Tag Archives: “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

‘Brazil’: now more than ever, a satire for our age

Prologue: a slow ‘soft coup’ in Brazil

When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, the gaping contradiction between the sporting festival and anger on the streets was widely commented upon. This reported ‘popular uprising’ was said to have been against government corruption and President Dilma Rousseff’s handling of the economy. In fact the forecast riots never happened, and the drama instead took place on the pitch, when the host nation was routed 7-1 by Germany in a semifinal disaster. A portent perhaps that Rousseff’s days were also numbered.

Two years on, in the immediate aftermath of a de facto coup, Brazil descended into more serious political turmoil just as the Olympics arrived in Rio. However, this time around the tear-gas and the plastic bullets failed to make the headlines, with TV coverage maintaining a steady focus on the events inside the stadia.

Brazil’s soft coup is now complete: Rousseff was impeached on August 31st 2016, and the presidency thereafter seized by then-Vice President Michel Temer. With a meager 5% approval rating, he has since become the most unpopular president in Brazil’s history:

Since his appointment, Temer has also been accused of corruption scandals, the alleged reason for which former president Rousseff was impeached, and the very reason that he assumed office. Every measure of social wellbeing has plummeted as Temer’s administration has passed sweeping austerity measures and cut funding the social programs implemented by the Workers’ Party that are credited with making Brazil a main power on the global stage, increasing social inclusion in higher education, growing the middle class, and decreasing hunger and homelessness… Despite his abysmal approval rating, mass protests, public criticism, and a tanking economy, Temer is still in office. And now, the main leftist candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (also known as Lula), who has consistently led in the polls by wide margins, is in prison serving a 12-year sentence for a legal proceeding that has yet to be concluded.

From an article entitled “The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People” by Celina Stien-Della Croce.

The legal battle over former president Lula’s imprisonment is ongoing. Last Sunday Judge Rogério Favreto ordered his release but was subsequently overruled not once but three times “as bewildered Brazilians on social media compared the legal drama to a World Cup penalty shootout”.

Celina Stien-Della Croce continues:

When we think of coups, most of us imagine an image of the past or, at the very least, a clear and undeniable use of force. Large guns. Military intervention. Blood. The brutal overthrow of an elected government. (Think: Chile in 1973, Honduras in 2009, Argentina in 1976). What has been deemed a ‘soft coup’ in Brazil in 2016 stems from the same motive—the protection of corporate, foreign, and imperialist interests over the interests of the poor and working people and their right to self-determination—but comes wrapped in more palatable packaging that makes it easier to deny the violation of democracy. As Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research discusses in their recent dossier “Lula: The Battle for Democracy in Brazil,” the foreign and national elite used a series of legally sanctioned measures to remove the Workers’ Party from office under the guise of corruption. Though the legal case against former president and current Presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Dilma Rousseff is full of holes (a lack of evidence, unreliable and changing quid-pro-quo testimonies given in exchange for lighter sentences, illegal wiretapping, etc), it allowed the bourgeoise—operating through the Brazilian courts—a means to sentence Lula to prison and remove Dilma from power. Quoting law professor Carlos Lodi, Tricontinental defines lawfare as the ‘process of using the law to produce political results. Opponents are removed by use of the legal system rather than the constitutionally valid electoral process’. This is a major strategy behind Brazil’s ‘soft coup’ and the assault on Brazilian democracy. 1

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Nineteen eighty-four and a half

The following piece was first drafted at the height of the Brazilian World Cup four years ago but for various reasons remained unpublished. Given the situation in Brazil and elsewhere, it seems more applicable than ever…

Braaaaa-zzzilll, dah, dah, dah, da-da-dah etc… if you’ve been watching what I’ve been watching throughout the last month then you will have been hearing it rather a lot: the laid-back guitar riff on which we drift into every World Cup commercial break. Does it turn my thoughts to warm, golden sands and ice-cold sips of Piña Colada? Well, no actually, barely at all. Instead the dreamy jingle is in the habit of recalling Terry Gilliam’s elegant satire on a garish and tawdry bureaucratic dystopia in his film (called appropriately enough) Brazil. The odd juxtaposition – 1985 film and 2014 tournament – snaps unconsciously into place as if the two were always meant to be conjoined.

Interestingly, Brazil (the movie) is quite deliberately set in no specified place or time. Gilliam’s dread warning is of a tyranny that might assert itself anywhere and anytime. Indeed, his is the more hideous portrait of a society frozen precisely at “the end of history” where every form of alternative outlook and unorthodox opinion has been dismissed outright from the collective psyche. Devoid of nonconformity, all nascent dissent, though it very seldom arises, is stamped out in an instant. Not a very pretty picture.

Yet instead of a cunning and ruthlessly efficient despotism, we marvel only at how such a grey and faceless system grinds on unstoppably, even when it is as comically disorganised as the stiflingly ubiquitous ducts – yes, ducts (as in duct tape… there’s no such thing as duck tape!) – ducts for heating, air-conditioning, for water and waste disposal, and even those old-fashioned ones for sending documents through. Ducts that coalesce into one vast, tortuous entanglement that worms itself throughout Brazil‘s high-rise sprawl; twisting and looping in and out of every gloomy apartment block, shop and restaurant, and every administrative office. A labyrinthine network no less invincible than the Byzantine regime it embodies; one that occasionally, and especially when in need of repair, behaves all-too viscerally: throbbing like the guts of some tremendous monster. Eerily, the ducts often seem more alive than any of the denizens who have to squeeze their lives so awkwardly to fit in around them.

To add to the general misery of Brazil, citizens also have routine terrorist attacks to dodge. Again, it is prescient how terrorism exists as an overarching pretext for these authoritarian rulers (whoever they may be, since – like the terrorists – the powers-that-be are never fully seen) to bring all “enemies of the state” to a swift new equivalence of justice. Long gone is the old-fashioned inconvenience of habeas corpus, with law-enforcement streamlined thanks to SAS-style SWAT team raids and jurisprudence reduced to “interrogation” somewhere inside the wittily titled “Office of Information Retrieval”. A procedure of kidnap and torture that in today’s real world is (no less euphemistically) called “rendition”. In keeping with the tone of the satire, each suspect is thereafter scrupulously billed for “the service” they received! In Brazil the corporatocracy is total.

The title track and accompanying score (composed around the same famous tune as ITV’s jingle 2) is the solitary theme that beguiles us. A leitmotif, it fades up on occasions when central character Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) daydreams his escape from the humdrum trauma of his dutiful but otherwise meaningless existence. And in some ways, the World Cup also feels like a daydream of distraction to lull us briefly from the inanities and brutalities that we rub against in our own lives or else pass over as news. For it turns out that Gilliam’s futuristic vision (thirty years old already) is prophetic in too many ways. His world of secrecy, surveillance, and superficiality (cosmetic surgery features strongly), an altogether grim exaggeration of where we had been heading all along. Briefly, if you’ve never seen Brazil, then just think Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four retold as a black comedy of errors – it was originally pitched as “1984 and a half” apparently.

Back in Brazil (and now I refer to the country rather than the film), as here and elsewhere, “austerity” remains very much in vogue. Here as elsewhere, of course, “austerity” isn’t for everyone. Our political leaders may try to persuade that “we’re all be in this together” but tightening the belt has never been very respectable in the more prosperous strata of our societies – and for perfectly understandable reasons, never will be.

So yes, there may indeed be inadequate revenues to maintain fully-functioning public services, to rebuild infrastructure or new housing, but money was readily available when the bankers needed their bailouts. It is also noticeable how the public purse can always be stretched (here and elsewhere) whenever it comes to putting on spectaculars like the Olympics and World Cup – not forgetting a stage the Tour de France that passed through my home city Sheffield at the estimated cost to the city council alone of £1 million. With less bread to go around, how blessed we all are with more circuses than ever!

Please don’t get me wrong however, I enjoyed the Tour de France and love the four-year reappearance of every World Cup… FIFA, try as they might, are fighting a losing battle to destroy the romance altogether. But I am torn. For even when the World Cup has been as entertaining this one, a small part of me aches to join in the chorus in the streets (you know, those protesters we don’t normally hear about – reported on just once in a blue moon and especially if it happens to suit Western interests).

It would be far better, of course, if politics and sport never mixed; but unavoidably they do. Take the obvious recent example involving a few overpaid Cameroon players squabbling about bonuses. Individual greed of this sort is just the visible (one might say risible) tip of a truly gigantic iceberg of corruption: but obviously corruption in sport exists simply because sport is a microcosm of wider society.

To take an overhead view, corruption is an oily slime that gurgles through serpentine systems, like those ducts in Brazil, connecting up governments and corporations via the murky conduits of foundations and “political charities”. Looking for social welfare? Well, there’s no money! Corporate welfare? Sure, no problem! Tax breaks, cozy public-private partnerships, no-bid contracts, and bailouts: the media, itself corrupted, naturally plays along.

We see welfare benefits transformed into income support in the most literal sense imaginable, with vital public revenues redirected to make up for shortfalls in real wages – full-time work is no longer sufficient to make ends meet. This is evidently just another form of corporate welfare, but widely misrepresented as an element of social welfare.

And why? Why isn’t every adult in Britain, a developed nation in the twenty-first century, in receipt of, at a bare minimum, adequate income to have a home and keep a family (as opposed to struggling on the laughably titled “Living Wage”)? Well, because government policies are not set in accordance with the popular will (which as vulgar as it sounds is the inherent principle of ‘democracy’ from the Greek dēmokratia, meaning dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’) but at the behest of a few giant corporations, accredited by the foundation funded ‘think tanks’ and ‘policy institutes’: a plethora of staunchly anti-democratic organs of the same monolithic financial-corporate establishment. Thus welfare makes way to ‘workfare’. Workfare – how they must laugh… at the choice of homonym.

Then we come to lobbying. Money creamed off from the top of this extensive profiteering and stuffed into the back pockets of the cronies in government – legalised (though I’m not sure when) bribery. Bringing us inevitably to the biggest racket on this planet…

Warfare is more profitable by miles than any amount of workfare when viewed in purely business terms. It pours out of our tax revenues and directly into arms industry coffers. What other activity could transfer comparable wealth from the poor to the rich with greater efficiency? Not that this constant burden on the public purse is much discussed. Nor do our politicians or media urge much restraint in spite of recent historical precedents: so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’ wreaking far greater horrors than those we ostensibly intended to prevent. That none of the many wars is finally ‘winnable’ is tacitly accepted. It serves as an excuse to double down. Because when it comes to waging war, the government behaves like an addicted gambler. The country’s reserves might just as well be bottomless.

As in Brazil, the nebulous threat of terrorism is the main pretext that justifies all of this. It permits the rollback of civil liberties and the steady abolition of human rights – take for instance the resurgent debate about whether or not torture is effective, which is not only horrifying but a grotesque anachronism.

Counterterrorism also justifies our killing abroad and the total surveillance of our populations at home. A cynical person might say that if terrorism did not exist then the corporatocracy would have to invent it.

Meanwhile, Braaaaa-zzzilll, dah, dah, dah… and there we find our celebrity politicians clamouring to be seen and heard in support of “the team”, feigning ordinariness in the hope that we regard them merely as compatriots, forgiving their true allegiance to transnational corporations and special interests… Whoa! Here comes those commercials… and it’s time once more to be teased: fresh inducements to throw the last remnants of your meagre salary on tantalisingly (im)probable bets… “Have a bang on that!” growls Ray Winstone, as he plays head tennis with an overgrown digitised Big Brother likeness…

In short, there are plenty of lotteries and cheap beer to keep the proles happy, which is exactly as Orwell tried to forewarn us. It is one strand of Nineteen Eighty-Four that is mostly overlooked and forgotten.

The rule is straightforward, of course: financial depression brings political oppression in its wake. Out of political oppression comes conflict and division: riots at home, wars abroad. It is a dire and incontrovertible fact that this cycle of misery has already cost multiple millions of lives, not once, but twice, during the last century. A lesson from history we ought to have learned the hard way.

Instead, it’s getting late again… yet another storm is threatening to break out across the Middle East as clouds are also darkening the skies over Ukraine. Time is running short because the existential threat to Western democracy has nothing to do with terrorism, but is the entirely terrifying prospect of a full-blown international shoot-out. The war that everyone says can never happen.

So this is not the most opportune moment to be putting our feet up and settling back to enjoy ice-cold sips of Piña Colada, or (more probably) pints of lager, as pleasant as putting our feet up and supping ale is. When the circuses have pulled up sticks and temporarily left town, and the final whistle is blown for another four years – or if you happened to live on a stage of the Tour de France, the last of the yellow bunting is taken down – the War Party remains in power.

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Epilogue: it’s not coming home… but that’s ok

“Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, It’s more important than that’”

— Bill Shankly 3

I was a disappointed as anyone after England’s semifinal defeat to Croatia, but have we lost all sense of proportion? I watched the game at a friend’s house and when ITV switched over to the news studio afterwards we were all quite staggered that its World Cup coverage continued unabated and throughout the rest of the broadcast. Repeats of game that had ended just a few minutes earlier were now interspersed with wide-angle shots of beer-hurling crowds and vox pop interviews of supporters, and on and on and on it went. Eventually we crossed over to Thailand to see pictures of the boys miraculously rescued from the cave who are thankfully now recuperating inside an isolation unit. Apparently they were watching the World Cup too. But the genuine emotion of their cave rescue was over and with far stronger emotion directly on tap back home, the news abruptly switched over once more – to the overblown spectacle of yet more pogoing crowds and bleary-eyed fans.

In truth, the media role today is not to dispassionately present information as it claims but to whip up raw emotion. The targets may shift – fear and loathing of terrorism has mostly given way to fear and loathing of Russiagate ‘meddling’, Putin, ‘Novichok’ and Trump – but the hysteria remains. As playwright and novelist CJ Hopkins writes:

The speed at which they switched from the War on Terror narrative to the Putin-Nazi narrative attests to the power of the corporate media and the neoliberal propaganda machine, generally. It really is an amazing achievement. In less than two years, they managed to condition a significant portion of the Western masses to forget about “the Islamic terrorists” that they had been conditioned to live in fear of, and to transfer their fear and hatred to Trump, and Putin, and anyone who appears to support them, or doesn’t sufficiently hate and fear them.

The ruling classes have achieved this feat by generating an ongoing series of episodes of mass hysteria. Most of them last a week or two, but their cumulative effect is powerful and enduring. Fake news, bots, travel bans, Confederate statues, neo-Nazi rallies, “novichok” attacks, kids in cages … anything the corporate media can use to channel more hatred toward Trump and Putin. None of these episodes are generated out of whole cloth. Obviously, the Russians are pursuing their interests, there is a white supremacist subculture in the United States, as there always has been, those kids were put in those cages, and so on … none of which began with Trump, or has anything exclusively to do with Putin, or triggered mass protests and widespread outrage until the neoliberal ruling classes and corporate media decided it should. 4

Click here to read CJ Hopkins’ latest satirical piece entitled “Hardcore Hitler on Hitler in Helsinki”.

Sport provides another way to push our buttons.

An audience of 26 million Britons apparently watched the game live on Wednesday night although there isn’t anything close to 26 million football fans living on this small island. How many packed-in beneath the giant screens would be watching any ordinary England match? Fewer still are regular match-goers.

Those beside me on the sofa were all long-standing fans of the game. One supported local club Sheffield Utd, another cheers on Crystal Palace and I’ve supported Wolves for most of my life. We all know very well the giddy ups and downs of football fandom. Intense feelings of elation and defeat are recurring experiences. But this was different. This was a festival backed by a media frenzy – the strange intensity heightened again thanks to a highly intoxicated social media. Sorry if I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but quite frankly I don’t wish to be sprayed with beer every time my team takes the lead – that’s not football; it’s Glastonbury or Ibiza or something.

Bill Shankly was only joking when he made his famous remark usually misquoted as “football is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that”, even if a woeful number with the literal-minded priggishness of Christian end-timers are silly enough to have taken him seriously. Shankly knew hardship. After he left school aged fourteen, he had worked in a coal mine. He knew first-hand what it felt like to be hungry and confined in darkness. He surely would have understood the quiet anguish felt by the Thai boys better than any of us, but what would he have made of the media-hyped and largely manufactured heartbreak felt by England’s johnny-come-lately carnival fans? I imagine he might well have choked on his beer… chortling in derision.

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1 From an article entitled “The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People” written by Celina Stien-Della Croce, published in Counterpunch on June 22, 2018. https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/22/the-soft-coup-and-the-attack-on-the-brazilian-people/  

2 A symphonic reworking of “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil), known in the English-speaking world simply as “Brazil”, written by Ary Barroso in 1939.

3 In an interview on a Granada Television chat-show, hosted by Shelley Rohde on Wednesday 20th of May 1981

4 From an article entitled “Hardcore Hitler on Hitler in Helsinki” written by CJ Hopkins published in Counterpunch on July 10, 2018. https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/07/10/hardcore-hitler-on-hitler-in-helsinki/

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Brazil, Britain, neo-liberalism, police state

the clouds of not knowing

The following article is Chapter Ten of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting, beginning today, chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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According to the postmodernists there is no such thing as absolute truth, so why should we believe them?”

question submitted to the regular Notes & Queries column in The Guardian.

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Postmodernism is a slippery subject and one I’ve long endeavoured to get to grips with.

For a while I just tried asking dumb questions (applying a method of inquiry recommended by physicist Richard Feynman). “What exactly is postmodernism?” seemed like a good starter, although as I soon realised such a front-on assault wouldn’t get me very far. Quasi-mathematical answers floated back about ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ from the arcane sub-discipline of ‘semiotics’, or else esoteric reference to the foreign fields of ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘deconstructionism’. I also had to understand such important issues as ‘false consciousness’, ‘the death of the author’ and ‘the end of the grand narrative’. Slowly then, I learnt about this complex spaghetti of postmodernist theory, a theory more beloved by English Literature professors than readers of philosophy, yet a theory pushed by its outspoken advocates who regard it as the only rightful context for all other intellectual inquiry.

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After years of discussion with defenders and proponents of postmodernist theory I have come to an understanding that there are basically two main strands often twisted into one. Here, however, I must confess that I find the majority of writings on postmodernist thinking to be dense, jargonistic and for the most part unintelligible, so I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But, in this regard I was very happy to discover that I was sat in the dunce’s corner with, amongst other dullards, that otherwise academically esteemed professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. Here’s what Chomsky has to say:

“Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand – say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. – even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest – write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.

“I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims – to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.”1

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With this in mind, please allow me to unravel the two strands of postmodernism (as I find them).

i) postmodernism as a contemporary aesthetic.

On the one hand postmodernism promotes the idea of a new aesthetic. An aesthetic born from the ashes of modernism that it usurped. The fall of religion, of classical physics, as well as of other established and seemingly apodictic systems, had sparked a fin de siècle revolution around the turn of the twentieth century, and in consequence, artists looked for new modes of expression. The aftermath of two world wars heightened this need for a new awakening. One artistic response has been to recognise that the loss of a grounding on the basis of some kind of universal referent is intractable, and thus to turn inwards. To search for inspiration in the exploration of relationships between the artist and the subjective unreliability of their own account. To elevate context above meaning, subtext above text, and to make style and form themselves, the primary subjects of the artist.

Now I think that this is a perfectly reasonable place for artists to go. Artists after all are free to go as and where they choose (as are all citizens in any healthy political climate). Within the bounds of legality and, aside from the important issue of earning a living wage, artists are bounded only by the development of their creative and imaginative faculties. Choosing to explore the world as they find it (in realism), or of their own emotions (Romanticism), or what is discovered in the unconscious (surrealism), or even ideas in and of themselves (conceptualism) is therefore a matter wholly at the discretion of the artist. Whether they take on board styles from the past or other cultures, manipulate and meld them into a new eclecticism, or else, like Duchamps, point with irony at the question of what is art itself, then good for them. And if this is the current fashion, then so be it. Whether or not these pursuits are deemed in any way successful will be judged both here and in the future, as always. Fashions in every field coming and going as they do. All of this I accept.

Now if this is all postmodernism ever had to say, then let it be said, but let it also be said that there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about it, let alone ‘post’…

Shakespeare made many allusions to the theatre itself, and liked to include plays within his plays. Shifting the audience’s perspective with reminders that we are another part of a performance and long before Berthold Brecht had snapped his fingers to wake us to our own participation. Lawrence Stern’s Tristam Shandy, one of the earliest novels in the English language, is a work more famous and celebrated for being so self-referential. More recently, Rene Magritte’s paintings challenge relationships between images, words and the world; whilst in early cartoons we can also find such ‘postmodern’ devices, as, for example, when Bugs Bunny becomes Daffy’s animator in the splendid Duck Amuck. Such is the success of these games of form and reference within purely comedic settings that even that most hackneyed of old jokes “why did the chicken cross the road?” relies on an audience who understands its cultural reference to jokes more generally – that jokes have a punchline, and so the joke here is that there isn’t one. Context has become everything, and what could be more ‘postmodern’ than that?

ii) postmodernism as a theory against absolutes

My first brush with postmodernism happened almost two decades ago when, as a postgraduate student, I’d suddenly begun to mix within altogether more literary circles. During my three years of studying physics in London I’d never once encountered any reference to the ideas of Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or Baudrillard, but suddenly I had a few English post-grads telling me that physics, and indeed science in general, was just another theory, and one holding no special claims to finding an understanding of nature than any other. At first this seemed hilarious. How, I wondered, could those who knew next to nothing with regards to, say, Newton’s laws of motion, be so smug in their opinions about the truth or otherwise of quantum mechanics and relativity. Studying science had at least taught me not to be so presumptuous. So just what had gotten into them?

Jacques Derrida2 famously wrote that “there is nothing outside the text”, which is an extraordinary thing to write when you think about it. I mean is Derrida quite literally saying that nothing exists beyond the text? Why of course not, you dingo! For if nothing existed beyond the text, then there couldn’t be any text, since there’d be no one to write it in the first instance. Surely that’s obvious enough! So what does he mean?

In my handy guide Postmodernism for Beginners3, which at least has the good grace to include plenty of nice pictures, there is a section entitled ‘Deconstruction’, which was (according to the book) Derrida’s method for waging “a one-man ‘deconstructionist’ war against the entire Western tradition of rationalist thought.” His new approach of deconstruction, the book goes on to say, being an attempt “to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meaning.” But of course if you peel away the layers of a real onion you’re eventually left with nothing… which is something the book’s analogy fails to mention.

And just what is Derrida’s method of deconstruction? An attempt to look for meanings in the text that were “suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form”. I’m quoting from my book again. But then how is anyone supposed to do this? Well, here again I confess that I really don’t know – and the book is only a beginners’ guide so unfortunately it doesn’t say. I can however recall the story told by a friend who was studying for a degree in English Literature. He told me that his tutor had once asked a seminar group to read a selected text with the express intention of misunderstanding the author. So I guess that’s one approach.4

Now I concede that all critical readers must have due entitlement to read between the author’s lines. Anyone with a modicum of sense must recognise that an artist will at times disguise their true intentions (especially if they involve dangerous political or religious dissent); dressing their concealed truths in fitting uniforms. Of course the author may also wish to veil themselves for altogether more personal or private reasons. But then why precedent the latent above the blatant anyway? As if what an author tries to hide is more important than what they are, more directly, seeming to say. To address this question, postmodernists broaden their case, saying that ‘meaning’ itself is wholly dependent upon ‘authority’ or ‘power’. This is to say that the artist is nothing more than a product of the cultural context of his or her time. According to such reasoning, whatever it was they’d meant to say becomes irrelevant. A depressing claim, and one that lacks any obvious foundation. And where is the broader point to all of this? What does it have to do with science for instance?

Well, Derrida contends that the word ‘text’ must be understood in “the semiological sense of extended discourses.” Any clearer? No – try this: “all practices of interpretation which include, but are not limited to, language.” Got it yet? I’ll put it more picturequesly. Away from the leafy seclusion of literature departments, Derrida is declaring that this same approach (his approach) must be applied to all avenues of thinking. Any special privilege for methods of reason and objectivity is to be absolutely refused on grounds that once we are agreed that all discourse (in the semiological sense) is necessarily a cultural, historical or linguistic construct, then all ideas must be seen to hold the same indeterminate value. Therefore, to raise science above other disciplines of enquiry is merely “a value judgement” borne of European prejudice and vanity.

So what finally does this all amount to? Does Derrida really claim that astronomy can be judged to be no better measure of our universe than astrology? Or that when Galileo proposed the idea that the earth moved around the Sun, the pope was no less right for saying that it did not? Or if we proclaim that the world is round, are we no closer to any kind of truth than the legendary flat-earthers? And when we build rockets that fly to the moon and beyond, that this does not prove Newton’s ideas over those of Aristotle? The same Aristotle who thought that the moon was made not of rock, since rock would inevitably crash to earth, but from a fabulous unearthly material called quintessence! And what if Jacques Derrida were to have taken some leap of faith from his window, might he have hovered in the air like Road Runner, or would he more surely have accelerated toward the ground at 9.81 metres per second per second? I certainly know where my money’s riding.

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Now in case you think my objections are unfounded, and based on either my lack of knowledge of the subject or else a deliberate and calculated misinterpretation of postmodernist thinking (whatever that means given the postmodernists’ own refusal to privilege an author’s intentions on the grounds that these are unrecoverable and irrelevant), I feel that I must draw attention to an incident now referred to as The Sokal Affair.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, feeling frustrated by the nihilistic claims being made by the postmodernists, decided (as any good scientist would) to perform an experiment. His hypothesis (if you like) being that he could convince a reputable journal in the field to: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” On this basis he submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. To give you a flavour of Sokal’s admirable hoax, here is an extract from that paper:

“Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game… “

Outlandish nonsense, of course, but (and no doubt to Sokal’s great delight) the journal mistook his fun for a work worthy of publication5. Then, on the same day of its publication, Sokal announced his hoax in a different journal, Lingua Franca, calling his published paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics”6. Here is what Sokal himself had to say about his reasons for perpetrating the hoax and his underlying concerns regarding the influence of the Social Text editors. He has a great deal to say and so I feel it is fitting to give over the remainder of this section to Sokal’s own justification and conclusions (after all, why have a dog and bark yourself):

“Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it’s true that the author doesn’t believe his own argument. But why should that matter? … If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don’t? Or are they more deferent to the so-called “cultural authority of technoscience” than they would care to admit? […]

“The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity — the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter – has profound political implications (which, of course, are “progressive”). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.” Next, I assemble a pastiche – Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity – held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.7

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. …

“In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? …

“Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre. …

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful – not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage…

“I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua)… But I’m a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it.”8

*

It has long puzzled me too, why many once dyed-in-the-wool Marxists have increasingly drifted over to Derrida. I mean these two systems are supposedly in direct contradiction. Marxism is a ‘grand metanarrative’ par excellence, and so postmodernism is presumably its willing nemesis. So why would those who had invested so heavily in Marx suddenly jump into bed with Derrida et al? Well, it might be supposed that the fall of the Berlin Wall was of key importance here.

With the end of the Soviet experiment, it wasn’t simply a political regime that had given way. In its wake the whole Marxist ideology was rocked, since, and whatever its adherents may have then believed, this rapid and extraordinary sequence of events signified the catastrophic end to that particular alternative world vision.9

It’s not even that Marxists were still looking longingly toward Russia for their answers – most had already long accepted that the Soviet dream died with Stalin if not before – but just as with the death of a friend, it’s not until the funeral that we can finally say farewell. For those who’d searched for answers under the lens of Marxism, a time was rapidly approaching when most would be forced to admit defeat. That finally there was nothing left to halt the rising tide of global capitalism. Unless…

But lo! Could some new theory, of revolutionary hue, if significantly altered, replace the discarded doctrines of Marxism? Perhaps there was still something yet that might save the world from the savagery of unchallenged global capitalism. Soon these were the hard questions facing not only the Marxists but all those with Socialist leanings. And as a Leftist too, I shared in the same concerns.

Not that Marxism is dead of course. Not quite. Though Marx appears to be a spent political force, his spell, if diminished, is still potent inside the faculties of academia, living on in the alcoves of English departments for instance (and often side by side with Derrida and the others). But my question is how did Derrida step into Marx’s boots so comfortably? Is there any deeper reason why Marx and Derrida have made such good bedfellows? Is there anything that these adversaries might actually share?

*

I recently came across a review of philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell – his inquiry into the origins of religion (a popular subject these days) – and have since been considering whether or not to include any mention of it (perhaps with reference to my thoughts in Chapter One). Well, as you will know already, presuming you’ve read everything thus far, I have so far avoided making any direct reference to Dennett’s book as such. Instead, and by way of a brief and hopefully interesting digression, I have decided to present a review of the review itself. Quite aside from being in-keeping to offer such a meta-narrative, the review itself, which happened to feature on a website otherwise dedicated to “world socialism”, helped to shed light on the current theme of the odd convergence between postmodernist theory and Marxism. But before I can progress, I first need to briefly outline the main thrust in Dennett’s book itself, which, when stated most succinctly, is that religion is a natural phenomenon.

There is an evolutionary advantage, Dennett says in Breaking the Spell, conferred to those who adopt “the intentional stance”: our very reasonable presumption that the other creatures one encounters are also “agents”. It is easy to understand then, by extension, Dennett continues, why natural forces in general might also be presumed to act rationally and with specific desires in mind.

Combined with this, as Dennett also points out, the offspring of many species, including humans, are innately trusting toward their parents, because, happily, this also confers a survival advantage. These factors taken together then, it is easy to understand how a worship of ancestors might have arisen as a useful bi-product of human evolution. Whilst, on the cultural level, as the earlier hunter and gatherer communities gave way to agricultural settlement, this opened the way to more formalised and stratified forms of religion that must have slowly arisen – religion then, according to Dennett, is a piece, if you like, of mankind’s extended phenotype (yet another natural/cultural artefact, and, as such, somewhat akin to the motor car or Aswan Dam, none of which are any less “natural” than say a bird’s nest or a beaver’s lodge). And thus, being natural in origin, religion itself becomes a proper subject for scientific investigation, just as all other natural phenomena lie the within the province of scientific analysis.

The spell that Dennett finally wishes us to break from being that religion is fundamentally no different from any other kind of human behaviour or enterprise. That much is all Dennett – at least according to our reviewer.

Dennett’s approach is not really to my taste. It leans too heavily on the speculative theories of evolutionary psychology, whilst in doing so, stretching the concept of “natural” to such a degree as to render the word close to meaningless. But worse than that, he leaves little or no room for the insoluble cosmic riddle itself, when this is surely a vital component in any proper understanding of what drives the religious impulse. So this is my review, second hand of course (since I am not intrigued enough to read Dennett’s original words).

Firstly, our reviewer acknowledges that much of the book is admirable, in so far as it goes, but then he insists that Dennett misses the main point. And the main point? Well, from the reviewer’s perspective Dennett simply isn’t being Marxist enough. Remember, this is a Marxist review!

In order to grasp the infernal bull of religion properly by the horns you need to understand Marx, the reviewer goes on. Why? Because Marx recognised how religion retards “class consciousness” amongst the proletariat, famously calling it “the opium of the masses” and “the sigh of the oppressed”. Religion then, according to Marx, is a comforting but ultimately false light: its promises of heavenly paradise, a necessary distraction from the injustices of the real world. At root, it is a necessary means of mollifying the proletariat masses. And who can doubt how often religion has and does serve precisely such ends – although we didn’t we actually needed Marx to tell us so. Thinkers back to Voltaire (and long before him) have repeated proffered that same opinion.10 Which is where I’ll finally come back to postmodernism, deconstruction and Derrida.

Here’s the actual sentence in the review that snagged my attention, causing me to make a connection that had perhaps been obvious all along:

“[But] Marxism does recognize that material factors are ultimately to be found at the root of all ideology, of which religion is a part.”11 (Emphasis added.)

Soon afterwards the reviewer backs this same assertion with a quote taken directly from Engels:

“Still higher ideologies, that is, such as are still further removed from the material, economic basis, take the form of philosophy and religion. Here the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the interconnection exists.”12

Suddenly, it can all be fitted together. Since for the Marxists too, not just religion, but all “higher ideologies”, might be whittled back to their cultural and historical constructs. A deconstruction almost worthy of Derrida, with the difference being in the placement of emphasis: for Engels the cultural and historic conditions being “material”, whereas for Derrida they are “semiotic” – whatever that exactly means.

Marxism is an entirely Capitalist heresy, said the late political satirist Gore Vidal, adding, just as Capitalism was itself a Christian heresy. Not that these ideologies are by essence one and the same, no more than it automatically follows that since a frog develops from a tadpole, both creatures are inherently identical and indistinguishable. Vidal’s point is simply that these three mutually antagonistic doctrines, Christianity, Capitalism and Marxism, are closely related by origins.

Following on then, postmodernism ought to be understood as a Marxist heresy, and thus, by extension, just another in a line of Christian heresies. It is, to extend Gore Vidal’s insightful analysis, a cousin of Christianity twice-removed. Or look at it this way: when Derrida says, “there is nothing outside the text”, is he saying anything so radically different from “The Word is God”? The circle, it seems, is complete.

*

But I cannot finish the chapter here. For though it is certainly fair to draw comparisons between the “social constructs” of postmodernism and the “false consciousness” of Marx, it is unfair to judge them as equals. Marx never denied the possibility of “true consciousness”, since this is, broadly speaking, his goal. Derrida’s approach is altogether foggier, whilst rejoicing in the rejection of all “logocentric” reason. So determined to escape from every possible kind of absolutism, the dangers of which are evident enough, he finally leads himself and his followers into the shifting sands of relativism. Once there, and afraid to face up to truth in any shape, this nihilism is thinly veiled by obscurantism and sophistry.

In 1966, when Jacques Derrida met Paul De Man they quickly became friends and colleagues. Independently and together, they continued to develop their theories of deconstruction. However, you won’t find any reference to Paul De Man in my Postmodernism for Beginners guide, because in recent years De Man has slipped a little off the pages. Why is this? Perhaps because after his death, evidence came to light that during the war he had been an active promoter of Nazism.

Some articles penned for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper, Le Soir, during the first years of the war, had indeed been explicitly antisemitic, referring to the “Jewish problem” and how it was “polluting” the contemporary culture. More shockingly, De Man had continued producing his albeit modest contribution to the Nazi propaganda machine, when he must surely have known that a genocide was taking place on his doorstep. In the wake of the first expulsion of Belgian Jews, as thousands were crushed into the cattle wagons, and driven from homes in Brussels to the horrors of Auschwitz, De Man had continued to peddle such poisonous nonsense. When news of De Man’s Nazi sympathies first came out, this story actually made the front page of the New York Times, generating a furore that seems a little surprising today. It provides a measure of how much De Man’s star has faded.

But then, in the aftermath of such shocking revelations, Derrida defended his old friend – as well as the reputation of their shared child: deconstruction. Aside from the appeals to justice and fairness, Derrida made use of his own deconstructive methods in articles such as the poetically titled “Like the sound of the sea deep within a shell: Paul De Man’s war” and then (in response to further criticism) “Biodegradables: Six Literary Fragments”. De Man must be understood within his cultural context, Derrida insisted throughout13.

In later years, Derrida quietly admitted that some texts (and ideologies) were more equal than others, even attesting to a Marxist element within his own branch of deconstruction (at least if Postmodernism for Beginners is to be believed). Whatever the case, in his defence of De Man, Derrida clearly understood how his slippery theory might profitably be used to paint black as grey and grey as white.14

It was precisely this same lurking danger that George Orwell had understood so well, and which he laid out so clearly within the covers of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His [Winston Smith’s] heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yes he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien [an Inner Party official], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote [in his secret diary]:

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’”15

*

So much for the murk of postmodern unknowing. There are other ways to challenge logocentrism – that pursuit of certainty through reason that Derrida so detested. So I’d like to finish this chapter by dispelling the Occidental mists a little with thoughts from abroad.

The teachers of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism from centuries past also impressed upon their students that proper understanding cannot be grasped by the indelicate gloves of verbal or logical reasoning. However, in contrast to Derrida and the others, they did not confuse reason with objectivity.

One such teacher, Dofuku said: “In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves.” Here then, to finish, a few alternative words on the complex relationship between language and the world. The first of these are lines taken from the Chinese tradition of Ch’an, from a collection written down in the thirteenth century16:

Words cannot describe everything.

The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

If one receives words literally, he will be lost.

If he tries to explain with words, he will not awaken to the world.

And here, a later Japanese Zen story called “Nothing exists”17 that cautions the student against the ever-fatal error of “mistaking the pointing finger for the Moon” by confusing any description of reality with reality itself:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who had been smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

*

1 BEYOND NATIONS & NATIONALISMS: One World, Noam Chomsky on Post Modernism and Activism

From a discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine‘s Left On-Line Bulletin Board, 1997.

2 “So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.” Ibid.

3 All quotations without footnotes in this section are drawn from “Postmodernism for Beginners” by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Icon Books Ltd. Whether or not these are the words of Jacques Derrida is not always made clear, but then why should we worry about authorship when as Bartes pointed out: “readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question.” (p.74)

4 “As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out… I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies – of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.” Noam Chomsky, source as above.

5 Published in Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996) pp. 217-252. Duke University Press.

6 Sokal, Alan (May 1996). A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca.

7 He adds here that: “It’s understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What’s more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic.” Ibid.

8 For publishing Sokal’s original paper, the journal Social Text received Ig Nobel prize for literature (1996).

9 “The fall of the Berlin Wall did more than any of the books that I, or anybody else, has written, to persuade people that that was not the way to run an economy.” quote from free-market economist, Milton Friedman.

10 Voltaire, who was an outspoken critic of religious and, in particular, Catholic fanaticism, clearly understood and bravely acknowledged the relationship between church authority and political power more generally. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), the main target of which is the Christian church, and its doctrinal belief in the supernatural, he wrote dryly: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

11 “Dennett’s dangerous idea”: a review written by James Brookfield (6 November 2006) of Breaking the Spell: religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, Viking Adult, 2006. Review taken from World Socialist Web Site published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

12 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part 4: Marx, by Friedrich Engels, First Published: 1886, in Die Neue Zeit, and translated by Progress Publishers in 1946.

13 “First, Derrida argues, de Man is not responsible for all of the many evils of Nazism or for the Holocaust. To compare him to Mengele, as one writer did, is unjust. Second, it is unjust to read de Man’s later writings as an admission of guilt or responsibility – or as an attempt to deny responsibility – for what he did during World War II. Third, although de Man wrote a series of articles expressing the ideology of the occupation forces and one article which is blatantly antisemitic, it is unjust to judge his whole life based on that one episode in his youth. Fourth – and this is the most controversial point in his argument – Derrida suggests that de Man’s articles are not as damning as one might be led to expect when they are read in the appropriate context. According to Derrida, the explicit antisemitism of the worst article is equivocal, and it is hardly as bad as many other articles in Le Soir. …”

“Nor can one object that these two articles do not discuss deconstruction or employ deconstructive techniques. In fact, both possess interesting and sustained discussions of deconstruction and its place in the academy, as well as many passages explicitly offering and rejecting possible connections between deconstruction and justice, or between deconstruction on the one hand and fascism or totalitarianism on the other..” passages taken from Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice, originally published in Mich. L. Rev. 1131 (1994) by Jack M. Balkin.

14 Jack Balkin, respected academic and defender of deconstructionism, acknowledges the dangers of following its relativistic course when it leads toward nihilism. He explains how Derrida betrays his own theory to avoid this error: “[First] Derrida offers deconstructive arguments that cut both ways: Although one can use deconstructive arguments to further what Derrida believes is just, one can also deconstruct in a different way to reach conclusions he would probably find very unjust. One can also question his careful choice of targets of deconstruction: One could just as easily have chosen different targets and, by deconstructing them, reach conclusions that he would find abhorrent. Thus, in each case, what makes Derrida’s deconstructive argument an argument for justice is not its use of deconstruction, but the selection of the particular text or concept to deconstruct and the way in which the particular deconstructive argument is wielded. I shall argue that Derrida’s encounter with justice really shows that deconstructive argument is a species of rhetoric, which can be used for different purposes depending upon the moral and political commitments of the deconstructor.”

This perfidy, Balkin celebrates, suggesting that Derrida’s new form of “transcendental deconstruction” be universally adopted: “Yet, in rising to respond to these critics, just as he had previously responded to the critics of de Man, Derrida offered examples of deconstructive argument that were not wholly consistent with all of his previous deconstructive writings. They are, however, consistent with the practice of deconstruction that I have advocated. This is Derrida’s perfidy, his betrayal of deconstruction. Yet it is a betrayal that I heartily endorse. …”

15 Quote taken from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 7.

16 Ibid, p.123. Extract taken from The Gateless Gate by Ekai, called Mumon. Transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps. [I have modified the final line to render a more poetic effect. The original reads: “If he tries to explain with words, he will not attain enlightenment in this life.” In making this small alteration I have tried to maintain the spirit of the original.]

17 Extract taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, an anthology of Zen and pre-Zen writing compiled by Paul Reps, published by Penguin Books, reprinted in 2000, p.75.

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welcome to the Panopticon: a potted history of mass surveillance

Two centuries ago:

In 1791, the Father of Utilitarianism and ardent social reformer Jeremy Bentham published blueprints for a wholly new design of prisons. Called the Panopticon, from observe (-opticon) all (pan-), the design, which involved a circular annulus of cells surrounding a central lodge, allowed the guards to keep an eye on all of the inmates, and importantly, without them, in turn, being aware of when they were being watched.

Bentham had big plans for his design, suggesting that aspects of the concept might usefully be applied to the construction of hospitals, schools and workhouses.

One century ago:

H.G. Wells was the father of a good many utopias. He spent the greater part of his creative life planning the shape of future societies. One of his most complete visions is laid out in a novel entitled simply A Modern Utopia (and published 1905). The story goes that two travellers walking in the Swiss Alps suddenly discover themselves in a parallel world. A new world that is Earth (at least geographically and biologically speaking) but one where civilisation has been reconstructed on altogether more Wellsian principles.

The inhabitants of this world are guaranteed housing, food and basic essentials. Even the unemployed are provided with a minimum wage, this safety net granted as “workfare” rather than “welfare”, with its recipients being coerced into work for the greater good of the state. In this vision of Wellsian meritocracy, the total measure of individual status depends solely upon earned income: the citizens of the new society regarding being broke as “clear evidence of unworthiness”.

Meanwhile criminal types and drug-users are given very short shrift. Removed from the main body of society and placed on high security prison islands, they are also sexually segregated to ensure that such poor genetic stock can never again pollute the otherwise healthy gene-pool.

Central to this alternative civilisation, the two explorers learn, there is a world-government (Wells never can resist the idea) made possible by a monumental database, with information stored on a card-index system housed in Paris. And Wells says that “Such a record is inevitable if a Modern Utopia is to be achieved.” But of course, what Wells could not foretell was how quickly technology would render the card-index system obsolete and make the establishment of such a global database entirely achievable.

Half a century ago:

It was 1948 when George Orwell settled into seclusion on the Isle of Jura, and there began to work on his most lasting contribution to literature and language. A little over a year passed before his terrifying vision of a future dystopia would be published, entitled simply Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t merely gloomy, it is hellish in altogether more Orwellian ways. A one-party state, in which every member of Ingsoc (the Party) lives under close and constant scrutiny, watched on two-way telescreens, which are highly sensitive devices that can never be turned off. Casual conversations are eavesdropped, by friends just as surely as by strangers, and children are actively encouraged to snoop on their parents; enrolling with the juvenile troops of Spies rather than Scouts (often to the delight and pride of their own brainwashed parents).

There is absolutely no place for privacy in Nineteen Eighty-Four, certainly not for anyone in the Party, with the telescreens monitoring indoors, whilst outside, and aside from the hidden microphones, it is safe to presume that everyone is probably an informant. The Party has, however, less concern for minor dissent that may flare up within the lower ranks of ‘the proles’; the masses that it regards as so ignorant and intent on self-preservation as to pose no serious counter-revolutionary threat. Although even amongst the proles there stalks the ever-present menace of the Thought Police.

Orwell’s new world of dread was forged from the same ideological foundations as the just defeated axis of Fascism. It was a world divided by class, hatred and perpetual war. A world riven and driven by Power. And undoubtedly Orwell was in part presenting his critique of the post-war Soviet Union reconstructed under that other great dictator, Joseph Stalin, with his all-new formula for Communism. Indeed, on the basis of Orwell’s images of Big Brother, it’s fair to judge that this all-powerful leader of Ingsoc (the single party governing the new alliance of Oceania1) was a caricature of Stalin.

Aldous Huxley was Orwell’s old teacher, and in his own futurist satire Brave New World (published in 1932), had envisaged a world of shopping and leisure, founded upon gentle Pavlovian conditioning of eugenically perfected infants, made ready for the soft bed of a world constructed in accordance with Freud’s pleasure principle. In Brave New World, everyone is Dolly the Sheep, and so more forcible means of coercion have become a thing of the forgotten past. George Orwell wrote of his old teacher Huxley’s prophesy as follows:

Mr Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a good caricature of the hedonistic Utopia, the kind of thing that seemed possible and even imminent before Hitler appeared, but it had no relation to the actual future. What we are moving towards at this moment is something more like the Spanish Inquisition, and probably far worse, thanks to the radio and the secret police. There is very little chance of escaping it unless we can reinstate the belief in human brotherhood without the need for a ‘next world’ to give it meaning.”2

Of course, it has turned out to be more complicated than that. Stalin died, and the Eastern Bloc with its many citizen spies and Stasi Thought Police was eventually overthrown by resistance within as much as without. Aldous Huxley always maintained that all forms of brutal totalitarian oppression must eventually succumb to such internal pressures, being forced to give way to a different and softer kind of centralised control, and for a short time it seemed that he was correct. But then came September 11th and how quickly in its shadows, the jackboots came back on the ground. Stomping down on the face of humanity all across the world.

Since about a decade:

In January 2002, within the months following the September 11th attacks, the US Defense Department, under the umbrella of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began to develop a vast surveillance project, requiring a database even beyond H.G. Wells’ imagining. Set up under the direction of Admiral John Poindexter – formerly Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor3 – the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was intended to serve the interests of “National Security”. Its aim was to establish methods of collecting and collating information of all kinds. Records of what an individual purchased, where they travelled, what they watched, and so on, whilst also incorporating information from public records on education and health. More covert snooping was also proposed as a necessary means of analysing internet use, emails, and faxs.

Other plans included the development of “human identification at distance systems” based on biometrics, which would obviate the current reliance on human operators to keep their eyes peeled. Combined with the ever extending network of CCTV, such a system could conceivably keep track of movements of the entire population. In a world soon to be filled with automated face-recognition systems or more probably – given recent technological developments – whole body scanners, it will be unnecessary for government authorities to force the people to carry forms of identity (or under more extreme tyranny, to wear badges), because it will become impossible to hide.

By February 2003, the IAO had begun funding what they called the Total Information Awareness (TIA) Program, although by May 2003 the program had already been renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness Program in an attempt to allay growing public anxiety of its Orwellian spectre. Then in August 2003, Poindexter was forced to resign as TIA chief with concerns that his central role in the Iran-Contra affair had made him unfit to run a sensitive intelligence program. Soon after this the IAO closed and officially the TIA program was terminated with all funding removed, yet it is widely acknowledged that the core of the project remains and that funding was merely switched to other government agencies.4

Finally, perhaps some indication of the true intent of these surveillance projects may be gleaned from the original IAO logo. Featuring a planetary-sized pyramid capped by an all-seeing eye that is scanning the entire Earth, the message is surely loud enough, especially when captioned with the motto “scientia est potentia” (knowledge is power). For what is this pyramid and the all-seeing eye meant to represent? That Big Brother is watching you? That you are already inside the Panopticon? Here was the official explanation of its meaning:

For the record, the IAO logo was designed to convey the mission of that office; i.e., to imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate, and transition information technologies, components, and prototype, closed-loop information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption, national security warning, and national security decision making. On an elemental level, the logo is the representation of the office acronym (IAO) the eye above the pyramid represents “I” the pyramid represents “A,” and the globe represents “O.” In the detail, the eye scans the globe for evidence of terrorist planning and is focused on the part of the world that was the source of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”5

Meanwhile, British governments have also brought in rafts of new legislation to extend police powers and limit personal freedom. Indeed, the first major new Terrorism Act, which was introduced in 2000 (and thus prior to the September 11th attacks), actually redefined the meaning of terrorism in order to increase the scope for police intervention. Whilst the disconcertingly titled RIP Act, which quickly followed, further extended the rights for government to intercept communications and to patrol the internet. Then, during David Blunkett’s tenure as Home Secretary, the RIP Act (or RIPA) was broadened again, becoming so extensive that almost 800 separate organisations, including more than 450 councils, have the right to invoke it. People might now be snooped on right across the country for offences no more serious than littering and under-age smoking.6

In the aftermath of the London bombings of July 7th 2005, the New Labour governments under both Blair and Brown also pressed hard for an extension of police rights to detain terrorist suspects. What had begun with seven days, quickly progressed to three weeks, and then, at least in the government’s opinion, required not less than 90 days. The justification given for these extraordinary new measures – the worst of which were thankfully rejected by Parliament – being that plots of the most diabolical kind were suddenly so widespread and complex that the ordinary course of justice had to be by-passed in order to ensure public safety. Around the same time, the introduction of national ID cards was also thwarted, in part thanks to a massive public outcry. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism (the real risk of which is far lower than during the days of IRA attacks) is the overriding justification for ever more surveillance of our public spaces and our personal lives.7

Throughout the last decade we have all been asked to give up our privacy and other civil liberties on the grounds of enhanced security: sacrificing freedom today for the sake of freedom tomorrow, which may well be, of course, a bargain with the devil. By the end of 2006, the United Kingdom was being described by some experts as ‘the most surveilled country’ among all industrialized Western nations.8

I heard someone speaking on Radio 4 a few years ago. Wrongly convicted for a crime he was later cleared of, he had as a direct consequence spent more than ten years of his life in prison. The interviewer asked him what his first thoughts were after being released as a free man. “Well, I was horrified,” he replied, “horrified that there were just as many cameras on the outside as inside. It was like I’d never left prison.”9

Now and the foreseeable future:

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy10.

From an article entitled “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” written by James Bamford, the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Published in Wired magazine on March 15th, Bamford continues:

For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail. William Binney was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. […]

He explains that the agency could have installed its tapping gear at the nation’s cable landing stations—the more than two dozen sites on the periphery of the US where fiber-optic cables come ashore. If it had taken that route, the NSA would have been able to limit its eavesdropping to just international communications, which at the time was all that was allowed under US law. Instead it chose to put the wiretapping rooms at key junction points throughout the country—large, windowless buildings known as switches—thus gaining access to not just international communications but also to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US. […]

The eavesdropping on Americans doesn’t stop at the telecom switches. To capture satellite communications in and out of the US, the agency also monitors AT&T’s powerful earth stations, satellite receivers in locations that include Roaring Creek and Salt Creek. […]

Binney left the NSA in late 2001, shortly after the agency launched its warrantless-wiretapping program. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.” Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email. At the outset the program recorded 320 million calls a day, he says, which represented about 73 to 80 percent of the total volume of the agency’s worldwide intercepts. The haul only grew from there. According to Binney—who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago—the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light. […]

After he left the NSA, Binney suggested a system for monitoring people’s communications according to how closely they are connected to an initial target. The further away from the target—say you’re just an acquaintance of a friend of the target—the less the surveillance. But the agency rejected the idea, and, given the massive new storage facility in Utah, Binney suspects that it now simply collects everything. “The whole idea was, how do you manage 20 terabytes of intercept a minute?” he says. “The way we proposed was to distinguish between things you want and things you don’t want.” Instead, he adds, “they’re storing everything they gather.” And the agency is gathering as much as it can.

Once the communications are intercepted and stored, the data-mining begins. “You can watch everybody all the time with data- mining,” Binney says. Everything a person does becomes charted on a graph, “financial transactions or travel or anything,” he says. Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed picture of someone’s life.

Click here to read more of James Bamford’s eye-opening article, and then, here to read a still more extraordinary article published by Wired magazine on the very same day:

More and more personal and household devices are connecting to the internet, from your television to your car navigation systems to your light switches. CIA Director David Petraeus cannot wait to spy on you through them.

Earlier this month, Petraeus mused about the emergence of an “Internet of Things” — that is, wired devices — at a summit for In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. “‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies,” Petraeus enthused, “particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.”

All those new online devices are a treasure trove of data if you’re a “person of interest” to the spy community. Once upon a time, spies had to place a bug in your chandelier to hear your conversation. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’d be sending tagged, geolocated data that a spy agency can intercept in real time when you use the lighting app on your phone to adjust your living room’s ambiance.

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing,”11

Orwell, for all of his profound insight and prescience, could never have imagined the sort of universal networks of surveillance being so rapidly put in place today. He didn’t see, for instance, as Huxley might have done, how people would one day almost willingly give up their privacy, and not only as the price for security, but purely for convenience and pleasure. That personal tracking devices would one day become such highly desirable commodities, in the form of mobile phones and ‘sat nav’s, that it would actually be strange not to carry one. That social networking sites would be temptation enough for many millions to divulge huge volumes of personal information, private opinions, dreams and fantasies. That others would broadcast their thoughts via emails, tweets, blogs, and all could be swept up in a worldwide web. The worldwide wiretap, as Julian Assange referred to it.

This post is another part of the immense traffic of data presumably being collected and analysed by those at the NSA (and in all probability also filtered using servers at our own GCHQ). That you are reading this is most probably being recorded too. So feel free to add a comment, although you should be cautioned that whatever you do say may later be used as evidence against you. The Panopticon is watching all of us.

Click here to read a wikipedia overview of the types of mass surveillance now used in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

*

Additional:

Here is a Russia Today report broadcast a few days later on Friday 30th March entitled: “Minority report: Era of total surveillance zooms-in on US?”

Click here to find the same report at Russia Today website.

As for Britain, and whatever the situation right now, the government is just about to announce new measures that will open the way for GCHQ to have “access to communications on demand, in real time” with the justification being, as always, “to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public”:

A new law – which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May – would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

Click here to read the full BBC news report from April 1st.

1 The setting is roughly as follows. Some time after the World War, the world divided up into three warring superpowers: Oceania (previously America, Australia and Airstrip One); Eurasia (Russia and the rest of Europe); and Eastasia (China and India). These states have since then been engaged in an endless three-sided conflict, fighting to gain control of the resources in a disputed zone which includes North Africa and the Middle East. Progress in this conflict is reported to the citizens of Oceania via a government controlled media, relaying information manufactured by the Ministry of Truth.

2 Taken from “Notes on the way” by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940.

3 Poindexter had been previously been convicted of lying to Congress and altering and destroying documents pertaining to the Iran-Contra Affair.

4 These include Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), a part of the Disruptive Technology Office (run by to the Director of National Intelligence); and SAIC, run by former Defense and military officials and which had originally been awarded US$19 million IAO contract to build the prototype system in late 2002.

5 Statement of the Information Awareness Office regarding the meaning and use of the IAO logo. Source: Question 15 in the IAO Frequently Asked Questions – document dated February, 2003 which can be accessed at http://www.darpa.mil/iao/TIA_FAQs.pdf

6 The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP or RIPA) regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, especially with regard to the interception of communication. It can be invoked by government officials specified in the Act on the grounds of national security, and for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

“Councils have used laws designed to combat terrorism to access more than 900 people’s private phone and email records in the latest example of Britain’s growing surveillance state. Town hall spies found out who residents were phoning and emailing as they investigated such misdemeanours as dog quarantine breaches and unlicensed storage of petrol. The news prompted fresh calls from civil rights groups for a reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which was originally brought in to combat terrorism and serious crime but is increasingly being used by councils to snoop on members of the public. In April a council in Dorset used Ripa powers to spy for weeks on a family it wrongly suspected of breaking rules on school catchment areas. Other local authorities have used covert surveillance to investigate such petty offences as dog fouling and under-age smoking.” extract from “Council snoopers access 900 phone bills” by Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter, Daily Telegraph, 5th June 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2075026/Council-snoopers-access-900-phone-bills.html

7 “Deputy chief constable of Hampshire Ian Readhead said Britain could become a surveillance society with cameras on every street corner. He told the BBC‘s Politics Show that CCTV was being used in small towns and villages where crime rates were low… ‘If it’s in our villages, are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation where cameras are at every street corner?’

‘And I really don’t think that’s the kind of country that I want to live in.’ There are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people.” from BBC News, Sunday, 20th May 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6673579.stm

8 “Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network, the [Surveillance Society] report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner’s Office. […]

The report’s co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was “the most surveilled country”.

“We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,” he said.

“We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us.”

The report coincides with the publication by the human rights group Privacy International of figures that suggest Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy.

The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with ‘endemic surveillance’.”

From a BBC news article entitled “Britain is ‘surveillance society’” published on November 2, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6108496.stm

9 Unfortunately, since I did not have pen at hand – I was driving at the time! – I can no longer recall his precise words and so I have been compelled to paraphrase what he said. I have tried to be accurate so far as memory serves me.

10 From an article entitled “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” written by James Bamford, published in Wired magazine on March 15, 2012. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1

11 From an article entitled “CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher”, written by Spencer Ackerman, published by Wired magazine on March 15, 2012. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/petraeus-tv-remote/

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