The conversation so far: #1, #2, #3
I kept trying to answer your second letter but then I keep coming back to something that I didn’t quite get around to in your first. (I promise I won’t remain one whole letter behind for the entirety of our correspondence.)
It was the question you ended with: “Do we make it worse for people around the world we purport to care for by ‘taking the bait’ in these situations? Do we assure that they become the homo sacer?” It was a question that continued to haunt me. Then I was reading the remarkable book May ’68 and Its Afterlives by Kristin Ross and she historically reframed the question for me in ways I felt really get to the heart of the matter.
This reframing has to do with the ‘third-worldist’ discourse of the sixties and the backlash of the ‘anti-third-wordist’ discourse that arrived in the eighties. In the French context, much of this sixties discourse took place in and around François Maspero’s bookstore La Joie de Lire. Kristin Ross writes:
In these years dominated by the decomposition of the European empires, Maspero’s bookstore and press took up the task of representing the image of an exploded world where Europe is no longer the center. And, in so doing, La Joie de Lire became a center of sorts in the lives of many militants, an inevitable stopping place along daily trajectories, a place where, particularly during the Algerian period, any number of censored periodicals, state documents, banned books like Alleg’s La question, as well as foreign, difficult to locate, or ephemeral political pamphlets, could be found downstairs; a place that was not just a meeting place, nor even, as Maspero himself called it, “the meeting place for all the contradictions of the left,” but, quite simply, “the liveliest bookstore in Paris.” It was there that many readers found the tools by which, in the words of Claude Liauzu, “to take into consideration the fact that the West was no longer the measure of everything.”Editions Maspero was the first French press to publish Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre with its preface by Sartre, as well as works by Ben Barka, Giap Cabral, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and others. I think some of the background Ross gives for this endeavor is particularly telling:
…in a 1973 interview [Maspero] recounted a specific event, a great “shock” as he put it, that made him lurch in [this] direction. A student in the mid-1950s in ethnology and a militant member of the Communist Party, Maspero attended the first festival of ethnological film ever screened in Paris. There he watched a Jean Rouch film about hippopotamus hunting among the Dogon. It was less the film itself that jarred Maspero than the interventions by a number of Africans in the audience critiquing the film’s “folkloric” dimensions; they went on to complain about a 1932 law still in place that denied them access to a camera in their own country without the approval of the government. The anecdote is significant in reminding us of one of the most important factors in the development of a third-worldist perspective in postwar France: the sheer number of African, Caribbean, and Asian intellectuals, so many of whom would become loyal clients of La Joie de Lire, living or spending lengthy stays in Paris in those days. For Maspero, it was to this first experience of “meeting” or conjuncture – the film by a French ethnographer and the critique it generated among the “people” it sought to represent – that he later attributed what would become his own commitment to diffusing, making available, a range of works in which people engaged in political struggle represented themselves.If I understand it correctly this third-worldist perspective was a commitment to the fact that struggles and thinking in other parts of the world – Cuba, Vietnam, Africa, etc. – must be given room and support so they could lead the way. And that Western thinking certainly couldn’t claim to know what was best for anyone, since Western imperialism and capitalism was the main thing that must be fought. (I hope I’m not simplifying too much.)
Cutting ahead to the eighties, to the television show “Le procès de Mai” made in 1988 to mark the twentieth anniversary of May ’68 and hosted by former UEC militant, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner. Describing the program, Ross explains that:
Certain topics are not merely neglected but actively targeted for amnesia, erased from the record. This is the case in one of “Le procès de Mai’s” most striking manipulations, one that occurs quite early in the broadcast. Kouchner, who has just praised the ’68 generation’s “daring to dream” in a tone of high self-satisfaction, switches abruptly, and briefly, into the posture of self-criticism. “But we were navel-gazing, we forgot the outside world, we didn’t see what was happening in the rest of the world, we were folded in on ourselves.” He continues much more triumphantly: “We didn’t know what we would discover only in the following years: the third world, misery.”This shift from the third world revolutionary leading a path for Western emancipatory thinking towards the third world victim desperately needing Western help is something that happened before my time, but Kristin Ross documents it at great length in a manner I found utterly convincing. (I was about to quote her for several more pages then thought better of it.) Foreign assistance can be given and foreign assistance can be taken away, but with your own revolutionary struggle the level of agency might vary but there is always a clear position you can claim as your own. As well, with Western aid I so often have a feeling that one hand gives some token offering while the other hand continues to exploit mercilessly. By this point in history so many revolutionary struggles have been assassinated and undermined that it’s hard to believe they are still viable. But what else is there but the knowledge or hope that everything worthwhile returns. And now there’s a new moment of possibility with Syriza in Greece.
In one fell swoop, Kouchner assumes the power to clear away an entire dimension of the movement: its relation to anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles in places like Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, and Cuba, where Kouchner himself travelled in the early 1960s to interview Castro for the Communist student journal Clarté. Kouchner has conducted a massive clearing of the terrain so that he and his friends can “discover” the third world ten years later, like the first colonial explorers of virgin lands. A whole world disappears – the war in Vietnam, the iconography of Che, Mao, and Ho Chi Min, the efforts of editors like Maspero – which is to say a militant or combative third world, so that another can be heroically “discovered” years later: the third world as figured in the Human Rights discourse, of which Kouchner has by that time emerged as one of the principal spokesmen. Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” as the name for an emergent political agency has been essentially reinvented: the new third world is still wretched, but its agency has disappeared, leaving only the victims of famine, flood or authoritarian state apparatuses.
It is now mid-February in Montreal – it is really fucking cold and snow-drenched here, walking home the other day the snow was hitting my face so hard it hurt – so that would most likely make it the time of year in which I find myself most jealous of the fact that you actually had the guts to pick up and move to Brazil. Along with Portugal, Brazil is one of the places I most romanticize in the world. (I’ve been to Portugal but never to Brazil.) (As well, I would also like to go back in time and live within the aisles of La Joie de Lire.) When you speak about your “love for cities that pulse, contract, absorb and accommodate the mobility and dreams of regulars and newcomers alike” I can feel some sort of magic reaching out to me through the computer screen. To this list I might also add: cities that thaw out and melt.
I definitely have more than my fair share of white guilt. I think it’s only this year I’m really trying to think what it would mean to get beyond it a bit. Guilt is certainly conservative if not downright reactionary. Yes, we need to speak out against injustice, but equally important is to find ways to make room for other voices who are also speaking out, perhaps even more intelligently, but for all the usual systematic reasons are not being heard. At a beautiful talk I heard her give last week, Leanne Simpson spoke of “creating communities of co-resistance,” which I felt was especially precise. These are all thoughts I have but I still wonder how far away I am from making them happen. Since, with freeDimensional, you’ve actually done so much more along these lines than me and perhaps, even in this dialog, I should be listening more than talking. I think at the moment I’m slightly possessed by the fervor of the newly converted. ‘The fervor of the newly converted,’ is one of my favorite expressions, if it actually is an expression and not just something I made up. How someone new to a particular topic or question will experience it so much more intensely than those who have lived with it for years, or even for their entire lives.
I have been listening to DJ Haram’s soundcloud page, so full of amazing sounds that cut through this endless winter, mixing Jersey Club with Middle Eastern diasporic instrumentals and so much more. I feel this mix of different cultures and modalities is the future. It is, of course, also the past, present and future. And at the same time I question this feeling. Maybe mixing everything all together creates a sense in which the source cultures become more apolitical, at times even distracting us from the struggles within each culture that are most important.
I have read, and loved reading, Vilém Flusser but didn’t realize he had lived in São Paulo. It reminds me a bit of my fascination with the years Witold Gombrowicz spent in Argentina. Vilém Flusser and Witold Gombrowicz having dinner together is kind of a nice, historically improbable, image. And while I’m being ahistorical, maybe Ernesto Laclau could also join the party. I keep trying to tell myself that things weren’t necessarily better in the past, and what is most important is to try to figure out what can be done starting from exactly now. So perhaps I will end here.