Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
- Edgar Allan Poe, "A Dream Within a Dream"

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Travails of the Quarantined

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
- Eavan Boland, "Quarantine"

Thursday, October 23, 2014


How, then, does multiculturalism as fantasy function?

In such a fantasy, racism is ‘officially prohibited’. This is true. We are ‘supposed’ to be for racial equality, tolerance and diversity, and we are not ‘allowed’ to express hatred towards others, or to incite racist hatred. I would argue that this prohibition against racism is imaginary, and that it conceals everyday forms of racism, and involves a certain desire for racism. Take Big Brother and the Jade Goody story. You could argue that Big Brother’s exposure of racism functions as evidence that political correctness is hegemonic: you are not allowed to be racist towards others. But that would be a misreading. What was at stake was the desire to locate racism in the body of Jade Goody, who comes to stand for the ignorance of the white working classes, as a way of showing that ‘we’ (channel 4 and its well-meaning liberal viewers) are not racist like that. When anti-racism becomes an ego ideal you know you are in trouble.

The prohibition of racist speech should not then be taken literally: rather it is a way of imagining ‘us’ as beyond racism, as being good multicultural subjects who are not that. By saying racism is over there –‘look, there it is! in the located body of the racist’ – other forms of racism remain unnamed, what we could call civil racism. We might even say that the desire for racism is an articulation of a wider unnamed racism that accumulates force by not being named, or by operating under the sign of civility.

The best example one can imagine of this are the presidential elections in France a couple of years ago when Jean-Marie le Pen made it into the second round: reacting to this racist-chauvinist threat, the entire “democratic France” joined their ranks behind Jacques Chirac who was reelected with an overwhelming majority of 80%. No wonder everyone felt good after this display of French anti-racism, no wonder people “loved to hate” le Pen: by way of clearly locating racism in him and his party, the general “civil racism” is rendered invisible. In a homologous way, there was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

One of the most irritating liberal-tolerant strategies is to oppose Islam as a great religion of spiritual peace and compassion to its fundamentalist-terrorist abuse – whenever Bush or Netanyahu or Sharon announced a new phase in the War on Terror, they never forgot to include this mantra. (One is almost tempted to counter it by claiming that Islam is, as all religions, in itself a rather stupid inconsistent edifice, and that what makes it truly great are its possible political uses.) This is liberal-tolerant racism at its purest: this kind of “respect” for the other is the very form of appearance of its opposite, of patronizing disrespect. The very term “tolerance” is here indicative: one “tolerates” something one doesn’t approve of, but cannot abolish, either because one is not strong enough to do it or because one is benevolent enough to allow the Other to stick to its illusion – in this way, a secular liberal “tolerates” religion, a permissive parent “tolerates” his children’s excesses, etc.

Where I disagree with Ahmed is in her supposition that the underlying injunction of liberal tolerance is monocultural – “Be like us, become British!” I claim that, on the opposite, its injunction is cultural apartheid: others should not come too close to us, we should protect our “way of life.” The demand “Become like us!” is a superego demand, a demand which counts on the other’s inability to really become like us, so that we can then gleefully “deplore” their failure. (Recall how, in the apartheid South Africa, the official regime’s ideology was multiculturalist: apartheid is needed so that all the diverse black tribes will not get drowned into our civilization…) The truly unbearable fact for a multiculturalist liberal is an Other who effectively becomes like us, while retaining its specific features.

Furthermore, Ahmed passes between two forms of racism which should be distinguished. First, there is the “reflexive racism”: we use our non-racism to distinguish ourselves from the racist other and thus to castigate them in a racist way. More precisely, one should distinguish, in a kind of spectral analysis, three different modes of today’s racism. First, there is the old fashioned unabashed rejection of the (despotic, barbarian, orthodox, Muslim, corrupt, oriental…) Other on behalf of the authentic (Western, civilized, democratic, Christian…) values. Then there is the “reflexive” Politically Correct racism: the multiculturalist perception of Muslims or Balkans as the terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational war passions, to be opposed to the post-Nation-State liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiations, compromises and mutual respect. Racism is here as it were elevated to the second power: it is attributed to the Other, while we occupy the convenient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on down there. Finally, there is the reversed racism: it celebrates the exotic authenticity of the Balkan Other, as in the notion of Serbs who, in contrast to the inhibited, anemic Western Europeans, still exhibit a prodigious lust for life – this last form of racism plays a crucial role in the success of Emir Kusturica’s films in the West. – Second, racists themselves become a “threatened minority” whose free speech must be protected, i.e., they use the prohibition as evidence that racism is a minority position which has to be defended against the multicultural hegemony. Racism can then be articulated as a minority position, a refusal of orthodoxy. In this perverse logic, racism can then be embraced as a form of free speech. We have articulated a new discourse of freedom: as the freedom to be offensive, in which racism becomes an offence that restores our freedom: the story goes, we have worried too much about offending the other, we must get beyond this restriction, which sustains the fantasy that ‘that’ was the worry in the first place. Note here that the other, especially the Muslim subject who is represented as easily offended, becomes the one who causes injury, insofar as it is the Muslim other’s ‘offendability’ that is read as restricting our free speech. The offendable subject ‘gets in the way’ of our freedom. So rather than saying racism is prohibited by the liberal multicultural consensus, under the banner of respect for difference, I would argue that racism is what is protected under the banner of free speech through the appearance of being prohibited.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Multiculturalism: The Reality of an Illusion"

A Zizekian Critique of Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism means putting up the appearance of not being racist, sexist, or whatever at the same time one really was that or those things.

The word "tolerance" was embedded in the vernacular of multicultural initiatives, but no one really recognized the violence that comes with tolerance.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Daedalus' Dream

My son has birds in his head.
I know them now. I catch
the pitch of their calls, their shrill
cacophonies, their chitterlings, their coos.
They hover behind his eyes, and come to rest
on a branch, on a book, grow still,
claws curled, wings furled.
His is a bird world.
I learn the flutter of his moods,
his moments of swoop and soar.
From the ground, I feel him try the limits of the air—
sudden lift, sudden terror—
and move in time to cradle
his quivering, feather fear.
At evening, in the tower,
I see him to sleep, and see
the hooding over of eyes,
the slow folding of wings.
I wake to his morning twitterings,
To the croomb of his becoming.
He chooses his selves—wren, hawk,
swallow, or owl—to explore
the trees and rooftops of his heady wishing.
Tomtit, birdwit.
Am I to call him down to give him
a grounding, teach him gravity?
Gently, gently.
Time tells us what we weigh, and soon enough
his feet will reach the ground.
Age, like a cage, will enclose him.
So the wise men said.
My son has birds in his head.
- Alastair Reid, "Daedalus"

Friday, October 17, 2014


Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afraid are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
And Nod.
Eugene Field, "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"

Monday, October 13, 2014

So When's the Next Festival?

The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows;--
The happy days unclouded to their close;
The sudden joys that out of darkness start
As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
White as the gleam of a receding sail,
White as a cloud that floats and fades in air,
White as the whitest lily on a stream,
These tender memories are;--a fairy tale
Of some enchanted land we know not where,
But lovely as a landscape in a dream.
- Henry Wadsworth Lonfellow, "Holidays"(1878)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wine and Coffee

When the sweet Poison of the Treacherous Grape
Had acted on the world a general rape;
Drowning our Reason and our souls
In such deep seas of large o'erflowing bowls,

When foggy Ale, leavying up mighty trains
Of muddy vapours, had besieg'd our Brains,
Then Heaven in Pity
First sent amongst us this All-healing Berry,

Coffee arrives, that grave and wholesome Liquor,
That heals the stomach, makes the genius quicker,
Relieves the memory, revives the sad,
And cheers the Spirits, without making mad;
And soon despatcheth
Whatso'ere with Nature leavyeth Warrs;
It helps digestion, want of Appetite, And quickly sets Consumptive bodies right;
Hush then, dull Quacks, your Mountebanking cease,
COFFEE's a speedier cure for each Disease,
How great its virtues are we hence may think,
The world's third part makes it their Common Drink

In Brief, all you who Health's rich treasure prize,
And court not ruby noses, or blear'd eyes,
But own sobriety to be your drift,
And love at once good Company and Thrift;
To Wine no more make Wit and coyn a trophy,
But come each Night and Froliq'ue here in Coffee.
- a 1674 broadside

Thursday, October 2, 2014

More Ennui

Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body’s force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.

Our sins are mulish, our confessions lies;
we play to the grandstand with our promises,
we pray for tears to wash our filthiness;
importantly pissing hogwash through our sties.

The devil, watching by our sickbeds, hissed
old smut and folk-songs to our soul, until
the soft and precious metal of our will
boiled off in vapor for this scientist.

Each day his flattery makes us eat a toad,
and each step forward is a step to hell,
unmoved, through previous corpses and their smell
asphyxiate our progress on this road.

Like the poor lush who cannot satisfy,
we try to force our sex with counterfeits,
die drooling on the deliquescent tits,
mouthing the rotten orange we suck dry.

Gangs of demons are boozing in our brain —
ranked, swarming, like a million warrior-ants,
they drown and choke the cistern of our wants;
each time we breathe, we tear our lungs with pain.

If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.

Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,
gorillas and tarantulas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,

there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.

It’s *BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine —
you — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!
-Charles Baudelaire, “To The Reader”

*Ennui is the word which Lowell translates as BOREDOM