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The Big Cats, Part VI

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 1:00am in

“The Big Cats” is an ongoing poetry cycle written and read by Val Vinokur, and published weekly at Public Seminar. For...

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Book note: Johny Pitts, Afropean

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 7:31pm in

Just finished Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from a Black Europe (Penguin). It is a remarkable and highly readable book which I strongly recommend. Pitts, a journalist and photographer from Sheffield in England, embarks on a journey across Europe to discover the continent’s African communities, from Sheffield itself, through Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, Sweden, Russia, Rome, Marseille and Lisbon. Pitts, the son of an African-American soul singer and a working-class Englishwoman, is a curious insider-outsider narrator of the book which ambles from meditations on black history and (often American) literary forbears to chance encounters with black and brown Europeans in hostels, trains, stations, cafés and universities.

Is there a unity in all this? Hard to say, since as Pitts observes, these different populations, linked by an experience of marginalisation, come to be where they are via very diverse personal and collective histories. Some have come in their best clothes from former colonies to nations they were taught about as the motherland, only to find they had to make their lives in a place that was disappointing or hostile and where the white population — British, French, or Dutch — remain ill-disposed to see their new compatriots as being part of themselves. Others have fled war, persecution and trauma in Sudan or South Africa, only to find themselves exiled on the periphery of Scandiavian social democracy. And then there are the residual African students in a Russia transformed in thirty years from somewhere professing — occastionally sincerely — the unity and equality of all humankind, into a place where it is dangerous for black people to venture out at night for fear of violent attack or worse.

This is a very personal story and not a work of objective social science. But it is characterised by often acute observation, particularly of the gap between the image that European societies have of themselves as being basically tolerant and inclusive and a reality of systematic disadvantage in which populations of African origin (and others) almost invisibly do the jobs that keep our societies running. We’ve seen this when it has been people of colour who have worked and died through the COVID pandemic. He discusses the difficulty the Dutch have had in acknowledging their colonial past and the sometimes violent reaction that black people in the Netherlands have received when they’ve challenged the role that Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) has in winter festivities. His image of Sweden as a utopia for black professionals take a knock when he encouters both white Swedish racism and the reality of Rinkeby on Stockholm’s outskirts. The Parisian banlieu of Clichy-sous-Bois is a story of police violence and concrete desert. And St Petersburg is, well, just terrifying. In passing, he notices the discomfort of African American tourists with the bustle of Afropean life in Paris and tells us of the weirdness of his encounter with German antifa in Berlin,

The place he comes to love most is Marseille. This won’t surprise anyone who has been there. In some ways it is a hard and edgy city. When I was there a couple of summers ago I met with a student who’d witnessed a gang murder in her first week of living there. But the life in the streets of Marseille is astonishing: the mix of peoples, cultures, races, cuisines, life is unlike any city I’ve visited. It far exceeds New York, for example, in this respect. The charm of the city and Pitts’s romantic engagement with it may explain one of the few false notes in the book, his encounter with a black Egyptian nomad who has travelled the world and values experience over work or wealth. Maybe, but in a world of securitized borders where some passports are worth more than others there must be some further fact about this traveller that explain his ease of passage through the EU and United States: either he’s got money or he’s got a more valuable legal nationality than the Egyptian one he identifies with.

One measure of a book is the further explorations it excites and provokes, and Afropean succeeds wildly on that front. I’ve been listening to new music, making notes about authors I ought to get to know and films I need to watch. But it would be wrong to see this fine book mainly as a treasure trove of recommendations. Its value for all Europeans is in making visible what is often invisible in our cultures and societies and I hope in chipping away at the barriers that disadvantage our Afropean members, keeping so many of them unseen in grinding jobs at low pay. In the Financial Times only yesterday, the ever-complacent Martin Wolf wrote that

We are not going back to a world of mass industrialisation, where most educated women did not work, where there were clear ethnic and racial hierarchies and where western countries dominated.

Pitts testifes powerfully that those ethnic and racial hierarchies are with us still and that in many ways not much progress has been made.

African Resistance to the Ending of the Slave Trade

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 7:01pm in

One of the most shocking aspects of the history of the slave trade is that its abolition was opposed by many African states. These were kingdoms like Dahomey that profited from the trade. As a rule, it wasn’t Europeans who conducted the slave raids. They were largely confined to merchant ghettos within the African towns and ports serving the trade. The actual warfare and slaving that brought them their human cargo was done by warlike African states. And despite being frequently cheated by European slave merchants – John Newton describes the various ruses used to do this in his 1788 Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade – many African princes grew extremely rich on the profits of the trade. Duke Ephraim of Dahomey was raking in £300,000 per year, an income that exceeded that of many English dukes.

These states were extremely reluctant to give up such a lucrative trade, and resented British insistence that they now turn to more legitimate items, such as palm oil and the other products they believed would be far more useful for British industry after abolition. At the very least, they thought it was hypocritical for their former customers and co-partners in the slave trade to now demand they stop it and lecture them on their wickedness for not doing so. One west African kingdom was so incensed at British refusal to continue slaving that they attacked a British trading fort in order to force them to take it up again. And for a short period bloodshed actually increased. The slave states were faced with keeping large numbers of captives, whom they could no longer sale. As a result there was a series of massacres as they murdered the excess slaves. One of the most notorious was the murder of 300 such captives, which was debated in parliament in one of the many meetings of the Committee of Inquiry held to investigate the slave trade. Some believed that the mass murder was actually human sacrifice, but other witnesses testified that this was not the case. When one of those testifying before the Committee, Captain Denman, was asked if he was surprised or shocked by the massacre, he replied that he was because of the considerable advances this African people had made in the arts of civilization. This statement is itself remarkable as it shows that while Europeans viewed African civilization as inferior, many of those charged with actively ending the slave trade knew it existed and were impressed with Black Africans as cultured, civilized peoples.

Colin McEvedy discusses these negative consequences of the ending of the slave trade in his The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980) which I reviewed a few days ago. He writes

No one in Africa was going to say thank you for this [the ending of the slave trade]. Most West African states suffered a severe loss of revenue and, though the British granted some of them subsidies in compensation and, in the case of the principalities of the Niger delta, went to considerable trouble to encourage the production of palm oil as an alternative source of income, this was a period of relative impoverishment all along Africa’s Atlantic seaboard. Even the various categories of people who had supplied the slave trade with its raw material can’t be said to have benefited: criminals were once again handed over to the civil executioner and prisoners-of-war to the witch-doctor for sacrifice. This is the reason why the accounts of West African kingdoms in the nineteenth century are so blood-curdling: states like Dahomey that had built up a big slave-exporting capacity now had to consume a lot of unwanted human beings. Their ways of doing so provide a last bizarre flourish to what always had been a sad and sorry business. (p. 97).

This aspect of the slave trade also needs to be taught. Not to try to justify the trade, but to show that Africans were also actively involved in it and not mere victims. We need to remember this so that when the history of the slave trade is taught in schools, it isn’t presented as simply as evil White Europeans preying on noble Black Africans.

The network versus the hierarchy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 1:12pm in

This essay was published in Griffith Review: 64: The New Disruptors.


‘IT IS EASIER to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’ So wrote the critical theorist Frederic Jameson in New Left Review in 2003, attributing the sentiment to an unnamed ‘someone’ whom posterity, with nothing else to go on, has decided to call Frederic Jameson. But its provenance aside, this bleak observation does capture something of the political mood in the two decades spanning the millennium. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and subsequent disappearance of its foundational ideas from democratic political discourse left liberal capitalism looking less like the winner in a battle between ideologies than ideology’s opposite: if not the expression of human nature itself (as many on the right were apt to claim) then at least the best that humankind could do. Francis Fukuyama came forward to say that capital-h History had reached its terminus, and everyone on the left had a good old laugh. But as Keating, Clinton, Blair and Schröder set about giving a more progressive aspect to the process of neoliberal globalisation, many socialists internalised his conclusions.

More here.

How democracies perish

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 1:06pm in

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in June 2020.


Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy After the Crises

Polity; $33.95; 187pp

A. C. Grayling, The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy

Oneworld; $34.99; 239pp

When Bob Hawke died in 2019, shortly before the May election, many commentators sprinkled their obituaries with reflections on how contemporary politicians fell short of the Silver Bodgie’s example. While Hawke, it was said, had managed to combine charisma with a genuine vision, the modern pollie was the helpless plaything of the pollsters and the image-makers, bereft of courage and vision alike. Hawke was a statesman, a national leader who bestrode the political scene like a colossus. By contrast, his successors were political pygmies, lost in the tall grass of short-term calculation and the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

There is something to be said for this analysis, but by focussing so narrowly on character it misses something fundamental about how Australia has changed since Hawke was in his pomp – an omission all the more ironic for the fact that it was Hawke himself who helped to frame the new conditions. For in ‘rationalising’ the Australian economy – i.e. in increasing the power of markets, internal and external, in national affairs – the Hawke and Keating governments, in common with governments across the West, simultaneously shrunk the power of politicians to bring about decisive change. That is the irony of the neoliberal ‘turn’: political skill and force of character were needed in order to effect the transition; but the world that has emerged as a consequence is one in which the global market outruns the attempts of politicians to control it.

The British sociologist Colin Crouch has a name for this phenomenon. He calls it ‘post-democracy’ and in Coping with Post-Democracy (2000), Post-Democracy (2003) and, now, Post-Democracy After the Crises has charted its progress from neoliberalism’s heyday to our current, highly unstable moment. In part a restatement of his original ideas, the new book is also an opportunity to make some running repairs to his thesis in the wake of the GFC and its political fallout. As it happens, his thesis stands up pretty well in the light of those developments, and can even be said to have explained them in advance, so it is a testament to Crouch’s seriousness that he has decided to make the focus of this book the weaknesses in his own position.

That position can be stated as follows. Since the economic globalisation that accompanied the neoliberal turn was not attended by any comparable globalisation of democratic oversight, its effect has been to undermine the ability of national governments to act in the interests of their own electorates. This situation is made much worse by the neoliberal policies pursued within the countries in question. From the privatisation of state-owned assets to the entangling of the public and private spheres, whole swathes of life have been cut off from any form of democratic control. Democracy has become a ‘formal shell’. Like a house being eaten from the inside by termites, it may appear to be structurally sound. But in the event of a major storm or earthquake it crumbles to so much rubble and dust.

It was the storm of the global financial crisis that gave credence to this argument, revealing as it did the weaknesses of democracy in the face of globalisation. But in Post-Democracy After the Crises, Crouch is less concerned with the GFC than he is with the crisis that flowed from it: the earthquake of rightwing populism. And it is here that a new note enters his argument. For whereas in his previous work he’s tended to see populism as a symptom of post-democracy, he now emphasises that rightwing populism is also, increasingly, a cause of it – one bent on destroying such democratic institutions as the neoliberal termites have yet to devour.

Of course, there is a direct relationship between the increasingly unrepresentative character of democratic institutions and the charge of rightwing populists that those institutions are elitist and self-serving, and if Crouch never quite succeeds in showing how one can strenuously oppose the latter without seeming to endorse the former, he does set out the key dilemmas in a way that demonstrates just what is at stake if these twin threats to democracy are not met. He also notes the emerging alliance between the two, in which ‘the alt-right offers neoliberalism a deal’: accept nationalistic restrictions on some of your activities, and the accompanying racism and xenophobia, ‘and the rest will be left free’. Thus the right, having partly split along its liberal-conservative axis, is now recombining in a way that fuses the worst elements of both traditions.

If Crouch’s argument will annoy the populists, then A. C. Grayling’s latest book could drive them to the brink of insanity. For in The Good State, Grayling not only mounts a strenuous defence of liberal democracy; he also suggests that the very notion of democracy leads logically to liberal outcomes. The concept of democracy, he writes, ‘is a prescriptive one, in virtue of what it means and entails’. And what it entails, it quickly becomes clear, is a worldview very close to the one held by a certain academic and author based in Central London, England.

Like Post-Democracy After the Crises, The Good State is an intellectual sequel – a follow-up to Democracy and Its Crisis, in which Grayling argued that representative democracy is the best system of government yet evolved. In The Good State, he reiterates that view, but also elaborates on the principles and practises liberal democracies need to follow in order to stay true to the ideal at their core. Like Crouch, he believes that democracy is threatened by both neoliberals and populists. But his book is less concerned with the external forces sucking the life out of democracy than with the institutional arrangements of democracy itself.

The argument at the heart of Grayling’s book is that for representative democracies to flourish there needs to be a separation of politics from government. Both of these phenomena, Grayling argues, are essential aspects of democracy, which demands that people are free to debate each other and to elect their own representatives, but also that those representatives govern in the interests of everyone, not a single faction or class, or even a majority. Once a government is elected, therefore, politics needs to be set to one side in the interests of competent, democratic governance. In the event that it isn’t, democracy suffers.

As with Democracy and Its Crisis, there is lots of interesting stuff in The Good State: as a guide to ideas, especially liberal ideas, Grayling is in a class of his own. But the book is marred by an elitist streak, all the more annoying for being dressed up as its opposite. For in attempting to circumvent the charge that government minus democracy equals technocracy, Grayling makes the ludicrous case that democracy necessitates policies on which rational people will tend to agree, so long as they are privy to ‘good information’. It is only when politics gets in the road that really bad decisions are taken, as when, for example, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Any sensible calculation would have concluded that such a policy would have been bad for the country, and, consequently, undemocratic!

So, having begun Democracy and Its Crisis with a nod to Plato’s argument that democracy leads to mob rule, Grayling ends The Good State seemingly flirting with Athenian’s solution: a republic run by philosophers. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but that is where you eventually end up when you say that democracy ‘entails’ certain outcomes.

Suffice it to say that if you can stomach that your constitution is more robust than mine.

Two books in the ‘Grail Tradition’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:59pm in

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian in May 2020.


Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, Innovation + Equality: How to Create a Future that Is More Star Trek than Terminator

MIT Press; $44.99; 174pp

Andrew Wear, Solved! How Other Countries Have Cracked the World’s Biggest Problems and We Can Too

Black Inc. Books; $29.99; 324pp

For well over a quarter of a century now the Holy Grail of centre-left politics has been to square the imperatives of enterprise and entrepreneurship with a greater degree of social cohesion, fairness and equality. Having accepted the primacy of the market in the 1990s, and renounced the more statist or ‘corporate’ policies of post-war social democracy, liberal-progressive policymakers have pursued a variety of ‘Third Way’ strategies that have tried to reconcile free-market forces with higher levels of social equity. While those to their right protest that the market should be left alone to do its thing, those to their left point out that capital will always put high private returns above the needs of economic justice. Nevertheless, the quest continues, with many a brash knight bent on glory, and a host of liberal commentators tapping the coconut-halves together in their train.

In their short book Innovation + Equality, US economist Joshua Gans and Australian politician Andrew Leigh join the search for the sacred chalice. Their subject is the relationship between technological innovation and economic inequality in the West, and their central, and simple, argument is that the first thing does not lead inevitably to the second. Taking issue with the venture capitalist Paul Graham, who founded the start-up ‘accelerator’ Y Combinator and describes himself (proudly) as a ‘manufacturer of inequality’, they argue that advanced economies can be both more entrepreneurial and more egalitarian. For them, there is no necessary tension between the imperatives of creativity and fairness. We can grow the economic pie, and distribute it more evenly, too.

For Gans and Leigh, any government seeking to encourage technological innovation must accept the need for ‘creative destruction’ and also ensure that the ‘costs’ of that destruction (or, as Silicon Valley prefers, ‘disruption’) are shared by those who benefit from it. Naturally, that means higher taxes, the prospect of which will lead many economists to invoke the spectre of The Disincentive: If innovators can’t get filthy rich, why would they bother innovating at all? Gans and Leigh not only reject this argument, they also turn it on its head, arguing that the real disincentives are to be found at the other end of the process, where entrepreneurs are faced with high costs, not to mention a very high chance of failure. It is not the rewards, in other words, to which policymakers should pay attention, so much as the risks of entering the game. By redistributing resources from the star players to the rookies, governments can both encourage more innovation and lessen inequality in the process.

As elegant as this argument is, and as preferable as such an arrangement would be to the winner-takes-all dynamic that currently characterises info-capitalism, there is much that Gans and Leigh neglect or downplay in their analysis. For example, they almost always write as if innovation happens in the private sphere, whereas much foundational info-tech, from GPS to voice recognition to the Worldwide Web and the internet, emerged largely from within the state. Moreover, and carrying on from that, they never pause to question the value of the ‘amazing technological advances’ emerging from the information economy, assuming that progress in the digital sphere, together with a bit of Third Way-style redistribution, will translate into progress in the social one – into the ‘Star Trek’ future of the subtitle. But this raises the question: progress towards what? ‘Thanks to people having the internet in their pocket,’ write Gans and Leigh, ‘we got Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify.’ Talk about the poverty of our aspirations!   

One surprising omission from Innovation + Equality, given its focus on digital technologies, is any thorough discussion of the specific challenges presented by the information economy. As a number of commentators have argued in recent years, information is different from other raw materials in that it can be distributed infinitely and for free, or as close to free as makes no difference. That means that under conditions of honest competition prices tend to fall towards zero; and that means, in turn, that businesses will respond by attempting to create monopolies. In short, the levels of ‘inequality’ we see in the information economy may be unavoidable, at least as long as that economy is set up along capitalist lines. Had the authors raised this possibility (and it was one raised twenty years ago by the former World Bank economist Larry Summers, who provides a foreword to Innovation + Equality) they might have reached a more radical conclusion. 

If Gans and Leigh are optimistic about the prospect of socioeconomic harmony, then the policymaker Andrew Wear is positively exuberant. Indeed, his explicit purpose in Solved! is to take the positivity on display in the business and self-help sections of his local bookshop and re-route it to the politics section. Rather than asking what is wrong with the world, he asks what particular bits of it happen to be doing well, and encourages the rest of the world to learn from their example. The vibe is determinedly synergistic, with Wear taking what he regards as the best policies from Scandinavia/northern Europe, East Asia and the Anglosphere. Thus Denmark is lauded for its climate-change policies, Indonesia for its transition to democracy, and our sunburnt country girt by sea for its record on controlled migration.

Wear has an easy, familiar tone, and his combination of hard analysis, on-location interviews, potted histories and anecdotes is often interesting and entertaining. But his framing is a little strange. For example, in his introduction, he complains that too much policy is driven by ideology, eschewing socialism, liberalism and conservatism in favour of policies that ‘actually work’. But those three traditions are views of the world, born of beliefs about human flourishing, not policy templates to be ruled in or out on the basis of their effect on GDP. Indeed, it is obvious from the opening pages that Wear is himself a liberal, and there is something vaguely circular about the way that he uses, say, Indonesia to demonstrate the compatibility of democracy and economic growth, when a comparison of India and China would have produced a very different conclusion. How, for that matter, would those two countries compare on the issue of inequality, the subject of another chapter? Or on the issue of poverty-alleviation? If Wear thinks the ideal society should combine democracy, entrepreneurship and better social welfare, fine. But it is irritating to be told that his favoured solutions in some sense transcend the world of ideas, and that policymakers would all agree if only they could be a little less ‘ideological’.

Solved!, in short, is in the Grail tradition, and would have been a more coherent book if its author had recognised that fact, and owned it. As Slavoj Žižek never tires of telling us, there is nothing more ideological than declaring oneself to be above ideology, for it is then that one has succumbed, without knowing it, to the ‘common sense’ of the status quo. The point is important, because the day is drawing closer when liberal democracy will have to reckon with the fact that other traditions are in the ascendant. With Covid-19 causing havoc in Europe, reactionary populism still infecting millions, and the Giant Panda in the Room to our north, the current signs are not auspicious. ‘Tis but a scratch!’ say some. We’ll see.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:45pm in

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian in April 2020.


Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times

Polity Press; $31.95; 223pp

In his most recent novel, The Second Sleep, Robert Harris imagines a future England in which life is lived according to the rhythms and mores of the pre-modern era. Technology is primitive, Christianity taken literally, and, notwithstanding a parrot or two (an effect, perhaps, of global warming), the landscape indistinguishable from that of medieval England. Nobody knows, or seems to know, how this spectacular reversal came about, though some suspect that it was the very sophistication of the twenty-first century that was partly to blame. Certainly this is the thrust of an article written shortly before the catastrophe. ‘Society’, it warns, ‘has reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse.’

As daft as Harris’ staging is, the idea that modern society could suffer some irreversible setback looks a lot more plausible than it did six months ago. The rapid spread of Covid-19 has left the world in little doubt that the interconnectedness of global systems – natural, cultural and economic – brings with it mighty challenges of governance and policymaking. The imperatives of globalisation and growth have shrunk the world to a single organism that is far more fragile than previously imagined. Whole systems now unravel with alarming speed. A market trader sneezes in Wuhan, and a few weeks later the Australian Treasurer is setting out an emergency stimulus amid talk of an imminent and deep recession.

If this crisis has taken most of us by surprise, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens – an agronomist and eco adviser, respectively – can claim to have seen it, or something like it, coming. In How Everything Can Collapse, they suggest that civilisation is now vulnerable to a complete breakdown, and that the interconnectedness of modern societies makes that prospect more, not less, likely. Written before the Covid-19 crisis, the book’s most frequent reference points are the global debt crisis of 2008 and anthropogenic climate change. Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout confirm the authors’ arguments.

The central argument of the book is simple: in order to forestall disaster, we need to recognise its likelihood. To this end, Servigne and Stevens have evolved a ‘transdisciplinary’ science of collapse, which they call ‘collapsology’. Defining a collapse as something more than a crisis but less than an apocalypse, they argue that we are now facing a systemic disintegration – not the end of the world, but the end of a world, which is to say the world we recognise and, in a spirit of ‘collective denial’, hope to go on reproducing.

Much of Servigne and Stevens’ argument hinges on an analysis of limits and boundaries. Limits are the lines that cannot be crossed, while boundaries are lines that can be crossed, but only with disastrous consequences. Fossil fuels, for example, are limited, in the sense that there is only so much coal and oil that can be taken out of the ground, while the burning of fossil fuels is a boundary, in the sense that our capacity to continue doing it outpaces what the planet will tolerate. It is the passing of such planetary boundaries, and the tipping points and feedback effects that result from their having been so passed, that particularly concerns the authors, who also seek to understand how technical and political ‘path dependence’ locks us in to self-destructive behaviours. It goes without saying that an addiction to ‘growth’ is fundamental in this respect, though I think the authors might have emphasised more how capitalist economies necessitate expansion, arranged as they are around the profit motive. Certainly such an emphasis would have underlined another of their key themes, namely the way in which economic, political and environmental factors are increasingly hard to separate from one another.

How Everything Can Collapse is an important book, but the argument isn’t always well served by the authors’ addiction to extended metaphors. By far the most irritating example of this is the image of modern society as a car, which, by the end of Chapter 10, is running low on fuel (fair enough), accelerating exponentially, and facing an impassable wall, at the same time as it is veering off the road and careering down a steep slope riddled with obstacles. Of course, one can sympathise with the authors’ desire to make the material more accessible; but in this case they end up obscuring their analysis rather than illuminating it.

The analysis survives the metaphor. Servigne and Stevens are surely right to argue that ‘utopia has now changed sides’ – that it is those who recognise that a radical change in how we live is necessary who are the sober pragmatists, and those who think we can go on as we are who are the dreamers and idealists. As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc, we need to start thinking seriously about the weaknesses in the systems we have built. How Everything Can Collapse is a decent place to begin.

Two books on memory

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:33pm in

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in October 2019.

The featured picture is of Kate Eichhorn (by Max Middle, Flickr)


Kate Eichhorn

The End of Forgetting: Growing up with Social Media

Harvard University Press; $49.99; 173pp

Lynne Kelly

Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory Using the Most Powerful Methods from around the World

Allen and Unwin; $32.99; 306pp

If this year’s federal election proved one thing, other than the fact that polling firms are hilariously overpaid, it’s that social media is now an invaluable resource for journalists seeking a juicy story or political operatives looking to embarrass their opponents. Time and again in the course of the campaign candidates were confronted with old Facebook posts expressing homophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice, conspiracy theories and misogyny. Some pleaded youthful stupidity; others maintained that their accounts had been hacked and the offending comments made under their names. Neither explanation passed the smell-test. Even where disendorsement didn’t follow, most candidates felt compelled to step aside, not wanting the controversy to become ‘a distraction’.

Given the brutal nature of politics, and the nature of the comments made, I doubt there’ll be much sympathy for those caught with their moral pants down: even potential politicians need to take responsibility for ugly things they’ve said in the past. But as Kate Eichhorn shows in The End of Forgetting, the emergence of a ‘data subject’ whose past is accessible to everyone has consequences for, well, everyone. Every time we post on social media, we leave traces that are almost impossible to erase, and this is having a profound effect, not only on our future prospects, but also on our subjectivities. For Eichhorn it represents a momentous shift in the way human beings are socialised.

Set out in clear and unassuming prose, Eichhorn’s thesis is that social media platforms turn their users into hostages to fortune and saboteurs of their own development. Contra the usual moral panics that accompany new forms of media, she argues that the danger of the internet is not that it destroys childhood ‘innocence’ by throwing open the developing brain to the seedy and chaotic world of adults, but that it makes our childhoods ‘perpetually present’. As she puts it: ‘The real crisis of the digital age is not the disappearance of childhood, but the spectre of a childhood that can never be forgotten.’

The relationship between human development and technology is a central concern in media studies, with some arguing that the spread of print culture served over time to create a division between literate adulthood and pre-literate childhood. But while media theorists such as Neil Postman have stressed the ways in which new technologies have eroded the adult-child distinction, Eichhorn suggests that such technologies increase and deepen childhood autonomy. In this sense the forerunners of social media are the Polaroid camera and the video camcorder: devices that enlarge the scope for people to create and record their own life-worlds – to represent themselves to themselves in relatively independent fashion.

In one sense this is liberating; but for Eichhorn it is also potentially damaging. Drawing on Freud, she argues that forgetting plays an important role in identity-creation, and indeed in the formation of memories themselves. Freud wrote that childhood reminiscences have more in common with ‘the legends and myths of nations’ than with the memories of one’s later years, the brain having discarded or ‘edited’ much that would be harmful to one’s sense of self. Since this is one of the ways we come to assert control over a time in our lives when we had little agency, the undermining of this capacity is no small matter. It some circumstances if could be catastrophic. What happens, for example, to a young refugee whose experiences of dislocation and danger remain ever present in the form of photographs, videos and other media?

What privacy activists increasingly refer to as the ‘right to be forgotten’ is pertinent here. Since adolescence is conventionally regarded as a partial moratorium on consequences – a period when mistakes are made and, ideally, learned from – social media could have a calamitous effect on the prospects and emotional health of its users. The story of the so-called Star Wars Kid, whose light-sabre antics became a YouTube phenomenon, is, for Eichhorn, paradigmatic – a harrowing precursor to the running sewer of cyberbullying, trolling and ‘revenge porn’ now stinking up the social media space. Anyone using social media regularly could experience a similar fate. We’re all Star Wars Kid now.

Eichhorn writes of the ‘end of forgetting’; but there is one sense in which modern information technology is conducive to forgetfulness. Put crudely, the internet appears to have removed the necessity of remembering stuff, the World Wide Web having been charged with the task of remembering stuff on our behalf. Time was when many commentators welcomed this apparent outsourcing of function, believing that it would free up valuable brain space that could be put to more illustrious uses. The evidence, however, is all to the contrary: an overreliance on digital technologies is not just bad for the memory but for cognitive function more generally.

Anyone wanting to improve that function is advised to read Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft, a fascinating and amiable romp through the history of memorisation methods, from Aboriginal songlines to ‘visual alphabets’ to bestiaries and ‘memory palaces’. Replete with beautiful illustrations and tips on how to utilise the various methods outlined in its pages, the book is clearly a labour of love – as much the record of an enthusiasm as a work of scholarly exposition. (Certainly Kelly knows her stuff. In 2018 she took part in the International Association of Memory’s Australian Memory Championships and was crowned Australia’s senior champion.)

If there is a single principle connecting the methods illuminated in Memory Craft it’s that the retention of large amounts of knowledge depends on what Kelly calls ‘modality shifts’ – i.e. the moving of information from one cognitive jurisdiction to another. Thus a series of events becomes a song, a history a movement through imagined space, a taxonomy a set of stories, and so on. Regular repetition, vivid imagery and emotion are key facets of such techniques, and Kelly takes her own adventures in ‘mnemonic gymnastics’ as illustrative. I particularly liked her explanation of how to build a memory palace – an imagined space such as a house or garden into which information has been ‘encoded’ in the form of figures, situations etc. She even inspired me to build my own: a shopping mall populated by all the known species of Homo.

Forgetful and yet unable to be forgotten – the future of the only Homo left seems more than ever fraught with uncertainty. What on earth are we doing to ourselves? And what might we be capable of if we decided to stop doing it? In their different ways, these two excellent books afford new approaches to these urgent questions.

On Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:19pm in

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in September, 2019.


Paul Mason, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Allen Lane; $35; 368pp

In his 2015 book, Postcapitalism, Paul Mason described the way in which information technologies are undermining market forces. Since information can be reproduced for close to ‘zero marginal cost’ its tendency is to collapse traditional price mechanisms and thus the ability of businesses to turn a profit without ‘rent seeking’ (i.e. through creating artificial scarcity). This situation, Mason suggested, had both precipitated the global debt crisis and was part of a broader crisis of capitalism from which escape would prove impossible. Meanwhile, the new technologies were preparing the ground for an economy beyond capitalism. A different society, based on different principles, was growing in the belly of the one we know. 

In that book, ‘postcapitalism’ was largely a placeholding term. It did not describe a particular society, let alone a future utopia, but a society no longer organised around private property, profit and waged labour, the nature of which was yet to be determined. As a veteran of the radical left, Mason hoped (and still hopes) for a society based on common ownership and human equality. But notwithstanding his belief that automation and information technologies have the potential to liberate humankind from scarcity and class antagonism, his aim in the book was principally descriptive. To put it in terms of moral philosophy, it was concerned with the ‘is’, not the ‘ought’, of the problem.

Those who admire Mason, as I do, have thus been looking forward to a book that sets out how a future society based on the ideals of abundance and equality might be constructed, or at least brought closer, and I dare say I am not alone in imagining that Mason’s latest book, with its upbeat title, might be it. But Clear Bright Future is something quite different. Much darker than Postcapitalism, it is focused not just on the crisis of capitalism but on the political crisis that has grown from it, and on the role the new technologies may play in facilitating political extremism. For all that it puts forward a positive case for what Mason calls ‘radical humanism’, its stance is (sometimes hysterically) defensive. Standing at the crossroads between socialism and barbarism, Mason’s focus, for now, is squarely on the latter.  

For Mason the current crisis consists of three elements: the failure of neoliberalism examined in Postcapitalism; the turn against democracy, human rights and the rule of law represented by the populist right; and the role information technologies now play in facilitating the right’s political program. Each of these elements is connected to the others, and Mason spends some time in the book anatomising the relationship between them. It was neoliberalism, for example, that manured the ground for rightwing populism by so destroying human solidarity that only toxic forms of it (racism, xenophobia, misogyny) could emerge in the wake of the debt crisis. At the same time, it made human beings ‘governable’: to the extent that neoliberalism conceives of humans as little more than ‘bits’ in a machine called ‘the market’, it has softened them up to ‘algorithmic control’. Thus Mason’s ‘crisis of the neoliberal self’ is one in which fascism and fatalism combine, and could soon congeal into something more poisonous than even the political movements of the 1930s: lethal bigotry backed up by Big Data.

That something like this dystopian scenario is possible is not in doubt: another shock to the world economy, combined with a deepening climate catastrophe, could indeed precipitate a political crisis of the kind that Mason fears. But that fear also leads him to mischaracterise the situation as it stands right now. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, he describes the ‘new fascism’ as an alliance between the ‘elite and the mob’ in which the part of the elite is taken by a coterie of tech billionaires, rightwing media outlets and demagogic politicians and the mob is pretty much everyone who voted for Trump, or people like him. Buying in to the simplistic dichotomy between ‘class’ and ‘culture’ that tends to characterise debates about rightwing populism, he then suggests that the mob is motivated not by economic stress but by white resentment and misogyny. It is identity politics, not economic precarity, that is driving the recrudescence of the far right.

Of course, it’s true that Trump and his ilk have some very powerful backers. It’s also true that those who vote for them are often racists and misogynists. But Mason’s elite-mob combo is a straw man. Worse, it is an essentially liberal fantasy that both closes off any political strategy based on winning back votes from the right and gives an out to the neoliberal ‘centre’, which is never more exquisitely complacent than when draping itself in the ‘progressive’ ideals of openness and cosmopolitanism. I think Mason underestimates the degree to which neoliberalism is still hegemonic and how useful such formulations of an irredeemably bigoted ‘mob’ are to it.

The best thing about Clear Bright Future is Mason’s defence of ‘radical humanism’, which he pits against the ‘anti-humanists’ of both the extreme right and the postmodern left. Here Mason recruits Marx, whose view of human nature becomes the basis for a set of ‘virtue ethics’ that can ‘ground’ humanity in the struggles to come – placing decisions about, say, AI, or automation more generally, in a human-centred framework. It also underwrites Mason’s bracing call to radicals to ‘un-cancel the future’ – i.e. to think about the kind of society they want to see and to take action in its name. The book’s final chapter – part manifesto, part motivational talk – urges radicals to cultivate a number of ‘reflexes’ to this end. For Mason, as for Marx, human nature is a combination of the inborn and the mutable. Cooperation, language and imagination are naturally evolved properties of the human animal, but those properties also set us on a path, which Mason is not embarrassed to call a telos, which is to say an object or purpose. That doesn’t mean that the future is set; it means that human beings have the ability to imagine their own future – to set themselves free. At its best, this book is alive with that idea. But its dark view of the present seems like an odd basis on which to build a clear bright future.

Eagleton on Humour

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:12pm in

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian in August 2019.


Terry Eagleton, Humour

Yale University Press; $37.99; 224pp

Not long ago a new category appeared, temporarily, on the Netflix homepage, called something like ‘Politically Incorrect Comedy’. Whether this was meant as a warning or a promise, or a bit of both, is hard to say; but there’s no doubt it spoke to something in the culture: a self-consciousness in debates around women and minorities, related to the political moment. When US comics Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari fell foul of the #MeToo movement, the attendant calumny played into a wider discussion about the relationship between power and joke-making. So too, from a very different direction, did Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, in which Gadsby effectively deconstructs her own set, laying bare the emotional pain beneath the gags. Today humour feels implicitly political in a way that it hasn’t since the 1980s and the rise of so-called ‘alternative comedy’. No wonder that some of the most interesting comics traverse the border between wokeness and outrage, milking the resulting discomfort for laughs.

Ours is an excellent time, in short, to be thinking about the nature of humour, and I can’t imagine a better person to think alongside than Terry Eagleton, the British critic as renowned for his humour as for his unreconstructed radicalism. His new book Humour is an engaging study of how and why we laugh, and at what, and what these things tell us about the kind of animals we are. Ranging from Freud to Frankie Howerd, and from Tristram Shandy to David Brent, it is beautifully written and full of wisdom. It’s also a matchless demonstration of how humour outruns our attempts to understand it, or at least to generalise about its character.

As befits a thinker from the Marxist tradition, Eagleton begins with a chapter on laughter, a phenomenon that speaks to both the creatural and the cultural aspects of the human animal, and to the relationship between the two. Laughter, writes Eagleton, is ‘sound without sense’ – a reminder of our bestial nature, and often frowned upon for that reason. And yet it is also socially coded in a way that reveals our creativity. There’s a big difference between a cackle and a belly laugh, and it follows that humour is similarly diverse. What is the connection – is there a connection – between the wit of Oscar Wilde and the slapstick of Jim Carrey? Why do Germans laugh at Mr Bean and Englishmen fall over when they hear the word ‘knickers’?

Frustratingly for the Big Theory merchants, there are no straightforward answers to these questions, and Eagleton is at his dazzling best when critiquing the different explanatory frameworks. From the ‘release’ thesis favoured by Sigmund Freud, which sees humour in terms of psychological tension, to the idea that humour springs from a sense of the failures and frailties of one’s fellow beings, Eagleton weighs the major theories and concludes that, while each has something to be said for it, none is sufficient on its own to explain the spectacular diversity of humour. Nor is the relationship between humour and power as simple as some commentators assume. It is a contradictory phenomenon, like nationalism – a tool, potentially, of both liberation and oppression. Sometimes it moves in two directions at once. As Eagleton puts it, echoing Freud, ‘In the little insurrection of the wisecrack we can reap the pleasures of rebellion while simultaneously disavowing them, since it is, after all, only a joke.’

The question of power is crucial, of course, and the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin looms large over this part of the discussion. Bakhtin was a student of the ‘carnivals’ of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and regarded them as a subversive force, turning authority on its head and inverting the priorities of power. His ideas have thus proven attractive to radicals looking for signs that humour is inscribed with a desire to be free from oppression. But here, again, Eagleton is sceptical about the claims being made for humour’s instrumentality. Carnival is drawn to the base and the bodily, but why, asks Eagleton, should such an outlook not also undermine our humanity? ‘If humour can deflate the pompous and pretentious in the name of some more viable conception of human dignity, it can also strike, Iago-like, at the very notion of value, which in turn depends on the possibility of meaning.’

In his final chapter, on politics and humour, Eagleton turns to Trevor Griffiths’ outstanding play Comedians, which is centred on a group of working-class men hoping to make it as stand-up comics, and which feels as relevant today as it did when I first saw it, as a student in the 1980s. Eagleton’s exposition is brilliant, and I found myself wondering if some enterprising theatre could be persuaded to give it another run. We’ll see. But in the meantime this treatise should serve a comparable purpose: to remind us that humour is a lot more complex and contradictory than our cultural politics allow.