Issue #12: Contemporary Politics and Historical Representation
In nonsite’s 12th issue, a collection of views on the meaning and uses of postcolonial theory in and around modern Poland, plus photography and ’sixties Paris and a feature essay on Thomas Piketty’s celebrated Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Inside the issue
For admirers of the work of Walter Benjamin, a translation of Paul Scheerbart’s Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel is a major event. Benjamin’s interest in Scheerbart spans the whole of his career, from Gershom Scholem’s gifting him the book at his wedding to an essay on Scheerbart written near the end of his life. Most significantly, Benjamin intended to write an extensive essay on the book that was meant as a fulfillment of the claims set out in “The Destructive Character” and was to be provocatively entitled “The True Politician.” As the Benjamin literature grows, so does Scheerbart’s reputation.
Study death. Learn it by heart. Following to the rules of spelling dead words. Spell it together like commonwealth or toadflax. Do not split it among the dead.
Let’s start from fundamental, and at the same time quite obvious remark: literature operates with language, which in its nature is national, or ethnic (which of course is not the same). Literature, including modern literature, is always mediated by language, whether it would be a language of the colonized, or the colonizer. Participation in modern culture, universal, cosmopolitan “imagined community,” thus, is always mediated by language, or languages, i.e. “indirect” in its nature.
The ideas and convictions expressed by the Polish conservative adherents to postcolonial theory that Bill so eloquently analyzes are just a new articulation of an attitude long established in Polish culture: the one of an alternative and indigenous modernity sharply contrasting with the content of Western modernism, to use above-mentioned Jameson’s notion. What the Polish adherents of the postcolonial studies advocate is not a simple rejection of modernity tout court, an attitude that can nowadays be found in such places as Bhutan, but rather a perverse deviation from modernity: modernization without modernism.
The notion of postcolonial theory has been floating around the Polish intellectual scene for the last ten years like a colorful balloon that nobody can ever quite capture or claim. Given the country’s experience of foreign occupation and domination throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and an earlier quasi-colonial history of its own in present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine – postcolonial theory seems at first glance to open some intriguing possibilities in Polish historical, political, sociological, cultural and literary studies. Indeed, various scholars in all these fields have advocated a turn towards it, though the discussion has generally failed to advance far beyond repeated prefatory remarks and prolegomena. Postcolonial theory in Poland increasingly resembles an unrealized possibility that has somehow already exhausted its creative potential – a stillborn theory.
Like the ideology undergirding Occupy Wall Street, Piketty’s book exhibits a marked lack of historical consciousness and complexity. Like Occupy Wall Street, it confuses capitalism with capitalist social relations. And thus both protest and text imagine solutions without politics, lack coherence regarding the necessity for a revaluation of labor and a shrinking of the moral confines of the market, and hope for a better world sans class politics as a mechanism.
Doesn’t the image’s power lie in its proliferation of meanings? So what is the point of arguing for such autonomy? Is it possible to separate ourselves from all the forces that teach us how to act in a room with an artwork?
Another way of putting this is to say that the violence of the frame consists above all in making our lives as irrelevant as hers, and it’s in this indifference to our particularity (this allegorizing of its irrelevance) that I locate the politics of Kydd’s work.
Even the seeming agency of individual taste becomes an ossified representation of categorized, predictable choices and habits such that, according to class, education, and political leanings, individuals could be predicted to demonstrate affinities for Bach or Brassens, Le Monde or Le Figaro, tennis or football, a tidy or a harmoniously designed home.
How do we decide what factors are wheat and what are circumstantial chaff? Once we have, can we say that we are attending to history, or should we rather say that we are producing a carefully counterfactual story of our past history with the right features to motivate action in the present that suits our present sensibilities? Or, to put the matter in terms of the question I want to ask, does history provide evidence of historical consciousness (as opposed to antihistoricism) as a necessary condition of class-driven politics? This is the matter Adams assumes, and which I want to make explicit.