dirt Museum is a visit by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who was invited here a couple of months ago by a working group that I help run on “Latin America and the Global.” As part of her visit, she facilitated a rather interesting workshop, “Playing with Dirt”, whose aim was to “focus on the language and imagery of dirt as both a thing (soil, earth, what feeds us) and a metaphor of a person or a communities’ subjective positioning. We will ask participants (faculty and students) to bring a thing and/or image from their own field sites for the ‘dirt museum,’ and use it to create a critical dialogue on the usage of dirt.” The item I suggested for the workshop, and now for the subsequent exhibition, was a dirty diaper from my son.

The interesting thing is that, even though the diaper is presented in a sealed jar, it was felt by the curators to be altogether too insalubrious to be placed on a table with other exhibits. So it was put on the floor, under the table. A little too dirty even for a “Dirt Museum.”

The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

A Non-Eyewitness Account of a Plane Crash

SFO Crash“Being there” doesn’t help you to decipher an event. If anything, quite the contrary. I just slept through a plane crash. And, waking up, I probably have a much less clear view of what has happened (and what is happening) than someone halfway around the world with a decent Internet connection.

I’m flying from Vancouver to Madrid by a rather circuitous route (via San Francisco and Frankfurt). My plane left Vancouver at 6am, which meant a 4am taxi from my house. As last night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and I didn’t start packing until around 2am, I’d hardly had much sleep. No problem: all the easier to sleep on the plane.

So I dozed for most of the flight to California. And then, on arrival with six hours to kill in SFO, I settled into a chair in the terminal to sleep some more. A little later, I woke briefly to overhear two airport employees striding rapidly nearby, one asking the other if he’d heard about the crash. I took little notice and closed my eyes again.

A while later, I woke up, gathered my things and headed to grab a sandwich and find my gate. Once there, I was sitting by a power outlet and plugging in my computer when another passenger nearby asked me if I’d heard about the crash. I looked at him (still) a little groggily and he went on to say that it hadn’t been announced here at the airport, but it was on the news already. The wi-fi was unreliable where I was, so I found a seat elsewhere in the terminal and went online.

Now, a few hours later, I’m getting a sense of what’s going on. On the Internet, I’m told that an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777, coming in from Seoul, crashed on arrival, catching fire and losing its tail. Amazingly enough, the news reports suggest no fatalities. Which is all the more extraordinary as the pictures on the websites suggest one rather broken plane.

Inside the terminal, we see and hear very little of this. There’s only one television in the vicinity, and while it’s drawn quite a crowd, most people are sitting at their gates, lining up at the bars and restaurants, and/or drifting aimlessly around. Aimless because nobody has a flight to catch, as the airport is shut down, with no aircraft movements in or out. (I’m told that my own plane was diverted to Oakland.) There are periodic announcements on the public address system. Our next update is in fifteen minutes.

SFO International Terminal

For several hours, the announcements were very vague indeed. They told us of an incident, and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a while before the word “crash” was used, and it was used only once. We’ve been informed that the first-class lounge is closed, because of the “viewing possibilities” that it offered. For otherwise, from the terminal itself nothing can be seen. Supposedly the accident led to a plume of smoke, but it’s hard to distinguish where that might be given the low cloud that has been hovering on the hills surrounding much of the airport.

There’s no panic, little conversation, not even much in the way of increased cellphone traffic that one would expect to tell friends and relatives that flights have been cancelled, connections missed, delays inevitable. There are occasional groups of airport or airline workers with security badges murmuring into walkie talkies.

A voice on the PA has admitted that “many of you will be learning more from CNN than we know ourselves.”

For a while, the only, almost subliminal, indication of something out of the ordinary seemed to be the constant sound of an alarm, never answered, somewhere nearby. It was a minor irritation more than anything else, like a car alarm going off unattended on a neighbouring street. Eventually I realized that it was merely the warning marking the approaching end of the moving walkway. Now even that sound has been turned off.

In the meantime, we wait, and try to get information over a frustratingly patchy wi-fi connection. All United wide-body flights have just been cancelled. I hear that there are refreshments available by Gate 95. Here in the terminal at least, that’s the main event right now.

Update: The BBC is now reporting that at least one person died.

Herb Blau

Herb Blau

I did my MA in English, in the 1990s, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The English Department occupied a couple of floors in an undistinguished 1970s concrete tower block called Curtin Hall. Though the building offered nice enough views over Lake Michigan from the upper stories, for the most part it comprised a series of windowless corridors and linoleum floors lit by fluorescent lights, lined with identikit pine doors leading to faculty and grad student offices. Many of my classes took place in the same non-descript seminar room at the end of one of these corridors. I believe that the room number was Curtin 466.

The only distinguishing feature of Curtin 466, which might draw your attention if class discussion seemed to be going nowhere in particular, was a dent in one of the walls, near the door. It was a fairly deep dent, which had broken the surface of the wall, revealing the hollowness within, and it was about the size and shape of a human fist. Rumor had it that the dent’s author was none other than one of the department’s more distinguished professors: Herb Blau. It was said that, perhaps in precisely one of those lulls, to invigorate things he had punched the wall with his bare hand.

I have no idea if that story was true, but it might well have been. For Herb, who died on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t someone to let the little matter of a plasterboard wall get in the way of a robust exchange of ideas. And despite first appearances–by the time I knew him, he was already close to retirement age; short, balding, mild-mannered–he would soon remind you that his training was on and around the stage. He was a performer, or rather, he wanted to point out that we are all always called upon to perform when the spotlight, perhaps suddenly, comes our way. The only doubt is whether we are going to be up to the task. In class, he liked to draw attention to one of us in a quick instant that showed the way in which he was constantly thinking like a director: he put us on stage and challenged us to respond.

I took a course with him in that same seminar room with the fist-sized dent in the wall that could be read as a promise or threat of what we might expect in the Herb Blau classroom. The course was on fashion, slightly incongruously as I suspect that neither Herb nor I, in our different ways, have ever been accused of being particularly fashionable. But Herb was interested in fashion as performance, as a system of display that we could never simply evade. He was keen on the intricate play of gazes and (admiring or condescending) looks that constitutes a fashion system. We read an eclectic mix of texts, on topics from Renaissance cross-dressing to Coco Chanel, from Pirandello to pop.

Herb had an oblique relationship to academic fashion, too. I gleaned that he was very important in a field, performance studies, that he had in some ways invented. Indeed, he often told us directly or indirectly, through anecdote or declaration, of his own importance. But we young bucks were perhaps tempted to see Herb as something of a holdover or anachronism, in part precisely because of his stories of hanging out with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. In what was still the heyday of high theory, the notion of performance or performativity was associated with figures such as the poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler and a whole other series of references from Louis Althusser to Michel Foucault. Herb, though he read voraciously and was no foe of Theory, was perhaps too eclectic, or even too grounded, to be hip.

But Herb grew on you, and I grew to be a little less superficial in my judgments. He was extraordinarily generous with his advice and time, and in talking to him you realized that he had been watching and listening to you carefully: sympathetically but not uncritically. I remember when he dissected some of the questions I had asked in the regular department seminar where we hosted visiting speakers. He reminded me that I had, after all, been performing, and that his was above all a consummate eye (and ear) for performance. And that by pointing this out, and so by revealing that there was something hollow in every academic fad or fashion, he wasn’t necessarily denigrating it. After all, Herb had long been in the business of performance; he wasn’t one to oppose it to some simple notion of authenticity.

As with the seminar-room wall, Herb would puncture performances; he would leave his mark and offer a glimpse of the mechanics and subterfuges that hold up the structures (social and cultural as well as architectural) that we inhabit. But he would also therefore give us a sense of the complexity of those structures, and perhaps leave us with admiration (however grudging) for all that had gone into the construction of something that we otherwise might take for granted. Ultimately, Herb’s critiques, his provocations and even his self-dramatizations were aimed at one end: to get us to think, and so to learn; to keep us on our toes, so that we could reach higher.

I saw Herb just a few months ago, after an interval of many years. I was giving a talk at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he moved not long after I left Milwaukee, and where his wife Kathy Woodward directs the Simpson Centre for the Humanities. He was visibly older and frailer than he had been a decade previously, but he was undimmed and astute as ever. My talk was on affect, violence, and death. Afterwards, in the question-and-answer session, he made the point that we are all dying in front of each other, all the time. He looked unwaveringly at me and said: “As I watch, you are inching towards death.” I wondered how to respond, realizing that Herb had done it again: he had put me on the spot; he’d made me think, made me struggle to find words; and he’d reminded me of that dent in the seminar room, of that mark of decay and ruination that we all carry with us.

Herb Blau has now finished that movement towards death that we call life. But I can’t imagine him wanting to rest in peace; and he certainly wouldn’t want us to do so. I take his legacy as, in part, an injunction to recognize the challenge, the inevitability but also unpredictability, of the performances demanded of us even in the most non-descript of surroundings. For we can always enliven them with a well-thrown (and well-thought) punch.

Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl

form_photo_1hI was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.

Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.

And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.

But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.

At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.

So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.

Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.