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Eriksen's Newsletter – back issues

No. 1 • August 2001 • Ideological somnambulism

No. 2 • early September 2001 • History as drug

No. 3 • late September 2001 • Jihad or crusade?

No. 4 • October 2001 • The paranoid phase of globalisation

No. 5 • November 2001 • Medical metaphors of warfare

No. 6 • December 2001 • Behind the enemy image of Islam

No. 7 • May 2002 • Writing a dissertation

No. 8 • August 2002 • The speed of mass media

No. 9 • November 2002 • Either-Or: Biological simplifications

No. 10 • March 2003 • Mars and Venus in geopolitics

No. 11 • September 2003 • Postcolonialism, Fanon

No. 12 • January 2004 • Music and identity

No. 13 • April 2004 • Othering, ideological classification

No. 14 • September 2004 • Myth, immigration

No. 15 • February 2005 • Stadtluft macht frei

No. 16 • Spring 2005 • Useless universities

No. 17 • Autumn 2005 • Eduardo Archetti in memoriam


Eduardo P. Archetti (1943–2005)

With the sad death of Eduardo "Lali" Archetti in June 2005, anthropology has lost one of its major personalities, and Norway has become a colder place to live. Eduardo was such a fountain of wisdom and laughter, such a master of anecdote and high theory, such an acute observer and energetic participant wherever he went, that it is difficult to imagine a world without him. Into his work he put his talent, but he put his genius into his life.

Eduardo was born in Santiago del Estero, Argentina during the Second World War. (As an adult, he spoke four languages fluently, all of them in a distinctly Santiagueño way.) Coming from a cultured middle-class family, he pursued studies at the University of Buenos Aires before deciding to take a doctorate in Paris, where he would work with the uncrowned chieftain of French structural Marxism, Maurice Godelier. Eduardo's doctoral thesis was a study of transformations in Argentine agriculture, and it was influenced by both of the major currents in Marxist anthropology – political economy and structural Marxism.

Before completing his doctorate, Eduardo met the Norwegian anthropologist Kristi Anne Stølen, who became his lifelong companion, his intellectual collaborator, and the mother of his two children. The couple decided to settle in Norway. Lucky us.

Adapting to Norwegian society and culture was never easy for Eduardo. In spite of his professional success – he soon became a highly respected and beloved professor of anthropology, and an occasional media commentator on Latin American issues and football – and his easy, humorous relationship with all kinds of people, he always felt an alien in Norway. Most of the time, he compensated by making jokes at our expense, thereby making Norwegians laugh at themselves; but he also did some serious analytical work while trying to make sense of his adopted country, where the dominant temperament and values were so different from Latin America. Eduardo appreciated many aspects of Scandinavian society; the gender equality, the relative lack of corruption – but he also bemoaned the hypocrisy and sheepishness of the public sphere, the stubbornly parochial nationalism, the moral supremacism, the bad food and the (locally) overrated football.

Eduardo was a powerhouse. He never lost his initial enthusiasm for anthropology and intellectual pursuits in general, nor did he ever cease to enjoy good food, wine and music. He had an open mind and kept moving. After abandoning the Marxist interests of his youth, he studied the symbolism of food, the mysteries of modern sports, the sources of Argentine national identity; and until disease got the better of him, he was engaged in an exploration of the globalisation of Argentine wine. He was a founder member and served as both secretary and journal editor for the EASA (the European Association of Social Anthropology). He was a well-known public figure in Argentina as well as in Norway, bringing wit and humour to an otherwise often drab and pompous intellectual scene. About twenty years younger than him, I found it difficult to understand how Eduardo could feel so passionately about his work as he continued to do after so many years.

Eduardo was a sharer, not a keeper. His contagious laughter, his acute insights, his unselfish attitude to knowledge and his astonishing breadth of reading were like a magic powder which invigorated the Department of Social Anthropology in Oslo and made it a truly exciting place to be for his colleagues and generations of students.

* * *

Eduardo had been ill for some time, but we really believed that he would recover. It was unnatural that he was so ill, and it seemed impossible that he could die. Yet that is how it ended. As a British friend put it: he was too alive to die. Another, sending us her condolences, said that with him, we have lost one of our greatest spirits. A third said, simply and truthfully, that Eduardo shone like the sun.

Nobody who met Eduardo could remain unmoved by him. He was a rare man, inimitable and irreplaceable. Those of us who were close to him have by now realised, or are beginning to realise, four months after his death, that we are going to feel the presence of an Eduardo-shaped void in our lives forever.




On the fundamental uselessness of universities

Of the 85 European organisations which have existed continuously since medieval times, 70 are universities. The oldest is the University of Bologna, founded as an institution independent of church and state under emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire. This was no mean achievement in the 12th century.

Today, the greatest problem for universities is not posed by the Church. In the last decades, their struggle has consisted in retaining their independence, not in relation to church and state, but in relation to state and market. The outlook is, if anything, bleaker now than it was some eight centuries ago.

People who meet university employees these days may have noticed that they complain more than most. Many of them are surrounded with an aura of vague discontent. They are unable to find time for research, they say; their salaries have declined relative to other professions, they have lost prestige, and they are being constantly hassled by meaningless reforms introduced by politicians who don’t have the vaguest idea about the purpose of a university.

The complaints are understandable. Today’s universities are an altogether different kind of institution from what they were only a generation ago. All Western countries have seen a rapid growth of student numbers since the second world war, much of it in the last two decades. My faculty was built in the 1960s to accommodate a maximum of 2,500 persons, staff and students. In the last few years, the number of people actually based at the faculty has been hovering around the 8,000 mark.

It is difficult to argue against the view that higher education should be a democratic right, but it would be nonsense to claim that the intellectual standard should be kept constant given this development. Teachers have less time per student, and the students are a more mixed batch than earlier.

In parallel, politicians try to make the universities more efficient, in accordance with the gospel of New Public Management. Many countries have now introduced quantitative techniques for ‘measuring’ the efficiency of academics, and have finally made the long-expected connection between funding and productivity, measured in student credits and publications. The universities become a kind of industrial enterprise.

The rationale for these transformations is not just plain unreason and anti-intellectualism. It is an unquestionably good thing that fishermen’s children from Finnmark and farmers’ children from southern Jutland should be encouraged to study. Besides, there is no reason why university staff should not be forced to document how they spend their working time. In the old days, not a few professors were smugly settled in a state of permanent hibernation. Pressure is now put on them to do something really useful, which is fine.

Yet universities cannot be evaluated as though they were factories. The reason is simply that their usefulness cannot be measured. As opposed to vocational colleges, universities have a duty to deliver useless knowledge, which is to say knowledge which is not tailored to meet a particular need, and which can therefore be used for any purpose. Under the current regime, we are approaching a situation where universities have become efficient production units, often with a healthy growth on a number of objective indicators, but unable to produce anything of lasting value.

One of the most serious problems, and a main reason why university employees complain so much, can be described as an unintended consequence of the rapid growth. A fair number of us spend an increasing amount of time on what we might call non-meriting professional work. With a growing pressure to increase one’s production of written work, and a concomitant growth in the number of qualified applicants for each vacant position, a substantial part of the average academic’s working day is spent on committee work, refereeing for journals and publishers, evaluation of other departments, and of course, e-mail, that curse of contemporary office life.

Since research can only be done slowly, the production of new knowledge has a poor starting-point in this efficiency-driven world, where everybody is not only expected to produce more student credits and more publications than last year, but also to participate in continuous ‘quality control’ of others.

Something arguably had to be done about the universities. The politicians’ mistake consisted in the belief that the universities could be salvaged through becoming visibly useful. The whole point about universities is that they can be useful only in so far as they are useless. Besides, it is a value in itself that there are a few people, scattered in European cities, who read Sanskrit fluently, and that others are remunerated by the taxpayers to think, talk and write about Australian kinship or Renaissance art. The utility of having such people around is beyond dispute, but it cannot be measured. The meaning of universities consists in their uselessness, but it is now time for them to find new ways of being useless. A return to the 19th century Humboldt university, with a few hundred students from elite backgrounds and a few dozen teachers, is neither realistic nor desirable.

At the moment, university employees are well on their way to becoming musicians who have been instructed to play twice as fast, so that productivity can be increased. And it is partly our own fault. So far, we have done little else than complaining about the present, without offering any other alternative than the past. A vision is needed, and time is getting scarce.



Stadtluft macht frei

In the last couple of weeks before the US presidential elections, the media showed maps depicting the predicted outcome. Kerry was poised to win along the coasts, more specifically along the entire West coast and the East coast from Maine to Maryland. In some of the states around the Great Lakes, he was also doing well, especially in the Chicago area. The rest of the map showed a likely Republican majority. A more fine-grained map would have revealed a Democratic majority in the larger cities and Republican majorities elsewhere.

In style and external appearance, the two candidates represented different faces of the USA, and there were also marked differences in their respective political programmes. Kerry, a yankee from the north-east, was favourable to a more visible regulation of the economy and a more responsible budget policy. He also seemed more concerned that the US should have trustworthy allies in Europe than Bush, who, on his part, carried out a rhetorically strong and emotionally potent campaign based on a particular set of ideological notions about the essential America; church and family, idyllic small town America, and the spirit of competitiveness.

Commenting on the campaign, many have written and said that the US is a deeply divided country. [The well-known journalist] Åsne Seierstad, who covered the presidential election in Norwegian media, opined that European commentators had failed to understand ‘ordinary Americans’. Most of them had supported and believed in Kerry.
Now, one may, in the name of justice, ask what makes a mechanic in the Bible belt so much more ‘ordinary’ than a lawyer in Boston or a student in San Francisco, and the interesting question is how the division, if it exists, can be described.

Kerry and his supporters represented the ‘liberal’ face of the USA (the word ‘liberal’, in American usage, usually means ‘radical’; like ‘toilet’, ‘radical’ is a tabooed word). It is the USA of the cosmopolitan big cities, the USA of multiculturalism, secular Jewry, tolerance and individualism and that of single mothers, affirmative action, tax increases and gay rights. Bush and his people stand for a more traditional modernity founded in religion, big business and petty-bourgeois values.

The distinction cannot easily be related to class. In a country where class consciousness is weakly developed, many immigrants and others in the low-income bracket vote for Bush. On the contrary, it appears to be a rural-urban contrast which is highly interesting. It has been said time and again that Kerry is closer to Europe, culturally and ideologically, than Bush. But the truth may be that he is closer to urban Europe, that is the regions where European media commentators belong.

The maps depicting voting patterns in Norway and Sweden around the EU referendums in 1994 indicated that supporters of EU membership were in majority in the big city regions only – in and around Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, Oslo and Bergen. In Great Britain it has become a common view that the global city of London represents something quite different from the rest of England. And one could make a similar statement about Paris in the context of France, Berlin in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The distance between city and countryside, which has been shrinking through two hundred years of determined nation-building and industrialisation, seems to be growing again. This is just as true of Europe as it is of the USA.

The big cities offer much freedom and little security. They enable their inhabitants to handle dirt and complexity, noise and change. Smaller communities are more likely to cultivate their traditions and their local uniqueness. Rural belonging offers the possibility to grow roots, but one cannot grow roots through tarmac, and as a compensation, the cities offer feet.

The German saying Stadtluft macht frei [City air makes one free] has its origins in a medieval legal principle, which stated that serfs who spent more than a year in a town or city without being traced by the feudal lord, were given freedom. In more recent times, city air and freedom have been associated in other ways. Young men from the country who move to town in order to develop as individuals, are a recurrent kind of character in early modern European literature, and they are also abundantly present in African novels. The city generates complexity and makes alternative ways of life possible. I am unaware of any statistics, but I should be very surprised if gays and lesbians were not perceptibly overrepresented in the big cities. Nowadays, there is a documented tendency that refugees who are forcibly placed in rural regions during the first period of their stay in Norway, move to a city as soon as their freedom of movement is returned to them.

Early twenty-first century cities are characterised by the new economy. They are no longer primarily industrial, but produce services of all kinds and enormous amounts of information. In many Western cities, there are more people paid to come up with striking slogans than there are construction workers. This tendency has led to a gentrification of European and American cities, which are currently dominated demographically by the middle classes and by ethnic minorities.

The city is associated with liberal attitudes to alternative ways of life, freedom and risk, crime and pollution, media power and multiculturalism, sinful temptations ranging from prostitution to night clubs, coffeeshops and busyness, anonymity and alienation. Many of these topics have been dealt with by writers on urban life for more than a hundred years. What is new, is the role of the big cities as nodal points in the globalisation process, or ‘switchboards’ to use the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz’ term. Here, illegal immigrants can hide and maybe find a small job without being caught by the authorities; it is in the big cities that impulses and influences from abroad first establish themselves, and it is impossible to monitor every movement and activity. The city is unruly. In Mauritius, where I lived in a fishing village for a few months, I told my host family that I intended to move to Port-Louis, the capital, about an hour’s bus ride away. They warned me. Watch out for pickpockets and robbers, they said, adding that city people in general were godless and unreliable. This attitude may be typical, but the polarisation between town and country is strengthened by globalisation. The tendency is that city dwellers get more in common with city dwellers in other countries than with the rural population in their own. They favour increased immigration, a weakening of religious power, free abortion, broadband and have an international orientation.

In this tension, there is a political gulf which has not fully been exploited , but it may still come. Alain Minc wrote, already in 1991, about Europe’s new middle ages, that is alliances between cities leading to a marginalisation of the urban areas, where Stockholm might have more contact with Milano than with [peripheral] Falun. The Latin of our time, the medium of communication tying the cities together, is naturally English, but Minc is too much of a Frenchman to discuss that aspect.

The big cities function like powerful magnets, but they have their limitations. For even if Stadtluft macht frei, it does not create security. It may seem as if the majority of American voters opted for security this time. The question is if the same kind of polarisation witnessed in the USA will also find its expression in Europe, and if so, who will win.


A little bit on myth

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 her!

And while I'm at it: a recent talk I gave on humanism and identity is also available online now. Here!

* * *

Cultural 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.

* * *

Why 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.

Pitted against 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.

These world-views 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 something bigger.

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.

Xenophobia tends 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 motion.

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."

Quoted approvingly 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 contact.

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 "total confusion".

Classifications 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.

My new book, Røtter og føtter ("Roots and feet" or, perhaps "Roots and boots"?), discusses this kind of question at much greater length.

Musical ruminations

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 Adorno’s 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 Adorno’s 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 Adorno’s 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 pop music.

An interesting book called “Music and identity” (Norwegian only, I’m afraid; the actual title is Musikk og identitet) by musicologist Even Ruud talks about pivotal experiences, or threshold moments, in people’s 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 Heep’s album High and Mighty as with one of Beethoven’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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 X’s first six albums (1976–80). 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 Said’s 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 don’t play Stockhausen to your tomato plants. They might never recover.

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 ethics.

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 be erased.

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 Thiong’o, pointed out: It is easier to attain political independence and to nationalise the factories than it is to decolonise the mind. Fanon’s 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 Fanon’s 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 Adler’s 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 Hegel’s master–slave 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, Fanon’s book from 1952 remains a key text, brimming with insight and fury.

Mars and Venus in geopolitics

The eyes of the world are fixed on the Pentagon—Iraq 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 don’t 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 discourse.

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 Kagan’s 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 Kagan’s bons-mots should be fixed in the popular consciousness like Huntington’s ‘clashes of civilizations’ and Fukuyama’s ‘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 the same.

(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 work:

The colonial and the postcolonial: A view from Scandinavia on Italian minority issues
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 and nationhood
Ethnic identity, national identity and intergroup conflict: The significance of personal experiences

In Norwegian
The power of Word™
Afrika og anti-eurosentrismen
Corporate Stalinism
Teoretisk bricolage med datostempling (om Slavoj Zizek)
Innpakningens betydning
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 completely different.


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.

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 year’s 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 Pinker’s 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 Pinker’s 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 world’s 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 individuals.

There are many logical weaknesses and undocumented, but no less brashly presented assumptions in Pinker’s 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 Ridley’s 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.

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.

Some readings:
• 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 evolutionary psychology)


The 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.

Rehman’s 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 Rehman’s accusations were obviously absurd, they said, I ought to keep quiet. This was not to be.

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 Rehman’s role in Norwegian public life, claiming that her media presence ‘overshadowed others’. More substantially, she argued that Rehman’s 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 Rehman’s views could easily be appropriated by right-wing populists and others who demanded total cultural assimilation from immigrants. Perhaps most importantly, she argued that Rehman’s 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 society.

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 Rehman’s 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 columnist–activist 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 single points.

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 fish bowls.

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 Rehman’s 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.


This newsletter 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.

Writing 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 Eco’s 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 Eco’s work. What I have in mind are not the obvious changes in academic trends (Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne was published two years after Eco’s 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 Eco’s 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 writing changed.

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, Eco’s 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 don’t 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 writer’s 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

Previous thoughts on the post-11 September world
Jihad or crusade?
The paranoid phase of globalisation I
The paranoid phase of globalisation II (longer version)
The medical metaphors of warfare
Kreft med spredning (Norw.)
Nettverkskrigen ingen kan vinne (Norw.)
Angrepet på Manhattan (Norw.)

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 respect.

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 people’s 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 author’s 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 Maalouf’s 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 gender equality.

5. Clashes of civilizations

This chapter is largely a critique of Samuel Huntington’s influential analysis, which is perfectly congruent with the Taliban and other anti-liberal Islamic movements. Huntington’s 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 Giddens’s notion of dialogic democracy and Habermas’s 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 had happened.

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 Bush’s "crusade" (a term which does not exactly evoke images of peace and reconciliation - ask anyone in the Middle East if in doubt) and the Taliban’s "jihad", this new world is very remote from the one we asked for. As the enormous military apparatus of the world’s richest and most powerful country is getting ready to attack one of the world’s 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.


Dear friends

— Muslims, Christians, 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 state politics.

• Decentralised networks 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 world’s 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 norsk.



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 market.

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, I’d 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 Slagstad’s 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 counterculture.

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 available here.


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 2001