Recent reading: Steve Almond
Nobody writes funnier about sex than Steve Almond. In some of his stories -- the earlier ones, I suspect -- that's the whole point, frequently featuring a feckless male unable to rein in his phallus and thus following it into ridiculously bad relationships. But that's not always all: Almond has become such a master of the comedy of sexual desperation that he can use it as a device to tell other, less predictable stories. You'll want to read this collection, not so much for the title story or even the one after that (about another kind of feckless male, a widower who depended on his wife just to function) -- they're OK, and funny in a kind of sick way, but don't get put off by them from reading the others. Especially good: "How to Love a Republican" is full of wet, sloppy sex, but it is really about the utterly shameless lust for power and perversion of the political process in our 2000 presidential election (the narrator is a guy working for Bradley, the girl is an ambitious operative for McCain, scornful of Bush, but easily seduced into the Bush camp once it's clear that that's where the opportunities will be). And be sure to read "The Pass," a semiotic essay worthy of Roland Barthes (who was also a good story-teller). All but one of the stories are told from a guy's point-of-view, usually in first person. The exception is, I think, a successful representation of the same lustful desperation in a woman (maybe some woman who reads it can tell me if it sounds true; it did to me): "Geek Player, Love Slayer." Almond is really good.

Almond, Steve. My Life in Heavy Metal. New York: Grove Press, 2002.

Bio-terror of the state

I've been reading one of Henri Lefebvre's last books, The Production of Space, and so been reminded of the deeper crisis of our society. Now comes this important and distressingly accurate open letter from Giorgio Agamben, recently published in Le Monde:
Le Monde

Saturday 10 January 2004

The newspapers leave no doubt: from now on whoever wants to go to the United States with a visa will be put on file and will have to leave their fingerprints when they enter the country. Personally, I have no intention of submitting myself to such procedures and that's why I didn't wait to cancel the course I was supposed to teach at New York University in March.

I would like to explain the reasons for this refusal here, that is, why, in spite of the sympathy that has connected me to my American colleagues and their students for many years, I consider that this decision is at once necessary and without appeal and would hope that it will be shared by other European intellectuals and teachers.

It's not only the immediate superficial reaction to a procedure that has long been imposed on criminals and political defendants. If it were only that, we would certainly be morally able to share, in solidarity, the humiliating conditions to which so many human beings are subjected.

The essential does not lie there. The problem exceeds the limits of personal sensitivity and simply concerns the juridical-political status (it would be simpler, perhaps, to say bio-political) of citizens of the so-called democratic states where we live.

There has been an attempt the last few years to convince us to accept as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of control that had always been properly considered inhumane and exceptional.

Thus, no one is unaware that the control exercised by the state through the usage of electronic devices, such as credit cards or cell phones, has reached previously unimaginable levels.

All the same, it wouldn't be possible to cross certain thresholds in the control and manipulation of bodies without entering a new
bio-political era, without going one step further in what Michel
Foucault called the progressive animalization of man which is
established through the most sophisticated techniques.

Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous
tattooing, as well as other practices of the same type, are elements
that contribute towards defining this threshold. The security reasons
that are invoked to justify these measures should not impress us:
they have nothing to do with it. History teaches us how practices
first reserved for foreigners find themselves applied later to the
rest of the citizenry.

What is at stake here is nothing less than the new "normal"
bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This
relation no longer has anything to do with free and active
participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrolment and
the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of
subjectivity: I mean the body's biological life.

These technological devices that register and identify naked life correspond to the media devices that control and manipulate public speech: between these two extremes of a body without words and words without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever more scaled-down and tiny.

Thus, by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states, which should constitute the precise space of political life, have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it's humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.

Some years ago, I had written that the West's political paradigm was no longer the city state, but the concentration camp, and that we had passed from Athens to Auschwitz. It was obviously a philosophical thesis, and not historic recital, because one could not confuse phenomena that it is proper, on the contrary, to distinguish.

I would have liked to suggest that tattooing at Auschwitz undoubtedly seemed the most normal and economic way to regulate the enrolment and registration of deported persons into concentration camps. The bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in the state's gears and mechanisms. That's why we must oppose it.

Translated from Italian to French by Martin Rueff.
Giorgio Agamben is a philosopher and professor at the University of
Venice and New York University.


A still timely oration: MLK, Jr. on the war in Vietnam
Here is a fragment from a powerful denunciation of American aggression that is still apt, unfortunately. It was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, April 1967, at Manhattan's Riverside Church. It is best read after seeing the stunning interview-cum-documentary of Robert MacNamara, "The Fog of War." Or after reeling from the lies and spin still emanating from the White House to justify current aggressions and our government's strenuous efforts to keep democracy (in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Florida) from falling into the hands of the people.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. The need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. With such activity in mind, the words of John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
Unfortunately, the work still lies before us. For a good start, see the entire speech, published on Thursday, January 15, 2004 by CommonDreams.org: Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam


Recent reading: Peter Marris
Who knew that urban planning could involve sexual intrigue and murder? Back in 1988, sociologist and urban planner Peter Marris wrote a witty, sad allegorical novel about the disasters of urban planning in Africa, The Dreams of General Jerusalem. As a novel (colorful characters, lots of action) it's at least as good as Graham Greene's didactic The Power and the Glory, and the sociological thinking behind it is certainly sounder.