Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arabs are Democracy's New Pioneers

One challenge facing observers of the uprisings spreading across north Africa and the Middle East is to read them as not so many repetitions of the past but as original experiments that open new political possibilities, relevant well beyond the region, for freedom and democracy. Indeed, our hope is that through this cycle of struggles the Arab world becomes for the next decade what Latin America was for the last – that is, a laboratory of political experimentation between powerful social movements and progressive governments from Argentina to Venezuela, and from Brazil to Bolivia.

These revolts have immediately performed a kind of ideological house-cleaning, sweeping away the racist conceptions of a clash of civilisations that consign Arab politics to the past. The multitudes in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi shatter the political stereotypes that Arabs are constrained to the choice between secular dictatorships and fanatical theocracies, or that Muslims are somehow incapable of freedom and democracy. Even calling these struggles "revolutions" seems to mislead commentators who assume the progression of events must obey the logic of 1789 or 1917, or some other past European rebellion against kings and czars.

These Arab revolts ignited around the issue of unemployment, and at their centre have been highly educated youth with frustrated ambitions – a population that has much in common with protesting students in London and Rome. Although the primary demand throughout the Arab world focuses on the end to tyranny and authoritarian governments, behind this single cry stands a series of social demands about work and life not only to end dependency and poverty but to give power and autonomy to an intelligent, highly capable population. That Zine al-Avidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi leave power is only the first step.

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it's Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google's head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don't understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously.

Although these organised network movements refuse central leadership, they must nonetheless consolidate their demands in a new constituent process that links the most active segments of the rebellion to the needs of the population at large. The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression – not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

And given that these uprisings were sparked by not only widespread unemployment and poverty but also a generalised sense of by frustrated productive and expressive capacities, especially among young people, a radical constitutional response must invent a common plan to manage natural resources and social production. This is a threshold through which neoliberalism cannot pass and capitalism is put to question. And Islamic rule is completely inadequate to meet these needs. Here insurrection touches on not only the equilibriums of north Africa and the Middle East but also the global system of economic governance.

Hence our hope for the cycle of struggles spreading in the Arab world to become like Latin America, to inspire political movements and raise aspirations for freedom and democracy beyond the region. Each revolt, of course, may fail: tyrants may unleash bloody repression; military juntas may try to remain in power; traditional opposition groups may attempt to hijack movements; and religious hierarchies may jockey to take control. But what will not die are the political demands and desires that have been unleashed, the expressions of an intelligent young generation for a different life in which they can put their capacities to use.

As long as those demands and desires live, the cycle of struggles will continue. The question is what these new experiments in freedom and democracy will teach the world over the next decade.

Text by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Source:, Thursday 24 February 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011


This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.

Elisabeth Bishop

Wall Photo

9 Φεβρουαρίου, η τελευταία ανάρτηση του Νίκου Αλεξίου στο facebook
(Νοεμ. 11, 1960- Φεβ. 25,2011)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Victor Hugo and Nicolas Flamel

There is nothing legendary about the life of Nicolas Flamel. According to the records, he was born in 1330 and died in 1418. He was a real person, who became one of the greatest alchemists in the world. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris contains works copied in his own hand and original works written by him. All the official documents relating to his life have been found: his marriage contract, his deeds of gift, his will. His history rests solidly on those substantial material proofs for which men clamor if they are to believe in obvious things. To this indisputably authentic history, legend has added a few flowers. But in every spot where the flowers of legend grow, underneath there is the solid earth of truth. -- Reginald Merton

Whether one believes Flamel was able to turn any material into gold, or discovered the Philosopher's Stone and achieved immortality, are but a few of the flowers. His name and legend has definitely been revived in the hearts and minds of the world by J.K. Rowling's children's novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

While in exile on the Island of Jersey, between 1853 and 1855, Victor Hugo participated in a series of seances, or 'table turnings', where he claimed to have communicated with several famous spirits. He wrote the conversations down, but some skeptics might claim the conversations were the conscious or unconscious by-product of a very creative mind -- which no one disputes Victor Hugo had.

The spirit of Nicolas Flamel made one appearance - on July 26, 1854, 9:25 pm.

The above image was channeled/drawn by Hugo the night Nicolas Flamel made his appearance on the Island of Jersey. Flamel's 'signature' appears in the upper left. The conversation in part focused on what those beings who lived on the planet of Mercury looked like:

[A Mercurian] " has six torches/suns [globular bodies attached to the creatures]; two eyes which are always open; an enormous head, but very light; a long but very slender body; it doesn't eat solid material, but rather liquid; it doesn't breathe, but shines instead; it has a spouse. -- Conversations with Eternity, translated with commentary by John Chambers, p. 153, © 1998.

Victor Hugo had shown interest in Nicolas Flamel prior to his exile on Jersey. Hugo referenced Flamel several times in Notre Dame de Paris, which was published in 1831, when Hugo was only 29.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Balam Bartolomé, Wonderland I 10 x 15 in.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The stigma of Japan's 'suicide apartments'

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and on average nearly 100 people take their own lives every day.
But where those deaths take place has a big impact on families left behind.
In a stuffy apartment in Sendai, the air blue with smoke from cigarettes, a father kneels in prayer.
Lighting incense sticks and ringing a bell before the family altar, an ornate wooden cupboard.
His daughter's photograph is not inside alongside the other ancestors, it is still on the bookshelf.
Putting it there would be a final acceptance that she has gone, that two years ago he found her body in her rented Tokyo flat.
She was only 22 and her father cannot face that yet.

"When I realised she was dead I just could not move and I could not think at all," he says.

"I could not take in what happened. I thought there is really no God in this world at all. That is what I remember from that day."

Only the father, and his former wife, the young woman's mother, know their daughter took an overdose.
Other relatives and friends have never been told it was suicide, so he does not want his name to be used.
It was not long after the death that he got another shock - this time a letter from his daughter's landlord.

"We held her funeral at the end of March," he remembers.

"The bill for renovating the flat came in April, then a demand for compensation for lost rent in May. So it was one after another.

This father is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too

"The only thing I could think about was my lost daughter. So when I was getting those bills, I had no will or strength to negotiate or resist."

In all he paid more than £18,650 ($30,000).
Purification rituals

Japan has a historic tradition of ritual suicide as an honourable way out. But as the number of people killing themselves has risen, public unease has grown.
Few would choose to rent an apartment where a previous occupant had taken their own life. So a death is frequently followed by a demand for money.

"There are a lot of them," says Sachiko Tanaka who set up a support group for the families of suicides after her own son died.

"Mostly it's compensation for loss of rent for flats. The biggest was 120m yen (£900,000). The claim was that the entire apartment building was worthless because one person committed suicide there. So they have to pay to rebuild it."

Many families are also required to pay for expensive purification rituals.
The support group is dealing with around 200 complaints of excessive demands from landlords and she is calling for a change in the law.

Already some estate agents are keen to help the bereaved.
Yoshihiro Kanuma has what he calls a difficult house on his books. He was motivated to take it on by his devout Buddhism

Nine out of 10 people don't want anything to do with the house, says estate agent Yoshihiro Kanuma

It is an ordinary-looking place, a few years old - what the trade in Japan calls a 3LDK; three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, in a commuter town outside Tokyo.
The tour takes in the master bedroom, with a view over a paddy field, but then he has to tell potential buyers that the last owner hanged himself on the stairs.

"Nine out of 10 people say I don't want anything to do with the house," he says.

"The Japanese may think the house is stained. I guess some may say it's heroic to take your own life but in terms of a house it's not viewed that way. We feel the house is not pure and it will bring unhappiness. I personally think the house itself has no responsibility but lots of Japanese feel that way."

Mr Kanuma has managed to persuade one family to put in an offer which has been accepted - half the price of other houses in the area.
Back in Sendai the bereaved father sits silently in his chair, and lights up another cigarette.
He admits he has turned into a recluse, and says he would like to die himself.
Compared to the loss of his daughter the money is nothing, but like many Japanese he is suffering not just bereavement, but financial hardship too

Text by Roland Buerk, 10 February 2011
BBC News, Sendai

Merle Haggard - Okie From Muskogee

Merle Haggard - Okie From Muskogee (1969 color clip)

The Tale of the Cables. Reading WikiLeaks as literature

Much of the furor over last November's WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables concerned the alleged harm that the airing of sensitive American intelligence would do to the United States on the global stage. Vice President Joe Biden denounced WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a "high-tech terrorist," with plenty of conservative commentators chiming in to call for Assange's prosecution under treason, espionage, or conspiracy charges—or for, what the hell, his contract assassination by the CIA.

True, the cables show that there was plenty of unsavory, if unsurprising, behind-the-scenes intrigue at most US embassy operations, involving everything from the proposed wiretapping of UN diplomats to the packaging of ambassadorial favors as inducements for lesser European powers to house terror detainees in extralegal "black sites." In the main, however, bombshell revelations didn't abound. Indeed, the leaked cables were more noteworthy for their rendering of the telling details and catty observations that make up the often-mundane business of embassy work abroad. The cables reveal far more about the simple human vanity that comically undermines the sober public images cultivated by autocratic ruling families than they do, for instance, about how this or that major player planned to radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

The WikiLeaks cables, in other words, read more compellingly as a kind of literature. True, they don't exactly evoke Tolstoy, Graham Greene, or even John le Carré. But diplomats are trained to chronicle the same tics and quirks of character that masters of fiction carefully record—and often with the same aim, of penetrating the surface equanimity of the characters they depict in order to win through to some more essential truths about their motivations. There's a reason, after all, that the fictional world, like the diplomatic one, is governed by plots—and that both fields share a comfort with moral ambiguity and casual deception that you don't find in most other endeavors. So it's probably a good idea to approach the cables not as the work of grand strategists like George Kennan, but rather as something akin to the chill, satiric portraits brought off by Patricia Highsmith, who famously said she was principally "interested in the effect of guilt" on her creations.

I've read a good number of the WikiLeaks cables and have found plenty of material that could have come straight from Highsmith's caustic pen. And when you see the written work of our diplomatic corps from that slantwise perspective, it can allay some of your worst fears about the course of American empire. As the catastrophic invasion of Iraq should have taught us, it's always better to have connoisseurs of human folly implementing your policies than true believers. Here, at any rate, is a fairly representative sample of the genre, filtered through my own obsession with the global energy business.


In the initial entry of a series of cables on the most influential families in Azerbaijan—titled, with refreshing candor, "Azerbaijan: Who Owns What?"—an embassy hand notes that the country's First Lady has managed a sort of trifecta in phony civic achievement: "Mehriban Aliyeva, besides being the wife of the President, is a Member of Parliament and head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a non-transparent organization that bills itself as a vehicle for charitable works."

Things get less decorous from there. "The Pashayev women are known to be fashion-conscious and daring, far more so than the average woman in majority-Muslim Azerbaijan," we learn. And then, with the word-mincing prelude out of the way: "Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world. . . . On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression."

The First Lady's reconstructive work also created an issue of some delicacy when Second Lady Lynne Cheney arrived for a state dinner in September 2008. Flanked by her two daughters, Aliyeva didn't immediately present herself as the matron of the trio, so the crack embassy staff had to make some quick calculations in order to tell the Secret Service whom to introduce to whom. "Emboffs"—embassy officials, in cable jargon—"and White House staff studied the three for several moments, and then Emboff said, 'Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.'"

Then there's Aliyeva's better half, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, whom a cable sums up as "Michael (Corleone) on the outside, Sonny on the inside." As the dispatch explains, "He typically devises [foreign policy] with pragmatism, restraint and a helpful bias toward integration with the West, yet at home his policies have become increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views."

A waggish dispatch called "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstani Leadership" begins by drily recounting that political elites in the former Soviet republic "appear to enjoy typical hobbies—such as travel, horseback riding, and skiing." But then the cable goes on to observe that the country's oil-besotted leaders "are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates."

As a representative study, the cable notes that in 2007 "President Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, celebrated his 41st birthday in grand style. At a small venue in Almaty, he hosted a private concert with some of Russia's biggest pop-stars. The headliner, however, was Elton John, to whom he reportedly paid one million pounds for this one-time appearance. (Note: The British Ambassador relayed a slightly different story, with an unknown but obviously well-heeled friend arranging and paying for Sir Elton's gig. End Comment.)"

There are also several illuminating cables from Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic now run by an autocratic clan. One cable from 2005 recounts a powerful First Daughter who is looking to burnish her public image. The Uzbek press, the cablist informs us, has lately run an "unusual series of articles promoting the virtue and selflessness of Gulnora Karimova," who is said to harbor ambitions of succeeding her father (perhaps best known internationally for gunning down and periodically boiling alive his political opponents).

But the strategy doesn't seem to be taking. "Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way," said the cable writer. In one interview with an Uzbek paper, the dispatch continued, Karimova portrayed herself as "a highly principled person who listens to her conscience" and "went so far as to say that people treat you the way you treat them, and if you don't treat others well, you will 'find yourself in a blind alley.'" The correspondent then archly noted: "The many people crushed by Karimova would likely relish the chance to catch her blind in an alley." Even with the press campaign to improve her image, Karimova's "charm offensive will not likely make her more popular; she remains the single most hated person in the country. (Comment: We have no polling data to support that statement, but we stand by it. End comment.)"

Incidentally, some five years later, Karimova launched a new line of attack in her charm offensive by bringing Sting to Uzbekistan for a concert and to accompany her to a "cultural festival" she sponsored. When attacked by critics, Sting, who was reportedly paid as much as three million dollars for the trip, defended himself by saying that UNICEF had cosponsored the concert, which turned out to be false, and that while he was "well aware of the Uzbek president's appalling reputation in the field of human rights," he went to Uzbekistan anyway because he had "come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art." The statement didn't specify whether Sting reached that conclusion before or after he cashed his check.

Nor do the subtler protocols of a foreign political order escape the discerning eye of a properly trained US embassy official. In the staggeringly grim republic of Turkmenistan, one cable notes somewhat ruefully that given the rampant state of official bribery in the capital city of Ashgabat, "U.S. anti-corruption laws [add] a new layer of complexity and uncertainty for U.S. firms wishing to do business here." Another dispatch, meanwhile, handicaps the prospects for enhancing public trust under the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov as dim indeed. "Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is," this cable writer relates. "Since he's not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people."

The point about the president's suspicious nature certainly seems well founded, as another cable from Turkmenistan shows: "There have been reports about a recent incident in which a motorist crossed an intersection in front [of] President Berdimuhamedov's motorcade as it moved through Ashgabat. Several high-ranking police officials were fired after the incident, and the driver of the vehicle was reportedly beaten and charged with attempted assassination. In another incident, a military official was fired after a cat ran in front of the president's car as he was traveling to his dacha."


Of course, WikiLeaks detractors wave away such vignettes as a sign of the petty, status-obsessed outlook of the genteel US diplomatic corps. But I prefer to think that, like many a literary innovator, the authors of these cables point a way forward to a fuller account of our common life in the not-too-distant future. It was, after all, Shelley who said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

As any impartial observer will tell you, our own resource-rich republic shows plenty of civic wear and tear these days, with oligarchs of the political class freed under the dispensations of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling to convert all manner of public institutions into private playthings. And if the rulers of the Caspian have bought Elton John and Sting, we have the example here of David Brooks—a defense contractor who grew rich selling body armor of dubious quality to the Pentagon and who was recently sentenced to prison for stock fraud and looting his own company—having hired 50 Cent, the Eagles, Tom Petty, and Aerosmith to perform at his daughter's bat mitzvah.

While we may still be some distance from career military leaders being cashiered over the sudden appearance of a wayward cat, it's not that big a leap. The only significant difference may be that in a Sarah Palin administration—speaking of vainglorious custodians of oil-republic wealth—civil servants will be advanced by a strict count of the number of cats they bag.

Text by Ken Silverstein, Feb/Mar 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Butterfly Effect

Are you really sure that a floor can't also be a ceiling?' by Bik Van der Pol, image courtesy of MACRO

Public art is gaining a more and more significant position in today´s art scene, in the time of the domination of "liberal capitalism" that imposes privatisation of urban space and social system all around the world. Paradoxically, more and more "public art" projects are being funded and even organised by private sectors while the public authorities are increasingly retreating from the mission both due to financial and ideological crisis... How much public art can still make sense in such a context? How to imagine and implement relevant visions, forms and strategies to engage with this contradictory reality? At the end, is public art, like public sphere itself, a utopia in this age of privatisation? Is there anyway to make it realisable and meaningful for ordinary people in order to re-activate debates and projects of reclaiming the rule of democracy? And, facing the urgent issues of our society today such as economic, cultural, political and ecological crisis, how much the art world and the powerful ones - both public and private authorities - can resume their responsibilities to take initiatives to propose intellectual, ideological and spiritual ideas for improvements of the society?

Are you really sure that a floor can't also be a ceiling?' by bik van der pol

Therefore, public art becomes crucial for the survival of our society. This is a true battle.

Bik van der Pol are among those who have been acting on the frontline of such a battlefield for the last two decades. Based in Rotterdam, the Netherland and consisting of Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol, the collective has been actively exploring the notion of public-ness and its impacts on various contexts across Europe and other parts of the world. Their projects, systematically conceived for specific venues as devices of memory, knowledge production and communication/collaboration with different communities. The outcomes are utopian and radical proposals for transformation of communal spaces in order to produce new forms of social life and public realm. Exploiting both physical and psychological dimensions, and dynamically engaging social dialogues, they often turn up to be provocative and enlightening.

Referring to common heritages of modern and contemporary utopias evoked in recent history , their work is frequently related to invention of new architectural forms, often resorting to temporary constructions that provide new spaces for public interactions - ranging from mobile cinema to diving platform, from public library to multimedia interfaces ... More than often, the interventional projects of Bik Van der Pol leave highly inspiring and enduring legacies in the communities where they take place. This long term effect successfully extends the significance of artistic activities as a major resource of collective and social imagination and critical reflection - an efficient form of reality check.

Bik van der Pol understand that ecological crisis and related issues are increasingly central to the debate of the common good of our society today. They tackle the question of environment as a main part of their artistic and sociological reflection and production. Environment, or Biosphere, is now understood as a key public sphere in which human beings are striving to rescue and improve the harmonious relationship with nature after much damage of natural conditions of our existence due to over-exploitation driven by our own activities. It´s at first social, cultural and hence political - an intense territory of change and exchange in terms of production of common projects for our survival. For the occasion of the Enel Award, referring both to the emblematic Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe as an ultimate example of human pursuit for the harmony with Nature and the scientific theory of Butterfly Effect they propose to create an environmental structure in the heart of the Eternal City - Rome, to incarnate the complexity, contradiction and fate of our world. Combining a human living device and a gathering niche for butterflies, or the "indicator species" that can not only play the role of pollinator for plants but also change completely the giant system of Nature by simply vibrating their thin wings, the structure functions as a condensed environmental machine that constantly reminds the fragility of our Environment, or the true public sphere. On the other hand, like the contemporary technology of virtual reality, this machine that embodies "virtually" the key negotiation between Man and Nature invites and relies on the interaction with its users, namely the public. Walking around and through the structure and contemplating the beautiful modernist architecture and the massive and energetic movement of the butterflies, the public are actively involving in the maintenance of the sensitive equilibrium between the two indicators of Existence... Like the movement of a butterfly´s wings, our every gesture can indeed trigger unexpected incidents in the system and provoke uncontrollable chain reactions... This is even inevitable.

Public art, in this respect, can also have its butterfly effect!
Text by Hou Hanru

Bik Van der Pol: are you really sure that a floor can't also be a ceiling?
MACRO museum of contemporary art, rome
december 4th, 2010 to january 16th, 2011