Monday, 28 September 2009

The Rector of St Chav's

Here is Archbishop Tutu commenting wryly upon Africa and the Church:

‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
(Steven Gish: Desmond Tutu: A Biography)

This sort of joke makes several thing explicit in a useful way. It’s clear, for example, that colonialism was really a form of theft, with the Church being fully complicit. And that the colonised for their part were naïve in allowing the swindle to happen. So there’s a critique here, arising out of indignation, that’s overt.

On the other hand, it’s equally clear that as an Anglican archbishop Tutu is part of the Church and its success is therefore his. So is he part of the problem? Although as an African he is a victim, what’s also strongly implied is that by stealing the land the colonising North may in fact have lost its soul whereas he and his compatriots are having their revenge: they have ‘colonised’ the Church. By wittily nesting the positive within the context of the negative Dr Tutu’s emotionally complex strategy allows the oppressed to become subjects again and thus (morally at least) to gain the upper hand.


And now here by contrast is Archbishop Rowan Williams making various interview points about the state of Britain’s finances. There has, apparently, been a bit of financial trouble up at St Chav’s. Several of the younger boys have lost their iPhones. The school tuck-shop, after a run in with what the school caretaker likes to call the school’s Collateralised Doughnut Obligations, has needed a sub from parents. In the meantime a number of pupils have made complaints that the Economics teacher keeps talking over their heads. They can’t understand a word of what he says. An air of unreality is hanging over St Chav’s…

Dr Williams dislikes unreality. What he wants is repentance good and strong:

‘There hasn’t been what I as a Christian would call repentance. We haven’t heard people say, “Well actually, you know, we got it wrong and the fundamental principle on which we worked was unreal, was empty. […] I’m talking about bankers but also about all of us. We should all, I think, look back and say, “Well we were hypnotised into that sense of unreality.”’
(Rowan Williams: Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman 15 September 2009))

Which is why there are now lines to be written. Why boys who lost their iPhones are writing, ‘I must look after my iPhone.’ Why boys who have taken iPhones are writing, ‘I must not steal people’s iPhones.’ Why Dr Williams himself is earnestly scribbling on the blackboard, ‘I must take playground duty much more seriously and look out for stolen iPhones.’ The school tuck-shop has given up CDOs. It now sells proper doughnuts filled with jam...

But alas the Economics master still seems to be in post. A horrid example of boffinry. An indefatigable presenter of unintelligible graphs who makes up strange equations and uses the school computer. In short, a nasty chap. This puts a damper on things. In the corridors boys keep finding their pockets empty and administering Chinese burns. Dr Williams has been getting quite upset. ‘There hasn’t been a feeling of closure about what happened last year,’ he declares at one point during Assembly. He detects ‘a quite strong sense of diffused resentment’ in and around the school. But fortunately he has a solution for this as well. We should all ignore the Economics master, who is nothing but a bully and a windbag, and start reading Keynes instead:

‘We felt intimidated by expertise [… Experts] convinced the rest of us because I think we’ve most of us grown up with the idea that economics is an exact science and that suggests that we haven’t actually read Keynes in the first place because Keynes’s stress on uncertainty as something utterly unavoidable in economic activity beyond a certain level, that again seems to have vanished.’
(Rowan Williams: Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman 15 September 2009))


The differences here are striking.

Firstly what Dr Williams appears to want is actually to shut down in the name of ‘closure’ the very sort of opposition (‘they’ versus ‘we’) which Dr Tutu seeks to redeem and then keep open. The key is positionality. Thus Dr Tutu’s joke is radically ambivalent. As the individual he is he straddles the division between two personal pronouns, between two separate actors. Each of the elements associating him with either ‘they’ or ‘we’ prompts an interpretation which disturbs interpretation of the other. But when, by contrast, Dr Williams refers to what ‘a Christian would call repentance’ he conflates four different things which differ morally as they do in terms of deixis: regret (‘What a pity about those crooked deals he made us enter into’), blame (‘What about those crooked deals you made us enter into’), contrition (‘I’m sorry about those crooked deals I made you enter into’) and forgiveness leading to closure (‘That’s OK’). He seems to find no moral inequivalence between, say, Bernard Madoff and one of Madoff’s clients. And, though he would hardly have meant it as such, by saying, in effect, ‘We’re all to blame and now I want the whole class to stay behind after school,’ he merely varies the thesis used by prejudiced judges down the ages that rapists’ victims were asking for it: ‘We girls should try to dress more discreetly.’

Secondly, whereas Dr Tutu’s ‘we’ is a pronoun which owns up (‘I am a member too’) what Dr Williams does is to manipulate to his own advantage the difference between the ‘we’ of individuation and the ‘we’ of collective belonging. Again positionality is the key. Whilst, for example, Dr Williams emphasises that ‘we’ are all collectively to blame, he nonetheless permits himself an individuating ‘we’ whenever it really matters. Thus when he declares that treating economics as science suggests that ‘we’ haven’t read Keynes (And where exactly is our essay on J M Keynes, Master Romer?’) he applies a stricture to others that he seems not to apply to himself. That’s dishonest.

Whereas Dr Tutu simplifies a complex history to bring out certain essentials, Dr Williams merely fudges. Thus he claims to want a closer relationship between financial products and the creation of socially desirable goods and services, which he terms ‘wealth as wellbeing’. But instead of addressing those who created dodgy products in the first place he blames economists, who are already one step removed.


There was, of course, an opportunity (ducked by Dr Williams) to consider things rather more fully. For a start, it simply isn’t the case that everyone in Britain had somehow been ‘hypnotised’ by the unrealities of an economics modelled on the sciences any more than Dr Tutu was literally present at the snatching away of land and handing out of bibles. Neither was a bargain freely entered into. Both were about fraud, and powerlessness, and loss. That would be one possible point of entry. But instead Dr Williams merely paraphrases Thatcher's reference to people who:

‘live by illusions, the illusion that you can spend money you haven't earned without eventually going bankrupt or falling into the hands of your creditors.’
(Margaret Thatcher: Speech to Conservative Party Conference, October 1978)

Whereas modernising capitalism captured past experience (the skills of the artisan) and absorbed them into mechanised production, postfordist capitalism seems to be capturing future experience (how the world may be interpreted and re-formed) partly through the mediations of ICT; partly through the substitution of personal knowledge by various kinds of expert system; partly through the privatisation of an intellectual commons as new sorts of property; partly through the privileging of rule based behaviours over individual good sense, and partly through the institution of immaterial labour, of an often precarious workforce of information providers and creators whose links with one another are increasingly virtual and transindividual and thus lack the intersubjectivity of communities, workplaces, what used to be called solidarity. This is the wider context in which the financial crisis appears to have begun. It’s one in which what Marx called general intellect, within which Virno includes ‘formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and language games’ is being steadily substituted by a technology which now (in)forms and creates us more and more rather than vice versa. And since ‘solidarity’ is now in pawn to multinationals, political elites, to the enactors of globalization, ‘we’ need to redeem it through a new sort of subjectivity; through constituting in ‘our’ behaviours a new social subject; through our anger, directed and direct.

So that would be another point of entry. To view the credit crunch not simplistically, as a single issue, but as a symptom of something wider, of which the crisis in Britain’s parliamentary system (MPs’ expense, distaste for the major parties) is another. To look towards the context and the cause. And with a different aim. Not to stop being ‘hypnotised’, supposedly, by money and/or clever economics but to attempt to recover ourselves: ‘Sikhalela izwe lethu (We cry for our land) / Elathathwa ngabamhlophe (That was taken by the white people’); we cry for that latest part of our humanity, of our subjectivity, that is being taken from us by another colonising process.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Articulating Despair

Thoreau and Tondelli


‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. […] A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.’
(Thoreau: Walden)

Thoreau’s view is of a truth that is covered over, masked with falsehood, and which (as with Frisch’s technology) we exploit without engaging with. He views it from above:

‘The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agriculture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten. There is actually no place in this village for a work of fine art, if any had come down to us, to stand, for our lives, our houses and streets, furnish no proper pedestal for it. There is not a nail to hang a picture on, nor a shelf to receive the bust of a hero or a saint. When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and honest though earthy foundation.’
(Thoreau: Walden)


‘Why do you live if you’re not happy?’
‘Everyone is constrained to create a fiction for themselves in order to carry on living. There are those who think about their families, those who think about work, or about money, or about sex. But they’re all illusions.’
(P V Tondelli: Rimini)

The important thing here is that Rimini is actually radically false, whether viewed by Bauer, the young journalist stationed there from outside, or from within, and even though the ‘real’ is thoroughly complicit with the false. Hence this about a homosexual relationship that is likewise radically subaltern in how it is expressed:

‘Leo felt then the entirety of his own life separated by an abyss from the great events of living and of dying. As if he had always lived in a zone that was separate from society. As if his doing badly in the world, or being happy, his wandering, all this had taken place on some stage. Now the portrayal was ending. Fathers and mothers, the Church, the State, the officials in charge of personal data were re-establishing their grip, consigning everything to the nullifying dust of the archives. Everything except the insignificant pain of some extraneous young man.
‘But Thomas was dying. At twenty five years. And he, Leo, who was only four years older, found himself the widower of a companion so that it was as though he had never had one and about him there existed not even a word in any human lexicon that could define the one who had been for him not a husband, not a wife, not a lover, not only a companion but the essential part of a new and mutual fate.’
(P V Tondelli: Camere separate)