Category Archives: Derrida

Burning Books

In a commentary written not long before Derrida’s death, an elaboration of a keynote address he gave to a conference to inaugurate the Helene Cixous archive of the Bibliothéque Nationale, there is a definition of the library as a place ‘devoted to keeping the secret but insofar as they give it away’. It may be a twisting of the archival intention to read this quote without its context (Derrida is examining Cixous’ dreams of a certain Gregor) but the passage continues in a way that does suggest to me something of a primal scene for knowledge: ‘Giving a secret away may mean telling it, revealing it, publishing it, divulging it, as well as keeping it so deeply in the crypt of a memory that we forget it is there or even cease to understand and have access to it’ (Derrida 2003/2006:20). All through the book Derrida meditates on the library as a repository of secrets and certainties (certes as anagram), and more prosaically as a collection of boxes of papers, books, notes, sometimes objects, in a corridor, a room, an attic or a basement – and in the end suggests that there should be no Cixous archive without an ‘active research centre’ (83), which will be open to scholars throughout the world, and which would work, on this archive deposited in the BNF, wondering how it could be otherwise (87).

To think of an active library today might be a good way to take up the questions of ordering and protocols that Derrida had earlier set out in ‘Archive Fever’, but to do so would take a longer reading than I have time for (and anyway, see my chapter on that book in ‘Bad Marxism’).The thing is that the archive always already orders its secrets, as Derrida was at pains to point out. What I want to do is consider how it could be otherwise, and how in the French suburbs over the last week the criticism of books was generalized quite spectacularly as the burning of the library at Villiers Le Bel, ten miles from the centre of Paris: ‘burned books littered the floor’ according to one breathless report.

Of course the burning of books has its own charged and charred history, just as have the incidents (incendiary incitements) that led the youth of Paris to address the library in this critical mode. I am interested in the way scholars have addressed, or not addressed, these ‘street riots’. Derrida, about the same time as he was writing in praise of libraries, was also worrying about the youth that Sarkozy would later call racaille (rabble), but whom Derrida preferred to call voyous (Rogues). Here is the prescient, but somewhat problematic stereo-typing by JD:

‘The word voyou has an essential relation with the voie, the way, with the urban roadways [voire], the roadways of the city or the polis, and thus with the street [rue], the waywardness [dévoiement] of the voyou consisting in making ill use of the street, in corrupting the street or loitering in the streets, in “roaming the streets”, as we say in a strangely transitive formulation … Today the voyou sometimes roams the roadways [voies] and the highways [voiries] in a car [voiture], that is, when he or she is not stealing it or setting it on fire’ (Derrida Rogues 2005:65).

More on this inflammatory bon mot by Derrida and also on related street stuff here and here.

But – if you have now returned – what would be the way to navigate the convoluted questions of spontaneity and theory that arise here yet again (Lenin, Luxemburg). The urban uprising as a critique of books is an old tale, no doubt retold about Villiers le Bel after the night of November 25 by the theorists of polite politics who were looking elsewhere on the day. Police shot up in what seems a coherent tit-for-tat rapid response to the hit and run killing of Moushin (15) and Larami (16). Respontaneity is premeditated. There is already a theory of organization and action in play, far away from the book depository and its contemplative-juridical-tactical sermonizing.

In the UK a list might start with Notting Hill, Brixton, Toxteth, Manningham, Oldham, Bradford as one set of street level responses. Armed patrols, stop and search, custody deaths, profiling, detention as another – scaled up internationally on TV as war, rendition, kidnapping, death. In between, the routine bureaucratic arabesques of finance, health, education, workplace and housing scandals. At the high profile ends of hypocrisy we have the pomp and circumstance of Westminster, and the bad faith of humanitarian bombing campaigns. Pretension and war – both for democracy, gloss for the news.

So I am also collecting other tales of those who burn books. Send me your ashes. Nazi bonfires. Freud’s dream of burning books. Eco’s novel: ‘The Name of the Rose’, the Alexandria library, Somerset Maugham’s ‘Razors Edge’: great film starring Bill Murray whose quest for knowledge leads him down mines and up mountains, where he finally burns his texts to survive (see pic); the 1946 Tyrone Power version is good too. Have you ever burnt a book? Kafka destroying his notes, Bradbury’s ‘F’451’. And of course the Rushdie controversy – which starts in India but commentators keep on locating it in Bradford because that burning book image was so evocative…

Shall we keep now an archive of burnt books knowing that the protocols are already inscribed ‘in annals of fire’ (even in the fare future-past of Battlestar Galactica, the mentat Roslin cherishes her singed faux bible)?

Certainly the car yards are full of burned out hulks. Perhaps Mike Davis can be the librarian with his witty turns of phrase – see a commentary on his car bomb stories over at ‘Subtopia: A field guide to military urbanism‘.

More to come on this…


This is for the very wonderful Camille and Nick:

Derrida, in his last interview, added a parenthesis as the text was going to press:

“I just mentioned ‘secularism’. Please allow me a long parenthesis here. It is not about the veil at school but the veil of ‘marriage’. I unhesitatingly supported and endorsed with my signature the welcome and courageous initiative taken by Noel Mamere, even though same-sex marriage is an example of that great tradition inaugurated by Americans in the nineteenth century under the name of civil disobedience: not defiance of the Law but disobedience with regard to some legislative provision in the name of a better or higher law – whether to come or already written in the spirit of the constitution [Mamere presided over the first same sex marriages in France – relieved of his duties, unions annulled by the courts, vive la republique!]. And so I signed in this current legislative context because it seems to me unjust for the rights of homosexuals, as well as hypocritical and ambiguous in both letter and spirit. If I were a legislator [JD!], I would propose simply getting rid of the word and concept of ‘marriage’ in our civil and secular code. ‘Marriage’ as a religious, sacred, heterosexual value – with a vow to procreate, to be eternally faithful, and so on – is a concession made by the secular state to the Christian church, and particularly with regard to monogamy, which is neither Jewish (it was imposed upon Jews by Europeans only in the nineteenth century and was not an obligation just a few generations ago in Jewish Maghreb), nor, as is well known, Muslim. By getting rid of the word and concept of ‘marriage’, and thus this ambiguity or this hypocrisy with regard to the religious and the sacred – things that have no place in a secular constitution – one could put in their place a contractual ‘civil union’, a sort of generalized pacs, one that has been improved, refined, and would remain flexible and adaptable to partners whose sex and number would not be prescribed. As for those who want to be joined in ‘marriage’ in the strict sense of the term – something, by the way, for which my respect remains totally intact – they would be able to do so before the religious authority of their choosing. This is already the case in certain countries where religiously consecrated same-sex marriages are allowed. Some people might thus unite according to one mode or the other, some according to both, others according to neither secular law nor religious law. So much for my little conjugal paragraph. It’s utopic, but I’m already setting a date!”

There are some problems still – why anyone should be forced, by reasons of administrative necessity, to get the state involved in their relationship is beyond me, but nevertheless, with Derrida on his last legs, he’s still tripping up the legislators in a elegant and amusing way. This excerpt is from a La Monde interview of August 19 2004, translated as “Learning to Live Finally: the Last Interview” pages 43-44 (2007 Melville House Publishing). [See also c for all my Derridizations – though Bad Marxism has three chapters of critique too].

Megacity topic: Street.

Megacity topic: Street.

I’ve just come back from the TCS workshop on Megacity – a volume of the TCS-NEP New Encyclopaedia Project… Megacity is a term for those urban conglomerations that – ill defined as yet – have about 10 millions or more population, expand beyond the confines of the modernist city (whatever that means) and are something more, or different, from the ‘global city’ of a certain urban sociology…. I was asked to present on the idea of the street, and I wondered how a certain kind of urban anthropology might reconfigure what as yet seems a pretty inchoate conceptualisation of Mega… but I was happy to have a go. Here are some of my first, somewhat pedestrian, ground zero perspectives on the city as it transmutes from modernist to megalopolis… This is a proposed encyclo entry that will either canvass the street as a single article, or suggest a cluster with several authors (as is the format of the NEP).

It might be good to start by trying to reverse the perspective that framed the discussions of the first part of the day. These had been about how to conceptualise the megacity, how to map it, diagram it, how to represent that which ‘cannot be represented’ (Andrew Benjamin with a new context for the words of Marx from the 18th Brumaire). I do not disagree with attempts at abstract comprehension, but I wonder – given the task of ‘problematizing the urban’ what it might be to start – so to speak – at the other end. So I began with a phrase, with the idea of ‘the word on the street’.

The assumption to break with here, to challenge, is the idea that at ground level there is chaos and disorder. That an intrinsic disarray was articulated as the condition of the rampant growth of the city into megacity seems to me to have missed something important about urban space. There is order, and it can be examined – though this takes time. For me to hold onto an image that evokes this, I have this terrible trinket of a lighter-representation of the twin towers with aeroplane which reminds me, all too graphically (see pic) of one among the many striking scenes of that precipitous urban event of 2001: people on the street staring up at the towers in shock and awe as the planes crashed into the world trade centre on September 11, 2001.

Quotidian street protocol does not often include such moments – people look up at advertising hoardings, or the increasingly prevalent public screens of the city, but generally they mind their own business and carry on. Head down, sidewalk traffic, hustle and bustle, going somewhere. It was much more besides, but September 11 in New York was a neck strain, televised to all.

So I started to read the classic city texts – Whyte Street Corner Society, Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and newer ones like Duneier’s Sidewalk, and Berman’s On the Street, – which are each great – deeply worked, reliant on long fieldwork. And all that makes me wonder if we need to rethink the focus on the street in the megacity so as to be careful not to jump far too quickly to suggest uniformity, replication or a typology. The mass observation scenario of looking up on high as the image of the city transforms before our eyes is perhaps a reminder that life in the megacity cannot be grasped all at once or forever, that the city has many different and changing facades (sometimes brutal-tragic and sudden) and that the teeming cultural plethora of the city, for good or bad, is peopled by crowds of multiple provenance who come together on the sidewalk sometimes, but are otherwise also variously divided. The street is as complicated and complex here as it is, differently, just around the corner, or a few moments later in time. Would we need a reminder then that whether the aim is to plan, to theorize, to segment into creative or economic quarters, or to otherwise conjure the city, there will always be more, and more than a supplement or remainder, rather a glorious excess; a bleeding beyond the prescriptions of definition.

How would the protocols of urban anthropology look if we were to rethink them through the idea of the megacity? I wonder if we can ever think the street in a way that goes past those earlier renderings, updates them, or at least learns from their specificity. There have been many versions of urban anthropology that seek out the word on the street. The street is thought, a path of thinking; the street-map the synapses and dendrites of the mind (Simmel), an intersection a thought; if the road is a sentence (Derrida), the city is a text to interpret (Lefebvre); if the square or the crossroad is a node amongst flows (D&G), and traffic networks; labyrinthine plans and perspectives and views; transformed mapping with new technologies (Kittler), google earth and sat-nav replace the a-z, the imaginary city tracked through poster, project and propaganda, networked (AbdouMaliq Simone), the aspirational city of planning and commerce (Holsten) photogenic street-scenes to draw and attract; the vibrant, viral and virtual city which makes an image site of the street, overexposed (Virilio), heterotopia, hetero-dysfunctional.

If the street of the megacity is as likely to be a major thoroughfare such as Broadway Manhattan as it is to be a tiny, winding, obscure lane in Salt Lake City (Bidhanagar) the ever growing ‘edge’ of Kolkata. The point is that in such cities, people live. Questions of how they live (demography, quality, strategies), if its possible to live (adequate shelter, sustenance, services) and if its possible to live better (policy, organization), remain.

It may be that megacities are only coherent at a distance, as organisms that can hardly even be diagrammed. Sprawl/scrawl. When moving along the streets, when speeding along the city’s arteries, what we feel is the rush, and yet when on the street we can’t see the street we’re on (for all the street vendors, drug dealers, shop fronts, commuters, sweepers etc) but when we can see the whole of the street, we’re not really on it). The map is not the territory, the name is not the person.


Walking down Broadway with Marx’s Capital in hand, reading the signs, or down Nimtollah Lane with a dictionary (my Bangla is poor), I am faced with the multiple character of the megacity when the sheer abundance of ways the life of the street connects not so much to other streets on an A-Z map of the nation, but rather direct to the global ecumenium. The megacity has streets peopled by citizens of the world. They might be going somewhere or staying put, even stuck; they might be movers and shakers or ‘illegal’ and on the run. The city though is global when the street hosts the peoples of the world. This heterotopia is to be mapped otherwise than in a national history – rather start with the idle flim-flaneury of Benjamin in Paris, the derive of the situationists, or Ian Sinclair’s London wandering. (see Robert Bond 2006 ‘Speculating Histories: Walter Benjamin Ian Sinclair’ Historical Materialism 14(2):3-28). This is not old fashioned, though some may be walking with eyes locked on personal or public screens, saturated space of advertising, walking with one’s eyes on an electronic horizon.
I have walked, and plan again to walk, the length of Broadway ‘as research’. The Walking Day. From fetish object to so-called original accumulation.

A vast apparatus.

I have to take account of changing neighbourhoods and the abundant sociality of the street, the community and the suburb. The street is the place of sociality, and so of people Sidewalk by Duneier, Everyday Life de Certeau, or Lefebvre, but also exclusions, the banlieues, the barrio, the reserve army/dormitory suburbs, the commuters, from cleaners to office staff, to transport workers. I think of street culture and creativity, and the culture industry entrepreneurs and corporate opportunists that jump on it for packaging. Parafunctional spaces (an essay by Nikos Papastergiadis and Scott McQuire I have to dig out, given at an ArtSpace conference in Sydney), decay and renewal, from warehouse to gallery-zone…

The people of the street are quintessentially the crowd, the masses of festivals, street party (lights out in New York), café’s (Ash Amin), conviviality, the rows of shops, the enticements to buy, the seductions of commodification that grab us and make as part of the all consuming apparatus. The street market, with its connections and flows – commerce to the illicit trades, drugs, street people, organized crime.

Infrastructure of the street. Power supplies – underground cables, roadworks, traffic disruptions; a massive network of material labour still produces the street.Lighting – streets as avenues of neon (Scott McQuire), CCTV (Jeff Heydon). Security guards, doormen (Jane Jacobs). Taxis (Virinder Kalra, Biju Mathew). In Cairo I am greeted by a taxi driver who says without taking a breath: “in my taxi I will take you anywhere you want to go to my brother’s emporium”. Cars. Delivery vehicles. Trucks and buses. The street also as the site of accidents, car crashes, stalled or too fast, traffic.We watch them from bars, cafes, as we munch street food (Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay). Amusement arcades while away the boring hours.

Pollution – rubbish – detritus held up to the gloaming by Siegfried Kracauer. Pollution – sewerage, drains, the gutter – garbage disposal – Boy George, rag-pickers (Kracauer was not the least of these, whatever Benjamin says). Who makes and maintains the street? Monsieur Hulot has been mechanized, the steamroller more rapidly paves what took aeons before, a team of pavers pave the footpaths and painters paint the signage in rapid time.

This makes me think of Marx’s lists – describing the lumpen in the 18th Brumaire – the discussion I visited in Zizek’s slum (HERE), and echoing Derrida’s list iterations on the voyous that I plan to elaborate, having started HERE). Derrida does not quote Marx’s great text in Rogues, but I think its clear he has it in his head as he writes:

‘Voyoucracy is a corrupt and corrupting power of the street, an illegal and outlaw power that brings together into a voyoucraticregime, and thus into an organised and more or less clandestine form, into a virtual state, all those who represent a principle of disorder … a threat against public order … This milieu, this environment, this world unto itself, gathers into a network all the people of the crime world or underworld, all the singular voyous. All individuals of questionable morals and dubious character whom decent, law-abiding people would like to combat and exclude under a series of more or less synonymous names: big man, bad boy, player … rascal … good-for-nothing, ruffian, villain, crook, thug, gangster, shyster … scoundrel, miscreant, hoodlum, hooligan … one would also say today banger [loulou], gangbanger [loubard], sometimes even outside the inner city, in the suburbs, the suburban punk [loubard des banlieues]’ (Derrida 2005:66).

‘The word voyou has an essential relation with the voie, the way, with the urban roadways [voire], the roadways of the city or the polis, and thus with the street [rue], the waywardness [dévoiement] of the voyou consisting in making ill use of the street, in corrupting the street or loitering in the streets, in “roaming the streets”, as we say in a strangely transitive formulation. This transitivity is in fact never far away from the one that leads to “walking the streets”… Today the voyou sometimes roams the roadways [voies] and highways [voiries] in a car [voiture], that is, when he or she is not stealing it or setting it on fire’ [stealing or setting it on fire!– those rogues, note they are soon to be linked to greater rogues, in a strangely transitive formula -JH] … Voyous might also, on an international scale, and this gets us right into the problematic of rogue states, be involved in drug trafficking, in parasiting, or actually subverting, as terrorists in training, the pathways [voies] of normal communication, whether of airplanes, the telephone, email or the Web’ (Derrida 2005:65).

I just want to remark on these listings. The transitive next next next that escalates. It moves from the small metaphor to the hyperbolic of global connectivity. Even way back in his 1967 book Of Grammatology was a call for a meditation on the road and writing: ‘one should meditate upon all of the following together: writing as the possibility of the road and of difference, the history of writing and the history of the road, of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken, beaten, fracta, of the space of reversibility and of repetition’ (Derrida 1967/1974:107).

And then – having to show that this is not just JD mouthing off – on to Marx, writing of how Boneparte gathered together in the society of 10 December, the riff raff of Paris:

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither (page 63 18th Brumaire)

So, my version of the street will include an expanding list, not all deviants or miscreants: but those who play the rackets, the numbers, the dealers, the look-outs, with scams, pyramid schemes, passport and visa forgers, job search entrepreneurs, denizens of the doorstep, visitors to the soup kitchens, survival strategies of the many, street-peddlers, organ-grinders (!), Iskon krisna consciousness devotees offering free vegetarian recipe booklets, muggers, petty thugs, street-smarts, wise-guys, the cleaner, the fixer, marabout (Simone 2004:41), criminal slumlords, drunks, musicians, money-changers, carum players and pan-handlers, Reclaim the night, dykes on bikes, the strip, at sunset, and after hours, sex workers, meter maids, hawkers, buskers, vendors of sweets and treats.


Lists, though, are Flat – and the City is High. Rossolini was apparently asked if he would make a film of New York, and replied that he would not do so as long as screens were not also vertical.

Maybe at this register the street must always be the horizontal plane if we are to see people there – if we go up the lifts of the towers, even those in the Eiffel tower, we see the city as plan, as flattened space. But this view from the gods erases diversity and community in favour of a privileged and sanitized position. On the horizontal plane, the issues are about sanitary drainage and the cacophony of the crowd.

The class and racial hierarchies of the megacity are visible at street level as much, if not more, than in the high-rise and boardroom. An equally important but less uniform global heterotopia assembles at street level – in what Koolhaus called a culture of congestion – the urban jungle is worryingly described as a ‘potent yet troubling term’ (Cairns 2000:125 – ‘jungles’ 125-7 in Thrift, Nigel and Steve Pile City A-Z New York: Routledge) but there are reasons to both valourize and worry over this scene.

The ethnicity of the street scape is apparent, but cannot be adequately discussed without reference to shifting articulations of racial hierarchy, national chauvinism, communal politics and geo-imperial consequences such as the war on terror or economic restructuring. Los Angeles as city of migration is differently diasporic than the migrations that have swollen Mumbai or Shanghai

Immigrants – the megacity is always one of movement and babel

Street Pirates – the island in New Cross.

Later I want to write of street politics, the police and control. Of reading the word on the street on the side of the Buses. And of house-to-house street fighting, the Arcades and Benjamin on the street and war. Also, of course, the sci fi streetscape: those imaginary simplistic multiculturalisms at the bottom end of Bladerunner and Fifth Element that deserve a much more critical (all too exotic) argument…

Mind The Gap

I am always suspicious of travellers’ tales, especially those I’ve heard (or told) before. They get refined and streamlined, they come to resemble one’s own version of the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Jacques Derrida knew this, commenting on travel narrative – he identifies two ‘risks’ of travelogues in the possible meanings of the terms we use: ‘The first is that of selectivity’ and he describes a ‘recit raisonne’ as a ‘narrative that, more than others, filters or sifts out the supposedly significant features – and thus begins to censor’ (Derrida 1993:197-8); and the second, from the first; ‘raisonner also signifies, in this case, to rationalise … active overinterpretation’ (Derrida 1993:198). These two themes of perspective and ordering selection are the themes for a necessary work which will take up the call (this is not the only call) for a Marxist analysis of trinkets, and of the coin the buys them, so as to open up a ‘systematic reflection on the relations between tourism and political analysis’ at a time when tourism has become highly ‘organised’. Derrida writes that such an analysis ‘would have to allow a particular place to the intellectual tourist (writer or academic) who thinks he or she can, in order to make them public, translate his or her ‘travel impressions’ into a political diagnostic’ (Derrida 1993:215).

So, here is another little travel story. From the London Tube. And about a trinket called Dum Dum – double stupidity.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission report on the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes was revealed today – six long months after it was given to the Crown Prosecution Service, way back in January, and only now they are about, perhaps, to act on it .The report has been said to recommend that the 2 Police who shot Jean Charles, and the chief cop running the action (Cressida Dick), should be prosecuted for manslaughter. (Why not murder?). We have been here before, and everyone knows from the film Injustice that talk of even a manslaughter charge doesn’t mean there is much hope of a conviction of cops who kill (too many other examples go against that forlorn hope for legal justice). The resonances in this case are too strange for me not to think something very weird is going to happen every time I mind the gap.

For starters, the strange peripheral bit that grabs me is that the police shooters operating under Kratos shoot to kill ‘rules’ of engagement used Dum Dum bullets and these little beauties were said to be less dangerous for the general public. Of course this is madness – what are the BBC thinking in saying this? Is that what it said in the advertising brochure when the MET went to the arms fair to buy them, from the Lord of War himself AKA Nicolas Cage?.

It also seems patently wrong that there is a body set up to decide in advance that cops who kill should face watered down charges. Even though the Independent Police Complaints Authority does say the 2 cops and Commander Dick should be charged, they mean charged only with manslaughter – and this comes after the operation report of the action was ‘corrected’ or amended. Surely the courts themselves (if not the people’s court) should get to decide the significance of this? What is to say there are not other tamperings and fiddlings with the facts? And in singling out Dick and the trigger happy killers, have they not let Commissioner Ian Blair (head MET cop) off the hook as well – all these people are involved in a murder; I mean, they had him held down, pinned, motionless… this was a death in custody, wasn’t it? Another one.

I hate to say it, but this just presses all of my buttons. Dum Dum is in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, where you can find the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport, itself built on the site where British Raj era soldiers invented the bullet also known as ‘dum dum’ – an onomatopoeic name from the sound of the bullet leaving the gun, then exploding inside the target – a doubled report, a nasty little piece of weaponry, brutal in its effects. Used to kill Afridi tribesmen in the North West Frontier. Which charmingly links the police of the Stockwell killing directly to the colonialism of many years ago, but no-one will really be surprised. And of course this kind of Police protection (protection of us, they are there using Dum Dum bullets to protect us – I believe it!) is clearly linked to the themes of the film Injustice and deaths in custody – Jean Charles was in custody when he was killed, they have a duty of care. This is something I have written about elsewhere, both in terms of the concerns of the film, and in general with detention issues in the wake of the War of Terror. But now I am interested in how operation Kratos is an updated version of those old manuals of procedure that James Bond must have memorised, that offer up the blow by blow (literally) guide book of how to deal with protesters, miscreants, threats to the state and other average citizens. What did that Nick Cage type goon say at the arms fair anyway: ‘Hey, pssst, over here … these bullets are great, they explode inside the victims head’; ‘Yeah, wow, gimme a couple of dozen boxes, we can use them on public transport’; ‘Safety first, dib dib dib’.

Finally, it drives me nuts to endure the stupidity of BBC news reports that continue to repeat the fudge that implies Jean Charles was somehow not just a member of the public – a public, qivvering before its screens, that is now going to be so much safer because the Kratos shoot to kill policy is mitigated by these Dum Dum bullets… Such is the danger to our tube travellers and other denizens of the city that by the middle of last year this Kratos policy had been called upon 250 times, and almost used 7 times – and, obviously, really was used the once. Dum really Dum.

I am reassured once again that only in Nepal has there been any repeal of new terror laws – the rest of us are protected, so we can travel safe. As I keep saying over and over (refine and streamline, diagnose, repeat). Tubes run on time thank Ken, and they are safer now, thank Bliar. Aren’t we living in the best of all worlds?

> The travel text is from Derrida, Jacques 1993, ‘Politics and Friendship: An Interview’, in Kaplan, E. Ann & Sprinkler, Michael 1993, The Althusserian Legacy, Verso, New York, pp. 183-232.

> The picture is honour of Jean Charles de Menezes, tube traveller. In need of proper justice.

closet cleaner – notes from the vault, circa 1988

In Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, very early on in the piece, Galileo says:

For two thousand years men have believed that the sun and all the stars of heaven revolve about them. The pope, the cardinals, the princes, the scholars, captains, merchants, fishwives and schoolboys believed themselves to be sitting motionless in the centre of this crystal globe. But now we are travelling headlong into space…The cities are narrow and so are men’s minds. Superstition and plague. But now we say: because it is so, it will not remain so. For everything moves…I like to think it began with ships. Ever since men could remember they crept only along the coasts; then suddenly they left the coasts and sped straight out across the seas.

I want to hold these ships a moment, suspended in time stretching out across a seemingly endless ocean. A monumentous moment, even if not unique, the significance of this new direction in Europe’s navigation should not be underestimated. In this fragment of Brecht’s history (after all, was Brecht a better or worse historian than others?) a double movement can be seen. A recognition that the ideas of the past were inadequate, and a recognition that the way the world is seen changes. These are not identical statements: ‘things are not as they were’ and ‘the old ideas must be rethought’.

At this time, as coast hugging ships set out at right-angles across the oceans – to very much a ‘new world’, not simply located across some horizon, but global, a state of mind, the world as ‘new’ – it would be possible to locate certain questions relevant to our current reading of the history of the social sciences.

But how should we do this, knowing that we do not have the minds of a Galileo? What are the dangers of entering the city of history with our narrow minds? Especially as we fear that our place, and our sun, is in danger of being decentred? We have no navigator, we are crossing uncharted seas. ‘We’ are perhaps never any longer even ‘European’ – anthropology dunked in the ocean of humanity takes on a different identity. ‘We’ are in the academe, a kind of intellectual or psychological ‘west’, but it is thankfully less and less controlled from British naval headquaters. There is a ‘tradition’ or ‘history’ of anthropology which can be charted, but it should not be thought, despite the rhetorical European (disciplinary anthropological) ‘We’ used here, that any anthropological expedition still involves an all-Anglo-Saxon crew. Pirates are multicultural.

[snip – a bunch of stuff about Derrida and sailing – yo ho ho]

Neither the sun nor the earth is fixed – since Copernicus we must surely have realised that flux is the more common ‘element’ of our lives. Only old Church types deny it. We must abandon the notion of the ‘fixed’ – and live without securities.

We have distorted history one more time, forgetting the importance of the intervals of distance and space, we collapse two very different figures into the same. Isn’t this what we always do? Copernicus is not Galileo, and yet for this paper they can seem so alike. History at a distance can erase difference. We could end up with either, although in a way we need to distance ourselves from both, to strike out the old horizon, and see, perhaps, Europe, and Anthropology, as an ‘other’ shore. With concern for the ways we write, and the ways we read, we could well imagine a different kind of anthropology. Dragging that exemplary moment of Galileo into our own time all the time, we have always been at that moment, on the cusp of a break with the brutal evangelicism of our ethnocentic projects. We can redefine historical moments and reify names to remind ourselves. Galileo/Copernicus could yet be invoked to instill an enthusiasm for anthropology. Clastres ends his essay ‘Copernicus and the Savages’ with a conclusion that calls for a revolution within the discipline. He writes that anthropology: “until now has let primitive cultures revolve around Western civilization so to speak…It is time to change suns, to move on”(Clastres 1974/1987:25-6). His optimism is strong, and denies an otherwise terrible alternative which would be to pack up the paradoxes and difficulties and let the endeavour lapse. To cast anthropology adrift?