Monthly Archives: September 2006


I’ve been trawling about wanting to find some sort of confirmation of the glorious rumour that media baron William Randolph Hearst (and his gun-toting, John Waters’ films cameo starring, socialite grand-daughter) was somehow tied up with the ongoing presence of an American Naval base – and dastardly prison/detention/concentration camp we know as Guantanamo – on Cuba. What is the US doing on Cuba at all? Fidel must have a view on this.

Then I found: Robert Rodvik, who writes:

“Without going through its many Articles, the one that interests me the most is the infamous Article VII – the piece of US-inspired legalese that maintains sovereignty in US hands, rather than the suggested moral goodness of US declaration. As stated in Article VII: “To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the Unites States the land necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States. On June 12, 1901 the Platt Amendment was added to the Cuban constitution since, to resist, was to declare that pacification had not ended and US troops to stay indefinitely.
This Article of legislation forced upon the Cuban people was the key to establishing the massive US Naval Station Guantanamo.”

Old old stuff, now turned into new nasty stuff. Same as it ever was.


Unable to sleep, I’ve been obsessing once again (fetish object) about the start of Capital, and the inadequacies of the Penguin translation, in which the word appearance so features as both trick and key. This is for the start of a new course, which now looks like it will begin with an impossibly long routine about the first sentence in a 11 week programme in which I want students to read about 80 pages of the text a week. What sort of precedent will it set if we spend the first hour or so on the first sentence? Word by word. Inch by inch.

All that can wait – no need to write it out today, since there is a whole 8 days to go. That’s a week plus one. = W+1

Which reminds me of the ou-li-po strategy of the N+7. Take a sentence and replace the nouns with a word that appears 7 entries further along in the (any) dictionary.

You can do this on screen with a corporate twist using the microsoft thesaurus:
though sometimes there are less than seven options, so I modify it to take the seventh or otherwise highest. Call this the ‘N+7msword thesaurus’ translex…

“As poison to first light serenity at the eternal hyperbolic revolve of Bliarite apologetics for Israeli attack, everywhere he presents his alibi-making as a unease for war” –

- which is the N+7 of the first sentence of an earlier ou-li-po entry from here. Are these things translations, no more nor better?

You can also find the hidden ur-text of any sentence by using the N-7 method, going back seven words in a dictionary to find where things begin…

So, obscure fun, its also made my day that ou-li-po can translate stuff into maths. Test yourself:

If x = human and y = afterlife,
is x = 1 > x = y?

This is a far improved version of the silly waffle of Hamlet in his moment of doubt, no?

Now, for N+7 treatments of the opening line of Capital-
‘The mammon of society in which the commercial type of assembly prevails appears as an “giant gathering of stuff”, the being article of trade appears as its plain type’
– seems rather inconclusive. Ah, the stuff needs to be unpacked. Hence the lecture…

Comic site of note

People’s Tribunal on the Many and Varied War Crimes Trial of Tony Blair

I was invited to a small workshop at Tate Modern last friday (with folks like Chantal Mouffe, Mike Shapiro, John Armitage, Naeem Mohaiemen and many others – the ‘overly romantic’ Bernadette Buckley was enthusiastic) to discuss the possibilities for an ‘Art’ event next year at Tate. One of their big events, well funded, they were looking for suggestions and dominant thinking was along the lines of having a conference on Art and War and maybe commissioning an artist to do a ‘piece’. My humble contribution, based on frustration and fury at so much murder death kill on my TV, was to denounce the idea of yet another coffee chat and champers soiree for the elite about artists and contemporary conceptual arabesques that are worthy but do little but pat us on the back for being alienated angry and helpless art lovers. The issue for me is what would be adequate to win the war against the terrorists and criminals that run our lives and ruin so many others (cf Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran…). So, lets instead have an event in the turbine hall that does something that at least suggests the direction in which adequacy might be found – the People’s Tribunal War Crimes Trial of Tony Blair. Gore Vidal as the prosecutor, I guess Chris Hitchens as the defence. Who to get as judge to do the thumbs up or down at the end still open? And some other logistical matters to be decided… The thing to do afterwards will of course require more than touching faith in legal process, but a successful people’s tribunal at the most successful gallery in the world could also then help legitimise the people’s march on Westminster to ….

The point was made that it does not matter if this degenerates into farce or parody of ‘the law’ or ‘the courts’ – when the law suggests there might be a non-criminal way to bomb Afghanistan/Iraq etc, then anything that gets masses of people fired up enough to do more than march past Westminster to Hyde Park is better. Thus instead to rather march into the halls of power and turf out the jokers that sit on those plush chairs (boards of directors, lords and lairds) means something that seems more like justice (not legal justice, but people’s justice) might be on the cards.

Idealistic? Overly romantic? Perhaps. But always possible, and necessary now more than ever.

City Planning

An abstract I have sent in for a conference in Phnom Penh in January. The conference is called “Living Capital: Sustaining Diversity in Southeast Asian Cities”./ The paper I plan to write for this will cover research I’ve been doing for ages on knowledge culture industry and the like – I published something on this in Mute and a longer version the Nettime Reader way back when. Its time to look at issues behind the gleam once again…:

City Planning – for people, institutions and industry.

The problem with rapid urbanisation is not so much that there are vast numbers of new people in the city, but that public planners, social commentators, journalists and the reading public (readers of journalism, commentary and policy) see these arrivals as a problem. In contemporary cultural studies arguments have been put forward that revolve around the slogan: urbanization causes hybridity – referring to the cultural frisson and mix that is both a resource for a vital creative economy and something in need of an interventionist solution. This smacks of the twin fantasies of exoticization – “ooh, look, cultural differences” – and commodification – “they are differences we can sell”. That the planning and zoning of cities now includes routine acknowledgement of diversity, and embraces institutional forms and supports to mix such diversity with creative industry, is the current benchmark of capitalist development thinking. This thinking has a heritage that reaches back through the past sixty years of social engineering – the examples in this presentation will be the life-world-creative industry mix, showcased in recent so-called “technopolis” projects, such as the MultiMedia Super Corridor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the digital economy redevelopment of Hyderabad, in India.

[German version of my very old piece on MMC in DE:BuG here]

Last Night at the Opera

Opera is cool, I am going to go again – how much is a season ticket? (smirk). Gaddafi – A Living Myth, by Asian Dub Foundation/English National Opera, was terrific, a spectacle, and Ramon Tikaram was great. The piece had a (very) few crap rhymes at some points (juice/loose – Shan Khan wrote the libretto) but impressively for the venue, the genre, the time, there were plenty of sharp significant words said about nefarious covert ops by CIA/USA/RayGun/Thatcher types, which of course everyone will have updated in their heads to read as a critique of Bush/Bliar’s anti-Islam/Oil-terror war. No glorification of “Gaddafi Superstar”, there was some even handed internal critique of both the Libyan leader’s paranoia and expediency (tactical move on the Lockerbie etc) and of compromised moderate Arab puppet governments. At the end a deserved great cheer for the virgin soldier ‘Amazonian Guard’ defence squad that protects the Colonel. And congrats to the ENO and ADF for finding a new angle on the kung-fu/hip-hop nexus that so often appears in this sort of soundscape – those guards had some good moves. But a shame we could not dance in the aisles as the Colisevm is a pretty venue for a drum and bass gig. The music was fine – if politely quiet compared to other ADF fare. Generally a good time was had by all.

- this post is a place holder for a longer discussion that will appear soon. Unfortunately Gaddafi’s last night was last night. Triumphant end, but sadly no foot stomping encore as we could see the orchestra was already packing up their cello’s in the pit. But season tickets for the ENO are worth considering = they did Nixon in China a few months back – I am sorry to say I missed Mao in that one. I’d always thought Opera was for the infirm – oops, I guess I am getting aged and dotty and my pop cult tastes are moving upmarket. OR – as I know it was – is this a total aberration for Opera, and its only the declining economies of such elite forms that force the pace. As evidence, the plethora of snotty negative reviews of this production in the right wing press… Whatever they may moan about, I think its a publicity, artistic, political coup – of gaddafi superstar proportions – its wild adn wacky that ADF have got this up at all. Another addition to their great routines and unending fame – as good as those on Battle of Algiers and La Haine.

Anyway, come back soon for a more coherent response. A bit bleary eyed today after waking up early because John G was catching a flight to Malta – though I am so sorry I failed to make him a coffee before he left… have a good flight … more soon.

Irwin memorial tickets predicted to sell out in minutes

There is a sting in the tail in this report from the Australian Broadcasting Commission:

‘Police expect tickets for Steve Irwin’s public memorial service to be allocated within minutes when they become available this morning at9am AEST.

Hundreds of people have been queuing throughout the night at Ticketek outlets in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast and Australia Zoo in south-east Queensland.

There is a four-ticket per person limit on the tickets and a headcount by police has confirmed that all of the tickets at AustraliaZoo have now been accounted for.

Five-and-a-half-thousand tickets are being made available for thepublic farewell that will be held at the Zoo’s Crocoseum next Wednesday.

Jay-Anne Hughes was first in line at Maroochydore’s Ticketek office.

“I wanted to guarantee that we would we were able to go on Wednesdayand I was actually supposed to be having a baked dinner at my mum’shouse, but I saw it on the news that people had started lining up soI missed the baked dinner and shot down here and luckily I was herebefore anyone,” she said.

Disappeared In America

Worth a look, the day after Sept 11 is this project by Visible Collective.

The Gap in New York is also a bit of a rabbit hole:

Disappeared In America:

“DISAPPEARED is a project by Visible Collective/Naeem Mohaiemen that uses films, installations, & lectures to trace migration impulses, hyphenated identities and post-9/11 security panic. The majority of migrants detained in recent security hysteria were from the invisible underclass of cities like New York– the shadow citizens who drive our taxis, deliver our food, clean our restaurant tables, and sell fruit, coffee, and newspapers. The only time we “see” them is when we glance at the hack license in the taxi partition, or the ID card around the neck of a vendor. When detained and deported, they cease to exist in the American consciousness. This desire to create a sinister outsider with dubious “loyalty” has a long pedigree, witness the World War I incarceration of German-Americans; the 1919 detention of 10,000 immigrants in the Anarchist bomb scare; the 1941 internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans; the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs; the HUAC “red scare” under Senator McCarthy; the harrassment of Deacons For Defense; the COINTELPRO infiltration of Black Panthers; and the continuing rise of the Minutemen militia.

CURRENT INTERVENTIONS Until Dec 1: Above Ground @ Tenement Museum, New York. September: State Of Emergency New York.

Various excerpts from our ongoing projects were presented as installations or lectures in New York (2006 Whitney Biennial; Queens Museum of Art; “Rule of Law” @ Broadway Gallery; Rubin Museum; Location One; Brecht Forum; “Knock @ The Door” South Street Seaport; Cooper Union Art & Censorship panel; “Detained” @ Asian American Arts Center), London (Performance Studies International), Liverpool (FACT Museum), San Francisco (Yerba Buena), Dhaka (Bengal Gallery; Public library), Delhi (Sarai Center/RAQS Media Collective), Houston (“How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?” @ Project Row House), Frankfurt (Staedelschule: “Politics of Image”), Stuttgart, Beirut (Home Works III), Karlskrona Military Museum, Berlin (KunstWerke: lecture by Natasa Petresin as part of e-flux video rental project), Chicago (Artwallah), Amherst (U Mass Amherst), Stockholm (Finnish Embassy), Manchester (Futuresonic), Belgrade, Helsinki (Kiasma Museum; Finlandia Hall) and e-Flux video library (various cities). While our work started in the American context, we have expanded to look at Europe & the Middle East, in recognition that anti-migrant xenophobia, coupled with Islamophobia, is not a new or uniquely American phenomenon. “


‘If you don’t buy this record I’ll jump out of these speakers and rip yer bloody arms off
– Aunty Jack –

The stage persona of Aunty Jack, a long forgotten 1970s Australian television comedian and recording artist, was a cartoon version of anti-conscription, anti-Vietnam War, feminist era (?) cross-dressing, making a parody of commercially and threatening violence. There is nothing but harmless humour in his/her performance, a pantomime figure in a scene where everyone knows the musician cannot jump out of the speaker and force you to buy a record, or make you do anything much at all. Sure, this played on parental fears of the susceptibility of youth to get caught up in the latest crazed anti-disestablishmentarian stunt (Aunty rode a Harley Davidson Motorcycle, was a sort of renegade pirate type, swore on prime time tv, etc). But such pathetic fears had, I would argue, little to do with the fears that are presented to us in the mainstream media of today, deflecting any alternative discussion of politics, meanings and issues in the world of performance as such. Panto has turned much more brutal. I want to examine this and take the figure of Panto seriously. Is it merely a conceit to think that, for mine, it is a good thing that comedy music novelty acts could cross borders and tests limits, could take risks and suggest (im)possibilities that challenge, that sometimes had a life of their own, irrespective of the boundaries some might prefer to erect so as to confine or control? I used to think the counter-establishment charge of renegade panto made a lot more sense than the antics of those in power, but now I have to recognise that its just as much the case that Panto has changed, that its become the News.

In the present era, Aunty Jack is no longer remembered (see here, and do not miss the classic ‘Fish milkshakes’). Nowadays new figures of fun have a more sinister underside, and yet the underside does much more politically than the mischief of my beloved fat rebel Aunt. Aki Nawaz is portrayed as a cartoon ‘suicide rapper’ in newspapers like The Sun and The Guardian, but he also gets across a previously unheard and unwelcome message about the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Soon he is invited (and invited back) onto BBC news roundtable discussions. I think this visibility means there is no danger of him being arrested anytime soon. But that he has taken it a step further, and managed to raise some issues, does not mean that other pantomime events have been displaced. The spectacle (lower case) of Mr and Mrs Bush placing a wreath in a wading pool at the base of former WTC last evening was bizarre. This is not cross dressing, but crocodile tears – the bombing of the Towers was of course reprehensible whoever did it (conspiracy theorists here here and everywhere) but, rather than offer more pics of Bush looking edgy, I think its more important to listen to Gore Vidal and his concern with the ‘the destruction of the Republic’ as inaugurated after 11 Sept 2001 in the guise of Homeland Security; Guantanamo; Rendition; endorsement of torture etc., (Vidal quips re ‘Homeland Security’ that the term is reminiscent of the Third Reich – ‘Der Homeland’ was not a phrasing he had heard from an American before ‘it was forced on us’ by the Government). This was on BBC radio today – Vidal self-styled as ‘spokesman for Carthage on Roman radio’, defender of ‘the Constitution’ against the oil and gas tyranny, and against the collusive ‘dreadful media’. We have not just lost some buildings, far worse is that we lost the Republic.

Well, perhaps the Republic was also always a Panto scene in the USA anyway. But the Panto wreath-laying of Bush and Bush makes me think also of Alain Badiou, in Infinite Thought, pointing out the non-equivalence of terror directed at a couple of buildings by a non-State entity (‘the terrorists’), and the retribution that is visited on all of our lives by the State Terror directed by US Forces; directed first at peasants, villagers and the dispossessed everywhere, but also directed at those in the ‘we’ through security legislation and so on. (Badoiu’s essay on terror in that book is one of the best I have read). That the terror extends to covert activity by secret service agencies; includes surveillance operations; plethora of dark underworld gadgetry etc; removes all vestige of civil liberties; and prepares us for perpetual war is only the logical consequence of – face it – our anti-war demonstrations, even when 2 million, being also only a kind of panto. We marched to hide in Hyde Park (‘he’s behind you’) and sat down tired to rest, when we should have sat on Blair and not moved till he resigned. He’s still there, clinging on in a rerun of Punch and Judy forever.

This does not man I want to bring back the days when Panto was just a cute summer entertainment.

Nor do I want to mock the city of New York today. There is a hole in the heart there, and its gives me pain to think of that place, and my lost friend and comrade Imogen too – we discussed this so often after she left for New School, and we once walked together to the site debating wars of terror, organisational questions, the purpose of demonstrations and the limits/betrayals of the Stop the War coalition (but our debates were never panto, no no). I cannot but think of personal pain and this place together, and then extend it to the pain endured throughout the world on behalf of those who want retribution. The Oil court of King George being the most dangerous terror cell of all.

The pic above of the Ground Zero site (as the whole planet – isn’t that quite amazing for a worlding of the world) is by Vincent Laforet for the New York Times.

The picture to the side here is of Kid Eager (Garry McDonald), Aunty Jack (Grahame Bond) and Thin Arthur (Rory O’Donoghue).

(and the song below even comes with guitar chords – strum along).

Farewell Aunty Jack,
We know you’ll be back
Though you’re 10 feet tall
You don’t scare us at all
You’re big, bold and tough
But you’re not so rough
There’s a scream as she plummets away (‘allo me little luvlies) .

Erowid Nitrous Vault : The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide, by William James

Alexander Bard of BwO fame/glory (and formerly of Army of Lovers) also runs a list called philosophy that while often dormant, is sometimes great. This gem found by Rasmus Fleischer provides an intriguing text, excerpted below, by William James on alcohol, nitrous oxide and Hegel. James writes: “Now this, only a thousandfold enhanced, was the effect upon me of the gas: and its first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all…”
It really is worth looking up the whole thing, but one wild para tickled my funny bone…

Erowid Nitrous Vault : The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide, by William James:

“What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of
criticism — how criticise without something to criticise?
Agreement –
Emotion — motion!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how
it doesn’t hurt! Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but
That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
Thought much
deeper than speech…!
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

The most coherent and articulate sentence which came was this:

There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference. “

- James, William. “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.” Mind. 1882; Vol 7.

This reverie in itself is great; the defence of Hegel an added bonus, I guess, if indeed you need to defend Hegel while gassing up.

recent questions of note

———— Forwarded Message ————
Date: 07 September 2006 12:35 +0100
From: Anna Shaw @
Subject: Tv Enquiry

Dear Anthropology Department,

I am contacting you from a television production company and I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I am developing a series for Channel 4 with our presenter, Justin Lee Collins, exploring unusual and fascinating communities. In a similar vein to the Louis Theroux programmes, it will be more a comedy anthropology series. I thought it would be advisable to contact the experts first off, to find out whether you feel there are any groups of people who would be suitable for such a programme. There is nothing more unbearable than when tv crews charge into remote communities for all the wrong reasons. Any advice or direction you could give me would be invaluable.
Many thanks and best wishes,
Anna Shaw

Ha ha – So Television. Great letter – [my italics].

This person should first make a programme about anthropologists – a strange remote community.

Then make one about TV executives who come up with stupid ideas like
making ‘comedy anthropology’ programmes.

Can you imagine what the planning meeting on this one was like?

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha


words of advice for young people… from Mars…

My the world is strange #133….

I got this email below out of the blue a few days ago. Its pretty wild to be thinking, as I am now, of doing something more creative with sound, and indeed I do have a fantasy of some sort of Uncle Bill Burroughs type adventure, but with Mao and hip hop. This label could be ideal – they have some good stuff out already. Would love to do something with Fun^da^mental using some of the texts from my Marx/Representation/Cultural Politics course with acoustic hip hop spoken word mash up. But as its just this surprise letter that suggests the idea, I doubt there would be time to get anything together, or if it would eve remotely work. Actually, I think the idea is totally crazed. So I like it….

>>>Dear John

I’ve been meaning to contact you since Zoe Irvine
waxed lyrical about you and your work to me earlier this year.

To cut a long question short – do you perform stuff live? Would you be interested in
recording a live set for my strange online label Seven Things at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, preferably 45 mins long, at somepoint on the 18th Nov this year?

We’re running a sort of day-long gig at the festival with people like Alessandro Bosetti / Adam Linson / John Butcher playing and recording forus. If in principle this might be of interest, please do let me know and we can talk more about exactly what you might wish to do, with whom, and what the involvement with Seven Things would entail.

With all best wishes
John Harris

Seven Things I Daren’t Express Ltd
Alison House12 Nicolson Square Edinburgh EH8 9DF UK

Quoting Marx for the slums? – Žižek’s Parallax Viewpoint.

Žižek thinks the revolution begins in the slums. The point at which his new book gets real is urban. He takes a while to get there though. These are my reading notes as I work through the new book.

Žižek’s corrosive attacks on hypocrisy and liberal illusions interrogate the gaps (parallax, dialectical, distort, invert, pervert) in which ideological justification thrives. Politically incorrect and sometimes obscene moves are the only way to expose the weak, self- serving self-deceptions of those that betrayed the end game of Star Wars, the impossible resolution of the Matrix, and the traumatic unconsummated assault on Laura in Wild at Heart. An overabundance of examples illustrate Žižek’s new book – Woody Allen; Rashomon; Henri Bergson; Heidegger in the forest, writing greetings to Argentina; Trotsky (defended); Kurtz upriver; the Jews, Jesus and drug-induced religious experience; Minority Reports; Obi-Wan; Claude Lévi-Strauss; broken eggs and demonic chickens; Marilyn Munroe with Humphrey Bogart; and far too many laments for the ‘sad’ decline of the Left (he does protest too much).

I do not at all mind if Žižek is contradictory; precious; obscure or bitchy at times – often all at the same time. But I do mind when his endearing idiosyncrasies provide an alibi for less contradictory, more precious, wilfully ignorant obscure and boring bitchiness on the part of minor acolytes. Let me demonstrate my own implication here and make some serious points in the end about, of all things, what I think is wrong with Žižek’s answer to the question of: ‘what is to be done?’

Underprepared for the acolyte path, I am not able to get into all the ontological ontofukcery about the status of the parallax, its relation to Kant and Hegel, and the significance of Lacanian in-jokes (often for an in-group of one, though there are many in that schizo-group) and nor am I interested in the Pauline Church stuff or the petit a as it pertains to philosophy or paedophilia. I am much more interested in the implications for Marxist-Leninism and struggles against capital. This I take it is a shared interest – Žižek himself has done more of late than many to return the proper names of the revolutionary tradition to mainstream discussion, with texts on Lenin, Stalin, and his championing of Badiou’s Maoism. I prefer this roll call of communist thinkers to that other popular fat book which rescued such names from apparent obscurity – Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) – since in that book the tone was far more dismissive (but better than the barren fields of Eagleton’s prose; the opportunism of Hitchens; the sectarian squibs of Jonah Tennick – if that is The Left, then we really are in sad trouble). Žižek however has done much to redeem serious discussion of Lenin, Stalin, Mao et al, even as I think he is far too sympathetic to Hardt and Negri, whom he neologises as “HN” (giving credence to their own pretension to be a new M&E for the 21st Century – as inaugurated in Žižek’s cover blurb for their far too thick book).

Žižek says he has laid some ‘cruel traps’ here and there in his book for the resolute ‘democrat-to-come’ (Žižek 2006:11), so while I am not baited by that, let me get started and fall into a few of my own anyway. Žižek is well informed on Heidegger; on Lacan he seems like a chorus girl (can can kick, cha cha kick); on the Soviet terror contrite; on Lévi-Strauss perfunctory; on Trotsky correct (to denounce and qualify); on Hitler and Stalin he is euro-obsessive; and on Marx, he is mostly fine. Mostly? I am sorry to say that Žižek sometimes gets things wrong on Marx. My trap here is pedantry, but I cannot help pointing out that he twice quotes the wrong ‘opening sentences’ of Capital. I must presume Žižek quotes from memory. Speaking of ‘subjective illusion’, he says:

‘Let us read carefully the famous opening sentences of Chapter 1 of Capital: “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its anaysis shows that it is, in reality, a very trivial thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceities” (Žižek 2006:171 – emphasis is Žižek’s)

The actual opening sentence of Chapter 1 of Capital occurs some 38 pages earlier (in the Penguin edition). I feel curiously compelled to point out that the page reference Žižek gives for his ‘opening’ is to p163 of the [I think, superior] International Publishers translation of Capital. However, in that edition, p163 occurs a few pages into chapter 5 on ‘Contradictions in the formula of Capital’, and the quotation Žižek uses is from the beginning of section 4 (to be found on p163 of the Penguin edition, not the International Pubs cited). Nevertheless, Žižek correctly quotes his lines later on page 371, at least insofar as, second time, he identifies these lines as belonging to subdivision 4, and he gives the appropriate footnote to the Penguin (qwa qwa qwa)..

What is my point with this footnote fetish? It is time to carefully look at the actual (and also famous) opening sentence, which reads:

‘The wealth if societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as and “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/1967: 125 penguin edition).

This is a great opening line. Remembering that Žižek has italicised the words ‘at first sight’ and ‘in reality’ in the important, but different, passage he quotes (I shall now drop this petty routine on his sloppy referencing and sloppy Marxography – its unseemly and clerical anyway), the point is to illustrate an inversion in the ‘standard procedure of demystifying a theological myth’ where Marx is not bringing myth down to earth through critical analysis, but that ‘the task of critical analysis is to unearth the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” in what appears at first sight to be just an ordinary object’ (Žižek 2006:351).

What this ordinary object is, of course, is the commodity [trinkets!]. And the many readers of the first chapter of Capital have had much much fun with commodities; with coats and linen; with spindles and thread; sugar and iron; with tables that have wooden brains, that dance off to market and the like (Derrida had made them spectral beings). All well and good. But I am inclined to read the place of commodities at the opening of Capital in a more fundamentally calculated way; as a crucial feint giving access to the organisation and purpose of the whole book, indeed to the entire architecture of Capital as presented by Marx. The authorly Marx mentions several times that there is a difference between the mode of presentation and the analysis. I think it is crucial that the commodity is the opening scene of a drama that has a wider purpose for demystifying – it is the opening to a work that will provide the ‘implied reader’ of Capital (I follow Gayatri Spivak 1985 here) with the x-ray vision to see through the trick of commodity fetishism, market exchange, control of production, distribution, valourisation, credit, the varieties of subsumption and the crises of capital, so as to sublate the productive power of capital away from the exploitative production for profit of commodity wealth into a more plentiful abundance of life and creativity for all…

What clinches this argument? The very wording of the opening sentence includes two visual references – remembering that Žižek had italicised ‘at fist sight’. In the Penguin edition the German word erscheint is translated as appearance. The German reads:

‘Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine “ungeheure Warensammlung”, die einzelne Ware als seine Elementarform.’

Erscheint occurs just the once here though, rendered as two instances of appears in the English as given earlier. This is grammatically acceptable, translation is no pure calculus, but I think there is significance in it as well. In the International Press edition the translation is better: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”; its unit being a single commodity’ (Marx 1867/1967:35 my italic). Both editions then go on to say that our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. My point is that revealed in the gap between the two English translations of Erscheint is the entire burden of Marx’s project – to expose the trick of commodity as a way to teach the working class to see. Erscheinung, in German usage, has a double sense. It has the sense of appearance both as how something looks, and the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, staging something. The ‘presents itself’ of the International Edition gets closer to this sense, but does not capture the double, the trick that is perpetrated by the animated commodity – animated by the masses themselves, though they do not see it as such, yet.

So why am I concerned to pick up on this micro moment of Žižek’s book that covers so much other ground? I will illustrate with a diversion into the really lived experience of the masses. Žižek is my guide when he heads for the slums. To prepare the way, Žižek, in several sections of the book, has discussed Marx’s exemplary analysis of the civil wars in France, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Boneparte. This amazing text, also much discussed by everyone from Spivak to Levi-Strauss, is full of phrases well know even to those who have not read much Marx: ‘history repeats itself the second time as farce’, ‘let the dead bury the dead’, ‘potatoes in a sack’, ‘they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented’ and so on.

Žižek describes the Society of December 10 as the ‘private army of thugs’ that Napoleon recruits to do his dirty deeds (Napoleon the third is Louis Boneparte; the nephew of the more famous Napoleon with his hand tucked into his tunic) and recites Marx’s alliterative paragraph on ‘vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars’ (Žižek 2006: 335; in Marx 2002:63 – Cowling and Martin translation). Žižek’s point is that this gang, hired from the residue or ‘excess’ of all classes is the ‘excremental remainder’ that, Marx shows, permits Napoleon the third to stand apart from all classes, play class off against class – the gap – and come to be the representative of that class of people who cannot represent themselves, the peasant potatoes in a sack.

In a footnote on page 417 Žižek suggests that Marx had a ‘barely concealed contempt’ for, and dismissed this ‘degenerate “refuse” of all classes’ as ‘lumpenproletariat’ which, Žižek adds, extrapolating from Marx’s case study, ‘when politicized, as a rule serves as the support of proto-Fascist and Fascist regimes’ (Žižek 2006:417n26). He says this apropos of a suggestion that contemporary slum-dwellers should also be classified as lumpenproletariat. This is a volatile suggestion, given questions of politicisation, the importance of an analysis that demystifies, that wants to provide an x-ray vision for the masses to see through the tricks of power. It deserves closer examination.

In the main body of the text (the above was a footnote – a peripheral and minor moment perhaps, set apart from the main story, where) Žižek has been discussing ‘improvisational modes of social life’ in the “really existing slums”. Following Mike Davis, his example has been the city of Lagos, in the context of reports that ‘now, or soon’ the planet will be predominantly urban: more people will live in cities than in the countryside. Žižek makes some apposite comments here about the role of fundamental Christianity as the hegemonic ideology prevalent in the slums, and while he warns us to ‘resist the temptation to elevate and idealize the slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class’ he does suggest, with Badiou, that we ‘should nonetheless … perceive slums as one of the few authentic “evental sites” in today’s society’ (Žižek 2006:268). The excluded here have nothing to lose but their chains, they are free in a double sense (‘from all substantial ties’; ‘from state police regulation’) ‘even more than the classic proletariat’ (Žižek 2006:268).

This is heady stuff, but I think that despite the denial – the resistance of temptation –idealism has entered without an invite. Does Žižek know the slums? I can only think of the bustees of Kolkata that I have visited (bustee means something similar to slum), with their highly regulated codes and systems, their significant social and family ties, where pavement space, shanty huts, roadside and underpass locations are substantially organised, regulated, encoded – and not just by the Christian Church. (And many years of sociological, demographic, anthropological documentation: the work of Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay in Theory Culture Society vol 23 nos 7-8, 2006 might be a starting point, but there is much more). I would refer only to the difficulty of gaining access to these places, especially for a white boy from Australia, or no doubt a Lacanian film critic from Slovenia (see The Rumour of Calcutta Zed books 1996).

But all this is good stuff to debate – evental site and so on. It is when Žižek makes a peculiar parallel, and asks a provocative question, when he telegraphs a link between the slums and Harlem, in the process of advocating a new political programme, that I lose him:

‘The slum-dwellers are the counterclass to the other emerging class, the so-called “symbolic class” (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists and so on) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as directly universal (a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus). Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the “symbolic class” inherently split, so that we can make the emancipatory wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the “progressive” part of the symbolic class? What we should be looking for are the signs of the new forms of social awareness that will emerge from the slum collectives: they will be the seeds of the future’ (Žižek 2006:269)

Quite amazing – two classes contend… There is not yet, for Žižek, a connection between New York academic and Harlem (but this does exist) and he does not immediately say that Harlem equals slum (but his grammar implies it in a way that I would hesitate to attribute to conscious intent). Nonetheless, the conflation is there, and covered by an optimism that is quite touching, if naive. What then for the signs he seeks? There are a number of studies available of slum organisation; with more are emerging (see the forthcoming work of Annu Jalais). But in a world of urgent problems, why is urbanization continually called in to do duty for bourgeois fears (of a ‘population explosion’_ which leads to a threat to ‘us’ from those who now live amongst ‘us’. Perhaps the political project for progressives in the symbolic class will be to go to the slums in some form of a new urban Maoism mission. Žižek prefers Lenin, but his support of Badiou may suggest something else. And his listing of the lumpen is not without significance, naming the terrain of struggle:

‘We are thus witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in dire need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although this population is composed of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them as informal wage-workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security cover … (Žižek 2006:268).

Though I cannot disagree, except where Žižek suggests Marx was contemptuous of the lumpenproletariat, this list of complaints itself reminds me of the standard enumerations of symbolic class academic coding. I have written elsewhere on Derrida’s ten symptoms [in Bad Marxism]; and here am again reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s rewriting towards the end of her Critique of Postcolonial Reason, though I see her work as exemplary contrast, not only because it is symptomatic in Žižek that women are left out. There is perhaps still much to be learnt from a New York academic such as Spivak, who herself lives in Harlem, and does not ever seem to appear in Žižek’s reading lists. She makes much of the ways the financialisation of the globe, neo-liberal oppressions, structural adjustments and even well-meaning programmes, with NGO opportunism, have the most severe impact today on women (Spivak 1999).

In that footnote on the slum-dweller as Lumpenproletariat, Žižek perhaps is correct to suggest that a ‘closer analysis should focus on the changed structural role of these “lumpen” elements in conditions of global capitalism (especially large-scale migrations)” (Žižek 2006: 417n25). But he does not provide this analysis, nor refer us to those who do this difficult and necessarily nuanced work. I am starting to think this is more than just sloppy referencing. There are massive problems of a conceptual, practical and organisational nature that are rarely discussed in theoretical tracts like this even when they call for some new emancipatory movement (of signs from the slums, or of a multitude). What of the difficulty of speaking with, let alone organising with, the lumpen of the Paris suburbs (cf the work of Francoise Verges). The tactical, political, ethical error of sending ill-prepared cadre to the slums, the suburbs, or the mountains was a lesson learnt the hard way in Bengal, not learnt yet in Paris, and not helped by the comic image of ‘symbolics’ armed with Kant and Deleuze heading out to the shanty towns to compete with Pentacostalists for the souls of the oppressed. The obvious pun on Žižek in the slums is that his work may have a parrallaxative effect – a kind of Delhi-belly. Though it’s a pity that this is not very funny. Has the time has come for progressive symbolics to be better equipped, sent to training camps to brush up on class composition research methods, on questions of Leninist organisation, or the practical rules of engagement for ensuring Maoist party discipline? Time for something more than parallelograms to be deployed perhaps? Trapped as we are in academic theology, it may take some time before we are ready to act if we cannot even quote Marx with enough care to learn what his critique was about.

to be continued…JH


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