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Books https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/search/?q=John%20Hutnyk

that sign

the hinge moment in the text of capital, before whuch the ersheinungsform of commodities gives way to the secret of value extraction, also erschent als, of course, yet more a key to the unfolding text than those who rush too quick can see. next, the working day and struggle, coopeation, machinery, wages, and the expropriation of the expropriators…

The Rumour of Calcutta update

27 22 years ago my first book was typeset and laid out in the days before electronics – well, an electric typesetting machine was plugged into a wall, but no digital file was produced. Nevertheless, I had crossed out the digital rights clause in my contract with Zed so I own this [2023 update, though since Bloomsbury acquired zed books they seem to be selling an ebook version, which is a bit weird because I don’t have a digital copy and as the electronic rights clause was removed in the contract I signed, I own those rights – anyone want to get in touch?]. At last some kind anonymous soul has bootlegged it and set digital copy free on the nets, though its a large scanned file and the bibliography was left off (I’ve made a rough scan of the biblio but that too is a large file). Nevertheless, notwithstanding, and such like phrasings, the book is still one of which I am proud, if nothing else for trialling a way of citing tourist backpacker-informants, for its stuff on photography and maps and for the reviews it got (and indeed keeps getting discussed, for example on films – see diekmann2012) and especially for its critique of charity and what charity is for. In the context of do-gooder well-meaning hypocrisy, the effort of charity workers serves wider interests as well as their own, and only marginally any individuals they help – who would be better helped in better funded state-run facilities if the funds extracted through business-as-usual colonialism were, you know, made as reparations for the several hundred years of colonial plunder. Ah well, the critique stands up, the charity industry sadly thrives, second only perhaps to weapons in terms of so-called development, writing books does not yet always change the world as much as you’d like (and no, I did not ever think a book would single-handedly stop Mother Theresa, but…).


I would welcome new readers.

Download The Rumour of Calcutta here:  [John_Hutnyk]_The_rumour_of_Calcutta__tourism,_ch

Biblio here. Rumour biblio

And this retrieved by Toby:

đường dây Côn Đảo

Great! Just great.

Director: Lam Son (AKA Bùi Sơn Duân, 1932-2001). Writers: Nguyen Huy Khanh and Vu Hanh, starring Thuy Lien as Tuyet Mai, Ha Van Buu as teacher Thanh, and Tran Quang as Major Cuong. This film made after 1975, but I’ve not seen exact date details yet – I suspect it was after 77 at least – but within a few years of that as Bùi Sơn Duân moved to the US in 1990.

Foreigners and (merely trifling … criminal) ideology in poetry: Note for a future appreciation of Aragon that will likely never appear…

From Louis Aragon’s epic History of the USSR 1962 (1964)

“Although it may have been necessary to remind creative artists and writers of the national context of art and to dissuade them from a vulgar Imitation of foreign models often (though not necessarily) the vehicles of the ideology of a hostile regime, there is no doubt that the systematic campaign that began with these observations and which was, under the name of the fight against ‘ going down on one’s knees before the West’, to go on for several years, arose from that truly Stalinian spirit of distrust, and it appeared to be influenced by the mistaken theory that the dangers increase in proportion to the success of socialism. It is perfectly understandable that there should have been, and that there ought to have been, a struggle for a national art, for the usefulness of that art and for its taking part in the improvement of the people. But it is not so easy to understand that everything that seemed to draw its nourishment from elsewhere or that seemed (perhaps rightly) to be merely useless or trifling should be put on the same footing as treason. In the unbalanced sense of values that the ‘cult’ [of personality] introduced and in its practical consequences, trifling faults took on the appearance of crime, and ended by serving to hide crime itself . .. Not that this in any way means that in the ideological field the party did not have to intervene, in the spirit of Leninism. On this point, as on others, one may differ in one’s opinion as to the direct Intervention of a political party in these matters; but the difference will be in exact proportion to one’s rejection of Lenin’s theses. Yet the need for intervention does not mean that at the time when Beria was exercising his well-known influence on government decisions, the enemy whom it was most urgently necessary to unmask should have been the poetess Akhmatova, even if her verse was as devoid of sense” (Aragon 1962/1964: 481)

Adorno on youth and discipline – whats not to love here

“There is absolutely no question that productive thinking today can take the form only of one that works through breaks and fractures, whereas any thinking which is simply oriented in advance to unity, synthesis and harmony can only serve to conceal
something which thinking is called upon to penetrate, for it then inevitably contents itself with simply reproducing, or even reinforcing, the facade of what is already there in the medium of thought. And if your own thinking – as long as your approach has not entirely been shaped in advance by standard scientific expectations – feels a certain resistance against what can commonly be described as ‘pedantry’, then I believe this cannot simply be regarded as the typical attitude of the youthful enthusiast who still needs to learn the importance of discipline. There is something such as intellectual discipline, of course, but the intellectual discipline which people would instil in us usually amounts to a kind of hostility to things of the mind, that is to say, ends up by stunting or emasculating the productivity of thought – namely the relation of thought to its obj ect – and encouraging it instead to submit to certain regulated procedures”‘” (Adorno 1957 2017: 149-150)

Adorno, allegedly, having fun on the beach.

Stepan Georgevich Shaumian – not to be forgotten.

Besides the usual wiki stuff, I would welcome any recommendations on Shaumian. Or Shaumyan as Louis Aragon spells his name in The History of the USSR (1962) – an excellent book by the way, with snide comments on Trotsky I have appreciated, some set up re the anticipated revisions regarding Stalin – I am at page 400 or 600+, but lots of things that simply have been forgotten by many. By me at least. And one of those Not To Be Forgotten, as the poster says, is Stepan Shaumian of the Baku Soviet that really is a story deserving greater attention. THis is especially so as his murder along with 26 others (even though ‘some’ claim there were a few escapes) is part of the prelude to the Armenian massacre that is also too often lost in the admittedly pretty full annals of atrocity. The despicable role of the British in selling Stepan Shaumian and the Baku Soviet leadership into execution is clear enough (the alleged alternate British “intention”, or mealy-mouthed apologetics, was to use them in prisoner exchange) but I would like very much to learn more. Who knows of the best book on this (besides Aragon’s snippet)?

Notes on Beuret.

An annotation of someone’s article abstract is probably a bit unfair. I’ve managed some awful ones myself. Sigh. Here I was, stuck in a long meeting, listening to the discussion, but sort of doodling on the abstract above, colour-coding the mixed metaphors.

Only later I read the article properly, and think it is very necessary to engage a bit more systematically – here are my initial rough notes on what Nic has to say – the article itself is free to download – the thrills of open access… Certainly the critique of the writer-activist trope deserves attention. Click the doi link to get to the article I am commenting on here (and note that Nic has a number of other enviro writer-activist stuffs here: https://essex.academia.edu/NicholasBeuret)

Beuret, N. (2023). ‘Mapping the catastrophic imaginary: The organisation of environmental politics through climate change’. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, https://doi.org/10.1177/25148486231168395 (open access)

OK… got to get past the breathless abstract, and an unfortunate number of typos (I should talk!): ’We grasp this transformation through the way [we] collectively imagine past and future frames what we think we can do in the present’ and ‘I’ve named these three refrains are [!] the ‘catastrophe itself’, ‘humanity in excess’ and ‘the end of nature’’ (Beuret 2023). It seems to me an important piece and beyond the writer-activist rush there is something worth adopting in terms of what is achieved so far, and what might be next.

First up. Some of the ideas here could have been given a longer context. The imaginary is a concept made popular by Lacan and Castoriadis, among others, and so could have been linked to the work of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie and their efforts to involve auto-workers in France in writing about their experience of neoliberal production and its problems (part of the history of workplace inquiry). The motifs idea Beuret uses to focus upon the catastrophic imaginary – Fisher repeating Jameson’s prophetic phrasings: ‘we can imagine the end of the planet, but not the end of capitalism’ – can be related usefully to Adorno’s studies of the attachment of the German population to fascist ideas (even after WW2). This was part of the inquiry into the legacies of National Socialism (see Adorno Guilt and Defense), though motif was initially set out in Adorno’s earlier studies of music and politics in Wagner (Wagner introducing the commodification of music by breaking music into set reproducible pieces, certain refrains and motifs as a kind of identifiable discrete product – the piccolo flute equals the image of the Elefenreich). The critique of Monobot is always welcome, since overpopulation is a ‘strawman’ motif, utterly Eurocentric, though in turn this should be related to the role of that old plagiarist and East India College ‘penitent of Vishnu’ Robert ‘population’ Malthus (see Marx’s hilarious footnotes on ‘Pop’ Malthus in Capital). Finally, while the ‘Environmentalism after nature’ section is an excellent critique of arguments reliant on the prognosis of humanity’s arrogant intervening power, where: ‘humanity overwhelms nature through pollution: radioactive toxins, DDT, ozone pollutions, plastics and oil spills, genetically modified organisms and most powerfully greenhouse gases (McKibben, 2003: xv;10)’ (Beuret 20223) the relation of this to the Monthly Review enclave of metabolic rift theory (Foster, Keito etc) might have been worthwhile context (Foster’s The Return of Nature was out in 2020 and echoes here).

Nevertheless: ‘telling a story, one which frames much contemporary environmentalism in the Global North, that claims humanity in the aggregate has brought nature to an end … Through our excessive consumption of the world we have brought into being a catastrophic event, one that looms uncertainly on the horizon manifest in the form of climate change’ (Beuret 2023)

– doom. And yet – is this the message? Decidedly paralysing. Wait, there is an escape hatch (as in al good sci-fi fantasmagoria). So it is that:

‘opening up the environment movement to a broader range of images, perspectives and imaginaries that can take hold of the wealth of lived experiences and connections that constitute a planetary ecological movement … is already underway, with an increasing visibility of indigenous, Black and feminist perspectives and priorities, with the rise of alternative political framings that contest what is both realistic and what is necessary, from degrowth to collapsology, the Red Deal (The Red Nation, 2021) to the increasing centrality of commons and commoning’ (Beuret 2023)

– this opening up is what needs to be reported more widely. I hope there is a second three-part review of texts that will document what is important and ‘legitimate’ in the emergence of alternative imaginaries.

‘Imaginaries take hold when they resonate with socially legitimate framings or genres and speak to lived experience and social identity’ as is set out at the beginning of the article. ‘There are imaginaries, emergent or deliberately politically constructed, that contest or resist these hegemonic environmental and climate imaginaries … articulated through struggle and occupation (Fremeaux and Jordan, 2021), indigenous (The Red Nation, 2021), Black radical (Roane, 2023) and anti-colonial imaginaries, as well as more speculative and fabulous left-wing imaginaries that dare to consider a different future (O’Brien and Abdelhadi, 2022)’ (Beuret 2023)

Indeed, opening up the forums of the experts, policy makers, writer-activists and universities to those most impacted by ecological change would surely be a welcome and necessary effort, however much it disrupts vested interests in the institutions.

Godard’s “British Sounds” link updated

From 2009: You can find Jean-Luc Godard’s “British Sounds” in all its glory now. It is worth watching all the way through – from the ‘petroleum of pop music’ and excerpts from the great Shiela Rowbothom to the “gestapo of the humanist university” (they mean LSE). ‘No end to class struggle’ in the centre of the jack. All Godard’s great themes are here – the pan across the line of cars (weekday this time, not ‘weekend’) through to militant Maoist students concocting a twisted sympathy for the devil (Lennon not Lenin) and more. Thanks for the reminder to Iain Sinclair and his great rambling Hackney(ed) dossier (if you haven’t got it yet, get it – and read Sukhdev’s review of Sinclair’s book here). As Sukhdev says: “here’s another reason why Sinclair is such an important writer: he offers readers the critical tools for looking anew at wherever it is that they live.”

Avatar 2 indulgences

Avatar 2 seems like its channeling every Hollywood Vietnam War fantasy ever – what is up with that? Western cowboy military in the delta and includes an apocalypse now poster tribute and all – Scully as a blue Willard… I am sure there are already umpteen articles on this (thanks Rose).

Of course “The Iraq stuff and the Vietnam stuff is there by design — and references to the colonial period are there by design,” says director Cameron. Sheesh – otherwise serious stuff has to be coloured in with fairy lights (as was the case with the Bougainville war in Avatar 1), as if the horror of reality was not sufficient for the required aesthetic marketing. Tracer bullets, napalm, and phosphorus bombs, are now the key tropes of photogenic militarism, ever since Hollywood colonised our minds.

Its no longer appropriate trying to refight the war – look at the critiques of how Spike Lee messed up Da Five Bloods with anonymous hordes and reparations going back to the US rather than Vietnam – but as ever, the war can be projected onto space and fought again (much as I loved the early series of the cold war/sorry The Expanse), copybook remakes of jungle fire-fights are not all that.

and sure – we’ve been here before…. but R tells me unlike the first iteration, there was no anthro-consultant on this second one, so seems as if they just stayed with the Human Terrain Systems guidance they had last time, plus some late night reruns and script off-cuts from rambo, deer hunter, full metal jacket, poseidon adventure, moby dick, waterworld and bodysnatchers…

The virtual ethnographic was erased too. For each bit of action chase sequence fun, there’s a cringeworthy debt to numb-eco-populism (and blue-supremacy).

Recently on Trinketization…

materialism and truth

Do we spend too much time worrying about truth and its manipulation of the senses, priority of matter etc., Rene Descartes owes us a few credits as the destructive consequences of both his having too much free time and of the devilish deception sneaking inside his text…

To quieten the soul, I pick up a meditative text that actually I know will not be quiet at all… Fascinating reading.

Lenin, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, asserts early on that ‘Sensation depends on the brain, nerves, retina, etc., i.e., on matter organized in a definite way. The existence of matter does not depend on sensation’ (Lenin 1908/ 1972:55)

Lenin, Vladimir [1908]1972 “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.” In Collected Works Volume 14, Moscow: Progress Publishers

Does this mean bad ideas, deception, lying is ‘simply’ the consequence of materials – say faulty interpretations in really existing textbooks and newspaper, or perhaps chemical processes that induce psychotic states of bias, jealousy, prejudice. Perhaps the conspiracy theory about high–frequency manipulation rays are disturbing thought (probably not). The relation of all these things and many more are the components of a materialist analysis that must also be aware of dialectics.

The biggest problem in philosophy now seems not to be about understanding how things are in the world and other old debates about material causes, things, perception and appearance. The philosophers now seem keen neither to interpret or change the world but to convince us that we cannot know anything except by their say-so, and that truth is false, lies are true and money conquers also.

I am as ever nonplussed with how seriously people take themselves, and will just keep plugging along. The questions that might occupy my internal polemic at the present time will and must be several, and formulating a list responsive to popular tendencies intellectual thought is not yet an analysis, however:

– The ecological turn in Marxism, of course not unrelated to the ways the crisis of corporate pollution of the planet is glossed as ‘climate change’ and alternately green washing (include a bio zone in any urban precinct development) and ‘natural’ fibres in fashion (still an exploitative industry whether the factory/ sweatshop produces bamboo or cotton shirts).

-fascism, ultra right, conservatism and the laments of the lost-its-way left

-Deleuze, new media, software studies, vitalism. New forms of political quietism.

– historical forgetting (and the ransacking of history for romantic television drama series – Downton Abbey, Outlander etc.,). The history wars in India in the hands of the fantasist Modi

– cancel culture, vampire’s castle, apolitical fight-targets, cruelty, and posturing, having something to say with nothing to say just so someone sees you saying it.

– fear of the hard work of reading political theory. Self-censorship or ignorance about the achievements, and ongoing problems, of social theory in Marx, Engels, Thorstein Bunde Veblen, Rosa Luxemburg, Gyorgy Lukacs, Georges Bataille, Raya Dunayevskaya, Gayatri Spivak, Silvia Federici…

– the middle-brow niche of pseudo–political cinema – Young Marx, Chicago Eight Eleanor, Prey, and the narrowing domain of art- cinema reified and resolved into just a few handicapped autos names known but no longer watched (well) – Godard Wong Kar Wai, Ritwik Ghatak, Zhou, Miike, Ichikawa Kon.

– Publishing circuits and the privatised regulation of journals – Elsevier, T&F etc. The wicked effect this has on rushing to judgements that are never justified and hardly ever writerly. Ahh, only my enemies seem to care for the work – I learn from them too. Credit due, but their sous are bleak. I’ll swap reading Lenin for Eisenstein, the montage of attractions and Kino-Fist instead of Vertov’s Kino-Eye.

Riotinto – multi-scalar defeat, yaay!

This one is a welcome defeat for the mining corp…

See more on riot Tinto on this blog here: https://hutnyk.wordpress.com/?s=Riotinto

(note, reposting this article is not meant to be an endorsement of TWQ – see here – but I am hugely appreciative of this paper and authors’s work)

Pirate Reboot – Occupy Madagascar

Graeber, David. 2023. Pirate Enlightenment, Or the real Libertalia. London: Allen Lane.

In this entertaining book, the world of early eighteenth century Madagascar piracy, and the women they liaised with, turns out to have been the font of “a great historical achievement” in that “public assemblies”, with “a decentralized and participatory system of self-governance” (91), were brought into the pirate settlements and the subsequent Betsimisaraka “confederation”. This utopian scenario involves a fabled egalitarian, talkative (endless meetings – “The Great Kabary” 104), enlightened society beyond the reach of the Royal Navy and the East India Company – a “confederation” (87), that others call a kingdom, or, as Graeber calls it at one point, “nation” (100). This is where, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, as many as a thousand pirates settled, intermarrying with sexually “adventurous” local women keen on trade (52), holding shared views of “hostility to the slave trade” (96) and with aspirations for sending their offspring for education in England (98), and much else besides.

This is a rattling good yarn, hedged often enough with noting that the sources are thin, that the main text, A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson – we are told three times – may or may not have been written by Daniel Defoe (xxiv, 12, 23) and in many ways is “intentionally provocative” (88). Graeber’s text is provocative, that is, and the provocations are many: that the relationships, and indeed the lives pirates were able to live on the islands, were effectively managed by local women, and with the arrival of the pirates, these women had been “liberated from earlier sexual restrictions” (54) – they were largely “sequestered” by Muslim or Jewish immigrants (52). As well, the salons in which such ideas were discussed in Europe were run by women we have also now forgotten (xii, 148, perhaps the books on Lady Blessington that clutter some shelves might counteract this). Provocations are to be welcomed of course – though how welcome the pirates were in Madagascar, at one point facing an uprising which saw most murdered in 1697, is not clear. There might be other reasons to wonder at the motivations.

Madagascar is massively interesting though, and there is much in this book on magic charms, myth, even some psychoanalysis, so it is a rewarding read. Yet, as Graeber mentions Defoe, as noted, several times, it’s a bit of a worry that he ignores the part of Robinson Crusoe that takes place on Madagascar – a rape and a massacre by Crusoe’s crewmates (see a forthcoming article in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing). Graeber stresses the ways the import of pirate democracy was brought into the settlements (this story is fodder for TV series like Black Sails, Crossbones, unmentioned here), and on this, his ethnographic work of some decades past, and wide reading of relevant texts, is harnessed to offer a great speculative discussion that must complicate any simplistic idea of piratical politics. Unfortunately, much of the existing scholarship on the history of Madagascar seems to suffer – we are told – from the dreaded “strain” of Marxist analysis (the “high water mark” 88) and an obsession with elites and the encroachment of the “system of trade” (88). These are problems that “corresponded to a period when Madagascar, like so many postcolonial societies, was itself experimenting with state socialism” (88). While it is hard to credit that only the work that departs from this focus is “superb” (88-89) it is nevertheless a very good point to stress that “political elite … primarily in the business of accumulating wealth and power” do tend to erase variety with the “intellectual currents” of “popular movements”. That however was the point of the initial critique of postcoloniality, used by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993), for example, to refer to refer to the betrayal of the anti-colonial struggles by new elites claiming the mantle of decolonization in a “hoax” that reintroduced neo-colonial ways. Alas, this use of the term postcoloniality has also been erased by those who take it as a temporal historical noun rather than presenting a diagnosis of disappointment in what might have been.

Which is generally how this book ends up – a sense of disappointment that doubles as an imaginative rewriting of the script for a reboot of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, now set in the Indian Ocean, with Occupy Wall Street stylings. Indeed, although this is provocation, the echoes of Occupy explicitly ring the closing bell of the book, as we discover “99 percent of all this has been lost to us” (141). Graeber means the conversations of the general assemblies of the Madagascar revolution “have, of course, been entirely lost to us” (146), but an imaginative ethnographic reconstruction of “pirate utopias discussed in the salons of Paris under Louis XV” (149) should be a welcome idea – indeed, “its hard to imagine they weren’t [discussed], since at that time, they were being discussed virtually every-place else” (149).

Pirate-affiliated “Besimisarka women dominating markets, and forming commercial alliances with wealthy men to act as their commercial agents” so that these men – pirates remember, unsavoury scurvy lot – with “substantial amounts of tradable commodities” (68) could unload their plunder, should indeed provoke us to think of the origins of the global trade system. It might be worth sampling some more of the “scholarship” on Defoe/Johnson. Graeber ignores any engagement with this, but Defoe had at one point endorsed the idea that England should trade directly with the pirates and that the notorious Captain Avery should be offered a deal. Was Defoe involved in conversations ahead of his times or not? – he had apparently “suggested the possibility of offering” Avery “a pardon in exchange for a portion of his wealth in the Review of 18 October 1707” (Novak 2003: 581). Novak also notes that in a South Sea Company pamphlet (before it spectacularly failed in 1722), Defoe had written in favour of trade with the pirates settled in Madagascar (2003, 569). This should not surprise us at all, Defoe was an advocate, as Alan Downie notes, of colonial expansion “through trade, not through force of arms” (Downie 1983, 74). Yet he disapproves of pirates and illicit trade too (Downie 1983, 82n). He “is not the prophet of progress he is so often painted” and was “primarily concerned with the preservation of England’s present advantages” (Downie 1983, 78). Downie warns against distorting Defoe’s message (Downie 1983, 83). Underneath the piratical posturing in Johnson/Defoe, there is ultimately a commitment to business-as-usual that we might today register as neo-colonial today – we should ask about how anyone gets involved in this – women, pirates, their children, the intellectuals in the salons…

Defoe is against war and for trade. A trade underpinned by violence that wins for England 300 years of EIC and imperial dominance starting, more or less, with Drake and Raleigh writing their accounts as benign memoirs (Hakluyt [1589] 1962). Siraj Ahmed makes the case in his book The Stillbirth of Capital, that “commerce between English pirates and the East India Company […] occurred at the very origins of the British Empire” and via a deft allusion, finds that “Defoe had a much more critical understanding of ‘capitalism’ than we have attributed to him” (Ahmed 2012, 56).

It may be a “strain”, but the erasure of the antecedents of capitalism are found lying at the heart of capital to this day, as set out already by Marx as “the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of” ([1867] 1990, 507). Plunder laundered through trade domesticates theft, making it difficult to conceive of the lost conversation here as being more than capital’s delusion about the propriety of its actions. Th pirates were not wrong to resist the British Navy, the opportunism of trade as a way out of a tight spot makes sense, the context is complicated, magic plays its part – yet, what it leaves us with today is continued duplicity and double-dealing. Seems to me that the “confederation” is alive and well, and we do well to be provoked to rethink who was involved.

John Hutnyk Feb 2023

Ahmed, Siraj. 2012. The Stillbirth of Capital: Enlightenment Writing and Colonial India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Downie, J. Alan. 1983. “Defoe, Imperialism, and the Travel Books Reconsidered.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Colonial and Imperial Themes 13:66-83.

Fanon, Frantz. (1961) 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press

Hakluyt, Richard. (1589)1962. Voyages (8 Volumes) Edited by John Masefield. London: Dent.

Marx, Karl. (1867) 1990. Capital: Critique of Political Economy. MEGA II(9). Hamburg: Dietz.

Novak, Maximillian E. 2003. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1993. “Situations of Value (Interview with Pheng Cheah).” Australian Feminist Studies, 17:141-162.

Post- Eiffel??

A comment in David Biggs’s, generally very engaging, 2010 book Quagmire. One part early on seemed to clang like a cheap scooter hitting the railings of an old iron bridge… Biggs writes:

“Before Eiffel made millions of francs operating the Eiffel Tower, he had already made a fortune exporting hundreds of ironwork segments for colonial bridges and public buildings, including Sài Gòn’s General Post Office and market halls still standing today. The estimated cost for his spans in 1881 was eight million francs, approximately eight times the cost of building the Eiffel Tower in 1887”

and in a footnote immediately following Biggs refers us to a text called Les Travaux publics et les voices de communication en Cochinchine, by Cochinchine francaise (Saigon: Imprimerie nationale, 1880), p143.

So, I was thinking that does not sound quite clear, and had enjoyed the extensive background by Tim Doling debunking Eiffel’s involvement, at least as architect of the Post Office, and his documentation about two more likely candidates, Vildieu and Foulhoux. Nevertheless, Effel’s Cochinchina company did build some things, as Tim explains, there were:

“numerous structures in Cochinchina between 1872 and 1889. These included, amongst others, railway bridges (Bình Điền, Tân An and Bến Lức viaducts on the Saigon-Mỹ Tho railway line), road bridges (Pont des Messageries maritimes, Pont de Cholon/Pont des Malabars, Pont de Ông Núi, Pont de Rạch Lăng, Pont de Bình Tây, Pont de Rạch Gia, Pont de Long Xuyên), markets (Long Châu, Cao Lãnh, Ô Môn, Tân Quy Đông and Tân An), filter wells and canal/creek towpaths, as well as the imposing headquarters of the Halles des Messageries fluviales on the Saïgon riverfront – see https://gustaveeiffel.com/ses-oeuvres/asie/”


Yet, of course even if Eiffel was not the architect, I wondered just what Biggs’s 1880 reference that supported his statement might say. Could it show Eiffel supplied some bits for the post office? I suspect that would mean some spans were shipped by Eiffel years earlier as the PO was built in 1887 I think – so Biggs’ source cannot really support that part unless the spans were just lying about for 7 years! What was the pre-order time for huge chunks of metal to be sent from France…? Is this of any interest, or is Biggs using his hat for a megaphone here?

And where are the market halls? I have now tracked down this 1880 text and am crawling through its arcane phrasings and the documented expenditure on various items such as Police stations, gendarmerie Soc Trang, Prison Central (the notorious one in Saigon presumably), and much more… One Eiffel item does seem to be mentioned as the record list includes 4k (I assumed piastres, but it seems to be francs) in 1871 for pont sur l’arroyo chinoise a Cholon. p55, but this would have to be planning as the bridge did not open for ten more years. Yet more promising is that in 1877 some 14k fr were allocated for the Hotel des postes and the comments column mentions Foulhoux as architecte, chef de la section des bâtiments civil. No other references to the post office that I can see. I reckon Eiffel, on balance, was looking elsewhere. Nice bridge though, this by Eiffel.

Marx in Algeria – the penultimate trip

In a post script to a letter he sent before leaving Algeria in his penultimate year, Marx, is recovering, a little, from pleurisy, and trying to enjoy himself – ‘Nothing could be more magical than the city of Algiers; …it would be like the Arabian Nights’ (Marx to Jenny Longuet, 16 March 1882).

But, more astonishing I reckon – Marx cuts off his hair and beard! He has himself photographed just beforehand and in a later letter from his next stop – Monte Carlo – to his daughter Laura, writes: ‘I enclose one photo for you, another for Fred”; no art can make the man look worse’ (Marx to Laura Lafargue, 6 May 1882).

Here is the last few lines and postscript of Marx to Engels (28 April 1882):

The beard photo is famous, the last took of the old man.

But there is a clever faked before and after shot. Though I note Marx said photographs, and includes one for Laura, one for Fred, both presumably the 27th April one.

The doctored “photo”, well, I’ve failed to trace who made it, and from the dates and evidence in the letters (see below) of the visit to the barber would have been the ideal spot for a second shot – the photographer of the first one is E. Dutertre.

Michael Krätke includes the two portraits in an article with the caption:

“Figure 1. Left: last photograph of Karl Marx, taken by E. Dutertre in Algiers, on 28 April 1882.Right: a photomontage based upon Marx’s own correspondence, where he said that the photo was taken just a short while before he went to the barber to have his hair cut and his beard shaved off, and shows how he may have looked after his visit to the barber.
Left: IISH Collection BG A9/383. Right: creator and origins unknown.”

Krätke, Michael 2018 ‘Marx and World History’. International Review of Social History, doi:10.1017/S0020859017000657 page 13

There is also a fiction volume called Marx’s Beard I have not yet read, and M in Algiers, mentioned elsewhere – Marcello Musto in several places, but most recently in an article about to come out in Inter Asia Cultural Studies which will tie up a few loose ends. Marcello’s article is the first of four that i will introduce in IACS. My intro to a special section of IACS about to come out starts as:

Forthcoming: Inter Asia Cultural Studies volume 24.1

Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur


The following four papers were first brought together at the conference “Innovations in the Social Sciences and Humanities”, in December 2021, at Ton Duc Thang University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They anticipate further contributions from the conference to the pages of this journal and the expansive focus upon Asia as a means of “transforming knowledge production” (Chen 2010, 216). In this special section, the papers attend to reading the late work of Karl Marx and associated comrades and fellow travellers of a sort – Rosa Luxemburg, Marxist-Feminists, socialist-leaning Gandhians – but in a way that also seeks to transform scholarship with more careful reading of what Marx was up to after Capital

        The theme is the significance of South Asia in Marx’s analysis of colonialism and culture. We take up the innovations Marx sought in his notes, letters, historical commentaries, and how these influences were accepted, or were critiqued, by later scholars. This by no means exhausts the scope of what has already been a massive contribution to global Marxism in Asia, we seek instead to find new ways to invigorate attention to Marx’s efforts after Volume One and our modest contributions here are aimed at an appreciation and an attentive renewal.

<I will link to the special issue as soon as its out here>

< 50 free copies of the intro to the Inter Asia Cultural Studies Marx & South Asia section is – here>

In my article in the special section, I will also mention Marx’s first visit to Africa – first time out of Europe:

In Algeria, in the second last year of his life, with his wife Jenny in the grave, he travels in search of weather that will warm his pleurisy-riven chest, he writes to Engels of his ailments, his medicines, and his haircut. He has himself photographed for his daughters, and writes to Laura about the Orient, land use patterns, the stars, and his amusement with a friend “chuckling” together over another author’s “‘terrorism of the future’ [which is to go on] until —this anticipated in heavy type—the last bourgeois oppressor has been guillotined out of existence” (Marx to Laura Marx-Lafargue, April 13, 1882, Algiers, Marx and Engels, 2010, 238)

-The Marx to Laura letter is below).

But back to the pictures. Photogenic Marx: the source for all this, the photo itself, Marx writes a ps in a letter to Fred on 28 April 1882 in Algiers saying he will pick up the photo in two days. From the MEGA 3(4):

More tracking of the three months Marx spent in Algeria:

Engels writing to Bernstein 22 February 1882:

Marx arrived in Algiers on Monday morning, a place I and the doctors had always wanted him to go to, though he himself wasn’t very keen. He has met a judge in the tribunal civil there, a former deportee of Bonaparte’s, who has made a close study of communal ownership among the Arabs and has offered to enlighten him on the subject.

Kindest regards both to yourself and Kautsky.

F. E.

and then this fantastic letter from Marx to Laura:

Marx-Engels Correspondence 1882

Marx To Laura Lafargue
In London

[Algiers,] Thursday, 13 April 1882

Source: MECW Volume 46, pp. 238-243;
First published: in Marx and Engels, Works, Second Russian Edition, Vol. 35, Moscow, 1964;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Darling Cacadou,

I reproach myself for not having written to you again until now, not that there’s anything special to report from here. How often do I not think of you – at Eastbourne, beside my Jenny’s sick-bed, and during your faithful daily visits so cheering to that crosspatch, Old Nick. But you should know, dear child, that this week and last were Fermé’s Easter vacation; he lives in the rue Michelet (as part of the route Mustapha supérieur is called) at the foot of the hill from which the Hotel Victoria looks down. It’s only a stone’s throw away for him, although he has to ‘clamber’ since there’s no proper path leading up to it. And in fact he has latterly been visiting me assiduously, thus frustrating the best of resolutions in regard to afternoon letter-writing. – Otherwise not an unwelcome guest, Mr. Fermé, nor devoid of humour. After I had given him some Citoyens and Égalitésto read, he arrived chuckling not a little over Guesde’s ‘terrorism of the future’ [which is to go on] until – this anticipated in heavy type – the last bourgeois oppressor has been guillotined out of existence. Fermé is not fond of Algiers whose climate doesn’t suit either him or his family (often visited by fever, etc.) although its members are all of them ‘des indigenès’ à commencer par Madame l’épouse. Above all, however, his salary as a judge is hardly sufficient for even the most modest way of life. Living in a colonial capital is always expensive. But one thing he does admit – in no town elsewhere, which is at the same time the seat of the central government, is there such laisser faire, laisser passer; police reduced to a bare minimum; unprecedented public sans gêne; the Moorish element is responsible for this. For Mussulmans there is no such thing as subordination; they are neither ‘subjects’ nor ‘administrés’; no authority, save in politica, something which Europeans have totally failed to understand. Few police in Algiers, and such as there are for the most part indigenès. And yet, with such a medley of national elements and unscrupulous characters, frequent clashes are inevitable, and it is here that the Catalonians live up to their old reputation; the white or red belts they wear, like the Moors, etc., outside their coats and not, like the French, beneath their clothing, often conceal ‘bodkins’ – long stilettos which these sons of Catalonia are not slow to ‘employ’ with equal impartiality against Italians, Frenchmen, etc., and natives alike. Incidentally, a few days ago a gang of forgers was apprehended in the province of Oran, amongst them their chief, a former Spanish officer; their European agency, it now transpires, is in the capital of Catalonia – Barcelona! Some of the laddies were not arrested and escaped to Spain. This piece of news, and others of a similar kind, derives from Fermé. The latter has received 2 advantageous offers from the French government; firstly, a transfer to New Caledonia where he would, at the same time, be responsible for introducing a new legal system, salary 10,000 frs (he and family to travel there gratis and, on arrival, be given free official accommodation); or, secondly, to Tunis, where he would likewise occupy a higher magisterial rank than here, and under far more favourable conditions. He has been given a certain period in which to make up his mind; will accept one or the other.

From Mr Fermé to the weather is a natural transition, since he freely heaps imprecations on the same. – Since Easter Monday (incl.) I have not missed a single morning stroll, although only yesterday (12th) and today have been spared the caprices of April. Yesterday, bien que nous subissions le léger siroco et, par conséquent, quelques coups de vent, ce fut le maximum du beau temps: à 9 heures le matin (le 12) le temperature à l’ombre fut de 19.5°, et celle au soleil, de 35°. In spite of having gone for a walk in the morning (12 April), I visited Algiers in the afternoon in order to take a look at the Russian ironclad, Peter the Great, which had arrived in the harbour there a few days before.

The official meteorological office has forecast intense atmospheric disturbances for 15-16 April (when there’ll be orage), 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and 30 April; nevertheless, the weather during the remainder of April will on the whole be fine at the same time it is feared that in May, to make up for the absence of a true Algerian spring (which did not begin till yesterday), summer will arrive all at once and with it unbearable heat. However that may be, I do not, as corpus vile feel inclined to serve as an experimental station for the weather. In view of the altogether abnormal character of the past 4½ months, God knows what Algeria may have in store. Large numbers of shrewd folk (amongst them l’illustre ‘Ranc’) departed from the African shore day before yesterday. I shall only stay until Dr Stephann has declared my left side to be in good order again, apart, of course, from the scar well known to the doctissimi Drs Donkin and Hume, left by an earlier attack of pleurisy. What has been tiresome here so far is the constant recurrence of my cough, even if within moderate limits; withal, much boredom.

Interruption of the most agreeable kind: knocks at the doorEntrez! Madame Rosalie (one of the serving spirits) brings me a letter from you, dear Cacadou, and, from the good Gasçon, a long letter of which the paper, like the envelope, already bears the official stamp: ‘L’Union Nationale’. This time he seems to have pulled it off! Ce n’est pas une de ces entreprises patronées par Mr Ch. Hirsch! On the other hand, to be sure, the prospect of my Cacadou’s departure looms closer! But not just yet, I trust. Also, I regard it as some compensation that Aunty Cacadou should represent so great a gain to Jennychen and her children; anyway, with Paris so close, there’s no need to spend the whole year in London. – Apropos. Has Lafargue sent the next instalment of the article to Petersburg? (I don’t know what became of the first consignment.) It’s most important not to lose the vantage point of Petersburg; it will gain in importance daily! Also for anyone who sends despatches there.

Second interruption: It is 1 o’clock p.m., and I have promised to visit the ‘Jardin du Hamma’ ou ‘Jardin d’Essai’ with Madame Casthelaz, son fils, and one of our other fellow pensionnaires, Madame Claude (of Neufchâtel). We have to be back before dinner (6 o’clock p.m.), later than which every effort at writing never as yet dared upon by me. So no more till tomorrow. Simply by way of a supplement * to the useful knowledge of Cacadou I allow myself to remark, that on that very Hamma took place the landing of 24,000 soldiers under the commandment of Charles V, emperor, (or Carlos I, according to the Spaniards) on 23 October 1541, 8 days later he had to ship the * beaux restes de son armée détruite sur les vaisseaux échappes à la tempete du 26, et ralliés grand peine par Doria, à Matifou. Ce dernier lieu ou finit la baie d’Alger c. à. d.- le cap Matifou – opposite, on the East, to Algiers, is to be espiedpar des bonnes lunettes, by myself from Hôtel Victorias Gallery.

Vendredi, 14 April

*I commence this letter at the moment when I have a few lines to be added to the foregoing, that is to say at about 1 o’clock p.m. The day ended yesterday as fine as that of the 12th. Both the evenings 12 and 13 (about 8 hours p. m.) were warm – quite exceptional this – but cool (relatively) at the same time, hence really delightful. This morning the warmth a little more ‘heavy’, and just since two hours the wind blows violently, probably the ‘orage’ predicted yesterday from 14-15.

Yesterday at 1 o’clock p. m. we went down to Inferior Mustapha whence the tram brought us to Jardin Hamma or Jardin d’Essai, which is used for ‘Promenade Publique’ with occasional military music, as ‘pépinière’ for the production and diffusion of the indigenous vegetables, at last for the purpose of scientific botanical experiments and as agarden of ‘acclimatation’. – This all encloses a very large ground, part of which is mountainous, the other belonging to the plain. In order to see more minutely, you would want at least a whole day, and beside being somebody with you a connaisseur, f. i. like M. Fermé’s friend and old Fourieriste, M. Durando, professor of botanics, who is the leader of a section of the ‘Club Alpin Français’ on its regular Sunday excursions. (I very much regretted that my bodily circumstances and the Dr. Stephann’s strict prohibition till now did not yet allow me to share in these excursions, having 3 times [been] invited thereto.)

Well, before entering the Jardin d’Essai’ we took coffee, of course in the free air, a Mauresque ‘café’. The Maure prepared it excellently, we were on a bank. On a rough table, in inclined positions, their legs crossed, half a dozen Maure visitors were delighted in their small ‘cafetières,’ (everyone gets one of his own) and together playing at cards (a conquest this on them of civilisation). Most striking this spectacle: Some of these Maures were dressed pretentiously, even richly, others in, for once I dare call it blouses,sometime of white woollen appearance, now in rags and tatters – but in the eyes of a true Musulman such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children.Absolute equality in their social intercourse, not affected; on the contrary, only when demoralized, they become aware of it; as to the hatred against Christians and the hope of an ultimate victory over these infidels, their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality (not of wealth or position but of personality) a guarantee of keeping up the one, of not giving up the latter.* (Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement.)

*In regard to the plain part of the Jardin d’Essai I remark only: It is cut by three great longitudinal ‘allées’ of a wonderful beauty; opposite to the principal entry is the ‘allée’ of the platenes [platanes] ; then the ‘allée des palmiers’, ended by an oasis of immense 72 ‘palmiers’, limited by the railway and the sea; at last the ‘allée’ of the magnolia and a sort of figues (ficus roxburghi). These three great ‘allées’ are themselves cut by many others crossing them, such as the long ‘allée des bambous’ astonishing, the ‘allée’ of ‘palmiers à chanvre’, the ‘dragon[n]iers’, the ‘eucalyptus’ (blue gum of Tasmania), etc., (the latter are of an extraordinarily quick vegetation).

Of course, these sorts of* allées cannot be reproduced in European ‘Jardins d’acclimatation’.

During the afternoon there was a concert of military music in a large open space encircled by plane trees; the conductor, a noncommissioned officer, wore ordinary French uniform, whereas the musicians (common soldiers) wore red, baggy trousers (of oriental cut), white felt boots buttoning up to the bottom of the baggy trousers; on their heads a red fez.

While on the subject of the garden, I did not mention (though some of these were very pleasing to the nose) orange trees, lemon – ditto, almond trees, olive trees, etc.; nor, for that matter, cactuses and aloes which also grow wild (as do wild olives and almonds) in the rough country where we have our abode.

Much though this garden delighted me, I must observe that what is abominable about this and similar excursions is the ubiquitous chalky dust; though I felt well in the afternoon and after coming home and during the night, my cough was nonetheless rather troublesome, thanks to the irritation caused by the dust.

I am expecting Dr Stephann today, but as I cannot put off the despatch of this missive, I will send a report to Fred, later on.

Finally, as Mayer of Swabia used to say, let us take a little look at things from a higher historical perspective. Our nomadic Arabs (who have, in many respects, gone very much to seed while retaining, as a result of their struggle for existence, a number of sterling qualities) have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now despise them for their present ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. There ensues the following dialogue:

Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again: The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.

Hardly were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth when the wind capsized the boat, precipitating both ferryman and philosopher into the water. Whereupon,

Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Philosopher: No!
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

That will tickle your appetite for things Arabic.

With much love and many kisses.

Old Nick
(best compliments to all)

Maison Centrale de Saigon // General Sciences Library

Trying to read in the library but looking out the window at the reminder that this is no ordinary library experience.

A few parts from a recent text: Sophie Fuggle & John Hutnyk (2022) “Saigon’s penalscape: interpreting colonial prisons.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 23:3, 443-458, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2022.2108208

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a photo of the old French colonial prison, the Maison Centrale de Saigon, once located on the street known as Rue La Grandière, now Lý Tự Trọng. This prison was notorious for its brutal treatment of those who resisted the colonial occupation, with several early communists executed in its courtyard, among whom one is now honoured with a commemorative statue, standing defiantly in that same courtyard. The former prison site today houses the General Sciences Library, a building in a 1970s style that is quaintly and quietly modernist, yet still imposingly functional, as a library should be. Having Lý’s statue stand in front of the library acknowledges the French colonial past of Ho Chi Minh City even as its architectural heritage and urban infrastructure is renovated, replaced, or rebuilt (Kim 2015; Harms 2011, 2016; Doling 2019) This is part of the story of the infamous extensive prison system that operated as part of France’s hundred-year occupation that, across the city, is told in complex and variegated ways via purpose-built memorial museums.


Maison Centrale was the departure point for many of those exiled to Côn Đảo. The journalist Jean-Claude Demariaux writing for La Dépêche d’Indochine in 1939,10 describes how he arranged to visit a prison guard for an “aperitif” in order to ensure a decent view of the prison courtyard on the morning of a transfer to the islands. Memoirs such as that of Bảo Lương (real name: Nguyễn Trung Nguyệt), related by marriage to Tôn Đức Thắng, tell of waiting to see what their fate would be, securing cigarette butts from the French prisoners held far more comfortably upstairs (Tai 2010, 150) and otherwise enduring torture and unsanitary conditions. The French admitted overcrowding in the prison as early as 1905 (Doling 2015b), though it was still in operation during WWII and not demolished until 1968.


While the War Remnants Museum and Museum of Southern Vietnamese Women both lay emphasis on the extensive network of colonial prisons, the few sites that remain within the city are largely unknown and unexplored by international tourists and domestic visitors alike. The former French Police Station on Rue Catinat, renamed Đồng Khởi, now houses the offices of the Department of Culture, Information, Sport and Tourism. Formerly this building was the sinister Police headquarters in which Vietnamese revolutionaries were subject to interrogation and torture. It was used in the same way by the Japanese during WWII and then again by the French on their inglorious return and the RVN Government, as Interior Ministry, until 1975. The French called the headquarters their Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté and it was known in Vietnamese as the Bót Catinat (Doling 2014b).


Across from the “hideous pink cathedral” of Notre Dame, as mentioned in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, it is where Inspector Vigot had his office and past which the narrator takes daily walks, heading “back by the dreary wall of the Vietnamese Sûreté that seemed to smell of urine and injustice” (Greene 2002 [1955], 42). Apparently, the dungeons have been flooded, but they were significant enough to warrant a commemorative plaque and feature in the memoir of Nguyễn Thị Bình, known as Madame Binh, the National Liberation Front delegate to Paris and head of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Madame Binh tells of being beaten and interrogated within the headquarters. Followed by several years in Chí Hòa, she was released only after the defeat of the French at Điện Biên Phủ (Nguyen 2015, 100–104). Her younger brother Nguyễn Đông Hà survived seven years in Côn Đảo’s tiger cages.


[B]uilt in 1968, opened 1971 and only after 1975 inherited and maintained by the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Doling 2015b). Nevertheless, the library does become a part of the story of resistance that shapes the penalscape in Ho Chi Minh City. A small plaque acknowledges the site of the former Maison Centrale de Saigon, pointing to the guillotine and brutal French colonial rule since its inauguration in 1865-66, and the long history of resistance within the prison, exemplified by young fighters and tragic martyrdom. We started this paper at Lý Tự Trọng Street renamed to remember the Vietnamese revolutionary who was held in the prison before being executed by the French at the age of 17. The prison was demolished in 1968 but had been slated for closure since the opening of Chí Hòa in 1953.

More here: Sophie Fuggle & John Hutnyk (2022) “Saigon’s penalscape: interpreting colonial prisons.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 23:3, 443-458, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2022.2108208

Goofy was a plant.

“one half of them who perish in London, dye of Phthisical and Pulmonic distempers; that the inhabitants are never free from Coughs” John Evelyn 1661

The biggest trick though is that in the 20th Century then blamed this on cigarettes, not on corporate industrial polluters (I hold no no candle for the tobacco industry, but there are a few others that should come with KILL warnings).

John Evelyn’s text is here:



Defoe is as good at mocking Robinson as anyone, despite swallowing a thesaurus. In volume three: ”poor, wild, wicked Robinson” (316) “a churl, a morose, sour disposition, a covetous, avaricious, selfish principled man” (314). We should appreciate good examples of 18th Century invective.

But damn, turns out these Shipwreck cruises are shipwrecked too, closed down. Others take its place. Ode to a hammock.

Robinson at least had leisure in which to repent his earlier folly, while also condemning reproach and slander ‘as a kind of murder that may be committed by the tongue’ (317). Later, under a new heading, bawdy talk becomes a ‘sodomy of the Tongue’ (345).

On taking a survey.

My favourite Warramiri (?) story from Arnhem Land is of a maths teacher out on a river one time teaching kids to measure distances – how far to from the canoe to the river edge, how far to that mountain etc. It was hot, he asked them if they like swimming and were there any crocodiles in the river (this was long before Paul Hogan etc). They said “yes, this big” and gestured with their hands about a foot apart. “Oh, they are babies, we’ll be alright” said the teacher, and started to strip off his shirt. The kids freaked out insisting that the crocs were “this big” – two hands emphatically a foot or more apart. They were measuring the relevant size – the width of the croc’s mouth, not its length. Ha!. Habermas’s “Knowledge and Human Interests” had nothing on these kids. The maths teacher has retold this ‘lesson’ many times in the decades since.

Against Charity

I wrote my first book as a critique of charity work in Kolkata, India. I attempted a critique of western ‘charity’ workers helping those they saw as the ‘unfortunates’ in classic development colonial style – of the many ‘volunteers’ in Kolkata at the time, the majority worked for Mother Theresa but the ones I hung out with were at a clinic run by a long time medico Jack Praeger. Mostly I was attracted to this lot because they were not as pious as those who came for Missionary work, they drank and drugged their way around the banana pancake trail (backpacker tourism circuit) and ended up in Kolkata as a kind of default. Yet, it was an international charity, and about 95%, of them were from outside India, though with a few Indian doctors doing part time work. The organisation did help people, mostly street dwellers with injuries or leprosy sufferers who were not treated by hospitals because of poverty and stigma, and the limited capacity of the medical system in communist but undeveloped Bengal (undeveloped because the pro-capitalist national govt moved industry away from the then communist state). Ideally, the state would provide all social care, including organising social service programmes (that I would distinguish from charity). Westerners took pictures of themselves doing this charity work, and sent them home as postcards and so on, and increasingly the international support came and funded more westerners to come and do ‘the work’ of volunteering (it had become a stop on the tourist trail, even mentioned in travel guides). But this work was still what the state should do and increasingly it became clear that street people were in a way just a photogenic backdrop for the westerners self-promotion. Here, media imagery, including films, sold the exotic image of the poor of Kolkata to the West. Even feature films were made – for example City of Joy with Patrick Swayze – and endless documentaries about the anti-contraception, love them till it hurts, ‘wizened old saint’ Mother Theresa, who got high profile donations from famous westerners who made a show of being photographed with the poor of Kolkata. Ma T, as Christopher Hitchens put it, was interested in helping the poor die as Christians (in a majority Hindu state) while people like Ronald Reagan, and the Savings and Loans scandal millionaire who shall not be named, had their photos taken with the poor and promoted their ‘good deeds’. So, the issue of representation was huge, but even more, the reasons why these people did ‘charity’ work had to be discussed – in a larger frame, pictures of their giving was more of a gift for themselves, self-promotion of their goodness. Gift and counter-gift – cf Mauss, The Gift; Derrida, Given Time etc. They could just as easily have donated to the medical facilities of Bengal, or quietly worked for industrial contracts to promote the economy and medical facilities, hospital development and inclusive policies, but no, the communist state was not their cup of char. I would think we need a very strict distinction to be made between charity and social service work. I think the issue of representation of children and the poor is always political, that exoticism and exploitation in imagery is real, and that integrating support for the blind, the poor, children etc must be organised through structures like local govt, community and institutions etc. What is most questionable here is what happens when ‘foreigners’ take over and think they can ‘help’ but really they are promoting their own self-image and unexamined values. Only some of this will be relevant now, for sure, but I wanted to rethink my experience and confirm the need to not call everything charity – better organised forms social service work (red summer) seem radically different to what international charity often becomes. And yes, in media studies, the issue of how we represent ourselves and ‘the poor’ (photogenic poverty) is without doubt still a significant concern.

Depression (not mine, ours)


I am no expert on depression, at all, but I also note that over the last two decades it has become a more visible topic of discussion in Western circles as well as Southeast Asia – where, deeply distressing to say, the cycle draws in more people in as well. From Kpop and Vpop to bloggers and painters, fashionistas and writers, and the crisis crash bang personas of the overworked academic… Somebody is making a killing from marketing depression as a part of the culture industry. Of course wholesale trading on the personality ‘disorder’ of the difficult artist or the rebel teenager has been around for a long time. Since Dostoevsky and the image of the artist starving in a garret, now it is more psychological, but a similar danger where emulation can lead to disaster. There is an element of this that feeds on mobbing and fandom but it is not all that new – the casualties of previous cult aspects of the culture industries are there to see where social pressures led people into situations that maybe they could not handle in isolation. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, too, the drug consumption of Western pop stars, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones (but not the immortal Keith Richards) and right up to and beyond Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Sid and Nancy, Kurt Cobain, the pressure on them was often/sometimes mitigated by money, but their recreational drug use was also emulated with disastrous consequences for the many youth who did not get the attention, and doctors, and blood transfusions (yes Keith) that the rich pop stars can command. Their fans are left to work it out alone. Here is a huge problem with the culture industries and ego visibility versus fan inconsequence. Frankly, it is a dark side to many cultural industries. It is rare, but at least more frequent, that some thinkers are beginning to talk of this. Mark Fisher for example, himself suffering a suicide through depression, addressed the problem of depression and alienation in his work and it is exactly this that should be recalled by cultural studies when it elevates the sufferings of the artist above suffering as such. What to say then of Walter Benjamin’s huge impact within the cultural studies field when (also a suicide) he and many others are celebrity cases with little, if any, direct correspondence with everyday depression among those who buy the books marketed in their name. Even where those books have much that is useful for making sense of such things, the unseemly promotion of Mark Fisher as author exceeds and overwhelms the significance of his forthright discussion of depression, anxiety, alienation and the self-destructive consequences of egoism on the left, as opposed to consciousness raising. Sniping and sectarianism go hand in hand here, among the denizens of the caste-dwellers no-one has any direct line on what should be done, but as soon as someone raises their head above the parapet they are shot down, or elevated into irrelevance. In the marketing of Mark Fisher, or on a far grander scale, the reification of Walter Benjamin, I think a chance has been missed because what really can be done with discussion is relevant not only to the music industry or author-ego-tortured artist depression syndrome. What adapting the discussion of fame for all could mean should be on the table. Get the discussion to be about what sort of mental health services and organisation of the general public, the youth and those not readily visible to the pop media celeb glam fashion mags and feeds, get a discussion of how social health can be taken back from the industries of promotion, pharma and corpo-rate me-dia and make it socialise that, rather than the name-brand posturing> Maybe this is mor than to address the very important possibility of taking a step back to see how various cycles are feeding on a dark aspect of ‘the artist’ as tortured soul that belongs to the myth of the emo – emotive, drugged, poverty-stricken, gangster, outside, misfit image. Cool as the dud is, that schtick is only ok for the rich and famous, and really leaves (some) fans in despair since they invariably have less effective access to public or medical support etc. Not only in music, but in any star system – modelling, cinema, theatre, poetry, writers, teachers…

Rosa on opium

Rosa Luxemburg The Accumulation of Capital, ch 18

“Consequently, a stricter law was passed [by the Chinese] in 1833 which made every opium smoker liable to a hundred strokes and two months in the stocks, and provincial [Chinese] governors were ordered to report annually on their progress in the battle against opium. But there were two sequels to this campaign: on the one hand large-scale poppy plantations sprang up in the interior, particularly in the Honan, Setchuan, and Kueitchan provinces, and on the other, England declared war on China to get her to lift the embargo. These were the splendid beginnings of opening China to European civilisation – by the opium pipe.”

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