Spectacular Transports

Terrorists: you ignore them for ages, then a whole bunch come along at once. Or so it seems, as the everyday profiling of Muslims as threatening others reconfigures how we all move about the city. An old fashioned racism based on looks, surface and skin has risen to unquestioned prominence at the very time when discussion of race transmutes into talk of religion, ways of life, and civilizational virtues. We hear over and over in the mainstream press, and from the Government, talk of a clash of values, integration and of the need for community cohesion. This old ‘new’ racism is blatant and its prejudice is clear. Policy by scare-mongering and tabloid popularity poll. There is also a theoretical parallel to this in the work of scholars who write today about ethnicity, identity and culture, and even in the work of those who ostensibly would offer up radical critiques of the way the war of terror has been prosecuted by those in power.

Profiling is designed to fill us with dread. A culture of fear and anxiety provokes shivers and panic, has us tingling with unease. Everywhere I look I see intimations of this story – as I commute to work, railway station announcements warn that my belongings may be destroyed if I leave them; I am told not to hesitate to ask someone if an unattended bag is theirs; a general air of uncertainty pervades the tube; fellow passengers are almost too careful and too polite to each other; I suspect them of moving far away from anyone with even a hint of a beard and a backpack; and we all move away from those with Brazilian good looks (because we remember Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot by police at Stockwell). I avert my eyes and read my newspaper (a free advertising sheet, with minimal – often sensationalist – news); and even at home I am not spared, a constant stream of bombings on screen. Myriad incidents conspire to make us squirm.

This squirm is strangely marked by a transportation theme, and an iconic one, which – as I will suggest – is inflected with an unexamined uncanny aspect. It will be easily accepted that the red double-decker bus is the globally acknowledged symbol of London, you can buy trinket sized models of them in the souvenir stalls. As everyone knows, the bus became even more potently symbolic after the devastating bus and underground attacks on the morning of July 7th 2005. Indeed, we are continually forced to recall the horrific details: on that day three tube carriages and a number 30 Routemaster were destroyed, leaving 52 people dead.

The real face of terror for me is a delinking of cause and effect in relation to this incident and the bombing of this particular bus: it is what I will call a transportation mutation and a blindness of representation. It is my argument that as commentary turns to religion or culture, any critical response to the scene of the ripped open vehicle becomes somehow silenced, and that we become blind to what this image means. I am invoking here the terms used by Susan Buck-Morss and Slavoj Žižek in books that address issues of terror and violence. Along with Alain Badiou, they refer to such atrocities, and to the actions of suicide bombers, as mute, blind, silent and disconnected. This was also the perverse refrain of former British Prime Minister Blair in defending British foreign policy in the wake of the London bombings (‘there was no link between last week’s bombings in London and the Iraq war’ 25 July 2005 BBC).

In his 2008 book Violence, Žižek calls terrorist attacks and suicide bombings a ‘counter violence’ that is a ‘blind passage a l’acte’ and an ‘implicit admission of impotence’ (Žižek p69)? I find this not dissimilar to how Badiou, writing of September 11, 2001, starts his essay on ‘Philosophy and the War on Terror’ by saying ‘It was an enormous murder, lengthily premeditated, and yet silent. No one claimed responsibility’ (PolemicsThinking Past Terror, offers ‘the destruction of September 11 was a mute act. The attackers perished without making demands … They left no note behind … A mute act’ (Buck-Morss 2003 p23). It should be said she qualifies this with a question ‘Or did they?’, but the suggestion of an absent verbal – mute – message is something we should attend to, listen closely, consider again, and not just with our eyes scanning for evidence (hint: on the side of the bus, see inset), but with our ears and minds as well. In a similar tone, we might pass over the curiosity that Žižek chooses the infirmities of blindness and impotence to characterise the terrorist suicide bomber, as if the twin towers of September 11, 2001 in New York indicated a scene of masturbation (too much and you lose your sight) and castration (impotence, symbolic castration of the towers, mummy daddy, the old psychoanalytic staples are invoked, later it will be called a parallax). 2006 p15). Susan Buck-Morss, in her book

The point is that these theorists all agree on an absence of meaning that sets these acts apart. Badiou and Žižek’s claims about suicide bombings recall earlier comments by Buck-Morss on New York, where she suggests that the ‘staging of violence as a global spectacle separates September 11 from previous acts of terror’ and, as we should underscore, all three, dwell upon the absence of message: ‘They left no note behind … Or did they?’ (Buck-Morss 2003:23-4). More uncompromising and perhaps mischievous, Žižek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, presents the event in his own peculiarly Lacanian perspective:

“The spectacular explosion of the WTC towers was not simply a symbolic act (in the sense of an act whose aim is to ‘deliver a message’): it was primarily an explosion of lethal jouissance, a perverse act of making oneself the instrument of the big Other’s jouissance” (Žižek 2002:141)

I for one am not satisfied with this. The task of a critical commentary is not just to stop and stare. It is also not just a matter of listing ever more details of the symptomatic eventuality that has to be pathologized. We might do more than read surfaces if we look closely at one such revealing detail, that has, curiously, been thus far ignored.

The scene of the July 7th tragedy is captured in widely circulated images of the wrecked bus in Tavistock Square, taken by US based photojournalist Mathew Rosenberg. One of his pictures, appearing in most newspapers the next day, showed the bus from a 45% frontal angle with a disturbingly ironic film advertising placard visible on its side. This was for the film The Descent, due to be released the next day (2005 dir. Neil Marshall). The Descent was a schlock horror-thriller about inhuman monsters in a cave visited by a group of friends who become lost and are subsequently killed off one by one. The cave is the least of the coincidences however, as Londoners read reports and looked at grainy mobile phone video footage from the dark underground. Could we even begin to understand this horror? And were we ready to absorb the irony that the portion of the film placard left on the side of the bus after the explosion clearly displayed a message for us all. Tangled metal and stunned commuters foregrounded by a torn but still legible placard. It says: “Outright Terror, Bold and Brilliant – total film”.

Hasib Mir Hussain was said to be the bus bomber (generally accepted as fact, although questioned by bus passenger and witness Daniel Obachike in his book The Fourth Bomb). Hussain detonated his bomb some 50 minutes after the three tube explosions. Speculation was that, having planned to also blow up a tube carriage, he had lost his nerve and was fleeing the scene, perhaps accidentally setting his bomb off while trying to diffuse it (there were reports of him fiddling with his rucksack). Because the bomber is dead, it is not possible to ascertain whether Hussain had intentionally targeted this particular bus. But some seem ready to decide, for example, my sociologist colleague Victor Seidler says the Tavistock Square bus bombing was ‘unplanned’ (Seidler 2007:10). Whatever the case about the bus – and I tend to think it is a gory coincidence – the thoughts and motives of a suicide bomber are never readily available even where the bombers leave messages and – in the case of Hussain’s co-conspirator, Mohammed Sidique Khan – bequeath us justificatory ‘confessional’ videos to be broadcast after the event. We have however to analyse these with something more than anxious fear. The interpretive work of reading the sign on the bus means refusing the broad brush that paints these bombers as merely mute and blind, even as we put names and faces to them – the very gesture which allows fear to proliferate. To profile and to silence is a double-play that only confirms the ‘bold and beautiful’ success of this terror, this atrocity.

Of course we can only watch those images for so long. Indeed, the image from the side of the bus seems to have been erased. It was not ‘Total Film’, despite the terrible irony, and it looks as if we cannot bear to discuss this much at all. Instead, we have a different mode of commentary, in which – I want to note this as irony too – we see a lot more Muslims on the news than ever before. Bombers Hussain and Khan are off-screen, but the frequent presence of Muslim community leaders as ‘spokesmen’ on British television news talkback is a part of a larger project, in part orchestrated by Government and its agencies (police, media) to manage the postcolonial nation in a context of war. Carefully selected ‘moderate Muslims’ must be identified, shaped and disciplined into a discursive non-fighting force – a class of persons of colour, compliant in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect (pace Macaulay’ minute) – while ‘extremist’, outspoken or otherwise non-compliant figures serve as characters fit for demonization, scaremongering and foreign policy justification. The good cop bad cop scenario is transmuted here into a management of appearances – the good community leader is set against the aggressive, often ridiculed, aberrant complainant. Brown skins are offered on screen in dual roles. Scratch the surface of appearance and what we have is a struggle over national identity, a contested arena of civil freedoms and a lost opportunity for real debate.

That the debate scenario of televisual news is a colour-coded fashion show is counterfactually reinforced by the continued parade of white models, white presenters, white authority – but I am no longer persuaded that the mere fact of having brown faces on television is a step towards equality. Visibility must mean something more – such that while we might now insist the skin tone of the speaker matters not so much as the speakers’ allegiance or not to a set of ideas, the degree that those ideas may more or less conform to a white supremacist agenda is itself reinforced again by skin. Rather than the contours of distraction and anxiety, the theoretical arabesques about jouissance, or of mute and blind violence, a louder and wide-eyed debate must be had now. Much has already been said, but the meaning is obscured and if we refuse to read the signs before our eyes. I think this is a part of a general obfuscation, a general avoidance. There are some that talk about war-on-terror fatigue – we are no longer capable of paying attention to the impact of this war on our day to day lives – but I think it amounts to a strangely deflected reaction to the suspicions that we know are everywhere present. In full face profile, the upfront discussion we need about everyday racism on screen and on the buses might then filter through our convoluted anxieties and point towards better understandings, and a more robust defense of those under attack. It is unacceptable to see brown faces accused and detained, having to deny wrongdoing over and over (as was 23 year old ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik, as well as so many other ‘suspects’). This war of terror as it plays out in the city means Muslims are subject to stop and search, special investigations, harassment and inconvenience, train stations and airports are an ordeal, suspicious looks are just a step away from violent attack and a rendition flight to Guantanamo. The face of racism renewed is that Muslims today are required to ‘get their house in order’, or they must ‘leave’: a spurious double play that sets a superficial tone for media commentary and excludes deeper perspectives. We cannot remain mute nor turn away blind to a racism that wreaks such pervasive destruction upon us all.

For publication in “Stimulus Respond”, issue four.

references cited:

Badiou, Alain 2006 Polemics London: Verso.

Buck-Morss, Susan 2003 Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London: Verso.

Seidler, Victor Jeleniewski 2007 Urban Fears and Global Terrors, London: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj 2008 Violence, London: Profile Books.

Žižek, Slavoj, 2002 Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso.

http://daniel77witness.blogspot.com/ [accessed 24 march 2008]

Border Patrols

The city is the border. Each time you wave away the Chinese DVD seller who approaches you in the pub; each time you glide past the Polish beer in the cornershop, choosing a stella or chardonnay instead; each time you discard the free advertising newsheet you’ve barely even read – a million instant statements of the border.

Sex worker postcards in the last remaining telephone booth (new in town!); spruikers on the curry shift entice you for a deal; dragging angry and Peckham through the CCTV streets at dawn – the border is the city and the walls between us all.

It could not be that we don’t know this: that the management of the border is a mass participation project operated absentmindedly by all of us all day. Through an overkill of commentary and a shifting, churning hierarchy, the profiles, stereotypes and judgements that are constantly made yet so often denied are the guilty enactment of this regime. Border Police do their work – spot check, detention, deportation – all the better because our everywhere everyday distracted border operation is there in all we do.

The regulations are on the streets, the regulators are here.

First Human Terrain Team casualty

As anyone who might have looked at my writing in ‘Jungle Studies’ (here) or ‘Clifford’s Ethnographica’ (in Critique of Anthropology and reprinted in Bad Marxism) knows, I am not much of a fan of the close embrace that anthropology has with imperialism. Having argued that the old ‘Anthro as Handmaiden of Colonialism’ argument needs to be updated to ‘Anthro as Globalization’s Filthy Pimp’, I am also not a fan of the mealy-mouthing of ‘pledges’ and worthy declarations (Catherine Lutz art CASCA was ok but too mild). I think a more active resistance to the disciplinary apparatus of war – knowledge in the service of death – is required. So, while no doubt upsetting for his family and friends, the death of Michael Bhatia cannot be taken just a marker of why this stuff is wrong, but why opposition to military anthro has to be a part of the opposition to the war in general. From Bill Stamets article from In These Times

“In 2007, his 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was the first to use a Human Terrain Team. It was also the first to have an HTT fatality. On May 7, 2008, a roadside bomb in the Afghan province of Khowst killed Michael Bhatia, an Oxford doctoral candidate and the brigade’s field social scientist. After his year-long contract, Bhatia had planned to finish his dissertation titled “The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005.”

A year long contract – another reason why lack of adequate funding for research and why forced temporary and short term employment contract research ain’t a good way to run a University. Thanks Kee, who pointed out the piece, which links up nicely with this.

Pic is of Major Robert Holbert, Anthropologist!

More New Guevara Convention.

So Clandestino has come and gone and this year I missed it because I was in Budapest (which was also great) – but Dave went to Gotebourg, and its good to hear from friends there.

Also, this news just in:

…the latest addition to the Guevara Convention is now up.
Filastine has given us La Muerte, inspired by the work and unfortunate death of Brad Will. Brad was in Oaxaca, Mexico videotaping the teachers’ strike when gunmen opened fire. Will was shot twice and died while he was being carried away from the area. Along with Will, two protesters – Esteban Zurita López and teacher Emilio Alonso Fabián – were also killed. The snare sound in the track is one of the shots fired at Brad just before he was killed.

So, in honour of those cut down by the reaction, listen. The music is here in the box a the bottom of the right hand column.

While Clandestino is a great festival, the Guevara Convention is also a very fine project – as I have possibly previously mentioned here, here or here.

AtHQ – Some Thoughts on Work…

Since the last Attack the Headquarters I have been thinking about the nature of work… especially with all the discussions about theory, practice, vocational and educational issues.

To start with a provocation: When Stanley Aronowitz spoke a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he saw part of his role as an academic as finding his students jobs. Perhaps if this happened here, students would be less likely to be bought out by Unilever…… how about it John?!

On a more realistic (?) note I was excited by the idea that the workers enquiries that have been written through the MA’s Marx module be published in some form, and I would be very happy to be involved with this.

Over the last year I have also been slowly producing some art works that are loosely connected to the theme of ‘work’, and at the back of my mind, have wondered about organising an exhibition in order to show them.

Thinking about collective activity, it occurred to me that these two projects might fit well together. Perhaps an exhibition somewhere in the local area could provide a platform for distributing a newspaper type publication of workers enquiries, films, discussions and debates (about the nature of work in a wide sense from meaningful activity to wage labour?) and workshops with local community groups. Local working history of the area could be explored, or people excluded from working such as asylum seekers be involved. Perhaps this would in some way be connected to the mapping of Goldsmiths and the local area that we have been talking about or just be a parallel event…..

Any thoughts?

HQ Terrors and Uncertainties

Apropos research agendas and what the HQ might be up to. This (renewed) call is just out from ESRC/AHRC. It follows some debate already mentioned here, here and here. But I think now the conjoining of environmentalism, poverty and terror research ads a new, still more spurious fold.

“From: “ESRC
Date: 18 June 2008 12:22:43 BST
Fellowships under the RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme

Please could you bring to the notice of your membership the following
forthcoming opportunity for fellowships under the RCUK Global Uncertainties

RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme: Security for All in a Changing World
ESRC/AHRC Fellowships on Ideas and Beliefs

Call Launch: 30th June 2008

At the end of June there will be a joint ESRC/AHRC call for proposals for
Research Fellowships addressing key elements of the cross-Council programme
on Global Uncertainties: Security for All in a Changing World.

The cross-Council programme aims to understand the nature and interactions
of five global phenomena: conflict, crime, environmental degradation,
poverty and terrorism. Within this cross-Council framework, this Fellowship
call will focus specifically on ideas and beliefs. The call specification
is currently under development but headline issues will likely include:
• How ideas and beliefs evolve that underpin risks and threats evolve,
and why and when do these develop into violent or criminal activities
• Role of access to knowledge and information
• Communication and representation of risks and threats including the
use of language, images and symbolism
• Relationship between national security and civil liberties debates
• Role of different security institutions

We will be running workshops in different parts of the UK to explain the
call to potential applicants. Current thinking is for workshops in
Birmingham, Edinburgh, London and Southampton.

Please see the ESRC web page for further information and updates on
workshop details: www.esrc.ac.uk/gufellowships/

Any queries should be directed to: gufells@esrc.ac.uk.

This email has been scanned by the MessageLabs Email Security System.
For more information please visit http://www.messagelabs.com/email

At-HQ – Sharing some doubts about the creative industries and how these should be addressed by Cultural Studies

I have to admit that I have far more doubts and questions than certainties or answers about how the whole socio-economic paradigm opened by the creative industries should be addressed by cultural studies. The public discourse around the creative industries officially appeared in the UK in about 1996 and was heavily endorsed by New Labour related think tanks (such as DEMOS), to be later introduced by government as a model for economic development; now, twelve years later, academia has introduced the creative industries as a subject matter and this has opened many questions that I believe we should address. How are we going to relate to this economic paradigm? What kind of approaches are best suited to deal with the different conceptual issues raised? What kind of workers are we going to prepare? These are some doubts among others that need to be raised. Along the following lines I will try to address some of these questions, trying to reflect on my situation (and double condition) as both a researcher and worker in the field.

We must not forget that the whole creativity discourse was strongly associated with the neoliberalization of the economy, and it emerged as a solution to a number of economic problems raised by the industrial decline and restructuration by part of a conservative government. This was accompanied by an ever growing privatization of culture and its transformation into a leisure focused industry. The creative industries were born as a promise of economic development, as a tool for urban regeneration, as a means for social cohesion and as a sustainable economic model designed to be the basis of the city’s economies. The discourse was also deployed as a way to formalize a big workforce constituted by people collaborating with self-orgs, artists, graphic designers, activists, video game players and people involved in a number of non-profitable cultural activities.

Now, almost 12 years later some voices have been raised alerting us that the estimate growth figures launched by the DCMS were slightly more optimistic that what the facts have shown us. In the report published by the GLA named ‘London’s creative sector:2007 Update’ a different picture has emerged. The creative industries that were conceived to offer work opportunities to a workforce that had been made redundant by the industrial restructuration that took place in the 80’s, only were accomplished this mission on a steady level during the first years that the model was implemented. The study shows us how from the years 2001 to 2005 there was an important downturn in jobs in the creative sector. The initial estimates and targets were never met. The growth projections for the sector were widely overestimated and by no means have the creative industries taken the economic lead in the cities, which depend strongly on the financial, banking and touristic sectors. The year 2005 saw a raise in jobs created in the sector but the DCMS included in this survey creative people who work in non-creative industries (such as a musician teaching maths in a high school).

In a recent talk given by one of DEMOS’ founders, Geoff Mulgan (MIK, 2007), he made it clear that the economic future of the developed nations lied in the health and education sectors, leaving the creative industries way behind in the list of economic sectors. Also we see that with the introduction of schemes of social innovation and mass participation (Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.), society as a whole is starting to be conceived as a creative industry. Citizens are producing FREE contents for televisions, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, etc. This opens a big question that the sector needs to face, because, if society is outsourcing contents for the entertainment and creative sectors, what are cultural workers expected to produce? There is no doubt that with the strong critique to expertise and a growth of a DIY culture, creativity will be displaced from the hands of a few to the bodies of all the members of society.

With its natural delay academia is not only addressing the creative industries from a critical point of view, but has developed a number of courses aimed at generating creative workers ready to jump into the sector. The first question I think we should address concerns the role that the CCS has and how can it relate to the creative industries. Are we here to analyze, critique or to prepare a critical workforce ready to enter the creative sector? Being slightly more pessimistic I think that we could also consider if the sector really does need highly specialized intellectual theorists or if instead it demands people happy to cut and paste and network for long hours been paid low salaries. I believe that once this is clearly addressed, it becomes easier to understand the role that such a subject matter has in contemporary academia and the role that cultural studies can adopt in relation to the field.

To analyze critically the creative industries discourse, cultural studies stands in a perfect position and has a big number of tools and resources ready to be deployed. Its history as a discipline (and as a site for the critical analysis of culture) and its interdisciplinary nature seems to set out an extraordinary framework that can help us to understand the creative industries and their social and economic implications. This can be made from many perspectives; we can use many sociological works that have enquired into the labor conditions, gender roles and social implications of the sector in society. Philosophy has also many interesting insights to offer, starting from the Frankfurt School to more recent authors such as Paolo Virno or Maurizio Lazaratto, who have tried to define the aesthetic and moral dimensions attached to cultural work. Marxist cultural analysts have also reflected on the emerging values attributed to culture, its transformation into a commodity or how it is now envisaged as a resource ready to be exploited by urban planners, city developers, diplomatic agents, etc. The ever growing economic role of culture cannot be taken for granted, culture has entered the economy, but the economy has also culturalized itself. Even though, we must evaluate to what extent can these disciplines help to create a critical workforce ready to enter the sector. We must also ask ourselves if the creative enterprises are interested in hiring critical subjects, I am not that sure that there is a clear answer to this question.

One of the conclusions that I have reached with my work on the creative sector is that it comes to a point in which work and life merge to such a degree that they booth end up being the same. No longer can one distinguish when he or she is working or having fun, when she is networking or just having a chat. In most cases the creative career and the life of the worker end up being the same. This is the reason why I believe that we need to work on an approach able to combine a theoretical but also a practical dimension. This must lead towards a theory of work and life, aimed at addressing a life of work. I think that one of the challenges that the cultural studies is currently facing has to do with stopping to think about work, to instead start thinking through work. I have recently grown an interest on forms of analysis that seem to have become redundant but from which I believe there is still much to be learned from. Some of these include the militant polls carried out by the Operaist activists in Italy during the sixties and early seventies. One of the first activists to use this type of tools was Karl Marx who on 1881 carried out a poll for the Reveu Socialiste in France. These surveys do not aim to interview workers, but to trigger conversations with workers. They do not seek to find answers, but to pose questions that are negotiated between the interviewer and the worker on a collective act of reflection. Recently Antonio Conti from Posse Magazine put it this way “if we accept that the poll, understood as a linguistic work, as the construction of a place in which to talk, to recount and to exchange experiences, constitutes a place for the immediate construction of conscience and a site for communist organization, we see how it becomes a perfect instrument to intervene in contemporary issues, now that linguistic, relational and communicational work has become completely hegemonic”.

I believe that we should consider cultural projects as critical enterprises, and as such, every decision made, every step taken will have important consequences. But how far can academia not think about creative enterprises but think through them? To what degree can a cultural enterprise constitute a space for the production of knowledge and as a critical evaluation of itself? I believe we should consider these questions collectively. Some of the constitutive elements of a cultural project can be addressed and be used as tools for reflection. I believe that intellectual property should not be thought as a set of given laws or as a framework in which to develop work, but as an essential part of any project, it must be carefully thought as a possible space for critical speculation which will infer a specific set of qualities to any given work. We should stop analyzing IP as a subject matter but rethink our works through the porous and undetermined aspects that this legal framework offers. The economic sustainability of a project, its ecological impact, its social benefits or its life span are all questions that can be addressed critically, but also tools that can be used as a space for analytical speculation.

I am fully aware that cultural studies can help us to gain a deep understanding of culture, but this is the moment in which we must question ourselves about the extent to which these can help to think industrial matters. Can someone run a company with the knowledge obtained from an MA in cultural studies? Can this knowledge be compared to that provided by an MBA? I myself keep asking this question thinking about my work, I am really not sure that I am better equipped to run a company than someone trained in management, economics, law… I believe that after going through a MA in cultural studies I am in a better equipped to think about contents, or to have a better awareness of some socio-economic issues involved in cultural production. But I must fit my ability to create contents into the reality of the sector which is suffering a displacement: creative industries are no longer product or objects producers, they are becoming service providers. Concluding, I believe that we should focus on a direction in which cultural studies stop thinking about work, but start thinking through business models, energy consumption, work structures or labor relations, evaluating the impact that each of these decisions will have in the sector and how it will affect the rest of the world.