March 31, 2005 at 7:58 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

In the spring of 2003, Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi left for Iran. On June 23, 2003, she was arrested while taking photographs outside Evin prison in Tehran during student-led protests. On By July 11, 2003 it was known she died was dead — supposedly from hitting her head when she fell “accidentally.”

July 10, 2004: The Canadian government hasn’t done enough to solve the mysterious death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, killed a year ago while in the custody of Iranian police, her son said Friday while attending a memorial celebration in her honour.

July 25, 2004: Stephan Hachemi rejects $12,000 in compensation for his mother’s death from the Iranian government, calling it “blood money.”

July 27, 2004: Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, meets with Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, but doesn’t get a commitment for action from Ottawa. “The minister failed me and failed to have my mother’s rights respected,” he says.

And now there’s this, as reported in today’s Toronto Star by John Ward: Kazemi brutally tortured, MD says. Read the article carefully. The only person who comes across as upright and forthright is Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi. The politicians — all of them — sound at times idiotic, helpless, or deceitful, while the Iranian doctor (a military doctor) sounds self-serving and sly: he is quoted as follows: “It was the first time I saw a patient brought in from a prison,” he said. “It was so shocking for me.” This sounds hard to credit, coming from a military doctor who worked in a hospital. I guess he wants the asylum, and he should get it as far as I’m concerned, but will justice be done for Zahra Kazemi and her son? The Star wants readers to log in, etc., so let’s skip that — here’s the article, in full:

OTTAWA — A doctor’s “gruesome” account of injuries he found on Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi only reinforces Canada’s belief that the woman was murdered in Iran, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew said today.

“We know that she was murdered and not the victim of an accident,” the minister said in Toronto.

Canada has not given up on the case and will enlist international support against Iran, Pettigrew added.

“We will be continuing to work with the international community, put the pressure on Iran so that they render justice,” he said.

Stockwell Day, the Tory foreign affairs critic, suggested the recall of Canada’s ambassador and the imposition of sanctions, but Pettigrew wasn’t enthusiastic. Canada needs an ambassador in Tehran to keep the pressure on, he said.

“I don’t believe much in individual or bilateral sanctions but this is the kind of thing that we can discuss with the international community.”

Alexa McDonough, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said the government must pursue “new measures” to see justice done.

“It must be open with Canadians and Ms. Kazemi’s family as to the nature of these measures, be they direct measures with Iran, within the United Nations or both,” she said.

Refugee doctor Shahram Azam, formerly with the Iranian military, spoke with clinical coolness at an Ottawa news conference earlier today, methodically listing a tally of bruises, broken bones and other injuries he found on Kazemi. These could only have been the result of the deliberate torture and rape, he said.

Kazemi, 54, an Iranian-born dual citizen, was arrested after taking pictures outside a prison in Tehran in June 2003.

Speaking through an interpreter, Azam recounted in a matter-of-fact way how Kazemi was brought into his Tehran hospital unconscious and on a stretcher on June 27, 2003, four days after her arrest.

Azam, a former major in the Iranian security force, arrived in Canada on Monday. He fled Iran last summer with his wife and daughter under the guise of seeking medical treatment.

Officials from the Foreign Affairs and Immigration departments interviewed him in Sweden in November and fast-tracked his claim for refugee status.

Reading from notes he said he made when he examined Kazemi, Azam said he found horrendous injuries, ranging from a broken nose and finger bones to head and body bruises, a ruptured ear drum, lash marks, torn-off fingernails and toenails and feet beaten blue.

He said as a male doctor in a military hospital, he was banned from examining a woman’s genitals, but the nurse who did so told him of “brutal damage.”

“As a doctor, I could see this was caused by torture,” Azam said.

Iranian officials have said she died after she went on a hunger strike, fainted and struck her head as she fell.

“This was not an accident,” Pettigrew scoffed.

Azam recited his findings in a calm, detached manner, gesturing to describe the location of some of the worst bruises.

He said a CAT scan that night showed bleeding in the brain and he learned the next day his patient was brain dead. The incident shook him.

“It was the first time I saw a patient brought in from a prison,” he said. “It was so shocking for me.”

He said he had to come forward to tell his story freely because “I am a human being.”

Marlys Edwardh, lawyer for the family, said Azam’s recollections match the description given by the women’s mother, who was allowed to briefly view the body in the hospital.

She said his account also makes it clear the Iranian government has lied about the case from the start.

Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, who has kept his mother’s case in the public eye for months, watched expressionless from the audience as Azam delivered his grisly findings.

Hachemi kept his emotions under tight rein as he said he’s disappointed with the Canadian government’s lack of progress in getting justice for his mother.

“I’m continuing what my mother has started by standing up to the Iranian regime,” he said.

Edwardh said the family wants Prime Minister Paul Martin to press Iran for a full criminal investigation of the case. Iran put a low-ranking official on trial last year, but he was acquitted after a hearing that was seen as a sham.

Edwardh said the government should press for international mediation and compensation for Kazemi’s family.

Pettigrew said officials will meet the family’s lawyers to discuss all options.

“The family needs answers, Canadians want answers and we will not stop pursuing this case until justice is rendered,” he said.

Martin, who said his officials will meet Hachemi, condemned the Iranian behaviour.

“By any standard, this is simply unacceptable.”

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said in Montreal that his officials are looking at what actions Canada might pursue.

“We’re going to look at the legal options that are available to the Canadian government,” he said.

Hachemi said all Canadians have a stake in his mother’s case.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s not a personal matter, it’s a national matter, it’s an international matter.”

The Revolution will not be blogged (just marketed)

March 23, 2005 at 10:03 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Jonathan Delacour’s recent Before the Revolution entry is excellent. I’m not sure I can really summarise it, but I think Jonathan sees a change in the purpose of blogging as it pivots, in a not-so-pleasant way, from exploration to strategy. His entry begins with a discussion of a quote by Talleyrand (b. 1754), which Bernardo Bertolucci used as an epigraph in his 1964 film, Before the Revolution:

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is. (Talleyrand via Bertolucci)

Since we’re dealing with a French quote translated into Italian translated into English, we’re also dealing with a certain degree of uncertainty as to what Talleyrand really meant.

What emerges fairly clearly, however, is that Talleyrand was born an aristocrat, lived as an aristocrat, rode with the tide when the revolution came, secured advantages befitting the most scheming of aristocrats, and died in 1838 — many years after the 1789 Revolution (and well after the 1830 one) — as rich as any king could wish to be. What does one make of Talleyrand, and what does one make of Bertolucci quoting him? Both, from different positions of power, felt entitled or compelled to speak, to voice opinions and demands, to make politics.

“The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”
~ Talleyrand

Both lived in times of social upheaval, when revolutionaries raised questions about who gets to speak. Who has the power to speak — and who gets listened to? Who manages to get into positions where she or he can speak for others?

Citing a New Yorker article by Louis Menand which talks about Bertolucci’s recent film, The Dreamers, Jonathan quotes Menand on Bertolucci’s earlier film, Before the Revolution:

Fabrizio [Before the Revolution‘s main (Marxist) character] is not a revolutionary; he is playing at being a revolutionary, because that is what young people in the postwar middle class do. His kind of revolution is just a chapter in the bourgeois family romance (thus the incest: it violates the norms of the nuclear family).

The bourgeois family romance is what blogging has always devolved to, and all the usual suspects are assembled. Mother, father, siblings, servants, as well as overlords who must be obeyed even by the fathers. In the bourgeois period, which Talleyrand helped inaugurate, the overlords would have been the bankers and financiers — today they are the corporate interests. Mom and Dad are… well, take your pick, it depends on whose blogs you’re reading, but clearly it would have to be an A-lister, someone who ranks high in the blog-cosmos. Siblings? Subalterns/ servants? That would be those trailing in the A-list comet’s tail, along with all the second-tier marketers…. squabbling and vying for rank and daddy’s or mommy’s favour (if fortune smiles and he or she rises to sibling-status), or consigned to scrubbing the bathrooms and not being seen or heard if, like most, he’s part of the servant staff.

If a sibling becomes distinguished (or fat-headed) enough, she or he can play at revolution, and start telling everyone else what to think about having power. She can tell us that we’re journalists, or he can tell us that we can make money (more power) with blogging — or that blogging will change the world.

All the overt references to (and manifestations of) power (including those boring attempts to define what blogging “is”), and the intrusion of a gold-rush mentality (as if bloggers have to be making money, or as if there’s something lame and shameful about them if they aren’t) indicate that the usual overlords are taking control of the neurotic, dipsy “nuclear” family (and its terrible and terribly awful romances). And the kids are noticing: any sibling worth his salt, wishing to be the next Talleyrand, senses that it’s pointless to squabble with co-siblings for the parents’ attentions. The state (now, the state of money and corporate power) wants “statesmanship” that can “…foresee the inevitable and expedite its occurence.”

In a bitingly ironic way, Jonathan Delacour, subverting Talleyrand’s quote as appropriated by Bertolucci, puts it like this:

Those who did not blog in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of blogging was.

Just go read his entry — it’s very good.


March 22, 2005 at 9:40 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Insurance

It’s been a really busy few days lately. Ragged, to the point that I have no mind for complicated topics, either. But here’s a simple bit that stuck out for me:

On the weekend I found myself sitting between two women — moms — while we waited for our kids to finish a master class at the Music Conservatory. Mom-on-my-right says that her daughter is probably really tired just about now since she and the daughter had been to a funeral at mid-day. “Oh,” I ask, “what happened?” A dad, in the middle of his late forties (and incidentally a year younger than I am) died this March after an out-of-the-blue December diagnosis of cancer. His survivors included his wife and 2 young children, who were friends of the student in the masterclass. I pictured 2 young kids, with bereft mom facing a mountain of running bills, and I ask, “He had life insurance, I hope?” Mom-on-the-right, having focussed on the touching moments of the funeral service, sits bolt upright, suddenly looks quizzical, and says, “I don’t know.”

Wow. You could see the wheels turning: “Let’s see: I have the money to afford music lessons for my child at the Conservatory, but do I have life insurance? Does my husband?”

Mom-on-the-left, a decidedly more practical-seeming person, pipes in with, “A friend of mine and her boyfriend bought a house, and then he unexpectedly died a couple of weeks after they moved in. She was pregnant, it was awful for her, but they had mortgage insurance and she was able to pay off the entire house.” Mom-on-the-right’s pensiveness increases even more.

Yeah, well, that’s right. You go and start a family and you better lose the ridiculous teenage “I’m immortal” attitude. You have to think about what’s going to be available for your kids if you “prematurely” kick the bucket. It happens. Jeez, it happens. What are you going to leave them?

It’s probably a good idea to have the term life insurance for yourself at least until the kid is a teenager. After that, take out an additional policy if you can afford it — on the kid. Just in case there’s one of those all-too-prevalent vehicular incidents.

What? You think this is morbid? Maybe it is. But are you the kind of fool who thinks you’re not going to die (“prematurely” or …”on time”), or that your death shouldn’t benefit your survivors?

Do I resent paying the insurance premiums, when there are so many other things I need money for? Absolutely. But on the other hand, even people in their forties die, and a quarter of a million dollars in pay-out will go some way toward paying for education, providing an inheritance, or (for the philanthropically inclined) starting a fund or scholarship to improve some small corner of someone’s world. It’s sure better than leaving nothing.

And that reminds me that I have been most remiss in basic health care for myself, having ignored the annual mammogram for at least four years now… Delusions of immortality: seems they’re impossible to get away from… If you’re careful about insurance, you’re bound to be reckless somewhere else, unless you’re the kind of smarty-pants empyreum-bound paragon that every normal earth-bound sucker hates.

Even though I may die bound and tied by the red tape of corporations forced to pay my heirs vast sums of money, living recklessly, you see, is my insurance.

Manchurian mating run

March 20, 2005 at 10:48 am | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

We rented the 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake of the 1962 original this weekend. IMDb‘s reviewers give it barely 7 stars out of 10, and since I don’t often like remakes myself I was sceptical. But this one is very good: it raises all the usual fun paranoid conspiracy issues, along with technology issues, while the psychosexual pathologies it elaborates are worthy of classic tragedy.

First, though, the technology: What immediately struck me was the reliance in this movie on a mechanical “brainwashing” (or actually, pre-programming), involving mechanical drills and insertions reminiscent of medieval medicine. Considering the awesome and awful advances coming online in biochemical engineering and modification, that aspect of the film’s vision already seems quaint. Selectively erase “bad” memories? We’re workin’ on it, bud! From there, why not create killers by “muting” ethical or moral concerns? Can do, can do! But will we do it with hardware drills and electronic probes inserted either cranially or subcutaneously? No way, that would be like using leeches to cure disease. Surely proteomics research eventually will allow us to inject a few modified protein triggers that engineer the desired modification much better than those clumsy mechanicals dreamed up by novelists and Hollywood.

Then there’s the sexual psychodrama: Meryl Streep is amazing in this film. I don’t usually like “bad mother” characters, and Streep isn’t exactly my favourite actress, but she pulls it off so well, it’s a lesson and a treat to watch. When we first meet her, she comes across as ambitious, compulsively obsessed with politics and success, but likeable if you’re the kind of person who likes Hilary Clinton (I am). She says all the right things, she sounds so reasonable, she seems to make sense, and until things start going over the top, you might be strung along by her lines. As the film progresses, however, you sense that her ambitions for her son hint at extremism and taboo, although chances are, you’re still objecting on the old grounds of “interfering overbearing mother.” But Streep’s character has much more up her sleeve. When she starts to talk about how no one aside from her knows the “true” Raymond (her son), how no one but her can see the real him (and that one has to see him exactly as she sees him to see the “real” man), you start to get the heeby-jeebies: how dare anyone colonise the soul of another in such a way? What is all this crap about seeing the “real” or “true” person anyway, as though the speaker were a butterfly collector, forever pinning the beautiful dead specimen to a board? Streep brings a depth and conviction to what’s essentially a pulp fiction role by making her obsession horribly timeless. While her collusion in her son’s physical brainwashing is the most obvious “smoking gun” revealing her depravity, it’s her overbearing banter with him, which culminates at one point in fluttery kisses threatening to morph into a smoochy, all-consuming kiss, that reveals the sexual agenda behind her plan to turn the son into what both the father and the husband couldn’t be. The desire to create a puppet who will execute her political will is just the daily grist for this manipulative mother character, and it’s the stuff of “bad mom” films everywhere. It’s what Streep reveals in her own shocked, arrested face during the smooching moment that makes the audience reflect on why a mother should build a son into an idealised man. Political or social desire reveals itself to Streep’s character (and to us, through Streep’s acting skill) as sexual desire. Not since La Luna, where Jill Clayburgh revealed that particular obsession, have I seen an actress get the point across as piercingly — and remember that Clayburgh had almost the entire movie to elaborate, while Streep has just this one moment to raise the stakes.

Good god, thank heavens Hilary has a daughter — but maybe that’s why the rabid Clinton-baiters and tabloid presses catering to their dullwitted minions delight in suggesting that Hilary must be a lesbian.

As for the yummy Denzel Washington, his Ben Marco is brilliant. But for my money, Streep is the secret star here.

Applecarts are for up-setting

March 19, 2005 at 2:11 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Applecarts are for up-setting

A young boy was making an argument yesterday about right and wrong. He sought to dispute that right and wrong exist as such since they are determined by the perspective of whoever is doing the action. An atrocity is seen as bad (“wrong”) from the victim’s point of view, but as good (“right”) from the murderer’s. Snared into a conversation I couldn’t help but overhear, I disagreed with his puerile argument, which struck me as not just immature, but also as symptomatic of a half-baked teenybopperdom in search of its inner Nietzsche — albeit without finding him or drawing the consequences from the search.

Later, I wondered why nature endowed people with brains if they’re going to use them in such a stupid way, and I seriously contemplated that the best response would have been a hearty slap upside the head. Since this wasn’t my kid, that wasn’t an option, alas. In case other confused young teens stumble across this, however, here’s an extended response, in terms a child can understand:

Once attached to the actions of real people, right and wrong aren’t abstractions. They are the expressions of values that people interacting with one another hold, and they can’t be relativised away. If I enslave a man, I take away his freedom. From my perspective, there might be nothing wrong with that, but from the slave’s perspective, there is everything wrong with it. That boy would argue that both views are legitimate, and add that he’s not agreeing with the slaveholder, he’s merely pointing out that it’s a question of point-of-view. Bullshit. And cop-out. You are considering two diametrically opposed actions (the enslavement vs the struggle for freedom), and I wonder how you can pretend to distance yourself in some Land of Abstraction as though you have no stake in those actions, for you do have a stake. You must decide whose “point-of-view” you will choose to call legitimate, which means you must search for a basis for defending one over the other. Some aspects of that choice will have to do with self-interest, which means that in a slave-holding society, you might defend the slave-holder, provided that you’re in the same social category and not a slave. But since we live in the present, here and now, how can there be any question as to where your self-interest lies? Do you seriously propose that your self-interest doesn’t lie with freedom? The world in which we live has agreed that freedom is a good thing, which is why we take away freedom (put people in jail) as punishment. We don’t stand around and say smart-alecky stupid things like, “from the oppressor’s point of view, lack of freedom is a good thing,” because we understand that right and wrong are values acted out in social contexts, and that people have died to defend freedom as a value. Point-of-view? BS.

Let’s take another example, simultaneously both less and more stark: If I observe a society that systematically oppresses one gender, say, and even subjects that entire group to mutilation and enslavement in the name of tradition and religion, I might also observe that the oppressed in that society perversely and actively collude in their oppression, considering it a sign of “natural” stability, god’s favour, and what-have-you that the status quo (their servitude and subaltern status) is maintained through their oppression. Yet I would still champion freedom as the superior value, and hope that eventually empowerment of the oppressed gender will change that society, too: Freedom, once you have a grip on it, is not a relative point-of-view thing, and the oppressed only collude in their oppression out of inertia and fear.

Another example: If a child is abused (and remember that abuse can be subtle), the child might make excuses for the parent(s) and he or she might actually feel that the abuse is natural or right (or that it’s not really abuse), or perhaps she or he wants so badly to make the parent happy that she or he complies with the abusive conditions as though of his free will. The child is brainwashed by the parents into accepting the status quo. He colludes in his oppression, unable to question the existing conditions, because who knows what tragedy lies beyond the known evil. But there is no freedom in that life, and the parent in fact stole the child’s freedom, stole his childhood, and effectively put him into emotional jail. What’s relative or “point-of-view”-ish about that? It’s simply wrong.

Gee, I always thought that teenage hormones were invented by nature to ensure that the kick-ass march to freedom is inexorable. To instead hear excuses made for keeping one’s unfree head down and accepting things as they are is almost ghoulish. Let’s hope it’s just a case of delayed development.

Get into fighting shape

March 17, 2005 at 10:21 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Get into fighting shape

Lovely twist of irony, if somewhat macabre: can this be for real?

It’s actually kinda gross:

Obesity could help keep Social Security solvent because people will die younger. “One of the consequences of our prediction is that Social Security does not appear to be in nearly as bad a shape as we think,” said study author S. Jay Olshansky. [More…]

New pair of shoes, please

March 16, 2005 at 9:17 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

On the subject of “metablogging” and disfunction (as manifested in weblogging), this post, Steve Levy, Dave Sifry, and NZ Bear: You are Hurting Us, by Shelley Powers aka Burningbird, is simply the most important and pithy I’ve read so far. Period. It’s a good idea to read it, too, in relation to her Guys Don’t Link post, which is so far the best reply I’ve seen to Larry Summers’s grossness.

The coy smiley face notwithstanding, Dave Winer, writing around the same time and issue, pretty much proved that he must have the biggest dinklog tucked away in that voluminous blog of his, a veritable virtual Fount of Viagra that never lets up:

I wish women would pick up some of the load and write about new stuff that interests Scripting News readers. I feel victimized by having to always point to men. We do all the work and they do all the complaining. Women, how about doing your fair share, i.e. half, of the work? What a trip. We’re doing most of the work and they’ve got us feeling guilty. Heh. What else is new? [why more?]

So: he adds later that he was kidding. But if you want proof that he lives in la-la-land, note also that Winer believes that the US is unequivocally a boot-strap society, where social differences can be overcome by doing the right thing and telling the right stories: I might guess at his national heritage, but then in the US, that’s fairly pointless. (from here)

Excuse me, but that’s just a load of crap. I’ve lived in several countries so far, and truly can attest that, even though it’s a pretty cool place in most regards, the US is also an extremely status-conscious society, with deep codes about belonging and not belonging. Before moving to the US, I was never, ever asked what my father did for a living (contractor); I was never asked where I went to school (with the expectation that the name of the school would give away the postal or zip code and hence the real estate status of the area, or else that it would indicate an expensive prep school, or a university with clout, all of which would say something about my parents’ status), nor was I asked where my parents went to school (the School of Hard Knocks and the Kindergarten of Having the Shit Kicked Out of You, to quote Black Adder). Yet strangely, in the supposedly oh-so-egalitarian and democratic US, these questions were always either lurking or asked outright: never before was I asked so often what my parents did or where I went to school. Ok, maybe it made a difference that my home in the US was New England, in Massachusetts, where if you didn’t arrive in the 1700s you were considered an outsider, and that I went to grad school at Harvard where supreme shame consisted of having gone to a state school for undergraduate work. But still. The snoot-factor in many parts of the US is enormous, and there are real, tangible markers and hurdles — and hello??!, I’m a white (albeit “foreign”) female! I can only imagine what it’s like for those who aren’t in that category of at least looking “normal” (i.e., white) …just as I can only imagine what it’s like when you have that extra double-plus-good of being not just white (“normal”), but being male (“especially normal”), too. It kind of disgusts me that a supposedly intelligent person would buy into the bootstrap myth so unequivocally …or shall we say: buy into it when it suits his purposes, for Winer is always ready to complain about not gettng his fair share of recognition when he feels slighted. Is he just provincial/parochial, with no experience of other societies, or is there something terribly manipulative and blind about those views? At any rate, these views hurt people who are put down by the bootstrap myth, because the myth is what keeps the manic optimism about the system flowing, even as it marginalises as disfunctional outsiders those who dare to question it.

Subject and Object

March 15, 2005 at 12:28 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Subject and Object

The other day Chris Locke blogged about Marianna Torgovnick’s 1998 book, Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, which sent me to my jumbled, ratty bookshelves to find Torgovnick’s previous book, Gone Primitive; Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. For general interest, and generally in support of Chris’s research, forthwith some quotes from the latter. First, a quote that identifies some aspects of the primitive, with (I think) the most interesting bit at the end:

Among these [general tendencies of primitive societies] are the legality of customs, the presence of traditional leadership roles, the paramount importance of kinship in social and economic organization, widespread and diffuse social and economic functions assigned each individual, the importance of ritual for individual and group expression (rituals which often include dance and the expression of ambivalence), and a relative indifference to Platonic modes of thought — in short, the condition of societies before the emergence of the modern state. (p.21)

The interesting bit (at the end) is that Euro-American fascination with primitivism hinges on seeing it as somehow antithetical to the modern state. And yet the question should probably be: just how authentic or true is that, really? Isn’t primitivism something we’ve been making up all along, in reaction to our own inadequacies in dealing with modernity?

For example, take Acéphale, the 1930s avant-garde surrealist journal founded in Paris by Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, et al., which Torgovnick also discusses:

Acéphale was preoccupied with rituals of slaughter and with headlessness as a metaphor. The group’s emblem [see above] makes its concern with headlessness and with violence as a form of natural energy quite clear: the figure has no head, but it does have a death’s-head, located where the penis should be. This last detail suggests that the erotic and the violent share a common bodily locus and, sometimes, common motivations. The emblem reveals Acéphale’s fascination […] with “lower” sources of psychic energy and with ways to circumvent the Western emphasis on the mind and rationality. Accordingly, the group unblinkingly entertained the possibility that streams of blood, flooding European streets, would be necessary to overcome the stagnation of modernity. Fantasized scenes of primitive ritual appear in Acéphale as sites of boundary transgression and transcendence — as precursors and stimulants to revolution at home. This aspect of Acéphale’s thought is revealed most clearly in the writings of Georges Bataille.

Bataille was fascinated with human and animal sacrifices in primitive societies and liked to imagine the possibilities such practices might open to the West. “The Pineal Eye,” for example, includes a grotesque scene in which a blond Englishwoman cavorts with a number of nude primitive men. [Incidentally, the women are almost always blonde.] At a signal from the Englishwoman, they bind a female gibbon and bury her alive in a pit, allowing only her anus to project from the grave. As the gibbon suffocates, her anus emits a stream of excrement. The ritual is completed when “the mouth of the Englishwoman crushes her most burning, her sweetest kisses” upon the anus of the gibbon (86). The scene is one of several in the collection of Bataille’s essays called Visions of Excess in which women or little girls are brought pornographically into association with a vision of excrement as both the abject and the transcendent; as in “The Pineal Eye,” the connection between the female and the excremental vision of transcendence is usually a form of primitive or animal life (frequently an ape). (pp.149-150)

My old dog-eared copy of Visions of Excess is also on one of the bookshelves, but I remember it well enough without having to fetch it. Bataille believed he could build an economy — or rather, a sort of anti-economy — on his ideas regarding excess, excrement, transcendence. This new economic thinking was to be a sort of beyond-Marx critique of capitalism. For example, genital sex can lead to procreation, which is part of the “bourgeois,” productive economy. Therefore, presto-chango, the real revolutionary has to engage in anal sex because it is non-productive (cannot lead to impregnation). It also involves the shithole, which Bataille simply seemed unable to get away from. See his story, “The Solar Anus,” for an account of utterly cosmic anal rape, wherein the male’s head explodes, so to speak, as he indulges in a vision of an excremental sun, while “violating” the female’s anus.

But wait, we’re not done yet. …We’re not home yet:

“Transcendental homelessness” — the phrase comes from Lukács. In his theory of the novel, Lukács sees the condition of the modern Western mind, the mind that produced the novel, as “transcendentally homeless”: secular but yearning for the sacred, ironic but yearning for the absolute, individualistic but yearning for the wholeness of community, asking questions but receiving no answers, fragmented but yearning for “immanent totality.” The site of transcendental homelessness has been the site of much of this century’s interest in the primitive, but it is a difficult site to map, except in small bits and pieces.


Bataille gives us another portion of the map. In his unflagging effort to reveal the irrational baseness of man, he evolved an aesthetics of excrement which shared with the work of his colleague [Michel] Leiris a fascination for ritual and the sacred, linked to the primitive via rites of animal, but more particularly of human, sacrifice. Bataille’s linking of the primitive with human sacrifice makes crystal clear that a connection has been there all along in the West. For “sacrifice” intuitively connects to one of the persistent tropes the West associates with the primitive — cannibalism — evident in Polyphemous’ gulping down of Odysseus’ sailors and in Europeans’ obsession with Africans and Pacific islanders as cannibals. Human sacrifice is a symbolic version of cannibalism, in which the human body substitutes for the animal body, and killing for eating. It is a symbolic representation of our normal gustatory acts — but heightened, made less utilitarian, and hence “sacred.” Christianity has written some of these connections into its communion rituals — the sacrificed man-God is also the eaten man-God, body and blood.

For Bataille, human sacrifice is also a sacred, transcendental version of suicide, a version in which the voluntary destruction of the self achieves social significance. [Remember, in “The Solar Anus,” the rapist (no other term comes to mind) appears to be annihilated by the brainstorm that ensues in his head as his victim’s anus and the actual sun fuse into one cosmic vision of exploding, boundless excess.]

Bataille yearns for death (even violent death) as a way out of the intolerable uncertainty and limits of being, as a way of affirming the me, in its very improbability, with “a space peopled by stars.” The paradox resembles the one that allies sacrifice with suicide: the surrender of individuality makes “one” — no longer “one” — part of the cosmic whole. The anxiety of selfhood is transcended, even as the concept of selfhood is both obliterated and affirmed. Transcendental homelessness, a sense of cultural void, a fear of the fragility of the self, sometimes deepening into a loathing of the self or its perceived contexts: how often these seem allied to some of our greatest thinking and thinkers about the primitive.
(pp.188-190) (All quotations from Gone Primitive; Savage Intellects, Modern Lives

And this nearly concludes story hour tonight. Except for a brief comment on Synchronicity, which Chris Locke also just blogged about on his other blog. I never would have thought that I’d come across another person who plays (or played, in my case) “I Ching of the Radio” — and actually calls it that. During the heady days of late-70s/ early-80s immersion in Bataille, I played “I Ching of the Radio” whenever I was in my car. Maybe everyone called it that, and everyone played it — who knows? At any rate, John Cougar Mellencamp had a hit song around that time, whose refrain went, “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, You make it hurt so good.” Uh, yeah, cosmic man, or at least very very acéphale….

Vive Quebec

March 11, 2005 at 10:08 pm | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

Judging from the snippet I heard on CBC Radio tonight, the sharia law debate continues in Canada. In a brief automotive interlude, I heard As It Happens interviewers speaking to Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, Minister of International Relations and of La Francophonie in Quebec, who defended Quebec’s refusal to allow any aspect of sharia law to take hold in La Belle Province. Here is the gist of what she had to say:

First, immigration is a privilege, not a right. As a twice-over immigrant, I whole-heartedly concur, and cannot agree with the woman in this article who assumes that Islam is given to her “naturally,” as it were, and that she must therefore naturally be allowed to practice it in full, regardless of where she is. When she says, “It’s something nobody can change and we must follow,” she expresses in a nutshell what is wrong with fundamentalist religious belief: namely, the idea that social states are non-negotiable (“something nobody can change”). In the West, the notion of freedom is eviscerated by the idea that negotiation cannot take place. That notion makes a mockery of all those who put their very lives on the line for political and individual freedom.

Second, those who want to leave their country of origin should be able to agree, before arriving in the new country, that they will abide by the system of justice of the country they wish to emigrate to. Otherwise, they must stay where they are, or go somewhere else. It is illegal in Quebec, as well as in Canada, to practice violence against women, to practice polygamy, and to practice female genital mutilation, whereas each of these illegal acts is allowed under sharia law. The Canadian justice system says this is wrong. It therefore makes no sense to say, “well, we’ll allow a second system of justice in the area of ‘family law’, even though we’ll make everyone abide by Canada’s justice system for the ‘big picture.'” That’s bogus: there is one justice system, and letting a second system of justice take root simply makes a mockery of the first. While “reasonable” religious folks might say, “Well, we don’t really want to practice x [genital mutilation, polygamy, etc.], we just want to have that little space in that one little area [‘family law’] — and of course if someone does something truly criminal, we’ll submit to Canadian law,” they are not being reasonable at all. They have come into the host country under false pretenses, so to speak, and it’s really not up to the host country to change to accomodate those fundamentalist views. Monique Gagnon-Tremblay argued that sharia is fundamentalism, regardless of where or in what little nook or cranny it takes hold, and that the justice system in Quebec has no room for fundamentalism.

Too bad Ontario didn’t have someone as clear-spoken as that. What’s underlying B’nai Brith’s support of Sharia law in Ontario gets elaborated by Jewlicious – 100% Kosher, which has a really interesting comments thread as well.

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