Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!

The Bees - Chicken Payback

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Do I Like That?!

If you've ever volleyed a vertically descending ball at around knee height, you'll know that it's possible to hit a looping shot over the top of a wall, bringing it down in time to get under the crossbar and into the back of the net. This is possible because the height of the ball at contact enables you to bring the front of your foot underneath and round the back of the ball, thereby imparting topspin to it, which reduces the air pressure on the underside of the ball during its trajectory and increases it on the topside, resulting in the dip to the shot that prevents it from going over the bar.

Had the ball been passed along the ground for the free kick shown in the above clip (Ernie Hunt's goal from Willie Carr's famous "donkey kick" in 1970), it would have been much harder for Hunt to impart the necessary topspin because he wouldn't have been able to get his foot under the ball; he would have had to impart sidespin on the ball instead and attempt to bend the ball around the wall.

The only way to put topspin on a stationary ball for a free kick is by bringing the front of the foot as close to ground level as you can, which, because of human physiology, means attempting to lean over as you take the kick. You can see this in any David Beckham free kick:

Because it's impossible to bring the foot exactly parallel to the ground, the result is never perfect topspin but a combination of topspin and sidespin, which keeps the ball down but also makes it possible to curve the ball in the air around defenders or away from the goalkeeper.

Why am I boring you with this shite? Because I've just finished reading Ken Bray's How to Score: Science and the Beautiful Game and Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. Bray's book is a sort of primer which tells you why you've been able to do these things since childhood, with a few extra tips that can help you maximize the distance of your throw-ins, how to position the wall if you're a goalkeeper, how to take penalties and so on. Most of the stuff in there is common sense, and the stuff that you won't know is mostly stuff you don't need to know to enjoy playing the game. There's also a chapter on the psychology of winning, using the Liverpool v. Milan Champions League final of a couple of years ago to demonstrate a few fundamental points about attitude.

Wilson's book is the longer, more substantial work, and a real joy to read. He traces how the formations used by teams have, in effect, turned upside down over the century and a bit of organized footie. Teams originally had two defenders and eight attackers, the latter of which moved in close proximity to the man with the ball in order to protect him. Gradually, the formations have become increasingly defence-minded, so that where once teams went out in a V formation with the keeper at the base of the V, now they go out in a Christmas Tree or lambda formation, with some variation on 6 defence-minded players and 4 attack-minded (4-2-4), (4-4-2), (3-5-2), or even (3-4-1-1). The pleasure in reading Wilson's book comes from seeing the logical progression through history as managers and coaches try to find ways to score more goals and concede fewer, each new formation resulting in temporary success until opponents figure out how to counteract the new formation, leading to a temporary stalemate until another variation is tried or FIFA change the rules to try to break the deadlock. It's a fascinating book if you're sort of person likely to be fascinated by that sort of thing, and even if you aren't, Wilson does his best to make the story interesting.

Many "connoisseurs" of football cite the total football employed by the Dutch teams of the 1970s as the ideal way to play the game. Ten outfield players all comfortable with the ball and all capable of playing in any position. It's a lovely idea, but of course the very layout of the football pitch mitigates against this kind of team. In terms of probability, you have more chance of conceding a goal the closer you are to your own goal when you lose the ball (a generalisation, but safe enough for our purposes). Consequently, you don't want to be pfaffing around near your own box trying to take players on or stringing together short passes. You want to get the ball into the second third of the pitch or upfield away from your own goal. You'll also put a premium on heading the ball out of defence when balls come in from opponents trying to find teammates. As a result, the kind of game you'll be playing in the first third of the pitch (close to your own goal) is going to be different to the kind of football you'll be playing in the final third of the pitch, when you're trying to score, so even if you have eleven players equally skilled in all elelments of the game, the ones playing at the back are going to be playing a different type of game to those playing upfield. The main benefit of total football is really more to do with depth of skills in your squad than how you play on the pitch; anyone can fit in to any position.

Wilson has much fun at the expense of Graham Taylor and the second school of "English Pragmatism," which centred on the theories of FA technical director Charles Hughes, who advanced a supposedly scientifically based, statistically backed argument for hoofing the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible into the final third of the pitch rather than mess about stringing together moves composed of several passes. Wilson diligently demonstrates why Hughes's theories are complete and utter bollocks, ripping to shreds the "scientific basis" of his arguments in a very entertaining chapter. His dismay that Hughes could have been taken so seriously so high up in the FA is something that most readers will share but also not be particularly surprised at.

Wilson's is a lovely book that I suspect will appeal to readers of a certain age, and, I suspect, let's be honest about it, mostly men. It offers a nostalgia trip, an opportunity for enlightenment, and an excuse to watch more footie. I find myself checking formations in the paper of a weekend when I look at the lineups in the papers now, and the match reports make more sense to me too, although even at my age I think you still can't beat getting out there in the mud and the wind and the rain, eleven against eleven, jumpers for goalposts.


Soviet na hÉireann

I was lucky enough to catch half of this documentary on TG4 the other night about the hundreds of workers' soviets that were established in Ireland during the post-WW1 period. Donagh tells me it's being shown again this Tuesday, but for those of you who can't get TG4, you can watch it (or download it) by going here and clicking on the Faisnéis - Cartlann channel then selecting the appropriate title. It's really really well worth watching. And it has subtitles.

I See You Baby, Shakin' That Ass

Modernist tank design in the style of the CNT (quite possibly after watching Dad's Army).

More here.

Thanks to Will.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Pumpkin Capital of Europe

Virginia, Cavan, this weekend.

Shane MacGowan, Sharon Shannon and Mundy top the bill. And you won't get three bigger pumpkins than that.

Cultural Dyspepsia

As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it was beneath him, or at the very least that he would have preferred to be elsewhere, and that it was only the chance to chat to Vitali Vitaliev or P.J. O’Rourke every couple of weeks that kept him coming back.

It’s now clear to me precisely where he would rather have been: 1920s–30s Vienna. Much of the cultural activity referred to or discussed in this infuriating, intimidating, and baffling book seems to centre on or be connected to the Austrian capital. It took me a period of several weeks to read the whole thing, dipping in and out but proceeding assiduously and alphabetically, through its potted biographies, and I found myself increasingly bemused by the frequent references to Viennese culture; only when I looked back, in preparation for this review, did I see, having forgotten all about it, that the biographies are preceded by an “overture” (the book also has a “coda,” just to give you an idea of the kind of pretentiousness we’re dealing with here) that is devoted to the city in question. It’s in this overture that James explains the significance of the location that forms the focus of his work: Vienna was the source of a Jewish intellectual diaspora that, in his view, had a huge influence on the development of Western culture. This was the motherlode whence came much of the high modernism he holds in such esteem: Stefan Zweig, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, and a whole swath of others. Not that they all receive biographies of their own in this volume, but their influence seems to pervade the biographies of those who do.

However, underlying this case study in oppression is the broader theme of the struggle of Western liberal humanism against various forms of totalitarianism, and this usefully explains why among those profiled are Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sophie Scholl, Leon Trotsky, Mario Vargas Llosa, Czeslaw Milosz, Raymond Aron, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Brasillach, to name but a few, protagonists on one side or another of this struggle. The humanism in question, though, is a peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric version, albeit one explicitly related to “civilization” and civilizing activities such as the arts and humanities. In his introductory chapter, James writes:

As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind . . . but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it.

All well and good, although given that Walter Benjamin is one of those profiled, it wouldn’t have been too much to expect James to know that, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For consistency’s sake, why not exclude any artist whose work depended on the patronage of empire, upon the destruction of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of others? Well, perhaps because this is not a humanism to which James seems willing to admit all of humanity. It is sad to think that he might once have recognized the craftsmanship and skill that went into the construction of a Grand Prix car, all the more interesting because of the involvement of so many individuals in its construction, but the fact is that since those early, broad-minded days of journalism, he seems to have taken a step backwards. There are no profiles in this book of car designers, despite the motor car being one of the most significant cultural forms of our age. There are no architects, no painters, no sculptors. A few people from the mass media: TV, film, radio. Not theatre. There are some musicians, but classical. In the main, there are poets, there are essayists and novelists, and there are politicians. And there is only a handful of women, which says something highly significant: This is a humanism that excludes more than half of humanity.

And this is odd, because the whole book is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and the memory of Sophie Scholl, as much as to say that these women are exemplars of the humanism that the author holds so dear. Indeed, while discussing postwar American education, he writes,

. . . the resulting story made Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idea the GI Bill was, into the most effective woman in the history of world culture up until that time, and continues to make her name a radiant touchstone for those who believe, as I do, that the potential liberation of the feminine principle is currently the decisive factor lending an element of constructive hope to the seething tumult within the world’s vast Muslim hegemony, and within the Arab world in particular.

Disregarding the patronizing “feminine principle” and the murkiness of the sentence as a whole, might we not consider this a case of motes and beams? Where, in your book, are the liberated feminine voices of Western civilization, Clive? Where’s Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, your own Germaine? They are absent. Women who had to struggle to have their voices heard are silent in this pantheon. And, most egregiously, not to say obscenely, the chapter devoted to Sophie Scholl, she of the White Rose movement, deals but briefly with her heroism and soon devolves into a multipage eulogy for Natalie Portman, the waif-like actress toward whom James seems to nurture unwholesome intentions and regards as the only suitable actress to take on Scholl’s life story. I have to say, his ill-disguised and squalid slaverings left a nasty taste in my mouth too. I suppose Portman at least should be flattered that she has such power to distract such a dedicated humanist from the ostensible subject matter of his work.

The cover of this edition carries a blurb from J. M. Coetzee describing the book as “a crash-course in civilization.” It is no such thing. A car crash is more civilized. Rather, this is a series of biographies of a very particular subset of a specific generation, around whom the author has built an edifice composed of a grab-bag of heroes and villains in order to demonstrate (1) the size of his library, which he never stops going on about, (2) the extent of his own erudition, (3) the number of languages he can speak, and (4) that democracy is all very well in principle, but someone has to tend to the finer things in life and it can’t very well be the great unwashed.

The writing, it should be said, is generally clear and fluent, unless James is trying to advance a simple argument, its simplicity concealed by superfluous references and asides, and the reader is rarely stopped in his or her tracks trying to figure out what’s just been said. Perhaps that’s the remnants of the journalist in James. It’s rare, though, that what is being proposed is either striking or original. Much of the argument is, truth be told, unchallenging and sophomoric: It’s Fukuyama light. Liberal democracy is unstoppable, history is liberty becoming conscious of itself. Totalitarianism cannot last. To make matters worse, the case is made in a voice of such arrogance and self-assuredness that you can’t help but sometimes feel that you’d be tainted if you agreed with it. Try this, from his chapter on Italian philologist Gianfranco Contini:

One night in Florence in the early eighties, my wife and I accompanied Contini to the opera. . . . After the performance it was raining so heavily that Contini accepted a lift home, with my wife at the wheel of our worn-out Mini. He was in the front passenger seat and I was folded in the back. They talked scholarly stuff . . . The rain was so heavy that we ended up going the wrong way. I remembered, and recited, a tag from Dante: "Chè la diritta via era smarrita." Because the right way had been lost. Contini smiled from ear to ear, and when I added my regrets that I hadn’t written the line myself, he laughed aloud. My timing hadn’t been that good, but the pedagogue had been pleased to the depths of his soul. This is what he had been in business to do all his life: spread the word about culture across cultures. And one of his aesthetic beliefs, acquired as an inheritance from Croce, was that Dante had been in business to do the same. It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory, and it had happened right there beside the Arno, in the dying echo of the music.

Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade. Nowadays very few people can quote from the Greek or would think to impress anyone if they could, and even quoting from the Latin—still a universal recognition system in the learned world when I was young—is now discouraged. Quoting from the standard European languages is still permissible at a suitably polyglot dinner table: I was once at dinner in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines.

Who, at this point, could not but feel sympathy for totalitarians?

And this, from the chapter on Evelyn Waugh:

The decay of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression. . . . Everybody wants to write correctly. But they resist being taught how, and finally there is nobody to teach them, because the teachers don’t know either. In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed. The professional user of it would do best to count his blessings: after all, his competition is disqualifying itself, presenting him with opportunities for satire while it does so, and boosting his self-esteem.

There is much else besides in this book to demonstrate that reading does not equate to intelligence. The snobbery and the recourse to poorly supported arguments such as this latter one (I can recommend, off the top of my head, Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language and Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster for relatively easy-to-find and stronger counterarguments) suggest that in spite of having read so much, James understands very little. This struck me most forcefully when I read his chapter on Jean-Paul Sartre, one of James’s villains—the devil’s advocate of the volume, he says—not just for his defence of the Soviet Union but also for his fraudulent philosophy. Now, while it might be acceptable in some circles to suggest that there was more than a coincidence in Sartre’s decision to base his existentialism on Heidegger and Husserl’s philosophies during the German occupation, and to infer that his subsequent fellow-travelling with the Communists was another marriage of convenience, to argue that his philosophy was, as a result, pure sophistry, and to say so in such a vindictive and definitive manner, tells this reader that James really doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. A. J. Ayer and the Logical Positivists decided long ago that there was no need to read Heidegger because he used the word “Nothingness” incorrectly, and that was the extent of their refutation. James doesn’t seem to have even gone that far before deciding that Sartre’s philosophy is a sham. And given that we know this, what reason is there to suppose that James actually understands anything else that he has written about in this book? The entire volume is suddenly suspect, if it wasn’t already (French culture as a whole receives short shrift in this book; apparently it has never managed to regain its pre-war heights). Or perhaps it’s just that James likes his philosophers analytical, clear of prose, and foundationalist: Plato, Russell, the early Wittgenstein. You won’t find any Rorty here, nor Foucault or Derrida. But then, where’s the problem when, as James reminds us, Alan Sokal has already shown that they were just a bunch of conmen?

This really is a bizarre and partial book. Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it, all 850 pages, and determined to write a review, of sorts, so that I could put it aside for good. To see such a vast amount of knowledge expended to so little consequence is profoundly annoying. It really got under my skin. The only upside to reading it, I would suggest, is that the reader might learn other, better lessons at the author’s expense.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Jolly Robber

Bock is (understandably) taken with Barcelona.

Pix here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What's in Your Lunchbox?

You have to look very closely at the second video clip accompanying this news item, but eagle-eyed viewers of RTE News the other night may have spotted the writing, in what looks like black marker pen, on the yellow box being carried into the crime scene at around 28 seconds.

Yes, it genuinely does say CSI: CORK

Or in the Carpark of the Neptune Hotel, Bettystown

Three poems by John Updike in the latest New York Review of Books:


Paris–Dublin, at Night

Cobwebs of orange pinpricks tinge the void
beneath our roaring wings; myriad lives
give off their sullen glow. A brighter gnat,
a helicopter beaming traffic news,
slides sideways through the thickest of the swarm;
thin filaments connect the villages
that mar the perfect earth like jellyfish
who poison with their glow pure ocean depths.

The fertile fields of France, black lakes, give way
to Channel nothingness, an interval
too brief before the luminescences
of England spill bacillae everywhere.
The Irish Sea kills all, till Dublin's squares
of seaside lanterns shock us back to life.

Portrush, Northern Ireland

Smoking in this room, a notice at
the Royal Court Hotel proclaims, can lead
to a deep cleaning charge of £50.
The sea we see through rain-bespattered doors
that would, in summer, slide to give dead-white
new-marrieds access to a feeble sun
supplies, like loads of eternal laundry,
onrolling breakers cresting into foam.

In restaurants with themed cuisines, the young
of Anglo-Ireland make gay with their Guinness
and a dated rock's background of drowned-out noise,
but bare the still disconsolate dry wit
of the colonized. These people had a war,
and peace partakes of the sea's tedium.

New Resort Hotel, Portmarnock

Too many plugs and switches in the room.
The reading lights are dim, however, and
the flat black plasma television screen
ignores the hand remotes, as does the safe
the combination I distrustfully
punch in. Too many outlets for the well-
connected businessman, too much Preferred
Lifestyle, here in formerly homely Eire.

The Celtic tiger still has crooked teeth,
the twinkle of the doomed-to-come-up-short.
Success's luxuries pair awkwardly
with golf's grim thrashing out upon the links,
the shabby, shaggy dunes where newborn rich
land helicopters, then can't find their balls.


Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!

Deadstring Brothers - Meet Me Down At Heavy Load

Biggles Bombs Guernica

In lieu of a review (and you simply MUST check out the reviews at Amazon, here), I give you the highlights from Capt. W. E. Johns's Biggles in Spain (1939):

The houses increased in size and importance as they walked on, and another ten minutes found them in a large open square, on one side of which sparkled the sea. The moon had risen and cast a gleaming track of light across the still water. Silhouetted against it rose a tall column, surmounted by a figure.

“We’re in Barcelona,” announced Biggles. “That’s the famous statue of Christopher Columbus,” he added, indicating the column. “He came here after discovering America. It’s years since I was here, but if I remember right, the station is over there on the far side.”

. . .

They were just abandoning hope of finding any sort of vehicle, when an ancient cab, drawn by an emaciated horse, came round the corner. Biggles held up his hand and the driver stopped. “Hotel Valencia,” he said, and the driver indicated by a wave of his hand that he knew where it was.

The drive that followed seemed interminable, for in spite of the driver’s whip-cracking and exhortations, the wretched animal could only amble at the best. It stumbled often, and one occasion nearly fell. Ginger, incensed by this apparent cruelty to animals, began to expostulate, but Biggles silenced him. “Keep quiet,” he
said. “You’ll see plenty of this in Spain. You’ll do no good by kicking up a row, so just forget about it.”

. . .

But Ginger was barely listening. In a kind of dream he took the rifle that was thrust into his hands, and put some packets of cartridges into the pouch on his belt. But he was still thinking of escape. Twice he tried to break away, but each time the French sergeant, who seemed to suspect his intention, called him back, and he dared not risk it again. For the present, at any rate, he would have to obey orders, that was clear; so he climbed into one of the lorries with his new-found friend. A jabber of foreign languages fell on his ears; the reek of garlic hung in the dust-laden air.

. . .

“The trenches are just round that next hill,” explained Summers. “Things are pretty quiet just at this minute, or you’d ‘ave known all about it. I’ve bin ‘ere before, and it’s a hot shop. There’s a big river called the Ebro just around the corner; that’s where all the fuss is going on. They say Franco is trying to get across.”

. . .

“’Ere we are,” remarked Summers. He might have been announcing their arrival at a London terminus, so dispassionate was his tone of voice.

Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.

. . .

The next moment, they were both surrounded by a clamouring crowd. Biggles tried to make himself heard, but it was no use. The officer shouted at his men and the noise subsided somewhat.

“We are English,” said Biggles. “Do you speak English?”

The officer eyed Biggles suspiciously. “English,” he repeated, as if he did not understand the word, or if he did, was at a loss what to make of it.

“Does anyone speak English?” shouted Biggles.

Two of the soldiers answered “Yes.” One pushed his way to the front. “I was a waiter in London,” he announced in a tone of voice suggesting that he was proud of his accomplishment.

. . .

How many soldiers there were in the guardroom, or whether they were asleep or awake, he did not know; nor did he know which end of the corridor in the
prisoners’ hut the sentry would be. He could hear no movement, which did not surprise him; having seen something of Spanish sentries, he imagined that the man would be sitting down, for no Spaniard stands when he can sit.

. . .

Biggles smiled, and then stood up to meet the gesticulating frontier guards and customs officers. It took him some minutes to calm them. The discovery that they were British did more in this direction than anything Biggles could say.

. . .

There a car awaited them, and they were taken direct to Whitehall. The others sat in the waiting room while Biggles, as spokesman of the party, was conducted elsewhere. It was an hour before he rejoined them.

“Well, that’s that—thank goodness,” he announced. “And now, what about a bite of real food somewhere?”

“Here! Just a minute,” broke in Ginger. “What did they say?”


“The fellow—or people—you just saw.”

“Oh, nothing.”


“Well, I told them just what happened—and one or two other things which I thought would interest them.”

“And they said nothing?”

“Well, they said, ‘Thanks very much.’ What else did you expect them to say?”

“After all the messes we got in over their perishing letter—by the way, what was in it?”

Biggles shook his head. “I haven’t the remotest idea,” he answered lightly.

“Do you mean to say they didn’t tell you?”

“You bet your life they didn’t. But they’ve agreed to pay our out-of-pocket expenses—and when the British government does that you can reckon that they are very much obliged to you. That’s right, Jock, isn’t it?”

“Ye’re dead right—but they did once gi’ me a tin medal.”

“They once gave me a week in jug for loiterin’ without invisible means of substance,” growled Summers.

Biggles laughed. Then he became serious. “No, chaps,” he said, as they walked slowly toward the exit, “it’s just because any Britisher would do what we’ve done that the old Empire goes on. I’ve done what I set out to do, so what have I got to grumble about, anyway?”

“What was that?” asked Algy. “It’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten.”

“I’ve got rid of my fever,” murmured Biggles, and then whistled a passing taxi. “Cafe Royal,” he told the driver, and crowding in with the others, slammed the door.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why I Love Bock the Robber

Voice of the people.

And a concise comment from "Martin" that sums up the general consensus of opinion:

Its a total joke, we are getting rode up the hole

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Still In These Times

David Graeber has a nice piece here about the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales(MAUSS) that includes a potted biography of anthropologist Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift.

Mauss' essay on "the gift" was, more than anything, his response to events in Russia - particularly Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921, which abandoned earlier attempts to abolish commerce. If the market could not simply be legislated away, even in Russia, probably the least monetarized European society, then clearly, Mauss concluded, revolutionaries were going to have to start thinking a lot more seriously about what this "market" actually was, where it came from, and what a viable alternative to it might actually be like. It was time to bring the results of historical and ethnographic research to bear.

Mauss' conclusions were startling. First of all, almost everything that "economic science" had to say on the subject of economic history turned out to be entirely untrue. The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts, then as now, was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions (their "utility"), and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was barter. People were forced to get what they wanted by directly trading one thing for another. Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies of exchange (credit, banking, stock exchanges) was simply a logical extension.

The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts - and almost everything we would call "economic" behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom. Such "gift economies" could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did it was in exactly the opposite way from our own: Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth - sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same.

Friday, October 10, 2008

It's Friday. Let's Boogie!

The Primitives - Crash

Radical Anthropology

Issue Number 2 available for free download here.

Or send three quid to Stuart. Well worth the money.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I'm Not One To Cry At Gigs . . .

. . . unless some rucksacked twat spills my pint, but I did well up talking to my mates after Edwyn's set on Sunday night. It was the joy of hearing his laugh more than anything, although his response to a request for Felicity with the line "I know I wrote a song called that but I can't remember the words" followed by an unrehearsed stab at the chorus was possibly the most emotional minute I've ever lived through at a live show.

Readings #5

I've just enjoyed a couple of weeks of the most rewarding, instructive, entertaining, and stimulating reading I can remember (at least since I took a couple of weeks out to re-read my own novels, which are, of course, brilliant). Reviews are on the way, but in the meantime here is the Introduction to Silvia Federici's book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, just to give you a flavour of things to come and to clue you in to the sort of reading I regard as pleasurable. This is a book I've had on my shelves for a couple of years and always found an excuse not to read. I wish now that I'd read it sooner. It is stunningly good. All my friends will be getting copies for Christmas. Yeah, I'm a bastard for doing that (Griff, have you forgiven me for buying you Lost in the Former West for your birthday yet?).


Since Marx, studying the genesis of capitalism has been an obligatory step for activists and scholars convinced that the first task on humanity’s agenda is the construction of an alternative to capitalist society. Not surprisingly, every new revolutionary movement has returned to the “transition to capitalism,” bringing to it the perspectives of new social subjects and uncovering new grounds of exploitation and resistance. This volume is conceived within this tradition, but two considerations in particular have motivated this work.

First, there has been the desire to rethink the development of capitalism from a feminist viewpoint, while, at the same time, avoiding the limits of a “women’s history” separated from that of the male part of the working class. The title, Caliban and the Witch, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, reflects this effort. In my interpretation, however, Caliban represents not only the anticolonial rebel whose struggle still resonates in contemporary Caribbean literature, but is a symbol for the world proletariat and, more specifically, for the proletarian body as a terrain and instrument of resistance to the logic of capitalism. Most important, the figure of the witch who in The Tempest is confined to a remote background, in this volume is placed at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.

The second motivation behind this volume has been the worldwide return, with the new global expansion of capitalist relations, of a set of phenomena usually associated with the genesis of capitalism. Among them are a new round of “enclosures” that have expropriated millions of agricultural producers from their land, and the mass pauperization and criminalization of workers, through a policy of mass incarceration recalling the “Great Confinement” described by Michel Foucault in his study of history of madness. We have also witnessed the worldwide development of new diasporic movements accompanied by the persecution of migrant workers, again reminiscent of the “Bloody Laws” that were introduced in 16th- and 17th-century Europe to make vagabonds’ available for local exploitation. Most important for this book has been the intensification of violence against women, including, in some countries (e.g., South Africa and Brazil), the return of witch-hunting.

Why, after 500 years of capital’s rule, at the beginning of the third millennium, are workers on a mass scale still defined as paupers, witches, and outlaws? How are land expropriation and mass pauperization related to the continuing attack on women? And what do we learn about capitalist development, past and present, once we examine it through the vantage-point of a feminist perspective?

It is with these questions in mind that in this work I have revisited the “transition” from feudalism to capitalism from the viewpoint of women, the body, and primitive accumulation. Each of these concepts refers to a conceptual framework that is a reference point for this work: the Feminist, the Marxist, and the Foucauldian. Thus, I will begin my introduction with some observations on the relation of my analysis to these different perspectives.

“Primitive accumulation” is the term that Marx uses, in Capital Vol. 1, to characterize the historical process upon which the development of capitalist relations was premised. It is a useful term, for it provides a common denominator through which we can conceptualize the changes that the advent of capitalism produced in economic and social relations. But its importance lies, above all, in the fact that “primitive accumulation” is treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society. This enables us to read the past as something which survives into the present, a consideration which is essential to my usage of the term in this work.

However, my analysis departs from Marx’s in two ways. Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labor power. Thus, my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include (i) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce; (ii) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men; (iii) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers. Most important, I have placed at the center of my analysis of primitive accumulation the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, arguing that the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism.

My analysis also departs from Marx’s in its evaluation of the legacy and function of primitive accumulation. Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development — its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” — there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labor, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity. He also assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws (Marx 1909 Vol. 1). In this, he was deeply mistaken. A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalization, including time present one, demonstrating that the continuous expulsion of farmers from the land, war and plunder on a world scale, and the degradation of women are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism in all times.

I should add that Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women. For this history shows that, even when men achieved a certain degree of formal freedom, women were always treated as socially inferior beings and were exploited in ways similar to slavery. “Women,” then, in the context of this volume, signifies not just a hidden history that needs to he made visible; but a particular form of exploitation and, therefore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.

This project is not new. From the beginning of the Feminist Movement women have revisited the “transition to capitalism” even though they have not always recognized it. For a while, the main framework that shaped women’s history was a chronological one. The most common designation feminist historians have used to describe the transition period has been “early modern Europe,” which, depending on the author, could designate the 13th or the 17th century.

In the 1980s, however, a number of works appeared that took a more critical approach. Among them were Joan Kelly’s essays on the Renaissance and the Querelles des femmes, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1981), Leopoldina Fortunati’s L’Arcano della Riproduzione (1981) (now available in English, Fortunati 1995), Merry Wiesner’s Working Women in Renaissance Germany (1986), and Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986). To these works we must add the many monographs that over the last two decades have reconstructed women’s presence in the rural and urban economies of medieval and early modern Europe, and the vast literature and documentary work that has been produced on the witch-hunt and the lives of women in pre-colonial America and the Caribbean islands. Among the latter, I want to remember in particular Irene Silverblatt’s The Moon, the Sun, and the Witches (1987), the first account on the witch-hunt in colonial Peru; and Hilary Beckles’ Natural Rebels. A Social History of Barbados (1995) which, together with Barbara Bush’s Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650–1838(1990), is one of the major texts on the history of enslaved women in the Caribbean plantations.

What this scholarly production has confirmed is that to reconstruct the history of women or to look at history from a feminist viewpoint means to redefine in fundamental ways the accepted historical categories and to make visible hidden structures of domination and exploitation. Thus, Kelly’s essay, “Did Women have a Renaissance?” (1984) undermined the classical historical periodization that celebrates the Renaissance as an outstanding example of cultural achievement. Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature(1980) challenged the belief in the socially progressive character of the scientific revolution, arguing that the advent of scientific rationalism produced a cultural shift from an organic to a mechanical paradigm that legitimized the exploitation of women and nature.

Especially important has been Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986), now a classic work, that re-examines capitalist accumulation from a non-Eurocentric viewpoint, connecting the destiny of women in Europe to that of Europe’s colonial subjects, and providing for a new understanding of women’s place in capitalism and the globalization process.

Caliban and the Witch builds upon these works, as on the studies contained within Il Grande Calibano (a work I discuss in the Preface). However, its historical scope is broader, as the book connects the development of capitalism, on one side, to the reproduction crisis and social struggles of the late feudal period and, on time other, to what Marx defines as the “formation of the proletariat.” In this process, the book addresses a number of historical and methodological questions that have been at the center of the debate on women’s history and feminist theory.
The most important historical question addressed by the book is how to account for the execution of hundreds of thousands of “witches” at the beginning of the modern era, and how to explain why the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women. Feminist scholars have developed a framework that throws much light on this question. It is generally agreed that the witch-hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch-hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism. But the specific historical circumstances under which the persecution of witches was unleashed, and the reasons why the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women have not been investigated. This is the task I take on in Caliban and the Witch, as I begin to analyze the witch-hunt in the context of the demographic and economic crisis of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the land and labor policies of the mercantilist era. My work here is only a sketch of the research that would be necessary to clarify the connection I have mentioned, and especially the relation between the witch-hunt and the contemporary development of a new sexual division of labor, confining women to reproductive work. It is sufficient, however, to demonstrate that the persecution of witches (like the slave trade and the enclosures) was a central aspect of the accumulation and formation of the modern proletariat, in Europe as well as in the “New World.”

There are other ways in which Caliban and the Witch speaks to “women’s history” and feminist theory. First, it confirms that “the transition to capitalism” is a test case for feminist theory, as the redefinition of productive and reproductive tasks and male-female relations that we find in this period, both realized with the maximum of violence and state intervention, leave no doubt concerning the constructed character of sexual roles in capitalist society. The analysis I propose also allows us to transcend the dichotomy between “gender” and “class.” If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations. From this view­point, the debates that have taken place among postmodern feminists concerning the need to dispose of “women” as a category of analysis, and define feminism purely in oppositional terms, have been misguided. To rephrase the point I already made: if “femininity” has been constituted in capitalist society as a work-function masking the production of the workforce under the cover of a biological destiny, then “women’s history” is “class history,” and the question that has to be asked is whether the sexual division of labor that has produced that particular concept has been transcended. If the answer is a negative one (as it must be when we consider the present organization of reproductive labor), then “women” is a legitimate category of analysis, and the activities associated with “reproduction” remain a crucial ground of struggle for women, as they were for the feminist movement of the 1970s, which, on this basis, connected itself with the history of the witches.

A further question addressed by Caliban and the Witch is raised by the contrasting perspectives offered by the feminist and Foucauldian analyses of the body in their applications to an understanding of the history of capitalist development. From the beginning of the Women’s Movement, feminist activists and theorists have seen the concept of the “body” as key to an understanding of the roots of male dominance and the construction of female social identity. Across ideological differences, they have realized that a hierarchical ranking of human faculties and the identification of women with a degraded conception of corporeal reality has been instrumental, historically, to the consolidation of patriarchal power and the male exploitation of female labor. Thus, analyses of sexuality, procreation, and mothering have been at the center of feminist theory and women’s history. In particular, feminists have uncovered and denounced the strategies and the violence by means of which male-centered systems of exploitation have attempted to discipline and appropriate the female body, demonstrating that women’s bodies have been the main targets, the privileged sites, for the deployment of power-techniques and power-relations. Indeed, the many feminist studies which have been produced since the early 1970s on the policing of women’s reproductive function, the effects on women of rape, battering, and the imposition upon them of beauty as a condition for social acceptability, are a monumental contribution to the discourse on the body in our times, falsifying the perception common among academics which attributes its discovery to Michel Foucault.

Starting from an analysis of “body-politics,” feminists have not only revolutionized the contemporary philosophical and political discourse, but they have also begun to revalorize the body. This has been a necessary step both to counter the negativity attached to the identification of femininity with corporeality, and to create a more holistic vision of what it means to be a human being. This valorization has taken various forms, ranging from the quest for non-dualistic forms of knowledge, to the attempt (with feminists who view sexual “difference” as a positive value) to develop a new type of language and “[rethink] the corporeal roots of human intelligence.” As Rosi Braidotti has pointed out, the body that is reclaimed is never to be understood as a biological given. Nevertheless, such slogans as “repossessing the body” or “speaking the body” have been criticized by poststructuralist Foucauldian theorists, who reject as illusory any call for instinctual liberation. In turn, feminists have accused Foucault’s discourse on sexuality of being oblivious to sexual differentiation, while at the same time appropriating many of the insights developed by the Feminist Movement. This criticism is quite appropriate. Moreover, Foucault is so intrigued with the “productive” character of the power-techniques by which the body has been invested, that his analysis practically rules out any critique of power-relations. The nearly apologetic quality of Foucault’s theory of the body is accentuated by the fact that it views the body as constituted by purely discursive practices, and is more interested in describing how power is deployed than in identifying its source. Thus, the Power by which the body is produced appears as a self-subsistent, metaphysical entity, ubiquitous, disconnected from social and economic relations, and as mysterious in its permutations as a godly Prime Mover.

Can an analysis of the transition to capitalism and primitive accumulation help us to go beyond these alternatives? I believe it can. With regard to the feminist approach, our first step should be to document the social and historic conditions under which the body has become a central element and the defining sphere of activity for the constitution of femininity. Along these lines, Caliban and the Witch shows that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor. Thus, the importance which the body in all its aspects — maternity, childbirth, sexuality — has acquired in feminist theory and women’s history has not been misplaced. Caliban and the Witch also confirms the feminist insight which refuses to identify the body with the sphere of the private and, in this vein, speaks of “body politics.” Further, it explains how the body can be for women both a source of identity and at the same time a prison, and why it is so important for feminists and, at the same time, so problematic to valorize it.

As for Foucault’s theory, the history of primitive accumulation offers many counter-examples to it, proving that it can be defended only at the price of outstanding historical omissions. The most obvious is the omission of the witch-hunt and the discourse of demonology in his analysis of the disciplining of the body. Undoubtedly, they would have inspired different conclusions had they been included. For both demonstrate the repressive character of the power that was unleashed against women, and the implausibility of the complicity and role-reversal that Foucault imagines to exist between victims and their persecutors in his description of the dynamic of micro-powers.

A study of the witch-hunt also challenges Foucault’s theory concerning the development of “bio-power,” stripping it of the mystery by which Foucault surrounds the emergence of this regime. Foucault registers the shift — presumably in 18th-century Europe — from a type of power built on the right to kill, to a different one exercised through the administration and promotion of life-forces, such as population growth; but he offers no clues as to its motivations. Yet, if we place this shift in the context of the rise of capitalism, the puzzle vanishes, for the promotion of life-forces turns out to be nothing more than the result of a new concern with the accumulation and reproduction of labor-power. We can also see that the promotion of population growth by the state can go hand in hand with a massive destruction of life; for in many historical circumstances — witness the history of the slave trade — one is a condition for the other. Indeed, in a system where life is subordinated to the production of profit, the accumulation of labor-power can only be achieved with the maximum of violence so that, in Maria Mies’ words, violence itself becomes the most productive force.

In conclusion, what Foucault would have learned had he studied the witch-hunt, rather than focusing on the pastoral confession, in his History of Sexuality (1978), is that such history cannot be written from the viewpoint of a universal, abstract, asexual subject. Further, he would have recognized that torture and death can be placed at the service of “life” or, better, at the service of the production of labor-power, since the goal of capitalist society is to transform life into the capacity to work and “dead labor.”

From this viewpoint, primitive accumulation has been a universal process in every phase of capitalist development. Not accidentally, its original historical exemplar has sedimented strategies that, in different ways, have been re-launched in the face of every major capitalist crisis, serving to cheapen the cost of labor and to hide the exploitation of women and colonial subjects.

This is what occurred in the 19th century when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the “Scramble for Africa” and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centered on the economic dependence of women to men — following the expulsion of women from the waged workplace. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labor-market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects — students, feminists, blue collar workers — who, in the 1960s and 1970s, undermined the sexual and international division of labor.

It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the “transition,” with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperized. Once again, much of time violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labor and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.

Also the “feminization of poverty” that has accompanied the spread of globalization acquires a new significance when we recall that this was the first effect of the development of capitalism on the lives of women.

Indeed, the political lesson that we can learn from Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism. For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations — the promise of freedom vs. the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity vs. the reality of widespread penury — by denigrating the “nature” of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.

At the core of capitalism there is not only the symbiotic relation between waged-contractual labor and enslavement but, together with it, the dialectics of accumulation and destruction of labor-power, for which women have paid the highest cost, with their bodies, their work, and their lives.

It is impossible therefore to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.

The difference is that today the resistance to it has also achieved a global dimension.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fergal! Sharkey!!

Yes, I admit it. I only blogged it for the title.

Every Mushroom Cloud . . .

. . . has a silver lining:

Last weekend, over 20 units sold at The Residences in Bettystown where the shocking helicopter crash had happened the day before. When people went to view the site, they were hugely impressed by the new development.

Kinnear for England!

Every team needs a manager who takes no nonsense from the media.