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#11- 35 Language at/of the border

#11- 35: Language at/of the border

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The idea for this issue arose when we begin working on our film A Border Musical, whose screenplay is also printed here. This film is based on a study of the situation on both sides of the Russian-Norwegian border: we were interested in how a range of differences, which inevitably serve as sources of conflict in border areas, shape the subjectivity of people in daily contact with each other.

Borderlands always aggravate differences – political and social, behavioral, linguistic and economic, and so on. The border’s physicality, particularly in the form of rigid paramilitary zones impeding the free circulation of people, causes anyone who becomes caught up in their force fields to re-examine the world and themselves. On the map of the world, such areas have always been not only the focus of geopolitical tensions, but also special habitats encouraging the development of new forms of language, behavior and culture. The border is a place for experiment, a zone of mobility and change.

The history of state borders has always been a history of violence: a history of wars, militarization, securitization, bureaucratic control, biopolitical regulation, forced displacement, flight and migration. Historically, state borders are shaped by the balance of violence. The winners dictate them to the losers, without taking into account either real geography or ethnicity. Borders separate “us” from “them,” and these divisions are set down in documents determining state loyalties and citizenship. Paradoxically, borders, which are always artificial forms, are an essential factor of existence, shaping not only the lives of people, but also impacting the natural environment and the animal world.

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#11- 35 Language at/of the border

Tsaplya Olga Egorova and Dmitry Vilensky // The Script of A Border Musical

Radio broadcast and the song “I Love My Cold Land” by Jesper Alvaer

 

The Characters

Characters from the Russian side of the border:

  • Tanya, wife of Ola Nordmann. Former director of the children’s choir in the Russian town of Nikel, she plays the accordion. She still has a poor grasp of Norwegian.
  • A Chorus of Miners. Manifestations of Tanya’s conscience, her “inner miners,” the men double as workers at the local mine and processing plant.

Characters from the Norwegian side of the border:

  • Ola Nordmann (“John Q. Public”), Tanya’s husband. Owner of a trucking company, Ola himself enjoys getting behind the wheel of a big truck from time to time.
  • A Friend. Ola Nordmann’s schoolmate, he currently works in the civil service.
  • Child Welfare Inspector
  • First Neighbor Lady
  • Second Neighbor Lady
  • Third Neighbor Lady

 

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#09- 33 Against slavery

#09-33: Against slavery

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#09- 33 Against slavery

Dmitry Vilensky // Editorial

This issue of Chto Delat deals with migrant labor, an issue today at the center of not only Russian, but also world politics. Although our world has always been “globalized,” the numbers of people migrating in order to better their existence, whether economically or otherwise, are unprecedented. Discussion of this issue is complicated by the fact that we immediately find ourselves on slippery terrain occupied by the shadowy figure of the immigrant, who like the Wandering Jew in its time has come to function as a synonym for danger, contamination and the alien per se. Racists and nationalists of all stripes and lands rally round (so to speak) this fictional villain as they defend the supposedly homely but no less fictional spaces of nation, race and tribe from invasion by aliens. Judging by recent election results in certain “liberal democratic” European countries and legislative innovations in US states such as Arizona and Georgia, the “commonsensical” and “down-to-earth” slogans and prescriptions of the tribalists really are sometimes capable of generating a “groundswell” of “grassroots support.”

Some people have always found it hard to share their homelands, hometowns and neighborhoods with different languages, skin colors, and ways of understanding world, self and community. However, it is all too easy to accuse “the common folk” of being the source and support of xenophobic sentiments. As British sociologist Paul Gilroy has argued, when left to their own devices the “working classes” and “common folk” (whatever their “primary” tribal allegiances) are just as often capable of creating a “convivial” existence together, a life where each person’s allegedly essential difference informs and shapes a totally unexpected common good, a new commons. In reality, it is more often the liberal (or, now, neoliberal) talking and ruling classes, whose experience both with conviviality and the (non)realities of ethnic difference is frequently limited to a fondness for certain cuisines and holidaymaking in the global south, who shape the xenophobic and nationalist agenda via the media they produce and control, via the obscurantist norms and repressive laws they promulgate in the public space. It is this “common sense” from above that is the main instrument for stigmatizing and excluding people who sometimes lack the right language to tell us both about their plights and their joys, who frequently lack the right papers to exercise their individual civil rights and their collective right to struggle for a better lot in life.

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#09- 33 Against slavery

Thomas Campbell /// What Are Deportees Doing in a Museum?

 

The answer they give in the film (via the intermediary of the guard) is: because they have heard that “art is on the side of the oppressed.” Although the details, as hinted at by the museum staff, are sketchy, we are led to imagine that the establishment of “national democracy” in Holland and other parts of (what can only be Northern and Western) Europe is so brutal that the escapees have nowhere else to turn but the museum. But what they find there is an identification with the oppressed, with the revolutionary and critical potentials of art, that is literally canned, contained, archived, monitored, and rationed. The museum has an extensive collection of “revolutionary” art, but the chorus acknowledges what this art’s fate has been in our world: as a paragon of “timelessness” (although revolutions are only timely, or they’re not revolutions), and as a source of that most counter-revolutionary of genres – reconstructions of historical avant-garde performances and installations. The characters deliver many of their lines against a backdrop of Black Panther newspapers – neatly framed and lined up on a wall and thus not likely to provoke any nice white person’s “fear of a black planet.” “Street art” is relegated to a panopticon-like space known as The Eye, which now serves as a jail cell-cum-theatrical stage for the ever-silent immigrants. Finally, contemporary art’s “critical” mission (“our job is to wake society up”) is so precious that any soft-pedaling of “criticality” is warranted to avoid closure or budget cuts.

Chto Delat’s Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX is a scary film, not least because it coldly and blithely illustrates how the current democracies (whether “social,” “liberal” or “sovereign”) disappear the undesirables in their midst, the refugees/asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and “lawbreakers.” In this sense, the film – despite its flimsy gesture toward a dystopian future as its setting (“20XX,” “European National League,” “euthanasia” experiments carried out by scientists, etc.) – is not science fiction. It is firmly situated in the present: this happens nearly everywhere almost every day, however much we would rather not know about it. (And the scary part, as the film shows, is how conveniently we forget that we do know.) What makes it “science fiction,” however, is not these stock elements from a threadbare genre, but its resort to a wholly fantastical plot premise: the deportees seek to claim asylum, of all places, in a contemporary art museum. What are the deportees doing in a museum.

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#10- 34 In defense of representation

#10- 34: In defense of representation

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#10- 34 In defense of representation

Dmitry Vilensky // In Defense of Representation

In this issue, we want to show that this problem demands a more detailed analysis.

This is worth doing not for the sake of an academic review of how certain terms are used, but to resolve the most pressing issues surrounding the continuation of emancipatory practices in a world gripped by a serious, protracted crisis when it comes to the emergence of political consciousness. We believe that one should start with the old maxim (whose sense fades with every passing day) that the acquisition of consciousness is the prerequisite of all progress and emancipation, and that all conscious awareness of the status quo and the totality of the world is a representational act.

In the specific historical situation of March 2012, when we are forced to bid farewell to the euphoria generated by the wave of popular uprisings from Russia to Egypt, we see that the “scoundrels are celebrating victory” again (to paraphrase Alain Badiou). And so we try to understand what it is that leads, again and again, to the end of the most brilliant, courageous, radical and honest civic movements. Could it have been otherwise? What should have been done differently? Where were mistakes made? We pose these same questions in the realm of culture. How has it happened that, after many long years of socially engaged art practices, we see that people simply have not noticed their presence and impact on societal life, while the insolent domination of the art market has grown to a previously unimaginable scale, having proven capable of instrumentalizing the most radical forms of politically engaged art.

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#10- 34 In defense of representation

Gene Ray // Radical Learning and Dialectical Realism: Brecht and Adorno on Representing Capitalism

This set of problems has a history, and Brecht is a key figure in it. If I like others am drawn to Brecht at this moment, it presumably is because the problems themselves point us back to his works and positions. Rereading Brecht, I have kept Adorno open on the table. I have tried to maintain the pressure that each puts on the other, and to think from that tension about the challenges of representing capitalism in art. Brecht’s works were aimed at producing pedagogical effects, at stimulating processes of radical learning. He took art’s relative autonomy for granted but refused to fetishize that autonomy or let it become reified into an impassable separation from life. He based his practice on the possibility of re-functioning and radicalizing institutions and reception situations. Adorno, in contrast, made the categorical separation from life the basis of art’s political truth content. In its structural position in society, art is contradictory: artworks are relatively autonomous but at the same time are “social facts” bearing the marks of the dominant social outside. Paradoxically, only by insisting on their formal non-identity from this outside can artworks “stand firm” against the misery of the given. Adorno’s position is first of all a categorical or structural one; it generally is not oriented toward effects or specific contexts of reception. Except, as will be shown, when it comes to the works of Beckett and a few others. The radically sublime effects that these works ostensibly produce led Adorno to advance them as counter-models to Brecht.

The argument I unfold here proceeds in three parts. In the first, I characterize Brecht’s committed approach to representing social reality as “dialectical realism.” In the second, I reread Adorno’s critique of Brecht, and in the third, I consider Adorno’s counter-models. My conclusions are, first, that Adorno’s critique fails to demonstrate the “political untruth” of Brecht’s work; and, second, that Adorno’s discussion of Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg in this connection does not convincingly establish a generalized political truth effect for their works and therefore does not establish them as counter-models to Brecht. In any case, the truth effect Adorno claims for Beckett is not one that is oriented toward a radical political practice aiming at a passage out of capitalism.

I. Brecht’s Dialectical Realism

There are many roads to Athens.
– B. Brecht

Brecht’s representations of capitalism are often rough sketches or snapshots of the background processes against which radical learning takes place. Arguably, the learning process itself is almost always the main object represented. Capitalism – including fascism, one of its exceptional state and regime forms – appears as “the immense pressure of misery forcing the exploited to think.” In discovering the social causes of their misery, they discover themselves, as changed, changing and changeable humanity. Seeing the world opened up to time and history in this way, Brecht was sure, inspires the exploited to think for themselves and fight back.

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#10- 34 In defense of representation

David Riff // “A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation. What I do not know, I do not worry about.”

There is something uncanny in this quote from Marx, torn out of context and pasted into a fresh document 150 years after it was written. [1] It’s like looking into a mirror where there should be a window. It describes the status quo of our own spectacular world: a massive accumulation of non-representations, all divorced from consciousness. But at the same time, this is a world where self-representation, implying self-consciousness, claims to be everywhere, on mobile devices, in cars, airplanes, and even on remote desert islands. Representative machines previously only available in big clunky institutions are now open for everyone’s use. Consciousness is everywhere as a potentiality. But the pressure is too great. You have to represent. You have to hand in this text. Don’t think. Write. Self-expression before self-knowledge; find the right quick phrase for a certain state of subjectivity, shot out ultra-rapid in a network of friends, where it quickly loses connection to the consciousness that supposedly created it, becoming a micro-commodity, or a firing neuron in some collective mind we do not yet fully understand. Stop complaining. Represent.

Of course, Marx wasn’t talking about representation in the artistic, cultural, or linguistic senses. In these particular sentences, he meant political representation. The quote above comes from an impassioned plea for the freedom of the press in covering the deliberations of the Rhine Province Assembly 150 years ago, one in a series of articles for the Rheinische Zeitung where Marx works through all the linguistic mis-representations and purely unconscious lapses in the available documentation of the closed Assembly’s proceedings. Part of the articles’ polemic program is the battle against direct censorship and other more intricately hypocritical means of keeping the work of government far from the public gaze. Marx is attacking a state that sees itself at a complete remove from its subjects, hovering above them as a police helicopter. We should see. We should know. We should worry. Мarx is demanding transparency.

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#10- 34 In defense of representation

Artemy Magun // The post-communist revolution in russia and the genesis of representative democracy

“Representative democracy” is, at the moment of its emergence, an oxymoron. Representation, and in any case the electoral representation, has always been considered an aristocratic institution. Rousseau saw it as a “modern”, that is medieval, feudal, form of government, linked to the institution of estates. Representation referred to the estates (even in Locke), or – in Hobbes or Bossuet – to the incorporation of both God and society in the figure of the monarch. The model of Sieyès, where the representatives of the estates were to become constituent power, representing the sovereign nation, merged the two (contradictory) senses of representation together. The oxymoronic formula sends from its both terms away to something else – namely, to the contradiction itself which, far from being since then “sublated”, is perpetuated and may at any time turn its restorative-conservative or radical utopian side. Furthermore, this formulaic tension is in fact a sign of the event which goes beyond the concept but which opens up its internal contradiction and determines the tendency that would prevail for a time.

In general, one may argue that the representative democracy as such is a creation of revolution. Revolution is a point where a society turns against itself, a moment of its internal conflict. But it is also the internal fold where the society aspires to constitute itself from within. The “re-“ of representation is of the same nature that the “re-“ of revolution: both refer to the internal fold of the modern society which, in its political structure, turns toward and against itself . In this context, the “representative” democracy implies an ambivalent attitude to (direct) democracy: here, the democratic politics becomes wary of democracy. Representative democracy may mean a restraint of democracy — as for Hamilton — or democratization of the (hitherto estate-based) representation — as for Sieyès.