Summary of “Participation and Spectacle”, Claire Bishop

On 18 May 2011, Claire Bishop gave the first in a series of talks sponsored by Creative Time. The lecture series provides a context for CT’s fall exhibition Living as Form, a “project that explores over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, and emphasize participation, dialogue, community engagement, and activism around social issues”. [From the website for Living as Form.] CT’s project is part of a much larger critical response to the “social turn” in art, to which Claire Bishop has contributed a number of publications and critical analyses.

Christoph Schlingensief, "Please Love Austria", 2000

In her lecture, “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?”, Bishop makes an appeal for artistic practices that critically engage social and political phenomena, without compromising their status as art. What follows is a summary sketch of Bishop’s lecture based on my notes. Fortunately, the full presentation, with a Q&A following, has been posted on the CT website. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes below are from Bishop’s lecture.

Four Observations

Bishop begins informally with four observations that come out of her recent participation in a discussion organized by Tania Bruguera, as part of Bruguera’s Immigration Movement International, sponsored by CT and the Queens Museum of Art.

1. In discussions of social practice today, the term “art” tends to drop out of the picture — the emphasis shifting to “practice”, a term typically understood to denote an ongoing process which takes precedence over the making of objects.

2. The standard triad of artistwork of artaudience is also re-conceived as producer of situations [cf. Jeremy Deller’s claim “I don’t make things, I make things happen”], project (an ongoing process, often with an unclear beginning and end), and participant (as collaborator or co-producer). This approach and shift comes as a challenge to traditional modes of artistic production and consumption under capitalism, and thus to art history, exhibition making, and spectatorship. As a result, the performative dimension (lecture, panel discussion, conference) supersedes the exhibition of objects.

3. Mediation — the visual aspect and aesthetics typically associated with art — is not addressed by the artists and, thus, tends to drop out, as well. Nor is much attention given to follow-up in the communities where the art/social interventions take place.

4. Artists engaged in social practice adopt an “antinomic” relation to visual art. But given that most of their projects are endorsed by visual arts organizations, the claims of these artists to stand outside the art world are “disingenuous”. The institutionalization of social practice is also found in the large number of MFA programs popping up in the U.S. and the prizes targeted toward social practice.

What, Bishop seems to ask, are we to make of all this? To answer that question we need a broader historical perspective.

Spectacle — Participatory Art’s Adversary Since the 1960s

Looking back through the 20th century, we find participatory art opposing itself to spectacle, with the realm of images compromised by market capitalism and presented in ways that minimize viewer engagement and agency. Participatory art in this situation sees itself as an antidote to alienation, repression, and the numbing effects of mainstream culture.

Artists’ motivations for pursuing socially participatory practices tends to be underwritten by a common claim — “Contemporary capitalism produces passive subjects with very little agency or empowerment.” This concern, for example, is the focus of Guy Debord’s Marxist critique of late modern culture of the spectacle, which is organized around alienating forms of capitalist production. “Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps, however small, to repair the social bond. As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière points out, ‘The critique of the spectacle often remains the alpha and omega of the politics of art.’”

What do we mean by “spectacle”? In the writings of critics associated with October it takes on a number of characteristics. For Rosalind Krauss, writing about late capitalist museums, spectacle includes “the absence of a historical positioning and a capitulation to pure presence”; for James Meyer, writing about Olafur Elliason’s Weather Project, “it denotes an overwhelming scale that dwarfs viewers and eclipses the human body as a point of reference”; for Hal Foster, “writing on the Bilbao Guggenheim, it denotes the triumph of corporate branding”; and for Benjamin Buchloh, “denouncing Bill Viola, it refers to an uncritical use of new technology”. For Guy Debord, spectacle denotes not works of art but social relations under capitalism and under totalitarian regimes. This characterization of the spectacle is followed by futher elaboration of the critiques of Debord, Jean Baudrillard who claims the society of the spectacle has come to an end, and Boris Groys who argues that we’ve reached an age of “the spectacle without a spectator”.

Participatory art sees the present as calling for “a new understanding of art without audiences, one in which everyone is a producer”. But the audience cannot be entirely eliminated — the audience is, in some sense, always there. Not everyone can be a participant.

The new approach to the audience is against contemplation and passivity. Collective, co-authoring and social engagement is the goal. This has been attempted, for example, through constructivist efforts to oppose injustice and proposing an alternative, or “through a nihilist re-doubling of alienation, which negates the world’s injustice and illogicality on its own terms”. While both seek participation and collaboration, one does it affirmatively “through utopian realization”, the other indirectly or negatively “through what we might call the negation of negation”.

The array of participatory works in the 20th century cuts across boundaries separating the left and right — futurism and constructivism, Paris Dada, the Situationist International and Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, Happenings (negation of negation), and with different meanings, forms, and effects in Argentina, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and England.

In short, the anti-aesthetic refusal today is not a radical break but a kind of continuation of the recent past.

Analysis of Artistic vs. Social Criteria

Anti-aesthetic refusal characterizes many recent participatory projects. Several binaries, e.g. art vs life, underwrite these attempts to go beyond art to affect social and political change.

There’s a question, Bishop notes, that’s repeatedly raised: “Surely it’s better for one art project to improve one person’s life than for it not to happen at all.” To get some critical distance, Bishop asks what that question is a symptom of and finds it’s related not just to the (false) dichotomy of “art vs. real life”, but to several additional binaries currently in play — equality of access to the work of art versus quality of the resulting project, as well as participation and spectatorship — all of which reveal that “artistic and social judgments don’t easily merge, indeed they seem to demand different criteria”. This problematic comes up repeatedly today in discussions of participatory art and social practice. Humanist ethics are evoked in the social discourse, but eschewed in the artistic discourse. Art is accused of being focused exclusively on reflection and representation of the world and, thus, amoral and ineffective, while the social discourse is accused of “being stubbornly attached to existing categories and focusing on micropolitical gestures at the expense of sensuous immediacy as a potential locus of disalienation”. The overriding tension here is between morality and freedom.

Next comes a theoretical elaboration on this binary opposition as it appears in a recent analysis of the critique of capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. Bishop draws on their fundamental breakdown of artistic and social critique.


Filling in a bit here and to highlight some of the key issues in Bishop’s argument, I’m inserting the following excerpt from Sebastian Budgen’s review of The New Spirit of Capitalism in the New Left Review (January-February 2000). Note that Budgen’s review is not mentioned in Bishop’s presentation.

[The book’s] starting point is a powerful statement of indignation and puzzlement. How has a new and virulent form of capitalism — they label it a ‘connexionist’ or ‘network’ variant — with an even more disastrous impact on the fabric of a common life than its predecessors, managed to install itself so smoothly and inconspicuously in France, without attracting either due critical attention or any organized resistance from forces of opposition, vigorous a generation ago, now reduced to irrelevancy or cheerleading? The answer to this question, Boltanski and Chiapello suggest, lies in the fate that overtook the different strands of the mass revolt against the Gaullist regime in May–June 1968.There have always been, they argue, four possible sources of indignation at the reality of capitalism: (i) a demand for liberation; (ii) a rejection of inauthenticity; (iii) a refusal of egoism; (iv) a response to suffering. Of these, the first pair found classic expression in bohemian milieux of the late nineteenth century: they call it the ‘artistic critique’. The second pair were centrally articulated by the traditional labour movement, and represent the ‘social critique’.

These two forms of critique, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, have accompanied the history of capitalism from the start, linked both to the system and to each other in a range of ways, along a spectrum from intertwinement to antagonism. In France, 1968 and its aftermath saw a coalescence of the two critiques, as student uprisings in Paris triggered the largest general strike in world history…. Gradually, however, the social and the artistic rejections of capitalism started to come apart. The social critique became progressively weaker with the involution and decline of French communism, and the growing reluctance of French employers to yield any further ground without any return to order in the enterprises or any increase in dramatically falling levels of productivity. The artistic critique, on the other hand, carried by libertarian and ultra-left groups along with ‘self-management’ currents in the CFDT (the formerly Catholic trade-union confederation), flourished. The values of expressive creativity, fluid identity, autonomy and self-development were touted against the constraints of bureaucratic discipline, bourgeois hypocrisy and consumer conformity. […]

Capitalism is conceived here, in Weberian fashion, as a system driven by ‘the need for the unlimited accumulation of capital by formally peaceful means’, that is fundamentally absurd and amoral. Neither material incentives nor coercion are sufficient to activate the enormous number of people — most with very little chance of making a profit and with a very low level of responsibility — required to make the system work. What are needed are justifications that link personal gains from involvement to some notion of the common good. Conventional political beliefs — the material progress achieved under this order, its efficiency in meeting human needs, the affinity between free markets and liberal democracy — are, according to Boltanski and Chiapello, too general and stable to motivate real adherence and engagement. What are needed instead are justifications that ring true on both the collective level — in accordance with some conception of justice or the common good — and the individual level. To be able truly to identify with the system, as managers — the primary target of these codes — have to do, two potentially contradictory longings have to be satisfied: a desire for autonomy (that is, exciting new prospects for self-realization and freedom) and for security (that is, durability and generational transmission of advantages gained). [emphases added.]


Bishop’s Concluding Summary Argument

1. Distinction Between Artistic and Social Critique

Drawing on the historical and philosophical writings of Jacques Rancière, Bishop builds a case for sustaining the tension between spectacle and participatory practice and the distinction between art and everyday life, rather than blurring these distinctions.
Bishop’s concluding argument begins with a survey of twentieth century activist and avant-garde works of art that employ various participatory, interventionist, and often “spectacular” tactics, giving particular emphasis to the group of artists brought together in Tania Bruguera’s Useful Art event (23 April 2011)— Mel Chin, Rick Lowe, Not an Alternative (Beka Economopoulos), Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin, and Pase Usted (Jorge Munguia).

The claim that emerges from this overview is that “the most striking projects…unseat all of the polarities on which this discourse [of participatory art] is founded — individual vs. collective, author vs. spectator, active vs. passive, real life vs. art — but not with the goal of collapsing them”. Christoph Schlingenspiel’s Please Love Austria performance from the Vienna International festival of 2000 is singled out as an example of participatory art that manages to make productive use of these polarities.

2. Distinction Between Democracy in Art and Democracy in Society

Bishop contends that the tension between artistic and social critiques today is, in large part, derived from a desire to sustain some measure of autonomy in art, while simultaneously engaging real world concerns and recognizing the role of the spectator as a creative agent. This entails, at the very least, confronting the paradox noted by Rancière “between the logic of art that becomes life at the price of abolishing itself as art, and the logic of art that does politics on the explicit condition of not doing it at all”. [Jacques Rancière,“Problems and Transformations in Critical Art”, which appears in Bishop’s anthology, Participation.]

Rather than allowing the work of art to drop out of the picture by giving way to political action, the work must be sustained as “a mediating object — a spectacle that stands between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator…. The artist relies upon the participant’s creative exploitation of the situation that he or she offers, just as participants require the artist’s cue and direction.”

An underlying assumption here is that social practices (critiques) do not have the same structure as artistic practices. Bishop suggests that the disparity follows from the fact that forms of democracy in art do not have an “intrinsic” relation to the forms of democracy in society. Artistic criteria are more “paradoxical”.

3. The Historical Nature and Limits of Artistic Participation

To bridge the gap separating artistic production on the one hand and social change on the other, Bishop argues, artists would benefit from aligning with actually existing political organizations. Such connections, well established in historical avant-garde movements of the past, have been lost today, giving way to a kind of free-floating anti-capitalism. “As a consequence,” Bishop claims, “artists have internalized a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organization, a task that artists are not always best equipped to undertake.” Part of the solution, according to Bishop, would be “a viable international alignment of leftist political movements and the reassertion of art’s inventive forms of negation as valuable in their own right”. This would involve re-positioning art as a source of representation, critique, and experimentation that engages the public and contributes to politically progressive projects.

Problems and Prospects

There’s considerable room for debate about the details, and for some, I suspect, Bishop’s fundamental approach. In various ways, her argument sharpens the focus on concrete, as well as theoretical, issues about the interpretation, nature, and effectiveness of “social practice”.

  1. In what sense can we talk about “democracy” in art?
  2. How, and to what extent, does it differ from citizenship and democracy in society?
  3. Are the two linked, as they must be if artistic activity has the capacity to inform social and political change?
  4. What can we conclude about the nature of the relationship between art and social critique beyond acknowledging art’s complexity and paradoxical criteria?
  5. And how are we to understand the relationship of art and ethics? Are they parallel to one another, similar in structure but focused on different phenomena, interests, and needs?
  6. Can they work productively together?
  7. What do we risk in conflating them?

These are crucial issues, discussion and analysis of which goes well beyond the constraints of a public lecture on recent trends in contemporary art. As it was, Bishop’s talk moved briskly, covering both theoretical and practical issues. Fortunately, the discussion will continue with subsequent talks and the release of her forthcoming book, Artificial Hells, from Verso Press, on which the Creative Time lecture was based.


I have the sense — and it’s no more than a vague notion — that artistic attempts at “social practice” have great difficulty gaining the traction they need in the social world to produce substantial long term change.

The social world is not the art world. They’re materially different, demanding distinct and important things from us. We need to exercise practical intelligence to grasp those demands and to act in ways that enable us to make productive contributions. This is one of the things that distinguishes art from “mere” entertainment.

Consider the distinction between imagining things as being other than they are and making things be other than they are. Imagination is a key, perhaps essential, element of art. And it’s a characteristic that also plays an important role in ethics and social relations. This is just one of the many points at which art and ethics overlap. When characteristics overlap in this way, the boundaries between the two realms is blurred, making it easier to overlook the differing needs, interests, strengths, and weaknesses of each realm.

So the response from those engaged in art, it seems to me, is not to avoid the ethical dimension, but to understand how art can contribute to progressive social change by drawing on its strengths — as art.

Occupation: Dreamland

I saw Occupation: Dreamland yesterday afternoon at Cinema Village.  OD is a non-fiction film by Ian Olds and Garrett Scott which documents the activities of the young Army recruits of the 82nd Airborne’s Alpha Company, 1/505, 2nd Platoon stationed in Fallujah during the winter of 2004.  The film has gotten a fair amount of attention, all of it well-deserved. (More links below.)

The film takes a non-judgmental look at the attitudes of the men (no women in this platoon) who find themselves caught up in “the fog of war”, not quite knowing why they’re there, what if any rationale lies behind their orders, and what can possibly be accomplished either in Fallujah or Iraq generally.  All they have to go on is that they’re to “maintain security” and establish good relations with the Iraqis.  But even the clarity of this modest goal is undermined as a company commander instructs the soldiers, ”Back yourself up and think about what, exactly, we’re securing. We’re securing ourselves. So what, exactly, are we protecting? I don’t know.”

Listening to the soldiers talk about why they enlisted and how they feel about their tour of duty in Iraq, you can sense the confusion of young, working class guys who either weren’t interested in or ready for college, were uncertain about their futures, and saw the Army as something to do “in the meantime”.  Many of them assumed it would be a relatively easy and risk-free way to get an education.  If nothing else, it would jumpstart the next phase of their lives.  In most cases they had not thought through the implications of military service or what their tour of duty in the Army might bring.  In short, they were definitely not prepared for this.

One wonders how well they’ll be prepared to return to “normal” life when they return from the war.  The 82nd had been stationed in Afganistan prior to their being sent to Fallujah.  Many had enlisted for only two years — the Army was desperately trying to keep them in for four.

After the credits rolled, there were eight of us left in the small theater.  A young man in a white t-shirt and blue jeans stood up and announced, “I’m in the 82nd division, if you have any questions, maybe I can answer them.”  He made no attempt to convince us of the value of the war.  Rather, we talked about his own uncertainties and what it was like to be in Afganistan and Iraq.  He was clearly unhappy about the situation there, said he wish we’d never gone in, and admitted that morale among the soldiers was very low.  He was not pleased with the heavy-handed tactics of the Marines who relieved the 82nd later that year. “I can’t see any way we’ll be out of there for another five or six years”, he said.  “The only hope is to turn the other cheek and not shoot back when fired upon. You have to just keep trying to help the people over there.”

I wondered why he made the unsolicited offer to speak with us. Was it out of a sense of duty, to help us understand what’s going on there from the soldier’s point of view? Or was it a way of making sense of his own experience?  Some of both, I expect.

What we did not hear was reference to the recent Human Rights Watch report on the routine beating and mistreatment of prisoners by members of the 82nd division prior to April 2004.

Three U.S. army personnel—two sergeants and a captain—describe routine, severe beatings of prisoners and other cruel and inhumane treatment…. The soldiers also described abuses they witnessed or participated in at another base in Iraq and during earlier deployments in Afghanistan.

According to the soldiers’ accounts, U.S. personnel abused detainees as part of the military interrogation process or merely to “relieve stress.” In numerous cases, they said that abuse was specifically ordered by Military Intelligence personnel before interrogations, and that superior officers within and outside of Military Intelligence knew about the widespread abuse. The accounts show that abuses resulted from civilian and military failures of leadership and confusion about interrogation standards and the application of the Geneva Conventions. They contradict claims by the Bush administration that detainee abuses by U.S. forces abroad have been infrequent, exceptional and unrelated to policy. [Human Rights Watch]

For more on Occupation: Dreamland see:

Leonard Lopate’s interview with the filmmakers.
Stuart Klawans, The Nation (review)
Jeanette Catsoulis, NYTimes (review)
Joshua Land, Village Voice (review)
Ty Burr, Boston Globe (review)

Photo compliments of the official website: Occupation: Dreamland

After “What Comes After?”

Update: Following up on the LMCC conference, What Comes After, Caryn James has a review of a related exhibition, A Knock at the Door, and her own reflections on the politics of art in the aftermath of 9/11, in today’s NYTimes.

James points out that

while the "A Knock at the Door …" is clearly more political than its
organizers say – questioning the Patriot Act is inherently anti-Bush –
there is nothing apolitical surrounding the arts at ground zero
anymore, from victims’ family groups that are lobbying against the
International Freedom Center to Gov. George E. Pataki’s announcement in
June that he wants an "absolute guarantee" that art at the site will
not offend 9/11 families. Art in a straitjacket is no art at all. In
this politicized atmosphere, "A Knock at the Door …" lands like a
rejoinder to the governor, even though it was in the works before he
made that comment.

In the months (and years?) ahead, it will be too easy for discussions about art and memory to get hopelessly mired in, and limited to, the issue of who has the "right" or authority to speak in the wake of trauma, violence, human suffering and loss. Note the small print disclaimer on the LMCC website:

LMCC lost its World Trade Center home and the life of an artist on 9/11. We are very sensitive to the traumas of violence and terrorism. LMCC will not include any work of art in the "A Knock at the Door" exhibition that could in any way endanger the public. There will be no hazardous devices on display. The point of "A Knock at the Door" is to explore the relationships between artists and authority in the post 9/11 world, not to create risk or condone violence.

These are serious issues — not to be dismissed or ignored.  But what appears to be missing in the current literature and in the conference proceedings is more attention to the ways art and literature can bring us into a more productive exploration of the experiences, feelings, and insights of others, not as self-indulgent immersion, but as a way of extending empathy while allowing for some measure of critical analysis that might lead to a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of violence.

What Comes After?

This weekend’s conference, organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, with the optimistic title, What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery (An International Summit), brought together numerous scholars, artists, and activists from across the world to talk about the artistic response to traumatic experience and loss in the aftermath of violence. 

In spite of the statement posted to the conference website by Tom Healy — intended, perhaps, to address the controversy surrounding "inappropriate art" generally, and LMCC’s expansion of the theme of recovery on the weekend of the anniversary of "9/11" in particular —  the organizers did not focus on New York City.  It avoided what conference curator Radhika Subramaniam, in her opening remarks on Friday morning, referred to as the "parochialism and narcissism" of the local (and limited) framing of the events of 9/11/2001.  Instead, the emphasis was extended to include the role creative forms of art have played (and are playing) in places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Iraq, and Palestine.

Consider the list of seminar questions raised:

Design of Recovery — What are the political and aesthetic challenges of rebuilding after disaster? How do architects and planners balance utilitarian, economic and technological issues against those of environment, cultural heritage and local practice?

Afterword: Language of Recovery — What are the demands placed on language and writing by disaster? How does writing after catastrophe work as advocacy, witness, mirror, mourning, elegy or indictment?

Arts of Emergency — How are artists provoked by the mechanisms of destruction and terror? How does photography, painting and performance intervene to restore face and voice, expose the erasures of history and demand recognition?

Revenge, Reparation, Reconciliation — How can artistic media be used by formerly hostile groups to reconcile opposing points of view, recognize divergent historical narratives and promote trust? What cultural strategies do advocates, jurists and activists employ to effect accountability and foster healing?

Remembrance, Repitition, Residue
— What is the relationship of memory and forgetting to the recovery of daily life after trauma? How are the arts of memory—museums, memorials, archives—sentinels of the future?

Arts of Possibility — Can cultural and symbolic forms help to imagine a future while remembering the past and mourning loss? Can artistic strategies serve as antidotes to revenge, sorrow and despair to restore hope, encourage safety, and return the promise of tomorrow?

One can see even from this brief summary of themes that the conference was thoughtfully and courageously organized.  It has brought together a committed and important group of people whose lives are devoted to addressing these questions and to putting their insights into action. 

Unfortunately, the on-site attendance was disappointing. Ironically, Duma Kumalo, a speaker from Johannesburg, mentioned that the meager turnout was similar to so many of the truth and reconciliation hearings he attended back home in South Africa. There were also numerous mistakes made in communicating the details of the times and places of various events, problems making speakers audible to members of the audience, etc. (Sarah Hromack was hoping
the conference would include consideration of the Katrina disaster in
the South.  I did not attend, nor have I listened to, all of the
sessions.  But from what I could tell, Katrina was mentioned only in
passing — often as a point of reference for the ongoing inadequacy in
handling disaster by government institutions.)

One can only hope that the limitations of the on-site proceedings of What Comes After will be overcome and more than compensated for by creative use of the materials made available on the website and through the many productive discussions to follow in communities, cafes, pubs, and classrooms around the world.  But we can also help by contributing our own thoughts and efforts to the task of recognizing, remembering, and coming to terms with the causes and effects of violence, wherever they occur.

Baker on Krugman

Russel Baker has a review of Paul Krugman’s new book in the New York Review of Books.

Krugman is being modest when he attributes his strength as a columnist to his being “an outsider” in politics. While it’s true that he comes from another (academic) realm, his real advantage is being an intellectually honest, empirical, social scientist. By applying scientific methods and critical skills to public policy issues, not only does he expose the disparities between what the unprincipled Republican right (Cheney, Rove, claims to stand for as opposed to what it actually does, but he makes apparent the value of honest reasoning and analysis based on facts.

What Baker’s analysis overlooks is the important distinction between the self-serving Republicans in the Administration and “principled” neo-cons such as Wolfowitz, Kristol, and others who are pursuing a very different agenda focused on democracy and nation-building. It’s important to keep in mind this distinction between the motivation of the radical right and that of the neo-cons both inside and outside the current administration. Bush may very well be torn between the two camps.

Laibach Lives

I’ve often talked with students and colleagues about the Slovenian “band” Laibach and Goran Gajic’s very intriguing documentary about them, Laibach: Victory Under the Sun (1988)

Not only is the band an interesting phenomenon in its own right, but the documentary adds to the pleasure (and perversity) by featuring Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on Laibach and NSK, the multi-media art movement they founded back in the ’80s.

They never received much attention in the US and have been keeping a low profile for the last seven or eight years. They surfaced in July with a new album, WAT (“We Are Time”) and this month in Artforum magazine.

In the former Yugoslavia, Laibach made use of a political strategy that Zizek frequently mentions as being particularly effective under Eastern European communism — being more politically correct than one’s own leaders. By following very strictly certain guidelines and policies of the dominant regime (to which, of course, no one is expected to pay more than lip service), one is able to force the complacent authorities to confront the very symptoms of their adopted ideology.

Could such a strategy work under current politico-economic and cultural conditions in the US? My first response would be the obvious and cynical one that the manifestations of such a strategy by artists would go through successive stages of being momentarily outrageous, puzzling, adopted in small circles by those who catch on and those who don’t, appropriated by the “merchants of cool”, and finally cleaned up for mass consumption, with the result that any remnants of political effectiveness would be neutralized. But perhaps it’s worth looking beyond this rather simple reasoning.

It will be interesting to see what form Laibach takes under the “new world order” and in the aftermath of the transitions in Eastern Europe. I suggest artists in the West pay very close attention.

Hentoff Misses the Mark

Nat Hentoff has offered a weak argument for humanitarian intervention in support of the Bush administration’s war on Iraq. He raises the issue of Rwanda which is a fair example. It’s a clear case of international failure to stop an atrocity with very little risk, effort, and ambiguity. Thousands were slaughtered by machetes. A few thousand western troops could have prevented the mass killings and it would have been a good thing if they had. But that does not support Hentoff’s argument. The widespread political opposition to intervention in Iraq, the likely motives of the U.S., the vanishingly small probability of building a democratic nation in a deeply divided country with no love for its conquerors, etc., etc. suggest that matters may not get better for the Iraqis any time soon. The situation is very different from that of Rwanda. Sadaam’s days were numbered anyway and containment was working. Nor was he likely to engage in any more atrocities with the eyes of most of the world on him and without support from other Arab leaders. Hentoff is off the mark on this one.

Israel Considers Extending Its Barrier

There’s high-level planning taking place in the Sharon administration that’s raising concerns among Palestinians and those who are working for peace in the Middle East. "In a move that could claim more land for Israel and muddy progress on a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood, two proposals are on the table to extend a barrier separating Israel from the Palestinians," writes Paisley Dodds in a recent story for the AP. "The proposals revealed Sunday increased the amount of land the Palestinians would lose compared to previous plans, although an exact figure was not available. Israeli officials said the barriers could be demolished and moved if and when a permanent border is set for a Palestinian state. Skeptical Palestinians and human rights groups called it an illegal land grab, and said that in its new route the snaking fence would in effect dislocate more than 200,000 Palestinians, leaving them on the ‘Israeli’ side of an imposed border."

On a related front, there were a number of members of the British House of Commons yesterday who urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to press President Bush on the issue of the Middle East peace process when the two meet later this week. "The foreign secretary [Jack Straw] promised that the ‘road map’ to a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be published as soon as the Palestinian authority’s new administration is in place. He revealed, however, that its first phase is a halt to the building of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories", according to today’s Guardian.

Ignatieff’s Non-Case for the War in Iraq

Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard, has offered a surprisingly weak justification for the war on Iraq. In today’s Guardian he writes: "The problem is not that overthrowing Saddam by force is ‘morally unjustified’. Who seriously believes that 25 million Iraqis would not be better off if Saddam were overthrown? […The issue is whether the] risks are worth running, when our safety depends on the answer, and when the freedom of 25 million people hangs in the balance." The problem with Ignatieff’s argument is that he doesn’t offer any reason to believe the risks are, in fact, worth running. Instead he opines that we must support one side or the other in such matters without knowing for certain what the consequences will be.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. Certainty is too high a standard for moral decisionmaking. But that does not excuse our responsibility for the consequences of actions that can reasonably be predicted. And that’s precisely why further rational deliberation about the facts and the possible outcomes — from political, environmental, and humanitarian perspectives — was warranted before rushing to war. The machinations, deceptions (on both sides), posturing, and manoeuvering we saw in the weeks leading up to this war were anything but that.

U.S. Imperialism in the Making

The battle to stop the war against Iraq has been lost. It’s important now to look ahead by examining carefully the conditions that led the U.S. to engage in this war despite widespread opposition and to consider how best to respond.

There’s been a lot of attention in the past week given to the evolution of the Bush administration policy of military superiority and global domination. The policy has been traced back to a Defense Department document drafted in 1992 by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who, at the time, was Pentagon Under Secretary for Policy. The document was leaked to the press and featured in an article by Patrick E. Tyler in the New York Times on 8 March 1992. A number of recent articles in the Observer, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and this weekend in the New York Times discuss the implications of American unilateralism and express concern about the course taken by the Bush administration.