Monthly Archives: September 2010

Culture War (VIAL)

Remember the first day of class we screened a clip of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell discussing 9/11 in national providentialist terms? I failed to mention that the clip was posted on youtube by Talking Points Memo, a liberal website, thus missing an opportunity to raise the issue of one of the ways Culture War works in a hyper-mediated political environment. The initial statement, made in all sincerity we can assume, directed at those who might tend to agree with it, is then resituated as evidence of the political opposition’s unreasonableness, core values, etc. The Culture War text, then, possesses a double function: to appeal to the faithful and to shock or dismay their opponents. Now consider the following campaign ad, a particularly egregious example of Culture War rhetoric in the service of political gain, which references the fabled “Ground Zero Mosque.”

The ad not only equates Muslims with terrorists, but proposes that 9/11 is part of a centuries-long struggle between Islam and “the West”– an ongoing conflict symbolized by the planned construction of a “victory mosque” at the former site of the twin towers (that these basic assertions are untrue does not apparently matter– the community center will be built on a lot formerly occupied by a Burlington Coat Factory).

But note that I found the second clip at, another left-liberal website, which posts the campaign ad– now in a new context– as a response to it. In other words, the Culture War text functions to rally not only the like-minded (those who believe that the US is engaged in a deadly struggle with some monolithic Islam) but those opposed to these very ideas.


Just to be fair, here’s evidence that the uses of political demonology are, as they say, bi-partisan. Alan Grayson’s campaign add erroneously asserts that “religious fanatics try to take away our freedom in Afghanistan, in Iran” (sic) before likening his opponent, Dan Webster, to a Talib.

At the UN

Odds are you’ve heard almost nothing about a call by various African leaders to reform the UN security council. As you might know, the security council features 5 permanent members– the US, France, Russia, China, and the UK– who have veto powers and ten other members elected from the general assembly with two year terms who do not. What this means is that the UN is hardly the most democratic political institution around. At any rate, just a few days ago, the president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Koroma, spoke to the issue of guaranteeing African seats on the security council:

This Assembly, meeting at the turn of the millennium, decided that reforming and making the Security Council more accessible, transparent equitably representative and accountable was long overdue. This brings me to the crucial issue that has led us in Africa to consistently reiterate that there can be no meaningful reform of the Council without allocating permanent seats to the continent. No one continent should have an exclusive monopoly over membership of the Security Council.

To this appeal Robert Mugabe added rather more forecfully:

Why are the developed Western Countries, especially those permanent members with the veto, resisting the democratisation of the United Nations organs, especially the Security Council? Aren’t they the ones who talk glibly about democracy in regard to our developing countries. Or are they sanctimonious hypocrites whose actions contradict their sermons to us?

Third Prize is You’re Fired (VIAL)

I hope you enjoyed the clip from Glengarry GlenRoss. The language is a bit salty, but there’s little doubt that David Mamet is one of the most talented playwrights in the US at present. If you’ve never seen his film work check out Homicide, House of Games, Spartan, Red Belt, The Spanish Prisoner and Oleanna, to name only a few.

As Blake, Alec Baldwin seems to be completely consumed by what we might call market values. He is a capitalist subject without apology, a predator in search of wealth, one for whom all other aspects of life– beyond acquisition and status– have little worth. Granted, the scene is hyperbolic, almost cartoonish. Today’s corporate culture tends to stress “teamwork” and “casual Fridays,” a kinder, gentler form of capitalist accumulation which conceals the exploitative dimensions of the market by emphasizing its benign, even communitarian, character. Still, Blake functions as a useful contrast to Frank Cowperwood, who is also motivated by a powerful ethos of self-interest.

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Not Obliged (ContCult)

Not the most brilliant class meeting, but then they can’t all be golden. We need to find ways to provoke dialog in class, which, admittedly, lecture doesn’t tend to encourage.

My purpose in following up Nervous Conditions with Allah is Not Obliged is to contrast two moments in Africa’s history. The postcolonial era seems to vindicate Marx’s assertion that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” In other words, decolonization has brought with it  a new set of challenges and difficulties. If colonialism and the Cold War attempted to bend African polities to the will of superior forces, some of the social landscapes produced in those geopolitical scenarios continue to shape the lives of millions. In the case of West Africa, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed an extraordinary degree of factionalism– often though not always along tribal lines– in the context of a largely stalled process of economic development. As is the case generally, the most vulnerable were the least able to avoid harm. We see this with the use of child-soldiers, those– as Birahima calls them– celebrities of the 20th century. Rather than take child-soldiers and the shocking atrocities committed in Sierra Leone’s and Liberia’s civil wars as evidence of some innate dysfunction peculiar to Africa– an argument advanced by Kaplan and popularized by Clinton according to a “coming anarchy” thesis– we need to dig a bit deeper.

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Enlightenment and Revolution (Americas)

Hopefully you’ve managed to plough through at least the first two chapters of Explosion in a Cathedral, an immensely rewarding novel, I think, not only for its evocative imagery but for what it can tell us about the cultural and political climate of the Caribbean on the eve of Spanish American independence. We’ll need to establish the basic facts of Carpentier’s work– all of those literary elements each of us spent so much time considering in secondary school– such as character, plot, setting, themes, etc. In addition to these fundamental critical moves we need to develop an understanding of some of the most powerful ideological and intellectual forces at play in the late 18th/ early 19th century including “the” Enlightenment, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and free trade as well as a constellation of social “types” or identities encompassing criollos, mestizos, zambas, and peninsulares (in Mexico, “gapuchines”). Finally, we’ll pause to consider the question of flow and counter-flow– i.e., whether it is in fact accurate to suggest that the American revolutions were simply the product of political philosophies first articulated in Europe. If Geneva gave the world Jean-Jacques Rousseau– whose tremendously stirring observation “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” animated the aspirations of millions– then Caracas gave us Francisco de Miranda.

CountryWatch: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire (ContCult)

If you want some basic information on 3 West African nations we’ll be discussing in class in relation to Allah is Not Obliged you can download the following pdfs from CountryWatch. The political analysis is fairly standard, rife with unexamined concepts such as “the West,” a phrase I generally bracket with scare quotes b/c “the West” is as much a construct as anything else and, crucially, would not exist in its current form without the assistance of “the Orient.” At any rate, while these pdfs may lack critical nuance they offer some good, solid information. As the week progresses we’ll have occasion to discuss the civil wars which plagued West Africa throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.

Cote d’Ivoire

Sierra Leone


Wretched (ContCult)

Friday is our last class on Nervous Conditions and though it seems likely we won’t be able to squeeze that text dry of every possible insight, at the very least we can think about the cultural dimensions of colonialism, which is, after all, one of Dangarembga’s primary themes.

In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial classic, Wretched of the Earth, French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre writes

NOT so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it. Between the two there were hired kinglets, overlords and a bourgeoisie, sham from beginning to end, which served as go-betweens. In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on: the native had to love them, something in the way mothers are loved. The European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’ and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open … thenon! … therhood!’ It was the golden age.

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State Violence

I was reading about Teresa Lewis, a 41 year old woman with an IQ of 72 who was killed today by the state of Virginia and I decided to do a little research on the statistics for this form of state violence. Significantly, the overwhelming majority of executions in the United States since 1976 have been carried out by Texas and Virginia. (Texas’s killing frenzy peaked in 1999 and 2000 in the period when George W. Bush was governor. He presided over 152 executions during his tenure.)

I found a fact sheet produced by the Death Penalty Information Center, which you might be interested in: FactSheet (PDF) and I also ran into a collection of historical figures for executions between the years 1608 and 2002 which you can find at this website:

If you take a look, you’ll see long lists of victims put to death for “Slave Revolt” by methods including not only hanging, but burning and “break on the wheel.”

In some cases these examples of juridical violence have a political dimension, though it’s not always clear where violence in the name of Peace begins and violence in the name of Justice ends. What do you think? Is the execution of a slave in revolt an act of political violence?