It may have passed the attention of some that Canadians have been voting today. Not all of them, mind you: Craig of theoria and RIPope of Long Sunday have both made clear that they have better things to do. Or rather, that they are holding out for such better things. In RIPope’s words:

it is precisely because I feel so much pathos that I won’t just make myself feel a bit better by voting. I’m willing to suffer this hell for the sake of something Other.

There are, on the other hand, two scare stories circulating to encourage people to the polls.

One, much promulgated by the Liberal party, is that the election of Stephen Harper’s rejuvenated Conservative party would mean the rise of American-style neoconservatism; Harper would be “Bush lite.” This warning worked well enough at the last federal election, in June 2004, when a swing away from the Conservatives in the final few days of the campaign ensured the Liberals would have enough support to form at least a minority government. Subsequent revelations of Liberal corruption, however, mean that fewer are now persuaded that they are a much lesser evil than the Conservatives.

The other scare story, a version of which can be found in Dave Pollard’s “Mulroney’s Revenge”, is that this election could mean the end of Canada. Unable to win a clear majority themselves, the Conservatives will form an unholy alliance with the Bloc Quebecois. The alienated West (the Conservatives’ power base) and the alienated Francophones will together conspire if not to the physical and geographical break-up of the nation, at least to gut the Federation of all power.

But both scare stories are, in essence, one and the same: they prey on the fear of becoming American. In Pollard’s words:

We will then be America Lite — still bristling at the thought that we’re just like Americans, but with our assets even more substantially owned by Americans than they are today, an economic colony with the fading illusion of relevant political independence. Instead of being the potential role model for the 21st century, we will be the country of great promise that was never realized.

This is a theme that obsesses Canadian pundits and commentators. Here, plucked almost at random, is another example, taken from one Rafe Mair and his two-part story, “Why Canada is Unraveling Again” and “How to Deal with our Next Unity Crisis”:

The country teeters on the chasm of national disintegration and the federal government and indeed opposition act as if nothing is happening for fear that simply by admitting that there’s a problem will itself encourage a bad result.

The irony is that to avoid becoming American, the only solution these anxious nationalists can devise is to be a little more American:

I think it useful to look at how the Americans did it in 1787 when, with equal representation from all states, large and small, they came up with what is unquestionably the best constitution ever made.

How to be like the US, without exactly being the US? How to be “America lite” without quite being (perceived as?) America lite? That seems to be the question around which much of contemporary Canadian politics turns.

Which is hardly a question that would get me up and running to a ballot box.

And surely, as Craig notes, the refrain of “Well, at least we aren’t American!”, the more or less smug fetishization of small differences, hinders rather than helps any real political analysis.

economy (stupid!)

I’m very pleased to present the following guest post from my friend Jeremy, on recent events in France…

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Both in France and in Britain, media coverage and commentary on the recent disturbances in the banlieues has focused on the perceived fundamental differences between the French republican model of “integration” and the so-called “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism. Commentators on either side of the Channel, or indeed the Atlantic, rarely miss an opportunity to point to problems in the other country as evidence of the inherent failings of the foreign model and the superiority of their own.

Peter Mandelson, formerly the architect of Blairism, currently EC Trade Commissioner, was recently featured on BBC’s Newsnight programme, preparing to meet the French Trade and Agriculture Ministers in advance of the latest round of world trade talks. As Mandelson walked to the meeting, an advisor suggested he should break the ice by expressing his sympathy for the problems the French government was experiencing in quelling the nightly disturbances in the banlieues. “So much for the French social model they’re always telling us must be defended at all costs!” came Mandelson’s audible, acerbic reply.

Such evident Schadenfreude was perhaps understandable given the eagerness of French observers to lecture those in the so-called “Anglo-Saxon world” on the inherent superiority of the “French model.” In their analyses of the riots, several French commentators have been unable to resist comparing race relations in France with the situations in both Britain and the US, predictably concluding that things are far worse “chez les Anglo-Saxons.” For example, in the left-leaning Le Nouvel Observateur, Jacques Juillard and Jean Daniel insisted that where the July bombings in London demonstrate failings inherent to the “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism, rioting in the banlieues is in no way a symptom of equivalent flaws in French republican universalism; such problems, they assure us, relate to the purely contingent failure to apply republican values properly.

The mistake, when confronted with such patent examples of self-serving chauvinistic myopia, would be to play the French at their own game, by trumpeting the superiority of our own national models or traditions. However tempting, matching nationalistic bad faith with nationalistic bad faith will not advance us far.

What is really significant about the tendency of so many in France to champion the benefits of their own “social model” is that such apparently confident assertions of national superiority merely reveal the deep anxiety at perceived French national decline that in fact lies at their root. Moreover, what lies behind the periodic, largely directionless outbreaks of violent protest in the banlieues is not the failure of one or other model for “integrating” ethnic minorities. Rather, what’s at stake here is the breaking of the link between such differing conceptions of national belonging and the mode of capitalist accumulation that used to underpin them.

It is commonplace in France to claim that earlier immigrant generations were integrated into the Republic relatively unproblematically. Too often forgotten is that such immigrants either arrived as adults or, if children, had a mercifully brief exposure to the French education system, that talismanic site of republican integration. Arriving as adults or leaving school at 15, such immigrants and their offspring were in fact integrated in the Fordist workplace, through both labour and the labour movement, thanks to the ramified political, social, and cultural networks of unions and the Communist Party. The role of republican institutions was limited to equipping such workers with certain linguistic skills and a fairly minimal sense of specifically French cultural values and traditions.

The banlieues were, of course, the necessary adjuncts to Fordism. Inspired, architecturally, by Le Corbusier’s “factories for living,” they were located close to areas of heavy industry to provide housing for workers in France’s booming post-war economy. The decline of the banlieues has thus precisely mirrored the decline of French heavy industry and the shift to a post-Fordist mode of accumulation. As unskilled and semi-skilled factory jobs have dried up, so the young French working class, ethnic minorities and others alike, have been encouraged to spend ever longer in formal education, to be confronted on a daily basis with evidence of the disparity between the republican school’s promises of equality and meritocratic social promotion and the reality it can actually deliver.

As the bases of Fordism as mode of both governmentality and capitalist accumulation disappear, so republican institutions, and the school in particular, are left to take up alone the task of integrating France’s most economically and socially deprived groups. Unsurprisingly, this is a task which such institutions are unable to achieve in isolation. The more such institutions fail, the more politicians and commentators across the political spectrum insist that their founding values must be safeguarded and reasserted. But reasserting the very republican values and institutions whose failings banlieue inhabitants confront on a daily basis can only produce effects opposite to those desired. The thousands of burnt-out cars littering the streets is depressing evidence of such unintended consequences.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s response to the rioting, which has included a plan to revive “pre-apprenticeship” schemes for young male immigrants, at least has the merit of moving beyond the traditional exclusive focus on republican institutions and the school. Indeed, his proposals might be interpreted as an attempt, doubtless vain, to suture the fractured link between republicanism and the Fordist mode of accumulation that had previously ensured the “integration” or disciplining of generations of French citizens into the body politic.

Another of De Villepin’s proposals, to introduce a form of “voluntary civil service” to replace the compulsory military service demanded, until a few years ago, of all male French school-leavers, is also telling. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in Multitude, the disciplining of bodies under mass conscription paralleled the disciplining of bodies in the Fordist factory. It is this parallel, they argue, that Céline explores in Journey to the End of the Night, as his narrator recounts his experiences on the Western Front and, later, as a worker at the Ford factory in Detroit. What Hardt and Negri neglect to mention is that between these two experiences, Céline’s narrator recounts his encounter with French imperialism, in French West Africa. What Hardt and Negri term Fordist “disciplinary governmentality” did not merely involve a parallel between mass soldier and mass worker: it also rested on Western imperialism.

In France today, the Fordist factory has all but disappeared, mass conscription has been abolished, and the grandchildren of France’s former colonial subjects have arrived in the imperial metropolis to confront residual forms of colonial arrogance and violence; the old mission civilisatrice will no longer be enacted in a primary school in Kabylia, but in one of the newly designated Zones d’éducation prioritaire in the metropolis’s all too proximate periphery, the banlieue – open to all French residents, universally, as long as they leave their Islamic headscarves at the door.

De Villepin’s attempts to return to a more certain age, through a reassertion of republicanism, a dose of national service, and precocious insertion into the workplace, will doubtless prove in vain. Yet this should not be cause for any Mandelsonian Schadenfreude. For it is precisely the failings of the nation state, its institutions and traditions, that is at stake here, so that any analysis that falls back on disparaging comparisons between the failings of “their model” as against the strengths of “ours” paradoxically becomes a symptom of the very malaise it claims to diagnose.

Or rather, what’s at stake is the failed articulation between the nation state and the economy, between national ideology and the contemporary mode of capitalist accumulation. The fact that the London bombers hailed from declining industrial communities of the Midlands and the North should remind us that, contra Juillard and Daniel, what was significant in the UK, too, was not the inherent failings of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalism but the disappearance of Fordist structures of work and socialisation – it’s the economy, stupid!

This has been a guest post from Jeremy.


Magali M. Carrera emphasizes the way in which the shift from a colonial regime of power in Latin America also implies the constitution of new “kinds of time” (“From Royal Subject to Citizen” 32). Late eighteenth-century writers “transfer the reader out of the fixed present of New Spain into alternative realms of time: the non-chronological, allegorical and futuristic time of utopia” on the one hand “and the legendary, idealised past” of foundational fictions on the other (32).

For a postcolonial society even to be envisaged, that society must be placed within historical time, and allocated both a destiny and an origin.

Benedict Anderson’s point about the temporality of national consciousness is similar. Anderson writes that it is “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time [that] is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (Imagined Communities 26).

But where Anderson argues that this temporality is particular to the novel and the newspaper, and so to print capitalism, Carrera wants to show ways in which it was also visualized, depicted in the art as well as the literature of the nascent Spanish American republics.

So whereas Anderson traces a shift from a medieval culture in which “the figuring of imagined reality was overwhelmingly visual and aural” (23) to the novel and the newspaper as “forms [that] provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (25), Carrera shows how the iconography of Empire was replaced with an alternative visual imagination specific to national self-determination. From “casta paintings” that map social hierarchy indelibly onto biology, to historical narratives of social invention such as José Obregón’s The Discovery of Pulque.

Casta painting
The Discovery of Pulque
Painters such as Obregón, then, contest the ways in which the art of Empire “laid out the static sociopolitical territory of the royal subject’s body visually.” They therefore “revise and transform the eighteenth-century political and social construction of the royal subject into that of the nationalist body” (19).

From a categorization of ideal types, as found in the casta paintings, in which each limb or organ of society should know its rightful place, to the historicization of identity as part of a dynamic social whole. Obregón takes the calcified representations of the indigenous, “remove[s] them from the present and place[s] them into an originating and allegorical time” (32).

Of course, the price that the indigenous pay is that, restored to history by the mestizo state, they are also marginalized and rendered invisible in the present.


[See also Gilroy I and Gilroy II.]

Gilroy has been criticized for his “populist modernism” before, not least by Kobena Mercer, who took him to task as long ago as 1990 for his celebration of “black cultural practices that have ‘spontaneously arrived at insights which appear in European traditions as the exclusive results of lengthy and lofty philosophical discussions'” (“Black Art and the Burden of Representation” 69). As we have seen in Postcolonial Melancholia, and as in all populisms, Gilroy wants to have his cake and eat it: both championing the spontaneous wisdom of the people and insisting on the intellectual’s “fundamental” task of “education” (“Race and Faith Post 7/7”). Populism sets its store by the people but never fully trusts them, hence its characteristic double articulation of mobilization and demobilization. It puts its faith in the nation’s ordinary common sense and sentiment, but at the same time seeks to exclude those who do not accord with its version of common sense, to mark them as somehow not fully part of that national community. Here, as so often, the rhetoric is directed primarily against political elites, specifically the New Labour government who have betrayed (Gilroy suggests) the faith conceded them by the 1997 electorate. But there is equal distrust of the cheap or petty, suburban or rural, “small-minded Englishness” (138) of those who are perhaps not “vulgar” or “ordinary” enough (67).

But surely the point of a truly Orwellian patriotism, if we really were to consider resurrecting this rather quaint project, is that you cannot pick and choose: true solidarity has to contend with the physicality and materiality of the most unpleasant of affects and habits. For Orwell, the politics of affect figured above all in the “physical repulsion” incarnated in the notion that “the lower classes smell.” How, Orwell asks, can you have “affection for a man whose breath stinks–habitually stinks” (The Road to Wigan Pier 112)? Consensus or hegemony are not at issue here: Orwell points out that it is irrelevant how much “you may admire his mind and character.” The point of conviviality is not the liberal politics of agreement, but the challenge of living together despite what is indeed an almost pre-political sensation of difference. “England,” if an anti-racist patriotism has any sense at all, must belong to everyone. But of course at this point “England” also starts to fade, leaving only its increasingly marginal state apparatus, marginal despite its paroxysms of nervous violence, as in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell. Yes, there will be points of historically-conditioned affective intensity (melancholia or shame, nostalgia or pride, anguish or joy), tied to images or sensations that are coded as national. And a television corporation or a cricket team, or even a government, might work within these codes to incite or dampen particular affective responses. But why should such overcoding also structure a politics of liberation?

The Alamo

The point of legends is their adaptability. Freed from the requirements of realism, a legend can be reinvoked for diverse purposes as circumstances demand.

John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo is, as Philip French notes, “clearly a post-9/11 movie,” whose message, French argues, is that the war it portrays is “a war that should not have been fought, but having engaged with a monstrous enemy, it must be carried on, however reluctantly.”

But if we can indeed follow contemporary parallels, then the movie is hardly the “decent, rather half-hearted liberal affair” that French contends.

The story of the Alamo is, in the first place, a story of traumatic defeat: the Mexican army’s massacre of some 180 defenders holed up in the former mission near San Antonio. In the second place, however, it tells of the power of memory to stir a victorious counter-attack: Sam Houston’s subsequent defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, spurred by the shout “Remember the Alamo!”

And the prime ideological justification for the war against Iraq (especially now that talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction has faded) likewise invokes the memory of trauma to stir resolve against a “monstrous enemy”: “Remember 9/11!”

The connection between 9/11 and Iraq is specious, of course, but in so far as The Alamo is indeed a 9/11 allegory, it naturalizes and secures the relation between this trauma and subsequent US bellicosity.

Santa Anna portrayed by EcheverriaAnd The Alamo‘s Santa Anna, played with some panache by Emilio Echeverría, is indeed the very model of a modern tyrant: cowardly and effete, more concerned with pomp and appearance than tactics or efficiency, he callously sacrifices his soldiers and ignores his officers’ pleas to respect the rules of war.

For this is the trauma according to Hancock: the fact that Santa Anna plays “dirty” in his assault on the Alamo. (By contrast, for Christy Cabanne’s 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo what’s at issue is the threat that the Mexicans pose to the honour of Texan womenfolk.) The point, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Alamo’s defenders are themselves not the most clean-cut of heroes: Jim Bowie is an unabashed slave-owner, William Travis a dandy with a shady past, and Davy Crockett a troubled character overshadowed by his own mythology.

In the end, though, there is one constant in all the various re-tellings of the Alamo legend: it is a tale about the constitution of an American people.

The mission’s defenders are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers and regulars, brought together for a variety of motives, often disreputable. It is only in the face of a foreign aggressor that their internal conflict, essentially between the principle of a citizen militia and the imposition of military hierarchy, is resolved in favour of the state: both the state of Texas and statehood itself.

Ultimately, this is the narrative of how the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers and the New Orleans Greys and other disparate powers come together to defend the idea of a unitary power, which eventually will become the 28th State of the United States of America.

(Cross-posted from Latin America on Screen.)


Having finished reading Gilroy’s book, I’m now about halfway through the review.

For the review, I’m interested in Gilroy’s notion of patriotism, and how it connects with his conception of cosmopolitanism. Because Gilroy would seem to want to hold on to both of these concepts. Strangely, indeed, it is Orwell who is perhaps the key figure in the book, the only one to bridge its two halves, “The Planet” and “Albion.” Orwell, we are told, combines “worldly consciousness” with “parochial attachments to England’s distinctive environment” (76-77). So, it would seem, does Gilroy.

Patriotism in Postcolonial Melancholia is not, then, or not always, the last refuge of a scoundrel. It can be, in Orwell’s own case, “authentically geo-pious” (96); it can also be, now in Ali G’s case, a “daring act of . . . love” (135). Of course, Gilroy’s advocacy of patriotism is far from unequivocal. He’s certainly opposed to the “state-sponsored patriotism and ethnic-absolutism [that] are now dominant” (25). But the fact that, especially towards the end of the book, he often refers to “ultranationalism” as the enemy (as in the “artificially whitened, comprehensively rehomogenized national community to which ultranationalist discourse casually refers” [109]) appears to leave open the possibility of a dignified, modest brand of national adherence.

There’s a tension here, though, between adherence and the “estrangement” that Gilroy also praises, for instance in what he calls Montesquieu’s “carefully cultivated degree of estrangement” (70) or Freud’s “intuitive estrangement” (68), even Eric Auerbach’s “observation on the perfection of the man for whom ‘the whole world is as a foreign land'” (24). This is, again, where Orwell comes to the fore, because there are few who have been as estranged either from their own country or even from the poor with whom he sought solidarity (as even a cursory glance at The Road to Wigan Pier shows) than this Old Etonian turned colonial bureaucrat turned tramp turned anarchist turned writer in the lonely isolation of remote Jura.

Gilroy half acknowledges that such estrangement is the very model of the modernist intellectual. “Distancing can sound like a privilege and has sometimes been associated with the history of elites,” he says, “but I am not convinced that it is inevitably tainted by those association” (67). I’m not convinced that it isn’t, either, but perhaps this could be another way of reading the irony and cynicism that are such denigrated features of our postmodern condition. With the universalization of irony, are we all now able to be “stranger[s] in [our] own country” (135)? Is that indeed what a website such as i am fucking terrified is all about?

Gilroy is no friend of postmodernism–far from it, it is modernism he tells us he wants to reclaim–but there’s a sense in which his ironic, distanced patriotism can only be postmodern in its generalized assumption of modernism’s aesthetic distancing plus its premodern appeal to territory, belonging, and even authenticity.