a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Samuel Eliot Morison, a historian, a civilizer, a ship

Ok, I'm going to tell this story backwards.

See if you have the patience to get through to the beginning.

There is or was, as of 2002 a ship in the Turkish navy called "Gokova." Now, the ship had been decommissioned from the U. S. Navy, and during its previous life it was named the U. S. S. Samuel Eliot Morison.

The Morison had been in the U. S. Navy from 1980--it had been built in the Bath, Maine shipyards in the late 70s. Among other weaponry, the Morison, a guided missile frigate, boasted a missile launcher and a rapid firing gun. During its time in the U. S. Navy, it was on various missions in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. Among other things, it was involved in several drug bust operations during which time it seized narcotics.

The ship was named for Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. Perhaps to some of you, this name may be familiar. If you've ever read any U. S. maritime history, it should. Also, if you've ever read any histories of colonial New England, once again it will likely be a familiar name.

Morison was perhaps one of the most famous historians of the twentieth century. He was a professor of History at Harvard for over 40 years; in addition to his own voluminous writing, he trained many of the subsequently famous scholars doing American history. His books--especially on maritime history--became best sellers. He won numerous awards and honors, including 2 Pulitzer Prizes and 2 Bancroft Prizes (given to historians). In writing his famous book on Columbus, Morison took to the the seas himself, refitting a boat and making Columbus's routes and ports of call the basis of some of his research.

During World War II, Morison was appointed the Official Historian of the U. S. Navy by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Morison went on to write a 15-volume work about U. S. Naval Operations during the war. He attained his rank in the Navy from these efforts, though he also saw active duty during his time as the Navy's Historian. In 1961, Morison won the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for "distinguished literary achievement." from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1964, Morison won the Presidential Medal of Freedom "as one of the great Americans whose life and works have made freedom stronger for all of us in our time." The medal was given to him by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was, also, Harvard's official historian, writing several different works, including a 3-volume text called "Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636-1936."

When he died in 1976 (at the age of 88), he was regarded as perhaps the most influential historian in an American University during the 20th century. One review of a collected book of his essays after his death waxed eloquent about Morison's status as THE "master historian."

Why mention any of this? Here's why. In preparing for my course this semester on American Economic History, I decided to do some reading I had long avoided on the wars between the New England colonies and the Native Americans in the 17th century. Most importantly, I decided to read extensively on "King Philip's War," a war that has been described as the most destructive, in terms of numbers of people killed per thousand of the population (and this goes for both white colonists and natives), of any war ever fought by "Americans" on or off American soil. It is notorious on many accounts, not the least of which is the fact that the tribes that "lost" were subjected to extermination, slavery (being sold off to the West Indies), and outright ruin.

Now, the first "modern" book on this war was written by Douglas Edward Leach, a Harvard Ph.d. and a professor at Vanderbilt, at least when the book was published. The book was first published in 1958 under the title "Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War." It has been described as the first and most complete history of the conflict written by a modern historian. All present books on King Philip's War pay homage to this book and use it freely, even when more contemporary writers diverge from Leach in his narrative and conclusions. Leach tells us that the impetus for writing the book was Morison. Indeed, he says in his Preface to the book that "it was [Morison] who convinced me that this book should be written; his inspiration and example lie behind every page." Leach was a student of Morison, and he explains that his interest in the subject was first stimulated in Morison's seminar at Harvard.

In fact, Morison was so important to the book that he wrote the Introduction for it. This is what I want to share with you. Each and every word that Morison wrote in support of Leach's own, justly famous, study. Please keep in mind who Morison was and also the probable year of this Intro's composition (1958):

"My friend Dr. Leach has written the first comprehensive history of King Philip's War to appear since the seventeenth century. Most historians, including myself, believe that it was the most severe of all the colonial Indian wars, subsequent to the 1622 massacre in Virginia. In view of our recent experiences of warfare, and of the many instances today of backward peoples getting enlarged notions of nationalism and turning ferociously on Europeans who have attempted to civilize them, this early conflict of the same nature cannot help but be of interest. It was an intensely dramatic struggle, decisive for the survival of the English race in New England, and the eventual disappearance of the Algonkian Indians.

Behind King Philip's War was the clash of a relatively advanced race with savages, an occurrence not uncommon in history. The conquering race (and this is as true of the Moslems and Hindus as of Christians) always feels duty-bound to impose its culture upon the native; the native in the process of absorbing it acquires the conquerer's vices and diseases as well, and in the end is either absorbed or annihilated, the only compromise being a miserable existence on a 'reservation.' The Algonkian Indians of New England, notably King Philip's father Massasoit, welcomed the Englishmen as an ally against their Indian neighbors and appreciated his tools and firearms; but the Englishman expected them to take the whole of his culture, including Puritan theology, in one package. That was like expecting a Stone Age savage to be at home in a modern skyscraper apartment. The New England colonists tried hard to be fair and just to the natives; but their best was not good enough to absorb them without a conflict.

Dr. Leach has told how and why this particular war happened; he has related the story of it, with all its desperate massacres, battles, and strategems. He gives a vivid picture of the conditions under which it was fought, and of the protagonists--Governor Winslow, Captain Church, Captain Moseley, Ninigret, Weetamoo the Squaw Sachem, Pomham, Monoco, and King Philip himself. He has described the tactics and the logistics by which the redskin was finally conquered. He has pulled no punches in his story of cruelty and vengeance on both sides; and the modern reader will discern many analogies to recent events. The treatment of the converted "praying" Indians was no worse than that of the United States to Japanese-Americans in World War II. The Reverend John Eliot pointed out that the harsh policy of killing prisoners or selling them into slavery would prolong the Indian war--an early instance of 'unconditional surrender.' When emotions are stimulated to the boiling point, as they are in desperate wars, Christians forget their religion and descend to the level of the brute fighting for his life. This is not only a military but a political and social history. The tactics and weapons of 1675 are of historical interest; but the policies and attitudes of Puritan and Indian are just as alive today, and as relevant, as those of World War II, or of the Peloponnesian War as described by Thuycidides."

The final touch is fitting. What better way to finish such a prologue than a refined gesture to the "birthplace" of western civilization and referencing, through the name of Thuycidides, the great literature and learning that has come with it.

I should add that one friend of Morison had described him as a man of great gentility. Indeed.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Hrant Dink's solitude

Hrant Dink, an Armenian editor, columnist, journalist, thinker from Turkey is assassinated yesterday. Within left progressive and pro-democratic forces in Turkey, Dink occupied a unique place. His perseverance, especially, in the face of the travesty of unending court trials and delusory accusations he was subjected to, more recently under the infamous Article 301, evokes an admiring and a guilty puzzlement. Unfortunately, it is Dink's loss that compels this state of puzzlement into a deliberation of the immense significance and singularity his position embodied.

Dink struggled against the nationalist denialism around the Armenian genocide and discrimination of Armenian community in Turkey (whose numbers dwindled to something between 50.000-80.000). However, he refrained from simply advocating "positive rights" for the Armenians, an approach that he argued to have led to the isolation of the Armenian community as a minority that needs (international) protection. Rather, he assumed a "negative rights" approach, meaning, he revealed the exclusions of Turkish citizenship at the same time that he engaged in practices of constituting the excluded Armenian community as citizens of Turkey. By remarking on the general precariousness of rights in Turkey, he also pointed to the shakiness of the majority/minority distinction. I think such interventions universalized Dink's position beyond the defense of Armenian rights to addressing more broadly the important issue of rethinking of citizenship in Turkey.

With equal commitment, Dink critiqued the politics of ressentiment that continues to structure the Armenian identity. He was at times critiqued by certain tendencies within the Armenian community, the religious institution of Patriarchy in Turkey as well as by the Armenian state and segments of diaspora. His nuanced stances were regarded too controversial or wrongly equated to the assimilation of the Armenian identity. Thus, on the one hand, his position was not quite fully embraced and remained inarticulate. On the other hand, he was tortured at the hands of Turkish nationalism for "denigrating and insulting Turkishness," and, eventually, eliminated. This solitude of Hrant Dink attests to the fact that he was the voice and living practice of some truth, which was hard to assume and digest, but all the more necessary not to be lost.

In the aftermath of the killing, the politico-legal-military state apparatus in Turkey circulates the memorized narratives of condemnation and condolence. Military general Yaşar Büyükanıt's awaited statement, "today's bullets were targeted to Turkey," finds its reflection in the familiar rhetoric of the prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, "the dark hands that killed him will be found and punished." These soulless declarations shoulder each other to reduce Dink's murder to an affair of national security, at the same time, repressing and subtracting the responsibilities of the establishment from its eventuating. They forestall the acute need to understand why this event happened. Performing a feigned remorse, they try to suppress the obscene fact that it was only a few days ago that Dink himself was ruthlessly attacked as being part of those dark forces, for allegedly threatening national unity and solidarity.

Clearly, the "Turkey" that the nationalist state ideology imagines to be targeted by yesterday's bullets has nothing in common with Dink's understanding of "Turkey." This is the reason why he is murdered. This is the reason why he walked the courts for three years before his first acquittal from the charges of insulting "Turkishness," because he defined himself in some conference in 2002 as being "not a Turk, but from Turkey and Armenian."

Dink's claim inspires a notion of citizenship, whose attachment is to a certain place and geography, rather than to a pure identity. Yet, there is also a certain understanding of historical attachment that flows through such a material space, which Dink did not want let go of. This history, though, does not correspond to a recuperation and keeping alive some lost (Armenian) ideal. Indeed, while Dink claimed that he was an Armenian and from Turkey, and while he fervently criticized the Turkish official history, he also repeated the need to detach the Armenian identity from the weight of historical memory, the "residues of the past," and, instead, refocus on the living Armenian community.

Reading Dink's claim "being from Turkey and an Armenian" might also call forth another historico-spatial imagination of Turkey, more properly, of Anatolia, as 'the mosaic of cultures,' a prevalent multiculturalist idea of citizenship that both progressive and conservative thinking at times embrace as an alternative to the ethnocentricism of Turkish nationalism. In this ideology, Turkish citizenship encompasses many different cultures, and identities, Turkish, Kurd, Armenian, Greek, Cherkes, Abkhaz, and so on. I think that Dink's position was far from such an ideal of reinserting into contemporary context previously defined and bounded identities that were presumed to once coexist harmoniously in Anatolia. It rather seems to me that what Dink's unique and dangerous project embodied was reclaiming and redefining an Armenian identity as an intimate condition of redefining what it means to be a citizen of Turkey and vise versa. Agos, the bilingual newspaper that Hrant Dink established is perhaps one such new space, one of the main institutions for such a reconstruction and reclaiming. While Agos will continue its life, it is not so certain that Hrant Dink's place will be filled.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Palestinians and Peace activists dress like Native Americans in Protest (article linked here)

(sorry for the double posting, but this was so good, i couldn't resist)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

...as one ras rolls, another steps up...

Taking the “commune without a leader” and “body without a head” theme in a new direction… I’m talking about the lynching of Saddam, his head not severed, but his neck marked by a ring of wounds, as is shown in the most recent cell phone recording of his lifeless body.

We are now more than two weeks after his killing. We were so saddened by it, not because of any attachment to the man, of course, but because its symbolism was too great and too empty at the same time, or great in its banality, perhaps. We were not overwhelmed with a feeling of rage as we may have been if this had all happened at the beginning of the invasion. And I don’t think that supporters of the war were even celebrating, as they would have been before. He had already been killed anyway. Even with his refusal to acknowledge the court, we could all see him confined to it, so it seemed kind of goofy and sad. And of course, we can’t even be sad about it, because we hated him too. We couldn’t even be enraged that they killed a hero since we hated him, not to mention that he was already dead. So we end up just feeling weird and cheated and realize that we are almost at the 4th year of the occupation of Iraq.

Maybe it is too easy to make the connection between Saddam’s trial and the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. The Eichmann trial, remember, was separate from the Nuremburg trials, and was all about, as Hannah Arendt neatly pointed out, firming up the new Israeli national identity. It was the first time that people there and around the world heard stories from the concentration camps told in public--noteworthy since the Israeli state at the time was quite intent on suppressing any holocaust identity in service of the “new Jew” hyper-macho Israeli identity. It was a kind of public reinforcement of the “necessity” of the Jewish state, and a performance to bring the nation and the world along for the emotional talking through of shame and victimhood, that culminated with the hanging of Eichmann, the residue of which could be nothing but a renewed collective pride in the militaristic state. After all, even if you are opposed to the state, how could you disagree with the punishment of the mastermind of crimes against humanity? That is the trick we are feeling now, of course.

Eichmann was different than Saddam in that he fully participated in his show trial, and even appealed on the grounds of Israeli law. That was part of what was so horrifying about it for people. He showed no extra-legal resistance. They wanted him to be such a monster, but he was just this guy with glasses. (Arendt writes: ‘Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.’) But then he also showed no remorse, as he admitted to what acts he was accused of, but not of their symbolic importance. He famously said that he would have done it again, not owning the crimes, but admitting that it was all straight up careerism for him, and in effect still was in that he did not seem to be in an “afterwards” state of reflection. He felt that he was the victim of those who took advantage of his obedience and commitment to a job well done. He was full of clichéd phrases, and maddened the judges by describing his career, which they saw as in and of itself horrid, with joy and elation, as though he was just recounting his newest promotion.

Eichmann’s last words were: “After a while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany. Long live Austria. Long live Argentina. I shall not forget them.” Saddam’s last words were garbled and misreported, though apparently amongst them were retorts to the guards who were taunting him, “Palestine is Arab,” and his final words, the shahada, though he died before he could finish.

Saddam also never let go of his nationalistic phrases. He was different in so many ways, of course, especially that he was a leader while Eichmann was a man behind the scenes. But in their trials they were the same in that they did not go out of character. But in such a situation how could they? What do we expect them to do? Apologize? Wouldn’t that be even more obscene? How can someone be punished enough, how can he apologize enough? How do we understand this excess? I know these are the most basic questions, but I don’t know how to think around them.

All this talk about beheading, too, makes me think about how shocked people in the U.S. and Europe were at seeing the videos of the beheadings of hostages in Iraq. Not unusual, I guess, to fixate on individual beheadings in order not to see the beheading of Iraq.

And finally, as one ras rolls, another steps up. Isn’t there some symbolic connection between the demise of Saddam and the nomination of Khalilzad for Bolton’s old position? Why don’t the newscasters just repeat over and over “he would be the first Muslim in the U.S. cabinet” like a mantra, and take out all of the extra words that they throw in around that sentence just to make it seem casual?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Is surprise possible?

or, is it ever possible that the letter does not arrive at its destination?

There is a well-known debate between Lacan and Derrida. It is, for instance, a debate that Althusser alludes to in his
Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996]--an essential reading in understanding why psychoanalysis is important for Marxism. I am not sure if the debate really materialized in these terms but Lacan does acknowledge, in one of his Seminars (XX), the presence of a Derridean critique of his Ecrits: Jean Luc-Nancy and Philip Lacoue-Labarthe's The Title of the Letter [Albany: SUNY Press, 1992]. This book is a very lucid Derridean critique where the authors claim that Lacan's anti-philosophical gesture, the ex-centring of the Subject (as the Cogito), is actually a reinscription of the philosophical subject--even if the subject of psychoanalysis (unlike the subject of the traditional philosophical discourse) is a lacking subject.

Now, the real question is not so much if the subject is lacking or not. In fact, Lacan's formula has always been "failure to be" ("
manque a etre"). In other words, the subject in psychoanalysis is not a subject who lacks, but rather a subject who fails. The two are different. In the first formulation, there is a subject and then there is a lack. In other words, the phrasing posits the existence of a subject and then identifies its status as the one who lacks. Whereas in the second formulation, the very existence of subject is in question: failing subject, failure to be a subject... I think the Lacanian response to the Western philosophical discourse is to introduce a crack, a suspicion, a question mark. Or, to speak graphically, to strike the S of the subject with a bar. In other words, the subject in psychoanalysis is a split subject not a lacking subject. The Derridean critique would be correct only if Lacan was speaking of a subject who lacks, as opposed to a failing subject.

But, then, is there no debate between Lacan and Derrida? There is and it begins with Lacan's rather controversial (not the first time) formulation: "A letter always arrives at its destination." Derrida's response in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond [Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1987], as paraphrased by Althusser, is "It happens that a letter may not arrive at its destination." Given this set up, it may be quite tempting to "interpret" Lacan as the (obscene) Father of necessitarian teleologists and Derrida as the (good) shaman of the radical contingency. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that we should resist this temptation.

We should resist the temptation, because the debate is on the ontological status of surprise (recognition/misrecognition) and about how to understand temporality. To begin with, neither formula is incorrect. Viewed from the perspective of linear temporality and the humanist conception of intentionality, it does happen that the letter (understood in its multiple meanings, as a letter in an envelope, as a letter of the alphabet, as the capital letter of a particular word, etc.) may not arrive at its destination. In fact, it is always a surprise when it arrives at its destination.

Yet, on the other hand, viewed from the psychoanalytical perspective of temporality--and here I am referring to Freud's concept of nachtraglichkeit/apres-coup/after-effect--a letter always arrives at its destination because its destination is always posited after its arrival. To put it differently, from a psychoanalytical perspective, there is no destination of the letter that pre-dates (no puns intended) its arrival. In this formulation, Lacan articulates the circular logic of performativity of the letter: There is no real surprise because everything is a surprise. And in fact, if there is a surprise it is always in relation to the fantasy of a pre-destination. When we subtract the concept of pre-destination as an ontological entry point (as we should subtract the concept of subject as an ontological entry point too) it will become possible to glimpse at the temporal moebius strip that the Lacanian formula points at: If the letter is performative and if the last signifier reconfigures the entire chain that preceeds it, if the destination is also where the letter arrives at, then a letter always arrives at its destination-with the proviso that the meanings of "arrival" and "destination" are understood within the non-linear world of the split subjects.

Friday, January 05, 2007

"I'm going away tonight": James Brown (1933-2006)

The death of James Brown seems to deserve some sort of gesture. Not intended as an obiturary, what follows is merely the transcription of the lyrics to "James Brown" by the long-forgotten group Ghetto Reality, written in 1969.

Born in Augusta Georgia

James Brown

Born in Augusta Georgia

James Brown

Born in Augusta Georgia

He was a poor shoe shin boy

Now…he is the King of Soul

Ugh good God
Ugh good God
Ugh good God

His hair was slick and shiny
James Brown
He hair was slick and shiny
James Brown

Now he sports his afro
He is thinking…Lord I am proud
He is the King of soul
Hey Hey Hey

With your bad self
Get funky
Can’t stand it
Good God

Born in Augusta Georgia
James Brown
Born in Augusta Georgia
James Brown
Born in Augusta Georgia
He was a poor little shoe shine boy
Now...he is the King of soul
Hey Hey Hey

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A leader without a body?

The following is a quote from Ernesto Laclau's The Populist Reason (Verso, 2005: 60-1), but, as he explains, he himself is quoting in extenso from Sigmund Freud. I think it is important to read this passage in relation to "A commune with a leader?" and "No commune without a leader?" postings. [It is even possible to read it in relation to the "A body without a head" posting.] This is the last in a series of postings and I will lay it low on this topic after this installment.

Let us finish this discussion by stressing that Freud was so acutely aware of the impossibility of reducing the process of group formation to the central role of the authoritarian chief of the horde that at the beginning of the Chapter 6 of Group Psychology he provides us with an interventory of other possible situations and social combinations-it is, in fact, a sort of programmatic description of a virgin terrain to be intellectually occupied. It is worthwhile quoting it in extenso:
Now much else remains to be examined and described in the morphology of groups. We should have to give our attention to the different kinds of groups, more or less stable, that arise spontaneously, and to study the conditions of their origin and of their dissolution. We should above all be concerned with the distinction between groups which have a leader and leaderless groups. We should consider whether groups with leaders may not be the more primitive and complete, whether in the others an idea, an abstraction, may not take the place of the leader (a state of things to which religious groups, with their invisible head, form a transitional stage), and whether a common tendency, a wish in which a number of people can have a share, may not in the same way serve as a substitute. This abstraction, again, may be more or less completely embodied in the figure of what we may call a secondary leader and interesting varieties would arise from the relation between the idea and the leader. The leader or the leading idea might also, so to speak, be negative; hatred against a particular person or institution might operate in just the same unifiying way, and might call up the same kind of emotional ties as positive attachment. Then the
question would also arise whether a leader is really indispensable to the essence of a group-and other questions besides. [Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), in The Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII, p. 100, London, Vintage, 2001.]

Tuesday, January 02, 2007