{"'Liebchen, this is the other half of the earth. In Germany you would be yellow and blue.' Mirror-metaphysics." - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow}

Waiting for the Political Moment

I recently participated in a conference called Waiting for the Political Moment. Here is the report written by the organizers Bram Ieven and Frans-Willem Korsten. Thank you Bram and FW!


Frans-Willem and I [Bram – MM] were asked to write a report on Waiting for the Political Moment for our sponsors and I took the opportunity to turn it into some sort of summary of the conference. You can tell from the style that it was originally written as a report; but at least it will give you an idea of what the conference was about and what we all did during those four days in Rotterdam and Utrecht.

On Wednesday June 16 the participants gathered for drinks at Wolfart Project Spaces in Rotterdam. We chose this location on purpose: Wolfart is located in the heart of the impoverished boroughs of Rotterdam South, which is characterized (or perhaps better: stigmatized) by its crime rate and its ethnic mix. It’s not really special in my view (I’ve been living in such a neighborhood myself for the past five years and before that lived in a similar neighborhood in Antwerp) but it’s a good place start a discussion on politics. Frans-Willem and I chose this location to make sure that the conference would not be restricted to the academic settings to which most of us are used to, and to allow for a possibility of interaction between our participants and the locals. In addition, we purchased all our food and drinks from local shop owners.

Following the opening reception we screened Katarina Zdjelar’s new video work, We need to have a civil conscious and basta (2010). The work zooms in on the formation of a political party in Naples in March this year. Zdjelar’s camera registers the discussions during crucial meeting, during which they are deciding if they are to become a political party or not. Rather than evolving around participant standpoints, concrete proposals, agreements and disagreements, the piece looks at the moment of transition, in which a citizen-enthusiast becomes a politician. The wonderful aspect of this work is that, instead of focusing on the speakers that advocate the political turn the organization is about to make, the camera registers the facial expressions of the listeners.

On June 17 the conference participants moved to Utrecht by train. In the morning there were three sessions in which participants presented their papers (“re-reading theory”, “world and the political”, and “acting and waiting”). We had lunch in the garden at the Trans 10 (which is where my office is) and then went on with a tight program of three lectures.

The first of these was the opening lecture by Frans-Willem Korsten (Professor of Literature and Society at the Erasmus University Rotterdam - University Leiden): “Defining the political moment: finality and goal with Chrétien, Aquinas, and Marsilius of Padua.” In his lecture Frans-Willem went back to an historical period, between 1170 and 1325, in which the political moment was explored in literature and theory, including the distinction between politics and the political. He explored the ideas of Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua and argued, through a critical reading of the story Perceval by Chrétien, that the political can best be defined on the basis of our sensing the world for its conflicts. Moreover, one should not be too afraid of instrumentality, but accept that fact that in both politics and the political people have goals. These should be checked however, by forms of finality.

Frans-Willem’s lecture was followed by Martin van Gelderen’s plenary lecture (Professor of History and Civilization at The European University Institute, Florence): “The Grotian Moment: The Politics of De Iure Belli ac Pacis.” Martin confronted the work of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, who has been of such enormous importance in recent discussions about the nature of the political, with that of Hugo Grotius. He did so on the basis of the fact that Schmitt had studied Grotius and had by and large rejected his thoughts. That rejection is then countered by a in a more general rejection of an important strand in European political thought that does not accept the distinction between friend and enemy as decisive, but takes the equality of all that participate in the commonwealth as the starting point for politics.

Next up was Patchen Markell (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago). He gave a plenary lecture entitled “The Moment Has Passed: Reconsidering Power and Action in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition”. Patchen gave a close reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition in order to establish the nature of Arendt’s ideas on moments of political change, and her ideas on the nature of power. Such power resides in the act of people coming together as a result of which a certain potential is opened up. That potential cannot be judged beforehand, however, since any action performed by people can only be judged with hindsight as having been begun somewhere and having been decisive.

The entire audience then moved to Drift 13 for a public lecture by Simon Critchley (Professor and Chair of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research, New York), “Fictional Force, How the Many are Governed by the Few”. Due to technical problems with his airplane, Simon Critchley was unable to present his paper in person, so Tammy Lynn Castelein presented the paper for him. She did this after a short introduction (reading an e-mail sent by Critchley that morning) and then turned her reading into a performance of its own. Critchley argued for a form of politics as a willing suspension of disbelief, in which the government creates a possibility for the people to believe the few represent the many, after which he discusses politics as a magic show (association without representation), and proposed to use the idea of poetry (a means to view the world as malleable) within the realm of the political: to believe in the utopian “another world is possible”.

Critchley’s lecture was followed by a lecture-performance by Rabih Mroué. This part of the program was organized in collaboration with BAK at Utrecht and special thanks should go out to Cosmin Costinas, whose wonderful work made this all possible (he organized the performance and made it all happen) and to Maria Hlavajova (with whom it al began). Rabih Mroué did a performance that focused on the ways in which Photoshop produces new realities. In the first part, for instance, he played out his relation with a poster that he had found in the streets on which Egyptian president Nasser found himself next to the Libanese president Rafic Hariri (who was murdered in 2005). In the third part he discussed the genre of photographs of martyrs of Hezbollah, who decorate the streets and on which all the martyrs have the same body, carrying the same cloths, with their different heads being photo-shopped on this one body. The performance was followed by a tapas buffet, and a visit of the Rabih Mroué exhibition at BAK Utrecht (also curated by Cosmin, and you should all go an see it!).

On Friday June 18 we were back in Rotterdam to discuss the work of 5 participants on the relation between politics and aesthetics, and on the relation between biopolitics and nihilism. The session was well attended by the entire audience and led to some lively discussions. The sessions were followed by a screening of Lene Berg’s Stalin by Picasso (curated by Katarina Zdjelar). In 1953 Pablo Picasso – a member of the Communist Party – made a drawing of Joseph Stalin commissioned by the French communist weekly ‘Les Lettres Françaises’, a portrait that was intended as a tribute to the recently deceased leader. Much to Picasso’s surprise, his drawing caused a scandal. The film traces the personal, political, artistic and media implications of a simple artistic act. As with Zdjelar’s screening two days earlier, the screening led to an in-depth debate with the audience of scholars. Both the work itself and the difficulties Lene Berg ran into when exhibiting her work in Oslo and New York were discussed. After this people were quite happy with the lunch that was prepared meanwhile by three multi-talented students.

During the afternoon we had plenary lectures by Olivier Marchart (Professor in Political Theory at University of Luzern), “On Minimal Politics” by Ben Noys (Reader in English at Chichester University), “The Political Moment of (Dis)orientation”, and myself, “The Broken Universal Scene: Universality and the Political Moment”.

Olivier gave a lecture in which he tried to define some minimal criteria for politics. Taking issue with recent political theories that have argued that everything might be political, Oliver argued that everyday practices should not be called politics. One of the minimal conditions for politics is that it has a certain level of organization. Oliver then went on to discuss what organization means in politics and came to some minimal conditions of calling something political.

Ben discussed how the characterization of the contemporary ‘political moment’ is dominated, across the political spectrum, by an emphasis on the disorientation, neutralization, and the ‘hollowing-out’ of politics and the political. The result, he argued, is that this leads to a call for re-orientation, re-enchantment, and re-figuration of a ‘concrete’ or possible politics. Taking issue with this, Ben analyzed how such a call usually mixes the epochal and metaphysical with the local and conjunctural to postulate a singular moment of radical ‘disorientation’. This then conjures up the idea of a concrete moment. Criticizing this illusion of concreteness, Noys made a plea for a politics of abstraction.

I presented a paper (work in progress really) that revolved around the difficult relation between universalism in politics and the momentary nature of politics. On the one hand contemporary politics is accurately aware of the historicity of the political and affirms the momentary nature of doing politics; on the other hand modern politics has seen the emergence of a universal aspiration: the universal appeal of the nation state, the universal claims made by emancipatory political groups, and the universality of human rights are all central phenomenon of modern politics. In my lecture I looked at how universality (with its supposedly absolute and non-temporal value) could be combined with a politics that starts from the moment, from the here and now (and hence from the particular and temporal historical circumstances). I did so by paying attention to a political theorist who has done the most work in rethinking universality in politics and has paid attention to the political moment as a key notion for politics: Ernesto Laclau. (Much to my relieve both Jodi and Oliver liked what I had to say.)

All lectures were followed by a lively discussion. In my case, members of the audience asked about my interpretation of Laclau’s work and about my ideas on the role of the modern state in constructing a concept of universalism in politics. In the case of Oliver there was considerable debate about the question whether it would be possible to define the minimal conditions of the political. In the case of Ben the question was how to think about abstraction in political terms.

By public transport the entire group moved to debate centre De Unie, at the Westersingel, for a public lecture by Rosi Braidotti (Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University), “Powers of Affirmation”. Rosi sketched a general overview of her thoughts on the issue of politics in relation to her position as a feminist, poststructuralist, Deleuzian philosopher. Her question was first of all how we could avoid falling in the trap of commodifying scholarly work, in presenting it as always the newest of the new. Instead she proposed to consider the relevance of political theory as it had been developed in the seventies and eighties of the previous century. Secondly, she explored how we could present a positive account of politics by means of an ethic of affirmation.

Our company moved back again to Wolfart Project Space for a small diner, bought and brought by a Turkish shop owner in the neighborhood. Then a screening followed of the film The Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective, 1975) with a short introduction by artists Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner. Petra and Dan introduced The Nightcleaners, a movie about the cleaning ladies in Great Britain during the early seventies. The movie presents the cleaning ladies and associates in their fight for better working conditions in short scenes (30 sec. to 5 min.) which are separated by a black (empty) screen, sometimes with a female voice over (4 sec. to 1 min.), resulting in a documentary with aesthetic qualities.

On Saturday June 19, 6 participants presented their papers within 2 sessions, which were held simultaneously (“populism and democracy”, and “opening up the political”). The sessions were well attended and everyone participated in the discussions.

The sessions were followed by a performance by Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner. The performance by Dan and Petra consisted in a re-reading of a scholarly paper presented at the Edinburgh film festival in the seventies of the previous century, without however notifying the audience of the fact that they were doing this. Some members of the audience immediately noticed and had to laugh, others fell asleep, others got very angry. The performance was followed by a lively (and even heated) debate. At a certain point in the discussion Dan argued that their research was an artwork and not an academic paper, and the audience’s emotional response was exactly what an artwork should bring about (or actually he literally said: if all I do is piss you off then I’m happy with that). Some scholars (myself included) argued that instead of dismissing theories from the seventies, they should be studied again for their relevance. If nothing else, the discussion showed the value of the combined theoretical and artistic program because it lead to an acute awareness of our political commitment to some of the more militant ideas from the seventies.

During the afternoon we had plenary lectures by Mieke Bal (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Professor - KNAW; Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis - ASCA, University of Amsterdam) “Wating for the Political Moment”; by Bruno Bosteels (Associate Professor of Spanish at Cornell University), “The Bolivian Moment: Communism or Andean Capitalism?”, and by Jodi Dean (Professor of Political Sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam), “As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing”.

In her lecture Mieke Bal discussed what a ‘political moment’ could be in relation to art and the analysis of artworks. Taking the work of the Columbian-born sculptor Doris Salcedo as her point of departure, Mieke demonstrated how artworks like that of Salcedo, though they are not directly of explicitly political, force the viewer to renegotiate his or her own relation to the object that the artwork itself is. The result of this aesthetic negotiation is that we become aware of our world and our surrounding and are forced to rethink our position in it. This opens up a political moment, Mieke argued.

Bruno Bosteels’s lecture was entitled ‘The Bolivian Moment’ and appropriately dealt with the recent political developments in Bolivia. Bosteels reflected on the recent elections in Bolivia (2009) and the socialist measures that have been taken by it. On the basis of this concrete analysis, Bruno argued against the classical Marxist concept of uneven development and instead defended a socialism of multiple temporalities in which the necessity of going through several unavoidable phases - and the linear concept of history implied by it - is rejected. This allowed him to attenuate certain claims made by (mostly) Western commentators of Bolivia, who argue that the country is going through a phase that has been experience by ore ‘developed’ countries years ago.

Jodi Dean gave a lecture in which she analyzed the 2008 financial crisis and the mystifying discourse that surrounds it. Looking at how the crisis itself was declared unpredictable and how the culprits managed to escape responsibility on account of the so-called emergent complexity of the financial system, Jodi then analyzed the epistemological short-circuit that allows for these kind of arguments. During the second half of her lecture Jodi developed an alternative to this impasse. (this is not as good as a summary as I would have liked to provide, but suffice it to say that Jodi came up with a wonderful analysis of the impasse of action on the basis of a reading of Lacan and the discourse of the master and the discourse of the hysteric).

All three lectures were followed by lively response and discussion. In the case of Mieke Bal the audience asked how the relation between art and politics could be approached more historically, and what position propaganda would take in this framework. With Bosteels the public discussed his critique of uneven development in relation to other nations such as Turkey. Dean discussed the motivation that was behind her ideas. After this the participants enjoyed a well-deserved cup of coffee.

We then screened Ustala by Ine Lamers (curated again by Katarina) In USTALA, Ine Lamers explores the notion of dystopia. The story takes place in the Russian model city of Tolyatti, which was built on utopian foundations in the 1950s and 60s. Significant political and historic events – the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dismantling of the Soviet Union – transformed the collective paradise into capitalist chaos. Utopia became dystopia. In the film a group of Russian kids loiter among the silent monuments and the debris of this former Communist paradise. Their repetitive acts seem to suggest that they are caught up in a ritual. Do they really want to escape from this apocalyptic setting?

The conference ended with a public lecture by Alberto Toscano (Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith College, London), “Between Crisis and Catastrophe”. Alberto showed how the concept of crisis suggests that the problems at hand are in fact nothing but a temporary setback that can be overcome by the existing political regime. The problem he saw with this is that this kind of logic has not led to any effective action or appropriate measure with regard to structural problems of our society. As an alternative to this, Alberto suggested the concept of catastrophe. In the case of catastrophe, the subject and its world are entirely annihilated. As a result, the concept does not hold the promise of salvation or improvement that is inherent in ‘crisis’. By acting as if a catastrophe has already taken place and then looking at how it could have been avoided, a more profound political reaction to ecological and economic problems can be developed.

We had a closing reception at Hotel New York with food and wine. I think we all deserved it!

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