For Whom the Bell Tolls I

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan is thinking both forwards and back to Madrid. Forwards because, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, stuck in a cave behind Fascist lines waiting to begin a tremendously risky and seemingly ill-fated operation to blow up a bridge, he distracts himself by imagining what he will do if and when his mission is successfully concluded. “Three days in Madrid,” he thinks. The capital is under siege, of course, but even so it would offer creature comforts unimaginable on the front lines: a “hot bath [. . .] a couple of drinks.” There would be music and movies: he’d take his peasant lover Maria to see “The Marx Brothers at the Opera” (231). He’d have dinner at Gaylord’s, a hotel that “the Russians had taken over” where “the food was too good for a besieged city” (228).

But all this also leads him to think back (unusually, for a man not given to reminiscence) to other experiences he has had at Gaylord’s, a place of intrigue thick with rumor and “talk too cynical for a war.” It was here that he’d met the shadowy Russian Karkov–introduced by the last dynamiter to work in the zone and described as “the most intelligent man he had ever met” (231). And it was largely Karkov who’d made “Gaylord’s [. . .] the place you needed to complete your education. It was there you learned how it was all really done instead of how it was supposed to be done” (230). For in Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) jaded eyes, the Republican cause may be right, but it is far from pure. Behind “all the nonsense” (230) is a murky world of machination and deception that only fully comes into focus at the Russian-held hotel. This is the epicenter of disillusion and corruption, but it is also the only place to “find out what was going on in the war” (228).

The hidden reality of the war is not pretty, but in some ways (Jordan reflects) it is “much better than the lies and the legends. Well, some day they would tell the truth to everyone and meanwhile he was glad there was a Gaylord’s for his own learning of it” (230). And Jordan and Karkov talk about when and how this truth will emerge: “out of this will come a book,” Karkov says, “which is very necessary; which will explain many things which it is necessary to know” (244). Jordan himself, a Spanish instructor at a US university, has already written a book–about “what he had discovered about Spain in ten years of travelling in it”–but it “had not been a success.” Some day soon it would be time to try again:

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple. (248)

Now, Jordan is not Hemingway–and Hemingway is not Jordan, though the author has surely invested plenty in his character, a man of few words who prides himself on his powers of observation and his knowledge of the human psyche. But is this novel the book that Jordan would have wanted to have written? The work of a “much better writer” that is to explain the truth of a complex war whose surface veneer is attractive but whose grim interior is more fascinating still. Perhaps.

But For Whom the Bell Tolls is not really about the war’s covert machination. Indeed, what’s interesting about the novel is that Hemingway refuses to accede completely to Jordan’s notion that the “truth” of the conflict is to be found amid the cynicism and corruption that his protagonist tells us “turned out to be much too true” (228). Or rather, Jordan himself is shown as struggling to determine where the reality of the situation lies. Up in the hills, he knows that the situation is bad, not least when he sees the “mechanized doom” (87) of the Fascist planes that roar overhead and announce, as clearly as anything, that the enemy knows of the forthcoming Republican offensive. But he can’t quite admit this: asked whether he has faith in the Republic he replies “’Yes,’ [. . .] hoping it was true” (91). To admit to the precariousness of their fate, the difficulty of their mission, would be to fall into the trap that has ensnared Pablo, the local guerrilla leader who has let fear (and alcohol) overwhelm him, because he knows that their cause is long lost: he toasts “all the illusioned ones” (214) and explains himself by saying that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (215).

Ultimately, Jordan–and Hemingway–know that Pablo is right. But that cynical truth has to be both acknowledged and at the same time staved off, postponed, in the name of another truth that resides within the illusion itself, the legends and lies. So what we get is an ebb and flow, a tense and agonizing interchange between these two truths, between an apparent simplicity and purity (incarnated above all perhaps in the figure of Jordan’s lover Maria–who can never be taken to Gaylord’s–but equally in Hemingway’s characteristically terse and understated style) and a darker, more cynical complexity that can neither be denied nor allowed to dominate. So the paradoxical result is that simplicity ends up being far more complex than the web of machinations that it endlessly has to deny, precisely because in fending them off it recognizes and so includes them, while the cynic can only destroy all that is pure. It preserves, in other words, the infrapolitical paradox: that what is necessary for politics is never inherent in it, but vanishes with scarce a trace.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls II.

Universities at War

Universities at War

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. In January 2014, the University suspended him from this post, pending an investigation into charges that (allegedly) he had “undermin[ed] the authority” of his Head of Department by “sighing, projecting negative body language and making ‘ironic’ comments.” During the period of his suspension, he was essentially exiled from the university in toto: forbidden access to the campus, barred from attending events, prevented from using its library, from contacting colleagues or students, and even (apparently) from writing the preface for a book in a series that he himself edits. Ultimately, he was cleared of all charges and able to return to work, but only thanks to a costly tribunal, and while incurring significant legal bills himself.

In the meantime, however, Docherty wrote Universities at War. This book is obviously inspired and even shaped by his own experience: as he points out, unable to use the library he was forced to rely more on sources taken from the Internet (x); for other material, he comments in a footnote, he is indebted to the diligence of his lawyers (60). More generally, his argument about the authoritarianism of the managerial turn in higher education, and the bureaucratic injunction to “govern your tongue” (107), clearly speaks to his own predicament. But overall the case he is trying to make here is less to plead for individual faculty than to recover a sense of the university’s mission in the world.

For everyone, he claims, is shortchanged when the guiding principle and “key driver” of the institution is no longer thought, but money (ix). Faculty are silenced, yes, by the drive to conformity and homogeneity. But students are also cheated when they are treated simply as “human capital”: “When the university is reduced to the function of preparation for jobs and not for life, life itself gets lost under the jobs” (85). Most broadly and seriously of all, society as a whole suffers as the university abandons its traditional role as “that institution that has a responsibility to counter the incipient violence of natural force” (40). The fate of the university is bound up with the fate of democracy and citizenship at large. If society is to change, and injustice and inequality challenged, we need now more than ever an institution whose role is to be “’critical’ of the existing world state of affairs, dissident with respect to it” (6).

One might reasonably think that Docherty’s account of the university’s historic mission is somewhat idealistic. When exactly did the institution uphold this democratizing mission? Moreover, he himself outlines the ways in which higher education has been molded by forces external to it (for good, in the aftermath of the first and second world wars; for bad, under contemporary neoliberalism) more than it has itself managed to change them. On the whole, moreover, it has generally been a rather conservative institution. Still, it is worth setting the university’s ideals against its practice, and calling it to task for not living up to them. Docherty is perhaps on surer ground in arguing for the principle of the collegium, a “scholarly community [. . .] shaped by the interplay of forces among a collective” that has in recent times been “atomized and neutralized by the elimination of communal space and its dissolution into separate individualized cells” (23). For college life has indeed historically been seen and experienced as inhabiting a space apart, with its own logic, distinct from if not unaffected by social life as a whole. It is a significant change that universities are now treated as (and more or less proudly assert themselves to be) businesses or corporations like any other. Even here, however, he surely waxes over-lyrical when he claims that “the university [. . .] is the site where friendship, love and neighbourliness are all made possible” (74).

But ultimately the book argues that the real idealism lies with those administrators and self-proclaimed university “leaders” who champion the “official” view of the institution, for which everything is measurable from course credits to world rankings in the name of what (following Bill Readings) Docherty notes is “an essentially vacuous ‘excellence’” (120). This “Official University is effectively a fantasy” (125). By contrast, more concretely and less idealistically, the real work of teaching and learning continues, but “in a clandestine and unofficial manner.” The good news is that “the clandestine university [. . .] is where most of us do our daily work, and it’s usually [. . .] pretty good” (121).

There is still space, in other words, for research and learning, if despite rather than because of the efforts of vice chancellors, line managers, and the like. But even the clandestine university is increasingly being squeezed and asphyxiated, thanks to the drive for conformity and discipline, enforced by cops on campus that are both literal and figural. Docherty is sharply critical of inanities such as the imposition of “aims, objectives and outcomes” on everyday teaching: “Anyone who predicts ‘outcomes’ cannot, ethically, be a teacher at all” (121). And “if we teach to an agenda in which we show that predicted outcomes are achieved, we are poor teachers, for we are thereby limiting the imaginative possibilities of collaborative acts of imagining” (124). Indeed in general this is a book has much more to say about teaching than about research, except for instance for the observation that today “it matters little, we know, what research is done; all that matters is that the research grant has been captured” (140). And as much as Docherty (rightly) condemns the myth of widening participation, and of the university as an instrument of social mobility–noting for instance that, in the UK, in 2009-2010 Oxford and Cambridge admitted exactly 40 (0.05%) of the 80,000 school-leavers who were poor enough to qualify for free school dinners–his own personal biography, as a working-class Scot both of whose parents left school at 15, indicates clearly that he is what Pierre Bourdieu called an “oblate,” someone whose social identity is indebted to the institution he criticizes. The collegium is where Docherty has chosen to live out his life. No wonder that his temporary suspension from it should have hit him so hard.

For a short book (140 pages), Universities at War is surprisingly sprawling and digressive. It takes in everything from a brief history of popular music to a fairly lengthy reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One. It is motivated by anger and frustration, for instance at the ways in which “authoritarian governance” has taken on the task “to empty the universities of knowledge, and refill it with information and data. Then sell it” (125). But it is also written with what one can only describe as love. “There is a war on indeed for the future of the university,” Docherty tells us (115). And there is no doubt that he considers it to be a war worth fighting. All those who currently work in the clandestine university should join him.

Homage to Catalonia II

Homage to Catalonia cover

Concluding Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell tells us:

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing. (194)

To be fair, though, there’s no doubt that he has tried. Orwell is perhaps particularly attuned to smell: almost the first thing he describes is “the characteristic smell of war–in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food” (15). Or for instance, as he approaches the front line itself what strikes him is “a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards” (19). More generally, Orwell continually emphasizes the visceral, embodied, affective aspect of participation in the Civil War. He opens his account, for instance, with a brief anecdote about an almost wordless encounter with an Italian militiaman that demonstrates (he claims) “the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy” (2). Not that his feelings are always positive; far from it. Orwell is as likely to tell us of the fear or, worse, the “horror” not so much of the war itself as of the backstage machinations, the “atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred” (155) that clouds especially is final few weeks in Barcelona, as the Communists crack down on the Anarchists and independent Socialists. For ultimately, these internecine battles had little to do with ideology of strategy, and it was this that made them so horrific. Ultimately, Orwell tells us, he “did not make any of the correct political reflections” and was left “conscious of nothing but physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over” (175).

Of course, Orwell’s “physical discomfort” at the end is not merely a matter of the intangible atmosphere of fear and repression. He has been shot through the neck, and is physically wounded. But whereas his account of the political intrigues and day-to-day life in the coffee shops and bars is heavily imbued with the emotional undercurrent that runs through them, his tale of being hit by an enemy sniper is surprisingly distanced, stoical, and understated. As he puts it: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” (143). Though he reports “the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion,” he quickly finds he has “a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense” (143, 144). Once he understands that the bullet has gone through his neck, he is convinced that he is done for–“I assumed that I was killed” (145)–yet even this is depicted without much in the way of panic or doom, but as “interesting–I mean that it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. [. . .] The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaningless of it!” (145). And it is not long before he views the whole event with a sort of black humour: as everyone insists that “a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive,” he retorts that he “could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all” (154).

So there is an odd discrepancy throughout the book between an affective treatment of politics, or what we might otherwise think of as an insistence on the affective infrapolitics that underlies and escapes all political discourse, and on the other hand a notably detached, distanced perspective on the body itself, which is treated as the object of almost quasi-scientific curiosity and scrutiny. This disconnect is further highlighted by what now appears as Orwell’s rather antiquated, perhaps quintessentially English attitude to anything that smacks of the personal. His injury is treated more as a nuisance than anything else. Beyond a brief description of a train journey in Burma (92), there is little to nothing in the way of Orwell recollecting or reflecting on his own personal history. His wife features frequently, but is never deemed worthy of a name. Orwell is honest about his own failings and minor hypocrisies (“God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority” [101]). And we learn much about his (lack of) personal hygiene on the front, and the lice that infest his clothing. But almost always Orwell’s gesture is to universalize, to present himself as a cipher for humanity as a whole: the lice, for instance, prompt the thought that “in war all soldiers are lousy [. . .]. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae–every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles” (54).

Perhaps all this is because, in the end, Spain itself is something of a cipher for Orwell. Indeed, he claims not to have the chance to “look at Spain” at all until very late in the day, once he is finally discharged. With his “discharge papers in [his] pocket,” he tells us that “For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain” (164). But even this Spain ends up being more a country of his own invention or fantasy than a real place: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that exists in everyone’s imagination” (143). By implication, then, everything else that he has witnessed and described–the May Days in Barcelona, the Aragon Front, but also the militiamen and shopkeepers and so on–is in some sense not Spanish. They have all somehow obscured from view some other, supposedly more “real” Spain that would accord with the collective fantasy of what the country should be like. In short, the strange thing about the Spanish Civil War in Orwell’s eyes (but perhaps not only his) is that it is not really “Spanish” at all. And no doubt this is why his final thoughts are not with Spain but with England and its “deep, deep sleep [. . .] from which I sometimes fear that we will never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” (196).

See also: Homage to Catalonia I.

Escape and the University

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

“Escape and the University”


“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” (; 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.”
  • 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.

Coup in Brazil, Protest at LASA


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.


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.