Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason: A Review

>

I have to confess that I’m extremely disappointed by Laclau’s 2005 book On Populist Reason. One thing you need to figure out before you start writing is what your audience will be like. Are you trying to address the specialists in your field or do you want the book to be accessible to any reasonably educated person? Once you have decided who it is that you are writing for, then you need to make sure that both the ideas you express and the language you use to transmit them are on the same level.

In On Populist Reason, Laclau seems to have forgotten how important it is to know your audience. He uses extremely complex, jargon-ridden writing style to transmit ideas that are beyond basic. If I am to struggle through the author’s convoluted sentences and displays of erudition, I expect his argument to lead me to something better than the kind of trivialities that Laclau offers in this book.

Laclau begins his study of populism with an overview of the existing definitions of this concept. He points out that  the perception of populism as something that is a priori negative is the only reason why such definitions only succeed in demonizing populism in terms that are as negative as they are vague. Instead of analyzing populism, political theorists attempt to demonstrate how much they condemn it and then allow this condemnation to taint every conclusion they make. Laclau attempts to move away from such facile definitions and offer a more profound analysis of populism. However, he fails at that task quite spectacularly.

More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning. Here is one of the many examples:

The complexes which we call ‘discursive or hegemonic formations’, which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results froman indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions.

This statement concludes over 100 pages of a very convoluted discussion and does nothing more than announce in this extremely technical language that communities are bound together not just by reason but also by emotions. Well, duh. This idea has been studied, discussed and argued ad nauseam for over 100 years now. There is hardly any need to convince those of us who are capable of reading Laclau’s texts of something so banal.

In a similar way, Laclau offers a very plodding discussion that is supposed to lead his readers to the earth-shattering conclusion that – believe it or not – populist movements can exist both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum. I am sure that there are people who are unaware of this fact but these are not the same people who can get through 40 pages on floating signifiers.

I have also discovered from On Populist Reason that in the US populism has been hijacked by the Right that, against all reason, managed to convince farmers and blue-collar workers that the Republicans represent the interests of the regular folks as opposed to the Democrats who supposedly only defend the rights of the long-haired East Coast elites. I know that you must have already yawned twice as you have been reading this paragraph. We all know this, we have all heard this said a gazillion times. Why Laclau believes that it needs to be pointed out yet again is beyond me.

The book is filled to the brim with inanities of the most disturbing kind. On page 177 (close to the end of the book), we find out that in order for the populist appeal to be effective, there have to exist some problems in society. A society where institutional stability is complete, will not respond to populism. But, of course, perfect societies do not exist, so this situation is completely hypothetic. “Surprise, surprise!” I wrote on the margins when I read this. For the most part, this was my reaction to the entire book.

Coco Louco Restaurant in St. Louis: A Review

Now that I have discovered N. Euclid Ave in St. Louis, I can’t stop going there. It even reminds me of Montreal a little in spite of being as empty as the rest of the city. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay to a city. So yesterday we went to a Brazilian restaurant called Coco Louco. In the reviews I read before going there, people almost unanimously agreed that the food there was fantastic while the service was abysmal. In my experience, however, the food at Coco Louco could be a lot better while service was impeccable. (It’s not like I’m doing this on purpose, people, but I never manage to agree with the popular opinion on anything.)

As you can see, the restaurant was pretty empty.
It was a Sunday, of course, but I
find it impossible to believe that there are
people in this city any day of the week
Our waiter’s name was Benya and he turned out to be a Russian-speaker. That’s one of the things I love about this country. You go to a Brazilian restaurant in the Midwest and get served by a Russian-speaking waiter. How cool is that?
As for the food, one thing that I can recommend highly is the appetizer plate for $14. Here it is:
The appetizer plate contains these great meat and cheese filled pastries that are called “pastel.” The best kind is the beef pastel. It as so good that we ordered several extra ones to take home with us. As for the main courses, I wouldn’t say that the ones we tried are really worth the price. I had the red snapper that you can see on the picture here:
It is quite good but it really didn’t feel like it was worth the $27 the restaurant charges for it.
Then, there was espeto mixto wihich is different kinds of meat grilled on a skewer. Brazilian cuisine is almost as famous for its meat as the Argentinean, but this meat was quite a disappointment. It was simply mediocre and unworthy of the famed name of Brazilian meat. You can see the skewer with some remnants of the espeto mixto on the picture here:
The dessert was really good. It’s a mango mousse and we got it on the house. Here it is:
Overall, we had a splendid time because we always enjoy discovering new restaurants. The food, however, didn’t really do justice to the great Brazilian cuisine. If the weather is nice next weekend, we will probably go back to St. Louis, and I will share with you a review of an Indian restaurant they have on N. Euclid.

Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman: A Review

The inexplicable success of Stieg Larsson’s mysteries is the best thing that has happened to Scandinavian writers since Selma Lagerlöf. Larsson’s untimely death left a void that publishers are trying to fill desperately. Scandinavian names, long descriptions of cold weather and depictions of carnage in Sweden, Norway and Denmark are suddenly in vogue. Since many Americans are a bit confused on where Sweden is actually located, all European mystery authors are experiencing a surge of interest in their books.  

As you can see from the cover of Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, this author’s publishers are doing all they can to milk Stieg Larsson’s fame for all it is worth. This, however, is something that, in my opinion, this author doesn’t need. This book is very good. Its only defect is that it is too drawn out. In his zeal to create as many twists to the plot as humanly possible, Jo Nesbø goes a bit too far and creates a 100 or so pages somewhere in the middle of this long book that feel quite redundant.

If I had to compare Jo Nesbø’s style of mystery writing to another author’s, I would say he bears no similarity to the weirdly boring Stieg Larsson. Rather, Jo Nesbø is the Norwegian version of Michael Connelly. (Connelly apparently agrees and has published rave reviews of this writer’s work.) Nesbø’s protagonist called Harry (sic!) Hole is a police officer on a mission. He is also a lonely drunk and a die-hard romantic who gets treated badly by the woman he loves. Nesbø isn’t nearly as good as Connelly in creating a complex and richly-layered protagonist. His Harry looks a little cartoonish at times. He is much better than Connelly, however, in writing the ending to his mystery. Connelly’s endings tend to be much too abrupt. This gifted writer doesn’t seem to realize that you cannot announce the culprit’s name on the last page and just be done with it. The laws of the genre require that after the culmination there should be a winding-down period where the readers are offered an explanation of either what drove the murderer to commit the crimes or a description of the deductive process of the detective that resulted in solving the mystery. Nesbø’s ending is absolutely perfect.

The Snowman is a serial killer mystery. In the novel, Norwegians seem quite frustrated with the fact that they alone, of the three Scandinavian countries, have failed to produce a serial killer of their own. There are other cute moments in the book that have a very specific Norwegian flavor. See, for instance, the following passage that would have Ayn Rand die all over again were she around to read it:

‘It’s a very small shop. We don’t have many customers. Almost none until the Christmas sales, to be honest.’‘How. . .?’‘NORAD. They support shops and our suppliers as part of the government’s trade programme with Third World countries. The message it sends is more important than money and short-sighted gain, isn’t it.’

This is, of course, a very dangerous game that the third richest country in the world (after Luxembourg and Qatar) is playing. Oil comes and goes while people who have been corrupted by such ridiculous handouts remain.

There are some sparks of wisdom in this novel that I wanted to share with you. One of the characters says, for example:

Our generation has turned itself into servants and secretaries of our children. . . There are so many appointments and birthdays and favorite foods and football sessions that it drives me insane.

Anybody who has observed the frantic scrambling of the Western parents to organize endless play dates and activities for their children will have to agree with this observation. 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and recommend it highly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that snow was mentioned pretty much on every single page making this summer heat somewhat more bearable.

>Eduardo Mendoza’s Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936: A Review

>

There has been a veritable flurry of very long novels about the Civil War published by the leading Spanish writers in the past couple of years. Almudena Grandes is even planning an entire series of such novels. She has already published two, El corazón helado (very good) and Inés y la alegría (a review will appear on this blog shortly). Also of note is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s La noche de los tiempos, which is as long as it is enjoyable. 

The reason why so many authors in Spain still write about the Civil War at great length is that the trauma of the war was never fully healed. Decades of a fascist dictatorship followed the defeat of the Republicans in the war. After Franco’s death, one of the characteristics of Spain’s transition to democracy was (as usually happens with countries that emerge from long and repressive authoritarian regimes) to try to forget the war. No persecution and punishment of war criminals took place. People who fought against each other, the victims and the executioners were expected to start living peacefully side by side pretending that no Civil War and no dictatorship had ever taken place. This approach was obviously doomed to failure. Spanish writers today are trying to heal the trauma of the Civil War by talking about all of its aspects at length. This is something that Spanish society definitely needs. Great novels come out as a result, which is an added bonus.

Eduardo Mendoza decided to participate in this trend with his recent novel Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936. Mendoza’s approach to exorcising the ghosts of the Civil War is different from that of many other writers. Riña de gatos turns the tragic months preceding the beginning of the war in the summer of 1936 into a burlesque. Laughter has the power to heal trauma and bridge even the most profound differences. Mendoza brings to the pages of his new novel José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the leader of the Spanish fascists), generals Francisco Franco and Queipo de Llano  (who are plotting a  military uprising against the Republic, an uprising we all know will be successful and cause untold horrors to the country), Niceto Alcalá Zamora (the first president of the Second Spanish Republic) and Manuel Azaña (who will become the last president of the Republic.) All of these historic figures are placed in situations that make them look homey, non-threatening and slightly ridiculous.

The plot of the novel revolves around Anthony Whitelands, a British art critic, who comes to Spain to authenticate a painting that was supposedly created by Velázquez. As the hapless Brit boozes and whores his way through the Madrid of the spring of 1936, his activities attract the attention of competing political factions that would like to get their hands on the painting. A genuine Velázquez could pay for a lot of weapons and help the group that manages to lay its hands on the painting win the approaching war. Soon, Anthony Whitelands finds himself being torn between offers of friendship from the charming fascist José Antonio Primo de Rivera, sexual advances of sex-crazed countesses, demands of an underage prostitute, manipulations of British and German spies and threats from a Soviet conspirator named Kolia.

When I first started reading the novel, I opened it in a suitably somber mood that I believed was appropriate when reading about events as painful as those of the pre-war months in Spain. By the end of the novel, however, I was beating my head against the desk in laughter. I’ve read several reviews of Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936 and realized that many of the readers didn’t manage to escape from the weight of gravitas that usually accompanies the discussions of the Spanish Civil War. If one were to let go completely of the doom and gloom attitude to the war, one would realize that Mendoza’s novel is extremely funny. This writer is known for subverting the readers’ expectations and this is exactly what he does in his new novel.

>Tess Gerritsen’s The Silent Girl: A Review

>

Tess Gerritsen used to be a very unique mystery writer. Her Rizzolli and Isles series featured a police officer, Jane Rizzolli, and a medical examiner, Maura Isles, whose unconventional personal lives and intense personalities made the series especially interesting to follow. Gerritsen was a writer who did blood and gore especially well. If you are into the mystery novels filled with descriptions of human entrails glistening against the snow, torture and detailed autopsies, Gerritsen was the writer for you. She never shied away from explicit scenes and, as a result, managed to create some of the most memorable serial killer novels around.
And then television happened. A very stupid show started being filmed based on Gerritsen’s novels. The Silent Girl is the first novel by Gerritsen that came out since Rizzoli & Isles hit TNT. It isn’t a bad book at all, mind you. The mystery is good, the culprit is difficult to identify, the plot has quite a few twists and turns, the book reads very easily. The problem with The Silent Girl is that it isn’t a Gerritsen novel. It’s another installment of a very mediocre TV series. Rizzoli and Isles have been transformed into good girls whose personal lives are boring enough to be suitable for prime time. To give an example, Maura Isles isn’t engaged in her long-standing affair with a priest any more. She has now turned from a cold and harsh person into a weepy, miserable creature who is all of a sudden dedicated to wannabe mothering of a teenager more than to her career. Gory scenes have been substituted with descriptions that would look good on TV: Chinatown, martial artists, an obligatory scene with a mafioso, a grieving parent or two, mythical creatures leaping from roof to roof, etc. 
I used to look forward to Gerritsen’s new novels coming out. Now, however, she is no different than hundreds of other authors who produce sanitized, conventional mysteries that aim to be filmed rather than read. Until Rizzoli & Isles gets cancelled, it hardly makes any sense to read another Gerritsen mystery.
The Silent Girl will come out on July 5. 

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part II

>

I want to dedicate the second part of my review of Liquid Modernity to those of its parts that I found to be objectionable. My problem with the entirety of Bauman’s work is that whenever he talks of people, humanity, or mankind at large, he always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males. Let’s take, for example, the following statement, in which the erasure of women is so complete as to be shocking:

‘Work’ so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And ‘work’ so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity. (137)

These statements are, of course, completely true if by “humanity as a whole” and “every single member of humankind” we refer exclusively to men. For women, the situation was and still is the exact opposite. Working mothers are routinely blamed for causing “extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity” of their poor, abandoned children. Women are constantly exhorted to “opt out” of the workplace and demonized for not doing so. Working conditions are geared towards making the life of working women as inhospitable as possible. If we keep this in mind, Bauman’s references to “humanity as a whole” become egregiously offensive.
In a similar vein, Bauman bemoans the disintegration of the patriarchal family, which brought about the liberation of all those pesky females he loves to erase. He becomes as preachy as any fundamentalist when he begins to lament the evils of divorce, especially when people who dare to abandon loveless marriages are not rich:

There is little doubt that when ‘trickled down’ to the poor and powerless, the new-style partnership with its fragility of marital contract and the ‘purification’ of the union of all but the ‘mutual satisfaction’ function spawns much misery, agony and human suffering and an ever-growing volume of broken, loveless and prospectless lives. (90)

How dare you, poor and powerless folks, look for satisfaction outside of the confines of the patriarchal family? You need to sit tight, patently bearing your miserable, loveless marriages.
What Bauman prefers to overlook in his anti-divorce rants is that, in the absolute majority of cases in the developed countries, it is women who seek the divorce (in 2010 in the US it was 72% of divorces petitioned for by women to 28% by men). The situation is even more clear-cut among college-educated couples where, according to the data provided by American Law and Economics Review, women file for divorce in about 90% of cases. This is not at all surprising since marriage is still a losing proposition for women even in the most developed countries. Women are still stuck with more housework, the greatest burden of child-rearing and very little gains coming out of being married other than some dubious prestige the TV shows try to convince us exists for women who get married. Married women live shorter lives than single women, while married men live longer than single men. For this reason, in real life (as opposed to what we are being told by television and newspapers) men are a lot more interested in marriage than women. The disintegration of the patriarchal family that bothers Bauman so much is, indeed, robbing men of power. At the same time, it liberates women. Women, however, are not a group that Bauman ever notices. 
It is often difficult for me to distinguish whether on this topic Bauman is being purposefully obtuse or if he genuinely, sincerely does not realize how biased his statements are. This is one of the foremost thinkers of our times. Is it possible that the whole history of women has passed him by? Look, for instance, at the following statement:

It is no longer the task of both partners to ‘make the relationship work’ – to see it work through thick and thin., ‘for richer for poorer’, in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one’s own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. (164)

Can Bauman really not know that to suffer in silence, practice resignation, trim one’s own preferences, compromise and make sacrifices was only and exclusively the task of a woman in patriarchal family structures? Can he possibly have missed the entire history of manuals for married women that proliferated from the Middle Ages until today and that exhorted (and still do) women to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family in the very terms that Bauman employs here? Is he being disingenuous with full knowledge of what he is doing, or is he truly this blind to the situation of an entire half of humanity? Note also the slippage into the Christian rhetoric that is quite unexpected in a Communist and a Jew. Apparently, Bauman’s need to push women back into the confines of the patriarchal family structure is so overwhelming that he forgets even the Marxist dogma that religion is the opium of the people.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part I

>

Liquid Modernity (2000) is probably Zygmunt Bauman’s most important work. This is where the philosopher introduces concepts that will inform his Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), Liquid Life (2005), Liquid Fear (2006), Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006), etc. Since Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers (probably the second favorite after Žižek), I hope eventually to post reviews of all these books on my blog. As usual, I will dedicate the first part of my review to going over some of the ideas from Liquid Modernity that I found to be useful. Later, I will publish the second part of the review that will discuss what I consider to be flawed parts of Bauman’s argument.
The main idea that Bauman advances in this book is that it is a mistake to see modernity as a monolithic period that stretches more or less unchanged from the late XIXth century until today. Bauman distinguishes between two stages of modernity:
1. The first stage of modernity, according to Bauman, is the “solid” stage. This is the moment in history of our Western civilization where solid certainties of pre-modern times had disintegrated to such an extent that the only thing to do was to sweep these rotten underpinnings of pre-modern societies out of the way completely. The goal of this first stage of modernity was to erect its own solid certainties in the place of the ones that were going to be swept away by change. If we think about the trajectory of the Soviet approach to modernity, we will see that it fits Bauman’s argument perfectly. The transformative push of the first few years of the revolution led to an impenetrable fortress of a repressive Communist regime.
Bauman points out that the main fear of this first stage of modernity was that totalitarianism would emerge from its push to create a new set of certainties on the wasteland of the old society that had been destroyed by the advent of modernity. Orwell’s 1984, says Bauman, is a perfect example of what this solid stage of modernity saw as its worst-case scenario. As we know all too well today, totalitarian regimes did, in fact, flourish during this first stage of modernity.
2. Bauman refers to the second stage of modernity as “liquid.” At this stage, there is no more effort to replace a set of old rules, certainties and identities with a new one. The freedom to switch identities as often as we want, move around, transform ourselves is now seen as an end in itself and the most prized characteristic of our existence. Bauman’s goal in Liquid Modernity is to analyze the main concepts that inform this liquid stage of modernity and to point out the limitations of this freedom.
One of the main struggles of individuals in pre-modern societies consisted of defending their private sphere from the encroachment of the public sphere. People belonged to their families, their clans, guilds, social classes. Their identities that were assigned to them at birth were inexorable and inescapable. If you were born a woman, for example, this very fact implied a set of roles, behaviors and life strategies that was pre-ordained and that you could try to escape at your own peril. If you look at the history of art, you will see that it isn’t until the birth of the Romantic movement in late XVIII century that individual emotions and minute shades of personal feelings start being discussed as something valuable. It is only at the end of the XIXth century that we begin to see a slow process of liberation from identities one is assigned at birth.
Today, however, Bauman maintains, it is the public sphere that needs to be salvaged from the constant encroachment of the private sphere. According to the philosopher, our public sphere has been eroded by a constant parade of exhibitionist private issues that there isn’t any public sphere left to speak of. Think about the following statement by Bauman in terms of what we are witnessing in today’s politics:

What are commonly and ever more often perceived as ‘public issues’ are private problems of public figures. . . Not one among the ‘great and mighty’, let alone the offended ‘public opinion’, proposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton for abolishing welfare as a ‘federal issue’. (70-1)

We can see that this tendency has become even more pronounced today, 11 years after the publication of Bauman’s Liquid Modernity. To give just one example, there is a huge group of people whose political activism is limited to a painstaking investigation of whether Sarah Palin’s child is truly hers (I blogged about these folks here), as if her motherhood had anything whatsoever to do with whether she will make a good presidential candidate. We get regaled with endless stories about Michelle Obama’s personality, President Obama’s shoes, George W. Bush’s daughters, Donald Trump’s ex-wives. In the meanwhile, a discussion of what it is they are doing as politicians gets relegated to the realm of the inconsequential. 
While we are concentrated on discussing the private issues of others and exhibiting our own private sphere to the world (blogging and Facebook are a perfect example of this), we fail to notice that the very nature of power has changed. Formerly, those who possessed the greatest masses of land were the most powerful. Power was bogged down by the enormous apparatus of hardware and people needed to maintain it. Today, says Bauman, power has become liquid:

We are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics. (13)

The power today is hard to pinpoint in every sense of the word. As everything else, it has become mobile and uprooted.

(To be continued. . .)