When I was very young, maybe five or six, I can't remember exactly, I used to have a recurring nightmare:
I was walking in a forest. Up ahead there was a clearing, but it was dark and I was hidden from view by the undergrowth. In the clearing, a large circular space, there was a rocket about to launch. There was noise and activity around the area where the rocket was standing, but I couldn't see anyone clearly. As I approached, I realized that I was terrified of being discovered, and each time my foot touched the earth the sound it made seemed incredibly loud to me. It was almost as if I were a bug making my way along the forest floor, listening to my own footfalls like those of a passing giant. Then, somewhere from the clearing, a countdown began. It started at 8 for some reason (later I would associate this with the countdown from 8-to-1 on the target-lead before an old film begins)...and as it continued, my fear rose, until I couldn't stand it any longer. I wanted to scream, but when I opened my mouth a deafening noise drowned it out. The rocket was launching. Suddenly everything was lost in a void, and I was rushing through the vacuum along with the rocket, which only then did I realize was a nuclear weapon...
Often when I awoke from this dream I would be screaming for real. Once I raced out of my room, and my mother who came to comfort me, said later that I claimed I didn't want to go back to bed because "it was in there." "What?" she asked, but I couldn't formulate an answer.
The dream became less frequent, though, and it stopped by the time I was in second grade. The easy explanation was that I was terrified of nuclear war, a common feeling in the late '50s that was exacerbated by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Of that I have only the vaguest recollections. The dream did not return. If anything, those events, and Kennedy's assassination the following year, remain opaque to me. I remember my mother crying about Kennedy. She saved the front page of the newspaper from the next day. I still have it. It's strange to see that less than 24 hours after the murder, there were already speculations about conspiracies. One of the many articles analysing the shooting is accompanied by a picture of the president's route, with arrows describing the gunshots pointing from several different directions. Again, this has no impact on me. I couldn't care less who killed Kennedy, and I never have. He's dead. We have to live with the nightmare that is reality.
I have never bought into the idea that what we are living through is a "postmodern" period of history, or that the social space we're occupying is a "postmodern" society. Dating something, or everything, as being after-the-modern makes about as much sense as claiming that poststructuralism or deconstruction are independent terms. They're both still contingent on their critical second terms, in the same way and to the same extent that what they're engaged in as practices are what has always existed: the criticism of criticism, or simply put, philosophy. In that sense all they represent is a "postmodern turn," or a new critical turn both in and upon certain disciplines. Along the same lines, what we are stuck with at the level of the social and the historical is modernity itself. We've never "gone" anywhere in any sense. We still have the same problems--alienation, rootlessness, the isolation of the individual (or the consumer, if you prefer the "postmodern" term), and the economic stagnation and collapse of late capitalism. And the fear of nuclear war.
But that brings up an interesting question: Is there really a "postmodern" form of politics? Or are we stuck with the same chess-derived, war-fixated, and ultimately cynical theories and practices of the past? To be less extreme...Has there been, or will there ever be, a "postmodern" turn in political reasoning? I'm too old to believe in a peace dividend, but maybe we can still squeeze out a sanity remainder from the last 50 years of insanity.
Or maybe not. Either way my introduction to politics, I believe, was that childhood dream about a first strike. (Was it theirs, or ours? In my dream, I never did see who was launching the rocket, or what uniforms, if any, they were wearing. Maybe they were "mad scientists" straight out of a 1950s B-picture.) The point is that for me politics, from my earliest inklings of it, has been about total destruction. Maybe that's why, as I become aware that I'm much nearer my own end than my beginning, I see a radical new materialism, to ground both philosophy and politics, as the best hope for the future. Anything less would mean annihilation.
Of course the trip in between was much longer and far stranger than that sentimental summing-up would suggest. Let me relate just one more story before I dive into a final try at my own criticism of criticism...
Back in the mid-'90s I was in Nigeria doing work for a large IT-related company that was interested in the extensive local deposits of ores used in the processing of rare elements (tantalum and niobium). These in turn make up ingredients in alloys for high-tech gear, components for computers, cell phones, medical equipment, etc. My employer was already looking to find alternate sources of these materials to China. Nigeria, and several other countries in the region, were supposed to play a big part in this "new plateau" of technology, at the level of raw resources providers, although most of the consumers who bought the final products would never know--and still don't, I would guess--that their gadgets were more drenched in blood than diamonds. That was because at the time, and off and on ever since, Nigeria was engulfed in a civil conflict. Not exactly a war, more of an internal, family-like disagreement. Complete with all the heinous crimes and atrocities that accompany a Greek tragedy. Part of this was a type of gangland conflict driven by greed, control over the country's oil concessions, or what little money flowed back to the upper layers of the political class from oil companies that kept (and still keep) most of the profits for their investors, and just plain hunger for power. But already at that stage in the IT explosion, the rare elements issue was starting to gain prominence, and starting to attract the attention of various local parties.
It was my job to analyse the conflict situation in the country, specifically within the government--as well as taking a tour of the countryside to get the feel of the place--and report back. I was not involved in any political negotiations. I didn't know most of the political players. And I never met the leader of the country at the time, Sani Abacha, who was later killed when a coup d'etat was arranged by a renegade force within the military that shoved forward their chosen candidate in a quick election. This was redefined as a "heart attack," a "transition," and a "change to democracy" in Western media reports, which I have always found entertaining. Still, it was generally considered a good thing by most people both inside and outside the country, since Abacha was a lunatic. A former military dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo was promptly "elected," and so on.... In retrospect, I would have liked to have met Abacha, despite the fact that he certainly had the great, famous activist Ken Saro-Wiwa killed. Abacha was a ruthless, corrupt leader, but subsequent rulers there, including the bizarre Goodluck Jonathan, a total avatar for corporate interests, make him look almost normal.
My entire stay in-country lasted no more than three weeks. It would be convenient at this point, considering my political sympathies overall, to blame all the conflict on the interference of large transnational corporations, including my former employer and its partners. But while the intervention of foreign capital certainly didn't help to quell the violence, it also didn't really cause it, either. That monied presence, and me along with it, remained surprisingly aloof from the situation "on the ground," as military folks (and increasingly corporate folks as well) like to put it. It was almost like being encased in a shell of plexiglass rolling through the chaotic landscape.
Being in a destabilized, militarized country is not at all like people think. It isn't even like most troops who see combat think, since they spend most of their time on base or engaged in security operations--and every once in a while, actual fighting. The point is that every war zone is also a zone of destabilization, but not every destabilized country is going through an all-out conflict. Mostly what you see in a destabilzed area is people. Everywhere. People streaming along the roads. People milling around in squares waiting for food or water to arrive. People trying to get out, or get through to another region, or just get under cover somewhere. War means pitched combat, which can be unpredictable, but at least you can hear it and feel it, and avoid the hottest areas. But destabilization means movement, massive, unorganized, desperate movement. I began to have nightmares about being attacked by giant centipedes, which, when I tried to pull them off me, disarticulated and became thousands of little people who would then crawl all over me before clumping together again into aggressive, writhing, biting insects. I saw horrible things as well. Bodies stacked up by a shed rotting in the sun. A man carrying a baby that had been dead for days, going from officer to officer at a government office trying to get somebody's attention. One of them finally shoved him away so hard that his burden fell on the tile floor.
My most memorable encounter came right at the end of my stay. I was in an area about a hundred kilometers from the capital. There were the usual signs of hunger, disorganization, and the mountains of garbage that one came across everywhere. But the people had some local commerce, there was less government presence, and the intra-party and tribal factionalism that defined everything in Lagos and other densely populated centers was not present. This is one of the contradictory things about being in a country under an autocratic state, in this case an extended military junta: the ordered, drill-grounds image projected by the government is the reverse of life for the vast mass of people, which is chaotic and uncertain. It's almost as if the best definition of autocracy, all autocracies, including those ruled by capital, is that of the state withdrawn in on itself. Abandonment is the core of the relationship between the individual and the state under autocracy--and not constant surveillance, or a kind of invasive intimacy, as many dystopian fictions would have it. In this type of system, power is only concerned with itself, and its own internal relationships of patronage and the sources of wealth that make them possible. The people are almost in the way. To the system, they're beside the point.
One of the advantages of being pushed to the periphery (perhaps the only one) is that people in outlying areas, or at least those who live away from the centers of party and military patronage, can get on with life without having to worry too much about officialdom's response. In other words, it works both ways, at least most of the time, and so long as general conflict doesn't break out. This isn't a recommendation for autocratic forms of government, and the other facets of abandonment and official withdrawal--no real services, corrupt local police, the threat of fullblown civil strife--should give all the Ron Paul-supporting, "small government/no government" idiots in America right now some pause. However, life on the periphery in a place like Nigeria does point out why, and how, people continue under these circumstances for a long time. Of course, if you want to object to anything that officialdom is doing, either at the national level or more locally through their corporate alter-egos, or even start a discussion about such issues, then you can get into big trouble.
It was in this context, on my last visit to the countryside, that I encountered Jules. At least that's what I'll call him here. I never got his real name. He was walking along the road that ran through the center of town, some distance from the first houses, pushing a cart filled with pots and pans, utensils, and other debris. It was what one might call a "tinker's cart," and Jules did indeed advertise that he could repair almost anything. A few people brought small appliances out to him, toasters and other things, while I was standing looking at his wares. He shook his head grimly, pronounced a few words in the local dialect, and gave them a price. They went away disappointed, resigned to doing without one of their few conveniences rather than pay his prices. After this happened a couple times, and we had a moment alone, I turned to him and asked whether he was worried they might not be back. He smiled and said "No," there was plenty of business, and besides, most of them came back. It was worth it not to haggle too much up front, he explained--that would come later, when they returned to pick up their repaired objects, and demanded that the price be knocked down, claiming the work wasn't good enough. "But if it runs...," I started, and he waved that away. That was irrelevant, it was part of the process.
That's when I noticed what was dangling off the end of his cart: limbs, prosthetic limbs--half-arms, half-legs, even a shoulder piece for a fourquarter amputee. I paused for a moment and smiled at Jules, who, seeing where I'd been looking, explained to me that there was a big demand sometimes for such products, but not lately. "Why?" I asked, perfectly aware that in this particular area there was an active rebel group. There had been recent battles with government forces not too far from where we were standing. "Too much fighting," he said, and he explained how while the fighting was going on, people that got wounded were more likely to make do with any old object, a broom handle or random piece of wood, to prop themselves up or use as an extension. They didn't want to invest in a more permanent solution because they might not be around too long, and besides, nobody cares that much about vanity in the middle of a conflict. But it was worth keeping the inventory. For when peace came again, Jules assured me (and I understood this to mean, although he didn't say it, "when Abacha was gone"), that side of his business would pick up. "Only you have to know what to keep," he said, getting more specific--"not everything goes, some things are more in demand, some less." By this I took him to mean that only certain badly injured people survived. If the whole arm or leg went, they'd probably not make it--but a partial amputee.... As for his suppliers, I didn't ask.
I wished him a good afternoon, and he nodded and went jingling on his way. Even now, whenever somebody starts talking to me about the supposed "greatness" of capitalism, the image I get in my head is not one of runners and traders rushing around on the floor of a stock exchange. It's Jules, pushing his little cart along a dusty road somewhere, making calculations about which limb to keep and which to throw away.
As for the rare elements that the IT corporations and their suppliers intended to find and secure in Nigeria, the large-scale mining of them never emerged there. Only recently has a Nigerian company started to exploit a major tantalum-niobium concession, as a byproduct of their tin slag operations, a dirty, pollution-laden process. Meanwhile the discovery of rare elements in the neighboring Congo, along with huge deposits of zinc, copper and cobalt, has led to widespread conflict and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Still the threat of war and deadly local confrontations continue to be facts of life in Nigeria, due to the efforts of oil companies in the Niger Delta (Goodluck Jonathan was a local politician in the Delta region), a situation dramatized by the recent documentary "Sweet Crude." I'm sure Jules still has plenty of business.