Almost a decade
ago, I wrote a book called "Kampen om fortiden" (The contested
past). A typical worstseller, it has been out of print for years. The
book is about the mythical and ideological uses of the past, and compares
contemporary state societies with a variety of traditional ones. A little
while ago, a Ph. D. student contacted me about the book, and it was only
then that I discovered that I somehow had no copies left. Fortunately,
the files were still on my computer, and so after a bit of trouble
dealing with the obsolesence of the then-current software I have
made it available in its entirety on the Web for the benefit of
Scandinavian readers only for now. Now that I'm looking through it again,
for the first time in years, I cannot help thinking that maybe there will
be an updated English edition some day... Klikk
And while I'm
at it: a recent talk I gave on humanism and identity is also available
online now. Here!
* * *
complexity at the University of Oslo
In the next five
years, I am going to be involved in a research programme funded by the
University of Oslo, called "Cultural Complexity in the New Norway".
We intend to look not just at the usual suspects (immigrants), but also
at their various counterparts in majority society. If we look at religion,
atheists and Protestant sects are just as relevant as Muslim or Hindu
ones. There are going to be activities and some funding opportunities.
We are interdisciplinary and catholic in our tastes, but not indefinitely
so. Check our website, which
will be updated and expanded often, for some information on the programme.
* * *
not a million and a half?
And now for a
short version of my monthly column in the Oslo weekly Morgenbladet.
It is due to be published on Friday. There may be a stir.
Like most wealthy
countries, Norway is host to an ongoing debate about immigration where
suspicion and misguided selfishness are highly visible traits. The underlying
way of thinking may be labelled a white discourse, and assumes
that poor people and opportunists from the rest of the world are queueing
up at the border. They have heard that it may be easy to get into the
country, and that one doesn't have to work terribly hard once inside.
According to this perspective, immigration moreover affects the natives
through competition over scarce resources like work and housing, and the
overall standard of living declines.
this white discourse, there also exists a solidarity discourse.
It argues that it is a moral duty to help people in need no matter where
they are, and that we must simply accept that some of them find their
way here. When, moreover, politics, communications and economies are being
globalised, a natural consequence is increased flow of people across boundaries.
then clash noisily through, on the one side, partly covert accusations
of egotism and self-contained nationalism, and on the other side, somewhat
more explicit accusations of class treason and political correctness.
Neither of the
approaches is adequate. Both turn the problem on its head. Immigration
is good and necessary for society, it is economically beneficial both
for the receiving and the sending countries, and it makes the national
identity larger and more significant. In fact, nationalists ought to rejoice
in increased immigration. It is a golden chance to turn the country into
It was on a bus
stop twenty-three years ago that I felt, for the first time in my life,
that Norway had the option of growing into something great. I was waiting
for the bus somewhere in Oslo, on my way to a part-time job, and noticed
something I had never seen before: two immigrants of different nationalities
were standing nearby, talking together in broken Norwegian! The episode
showed that Norwegian could be a cosmopolitan language. But it was only
several years later that I fully understood that the pride swelling in
my chest on the bus afterwards, was a nationalist pride. Norway
was about to grow out of its postwar clothes.
There are also
other nationalist reasons for opening up the borders. Research shows a
clear connection between immigration and economic growth. Without immigrants,
New York stops. Or, rather, without illegal immigrants, New York
grinds to a halt. They do not compete with native labour one reason
why they are there, is the need for their work input. They may be exploited
horribly, but as any migrant from the Dominican Republic would be able
to tell you: There is only one thing worse than being exploited in the
black labour market in the USA, and that is not being exploited in the
black labour market in the USA. Many of these illegal immigrants eventually
become legal, and the social mobility is very significant both in the
first and second generations.
to be most widespread in the areas with fewest immigrants. It is not a
big problem in London, a city which has been transformed rather dramatically,
demographically speaking, in the last few decades.
Add to this the
economic importance of remittances from immigrants, which in 2002 were
estimated to surpass the total amount of foreign aid, with no expensive
experts, bureaucracies etc. between donors and recipients. Entire communities
in the third world depend on remittances, and sometimes put them to productive
use. It is estimated that each dollar sent home by Filipinos working in
the USA leads to three dollars of value added. The money sets wheels in
There are, plainly,
no good arguments against allowing increased labour migration into European
countries. Their labour is needed in our countries with their ageing populations;
they enhance and widen the scope of national identities; their remittances
help out at home; and their children have opportunities only dreamt about
a generation earlier.
The problem for
a country like Norway is, therefore, not how to limit the number of asylum-seekers
or labour migrants, nor how to mitigate the conflict between immigrants
and the domestic working class. The problem consists in attracting professionals.
In the foreseeable future, there will always be a certain supply (and
a certain need) for unskilled labour, but there are several reasons why
this kind of country needs a varied influx of immigrants, in terms of
age, gender and professional qualifications. Virtually every immigrant
I know in this country who was highly qualified professionally upon arrival,
came here because they had fallen in love with a Norwegian. Few others
seem to be attracted by the country. In Bangalore, they have heard that
Norway is a backwater with a hellish climate and xenophobic tendencies
in the population, where the inhabitants speak an obscure language, and
where the cultural life of the capital is about what one would expect
from a provincial European city on the margins of the continent. Soon,
the Foreign Ministry will get a new focus in its tireless work of marketing
Norway abroad: they may run a campaign focusing on long holidays and a
family-friendly lifestyle. They will have to think of something.
Had Norway wished,
and been able to, attract, say, a million and a half immigrants of varied
backgrounds but a common entrepreneurial spirit, to the area around the
Oslo Fjord (the most urbanised part of the country), the country would
have looked very different in a generation or so. It is unlikely to happen.
But people ought to know what they're missing.
So what kinds
of people exist – really?
In one of his
philosophical short stories, Jorge Luis Borges reviews "a certain
Chinese encyclopedia" which contains a list of the kinds of animals
that exist: "(a) those belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c)
domesticated, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) strange, (g) stray dogs,
(h) included in this classification, (i) terrified, (j) innumerable, (k)
drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) which have
just broken the water jug, (n) which, from a distance, look like flies."
by Foucault in his archaeology of knowledge, Borges' list makes fun of
earnest attempts to classify natural things. Regarding the question what
kinds of animals exist, the answer depends on who makes the classification.
But what about the least natural of natural things, then: humans? Do women,
professors and people from Bergen exist? That depends on what one sees
them with. A few years ago, the term "negro" was debated in
the Norwegian press. The common view among the ethnic Norwegians contributing
to the discussion was that "there is no reason why we should not
call people Negroes if that is what they are". Note the formulation
"what they are". It is reminiscent of a widespread use of the
term "really". And if one resists, suggesting alternative terms,
such as Kenyan, student, man and so on, then one appears, in today's ideological
climate, as a dangerous social constructivist (read: irresponsible relativist)
or a spineless, politically correct opportunist.
In the interwar
years, a lively debate took place in South Africa regarding the future
of racial segregation. Many were opposed to segregation, seeing the future
of South Africa as one based on common citizenship, and in parts of the
huge Cape province, "coloureds" (of mixed descent) indeed had
already acquired political rights. The historical lapse of apartheid was
still a couple of decades ahead. Now, some of the adherents of racial
segregation justified it by talking about culture. Finding indirect support
in American cultural anthropology and German ethnology, they claimed that
Xhosas, Zulus and "Whites" were so culturally remote from each
other that their collective selves would be irremediably harmed by excessive
This line of argument
was used for what it was worth by various political leaders and ideologists,
but they soon ran into a problem. The so-called Coloureds were on the
whole not particularly different from the "Whites" regarding
culture. Many of them had the education, work, religion, language and
way of life as their paler neighbours. In order to avoid extending rights
to Coloureds in the future, segregationists were eventually left with
one argument: Appearance. Some reacted; they demanded the right to be
something else than a skin colour. And their opponents responded in kind.
As an irritated columnist in Die Burger wrote in the 1920s: "Why
should we not call them Coloureds, if that is what they are?"
It was when I
read about this debate from the years leading up to apartheid that I was
reminded of the "negro debate".
Words are innocent,
you say? Maybe so, but not when they are paraded as the only possible
description. Take the debates about "immigrant crime" in various
European countries. In Norway, this debate was particularly passionate
in the early 1990s (but it resurfaces roughly every three years). The
term is in itself deeply offensive, but that is not the point. Careful
reading of crime statistics confirmed that "immigrants" were
overrepresented in the statistics. In other words, the term "immigrant
crime" referred to an actually existing phenomenon, although everybody
who used the term, trying to make it part of the taken-for-granted vocabulary
of society, insisted that by all means, we have nothing against the average
Tariq and his corner shop, but one cannot deny the truth of the figures!
But then one
could contest this truth after all, for the numbers spoke with several
tongues. A different reading of the crime statistics showed that there
was a closer correlation between crime and the category "young, single
men in cities" than between crime and "immigrants". Young,
single men in the cities were overrepresented among immigrants. The statistical
figures said something different from what was claimed by those who were
partial to the neologism "immigrant crime".
What kinds of
creatures exist in the world? Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné),
the great Swedish naturalist, believed that he had classified well over
half of all species in existence. He reached a grand total of 26,500 species.
Today, the total number of described species amounts to nearly one and
a half million.
The criteria used
by Linnaeus, moreover, are not unproblematic. He chiefly looked at morphology
(external form). Although he avoided the obvious pitfall of classifying
whales with fish, when he moved down the ladder of complexity to invertebrates,
he used his intuition. The result, in biologist Dag Hessen's words, was
change historicaly, and they vary cross-culturally. In the first decades
after the abolition of slavery in the USA, a rich tapestry of "subraces"
or "hybrids" existed --from "Mulatto" (fifty percent
of each) to "Mustifino" (1/32 black, 31/32 white). A Mustifino
would have thirty-one white great-great-great-grandparents and one black.
Yet s/he was not white. Today, the system has been simplified with the
"one drop" rule. Even if one only has one black great-great-grandfather,
one is black if it shows. In fact, many American blacks would not be perceived
as black in the Caribbean, but as brown or "red-skinned".
But that is not
the topic of this newsletter. The issue at hand is the terrorist attack
in Madrid. When it became clear that the likely terrorists were Muslims
(and not Basques, as infamously argued by the Aznar regime), the TV channels
first showed a scene from the site of the attack (smoking ruins, firefighters,
people in mourning), followed by pictures of ordinary Muslims in Madrid
and Barcelona. I would assume, at the risk of underestimating TV viewers,
that many saw such newsreels without raising an eyebrow. But suppose that
the Catholic militants in the IRA had blown up a building in Belfast,
and that the news item on the incident included images from a Catholic
Mass in Dublin?
They are, in other
words, Muslims, the bastards. --Not terrorists? --Yes, that as well, but
listen, why should we not call them Muslims if that is what they are?
Forgive them not,
for they should have known better.
book, Røtter og føtter
("Roots and feet" or, perhaps "Roots and boots"?),
discusses this kind of question at much greater length.
There are people who believe that music has a direct effect on the growth
of plants. One of them once insisted that if you play Mozart to greenhouse
plants, they tend to grow into highly elaborate, freely intertwining forms
reminiscent, to my mind anyway, of rococo ornaments. If, on the other
hand, you play heavy rock to them, they grow inwardly into hard, cabbage-like
balls of defensive greenery. Be this as it may, it appears that in recent
years, Western European governments do not seem to have played a lot of
Mozart to their immigrant communities. If we are going to understand why
the hijab is slowly crawling up the faces of European Muslim women,
this might be as good a place to start as anywhere else. Only this afternoon,
a colleague told me about Turkish immigrant women in Scandinavia, who
proudly displayed their covered heads and arms in public here, but who
never bothered to cover themselves in Turkey. Not enough Mozart in their
Drammen suburb? Hardly the entire explanation, but it might be a beginning.
In the latest issue of Prospect, there is a piece on Adornos
relationship to music. It was crucial. Of his collected papers, comprising
10,000 pages altogether, no less than forty per cent is devoted to music.
Adorno was a composer himself, although much less known as such than his
contemporaries Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but as a compensation, he
was arguably the most important theorist, and defender, of the musical
avant garde of the first half of the twentieth century. In Adornos
view, echoed by later art critics committed to modernism, good music should
tell the listener something new; it should open up new worlds, preferably
radically new worlds which should nevertheless be hinged onto their pasts.
(Stravinsky was not radical enough for Adorno; his Rite of Spring
had too many kitschy, folkloristic elements.) Actually, Adorno traced
the fall of the German character in no small degree to the growth of the
industrial amusement business, and in one of his lectures, he muses about
the destiny of the spiritual life of the young German boy who, unlike
his father, did not hear friends of his parents play chamber music, was
swept away by the music and absorbed into its universe long after bedtime
knowing that he could not just play it on his gramophone in the
morning. Well, Adorno was an elitist, and most German boys before the
advent of the turntable and the radio presumably did not have parents
with friends who played chamber music. Yet versions of Adornos view
re-emerges in lots of places; I remember interviewing the avant-garde
drummer Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow and Art Bears fame) about music and
politics, when he a staunch left-wing radical suddenly remarked
that he found it difficult to take the professed political radicalism
seriously among members of the Communist Party who listened to flat, superficial
An interesting book called Music and identity (Norwegian only,
Im afraid; the actual title is Musikk og identitet) by musicologist
Even Ruud talks about pivotal experiences, or threshold moments, in peoples
musical histories. The author has interviewed a number of individuals
of varying age and class backgrounds about their relationship to music,
and they invariably refer to sublime moments in their youth when the music
seemed to re-create the world for them. Frustratingly for the avantgardist,
these extraordinary experiences could, apparently, just as well be had
with Uriah Heeps album High and Mighty as with one of Beethovens
string concerts. Well, Pierre Boulez once described rock as incredibly
boring music with a authoritarian rhythm. Bourdieu famously classified
his respondents by cultural class through musical categories (in one of
the many diagrams describing the relationship betwee class and taste in
Distinction, he had reserved a particularly nasty square for the
admirers of Johnny Halliday). Perhaps someone should take on the job of
looking at the relationship between musical inclinations and values? I
do not have the trivialities of quantitative sociology in mind; far more
interesting would be a phenomenological investigation of the connection
between the musical experience and the life-world. Both Cutler, Adorno
and Bourdieu might be proven wrong. (But Adorno was on the right track;
his empirical work on the authoritarian personality shows that he saw
subtle connections in peoples lives.) There is an idiosyncratic,
personal element here, which cannot be reduced to sociological categories.
When I was about 20, my dream was to be able to write in the same style
as the music of the eccentric Californian quartet The Residents. Never
got there; I learned to write as a journalist and as an academic instead.
But my friend Øivind Hånes, who is a fine novelist as well
as a brilliant singer-songwriter, has accomplished a unique fusion between
language and sound in his work, which is of one piece. All of his work
is signed, and the signature pervading his songs can also be felt
in his books.
The problem is one of translation. That is also a problem in all critical
writing about music: it cannot, other than by analogy, convey the qualia
of the music, it cannot tell what it says. It is therefore forced to resort
to descriptions of the instrumentation, normative evaluations of the performance,
comparisons with other artists or composers, or even sociological comments
on the audience. As a sociologist argued some time ago, Led Zeppelin fans
are much nicer, more down-to-earth people than the self-centred, epistemologically
challenged fans of The Doors. Come to think of it, analogy is preferable.
Even Ruud's material indicates that peoples decisive musical experiences
tend to happen early in life, often in late puberty. (For my own part,
I was into prog and symphonic rock at the time, and gave punk a wide berth.
I suspect lots of others were in the same situation, but hesitate to own
up to it.) During the last months, I have been converting some of my old
vinyl records to digital files. It is time-consuming (you have to play
the bloody things), but at least it gives me the pleasure of not having
to buy the same music twice, quite apart from the nostalgic pleasures
of fondling impractically large, beautiful LP sleeves which had passed
through my loving hands countless times in a distant past. A few weeks
ago, I finally recorded, after a period of hesitation, Brand Xs
first six albums (197680). The four first are superb; even the next
two, recorded after the devastating combined effects of punk, reggae and
Bruce Springsteen, while the record company was in other words complaining
about declining sales, have their moments of brilliance. It is strange
to think that in my late teens, I considered listening to Brand X records
a frivolous activity, something best done during the summer months at
a high volume. The music was somehow too upbeat, too humorous in a vaguely
English way, to be taken entirely seriously. Come autumn and winter, I
would turn to the radical beats of Henry Cow and National Health, the
cerebral jazz of the likes of Keith Jarrett or mid-period Soft Machine,
the bizarre subversiveness of The Residents, the dark existential angst
of Univers Zero or Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator, or the solemn
grandeur of Beethoven and Mahler. With the hindsight of more than twenty
years, I have to concede that Brand X was one of the best, if not the
best of the guitar-driven jazz-rock bands of the period, and Percy Jones
unique, muscular, bubbling bass alone is worth your time. (As a bonus,
the very existence of group is tangible proof of the fact that there was
a time, a quarter-century ago, when Phil Collins still made a living as
a drummer, and not a bad one! The group was formed, after all, at his
initiative.) The lack of an outstanding soloist, often commented
upon by critics, was a blessing for Brand X, since it enabled the compositions
to shine and the group to function as a collectivity. -- But had I not
heard the group as a teenager, it is unthinkable that I would even have
contemplated giving it time now. Visiting a colleague in London recently,
I discovered a Cream CD in his kitchen, a fact which reminded me of his
age. So we carry these nuggets of transcendence from our youth with us
throughout our lives.
This newsletter was supposed to be about immigrants, integration, Islamism,
shawls and the uncomfortable relationship between Greens and anti-racists.
That will have to wait until next month. On the other hand; when it works,
music bridges most gaps. Edward Saids last major project, and one
of his finest achievements, consisted in bringing young Jewish and Palestinian
musicians together in the East-West Diwan Orchestra (a nod of acknowledgement
to Goethe here). Shared music may have a greater effect than countless
sensible arguments. There lies its danger as well. When Germans listened
to Wagner as a nationalistic composer, they lost the art but saved the
communitas. We should all beware.
P.S. And dont play Stockhausen to your tomato plants. They might
Apologies for the long hiatus. Not that there have not been topics to
write about. Nor can I blame my long absence on illness (except for a
brief attack of tickbite fever). In the spring, I spent two months as
a visiting professor in South Africa, which was an invigorating and humbling
experience steep learning curve, important things at stake
and there have been interesting events in Europe and elsewhere also, well
worth commenting upon. On a large scale, the proposed constitution for
the European Union, passed in June, is a historical document on political
identity, which anchors the rights of European citizens not in nationality
but in human rights. The downside is that as Europe expands and becomes
an experiment of plural identities and post-national politics, it simultaneously
becomes less hospitable to outsiders. On a smaller scale, there has been
an interesting debate in Norwegian media about the nature of totalitarianism
and the role of local Maoists in sabotaging progressive politics back
in the 1970s, a lovely book about female circumcision (aeons above the
daily press in depth and sophistication) was published by my colleague
Aud Talle in June, and only last week, a highly interesting controversy
erupted over a Norwegian journalist's account of life in a middle-class
Afghan family just after the fall of the Taliban.
The head of the household portrayed
in the book, which has been translated into a number of languages including
English, fumed with rage as he read the journalist's account of intimate
details in the family's life. His daughters and sons were now unmarriagable,
he said, alleging that she had misused their confidence. Others have also
reacted against the portrayal of Afghani women, claiming that the journalist,
who does not speak any of the languages of Afghanistan, was unable to
describe local life from an insider's point of view and thus inadvertently
confirms outside prejudices (Afghani women are hopelessly oppressed) rather
than showing that veiled Muslim women may have a dignity, and may be treated
with great respect by men. Had she been an anthropologist, she would not
have lasted half an hour if the first set of allegations are true: that
she has misused the confidence of her informants and published details
from their lives that created problems for them when they became known.
This would have be seen as a very serious transgression of professional
The second set of objections
is more interesting and recalls not only Edward Said's Orientalism
but half a century's worth of postcolonial writing about symbolic power.
Suppose, as the Iraqi-Norwegian writer Walid al-Kubaisi suggested, that
an Afghan journalist came to Oslo and wrote a book about the internal
life of a bookseller's family here, exposing the husband's taste for prostitutes
and the wife's alcoholism in order to tell her Afghani readers about the
decadence of the West? What would have been the reactions then
in the Norwegian public sphere? She could have defended herself by arguing
that everything in the book was true, but that is not the point. There
are many truths in the world, but all of them are partial, all of them
change in taste and colour as you change the surrounding framework, and
not all are fit for consumption by the general public. I mean, would you
willingly give the world access to everything you said, sotto voce,
about your boss during the annual Christmas party? If we are entitled
to intimacy, we must also be entitled to sharing secrets.
About a month ago, a journal
asked me to write about ten books that had had a major impact on my work.
This means going back to undergraduate days. Obviously there were more
than ten alternatives, but some choices were inevitable. One of them was
the first (and possibly the best) theoretical analysis of the postcolonial
situation. It somehow seems relevant, not only in the context of the family
in Kabul and their reporter, but also in relation to the sad situation
in Iraq, to end these reflections with my handful of paragraphs on Frantz
Fanon's Black skin, white masks. Therefore:
Frantz Fanon: Peau noire,
masques blancs. Paris: Seuil 1952.
The mother of all later postcolonial theory, this slim book deserves to
be read once a year. Fanon, a medical doctor from Martinique, was deeply
embedded in French high culture and the Enlightenment tradition of political
discourse. He was a universalist who deplored the segregation of humanity
according to appearance, yet he knew perfectly well from personal
experience and from reading that being black denoted difference,
and that the historical experiences of the black man could not easily
What is most remarkable about the book is the way Fanon defines a modern
politics of identity. In extremely powerful prose, drawing equally on
literature, existentialist philosophy and psychology, Fanon depicts a
state where everything the black man or woman wants is "a little
bit of whiteness" in their lives. His message is one of struggle
and freedom, and notwithstanding many later accusations of romanticising
violence, he sees the liberation largely as a psychological process. What
he is hoping for is a world in which a black person (Fanon, of course,
still uses the term "negro") can be black without being the
opposite of a white man; where he has cast off his psychological dependence.
As a later postcolonial writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, pointed out: It
is easier to attain political independence and to nationalise the factories
than it is to decolonise the mind. Fanons genius consists in being
the first to analyse the importance of psychological decolonisation. He
develops an analysis depicting blacks and whites who are unhappily interlocked
in a mutually fearful and traumatic relationship; where a black woman
can never be perceived as respectable by white society, and where a black
man is feared among whites for his sexuality.
There are dilemmas in Fanons position, and he is all too aware of
them. If he endorses a universal black (or Negro) identity, he denies
the enormous variation, culturally and historically, between black people.
Many of his examples are taken from Martinique, a Caribbean island with
little in common with Rwanda or Senegal. On the other hand, he asserts,
the dominant discourse has given "the Negro"a definite place,
and since identity is defined through relationships to others, he concludes
that "wherever he goes, the Negro remains a Negro".
The most superb chapter is arguably the penultimate one, "The Negro
and Recognition". Discussing Adlers psychology and its relevance
for black identity, Fanon notes that "The Negro is comparison"
he does not posit himself as greater than the Other, but as inferior
to him. In partial explanation, he notes that colonial officials tried,
for years, to turn blacks into white men, before giving up and concluding
that they had "an indisputable complex of dependence on the white
man". It is this kind of insight that all later postcolonial theory
and fiction builds upon. In the second, famous part of the chapter, Fanon
discusses the Negro in relation to Hegels masterslave dialectic.
Re-reading it after many years, I am again struck by its poetry, its conciseness,
its anger, its sheer force. Being grateful to the white man for having
abolished slavery, says Fanon, is tantamount to preserving the morality
of the slave. He is prepared to accept nothing short of true equality
and respect. This message is less a justification for political violence
than a key to understand, and relate to, contemporary identity politics
everywhere. In a world where recognition by others is one of the scarcest
resources, Fanons book from 1952 remains a key text, brimming with
insight and fury.
Venus in geopolitics
The eyes of the world are fixed
on the PentagonIraq axis (whether it is one of evil or not), and
in the aftermath of the massive peace rallies in mid-February and the
Franco-German peace initiative, an inevitable if slightly peripheral issue
was brought forward with great force. It was by no means an entirely new
one. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about it in the early 1800s, and others
had dwelt on it even earlier. Some decades after Tocqueville, my countryman
(later Nobel laureate and card-carrying Nazi) Knut Hamsun published a
description of the country whose inhabitants were so restless and superficial
as to esemble children. Later still, following a tour of the country,
Oscar Wilde spoke of our countries which have so much in common
except, of course, language; and the young Kipling would
soon follow suit with an embarrassingly rude and condescending essay about
the new country.
The issue at hand is, of
course, the currently cool relationship between the USA and Europe. British
newspapers have lately (March 2003) been saturated with comments, features
and analyses which try to handle the situation, which is far more painful
for the transatlantic United Kingdom than for the continental powers France
and Germany. To them, the sour and disappointed tone of their American
counterparts can almost be regarded as business as usual, while Britain
is much closer to the USA both politically and culturally; and
notwithstanding Wilde linguistically.
A columnist in The Independent
recently wrote that Britons and Americans are separated not only by a
shared language, but also by a shared religion; while British Christianity
is a rather dispassionate thing, American Protestants worship a virile
Jesus Christ with hints of the cartoon superhero, and a God who never
hesitates to strike back if wronged. A commentator in The Guardian
wrote, a couple of days later, an article dramatically entitled This
is the end of a beautiful friendship, which focused on the oversimplifications
rampant on both sides of the Atlantic. Other articles have discussed issues
such as why the Americans do not understand our sense of humour,
while Martin Amis went further than most when he pointed out out that
Bush II is a religious fundamentalist, which Saddam Hussain is not.
As a matter of fact, both
Europe and the USA are divided: A still audible minority of Americans
are against the war, and a number of important European countries, from
Spain to Poland, have supported the Americans. On 15 February, peace demonstrations
were not limited to some foreign cities, but were visible
in the USA as well. On the other hand, American mainstream media are a
strange and slightly uncanny sight these days. Journalists who talk to
war sceptics (for a case in point, confer the 12 March interview with
George Soros on CNN), increasingly slip from journalism to interrogations
on behalf of their government an unbecoming role for journalists
in liberal societies. (The fact that the others are gangsters ought not
to turn us into the same: We are perfectly aware that they have weapons
of mass destructions, an unpredictable government influenced by religious
fundamentalism and infinite ambitions of global power, but I still think
it would be wrong to bomb the USA.)
The debate about cultural
differences or an emerging gulf between Americans and Europeans will not
end when newspaper commentators run dry or get bored. This has been ensured
by the American journalist Robert Kagan, who recently published a small
book called Paradise and Power, based on a journal article written
half a year ago, and which has already received a great deal of attention.
The book begins with the following statement: It is time to stop
pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world,
or even that they occupy the same world. Kagan then continues with
statements such as Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from
Venus (paraphrasing a pop psychology bestseller about men and women),
and the conclusion is unequivocal: The two continents have drifted apart,
and they are no longer on talking terms. Americans are driven by a pragmatic
common sense and the notion that if you have power, you had better
use it. Civilized talk of human rights is fine, but outside the
developed world, Hobbesian conditions necessitate the use of manipulation,
deception and brute force. Europeans, who are military dwarfs,
prefer peace and negotiations: A man who walks through the forest armed
with a knife, will react differently to the presence of a bear than a
man armed with a rifle.
Kagan is relatively balanced
in his moral judgement, but he is wrong about the European weakness:
Europeans possess considerable military skills (if fewer nuclear bombs
than Americans). For one thing, they tend to know more foreign languages.
Kagan accepts that the
continued vitality of the European Union shows that it is possible to
create strong alliances after centuries of war and mutual suspicion. On
the other hand, he is unwilling to apply this perspective to Iraq. For
it is far from unthinkable that Iraq could become a full member of the
international society. Saddam Hussain is a terrible man, who should never
have been in power and who should never have been propped up by
the Americans in the 1980s. Saddam ought to be removed and yes:
if this entails killing him, do go ahead, but please dont kill large
numbers of innocents instead but as pointed out by Amis, he is
no religious fanatic. Osama dislikes him. Iraq is a potentially rich and
partly industrialised country (at least before the sanctions set in after
the Gulf war) with a comparatively large, secularised middle class. Kagan
does not consider the possibility that a great number of third world countries
are excellent candidates for inclusion into the Kantian world of civilised
The famous British contemporary
historian Timothy Garton Ash responds to Kagan in the March issue of Prospect
(see also Stephen Holmes review in American
Prospect). Ash points out several weaknesses in Kagans argument,
and says that what is peculiar to Europe is not that it is a military
pygmy, but that it is pluralistic. Besides, there are other kinds
of power than brute military force.
Yet Ash does agree with
Kagan to a certain extent. He nevertheless sees the issue from a European
point of view, and is not particularly pleased with the prospect of living
in a world where America does the cooking, [whereas] Europe does
the washing-up. He wonders why USA is so keen to include Turkey
in the EU (as a token of gratitude for help with Iraq) while its southern
neighbour is to be treated in a brutal and merciless way, all channels
of dialogue having been closed. The Kantian world of dialogue and peace
is replaced by a Hobbesian world of the war of all against all very suddenly
at the border.
Both Kagan and Ash are
reasonable men who say that Europeans and Americans should learn from
each other. It is still depressing to contemplate the possibility, mentioned
by Ash, that Kagans bons-mots should be fixed in the popular
consciousness like Huntingtons clashes of civilizations
and Fukuyamas the end of history. Vulgar Kaganism
the USA is a strong, powerful and responsible nation (with balls);
Europe is weak, confused and inactive may soon become an obvious
target for necessary but joyless polemic. Consider: Civilizations are
incompatible and bound to clash (vulgar Huntingtonism); everybody wants
to live like Americans and those who create trouble are just jealous (vulgar
Fukuyamaism); and Americans, unlike Europeans, are willing to use military
force to defend Liberty and Democracy (vulgar Kaganism). Add to this the
fact of US military hegemony, shake, and you have a cocktail which is
likely to induce severe vomiting worldwide.
* * *
Friends tell me that it is
hopelessly naïve to talk about consistency, morality and decency
when confronted with the global situation. Yet I for one cannot help thinking
about oil, Israel/Palestine (if one were to mention one country that deserves
to be placed under international administration, clearly having proved
that it is unable to sort out its problems on its own...), blaming the
victim instead of the aggressor, using human rights vicariously as a foil,
and simple, gross insensitivity. You want a peaceful world? Well, be suspicious
of yourself, and love your enemy. Kill him if you must, but love him all
(This is a translated
and slightly altered version of a comment published in Scandinavian newspapers
in March 2003.)
It has slowly
dawned upon me that the indexes of this website have been difficult to
navigate for non-Scandinavians. It is therefore with some pleasure that
I can announce that they are now differentiated by language. Go
and see for yourself! I have also, belatedly, added some of my latest
colonial and the postcolonial: A view from Scandinavia on Italian minority
Between universalism and relativism: A critique
of the UNESCO concepts of culture
Confessions of a useful idiot (or Why
culture should be brought back in)
Notes on flexibility
The sexual life of nations: Notes on gender
Ethnic identity, national identity and
intergroup conflict: The significance of personal experiences
The power of Word
Afrika og anti-eurosentrismen
Teoretisk bricolage med datostempling (om Slavoj
Ambivalens og fundamentalisme i oktober 2002
Kampen for å bli hørt
Et informasjonshav av utilsiktede bivirkninger
Nyliberalismen og minoritetene
Claude Lévi-Strauss: Den ville tanke
(La pensée sauvage)
Umberto Eco: Kunsten å skrive en akademisk oppgave
(Come si fa una tesa di laurea)
Karer med hår på brystet
Also, some of the talks from the recent conference on 11 September in
London can be found at http://www.bfi.org.uk/aftersep11/streams
And now for something
The biological sciences have
developed a presence in the public sphere which is markedly different
from the situation only a couple of decades ago. Nowhere is their rise
to public prominence more striking than in public coverage of matters
relating to human nature, an area which was for a long time dominated
by theologists, philosophers, literary people and social scientists. A
few years ago, the influential science entrepreneur John Brockman exemplified
the new confidence among biology enthusiasts by launching the term the
third culture, meant to cover the invasion of natural scientists
(mostly biologists) into the traditional domain of the humanities. This
was justified, Brockman argued, by the fact that the big issues of existence
had been forgotten in the humanities, where thousands of fine minds were
making a career out of squaring the circle or simply splitting hairs.
The vacant slot was destined to be filled by clever natural scientists
who offered more exciting and more relevant theories about human nature
than their scholastic colleagues across the university square.
PS: When, in early November,
a Danish version of this text was published in Information
(Copenhagen), a colleague in Aalborg informed me that it is perfectly possible
to clap with one hand. The technique involves slapping your palm hard with
straightened fingers. Means I'll have to get out and search for another
metaphor. It is hard work to be an academic.
The rise of biological explanations of the human condition has come as
a surprise to many onlookers, including not a few academics. Just as many
people around 1980 assumed that Thatcherism and Reaganomics were just
temporary aberrations not worthy of serious attention, a majority of intellectuals
at the same time believed that understandings of humanity based on biology
would never again be dominant. E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins were perceived,
one might say, as the Reagan and Thatcher of the human sciences.
Well, we were wrong. Neo-liberalism remains the dominant ideology today
(if anything, it is more cocksure and hegemonic than it ever was), and
biological accounts of human nature are spreading like ... an unusually
fit genome: into psychology, economics, religious theory and into folk
notions of what it means to be human. The largest research project of
the last decade was the Human Genome Project (which increasingly appears
as a mountain that gave birth to a mouse), and popular science books about
the biological foundations of anything you might care to think of (as
well as a couple of things few of us care to think of) become airport
bestsellers. They are well written, lively and sparkling, and make other
academic books seem tired and irrelevant.
For years it was difficult to take the spokesmen (nearly all of them were
men) seriously. Their obsession with territorial instincts, sex and violence
led to a neglect of phenomena such as language, art and technology, a
fact which inspired the geneticist Steve Jones to quip that the theory
of natural selection can tell us everything about phenomena such as opera
or sex except, of course, the really interesting things.
The current situation is slightly different. The new generation of writers,
who call themselves evolutionary psychologists rather than sociobiologists,
actually concentrate on understanding the working of the mind. They have
come to terms with language and altruism, and some of them readily admit
that the genes do not always know what's good for them. Yet one of their
most penetrating critics, Kenan Malik,
holds that the re-emergence of simple biological explanations of complex
human phenomena indicates that our culture "has lost its nerve",
and is therefore all too willing to let just-so accounts from natural
science replace pompous humanism. I think he is right, and his view is
corroborated by the fact that humanist scholars have (with some notable
exceptions) become really proficient at studying and comparing wallpaper
patterns in the house we live in, neglecting to look at the plumbing,
the woodwork and the overall architectural vision.
This years shining star emerging out of the bubbling cauldron (or
primaeval soup?) of evolutionary social science is the psychologist Steven
Pinker, who has just published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of
Human Nature, a book which presents an innatist alternative to the
presumedly widespread idea that humans can learn anything because their
mind is, pace Locke, a blank slate. Following the release of the
book in September, it has received high praise among reviewers, especially
in the USA (the reception in Britain has been more mixed). The science
journalist Matt Ridley says in his blurb testimonial that this is
the best book on human nature that I or anyone else will ever read.
Quite apart from revealing an enviable knowledge of the future, this kind
of statement suggests that we are witness to the growth of a charismatic
religious movement. That is reason good enough to dip into the revealed
truth offered to us in Pinkers work.
Pinker is a more sophisticated theorist than many of his kindred spirits,
and I began his book anticipating an attempt to develop a true synthesis,
but I was soon to be disappointed: the book exemplifies the typical weaknesses
of this kind of literature. This must be seen as an opportunity lost,
since Pinker, a psychologist specialising in the study of language, could
have placed himself in a position enabling him to bridge gaps rather than
deepening them. The book reveals poor knowledge of what social and cultural
scientists actually do, and it is based on an idiotic premise, namely
the idea that the main characteristics of the human mind must be either
inborn or acquired (of course they are both simultaneously). The depiction
of his opponents views comes close to parody, and Pinkers
own position is consequently more fundamentalist than his arguments suggest,
more wide-ranging than his facts allow.
The central argument is that the human mind has evolved through natural
selection, which is seen as individual competition for offspring and genetic
fitness. Pinker also wishes to show that a wide range of human activities
are ultimately biologically based and can be traced back to the struggle
for survival in the environment of evolutionary adaptation.
There are lots of deep issues to be grappled with here, not least concerning
the relationship between group, individual and ecosystem in the evolutionary
process. Another crucial question pertains to the relationship between
biology, culture and freedom. Pinker is right in pointing out that social
scientists have not generally taken it sufficiently seriously. The only
problem is that he himself does not look at the complex interactions between
neither individual and group, individual and sub-individual entities (genes,
cells etc.), or biology, culture and individuality. He offers the simplest
conceivable answers to some of the worlds most difficult questions.
The paucity of nuance is astonishing. For example, Pinker argues that
parents and other environmental factors have no important effects on the
personality of a child. This position is as absurd as its opposite, that
is behaviourism (the doctrine claiming that environmental factors account
for everything, inborn characteristics for nothing). For there cannot
be many who seriously believe that it makes little difference for the
personality of a child if it grows up in Beverly Hills or the Bronx?
Pinker is extremely ungenerous when he pretends to depict the arguments
of his opponents. This is most obvious when he cursorily and with reference
to few if any sources writes off the left for its pathetic
habitual thinking (for example with reference to gender roles), but he
is not much more credible when he deals with academic research. In one
place he mentions a few famous social thinkers who have allegedly refused
to accept the inborn aspects of the human mind (from Plato to Lévi-Strauss),
obviously unaware that Lévi-Strauss, for one, has spent his entire
life documenting the innate structures of the mind.
Writers of the Pinker kind inevitably come into difficulties when they
write about free will. If one correctly identifies the complex relationship
between inheritance, the social and natural environment and freedom, the
doctrine about the genetic programmes of the mind becomes a watered-down
and relative kind of truth, of little direct use in formulating slogans
and policies. Pinker resists this temptation. Yet he admits that if he
does not like what the genes ask him to do, he will ask them to go
and jump in the lake. But if he and everybody else possesses this
kind of freedom, what remains of the evolutionary origins of the mind?
A bit, to be sure. But not much more than Emile Durkheim, Clifford Geertz
and other social constructivist Prügelknaben have conceded
time and again: we are born with innate predispositions, but these always
articulate with the environment and with the exertion of free choice,
leading to an almost incredible variation between cultures and between
There are many logical weaknesses and undocumented, but no less brashly
presented assumptions in Pinkers book. This makes it all the more
surprising that the book has been met with almost unanimous applause in
the USA. This is not because he says something new. The main selling point
of this kind of book is that they offer simple answers in a world which
is generally overflowing with ambiguity and complexity. The answers seem
right in the same way as popular horoscopes: they are credible until
one thinks about it. That this model of humanity can also easily justify
neo-liberalism (see Ridleys The Origins of Virtue for an
explicit connection) is also not exactly a disadvantage.
The only problem is that this kind of map is unable to account for the
complexity of the territory. There is more both-and than either-or in
the world. The biological contribution to our understanding of ourselves
is necessary and important. Presented as an authoritarian monologue, however,
it sounds like the sound from one hand clapping.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh
(a more sophisticated, and more credible, exploration of human thought,
which nevertheless incorporates biological perspectives)
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, eds.: Alas Poor Darwin Arguments
Against Evolutionary Psychology (the title says what this is about)
Marek Kohn: As We Know It (a balanced and well argued defense
of evolutionary psychology)
Kenan Malik: Man, Beast, and Zombie: What science can and cannot
tell us about human nature (a splendid, well-informed critique of
tortoise and the rabbit revisited
Some of the sources mentioned
are available here.
It was late July and we were on holiday in the Lofoten archipelago. The
Sunday weather was horrible, with torrential rain and strong winds. Waiting
for a ferry to bring us across a straits to the Vesterålen archipelago,
we bought a newspaper to check on the weather at home, which, due to a
perverse but reliable law of climatic variation, turned out to be sunny
and hot. Idly opening the paper on page four, my wife discovered that
half of it consisted of a photo of yours truly in front of an imposing
bookshelf and a couple of images of Hindu deities, gesturing and apparently
saying something to the photographer. Glancing over her shoulder, I could
see at once that the accompanying article,
entitled The geniuses and the idiots, did not bring good news.
Not to me anyway.
The rain continued to pour, the ferry was late, and I read the piece.
The author, a young activist and standup comedian called Shabana Rehman,
was lashing out against the intellectuals, casting me as her
main character, for being irrelevant, patronising and arrogant in matters
relating to minority issues. The background for this unexpectedly vitriolic
attack, printed in Dagbladet, the main liberal newspaper in the
country, was a short piece I had published a
week or so earlier in a much smaller newspaper, the highbrow weekly Morgenbladet.
That newspaper had in turn published an article attacking academics and
so-called leftist intellectuals for sheepishness, political correctness
and naïve anti-racism in their dealings with both immigrant and minority
issues and with the aftermath of 11 September. As one of the intellectuals
implicitly attacked (and perhaps not so implicitly; the writer may have
had me in mind when he spoke condescendingly about pop anthropologists),
I responded with a comment which showed that virtually everything he had
said was wrong: Research and public debate on migration and ethnic relations
has always been characterised by a plurality of views and approaches;
and hardly anybody commenting on 11 September believed, as this writer
alleged, that Osama bin Laden was a spokesman for the impoverished and
oppressed of the world.
In the article, I also pointed out that these views (about the conformist
political correctness in academia) had mysteriously become commonplace,
and that a myth had been established during the last year or so, claiming
that before Shabana Rehman the debate about multiethnic society had been
dominated by conservatism and cultural essentialism. This was not intended
to belittle her role in Norwegian society. There can be no doubt that
her liberal individualist views, so different from the standard immigrant
views, so compatible with the Zeitgeist and promoted with so much
courage and gusto, have had a very powerful impact on society during the
last year or so.
Rehmans subsequent attack on me, and by extension on all domestic
academics writing about multiethnic society, accused us of despising people
who had read fewer books than us, being cocooned in the ivory tower, and
finally of having conformist views and no influence in greater society.
That evening I received a text message on my cellphone from a couple of
friends, who advised me not to respond. Since Rehmans accusations
were obviously absurd, they said, I ought to keep quiet. This was not
Returning to Oslo a few days later, I sent a short comment to the newspaper.
However, by the time that piece was printed, the debate had taken a new
direction. On Thursday 1 August, the well-known social anthropologist
Marianne Gullestad published a long response to Rehman in the Oslo broadsheet
Aftenposten, where she questioned Rehmans role in Norwegian
public life, claiming that her media presence overshadowed others.
More substantially, she argued that Rehmans emphasis, in her regular
column, on issues such as sexuality and lifestyle had contributed to shifting
public attention away from ethnic discrimination to less important matters.
She also intimated that Rehmans views could easily be appropriated
by right-wing populists and others who demanded total cultural assimilation
from immigrants. Perhaps most importantly, she argued that Rehmans
position as a liberal, liberated young woman of the second
generation confirmed Norwegian stereotypes rather than questioning them,
and finally lamented her explicit anti-intellectualism in her original
Sunday article, Rehman had claimed that intellectuals were only interested
in recognition from other intellectuals, not in influencing or changing
In the following days, both Aftenposten and Dagbladet published
written comments and interviews with academics, activists and prominent
immigrants, who presented a variety of views on the controversy. Some
said that Rehmans offensive language (among other things, she has
described obedient Muslim women as obedient cattle) led to
an unhealthy polarisation between liberals and conservatives
in immigrant circles, where more soft-spoken and compromising positions
became difficult to sustain; some defended her against the onslaught from
the ivory tower; some attacked the media for not allowing a greater variation
in perspectives and for exclusively covering extreme things such as enforced
marriages and circumcision, ignoring the less dramatic reality of most
immigrants; and some confessed ambivalence. Moreover, both newspapers
published several new articles by both Gullestad and Rehman, where they
partly repeated their criticisms, partly tried to explain what they really
meant, and partly expressed dismay at the rhetorical devices employed
by their adversary.
The controversy, which is still going on at the time of writing (with
at least three new printed contributions today in Aftenposten,
Dagbladet and Dagsavisen), sheds light on the role of anthropologists
as public commentators in interesting ways.
Symbolic power relations. Different intellectual and political
agendas are set in different arenas. The strategy of the columnistactivist
is to create maximum public attention within a minimum of time, through
a well orchestrated and pithily phrased intervention. In canvassing for
public attention to the issue of enforced marriage, Rehman herself succeeded
superbly in this last winter. Academics, on their part, develop and defend
their symbolic power in slower and more cumbersome ways, as it takes decades
for their capital to accumulate. Their public authority rests not on the
felicitious turn of phrase, but on their implied professional expertise.
Their professional role does not encourage searches for extreme, newsworthy
phenomena, but rather nuances and the typical. In this debate, both parties
seem to have suspected the other of trying to monopolise symbolic power
where their arenas intersect, namely in mediated attempts to influence
public opinion and policy.
Anthropologists and other academics usually lose in this kind of competition.
Almost by definition aloof from the concerns of ordinary people,
they lack the street-cred of an uneducated, but bright and witty activist
(or, for that matter, populist politician). Research findings can rarely
be summed up in memorable one-liners, and reports rarely conclude with
Social responsibility. Both the academic and the non-academic
who were prominently featured in this controversy profess humanist, political
or moral intentions. Rehman clearly sees herself as a champion of universal
human rights; Gullestad is concerned with the respect for and recognition
of a multitude of experiences and life-worlds. There are some fundamental
differences between their ontologies (Rehman being strongly individualist
some would even say voluntarist, while Gullestad emphasises the
social in the shaping of persons), but that is not the point here. Their
views on social responsibility are similar, but they diverge politically
as well as in their respective views on proper form.
Scholarly responsibility. This set of obligations applies
in at least two ways: Academics are responsible for not misrepresenting
their research object in public, and for protecting the integrity of their
informants. Both kinds of responsibility militate against their presenting
their findings in the mass media. The latter consideration may lead to
silence, the former to lack of commercial appeal. Journalists are less
constrained. A columnist represents only herself and can tell any story
she likes. If she is aware that enforced marriages occur, nobody can effectively
question her right to say so in the name of statistical representativeness,
or even to problematise the notion of force.
Last year, a TV documentary revealed that several Muslim leaders in Norway
defended the practice of female circumcision. They were filmed with a
hidden camera, and the interviewer was a young African woman who asked
to be taken into their confidence, never revealing that she was a journalist.
Such methods could never have been used by social anthropologists (or
by journalists covering non-immigrant issues, by the way), and our ethical
guidelines thus reduce our potential for generating juicy tabloid fodder.
The social construction of academic reality. In one of her
many contributions, Shabana Rehman wrote that academics live in a fish
bowl. This view was subsequently supported by many of the contributors
to online debates, who claimed that academic researchers knew little about
the real world. Instead of confronting messy realities and dangerous political
issues, Rehman and others have alleged, they politely and respectfully
exchange views in the closed circles of the academy, risking little by
way of exposure to the less polished voices from the people
or the merciless machinery of the mass media. This may be correct, but
academics would be likely to respond that their job is documentation and
analysis, possibly influencing politics by delivering reports; and that
they have no obligation to be visible in the news media or to distort
reality by reducing their complexity to marketable sensations. Heaven
knows, as Gullestad remarked in her response, that we all live in our
Form, content and efficacy. The debate, which largely took
place in two major Norwegian newspapers (but was commented upon in other
media), has been characterised by extreme speed. By the time I
had my response to Rehmans attack prined, less than a week after
it was launched, the focus of the controversy had already changed, and
my comments already seemed dated. Few academics would have been able to
follow the speed, and not to feel intimidated by the massive media pressure,
entailed by the controversy. Just as our truths are less one-sided and
more fuzzy, our time is slower than the time of journalism. It is not
difficult, but also not very pleasing, to imagine a world where these
simple insights into the workings of academic knowledge no longer apply.
is now taking a break from the post-11 September world. Hopefully, the
break will last until 11 September 2002. There is a conference
in London then, and I expect to report from it.
and the Net
Last week, a group
of Ph. D. students invited me to give a talk about the writing process,
assuming that since I had written so many books, I would have a lot of
advice to offer. The truth is that I would under normal circumstances
have little to say about writing, save the usual trivia (keep your notes,
stay organised, avoid distractions, trust your own ideas...). I just write.
It is often an uphill struggle. When it works, I feel more empty than
pleased. When it doesn't work, I go into the garden to potter about.
As destiny would have it, only a couple of weeks before the seminar, I
was asked to write an introduction to a Norwegian translation of Umberto
Ecos 1977 book Come si fa una tesa di laurea (How to
write a master thesis). The book, for years a student favourite
in Italy, was brilliant when it was first published. A quarter of a century
on it remains a wonderful book, but re-reading it after many years made
me reflect on the changes that had taken place since the late 1970s, which
made it necessary to provide a new context for Ecos work. What I
have in mind are not the obvious changes in academic trends (Lyotards
La condition postmoderne was published two years after Ecos
book, and hardly anybody had heard of Derrida), nor changes in the outside
world influencing research (a fictitious study of militant Italian Marxists
is one of Ecos examples), but the effects of technological changes.
As it turned out, most of the introduction consists in a discussion of
the impact of computers and the Internet on research.
A lot has changed.
First, Eco devotes a whole chapter to the use of filing cards. He strongly
recommends students to take systematic notes when reading new material,
then filing the cards in a wooden box for easy retrieval. Who does this
now? I faintly remember using filing cards during my first year in university,
but then I bought my first computer, and all practices associated with
Second, searches for literature have largely moved from physical libraries
to the Net. Increasingly, not just the references, but the actual academic
texts are available on the Net (as on this website). Rejoice, but keep
in mind that every technology has a flip side, shedding light on parts
of the world and darkening others. The darkened areas in question are
texts that cannot be found on the Net, either as bibliographic references
or as full texts; as well as the unexpected discoveries we make when we
browse in physical library shelves.
Third, plagiarism is becoming a huge problem, for obvious reasons. A black
market for term papers is emerging on the Net on both sides of the Atlantic,
and besides, copying obscure, but relevant texts has become an irresistible
temptation for a lot of people, not just students.
Fourth, the ability to think in a cumulative and linear way is weakened
because of word processing. (See my book Tyranny
of the Moment for details.)
Fifth, our need to write-protect our internal harddisks occasionally has
grown exponentially together with the growth of the available mass of
information. Put differently: we need to filter information much more
carefully than before. Nowadays, even a specialist in a limited field
cannot possibly read everything he ought to. Less is more,
and it is necessary to limit oneself (but not too strictly; one of the
great pleasures of being an academic consists in unexpected discoveries
taking place in alien land).
Sixth: Try to write a sentence or two (or, who knows, a few pages) in
longhand now and then, just to see how it feels. Paul Virilio, the great
theorist of speed, writes all his books with pen and paper in order to
allow the rhythm of writing to match the rhythm of his thinking.
Oh yes, by the way, Ecos book is highly recommended for its great
amount of wit, its nuggets of wisdom and its very sensible bits of useful
advice from his comparison between a dissertation and a pig (you
dont throw away anything) to his comments about ortography and his
views on good and bad dissertation topics. The one thing he does not have
a cure for is writers block. I doubt if a recipe exists. As my sax
teacher told me: There is only one way you can become a good player, and
that is by playing, playing and playing. I haven't played nearly enough.
Perhaps it is because I write instead.
Behind the enemy image
In 1995, after the Gulf war
and at the height of the Rushdie affair, I wrote a book in Norwegian called
The new enemy image, which was mainly intended as a warning against
what I then saw as the possible escalation of mutual enemy images between
Muslims and the Christian or post-Christian peoples of the West. Following
the attacks on the USA, the counter-attacks on Afghanistan and various
mutual threats of bloody revenge, I became convinced of the need for a
new book developing the original topic of enemy images further. That book
was published in Norwegian in December 2001, entitled Bak
fiendebildet (Behind the enemy image).
I am now working on an English edition. This is an excerpt from the book
proposal, which gives an idea of the scope and aim of the book.
Behind the enemy image
Islam and the world after 11 September
On the book
Although "the Muslim world"
has been a recurrent enemy image in Western Europe since Medieval times,
the relationship between Islam and the West has entered a new phase fraught
with tension, fear and aggression on both sides following the 11 September
attacks. The "oil crisis" of the early 1970s and the Gulf War,
which coincided with the end of the Cold War, contributed to the bid for
a new bipolar world witnessed today in the rhetoric of both Muslim and
Western leaders. The aim of this book is to break down this emergent bipolarity
by indicating its absurdity, to show some shared concerns between Western
social criticism and Muslim criticism of the West, and to indicate the
importance of a truly global ethics in a world where virtually everything
except practical morality has been globalised. The book emphasises that
the conflict is unlike typical 20th century conflicts in that the scarce
resources are not economic or political resources, but recognition and
The book is balanced in
the sense that it takes a clear stance against the fundamentalisms of
Taliban-like groupings and Bush II-like groupings, arguing the importance
of universal values and recognition of difference.
The book is not
an analysis of geopolitics or US imperialism. It is rather a study of
power inequality in global discourse (in other words, the "superstructural"
corollary to US imperialism) and reactions to what is widely perceived
(in the Third World) as psychological colonialism. Fanon writes about
"the Negro" wanting to become "White"; Said writes about ideological misrepresentations
of "the Orient", and Ngugi wa Thiong'o has, in a sadly neglected book
(Decolonizing the Mind), written of the cultural inferiority complex
in Africa. In the present analysis, militant Islamism is largely seen
as a counterdiscourse or reaction to this subtle form of imperialism,
where other voices are never heard, other experiences never respected,
other people never seen (as Arundhati Roy recently put it, Afghanis are
of lesser worth, since they rarely appear on TV). It is a result, in other
words, of "the small power" of discourse and everyday experiences (such
as discrimination), not of "the large power" of military and economic
oppression although the latter certainly pulls in the same direction.
In other words, the book is a kind of postcolonial study rather than a
study of geopolitics.
What is called for if further
terrorism and predatory retaliation are to be avoided, is a new set of
terms of discourse where "the other" is allowed a voice on a par with
the West. Naturally this ties directly in with Realpolitik (Palestine,
Iraq, US bases in Saudi Arabia -- and, by extension, Western problems
such as the domestic energy consumption in the USA); and such issues will
be mentioned, but they do not form the focus.
Summary of contents
1. Entering the paranoid
phase of globalisation
The 11 September attacks showed
the importance of trust for the contemporary world through demonstrating
its vulnerability. The ensuing war between a territorial superpower (the
USA) and a partly unknown, largely deterritorialised network (the al-Qaeda
and its associates) is analysed as a conflict of a more general kind
between network and state and it is shown that combating terrorism
by using the weapons of the territorial state actually creates the problem
one tries to solve. The short-term outcome in the West is an uncertain
and fearful existence for citizens, particularly in the US, and increased
surveillance and control of people by the state, including more rigid
border controls. The long-term outcome may be a world with much more random
violence, some of it on a very large scale, so long as the fundamental
issues of recognition and fairness are not addressed.
The book, it is emphasised,
concentrates on ideas, values, judgements and discourses rather than proposing
an analysis of political and economic circumstances. This is because it
argues that the current "war" is, at the end of the day, a war
over peoples minds. The conflict cannot be understood merely as
a function of political competition and economic interests, although these
factors naturally play a part as well. In this sense, the USA and militant
Muslim leaders are each other's perfect enemies, since both see themselves
as participants in a cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Fundamentalisms,
whether Western or Eastern, thus compete with alternative positions which
emphasise pluralism and dialogue, and in the authors view, this
is where the real struggle is on.
2. After the Gulf war and
the Rushdie affair
After the end of the Cold War,
Islam rapidly was established (or re-established) as the main enemy image
of the West. The chapter details some of the complexities in the Rushdie
affair, where many intellectuals on the Left joined forces with the military
hawks, and where the gulf between Muslims and Westerners deepened. The
chapter also delves into David Caute's important novel "Fatima's
Scarf", which was rejected by more than twenty British publishers
because they feared it would offend Muslim, secular and other sensibilities,
including Salman Rushdie's. Mutually reinforcing sets of stereotypes were
formed in the process, making it difficult to defend complex and ambivalent
positions on both sides.
3. The old enemy image
This chapter describes the
historical dimension of the Christianity/Islam relationship, showing,
among other things, that the relative strengths of Europe and the Muslim
world has shifted, and that Islamic regions tended for many centuries
to be more tolerant than Europe. It describes not only European views
of Muslims, but also the converse, drawing on studies such as Amin Maaloufs
book on the crusades seen through Arab eyes, and Bernard Lewis book
on "the Muslim discovery of the West".
4. Minorities as scapegoats
If, in the current impasse,
the causes of terrorism are to be fought, one obvious place to begin is
in the minority politics of the rich, Western countries. The various forms
of discrimination targeting immigrants from Muslim countries feed directly
into terrorism and Islamism, and it is therefore shown how this takes
place in practice, largely through policies and practices showing a lack
of respect for minorities, rendering them invisible. What is required
of the minorities themselves, in return for equal treatment, is unequivocal
support for the liberal institutions of Western democracies, including
5. Clashes of civilizations
This chapter is largely a critique
of Samuel Huntingtons influential analysis, which is perfectly congruent
with the Taliban and other anti-liberal Islamic movements. Huntingtons
view, developed in a famous article and a bestselling book, describes
the world as being composed of a limited number of "civilizations",
predicting that future conflicts will take place between them. This way
of thinking (which obviously extends well beyond Huntington as such) is
thoroughly deconstructed, and more fruitful ways of looking at differences
(be they cultural, ethical, religious) are proposed.
6. Ambivalence and fundamentalism:
The causes of political Islam
Algeria, Iran and Afghanistan
are the main examples in this chapter, which argues that Islamism/fundamentalism
are caused not by economic oppression, but by a lack of recognition. Bin
Laden and other macho Muslim purists talk not of world capitalism, but
of the "arrogance of the West", and in this, the movements in
question are very different from, say, the revolutionary movements in
Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam etc. in the past. Islamism must thus be understood
in the context of honour and shame, the politics of recognition and power
of definition, not as a more or less mechanical consequence of world inequality
although the latter certainly helps in recruiting supporters, it
is not the main impetus the leaders of the movement are middle-
or upper-class people who never talk of poverty, but about the humiliation
of being "servants for the Jews and Christian crusaders". It
is noted, moreover, that political success for Islamists has been very
limited, and that this partly explains why contemporary militant Islamist
movements do not primarily aim for state power.
7. A global ethics
This chapter compares the claims
and critiques of Islamist movements with other Third world ideologies
and with the autocritique going on in the West itself (such as critiques
of consumerism, of nihilism, of selfish individualism etc.), and notes
that there are some broad similarities that can form a basis for a global
dialogue. More generally still, the chapter emphasises the importance
of a global ethics based on real (multidirectional not one-way)
communication between groups, countries and peoples in the world. It draws
somewhat on Giddenss notion of dialogic democracy and Habermass
theory of communication, but it is more radical since it insists that
"we" have something to learn from "them", applying
models developed by social philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Will
Kymlicka (admittedly, in very different contexts, largely Quebec/Canada,
actually) to the present situation.
8. Limits to relativism
Notwithstanding the need to
listen to, communicate with and respect people with differing world-views,
there are, in a world of global modernity, certain inalienable values
principles that are beyond negotiation. Although one such value
insists on taking other life-worlds/experiences seriously since they now
confront us continuously, another is the right of humans to self-determination
in other words, human rights. These two principles form a necessary
antidote to Bush/Taliban fundamentalism/ethnocentrism on the one hand
and postmodern relativism on the other, and proposes a world where, among
other things, an Afghan life is worth as much as a US life. Some of the
theoretical points about the network society as opposed to the society
of stable structures are repeated and developed further here, indicating
that there is no easy way out, and that we are all in this together.
* * *
Acknowledgements are due to
two outstanding guitarists and composers, Phil
Miller and Allan Holdsworth,
whose work has been with me throughout the writing process. In particular,
I would like to thank them for one segment each: Holdsworth's solo on
"Atavachron" (from Atavachron, 1986 very fast,
melancholy and beautiful) and Miller's solo on "Truly Yours"
(from Live in Japan, 1993 very slow, melancholy and beautiful).
The medical metaphors of warfare
A small and sprightly boy,
hiding behind a tree, throws a stone at the school bully, hitting him
in the head. The big boy winces with pain, but he then turns around and
retaliates by smashing the small boy's head against a wall until he falls
lifeless to the ground. Well done, say the parents, you've shown that
peace and justice will prevail.
Late November: The Christian
or post-Christian parts of the world are slowly settling down to Christmas
preparations. The Muslim world is well into Ramadan. The Taliban have
fled, and a ragged group of warlords have replaced the solemn Pathans
in Kabul. For now, Afghans are allowed to whistle on their way to work,
and women can reveal their faces in public again. Time to rejoice? For
Afghanistan, hopefully. For the world, hardly. International terrorism
is a virulent form of cancer. It cannot be fought through surgery. Remove
the tumour and the cancer reappears in a different part of the body. That
is the problem with the bombing campaign.
The only remedy that might
limit and even remove the cancer is global chemotherapy. This entails
that the winners of globalisation take the consequences of the fact that
liberty and prosperity imply not merely rights but duties as well.
Protesters against the war
in Afghanistan have pursued very different lines of argument. Some see
the war in purely geopolitical terms -- a possible pipeline from Central
Asia to the Arabian Sea is frequently mentioned. Others regard it as a
reflex of the imperialist need to contain resistance everywhere. Yet others
see it as a typical expression of an insensitive, brutal political culture
in the USA. Not to mention those who see the war in the context of a Christian
and/or Jewish world conspiracy. The current anti-war movement has seen
the meeting of strange bedfellows such as communists and pacifists, embittered
Muslims and anxious mothers.
Attempts to explain Osama and
Islamic terrorism likewise follow different lines: Some see the phenomenon
as a concealed cry for help from the impoverished masses of the world;
some see it in religious, even eschatological terms; while others account
for the rise of Muslim identity politics, violent or otherwise, as a consequence
of decades of humiliation and lack of recognition by the people who own
the world. Osama himself apparently became committed to terrorism when
the Saudi leadership allowed the USA to set up a military base in the
Land of the Prophet. Religion and humiliation, in other words. Unlike
earlier militant, anti-American movements such as liberation guerillas
in Latin America, these people care little about the distribution of wealth.
What is at stake for them is the distribution of honour and dignity.
In early December, I am publishing
a book in Norwegian entitled "Behind the enemy image: Islam and the
world after 11 September". (There may eventually be an English version.)
It is a revised and expanded version of a book I wrote at the height of
the Rushdie affair, a few years after the Gulf war, called "The new
enemy image". The new book argues that the typical conflict of the
post-11 September world is a conflict between state and network. With
very few exceptions, all states supported the "war on terrorism"
in principle. Many networks did not, and they cannot be bombed into oblivion.
This is why we have to do better the next time. I also propose a few basic
values for a globalised world where mutual dependence and vulnerability
are the name of the game. Here they are:
- A central political principle
in a globalised world is dialogue based on mutual respect and equity.
- A central economic objective
in a globalised world must be equal pay for equal work and globalisation
of workers' rights.
- Environmental responsibility
in a globalised world entails that all political agents (including states)
view their energy consumption in a global perspective.
- Cultural exchange in a globalised
world must be based on the recognition of variation and pluralism regarding
phenomena such as language and religion.
- In a globalised world, there
is a need for considerable public attention regarding conditions outside
one's own country. This is particularly important in countries with
major economic interests abroad.
- In a globalised world, all
humans have the same value -- an Afghan or a Palestinian life is just
as sacred as a North American or West European one.
A scenario for 2002: The
paranoid phase of globalisation
Ah, the glorious 1990s! That
glittering decade of upbeat globalisation, spread of democracy and human
rights, unprecedented economic growth in most parts of the world, Internet
and cellphones -- the decade when global modernity was still seen as a
promising adventure for humanity, even by its critics, already seems dim
and distant. Alas for this belle époque when globalisation
was tantamount to an era of open networks and incipient global dialogue!
It is horrible and inconceivable,
and yet the world had it, or something like it, coming for some time.
The inability of the rich and powerful to come to terms not only with
growing opportunity gaps, but also the growing gaps between expectations
and realities -- African corpses washed ashore in southern Spain -- did
not diminish during an information revolution which left people less informed
than they had been before. Some popular movements and some extremely unpopular
ones, most of them based in poor countries, had expressed disgust and
rage at Western complacency for a long time, for good and bad reasons
and in good and bad ways.
Social theorists had spent
the decade exploring the transition from structured hierarchies to loose
networks as the dominant mode of social life, indicating the effects in
areas as diverse as family life and warfare. International terrorism,
they said, would be the main security risk in the networked world. Some
of them even added that attempts to fight networks in the same way as
one had fought states (say, by dropping bombs on their assumed centres
of operation) might be a main form of international terrorism.
As they spoke, inhuman sanctions
against Iraq and Israeli belligerence, interlocked with Palestinian despair,
continued. The world went ahead at full speed, leaving a trail of victims
-- ranging from Indonesian teenagers, working in sweatshops providing
sneakers to upmarket Western consumers, to dead Iraqi children. From 11
September 2001, the tables were turned. Suddenly, the bright lights of
the all too brief post-cold war era went out. A sudden chill entered the
air. At first, people found it difficult to understand what they were
seeing, behaving as if they had cut their arm with a knife, staring at
the blood but not yet feeling any pain. Very soon, the agony became real.
Bombs dropped on humiliated and impoverished people in "remote areas"
(remote to Westerners, but hardly to Afghanis) were returned in kind,
albeit through other means. The West had underestimated the suppleness
and flexibility of its adversary. It could not be rounded up. It was like
a fairytale monster: you cut off one of its heads, and three new heads
sprout forth in its place. True to the deterritorial principle of globalisation,
it could not be fought in a particular place. The resentment against the
so-called new world order fed on thwarted ambition and humiliation in
a cultural climate offering macho values and pseudo-religious justification
of violence in equal measures. They were each others' perfect enemies.
Both parties spoke the same language: they saw the battle as being one
between good and evil, they sought religious justification for their acts,
and they worshipped an image of manliness based on the virtues of honour
and conquest rather than compromise and compassion.
The rest of humanity would
pay the cost. As the first bombs fell on Afghanistan, the first small
hint of retaliation was simultaneously felt in Florida as three people
caught the extremely rare, deadly disease called anthrax. The authorities
of the rich countries then turned out to be just as powerless in dealing
with such new threats as they had been while pretending that non-territorial
networks could be fought with bomber planes. Governments in rich countries
admitted that the risks of chemical and biological warfare were mounting,
and when specialists were called upon, they calmly pointed out that there
was nothing citizens could do to protect themselves. Poison gases, they
explained, did not make themselves known through acrid smells or nasty-looking
yellow clouds. Often they were odourless and invisible. Some were lighter
than air, some were heavier than air. Diseases like anthrax were lethal
from the moment the patient developed symptoms.
It became evident that the
fabric of society was trust. This emotion became visible only when it
no longer functioned outside of the circles of intimacy, when it had been
replaced by its opposite, suspicion.
The world entered the paranoid
phase of globalisation. Countries were neither at war nor not at war.
Detailed surveillance of citizens and quixotic imprisonments of individuals
became commonplace. Politicians eagerly elaborated on the imminent threat
of terrorist attacks, thereby justifying ever more draconic measures.
Radical humanist networks and human rights groups were ostracised for
their lack of loyalty. Yet everybody, including the politicians, knew
in their heart of hearts that turning the citizenry into potential enemies
would only aggravate the problem. And so it did. Terrorist attacks did
not stop, nor did they escalate to an all-out war. They were just frequent
enough to keep everybody constantly worried. A plane crash here, an epidemic
there. The fun immediately went out of travelling after 11 September.
Even commuting ceased to be a drowsy and boring affair as people became
increasingly wary of their fellow passengers on the tube. Those who entered
poor countries from rich countries were screened thoroughly for signs
of contagious disease. Many began to let their favourite teams down for
fear of stadium attacks. Others felt a lump in their stomach whenever
they entered a crowded basement, for they knew that the armed paramilitaries
in fatigues guarding them were only impotent symbols of the state.
This is only the beginning.
Fortunately, we have not yet seen the end. May the next era be be a more
soft-spoken one, announcing its entry through the common understanding
that the enemy is not a certain number of evil individuals -- hiding in
desert camps or in Western ministries of "defence", as the case
might be -- but an odourless and colourless quality of the air that we
breathe. The air must be cleansed before reconstruction can begin. The
new era will speak of recognition and respect, nonetheless aware that
the more fundamental emotions are compassion and love.
Jihad or crusade?
And suddenly, all our priorities
changed. What were our main concerns before 11 September? We can only
remember it dimly. That era of (largely) benign globalisation already
seems remote. The post-cold war period turned out to be a very short one.
Let us hope the present one will be even shorter.
There had been general
elections in Norway on 10 September, and the result was confusing and
undecisive. Labour had done very badly, the Conservatives quite well;
but the Labour government clung to power and there was no definite alternative
the Conservatives would have to find coalition partners, and a
minority government would be the result either way. This would normally
have filled front pages and news programmes for weeks. Now it became third-rate
news, reported briefly on page 23. Such was the immediate impact of what
Nearly two weeks on, the horizon
has turned into an even darker shade. The immediate reaction was shock,
sorrow and grief. For a few days, we were all Americans. We realised that
we were hopelessly in love with New York. We shared the outrage felt by
the average American. And then, their government began to spoil everything
through its belligerent talk of revenge in kind, the president even resorting
to old Western clichés in order to get his view across. Gradually,
we remembered that the USA abroad tends to be about as sensitive as an
elephant on the loose in a china shop. As the single remaining superpower,
it currently has a president who clearly does not wish to share the fate
of a Gandhi or a Mandela in the history books of the coming generation.
His religion is not the Christianity of forgiveness and love, but the
Old Testament creed of revenge and an eye for an eye. To the vast majority
of humankind, wedged between the new Bushs "crusade" (a
term which does not exactly evoke images of peace and reconciliation -
ask anyone in the Middle East if in doubt) and the Talibans "jihad",
this new world is very remote from the one we asked for. As the enormous
military apparatus of the worlds richest and most powerful country
is getting ready to attack one of the worlds poorest and most powerless
one, we know who is going to lose. Again. The rest of us. You and me.
These weeks and months should
have been a period of quiet mourning, dialogue and reflection. Instead,
the atrocious crimes that killed thousands of innocent people in the USA
have engendered hatred, threats of massive violence and in the
non-US part of the world deep worries about the possible consequences
of the impending confrontation between a paranoid and self-centered US
government and its enemies, whoever they are.
Jews, Hindus or whatever you are. There is a struggle on now. It will
require generosity, compromise, compassion, respect and solidarity of
us any emotion or attitude will do so long as it is the opposite
of fanaticism, complacency and hatred. We must fight on many fronts everywhere
in the world, and the enemy is neither conservative Islam nor American
hegemony, but intolerance, hatred and, ultimately, injustice. What is
at stake is human civilisation. Not "Western". It is quite evenly
distributed. So are, unfortunately, its detractors.
Let us begin with some basic
points, just to get the coordinates right.
Terrorist acts of much
greater magnitude than the attacks of 11 September have been committed.
Not by Muslims, but by democratic, Christian states. Think of Dresden,
Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Moreover, much greater massacres are also known
from recent history again, Muslims have not been involved here.
Think of the 800, 000 people slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994. While the
extraordinary global attention granted the destruction of the Twin Towers
reminds us that some human lives are more valuable than others (one American
financial analyst equals ten thousand African peasants?), such considerations
should not divert attention from this tragedy.
It is perfectly legitimate,
and often deeply justified, to resent both US foreign policy, extractive
exploitation on the part of US companies in other parts of the world,
the American consumerist way of life, and even the individualism that
permeates US society. Yet, it is under no circumstance justified to attack
or harm random Americans
The attack was a crime,
however huge, and it should be dealt with as such. It was not a declaration
of war. The perpetrators apparently belonged to decentralised networks
of men (I have yet to see the name of a woman associated with them) committed
to using all means available to spread fear and uncertainty in the USA
(or in "the West" as a whole?). This is network politics, not
are not fought successfully with standard military force. Carpet-bombing
any city Belgrade, Baghdad or Kabul in order to fight terrorism
would be like destroying Jerusalem in order to get rid of Judaism. Apart
from the standard casualties (basic humanity, innocent lives), such acts
are extremely encouraging to the spirit of terrorism, which thrives on
the rage and hatred engendered by violence.
The question is raised
as to the underlying causes of this kind of terrorism. Some have claimed
that the acts of terrorism are carried out on behalf of the worlds
poor. I find this difficult to believe. Several of the assumed terrorists
and their sympathisers, including the bin Laden family, are very well
off, and have to my knowledge contributed little of their wealth to development
efforts among the poor. The rhetoric they use is also more martial than
humanitarian. The engine that fuels this brand of terrorism is a sense
of foreign domination, with the USA as the main agend and symbol. Humiliation
and powerlessness are associated with impotence and shame in many societies,
including this one. Manliness is seen as an undisputed virtue (among the
men, that is; few ask the women about their opinion). This implies that
in order to mitigate the anti-Western resentment, it is to put
it bluntly more urgent to find a solution in Israel/Palestine and
lift sanctions against Iraq than it is to improve living conditions for
poor Arabs and Afghanis.
The new Bush has placed
an ultimatum before the world: "Either you are with us, or you are
with the terrorists." The most urgent task for the rest of us consists
in showing him and other polarisers that there are millions of other ways
of being in the world.
To be continued.
* * *
In the last couple of weeks,
I have published two articles on the events in the Norwegian press. The
first, a personal account of 11 September, is here.
The second, an article arguing the futility of fighting networks with
bombs, is here. Begge er på
First, some current links:
And now, for something completely
different. This is going to be a small footnote to the grand narrative
about the poppy and the drug addict
History represents to nationalists
what the opium poppy represents to the heroinist, as Eric Hobsbawm memorably
phrased it some years back. Whatever the merits of historical research
(and they are considerable), the ideological aspect of historiography
has always been, and remains, formidable. Historians, alone among academics
to publish their research in the guise of popular bestsellers (to the
envy of the rest of us), have for nearly two hundred years been the willing
or unwilling accomplices of nation-builders hungry for compelling narratives
of the past. As a result, the writing of history is subjected to two types
of pressure that are extrinsic to the research process: ideology and the
Norwegian history writing
has generally been strongly nationalist in tenor, topic and tendency,
which is unsurprising given the history of the subject as a squarely nation-building
one in the heyday of nineteenth-century Romanticism, coupled with the
fact that Norwegian statehood, which goes back only to 1905 and which
was interrupted by German occupation in 1940-5, is still widely perceived
as an exhilarating and intoxicating, but fragile gift from destiny. The
Second World War, in particular, has a firm grip on the historical imagination
of the country. Even today, powerful sentiments are aroused whenever a
new book purports to adjust the one-eyed nationalist accounts of the war
which still dominate the market and the academic discourse.
The last few years have
seen the publication of several bids to a Norwegian history of ideas.
(I realise this topic must sound like a non-starter to un-Norwegian people,
but truth to tell, if you diligently comb every learned journal, doctoral
thesis and academic monograph back to the late 1700s and beyond, co-opting
a few Danes for the Norwegian identity and, most obviously, magnifying
every indication of recognition in the wider world, it is entirely possible
to conjure up an image of a country perfectly, if somewhat selectively,
in tune with intellectual developments in Europe.) Now, several humanities
professors have played major parts in the recent flurry of books offering
overviews and grand syntheses, and recently, some of their internal competition
came to a head during the launching of Volume III of "Norwegian beliefs
and thoughts" (Norsk tro og tanke), a reader with representative
excerpts, edited by Jan-Erik Ebbestad Hansen, a historian of ideas at
the University of Oslo.
At the launch, an unannounced
speaker rose on his own accord and spoke for what seemed a very long time,
gravely denouncing the volume and effectively giving the journalists at
an otherwise undramatic press conference a juicy story. His name was Rune
Slagstad, and he is known in Norwegian intellectual circles as a well-read
man committed to research on -- you guessed it -- the history of Norwegian
ideas. A few years ago, he published an acclaimed book called "National
strategists" (Nasjonale strateger), and one may safely assume
that he has more up his sleeve. To some extent his cricitism, also published
in Aftenposten 2 September, is of the generic "If it were
up to me, Id have made a different (and better) selection"
kind, pointing out who has been excluded and who (in his personal view)
should not have been included. Partly it castigates priorities that were
not his own -- in this context Slagstad claimed, sphinx-like and without
any further ado, that a history of ideas ought to include contributions
from the Scandinavian university discipline called "history of ideas".
Partly, and most interestingly, Slagstad aggressively criticises the treatment
of the Second World War. The main target of his criticism is Hans Fredrik
Dahl, a leading authority on Nazism and the author of a thorough and respected
biography of Vidkun Quisling, the legendary Norwegian Nazi leader. In
addition to selecting the texts covering the period of the German occupation
(together with historian colleague Guri Hjeltnes), Dahl is the author
of the fifth volume, dealing inter alia with the Second World War,
of another major Norwegian history of ideas, edited by professors Trond
Berg Eriksen (no relation) and Øystein Sørensen. Slagstad
sternly criticises them (Dahl in particular) for giving too much attention
to the Nazis, claiming that their contribution to the development of Norwegian
ideas was marginal. He also sees it as scandalous that Quisling is featured
on the cover of the volume under scrutiny (which covers the period 1940-2000).
This amounts to a mixed
bag of objections indeed, but it is far from uninteresting. I will refrain
from investigating the obvious inference that since Slagstad himself is
an actor in this field, he has an acute need to establish himself as the
major authority on the Norwegian history of ideas. Rather, what this controversy
says about intellectual life in the country is that the Second World War
and the period of German occupation is still considered an exceptionally
important moment of nation-building not to be tampered with. Of course,
it is impossible not to acknowledge the importance of Quisling and other
Nazis in the Norwegian history of the 1940-2000 period. It can easily
be argued that their ideas were important enough to warrant inclusion
in a book of this kind -- much of the best post-war thinking naturally
owes its existence to Nazism, an ideology that everybody had to relate
to for two generations. Nonetheless the public sphere in the country does
not seem to be ready for a sober attitude towards these things yet, and
the prevailing sentiments are accurately expressed in Slagstads
bad-tempered denounciation of the inclusion of an anti-positivist text
written by a philosopher who also happened to be associated with the Nazis.
In any other context, one might have used the term witch-hunt. A person
who identifies with anti-positivism himself, Slagstad clearly does not
want to have anything in common with Nazi thinkers. But of course he does.
Of course we all do. The reason it cannot be admitted is simple: history
is still to nationalism what the poppy is to the drug addict.
Welcome to the first issue
of Eriksen's newsletter! Frequency and format will vary: anything from
once a week to once a month; anything from a single, short essay (a conference
report, a piece of political analysis, a book review...) to a handful
of short items.
Incredibly, there are people
who complain about this year's July weather in south-eastern Norway. The
explanation is simple: they travel too much to southern Europe and lose
their sense of proportion. Statistically, July (the main holiday month
here) was above average. While the first ten days were hot by Nordic standards
(temperatures in the upper 20s), the rest was more varied, but there was
a lot of sun, my kids didn't wear long trousers once, the strawberries
were sweet and the sea was full of overripe jellyfish. The "culture
of complaint" is so widespread in the country that even the national
media have discovered it, raising the obvious paradox of extreme prosperity
and a chronic stream of petty complaints. Come August, it is back to work
for most of us (and a lot of new causes for complaint). The country is
facing General Elections in mid-September, and some of the politicians
have acquired the cute habit of writing open letters to each other during
the summer break (published by the newspaper Dagbladet). The most
important issues do not surface in such letters (nor later, for that matter),
not because the politicians are too polite to each other (the Labour leader
Mr. Jagland, to mention one example, is famous for his unusually rude
way of talking to other people), but because disagreements tend to be
cosmetic these days. The real ideological issues are thus addressed only
at the level of rhetoric.
What, then, are the
real ideological issues these days? A main tension, largely unexploited
by traditional political actors, could be described as the conflict between
global techno-capitalism and the quality of life. System versus life-world,
in other words, but the system is more remote, more nebulous and therefore
more difficult to analyse and counteract than before. A relevant kind
of radical movement in the rich countries would resist consumerism, praise
slowness and attack the ideology of growth wherever it appears. Seattle,
Prague, Gothenburg and Genova indicate that something is about to erupt
let us only hope that it will be something more than a self-satisfied
A couple of brief texts decrying the lack of alternatives to the technocratic
way of thinking, written in the last month or so, are available here
and here (Scandinavian readers only, sorry!).
Early in 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri published Empire,
an important book on the emergent post-Cold War world which emphasises
new forms of imperialism. It is already out of print (it may be available
as a paperback later), but in the meanwhile, the entire book can be downloaded
as a free pdf file!
I don't know about the readership,
but certain alert university librarians have been waiting for the new
History of Anthropology, written by Finn
Sivert Nielsen and myself, to appear for the last three years! The
Norwegian edition of the book was contracted in 1997, announced in 1998
and well written in a rush largely during the winter and
spring of 2001. Sadly, the editor who had the idea for the book, left
the publishing company before it was completed. It is my first truly co-written
book; I have published co-authored books earlier, but in this book, both
of us have written every chapter, re-writing, adding and deleting from
each other's drafts. The experience has been frustrating and rewarding
the joint authorship is the main reason for the delay (both of
us are equally guilty, I suppose), but the book is more complex as a result.
A sample chapter of the English version, published by Pluto Press in early
autumn, can be read here; a chapter from the
Norwegian version, published by Fagbokforlaget later in the autumn, is
More publishing news
if July is a quiet period for the rest of us, it is not for publishers:
Øyeblikkets tyranni (to be published
soon by Pluto as Tyranny of the Moment
) is going to be translated into German. I expect to revise the text with
the new readership in mind. Also, the new edition of Small Places,
Large Issues is rumoured to be out; I haven't seen it yet though.
I'm even more excited about the imminent publication of the Malay
version, painstakingly translated by Prof. Mohamed Yusoff Ismail and
published in a context of greater financial uncertainty than any of us
complacent Westerners are able to imagine.
The Norwegian minister of foreign
affairs, who happens to be identical with the Labour leader Mr. Jagland,
has caused a certain stir because of his parking privileges in the small
town of Risør, where he has a summer house. Defending his two free
parking spaces in a town with chronic shortage of such, he said that it
was customary for Norwegian politicians to mingle with ordinary people
(vanlige folk), and that society had to make it possible for them
to do so. Several questions spring to mind, the most obvious one for those
of us who have followed his political career being, If Mr. Jagland is
not an ordinary person, who is?
Web projects: Last year, everyone
seemed to be talking about portals. This year's flavour is definitely
e-learning. We are going to be offering something (not ambitious enough,
but it is a beginning) at the Department
of Social Anthropology one of these days. A more ambitious (not to
say reckless) idea was launched by the Ministry of Education in the spring,
namely to make the curriculum of an entire secondary school subject (that
is social studies, a minor subject taken by all 16-year olds), complete
with exercises and relevant links, freely available on the Web. Publishers
and web developers scrambled for the pot of money coughed up by the Minister,
and three proposals were eventually funded. I was asked to contribute
texts for one of them, developed by Aschehoug,
where I have formerly contributed to cellulose textbooks. The projects
were accepted by the Ministry in late May, and they should be online and
fully functional by 1 September. To the government, it is important to
have this before the elections. As a consequence, not only have hundreds
of people been working long hours during the summer vacation, but the
result is also going to be much less appealing than it would otherwise.
In spite of this, I have to confess it was a real pleasure to rattle off
around a dozen short, pointed texts for the Web, even if the actual writing
had to compete with red wine on the terrace. Since we all read more slowly
and in a more restless mode on the screen than in a book, the texts should
not fill much more than a standard screenful. (Mine do, it must be admitted,
but rarely more than two.) I wonder what exactly does get lost and what
is gained in this kind of transformation. So far, there are lots of arguments
and little empirical evidence. We are going to learn something this autumn,
and the fact that nobody knows what (or even about what we are
going to learn) adds to the excitement.
CD of the month: Peter
Hammill's None of the Above.
Novel of the month: Jonathan
Coe's The Rotters' Club.
Non-fiction book of the month:
Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime.
Oslo, 1 August