Tuesday, October 26, 2010

First thoughts on arriving in Algiers

I started writing this at 5:30 in the morning. I’ve already been up for an hour. I’m running on four hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is still better than the night before.

Barcelona and the anxiety of it seems a long way away. Once I made it through security in Algiers, picked up my luggage, and met the embassy expeditor, I relaxed. Algiers, in general, seems very relaxed. For all the awkward attempts at predicting how I might react, or what I should expect, at least immediately, it all seems very easy, undemanding. The city strikes me as almost polite; the first day I was here, I walked around Cite Said Hamdine, through traffic, in a light rain, and although traffic was slow, it was steady, and there seemed to be little of the insufferably egoistic sense of urgency that drives people to rush, or to attempt silly maneuvers. I felt almost at ease being in traffic; not the ease of experience, as in Beirut or in Cairo, where I know how to navigate the streets and where everyone speeds and no one seems like they will ever stop, but an almost Zen-like being-at-peace with the traffic. Perhaps it’s just jetlag, but so far I do not feel agitated in Algiers, even though, conventionally speaking, there is plenty that probably should. Agitate me, that is.

My first glimpse of Algiers came as the plane was landing, and through a dense layer of fog. Even obscured by the clouds, my immediate impression of the city was: it’s so green. I have not yet explored enough of the city to be able to orient myself, and I have no way of judging our angle of approach, but as soon as we were over land, I noticed what seemed like huge blocks of greens so vibrant they cut through the grey, almost as if they had been painted on. These were adjacent patches of more deeply real, dark greens. I’m still not sure how to account for the combinations, and at the time, I thought I was seeing things. Just a few minutes before, when we were still above the clouds and in the sun, I had briefly convinced myself that a bright flash of white was the glare off the Ville Blanche. Once we ducked under the clouds, I decided that my anxieties and expectations were such that I could not be certain about anything I was seeing. I decided that, to go with the impressions as they came rather than trying to work things out, was the only sound strategy in such unknown circumstances, particularly when I kept on waiting for things to happen, for the world to unfold, as I expected it should.

A few thoughts on those expectations, and on my fascination with the greenery of Algiers: my experience of this city has already been powerfully mediated, and while all such experiences are mediated by media, in this case, I am profoundly aware of the specific combinations of media through which my experience is being construed. Most of the images come in black, white, and various—unfortunate and illegitimate—shades of gray, as do the texts, and the concepts.

When I exited baggage claim I met my expeditor. He took me off to meet the embassy car. The minute I sat down, the driver handed me a brown paper envelope with the legend “Welcome to Algiers!” and we were off. At the hotel bar in St. Paul, the day before Jill’s wedding, I had a distressing encounter with an ex-military man who insisted both that I should not go to Algiers and that I had to be some sort of spook. “Are you with the G?” he kept asking. I insisted that I was not, but he didn’t believe me. “You wouldn’t tell me, in any case,” he added, “Would you?” I am not a spy, but at that moment, it definitely felt as if I was playing out the part in some creaky BBC melodrama. Settling into a government car and being handed a sheaf of official papers in an exotic foreign land: it was all very MI-6. I am still waiting for my tuxedo, my Aston Martin, and my expense account.

The hotel owes me breakfast, however. I am off for café and baguette.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jean-Paul Sartre: Colonialism, Neocolonialism, and the Tricontinental Revolution

In his introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s essays on colonialism and neocolonialism, Robert J.C. Young situates Sartre within the intellectual culture of the tricontinental revolution, thereby opening up fresh perspectives on the relationship between Sartre’s intellectual work and the development of his political commitments. “[There] is comparatively little in [Sartre’s] early work,” Young writes, “to suggest his later increasing preoccupation with social justice at a global level.” Nevertheless, over the second half of his life, as his philosophical work was restaged, transformed, and activated by the intellectuals of the tricontinental revolution, Sartre became increasingly occupied by the politics of social justice, with particular emphasis on the revolution against colonialism in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Despite his stature as one of the giants of twentieth century philosophy and Western literature, for many within the revolution, Sartre was, in the words of Mudimbe, “an African philosopher,” insofar as he recognized the revolution as an epistemological as well as political formation, one that reanimated indigenous traditions of thought and praxis over and against the empty shell of the European Enlightenment. During his later life, Sartre went to some length to avoid his conscription into the project of that Enlightenment—famously rejecting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964—and while his posthumous reputation remains very much that of a Dead White Man, Young insists upon seeing Sartre as a generative influence upon postcolonial thought, a deferential comrade in the struggle over theory and practice.

For Young, the definitive moment in Sartre’s turn toward the anti-colonial revolution was the Second World War and, more particularly, the experience of participating in the French Resistance. “Sartre,” he argues, “was the first philosopher who responded to his historical experiences of the war by reformulating his political and philosophical position.” Young is not alone in noting the significance of the war to the overall shape of Sartre’s intellectual project. And there is, of course, no dearth of scholarship concerning the impact of the war on European intellectual culture. What one draws from Young’s reading, however, is just how differently different intellectuals, and different intellectual traditions, grappled with the war and its consequences for political thought. “The war showed [Sartre] that life was not simply a series of existential choices against circumstance: that the domination of power turns the subject into an object: in this situation, freedom is constituted by taking responsibility to transform oneself back into an agent.” While the intellectuals of the German left all but rejected the politics of radical transformation, fearful that such commitments led, inexorably, to the gulag and the death camp, and the French left plunged headlong into the generative anti-humanism that now travels under the name post-structuralism, Sartre—with the revolutionaries of the Third World—was quietly reinventing the human.

By and large, European intellectuals responded to the moral and political crisis of the war by throwing out the Enlightenment and, with it, the idea of the human. The concentration camp, they argued, was the ultimate expression of human reason, its most pure, and brutal, manifestation. If, after all the great schemes for humanizing the world, all the idealism and the debate and the dogma, all you got was calculated, mechanized, impersonal death, perhaps it was best to leave the Enlightenment alone. There is, of course, something very compelling about the argument, but a whole lot of baby went out with that bathwater. As so-called Third World intellectuals have been pointing out for the past sixty years, fascism wasn’t the telos of the Enlightenment, but its dialectical handmaiden. Slavery? Colonialism? As Aimé Césaire suggested, Hitler’s crime was not the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, Roma, Communists, and homosexuals, nor was it his totalitarian project for a German Reich that would engulf Europe. It was, rather, introducing to Europe, and practicing upon “white people,” brutal techniques of population management and social control that were invented for use in the colonies. This hypocrisy was laid bare, in Algeria, during the VE Day celebrations in Sétif, where the gendarmes massacred thousands of Arabs that had massed in support of Algerian independence. Fortunately, the new anti-humanism of the French left demonstrated, conclusively, that the desire for freedom was atavistic. In calling for independence, the Arabs were merely demonstrating their backwardness.

Among European intellectuals, Sartre was one of the few who took such hypocrisy as the basis of an ethical imperative. As Young suggests, Sartre’s continuing engagement with humanism should not be understood as an uncritical or naïve endorsement of the Enlightenment, but as his commitment to the cultural and epistemological project of the Tricontinental revolution. Third World revolutionaries understood themselves, very consciously, as engaged in the project of remaking humanism; of inaugurating a modernity that embraced, and benefitted, the totality of humanity, rather than its palest portion. In the later years of his life, Sartre identified himself with this project: his philosophy evolved as a critique of the racist underpinnings of the Enlightenment problematic, and a commitment to the realization of a new humanism in the revolutionary movement toward emancipation. As such, Sartre’s post-war work is ever more framed by the practicalities of anti-colonial revolution, to the extent that his European intellectual contemporaries would come to rail against his influence among university students in the 1960s, especially when it came to Sartre’s position on the role of violence in social struggles.

For his commitment to the politics of anti-colonial revolution, Sartre was declared a Stalinist by his friends and physically threatened by his enemies. In the early 1960s, French colons, enraged by Sartre’s support for Algerian independence, attempted an assassination by planting a bomb in the Left Bank apartment he shared with Simone de Beauvoir. The bomb went off, but the plot failed; they had placed it in the wrong apartment. Despite his critics, Sartre would go on to become something of a hero of the New Left. When the students of Paris closed down the universities in May 1968, it was Sartre to whom they directed their demands, because only Sartre, they felt, could understand their concerns.

What’s striking about Sartre’s writings on colonialism, as represented in the Routledge collection “Colonialism and Neocolonialism,” is the extent to which—the title aside—France remains, for him, the locus of political commitment. Of the essays collected in this volume, nearly half are about De Gaulle; and in these, Sartre goes on, at some length, about the relationship between the Algerian war, and the desecration of French democracy. After the armistice in 1962, he wrote:

“Today, no one is unaware that we have ruined, starved and massacred a nation of poor people to bring them to their knees. They remained standing. But at what a price! While the delegations were putting an end to the business, 2,400,000 Algerians remained in the slow death camps; we have killed more than a million of them. The land lies abandoned, the douars have been obliterated by bombing, the livestock—the peasants’ meager wealth—has disappeared. After seven years, Algeria must start from scratch: first of all win the peace, then hang on with the greatest of difficulty to the poverty we have created: that will be our parting gift….[I]n order to avoid the famous selling-off of our Empire, we have sold off France: in order to forge arms, we have cast our institutions into the fire; our freedoms and our guarantees, Democracy and Justice, everything has burnt; nothing remains. Simply ending the fighting is not enough to reclaim our wasted wealth: we too, I am afraid, in a different area, will have to start from scratch. But the Algerians have retained their revolutionary strength. Where is ours?”

In passages like these, Sartre speaks to the dynamics of our present crisis. In his estimation, during the Algerian war, French democracy was held hostage by the intransigence of the pieds-noirs, their inability to recognize the inevitability of Arab independence, and the moral right of Arab Algerians to self-determination. This, of course, was not an uncommon analysis of the Algerian situation, even at the time, particularly among those French and Algerian-French liberals, like Albert Camus, who hoped for Algeria to remain part of France. Camus, among others, argued that “the problems” in Algeria were prompted by disreputable segments of the European population, people who were so aggressively racist that they could not imagine granting Arabs social, political, or economic rights on par with Europeans. Sartre saw this line of reasoning as collaborationist nonsense. France could not solve the Algerian crisis through reform because colonialism cannot be reformed. Colonialism, he argued, is a system designed to allow for the most brutal and systematic exploitation of indigenous resources. If you reform exploitation out of colonialism, it stops being profitable, and if it stops being profitable, the system collapses. This was the materialist point that underwrote his feelings about the inevitability of Algerian independence. At some point, the Algerian war started to cost France more than France could possibly hope to get out of Algeria. Although the conflict would continue as long as vanity, ego, and pride got in the way, economic rationality would eventually win the day. Sartre, however, took this even further. One could not hope to save French Algeria, he argued, because it was only through Algeria that France could hope to save itself.

This is maybe the most crucial point in Sartre’s later work, and it’s where we might want to start thinking about the present moment. It would be easy to read Sartre’s engagement with the politics and culture of the anti-colonial revolution as another example of a white man hoping to find himself by traversing the heart of darkness and discovering its secrets. (It’s easy to imagine this as Lacan’s objection to Sartre, but since my Lacan has been constructed through Zizek, maybe I’m telegraphing.) My sense, however, is that Sartre was not particularly interested in therapeutic engagements with “alien” cultures, not that he was entirely above such things. In his essay on Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of China, for instance, he more or less thanks the photographer for killing his Orientalism; suggesting that, on the one hand, he had indulged such fantasies but that, at the same time, he was glad to be rid of them. Instead, what I draw from Sartre is more a sense of political opportunity, and moral obligation, in the face of the Third World revolution. This all sounds incredibly squishy, but it comes down to a set of questions that are, in some sense, rather practical. After independence, when the pieds-noirs fled Algeria, they destroyed what remained of its commercial and political infrastructure. Sartre understood, all too well, how the extraction of this indemnity handicapped the newly independent nation. Just as previous generations had obliterated almost all hope for an independent Haiti by forcing its government to compensate France for the loss of its property, the vicious destruction of Algeria’s infrastructure all but ensured a long period of economic austerity and political turbulence. For Sartre, at the end of the Algerian war, the only way for France to recoup its moral standing in the world was to become a model of political morality among the post-imperial powers; and to become that model was to commit French resources to the rebuilding of Algeria. In calling on the French to save themselves, Sartre was calling upon them to refuse the domestic politics that would allow for neo-colonial exploitation, and to build a new France alongside the new Algeria.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

On the question of my whereabouts.

My apologies for my extended absence: the last weeks have been trying, to say the least. Near the end of August, my usually ironclad stomach gave out, and I was down for a week what was maybe a really nasty parasite, seriously advanced sun-stroke, or food poisoning. I had just recovered when I received news that my grandmother had died. Within less than twelve hours, I was on a plane for the States, bound for her funeral. I spent about a week in the Midwest, doing odds and ends grant maintenance, before returning to Beirut. Upon my return, I spent nearly three weeks wrangling to get my Algerian entry visa. Typically, Americans apply for their visas from the Algerian embassy in the US. Although I had already been granted special permission from the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that would allow me to apply from Beirut, the memo didn’t get into the right hands, and my application was rejected. After some tense days, and testy email exchanges with consular officials, Diplomat A contacted Diplomat B who contacted Diplomat C, and all was well. This episode afforded me the opportunity to be insistent in French; which, you may be surprised to find out, is fairly easy. Since getting my visa, I’ve been arranging for travel, first back to the States, where I will be attending my sister’s wedding, and then to Algiers. If all goes as planned (insha’allah) I will arrive there on October 25, around 1:20PM.

Oh yeah, and I’ve been studying Arabic through all of this. And planning my courses for this fall. With everything else that’s been going on, I keep on forgetting that I’m going there to teach.

In any case: my plan, now, is that the blog updates will become much more regular once I’m actually in Algeria. Of course, that depends on what sort of internet access I have, and whatnot. I’ve got one more esoteric post that I’m working on, concerning Jean-Paul Sartre, his writings on colonialism, and post-war French intellectual culture; hopefully I’ll be able to get that up before I go back to Amreeka on Tuesday. Incidentally, did you know that Sartre is one of two people to have voluntarily refused a Nobel Prize? Look it up. 1964. Literature. His rationale: he didn’t want to be made over as a monument to the cultural superiority of the West. Suck it, Sweden.