Archive for December, 2013

The most difficult thing about Nietzsche is his name.”

Too many bright people wasted their time on Hegel, let’s move on to something else.”

I only teach Ayn Rand because the funding of my American university highly depends on donations from a bank director who loves Rand. While in fact, she is a bad philosopher and an even worse writer. Europe does right in completely ignoring her.”

Today we will talk about my Karl Marx, my favorite!

The Ayn Rand professor is the only one who actually gave us texts and a lecture about the philosopher he clearly didn’t like. Nietzsche and Hegel only got the one sentence from each professor. Oddly enough, Marx wasn’t part of the lengthy reader.

Once they were allowed to teach about philosophers they actually respected, they were all great professors. Both Hegel and Nietzsche were taught by a different professor in another class. The American visiting professor was right, Ayn Rand is, as far as I know, completely absent in European universities. After reading some texts, seeing movies based on her book and listening to the lecture, I get why she is totally ignored.

Political and philosophical preferences make the classes more exciting and the university as a whole more interesting. It would be problematic when all the professors would have the same preferences. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all. During my stay there was a Cold War between continental and analytic philosophers. Such fun!

Kazimir Malevich

Posted: December 20, 2013 in History/Philosophy

Malevich

Click.

A grey and shady gentleman surrounded by the powerful red of the primitive and pure naked bodies.

On the December the 16th, the world acknowledged the existence of Ukraine. After watching the news on Russia Today, The Young Turks and REAL News there are some things all of them agree on: there is a protest in Ukraine, the country has economic difficulties and the show by John McCain was, to say the least, questionable.

RT focusses on the chaos and economic difficulties the protests created. The protesters can’t do much more than screaming “revolution!” and “down with the president!”Experts Stephen F. Cohen (professor Russian Studies at NYU) and Mark Sleboda (professor International Relations at MSU) were both very explicit in their condemnation of McCain’s appearance. I wonder what the experts would say about the police brutality, the protester’s demands and the role of the EU and Russia. Unfortunately they were only brought in to state the things in the before-mentioned list of inter-media agreements.

TYT is a fun news show, but they seem to lack a strong body of journalist to feed them information. It’s a bit unfortunate how the host remarked that the Ukrainian people don’t want to be the satellite country of Russia. Besides that biased remark, they weren’t able to bring much news. Ukraine exists, there is a protest and since we are for democracy, we support the protest. I wonder what TYT would say about a party like Svoboda, who is currently part of the pro-EU demonstration, but has neonazi connections. Or what about the objections RT made about the huge blockades, chaos and negative influence on the economy? Are protests by definition something we should support?

The REAL News brought in an expert from the start. Associate professor Jeffrey Sommers of Wisconsin-Milwaukee focusses mainly on the role McCain plays. Just like the RT professors, but with a bit more body, Sommers explained how McCain missed the end of the Cold War. At the end of the interview, the host asks what the people of Ukraine need. Unfortunately, Sommers doesn’t get much farther than stating the awkward situation of Ukrain’s economy and the need to develop the economy. Again, we didn’t get much farther than the list of inter-media agreements.

The lack of information about the protests in Ukraine, combined with the constant use of so-called experts seems an example of the declining quality of the news organisations. The result is a variety of news shows that, in this case, mainly report three points that everyone could have come up with. RT bothers me in their biased selection of topics and words; TYT made a clearly biased statement as a result of their lack of information; and REAL News doesn’t manage to bring the information in the right format. I sometimes hear these stories how groups of journalists were specialized in specific topics and regions. Not only would they know how to get the information and analyse it, they were also journalist and thus managed to bring the information in a text to the broad masses.

A few years ago I had a first encounter with Slavoj Zizek through through his appearance on a Dutch TV show*. He is funny, provocative and interesting. I’m sure there is no need to introduce him. Sometimes he’s a bit silly. But at other times I’m surprised by his knowledge of various debates in contemporary philosophy. Unfortuantely, some of his writings are working on my nerves. I just read a short article in The Guardian by his hand* about the Mandela memorial and the fake sign language interpreter. Urrgg…

The conclusion is quite alright:

“[…] what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

And was this also not the truth about the whole of the Mandela memorial ceremony? All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don’t care about you. “

Everything before this is unnecessary blabla. He wants to express a political point. In order to do so, he picks a highly mediatized aspect of the event and interprets it so that it becomes useful for his point. It’s fun to read, but I don’t see any value in it at all. You can write about how former Western politicians were in favor of jailing Mandela, about the ideas  of Mandela and how they conflict with contemporary politicians who were present at the funeral, you can write about a variety of topics to support one point Zizek is trying to make here. You can even keep the exact same conclusion! But at least the article would have some valuable information and a line of reasoning that is not just witty, but also sensible.

* http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw8LPn4irao

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/16/fake-mandela-memorial-interpreter-schizophrenia-signing?CMP=fb_gu

The past days I’ve been reading the book Congo by the Belgian anthropologist dr. David Van Reybrouck. It isn’t an academic work. Instead, it’s a really well-written book that combines the techniques and nuance you expect of an academic with an easy-to-read style. The book got multiple awards in both The Netherlands and Belgium.

As a Belgian, I’m sure everybody will understand my special relationship with Congo. While I was a student, I read in multiple (foreign) books and articles how the Belgian colony Congo was probably the most horrible example of modern colonialism. I recommend everyone to read this great book. Not only shows it the horrific situation, but, equally important, it gives the different socio-political  and ethnical organizations that exist(ed) in Congo their history back. The latter is something that until today is way to often forgotten. Congo has been more than the perverse playground of the Belgians.

The direct motivation for this blog are two sentences about the agreements the Belgian king Leopold II made with over 500 leaders within the area later known as ‘Congo’:

In an oral tradition, in which important statements were made with blood brotherhoods, the leaders often didn’t understand the importance of the cross they put on a piece of paper with weird signs. And, even if they could understand the text, they weren’t acquainted to European concepts in property and constitutional law like ‘sovereignty’, ‘exclusivity’ and ‘perpetuity’.” (p. 64)

Especially the first sentence hit me as something quite important. When a law is implemented in a political structure with a modern and highly developed state bureaucracy, the law immediately spread-out through numerous buildings, people and pieces of paper. Once the law is taken up by the bureaucratic machine, it’s so widely spread that you can’t simply forget or delete it. The law is carried and maintained by a huge variety of entities. Societies with a lack of such a modern bureaucracy need different ways to bring and keep laws/rules into existence. Rituals and ceremonies, like a blood brotherhood, help keeping the day of implementation and the implemented rule itself in the minds of the people for a longer period compared to a simply proclamation of those rules. Repeating these rituals or organizing annual feasts to celebrate them is a way to keep the laws into subsistence.

It might seem a bit superfluous. But in older historical works you won’t find an interpretation of such rituals as a way of seriously organizing socio-political issues. They are considered primitive behavior of a backward people. David Van Reybrouck doesn’t give a thorough explanation of those blood brotherhoods. That’s simply not the goal of the book. But by writing these thoughtful sentences, he does make a difference.

Recognizing the obvious cruelty of the regime isn’t enough. There is a real need in popular history books for a serious and respectful treatment of the complex socio-political structures that already existed. Congo seems like such a proper book.

* English version: Congo: The Epic History of a People, Van Reybrouck (D.), Ecco, March 2014, pp. 656.