Flaubert’s parrotJacques Rancière, The Politics of Literature, trans. Julie Rose, Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden MA, 2011. 215 pp., £55.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 978 0 74564 531 5 hb., 978 0 74564 530 8 pb.
The ongoing role played by French philosophy in underwriting the contemporaneity of anglophone theory has entailed, since the 1970s, the development of a particularly complex relationship to literature as an academic discipline. This has had something to do with what Alain Badiou has described as postwar French philosophy’s own ‘singular alliance between philosophy and literature’, from Sartre and Blanchot to Derrida and Deleuze. But it has been at least as much a function of the disciplinary conservatism of academic philosophy in Britain and the United States, which meant that it was the (relatively indisciplined) institu‑tional site of literary studies – made up of ‘a concoction of homemade disciplines’, as Roman Jakobson com‑plained – that became a space of refuge for those doing certain kinds of ‘philosophical’ work. As often as not, this meant simply that theory amounted to philosophy (or, at any rate, philosophical commentary) ‘done’ by people who paid their rent by teaching in departments of literature. Still, the becoming near‑synonymous of literary theory and theory per se during the 1980s and 1990s, and the fact that the forms of desire invested in French thought found their central context within literary studies, as well as their primary pedagogical site in the teaching of students otherwise occupied by novels and poems, no doubt affected the character of its reception in the English‑speaking world. And despite its continual obituaries, and the undoubted shift back towards historicism in mainstream ‘lit. crit.’ (albeit of a vaguely post‑Foucauldian sort), theory remains big business, at least so far as academic ‘business’ goes.
So there continues to be a considerable stake in finding ways to assimilate the latest ‘French philosophy’ into literary theory as a signifier of the latter’s continued modernity today.
As yet, however, such a project has not proved easy:
either because, like the currently modish ‘speculative realism’ of Meillasoux, the neoclassical character of the philosophy in question has little obvious relevance to the kinds of issues that literary or cultural theory has historically engaged, or because, as with Badiou himself, what readings are to be found within his work so obviously reduce the literary text to the status of an abstract exemplum from the philosophy itself. It would be unsurprising, then, if, among the current crop of celebrity names constitutive of ‘contemporary French philosophy’, a good deal of hope might well be attached to the œuvre of Jacques Rancière – a hope which, presumably, the publication of The Politics of Literature seeks to satisfy.
First published in France in 2006, the book brings together nine essays authored since 1997, along with (somewhat inexplicably) a previously uncollected piece on Brecht from 1979. From the perspective of literary studies, what novelty it offers comes from its recog‑nizably ‘French’, philosophically inflected and postFoucauldian focus upon the concept of ‘literature’ as designating a historically delimited ‘practice of the art of writing’. At the same time, it gives an insight into the degree to which Rancière’s more recent writings on the ‘aesthetic regime’ derive their initial impetus from an account of literary practice in particular; something partially obscured by his somewhat unlikely celebrity within contemporary art theory. In this sense, The Politics of Literature is best read as a sequel to the earlier The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, which collected together essays written in the early 1990s. Indeed, in many instances it directly repeats the arguments, even phrasing, of the latter; although it lacks its range and more sustained coherence as a single volume. Certainly the thoroughly canonical and parochial series of literary ‘figures’ who popu‑late this new collection’s central section are mostly familiar from the earlier book. More to the point, its central thesis is one that was itself already succinctly articulated in The Flesh of Words: ‘literature’, far from constituting any trans historical term for the linguistic ‘arts’ in general, is rather ‘that singular power that was founded on the … collapse of rules of representa‑tion that determined genres and modes of expression appropriate for one subject or another’ around the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.
Although, then, the book The Politics of Literature appears, in English, some years after one enti‑tled The Politics of Aesthetics, it reveals the degree to which it is, arguably, literature that comes first, both chronologically and conceptually, in Rancière’s thought. This is unsurprising given that the essays col‑lected in the The Flesh of Words originally overlapped with the publications of both The Names of History (1992) – which already broached the deconstructive question of modern historiography’s reliance upon, as well as resistance to, new forms of poetics and narrative – and what is probably still Rancière’s most celebrated text, Disagreement (1995), in which it was argued that ‘the modern political animal is first a liter‑ary animal’. Hence, just as what is conceptualized as a certain ‘literarity’, a ‘radical democracy of the letter that anyone can grab hold of’, is said to be always at work in authentic politics, so some form of political activity is claimed as intrinsic to what literature qua literature itself is, to the extent that it ‘intervenes as literature in this carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and noise’. Tellingly, this formulation is, almost word for word, the same as that used elsewhere to define aesthetics.
As with most of Rancière’s work since Disagreement, what is at stake in the politics of literature thus turns out to be the question of its specific relationship to democracy. Although Foucault is the most obvious reference point for The Politics of Literature’s histori‑cizing emphasis on literature as a ‘new regime’, there is, in fact, an equally evident Derridian provenance to this conception of a ‘radical democracy of the letter’, which could be read as following up on the latter’s own assertion that the ‘institution of literature’ is one pro‑foundly ‘linked to an authorization to say everything, and doubtless too to the coming about of the modern idea of democracy’. For Rancière, in an argument that seems tacitly indebted to Auberbach’s Mimesis, this inherently democratic aspect resides, specifically, in the new ‘aesthetic’ equivalence of articulability and visibility that literature grants, in principle, to anything and anyone – the ‘“inner life” of a farmer’s daughter’ is as worthy of being related as ‘the spectacular events that befall great figures’ – while, at the same time, making literary practice analogous to the disruption of social hierarchies which manifests itself in the ‘symbolic breaks’ of properly political dissensus. ‘The “crises de vers” that shook the end of the 1880s is the equivalent, in the “temple” of poetry, of the revolution that broke out in the “public square” a century earlier’, Rancière writes of Mallarmé – though the precise historical character of such ‘equivalence’ is subjected to little theoretical elaboration.
Given the book’s lack of any real engagement with previous critical work (beyond a few easy jabs at Sartre), it is worth remarking that, in their basic form, these are hardly uncommon observations in anglophone literary history – most evidently in accounts of the rise of that anti‑generic genre par excellence the novel – even if it is noticeable that, unlike, say, Ian Watt or Benedict Anderson, Rancière has comparatively little of substance to say about, for example, the role played by new technologies of ‘print capitalism’ in the novel’s emergence. At any rate, the originality of The Politics of Literature, such as it is, comes not, therefore, from the connection it establishes between this new regime of literature and modern democratic politics, but in the particularly ‘philosophical’ manner in which it seeks to track the multiple, often contradictory political and artistic ‘logics’ that unfurl from this essential linkage itself. While, then, for Rancière, on the one hand, literature is indeed marked by the collapse of a priori forms and the Aristotelian system of differences that once ‘allowed the social hierarchies to be represented’, on the other, as literature (that is, as precisely a form of art and not of politics) it must simultaneously invent various new ‘rules of appropriateness’ that would combat the democratic disordering on which it relies.
Unsurprisingly, the bold initial assertion that litera‑ture ‘does politics simply by being literature’ is thus fairly swiftly qualified by the determination of such a politics as in fact a form of ‘metapolitics’: a ‘manner of “doing politics” otherwise than politics does’ – in this instance, in the form of what is termed ‘literary mis‑understanding’. ‘Politics’, Rancière declares, ‘works on the whole, literature works on the units’. While politics proper seeks to invent new means by which the anony‑mous might subjectify themselves as a ‘collective, an us’, if only momentarily, literary misunderstanding, by contrast, creates new forms of individuality, through a prolific detailing of the ‘molecular equality of microevents’ making up ‘the fabric of percepts and affects of anonymous life’. The privileged examples are Flaubert and Proust, and, in particular, what has often been read as an apparent ‘inability to subtract, to hold anything back’ in their writing, as measured against the classical criteria of what Borges, for example, described as ‘the selectiveness and concision proper to art’.
If this Rancière’s particular ‘democratic’ take on an otherwise familiar critique of ‘organic unity’ – common to, say, deconstruction and Adornian critical theory – more specifically it might be understood as an attempt radically to invert Lukács’s famous Hegelian theorization of the novel as a negation of the epic.
While, therefore, for Lukács, the task of realism was precisely to recover a supposedly ‘epic order and hier‑archy among objects and events’, against the dis ordered flood of ‘descriptive excess’, Rancière’s account of literary democracy comes remarkably close to an affirmation of precisely that which Lukács condemned under the name of ‘naturalism’, and which he saw as laying the groundwork for artistic ‘modernism’ in general. (It would be worth comparing, in this respect,
Jonathan Culler’s own recent Lukácsian reading of ‘Flaubert’s world’ as ‘an immense paradigm where everything is equivalent’ in Why Flaubert?, August Verlag, Berlin, 2011.) Indeed, what aestheticism – the ‘over‑attachment to style’ – and naturalism – ‘the proliferating invasion of the world’s prose’ – share is a certain ‘overdoing it’ per se: ‘The excess of things goes hand in hand with the excess of words.’Perhaps for this reason, there are several moments in The Politics of Literature when the object of its title seems to coincide, to all intents and purposes, with the politics of Flaubert, as that writer who, more than any other, has been able, simultaneously, ‘to pass for the prototype of realism and for the champion of art for art’s sake’. This ambiguity is articulated via the tension Rancière locates between the ‘democratic appetite’ embodied by the character of Emma Bovary and the modes of ‘literary equality’ elaborated in Madame Bovary the novel. For if author and character appear as ‘two sides of the same coin’, it is this very doubling that makes it all the more important for Flaubert to disconnect the ‘two equalities’ at stake for each.
Emma’s ‘bad way’ of dealing with an indistinction of art and non‑art will lead to the democratizing ‘aes‑theticization of daily life’ in kitsch; Flaubert’s ‘good way’ will seek to ground a new purity for literature in the absolutization of style. In this manner, literature’s ‘excess’ comes to overshoot the properly political egalitarianism intrinsic to democratic dissensus as such. The specifically human promise of the collective ‘we’ is instead submerged in the ‘sheer intensity of things’ – an impersonal ‘flat ontology’ (to borrow a phrase from DeLanda) made up of an ‘endless collision of atoms constantly forming into and dissolving new configurations’ – in which Rancière’s Flaubert appears as a kind of Deleuzean ‘new materialist’ avant la lettre.
Emma Bovary’s ‘pursuit of the hidden meanings of a handful of words like “bliss”, “passion” and “intoxi‑cation”’ is here conjoined to the going ‘astray’ of those ‘common people’ who ‘let themselves be exalted by words like “liberty” or “equality”’, previously written about in texts such as The Nights of Labour. Literature, however, produces a quite different voice; one which,
Rancière argues, seeks to endow an ‘allegedly “mute” life … with its own speech’ at the level, not of the people, but of things. It is this that leads to a third regime of literary expression, intended not to unleash some pure Deleuzean flow, but rather ‘to substitute, for the stages and utterances of politics, the laws of a “true stage” that would serve them as foundation’.
Literature in this guise moves towards a world beyond the human, but so as to read ‘the laws of a world on the body of mundane things’; claiming, in a form which runs from realism to surrealism, to uncover the ‘hidden truth about a society’ in a new ‘poetic’ ‘fabric of hieroglyphs’ immanent to the ‘prosaic realities’ of contemporary metropolitan life. Rancière’s twist is to argue that it is, in fact, only thereby through this specific regime of ‘literary equality’ that such a definitively modern form of symptomatic reading and hermeneutics of depth first becomes possible at all.
The consequence is that where later literary critics have imagined they were ‘demystifying literary naivety and formulating its unconscious discourse’, they have merely failed to realize that the ‘explanatory models they used to tell the truth about the literary text are the models forged by literature itself’. Indeed, Balzac’s Human Comedy has, in this regard, not only literary criticism, but also ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity’, The Interpretation of Dreams and the Arcades Project among its various legacies.
There is a critique of intellectual mastery embedded in such an analysis that is familiar from Rancière’s previous work, since Althusser’s Lesson at least. Yet, it’s not entirely clear what lesson we’re meant to take from it here. The objective is evidently to bring into question the claims to scientific ‘truth’ – and hence to ‘know’ the ‘hidden truth’ of domination unknown to the dominated themselves – on the part of the ‘human and social sciences’, by demonstrating the degree to which they are reliant on ‘a poetic and metapolitical model put in place by literature’. (In its characteristic antipathy towards any approach to ‘literature’ that might consider what, in ‘Student Problems’, Althusser terms its ‘place’ within ‘the reigning aesthetic, ethical, juridical or political ideology’, it is tempting to read The Politics of Literature as a whole as a belated retort to his former collaborators Balibar and Macherey’s 1974 essay ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’; the torn half of an adequate ‘post‑Althusserian’ account of the modern literary regime to which it nonetheless does not quite add up.) But this is a rather tired argument – who would by now doubt the literary debts at the heart of Marx’s or Freud’s theories? – and it’s far from clear why this should (or could) entail any wholesale displacement of the kinds of critical and interpreta‑tive strategies engaged. One may well recognize that literature’s ‘explanatory models’ do indeed necessitate the opening of a certain ‘distance from the democratic political stage’, but is one really to conclude from this that we should therefore abandon the labour of explanation altogether? Taken to its apparently logical conclusion, this seems only to result in an animus towards any attempt at gaining knowledge of either literature or the world tout court.
If this is deeply problematic as a recommendation for politics, it is equally limited as an account of art.
The first essay in The Politics of Literature ends with Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, and with what is described as its attempt to make the literary work a vehicle of criticism by welcoming ‘into its pages the standardized messages of the world’. As a literary strategy, Rancière rightly notes, this continues to be dependent upon the blurring of the ‘distinction between the world of art and the world of prosaic life’ instituted by the artistic revolutions of the previous century (if not earlier; think of Defoe or Fielding, who get no mention in Rancière’s essentially Francocentric narrative). Yet the ‘montage of media stereotypes’ in USA, ‘far from signifying the equality of all things’, is, he goes on to argue, ‘in fact supposed to make felt the various forms of the violent domination of one class’. And while Dos Passos’s intent may thus have been to counterpose ‘the destinies of the characters and the discourse the world of domination conducts about itself’, ultimately the specific politics of literature that this proposes finds itself merely overtaken by that ‘impersonal force’ of what Hegel called the ‘prose of the world’.
This no doubt captures the irresolvable dilemmas of the novel’s continual troublings of the boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘non‑literary’ discourses with real force. Yet it also elides what we might call the precisely ‘epic’ dimension of USA; the modernist novel’s inheritance from, in Lukács’s terms, ‘realism’ as much as ‘naturalism’ – its (partly pedagogical) commitment to the impossible task of grasping, in a finite literary form, the totality of social relations which confront the individual under capitalism, and which are increasingly objectified in supra-individual, even inhuman, forms. The Whitmanesque lists which famously begin the trilogy – ‘U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres’, and so on – are, in this sense, neither a Flaubertian flow of ‘micro-events’ nor a straightforward hermeneutical attempt to read ‘the laws of a world on the body of mundane things’, but a know‑ingly problematic gesture towards the (in)capacity of the novel to represent the social totality of the United States (or capitalist modernity) itself. Such ‘cognitive mapping’ of the position of human beings with regard to the often abstract but nonetheless real forces that govern the social modernity which they inhabit, has been a key aspect of a certain modern art, as it has been of political activism. There is hence a very differ‑ent politics of the novel to be written at this point: one which might lead from Balzac to Márquez, Pynchon or Vargas Llosa instead.
This directs attention to another issue. Despite a lengthy, and often interesting, chapter on Borges’s relationship to French literature – which is, however, more about Borges the critic than Borges the writer – The Politics of Literature effectively ends, historically, with Dos Passos. This gives the unfortunate impression that ‘literature’ is pretty much done and dusted by the 1930s – questions concerning, for example, the subsequent globalization of the literary regime, and the means by which its very nature might thereby have been radically transformed, go entirely uncon‑sidered. As much to the point, there are rather more basic questions concerning the relationship between the modernity of literature and of democratic politics themselves that The Politics of Literature fails to address. For such is Rancière’s general animus towards any form of sociological explanation that he can, in the end, provide no real account of the precise historical forms of mediation by which, in Adorno’s words, the ‘unresolved antagonisms’ of social reality – through which any democratic ‘disruption’ must articulate itself – might actually return to the individual artwork as immanent problems of form. The problem is, of course, that if democracy, according to Rancière, is neither a ‘social condition’ nor a ‘particular regime of expression’, but rather only ever a rare ‘symbolic break’, which constitutes an invariable feature of poli‑tics as such, the democratic forms of what he terms ‘literary equality’ cannot but equate to some more or less stable artistic ‘condition’: some kind of modern institution which grounds that ongoing ‘new regime of the art of writing in which the writer is anyone at all and the reader is anyone at all’. This is certainly acknowledged, at some level, but the issue at stake is hardly resolved. The result is that the very historical specificity from which The Politics of Literature began threatens to dissolve back into an effectively quasi‑transcendental concept of ‘literarity’ – elaborated, in classically philosophical fashion, via a short section on Plato’s condemnation of the ‘orphan system’ of writing – which has, nonetheless, somehow awaited modernity for its realization. This leaves one with little means of explaining why exactly such a literary regime should emerge when and where it does, outside of a fairly loose connection to some post‑1789 conjuncture, or via a sequence of undeveloped references to the impacts of industrialization and new media.
Which brings us back to Lukács. There are good reasons why one may well want to side with the democratic thrust of Rancière’s account as against seemingly conservative calls for a return to ‘epic’ order. Yet, Lukács does at least engage something that Rancière’s account of the literary regime glaringly neglects – that is, the question of the relationship between the regime of equivalence and indifference constitutive of literature as a historical practice and that equivalence and indifference characteristic of capitalist exchange. It is worth remembering that, for Lukács, the ‘form‑problem’ generated by the lack of any ‘natural’ or intrinsic limit on what the literary work might incorporate or depict equated, above all, to that indifference with regard to what can be concretely exchanged in the universalization of the exchange‑ value form. And one does not have to agree with the critical judgement on either naturalism or modernism that follows from this to recognize the degree to which it lays bare a certain failure in The Politics of Literature to confront the relation between ‘literary equality’ and the abstract social forms of capitalism itself; what Lukács precisely termed the ‘domination of capitalist prose’ within everyday metropolitan life.
This is not to say that capitalism is entirely absent from The Politics of Literature, particularly in its cultural forms. The very site that Rancière suggests as the origin of literature’s will to make ‘mute things’ speak is, after all, the bric‑a‑brac shop in Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, in which ‘objects of all ages and from all civilizations are jumbled together’ in an ‘egalitarian indifference’. Yet while Rancière implicitly acknowl‑edges a certain exchange between art and commerce over the course of the nineteenth century – reaching a point of intensity in Zola’s naturalistic ‘poetry of the shops and displays’ and of ‘the great consumer frenzy’; a rather different modulation of the Flaubertian ‘sheer intensity of things’ – it can apparently be given no deeper explanatory function in the emergence of the literary regime as such. Indeed, throughout The Politics of Literature there is something like a principled refusal to chase down the consequences that any of this might have for a thinking of ‘literary equality’, as if to engage the question of literature or art’s relation to capitalism might, in and of itself, deliver one into the dreaded clutches of Althusser or Debord. Yet, the forms of indifference characteristic of democratic poli‑tics, on the one hand, and literature’s ‘democracy of the word’, on the other, cannot be so easily separated from that form of indifference intrinsic to the abstraction of value and to the equalizing force of money – what that great entrepreneur Daniel Defoe called, at the very birth of the novel, ‘the general denominating article in the world’. Unwilling to engage its relations to a culture dominated by the forms of ‘universal’ exchangeabil‑ity, Rancière’s historical account can ultimately only sidestep the most difficult issues concerning the very nature of literature’s modernity upon which it insists.
The god of the bourgeoisieJudith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Cornell West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendietta and Jonathan Van antwerpen, afterword by Craig Calhoun, Columbia University Press,
New York, 2011. 128 pp., £41.00 hb., £13.50 pb., 978 0 23115 645 5 hb., 978 0 23115 646 2 pb. Clayton Crockett, Radical Political Theology, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011. 216 pp., £34.50 hb., 978 0 23114 982 2.
The underlying issue for both of these somewhat dif‑ferent books may be framed in terms of the question, can the bourgeois revolution be defended? For the dialogue partners of the first book – Habermas, Taylor,
Butler and West – it can and must be defended, with a few modifications. For Crockett it is already in demise and its departure should be hastened in the name of a renewed political theology.
The first work, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, is the outcome of a public debate at New York City’s Cooper Union in October 2009. The concise contributions of the main protagonists are filled out by relatively brief dialogues, with an afterword by Craig Calhoun. Unfortunately, the statements by Habermas,
Taylor, Butler and West are largely clichés uttered by ‘big names’. Only Cornell West seems able to offer a critique with any bite, pointing out that their debate takes place in the midst of an empire in decline and culture in decay. Thus, one needs to add ‘fin de siècle’ to the preface’s statement about America – ‘This book is a testament to the vitality of the public sphere, in its uniquely American incarnation’. In this light, Habermas defends an old position with slight modification, namely that religious language needs to be ‘translated’ into the public‑secular language of reason to make any sense and have any impact.
Taylor seeks to redefine secularism not as the oppo‑sition to religion but as the celebration of diversity, whether religious or non‑religious, in the name of the reclaimed slogan of the French Revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity, as well as the rule of law.
Butler argues for an ethics of vulnerable cohabitation in which we cannot choose our neighbours – that is, the value of pluralization in which we all learn to live together. She both universalizes this ethic and applies it specifically to the situation in Palestine.
And West reminds us that the bourgeois project of freedom and democracy is based upon the unfreedom and anti‑democratic exclusion of slaves, indigenous people and all who are disenfranchised. Yet even West’s intervention draws upon well‑worn critiques of the bourgeois project that seek to rejuvenate it in the name of a biblical prophetic tradition.
For Habermas, the key to religion in the public sphere is that ‘the potential truth contents of religious utterances must be translated into a generally acces‑sible language before they can find their way into the agendas of parliaments, courts, or administrative bodies and influence their decisions’. In other words, he seeks to shore up the ‘liberal goal’ that all enforceable and publicly sanctioned decisions ‘can be formulated and justified in a universally accessible language’. This position reiterates earlier statements, now gathered in Between Naturalism and Religion (2008). Unexamined are the questions: for whom and for what purpose has this public language been developed? Tellingly,
Habermas speaks of the ‘liberal goal’ of such public language and provides a potted genealogy of the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere in which it takes place. In other words, he once again shows his cards as a defender of the bourgeois revolution, a specific class achievement and formation that permits debate in a language appropriate to that class. To be sure, Habermas is particularly sensitive to the German history of ‘clerico‑fascism’ (his designation for Carl Schmitt’s position) and the fanatical dangers of religious discourse, but he neglects to note that fanatical religious expression is so often the voice of those disenfranchised by the bourgeoisie. As Lukács pointed out, the bourgeoisie came into its own after the revolutions of 1848, when it refused to come good on the promises to the proletariat it had so assidu‑ously courted with promises of freedom, equality and fraternity. Its class enemy was certainly not to be granted those ‘rights’, or rather it could enter the public sphere only if it agreed to the terms established by the bourgeoisie. One has simply to witness the accommo‑dation of social‑democratic and even socialist parties to capitalism and liberalism in our own day to see what such a common language entails.
Charles Taylor may have a few quibbles with Habermas, but he is an even more trenchant defender of the bourgeois revolution. For Taylor, secularism means not the opposition to religion, or even its removal from public life in the separation of church and state, but the recognition and management of diversity. The mistake in debates over secularism is to single out religion for special focus and thereby fetishize it. Religion becomes but one element of that diversity, among both varying religious and non‑religious traditions. The key to that secular, public and diverse sphere is a reshaped version of the slogan of the French Revolution: each person must be free to believe or not to believe; equality between people of different religious or areligious world‑views; all spiritual families must be heard. To this trio of freedom, equality and democracy, Taylor later adds the rule of law, all of which must become the basis of a new collective identity, a vision of social order. I see nothing original or even ‘radical’ (a word in the title of Taylor’s contribution) in this position.
Indeed, Taylor sounds suspiciously like those defend‑ing a crumbling ‘West’ against the inroads of terrible barbarians at the gates. It is also troubling that words like ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ are used without quali‑fiers, such as parliamentary democracy or bourgeois freedom, thereby universalizing from a false particular.
Even more troubling is the argument that the secular state is in some way neutral. It should not be hijacked by any special concern: ‘the state can be neither Christian nor Muslim not Jewish, but, by the same token, it should also be neither Marxist, nor Kantian, nor utilitarian’. Decisions cannot be ‘framed in a way that gives special recognition to one of these views’, even if one has to redraw the lines each time. Notably missing from this list is ‘bourgeois’, for that would be to show the special concern of Taylor’s proposal.
Judith Butler’s contribution is a reiteration and small extension of her recent concern with ethics and anti‑Semitism (Giving an Account of Oneself, 2005; Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004). Here we find a curious juxatposition of a radical liberalism with the doctrine of sin. We cannot choose our neighbours on this earth, for, as exilic and cohabiting peoples, we need to get on with one another, especially non‑citizens. However, as vulnerable, injurable and limited beings, we must recognize our own shortcomings as a way to recogniz‑ing them in others. Nothing original here, although in the application of this problematic ethics to Palestine Butler evinces an extraordinary blindspot. For all her efforts to redefine ‘Jewishness’ as exilic (a heavily borrowed idea), she never troubles the category of ‘Jew’ itself – a strange essentialism for a radical critic of essentialism. At least she may have availed herself of the decentred identity of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, where Israel is an intersection of a disparate range of peoples without a core identity of its own. All the same, Butler does point to two matters worth some development. First, she argues that secularism in its current manifestation is a Protestant development, with the focus on the private realm of religious and thereby personal expression. Here she is on the right track but mistaken in focusing on Protestantism (and in caricaturing it as a champion of privatization). A re‑engagement with Marx would help, for in ‘On the Jewish Question’ Marx points out that the secular state is the fulfilment (or, rather, Aufhebung) of the Christian state. Faced with the insuperable contradictions of the Christian state, in which one must deal with diversity within Christianity, the secular state becomes both an effort to overcome those contradictions and a way of perpetuating those same contradictions. Second,
Butler points to a political tension within the heart of Judaism: it may be used to justify the State of Israel and thereby label all criticism of that state’s actions as ‘anti‑Semitic’, and yet Judaism also provides resources for criticizing the oppressive policies of that state.
Precisely this tension lies at the heart of Cornell West’s brief contribution. It is to West’s credit that despite decades of arguing with bourgeois intellectuals, he has not been entirely absorbed by their ‘common language’. So he draws upon the biblical prophetic tradition to point to those excluded by the bourgeois project of freedom and democracy, especially in the USA – ‘the way in which the U.S. Constitution didn’t want to talk about the near‑genocidal impact on our red brothers and sisters or the slavery of black people’.
In this way, West stresses the deep ambivalence of a Jewish and Christian tradition that can dominate the state and yet offer resolute resistance to the status quo.
But he also undermines the defence of the bourgeois project so assiduously defended in their various ways by Habermas, Taylor and Butler. Unfortunately, this critique is by no means original, for one need only refer, for example, to Adorno and Horkheimer’s work (the forebears of Habermas!) to find more systematic statements. Perhaps West’s deepest contribution is in the style of his address: based on the African‑American sermon, it identifies sin, calls for repentance, offers the word of hope and redemption. However, even West seeks to renew the American project, calling on Barack Obama to recover his black roots and not listen to the technocrats and financial advisers.
Some time ago, one began to feel a subtle shift when visiting countries in the bulwark of the Atlantic West:
along with a tightening of the borders came a closing of the mind. Once, these societies had confidently been open to the world, welcoming people, ideas and prac‑tices, believing that the bourgeois ideals of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ would thereby be absorbed, would spread and conquer the world. But then a change happened: that agenda lost its confidence, the outside world became a threat, the golden age was suddenly in the past and needed to be defended. To this visitor it seemed as though decline had already set in. This volume is by and large another manifestation of that decline.
For Clayton Crockett, that decline cannot be has‑tened with enough energy. Crockett has read deeply in theology, religion studies and philosophy, drawing upon an impressive and almost bewildering range of sources in both the American theological tradition and continental philosophy (Nietzsche, Spinoza, Schmitt,
Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Nancy, Negri, Foucault, Ran‑cière, Agamben, Žižek, Badiou and so on). Refresh‑ingly, he places theology at the centre of his analysis and is astute enough to identify the dialectical relation between religion and secularism. Further, he fully recognizes the political ambivalence of Christian‑ity, which is best described as a ‘pharmakon’, both poison and cure. Above all, Crockett sees no future in resuscitating what he calls liberalism, instead seeking a fruitful way beyond it. The problem is that while Crockett may ask all the right questions and offer incisive analyses of our current woes, his solution is anaemic.
Regarding liberalism and its mutation into neo‑liberalism, he draws mostly upon the critiques by Schmitt and Strauss, along with a dose of Radical Orthodoxy (Milbank, Ward et al.), attempting in the process to sidestep the conservative bent of these cri‑tiques. Liberalism is, argues Crockett, inextricably tied to capitalism, except that now we have neoliberalism coupled with an immoral, virulent capitalism. Further, a crucial feature of the liberal project is secularism, which pretends to be rejecting religion but which is inseparable from it. This liberal‑secular agenda not only must be discarded, but it has already fallen into bankruptcy – coupled with the catastrophic effects on climate and the rapid depletion of resources in which capitalism is fast reaching its limit.
What is the solution? Against the neoconservatives and neoliberals, and implicitly against a recovery of Marxism, Crockett argues for a radical political theology, in which political philosophy is suffused with political theology in the same way that religion and secularism are entwined. In short, it is a post‑death‑of‑God theology, one in which the weakness and potentiality of God comes to the fore, in which a feeble messianism may be characterized in terms of plasticity, an imminent world of justice that is yet ‘to come’. Or, rather, since God is dead, God transmutes into freedom, which may also be read in terms of potentiality, virtuality or potentia, the source of a radical democracy that is just and moral.
The impressive range of references in a short book inevitably leads to a sliding over of the differences between his many reference points, if not an occa‑sionally superficial reading. He offers some detailed analyses of Deleuze, who becomes important later in the book as both the mediator of Nietzsche and the anchor for assessing many of the other thinkers through which he passes (and provides a significant correction to the Apostle Paul by focusing on ‘dead Saturday’ – an unwitting Lutheran contribution). But more often the readings hastily pick out one idea from one philosopher only to be immediately thrown against another. The result is a foreshortening that misses the complexity of some issues. For example, he cites Hobbes’s argument that the sovereignty of the church was replaced by the sovereignty of the monarch, thereby neglecting the long struggle in the Middle Ages between the usually futile assertions of the Roman Catholic Church (Orthodoxy is completely left out) and the real power of the European monarchs and emperors. And the analysis of capitalism is superficial at best, assuming that we know what capitalism is (via Naomi Klein!) and that it is thoroughly immoral. This ethical criticism is as common in some quarters as it is misdirected: one gains the sense that all we need do is say that capitalism is immoral and leave it at that – thereby losing Marx’s insight that capitalism is the best and worst of all possible worlds. Above all, what is systematically missing is a sustained analysis of the class basis of liberalism and secularism. Crockett’s frequent use of ‘post‑Marxist’ is signal of this, so that even Negri appears primarily as an interpreter of Spinoza. One outcome of such a neglect of Marxism is a confusion of terms. At times, Crockett recog‑nizes the difference between economics and ideology (which usually appears as false consciousness, if not the propaganda of cynical manipulators), stating that neoliberalism is a ‘thin veneer of moral justification (free markets) for the unfettered triumph of money and global capitalism’. But then he can provide an unmiti‑gated idealist proposition: ‘If liberalism ceases to function, then capitalism and democracy must change or become extinct.’ Ultimately, the latter is closer to his preferred position, for otherwise how can a conceptual proposal such as ‘radical political theology’ make any difference at all?
Without any sustained class analysis, Crocket seeks to reshape the very slogans of the bourgeoisie. God becomes freedom, or, rather, freedom captures the pos‑sibility of thinking about God or anything better than the world we have. So also with a radical democracy, which is supposedly beyond liberal (bourgeois) democ‑racy. The catch is that these terms have been so abused by the imperialism of the USA, so tied up with the arrested bourgeois revolution, that it would be better to leave aside talk of freedom and democracy for at least half a decade. Indeed, this attachment by Crockett to freedom and democracy marks a feature of the book that soon strikes one: it is a very American book, despite the plundering of continental philosophers.
The context for reflection is the peculiarly American history of theology and politics, for which ‘the West’ often operates as a code and as some of the more sus‑tained analyses show. Again and again it needs to be pointed out to thinkers from the USA, your problems are not necessarily our problems, your issues are not ours, and your solutions are not ours. To be blunt, the universalizing of these specific concerns may well become another form of American imperialism.
So it is that the form of theology responds to that situation. A weak and impotent God may be seen as an effort to neuter American power. Or, given that American power is on the wane, Crockett offers a cultural paradigm for dealing with life in an empire that is passing. How do you live in a situation of impending weakness? A weak, imminent God beyond the death‑of‑God, a God who is reincarnated as a rethought ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and who refuses to act is one way of doing so. Coupled with this is a throwing of the solutions into a future ‘yet to come’, in which one has to come to terms with a very different situation. It is all very well to speak from and prepare for a position of declining global power, but I cannot see it inspiring many outside that zone. And I cannot help wondering what the powerless and weak of this world would make of such a proposal.
Misplaced radicalismNiilo Kauppi, Radicalism in French Culture, Ashgate,
Aldershot and Burlington VT, 2010. 164 pp., £50.00 hb., 978 1 40940 783 6.
The ‘History of Theory’ can be a curious genre. Many historians and sociologists treat theory dismissively and yet dedicate whole books to its study. In their explanation of the rise and diffusion of French theory, these scholars sideline the ideas, relying instead on social or institutional dynamics to explain its success:
French theory might have gained adherents due to the institutional conditions of Parisian academia; perhaps it benefited from the structures of authority in the French intellectual elite that gave gravely flawed thinking a free pass; or maybe it was the peculiar pressures of 1970s’ American academia that made many par‑ticularly receptive to outlandish thought of an exotic provenance. In this view the intellectual content of the ideas is irrelevant to understanding the course of their development and reception. In the history of theory, the former often eclipses the latter.
Niilo Kauppi confronts this tendency in his new book, Radicalism in French Culture. In his earlier work on this topic, including Tel Quel: The Making of an Avant-Garde, Kauppi concentrated his analysis on the sociological, institutional and publishing pressures that accompanied the rise to prominence of the Tel Quel journal and its editorial team. In Radicalism in French Culture, Kauppi wants to restore the analysis of ideas to the centre of his narrative. Though, as we shall see, he is not completely successful in this endeavour, it is an important corrective to the existing sociological and historical literature on the period. For while this book is an arduous read, the arguments that Kauppi presents here are interesting and provocative.
It is worth battling through the prose.
The first part of the book lays the foundation of Kauppi’s argument. Building on his earlier work,
Kauppi posits ‘French Theory’ as a reaction against the postwar generation of intellectuals like Sartre.
In contrast to the existentialist emphasis on human agency, new scholars produced anti‑humanist ‘sci‑ences of the text’, seen in Althusser’s ‘symptomatic readings’, Derrida’s ‘grammatology’, ‘the science of the signifier’ for the Lacanians, and ‘semanalysis’ for Kristeva, among others. Kauppi thus provides a frame for thinking through the relationships between a broad range of theorists and ideas from the ‘eclectic’ moment of the 1960s, without reducing one to the other.
A dominant model for these new French theorists,
Kauppi argues, was the nouveau roman, whose pro‑ponents placed emphasis on the functioning of a text rather than its referential character, and ushered in an age of textual experimentation and play. Where the French theorists left the nouveau roman behind, however, was in their mixing of textuality with poli‑tics. Kauppi takes the example of the literary Tel Quel group, whose intellectual trajectory structures his book. He argues that in the mid‑1960s Tel Quel broke from its earlier apoliticism and responded to the political mores of an increasingly militant student body. Appealing to the intellectualist inclinations and political aspirations of the future ’68ers, French theo‑rists read ‘textual revolution’ immediately as ‘political revolution’. They emphasized how their textual read‑ings resisted hegemonic world‑views and challenged the idea of the ‘bourgeois’ subject. This theoretical alignment, Kauppi asserts, was reflected in their politi‑cal allegiance to the French Communist Party.
In the second part of the book Kauppi gets to the heart of his argument. In his view, theoretical and political radicalism did not sit well together. The free play that theoretical radicalism endorsed was destruc‑tive of existing norms. It was, however, similarly resistant to alternative value hierarchies, including the priority Marxists gave to the working class. For this reason it was hard for the French theorists to maintain their dual commitment to the sciences of the text and to revolutionary politics built on a communist model.
This tension at the heart of their project provided the conditions for the symbolic battles of the 1970s. One of the most enlightening and interesting chapters in the book is Kauppi’s reading of the famous Houdebine/ Derrida interview collected in Derrida’s Positions (1972). Here Kauppi skilfully reads the subtext of the interview: while Houdebine petitioned for Derrida’s endorsement of the Tel Quel group’s political project,
Derrida insistently drew attention to weaknesses in its attempt to marry a ‘science of the text’ and ‘material‑ist’ philosophy. Derrida was not alone in his criticism.
Kauppi also presents an interesting chapter showing how other, less prominent, intellectuals like Henri Meschonnic, Mitsou Ronat and Bernard Sichère also picked apart the unhappy cohabitation of political and intellectual radicalism.
The intellectual dissolution of French theory’s political/textual amalgam was accompanied by the increasing institutional success of many of its proponents.
As figures like Julia Kristeva gained permanent posi‑tions at French universities, early political excesses were out of place, and political conservatism became the order of the day. The irony Kauppi wants to foreground is the incompatibility of institutional success with the political radicalism that had, in part, made it possible.
Kauppi’s concentration on textual arguments and his reading of the symbolic stakes within them help craft an interesting narrative, and demonstrate the value and importance of reaching across disciplinary lines. But the project of balancing sociology and textual reading is an extraordinarily difficult one, and in Kauppi’s book the former tends to win out over the latter.
French intellectual life, according to Kauppi, was organized by ‘power ideas’ which remained, for all intents and purposes, immune to criticism. As Kauppi remarks, ‘their social force [does] not depend on their veracity but rather on their capacity to inspire and mobilize individuals and groups to engage in certain intellectual postures and practices’. From this perspective, Kauppi presents debates as struggles for recognition and appeals for endorsement, which can help decide whether ‘power ideas’ rise or fall. By analysing the symbolic strategies in such debates,
Kauppi makes an important step towards incorporating ideas into his analysis. But the priority of sociological analysis sets structural limits to Kauppi’s reading of intellectual debates. Emphasizing the struggle for recognition, Kauppi leaves himself little room to con‑sider how debates might also have allowed scholars to work through tensions within philosophical and political systems and thus to initiate productive trans‑formations in their ideas. For instance, while Kauppi casts Derrida’s interview with Houdebine as a debate about whether political and textual radicalism are compatible, one could also read it as Derrida’s attempt to re‑evaluate what political radicalism might mean.
Such a position would require that we take Derrida’s intellectual purposes as genuine motives, rather than simply as strategies in a struggle for social position.
The priority of sociological analyses in this book leads Kauppi to rely rather heavily on the French Com‑munist Party as the ultimate arbiter of political radical‑ism. This has the tendency to reduce the complexity of political struggles at the time. The idea that French theorists before the 1970s and the Telquelian turn to Maoism looked to the Communist Party as a guarantee of ‘political correctness’ downplays the fraught and internecine battles on the left during this period. It also misreads the political ambitions of a large number of intellectuals and students in the period, from those in the coalition against the Algerian War to the soixante‑huitards who equated political radicalism with a rejec‑tion of the PCF. Where, for instance, is the analysis of the Situationists, or of French student Maoism before 1968? Similarly, Kauppi’s claims about the depolitici‑zation of French theory after 1968 needed to confront more clearly Foucault’s role in the foundation of the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, Derrida’s cam‑paigning for educational reform and Eastern European intellectuals, and the increasingly explicit support among French theorists for gay and women’s rights movements. With this effervescent political activity, it is strange to talk about the ‘disenchantment with leftist political and intellectual radicalism’.
Giving greater credence to the intellectual content of these debates and to the spectrum of political positions both within and outside of the French Com‑munist Party would have paid dividends for Kauppi.
In particular it would have helped him to account for a far broader group of French intellectuals. Kauppi admits that several of the figures he discusses, includ‑ing Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu, do not fit his thesis and he prunes them off the ‘French Theory’ tree for being too apolitical (Barthes and Lacan), too political (Althusser) or too empirical (Bourdieu). Further, he invokes major proponents of French theory such as Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida predominantly to criticize the mixture of theoretical and political radicalism that, in his reading, constituted the genre. In the end we are left with Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers as the sole exemplars of Kauppi’s model. And even Sollers doesn’t fit perfectly, as Kauppi himself admits. Though the idea that French theorists gained authority through their ability to mix political and intellectual radicalism is an important contribution to the debate, the way in which Kauppi frames it in Radicalism in French Culture drastically limits its applicability.
The restricted focus on the trajectory of the Tel Quel group does have some value for Kauppi. It allows him to cast the history of French theory as one of contradiction and then decline. But the reader is left to wonder whether Kauppi has chosen his figures to confirm this polemical narrative. In the acknowledg‑ments, Kauppi tells us that this book grew out of textual analyses that didn’t make it into his Ph.D. thesis, and later book, Tel Quel: The Making of the Avant-Garde. It is a telling admission. For though Kauppi’s project in Radicalism in French Culture is a significant one, his methodological commitments prevent him from fulfilling its potential. While he aspires to write a sociological study of French theory in general, here we have an account that works best only for the leading figures in Tel Quel: Kristeva and Sollers. And while Kauppi wants to reinstate the importance of ideas in the sociology of knowledge and bring the best of the history of ideas to his discipline, his ultimate reliance on objectivizing social-scientific description empties out the intellectual content of the theory he describes. It remains apparent why he did not originally consider textual analyses crucial for his story and let them fall onto the cutting-room floor.
We have never been so postmodernHeiko Schmid, Wolf‑Dietrich Sahr and John Urry, eds, Cities and Fascination: Beyond the Surplus of Meaning, Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington VT, 2011. 243 pp., £50.00 hb., 978 1 40941 853 5.
I’ve often thought that judging a book by its cover is underrated and overly moralized. The title of Cities and Fascination, even after reading the book, still remains nebulous, not to mention, frankly, not very fascinating. Equally unintriguing, the cover’s slightly blurry and otherwise unexceptional image of an Asian megacity’s skyline (Hong Kong) at night sheds light on what is to come: yet another account of the bizarre and irrational world of so‑called ‘postmodern’ urbanism.
The collection itself presents an attempt to repose the proverbial ‘urban question’ in a postmodern world of spectacle – and, yes, ‘fascination’ – grappling with the ways in which postmodernism has altered the city. With this in mind, it attempts to consider ways in which urbanists and sociologists can gain ground in an urbanism steeped in the increasingly non‑linear capitalist production of ‘themed’ urban atmospheres. Cities and Fascination collects together essays written by urban geographers and sociologists result‑ing from a 2007 symposium in Heidelberg, Germany.
Spanning speculative conjectures and empirical case studies, the book gathers together a set of thinkers who neatly illustrate the Anglo‑Germanic discursive divide, following Marxian and phenomenological lines of inquiry respectively. The texts cover truly fascinating topics from strategic perception‑planning, which aims to recast an entire region as a single metropolis, to the use of architectural and urban aesthetics in ‘staging politics’. However, despite the ambitious scope and material covered, this collection is more consistent in its disappointment than anything else.
Perhaps the problems start with the term ‘fascina‑tion’ itself. Although its etymology is referred to several times, linking witchcraft to personal attraction, one wonders how it substantially differs from the term ‘spectacle’ in its use throughout the book. It seems even the contributors are unconvinced, since the term tends to appear around the concluding paragraph of each essay looking more like a last‑minute effort to conform to the symposium’s topic than to introduce a useful concept. Additionally, the will to go ‘beyond’ a semiotic construction of the city, as the book’s subtitle suggests, seems a bit late in coming. This is perhaps most clearly underscored by the all‑too‑heavy reliance on the notion of the ‘postmodern’ that appears in nearly all of the texts. Indeed, one wonders if there is not a pervasive fascination at play in the very discourse of so‑called ‘postmodern urbanism’ – a kind of mystification that posits the urban as an overly incomprehensible condition of unresolvable complex‑ity, foreclosing anything but piecemeal, fragmentary portraits and case studies. The ‘postmodern’, more than denoting a convincing epistemological shift, appears rather as a licence to abandon the city as an object of positive theorization, as a tactile outcome of human thought, viewing it instead as an alien pathology: the city is that bizarre phenomenon happening ‘out there’.
As Jacques Lévy put it, ‘[a] city is always an ex‑post reality’. In this way, the postmodern operates as a moniker which reinstates Enlightenment notions of nature, albeit in inverted form. That is to say, nature, in opposition to culture, while no longer perhaps the ‘caretaker’ of society it once was, is nevertheless that thick, opaque substance which separates us from the phenomena outside of our control. It is as though nature, which once existed beyond the boundaries of the city, has now re‑emerged in the very substance of the city itself – urbanism as nature.
And it is a bewildering sight indeed. As Michael Dear reminds us, if there is any consensus about the postmodern, it is that ‘we simply have to get used to living with the radical incommensurability that exists’ in a world where ‘grand theories’ have been unanimously discredited. This refusal to identify a positive concept of contemporary urbanism probably explains why almost all of the texts in this book bear the same apologetic tone, often fixating on journalistic explanations to show what the city today is not (i.e. ‘modern’). It is now a process of such great complexity and multiplicity that all one can do is to name, describe and compare the odd marvels and contradictions of today’s city with that of the past. As such, in place of any ‘grand theory’, the contributors to this volume make much use of a set of neologisms, clichés and tropes such as ‘exopolis’, ‘privatopia’, ‘the periph‑ery is everywhere’, ‘spectacular urbanisms’, and, of course, the notion of postmodernism itself. While this way of diagramming may help to illuminate certain contemporary phenomena, its terms rely heavily on their opposition to a modernist lexicon. The ‘exopolis’ (Edward Soja), for example, is described as ‘the ‘city turned inside‑out’ and ‘the city turned outside‑in’, suggesting that the (modernist) construct of a city has an essential orientation defined by core and periphery (E.W. Burgess) from which the postmodern city has deviated. Indeed this sort of essentialism underscores almost all notions of the postmodern in the book, and, as such, the history of the city appears to have started in the early to mid‑twentieth century, binding the city in a false dichotomy between modern (normal) and postmodern (abnormal).
This leads to an often romanticized image of the ‘modernist’ city, which, it is suggested, benefited from just governmental regulation, sober aesthetics, healthy public services and a flourishing sense of local democ‑racy. While constantly insisting on a periodization instead of a history of the city, the authors conveniently overlook a certain body of theory which by itself would undercut many assumptions on which this work rests.
A deeper look at any number of works from Ildefons Cerdà to even Le Corbusier himself would show that many of the ideas regarding mobility, individualism, public/private divisions, the periphery/core distinction, and even urban sprawl, peddled as epistemologically new today are simply not. Furthermore, with a more historical scope and a less polemical attitude towards the present, an analysis of, say, the baroque city could greatly deepen the understanding of how the urban milieu has provided a stage of intrigue and spectacle in times past.
Another recurring tendency one finds throughout Cities and Fascination is an anxiety which prevents simple phenomena from being described simply. This usually comes from that nagging anxiety that forces one to theorize that which needs no theory. Applied this way, instead of deconstructing an object, theory often comes across as an act of reverence to a par‑ticular discourse and its chief purveyors (Harvey, Soja,
Lefebvre et al.). Tim Simpson’s piece, for example, highlights an interesting story about the developments and geopolitics of the Macau gambling industry. While this is certainly a fascinating topic worth investigating, he makes a completely unnecessary move when he ties David Harvey’s notion of dispossession with Foucault’s ideas of governmentality and subject formation (sub‑jection). In essence, after a thorough description of this phenomenon, these theories (in part because reduced) simply stand to affirm that ‘yes, Macau’s gambling industry is in fact neoliberal’; an attribute which, if anything, takes away from a potentially much richer analysis. At other times, this same anxiety simply produces a cumbersome, overly theoretical reading which leaves one wondering if the author in question is not a bit disconnected. After a lengthy and promising examination of the notion of atmosphere, half‑things and emotions, Jürgen Hasse attempts, for example, to flesh out such rich ideas through the examples of the ‘sentimental lighting’ at Christmas time, the ‘emotional green’ of cemeteries and how contemporary architec‑ture ‘stirs people’s feelings’. Quite anticlimactic to say the least. His conclusion: contemporary architecture stirs feelings because ‘the culture industries appeal basically not to reason, but to emotions’ – hardly a surprising message to take away, and certainly not one which requires phenomenological theory. In perhaps the most clumsy example of this, Sybille Bauriedl and Anke Strüver attempt to bring film theory (specifi‑cally, both ‘discursive’ and ‘semiotic’ methodologies) to bear on current urban development strategies. Again, a potentially interesting exploration. What results, however, is in fact two unresolved and unbound essays, each of which, because completely overburdened with theory, raises more questions than either can manage to answer. Furthermore, even the basic task of assembling the correct images seems to have been botched: while claiming to show the apparent use of film images (stills) in the marketing of an urban development, the authors have overlooked the fact that the image chosen is clearly an architectural rendering of a site – hardly an image coming from a film.
Much more alarming than this, however, is the deeply conservative positions that, despite any leftist pretensions, several of the authors in this book seem to harbour. Throughout the volume, the call for a ‘mental structuring’ of the lived experience and emotions triggered by constructed atmospheres of ‘urbanity’ appear in a way that implies an underlying desire to recover a (modernist?) sense of control over this ‘new’ (‘postmodern’) ground – to make these phenomena scientifically accessible. For example, by understanding urban atmospheres as ‘emotions with spatial charac‑ters’, Hasse calls for a kind of emotional structural‑ism where each emotion/atmosphere can be named, mapped to a specific meaning, and thus made available as a parallel form of urban planning – city planning as emotional choreography. In other cases, this same impulse comes across as both bizarre and misguided: ‘In our opinion, the reconstruction of semiotic evalu‑ation processes between dreamland and wasteland in urban development is scientifically possible by means of an analysis of the discursive construction of urban spaces’ (Gerhard and Warnke). This appears as a paradox on two levels. First, on a practical level, it seems in direct contradiction to posit a normalized science for material characterized as supremely inde‑terminate and inexorably heterogeneous such as cat‑egories like ‘urbanity’, perception, individual emotion, lived experienced, and so on. Second, to what end would such a science aim? Since much of the fallout of ‘postmodern’ capitalism appears in these essays to be highly disagreeable, it comes as a surprise when some of the authors suddenly call for a science based precisely on such phenomena taken as fact. Such moments pose daunting images of the future of urban planning armed with a ‘science’ capable of emotion‑ally binding a population to structures of control (and sounds vaguely like capitalism itself).
Nevertheless, there are a few highlights in this book worth mentioning. Neil Smith’s piece, for example, takes the term ‘fascination’ farther than others do to sharply criticize contemporary discursive tendencies within cultural geography. However, his critique of Foucauldian post‑structuralist theories of the state seems somewhat prickly when he concludes that ‘post‑structuralism is more complicit with, than critical of, the neoliberal ideolog[y]’. From the school of phe‑nomenology, Wolf‑Dietrich Sahr’s essay also manages to achieve a high degree of sophistication, offering a promising relation between architectural aesthetics and the emotions they engender, giving a particularly helpful explication of atmospheres and ‘face value’ via Sloterdijk, Debord, and Deleuze and Guattari. We needed to see more of this. Despite these achievements, however, poor editing throughout the book, leaving words like ‘aesthetical’, ‘rationalistic’ and ‘atmospheri‑cal’ intact, drives the last nail in the coffin of an overall unfortunate collection of essays. Cities and Fascination seems like a redundant contribution to a discourse already bearing far more fascinating material on the state of contemporary urbanism.
Ross E. adams
UnpluggedAdrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2010. 256 pp., £22.95 hb., 978 0 26201 464 9.
The Parisian art group Bureau d’études have argued that in a world ‘constituted by electromagnetic cosmol‑ogy (and industry) understanding the electromagnetic field is the only way to understand ourselves and our surroundings’. In Wirelessness, Adrian Mckenzie has taken up this challenge, while acknowledging, at the same time, both Rob Flickenger’s cautionary note that ‘perhaps the most difficult task in wireless networking is trying to visualize what is going on’ and Kevin Werbach’s observation that ‘our intuitions about wire‑less, by and large, are mistaken … based on outdated technologies and inaccurate analogies.’ In attempting to visualize ‘what is going on’, Mackenzie states, it is necessary ‘to take an interest in service plans, node databases, consumer electronics product reviews … public–private partnerships for wireless network developments … antennae and algorithms’. To which the reader might well be forgiven for responding: well, he is not actually going to cover all that in any real detail, is he? Yet it is to Mackenzie’s credit that he actually goes some way to pulling this off.
Contemporary wireless systems are the latest mani‑festation of a series of technologies that have – since James Maxwell Clark’s nineteenth‑century formaliza‑tion of an electromagnetic field that unified and related electrical, magnetic and optical phenomena – initi‑ated a radical transformation in the media of human communication. With over one billion wifi or 802.11 chipsets to be produced next year, this is a technology that continues to revolutionize social media. More than that, the ways that wireless technologies are increas‑ingly incorporated into commodities and environments in general – in what are often surprising ways – is also bringing into existence what theorists and makers such as Usman Haque have described as ‘the internet of things’.
In a well‑known footnote in Capital, Karl Marx lamented that ‘a critical history of technology has yet to be written’, going on to observe that ‘technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from these relations.’ What Haque terms this ‘internet of things’ is, in a rather curious way, under‑standable as a new and intensified mode of ‘making the world philosophical’, though certainly not in the way that Marx anticipated, and, typically, Mackenzie makes scant direct reference to either Marx or dialecti‑cal method. Instead, he develops a novel relational approach by constructing a broadly actor–network type analysis of assemblages of humans, objects, software and informational content, while drawing, philosophi‑cally, upon an idea of conjunctive relations that he finds in the radical empiricism of William James. Nonethe‑less, there is certainly much in his relational method that might usefully inform a dialectical approach to these questions.
Mackenzie makes three central claims in Wirelessness. Importantly, he argues that the conceptual form that wireless technologies figure is, in complex ways, not susceptible to description through the existing met‑aphor of the network. This is not to deny that wireless networks extend digital networks. But, as Mackenzie notes repeatedly, ‘these alterations are not reducible to or fully captured by the figure of the network.’ This is a claim of no small significance given the ubiquity of the figure of the network in much contemporary theory.
Second, he asserts that to understand and conceptually experience or visualize the forms that wirelessness takes in contemporary culture, some of the methods for thinking about experience that were set out by William James in the first decade of the twentieth century can be of use. For Mackenzie, ‘James offers techniques for matching the disordered flows of wireless net‑works, meshes, patchworks, and connections with felt sensations.’ In particular, Mackenzie discusses the uses that James’s conception of conjunctive relations might be put to, noting that ‘as a form of knowing, radical empiricism pivots on analysis and untangling of conjunctions … both thinking and things work with and process via conjunctive relations.’ Conjunctive relations, such as ‘next to’, ‘in’, ‘between’, ‘beneath’ and ‘behind’ can be linked or ‘concatenated’, and together form ‘unions’ which make ‘worlds’. Mackenzie asserts that ‘by revaluing conjunctive relations, James offers an extremely lightly structured way of accounting for the streamlike nature of experience, prior to any oppo‑sition or sorting of experience as “inner” or “outer”, “thought” or “feeling”, “doing” or “thinking”.’ This provides ‘a way of following networks and wires, wiring and unwiring, without subordinating them to the figure of the network’.
However, if Mackenzie argues for an analytical critique based upon a description of a mesh of con‑junctive relations which in their totality constitute an experience, he is aware that, on its own, James’s radical empiricism is not enough to describe the socio‑political relationality of contemporary wirelessness. As such,
Mackenzie adopts Jean‑Luc Nancy’s philosophy to ‘retrofit’ radical empiricism, thereby aiming to enable it to deal with capital and ‘its spaced‑out production of value’, noting that equipping radical empiricism with Nancy’s Heideggerian conception of ‘being‑with’ helps focus attention on ‘the ways that conjunctive relations are exteriorized’. The success that Mackenzie has in deploying a reading of James’s conjunctive relations varies, though the discussion of how the Fourier trans‑form based algorithms that code wireless data through digital signal processing (DSP) is fascinating, describ‑ing multiple levels and scales of algorithmic processes that become ‘mangled’ with the chipset hardware, thereby suspending the possibility of drawing clear distinctions between internal and external relations.
As Mackenzie states,
The ways these different processes fit together are important. Their interwoven texture creates an envelope that allows data to circulate in the crowded signal channels of urban‑electronic space as if it were just noise… The juxtaposition of different components constructs a signal envelop or composite waveform that is open in certain ways and heavily closed in other ways. Information is coded in a se‑quence of steps, but these steps take account of each other. Information is encoded a number of times to allow different relations to be entwined with each other. It would be misleading to think of wire‑less communication as simply transporting packets of information via radio waves. What animates this movement is a complicated set of conjunctive relations between different parts of the signal.
Mackenzie’s third and perhaps most interesting assertion is, however, that the organizational logic of wirelessness is inseparable from the organization and experience of the city. Urban infrastructure, Mackenzie notes, ‘in general becomes part of the wireless network.
The entangling of utilities and wireless networks, or surveillance cameras and wireless networks, is no coincidence.’ Going beyond this, Mackenzie attempts ‘to situate the idea of the wireless city in relation to moments of transition irreducible to the figure of the network’, arguing that the extension of wireless networks ‘draws from the “intensive spatium” of the city and its many conjunctive relations’ where to communicate in the city, a model of urban plan‑ning and delivery logistics has been internalized in the algorithms of signal processing … the ‘architec‑tures’ of chipsets resemble cities viewed from above precisely because they internalize many of the rela‑tional processes of movement in cities. In contrast to the cables and fibres of the Internet or standard telephone networks, these wires can be configured and connected using the different levels of abstrac‑tion present in software and code.
In working through these claims Mackenzie reveals something about both the modern metropolis and con‑temporary communications technologies, as ‘although the idea of a wireless city takes many forms, it always seeks to reorganize patterns of urban movement.’ Importantly, Mackenzie claims that radical empiricism provides a productive approach to thinking through this condition, as ‘movement in the city is a key motif for radical empiricism’, which by treating ‘experience as a kind of ambulation that concatenates multiple overlapping relations … is an implicitly urban‑ready philosophical technique’.
In recent years David Greene, a founder member of the radical 1960s’ architectural group Archigram, has observed that the one thing that the group had singularly failed to anticipate was the emergence of wireless technologies, instead – in work such as the iconic ‘plug‑in city’ project – reifying networks as the determinate structure and form of a modern metropolis ‘in the information business’. Greene’s self‑critique is somewhat disingenuous, as much of his own solo work from the 1970s on – notably ‘Electric Aborigine’, the ‘Institute of Electric Anthropology’ and Locally Avail‑able World Unseen Networks (LAWUN) – was in fact precisely study in anticipation of a global metropolitan wirelessness. I cite Greene’s work here, nonetheless, as it seems to characterize well some of the key conditions and contradictions of the uneven emergence of a new kind of extended ‘post‑network’ wireless society. As Mackenzie notes, ‘wireless equipment lies somewhere on the boundary between the proper infrastructure of modernity (roads, airports and railways, telephone exchanges, lines, transmission towers and satellites, electricity pylons, water mains and gas pipes etc.) and consumer electronics.’ In fact, one of the more surpris‑ing and important sections of the book deals with the use of wireless technologies in the developing world.
Mackenzie repeatedly makes the point that rather than thinking of wireless as a technology that was rolled out in the developed world, and that later spread to the ‘periphery’, in many important respects wireless was prototyped in and for the developing world. Mackenzie notes that in many places on the planet laying cable – clearly determined by the uneven conditions of land ownership and control – is not a viable investment, as ‘it’s difficult, expensive, and someone is going to pull it out of the ground to sell it.’ One of the most compelling images of the very different scales of operation of wirelessness in the frontier spaces of contemporary capital is found in the description of wireless buses that operate in Orissa, India (run by a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts). These buses ‘collect’ and ‘deliver’ emails and so on from wireless consumer devices in remote villages, and re‑broadcast them when possible – a hybrid service which could itself be an Archigram project.
The central claim of the book, that wirelessness pro‑duces a specific ontology, a specific kind of extended object ‘in a way that strongly links capital, network, and connection’, does go some way to meeting our need for ‘a critical history of technology’, whilst Mackenzie’s demonstration that ‘the felt reality of experience is interwoven, at least at the fringes of perception, with the conjunctively structured envelop of waveforms’, in some sense ‘reveals the active rela‑tion of man to nature’. Marx and Engels famously observed that ‘the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.’ For Mackenzie, ‘wirelessness lies close to the most intimate operations and globally extensive logics of capital’ even whilst ‘development tends to depoliticize change by technologizing it’.
Without affectEncarnación Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez, Migration, Domestic Work and Affect: A Decolonial Approach on Value and the Feminization of Labor, Routledge, London and New York, 2011. £80.00 hb., 220 pp., 978 0 41599 473 6.
While the past four decades have witnessed the number of working women matching that of men, far less has changed in the sexual (and racial) distribution of housework. On this basis, Encarnación Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez’s new book argues that the wages for house‑work debate of the 1970s ought to be ‘reloaded’ for the present day. Unlike her feminist sources, however, the author rejects theory premissed on a monolithic, and thus Eurocentric female experience of household work, focusing instead on undocumented migrant female domestic workers in the European Union, a group that neatly references the historical sedimenta‑tions of male domination and colonialism shaping the international division of reproductive labour. By centring her study on a global network of exploitation re‑created at the intimate scale of the domestic sphere,
Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez goes further than decentring the wages for housework debate. She proposes that today’s progressive European family, in which the housewife is supplanted by a female professional considered equal to her husband, remains structurally dependent on delegations of domestic labour that build on, while reviving, relations of colonial domination.Migration, Domestic Work, and Affect spends some time contrasting different migration regimes and recruitment strategies among EU nations, in order to position the figure of the undocumented worker as produced by national and personal economic depend‑ency, and shaped by border and labour regulations (or an absence thereof). She describes the inescapable and everyday precarity faced by migrants as conditioned by the EU states’ patchy gaze on the household. Whether the threshold is marked by illicit entry or the expiry of a student visa, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez’s subjects have entered a ‘working rights gray zone’ in which their mobility and liberty are constrained by fears of depor‑tation while work is only at best ‘halfheartedly’ regu‑lated by the state. Reluctant to penetrate to the private sphere with workplace protections, regulators abet the exploitation of migrant women, but are attentive to promoting employment for female citizens through ‘gender mainstreaming policies’, including paternal leave and subsidies, designed to mitigate women’s dichotomous burden of waged and domestic labour.
From a broad portrait of the canals of migration that pool in the interstices of regularity, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez narrows in on the quality of waged domestic labour. Her central claim is that reproductive work ought to be understood as affective labour, produc‑tive of affective value. On this front, her argument intervenes within recent feminist scholarship on ‘global care chains’ by stressing that what is transferred from global South to North on the backs of migrant women is not only emotion, but affect. For support, the author draws out a taxonomy of affects related to domestic work from her empirical research: interviews with undocumented women from the global South, chiefly Latin America, whose ambitions for upward mobility through migration were arrested once domestic and care work in middle‑class homes in Germany, Austria,
Spain and the UK became their only viable employ‑ment. When the pristine home doubles as the scene of precarious migrant labour, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez argues, domestic interactions are constituted by peculiarly combined affects of intimacy and estrangement, sym‑pathy and disgust. These relations are organized by an ongoing ‘coloniality of labour’ that, while subjugating workers, underpins the happiness of domesticity and the ostensible liberation of female employers. Cleanli‑ness and respite from domestic labour rejuvenate the European female professional only by draining these affects from the colonized migrant. Some of the most intriguing sections of the book touch upon the specific‑ity of a female domestic worker’s relation to a female employer, as against her relation to a male employer.
Whereas men tend to prefer hands‑off management of household chores, women display a persistent sense of responsibility for cleaning and care in their fastidious oversight of employees. Introducing a female domestic worker subtly reshuffles household gender roles and relations: paying someone to shoulder the second half of the working woman’s double day makes professional life possible for female employers, while defusing emotional conflicts with husbands resistant to any demand to clean, cook and care.
Unfortunately, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez typically skates over her empirical observations, rather than dwell on their implications. Overall, her argument is over‑stocked with an array of theoretical models, drawn from postwar French philosophy, social theory and Italian autonomist Marxism, which feel added on to, rather than drawn from, her research. Inevitably, for a book of its length, these numerous concepts are compressed in presentation, rendering overly capacious and ambiguous definitions that fail to strengthen or even adequately integrate to the author’s argument.
As a result, their combination feels eclectic, if not scattershot.
The use of affect and its attempted insertion into Marxian value theory exemplifies GutiérrezRodríguez’s approach. Affective value, she argues, is a ‘third category’ exceeding use‑value or exchange‑value, neither of which can capture ‘the specific biopolitical quality of this labour as reproductive, emotional and affective labor’. Following Antonio Negri, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez considers this biopolitical quality to be typical of post‑Fordism, in which the boundary separating productive from reproductive spheres takes on an unprecedented porosity. Yet it is difficult to see how affective labour is more faithful to a biopolitical reality than analyses of reproductive labour construed in terms of emotions and care – or, more basically, how affect and emotion substantially differ, a distinction on which the author insists. Her remarks on Spinoza do not clarify these matters, but betray a dramatic misreading – she attributes to him the view of an interaction between mind and body, for instance – exposing the unstable theoretical foundations on which her argument for affective value rests. In addition, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez simply asserts that the concept of affect shuttles unproblematically from the pre‑personal and ontological to the historical and geopolitical; the author melds affect to political economy in a rather suspicious extrapolation from the individual to the international. Without explaining how these scales connect, it remains unclear how domestic work’s affective properties are more than ephemeral sensations, let alone how they ‘create productivity’ beneficial to households and the state, such that a drain of affect from the global South to North can be claimed.
The imputed productivity of affective labour remains one of the more vexing, yet weight‑bearing, threads of Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez’s argument. At times, she reiterates a canard – that productive labour equals commodity‑producing labour – to conclude that domestic labour is therefore unproductive. She contrasts domestic labour to baking bread, ‘which can be measured by the labour‑power, labour‑time, the ingredients, the relative market price and customer’s demand’. Elsewhere, by contrast, she asserts directly that domestic labour is indeed productive, suggesting that this ‘productivity is realized based on affective bonds established, dissipated, and transformed in the household’. Domestic labour is only ‘perpetuated’ as unproductive, for it is perceived to be ‘simple labour’, or labour that is ‘not embedded in the production and circulation of capital and emanating from “free‑floating”, feminized faculties of caring for others’.
As in the case of Spinoza and affect, her gloss of Marx’s value theory is often vague, sometimes veering off course: ‘social relations produce value’; the com‑mensurability of commodities is ‘created through a cul‑tural process of identification’; and ‘[v]alue is produced just through a complex network of exchange activities attached to a framework of social and actual meaning production’. Beneath these suggestive locutions lies a theory (wrongly attributed to Marx) that value is created by demand. A further complication results from the author’s tendency to conflate the value of the products of the domestic labour process with the value of the domestic labourer’s labour‑power, indicated by her wage. In part this ambiguity is promoted by a technically imprecise emphasis on the cultural devalu‑ation of labour associated with women, and women of colour especially. Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez articulates these cultural determinations as merely a codification or perception of such labour as devalued, rather than detail this devaluation historically – as the result of domestic workers’ exclusion from organized labour, for instance. Her deviation from materialist analysis further reveals itself in a failure to address squarely the issue of domestic workers’ wages – startling for a text evaluating waged domestic labour, drawing from the wages for housework debate, and oriented to questions of productivity and value theory. In fact, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez repeatedly slides from addressing domestic labour performed by a hired (undocumented) worker to theorizing unwaged housework, and, as a result, does not explicitly confront the fact that the informal wages of undocumented migrant workers are paid out of the wages of workers, and not capital (meaning such work is unproductive in Marx’s sense). Capitalist firms hiring out domestic workers (situations in which this labour would indeed be considered productive within Marx’s rubric) are equally ignored.
The slippage from a framework rooted in house‑wives’ demands for wages to the conditions of waged, racialized domestic labour has the effect of obfus‑cating the historical distinctions between white and raced women’s relationships to reproductive work – a complexity Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez aims to place front and centre. Indeed, in general, by framing the racial and sexual division of domestic labour as a symbolic struggle carried out on a cultural terrain, the book’s theoretical motions retrace the same elision of colonial and class history Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez ascribes to the sanitized domestic sphere. These structural difficulties surface in the politics she develops from her analysis, laid out in the book’s conclusion. Calling for a creol‑ization of human rights, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez delimits the problem of migrant workers shouldering the burden of European reproductive labour to a lack of citizen‑ship and workplace protection, not to the dynamics of global capital she herself names as migration’s driving forces. In her conclusion, Gutiérrez‑Rodríguez asks, ‘How far can we translate universal claims that are rooted and situated in one part of the world to the other parts of the world?’ Her question is apt, but points beyond the reaches of cultural theorizing within a left‑liberal frame. Only by addressing the limits to capital accumulation on a world scale, and the constraints these limits place on states’ ability, or desire, to grant workers rights, could one attempt an answer.
BackhanderAndrew Kolin, State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush, Pal‑grave Macmillan, New York, 2011. 251 pp., £55.00 hb., 978 0 23010 935 3 This is a historical rather than analytical study, and it argues quite a simple thesis. The author’s contention is that the executive branch of the US government has displayed an inherent tendency since its inception to accumulate power at the expense of the other two constitutional branches, the legislative and the judicial.
The book is packed with a wealth of factual detail illustrating this. But it offers no particular explanation as to why this should be so, nor any particular discus‑sion as to whether the US constitutional separation of powers makes this outcome any more likely than would a parliamentary system, where the executive and legislative aspects of government are more closely integrated.
The novelty of State Power and Democracy lies not in an argument that presidential power has been self‑consciously and publicly aggrandized, but in the assertion that this process can be usefully conceptual‑ized in terms of a ‘police state’. Kolin does not contend that any of the presidents involved actually knew what this telos was, nor does he contend that they were simply ignorant of the distinction between what he calls democracy and its police‑state antithesis. Rather, any causal account as to where democracy in America went wrong – whether an iron law of bureaucracy or a capital‑driven urge to global domination – is simply sidestepped. Readers are thus not invited to ask an academic ‘why’ question, but are simply asked to be horrified by the specific and accumulated details that Kolin recounts. Personally, I did not find all that many aspects of American history – recent or long past – that I had not encountered before, and about which I feel increasing nausea, disapproval and anger. (I write as an American citizen.) But other readers could well feel the scales dropping from their eyes.
Kolin’s account of the ‘police state’, as it has devel‑oped in the USA, is a productive conceptualization, far more so than allegations of fascism and the like.
In his view it amounts to a continuous subversion of the rule of law in virtually all of its important aspects.
These include judicial independence, from which one could expect the executive branch to acknowledge the constraints on its actions that are set by the constitu‑tion’s bill of rights, further ‘due process’ amendments, and congressional legislation limiting even the war powers of the commander‑in‑chief. Respect for human rights is today a ‘liberal’ cliché, and Kolin’s book is a useful compendium of detail on what exactly these rights are supposed to be in practice, and what exactly it looks like when they are openly violated by executive order. He is quite good on listing the ways that a police state normalizes itself in the broader culture through which public opinion comes to condone this shifting of the goalposts and demonization of ‘rights talk’. This occurs through permanent emergencies and security alerts, rafts of special powers legislation, hounding of ill-defined ‘subversives’, widespread surveillance and list‑making, day‑to‑day intimidation and press notices, blanket justifications for governmental secrecy, circum‑vention of the courts, use of the courts for show trials, rigging of elections and electoral registers, compul‑sory patriotism and suspicion of disloyalty, Orwellian concepts of ‘rendition’ and rightslessness, attacks on doctrines of attorney–client confidentiality, xenophobia and ‘profiling’, ‘targeted’ assassinations and collateral ‘casualties’, secret overseas prisons and ‘disappeared’ prisoners… the list could well go on. Since the events of 11 September 2001 this has all become drearily and scarily familiar, and Kolin does useful work in showing – for those who didn’t know – how far back this goes in American history, and how steadily the process has ratcheted up to its present pitch of intensity. His final chapter on the Obama administration notes that the few hopeful signs of contrary motion have thus far been submerged in institutional inertia and consolidation.Academic cavilling is not really on the same scale as the governmental malpractice Kolin outlines, but I will register some worries at this level nonethe‑less. I really have no idea exactly how Kolin defines ‘democracy’, other than ostensively and by example as his account progresses. He detects a considerable amount of the opposite within the intentions of the constitution’s framers and in the structure of what they produced; for example, the deliberate dispersal of powers through three branches of government, the originally anti‑popular and still inegalitarian character of the Senate, the division of the legislative branch into two houses which must agree all legislation, lifetime appointments for the Supreme Court, and, of course, the notable exclusions of slaves and black people, native Americans and women from civil rights until some hundreds of years had passed. A major work detailing exactly how and why the US Constitution today fails to meet the criteria of democracy would be an extremely interesting essay in comparative political theory, but of course the author would have to stipulate what these criteria were and then defend them. There is a literature on ‘democratic deficits’ and considerable theory to work with here, but there is also a bland level of assumption that ‘Western’ political systems are simply democratic, whatever their differences.
This kind of discussion, though, is rather different from Kolin’s allegation that contemporary America is a now a full‑blown police state, to all intents and purposes. Still, some rigorous argument concerning the nature of democracy at the outset would certainly have promoted the credibility of his case. It might also educate his audience; attacks on the separation of powers, the federal system, and bicameral legislatures as undemocratic or anti‑democratic are rather rare in the USA.
On an even more academic note I have to say that I was shocked by the relative absence of citations of source material in Kolin’s book. In a very densely detailed historical account it is odd to see only seven pages of notes and three pages of bibliography. There were innumerable points where I would like to have had guidance on where to go for further information.
Indeed, in some places I would certainly prefer to have some corroboration before citing Kolin as a factual source. The few points where notes and citations do occur seem rather arbitrary and don’t promote much credibility for the work as a whole. It may be true that full citation in the normal academic way would have produced an end‑of‑volume, Chomsky‑esque avalanche of sourcing that may or may not have helped to change anyone’s mind. But the absence of this, conversely, doesn’t dispose me to recommend the book.
A final point: Kolin seems to make the common mistake of conflating the American government with presidential power, and the power of the president with the power to initiate, amend, approve or reject legislation in Congress. Yet, put simply, there is nothing the president can do – or, rather, can do for very long – without having the money to do it, and only Congress can vote the money. Kolin doesn’t explicitly identify Congress as an ‘enabler’ of the police state until around halfway through the book, noting that, from the 1990s, it abdi‑cated its responsibilities to ensure that the executive acted only through the rule of law, and that it failed to limit the growth of executive power even when the law was respected. This contention really comes on stream when Kolin argues that much of what the Bush administration did after 9/11 was already in place and ready to go under the Clinton administration. After 9/11, of course, Congress appropriated even more money for Bush’s security apparatus, on near‑unanimous votes, than in some cases he had asked for. This reflects Kolin’s contention that the police state is not merely a historical tendency over the long term but also a cultural normalization that has accelerated over the last few decades. Reagan and Carter get their due in this, as well. Sadly the history of regimes – of many different kinds – which claim to be democratic, show many similar features. Political philosophers and historians need to do much more work on the rule of law – and the fragility thereof – and, in this respect, State Power and Democracy points a useful way forward.