Thursday, February 08, 2007

Translated from the German

Translated from the German is a blog that "accretes short texts and excerpts translated" well, from the German. Und zwar by a friend of ours. So far the accretions include Goethe, Adorno, Bodoni (from the German?!) and a "phonic imitation" of a text by Mahler, that begins thus:

Venn mine shuts, hocked sight mucked,
Fur licker hocked sight mucked,
Hub BIC mine ant row, rig an’ tug!
Gay hick in mine gamma line,
Do inkless gamma line,
Vine, an’ vine, ooo! Mine an’ shuts,
Ooo! Mine, an lea, ban shuts!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Robin 'Ood? Or just Hamburg(l)ers, "plain and simple"?

'Robin Hood’ gang rob gourmet stores in bid to feed Hamburg’s poor
Tony Paterson
Independent - May 09, 2006

They dress up in pink catsuits, have names like “Spider Mum” and feel a social obligation to plunder the most expensive restaurants and gourmet delicatessens in town as part of a campaign to help the poor.

Last week the well-heeled citizens of Hamburg’s Altona district got a taste of their antics when 30 of them marched into the city’s luxury “Fresh Paradise Goedeken” supermarket and walked out five minutes later with €15,000 (£10,000) worth of stolen goods...

[via, where more reports]

Where Anarchy threatens, we must of course remind ourselves of the Laws of Propriety, and resist the Chaos Within. A police spokesman was heard to say, as if to convince himself as much as anyone else: “Whatever their motives, they are thieves, plain and simple.” "Plain and simple": which is to say, any other interpretation of these antics would be inconceivable. Who said "Robin Hood"? It's just thievery. Onto the leaky ships with them! Sentence: Australia, 7 years transportation.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Securing an irrational society

"To frame the introduction of radical security legislation as simply a matter of getting the balance right between security and individual liberties is to prejudge the issue."

Since 1959 the government of Singapore has been determined by elections that, observers agree, are free and fair. And yet in 2001 the People's Action Party won nearly all the seats, as it had done for the previous 42 years. This time 82 out of 84. In order to consistently achieve such remarkable results the PAP has pursued a number of strategies for neutralizing criticism and shoring up popular acquiescence in its rule. It has made judicious use of a close relationship with intelligence and police agencies, of defamation suits to bankrupt opponents, and of laws requiring that political communication and activities be licensed, allowing the party to keep tabs on any growth of civil society outside the highly integrated party and governmental bureaucracy and to stop any developing opposition in its tracks. Some critics have been detained without charge for over twenty years, like Chia Thye Poh, who was elected in 1966 for the Socialist Front and subsequently arrested and held for long periods in solitary confinement.

But extravagant if secretive examples of political persecution are exceptional in Singapore. Strong economic growth, the leadership's self-conscious invocation of what it calls Asian values (like obedience to authority), and its sharp criticism of anyone deemed to be a threat to its version of "consensus" have combined to discourage most Singaporeans from risking frostbite in the decidedly chilly public sphere. The carrot of opportunity and dimly pervasive awareness of a big, but shadowy stick have created a thoroughly depoliticized environment with an edge of fear. Within it Singaporeans practise in docile fashion what Terence Lee, drawing on Michel Foucault, calls the art of auto-regulation. I am put in mind of Alexis de Tocqueville's reflections---written in 1833---on the perils of administered democracy to the culture of public life. Above the people comes to stand

an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances? What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

With the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2) 2005 Australia moves one step closer to the Singapore model of acclamatory democracy. Ours will no doubt resemble the real thing even more closely, for we have two teams of spin doctors on the television, not one. The formal and procedural protections of individual liberties for which classical liberalism argued (but which can be traced back through many struggles, all the way to to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215) did not only ensure equality before the law, preventing the harassment of marginalized groups and individuals by state agencies acting in the name of the majority. They also protected a space where different versions of our common political life could be tried out, practised and nurtured. Politics in this full sense is a creative, messy business that cannot be quarantined off from what we call life: from our work, our speech, our love and our play. It involves struggle and an exercise of freedom, which makes it risky and calls us to responsibility. Thus to frame the introduction of radical security legislation as simply a matter of getting the balance right between security and individual liberties is to prejudge the issue. It is temptingly easy to make the argument that it is alright if a few innocent people get detained or searched if it prevents a serious terrorist attack. Easy and short-sighted, because the argument fails to appreciate the slow and subtle process by which the well-springs of democratic life are choked, managed, and administered out of existence, while blinding us to the price of this democratic failure.

We have achieved a level of material comfort and security of which former ages could never have dreamt. We can be glad of these and yet still realize that the only lasting achievement has eluded us: to let reason rule through a living democracy---reason as a struggle, a risk, an exercise of freedom, and a call to responsibility. Our specialized technical rationalities may be highly developed (and eminently suited to the production of surveillance technologies and methods of psychological torture) but the promise that we will some day attain sovereignty over our common enterprises and productive capacities, that we will become the subjects of history and not its victims, has so far gone unfulfilled. Our irrational society consumes, diverts and renders powerless the human creativity and energy, the capacities for critical self-reflection and self-awareness upon which we must be able to draw if we are to escape our global trap. The Singaporean example demonstrates that democracy means more than just elections. The concept demands nothing less than that our lived conversation about what we need and want, about what is right and good, should be the main political event. Instead what passes for political debate and "news" dresses the windows of institutionalized power, power that is nonetheless paralysed in the face of economic injustice and impending ecological crisis. But the tendencies that hinder democracy's realization are contingent, not necessary features of human social organisation. All political projects have the potential either to bolster or erode the place of reason in our public life: they must be calmly, rigorously and courageously scrutinized from that perspective.

Secrecy and spectacle in the wide brown land

What is the Australian anti-terror legislation all about? 1920s–style mass neurosis with a twist of James Bond 007.

We are going to have to put our thinking caps on. The changes wrought by the slew of security legislation reform—over thirty pieces of legislation over the past four years, just at the federal level—mean that the thing that we’ve been used to calling "representative democracy" no longer fits that description. It is true that given Australia’s low levels of social solidarity and highly concentrated media ownership the label was already strained, but now we really are going to have to try and come up with some new names for our peculiar system of government.

Any ideas?

Perhaps the legislation itself can inspire us. Its basic themes include secrecy and, in technocratese, the "management" of information. A "managed democracy" perhaps? It fits, at least, the way the new legislative regime clamps down on freedoms of speech and information at so many levels—whether by prohibiting, on pain of lengthy imprisonment, informed public discussion of the detention and interrogation of individuals by ASIO and the police, or by giving government powers to prevent the disclosure of evidence to defendants in criminal trials in the name of "national security". Of course it is now considered impolite to point out the concomitant dangers: merely by hinting that such extravagantly powers constitute an irresistible temptation to governments whose fate can and should depend on information becoming public, one risks exposure to a wounded look, if not to a show of indignation from our "managers"—erm, "representatives"—ahem, well, managers (they do call themselves that, after all). The big-brotherly "trust us, we know best" posture works in spite of the fact that we patently do not trust these governments. As if capitulating to an advertisement for ice-cream, we "indulge ourselves" in the "guilty pleasure" of civic irresponsibility. In any case, the laws’ critics are hobbled before they even begin: the expanded realm of secret executive decision-making and practice means that cultures of abuse can thrive unseen (forget not the Department of Immigration and its private contractors).

But while "managed democracy" captures some of the banality of this evil, it misses other aspects. The impeccably timed and reported pre-dawn raids on suspects’ homes last November, and the images of Guantanamo Bay that are let into the public domain demonstrate that the flipside of the cloak of invisibility around executive detention is the spectacle of state power. So "spectacular democracy"? No doubt about it: this War on Terror business is downright sexy. Aside from passing the buck for policy choices to unaccountable agencies with a special interest in the laws, there is a not-so-hidden innuendo to the talk of "giving law enforcement the tools they need". I mean come on: we’ve seen James Bond 007. We all know that sex, dastardly baddies, being above the law, and being well equipped with "tools" go hand-in-hand. I can see the Cultural Studies theses rolling in already, with good reason for titles like ‘ASIO and the Politics of Desire’, ‘Spectacle and the Bonded Imagination’.

The federal Criminal Code now even provides that in "urgent" circumstances warrants for house arrest can be requested and issued "by fax, email, or other electronic means". Consider the typically Nullarborian monotony of most legislative drafting, and you’ll be able to guess at the thrills that rippled through the Attorney-General’s department late one Noodle-Box night as these provisions were drafted. The terrorists are hip and postmodern, they drum into us (as if we needed to be reminded; what else would a terrorist be in this age of ironic consumption?) and so, it seems to follow with über-syllogistic inevitability, must we be too. It’s heady stuff, and it makes the mutual restraint of Mr. Ruddock and the security and police chiefs all the more remarkable: their talent for giddily churning out what must for them be the most arousing kinds of laws whilst in public maintaining straight faces and clean pants is truly mesmerising. But then again, Mr. Ruddock’s performance at DIMIA had already put us on notice that he might in fact be Belial without the good looks, seeming "for dignity composed" but all "false and hollow," and able, through his masked and monotonous delivery, to "make the worse appear the better reason".

When it comes to sex we are sado-masochists at heart. Masochists because we get excited by the Dirty Harry fantasies engendered when the powerful use the phantom menace as a pretext for tearing to shreds our procedural protections, the very checks and balances that we carved out through centuries of struggle—"freedom-loving societies", anyone? We take a deliciously infantile, Jazz Age pleasure in the intoxication we feel when cheering on our own downfall; maybe "acclamatory democracy" is the phrase we need. We’re sadists, however, insofar as we identify with Big Papa Government and the other destroyers, whether they do it with bombs or laws—destroyers of those difficult liberal institutions that, we say, require of us more than we are capable; as if we had already tried in earnest to make them live, instead of asking only what they can do for us.

But perhaps we’re not like that, not, at least, "at heart"; perhaps only contingently, by our failure to grasp opportunities to live the good life of social-political engagement. This alternative is not decidable theoretically, in advance, for which version turns out to be true depends on us, depends on how we choose to act.

We’ve been drawing for too long on our line of democratic credit, and now that Kim "let me join with the Prime Minister in saying...." Beazley and the Federal and State oppositions have thrice denied the cause of the self-determination of our society, we are going bust. There are facts we must realize: we are the opposition. We are—still in larval form—the government as well. Sovereignty lies in us. That is why the sedition laws are so absurd: for the only way that the sovereign will be "called into contempt" in this country is if we continue our own slide into the contemptibility of collective impotence, by mistaking someone who lives in a palace in another country for "the Sovereign," or the people in Canberra for "the Government of the Commonwealth." For me to write this article and for you to read it are modest beginnings. But we have many resources near to hand, if only we do ourselves the honour of grasping them.

Friday, January 13, 2006

East Timor and Justice

This week Australia and East Timor signed a treaty providing for a temporary resolution to negotiations over the oilfields in the Timor Gap.

East Timor (Timor Leste) attained independence in 2002. Since that time it has been negotiating with its neighbours for the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries. The disputed area is rich in oil: in particular the Golden Sunrise oilfield promises oil deposits worth many billions of dollars.

The map below shows the relevant areas of the Timor Sea.

The diplomatic history of the disputed areas is rather complex. (The flash presentation at the top right of this page makes it quite clear.) Suffice to say that Australia currently recieves oil royalties from the exploitation of resources in the the Joint Petroleum Development Area, under a temporary agreement signed by the two countries in 2002 on the day East Timor became a country.

The new agreement signed this week still does not permanently resolve East Timor's maritime boundaries. Instead it provides that "each country will take half the revenue from the Greater Sunrise Field and any negotiations on maritime boundaries will be postponed for up to 50 years." [source] The deal to split the revenues 50/50 makes for a good soundbite; out of context it sounds fair. But one can only assume that substantive fairness was never the principle guiding Mssrs. Howard and Downer. The original offer made by Australia was that East Timor should receive 18% of royalties. And in any case, the 50% that it will now receive is 50% less than that which, according to the prevailing view on the applicable international law, East Timor ought to receive. International law does envisage a 50/50 split, one achieved by drawing a line at an equal distance from the mainland coasts of both countries. All of the disputed areas, to which Australia has now succeded in making claims lie on the East Timor side of the line. Even if international law is taken as the baseline of fairness, this should be enough to put the lie to Howard's rhetoric. On Thursday he said that

"there's great affection in Australia for East Timor, there's great sympathy for the people of East Timor, there is a great desire on the part of the people of Australia that the people of East Timor have a strong secure future." [source]

But the words ring even more hollowly when one recognizes that the budget of the East Timor government stands at about U.S. $80 per capita, that of Australia's government at $10 000. Or should that make no difference?

The answer to the question depends on the concept of justice. It's a notion that both sides to this debate have been claiming for their own. Some of the critics of the Howard government have gathered togeether under the banner of the `Timor Sea Justice Campaign'. Mr. Howard himself called the treaty "a fair and just outcome."

What theories of justice stand behind these statements? If we look to the history of Australian policy (including that of previous Labor governments) we must conclude that the only theory of justice operating has been the one encapsulated in the phrase "might is right". Since 1972 Australia has used its superior diplomatic clout to get its way--first with Indonesia and, since 2002, with East Timor. Each successive agreement has thus been a treaty in the true sense--a codification of the power relation obtaining between the parties at the time. The most recent agreement is no exception. Australia's retreat from its original 18% offer resulted from the pressure--read: power--that other actors were able to exert, both activists working through the Australian media and diplomatic actors from East Timor and the international community.

The defining characteristic of such a process is that it is blind. Various actors operate stragically with the power that they find themselves able to command. But the outcome is not one which any single actor would have produced, had they been entrusted with its design. Indeed it is possible that the result may be far removed from one which could best satisfy the needs of all the protagonists. This tendency is compounded further when many of the most powerful actors are in fact institutions, themselves the products of similarly irrational struggles for influence.

In contrast to the Australian government, the "Timor Sea Justice Campaign believes that East Timor should control all of the gas and oil fields it is entitled to under current international law, by the establishment of a permanent maritime boundary." [source] This is a concept of justice as "justice according to law". In 2002, just two months before East Timor became a sovereign nation, the Australian government emphatically signalled its rejection of this view by withdrawing its consent to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on matters affecting maritime boundaries. In so acting, Australia takes its place beside other nations--very many of them, but most prominently the economic powerhouses like the United States--who co-operate with international institutions if and for so long as it suits their narrowly-conceived idea of self-interest. The justifications usually given for isolationist policy give a clue as to the mechanism that makes it appear obligatory: policy-makers fear that by committing to a co-operative stance they will leave their state open to exploitation by others who refuse to co-operate. But the fetishizers of Realpolitik see necessity where it does not exist. Australia could give East Timor everything north of the median line. Hell, we could give them a few hundred extra kilometres out of "our" side to boot. This would effect Australian's no doubt, but it is a misrepresentation to say that it would not be open to Australia to do so.

The notion of "justice according to law" would have achieved a different outcome in this case: in all likelihood had the ICJ adjudicated on the matter it would have applied the median line rule and hence given East Timor rights to all of the Greater Sunrise field. The difference between this avenue and that pursued by the Australian government, between international law and "might is right" appears, under the spell of socially necessary illusion, to be one of very great magnitude. It is largely the difference in aspiration between the "Left" and "Right" of mainstream politics. But insofar as the law itself is the product of political processes that are themselves ultimately irrational justice according to law is blind too. It operates as another tool in the struggle over power. The outcomes it produces appear "just" only for so long as we put our trust in structures that operate beyond our control and according to their own logic. There is another notion of justice, summed up like this: "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs". That would provide the basis of any politiccal logic that served human interests. It is not impossible to apply such thinking at all points of contemporary political reality, no matter how far we might currently be from living up to it--the Timor Gap controversy would be no exception. But one thing is for sure, so long as we orient ourselves according to "might is right" and even "justice according to law", we cannot really speak of progress.

Monday, December 26, 2005

"Sich von der eigenen Ohnmach nicht dumm machen lassen"

I recently attended a seminar devoted to discussion of the raft of new Australian legislation that radically extends the powers of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation and police agencies. Four speakers gave short papers, conducted a panel discussion, and then engaged in discussion with the rest of us attendees. The legislation was criticized from a variety of perspectives, and fairly quickly one could recognise that nearly all in attendance had reasons for dismay at its enactment. Thus the discussion soon turned to matters of strategy: what were the best kind of arguments to use in seeking to prompt a general public opposition to the legislative agenda? One speaker put his case with particular force: the arguments that ought to be emphasized are those that draw on vocabularies like those of human rights, civil liberties, and freedom of speech. In essence his contention was that, however flawed such discourses may be, they form part of the bedrock of the self-understanding of our political institutions, and still enjoy wide appeal, despite, on the one hand, their immanent critique by Hegel and Marx and, on the other, the more recent attempts to demolish them outright in the name of a security-state that emphasizes technique and denies the political nature of its own claims to legitimacy.

I must confess that I found something encouraging about the atmosphere generated by the apparent consensus signalled by the speedy turn to pragmatic considerations. Far too often I've felt a lack of confidence in articulating the objections to the legislation that I think are decisive. But this feeling is part of my reason for questioning the approach outlined above. In discussion with friends and family members I had already found myself appealing to the arguments based in a philosophy of individual liberties, simply because I seem to have assumed that those principles circle widely in arguments that are readily understood by people who have never heard of Hegel or de Tocqueville or Weber, and---so I naively assumed---enjoy a kind of axiomatic status: while they might be susceptible to immanent critique, even those who reject that critique will still have to take them as the point of departure. My assumption was no doubt encouraged by a certain view of political history: the philosophy of rights as the product of the English common law tradition and the bourgeois revolutions, standing in for the default or uncontroversial position, even for conservative lawyer types, who, except for the fact that it appeared to involve a breach of the common law right of habeas corpus, might never have been too concerned about the MV Tampa case; and the critique of liberal rights discourse as, philosophically speaking, drawing out the implications of that discourse, a move that had yet found neither general acceptance nor its historical realization.

It is a curious fact that precisely those who have accepted its immanent critique find themselves driven to invoke the philosophy of liberalism. In the aftermath of the ideological battles of the Cold War the neo-conservatives have divested themselves of liberalism's inconvenient idealism. Those who would resist them let themselves be made stupid, at least in public discourse, by the apparent hegemony of their critics. They concede the real debate---between two different rejections of liberalism---in order to warm up arguments that last got our blood up in 1789. Such defeatism is not only self-fulfilling; it is downright rude. By remaining silent about one's real reasons one is obliged to take on the smooth-talking but empty-worded technique of the career politician who uses foggy soundbites to sell a platform. One makes one's interlocutor into an audience, which is to say an object of manipulation to which one appeals for assent but not involvement. This is the typical posture found on the opinion pages. Even in the name of strategy, it is not good strategy: it simply arouses distrust of tricksy "elites". And it neglects the urgent task of articulating the radical arguments, which is to say, those that go to the root of the matter.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Back at the Desk

I've been away from the desk for a few days, and have just now managed to catch up on a few bits and pieces of reading. In lieu of something substantial from me, here's a few pointers to what I've been looking at.

Fieldmouse over at Burn the Phoenix continues reflecting on the prospects of our Handlungsfähigkeit, or capacity for action, in the face of the presently unfolding ecological disaster.

Phonics, extreme and otherwise, is under consideration at

Some have taken the riots at Sydney's Cronulla for an opportunity to call the multicultural project into question (see comments to this post at Margo Kingston's Webdiary). On the other hand, Stephen Feneley asks whether Sunday's flag-waving but violent Australians might not be good test cases for the Attorney-General's new legislation.

Off the screen I've been enjoying the digressive and rhetorically loaded prose of Thomas de Quincey, including an essay on rhetoric itself (my use of which term just now de Quincey would probably fault). Incidentally, it was my search for texts of his that led me to, and got them a guernsey in our links bar. That said, there's much more available at Try the essay on the English Mail-Coach.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Negotiating Table

Imagine a situtation involving two parties, A and B, whether individuals or groups. Assume that it is open to the parties to peacefully co-exist under whatever terms they are able to negotiate. Negotiation happens at the negotiating table, where the employment of non-discursive force is not an option. The alternative to negotiation is that one or both parties can refuse to come to the table and instead seek to make the other party submit to its will by applying any kinds of force that are de facto available to it. For the sake of the example we will imagine that A and B stand in an asymmetrical relationship. Their respective needs and capacities, and hence the kinds of force which they are able to exploit, are not identical.

There are at least three possible narratives.

(1) Party A offers party B terms that are “just”. Party B comes to the table.
(2) Party A, for whatever reason, offers party B terms that are “unjust”. Party B, for which co-existance, even on such “unjust” terms, happens to be better than estrangement, comes to the table nevertheless.
(3) Party B does not come to the table, claiming that the terms offered by party A are “unjust”.

Narrative (3) reveals the difficulty of this situation. How are just terms to be judged? Where, as in (2), the costs to B of refusing to come to the table are too great, the fact that an accord has been reached will be no guarantee of its justice. Even the good faith of A will be able to provide no such guarantee for as long as A insists on giving B what is “just” but no more. For the risk is very great that party A, in attempting to guage its offer by an objective standard, will end up reflecting in it the contingencies of the asymmetrical relationship, including those “objective” factors which make it preferable for B to come to some agreement rather than none at all. (The juridical notion of “equity” as opposed to “law” attempts to come to terms with this state of affairs.)

The social contract that the Hobbesian defenders of civilization (as opposed to their Schmittian critics) offer is like this negotiating table. The plotline has not yet been determined once-and-for-all. The process of rationalization described by Max Weber threatens to achieve what the Hobbesians had argued for, namely the monopolisation of non-discursive means of negotiation by one of the parties, “the state”.


"Pessimism doesn't have to be a negative feeling, like an absense, it's the acknowledgement that things could be better, and that it is only by random tragedy and petty obstinance that things are they way they are. Pessimism requires thus creativity and energy." [here]

The Winter's Tale, V.i

Paulina. True, too true, my lord:
If, one by one, you wedded all the world,
Or from the all that are took something good,
To make a perfect woman, she you kill'd
Would be unparallel'd.
Leontes. I think so. Kill'd!
She I kill'd! I did so: but thou strikest me
Sorely, to say I did; it is as bitter
Upon thy tongue as in my thought: now, good now,
Say so but seldom.

I think so.

Now, most often: "I thìnk so." Stress falling on the tentativeness and impotence of thought. "I might think so, but I could well be proven wrong."

Slightly less often: "Ì think so." The petulant, relativistic I. "I think so, regardless; let there be no more discussion."

Least often, as a sort of relative pronoun (?), or a synonym for 'the same', to express straight agreement, as in the quoted passage. "I think sò." (Although notice that in the passage the metrical stress falls on "think". Something could be done with this in relation to my little theory, I'm sure, but I haven't time. Stress only falls on the third "so", so far as I can reckon.) "Yes, I think this, as well." Mutuality.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Resources on the so-called anti-terror legislation in Australia since 2002.

Monday, October 17, 2005

So you thought we died out of cyberspace. At least we're trying to. It's been an interesting few months. As far as those things go which get little coverage here, I can say that I moved house at least once, tutored a subject and even dragged the horse's tail over the cat's guts a few times:

Of course, books were read, discussions had, theories refuted and tea was drunk, and all before lunch. Some of us even went to Thailand.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Do not despair!

We've been working hard, but we shall return...