Friday, November 20, 2015

Flawed cosmopolitanisms of being human: mediation and worldmaking in media discourses of terrorism

Image: Quentin Klein #PrayForParis

"Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité."

 (Creative Commons/Flickr)

There is little to say about the Paris attacks that does not touch upon the phantom of the so-called War on Terror. What has been produced in journalistic and intellectual cycles certainly concurs on one thing: invisible violence of this sort challenges the tired cosmopolitan declaration of human togetherness, as it is based on de facto nihilistic actions of self-obliteration in the name of community values. There is much truth in Vijay Prashad’s recent discussion of the ways especially Western leadership has espoused a macho language about “pitiless war” to reinforce its national and global role. Far from peace-making, this role obeys to a global gender order that fits nationalist-militarist discourse into a globalised civilising process, presenting social (gender) as cultural (East vs. West, North vs. South, developed vs. underdeveloped) hierarchies.

But it all functions at the level of metaphor to do the job of politics: men rule and those conforming to other gender or sexual conventions follow. How much does this reveal about the pillars of the present ideological work in leadership headquarters – and how are we to think about the agential basis of this ‘civilising’ language? What are the consequences of such discourse for the maintenance of our already frail cosmopolitan togetherness? I think it all boils down to an economy of violence. By this I do not refer to classical economics but to the reduction of supposed universal givens, such as the right to be recognised as a human being (as well as the responsibility to recognise others as humans and the intermittently stressed these days norms that regulate our rights and responsibilities in this type of recognition and self-recognition). The economy of violence after the France events is fixated upon measuring one’s humanity against a stabilised (by Western civilisation) factor: the ability to circulate and enable circulations of habitus across markets, phantasmagoric industries and pleasure business.

I do recall here Steve Fuller’s observation on the economic rationale of being human. He starts by distinguishing between the expressions ‘Humanity comes at a price’ and ‘Humanity comes at a cost’. He notes: ‘The first phrase suggests what you need to pay your master to acquire freedom, while the second suggests what you need to suffer as you exercise your freedom’. Though using this to reflect on the role of artificial intelligence in contemporary articulations of the human, his notes have far broader implications and implementations in the context of the Paris attacks. If anything, they suggest that masters do not go invisible in global events whereas the unfree have to suffer publically to be acknowledged and noticed by others. It is only then – and only when the slave achieves representation as sufferer, a dispossessed, ‘acted upon’ object – that they enter the visible fields of the media as human. Bombers and shooters remain invisible in this respect in an ever more mediatised world, in the sense that their motivations and actions do not obey to the economy of violence but inverse roles for a while, by humiliating masters on the global stage. 

But first things first: if not carefully unpacked, the rationale of ‘costing’ and ‘pricing’ is in danger of mistaking a cultural recurrence in world societies for an economic activity divested of its utopian origins (reciprocal giving). At the same time, Fuller’s elaboration on costing reproduces Prasad’s argument that nihilist violence of the Paris type tends to mutate and spread like a virus to victimised societies at the level of leadership. If the ISIS terrorist perceives of himself – notably, rarely herself – as a victimised slave regaining self-respect through the ultimate heroic act (self-sacrifice), Western leadership feels that it has to reassert their master place on the world stage by discursive means. Such self-presentational games are characterised by an intersubjective perversion not that dissimilar to those explored by Hegelians such as Alexander Kojeve and, more recently, Axel Honneth. They also seem to obey to other processes involving the transvaluation of values within societal formations in which terrorist enclaves originate. But again, they speak of a dramaturgical platform on which roles, duties and resentments are discharged without questioning how their cosmological foundations are laid and how audiences come to accept and finance the ‘play’.

It is here that the notion of ‘the human’ meets the cultural principles of markets proper, turning the economy of violence into the maiden of capitalism. Note that, as an extension of Fuller’s essay, my understanding of ‘markets’ encompasses ideas of genealogical debts to civilisation and civility – two concepts irrevocably connected to Western and European histories of being human. Such debts refer to our responsibility to maintain and reproduce the pillars of our Western civilisation, which were laid on violence exercised upon racialized others to support ideals of compassion, belonging, equality and fraternity (paradoxically and perversely in the case of an ex-colonial power and current European and world player, France). If this sounds too irrelevant to the Paris events at first, I invite readers to reconsider the power of markets – especially media markets - in producing particular world pictures and hence notions of humanity. While we all mourn the dead of Bataclan – note how a pair of abandoned shoes outside the theatre signifies in Instagram the absence of humans in the violent site - a dear Japanese friend posted on Facebook a shocking statistical chart from the Global Terrorism Index indicating that in 2013 about 80% of terrorist deaths took place in 2013 in 5 countries, none of which located in the Western hemisphere.

These statistics are more elusive in mainstream global media platforms, allowing (by omission) a message to dominate our fully network homes: the West has the only victims worthy of mourning in minute-long silences and annual commemorations; outside its imagined solidary terrain there are animals and beings that refuse to join the civilised world of humans. I do not wish to endorse violence of this or any other sort as a response to Western violence, only to highlight how the good old reciprocal cycle (of human recognition) now turns into an accelerating cycle of human self-destruction. Not only does the message reproduce the brutal bipolar logic of the World on Terror, it also promotes it to a worldmaking monologue: an axiomatic picture about foreign realms of being (the lands and heritage domains from which terrorist come, as if there is no home-grown Western terror) managed by global media conglomerates that make, de-make or re-make whole populations, destinations and heritages that share little with the perpetrators of terrorist acts (save possibly nationality). Western worldmaking is not always evil in its intentions, but it tends to follow the economy of violence by default: we tend to forget that terrorism does not affect only Western European domains, where civilised mobilities of business, tourism and media flows happen, as if there is little to talk about outside them. Who would ‘buy into’ such unpopular calls anyway? And our world picture remains unchanged and unchallenged until the next bombing tailors a bit more the notion of human existence to our Western, European and civilised measures.     

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On how not to renew your passport: the view from within, then without (Greek passport)

Image: Andrew Kuznetsov, 'Chaos in the House' (Creative Commons/Flickr)

I grew up with stories about Greece’s misfortune to be born under foreign tutelage: the Ottomans were in effect succeeded by Westerners who sucked the country dry of resources and destroyed internal cohesion. The current economic climate understandably recycles such stories of economic pillage. In fact, since my last visit in 2011, such stories proliferated in new media channels, now assuming a widespread popular cultural dimension.

I am returning to this blogpost now, after a rather prolonged silence over its collective implications for the demise of national citizenships in countries affected by recession. I started writing it only a week after my return to the UK, but it still seems like yesterday in some respects (and like another life in other ways). While I was still in Greece, I had overheard someone commenting on a news item about Angela Merkel’s and Obama’s ‘support’ to the country in the usual stereotypical ways one speaks about market colonisation. I too have indeed written about foreign patronage, control and exploitation – no less than two books and several articles over the last decade. I have had many discussions on how waves of Greek migrations were prompted by wars and interstate violence; and in a previous life, was indoctrinated into believing that its young human potential moves outside the country to educate itself because external agents have superimposed a system of values on native culture. Only now that I am outside this treadmill can I understand that Greece does not need foreigners to do these nasty things to its people: a ruthless system does a better job at driving them away.

Let me be clear about one thing: there are global value hierarchies that override national ones; there is foreign exploitation aplenty and the need to join intrastate networks and coalitions that do not always favour national interest. But such a mono-focal narrative fails to encapsulate how all these maladies are also endemic and definitional characteristics of the national system in Greece. Ironically, this system resurrects all the Wallersteinian allegories of structural inequality between centre and periphery, with the former monopolising pretty much everything and the latter replicating many of the former’s mechanisms of inequality and incompetence. Those who speak of the heavy hand of Euro-power must be slightly cautious: quite a lot of institutional corruption and malfunction in the country existed in a fruitful dialogue and collaboration with the new external ‘villains’ long before recession and the ‘Grexit’ redefined its political landscape and social realities. Any genealogy of causality is bound to amplify the complexity of their histories, rather than identifying and crucifying the real culprits.

I want to share with you the sorry experience of trying to renew my Greek passport for a second time since it was issued about seventeen years ago, and my identity card, which was over two decades old. It is a story haunted by the phantom of Ottoman (or for others Byzantine) bureaucracy that appears to persist regardless of the processual changes. It is also an apparently cross-national story that is repeated in Greek embassies hosted by as ‘progressed’ countries as the UK. In 2006 I had this culture shock in London. I was a Canterbury resident and in good health to drag myself back and forth so as to satisfy the whims of bureaucrats. I was tormented by a person behind a desk who did not quite like the photo I submitted the first time, had me waiting for four hours the third time and at last processed my claim – but not before finding out that I teach at the University in which her daughter was studying. But as a Leeds resident in 2011 (and in very poor health to play the same game), I simply could not get through to the Embassy at all: after several phone calls I gave up trying. The Greek consul at Leeds explained that he was not granted permission to issue passports and that he could only confirm my old identity card so to allow me to travel to Greece and renew both the card and my passport. As a result, I had to travel back to Greece solely for this purpose.

Image: Pascal Champagne, "Chaos is a friend of mine." - Bob Dylan 
(Creative Commons/Flickr)

I have never had a worst experience: barely recovered from an operation and with jetlag and a disability, I had to drag myself to a photographer, then the police department and finally the local passport centre. I had to recruit my parents for support (for, the collection of documentation requires time) and use taxis to move around. And after all this hassle on the day of my flight the passport office let me know that my application had been rejected because another bureaucrat in Athens did not like my photo. I came back to the UK with a new ID and a passport about to expire. I am not sure whom to blame for all this: the photographer for not getting a good shot? The passport officers who did not bother to check if it meets the requirements when I submitted my paperwork? Or the Athenian centre to which apparently all applications have to be forwarded first for approval? The fact that ignorance and misinformation is ubiquitous in such services? Passport renewal in Greece is a typical example of centralised control in a disorganised state, once ruled mostly by native elites and networked individuals and now also by shadowy global markets. The right to citizenship – whether this regulates consumer or state belonging – is dependent upon whom you know, how many favours you can return and how far you are prepared to go to maintain good relations with them. I managed to escape this chaos when I first sought educational opportunities abroad because the internal system was so complex, slow-moving and corrupt that I had to comply with more than I could stomach. Later I stayed abroad due to lack of career opportunities at home (especially for a young educated and ambitious woman) and a rather claustrophobic environment in which my extended family lives to date. The North, where I was born and grew up, is less developed than the South and is likely to stay like that for the moment.

Let us be honest: there is ‘corruption’ everywhere there are humans. The propensity of break (ruptio) the rules together (cum) points to the most fundamental transition from metaphysical control over human life (God, gods or demons decide on our existence) to secularised systems of reciprocity (states managing their citizens’ well-being). Britain is not malfunction or corruption-free, but it is not as far gone. But my issue is not with corruption as such, only a ubiquitous Greek denial of corruption or incompetence’s endemic structuring. For example, what infuriates me is how abnormal some of my former ‘compatriots’ found my decision to remain a UK resident. My frustration at this mess has ensured that I’d rather move my intellectual work abroad than condemn myself to misery. Apparently, if one wants to renew their Greek passport but cannot for health or other similar reasons, they have to appoint an adult as a guardian or for judicial assistance. The idea of ‘fathering’ seems to never go out of date and children and disabled citizens alike are still treated as invalids and in need of intellectual guidance. Only recently have expired passports been admitted as travel documents and of course one can obtain emergency travel documents only in person.

Image: N. Turner, UK Passport Office, Creative Commons

Back in 2011 I began to toy with the idea of naturalising in the UK: the system here has its own problems and demands, but once you received your first passport you seem to acquire the right to mobility. But I have not travelled anywhere outside the country since then. Personal choice aside (as is partly the case), I am now at the other end of the tunnel and see other problems and potentialities. The increased securitisation in the UK certainly points to a different type of bureaucratisation of social life, which may be more efficient than what the Greek system offers but is also equally brutal in its effects. The principles of political reciprocity in Greece are long gone under the ruthless troika that leaves those working at public services in the country and abroad unpaid for months and thus ever grumpier when dealing with others in need ,and the Greek state unable to resort now to passport renewals by mail, as is the case in the UK. But would its sluggish bureaucracy ever be that imaginative anyway? I am a Greek citizen without a passport, only a new ID that allows the Greek nation-state to identify and tax me in ever more complex and constantly shifting ways to adjust payments to its lenders. I am a British citizen with a brand-new passport that allows the British nation-state to identify and tax me. I am free to be scrutinised and move around the world, but is there a good ending to my story of belonging? In any case, one may ask, when did a passport facilitate personal belonging?