Tag Archives: postcolonialism

The line, the skyline, between then and now

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. – Walter Benjamin

NYC skyline (from the ferry), Feb. 2001

In a hugely absorbing (but disappointingly under-attended) session on Imperialism and Culture at the 2008 Socialist Studies conference, I suggested that the attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a line between past and present that feels uncannily like the kind of line described in science fiction, a line that sharply divides one’s lived and felt experience of time in its unfolding. (Think of Lionel Verney’s reflections on life before and after the plague in The Last Man, or Offred’s reflections on life before and under Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale…or Cayce’s reflections on life after September 11 in Pattern Recognition.) The session presenters suggested (and rightly so, I think) that to represent the attacks of September 11, 2001, in this way is to reproduce the kind of cultural imperialist ideology that has driven not only a lot of popular culture since, but also a lot of dubious-to-disastrous foreign policy decisions.

Point taken, and a fair enough one at that.

Lines of tragedy and trauma divide and sometimes dismember everyone’s lives, whether on the personal scale or the sociopolitical. Walter Benjamin observed that the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule. As witnessed by the helpless and horrified hindsight of Benjamin’s hypothetical angel, history is illuminated as a grim palimpsest of such lines, like a whip-scarred back: West African nations after slavery, the First Nations after colonization, Japan after August 1945, Rwanda after 1994. (This isn’t to homogenize different traumas and tragedies, only to suggest how they mar and mark time.)

Memorial mural, NYC, Apr. 2002

So it is perhaps not despite but because of this knowledge — knowledge of history’s lacerated hide, and of the military-entertainment complex that feeds greedily on it –that one still feels so keenly this line, this skyline, cut down through the lived experience of time in its unfolding.

Or its collapsing.

Such a strong storm buffets the angel of history, it’s impossible to tell which.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1940). Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Rpt. in Simon Fraser U http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Forsyth, Scott and John McCullough. “Imperialism and Culture.” Society for Socialist Studies annual conference, U of British Columbia, 4 Jun. 2008.

For Labour Day: diagnoses of neoliberalism

To observe Labour Day at a time when labour is being aggressively demonized by business and its political enablers, I’ll share this shrewd and concise diagnosis of neoliberalism, and its core contradiction, by David Harvey:

To guard against their greatest fears––fascism, communism, socialism, authoritarian populism, and even majority rule––the neoliberals have to put strong limits on democratic governance, relying instead upon undemocratic and unaccountable institutions (such as the Federal Reserve or the IMF) to make key decisions. This creates the paradox of intense state interventions and government by elites and ‘experts’ in a world where the state is supposed not to be interventionist. […] Faced with social movements that seek collective interventions, therefore, the neoliberal state is itself forced to intervene, sometimes repressively, thus denying the very freedoms it is supposed to uphold. (A Brief History of Neoliberalism [2007], 69-70)

While I’m at it, I’ll share Roseanne’s diagnosis too:

I’m pleased to say I’m indebted to student work for directing me to these instructive illuminations.

Casino capital’s frontier forays

Discussion with students in this term’s grad course on theory has been educational for instructor and students alike: for the former, in developing a critical vocabulary for contemporary capitalism that foregrounds its postcolonial contexts.

1. Frontiers and futures
In discussing the documentary The Corporation, two students wrote:

As opposed to traditional colonialism … corporate colonizers no longer require the local population to give up their beliefs in order to change their loyalty. They simply have to spend their dollars, pesos, euros etc., and with no value system outside of a growing bottom line, corporations are free to change their identity to adapt to the culture and beliefs of any market. … advancing capitalism pays a special eye to frontier thought, behaviour, and organization as these spaces create new areas to be exploited and appropriated by the system. (my emphasis)

In comparing corporate business to colonialism, the students referred to the work of Andrew Potter, who with Joseph Heath wrote The Rebel Sell, which investigates the frontier prospecting of capitalism, its ability to commoditize even the most resistant counter-cultural forms (e.g. Adbusters): “there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations … In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers.” (Potter qtd. in MacLean)

Potter and Heath’s argument relates to Fisher’s idea of SF capital, mentioned in my last post, in which futuristic speculation in culture becomes a renewable resource for economic exploitation by capital. But if the “rebel sell” thesis reproduces something of the core-periphery model of capitalist growth, in which the imperial core co-opts the “authentic” periphery, it also problematizes this model by assigning some responsibility for co-optation to consumers — the co-opted — themselves.

2. Casino capitalism: wheel of misfortune
After I mentioned “casino capitalism” with reference to a student’s commentary on Max Weber’s idea of the “spirit of capitalism,” the student asked, understandably, what I meant. Which made me realize I didn’t, actually, know precisely what I meant; so I did a bit of digging, then replied:

It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the past two years with reference to the US sub-prime mortgage bubble and the ensuing global financial chaos, and it made sense, on a broader historical view, as a characterization of the postwar global economic dispensation of postmodernity … a dispensation characterized by rapidly changing IT in the service of increasingly mobile, flexible, and “financialized” capitalism.
Turns out it dates from 1986, in a book of the same title by Susan Strange:
“The instability and volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional economies. Susan Strange (1986) calls this instability ‘casino capitalism,’ a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and the shift to self-regulation by banks (pp.9-10). (“Shifting”)
Maybe the term’s been re-circulating with a vengeance in the wake of the global economic turmoil, evoking not just the infrastructural features of the postwar global economy but also, now, the widespread sense that postmodern capital has indeed been running like a casino — meaning that most who go there to play will lose.

In addition to the scholarly literature on the casino capital thesis, it recurs from time to time in popular discourse, like editorials, about actual casinos. A decade ago, Toronto playwright and former Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin shared a problematic, provocative postcolonial angle on “lotteries and gambling” as a “sign of the times,”

a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life’s normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we’re seeing its spread as a way of life — and hope. The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in native-run casinos such as Ontario’s Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair. (“Who owes”)

Salutin was writing of casinos as a then-recently legitimized socioeconomic institution; since then casinos have moved from legitimacy to centrality as a staple source of government revenue, and an ever more symptomatic “sign” of neoliberal hegemony’s dominion). Gambling and casinos fund all kinds of public programs in Alberta, and it’s money many see as ill-got from the exploitation of people with addictive disorders. In 2005, Salutin followed up:

Governments of all stripes are hip-deep in promoting and advertising gambling and in effect encouraging addiction to it. Of course, not all gamblers are addicted, though addicts are central, since a huge cut of the revenue comes from a small tranche of heavy gamblers. But the real addiction problem belongs to governments, who’ve grown addicted to the returns, and turned into pimps and pushers. … the job of an institution like government should be to increase the odds — if you’ll pardon the expression — of hard work receiving a fair return, rather than reinforcing the message that you have to be rich or lucky to succeed. (“My gambling problem”)

3. The weirdest Western?
These critical models of late capital, with their disjunctive postcolonial contexts, together start to make the interlocking institutions of global capital seem a lot like a weird Western. As one film critic argues, the globalized culture industry of Hollywood has not shown itself to know how to make this kind of movie well. When it does, in films like Serenity — to say nothing of non-weird, ultra-naturalist Westerns like Deadwood, for that matter — what I’d suggest we encounter is an image of late global capital, in all its frontier freewheeling and monopolizing machinations: “The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets … in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there’s something out there, but chances are it doesn’t care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train.”

Just the laws of infinite growth and the bottom line.

Works Cited

Lamar, Cyriaque. “Dear Hollywood, you absolutely suck at making weird Westerns.” io9 19 Jun. 2010 http://io9.com/#!5567908/dear-hollywood-you-absolutely-suck-at-making-weird-westerns?comment=24778688

MacLean, C. “Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell.” Torontoist Nov. 2006 http://torontoist.com/2006/11/tall_poppy_andr.php

MAIS 601 Group Two. “The Group TwoPoration” (group response to The Corporation). MAIS 601, Athabasca U, 23 Mar. 2011.

Salutin, Rick. “My gambling problem, and ours.” Globe & Mail 5 Aug. 2005: A15.

—. “Who owes what in a racist world?” Globe & Mail 24 Aug. 2001: A15.

“The shifting nature of capital: exhilaration and anxiety.” Representations of Global Capital. Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Portland. n.d. http://legacy.lclark.edu/~soan370/global/casino.html

Canada’s digital doppelgängers: a footnote

As I argue in a 2009 SFFTV article, it’s symptomatic of US-Canadian border tensions over copyright (as Wikileaked cables confirm) that the US-produced Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004-09) was shot in B.C., and that its leading Cylon villains are played by Canadian actors (Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Callum Keith Rennie…I almost expected Bob and Doug MacKenzie to rise from one of those tubs of replicant goo). The Cylons are evil robots, indistinguishable from humans except for their copying practices: they “upload” their personalities to databases when they die, and “download” them into new bodies. Embodied by Canadian actors not necessarily recognized as such, the Cylons thus act out some of the cross-border differences in copyright law that keep Canada on the USTD’s blacklist of “pirate haven” nations.

In researching a forthcoming essay on new media and identity, I realized that Battlestar — as a Hollywood science fiction TV series casting Canadian actors in digital doppelganger roles — echoes an earlier show, Max Headroom (1987-88).

In that short-lived but fascinating experiment in “cyberpunk” TV, the main character, Edison Carter, was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. Carter is a videocam-wielding reporter for Network 23, in a near-future world styled after the McLuhanesque cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Cronenberg’s Videodrome: in the show’s “20-minutes-into-the-future” world, it’s illegal to turn off a TV, the state distributes sets to the poor, and a genre of hyper-condensed commercials, the “blipvert,” is killing viewers. “Max Headroom” is the name assumed by Carter’s electronic double, a strictly screen-embodied personality (like Videodrome‘s Brian O’Blivion). Presumed dead after a traffic accident, Carter unwittingly donates his body to an experiment to produce a virtual television personality, a kind of artificial intelligence “dubbed” from Carter’s own mind, an AI calling itself “Max Headroom” (one of the earliest deployments of CGI on prime time television, rendered by Commodore Amiga computers). Carter lives (of course), and Headroom, flitting from screen to screen, tags along to help him on adventures through the corporate-dominated, polluted, hyper-mediated world of the series: a talking-head ghost running amok in a toxic media ecology that, from the vantage point of 2010, looks sometimes uncannily familiar, other times a quaint paleofuture. Headroom’s signature stutter and replay turn his lines into a kind of spoken-word dub, which also doubles, in the script, the mise en scene’s mediatized doubling of a corporeal, corporate reporter and his pixelated doppelgänger, the signal-jamming saboteur.

Headroom isn’t the villainous machine that the Cylons are; he’s more of a high-tech jester and trickster. But then again, the decade in which Battlestar got re-made wasn’t the same decade that gave us Headroom. We were more worried about the Cold War than global warming; “free trade” with the USA had yet to prove itself as a vehicle for neo-colonial annexation (which the current government now wants to extend to Europe?); and the Internet was still just a military-academic experiment, not the front in a total war on copying, of all things.

Like Lou Reed sings, you know, those were different times. (How much do I owe his label, now, for quoting him?)

Congress 2010, day three

Diana Brydon delivers CACLALS keynote on cognitive justice. Photo courtesy of Boundry.


First stop: Diana Brydon’s keynote for CACLALS. A talk about “cognitive justice,” which we were encouraged to define for ourselves, before she described it as the goal of “reciprocal knowledge production based on dialogues across differences.” She discussed Europe’s Bologna process to illustrate some of the obstacles — and opportunities — for higher education generally (“global higher ed for the moment is more Americanized than it is globalized”) and for postcolonial studies in particular: “neither the political nor the epistemological challenges posed by postcolonial thinking have yet been met.”

Was nice to run into AU colleague Joe Pivato there. Despite what the next photo suggests, I am in fact neither falling asleep nor drunk.

Surprise! You need more coffee. Photo courtesy of Boundry.

Surprise! (At least one of you can see where the camera is.)

Second stop: Saskia Sassen’s keynote for the Royal Society of Canada. This dizzying keynote mapped new connections among territory, authority, and rights (as per her eponymous book) — connections not quite national nor global either, like weaponized state borders (e.g. the USA’s) and the remittances of migrants’ income to their home countries (lots of money travels this way). Her main illustration? States now buying territories in other states, expulsing the people to get at the water, agricultural, and mineral resources. Coca Cola: kicked out of India and then “gently invited to leave” New York state for using up fresh water resources. (Because it takes 15 litres of water to make 1 litre of Coke!) Or China: in talks to buy millions of hectares in the Congo and Zambia for palm-oil plantations. Land purchases that Sassen says are illegal (i.e. states cannot buy the territories of other states), but leveraged through some combination of policy grey zones and tactical blind-eye turning.

In the Q&A that followed, Sassen fielded five questions in a row before answering each in sequence — an impressive performance of recall, improv, and reflection.

But the Q&A went long enough we’d only time for a hurried patio lunch before

Third stop: Will Straw’s keynote for ACCUTE. This was a glimpse into the queer bohemia and pulp press of 1920s Greenwich Village, complete with Canadian connections and a cast of characters that seemed taken from some melodrama of moustache-twirling villains. Among the slides he showed of period gossip tabloids and “spicy” magazines, it was difficult not to get distracted by incidental details. Like the half-page ad for “Melz’s original dissolving rubber prophylactics: more protection, more pleasure!” WTF?

The face one makes on seeing a vintage magazine ad for dissolving rubber prophylactics.

Last stop: the annual ACCUTE dance party. It’s always such fun, and shows such a different and uniquely humanizing side of people, where we get to check our formal roles (student, professor, etc.) at the door … I know I’ve got a thing for dance culture, but I remain amazed that ACCUTE is the only society at Congress that regularly throws a dance party. (Haven’t all the other societies been spending most of the day sitting too?)