In 1982 a wall divided Berlin and made two Germanies.
Berlin, unloved and redundant seat of power, more than anywhere was further chipped and scarred by a million traces of the Nazi regime and war. Graffiti snarled out from walls pockmarked by Nazi and Soviet bullets.
The wall that cut up the city was a palimpsest of causes and declarations. Some causes never went away. Everagain repainted graffiti identified the deaths of RAF adherents Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, Jan-Carl Raspe and Andreas Baader, in high-security prison Stammheim in 1977, as state murders. Those were the days when The German Issue was first published. With too much dense text, a reader turns first to the images.
Found or made, these string their way through the texts like a montaged no-man’s-land film strip – grey walls, edgy punks facing riot police or contorting to display tattoos, fragments of city maps, like corners of swastikas, pale corpses in the concentration camps next to rows of VWs in the factory, and again walls, walls, THE WALL. If the images merged into one monotone parasomnia called Berlin, the texts were more various:
many were articles that Peter Gente, founder of Merve Verlag, had salvaged from here and there. Sketches, newspaper articles, interviews with artist–intellectuals, film-makers, refugees from the East of all political stripes, transvestites and lesbians, student activists ten years after, RAF terrorists dead and alive, squatters and Greens. There were William Burroughs’s thoughts on terror as political action; Baudrillard on Mogadishu; Foucault on Boulez doing Wagner; Blanchot on Berlin; and, strangely, a short piece by Heidegger from 1950 on his relation to National Socialism: ‘A strange blindness pushes forward in this way the wearing away and inner dissolution of the last substantial strengths of our people.’ In short, a compendium of stuff and nonsense, bulletins from the ‘Frontstadt’, as it styled itself.
An aperçu from Lotringer: ‘The wall of history is totally visible here. I’d rather see it that way than hidden in people’s minds.’ The text is about exposure – of how the wall makes concrete political stakes obscured in other geographies. The drama of life in Berlin in the 1980s is to be envied and feared: that it need be so stark, contested, hard. In 1982 the collection’s ideas were to be transported out from that pressure-cooker city to the USA. Two years earlier, Semiotext(e) has scored with a book on Autonomia/Italy. Here was more news from Europe – strange movements thataway, something exotic, fertile. Reissued in 2009 (with one additional interview with Volker Schlöndorff), and again appearing two years in the wake of the Italian Issue’s (re)publication, the book likes to pretend it snapshots a city on the brink of change, just before collapse, its prescient editing revealing the outlines of the end to come. The wall models binary thinking. The solution – as Merve Verlag and Semiotext(e) promulgated it – was a Deleuzean loosening of hardened blocs. Undermined and so destabilized was to be East and West, conceived here, in a super-naive way, as Capitalism versus Communism. In the dialogue between Germany and the USA, between Merve and Semiotext(e), what was really at stake was the reception of French thought – the canon of Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Virilio,
Lyotard and so on – by both (as publishing sensation).
The book’s frissons stem, however, from the ever re-versioned modes of hardness, punk fundamentalism, unrepentant terrorists, anti-Semitism without end, ‘authentic’ life in the East versus faux Americanism in the West, anti-Americanism alongside American anti-ism, and, here and again, the love of the Wall (and the possibility of being shot from both sides). The persistence of the marginal might be showcased here, but not a loosening. No walls in the mind or elsewhere are being dismantled before our eyes.
A recurrent reference in the book is the RAF milieu. As Neue deutsche Welle singer Annette Humpe suggests in her interview, in 1982, ‘it was becoming fashionable to know somebody who knew somebody who maybe knew somebody like Ulrike Meinhof’.
Thirty years on and that fascination refuses to disappear. German publishing, it would seem, cannot get enough stuff by people who knew people who knew… One of the most recent takes comes from a never-more
Cement mixerSylvère Lotringer, ed., The German Issue, Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2009. xx + 335 pp., £22.95 hb., 978 1 58435 079
8. ^ Gudrun Ensslin and Bernward Vesper, ‘Notstandgesetze von Deiner Hand’: Briefe 1968/1969, Suhrkamp Verlag,
Frankfurt am Main, 2009. 289 pp., €12.00 pb., 978 3 51812 586 1.intimate relation to that first generation of terrorists.
It goes back to origins, of the RAF movement and of an individual. It stems from a folder of letters from 1968–9 between Gudrun Ensslin and Bernward Vesper, which fell into the hands of their son, Felix Ensslin, along with a long letter from Ensslin to her lover, Andreas Baader, to whom she had transferred affections just after the birth of Felix. This folder had written on it Notstandsgesetz – emergency act. This referred to the act passed by the Grand Coalition of SPD and CDU in May 1968, an act that provoked countless demonstrations. Vesper altered this to read Notstandsgesetze aus Deiner Hand – ‘Emergency Acts From Your Hand’ – the personal and political are enmeshed. Ensslin languished on remand and was subsequently imprisoned in Frankfurt. In April 1968 Ensslin, Baader, Thorwald Proll and Horst Söhnlein engaged in their first terrorist activity: they ignited fires in two Frankfurt department stores. There was 650,000 DM worth of damage, mainly caused by the sprinkler system set off in one of them. No one was hurt, though one store worker was traumatized. This led to Ensslin and the others being sentenced to three years in prison. They were released temporarily after nine months, while an appeal was considered. The appeal rejected, they went underground. Ensslin and Baader returned to Berlin in 1970, where Baader was rearrested. Ensslin, together with one man and three women, one of whom was Meinhof, freed Baader (and killed a man) during an outside visit. The Red Army Faction was formed and this first-generation core group was operative in terroristic activities until their arrests – and deaths – in the 1970s.
The eighty-odd letters record political discussions and emotional states. Vesper’s first letters to Ensslin are raw and beseeching. Ensslin distances herself from being drawn into a discussion of blame and guilt around leaving Vesper for Baader. Over time,
Vesper stops trying to persuade Ensslin to return to him and concentrates more on relating the day-to-day practicalities of bring up their young child. Ensslin demands constant updates on Felix’s development (at this time mothers could not see their children when on remand/in prison). Recorded here are the private aspects (the fear of losing Felix), the personal burden (the difficulties of managing childcare and intellectual work), the political aspects (what is the right, liberated way to bring up a child – what is a socialist crèche, what of children brought up in a commune). This last aspect is one of the most interesting and it records the shifting discussions and attempts to politicize the private and personal during turbulent days in which the modes of everyday life are being brought into question. Vesper tries to persuade Ensslin that the bourgeois self is over or should be. She is writing to someone who no longer exists. She, on the other hand, and her comrades, he observes, are speaking from a grave that was made two or three years ago. Political insight and personal developments are entwined in the letters. Later in the correspondence this intertwining of the personal and the political develops, on Vesper’s part, into a critique of monogamous relations between men and women. He attacks Ensslin’s relationship to Baader, which he condemns – in an effort to be wounding as well as politically correct – as conventional, a petty-bourgeois form, from which she should emancipate herself. However genuine the sentiment (though he could not face communalizing his and Felix’s existence and got by with a succession of employed women helping him to bring up Felix), his own investment in this analysis is, of course, obvious.
The politics of childhood have a particular resonance in relation to Vesper’s own upbringing by his wellknown Nazi poet father, the methods and consequences of which he was reflecting on in this period in his own autobiographical study – Die Reise. They are adamant they will not inflict the errors of their own ‘fascistic’ upbringings on their child.
Ensslin’s letters to Vesper sometimes contain hints of a political analysis or a defence of her political actions. At one point, having been admonished by Vesper for the stupidity and uselessness of bombs in shops, she refuses to condemn the action and states that, if it is madness, then it may be the very madness that the European socialist movement has been missing for 100 years. For his part, publicly, Vesper defended her. Included here is his ‘Baader, Ensslin, Proll, Söhnlein,
We Will Not Defend Ourselves in Front of this Type of Justice’, a response to the highly politicized trial and passing of sentence on the arsonists. The context of the ‘action’, according to Vesper: ‘Vietnam is the Auschwitz of the young generation.’ This explained the level of support among youth that the defendants enjoyed. Ensslin’s letters, in the main, are pragmatic and consoling. They concentrate on reassurances to Vesper that she loves Felix and wants to see him again, whatever the ultimate arrangements become. She asks Vesper to buy her things – make-up, cigarettes – there are long wish lists. She requests money. She asks for reading materials – Proust, Luxemburg, Mao, Freud,
Wittgenstein. She draws pictures for Felix and sends him messages in baby language. The letters are not reflective, not in the way that Vesper’s are. Nor are they as consistently ‘literary’; rather their style shifts abruptly from clichéd sentimentalism to hard-edged observation to banality to agitprop. Only her letter to Baader is passionate, a wild, pleading of whirling language, violent imagery, intertwining of private fantasy and political will (‘we are brutal with ourselves … this may lead to us being equally brutal and cold with everyone else’), culminating in the affirmation of ‘Hell, YES! Andreas, Praxis, You said it!’ The final letters between Vesper and Ensslin evidence the breakdown in relations between them, ending their story (though, as Ensslin herself observed, ‘Our story may have ended, but it is not the story as long as Felix exists) on a sour note.
Felix Ensslin’s afterword is remarkable. He is the subject of so many of the letters, and yet it is from a time that he cannot remember. Instead he has had a lifetime of dealing with a public image, a voyeuristic fascination with his mother and the many traces left behind by her and by his father. On receiving the folder of letters, he was older, he notes, than either of his parents came to be. One died in prison. The other killed himself in 1971. He reflects beautifully on the process of finding himself in them, of filling out and in (‘catching up on the filed, denied, missing’) parts of the story and of being able to fantasize possibilities of a future that did not come to pass. He writes:
These let ers have come to be important to me because they help throw a lit le sand in the inevitability of the great story-tel ing machine in which everything is propel ed towards death, murder, suicide. Alternative histories could have happened, different stories told. Felix does not disguise his anger at the pain his parents caused each other, themselves and other people.
He comments on how people would try to persuade him that his mother was acting on behalf of all the children, for a better, fairer future, and that is why he had to sacrifice his relationship with her. Some of that anger and hurt comes through here, as well as tenderness. It is an intelligent, sweet, not bitter, moving meditation on something greater than one child’s lost relationship to his parents. In Felix Ensslin’s effort to reflect on the curious intertwinements of personal and political histories and in its resolute insistence on the continuing openness and nuance of even the most seemingly closed histories, it instantiates something of that loosening that the editors of the blaringly monochrome and hysterical reissue of The German Issue might learn from.
Marx campG.A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2009. 92 pp., £10.95 pb., 978 0 691 14361 3.
This little book, published shortly after Jerry Cohen’s sudden death at the age of 68 in August 2009, vividly expresses his strengths and weaknesses as a socialist philosopher. Despite being best known for his brilliant first book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, by the time of his death Cohen had apparently come to describe himself as an ‘ex-Marxist’. His last book, however, evinces both the depth and the ambivalence of his continuing commitment to socialism.
Cohen invites us to imagine a camping trip. It is, he suggests, plausible to suppose that in such a situation ‘people cooperate within a common concern that, so far as is possible, everybody has a roughly similar opportunity to flourish, and also to relax, on condition that she contributes, appropriately to her capacity, to the flourishing and relaxing of others.’ A camping trip in which, by contrast, access to resources and the allocation of tasks were based on the principle of market exchange would not only not be much fun, but quite inefficient.
Cohen further suggests that socialism would involve the extension of the principles of equality and community that prevail on the camping trip to society as a whole. He distinguishes between three versions of equality of opportunity. Bourgeois equality of opportunity distributes advantage ignoring status differences, both formal (e.g. serfdom) and informal (e.g. race). Left-liberal equality of opportunity targets social disadvantages more broadly, but allows individuals to benefit unequally from their natural talents. Socialist equality of opportunity goes further still, seeking ‘to correct for al unchosen disadvantages, disadvantages for which the agent cannot reasonably be held responsible, whether they be disadvantages that reflect social misfortune or disadvantages that reflect natural misfortune’.
This presentation of different conceptions of equality distils a generation’s worth of discussion among anglophone political philosophers – discussion to which Cohen himself has been an important contributor (notably in ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, Ethics 99, 1989). There is a case for quibbling over how he differentiates between left-liberal and socialist equality of opportunity. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice famously dismissed the distribution of natural talents as ‘morally arbitrary’ and therefore not something from which individuals are entitled to benefit. Another egalitarian liberal philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, seeks to construct his own conception of equality of resources in a way that compensates individuals for the ‘brute bad lack’ that arises from being less talented than others.
Indeed, one might argue that there’s nothing especially socialist about a form of equality under which ‘differences of outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice’, given the emphasis it places on creating the conditions under which freedom of choice can prevail. One reason why Cohen might not be too worried about this objection is that he regards even socialist equality of opportunity as an insufficient basis for a socialist society. Community is required as well: under socialism ‘people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another’. This involves, in particular, people providing each other with goods and services because they need or want them, and not because the providers are materially rewarded for doing so.
Once again, Cohen here restates a theme of his more technical philosophical work. Indeed, his two preceding monographs – If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (2000) and Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008) – develop in great detail the argument that an egalitarian society requires not simply a just Rawlsian ‘basic structure’, with an appropriate distribution of rights and resources, but also an egalitarian ethos shaping the motivations of individual members of the society.
Thus Rescuing Justice and Equality develops an earlier critique of Rawls’s Difference Principle, according to which socio-economic inequalities are legitimate to the extent that they benefit the worst off. Rawls here relies on the idea that the more talented require material incentives in order to maximize their productive potential, and thereby to help to increase output, from which more resources can be allocated to the least advantaged. But, Cohen objects, this is not an argument that could be made by the more talented to the less if they all formed a ‘justificatory community’ whose members, where they have to react to the actions of other members, require these others to justify their actions. We may decide to pay a kidnapper the ransom he demands, but that doesn’t mean he could justify to us what he has done. The claim for incentives made by the more talented, Cohen suggests, is conceptually (and morally) comparable to a kidnapper’s demands.
These considerations lead Cohen to contend that it is desirable that the principles of equality and community governing the camping trip be extended to a society-wide scale. He is less sure, however, that socialism is feasible. This is not for the familiar reason that it contradicts human nature since he conceives this as a complex mixture of selfishness and generosity. The problem is rather that the failure of ‘existing socialism’ suggests we lack the ‘social technology’ to replace the market as a system of economic coordination. Cohen thinks that market socialism – that is, a society where the market integrates cooperatively owned enterprises – may be feasible, but he regards this very much as a second-best alternative to capitalism. This is partly because it would give greater rewards to the more talented people who formed their own cooperatives.
Perhaps a stronger objection for Cohen is that market socialism relies on the same motivations as ‘the hypertrophy of selfishness’ that drives capitalism. Markets rely on ‘base motives … the history of the twentieth century encourages the thought that the easiest way to generate productivity in a modern society is by nourishing the motives … of greed and fear. But we should never forget that greed and fear are repugnant motives.’ And thus the book concludes, with Cohen reaffirming simultaneously his hostility to the market, his uncertainty about how to replace it, and his commitment to seeking nonetheless to do so.Why Not Socialism? is a lucid and accessible statement of some of Cohen’s deepest preoccupations. In a sympathetic review, Ellen Meiksins Wood, one of the most trenchant critics of Cohen’s interpretation of Marx, argues that there is an inner connection between what she describes as the ‘transhistorical determinism’ of Karl Marx’s Theory of History and his later work on justice and equality: ‘having absorbed the operating principles of capitalism into a general law of history that didn’t allow for a historical explanation of how capitalism differed from other social forms, it now seemed reasonable to explain its specificities in purely moral terms’ (‘Happy Campers’, London Review of Books, 28 January 2010).
This is a bit too quick for several reasons. First, there is more to be said in favour of Cohen’s interpretation of historical materialism than Wood allows – but I shall not pursue this point here. Second, Wood is careful not to dismiss Cohen’s later work, noting that his ‘philosophy of moral choice was … very fruitful’. The implication is that it should be considered on its merits independently of however one assesses Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Indeed, once we grant, as I think we must, that in a socialist society resources would be scarce and differing individual needs and wants could not be spontaneously reconciled, then the kind of philosophical scrutiny of distributive principles to which Cohen devoted his later years is indispensable.
Third, I’m sure Cohen would deny that he conceptualized capitalism ‘in purely moral terms’. Wood is right nevertheless to point to the relative thinness of his account of capitalism, even in Karl Marx’s Theory of History. The reason for this is, however, less the supposedly transhistorical character of his version of historical materialism (any theory of history worthy of the name must posit explanatory mechanisms whose scope is broader than any specific society), than Cohen’s long-standing rejection of Marx’s value theory. This led him in Karl Marx’s Theory of History to seek to restate the Marxian critique of capitalism in terms that don’t depend on value theory. Perhaps because the results were evidently weak and unsatisfactory, he seems subsequently to have confined himself to exploring the moral foundations of a post-capitalist society.
In consequence, Cohen fails to appreciate that the problem with market socialism isn’t simply that it relies on ‘repugnant motives’. Marx’s value theory conceptualizes capitalism as constituted by the social equalization of labour via competition among interdependent but autonomous producers and by the exploitation of labour-power within the units of production. Market socialists seek to separate the first from the second.
This would be harder to achieve than Cohen acknowledges because the imposition of market discipline on individual units of production is likely to generate hierarchies of power and inequalities of power within the workforce.
Market socialism is thus an unstable form of economic coordination: the pressure of competition is liable to undermine the cooperative organization of production. Indeed, in distancing himself from the Marxist critique of political economy, Cohen loses sight of what Wood calls the ‘systemic imperatives’ that drive capitalism towards economic crisis and environmental destruction. Perhaps for this reason he was unwilling to explore (despite some ineffectual prompting on my part) the models of democratic planning developed by anti-capitalist economists such as Michael Albert and Pat Devine.
These criticisms do not in any way diminish the depth and subtlety of all Cohen’s work, or his abiding socialist commitment. He begins Rescuing Justice and Equality by invoking Marx’s discussion of ‘human emancipation’ in ‘On the Jewish Question’:In the ideal socialist society, equal respect and concern are not projected out of society and restricted to the ambit of an alien superstructural power, the state. If the right principles are, as Marx thought, the ones that are right for real, everyday, material life, and if they are practised in everyday life, as the socialist ideal utopianly envisages that they wil be, then the state can wither away.
Whatever pressure Cohen seems to have felt to distance himself from Marxism, his philosophical explorations seem never to have strayed too far from their original source.
Pop more bubbles, pleaseBrett Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexkül , Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze, SUNY Press, New York, 2008. 223 pp., $75.00 hb., $24.95 pb., 978 0 79147 611 6 hb., 978 0 79147 612 3 pb.
What has been variously termed ‘the animal question’ in philosophy, as in many other disciplines, has become of increasing importance in recent years; though, as Cary Wolfe has argued, critical theory and cultural studies have rather lagged behind in this regard (something which may be regarded as, in fact, an understatement, given their all too humanistic focus). Yet this supposed ‘animal question’ is not a new question – as diverse contemporary studies also reveal – and it is not one question, for many questions emerge here about knowledge practices, living practices, killing, eating, and wider ecological or environmental practices, as well as the many politics of human–animal entanglements, in what might better be seen as more-than-human worlds.
An entry, as provided here by Brett Buchanan, into the ways twentieth-century philosophers engaged with animals and environments more generally can be found in Being and Time, where Heidegger admonishes the ways that biologists misuse the notion of environment, treating it as something given. Heidegger is followed in this by Merleau-Ponty, in the course notes on Nature and The Visible and the Invisible, though in differing ways and seemingly without much sense of what the former wrote. Both stress relations between animals and environments in which fleshy bodies become inseparable from the immediate environments they are of and become within. For Deleuze, the focus, when he writes of animals (and animals are not at all of major importance, but an example in his work), is on much more open becomings in terms of the relations between entities that point towards a geophilosophy of flows, folds and lines of flight. But all make use of Jakob von Uexküll’s researches to help drive their differing philosophies in ways that decentre animal bodies, though Deleuze carries this forward most radically (as well as perhaps problematically) in terms of seeking to develop (micro-)politics that might ring out transformations in current human–animal ecological political relations in their hugely diverse forms. As such this is a book about how aspects of Uexküll’s researches are put to use by these philosophers in a way that stretches notions of being into becomings and conceptions of environments and beyond.
Uexküll’s work has gradually risen in prominence throughout the twentieth century in European philosophy, though, it must be said, rather less so in the discipline of biology itself, broadly understood. (Agamben disagrees; in The Open: Man and Animal he argues Uexküll has become one of the greatest zoologists of the twentieth century and a founder of ecology, a view that perhaps partly reflects a disjunction between European and North American perspectives on the rise of ecology, or, more likely, an overly philosophical understanding of how ecology developed, rather than how ethology was more lately developed.) It has also been claimed that Uexküll helped pave the way for cybernetic approaches in biology. He has been claimed as a forerunner of what is termed biosemiotics or zoosemiotics – the emerging cross-disciplinary study of the meanings and signs of organisms that effectively focuses on the study of the signs of life – aspects of which Uexküll developed first in his Theoretische Biologie. Those readers who do not regularly peruse the pages of journals such as Sign Systems Studies or Semiotica, or the writings of Thomas Sebeok, are perhaps more likely to have come across unelaborated references to Uexküll in the works of Deleuze and Guattari, or more lately in Agamben,
Elizabeth Grosz and Paul Bains among others. But his work was also something of an influence on Cassirer,
Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Maturana, and many others. This is rare company indeed for a somewhat marginal early-twentieth-century biologist.
Brett Buchanan does warn us not to read too much into how Uexkül ’s work influences the philosophies and onto-ethologies of these aforementioned philosophers, but he does seek to show how they each made use of Uexküll’s work. (Agamben again disagrees, arguing that Uexküll ‘strongly influenced’ both Heidegger and Deleuze – but Buchanan knows this; he just resists such epithets.) As such, this is a subtle book, a welcome engagement with a renewed focus on certain strands of biophilosopies of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on animals at a time when the so-called ‘animal question’ is moving through a whole ream of different disciplines. It is a reading that goes deeper than Agamben’s chapters on Heidegger and Uexküll in The Open, and takes the reader in different directions, as well as seeking to give some contextualization of his work and Kantian-derived philosophy.
Buchanan provides an introductory chapter setting out some of the basic concepts and philosophy of biology in Uexküll. Often overviews of Uexküll’s work can quickly become very technical, but here Buchanan gives an outline that has much more of a philosophical slant than a biological or semiological one. He also engages in a brief discussion of Uexküll’s relationship to Darwinian theory at the time. For Buchanan, Uexküll castigated Darwin for generating ‘hopeless confusion’ with his theory of evolution.
Yet, as he states, this supposed critique of Darwin seems also to emerge from a host of misinterpretations, and is in many ways unconvincing. For Uexküll ‘nature’ has a design where beings develop through an unfolding inner force or morphological plan: a view (according to Ernst Mayr) that did not make his theories acceptable to most biologists of his day.
Nonetheless his theories do not hold to a teleology of nature. Instead, Buchanan suggests that Uexküll retains a kind of neo-vitalism. However, this does not seem to have been Heidegger’s view of Uexküll, and Heidegger seemed to have been able to sniff out a (neo-)vitalist quite well. Uexküll was sympathetic to vitalism but did not regard himself as being one. Nor was Uexküll anti-evolution, being neither a Darwinian nor a Lamarckian in this respect, but took a third way that came out of the work of the development theories of animal organization proposed by Karl Ernst von Baer. As Buchanan argues, Uexküll had different priorities than Darwin’s focus on natural selection, being more interested in the physical development of the organism and how ‘the animal’, together with its environment, forms a whole system, and how animals and environments are implicated beyond the skin of the body. Critical for this inseparability was the concept of Umwelt, or better Umwelten, the hugely differing subjective ways in which differing animals perceive their worlds – a radically non-anthropocentric perspective for biology. Umwelten are described as like a soap bubble that ‘circles around and contains the limits of each specific organism’s life.’ Inside this bubble certain things are significant and meaningful, whilst ‘outside’ other things are as good as non-existent.
These are not monadic worlds cut off from others; rather, Umwelten are intersubjective but different for each organism or type of animal, and are continuously produced by interactions between animals and other things in their subjective environments. It was this neo-Kantian-based notion of subjective Umwelten that seems to have been most important for Heidegger’s uptake of Uexküll’s work, as well as that of both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, with the latter finding in Uexküll someone who counts the affects of bodies as a ‘Spinozist of affects’.
Yet, even as Buchanan does seek to contextualize the work of Uexküll, there would have been something to be said for a more direct engagement with the ambivalence towards Darwinian evolution that runs through certain strands of continental philosophy in the twentieth century: an ambivalence, or more, that is given most force in Deleuze and Guattari’s utter rejection of the Darwinian vertical ‘tree of life’ – a metaphor of arborescence was been prioritized and branded in the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species by the London Natural History Museum and the BBC over the course of their 2009 festivities. According to Buchanan, Heidegger was drawn to Uexküll’s research ‘because he finds in him an accomplice in biology in order to think through the concept of the world’, and he is generally seen as the biologist for whom Heidegger has nothing but praise.
Still, Heidegger remained ultimately frustrated with Uexküll for not radicalizing his theories, especially in terms of the fundamental difference between animals and humans. The result, as is well known, is that an animal behaves within an environment (or sometimes does not have an environment, but a milieu) but not, for Heidegger, within a ‘world’: only ‘man’ has a world, while ‘the animal’ is poor in world. (You can forget about the stone altogether.) The big feature here is the 1929–30 lecture series The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics.
This text has been pored over a lot in recent years, including in Agamben’s The Open. But Buchanan provides a slightly different twist, for he wants to tease out, in more detail, the ontological status of animal behaviour in Heidegger’s work. He does this in a way that still feels fresh, although, particularly towards the end of the second chapter on Heidegger, one does wish here that his discussion of Uexküll’s Umwelten included more of his biological research to show how Heidegger leaned on this and converted it into his travails through animal behaviour and his distinctions between ‘man’ and ‘animal’. Indeed, the lack of clearer explication of Uexküll’s work, beyond repeated iterations of how metaphors used to describe the Umwelten have been taken up by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, then Deleuze (and Guattari), is perhaps the general weakness of this book. Instead we get an in-depth outline of how animals were incorporated into the latter’s philosophies to do differing things, such as, for Deleuze, to smash out of the notion of a bubble, so as to make animals even more radically relational. In this Uexküll disappears for long sections of the book, while Buchanan never really looks at the possible relevance to recent philosophy of any of Uexküll’s concepts beyond that of his Umwelten notion. Moreover, the lack of any real engagement with work from biosemiotics, and semiotics more generally, means that the area where Uexküll has most clearly risen to prominence, and where a massive amount of scholarship (some good, some not so good, as ever), has been done on his relations with philosophy, is somewhat passed over.
Still, this is a compelling book, even if the greater concentration on Heidegger means that Onto-Ethologies constitutes something of a lost opportunity to have engaged in more detail with other traditions of thought.
This is particularly true of the recent emergence of Deleuze and Guattari as philosophers who, for many, are thought to aid an ecological politics that would be more ecological than ‘ecology as a science’, with all the repercussions this would have for the ‘animal question’.
Recent work by Patrick Hayden, Bernd Herzogenrath and others is seeking to push at a radical naturalism that Uexküll can also be seen to be generating. This book may aid these linkages and connections, helping to produce a more philosophically engaged politics of human–animal practices.
New asceticismJim McGuigan, Cool Capitalism, Pluto Press, London, 2009. 282 pp., £50.00 hb., £15.99 pb., 978 0 74532 640 5 hb., 978 0 74532 678 8 pb.
The problem that Jim McGuigan’s impressively wideranging book addresses – capital’s capacity to incorporate dissent – is an old one. Under neoliberal hegemony, however, capital’s omniphagic capacity to consume all exeriority became supercharged. Capital did not merely absorb disaffection, it fed on it. McGuigan identifies the metabolization of the desires and discourses of the 1960s’ counterculture as the crucial moment in this process. He draws upon Thomas Frank’s doctoral thesis, The Conquest of Cool, which argues that, far from undermining capitalism, the countercultural rebellions of the 1960s ‘effectively – and ironically – refreshed the cultural and political economy of corporate America’. ‘Coolness’ is a necessarily nebulous concept, in part because it is always shifting (hence the phenomenon of corporate ‘cool hunters’, charged with pursuing and capturing it). McGuigan shows that the concept of ‘coolness’ originated in Africa, and, in America, ‘coolness’ – from jazz to hip-hop – has always been associated with black culture. Business schools and management gurus seized upon the rhetoric and imagery of the counterculture in the 1960s, but they were only able fully to incorporate ‘coolness’ in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the East and the emergence of post-Fordism in the West. In the last thirty years, the older spirit of capitalism analysed by Max Weber, based on asceticism and rational calculation, has been superseded by the new spirit theorized by Boltanski and Chiapello. Hijacking the rhetoric of May ’68, this new capitalism privileged spontaneity, multitasking and hedonism. By the twenty-first century, ‘cool’ and ‘capitalism’ are firmly yoked together, and not only in the West. A 2004 market research report showed that ‘Chinese students value “cool” … and they associate it with leading Western or Westernized brand companies, most notably Nike, Sony, Adidas, BMW,
Microsoft, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nokia, Samsung, Ferrari and Christian Dior.’ Whilst originating in the USA, ‘cool capitalism’ now has global appeal:
The legitimacy of market forces in any sphere of life, consumer sovereignty, widespread participation in capitalism through share ownership, anti-government rhetoric, ‘cool’ culture and the argot associated with it, al these elements emanate from the US but are now global in their reach, representing the popular appeal of neoliberalism around the world One of the stories of the last thirty years has been the annexing and subduing of bohemia by business, and McGuigan’s discussion of bohemia proves to be one of the most fascinating sections of the book. He returns to Marcuse’s concept of art as ‘the Great Refusal – the protest against that which is’. Whilst conceding that Marcuse’s thought was in the end too ‘totalizing’, McGuigan defends Marcuse from the common criticism that he was a ‘cultural elitist’. This kind of dismissal of Marcuse is of course typical of the flattened out ‘democratization’ which is very much a part of the new spirit of capitalism, and which has successfully smeared Marxism at the same time as it has denigrated intellectualism. As Jameson argues in his essay ‘Actually Existing Marxism’ (recently collected in Valences of the Dialectic), ‘the repudiation of Marcuse at once takes a political and an anti-intellectual form (who is the philosopher-king appointed to adjudicate between the true and the false in these matters, etc.?).’ McGuigan traces the Great Refusal back to the Paris of the 1830s and the 1840s. From the start, bohemianism was caught in a relationship with the bourgeoisie that was both symbiotic and antagonistic. Even as they excoriated bourgeois mores, the bohemians depended on the bourgeoisie for money, and the way that a series of art movements – realism, naturalism, impressionism, cubism – first of all challenged and then were absorbed into the dominant culture is the paradigm case of the process of rebellion and recuperation which has characterized capitalist innovation. ‘Each movement challenged academic art, was at first rejected by the academy and eventually usurped the old academy and became the new one, in a dialectic of refusal and incorporation.’ Yet this process seems to have been short-circuited by the emergence of something like the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Here, the moment of ‘rebellion’ and incorporation became simultaneous.
With someone like Damien Hirst, an attenuated and anodyne sense of ‘shock’ was coterminous with – even preceded by – his championing by business. The partnership between Charles Saatchi and Hirst brought advertising and art – which had shadowed each other throughout the twentieth century – into a tight synergy.
If, before, advertising had plundered art, now art – like every other form of culture – had become a form of advertising. In these conditions, ‘the Great Refusal’ becomes a passé romanticism, and the required attitude is a chic realism which fully embraces consumerism. The tastemakers in this era of hyper-conspicuous consumption are not artists, but celebrities: McGuigan gives the examples of David Beckham and Michael Jordan. Nike’s marketing of the Air Jordan sneakers is for McGuigan ‘an exemplary case of the articulation of the articulation of a life-enhancing sport (basketball), blackness and global – that is, American – consumer culture under the dominant sign of “cool”.’ Yet, as Naomi Klein long ago made us aware, Nike is also notorious for its exploitative outsourcing of labour to sweatshops. Capitalism’s ‘cool’ veneer – McGuigan also points to mobile phones, manufactured in factories in Shenzen, where there is insufficient ventilation and a high concentration of toxic substances – is typically a front for the most exploitative processes.
Even as it cites the resurgence of socialism in South America, McGuigan’s concluding chapter on anti-capitalism maintains that ‘capitalism is here to stay, having survived any conceivable challenge to its reason to be’. This might have seemed to be the case at neoliberalism’s moment of high pomp, but things appear rather different in the wake of the financial crash. Capitalism may not have instantly perished, as some hoped, but neither has it survived the crash intact. Only a few years ago, capitalism confidently proclaimed itself the only system that worked, but we are now in a situation in which nothing seems to work. As Martin Wolf declared in the Financial Times last year, ‘the assumptions that ruled policy and politics over three decades suddenly look as outdated as revolutionary socialism’. Cool Capitalism does a thorough job in identifying what anti-capitalism is still up against, but the book begs the question: is it necessary to create a ‘cool’ anti-capitalism, or should we be seeking to overcome the ‘coolness’ that has supported capitalism for the last thirty years? ‘Coolness’ has in many ways served as a synonym for ‘contemporary’, and it is, without a doubt, imperative that anti-capitalism resist cool capitalism’s identification of modernization with neoliberalization. Yet is it also necessary to defeat ‘coolness’ itself? In place of consumerism’s slick insouciance, can we posit a new ascesis, a new Great Refusal?
New new (graphic) journalismJoe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, Jonathan Cape, London, 2009. 432 pp., £20.00 hb. 978 0 22407 109 3.
Early in Footnotes in Gaza Maltese-American comics artist Joe Sacco shows the development of Khan Younis in the Gaza strip from a refugee camp in the late 1940s to an overcrowded twenty-first-century town. A sequence of panels shows Palestinian refugees putting up tents, then building brick huts, then building bigger houses. Sacco makes use of a whole page to show the symmetrical layout of row after row of identical singlefloor dwellings. Turning the page, the reader is brought up to date with a double-page spread showing the ground-level housing replaced by apartment blocks, the only way for the overcrowded camp to expand being upwards. This destitute vista transitions into an episode that shows Sacco accompanying an official from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) on a visit to a Palestinian family of eleven who share two rooms. The mother enthusiastically encourages Sacco to take photographs to show the outside world the conditions in Khan Younis. The panels show Sacco doing just this; the skinny, crop-haired, bespectacled figure with his camera photographing the single bed and the bundles of clothes hanging up in plastic bags.
Two panels apparently reproduce photographs of a broken cooker and leaking sink, the visuals tethered to the narrative by Sacco’s superfluous commentary and the insistent requests from the mother that he continue to take pictures.
This brief but telling episode encapsulates Sacco’s by now recognizable signature: the embedding of his persona within the narrative conducting research, the processual investigation charted by the gathering of research through oral testimony, which in turn is transformed into the narrative discourse. Sacco’s persona remains ever present even as he tries to merge into the background, his own features ironically caricatured in contrast to his more detailed representations of the faces of eyewitnesses who are often shown speaking directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall. Sacco has almost single-handedly created the genre of war journalism in the comics medium with his graphic reportage from conflict zones such as the Bosniak enclave in Safe Area Goražde (2000), postwar Sarajevo in The Fixer (2003), and the West Bank and the Gaza strip during the First Intifada in Palestine (2001). This style draws explicitly from two sources, New Journalism and underground comix, that combine to produce Sacco’s characteristic method, equal parts Michael Herr and Robert Crumb.
Sacco’s work is itself emblematic of a wider historical movement in anglophone comics that has opened the medium up to non-fictional discourses such as memoir, autobiography and journalism. Possibly the most famous example of this is Art Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic holocaust memoir Maus (1991), but it also encompasses such diverse and random examples as Jewish socialist everyman Harvey Pekar’s ongoing American Splendor (1976–), and Alison Bechdel’s coming-of-age and coming-out chronicle Fun Home (2006). This trend is further evidenced in francophone bande dessinée such as Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in post-revolutionary Iran, Persepolis (2003), Guy Delisle’s Shenzhen (2000) and Pyongyang (2004), which dealt with the author’s experiences of working in China and North Korea, and, most recently,
Emmanuel Guibert’s dramatic recontextualizing and re-narrativizing of journalist Didier Lefèvre’s photographs taken in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in The Photographer (2009). Footnotes in Gaza was partly inspired by a passing reference in Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle (1983) that examined the relationship between America,
Israel and Arab Palestinians, arguing that American media operated a pro-Zionist bias. Chomsky made a passing reference to the killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in Khan Younis in 1956. In 2001 Sacco started working with Harper’s journalist Chris Hedges on a piece that would look at how people in Khan Younis were coping with the Second Intifada. Though the killings were a significant part of the town’s history, references were cut from the published article. Sacco’s research had further unearthed details of another incident at about the same time in the neighbouring town of Rafah in which 111 Palestinians were killed by the IDF, this time buried deep in a UN report. Such incidents, writes Sacco, constitute ‘footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war’, referring to the post-imperial debacle that was the Suez conflict. Footnotes divides somewhat unevenly between accounts from Khan Younis, and what Sacco originally set out to cover, and those from Rafah, which he became progressively more interested in and which form the lengthier section in the book.The fragmented flux of the comics page captures the sense of frustrated relation between past and present as panels and narration shift from one temporal and spatial location to another in an instant, the articulation between these two narrative strands performed over the larger unit of the page and across the totality of the work. Sacco repeats the use of the whole page or the double-page spread at key moments throughout Footnotes, most notably in his depiction of the Khan Younis killings, which shows side-by-side page-length illustrations of a fourteenth-century castle: the first shows dead bodies piled against the wall of the castle in 1956; the second shows the castle fifty years later, the walls covered in graffiti and posters, cars parked against where the bodies had lain half a century before.
This sense of fragmented flux is carried over into the content: Sacco’s narratives proceed episodically and by a process of accumulation of detail that incorporates analepses and prolepses, and often pause to consider the problematic nature of veracity and the unreliability of memory. Sacco is fully aware of the problems associated with traumatic memories and often foregrounds this. One instance of many across not just Footnotes but his entire body of graphic journalism is the testimony given by Khamis, a survivor of the Khan Younis massacre, who remembers his three brothers dying in striking detail. The problem is his family and friends insist Khamis was not in Khan Younis at the time.
What Sacco calls the ‘twinning of grief and guilt’ leads to a disjuncture in the account and highlights the problem of eyewitness testimony. But Sacco insists that such digressions should not cloud what he calls the ‘essential truth’, namely that 275 Palestinians were shot that day in Khan Younis by the IDF, including Khamis’s three brothers.
The use of eyewitness accounts forms an important part of Sacco’s work, especially in his ability to represent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East through the oral accounts of Muslims, the very people that Chomsky accuses the American media of under-representing. But Footnotes comes with a hefty research-based documentary scaffolding to buttress these accounts. As well as scouring UN archives, Sacco employed two Israeli researchers to comb the archives of the IDF and the Knesset, as well as press archives such as that of Kol Ha’am, the organ of the Israeli Communist Party. Reliance on the archive brings with it different problems, of course, particularly if records are missing or inaccessible, and this is another problem that Sacco has to negotiate. These available sources find their way into the fabric of the text in the extensive appendices (mistakenly omitted in the first print run by the publisher Jonathan Cape) which include transcripts of interviews with Israeli military personnel, extracts from newspaper accounts and UN reports. Sacco also names bibliographic historical sources, notably right-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris, with whom he met in Jerusalem.
What Footnotes and other non-fiction comics dramatize is the productive tension that inevitably arises when attempting to represent the past through subjective filters and elliptical records. The appeal such texts make to authenticity is somewhat undercut by the artifice of the comics page which adverts its own form through the use of a hybridic system of signification that draws on and often collapses the distinction between the verbal and the visual. This dialectical tension is something that the best non-fiction comics incorporate into the texture of their narrative discourse, resulting in what Charles Hatfield has called, in his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, ‘ironic authentication’. What Sacco’s work shows, and enacts, is how the conflicts that he reports on are always already heavily mediated. In acknowledging the filtering of these conflicts, Sacco calls into question the very possibility of neutral, objective accounts that seek to represent both sides’ point of view but singularly fail to take into account the grossly uneven status between those sides. Footnotes in Gaza, rather than being simply a sequel or continuation of his earlier Palestine, caps an incredibly rich sequence of works from Sacco that provokes serious questions about the representation of history as well as constituting a valuable counter-archive in itself.
The customs manErdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Christine Shuttleworth, Libris, London, 2009. 242 pp., £30.00 hb., 978 1 870 35217 8.
In a startling moment in his ‘Conversations with Brecht’, Walter Benjamin recalls being intensely moved during one of their discussions ‘by a power that was the equal of that of fascism – one that is no less deeply rooted in the depths of history than fascism’s power’. Erdmut Wizisla’s study implicitly elaborates upon this ambiguous power as that of friendliness, to be understood not in some facile way as intimacy, but in that specific sense which Benjamin evokes in his commentary on Brecht’s Lao Tzu poem. The friendly confrontation that enables the customs man to extract the wisdom of the exiled philosopher in the poem produces that humanity which, in the darkest moments of existence, demands we take up the cause of the oppressed. For thinkers like Brecht and Benjamin, the value of such friendliness as a medium of exchange was to be measured in terms of productivity. Benjamin’s epistemology, no less than what he calls his ‘existential economy’, was underpinned by an insistence that truth lies in the movement between extremes. The friendliness of ‘dangerous’ relationships, in which he included his own with Brecht, was necessary and productive to the extent that it permitted him a ‘freedom to juxtapose things and ideas that are considered irreconcilable’.
Those ideas normally considered irreconcilable in Benjamin’s thought are historical materialism and theology, embodied by the contrasting figures of Brecht and Gershom Scholem. Wizisla’s subtitle might suggest a balancing response to the latter’s ‘Story of a Friendship’ and a re-evaluation of Scholem’s verdict that the influence of Brecht upon Benjamin’s thought was ‘baleful’ and ‘disastrous’. Instead, and in spite of the meekness of its philological exactness and theoretical reserve, the book threatens the complete annihilation of Scholem’s inadequate biographical concept of friendship and the intellectual claim upon Benjamin that this grounds. Wizisla draws attention to a remark, taken from the archived minutes of the editorial meetings for the aborted 1931 journal Crisis and Criticism, which form the centrepiece of this book, that indicates the relationship between theology and materialism within Benjamin’s thought: ‘There have always been movements, formerly predominantly religious ones which, like Marx did, start out with the radical demolition of icons. Two research methods: (i) theology; (ii) materialist dialectic.’ That the refusal to attempt their juxaposition is more dangerous than the risk associated with failing is a principle that underpins Benjamin’s whole philosophy.
The danger of failing, as Wizisla cautions, is that of remaining caught in an extremism inscribed as limiting concepts at the borders of Benjamin’s thought:
Zionism and Stalinism. It is ironic that Brecht detected an acquiescence to what he called ‘Jewish fascism’ in Benjamin’s affinity with Kafka, at the spot in which the critic, for all the complexity of their interpretative disagreements, remained closest to Scholem. For the charge, which Wizisla quite rightly contextualizes in its political relation to Zionism (a reaction to the alienating power of modernity that in its rejection of social categories produces a longing for leadership), is identical to that which Benjamin eventually levels at Brecht’s earlier poetry. The ‘pious falsification’ of his own commentary had failed to clarify the extent to which Brecht’s poems were ‘implicated’ to the same degree in the development of the Cheka under Stalinism, he writes, where ‘the worst elements of the Communist party resonate with the most unscrupulous ones of National Socialism’. If theology and materialism share a common methodological intent, the failure to reconcile them points to a shared ideological consequence. ‘Friendliness’, Benjamin insisted, ‘does not abolish the distance between human beings but brings that distance to life’, and the ultimate success of Wizisla’s book hinges on the capacity to articulate neither the biographical proximity nor the material productivity of Brecht and Benjamin’s friendliness – easily measured in terms of shared months in exile or literary output – but to revive its theoretical one. Wizisla’s research into Crisis and Criticism provides the opportunity for such a task, and the journal on which both artist and critic collaborated closely assumes a virtual existence in his book through its reconstruction in the important central chapter and in the appendix’s reproduction of the archival documentation. As director of both the Brecht and the Benjamin archives in Berlin, Wizisla’s intention is to correct the omission of the former’s value and importance for the construction of the constellation of friendships which have determined the reception of the latter’s thought. This concern also informs the new critical edition of the Benjamin archive (projected at twenty-one volumes), directed against the organizational and editorial distortions it has suffered at the hands of Adorno, Scholem and Tiedemann. For this reason, it is a disappointment that a significant section (Edition und Forschung) in the first chapter of the German edition of Wizisla’s book has been omitted from the English translation, for it includes an important discussion of the controversy surrounding the afterlife of Benjamin’s work.
Wizisla’s descent into the archives clears the intellectual space necessary to survey the extent of Brecht and Benjamin’s friendliness without, however, retrieving its vital theoretical ground. It establishes, for example, how Benjamin’s interest in Brecht led to a first meeting as early as 1924, indicating that the former’s admiration for Brecht’s poetry is consistent with the philosophical and aesthetic tendencies of his earlier writings, and not simply predicated on a shared ‘Marxist turn’. Conversely, Brecht’s capacity to tolerate Communist Party orthodoxy became a political dividing point in their collaboration on the journal, without leading to a divergence of theoretical understanding. Benjamin had withdrawn his editorial involvement in response to the content assembled in preparation for the first edition by the working committee led by Brecht. These articles toed the Communist Party line with regard to the leadership role assigned to the intellectual in the revolutionary process, ignoring the need for revolutionizing the existing means of intellectual production in turn. The failure to do so rendered the socialist aesthetic amenable to fascist appropriation, contradicting the insights Benjamin found confirmed in Brecht’s own artistic practice. These signals of theoretical continuity suggest, Wizisla argues, that the omission of Brecht’s name from Adorno’s work on Benjamin is ‘far from accidental, and cannot be explained by reference to his philosophically accentuated interpretation of Benjamin’.
The book sparks with hints of what these theoretical affinities might be, without providing any philosophical elaboration for this encounter. Whilst Wizisla emphasizes their shared commitment to the contemporary renewal of criticism, the minutes for the journal suggest Brecht sought to restore criticism’s relation to the concrete and empirical by way of the ‘objectivity’ of a scientific empiricism. In contrast, Benjamin insists on proceeding via the philosophical legacy of the Kantian concept of criticism, a view consistent with his earlier writing on Romanticism. There is a point of contact between these two positions, which Benjamin must have sensed and which is the true foundation of their theoretical reconciliation, and it lies in a specific kind of philosophical pragmatism which informs their shared understanding of the methodological principle of historical construction. Günther Anders claims that ‘Benjamin understood Brecht far better than Brecht understood Benjamin’, but it is also tempting to conclude that Benjamin understood Brecht better than Brecht understood himself. The desubjectivizing experience associated with modern forms of artistic practice (baroque Trauerspiel, Brechtian poetry, epic theatre) – which typically dominates discussions of the productivity of Brecht and Benjamin’s friendship – must be understood in this broader philosophical context. Intellectual production is removed from the hands of the oppressors when it encounters such a pragmatism. For this, ‘the customs man also deserves our thanks’.