Nights out dancing, for all their intensity, leave few visible traces. Immersed in a multi sensory environment of noise, lights, encounters, movements, we emerge with only memories and half-memories. Of course there is a material culture of associated objects – items of clothing, flyers, vinyl – but much of it is ephemeral and on its own tells us little. Once everybody has gone home, the haunted dancehall refuses to give up its secrets.
So perhaps it is not surprising that we turn to the novel to get a sense of what it was like to be there, in different times and places. We turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the parties of the Jazz Age, to Colin MacInnes for 1950s London, or even to Jane Austen for the balls of regency England.
The electronic dance music scene that exploded through acid house and rave in the late 1980s and has mutated ever since now has its own library of fictional representations, much of it dating back to the period in the 1990s when the scene in the UK reached its somewhat overbloated commercial peak and publishers like everybody else were trying to get their share of the dance music pound.
The writers of such fictions may not always be reliable narrators – were they participants or voyeurs, or just chancers looking for edgy material on which to build a career? And the perspectives they offer are inevitably partial – as in many domains, male writers seem to be over-represented compared to female, and white voices more dominant than black. But these stories and novels undoubtedly tell us something even if in some cases it might only be how those in the literary world perceived what other people were getting up to at night. There is even an argument that the better writers have got closer to the reality of the experience than more conventional historical accounts. Sarah Champion, who edited the 1997 Disco Biscuits collection of short stories, asked: ‘how can you capture the madness of the last decade in facts and figures?… the true history is not about obscure white labels or DJ techniques or pop stars. It’s about personal stories of messiness, absurdity and excess – best captured in fiction’.
Places and spaces
In fact, much of the content is barely fictional at all with writers frequently referring to (then) actually existing clubs and parties – an obvious device for grounding a story in a specific context, as well as for the writer to indicate that they know what they are talking about.
[Read more →]
An interview with Alexej Ulbricht (AU) in March 2015, conducted by Jonathan Nassim and Mikala Rasmussen (JN/MR), with introduction and additional questions by David Cecil (DC).
DC: For many, Britain is an admirably diverse society. In the nineteenth century, London became a destination for immigrants fleeing wars in Europe. In the mid-twentieth century, the subjects of the British Empire (and later Commonwealth) were welcomed in Britain, partly as a much-needed labour force after the demographic ravages of the two world wars. The country became known for its tolerance of differing religious views and ways of life, with a rich tapestry of international cuisine, music, language and fashion in areas like Soho, Brixton and Whitechapel. The social and political means of accommodating this diversity was labelled ‘multiculturalism’, indicating a harmonious co-existence of different cultures. This accommodation was held to be distinct from the more integrationist approach adopted by France (e.g.), which sought to assimilate foreigners into the dominant French culture.
The self-conscious projection of Britain as a multicultural society reached its apogee in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which elaborately staged symbolic enactments of British culture and history. This gaudy nationalist spectacle, viewed by millions worldwide, included explicit tributes to multiculturalism, notably a dramatic depiction of Jamaicans arriving in Britain by boat in the 1950s.
However, hostility towards migrants and minorities is, if anything, on the rise. The Olympic ceremony was immediately and publicly condemned by a leading Conservative Member of Parliament as “leftie multicultural crap”; the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has successfully entered mainstream politics on an anti-immigration platform; while Germany’s islamophobic PEGIDA recently teamed up with the English Defence League to stage public protests in London.
How are we to understand a situation in which Britain both claims to embrace a diversity of people and their practices, while simultaneously rejecting them? On the one hand, British commentators seem to welcome the enrichment to its culture, but the same voices warn of dangers to indigenous employment, threats of terrorism and even the destruction of our green and pleasant land.
Is this contradiction simply to be dismissed as political opportunism? Or a confusion caused by ‘too much multiculturalism’? Or is there an underlying political strategy in this ‘love-hate’ relationship?
Alexej Ulbricht is a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), who has recently published a book entitled Multicultural Immunisation: Liberalism and Esposito. This is a timely contribution to our understanding of social and political attitudes to immigration, including the alleged threats to European culture from Islam and globalisation. Ulbricht takes a step back and asks what gives rise to the contradictions at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. He argues that liberalism is a straitjacket which makes multiculturalism possible only in a superficial sense. Liberal multiculturalism ‘immunises’ society by introducing a few safe elements of foreign cultures into the national body. Therefore, the current hostility is not so much a backlash against multiculturalism, but a strengthening of tendencies built into the liberal multicultural project. Ulbricht argues that we must re-think what multiculturalism is, and go beyond liberalism. Some of the answers, or models of an alternative multiculturalism, he finds in the Berlin musical underground and he speculates on how rhythm may offer another way of thinking about coexistence.
JN/MR: What was your initial inspiration for studying multiculturalism?
AU: The idea for this book was motivated by the kinds of things you read about immigration all the time and the way mainstream discourse about immigration seems to have changed rapidly. Hostile discourse was there all along, but the kind of traction it used to have is different from today. In 2005, the Tories ran an election campaign on the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, which I remember because it was the year after I moved to this country. The campaign fell flat, but if they’d run it now they’d probably win on that same slogan. Thinking about that got me interested in multiculturalism. What I ended up arguing was that there is a lot more continuity than discontinuity regarding this kind of hostility towards immigrants. [Read more →]
Psycho-historian Chris Millard has described the clinical invention of ‘self-harm’ as a category so narrow that most cases actually treated (eg. overdoses of non-’recreational’ drugs) don’t count.** The term ‘self-harm’ becomes shorthand for young white women damaging their skin, which they do for standardized personal reasons. Impersonal reasons and anomalous personal ones are sidelined in the diagnostic process, along with atypical patients and nine tenths of the ways of physically assaulting the abstract self.
So much for the exact words.
But figurative speech serves social policing in strange ways. If the literal meaning has leaked out of self-harm over the last four decades, it has sunk deep into ordinary social management in the meantime. [Read more →]
It’s a tale from another century – when most people who situated themselves on the radical left also felt they were part of a world civil war. It was a war between good and evil, the oppressed vs. the oppressors, the proletariat vs. the capitalists, the countries of the periphery vs. the centre. Support for anti-colonial struggles and for the Vietcong as well as the various Latin American guerillas was based on a wide consensus, and was in many cases the starting point of individual and collective politicisations. This consensus seemed to override the knowledge and assessments of the crimes of Stalin and Mao, and many other ‘details’. Apparently the way towards socialism was not a straight road, it could be a zig-zag at times. The more the Western proletariat seemed uninterested in revolution, and the Eastern Bloc seemed a bureaucratic aberration, the more the national liberation movements in the ‘backwards’ countries became the global hope of Western middle class ‘revolutionaries’.
The root of this idea goes back to the Conference of Baku in 1920 and the second congress of the Communist International in the same year.
This is when Lenin revised the Marxist slogan ‘Workers of all countries unite!’ and changed it to: ‘Workers and oppressed peoples and nations of the world, unite!’
This slogan significantly changed the direction of the ‘official’ communist movement. Workers are members of a class and at the same time individual human beings. In oppressed peoples and nations the individuals are absent.
In point 11 of his Preliminary Draft of Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, Lenin proclaimed that Communist parties in ‘backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate (…) must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement’. But at least he recognised some of the dangers, and stressed ‘the need for struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements’ as well as the ‘need to combat the Pan-Islamic and similar trends which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.’
This advice was heeded less and less as the Soviet Union degenerated – and in fact even less so by those who accused the SU of ‘social imperialism’ and supported a Maoist alternative to the Russian line, supporting shameless nationalist dictatorships with a ‘communist’ cloak in Albania, Kampuchea or North Korea. [Read more →]
“If you go back to the birth of nations, if you come down to our own day, if you examine peoples in all possible conditions from the state of barbarism to the most advanced civilisation, you always find war. From this primary cause … the effusion of blood has never ceased in this world.”
Joseph de Maistre (1797)
Civilisation is measured by its roads; uneven development is revealed by its potholes. The Romans ruled the extent of their imperium along their via; the Victorians penetrated with protractors and railroads; lately, the BBC has devoted an entire chauvinistic TV series (‘Top Gear’) to ridiculing the absence of ‘proper’ roads outside the Western comfort zone.
Rwanda’s roads could never be straight, for every inch of this African emerald is set across a vertiginous mountain range. But its winding roads are perfect. Too perfect. They are fastidiously-tarmacked, governed, regulated spaces with delineated sidewalks, freshly-painted lines, rationalised roundabouts, 12-hour street lighting, advance-warning filter systems, traffic lights which work – and which are obeyed. This is not only in the capital, Kigali: all the way south in the border town of Gisenyi, one can gaze smugly from its smooth Paradise into the shambolic warzone of eastern Congo; at the other end of the country, a European visitor to the northern town of Nyagatare could be forgiven for thinking they were in Liechtenstein.
To make matters even more disconcertingly ‘un-African’, Rwandan drivers always follow traffic regulations, even when no-one is looking.
My first visit to Rwanda is in 2008. It’s only 10pm and Kigali is already dead. I’m with Karlsson, a foul-mouthed Swedish academic, and we are looking for somewhere to have another beer. He’s researching the controversial topic of media freedom and I am keen to hear of his findings. We’ve had the uneasy feeling all day that people have been eavesdropping on us. To anyone listening in, our conversation must sound bizarre. You cannot meaningfully discuss Rwandan politics without mentioning their ethnic factions, the Hutu and the Tutsi, yet the regime has literally outlawed the use of the terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’, unless you use them in a close approximation of the following phrase: “… the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi.” So in the spirit of naughty schoolboys we spend the whole day talking politics by substituting the ethnicities with the terms ‘Hookers’ and ‘Trannies’ (as in transvestites). “Some claim there were actually more Hookers killed by the Trannies in reprisals…” or “the Trannies are simply burying the issue and the Hookers are going to boil over one day soon, you’ll see…” 1
In this prematurely deceased night we sit down and relax in the absence of flitting eyes. We are probably being paranoid to think we were shadowed the whole day, but we’d be well-advised in that attitude. Karlsson would simply be the latest foreign researcher or journalist to have his visa revoked. The Rwandan authorities are justified in their vigilance. Only 5 years earlier Rwanda had been one of the most feared protagonists in the Second Congo War (9 combatant nations and nearly 6 million deaths) and only 14 years earlier Hutu Power had conducted a genocide in Rwanda itself (800,000 deaths).
Karlsson staggers off in search of a demarcated urination spot and I enter a kiosk bar, the only place open as far as the eye can see. There is a middle-aged man drinking at the counter. He stares fixedly at me as I try and order beer and cigarettes. The kiosk is brightly-lit by ghastly neon. High up on the wall is the ubiquitous framed image of President Paul Kagame, sitting up straight, his narrow neck-tied frame topped by bespectacled, beady eyes. “Hey you! Do you know who that man is?” the sodden customer addresses me breezily. “Yes”, I smirk, attempting some levity, “he’s the main man, the numero uno – the big cheese!” There is a brief silence as the drinker contemplates me; his lips are now snarled with contempt. “This man” he hisses, grabbing my sleeve and jabbing his finger towards the icon, “is our saviour. He is a God to us.” The barman abruptly finishes the transaction and President Kagame watches from the wall as I leave his kiosk. [Read more →]