Sunday, July 27, 2014

What I Should Have Said

It is so nice to hear again about your two-day business trip to Bali years (or was it already decades ago?) when you "didn't even see the beach," but don't you think it would make more sense to instead engage in a real conversation with me. I might suggest: "You recently returned from a month-long research trip to Central Europe where you met many astute people and gained some important insights into the nature of historicization regarding the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of communism. Perhaps you can tell us about it."

New friends wanted.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Gaza

No, we do not have to accept the status quo. We do not have to accept the fact that our nation unqualifiedly supports Israel. We can hold our representatives accountable. We can insist that those who represent us actually represent us. We can demand a voice for those who abhor the actions of Israel in Gaza. We can insist that our taxes no longer fund Israel's wars of choice. We can insist that Israel does not get to engage in war with impunity. We can call for justice. We can call for peace. We can refuse to answer the outrageous claims of antisemitism. We can refuse to jump on the Zionist bandwagon. We can refuse to let our foreign policy erode our security. We can refuse to be blackmailed by invocations of Auschwitz (with much appreciation and respect for Isaac Deutscher). We can live to see a free, decolonized, and secure Palestine. We can advocate for justice. We can agitate for peace. We can demand that Israel stop perpetuating and escalating the cycle of violence. We can insist that ethics trumps rhetoric and propaganda. We can insist on a higher standard for nationhood than religion, ethnicity, or other nineteenth-century criteria. We can raise ourselves to a higher standard. We can learn to love peace. We can dismantle the machines of war. We can become peace. We can be peace. We are peace. Starting today.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Taxonomies

What we call things, and how we classify those things, is necessarily an abstraction. We take what we perceive to be individual items and group them together according to some imposed or perceived structure, a commonality among them. Or we take a group, a collective, a mass, and individuate its various components. How we go about this process reveals our own ideological blindspots.

My project this summer concerns how architecture and public spaces, public art, serve to commemorate, preserve, or efface Central Europe's communist past. Before this week, I've always conflated the first two terms into something like commemorate/preserve. Part of my past reserach includes the Holocaust, the Shoah, and I think it must have been from that experience that I learned to put these terms together in such a way. 

To commemorate, according to Holocaust discourse, is always to preserve, to never forget. It is to bring up again and again. Preservation (of the camps, of the records) allows for commemoration to take place, both in the world as well as in thought.

After this week I now understand that those two terms do not quite as easily fit together. The slash produces an inauthentic experience insofar as my current project is concerned. 

Here, to perserve is to ascribe value to the event, place, person, thing. Because of the value we place upon the past (to resort to an easy metonymy), we want to keep it around, preferably in its original condition. (I realize the problematics of my language: what is original? is a thing's condition an inherent aspect of the thing itself or an ascribed or imposed estimation, perhaps as a result from our own ideological conditioning? etc.)

To commemorate, in this context, is to also ascribe value to the past, albeit a negative value. We remember so as to remind ourselves of our history of trauma, to never forget how terrible it was. In this way, commemoration is a critical act. Preservation, on the other hand, serves to celebrate in some way the achievements of the past as it was in its lived experience.

We attempt to preserve the sculpture from the normalization period (basically post-Prague Spring (1968) to the Velvet Revolution (November 1989)). But we commemorate by way of plaques, memorials, and statues the student Jan Palach, who early in 1969 set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation. On one side, we value what was created under extraordinary circumstances; on the other, the way in which one hero-dissident challenged those circumstances. 

Both camps have their heroes and villians, and often we can't really tell who is who. Heroism and villany never take place in a vacuum, after all. Trying to make sense of how this dynamic plays out in the public sphere and beginning to ask these questions 25 years after the Velvet Revolution is my own attempt to help articulate a path forward for not only these two (remember: already abstracted) groups but also the group who would rather forget the past altogether at any cost and can only ascribe value to the present or to the future.


These are some of my accomplishments today: visiting DOX, the Center for Contemporary Art, where I purchased the massive volume Aliens and Herons, which was edited by an artist/activist I interviewed Monday. The book is a collection of essays and photographs of sculptures around Prague that were constructed during the period of normalization. And here, too, is my press credential so I could attend the reSITE conference on architecture and urban design. The keynote this afternoon was Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic from The New York Times.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Corpulent Force

I've been to Prague several times before, both as a tourist and as a student. When I was here in the summer of 2001, I studied political and economic theory at Charles University through a program at Georgetown.

It was a terrible course. At least the economics professor was a terrible old school, neoliberal bullshit theorist who didn't teach so much as pontificate about the inherent value of the so-called free market. My disaffected friends and I--the rare, truly critical students among us--dubbed his theory Fat-Bastard Economics. Not only was he mistakenly and misleadingly proposing capitalism as the only true path toward enlightenment, but he was truly a fat bastard. I'm talking at least 400 pounds.

If you were to search his name online, you would find that he is a well-respected economics professor with several publications. You will also find, surprisingly enough, that he is an award-winning athlete not just in the distant past but now as well.

He slobbered, sweated, and huffed his way along the cobblestone paths of Prague for a week and a half. I didn't hate him because he was fat, though. Some of my best friends are fat. I hated him because he represented to me--in the most literal of ways--everything that was low, base, and corrupt about America, about its hegemonic, systemic culture of violence and economic injustice. Fat as violence, fat as it reveals itself as terror.

The other American students in the program all seemed to worship him as the fattened golden calf of Kapital. I knew as soon as I met them at my connecting flight at JFK that I would have nothing in common with them except the color of our passport covers. One of the things that tipped me off was the leading question posed to me shortly after I arrived from Dallas: "People in Texas love George Bush, don't they?" My simple answer: no.

Over the course of the program, that same inquisitive woman also revealed how terrified she was of China taking over, although she really couldn't decided who frightened her the most, the Chinese or the Russians. Her father was on the board of the truly despicable organization who ran this program through Georgetown. At least that explained how she ended up in Prague.

The summer of 2001 was really a still moment in the otherwise chaotic maelstrom of history. It was the time between the US government's execution of Timothy McVeigh for perpetrating the greatest terrorist act in American history and the subsequent greatest terrorist act in American history. Looking back, it's pathetic how naive we all were. On September 11, 2001, I thought of this poor, already terrified woman and laughed, "She now has a new contender for those who would frighten her the most."

On that day she probably thought--assuming, of course, that she was capable of thought--that if only those Arabs had had capitalism and a free-market economy, then America would still be safe, never realizing that the violence perpetrated by the US might also be a possible contender.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Crimean Tense: When Past Is Present

Referencing the past is a weak form of analysis and one that offers little insight to the current situation in Ukraine. The Russian occupation of Crimea is distinctly not like the Soviet invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. In the current situation, the Russian invaders and occupiers of Crimea altogether deny being Russian in the first place. These soldiers wear no insignia that would undeniably link them to Russia, although everyone knows that they are indeed members of the Russian military. No other nation has announced it is missing an army or claimed them as its own. It was not until a few days ago that one of the soldiers slipped and confessed his nationality. Can we really imagine a Hungarian in 1956 or Czechoslovak in 1968—or even a Georgian in 2008—wondering, Now who could this invading army be?

This ruse seems to be Putin’s attempt toward plausible deniability, except that from the very beginning of the occupation, everyone already either knew or assumed that it was indeed the Russian military coming ashore. Can it be a masquerade if nobody is really fooled? Isn’t a masquerade precisely when a person pretends to be someone else instead of pretending to be no one at all? Camouflage only works on the surface. In fact, there seems to have been some concern on the part of the Crimean Tartars that these Russians might indeed try to impersonate them in order to incite to action the other ethnic groups (Russians, Ukrainians) who call the peninsula home. Such potential impersonations and incitements invite comparisons to the Boston Tea Party, when, as the story goes, the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Native Americans, dumped tea in Boston Harbor.

The Russian claim that Russians (and Russian speakers) are being targeted by the new government in Kyiv also invites allusions to the Sudetenland. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that Ukrainians (that is, specifically, the new government in Kyiv but also more generally the citizens of Ukraine who are and have always been speakers of Ukrainian and/or Russian) are seeking to outlaw the Russian language or otherwise diminish the role of Russian speakers in Ukraine. There is no question that the upheavals and revolutions of the past several years might be cause for alarm or suspicion within minority communities. There does indeed seem to be a concerted push to repeal a recent law that asserted the legal status of minority languages, including Russian, within certain levels of government, mostly municipal or regional jurisdictions. However, the law is still on the books. And Crimea continues to enjoy its particular state of autonomy granted it since Khrushchev handed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. The peninsula’s autonomy, too, was enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution of 1996. 

It is truly unfortunate that we do not get to wallow in our nostalgia for long, celebrating our always anachronistic misunderstanding of the Cold War, when a sharp division between us and them seemed to exist. Whether it be the Berlin Wall or the 38th parallel north, exact borders are always a myth. Ask anyone, for example, who lives on the 37th or 39th parallels. It should be no surprise to us, then, that a land literally called “the border” should occupy such a contested space geographically as well as such a liminal space in history or in the Western mind. Nor, I suppose, should we be surprised that so many journalists and pundits keep referring to “the Ukraine”—a country that hasn’t existed in twenty-three years!

Just as precise borders are a fiction, so, too, is the past. We always already misunderstand the stories our predecessors told themselves in order to make sense of their world. Resorting to the past, then, especially in a time of crisis, will never offer any new insight into the present, which already recedes into the historical.

The past is past. However, Putin’s worldview is not necessarily in the past. Sure, in the West we have been celebrating the end of history since 1989 or 1991 or whenever Fukuyama published his insipid book. But while we were partying in the time after time, history, as far as Moscow was concerned, continued marching forward. The hegemonic West, specifically the US, is suspended in amber for Putin and his co-oligarchs. We are the same depraved, neocolonial world power we always were accused of being by Russia. If we in the West are living in the past, however, then it’s fair to say that the past itself is living in Putin.

One thing that has changed over the past few decades is Russia’s standing in the world. As the Soviet Union, Russia had a vast empire consolidated under a red banner that offered an altogether different ideology from the West. But now, today, Russia’s security and stability are becoming more and more unhinged. By overtaking and occupying Crimea, Putin hopes to maintain a firm grasp on a place and time that will necessarily continue to slip from his hands.

In the same way that “Balkanize” became a sexy term to describe how nations violently fracture and fragment along ethnic and ideological lines, I propose we adopt the unwieldy adjective “Crimeanize” to denote that aspect of nostalgic longing for a past that never existed that ends up destroying all hopes for a realistic understanding of the present. Admittedly, this is not a good way to understand the current situation in Ukraine, but unfortunately it is a good way to understand much of the so-called expert opinion on the matter flowing from the mouths of politicians, pundits, journalists, and historians alike.