This is a “backwoods” history that aims, with gentle irony, to question the usual privileging of “civilization” over “barbarism” that otherwise structures most literary depictions of nineteenth-century Latin America.
Tag Archives for history
Chotti Munda and His Arrow
“All’s a story in Chotti Munda’s life,” we’re told near the beginning of Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow, a novel that tells of the eponymous Chotti and his Munda village across seven decades in colonial and postcolonial West Bengal. “Munda language has no script. So they turn significant events into story, and hold them as saying, as song. That’s their history as well” (18). But this is a history that has often gone untold. The Munda people are among the so-called Tribals or Adivasi, the indigenous groups that make up almost 10% of India’s population but remain at the margins (at best) of the country’s national imaginary. Devi’s novel thus rescues an alternative history that troubles and even subverts the official narrative, revealing its blindspots and silences.
Not the least of this book’s subversions is the fact that it forcefully refuses any gesture towards national allegory. Whereas, say, Saleem Sinai, protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is born symbolically at the precise moment of India’s independence, Chotti Munda is born much more prosaically sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century. Which means that he is almost fifty when the Indian state comes into being on August 15, 1947. But the event hardly enters into his story; independence is a matter for the “Dikus,” the Hindu majority who impinge on the Mundas’ world as landowners, merchants, and shopkeepers. “The August movement did not even touch the life of Chotti’s community. It was as if that was the Dikus’ struggle for liberation. Dikus never thought of the adivasis as Indian. They did not draw them into the liberation struggle.” Yet on the other hand this makes the Tribal perspective a rather good one for assessing the achievements (or otherwise) of the nation-state, given that the adivasis “stand at a distance and watch it all” (96). Among the stories told here, then, is the story of India; what the novel refuses is the way in which allegory enforces an identification between character (and reader) and nation. However much it imitates the myth-making tendencies of folklore, and despite (or even because of) its keen interest in the workings of culture and power, the history told in Chotti Munda and His Arrow is posthegemonic.
Chotti himself has an ambivalent relationship to the story-telling and myth-making that surround him. As a teenager, against family warnings, he is drawn to Dhani Munda, his sister’s grandfather-in-law, who has fame as a rebel (he passes on the history of Birsa Munda’s late nineteenth-century revolt against the British) and as an archer. No one else wants to hear the old man’s stories, so Chotti becomes their guardian when he asks Dhani to teach him to shoot arrows; and by doing so he also “becomes a part of the epic” (7). When Dhani dies, killed by the colonial police for breaking an order expelling him from the region, Chotti takes on his legacy and earns a reputation as an archer with a magic arrow who wins tournaments at every local fair. He finds he now has the “responsibility of keeping alive the legend that is growing up around him as he wins stake after stake. But he hadn’t wanted to be the hero of legend” (32-3), and he resists the notion that there is anything supernatural or magic about his prowess. The secret, he tells anyone who asks, is simply repetition, practice: “That practisin’ is t’spell” (25). And this is the lesson that he later passes on to a younger generation in turn, that they can reshape their bodies through practice, habitual adaptation to the bow: “Spell, spell, all see me spell. Look at me hand man, hard wit’ pullin’ t’ bowstring. I practice all t’ time. Will ye?” (50).
(Devi’s translator, Gayatri Spivak, renders Munda speech in English with an odd patois that seems to be half African American, half Yorkshire. This works in so far as it is a constant reminder of linguistic and cultural difference; the reader–this reader, at least–is always set slightly on edge. But much fluency is also lost, especially given how much the novel relies on dialogue. It is as though the Mundas are perpetually either slightly taciturn or strangely stuttering, even when talking among themselves.)
Chotti thus becomes an agent of continuity and tradition over a seventy-five year period (three generations) in which everything changes and yet nothing changes. Everything changes in that, beyond the departure of the British and the transition to independence, modernity and economic development also transform even this relatively remote landscape of rivers and forests. The railway comes, and even if the train doesn’t always stop, it means “modernity, power, machine” (49). The station is enlarged and Chotti notes that “everything seemed to be changing with the Mundas” (107). Eventually, the arrival of motorcars and movies confirm that the village enters “the modern age” (222). Meanwhile, “the Mundas and lowcastes of Chotti village enter the national economic pattern of independent India” (140) and capitalist relations of commodification and wage labour replace traditional communal ties: “The day is coming. Mundas will not be able to live with their identity. [. . .] Then there’ll be a shirt on his body, perhaps shoes on his feet. Then the ‘Munda’ identity will live only in festivals–in social exchange” (110). Not that the Tribals are simply unwilling victims of these transformations: when feudal, bonded labour is banished it is the landowner who finds himself stuck in the past as his workforce demand that the new law is enforced, and refuse to collect the harvest otherwise, much against his wishes.
If Chotti is not particularly sentimental about the transformations he witnesses (and in fact encourages) over the course of his long lifetime, it is perhaps because in other ways so little changes. In the final, violent showdown over the shift from bonded to wage labour, two agents of the Youth Congress who have been instrumental in repressing the Naxalite insurgency under Indira Ghandi’s State of Exception, the “Emergency,” are killed in the forest. One, named Romeo, had been especially brutal. But when he is killed, and as Chotti Munda considers the inevitable police reaction to come, “terror like we’ve never seen” (285), the narrator muses that “There are adivasis, there are subcastes, the Romeos kill them, it happens like this. But if one or a few adivasis kill the Romeos it is an unexpected event. The Romeos kill, they are not killed. This is the rule. Under all regimes” (283). And though this is in some ways a disheartening observation, in that there seems no end to the villagers’ subaltern status, it is also a source of some comfort: the adivasis will endure this injustice, as they have endured so many before. Or as the outcaste (“untouchable”), Chhagan puts it to Chotti when they go down to the riverbank to discuss the latest crisis, “All’s changed. [. . .] But t’ river’s t’ same.” To which Chotti, who himself is named after the river and is almost as unperturbable, responds: “Nothing’s changed. Just t’ pressure’s on t’ rise” (276).
At the novel’s conclusion, this identification between Chotti and the river becomes explicit, as does the notion that the subaltern is outside of history, not because history has left them behind but more because they see things from the perspective of eternity. At a village festival, in the tense aftermath of the killing of the Youth Congress members, Chotti revives memories of the past as he steps forward to compete in the archery contest. But first he takes a megaphone and, in front of the local administrator as well as the whole community, shoulders the blame for the murders so as to forestall further violence. Then he invokes his former teacher, who six decades earlier had taught him both the art of the bow and arrow and the language of rebellion, as he
says fast in the language of the Mundas, Dhani Munda! I’m raisin’ yer name an’ shootin’ yer arrer today. To stay true, meself to meself.
Chotti comes before the target with light and fast footsteps. And tells everyone, No fear y’all. Then he shoots, into the target.
Then he waits, unarmed. As he waits he mingles with all time and becomes river, folklore, eternal. What only the human can be. Brings all adivasi struggle into the present, today into the united struggle of the adivasi and the outcaste.
The novel’s final lines see Chotti still waiting to see the administrator’s reaction, as “a thousand adivasis raise their bows,” a multitude pronouncing “a warning announced in many upraised hands” (288), a declaration from outside of history that this time, perhaps, history itself may change for good, and a new story be told.
Fire from the Mountain
If Zhou Enlai’s famous (if possibly apocryphal) comment about the impact of the French Revolution–it’s “too soon to say”–tells us that Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term, this is surely as true of their origins as of their legacies. To put this another way: it’s as hard to determine when a Revolution starts as it is to know when it has come to an end. At issue here is (again) the temporality of Revolution and its relation to history. One view is the revolutions are events, punctual interventions in history that transform or even overturn our sense of historical destiny. Hence they can be dated, often quite precisely: 1776 (the USA); October 1917 (Russia); January 1, 1959 (Cuba); July 17, 1979 (Nicaragua). These dates are historical caesurae. They mark the points at which the old order collapses and the new begins. As such, they slice up history: nothing afterwards is quite the same as what went on before.
Another view is that revolutions are best seen as processes. 1776, 1917, 1959 (etc.) mark only the beginnings of a series of changes that have their own histories and may advance or be betrayed, depending on the balance of forces and struggles that continue long after the initial taking of power. But surely these dates also mark the culmination of (perhaps) increasingly coordinated efforts to up-end the status quo and bring about new forms of society. Sometimes key events are cited as precursors. For colonial North America, for instance, the 1773 “Boston Tea Party” is celebrated as a key moment in the movement that led to independence. In a rather different way, for Russia the Revolution has been dated from Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in April 1917. But in each case perhaps it would be better to look further back: for instance to the formation of the “Sons of Liberty” in 1765 for the Thirteen Colonies, or to the establishment of the Bolshevik party in 1903 for what would become the USSR. But the establishment of these groups was itself the outcome of prior discontent and protest. How far back do you go?
In El Salvador, for instance, we might say that the (ultimately, failed) revolution there began with the creation of the FMLN in October, 1980, or with the formation of its constituent parts as small, revolutionary groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Alternatively, it’s arguable that the movement led by the FMLN in the 1980s began in 1932 (with the failed Communist uprising in the West of the country), in 1832 (with Anastasio Aquino’s indigenous revolt against the postcolonial creole elite), or even in 1524 (with resistance to the Spanish conquest at the Battle of Acajuctla). And other Latin American countries have similar histories of resistance and rebellion, to which subsequent revolutionary groups often pay homage in the names they choose for their organizations: the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, for instance, honours a hero of 1932; the Uruguayan Tupamaros gesture to the 1780 revolt against the Vice Royalty of Peru, led by Túpac Amaru II; and in Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front commemorates Augusto Sandino and his resistance to the country’s occupation by US Marines in the 1920s and 1930s.
It is in this context, then, that we can understand the aim of Omar Cabezas’s Fire from the Mountain: it sets out, consciously or otherwise, to establish the Sandinistas’ historical legitimacy. For, especially from the point of view of outsiders, the Nicaraguan Revolution appeared to come from nowhere. The final campaign that brought down the dictator Somoza was astonishingly brief, a matter of months rather than years. Previously, the FSLN had been known only for what was in effect merely a relatively high-profile publicity stunt: taking a number of prominent hostages as a house party in December 1974, a feat that they successfully repeated, on a grander scale, at the Nicaraguan Congress in August 1978, less than a year before their eventual triumph. Otherwise, though founded in 1961, the Sandinistas were effectively unknown–not surprisingly, as for more than a decade their numbers never rose much above a few hundred, they represented hardly any military threat to the regime, and they were consistently on the verge of being wiped out by Somoza’s security forces.
Yet Fire from the Mountain is dedicated to this period when the FSLN was unheralded, marginal, and ineffective, rather than to their tumultuous final campaign and ultimate victory. It’s notable, for instance, that in the entire period of his guerrilla experience that the book covers, Cabezas never sees combat and not once does he fire his gun in anger. Indeed, it’s not clear that he fires his gun at all, except to kill a monkey to eat. The nearest he comes to direct action is when, encircled by the National Guard, he and a fellow Sandinista “backed off, firing two shots, and started running like hell” (166). Meanwhile, the book charts what could be described as a series of catastrophes and failures, including the death of one of the more prominent guerrillas in the aftermath of the only armed action that is described (at a distance), the shambolic break-up of a training camp for which Cabezas is military director, and most significantly what is in effect the annihilation of the group’s entire network of collaborators and safe houses in the North of the country. So when at one point the revolutionaries’ entire Northern leadership shows up at a house in the middle of the night (175), it is because there is basically nobody else left, and they have nowhere else to go.
None of this matters, however, and not merely because the book was written and published (in 1982) well after the Sandinistas’ eventual triumph. The point is that the narrative ends not with the revolutionary victory itself, but with the moment at which Cabezas (feels that he) can establish a continuity with the struggle of Sandino himself, forty years earlier. This comes just after Cabezas writes at length of a feeling of historical disjuncture, that the FSLN exists somehow outside of history, when he notes that life for his hometown (León), his mother, and the rest of his family goes on regardless while he is up in the hills: “León and my house had continued on quite independently of whether I was there or not. [. . .] That confused me. I had lost my bearings in space and time” (214). He continues: “I came from somewhere else, from living something else. Something snapped–my head was a whirl of space and time that I couldn’t get straightened out. What I did feel was my own absurdity. Because I couldn’t make sense of the two dimensions of time” (215). Revolutionary time and historical time seem at odds in this profound crisis, which is only resolved subsequently, when Cabezas meets an elderly peasant, Don Leandro, who had fought with Sandino himself some two generations previously.
At first it is Don Leandro’s sense of temporality that seems decidedly shaky. He sees Cabezas’s pistol and asks “what did you do with the other weapons” (217) only for it to emerge that he is talking about Sandino’s own weapons. “For him, that moment he had preserved and which had grown old was an instant that lasted forty years” (217). But it is precisely the longevity of this “instant” that enables a connection between the guerrillas of the 1970s and the original Sandinistas to whom their name gives homage. Cabezas tells us all of a sudden that he is now “touching Sandino [. . .] touching history” (218). The time of the revolution can now be aligned with historical time, as a filial continuity is established between old Don Leandro and Cabezas himself, a fatherless son: “It was as if it had never been interrupted, as if all this were a continuation of what [Leandro] had lived through with Sandino. [. . .] I started to feel that Don Leandro was the father, and I realized that in fact he was the father. [. . .] And never did I feel more a son of Sandinismo, more a son of Nicaragua than at that moment” (218, 221). The FSLN thus establishes an origin and a historical justification for a contemporary struggle that otherwise seems misaligned with the time of the people, and of the city. They usurp a national temporality, making themselves heirs to history: “It was history, the honor of the people, the historical rebellion of the people.” No longer absurd, “that, in essence, was the reality” (220).
The revolution belatedly establishes its origin, only through the struggle itself–only, in other words, after the fighting has begun. But once that origin is established, then for Cabezas the battle is already won. There is no need to show the triumph of 1979. The point is to be able to assert that he “was walking on something concrete.” Cabezas continues: “I was rooted in the earth, attached to the soil, to history. I felt invincible” (221). With that, no more needs to be said, and the book comes to an end, because it has finally found its beginning.
Modern Ruins, Malls, and Their Explorers
Some stories, sites, photographs, and articles on modern ruination:
History, Affect, Literature
This is my brief contribution to a roundtable yesterday at the MLA in Chicago; the session was entitled Can Affective Criticism Read Material History in Literature? and featured also Eugenio Di Stefano, Rita Felski, Jonathan Flatley, Mathias Nilges, and Jen Phillis. A fairly lively discussion ensued after the presentations.
“History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson tells us. Does this mean, then, that hurt (or any other affect) can provide an index to history, a means of understanding history in terms of affect rather than (say) narrative? In the first instance, Jameson’s answer would seem to be negative, as History here is portrayed as stubborn constraint, as material bulwark that forecloses the changes or transformations that we would normally associate with the historical: “It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention” (The Political Unconscious 102). And yet if affect marks history’s limits in this way, we surely touch upon those limits to varying extents and in different ways depending upon the prevailing social, cultural, and economic conjuncture. We may be consistently butting heads with history, but we do so in diverse circumstances, and indeed the “we” that butts heads will change over time. To adapt Tolstoy’s dictum about happy and unhappy families: desires and praxes that history enables (for these, too, surely exist) may be alike in their happy (if contingent) ability to deny the realities of historical constraints; but desires and praxes that history blocks or reverses may each be unhappy in their own specific ways.
More generally, in any case it is not as though Jameson is propounding history as simply some stubborn, featureless Real. The constraints that it offers up change over time, both in the short term and the long. The kinds of desires and praxes that are blocked today may be enabled tomorrow (or next week, next year, next millennium) and vice versa. The limits of the desirable or actionable, just like the limits of the thinkable or the intelligible, themselves change: sometimes glacially, sometimes with surprising speed. Indeed, is this not the import of Michel Foucault’s histories of sexuality: to chart the changing cartographies of desire, or topographies of affect, from the Ancient Greeks to our own time. Particular times (and places) are the occasion for particular affective investments or cathexes or (as we are by now accustomed to recognizing) for specific traumas, specific instances of historical hurt that are contingent in form and even in nature. To put this yet another way, what Raymond Williams termed “structures of feeling” are historically embedded and therefore mutable even if they are not directly accessible to consciousness or discourse. Affective landscapes, and the panorama of potentially identifiable and indeed nameable affective states, vary over time. From moral panics to summers of love, ages of contentment to times of fear, there is a visceral history of affect that is also a history of the body or bodies and their various capacities to affect and be affected. Our sense of time itself is colored by the sensations and intensities, fleeting or otherwise, that structure life and mark off particular experiences as distinct and memorable. Meanwhile, on another, more mundane level, codified as habit, regular and regulated encounters between bodies (the morning walk, the daily commute, the hourly peek at Facebook, Friday night at the pub) also make up the routine and the everyday, our parallel sense of time as packaged chronology.
Literature (and culture more broadly) is part and parcel of this affective history, from the banal regularities to the periodic explosions of intensity. No wonder that the history of aesthetics is a history of feeling, of the feelings that culture provokes and celebrates as well as those that it manages, softens, and even denies. From Aristotelian conceptions of catharsis to Romantic pronouncements of poetry as modulated emotion (“recollected in tranquility”), and on to fears about the impact of televisual violence or the distractions of social media, it is hardly an innovation to claim that culture seizes our bodies and is seized by them, is absorbed through the skin. Literature reproduces the structures of feeling of a given age and also (perhaps scandalously) goes against them, to open up new forms of embodiment, new lines of flight. Reading is a habit, and a habituating activity, as well as being at times a means to break with our habits, to channel the desires that history (in Jameson’s sense) may ultimately refute or allow. Whoever said that reading was merely a matter of interpretation or signification? On the contrary, what is at stake whenever we pick up a book is the mobilization or demobilization of affects, the consolidation or invention of habits, and the emergence of individuals or multitudes.
“Kafka and His Precursors”
Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and His Precursors” begins oddly: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors.” The use of the verb “premeditate” is odd enough, in the Spanish (“Yo premedité alguna vez”) as much as in the English, not least because it is most usually found in juridical discourse: a premeditated crime is one that is considered and planned in advance, as opposed to a crime of passion or an outburst in the heat of the moment. This strange invocation of legal discourse might suggest that some wrong-doing is afoot, or that we are hearing some kind of confession. And yet–and this is the second strange aspect of Borges’s opening gambit–it is also suggested that the crime was never committed. “I once premeditated making a study” implies that the study remained unwritten or unmade; it was only planned. We have the guilty mind (mens rea) but not the guilty act (actus reus). The crime was averted, perhaps because some flaw was found in what was otherwise a perfect plan.
But this then leaves us asking ourselves about the status of the text that we have before us, which (as the title promises and as further readings confirms) turns out to concern precisely the topic of the projected but unwritten or abandoned study: “Kafka and His Precursors.” Yet if this is not that study (perhaps because it is too short, incomplete), nor is it the premeditation of that study: at best it is an account of that premeditation, a summary and reflection upon the preparatory “notes” that would have aided in the writing itself. It is an intervention between the plan and its execution, between intention and act.
In short, the text that we have here is perhaps triply parasitic, or three-times removed from its ostensible object: it is the summary of notes towards a study of Kafka and his precursors. It is also strangely located in time: it is the reflection on a plan in the past to write a study that is still unwritten (and so is postponed to the indefinite future) about a now-dead author and his precursors that (we soon find) proceeds by enumerating them “in chronological order,” beginning with the most far-distant.
As often in Borges, the part mimics the whole or (perhaps better) we find an almost fractal arrangement in which patterns are repeated at various orders of magnitude, albeit to produce less the comfort of familiarity than a vertiginous sense of the uncanny and a shattering of logic. Elsewhere, we see this effect in his description of the “aleph,” a shimmering ball (found in the banal surroundings of a Buenos Aires basement) that contains within itself the entire universe. But Borges also suggests that such apparent oddities (or impossibilities) are remarkably common, even quotidian: think long and hard about anything, and it soon becomes (or is revealed to be) an aleph of its own. Here, these opening lines anticipate the central problematic of the essay itself, which is about the ways in which texts are related and how strange fissures or reversals upset linear temporality, just as it in turn makes (or unmakes) its point through performance as much as through argument or exposition: for this text about Kafka and his precursors is in its own way about Borges and his precursors and in it Borges himself rewrites our collective past and disturbs our conceptions of sequence and priority.
Finally, if what Borges is ultimately saying is that a writer (that writing) has the strange power to intervene in history, to remake or remodel the past just as Kafka creates his own precursors (by making us see an otherwise disparate collection of historical texts as oddly “Kafkaesque” avant la lettre), he is also unabashedly claiming that there is nothing new in this notion. This observation precedes Borges and this text, and so confirms (what is now) his repetition of what can present itself as an established fact. For in another detail, a footnote–a classic paratext or parasite, neither fully part of nor fully detached from the text itself–draws our attention to T S Eliot’s Points of View, whose very title in this context becomes simultaneously uncanny and revelatory. After all, is this entire essay not about “points of view,” and the ways in which they are constructed, obscured, or undermined?
In a rather good essay on Joyce and Borges Patricia Novillo-Corvalán, whom I am here myself copying or appropriating to some extent, notes that “Eliot postulates an aesthetic principle, through which writers are not read in isolation, but as part of a living tradition in which the new alters the old, the present modifies the past and, as a result, texts are continually re-valued from the perspective of subsequent texts” (60). And Rex Butler’s “Everything and Nothing” points out that what makes Borges original–what makes the greatest authors the most original–is precisely the fact that they “can actually appear unoriginal, to add nothing to literature, to repeat what has already been written” (134).
At which point, as I observe that I in turn am in large part simply “repeat[ing] what has already been written,” remaking and remodeling it for my own purposes, creating precursors who sadly are not quite as disparate (or quite as unpredictable) as those of Borges and Kafka, perhaps it’s time to stop what is after all only a first approach to these issues. It’s time to end, in other words, so that we can at last begin.
Warwick University Ltd
E P Thompson was well-known as one of Britain’s foremost twentieth-century historians, certainly (alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and perhaps Raphael Samuel) one of the country’s foremost radical historians. He was a mainstay of the New Left in the 1950s (and a founder of the New Left Review) and also a major figure in the rise of cultural studies: his classic study The Making of the English Working Class is usually cited as one of the field’s seminal texts, along with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.
In the 1970s, however, Thompson took issue with the turn within cultural studies towards structuralist and post-structuralist theory: his essay on “The Poverty of Theory” is an empassioned attack on Louis Althusser and a defence of socialist humanism. At the same time, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable within a university system whose priorities seemed to him to put profits over people, and to favor managerial control over democracy and intellectual debate. He therefore spent the last two decades of his career as a freelance writer (and peace activist), unaffiliated with any particular institution.
The nature of Thompson’s discontent with the university is best seen in a short and rather odd book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management, and the Universities, which was written (in a week!) and published in 1970, in a climate of student protest and public outrage.
The facts of the matter are simple enough. In the late 1960s, Warwick was still a very young university: it had been established in 1965 as a state institution but with strong input and influence from the leaders of the manufacturing industries in near-by Coventry. Their plan was to seek ways in which academic expertise could feed in to industrial research and development. Fully twenty per cent of the students were to be in Engineering, and among the problems they were set to tackle (and the firms they were designed to benefit) were “metal fatigue (Massey-Ferguson), fuel injection system (Rover Company), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop)” (72) and so on. But the issues to be resolved were not merely technical: money was also supplied to set up an Institute of Directors’ Professorship of Business Studies, a Pressed Steel Professorship of Industrial Relations, and a Clarkson Professorship of Marketing, etc., all of which were to be housed in a “School of Industrial and Business Studies” whose “austere academic concerns” (as Thompson sardonically puts it) were to include “the choice of finance, the new issue market, institutional leaders, leasing, capital gearing and the cost of capital, taxation and company policies, take-overs, long-term financial planning” (75).
But the industrialists didn’t have everything their own way. Not enough engineers or would-be plutocrats applied, and the Arts and Social Studies “took up the slack and expanded more rapidly than had been intended” (71). Among those hired in these disciplines was Thompson himself (who had previously worked at the margins of academia, teaching adults in “extra-mural” classes at Leeds). And as the university expanded, the question of new building became a point of contention. The students wanted a Students’ Union, with a bar and space to socialize on what was a rural campus some distance from any major town. The Administration preferred to allocate space to staff and to come up with real estate that could be easily rented out for conferences during the vacations. The matter bounced around various committees for some time until, fed up, the students decided to occupy the University Registry. It was what they accidentally found while they were there that led to the subsequent storm:
At about eight o’clock that evening, one of the students (in an office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s) began thumbing through a file marked “Student-University Relations,” which had not been locked away. Amongst other things the file contained a report from a certain Mr Catchpole on a meeting addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American Labour Historian who had been visiting the University the previous year. The student thought that perhaps Edward Thompson, who had been a colleague of Montgomery’s, might be interested in hearing the contents of the report. (51)
And interested E P Thompson indeed was. In the specific case of David Montgomery, the Director of Legal Affairs from Rootes Motors had been sent to a Labour Party meeting at which the visiting lecturer had been invited to talk, to see if there were grounds for his “prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act” (107). Finding no such evidence, a Director from Rootes wrote to the Warwick Vice-Chancellor in any case, to report back. But this was the tip of an iceberg: for what was revealed (as students then steadily worked their way through the files available to them) was systematic collusion between the university and political and industrial interests to spy and report on student and staff activities outside the university. Essentially, the co-penetration of industrial with academic interests had corrupted the university, whose officials all too eagerly cooperated in petty policing and willful obstruction of free thought and discussion.
What follows is much careful consideration of what are often the minutiae of dissatisfaction at this one particular institution, though there is plenty to learn from even now. For one, the book is beautifully written, and often rather funny. Thompson takes a historian’s delight in this peek into the archives of the present. As he says,
It is my trade to open files, but the authors of the correspondence have always been long dead. One of the difficulties in writing “contemporary history” is that, until the files have been opened, the actual thoughts and the motives of the actors may be difficult to determine because of their public image. But here, for a moment, the actuality and the image co-existed, giving a sense of double vision; and even when the inertia of institutional routine reasserted itself, there lingered the sense of a new dimension to its reality–what the institution wished to be taken for set alongside one’s new knowledge of what it actually was. (157)
He admits that this double vision may be uncomfortable for those concerned: “Of course no correspondent likes the idea of militant youth going through his confidential letters” (157). But it is in this generalized crisis that the university finally gets to grip with what it could be, as well as with what it is. As Thompson says of a mass meeting called to discuss the concerns that arose from the occupation, “If ever there was a moment of birth of Warwick University, it was at that meeting. A University is not born when the Privy Council grants it a charter; it is born when its members come to realize that they have common interests and a common identity” (53).
Or as he puts it later, the scandal and the revealed corruption enabled a new sense of the university’s values. For beyond the details of who did and said what to whom, “The students began to realize that these were not the real issues at all, but were merely symptoms. What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the university. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the ‘Business University.’” (59). Ultimately, “the University of Warwick only began to find its identity in a time of crisis” (59).
Likewise, for those of us who observe that the contemporary university is now (in Bill Reading’s phrase) “in ruins”, we might similarly hope that a rebirth might be possible in the face of the crisis occasioned by today’s MOOC fever, the increasingly rapid encroachment of commercial interests, the shallow-minded enthusiasm for short-term fixes, and the obsession with the university’s “business model” over any sense of its values. At least we can hope.
Warwick University Ltd ends leaving the largest issue open:
Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? (166)
Thompson’s own answer to these questions presumably came when he resigned his post and dedicated himself to writing and working outside the academy and, increasingly, to activism in the peace movement. For those of us who are in the institution now–and not least but not only the students who are once again in occupation at the University of Warwick, over the latest attempts to turn public good into tradeable commodity–let us hope that these questions remain open. Let us return to the issue of what the university is for, understanding that the balance between dystopian threat and utopian promise is more finely poised than ever.
Survival in Auschwitz
The striking thing about Primo Levi’s testimony, Survival in Auschwitz, is that the Germans barely figure in his account at all. It is a book about the Holocaust in which the ultimate perpetrators are almost entirely absent. In so far as they do appear, they are seen from a distance, glimpsed fleetingly, or presented simply as disembodied voices: “a raucous German voice ordered silence. Another German voice rose up in the sudden quiet [. . .]” (148). If the Germans are invisible it is perhaps because they incarnate the abstract logic of the camp, of the diabolical genocidal program. Germany is almost always invoked in terms of general characteristics: “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger” (19); “the Teutonic sense of humour” (40); “The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence”; “their national love of classification” (156). The Germans exist only en masse, not as individuals–though one assumes that there is a “mysterious German bureaucrat who supervises these matters” (138), he is merely putting a general program into practice. And ultimately, neither the program nor the manner of its implementation make any real sense: “No one can boast of understanding the Germans” (139).
Indeed, in a rather strange passage the Germans are almost absolved (or is it that they are all the more condemned?) in that their behavior is presented as more or less automatic, unthinking and unconscious:
The Germans are deaf and blind, enclosed in an armour of obstinacy and of willful ignorance. [. . .] They construct shelters and trenches, they repair the damage, they build, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen. They could not act differently [. . .]. (141)
It’s like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which a scorpion stings and so kills the frog who is carrying him across a river, ensuring that they both will die. When asked “Why?” the drowning scorpion replies “It’s in my nature.”
There is but one exception to the general rule that Germans are not identified or treated as individuals–and it proves not to be such an exception at all. The only German to be described at any length is not one of the SS men, or a camp commandant. He is the civilian chemist, Doktor Pannwitz, who tests Levi on this knowledge of Chemistry before deciding whether to admit him to the relatively privileged “Chemical Kommando.” Pannwitz is the only German in the book to be named or physically portrayed, though even Levi’s description of his features soon refers us back to the generic: “Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them” (105). And the more typical the doctor becomes, the more unfathomable and unreadable he is. Levi tells us that in front of him he feels “like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” (105). But where Oedipus solved the mythical Sphinx’s riddle, Levi (though he passes the Chemistry exam) fails this more significant test:
From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he fileld his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.
Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany. (105-6)
Ultimately, this is not a book that claims to explain “the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.” That would be, it seems, an impossible task. Hence its focus is on Levi’s fellow prisoners, and not merely because they are the ones with whom he is in most contact. Nor indeed because it is his fellow prisoners (particularly but not solely the kapos and others who are higher up in the camp’s infernal hierarchy) who are most immediately the agents of Levi’s torture and misfortune: for we soon discover that, here at least, there is no solidarity among the downtrodden, that you can trust nobody and forget about any notion of compassion.
The point rather is that, however inhuman and degraded the prisoners become, it is still worth trying to understand them in all their particularity and individuality. Hence the numerous pen portraits of men such as Schepschel, who survives four years thanks to “small and occasional expedients” (93), Alfred L and his “cold life of the determined and joyless dominator” (95), or Elias Lindzin, “the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living” (97). Levi tells us that the camp was “pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment” (87), and in some sense he is as fascinated as anyone in its results, in what it tells us about the human condition, human habits. This is the “meaning” of the experience, if we have to assign it a meaning. But in the end we can learn nothing about the Germans. As far as Levi is concerned, they are fundamentally unknowable.
While I’m at it… I am coming to believe that Winnipeg is in fact the site of the “real” Canada.
This makes sense on so many levels. It’s the geographic center of the country, after all. It also has a prairie. And clearly British Columbia, for instance, isn’t Canada (too mild). Nor is Toronto or the rest of Ontario (too much like the USA). Quebec is, well, a case apart. Calgary is a weird bit of Texas transplanted to northern climes. And the Maritimes are too far away from anything. Newfoundland is a lost rock in the Atlantic Ocean, that only joined the Confederation when forced to do so. The Territories are empty and barren. No, only Saskatchewan comes close. But Manitoba, I think, is like Saskatchewan only more so.
So in the same way that the Weakerthans are really singing about Canada when they declare their hate for their native city, so surely Guy Maddin’s marvellous movie My Winnipeg should similarly be read allegorically, as a film about the best and the worst that this country could be and is.
It’s a mesmerizing, magnificent film, deeply strange and troubled, which is loosely premised on the film-maker’s eternally ill-fated attempt to leave this place in which everyone is strangely half-asleep.
My Winnipeg is also a lament. And after all, if Canada has an identity, it involves a lament for an identity is now lost, and was never recognized at the time; Canada’s identity is permanently après coup, as Lacan would say. (This is also the theme of Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada, as I’ve hinted before, in not dissimilar circumstances.) Specifically, Maddin’s lament revolves around the demolition of the Jets’ stadium, and so the departure of major league hockey from the town.
And (forgive the spoiler) the film ends with the most astonishing vision of some kind of prairie socialist realist goddess reversing the flow of time and conjuring the stadium back from the rubble. It’s an amazing finale, and well worth the occasional longeur en route.
Anyhow, here’s the trailer…
There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.
The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.
Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it’s no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink’s book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, “capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination.” But never is this more true than with those “many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves.” Brink’s task is “to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid” (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.
Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor’s time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.
The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called “Myth Merchant Films”) in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.
But whose imagination is at work here? The museum’s problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.
So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.