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Reviews + The Classic

new internationalist
issue 311 - April 1999


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The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge
by Vandana Shiva
(Green Books/Gaia Foundation, ISBN 1-870098-74-9)

White Nation:
Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society
by Ghassan Hage
(Pluto Press – Australia, Comerford & Miller – UK, ISBN 1 871204 15 1)

Few in the West truly have the gift to stand outside the dominant cultural assumptions about science, economics, nature and technology. Fortunately, we can read Vandana Shiva.

Biopiracy : The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge Her latest book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge is a critique of the colonization of life itself by transnational corporations through genetic engineering, patents and intellectual property rights.

Biotechnology, Shiva argues, is the product of a Eurocentric and reductionist world view which regards nature and indigenous knowledge of local ecosystems as ‘empty’ resources to be enclosed and exploited for Western capital, much as the ‘New World’ was regarded as empty land by the colonists. ‘The duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialized Western science and technology,’ she writes. For example, while traditional knowledge may increase the efficiency of pinpointing plants’ medicinal uses by more than 400 per cent, the system of Intellectual Property Rights only recognizes the ‘ownership’ of this knowledge by transnational corporations.

For Shiva biopiracy is fuelled by the monocultural logic of free trade and globalization, which are the latest manifestation of the colonial mindset. Monoculture, in agriculture as in society, leads to breakdown and fundamentally threatens sustainability.

In a world in which the US Commerce Secretary ‘owns’ the cell lines of the Hagahai of Papua New Guinea, and seeds themselves no longer regenerate life, this book moves the biotech debate deep into fundamentals. Shiva may not be the liveliest writer, but her analytic strength and perceptiveness make her essential reading.

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Although quite different in approach, Ghassan Hage’s book also takes to task white arrogance. Pakistanis in the British midlands, North Africans in urban France, Indo-Chinese in suburban Australia: all have felt the sting of betrayal that comes by living in what might officially be a ‘multicultural’ nation. White Nation: fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society is a journey through the lived, rather than the official, realities of Western multiculturalism. An anthropologist, Hage dismantles that peculiar feature of dominant white groups that so generously ‘allow’ others to co-exist with them.

His main target is the self-congratulatory smugness of the white middle-class, inner-city dwelling liberals who see migrants as little more than a range of interesting cuisine. Hage introduces some helpful terms, such as ‘ethnic caging’ and ‘national will’, and teases out the discourses of ‘enrichment’ as well as the colonial art of collecting ‘otherness’. He believes whiteness has more to do with state of mind than with race. Thus migrants can ‘accumulate’ whiteness.

The energy in this book shows that Hage remains positive. The reactionary ‘worriers’ who express endless concern about migrant levels or origins, says Hage, represent merely the ‘last resort of the weak’. There is the usual call for radical change – in particular to de-whiten the police, courts and media. What is less usual is the tone of the work: uncompromisingly passionate and full of hope.

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Life on earth
directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
(Celluloid Dreams, Paris. Oasis Films, Canada.)

Life on earth - directed by Abderrahmane Sissako Life on Earth forms part of an impressive international series assembled in France ‘to depict, in fiction, the moment of transition to the year 2000’. Abderrahmane Sissako, who had studied film in the Soviet Union and in France, decided that for this project he must return to his hometown of Sokolo in rural Mali.

The film that he has created thus imagines life in Sokolo during the last hours of the century and on into the following New-Year’s Day. In Sokolo there are no celebrations, no grand schemes, no Y2K (or ‘millennium bug’) panics, no grandiose summations of national destiny. For an outside viewer it’s hard to see how life is affected at all by the turn of the calendar. Some people try to negotiate long-distance phone calls, others visit the tailor’s shop or dress up a little to get their portraits taken. A large delegation of perhaps 20 men walk through the village, on their way to a meeting or gathering. A speedy motorbike zips noisily into town stirring a cloud of red dust. But that’s about it.

Sokolo represents a social and cultural milieu completely different from that of Europe. In many ways it follows the ancient, worldwide traditions of agricultural living, where anxieties centre on livestock, weather and natural pests. The blazing sun and the constant battle with huge flocks of grain-eating birds form the biggest preoccupations.

Yet rural Mali is not oblivious to the larger world. Letters from abroad and the local radio provide steady reminders of life elsewhere, especially in Paris. As a young woman in traditional dress strides along an unpaved Sokolo street kicking up the red dust, we hear an enthusiastic radio announcer tell of the big snowfall in Paris and the growing excitement among the ‘millennium’ crowds gathering in Tokyo.

This push and pull between a big world and a small one permeates the film and meshes with Sissako’s focus on local communications. Sokolo is held together by the cultural glue of local radio, the post office and its telephone service, a common knowledge of important books, even the village photographer with his display of mini portraits. Communicating can be difficult, however. By first-world standards the phone system is decidedly crude. The phone is a public instrument only, operated by post office workers in the manner of the old telegraph service. ‘Reaching people is a question of luck,’ warns the operator.

Life on Earth presents rural Africa as somewhat idyllic, where the culture is open and relaxed, the community stable and people are friendly. But the film also carries a political edge and a few pointed reminders that poverty and international exploitation lurk nearby. The neo-colonial relationship is well-known, certainly by the radio disk-jockey who urges villagers to hear the words of an author ‘that we know well’. That author is Aimé Césaire, the poet and essayist of Martinique, whose books have helped three generations of Africans understand the legacies of colonialism. ‘Life is not a spectacle,’ wrote Césaire. ‘A screaming man is not a dancing bear.’

Through his patient, loving camera and his tough intellect, based on Césaire, Sissako has created a beautiful, fully controlled work of art. A work that celebrates life yet also reminds us that even with the turn of the century, in rural Mali ‘no improvements can be expected soon’.

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by Victor Jara
(Castle Music ESMCD 6657 CD)

Redneck Wonderland
by Midnight Oil
(Sony/Columbia CD)

MANIFESTO - Victor Jara Victor Jara was not, unlike thousands of other Chileans, one of General Pinochet’s ‘disappeared’. Indeed, Jara’s body — once the dictator’s secret police had finished with him — actually turned up, dumped outside Santiago’s Metropolitan Cemetery. He had been killed a few days after the assassination of President Allende by the Pinochet-led junta; Jara’s ‘crime’ had been one of visibility.

The son of peasants from southern Chile, Jara was a multi-talented man who had worked in theatre before fully turning his attentions to songwriting. Taking as his theme an earthy socialism, his career strove to put music at the heart of political change. ‘My guitar is a worker/Singing and smelling of spring,’ he sings in ‘Manifiesto’, written and recorded in 1973, the year of his death. ‘It is not for killers.’

Compiled from several recording sessions held between 1968 and 1973, Manifiesto is a re-release of an album originally brought out in 1974. Its timing could not have been more felicitous: released to coincide with a concert to raise funds for the Jara Foundation in Chile, the record hit the racks just weeks before Pinochet himself was arrested in Britain.

Jara’s songs have aged well. With minimal ornamentation (some percussion here, some panpipes there), his voice conceals in its light tenor a conviction and humanity that is undiminished through time or language. While his songs are very much of their time and place, they are unlike much politically orientated music in their vivacity and emotion. Jara may place an overt faith and optimism in the people, but there is nothing formulaic or hectoring here. Rather, there is an intimacy that characterizes songs for both individuals and crowd. Their potency can be summed up in the fact that, until recently, it was forbidden to mention Jara’s name in Chile. That’s some legacy.

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Kangaroos are a much-loved national symbol of Australia. So if you show one holding a shotgun and scribble Redneck Wonderland over it, you’re being more than a touch provocative. But such is the no-holds-barred approach of Sydney band Midnight Oil. Constrained neither by commercialism nor nervous managers, the Oils take on both Australia’s recent resurgence of the loony far-Right, and the greed and inequality that have brought the country so much well-deserved shame.

Strident voices and rough-hewn rock, both in good measure, their call is clear: it’s time to take a stand. Once established in the opening title track, this serves as a foundation for the entire album, especially the powerful ‘White Skin, Black Heart’.

But it’s not a single-issue album. Polluters get a rap (‘exhaust fans and smart cards shrink-wrap the coloured air, and send it coughing to eternity’), as does the money-crazed, TV-phased suburbanite (‘all is quiet on dripfeed lottery night’).

Turn this one up loud enough to shake the walls – it’s musical graffiti at its best.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Steven, Katherine Ainger, George Fisher
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C

Rabelais and his world
...being the book that links us to sixteenth-century pop culture.

Medieval and early-modern commoners did not leave a great deal of literary material behind them. With rare exceptions they did not leave diaries or sheets of biography tucked discreetly under the floorboards; few scattered testaments of their lives were slipped conveniently inside the family bible, ready for later generations to discover and marvel at.

Most of the surviving written sources which do touch upon the lives of the peasantry and the artisans were written by members of other social classes who reduce the commoners to thin stereotypes: the peasant as victim or as threat, the craftsman as loyal or disloyal, and so on. Such commoners-by-proxy are made to appear and perform, but they leave the reader in no doubt that someone else is pulling the strings.

This is why Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel remain such a crucial and enigmatic link to the popular past. Writing in the early 1500s, before the establishment of the modern literary canon, he provided a rare and deeply confusing glimpse into the world of the urban commoner; a world of hardships and raucous celebrations, of oaths, obscenities and billingsgate; a world centred upon the marketplace bursting forth in collective popular licence as a counterbalance to the privations of Lent.

This is also a deeply confusing world. Rabelais is notorious for long lists of just about anything. Some of them seem to make a remote kind of sense (lists of mostly invented books), while others simply seem odd (lists of fish). Then there is the surreal imagery: the overgrown Pantagruel, for example, is born out of his mother’s left ear, and he later drowns 260,418 Parisians (‘not counting women and children’) by urinating in their general direction. Exaggeration and the fantastic combine with wildly alternating praise and abuse, which could easily convince the reader that here is a book which has little to do with the real world at any point in history, or, more generously, that it just has too much to do with the world of Rabelais’s time, and too little to do with our own world.

My own first attempt to make some sort of sense of Rabelais – way back in the mists of time – failed miserably, but then I didn’t have Mikhail Bakhtin to guide me through the joyful morass. Bakhtin’s study steers the reader through Rabelais without resorting to a blow-by-thud account of the text. Instead he focuses upon key themes such as the significance of bawdy and body, the language of the marketplace, the relation between carnivalesque licence and the popular worldview.

Bakhtin points to an opposition between the unofficial popular culture and the official, serious, self-important culture of the later Middle Ages and early modern period. The official culture had a structured picture of the world which was static, regimented and hierarchical. Its idealized ordering was vertical: heaven, earth and hell sat on top of one another, each with their own circles and levels. The universe was earthly class-regimentation writ large, writ eternally, writ pompously.

[image, unknown] Unofficial culture brought its official counterpart down to earth by degrading it. All that was holiest of holy and altogether high falutin’ was turned to food and excrement. The fundamental ordering of the world was on the horizontal plane of time, of change, of death-birth renewal.

When Bakhtin was first translated into English in the late 1960s, the idea of Carnival took off with a vengeance. But since then a reaction has set in and his fluid idea of official and unofficial cultures has been misconstrued as a static division into cultures sealed off from one another. This reflects neither early-modern realities nor Bakhtin’s actual account of them: he relies upon the interplay of official and unofficial cultures, each relying upon the other for its own sense of meaning. Carnival brings together all of these contradictions of popular culture, showing the chaotic, unfinished nature of the world; it embraces conflict and it embraces change.

The differences between this, and the ‘social realism’ which dominated Russian official thought at the time Bakhtin was writing could not have been greater. Setting the culture of the realistic workers against that of their degenerate modernist rulers, social realists presented a picture of the working class which was strong, virile, heroic, no-nonsense, looking-towards-the-future, uniform, in-uniform, dull and unimaginative.

Bakhtin’s view of popular culture in the early 1500s was anything but a projection of this stereotype onto the past. If anything it was a point-by-point rejection of such dogmas. Popular culture, in Bakhtin’s view, was ambivalent not prefigurative. As for any crude conception of heroic realism, it is difficult to be heroic when everything elevated and self-important is brought down to earth, debased, turned to merde. Understandably he ran into problems when the book was submitted to the authorities in 1940.

Warts and all, this is a truly great book, not a particularly light read, but one that has stood the test of time.

Tony Milligan

Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World is published by Indiana University Press, 1984 (ISBN 0-253-20341-4).

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New Internationalist issue 311 magazine cover This article is from the April 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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