Monday, June 18, 2018

The Historikerstreit by Kristen Ghodsee


I’m lucky I’m not a scholar of Ukraine. If I wrote books about Ukraine like the one’s I’ve written about Bulgaria, they would now be illegal. My articles would be illegal too. In fact, my thoughts and opinions would be illegal. My observations and arguments, based on years of historical and anthropological research, would be illegal. Even asking the kinds of questions I ask, posing the kinds of thought experiments I pose, would be illegal . . .

This official de-communization process began in April 2015 when Ukrainian lawmakers proposed to erase all physical vestiges of their Soviet past. On May 15, President Petro Poroshenko signed a new law calling for the removal of all Soviet-era statues and symbols, and the renaming of towns and villages saddle with names deemed too communist by the government. Across the country, demolition crews dismantled  World War II monuments commemorating the Red Army victory over the Nazis.  Public questioning of the criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine was outlawed. Even more disturbing was the companion law “On the Legal Status and Honoring of the Memory of the fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th century.” This statute criminalized public critiques of certain organizations that fought for Ukrainian independence, including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), both organizations demonstratively guilty of mass murder. In Volhyn and eastern Galacia, historians estimate the UPA massacred up to 100,000 Poles. It collaborated with the Nazi occupying regime at the onset of the invasion of Russia in 1941. It also took part in anti-Jewish pogroms.  Laws passed in spite of the strenuous objections The Kharkiv Human Rights Commission, 69 North American and European academics,  the OSCE and the European  Commission for Democratic Institutions through Law.

These laws followed the infamous Prague Declaration of June 3, 2008 in which a coterie of right-leaning East European politicians and intellectuals proclaimed that “the millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized” and that  there should be “an all-European understanding that many crimes committed in the name of communism should be assessed as crime against humanity . . . in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.”

To explain how the Ukrainian law grew out of broader European memory, politics, it is instructive to go back and revisit something called the Historikerstreit, or the Historians’ Battle. This was a major public debate  between right-leaning and left-leaning historians in West Germany in the late 1980s.  The conflict was sparked by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s May 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery. Together with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Reagan spent eight minutes in a graveyard that contained the final resting places of forty-nine Waffen SS soldiers.* The Bitburg visit, and Reagan’s explicit commemoration of Nazi soldiers and Holocaust victims on the same day, set off a firestorm of controversy.


The West German  historian Ernst Nolte launched the first salvo in the Historians’ battle on June 6, 1986, with an article in the center-right newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, titled “The past that will not pass,” an abridge version of his forthcoming book. In his book and article Nolte asserted that Hitler’ embrace of National Socialism was an understandable reaction to Russian Bolshevism. Nolte catalogued early Soviet crimes, and he employed traditional right-wing terms such as “Asiatic deeds” to do so. He proposed that fascism was a counterrevolution against communism- that communism was the original totalitarianism. He wrote, “Wasn’t the gulag archipelago more original than Auschwitz? Wasn’t Bolshevik ‘class murder’ the logical and actual predecessor to National Socialist ‘race-murder?” According to Nolte, the Nazis only made more efficient the mechanisms for mass murder previously invented by the Soviets.

An immediate rebuttal came from the sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas . . .for almost three years, fierce barbs were traded in West Germany’s mainstream papers. Nolte’s continued insistence that Hilter’s anti-Semitism was a rational extension of his anti-Marxism (because Marxists were supposedly Jews), an his unwillingness to distance himself from right-wing activists eager t use his arguments to to exonerate Hitler, swayed the debate in favor of Habermas.In an  earlier lecture (1980) it was discovered Nolte said that the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann’s statement in the first days of September 1939 – ‘ in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England’s side’ justified Hitler treating German Jews as prisoners of war and thus interning them.

Nolte emerged from the Historikerstreit isolated in his opinions and Habermas believed that the extended public debate had permanently subverted the historiographical exoneration of Adolf Hitler. But neither Habermas nor Nolte could imagine that the Berlin Wall would fall before the end of the decade. The terms of the debate would suddenly and unexpectedly tip in Nolte’s favor.


The second act in the Historikstreit drew in scholars from across the globe. In 1993, Francis Fukuyama claimed that the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes inn 1989 and the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented “the end of history.” In his view, liberal democracy and free market capitalism were the pinnacles of human achievement, and the collective dreams of the left were crushed in the maelstrom of anti-Marxist triumphalism. As the FRG swallowed the GDR, and Eastern European countries rushed headlong into the arms of the West, the once settled issues of the Historikerstreit were thrown open for a new round of debate.

Perhaps the best example of the Historikerstreit 2.0 was the conflict between two eminent historians in the 1990s, one British and the other French. In 1994 the unrepentant Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, an instant international success despite the scandal caused when Hobsbawm suggested in a 1994 BBC interview with Michael Ignatieff that the many crimes of the Soviet Union would have been forgiven if they had given birth to a functioning communist society.

Hobsbawm,’s defense of Stalinism initially prevented his book’s translation into French . . .it seemed clear that the French publishing establishment was trying to silence him: “the growth of vituperative anti-Marxism among French intellectuals; a budget squeeze in humanities publishing; and, not least, a publishing community either unwilling or afraid to defy these trends (Adam Shatz).

Hobsbawn’s book appeared just two years after Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect was published in France. Judt had eviscerated the left politics o Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Judt argued that their experiences in World War II and the French Resistance convinced them that the world was divided into communists and imperialist-fascist anticommunists and there was no space to occupy between. They believed that it was their existential imperative to make choice. Choosing the communist side of this dichotomy apparently reflected a fatal flaw in French intellectual culture, and Hobsbawm may have been seen as reproducing that flaw.

Pierre Nora, the editor of France’s most distinguished history series at Editions Gallimard, beside budgetary constraints and shrinking interest in scholarly history books, admitted to having ideological reservations about Age of Extremes. Nora argued that France was “the longest and most deeply Stalinised country’ in Europe and Hobsbawm’s book appeared at the moment French public opinion was just shaking off its attachment to communist idealism. This ‘decompression’ followed the collapse of the Soviet Union  and “accentuated hostility to anything that could from near or far recall the former pro-Soviet, pro-communist age, including plain Marxism. Eric Hobsbawm cultivates this attachment to the revolutionary cause, even if at a distance, as a point of pride . . .But in France at this moment, it goes down badly.”

Part of the problem was that The Age of Extremes was also published just before Francois Furet’s highly successful Le Pase d’une illusion, a book asserting that Nazism and communism were the twin scourges of the twentieth century. Furet dedicated an extended footnote to Ernst Nolte’s work, blaming the communist illusion for producing a romanticized culture of antifascism among European intellectuals. According to Furet, this lead to a misreading of the Spanish Civil War and prevented the acknowledgement of the fundamental similarities between fascism and communism.

The ongoing refusal to translate The Age of Extremes was further buttressed by the political storm unleashed in France after the 1997 publication of Le Livre noir du communism: Crimes, terreur, repression by Editions Robert Laffont. Thstome –over eight hundred pages – as a collection of essays attempting to produce a worldwide tally of communist victims. After his death I July 1997, the task of witing an introduction to the book fell to Stephane Courtois, who asserted that there were 100 million victims of communism worldwide, a number four times that of the victims of Nazism. Courtois inveighed against all twentieth century communist leaders and argued that the “single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide” had impeded the accounting of communist crimes. Given the revelations contained in newly opened Soviet and East European archives, Courtois argued that Le Livre noir du communism definitively exposed the criminal nature of all communist regimes and claimed that Western intellectuals who supported communist ideals were n better than “common prostitutes.”

Almost immediately after the book’s publication, however, two of the prominent historians contributing to the volume, Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth, attacked Courtois in an article published in Le Monde . . . saying that “death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union”*  In a 200 review theSoviet historian J Arch Getty pointed out that over half of the 100 million worldwide deaths supposedly attributed to communism were “excess deaths” resulting from famine. Regarding the numbers in the Soviet Union, Getty wrote, “The overwhelming weight of opinion among scholars working in the new archives is that the terrible famine of the 1930s was the result of Stalinist bungling and rigidity rather than some genocidal plan. Are deaths from famine caused by stupidity and incompetence of a regime . . . to be equated with the deliberate gassing of Jews?”

Despite the inhospitable climate in France for The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm did not back down. . . He fought for a French translation . . .five years after its publication in English, the French translation appeared and was an instant success with forty thousand copies in print and the book climbing to the top of best seller lists. Yet the book continued to spark debate. Michele Tepper argued in Lingua Franca  that the continuing backlash in Paris against Marist leanings that shaped French culture for most of the twentieth century may well continue to keep publishing house doors barred against the next Hobsbawm.

Indeed, in the same year (2000) the Germany Foundation – an organization associated with the center-right German Christian Democratic Union – awarded Ernst Nolte the prestigious Konrad  Adenaurer Prize, prompting Robert Cohen in the New York Times to proclaim “Hitler Apologist Wins German Honors.” An immediate controversy ensued in Germany, particularly given the context of the   .far right’s political ascendance in several local elections in the five states of the former GDR as well as increases in violent ne-Nazi activity against asylum seekers and other immigrants. With the National Front gaining popularity in France and Jorg Haider and the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs ascending in Austria, right-wing parties were creeping back onto the political scene across the Continent. Fierce accusations that Nolte was a Holocaust denier arose. Notle’s rehabilitation, many Jewish organizations argued, would embolden scholars who question the so-called cult of the Holocaust.

An excellent example of the far-reaching legacy of the renewed Historikerstreit is an article that appeared in the Journal of Historical Review in 2000. Mark Weber argued that Notle’s receipt of the Adenauer Prize might a portent for “greater historical objectivity”:

 A Jewish view of  20th century history – which includes what even some Jewish intellectuals call the ‘Holocaust cult’ or ‘Holocaust industry’ is obviously incompatible with a treatment that is objective and truthful . . .as the recent award to Ernst Nolte suggests, there are signs that the intellectual climate is changing. Not Just in Germany, but  across Europe, there is a growing acknowledgement that the historical view imposed by the victorious Allies in 1945, as well as the Judeocentric view that now prevails, is a crass and even dangerous distortion. Contributing to this ‘historicization’ has been the end of the Soviet empire, with its outpouring of new revelations about the grim legacy of Soviet Communism, and the collapse of a major pillar of the ‘anti-fascist’ view of  20th century history. Although powerful interests may succeed for a time in stemming the tide, in the long run a more ‘revisionist’ treatment of history, even Third Reich history, is inevitable.

Weber’s article was prescient of a later wave of American popular histories derived from Nolte’s revisionist position. For instance, the journalist Anne Applebaum’s two books Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, both supported the idea that the horrors of communism were equal to or worse than the terrors of Nazism. It s no surprise, therefore, that Applebaum was awarded the Hungarian Petofi Prize at the Budapest Terror House Museum in 2010. One might say that Nolte’s positions in ten German Historikerstreit laid the intellectual foundation for the Prague Declaration and eventually paved the way for the Ukrainian government to venerate fascists by vilifying communists in 2015.

The European Union and the Visegrad Group- Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic- provided funding for anticommunist scholarship through the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. I museums such as the Hungarian House of Terror and the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims, more space was allocated to the victims of communism than to the victims of the Holocaust. Historical institutes, such as the Institute for the Studies of the Recent Past in Bulgaria and the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile, focus on the crimes of communism against domestic Eastern European populations and downplay the effects of local alliances with Nazi Germany.

So was it a coincidence that the institutionalization of the twin totalitarian narrative occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis financial that began in  2008? As markets plunged and the Eurozone economies teetered on the edge of collapse, the European Parliament passed the resolution establishing the European Day of Remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. As neoliberal capitalism faltered, European leaders, facing devastated economies, a migrant crisis, and growing wealth inequality, gravitated toward the intellectual paradigm that linked leftist politics with the worst crimes of Stalinism and equated those crimes with the Final Solution. Not surprisingly, the renewed focus on the victims of communism allowed Eastern European governments to exonerate or rehabilitate known fascists, a process that.led directly to the 2015 Ukrainian laws making it a crime to criticize any national figure who fought for Ukrainian independence, even if these men collaborated in the slaughter or Poles or Jews.

Eastern European examples of this rehabilitation abound . . .a minister who personally signed the deportation orders for over eleven thousand Jews from Bulgarian occupied Thrace and Macedonia was honored. A Hungarian Court rehabilitated Balint Homan, one of the architects of Hungarian ant-Semitic laws and pushed for their murder by the Nazis. Homan claimed that the Jews did not belong in Hungary because of their “spirit opposing the ideas of Christianity’ and their “leading role in subversive movements and the spread of destructive ideologies. The Serbian high court rehabilitated Dragoljub “Draza” Mihaillovic, executed by the Yugoslav communists in 1946 for high treason and Nazis collaboration. The President of Croatia visited the Bleiburg cemetery where she laid flowers at the graves of Croatian Nazis-allied soldiers. In the two years I lived in Europe between 2014 and 2016, I witnesses political parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland find mass support from populations suffering from years of stagnant wages and economic austerity, particularly after the onset of the European migrant crisis. In cities and towns in eastern Germany, angry mobs resist the resettlement of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The governments of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic staunchly rejected quotas for accepting Muslin refugees, and new fences were erected around many borders, jeopardizing the European Schengen free-travel zone.

While the European project imploded, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund continued to dismantle social supports in Europe’s periphery for the sake of stabilizing global financial markets. Faced with catastrophic youth unemployment, slashed pensions, and insecurity about the future, an increasing number of men and women gravitated to the far left and right. Since the evils of communism were, according to the now-dominant narrative, so incredibly grave, one need not worry too much about fascist elements, so long as ty opposed communism. On the twin totalitarian thesis, the extremes of fascism proved no worse than the supposedly inevitable outcome of leftist demands to nationalize banks, expand state employment and impose new global wealth taxes on the rich







*  Susan Woodward discusses Kohl’s role in the destruction of Yugoslavia in Balkan Tragedy
* At any rate  Stalin’s Gulags were far better than any got up by the Tsars.(J.S.)

Picture: abandoned headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party

Friday, June 15, 2018

Gross Domestic Orgasm by Kristen Ghodsee


Do communists have better sex? That is the question posed in a 2006 German documentary film called Liebte der Osten anders?- Sex im geteilten Deutschland (Did the East love differently? Sex in a divided Germany), a wonderful reflection on how the two contrasting political and economic systems of the 20th century manifested themselves in the realm of intimacy.

 Every once in awhile I read a book  or watch a film that makes me spend the next weeks regretting that I wasn’t the person who wrote or directed it. That’s what I felt about the film, and that is why I (perhaps foolishly) agreed to lead a discussion about it with an audience full of West Germans when I was a fellow at the Freiburg Institutes of Advanced Studies (FRIAS) in March 2015. In the spirit of open academic inquiry, I thought it might be possible to publically explore whether an oppressive political system like that of the GDR could paradoxically lead to greater individual satisfaction in everyday life.

My FRIAS hosts announced my talk to the whole university and the wider Freiburg scholarly community. The old anatomy classroom filled with my colleagues and a surprising number of younger people, unfamiliar faces who slid into seats behind the narrow wooden bench desks that ran in long, tiered semicircles around the back arch of the room. The ceiling of the lecture hall was high and the seating was steeply angled; I would deliver my talk from behind a podium in a small round pit below the audience. At exactly thirty minutes past five o’clock, the academic director of FRIAS introduced me, and I stated by showing three clips from the film.

The documentary builds on sexological research conducted in the months immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here were two populations of Germans – more or less similar in all respects  save for the four decades they spent under capitalism and communism. The film starts with a scene of animated East Germans flooding into the West clutching televisions and bananas. A cartoon sociologist proceeds to measure “from a strictly scientific point of view, of course, everything having to do with sex in the two Germanys.” This animated sociologist stands between two couples: one from the West and one from the East. A blue curtain falls in front of the West Germans and a red curtain falls before the East Germans. When the curtains rise, the West German man sits satisfied atop the West German woman while the positions of the East Germans are reversed. The narrator then reports, ‘the East German women’s orgasm rate was apparently double that of their West German sister.” Sex in the former GDR was “earlier, better and more often”. The question: why?

The second film clip discusses the differences between women’s social position in West versus East Germany after World War II. The devastated postwar economies of both Germanys suffered acute labor shortages and surpluses of women. But whereas the East German government fully incorporated the ladies into the labor force, liberating them from their economic dependence on men, the West German government reinforced traditional family structure as a way of distancing itself from the supposedly loose morality of the Nazi era. Where East German women got state support for their roles as mothers and workers in the form of expanded nurseries, kindergartens, public laundries, canteens, and generous maternity leaves and child allowances, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany taught women to cook and clean and stay at home with their children. According to film makers, the economic emancipation of East German women perhaps resulted in greater control over their bodies and sexuality. They could choose partners out of love and attraction rather than financial necessity.

The final clip investigates the commercialization of sex in Western Germany after the sexual revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s. Prominent German sexologists discuss how sex and sexuality became commodities in the West, something to be bought and sold, or at least manipulated to sell products. In the absence of consumer culture, pornography, or advertising, amorous activities supposedly remained free and natural in the East. Finally, over 90% of the East German population participated in the mass culture of nudism which prevailed in the GDR, a totally un-sexualized, family activity that the government once tried to suppress but later fully embraced as evidence of the superiority of socialism.

I showed these three snippets of the film hoping to spark a debate about the public memory of Germany’s communist past. “Today,” I said,” stereotypes about communism in Eastern Europe lead us to believe that everything was bleak and gray. But when I talk to people about ordinary life under communism in Bulgaria, for instance, they tell me that it wasn’t always that bad, that there were some good things, especially with regard to social stability and women’s rights. But when I talk to people in the West, all I hear about is labor camps and secret police. I once gave a lecture in Washington, DC, about post-communist nostalgia in Eastern Europe. When I finished, a West German woman asserted that I couldn’t trust the opinions of people from Eastern Europe. She said they suffered from permanent psychological damage because they lived under a totalitarian regime.”

I caught the eyes of a young woman in the second row, another fellow at FRIAS, who had been born in the GDR. I knew from our lunch conversations that her grandparents were fervent communists filled with what Germans called Ostalgie ( nostalgia for the East). She looked wary, warning me with her eyes that it was useless to challenge West German prejudices about communism. I often met resistance to my scholarly research on women’s rights before 1989, especially from those invested in the narrative of totalitarianism. Most West Germans embraced the uncritical view that people who lived under communism were either duplicitous collaborators or mindless automatons. It was my mission to complicate things.

Of course sexual satisfaction is a subjective category, one based on men’s and women’s personal recollections of their experience. I agree that self-reporting presents methodological challenges. But when a sociological study finds that East German women claim greater sexual satisfaction than their Western peers, and this study is conducted by the same researchers under the same circumstances – asking the same questions about the frequency of sex and how often this intercourse leads to orgasm to a representative  sample of both East and West Germans – it seems worth investigating why. There was a fact of the matter: women were either having sex with their partners or the weren’t. And despite the vast differences in the political and economic systems of the FRG and the GDR, the basic mechanisms of the act remained similar on both sides of the Iron curtain. Moreover, even if the East German woman just imagined that their sex lives were more satisfying, this still tells us something important about their erotic proclivities compared to their Western counterparts. Since love and sex play a large role in the vast majority of adult lives, we might glean important lessons about the intimate effects of capitalism compare to state socialism. As historian Dagmar Herzog asserted, “Sex can be the site for talking about very many other things besides sex.”

“So why would the East German women report that they had better and more frequent sex than their Western sisters?” I said to the audience. “The film suggests possible answers, but leaves this open to interpretation.”

Silence filed the lecture hall until a West German FRIAS fellow raised his hand. “Maybe East Germans had nothing better to do.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yes, that might account for part of it. For example, there were fewer opportunities for shopping. I read a recent study that found 55 percent of British women in relationships found shopping more satisfying than sex with their partners.”

A few members of the audience laughed.

A middle-aged woman raised her hand. “What about the role of the state? Maybe private lives were more important in East Germany because people lacked freedom in the public sphere.”

One great thing about my job is that I get to read a lot of books about everyday life during and after communism in Eastern Europe. Even if I haven’t done primary research on the topic, I can reference those who have. I responded to this question by citing the work of the Oxford historian Paul Betts, who agreed that East Germans retreated to the private sphere to avoid an over-intrusive state. Another historian, Josie McLellen, specifically examined sex in the GDR during the Honecker years (1971-1989) in her book Love in the Time of Communism. She argued that East Germans grew more pessimistic about their political and economic system, they embraced nudism and sensual enjoyments as a salve for their existential woes. The regime responded by decriminalizing homosexuality, encouraging premarital coitus and de-stigmatizing single motherhood as a way to placate a restless populations. The East German communist said, “Sex yes, travel no.”

Another hand went up. ”What about the role of the church, which was much stronger in West Germany than in the East? Were things different in Poland, where the  Catholic Church still played a role under communism?”

In response to this question I discussed the work of  Agnieszka Koscianska ,a Polish colleague of mine and an anthropologist studying the history of sexology in her country. She examined sex education and treatment of sexual dysfunctions in Poland before and after communism and found that, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, progressive sex education was widely available in schools and abortion remained legal. Koscianska contrasted biomedical and physiological understanding of sexuality in the United States with the more holistic view supported by communist sexologists. After 1989, the dominant narrative in scientific circles was that “the backwards East had to catch up with the West,” but Koscianska’s research showed that, in many ways, the East surpassed the West in terms of having a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. She argued that American researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson focused exclusively on physical aspects, claiming that good sex was the result of proper stimulation for both  men and women, who moved through a four-stage response cycle. This view, based on laboratory experiments, came to dominate the international field of sexology and led to the medicalization of sexuality, ultimately benefiting the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, which developed drugs targeting physiological problems.

In Poland, by contrast, sexologists complemented their medical knowledge with psychology, history, and philosophy. They viewed human sexuality as embedded in the wider context of human interactions. Polish sexologists explored individual desires for love, intimacy, and meaning, and listened carefully to the dreams and frustrations of their patients. The communist government paid salaries and provided research budgets, a stark contrast with the prevalence of private and corporate funding in the West. In her interviews with sexologists, Koscianska explained that they only realized their previous privileges after 1989.

After the fall of communism, market pressures impacted Polish sexologists as much as their North American colleagues, but their sex-positive legacy, which accounted for higher rates of sexual satisfaction even decades after communism ended. According to the studies cited by Koscianska, 75 percent of Polish women were free of sexual dysfunction compared to 55 percent of American women.

“So despite the conservative gender roles promoted by the Catholic Church and the post-1989 ban on abortion, ”I said, “Polish women are still having a much better time in bed than women in the West.”

Five more hands shot up. A French woman asked if I had rates of female sexual satisfaction for other European countries. I didn’t.

My East German colleague raised her hand, and I nodded at her.

“ My mother was East German, “: she aid, “and she had to work and take care of the children and the housework, and she was so very busy and very exhausted. Yes, women had rights in the workplace, but men did not help in the home. There was still a lot of inequality between men and women.”

“Yes, the notorious double burden.” I said “This often comes up when I talk about women’s rights under state socialism. Women did have a lot of responsibilities in the home and in the workplace, they were not allowed to stay at home an be housewives or to work part time. The state forced everyone to work at a formal job, and not all those jobs were so great. But socialist countries conducted a lot of surveys, and when women were asked if they would prefer stay home if their husband’s income could support them, the overwhelming majority of women in all communist countries said ‘no.” Women wanted to work.

I walked around to the front of the podium and leaned against the table. “But the fascinating thing is that the women in the West could stay home and be housewives. They weren’t trying to combine work and family, but they still reported having less sex than their partners, and less satisfying sex, than women in the East. Doesn’t that sound like a contradiction? Western women had more time to themselves – to sleep, to work out, to do yoga, or whatever – but by their own report they had sex less often. If Eastern women were exhausted, apparently their Western counterparts were more so.”

I continued by explaining that in my twenty years of researching Bulgaria, people often told me that they had much more time under communism. Sure, they complained about having to wait in line to procure basic goods, and the  about soul-crushing bureaucracy involved in procuring a private car or a new apartment, things that could take years without the right connections or a well-placed bribe. Some basic things like tampons or disposable diapers were impossible to buy, and time-saving consumer appliances were in limited supply, increasing the time needed for domestic work. At the same time, they complained to me that life was faster now, that they must run everywhere to get everything done, and that they lead exhausting, multitasking lives with no time for friends or family or lovers. The conundrum for me, however, is that I’ve seen time budget data from 1969. Back then Bulgarian women reported that they labored for about 14.5 hours a day if you combined their home and work responsibilities, and also included time spent commuting or waiting in line for scarce goods. Despite the sheer number of hours they worked, somehow time moved more slowly. Bulgarians often recall weekends and paid holidays free from modern anxiety and stress.

“So maybe the comparison is not about the actual amount of time spent at home or at work or waiting in line for toilet paper, but about the stress one feels about the passing of time, the anxiety produced by living in a society where time is money. Maybe in the East, timer, like sex, wasn’t something to be bought and sold.”

I paused to gather my thoughts and walked back behind the lectern. “The second part of your comment is something I hear quite often. And its something I spend a lot of time thinking about in my own research.

My Ossi colleague raised an issue which haunted every talk I gave about women’s rights under socialism. Western feminists always pointed out that the situation of women in communist countries was never as good as their governments claimed: patriarchy at home remained; there existed a gender division of labor and a gender pay gap; and communist political elites were overwhelmingly male. East European nations encouraged heterosexual relationships and often promoted gender roles to improve falling birthrates. Much of this was true, but not at all times or in all socialist countries.

And focusing on these negatives deflected attention from the many positives; East European women enjoyed far more rights and privileges compared to Western women, particularly when it came to state supports for finding a work-family balance. Western feminist demands were often for things already granted to women in socialist countries: formal legal equality enshrined in the constitution, expanded educational and professional opportunities, full incorporation into the labor force, abortion on demand, liberalized divorce laws, the ability to keep one’s maiden name, and equal property rights, as well as massive social supports for child-bearing and child rearing. All these changes meant that women gained independence from men and no longer felt compelled to trade their bodies for the economic security that bound women to unhappy marriages and sexually incompetent lovers. My colleague Dagmar Herzog recalls a fascinating conversation she had with several East German men in their mid-forties in 2006: “it was really annoying that East German women had so much sexual confidence and economic independence. Money was useless, they complained. The few extra Eastern Marks that a doctor could make in contrast with, say, someone who worked in the theater, did absolutely no good, they explained, in luring or retaining women the way a doctor’s salary could and did in the West. ‘You had to be interesting.’ What pressure. And as one revealed: ‘I have much more power now as a man in unified Germany than I ever did in communist days.” In other words, the economic disadvantages that capitalism creates for women give greater power to men who don’t have to ‘be interesting’ if they have money.

The financial and sexual independence of women was not only particular to Eastern Germany. At various points, communists advocated for free love and sexual liberation through-out the Eastern Bloc, starting, of course, with the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. One early Russian women’s rights advocate, Alexandra Kollontai, proposed that satisfying one’s desires should be like quenching one’s thirst – having sexual intercourse should be like drinking a glass of water. For their part, early socialist thinkers believed that monogamous marriage was a tool for the bourgeois enslavement of women, an institution that guaranteed the production of legitimate heirs who could inherit a man’s private property. Do away with heritable property and you do away with the need for marriage. Or you can do away with monogamous marriage and thereby challenge the basis of the economic system responsible for the reproduction of class inequalities. That was the idea anyway.

Beginning in October 1918, the Soviet Union liberalized divorce and abortion laws, decriminalized homosexuality, permitted cohabitation, and ushered in a host of reforms that instigated a red revolution. But without birth control, this early emancipation produced many broken marriages and broken hearts, as well as countless children born out of wedlock. The epidemic of divorces and extramarital affairs created social hardships when Soviet leaders wanted people to concentrate their efforts on growing the economy. Giving Soviet women control over their fertility also led to a precipitous decline in the birthrate, perceived as a threat to their country’s military power. By 1936, Stalin reversed most of the liberal laws, ushering in a conservative, pronatalist era that lasted for decades to come.

But the example of the early Soviet experiment was a liberalized family code, as well as the continued importance of socialist theories about women’s emancipation, had important impacts on East European nations after World World War II. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, the sociologists Katerina Liskova argues that the idea of woman’s economic and political equality with men infused all the early sex manuals available in Czechoslovak  between 1948 and 1968. For the first two decades of state socialism, Czechoslovak sexologists advised the population that satisfying sexual relations and health marriages could only result from an equal partnership between male and female partners. The state sponsored publications and television shows to educate the population on the desirability of equal partnerships well before Western feminists even had a language to critique the myth of the happy housewife.

In Bulgaria, the state women’s committee pursued strategies to promote sexual equality within both the workplace and the home. In a 1972 Politburo decision to enhance the status of women and increase the birthrate, the socialist government explicitly called for the reeducation of men so that they would share household responsibilities with their wives. The Bulgaria state-run women’s magazine, The Woman Today, published articles discussing the importance of fathers and showing images of men changing diapers and boiling laundry. Legal provisions for maternity leave allowed mothers to transfer part of their unused leave to their husbands, and the state encouraged men to take an act role in parenting as early as 1968. In the end, most efforts to encourage men to help a home proved unsuccessful. Patriarchy remained strong in Bulgarian families, proving that the centralized authority of a communist state was not as all-powerful as many in the West imagined it.

By the time I finished talking, I gauged the crowd and felt their attention fading. I still saw several raised hands, but I made eye contact with the professor who had introduced me. He put up a finger, signaling me to take one more question. I scanned the hall and pointed to an economist that I’d seen around the FRAIS lunchroom.

“What does it matter if people have better sex lives?” he said. “Sex is no substitute for freedom. The word “freedom” hung in the air. For many West Germans, freedom served as a trump card. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of choice. Questioning freedom made you an apologist for dictatorship. A room full of eyes turned on me.

I inhaled and left the podium, walking around to address the economist without the protection of the formal lectern. I chose my words with care, deciding not to speak about Germany but about the country that I knew best.

“I am an American, and I usually live in the United States. I pressed a hand to my chest. I lowered my voice and spoke in a slow and clear tone to ensure that my words were not misunderstood. “In my country we have freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of religion. I have the freedom to buy a gun, or many guns, and I have the freedom to vote in democratic elections at the local, state, and national level. All these rights guarantee to me as part of the social contract.”

I paused to think about the message I wanted to convey. “But there are many people in my country who live precarious lives: people who have lost their jobs, or who fear losing them. People who have jobs, who are working full time, but do not make enough money to pay their bills. People living without health insurance or access to basic health care. People who are homeless. Children who are homeless. Men and women who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. People who want to work, but who can’t find jobs. They are technically free, but is that the most important thing for them?”

I stopped again, gathering my thoughts and examining the faces around the hall. “I suppose everything depends on what you mean by the word ‘freedom.’ Maybe when you have your basic needs taken care of; when you know that you’ll have food to eat and a roof over your head; when you know that you will be taken care of if you get sick and that your children will be able to go to good schools; when you know your body is not something you need to sell to survive; maybe that produces a different kind of freedom. I don’t think these two types of freedom need to be mutually exclusive, but in practice it seems to me that our Western societies privilege the first kind of freedom over the second.”

I looked at the economist. He glared down at me, frowning. I straightened up,. “I suppose what I find most interesting about the film, is the idea that communists did have better sex and that this more satisfying intimacy arose because their society’s commitment to equality, particularly between men and women. I am not denying that the GDR got a lot of things wrong: the consumer shortages, the travel restrictions, and the Stasi listening in on everyone and compelling people to inform on their family and friends. It’s just that too often we allow our stereotypes about communism to blind us to the possibility that there might have been a few good things under that system, even if these were only very personal things like having better romantic relationships.”

I scanned the faces in the room once more. “After 1989, maybe the West threw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe we could have learned a few things from the East. Instead we discredited everything. I think we might all have very different opinions about what is important in life: feeling free or feeling secure or feeling loved and respected by our partners. Maybe different people in different circumstances, in different cultures and historical eras, have worldviews that differ from our own.”

I rested my eyes on a young student sitting in the third row. She smiled at me. I smiled back. “Even about something as basic as what it means to be free.”


Red Hangover, Chapter 8



Sunday, June 10, 2018

Yeltsin's War by Anthony Loyd


1995

There were widespread rumors that the Presidential Palace, so long the symbol of the Chechen’s resistance in the capital, had fallen that day,. David and I left together as the last trace of light dimmed from the sky.

The road was little more than a dark shadow beneath us as we began the journey, headlights off so as to avoid attack from the air. I did not really know what to expect of the fighting, so I was disturbed by what I saw in David. He was hyper-energized, even by his own standards, jumbling his sentences together, his words tumbling into one another in a stream of consciousness as we drew nearer to the growling thunder of artillery from the darkness beyond. ‘You don’t want to stay here any more than three weeks,’ he told me, ‘you gonna get jumpy as hell . . .it’s bad . . .very fuckin’ bad . . . nearly got tanked yesterday . . . gotta watch the planes  . . .the artillery is something else . . .unreal . . .’

The sky ahead became a pulsing orange glow, while the sound of shellfire grew louder and louder. The trees that pressed on either side of us suddenly fell away as we entered Chernoreche, the southern outskirts of the city. Grozny was burning. The fires from the shelled buildings and ruptured gas pipes lifted the darkness from an infernal desolation of abandoned streets and houses, flickering shadows through the menacing emptiness.

Chechen fighters waved us down, telling us that the route ahead was sealed by Russian tank fire. Our drive, Sahid, was an ex-cop familiar with detours and back roads. He tapped  the Kalash across his knees and slipped into a confident U-turn to take an alternative route. There were shells falling everywhere, screaming in like freight trains, exploding in waves among the houses on either side of us or air-bursting overhead, while volleys of Grad rockets streaked fire trails like comets across the sky. Severed tramlines hung across streets devoid of life but for the occasional stray dog or fighter –scuttling. Dantesque figures against the flame and smoke.

The Volga skidded impotently at the base of an exposed hill, its bald tires sliding uselessly on the packed ice. David an I scrambled out and began to push it, sweating and cursing in the cold, our feet skeltering away from under us like those of cartoon characters. It seemed the height of madness, getting out in that maelstrom of bursting shot and whistling steel to push a car further into the epicenter of it all. With a final  OhfuckChristJesusmoveyoufuckingbitch the tires regained their grip and we leapt in and spun onwards.

From the top of the hill we could see the city center below us. Para-illumination flares were suspended in the sky, bouncing their light into the billowing smoke and fire while the shell, machine-gun and small arms fire reached anew crescendo, the punch of the detonations shaking into us through the doors of the car. I had managed to effect my usual dullard’s mentality under such extreme circumstances, my mind transcending any notion of responsibility, surrendering myself to circumstance and chance – the duo some call destiny, others the will of God. Their notions may afford more strength than mine, for I still could not escape the sensation of being scared witless. . . .

After the fall of the Presidential Palace the respite in the Russian bombardment lasted for two days. It allowed both sides to collect their dead a breathe. Then that moment of stillness ended, seemingly swallowed in an instant, and the shelling intensified once more. There were no more lulls.

Having wasted so many men in their attempt to take the first part of the city, the Russians seemed determined to destroy the southern half of Grozny with massive concentrations of artillery fire before moving upon it. It was an act of mass murder. In Bosnia I had seen men guilt of attempting to take innocent life; in Chechnya I found the Russians as cold-bloodedly culpable in their complete disregard for innocent life. Basically they just blew the place to pieces.

No weapon frightens me as much as the shell. Bullets have a certain logic. Put a sizeable enough piece of concrete between yourself and the firer and you will be untouched. Run between cover , for it is difficult even for an experienced shot to hit a man who sprints fast. Even when people around you are hit the wounds seldom seem so bad, unless the bullet has tumbled in flight or hit them in the head. But shells? They can do things to the human body you never believed possible; turn it inside out like a steaming rose; bend it backwards and through itself; chop it up; shred it, pulp it: mutilations so base and vile the never stopped revolting me. And there is no real cover from shellfire. Shells can drop out of the sky to your feet, or smash there way through any piece of architecture to find you. Some of the ordinance the Russians were using was slicing through ten- story buildings before exploding in the basement. Shells could arrive silently and unannounced, or whistle and howl their way in, a sound that somehow seems to tear at your nerve more than warn you of anything. It’s only the denotation which always seems the same – a feeling as much as a sound, a hideous suck-roar- thump that in itself, should you be close enough, can collapse your palate and liquefy your brain.
There is a philosophical element to it all too: a bullet may or may not have your number on it, but I am sure shells are merely engraved with ‘to whom it may concern.’

In Sarajevo there were times when we thought it was a bad day if a few hundred shells fell on the city. During the second half of the battle for Grozny the Russians sometimes fired over 30,000 shells a day into the southern sector. It was an area less than a third the size of Sarajevo.

And so Grozny had the life torn out of it by the second mot powerful military machine on the planet and the lethal dynamics were breathtaking in every sense. A concrete killing zone, it was if a hurricane of shrapnel had swept through every street, leaving each perspective bearing the torn, pitted scars, the irregular bites of high-explosive ordinance. The remaining trees were shredded and blasted horizontal, while the snow on the pavements became covered in a crunching carpet of shattered glass.

Artillery, tanks, mortars, rocket systems, jet aircraft, helicopter gunships – the permutations of incoming fire were endless. It left the dead plentiful: dead people blown out of their flats; dead pigeons blown out of their roosts, dead dogs blown off the street. Death became too frequent and too abundant to deal with, so that often the bodies were left where they had fallen to become landmarks in their own right . . .

Pathetic graves accumulated in the dismal parks and gardens as thousands of Russian civilians who remained as troglodytes in the city, leading a subterranean existence in the cellars, emerges to bury the dead whenever the opportunity arose. Bearing the brunt of the Russian army’s fire, they were the wretched victims of the war, dying for what Moscow deemed ‘salvation.’

‘We are Russians,’ a woman told me as her friend was lowered into a shallow scrape in the hard ground on a day unremarkable for its violence and misery. She had a gentle sing-song voice and clutched a small dog wrapped in a woolen coat to her breast. ‘We don’t have anywhere to go. It makes no difference to us whose flag flies above the Presidency. All we get from our own people is bombs, bombs, bombs. It is so cold. There is no water. There is disease. We are dying.” BY the time Grozny fell a month later, 25,000 would be dead in the city.

Dying in abundance, too, were Russian soldiers. The army so laden with artillery assets still sent its troops, many of them teenage conscripts, to be gunned down in bungled assaults through alien streets, or incinerated in their flaming APCs. Dazed Russian commanders had already spoken to their own media of hideous confusion, of troops ill-prepared and unready, of vicious and internecine firefights between disorientated Russian troops lost in the capital, of surprise attack and ambush.

Derbentskaya Street, Grozny. We stumbled out into the white desolation and ran slap into a thickset woman muffled in a coat held together by a string belt. She was shrieking hysterically, unhinged with rage, shock, grief. In one hand she brandished an awkward-looking club. It took me a few seconds to realize it was the severed leg of a man. With her lefty hand she tugged frantically at a sledge. On it lay the chopped  bloody bundle of a corpse. Through some sacking the remaining leg dragged a scarlet wake in the snow. For long seconds she screamed her sound into us, the leg flying back and forth, boot to thigh, as we stood, stunned. Then suddenly she turned away and raged off into the wilderness dragging the sledge with its dismembered body behind her. Dumb with shock we next walked into a scene every bit as dreadful . . .

Jon and I hired a car and gold-toothed driver , and began to work the war in the countryside, while keeping one ear open for any significant development in Grozny.  One morning we saw a Sukhoi jet completing a bombing run on a distant village in the mountains, rolling back over the target to rake it with cannon-fire before swooping low away above us. Rather than lose ourselves trying to find the village without a guide, we headed for Shali, a small town south of Grozny, to see if they had brought any casualties to the hospital there.

We found many faces of President Yeltsin’s war in the stinking ward: the burned, the blind; the maimed and disabled. Soon after our arrival some villagers entered carrying two little girls along the corridors slippery with a muddle of used dressings, urine and blood. The children were sisters.

Marika was four years old. She was missing the lower part of her back and buttocks, but was still alive, just, and her pale, doll-like form lay motionless facedown on a table as a doctors removed large pieces of metal from her wounds, allowing each to drop on the table with a heavy clunk. Her sister Miralya was a year older. I do not know what it takes to make a tiny child weep tears of blood, massive concussion I guess, but as she shook with noiseless terror it ran in thick lines from the corner of each eye, joining scarlet streaks from a head wound to form a cobweb mask that covered her face. . .

Then, through the melee of casualties, the fighters and nurses stepped a tall man dressed in a black suit, overcoat and wide brimmed trilby.

“Come with me,’ he said mysteriously, in English. ‘I shall take you to their village and you shall see everything you need to.” We got into the car with him and left.


After an hour’s journey into the snow covered mountains we arrived at the children’s home. It was an isolated farm building overlooking a decrepit bridge that traversed a small mountain stream,. The bridge was still standing. Nothing else was: the bombs had turned the earthy black and transformed the site into a lunar landscape of charred domestic junk. The chassis of a car hung in a treetop.

Web found the girl’s family, their two sisters, brother and mother, in the nearby village little over a mile away. They were laid out in an empty house on a bed in bundles, none of which was bigger tan a supermarket bag. The boy was the best preserved, the mother barely recognizable as a human being. Of the other sisters a small pair of legs emerged from a cloth, and the two heads lay at the end of the bed. Apparently the father had been vaporized. I remember the scene every time a hear a military spokesman use the phrase ‘collateral damage.’


A year later, in July 1996, the Chechen forces swept back into Grozny.  They took on the  Russian army head-to-head and recaptured most of the city within twelve hours. Defeated and humiliated, the Russians were forced to negotiate an end to the war and an eventual withdrawal from that tiny state.



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Apparatus of Communication by Jacques Derrida


These apparatuses are doubtless complex, differential, conflictual, and over-determined. But whatever may be the conflicts, inequalities, or over-determinations among them, they communicate and cooperate at every moment towards producing the greatest force with which to assure the hegemony or the imperialism in question. They do so thanks to the mediation of what is called precisely the media in the broadest, most mobile, and considering the acceleration of technical advances, most technologically invasive sense of this term. As it has never done before to such a degree or in these forms, the politico-economic hegemony, like the intellectual or discursive domination, passes by way of techno-mediatic power – that is, by a power that at the same time, in a differentiated and contradictory fashion, conditions and endangers democracy.

Now this power, this differentiated set of powers cannot be analyzed or potentially combated, supported here, attacked there, without taking into account so many spectral effects:

The new speed of apparition (we understand this word in its ghostly sense) of the simulacrum, the synthetic or prosthetic image, and the virtual event, cyberspace and surveillance, the control, the appropriations, and the speculations that today deploy unheard of powers.


Have Marx and his heirs helped us to think and to treat this phenomena? If we say that the answer to this question is at once yes and no, yes in one respect, no in another, and that one must filter, select, differentiate, restructure the questions, it is only in order to announce, (in too preliminary a fashion) the tone and the general form of our conclusions: namely, that one must assume the inheritance of Marxism, assume its most “living” part, which is to say, paradoxically, that which continues to put back on the drawing board the question of life, spirit, or the spectral, of life-death beyond the opposition between life and death.


This inheritance must be reaffirmed by transforming it as radically as will be necessary. Such a reaffirmation would be both faithful to something that resonates in Marx’s appeal –let us say once again in the spirit of his injunction [to demand justice] – and in conformity with the concept of inheritance in general. . . Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task.

Conjuring-Marxism, UC Riverside, 1993




Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Popular Aesthetic by Pierre Bourdieu

The hostility of the working class and of middle-class fractions least rich in cultural capital towards any kind of formal experimentation asserts itself both in the theater and in painting, or still more clearly, because they have less legitimacy, in photography and the cinema. In the theater as in cinema, the popular audience delights in plots that proceed logically and chronologically towards a happy end, and ‘identifies’ better with simply drawn situations and characters than with ambiguous and symbolic figures and actions or the enigmatic problems of the theater of cruelty, not to mention the suspended animation of Beckettian heroes of the bland absurdities of Pinteresque dialogue. Their reluctance or refusal springs not just from lack of familiarity but from a deep rooted demand for participation, which formal experiment systematically disappoints, especially when, refusing to offer the ‘vulgar’ attractions of the art of illusion, the theatrical fiction denounces itself, as in all forms of ‘play within a play’. Pirandello supplies the paradigm here, in plays in which the actors are unable to act and Jean Genet supplies the formula in the Prologue to The Blacks: “We shall have politeness, which you have taught us, to make communication impossible. The distance initially between us we shall increase, by our splendid gestures, our manners and our insolence, for we are also actors.” The desire to enter into the game, identifying with the characters; joys and sufferings, worrying about their fate, espousing their hopes and ideals, living their life, is based on the form of investment, a sort of deliberate ‘naivety’, ingenuousness, good-natured credulity, (‘we are here to enjoy ourselves’), which tends to accept formal experiments and specifically artistic effects only to the extent that they can be forgotten and do not get in the way of the substance of the work.

The cultural divide which associates each class of works with its public means that it is not easy to obtain working-class (‘In our surveys’) people’s first-hand judgment on formalist innovations in modern art. However, television, which brings certain performances of ‘high’ art into the home, or certain cultural institutions which briefly bring a working class public into contact with high art and sometimes avant-garde works, create what are virtually experimental situations, neither more or less artificial or unreal than those necessarily produced by any survey on legitimate culture in a working-class milieu. One then observes the confusion, sometimes almost a sort of panic mingled with revolt, that is induced by some exhibits – I am thinking of Ben’s’ heap of coal, on view at Beaubourg shortly after it opened – whose parodic intention, entirely defined in terms of an artistic field and its relatively autonomous history, is seen as a sort of aggression, an affront to common sense and sensible people. Likewise, when formal experimentation insinuates itself into their familiar entertainments (e.g., TV  with sophisticated technical effects) working class viewers protest, not only because thy do not feel the need for these fancy games, but because they sometimes understand that they derive their necessity from the logic of a field of production which excludes them precisely by these games: “’ I don’t like those cut-up things at all variety shows at all, where you see a head, then a nose, then a leg . . . First you see  singer all drawn out, three meters tall, then the next minute he’s got arms two meters long. Do you find that funny? Oh, I just don’t like it, it’s stupid, I don’t see the point of distorting things’ (a baker, Grenoble).

Formal refinement –which, in literature or the theater, leads to obscurity – is, in the eyes of the working-class public, one sign of what is sometimes felt to be a desire to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length, , or, as one respondent said about certain cultural programs on TV, to speak to other initiates ‘over the viewers heads’. It is part of the paraphernalia which always announces its sacred character – the icy solemnity of the great museums, the grandiose luxury of the opera houses and major theaters, the decor and decorum of the concert-halls. Everything takes place as if working-class audience vaguely grasped what is implied in conspicuous formality, both in art and in life, i.e. a sort of censorship of the expressive content which explodes in the expressiveness of popular language, an by the same token, a distancing, inherent in the calculated coldness of all formal exploration, a refusal to communicate concealed at the heart of communication itself, both in an art which takes back and refuses what it seems to deliver an in bourgeois politeness, whose impeccable formalism is a permanent warning against the temptation of familiarity. Conversely, popular entertainment secures the spectator’s participation in the show and collective participation in the festivity which it occasions. If circus and melodrama (which are recreated by some sporting spectacles such as wrestling and, to a lesser extent, boxing and all forms of team games, such as those which have been televised) are more ‘popular than entertainments like dancing and theatre, this is not merely because, being less formalized (compare, for example, acrobatics with dancing) and less euphemized, they offer more direct, more immediate satisfactions. It is also because through the collective festivity  they give rise to and the array of spectacular delights they offer (I am also thinking of the music-hall, light opera or the big feature film) – fabulous sets, glittering costumes, exciting music, lively action, enthusiastic actors – like all forms of the comic and especially those working through satire or parody of the ‘great’ (mimics, chansonniers etc.), they satisfy the taste for and sense of revelry, the plain speaking and hearty laughter which  liberate the social world head over heals, overturning conventions and proprieties.


Distinction; A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste [1979] ‘The Aristocracy of Culture’

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Preface to Humiliation by William Ian MIller


Most of us are familiar with the unpleasant emotions that attend losing face in social interaction; we know only too well the sick feeling of being exposed as thinking we are more than we really are and the humiliation of having our poses of competence undercut by our own ineptitude. This book is about the anxieties of self-presentation, the strategies we adopt to avoid loss of face in our routine social encounters, and the emotions – namely, humiliation, shame, and embarrassment – which maintain us as self-respecting and respectable social actors. I approach these themes in a variety of ways so that this book is less one argument than a series of arguments, suggestions, and observations.

The themes emerged from my years studying the heroic society of saga Iceland. The sagas generated my consuming interest in the discomfitures that plague us in even the most conventional of social encounters. They reveal, with unusual astuteness, the behavior of a people who cared with the totality of their being about the public figure they cut and about the respect they elicited. These people could not contemplate self-esteem independent of the esteem of others.

We, in contrast, allow ourselves the possibility of self-esteem in the face of the contempt of others. But even though we can envisage self-esteem without independent confirmation, it is hard to achieve and not always a virtue if achieved, for it can be as easily the defining trait of the sociopath as of a saint, of the self-centered boor as of the self-confident person of great inner strength. In short, although we may think of ourselves as interesting and entertaining, that is not our call to make. So we, like the saga people, are not strangers to the nervousness and tensions that necessarily accompany caring about what others think of us. Like those ancient heroes , we care about honor, about how we stack up against all those with whom we are competing for approbation.

This concern is one of the central themes of this book. Honor is not dead with us. It has a hidden face, moved to the back regions of consciousness, been kicked out of most public discourse regarding individuals (though it remains available for use by nation-states to justify hostility); it can no longer be offered as a justification for action in many settings where once it would have constituted the only legitimate motive. But in spite of its back-alley existence, honor still looms large in many areas of our social life, especially in those, I would bet, that occupy most of our psychic energy. Honor is intimately tied to the idea of reciprocity. Much of the substance of honor is still rooted in a desire to pay back what we owe, both the good and the evil. The failure to reciprocate, unless convincingly excused, draws down our accounts of esteem and self-esteem.

It has long been noted that, in honor-based cultures, shame is the flipside of honor. But in our complex society the domain of shame has contracted as the domains of humiliation and embarrassment have expanded. Humiliation (or fear of it) is perhaps the key emotion that supports our self-esteem and self-respect. Humiliation is the price we pay for not knowing how others see us. Humiliation (and the fear of it) is in fact the very “power the giftie gie us” that Robert Burns prayed for. It is perhaps our most powerful socially orientated emotion of self-assessment. Humiliation cannot be avoided, having made itself, or at least the threat of it, a normal feature of most routine social interaction. Routine interaction is thus a risky and complicated business, requiring competence if we are to survive with honor and self-esteem intact. I do not mean to deny that the routine can be routine and thus easily negotiated. Surely the person who always feels panicked in the presence of others has started to develop the strangeness of a Dostoyevskian character. Never the less, most socially competent people are also routinely aware of these risks as necessary features of the monitoring systems that maintain their social competence –and at times painfully so.

The emotions of humiliation and shame construct, destroy, and recreate volatile hierarchies of moral and social rank. Shame and humiliation do not work in quite the same ways in their relation to rank (we shall see that shame requires groups of rough equals, while humiliation can work within and across stable hierarchies), but they carry out the same kind of rough work of punishing moral and social failure. Thus not infrequently honor, humiliation, and the obligation to pay back what one owes find themselves inextricably bound of with violence.

Throughout the book I am concerned to get at the extent it is possible to talk about emotions across time and across culture. The precise experience of many of our richest emotions – among which I include, of course, humiliation – is in various ways influenced by and dependent on the social arrangements that elicit them and the vocabulary used to express them. I shall give some attention to how the emotion we indicate by the word humiliation was referenced, if at all, in other times and places. . .

Language and culture have a way of cabining the thinkable, and differences in language and culture necessarily produce differences in thinking, even in perceiving and feeling. But the differences are themselves not unpredictable, nor are they unrecognizable. No, we cannot think just like others unless we become them, but we can learn to imagine quite well how they will act and what thoughts they must be having to justify and give coherence to their actions. It is surprising indeed how close we can come, if we are observant and do our homework. So I am left with interpretivism (what else do we have?), but without the religion of mandatory difference or the dogma of the inscrutable diversity of cultural and social experience.

Perhaps I trouble myself about this because I fear the trendinistas who will suspect my credentials as a social constructionist. With them, I too think it is admirable to stand against those who purport to explain social and cultural phenomena by easy recourse to that lazy tautology, human nature. But to say something is socially constructed is no explanation either unless it is seen as a promise to provide a complicated story about just how the particular practice is indeed constructed.

I believe that no culture is so purely coherent  that competing views are not available within it and that all cultures are riddled with internal contradictions and competing claims. And because cultures are not coherent, because they are riddled with contradictions, because they do not exist without some knowledge of the practices of other cultures, because they are always impinged upon from without and subject to locally originating change from within, we should not be surprised to find some fairly widespread practices and many vaguely similar styles across cultures and through time. Thus it is that many of us have had experiences with the norms of honor and may have participated in activities not unlike burning a witch.*


* “ elicitation of envy is not condemned in an honor based system as it is in witchcraft systems. The moral regime is very different. Honor say you should not fear eliciting envy and in fact rewards it by making it honorable. It was one thing to avoid flaunting your position by obnoxious behavior towards others and quite another to avoid excelling out of fear for the consequences of excellence.  Honor could have no truck with pusillanimous people in witchcraft systems where its leveling force is well known and nicely captured by then oft-cited Bemba proverb Max Gluckman put into circulation: “To find one beehive in the woods is luck, to find two is very good luck, to find three, witchcraft.”



Monday, May 14, 2018

Song of Becoming by Fadwa Tuquan



They're only boys
who used to frolic and play
releasing in the western wind
their blue red green kites
the color of the rainbow
jumping, whistling, exchanging spontaneous jokes
and laughter
fencing with branches, assuming the roles
of great heroes in history.

They've grown suddenly now
grown more than years in a lifetime
grown, merged with the secret word of love
carried its letters like a Bible, or a Quran
read in whispers
They've grown more than the years of a lifetime
become the trees plunging deep into the earth
and soaring high towards the sun
They're now the voice that rejects
they're the dialectics of destruction and building anew
the anger burning on the fringes of a blocked horizon
invading classrooms, streets, city quarters
centering on squares
and facing sullen tanks with a stream of stones.

With plain rejection they now shake the gallows of the dawn
assailing night and its deluge
They've grown, grown more that the years of a lifeti
me
become the worshipped and the worshipper
When their torn limbs merged with the stuff of our earth,
they became a legend
They grew, grew and became
larger than all poetry.