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Essay

Homage to What?

by Peter McGregor


During the 1920s & 1930s the forces of barbarism were organising themselves into a movement called fascism. The war against these forces broke out in Spain in 1936, & it can be argued that had fascism been crushed there & then, the Second World War could've been prevented ...

George Orwell was one of many foreigners who went to Spain to join the resistance to fascism. His tribute 'HOMAGE TO CATALONIA', focuses upon a region where the resistance went beyond defeating fascism. In Catalonia people were going for total social revolution - as a solution to the kind of exploitative social system that fostered fascism.

In the 1980s & 1990s barbarism has changed its face & name to neo-liberalism. Since January 1, 1994 there has been a rebellion in Chiapas, the region of southeastern Mexico bordering Guatemala. This was launched on the very day that NAFTA(North America Free Trade Agreement), came into effect, in order to indicate a refusal of the neoliberalism that NAFTA stands for. The rebels called themselves Zapatistas (EZLN), embracing the values of the Mexican revolution of the 1910s, embodied in the anarchist Emiliano Zapata. [1] Could this be the outbreak of the war against neo-liberalism ?

The 100 Years of Cruelty conference (12-15 September, Sydney) seemed an opportunity to raise this question. The flippancy & ambiguity in the conference organisers' publicity - 'celebrating' 100 years of cruelty; 'the need for cruelty is as great, if not greater than ever' - suggested the gap between experience & its representation that Debord attacks in his concept of the spectacle.Here was a constituency of learned people, well aware of the continuing historical actualities of barbarism, yet compromised by their academic/artistic positions. So, Johanna Trainor & I produced a glossy leaflet, HOMAGE TO CHIAPAS, detourning the graphics & rhetoric of the conference publicity (see attached). It was handed out AS-IF it was official, at the Derrida session, & people took it in that spirit.

The image we substituted for Artaud's was apparently a puzzle: was it the dreaded Saddam (in the news at the time), or Gaddafi, or Assad ? One suggestion was Burt Reynolds ! Nancy Burson's (1983) composite of 'Big Brother'(of Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Hitler & Khomeini) seems benign, but maybe that is the contemporary expression & representation of cruelty - 'we were doing it for their benefit', says Senator Herron about the stolen Aboriginal children. [2] Instead of indulging the spectacle of cruelty, with the conference's list of stars, we listed, chronologically, some of the barbaric cruelties of the spectacle over the last 100 years.Some conference participants got our message & came back for more copies.

Would people believe that Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva & all the conference presenters had produced a joint paper, supporting revolution, & urging people to go & join the Zapatistas ? How did Jacques, Julia, etc. respond to the question: "Why should WE go join the Zapatistas ? YOU haven't !" We'd sure like to know.

According to one of the conference organisers, Alan Cholodenko, Derrida's appearance(sic) was a 'central moment in the intellectual life of this country'. Who are they kidding ? The Clancy auditorium was less than half full, while the Dalai Lama was drawing thousands, as Noam Chomsky had done last year.
Until Derrida & this academic/artistic milieu make the jump off the fence - away from the critical-distance posture - & engage with the struggles for freedom (like Chomsky & the Lama), their appeal, & what they have to offer, will remain limited. It's not just the abstract, convoluted language, but the displacement of human agency & the mystification of subjectivity that loses many of us: what are Derrida, Kristeva et al DOING to change the world, & what do their analyses suggest we can do to overthrow barbarism ?

Where & how does their appropriation of radical others - like Artaud transcend recuperation ?

The conference's claim for Artaud's voice as 'irrecuperable' was an ironic contrast with their own terms of engagement with his life & work - their use of intellectual & artistic 'stars' & performances, the reduction of cruelty to spectacle, & the reign of ideologies of the fragmentary.

Our (written) text (aka Chapter 24, of Raoul Vaneigem's THE REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE !) is the best appraisal we know of Artaud. Raoul sees Artaud's life's work as a somewhat contradictory COMPOSITE, rather than separating & romanticising its parts. [3] The Situationists have these wonderfully illuminating & empowering critiques - detournements - of the totality that much post-modernism lacks. [4]

We learnt much about the last 100 years of cruelty - & its representation - in producing this leaflet. To cite Bosnia (or Rwanda) in general seems too much of a generalisation. It is incidents like the 16 June (1995) Serb shelling of people queueing for water in Sarajevo (7 killed, 10 wounded) that reveal everyday barbarism. Of Babi Yar, as the beginning of the final solution, rather than Auschwitz as the culmination. For an OZ leaflet to not mention Bougainville & West Papua was grossly incongruous: Max Watts' "Some Cardinal Rules (for) Australian Media & Military Reporting on Bougainville" cleverly dissects official representations of cruelty. Also, we may have underemphasised the preeminent role of the USA as empire, in what has after all been called the American century. Consider for instance, the coups & their legacies, against say Mossadeq in Iran (1953) & Arbenz in Guatemala (1954), but also that 'theatre of cruelty' staged by the US & USSR, the Cuban missile crisis (1961), where the world was held on the brink of nuclear war. (Thanks Jack.) Species-ism as a globally widespread & systemic, yet apparently unconscious (?) mode of cruelty only got a token mention. The banality of, & hence the tolerance for, the daily taken-for-granted cruelties to animals is but another aspect of global capitalism's drive to dominate & devour nature. [5]

So, whether time will be longer than rope is up to us: more cruelty or beyond cruelty ? The barbarism of a third world war or a no-peace-without-justice-freedom-&-equality dividend ?

PS : I have had to postpone my own joining of the Zapatistas - I couldn't get permission... My Faculty turned down my study leave application (would've been quite a lively sabbatical) : what could I learn, what kind of research could be undertaken, with insurgent third world indigenes & other rebels ? Why, they're even/actually opposed to free trade !

 

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