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.

The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy

What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.

By Stephen Hastings-King

Note: This is a revised version of a presentation I made at Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, on October 16, 2015. I would like to thank the comrades of Hamisch for their hospitality and for the chance to make something new. Then as now, my hope is to contribute to a widening of conversations about the Syrian revolution and the ways in which the struggles of the Syrian people are interconnected with global struggles for basic human dignity.

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Where I am from there is no political future. There is only repetition of the same. The present is a ubiquitous horizon. Only the details will vary.

Where I am from the future has been privatized. People worry about their children.

We need to make new significations, ways of thinking beyond the horizon of the present.

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What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion. Continue reading “The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy”

The Best of Sheldon Wolin

Hedges & Wolin: Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist? 

Journalist Chris Hedges interviews political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, who says democracy requires continuous opposition and vigilance by the citizenry.

part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7 | part 8

Continue reading “The Best of Sheldon Wolin”

The solutionist impulse and digital theology

My review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here, published in The National

In her celebrated January 2010 statement on “internet freedom”, Hillary Clinton chided countries such as China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Egypt for placing restrictions on internet access. The then-US secretary of state affirmed her government’s conviction that “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become”, because “access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship”.

Not long after, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks obtained a trove of information revealing US military and diplomatic conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Information flowed freely. But the US government appeared somewhat less convinced of its capacity for strengthening society. Access to WikiLeaks was restricted in many government agencies; Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal were persuaded to withdraw their services; and students and government employees were discouraged from sharing Wikileaks information on pain of jeopardising career prospects.

Internet freedom, it turned out, was not a sacrosanct principle. It failed to resist the intrusion of profane political concerns. As an analytical category independent of political and social constraints, the internet produced stirring rhetoric, but shorn of its obfuscating theology, it proved subject to the imperatives of power as much in the United States as in Uzbekistan.

This disconnect between the reality of the internet – the physical infrastructure, with its platforms, protocols and utilities; its promises, perils and limitations – and the idea of “the internet” – as a fixed, coherent and unproblematic phenomenon that is open, public and collaborative – enables two dangerous tendencies that are the subject of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist.

The first he calls “solutionism” – a preoccupation with spectacular and narrow solutions to complex social and political problems. The second is “internet-centrism” – a conviction that “the internet” heralds a revolutionary era, a time of profound change in which old truths have become obsolete.

You can read the rest here.

Spirituality, Stanley Jordan, and BDS

Update: On January 6, Stanley Jordan has cancelled his collaboration with the Red Sea Jazz Festival, joining a long line of artists combining their ethics, politics, and spirituality. Joy Harjo, still has not made a public statement rethinking her stance on the issue.

Note: Stanley Jordan is scheduled to perform in the Red Sea Jazz Festival between 17-19 of January. Although, after much deep soul searching, he has written a statement that he intends to continue as scheduled (below), in our political reality, we don’t give up until the Jazzist plucks the first guitar string in front of a segregated audience.
For your convenience, the rest of the international artists performing in the festival are listed at the end of this article.

Stanley Jordan

I’m a Spiritual Atheist. I never knew you could capitalize that phrase, but thank DOG, the internet is a wondrous place:

SPIRITUAL ATHEISTS are people who are:
1) ATHEISTS
Spiritual Atheists do not believe in the existence of an entity external to the universe that supposedly created and rules the universe… Spiritual Atheists generally recognize the word “God” as a personal name that has been given to the collective personality of the infinite and eternal universe… Even so, many Spiritual Atheists are extremely reluctant to make use of the word “God”, due to the extreme desecration it has suffered by traditional Theists and Atheists alike.

2) SPIRITUAL
Spiritual Atheists believe that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale. Therefore, Spiritual Atheists generally feel that as they go about their lives striving to be personally healthy and happy, they should also be striving to help the world around them be healthy and happy! (“Wholistic Ethics”)

There are many people in the world like me. Some are atheists, some are theists. I respect all’s choices and love me a good theological debate, but to me, the most important piece of information in the above quote is “generally feel that as they go about their lives striving to be personally healthy and happy, they should also be striving to help the world around them be healthy and happy!”. This is also the first time I’ve heard the phrase “Wholistic Ethics”, I have my critique of it (and also have a critique of trying to unite atheists who define themselves as spiritual), but that would derail the conversation from what I really want to talk about: What does spirituality have to do with politics? Continue reading “Spirituality, Stanley Jordan, and BDS”