My Interview with Cultural Theorist Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)
Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

The recent death of the Bulgarian-French cultural theorist and historian of ideas Tzvetan Todorov at the age of 77 flew largely under the radar of the digital commons. Precious few obituaries have appeared in English. The New York Times ran a good one. The literary scholar Françoise Meltzer of the University of Chicago wrote a nice tribute for the blog of the journal Critical Inquiry. That’s about it as far as I can tell, at least as of yet. This is surprising, given Todorov’s enormous influence and voluminous output across a wide swath of fields and themes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Todorov a decade ago for Critical Inquiry. I had wanted to interview him for some time. I pitched the idea to the journal’s editor, W. J. T. Mitchell, over dinner at the Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood after an event for his book What Do Pictures Want? Mitchell (who would later have his own exchange with Todorov) immediately gave me the green light, for which I remain deeply grateful. Todorov and I covered a range of questions, beginning with his intellectual biography and style, onto a series of political issues — ones that remain strikingly relevant today.

The full text of our interview can be found here.

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The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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Greece is no place for refuge

It has been nine months since the introduction of the EU-Turkey deal, under which refugees arriving on Greek islands face the threat of deportation back to Turkey. Since then, thousands of refugees have been stuck in inhumane conditions, in camps lacking basic resources like heat and electricity, as they await to have their asylum requests processed. With the arrival of winter, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, UNHCR and the EU’s aid department (ECHO) have been accused of mismanaging millions in emergency funding earmarked for upgrading shelters, leaving thousands sleeping in freezing conditions in camps across Greece. On Chios, refugees have begun to protest against these intolerable conditions. ‘We all are fighting this battle with the leaders of Europe’s non-humanists. Yes, we are now one team fighting the lies and hatred, racism and the enslavement of human beings and the imprisonment of freedom,’ writes Mohammed, a refugee from Deir ez-Zor.

The following commentary, originally published in Politico last week, was written in response to the European Commission’s proposal to resume ‘Dublin transfers’ back to Greece.    

By John-Mark Philo & Ludek Stavinoha

In the same week as the world marked Human Rights Day, the European Commission announced its plans to resume the so-called “Dublin transfers” of refugees back to Greece. If the recommendation is adopted at Thursday’s meeting of European leaders in Brussels, EU member countries will be able to start returning refugees who arrive on their territory back to the country of their first entry into the European Union, wherever that may be.

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Asylum Seekers often find Sorrow

Cartoon by Steve Bell

by Giovanna Fassetta Guariento

The images of a small, rickety boat full of asylum seekers being thrashed by the waves off the coast of Christmas Island are unforgettable. As remarked by a witness who watched in helpless desperation, it was like being in a horror movie, minus the relief experienced at the end when the lights come back on and the audience is allowed to return home. It was a nightmare without the awakening, a tragedy that should not have happened, not to those who perished — the children, the women, the men — or those who were forced to watch from nearby cliffs.

The dead now number 48, but many more have yet to be accounted for. They were Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish women, men and children who left everything behind in search of a better life. They fled from the destruction of war, from the festering wounds left by forced democracy, and from the unbearable struggle of making ends meet, towards what they imagined as a better future. Sadly, this tragedy is not the first, and will not be the last. It was however the most visible yet, because it happened before the eyes of the anguished locals on the shore, and millions more who saw the images in papers or on their television screens. Many similar tragedies happen every year less visibly though, in a hushed and subdued manner. No one knows exactly how many people perish on their way to the ‘Developed World’, but the number of people who are believed to have drowned in the past decade is in the thousands, and this only accounts for people lost while crossing the Mediterranean basin.

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A Short Border Handbook

I met Gazmend Kapllani, a Greek of Albanian origin, during a recent visit to Germany (for a British Council ‘Our Shared Europe’ conference). He’s a great conversationalist, so I was pleased when he promised to send me one of his books. A Short Border Handbook arrived this morning. I took it back to bed, planning to read the blurb and perhaps the first chapter before adding it to my enormous pile of books-to-be-read. But I read the whole thing in one go.

It’s not a novel but it feels like one, because it’s so lightly yet densely written, full of stories and humour and therefore with a texture more human than journalistic. Part autobiography, part fiction, part philosophy, Kapllani’s book reminds us that a migrant, unlike a tourist, is the weak pole in relation to his host society, and that the weak are never respected, however hard they work. The Handbook’s general ruminations are applicable to any migrant, but it also addresses very specifically the conditions in Albania in the 1990s which forced so many people to move.

It has the following to say about Enver Hoxha. Examples of other fallen dictators will leap into readers’ minds:

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