Set in 16th century Istanbul, woven through with well-known historical figures, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel of elephants and Gypsies, architSet in 16th century Istanbul, woven through with well-known historical figures, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel of elephants and Gypsies, architects and nursemaids, mahouts and the harem, mosques and menageries. It is also packed full of skulduggery, duplicitousness, ambition, loyalty, mistrust, devotion, manipulation, naivety and more than a little good luck along the way. Elif Shafak has constructed a marvellous Istanbul, one full of intrigue and beauty and danger and elegance by taking into a story about a boy who becomes……
Jahan, the boy, arrives as the mahout of an elephant sent by the Shah of India to the Ottoman Sultan, although we learn quickly that he is a plant charged with larceny, the original mahout falling foul of the ship’s crew and the elephant barely making it alive to Istanbul. By combination of insight and living in the palace menagerie, he learns to care for Chota, the elephant, and settles into life as its custodian. Along the way he meets the Sultan’s only daughter, about his age, striking up a friendship of sorts – as much as is possible given their difference in status. After Chota, Mihrimah the young Sultana) is his second great love – and after some drawing of buildings are seen by the Chief Architect, Jahan finds himself apprenticed, along with three others. As unbelievable as this may seem, we know that within limits the Ottoman Empire had a meritocratic component, so it is not entirely unrealistic….
But all this makes for a drab sounding novel, especially as this is a biographical novel, telling Jahan’s story, but when we note that this story includes being taken under the wing of the king of the Roma, cross dressing craftspeople allowing talented women a (concealed) place in the public realm, industrial accidents that reek of sabotage-without-proof, the battle of Szigetvar, concealing the death of a Sultan, curses of long life, rebuilding Hagia Sophia, the construction of the Taj Mahal and imprisonment at the whim of the Grand Vizier it should fast become clear that the novel is anything but drab. As we should expect from Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice is an elegant and mellifluous text constructing a richly imagined, beautifully depicted world; a world where despite all the grimness, plotting and scheming, the virtues of love, of commitment, of loyalty and of forgiveness, even when these are not possible, are those that carry most weight.
Shafak does not construct unproblematic settings to explore these virtues: none of the characters is indisputably good or entirely bad – most of the hats are grey, bad things happen for good reasons and good things for bad reasons. Yet, this remains an engagingly moral novel and the key characters – Jahan, Sinan (the master architect), the apprentices Yusuf, Nikola and Davud (to a lesser extent), the concubine Sancha, Mihrimah and also to an extent her life-long nurse maid Hesna Kahtun, Balaban of the Roma – remain characters with in most cases considerable integrity, rounded and complex even though we tend to see them from Jahan’s perspective. And yet despite this, the novel is one of extreme loneliness, of the perils of placing love above happiness, and the virtues of doing so. For all its elegance, is gorgeousness, its suppressed scandal, intrigue and romance, affection and loyalty I can’t help but read this as intensely sad, of naivety leading to missed opportunity and of the dangers of excessive virtue.
Yet for all that, it remains richly evocative, complex and multi-layered, intricate and elegant, but in its setting and in prose, yet engaging, absorbing and compelling – just as I would expect from Shafak....more
Museums and visual culture more generally play an often under-recognised role in building, asserting or maintaining various forms of political cultureMuseums and visual culture more generally play an often under-recognised role in building, asserting or maintaining various forms of political culture and identity. From time to time we find a disruptive or dissident museum, but for the most part they maintain or justify the dominant cultural modes and codes. A visit to any ‘national’ museum reveals this role, but seldom is it so obvious as during moments of great change in political cultures and political régimes. It does not need to be a ‘revolutionary’ change – Wellington’s Te Papa Tongarewa is a clear marker of a state-driven but wide ranging change in the political cultures of Aotearoa/New Zealand that included a revision of colonial and postcolonial histories and the dynamic role that Maori played in the changing national self-image. South Africa, as shown by Annie Coombes’ clear and specific analysis of five museum sites and a number of fine artists, provide an opportunity to show changes in the, from time to time, brutal and fractious debates over history and heritage in a national context undergoing profound change leading to the New South Africa.
South Africa is a crucial case study in this relationship in part because the struggle was long but the transformation when it happened was relatively straightforward, for the most part peaceful and resulted in extensive political and cultural changes even though we must in no way overstate the extent of actual change in the conditions of most South Africans. Certainly for a while in the 1990s there was enormous hope, and vibrant cultural, social and political debate and struggles not only over the present and future but also the past as a narrow, exclusive state was replaced by one professing inclusion and as a result one with a profoundly different history not of exclusion but of resistance. It is this process of debate, dispute and making and remaking of memory and history that Coombes explores.
The case studies she selects are in some cases globally renowned and iconic, while in others they are much less widely known, including the intensely contested recrafting of the Voortrekker Memorial in Pretoria that was hotly opposed by recalcitrant Afrikaaner nationalists, the development of Robben Island as a museum to the struggle and in a sense pilgrimage site. She also discusses the locally focussed (by metonymic of the struggle also) District Six Museum in Cape Town and the efforts by the Museum Africa (formerly the Africana Museum) in Johannesburg as places that seek to explore the ordinary, the quotidian, the banal of the apartheid and earlier eras. Most of these places I know (except the Jo’burg case) and her level of detail, nuance of analysis and care to represent, evaluate and critique each case with considerable sensitivity to the moral, political, museological and ethical issues is impressive.
The case that I found most alarming, in part because it coincides with a number of other debates in museums and reflexivity about museum practice, but also because of the way it exposes the dehumanisation of colonial subjects and subjectivities is the ‘Bushman diorama’, a depiction of Khoisan life in the Western Cape, at the South African Museum in Cape Town. That it is at the SAM is the first of the alarming elements: this is a natural history museum, with the effect that these Khoisan are shown as inhuman parts of the natural environment. The second, and equally alarming, element is that figures in the diorama are the casts of Khoisan people taken in the 1920s and 1930s, usually from prisoners coerced into ‘agreeing’ to both anthropometric measurements and the pain and discomfort of full body casts. To its credit, as early as the late 1980s the SAM was trying to deconstruct this exhibit, including panels showing both the cast making and identifying with as much biographical information as possible the individuals involved – but while the diorama exists, the problem remains. Coombes’ discussion of this case is powerful, compelling and uncompromising in its critique and the terms of its inquiry, but it is also nuanced, situated, located and recognises the contradictions and tensions. The discussion also includes a carefully calibrated consideration of a show at the South African National Gallery that in critically exploring the diorama and the practices behind it became itself the subject of harsh critique and extensive discussion that further problematised the question of display, of colonial identities, subjectivities and being.
In addition to these five chapters unravelling museums and material culture, Coombes concludes the substance of her analysis with discussions of a number of fine artists working in and around the questions of racial and ethnic identities, around questions of memory and sexuality, of place and of memorialisation. This is a shift in tone that is hard to manage, but which Coombes does fairly well even though the language of fine art analysis, of arts practice and gallery and site specific inquiry where ‘artefacts’ are made for a purpose in a manner that is different from the way museums often make use of artefacts, but it does sit a little uncomfortably with the preceding chapters. The conclusion, looking at the way the post-apartheid government managed the transformation of South Africa House, its high commission in London, taking account of artistic practice, the existing design and visual features, the requirements of English Heritage that prevented structural change to the building or destruction/removal of the existing art works and the need to replace an apartheid history with a post-apartheid history draws the issues under investigation together in a clear and specific manner.
My only real grizzle is that all the colour plates that relate to discussions in pp 243-78 are between pp 142 & 143 – but otherwise, as we’d expect from Duke UP, the production quality is excellent.
As a discussion of the politics of museum practice this is a superb book – and if it were only that it would be well worth spending time with. In addition, it unravels the politics of social and cultural change, of memory making and historical and historiographical debate in a time of national cultural transformation. In working through five specific sites, with allusions and references to several others, and drawing on the manufacture of visual cultures in fine art practice Coombes has taken those discussions of museum practice to a new level exposing and exploring the profound challenges states have in building identities, museums and other cultural institutions have in engaging with and critically exploring those state-oriented and -based processes and what it means to not quite fit the story that is being developed. This is a valuable and important book, providing an analysis that is rich, nuanced, subtle and detailed, and that we can only hope others can measure up to....more
Over the last few years there has been a growing international campaign highlighting the plight of migrant workers in the construction industry in varOver the last few years there has been a growing international campaign highlighting the plight of migrant workers in the construction industry in various of the Gulf States – Qatar, the UAE and so forth. In part this is a result of the recent profile of many of these states’ so-called sovereign wealth funds in the global economy investing in capitalism’s core – property in London, Paris and New York – and in the cultural markers of the global economy. The most high profile of the concerns and campaigns about workers’ wellbeing have focussed on the (frankly murderous) rush to readiness for the Men’s Football World Cup in Doha in 2022, and in the construction of a cultural enclave in the UAE’s Saadiyat Island, sustained by the presence of outposts of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University – all among the markers of the global cultural élite. This valuable collection focusses on the latter case (Saadiyat Island), and especially the Guggenheim and NYU presence.
The presence of migrant workers is striking even before as travellers we arrive in any of these states. For local flights from Dubai to Doha, for instance, there are special immigration and boarding lines for migrant workers – lines that are often exclusively single South Asian men who we then see gathering in Doha’s shopping malls at lunchtime, queuing up at Western Union or some other money transfer service, or gathering in 40 degree heat in vacant lots at the end of the working day waiting for the buses back to their living quarters. All the while the return flights these men and women came on have in their holds for return flights coffins for those who the work has killed. What is not obvious in the lunchtime queues and end of the day waiting is that many of these workers, and the Filipino, Indonesian and Malaysian domestic workers we see trailing round after their women bosses in the shopping malls, is their lack of freedom. They have been ‘sponsored’ under the kafala system, are required to pay back huge recruitment and travel fees (so may have loans of $US1500-4000 taking years to pay off) out of monthly salaries of $US4-500 in many case, or less, unable to change employers because their ‘employers’ hold their passports and the sponsorship rules mean a change of employer invalidates their visa. There is nothing about this set of working conditions that is in any way fair, equitable or just even by the exploitative provisions of the contemporary precariousness, and in many cases this is little more than forced labour.
But, as many contributors to this collection properly point out this is forced and coercive labour, but not slavery (at least in chattel slave system) – but it is indentured, so similar to much of the South Asian labour in the Caribbean sugar plantations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (intriguingly, not a parallel many writers draw, perhaps because of the profile of chattel slavery in North American and European images of labour-related crimes and injustices). These distinctions are crucial to make sense of what is going on, and to understand how it is that the activist groups at the core of this collection respond and act.
The Gulf Labor Coalition, the activist group behind both this book and the events it explores, is a coalition of artists, activists and academics, principally USA-based, who focus their campaigning on the Guggenheim and NYU over their involvement in the Saadiyat Island project to build for Abu Dhabi (and the UAE) its own world class cultural institutions. Among their tactics have been boycotts of the Guggenheim (a costly tactic for many of these artists, including those already in the Museum’s collection, because of the loss of income associated with the refusal to sell and become part of the Abu Dhabi collection) as well as public pressure and negotiations to enhance the conditions for workers in contracts associated with the building projects. Of course, having those conditions acted on and complied with is a different story……
Contributions explore the situation and conditions of workers at Saadiyat, the tactics of the campaign groups (GLC is very much a direct pressure and negotiations based group, but its direct action off-shoot the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction includes many of the same members) and the political economy of the soft power deployed by the Gulf states through these sorts of cultural manoeuvres for status and global influence. About ¼ of the book is art works produced by artists involved in or in support of the campaign, including a West Coast off-shoot drawing parallels with the Gulf of Mexico and central American workers in the USA. Significantly, and unlike much of the other work in the area (discussions of workers involved in building football venues for instance) the exploration of the effects of the labour markets and régimes also draws on material from South Asia and explores the attempts by UAE corporations the divide and conquer the workforce.
Not surprisingly, there is an awful lot going on here and in some aspects the collection is a little disjointed. This is a result of two principal factors: some of the pieces are written for other settings and fora, such as reports on workers’ living and working conditions used for advocacy purposes, or in some cases there are extracts from much longer documents that have lost a little of their coherence, such as the testimony of workers in the final piece, ‘Tea Break’. The second reason is that this is a campaign that is still going, so the collection is very much an interim ‘report’, and state of the play with an ending still to be determined so what seems like disjointedness is incompleteness of the overall campaign.
Despite these issues this is a vital collection exploring workers’ rights in the global economy, activism in support of improved conditions of work, an overview of arts-based activism and campaign documents and artefacts constructed as part of the struggle. It also points to important tools and approaches to activism for those of us working on international labour rights campaigns, and should be consulted by those involved in the campaigns around the football projects in Qatar: that these campaigns are not better integrated is a slight on both. All in all, it is valuable for all who dream of justice, even as it reminds us how much we have to do it should inspire us to further, better struggle....more
A killer stalks Seattle, leaving what seems to all intents and purposes to be Native American markers at each kill site – which sets up this impressivA killer stalks Seattle, leaving what seems to all intents and purposes to be Native American markers at each kill site – which sets up this impressive example of Sherman Alexis oeuvre as a crime novel or thriller, and it is, but not in the classic generic sense. Rather than explore the search for the killer, Alexie builds a two layered plot. In the first a radio ‘shock jock’ (as the Australians amongst others call populist, right wing, social reactionary talk radio hosts) lays the base for an anti-Native moral panic, which rather than didactically condemn Alexie traces through its impact on Seattle’s Native population, on the fear of those living on the streets and those who do not, on the thuggish beatings meted out by vigilante mobs and on distress caused by being more socially marginalised than is usually the case.
He then complicates this narrative through the case of the blandly named John Smith, Native and adopted by a well-to-do Seattle couple – but all John knows is that he is Native and that his birth mother was 14. He builds an elaborate set of worlds and back stories around his background, the circumstances of his birth, of his adoption by Olivia and Daniel and disappearance in the desert of the Spokane Jesuit priest Father Daniel. John, a building worker and through his friendship with student and social activist Marie, provides us with a link between Seattle’s non-Native world and the precarious lives of most of the book’s indigenous characters….. On top of all this, John exhibits many of the symptoms of schizophrenia, which for the most part he manages well through a retreat into order.
From this seemingly disparate array of characters, Alexie has constructed a powerful and compelling tale of contemporary Native life, of the perils of city life exacerbated by a combination of isolation from indigenous ways of being (and in some cases the eradication of indigenousness by state action that declares tribes to be no-longer-extant) and of a settler city (named for one of their most romanticised historical figures – Seattle performs a powerful ironic function) that fails to see them as anything other a threat, while seeing a stereotypical sameness and concurrently romanticised world. There is nothing simple about settler views and treatment of Native America (except their genocidal past and present actions); as is so often the case our grand sociological analyses tell a story that is only made real in the smallness of individual cases, in this instance a fictionalised but realist story of a few, of characters we come to know whose depth and roundedness is rare in fiction by non-Native writers.
Alexie offers no simple solutions and presents a disturbing climax that compromises the integrity of all settler actors whilst failing to utterly condemn them (except perhaps the shock jock) in or for their presumptiveness. As with other work by Alexie we are drawn almost unwittingly into a Native view of the world where laughter and ironic elf-deprecation becomes a defence against perpetual dislocation and fear and proto-Native settlers are shown to be hopelessly naïve or duplicitously and deludedly exploitative. For many of us this is an empathy with an Other we’re not used to seeing in these ways, but I am left (as a reader and critic) to wonder about Native readers reading work of this kind – but that is probably a research project for another life. Yet in not condemning the effects of the presumptions of settler society in the ‘Indian Killer’ case Alexie also offers a way through the problems he is grappling with – and it is that of all good fiction: an empathetic understanding of the Other, what- or whomever that might be for the particular story being told.
Yet that last paragraph makes the novel seem more explicitly political and politicised, more of a sociological and criminological tract than it really is. It is a damn fine story with rich, multi-layered and complex characters making sense of a situation that is teetering on the brink of loss of control and social order, and sometimes falling over than limit. That is to say, it is damn fine novel with engaging, sympathetic characters who while we may not necessarily like them (few are all that likeable) we can recognise them, see in them both archetypes and individuals who drive a story and allow a way into engagement. On top of that, there are enough twists and narrative disruptions to keep us as readers wondering just where we’re going next, but not so many that Alexie’s narrative becomes excessively tricksy. It is good to be reminded just why I like Alexie’s work so much: it’s well worth a read....more
With all its banality, mundanity and omnipresence, it is difficult to overrate the social, economic and cultural significance of modern, organised spoWith all its banality, mundanity and omnipresence, it is difficult to overrate the social, economic and cultural significance of modern, organised sport. It/they fill(s) our televisions stations, generate powerful economic forces (I live in Cheltenham in England; the week of writing is also the week we host the biggest event in the National Hunt calendar, a race meeting similar in size to Ascot and Epsom: it is impossible this week to escape the signs of cultural significance or economic impacts) and generally provide a potent social glue – certainly for men, and increasingly for women. Increasingly we engage with sport, and increasingly our sport is shaped, framed and structured, at a transnational level, and that’s without even going down the globalisation line.
This impressive transnational exploration of contemporary cultures and economies of sport is an important contribution to debates on national and transnational sport in a broader European context. Central to this important is the ability of most authors to approach European sport as transnational practice, and even the two papers that deal with specific national settings (Kay Schiller on East Germany in 1973 and Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff on French sport policy) manage to do so while also developing important comparative, transnational aspects of their discussions. This approach is rare in sport studies, which as a field is potently demarcated by national borders (either physical or cultural).
In weaving together analyses prioritising states, media and markets the editors have produced a collection of papers that deal with both historical and contemporary tensions in that there are aspects of the media & markets factors that challenge and disrupt the nations/states (noting the very real difference between these) dynamics of sport cultures and identities. Although in the era of neo-liberal globalisation there has been a tendency to overstate the death of the nation, there is no doubt that the movement of capital associated with financial capitalism has profoundly changed the relationship between states, markets, identities, cultural and social relations and the dynamics of power. This points to the significance of this collection beyond the world of sport studies: the mundanity and banality of sport highlights the extent and depth of these tensions as states, markets and quotidian practice all compete to assert their dominance in the meanings of sport praxis. In case we’re in any doubt about this, Toby Miller’s brief afterword highlighting sport’s key place in the New International Division of Cultural Labour and pointing to a research agenda suggested by the topics and issues traversed in these papers, bringing it all home forcefully.
One of the things the collection does well is take an inclusive and extensive definition of Europe, so there are chapters exploring Soviet physical culture and the place of (ice) hockey in Cold War politics, highlighting Soviet & Czechoslovak (is it was) inter-relations and relations the USA and Canada. As part of this expansiveness, one of the stand-out papers is Maarten von Bottenberg’s exploration of European and US sport models that rejects the myth of US exceptionalism in favour a sense of path dependency pointing to key moments of change and the dynamics and fluidity of the existing conditions – that is, a rejection of some form of essentialism in favour of a more nuanced and complex social reading of factors shaping (and in some senses determining) these models.
This critical model making is a key part of this collection (and of the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council Network Grant project Tomlinson, Young & Holt ran that lead to this book and several other publications). This means that we see efforts to propose models of mediated sport, of nation-branding in mega-events, of the regulation of sport and of the idea of a Europeanized football. All these (and essays such as Stefan Szymanski’s modelling of sport-television markets) mean that this is very definitely a piece of academic analysis – but then the collection features several of Europe’s leading sports scholars; more significantly, although not explicitly (except in Miller’s piece) this collection makes a potent case for considering sport as a cultural industry. As such, the collection deserves a readership well beyond the usual academic sport studies crew. As such, it is good to see it published in the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Culture, Economy and Society’ series, which should mark it as having a wide market.
Although I don’t expect profound transformation of a field of study to flow from a single text, I do remain frustrated that six years after it was first published we’ve barely changed from our increasingly narrow nation focus in sport studies. If nothing else, Miller’s research agenda should have pushed us further than that….. but alas it seems we’re not listening to ourselves. This is a fabulous collection worthy of much wider impact. ...more
C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary is widely proclaimed as one of the great sports books, as one of the founding books of post-colonialism and finesC. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary is widely proclaimed as one of the great sports books, as one of the founding books of post-colonialism and finest book about cricket that there is – so to propose to move Beyond C.L.R. James is a bold and provocative move. It is to their credit and that of their contributors that Nauright, Cobley & Wiggins make a good fist of the idea, of developing a series of essays that build on and extend James’ work and ideas. Before I go any further here I have to note that I am one of those contributors and only one of two (the other is Hilary Beckles) to specifically and explicitly address James’s work.
Modern sport, for all its claims to democracy, equality, meritocracy and the like has been a racialized project from the outset of the codification of games in Britain and elsewhere, and from the deployment of sport and physical culture in the European imperial and colonial projects of the 19th century. Physical culture, including sport, has been deployed in the interests of maintaining or shoring up the racial hierarchies of empire, where both play and styles of play have been used to demarcate levels and forms of civilisation – be they British cricket matches in the High Veldt or German music and dancing parties on the Samoan beach. What is more, the discourses of race and ethnicity pervade modern sport – the bogus science of the genetic advantage of the Black athlete, the reactionary cultural claims of the weak, lethargic ‘Oriental’ or the myth of ‘natural’ athleticism.
At the very heart of this book is a strident critique of these views and of the place of sport as a marker and maintainer of racialised and ethnic hierarchies and with them some critical analyses that may surprise some. The papers are varied, from the synthetic historical overview of indigenous peoples or migrant communities in national sport mythologies (Daryl Adair on Aboriginal Australians and Gerry Gems on Italian Americans) to close readings and studies of single athletes or moments (such as Verner Møller’s analysis of a case of racial vilification in English soccer or James McBean, Michael Freidman and Callie Batts on Usain Bolt’s 2008 celebratory style). There is a good representation of researchers from across the disciplines in sport studies – history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy – and of contemporary and historical topics, although it not surprising given the editors that there seems to be a stronger presence of historians than any other discipline.
As with much in the academic sports studies field, it is not an easy read – and some of the analysts draw on some difficult theoretical frames (mea culpa) but for the most part the collection rewards patience, and even the papers that I did not find all the engaging or relevant to my own work proved valuable. That said, and it may be the result of my own interests, current work and knowledge gaps that I found most rewarding the two papers dealing with South African issues – Doug Booth and John Nauright on embodied identities (even if I wasn’t all that convinced by their theories of embodiment) and Benedict Carlton & Robert Morrell on Zulu stick fighting as a form of indigenous body culture in a tense relationship with colonisation and sportisation. Others will no doubt prefer different pieces: Jennifer Lansbury’s essay Alice Coachman and Althea Gibson stood out, as did Mike Atkinson & Kevin Young on the whiteness of adventure sports; again, others will have different preferences.
For the most part, the University of Arkansas press has done a good job – the book looks elegant, bit it is marred by some proofing errors (including in my piece some missing text so all the endnotes are linked to the wrong reference – being out by one).
That said, the text is rich, varied and valuable. It opens up new debates in the history and sociology of race & ethnicity in sport. Some of its detailed studies should suggest new research projects in other locations and settings – although a conclusion drawing together some of those strands and suggesting a research agenda would have been a helpful addition....more
Some time in the mid-1980s I recall, for a reason that eludes me, finding myself – at the time an advocate and rabble-rouser of sorts (or so I liked tSome time in the mid-1980s I recall, for a reason that eludes me, finding myself – at the time an advocate and rabble-rouser of sorts (or so I liked to think of myself) – in a pricey commercial lawyer’s den. Part way through the meeting he cited the classic line from Henry IV, Pt1 “But let us kill all the lawyers”: it was the first time I’d heard Shakespeare’s advocacy of juridicide – and as the years have gone by it seems to have acquired a populist following….. Lindsey Davis, in Falco’s 15th drolly witty and oh, so cynical outing has barely a kind word for the legal profession seen here as long game charlatans, exploiting their legal and senatorial positions for corrupt self-aggrandisement and pocket lining. Contempt for lawyers has a long (fictional, at least) pedigree.
Falco, still of an equestrian ranking but with excellent noble associations and bedmate, finds himself, and Associates, the sharp Helena Justina and her senatorial brothers drawn into legal proceedings involving corruption charges, murder, blackmail and all manner of jurisprudential malfeasance that threaten mayhem and destitution. The young brothers in law are coming along nicely, the imperial post as Procurator of Juno’s Geese keeps the household in omelettes, the children of course always well-behaved and young Albia, brought back from the recent outings to Britannia, seems handy in self- and household-defence when she needs to be. But Falco and associates find themselves up against players of the long game, looking to take down, or at least fleece, a vulnerable senatorial family with a secret.
There is all the cynicism and witty dialogue we’d expect of M D Falco, rich and compelling grounding in a thoroughly plausible imperial Rome and a suitably labyrinthine plot: thoroughly enjoyable – Davis and Falco & Associates continue to delight....more
Britain’s Special Operations Executive was one of the dramatic stories of WW2 – daring behind the lines operations, supporting partizans in what becomBritain’s Special Operations Executive was one of the dramatic stories of WW2 – daring behind the lines operations, supporting partizans in what become Yugoslavia and all manner other heroic activities – but it had ceased to exist by the end of 1946, after what is usually seen as a turf war with the Security Intelligence Service (MI6). This much is true….. but in Charles Stross’ alt-world a small unit remains, working out of a London basement, combatting incursions from parallel universes, as the Cold War has ended but the struggle to defend the world against the supernatural continues.
Highly inventive, Stross rolls together the excitement of spy thrillers (think Bond, Len Deighton or any number of other British writers in this genre) with a big dollop of horror/alt-world characters a la H P Lovecraft or Buffy with a healthy dose of computer and science geekery, roll in the Saddam era Iraqi secret police, some persistent Nazis (SS units that just won’t go away, even though it involves alternative universes) and a philosophy professor with an interest in arcane logic problems and you’ve the bizarre world of The Laundry.
Stross has a superb eye for bureaucratic absurdity, babble-o-rama management-speak jobsworths and the dangers of poorly controlled inter-universe entity transfers along with a style that gives us a rollicking good yarn. What’s more, his engineering geek-speak and science-babble is thoroughly plausible and just sufficiently incomprehensible to be real, which some of it might be but big chunks of it is the delights of richly developed imagination.
All in all, lots of fun – and what’s more, it is the first of a series to keep me entertained....more
Utopias present us with all sorts of problems: to be utopian is the live in La-La-Land, a region of the impractical, the unfeasible, the impossible; iUtopias present us with all sorts of problems: to be utopian is the live in La-La-Land, a region of the impractical, the unfeasible, the impossible; it is to fail to recognise the realities on the ground that prevent the formation of that utopian ideal. What’s more, the great utopian projects of the 20th century – be it a universal utopia as modelled in the Soviet Union and Peoples’ Republic of China, or the utopia for the few as seen in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Franco’s Fascist Spain – proved to be failures, and only brought about through coercion, in itself surely a sign of non-utopia.
Yet, there is a growing interest in utopias. At the time of writing we have a new edition of Thomas More’s 1516 novel has been published with commentaries by two leading science fiction writers, while elsewhere the real utopias project associated with Erik Olin Wright has been exploring and developing ways of thinking and doing left wing politics. For many of us, the horizontalism associated with the politics of the Occupy movement, presented as a form of prefigurative politics (i.e., doing what we want the world to look like) is a form of utopian activism, while for others the way as activists we organise our daily lives includes experimenting with collectivist, liberatory politics as practice.
Not that this is necessarily new. Thoreau settled at Walden Pond, alternative lifestylers for centuries have built new ways of living – from the Levellers at St George’s Hill to commune dwellers worldwide to the survivalists who have retreated to the more remote areas of North America – all in the hope of finding a new world now. Amid all of this, it should be clear from the struggles to make sure any of these attempts hold together, to attempt to scale up our small, face-to-face utopian adventures and to get past the La-La-Land critique that there are some major conceptual challenges.
This is where Davina Cooper comes into play. She’s most interested in the most banal of utopian efforts (and in some cases it is hard to see the utopian in some of the issues she is dealing with). Whereas activist scholars such as Wright, with his more conventionally Marxist background, explicitly draws on activities that are conceived as alternatives to capitalism or a least predominantly capitalist ways of work and ownership (publicly owned cooperatives, Wikipedia and the like), Cooper explores less obviously anti-capitalist ways of doing and being. In part, this is because in some ways she seems less interested in the actual cases she is exploring than how those utopias are conceived, envisaged and made real (realised): this is not to question her obvious political commitment to at least some of the cases. Whereas Wright, for instance, is concerned with modes and forms of social change, Cooper is interested the dialogue between thinking and doing, in the issues and challenges involved in turning ideas and visions (a utopian view) into practical, on the ground activity.
All this adds up to make this a demanding and challenging read: Cooper is a political theorist and lawyer. She is not exploring examples of full immersion utopias where we live, breath and do utopian life (albeit, prefiguratively); she is interested instead in the transient, partial or momentary utopian activity, what she calls “hotspots of innovative practice” (p9), and in doing so she occupies a place in contemporary utopian studies (yes, a field of scholarly activity) that is interested in the conflicts, the processes and the choices that surround utopias, not the ideal state of perfection so often associated with the vision of Thomas More or Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The work is philosophically complex (especially for those of us grounded in more classical philosophies): Cooper draws quite extensively and for the most part implicitly on Deleuzian approaches in developing her notion of conceptual lines (linked to notions of movement and direction) to explore the associations between imagining and realisation of utopian ways. This complexity is compounded because the cases are in some cases so profoundly ordinary – state sponsored equality policies, nudist clubs and Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner – that they seem to sit uncomfortably with leftish oriented social change, but also because in many ways the forms of ‘realisation’ are so ordinary that they do not seem utopian – and this is the very power of the analysis. This ordinariness is brought into powerful contrast and given its power by the other, less ordinary, cases – a bathhouse catering to women and transsexuals, local exchange trading schemes and Summerhill School; instances few of us will have encountered.
Even so, the mainly implicit form that these philosophical and related political approaches take mean that the focus can remain on what she sees as “material practice and change” (p32) in considering utopias, rather than either some notion of utopia-as-perfection (so is unattainable) or concepts grounded in the now that maintain the status quo (so prevents change). As a result, although this is political theory and concerned with concepts as they derive from what we might see as the relations/dialogues between theory & practice, the grounding of each case study in ‘material practice’ means that the case and argument remains more accessible than had operated at the level of idealised concepts alone. Even more so because the cases explore social life through the experiences of those who are relatively powerless, via forms that are outside the mainstream. Empathetic readers can then not only find places to think from but locate themselves in places to think about in productive and exciting ways.
The banality of the examples/case studies means also that the ideas and concepts being explored and developed – ideas of gift (non-reciprocal) exchange, autonomous control, play, spaces of liberty and independence and so forth – can be considered in other banal settings: for instance, I was introduced to this work through a colleague working on spaces provided for parkour training – that is, for some a casual, for others a serious, place of leisure with implications of subversion of both sport and body practices and of the city. The notion of everyday utopias allows us to consider those moments of freedom in our ordinary lives, consider how the ideas and concepts we use to make sense of those places and their associated practices enhance and are enhanced by those moments of freedom.
This is a rich, in places dense, and demanding scholarly text – but a valuable one, even for those of us more concerned about intentional real and everyday utopias. ...more
Sardonic, delightfully twisting with a degree of satisfaction as the (anti)hero delivers a poke-in-the-eye to power or oppression (sides of the same cSardonic, delightfully twisting with a degree of satisfaction as the (anti)hero delivers a poke-in-the-eye to power or oppression (sides of the same coin in noir-world): I enjoy a good bit of noir-land. In this case it is woven into 14 stories native lead characters or native themes, mainly in the US mainland but taking in Puerto Rico and Canada and for the most part written by native authors. There are tales of revenge, of self-protection, of the grime-laden world outside the confines of what the law usually (or ever) allows.
Several of the stories are unremittingly bleak, where either a racist system, attitude or bad choices and a combination of all three conspire to drive the (anti)hero to misery, destitution or an untimely end. With one exception there is a welcome absence of mysticism, while there is a decent handful of femmes fatale, one seemingly murderous child and another cynical exploitation of indigenous political movements.
Yet, the thing noir does best is the power it gives to the powerless; the outsider is often the one who comes out best – even if that is the remain alive. Even when he does, one central character strikes a blow against contemporary exploitation as well as the personal costs of living in a colonial régime where even those who try to do good do damage.
Aside from the most bleak – four contemporary and historical tales – and one where it is clear that no good can come of anything each of these stories leads to a satisfying sense of come-uppance and (anti)heroic success. Despite that sense of satisfaction, short story collections are always a mixed bag, whether multi- or single-authored: for the most part however this collection is rewarding, and has introduced me to a group of native authors I’d not met before – I’ll certainly be looking for more by Mistina Bates and A A HedgeCoke....more
This sparse, moving collection of poems and photos continues and extends Harvey’s ‘war’ project, seen in her two most recent albums Let England ShakeThis sparse, moving collection of poems and photos continues and extends Harvey’s ‘war’ project, seen in her two most recent albums Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project in which she explores the experience, the emotions and the memorialisation of wars.
Focussing on three sites of conflict – Kosovo/Kosova, Afghanistan and Washington DC – Harvey’s clean, in places sparse, poetry and Murphy’s unsettling photos grapple with past and present conflicts, continuing and unknown (or a least unrecognised) sites of war. In Kosovo, a military conflict over in the 1990s is shown as continuing to live in the towns, villages and countryside of what is now a small, disputed European state. These are photos of continuing, banal existence in the context of a war of ethnic cleansing – burnt out houses, dead livestock, absent corpses, the everyday ordinariness of loss. Alongside these, Harvey’s poetry speaks of the continuing the presence of those that otherwise seem absent (that is, of the potency of memory in evoking the past in the present) and the continual sense that there might just be some return to a former balance, while acknowledging that that can never be.
If Kosovo is war’s past, Afghanistan is war’s continuing presence, its continuing marred landscapes that are open but inaccessible, while in use by virtue of necessity. The corpses are present here, the gaols empty but a looming threat, the livestock living, the people’s blank faces psychologically scarred and the cricket just a little desperate. The recurring poetic theme is the beggars, in need of a dollar – a failure of liberation by vengeful war. This theme is accompanied by efforts made to ensure empathy, to understand; by being lead to the experiences unseen by outsiders but that make universal the experience of military conflict; of the persistence and longevity of the detritus of war. This, the largest section of the three, is a condemnation of a poorly conceived war in an inadequately understood environment accompanied by the arrogance of a correctness on behalf of those being liberated.
It’s the Washington DC section that is, in some ways, the most unsettling. Here is the cockpit driving the Afghan experience, while the focus is not on the military adventurism abroad but conditions of life for the city’s low income, working class, principally but far from exclusively Black population – which I cannot avoid reading as one side of DC’s class war. There is beauty and poverty, exhaustion and debate, work and affection – and in poetic form persistence, resilience, memorialisation and a sense of the playfulness of the everyday, along with the beggars failed by the war on poverty and failed now. By including the federal capital the collection points to something rotten at the core of global superpowerdom, suggesting a global dynamic of shared loss.
Murphy’s eye is near flawless, challenging and evoking the ways we see. Harvey’s poetry is clean, sparse and in places deceptively simple. It may be my yearning for the archive, but I would have liked to have known a little more about the photos. Even so, it is well worth it to stop off in the hollow of this hand....more