election : peru 1990 / 1992

Illustration of ballot box in pink and white. Box says "election"
illustration by iggdeh

by Amy Obermeyer

In the lead-up to Peru’s presidential election in the spring of 1990, sitting president Alan García was deeply unpopular. García, who was ineligible for reelection, represented Peru’s center-left, social democratic Aprista party. Like much of the region, Peru was still in the grips of the Latin American debt crisis that first hit in 1982. Rampant inflation was everywhere. García’s populist government had initially managed to stave off the disaster, but by 1988, García’s measures were no longer succeeding and by 1989, inflation was at 2000%. Furthermore, as economic conditions worsened, the brutality of the Maoist insurrectionary group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) increased, and so too did the brutality of the state’s response. In January 1989, García’s popular approval, once as high as 90%, had fallen to 9%. Among the electorate, distrust for political parties in general was at an all-time high, and the successive failures of two centrist governments—García’s and that of his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde Terry—from the two major centrist parties, coupled with a voter preference for centrist policies, left a marked void in Peru’s political landscape. 

October 1988 : Luis Alva Castro, the country’s sitting second vice president, assumes the role of leader of the Aprista party following president García’s resignation from this position, ultimately leading to his candidacy on the Aprista ticket. Given the sitting president’s low approval ratings, no one expects Alva Castro to win the first round. However, Alva Castro’s strategy will come to bank on Peru’s mandatory run-off rule, which demands a run-off when no one candidate achieves a majority of the vote, coupled with popular resistance to his opponent Vargas Llosa’s extreme neoliberal platform. Alva Castro aims to be second in the first round of the election, and to consolidate the votes of the other candidates in the second round.

5 June 1989 : Eminent novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, perhaps best-known for his novel La ciudad y los perros, translated into English as The Time of the Hero, announces his candidacy under the banner Fredemo, short for Frente Democrático (Democratic Front), Fredemo represents a coalition of three parties unifying economically liberal and socially conservative groups under a single candidate. Fredemo and Vargas Llosa embrace neoliberal principles, advocating for an “economic shock” that includes large-scale privatization measures.

September 1989 : The leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) undergoes a major schism after disagreements as to whether to welcome more centrist parties into the coalition. Alfonso Barrantes, the former mayor of Lima and supporter of moderate inclusion, leaves the IU to run under a separate ticket, Izquierda Socialista (IS). Before the schism, Barrantes leads early polls for the 1990 presidential election, buoyed by the support of working-class voters in both rural and urban areas. Barrantes had placed second to García in the 1985 election, withdrawing after the first round to avoid a run-off election. In a move designed to turn popular sentiment against Barrantes, the IU nominates Henry Pease García as its candidate. Pease had worked alongside Barrantes during Barrantes’ mayorship. Pease and Barrantes have few ideological differences, and voters largely view the split as a personal conflict.

5 October 1989 : Alberto Fujimori, president of the Universidad Nacional Agraria (National Agrarian University) and host of a television show called Concertando, founds his party, Cambio 90 (Change 90) with little fanfare. Cambio 90 is just one of many so-called partidos pitufos (smurf parties) in Peru’s political landscape and it initially receives little press coverage. Although Fujimori’s party lacks a specific platform, in the popular imaginary, he comes to be widely perceived as a centrist. His campaign motto is “work, honesty, and technology.”  

8-11 March 1990 : In the weeks leading up to the election, a major nationwide poll places Fujimori in the low-single digits. The polls from this week are the first to even include Fujimori.

8 April 1990 : As predicted from the outset, no one candidate receives a majority of the vote, and the election goes to a run-off. Vargas Llosa emerges as the leader in the first round, receiving 27.6% of the vote. Meanwhile, Fujimori places second with 24.6% of the vote, a result that would have been unthinkable a month prior. Vargas Llosa’s party gains 40 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, holding 62 seats out of 180. The Aprista party loses half their seats, but retains 53, while the left loses nearly two-thirds of its seats, with the now-separated left parties together maintaining a scant 23 seats. Cambio 90 holds 32 of 180 seats, nowhere near a plurality, let alone a mandate. Getting legislation passed will require coalition-building and compromise.

Many attribute Fujimori’s rapid rise in large part to perceptions of elitism on the part of Fredemo. Vargas Llosa is widely seen as the candidate of the wealthy, mostly white elite in a country wherein whites make up only 5.9% of the population. These beliefs are buttressed by Fredemo’s advertising campaign, which dominated election spending and employed international marketing firms. It is said that some of them don’t even speak Spanish. Fujimori’s largely word-of-mouth campaign and his ability, as a professor of agriculture, to relate to rural peasants play a large role in his rapid ascent. Lacking a specific platform facilitates Fujimori’s assembling of a disparate coalition consisting of indigenous rural peasants, Protestant and Pentecostal Christians, small business owners, and informal sector workers. Fujimori’s status as a child of immigrants helps his political outsider appeal, and his Nisei 1 accent helps him connect with voters, many of whom speak Quechua rather than Spanish as a first language. One of his campaign slogans is “a president like you.”

3 June 1990 : One week before the election marks the first debate between the two front-runners Vargas Llosa and Fujimori. Vargas Llosa’s critiques of Fujimori’s vague platform does little to stem the tide of popular sentiment. Vargas Llosa describes the “great proposal” of his own party as “privatiz[ing] the public sector.” In addition to the economic shock proposal, Vargas Llosa also proposes a plan to transition peasant coca farmers to new crops, a policy supported by the US, who had also offered to train Peruvian soldiers in anti-trafficking jungle warfare. In the debates, Fujimori in turn pledges to resist privatization and foreign intervention. In response to Vargas Llosa’s “great proposal,” Fujimori argues that “apply[ing] shock during a period of inflation serves only to make the problem worse.” He promises that a specific platform is forthcoming, but it never seems to materialize.

10 June 1990 : Fujmori wins the run-off election with 62.32% of the vote. Despite polls suggesting a much closer race, there is an over twenty-point margin separating Fujimori and Vargas Llosa. Hoping to stave off the blatant neoliberalism Vargas Llosa offered, the candidates vanquished in the first round had largely thrown their support behind Fujimori. 

28 July 1990 : Fujimori is inaugurated as president of Peru. His cabinet appointments lack any ideological or political consistency. 

8 August 1990 : Fujimori announces austerity measures similar to those he decried in the debates, measures that collectively come to be known as “Fujishock.” As a result, the cost of staple foods quadrupled and gasoline prices rose to 30 times their previous prices. Unrest breaks out, and Fujimori deploys police and the military to respond to the turbulence. Reports suggest the state forces fired into crowds. In the chaos, four are killed, twelve are wounded, and thousands are arrested. 

3 June 1991 : In light of the ongoing economic crisis and insurgent activity, Fujimori strikes a deal with congress to pass Law 25327, which grants emergency powers allowing him to rule more or less by decree in a number of key areas for a period of 150 days. Due to the split nature of congress, he is unable to pass much of his proposed legislation by typical channels. Fujimori issued a vast number of decrees, including 126 in just the final month of the 150-day period. Many of these decrees exceeded the boundaries of presidential powers allowed by congress.

5 April 1992 : Fujimori appears on national television to announce that he is “temporarily dissolving” congress and “reorganizing” the judiciary, an act known as the autogolpe, or self-coup. He deploys the military to block lawmakers from gathering, and soldiers tear gas a group of senators who nevertheless attempt to hold a session.

Given the small number of seats held by Cambio 90, Fujimori had been unable to get the congressional support needed to enact the liberalizing reforms demanded by the IMF in exchange for aid—although he claimed the coup had been necessary to rid the state of corrupt, deeply-entrenched interests. Foreign governments initially balk and refuse to recognize Fujimori’s new government, but his willingness to cooperate with the IMF and with  anti-drug efforts ultimately causes a change of many hearts, especially that of George H.W. Bush. Polling suggests that 71% of Peruvians supported Fujimori’s dissolution of congress and 89% supported his reorganization of the judiciary.

13 November 1992 : General Jaime Salinas leads an attempted counter-coup with the stated aim of restoring democracy. The attempt is aborted at the last minute and Salinas ends up jailed.

22 November 1992 : Elections for the so-called Democratic Constituent Congress are held. The congress’s stated aim is to write a new constitution. Many major parties abstain from participating in the election in protest. Fujimori’s party wins 44 of 80 seats. 

4 September 1993 : The Democratic Constituent Congress, convened by Fujimori, presents a new constitution to the voting public. Under the new constitution, Fujimori is able to seek reelection, which had been prohibited by the previous. It also gives him the authority to dissolve congress and removes congress’s role in confirming high-ranking military officers and ambassadors. Treason becomes a capital offense.

31 October 1993 : A popular referendum on the new constitution is held and the constitution is approved 52.2% to 47.7%. In a shift from the 1990 election outcome, Fujimori’s constitution is more popular in urban Lima than in more rural areas.

Postscript  : To the surprise of many, Fujimori remained popular despite his undermining of Peru’s democracy. On the heels of the January 1995 Cenapa War with Ecuador, Fujimori was reelected decisively with 64.3% of the vote in the first (and only) round. One of his first acts following reelection was to sign a bill into law that granted amnesty to police and soldiers accused of human rights abuses between 1980 and 1995. The state’s harsh tactics toward Sendero Luminoso had left many casualties in its wake. According to 2003’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings, the state was responsible for at least one-third of the 70,000 casualties, at least 75% of those indigenous Quechua speakers, in the conflicts between Sendero Luminoso, Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA), and the state. Other subsequent studies have placed the percentage even higher. Around this time, Fujimori earned the nickname “Chinochet,” a play on the name of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the word “Chino,” widely used in Peru for all individuals of East Asian descent. Fujimori is said to enjoy the nickname.

In 2000, despite the regulations in the very constitution that Fujimori’s party promulgated, Fujimori ran again for reelection. With Fujimori coming in at just under 50% of the vote, the race went into a run-off with challenger Alejandro Toledo. Toledo boycotted the election due to allegations of fraud, and Fujimori countered by making voting mandatory. Toledo suggested his voters spoil their ballots, and ultimately almost one-third were declared invalid. In the second round, Fujimori won by a landslide. However, in September of 2000, a video was leaked showing the head of Peru’s national security agency bribing a congressman. On 20 November 2000, as a result of the scandal, Fujimori faxed his resignation from Japan. The legislature refused to accept, instead impeaching him.

Following his reelection to a second term in 1995, Fujimori headed a large-scale forced sterilization campaign that ultimately sterilized over 200,000 mostly indigenous women. This campaign garnered international support from the UN, the US, and Japan among others. In 2007, Fujimori was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to six years. While awaiting trial, he had announced plans to run for office in Japan. In April 2009, Fujimori was further found guilty of human rights abuses for his roles in ordering the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos massacres, which combined had left 34 dead, and was given a sentence of 25 years. Later that same year, he was found guilty of embezzlement, and in a fourth trial, also in 2009, he was likewise found guilty of bribery. 

Fujimorism remains a potent force in Peruvian politics. A 2005 public opinion survey conducted via the University of Lima found Fujimori retained a 45.6% approval rating.  In 2011, Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori ran for the presidency and made it to the run-off, where she lost to Ollanta Humala by less than 3% of the vote. Rudy Giuliani was one of her campaign’s advisors. In 2016 she ran again, and was again runner-up in the run-off election, this time losing to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by only half a percent. Her Fujimorist party, Fuerza Popular, had nonetheless managed to win the majority of seats in congress, which they held until the 2020 election. In 2018, she was arrested as part of the Odebrecht Scandal that rocked Latin America, and she is currently awaiting charges. 

election : kenya 2002 . . .

illustration by iggdeh

by Murage Macharia

Kenya was established as a republic in December 1964 after gaining independence from British colonial rule, and Jomo Kenyatta was elected Kenya’s first president. In 1969, Kenyatta transformed the new nation into a one-party state, leaving the Kenya African National Union (KANU) as the sole party that won all parliamentary seats through 1997. Kenyatta died in office in 1978, and Daniel arap Moi—then vice president—continued the presidency, becoming the country’s second president.

When fierce democratic pluralism swept across Africa in the late 1980s, Moi restored multiparty politics in 1992. Amid an outcry of election rigging, he won that year’s elections, as well as the 1997 election. In 2002, he declared that he would retire from the presidency and groomed Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, to lead KANU and take over the presidency. However, Uhuru Kenyatta was to face fierce competition from Mwai Kibaki, who campaigned on the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party—a coalition of several small parties—promising new constitutional reforms and an end to government corruption. The outline below details the events that led to a new constitution and a new era of democracy in Kenya.

3 December 2002 : Mwai Kibaki is involved in a near-fatal car accident while heading to Nairobi after holding campaign rallies in the eastern region. He is flown to London where he seeks treatment for two weeks before returning to continue his presidential campaign.

27 December 2002 : Elections are held. Kibaki wins a landslide victory, ending Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year rule and KANU’s four decades in power.

29 December 2002 : Kibaki is sworn in as the third president of Kenya. At the inauguration, he stresses his opposition to government corruption, promising that “government will no longer be run on the whims of individuals.”

February 2003 : Kibaki convenes a group of delegates to oversee the drafting of a new constitution. Through public hearings and memoranda, public views are collected, after which the delegates begin debate and ratification of the draft.

15 March 2004 : A proposed new constitution known as the Bomas draft is released. This draft proposes wide-reaching changes to the structure of government, land reform, religious courts, and presidential power, including the sharing of power between the president and a newly created post of prime minister.

August 2004 : Fearing the loss of power, senior government officials—most of whom had been governing since Moi’s era—amend the Bomas draft. The new amendments provide for an executive president and a nominal prime minister appointed by the former. These amendments lead to widespread opposition, civil unrest, and the resignation of several senior members of Kibaki’s coalition.

January 2005 : Kibaki starts a nationwide campaign for the amended Bomas draft constitution. The draft is distributed to everyone in the country to read. The opposition is skeptical of the amendments made to the Bomas draft and see them as a ploy by Kibaki to exert dictatorial authority since the amendments disproportionately vest power to the president. Further, because Kibaki so vigorously promoted the new constitution and based his election campaign around it, many voters will use the approaching referendum merely as a means to voice their approval or disapproval of the Kibaki government.

21 November 2005 : Kenya holds its first-ever national referendum on a proposed constitution. Voters take to the ballot. After a contentious review process, 58% of voters reject the proposed new constitution in what is seen as a protest against President Kibaki.

23 November 2005 : Following the rejection of the draft constitution, Kibaki dismisses his entire cabinet and deputy ministers, stating that he needs to reorganize his government to make it more cohesive and better able to serve Kenyans. Kenyans and the opposition overwhelmingly approve of Kibaki’s decision, since the government had been embroiled in corruption exposés for a long time and the decision to dismiss the cabinet was seen as long overdue. 

27 November 2005 : The opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga, calls for nationwide demonstrations to pressure the government for new elections since Kibaki has failed to deliver on his campaign promises—i.e., to end corruption and introduce a new constitution. Kibaki outlaws all demonstrations in support of new elections.

7 December 2005 : Kibaki announces his new appointments for his cabinet and minister positions. A large portion of the appointees turn down the job offers, citing Kibaki’s failure to consult with all parties in the coalition regarding the make-up of the new cabinet.

9 December 2005 : Kibaki swears in the new cabinet, comprised mostly of his closest political allies.

26 January 2007 : Kibaki states his intention to run for re-election under a new political party, the Party of National Unity (PNU), a coalition of smaller parties that supports his re-election. His main opponent, Raila Odinga, runs for election with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). At this time, opinion polls show support for Odinga at 17%, but by December 2007, he has 45% voter support as compared to Kibaki’s 43%.

27 December 2007 : National elections are held.

29 December 2007 : Vote tallies show Odinga in the lead, and the ODM party declares victory for Odinga. However, as more results are announced throughout the day, the gap between Kibaki and Odinga narrows. With almost 90% of the votes counted, Odinga’s lead shrinks to 38,000 votes.

30 December 2007 : The Electoral Commission announces Kibaki as the winner. Within minutes of the Commission’s declaration, Kibaki is sworn in in the night. Tribe-based rioting and violence—mostly directed at Kikuyus, Kibakis’s tribe—breaks out across Kenya. The government suspends live television coverage for several days.

1–5 January 2008 : The Electoral Commission chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, says that he had been pressured by the PNU and ODM leaders to announce results immediately, despite the urgings of foreign ambassadors to delay the results so that concerns about irregularities could be addressed. Widespread violence around the country continues. The attorney general calls for a recount and investigation into the election. Odinga asks for new elections. Kibaki dismisses the ongoing violence as a local problem that he will deal with amicably.

6 January 2008 : Upon Kibakis’ invitation, the African Union chairman John Kufuor arrives to help resolve the crisis. Kufuor meets separately with Kibaki and Odinga, whereby he suggests an interim coalition government and an inquiry into the Electoral Commission. Kibaki rejects this idea. However, Kibaki and Odinga ultimately agree to work with a panel of eminent African leaders—led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—to resolve their differences. Kufuor leaves.

15–21 January : Supporters of Odinga hold nationwide rallies and boycott companies controlled by Kibaki’s allies. Working under Kibaki’s government orders, police kill at least 22 people.

22 January 2008 : Kofi Annan arrives in Nairobi to hold peace talks with Odinga and Kibaki. Annan meets with Odinga and convinces him to call off the rallies.

23 January–4 February : As the peace talks mediated by Annan continue, tribal violence escalates. It is reported that over 1,300 people have been killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes.

28 February 2008 : A peace deal resolution is reached to end the crisis. Kibaki and Odinga agree to form a coalition government, with Odinga set to receive the new position of prime minister, in which capacity he is to “coordinate and supervise government affairs.” The peace deal also calls for an urgent revision of the constitution.

April 2008 : The government and opposition set up a cabinet. The National Accord and Reconciliation Act is implemented, making Odinga the first prime minister in Kenya since 1964.

November 2009 : A new draft of the constitution is presented to parliament. The new constitution is designed to limit the powers of the president and devolve power to the regions approved of in the referendum. After minor modifications, the National Assembly and parliament approve the draft. Odinga and Kibaki support the new constitution.

4 August 2010 : A nationwide constitutional referendum is held, asking Kenyans whether they support or oppose the proposed new constitution. 68.6% of voters vote in approval of the proposed constitution. 

27 August 2010 : The new constitution is formally promulgated by Kibaki.


election : zimbabwe 2008

illustration by iggdeh

by Yana Makuwa

The Zimbabwean elections in 2008 arrived during total economic disrepair and a peak moment of national frustration with the government, which had been controlled by Robert Mugabe and his party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since the country’s independence in 1980. This nominally socialist party that won the right to Black-majority rule decades prior was faced in the 2000’s with resistance to the violent strong-arm tactics Mugabe used to establish single party rule, conduct unsuccessful land reforms, and retain power. Electoral resistance to the regime had been raised before, with a contested election in 2002. At that time, however, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party remained in power with the support of the African Union (AU), despite condemnations of misconduct from international observers and the opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was founded in 1999 by members of Zimbabwe’s trade union alliances in opposition to a constitutional referendum giving powers to the government to conduct land reforms. The AU’s support in 2002 is one of several markers showing that at the start of the decade, despite corroborated reports of political violence and social upheaval, Mugabe’s hold on the presidency was strong enough that challenges to its legitimacy—however valid—could be easily put aside (especially by other national leaders whose power may have been more or less democratically established). However, by 2007, with the environment of corruption, the growing inflation escalating from 8,000% to 100,000% by early 2008, and unemployment reaching throughout the country, the citizens of Zimbabwe were increasingly desperate for a change in regime.

29 March 2008 : Zimbabwean voters came to the polls after several months of campaigning against Mugabe from both independent Simba Makoni, who broke from the ZANU-PF ranks to run against Mugabe, and long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC. Both Makoni and Tsvangirai ran largely on platforms of economic reform, speaking to the desperation of the people and a strong desire for change. Makoni stood in as a more middle-of-the-road option attempting to capture ZANU-PF loyals who nevertheless couldn’t deny the dire conditions, while Tsvangirai maintained a long history of challenge to the status quo. Initial assessments appeared to be favoring Tsvangirai, but official results were slow to come out, and would in fact be delayed for several weeks.

2 April 2008 : After official results were delayed, the opposition party, the MDC, announced their accounting of the elections with Tsvangirai as the clear winner with more than half of the votes, based on the parliamentary results, confirmed by the official Zimbabwe Electoral Commision (ZEC), which showed MDC winning 105 of the 207 seats, and the party’s own count of the still-delayed presidential votes. This announcement spurred celebration and enthusiasm among people who had felt held back by the regime for years. However, these outcomes were rejected outright by the incumbent party, with the government characterizing the MDC’s announcement as a coup that preempted the official announcement of the ZEC.

2 May 2008 : One full month later, with frustratingly minimal information on the count leading up to this point, the ZEC’s official results were announced. These results reported slightly under half the votes to Tsvangirai (47.9%) with Mugabe close behind. A small but significant percentage of votes to Makoni solidified his role as one of the critical figures in this election. Without his candidacy to split the votes, a majority would likely have been declared for either Mugabe or Tsvangirai. However, because neither of the frontrunning candidates received a full majority, a run-off election was called and scheduled for 27 June 2008.

9 June 2008 : Human Rights Watch issued a statement regarding the blatantly targeted political violence that began after the official election results were announced. Focusing on rural areas that the ZANU-PF party were surprised to have lost to the opposition, “war veterans,” officials and youths affiliated with the party, and the army together launched a campaign of beatings and killings, targeting not only individuals who may have voted for Tsvangirai but also threatening hospitals and medical workers attempting to treat the wounded, destroying property, and displacing thousands of people.

22 June 2008 : Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal from the election, due to the unchecked campaign of violence sponsored Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. In his letter to the electoral commission, he alluded to violence and suppression of his campaign prior to this election, and declared “The violence, intimidation, death, destruction of property is just too much for anyone to dream of a free and fair election let alone expect our people to be able to freely and independently express to free themselves. For this reason, my party and I have resolved that we cannot be part to this flawed process. For the avoidance of any doubt the presidential election question remains unresolved until such time a free and fair election is held.”

27 June 2008 : Elections were held despite Tsvangirai’s withdrawal and objections from independent observers and the international community. Mugabe won in a landslide, with roughly 85% of the votes.

After the election there was a period of negotiations attempting to establish a joint government between ZANU-PF and two factions of the MDC, which however largely amounted to stalled progress and failed attempts. Talks continued into the following year, with the uncertainty of control of power proving destabilizing for the nation and the region more generally. Eventually, buckling under local and international pressures, Tsvangirai agreed to join the new government as prime minister, with Mugabe remaining as president. The Zimbabwe Government of National Unity, as it was called, ultimately did very little to shift control of the country away from Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The joint government moved forward with virtually no acknowledgement of the violence that took place, with Human Rights Watch conducting a further report in 2011 on the impunity with which the government continued to treat its violence. The power that Mugabe was able to re-consolidate after the 2008 election continued to define the lives of Zimbabweans for years after, and the effects of his regime are being dealt with to this day.

election : austria 1986

illustration by iggdeh

by Lauren K. Wolfe

In June 1986, in a run-off election, former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria—amid accusations of war crimes. Waldheim’s campaign precipitated a long-delayed reckoning by the Austrian people with their role in the murder of millions during WWII. This is the story of the events leading up to that election.

1985 : Kurt Waldheim declares his intention to run for president of Austria, as a representative of the right-leaning Austrian People’s Party. In January of this year, his memoirs are published, in German and English translation. The book details his 40-year career in the diplomatic service since 1945, spent variously as Austrian Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador to Canada, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and two terms as UN General Secretary (1972–1981). The memoirs touch only briefly on his military service during WWII, stating that he was drafted into the Germany army in 1938 and served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and then dismissed from service in 1942. He alleges to have spent 1942 to 1945 studying law in Vienna.

3 March 1986 : Two months before the election, journalist Hubertus Czernin publishes an article, “Waldheim and the SA,” in the news magazine profil. In it, facts about Waldheim’s military service—elided or omitted from his autobiography—are disclosed : Waldheim had been a registered member of the Nazi Student League as of 1938, as well as a member of the mounted corps of the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization. In the days following, the international press picks up the story and the New York Times reports evidence that Waldheim had been attached as an intelligence officer to the German Army Group E operating in the Balkans between 1942 and 1945, during which period the brutal repression of partisan resistance and the mass deportation of Jews were both taking place. 

Waldheim’s response : 1. Denial : I was not a member of these organizations; someone else must have filled out this paperwork; I had no knowledge of any deportations or assassinations; I did my duty like thousands of others. 2. Accusation : This is a smear campaign coming from abroad. 3. Reverse Victim & Offender : “You tell me I’ve contributed to creating a lack of clarity? I cannot accept that. You are to blame for this situation,” he tells a television interviewer.

Austrian protestors popularize the slogan : “We don’t want a memory lapse for president!” 

24 March 1986 : The World Jewish Congress—an NGO with special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council—challenges Waldheim’s narrative, producing new evidence of his presence in the Balkans, including a photograph of him at an air field in Podgorica, capital city of present-day Montenegro, in May 1943, with SS Lieutenant General Artur Phleps, who was posthumously adjudicated a war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. The WJC alleges that, as an intelligence officer whose duty it was to sign off on staff reports submitted by SS units tasked with organizing deportations, Waldheim’s response is both incredible and disingenuous. Records are produced detailing numbers of Greek and Yugoslav partisans killed and bearing Waldheim’s signature; Waldheim is directly questioned regarding this evidence. 

His response : 1. A “both sides” argument : It was a brutal war; many were killed on both sides. 2. The “desk criminal” defense : I don’t deny that many were killed, but my activity was a normal part of bureaucratic operations and had nothing to do with atrocities. 

Protest becomes international : In the US, protestors call for the UN to make public its files on Waldheim. 

25 March 1986 : The WJC holds its annual conference in Vienna. Leaders of the Austrian People’s Party respond, expressing a barely veiled anti-Semitism in their allusions to “international interference” in sovereign matters. 

Background 1985 : As the Cold War is beginning to thaw, Ronald Reagan visits West Germany, where he requests, in the company of then-head of state Helmut Kohl, to see the graves of not only conscripted soldiers but also SS officers at Bitburg Cemetery. Meanwhile, Walter Reder—a war criminal who commanded the Marzabotto massacre  in which hundreds of Italian civilians were murdered in reprisal for partisan attacks—is released from Italian prison after 33 years; Reder’s repatriation had been advocated for by all prior Austrian heads of state, irrespective of political party.

On the left : The question arises as to who precisely is welcome in Austria.

3 April 1986 : A televised hearing is held, on the question of Waldheim’s relative complicity or innocence. The hearing and the surrounding activity are a matter of international interest. Protestors demand Waldheim’s withdrawal from the presidential race. The Austrian People’s Party openly mobilizes latent anti-Semitic sentiment among voters, under the declared pretense of fighting against it. Increasingly, the presidential election appears as a referendum on Austria’s capacity to reckon with its past. 

One month before the election : The US Congress begins investigation into Waldheim’s involvement in the war. Waldheim responds by doubling down on the “both sides” argument. Functionaries of the Austrian People’s Party disavow publicly the concept of “collective guilt” in an effort to parry the international movement to force a reckoning with Austrian involvement in Nazi atrocities. Photos of the deportations of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki, where Waldheim was stationed at the time, are discovered in the Balkans’ only war-era German-language newspaper and are widely republished; the WJC asks: Did Waldheim read his own reports? his own newspapers?

His response : A dog whistle : “A very small but very influential group, influential to the media” is responsible for this pressure to withdraw my candidacy. 

22 April 1986 : The US Congress holds a public inquiry into the WJC allegations that Waldheim covered up his past affiliation with the SA and may be responsible for war crimes. Congressman Tom Lantos, a Jewish emigré from Hungary, in questioning Waldheim’s son Gerhard, who represented his father at the televised hearing, alters the terms of the controversy from deception and credibility to facts and denial, stating that the deportation of Jews and the campaign against partisans were “the central fact of life in the Balkans. This was the pivotal development. This was the focus of activity.” 

In response : A flip of the script : It is strongly implied by representatives of the Austrian People’s Party after the congressional hearing that the WJC is engaged in a campaign of retaliation against Waldheim for his perceived anti-Israel policies as Secretary General of the UN. The word “scapegoat” is put into play. 

In fact : In 1975, the UN adopted resolution 3379 (XXX), which stated that—on the basis of prior resolutions affirming that doctrines of racial differentiation are “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous” and noting also that “the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin”—“zionism is a form of racial discrimination.”  

26 April 1986 : In a televised interview, Austrian journalist Hugo Portisch breaks down the international historical conditions that resulted in Austria’s peculiar internal postwar ambivalence, which lay at root of the scandal of Waldheim’s candidacy : The Allied Forces provided an out for those Austrians who were complicit in the atrocities of the Nazi regime, by facilitating the narrative that the Austrians were the “first victims” of the Nazis. This narrative itself had ambivalent motives. Indeed, Austrian citizens had first-hand experience of conscription, internment, political persecution, and material suffering. On the other hand, the sooner a state treaty was signed, establishing Austrian sovereign statehood, the sooner the Allied Forces could cease occupation. In the context of an emergent Cold War, the question became: What do you do with a Central European state that includes 550,000 registered Nazis? A state, moreover, that will be crucial in deciding the postwar balance of power in Central Europe, in the contest between Soviet and American influence? One answer : integrate them, enfranchise them. This meant that postwar Austrian political parties wound up vying for the votes of unregenerate Nazis, which had ideological as well as material effects—for instance on the failure of any resolution that might have provided reparations to Austrian Jews. Herein also resides the key to the cynical denial of “collective guilt” by Austrian People’s Party functionaries in the 1980s : The state of Austria is indeed innocent of atrocities for the reason that it did not exist at the time they were committed. Individuals alone must bear the guilt of their actions. And by this point, Austrians of the war generation had long been integrated, determined worthy of civil rights and protections. 

1 May 1986 : 600 intellectuals and public figures sign a petition calling for Waldheim to withdraw his candidacy. International opinion registers denial and refusal to accept responsibility as symptomatic of Austrian politics and Austrian culture. Protests continue. 

4 May 1986 : In a first round of voting, from a pool of four candidates, Waldheim receives the most votes but falls short of the requisite majority, with just 49.64%. 

Meanwhile : the US Congress conducts hearings on whether Waldheim should be put on the government watchlist; Waldheim supporters—civilians and party members—double down on the “both sides” / “all lives matter” narrative; and Czernin, whose earlier exposure of Waldheim’s military service record catalyzed the scandal, admits sardonically that Waldheim is “the perfect president for Austria—and that’s a shame.”

8 June 1986 : In the run-off election, Waldheim wins the presidency with 53.9% of the popular vote.


introducing the election : series

illustration by iggdeh

election : is a new series that will post weekly from election through the united states’ presidential inauguration. in it, we will be spotlighting notable past and present election scenarios from around the world. these descriptions are intended to contextualize election : united states 2020 and to unexceptionalize the state of democracy in the united states. each post will elaborate seeming irregularities and exceptionalities that can and do take place in and around democratic electoral procedures. against blind faith in the power of institutional procedure, the aim is to illustrate the opportunistic ways that ambivalences inherent in such systems are seized and exploited.



The Time of Now: An Interview with the Editors of the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism

In a chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, published over the summer, Turkish journalist and translator Ayşe Düzkan offers an anecdote: At a conference in Istanbul in 2014, she was tasked with providing a consecutive Turkish interpretation for one of the speakers, a British Marxian anthropologist. His comments centered on the Gezi Park uprisings that had captured the world’s attention just a year before. Though it was only his second visit to the city, he did not seem to recognize the irony in speaking to a Turkish audience, many of whom were directly involved in the protests, about an event in which he was not himself involved, and in a language they do not speak. Would a Turkish-speaking writer living in London be invited to comment on Occupy London, she wonders? That such a scenario seems unlikely is no coincidence. The absurd performance Düzkan observes illustrates how the politics of translation affect not only the distribution of linguistic access (so that desired information may be limited for speakers of a certain language), but also the distribution of intellectual authority (so that speakers of a certain language may be ‘taught’ their own history through an interpreter).

When it comes to translation and activism, it is this uneven distribution of authority that creates the uncomfortable fissure between theory – including the theory of translation – and practice, and it is this fissure that the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism (RHTA) delicately attempts to bridge. Several of its contributions examine the impacts of the translation of theoretical works on activist settings, and in the process, develop their own theories of translation: Michela Baldo examines the impact of the Italian translation of Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly for queer transfeminist groups in Italy, for example, while Manuel Yang considers the translation of Marx into Japanese, and its significance for the Japanese New Left movement of the mid-20th century. “When the original is an activist text, then its translation into another language, in another place and another time, has a birthright as an activist text as well,” write the editors, Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, in their introduction.

Others engage the practical concerns of translation from the activist’s perspective: Based on her own experience in community-led activism, Sahar Fathi exposes the need for language access programs that are a more current and accurate representation of the linguistic diversity of migrants in the United States. Focusing on the Irish context, Noelle Higgins defends the right not to have an interpreter in criminal court, arguing that low-quality interpretation is a threat to due process rights, and making the case, instead, for direct access to a bilingual judge and jury. As the editors point out, both advocate for the legal representation of minority languages, but different conclusions are drawn from the needs that arise in their different contexts.

Other chapters broaden our conception of what a text might be, literary or otherwise. Veruska Cantelli and Bhakti Shringarpure analyze the translations of recipes by women in the Gaza Strip, Sahrawi, Syrian, Somalian, and Eritrean refugee camps and detention centers. Eylaf Bader Eddin discusses the international media’s oversimplified translations of messages sprayed on the walls of Aleppo in 2016—when people were fleeing the city—as messages of hope. He outlines an activist role for the translator as “the corrector of the false representations of war who constantly—and often anonymously—retranslates.” 

Barricade’s Anneke Rautenbach sat down with editors Rebecca and Kayvan to discuss the genesis of this volume, how their concurrent paths in activism and translation led them to this point, and how activist translation operates in what Walter Benjamin calls Jetztzeit– the time of now. 

Read our review of the handbook here.

ANNEKE: I was struck by the use of the word ‘handbook’ in the title, which suggests something instructional and practical. When putting this together, how did you envision the relationship between theory and practice — between it being an academic volume and an activist’s handbook?

REBECCA: I have always thought of myself as a writer first, and a scholar second, even though most of my professional life has been spent within the academy. I think that the relationship between theory and practice is necessarily much closer for writers than for scholars. First, we need to be honest. We need to look at the material conditions through which this book is being disseminated. On the one hand, it costs a fortune, and not many individuals will be able to afford a copy (at least not of the hardback edition). Those with affiliations to universities that subscribe to the Taylor and Francis database can download the book for free. But its retail price means that academic libraries are really the main audience for this book at present. Viewed from the vantage point of these economic facts, the division between theory and practice is quite sharp, and RHTA is squarely on the side of theory and divorced from practice. Not many activists are going to have access to this text, it would appear.

However, I don’t think the analysis should stop here. The reality is that most books that exist as e-books, including very expensive ones like RHTA, do circulate widely, often outside official channels. They manage to reach people who otherwise would not be able to afford them, including students, especially those with internet access. In this sense, the digital medium is inherently more democratic than the print medium, simply by virtue of its reproducibility, as Walter Benjamin would say. Many of the volume contributors are sharing preprints of their chapters online, and we are also making some of the materials open access, both on the publisher page and the volume website. So, while I do think we need to reckon with the economic facts of book distribution as part of a broader critique of the unequal distribution of global capital, we should also recognize that readers around the world, including from lower income countries, are increasingly able to find ways to access the scholarship they need, particularly if they are young. In the spirit of Aaron Swartz, who has always been a personal hero of mine, I am committed to making sure that no one will be unable to read the book simply because they cannot afford to purchase it. So while I know that many will not be able to access the book through official channels, I also expect that most activists will find ways to access the book through unofficial channels.

KAYVAN: I think it is impossible to think of “translation and activism” without this duality between theory and practice, the academic and the non-academic, the office and the field. This collocation can also be regarded as a contradiction. Activism cannot be theorized in one way or another. It is after all a question of implementation. It was clear from the very beginning that the handbook would represent an assembly of translator-activists who gathered together to share their experiences: of using translation as tool for bringing social and political change, respecting diversity, struggling for equality and freedom. Both translation and activism are, in my view, performative, in the sense that neither of them can be detached from practice. A translation creates its own poetics just as an activist agenda develops its own approach to violence, inequality, oppression, and discrimination, according to circumstances.

We are faced with serious questions about the relation of academic research to activist intervention. One of these questions pertains to the possibility or impossibility of compromising between the two in a capitalist academy that seeks to extract a financial profit from scientific research. These questions cannot be answered a priori. It’s a matter of trial and error. And the exigency to act should not be eclipsed by hesitant considerations or theoretical caveats.

ANNEKE: You are both accomplished academics with backgrounds in comparative literature, literary theory, and translation theory and practice. What are your respective relationships and experiences with activism? Going into editing this volume, were you drawing on any personal experiences? 

REBECCA: My turn to scholarship began as a kind of activism. I was finishing my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley in 1999, during the most intense phase of the second Chechen war. I recall awakening to news of bombings and fresh atrocities in the region that I only knew from a distance, and not being able to understand what was going on. Like most majors in Russian and comparative literature, my education focused on a sharply delimited literary canon. When I finished my undergraduate thesis on Fyodor Dostoevsky, many unanswered questions were simmering in my head. I was acutely conscious of the disjuncture between scholarship about Russian literature (an enterprise I was gradually becoming a part of) and the pummelling of Grozny. I was frustrated that the tools I had been given as part of my education did not equip me to address the atrocities occurring in Chechnya. I could have become a political scientist, of course, and then have had an excuse to focus directly on the Chechen conflict as part of my profession. But it was literature that excited me, and which made me feel alive, and I found the armchair analysis of many so-called experts problematic. So, I left the academy (I dropped out of a PhD program in Russian literature at Columbia University), worked in publishing for a while, and then received a grant which enabled me to live in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I embarked on fieldwork in the North Caucasus that formed the basis of my first book, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Anticolonial Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016). Although that book is a work of scholarship, it was born from an activist impulse: to bear witness to the bombing that I observed firsthand, when I visited Grozny in 2004, and which had haunted me since.

When I returned to the US after living for two years in Tbilisi, I co-founded the Chechnya Advocacy Network, an organization that aims to help refugees and others affected by the Chechen conflict. I also translated human rights news relating to Chechnya on a pro bono basis during these years. While my activism on Chechnya was quite deliberate and carefully planned, I have also by a chain of somewhat unexpected circumstances (mainly living in Bethlehem during 2011-2, directly under the shadow of the wall constructed by Israel) become active on Palestinian issues. I am a member of BRICUP (the British Committee for Universities of Palestine).

KAYVAN: With me, activism is more a matter of generational political consciousness than a personal undertaking. This generational consciousness was formed alongside the experience of being born in a revolutionary Iran, enduring an eight-year long war as teenager, spending our twenties in the failed reformist movement, which culminated in the Green Movement of 2009, passing our lives in a state of emergency, within a politics of suspicion, in isolation and under sanctions, and seeing no bright prospect of the future in our forties.

When I was in my twenties, during the hopeful days of reformism (a period depicted in Farhadpour’s and Mehrgan’s chapters), translation was deemed a political act, due to its potential for reconstructing public discourse. Even the supposedly depoliticized post-structuralism functioned in Persian translation as a radical discourse that undermined more traditional epistemologies. A fever for translating and reading European critical theory led to a huge pile of translations, many of which were erratic, inconsistent, and unreadable. Underlying this interest in contemporary political and critical discourse was an acute anxiety of belatedness on a global scale. For example, the Iranian student movement was inspired by the events of May 1968 events in France. But the failure of the reformist project, both in a generational and in a historical sense, reflects, among other things, the contextual gap that separates Iran in the 2000s from Western Europe during the late 1960s. The European protester on the street, and the activist in the field, enjoys a degree of freedom of expression that is inconceivable in much of the Middle East. Learning from the experience of the oppressed does not necessarily mean imitating their models for resisting or overcoming their oppression. 

ANNEKE: You mention the Iranian theorist Morad Farhadpour as one of the first translation theorists who came to mind when the handbook was taking shape. Can you tell us about the inception of this volume, what inspired it, and whether there are other thinkers or activists, who, like Farhadpour, oriented you early on?

REBECCA: The simple biographical answer to this question is that I was invited to edit this volume for a series of handbooks conceived by the publisher. At the time, I was just beginning to work with Kayvan, whom I met during a trip to Isfahan. It was clear to me that he was the best co-editor imaginable, so I asked if he would be willing to join me. My early sense of myself as a writer and thinker has been shaped by Edward Said, James Baldwin, and Walter Benjamin. All of these, especially Walter Benjamin, influenced the shape of this volume. The contributions shaped and sometimes changed our editorial policy, but our first priority was to make sure to include non-academic activists alongside academics.

KAYVAN: I was thinking of the forerunners of Iranian modernity (tajaddod) as well as Farhadpour, whom we translated for this volume. The intellectual project of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in the early 1900s is inconceivable without the contribution of translator/reformists such as Mirzā Habib, ʿAbd-al-Rahim Tālebuf, Fath-ʿAli Akhundzāda, Aqa Khan Kermani. With their translations, these activists provided alternative models for social justice, freedom of expression, and constitutional monarchy. Another interesting (and earlier) instance of translational activism is the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, who sought a common language between Islam and Hinduism through his translation of Upanishads into Persian. I wish we could have included more chapters with a classical focus in order to demonstrate the historical continuity of activist translation.

ANNEKE: Were there contributions that presented particular challenges in the writing, editing or translation process? Looking back, which contributions stand out to you for any reason?

KAYVAN: Translating Farhadpour posed serious challenges. For an Iranian readership during the 2000s, the Persian text marked a decisive point in conceptualizing the relation of modern thought and translation. When I suggested that the article to be included in the handbook, I had little idea of the challenges ahead. The challenges stemmed from the context as much as the text itself. Our translation was finalized only after five rounds of revision. The most challenging aspect of the text was its elliptical nature. Aside from a faithful translation, preparing a readable text for the English reader required countless changes and omissions. The difficulty was especially rooted in the situatedness––to borrow Farhadpour’s term, used frequently in this chapter––of his work within the social, political, and historical conditions of Iran, which were unfamiliar to the English reader. Perhaps we could have explained everything in footnotes. We dismissed this possibility as it would have generated a frequently, and therefore unpleasantly, interrupted text. We had to respect a 9000-word limit set by the publisher as well. Also, in our abridgement of Farhadpour’s text, we had to adapt for a handbook on translation and activism, for which the article was not originally written. Neither Farhadpour nor we were entirely satisfied with the outcome. After producing a draft of an abridged translation, we sent the text to Farhadpour so that he could trans-create an English version. The resulting text was more than a translation in the narrow sense of the term. It became a new version in the process of its transposition into English. In the end, we decided, after getting permission from Farhadpour, to publish both versions—the full version on RHTA’s website, and the abridged version in the book.   

REBECCA: All the contributions are wonderful and instructive in their own different ways. The ones that have what might be called an orthogonal relationship to the academy, which call into question its boundaries and limits, played a particularly large role in defining the scope and mission of the volume. One particularly exciting aspect of the volume is that it provided an occasion for many of the contributors to work outside their comfort zones and to reflect on topics they had not written about before. For example, the Persianist Aria Fani wrote about his experience as a volunteer translator with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley for refugees seeking asylum, and he has suggested that this chapter marks a new stage in his effort to “highlight the connection between translation and activism.” By contrast with Fani, who addressed the legal issue of immigration from a humanities background, many of the legal scholars who contributed, such as Sahar Fathi, Noelle Higgins, and Miriam Bak McKenna, extended the disciplinary scope of their work to the humanities over the course of consecutive revisions of their chapters. Others moved outside their comfort zones in geographic terms, for example with Veruska Cantelli and Bhakti Shringarpure’s comparative account of “resistant recipes” in Gaza, Syria, and among the Sahrawi people. I was intrigued by just how many of the chapters ended up being co-authored, even though in some cases they did not start out that way.

ANNEKE: You write that for the contributors of this volume, the intersection of activism and translation is “unstable and subject to constant revision.” The picture of translation-activism that emerges is of an act that situates itself — implicitly or explicitly — in resistance to dominant forms of knowledge production, and this includes the Orientalist structures that still inform power dynamics within academic institutions, despite the best of intentions. Do you think that academic disciplines such as comparative literature have a responsibility to engage more urgently with the grounded realities of translation-activism? Do you see comparative literature departments rising to the task, or is it perhaps a missed opportunity? Or do you think translation-activism will always and inevitably remain outside of, if not suspicious of, academia, even as it is theorized by academics? 

KAYVAN: Although comparative literature is essentially involved with the question of the other, I think it reduces the other to an object of study. Otherness for comparative literature is a matter of analysis and less a matter of experience. It is part of a knowledge production process. Given the intertwinement of academic studies and capitalist funding, I think it is much healthier––at least until the relation of intellectual capital to material capital has changed––for translation-activism to be separated from academic theorization as much as possible. Because there is always the danger that the funder’s expectations will generate fake activisms, which become reductive “public engagement” advertisement campaigns and ineffective acts of charity. Sarah Irving’s and Malaka Shwaikh’s chapters offer excellent examples of why we should distinguish between Orientalist academic discourse and genuine activism.

REBECCA: Although literature has always been comparative, in institutional terms, comparative literature is a very young discipline, and I think it is far from achieving its potential. While, like Kayvan, I recognize the dangers of “fake activism,” I nonetheless favor a closer alignment between literary studies and activism. We should recognize the different spheres to which scholarship and activism pertain, but we should also aim for the broadest possible meanings of both literature and activism. Eylaf Bader Eddin’s chapter describes the verbal inscriptions on the walls of Aleppo during the Syrian war; such verbal fragments are also a literary form. So too are the testimonies examined by Brahim El Guabli, Amanda Hopkinson, Hazel Marsh, Bidisha Pal and Partha Bhattacharjee, and the autobiographical testimonies of Düzkan and Qasmiyeh. When we attain to a concept of comparative literature that incorporates these forms of expression within its understanding of literature, and which understands the study of literature as part of its production, then we will also have a robust concept of activism that can bridge divides between the academy and the outside world.

ANNEKE: Despite the fact that translation-activism by nature gives a fuller and more nuanced picture of the depth of injustices suffered worldwide, I found that the collection is nonetheless shot through with a hopeful note, one that resounds in your introductory chapter. You mention that the process of putting the book together was “an education in the art of thinking beyond the self.” I was wondering if you could say something about what it is about translation as a practice that offers hope in what has been a particularly dark moment worldwide.

REBECCA: For me, the most exciting part about this project was working with Kayvan as co-editor. Our work editing this volume coincided with our translating of two contemporary Persian poets, Bijan Elahi and Hasan Alizadeh, as well as a number of classical poets. We also authored several articles during this period. We were not just academics collaborating; we were also co-translators, whose language completed and changed each other. We have written about our collaborative process for the Australian magazine Overland. In working with Kayvan, both on our academic projects and as a co-translator, I discovered a new meaning in the word translation. I had never before translated in collaboration with someone else, and I came to see how radically the co-translation experience differs from translating alone. At the same time, no translation is ever done in isolation. There is always an interlocutor, be it the original author, the text, or language itself. This dialogic dimension to all translation accounts for its intrinsically activist dimension as well as for its capacity to perpetually generate hope.

KAYVAN: In the course of my co-translations with Rebecca, I was intrigued by the experience Rebecca described: letting your language be changed by that of the other. In co-translation, it is not the text that should make sense to you; rather, you should make sense to each other. And this is what makes the task an infinite conversation in which the interlocutors constantly throw light on each other’s insufficiency.

ANNEKE: Finally, it is worth mentioning that the volume has appeared in the midst of a global pandemic, perhaps further deepening the potential of the moment as Jetztzeit. In Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” Jetztzeit contains the possibility of revolution, in contrast with the ruling class’s “homogenous empty time.” Do you think that the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic and its particular range of challenges has offered new ways to think about translation as activism? 

KAYVAN: The pandemic has endangered, among all other things, the human community, in the sense of “togetherness.” Lockdown and its self-isolation have opened threatening horizons on our thoughts. I’m thinking about what I read in Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community: communism can be a flexible idea that motivates the rethinking of “community” and the forging of new forms of being together. I’m also thinking of Georges Bataille’s conception of a “community of those who have no community.” Due to this pandemic, communal activism—protest on street and collaboration in the field—has come into conflict with respect for the individual and public health. This situation makes it all the more exigent to think about activism amid the isolation that the pandemic imposes on our lives. Because poverty, injustice, discrimination, oppression, food insecurity, forced displacement, illiteracy, and political hypocrisy are as unhealthy for our world as COVID-19. Translation can contribute significantly to raising awareness, to forging solidarities among suffering publics and individuals across the world, in spite of the ever-intensifying politics of borders and walls.

REBECCA: Moments of crisis are important for bringing about change. It is interesting that the pandemic has overlapped so closely with the Black Lives Matter protests. It is as if the crisis of global public health—and its conformation of our collective mortality—has brought us to the precipice of acknowledging the enormity of race-based oppression and inequality. I think the main lesson of COVID-19—to the extent that there is any lesson—is the global interconnectedness of the world we inhabit. Now we know how easily mistreatment of wildlife in one country can cause deaths in another. And we know that there is no turning away from this global condition. We can go into indefinite lockdown, but we cannot make ourselves immune from what happens in a distant part of the world. We will flourish and perish together, as a species, whether we like it or not. As a structural principle of our volume, translation is the verbal expression of this interconnected global reality.



Review: The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism

The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism is a collection of thirty-one contributions, spread vastly across geographies and time periods, published in June of this year. The contributors address the theme of the handbook by deploying methods ranging from literary analysis, historiography, linguistics, and legal studies, and with styles ranging from the personal and essayistic to the rigorously academic. In the introduction the editors, Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, invite and guide readers through the staggering and eclectic contributions by focusing on the nuances of the term “activism,” while Paul Bandia’s afterword draws attention to the fact that “the postcolonial condition is highly conducive to situations of activism,” and the undercurrents through the book that address regions and peoples under conditions of subalternity, (post)coloniality, and globalization. In addition to these two broad theoretical umbrellas, the contributors also share influences by a handful of key thinkers who are cited often throughout the individual pieces, most notably Mona Baker, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as Maria Tymoczko and Lawrence Venuti.

Read in its entirety, the volume poses suggestive questions about the extent of activism, and Gould and Tahmasebian emphasize at the outset the expansive understanding they have adopted when it comes to identifying what they call “translational activism.” The editors see potential in this expansiveness, noting that “The importance of the agency/activism distinction lies in its positing the infinite potentiality of translator’s agency, that in turn extends our conception of activism beyond liberal notions of agency.” This breadth is undeniable when considering the activists whose lives are front and center in most of the essays, from the precolonial African interpreters called okyeame to Ayşe Düzkan, a contemporary Turkish translator and activist. These translators, both as contributors and central figures, bring to the collection a deeply personal, familiar, and embodied quality, because it is the facts of their lives on which even the most theoretical of these texts is founded. This openness in the editors’ definition also raises questions of how active the agency of a translator or translation must be before it can be considered activist. Arriving at an answer is left to the readers, who can make their own connections and linkages between the impacts of 20th century activists Antonio Gramsci and Lu Xun, contemporary Bengali Dalit autobiographers, and contributors to refugee cookbooks.

The attention paid to individual activist figures in this book is not, as it might have been, at the expense of offering several productive interventions in translation theory. All of the essays elaborate existing theories in the contexts of their particular subjects, and some reach for new terminology—as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh do with the phrase “travelling lexicon,” which describes language used around to discuss the Sahrawi political situation. However, due to the brevity of some of the contributions and the largeness of their subjects, some of these theoretical interventions seem more like sketches awaiting further development. One such is Hafida Mourad’s discussion of Paul Bowles’ travels and translations as acts of marronage, which in the last few pages draws a quick link between the West Indian former slaves’ departures and escapes into the mountains, and “Bowles’ choice of representing and translating exclusively the marginalized, the poor, … the exotic ‘other’ as resistance and defiance of the confining norms and boundaries of society.” The potential of considering the mobile and resistant aspects of the flight of marronage in the context of translation seems highly productive, and is one of many sites for further development offered in the pages of this handbook.

Finally, a note on the timeliness of the volume’s publication. With the current rise of movements of resistance and abolition, as well as the challenges of living, relating, and organizing under the conditions of a global pandemic, rethinking modes of activism on a transnational scale could not be more relevant. It is encouraging and inspiring to see that activists have for centuries grappled with ways to challenge the status quo in language and across borders, and are continuing to do so in the highly charged present.

Janus-Faced Modernism: The Body (Politic) in Red Viennese Life & Culture

The year 2019 marked the centennial anniversary of the beginning of a period in Vienna’s municipal history commonly referred to as “Red Vienna.” During this brief period, from 1919 to 1934, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party dominated both the political and the cultural scene. Its initiatives—in housing, education, health and welfare, leisure and culture—laid the groundwork for an equitably and justly organized modern urban metropolis. That lasting groundwork is in part why the city of Vienna is today consistently ranked one of the “most livable” cities in the world.

But the story of Red Vienna’s emergence, its claims, successes, failures, and above all its relevance for the present is certainly neither fixed nor uncontested. The following conversation—occasioned by the publication of a new book on Viennese modernism and newly published translations about Red Vienna in Barricade’s latest issue—ended up circling and kept resituating, from multiple angles, by way of various objects, what amounts to a fundamental, albeit generative ambivalence at the heart of this peculiar modernist project.

I’d like to thank Alys X. George and Elizabeth Benninger—the hawk-eyed, bright-minded editors of my translations—for sitting down to this conversation with me, for shining their extraordinary lights on issues ranging from the administration of health and disease, to the role of the body in shaping culture, to the management of crisis, identity, and difference.

Lauren K. Wolfe, July 2020


ALYS X. GEORGE is assistant professor of German and affiliate faculty of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University.

ELIZABETH BENNINGER lives and works in New York. She is a founding editorial collective member of Barricade.

LAUREN K. WOLFE is a Brooklyn-based translator and educator. She is a founding editorial collective member of Barricade.

The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

* * * * *

LAUREN: Alys, you’ve recently published a compelling new book with the University of Chicago Press, called The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body. In it, you have revised the oft-told story of Viennese modernism—a largely bourgeois story in which the psyche plays a leading role: It’s a story of the development of psychoanalysis in the sciences and the various abstract crises—of language, of identity—that drove cultural production toward a certain aestheticism. But in your revisionist interdisciplinary history—in which you look at public exhibitions, at dance and body culture, at new media, at feuilleton journalism, at pedagogical practices—you shift the emphasis away from the psychological to focus on the central role the body has played—the physiological, expressive, or, in your words, “somatic” and “semiotic” body—in shaping cultural and social life in Vienna around the turn of the last century through the 1930s. Your work—after tracing many paths through the fairgrounds, medical clinics, and advertising pages—ultimately deposits this new body inside the progressive, worker-oriented, social-democratic municipal institutions of so-called “Red Vienna,” where your particular story of Viennese modernism ends. And ends, of course, rather fatally or dramatically in a sudden reversal, with the seizure of municipal and federal power by a clerico-corporatist, authoritarian state, commonly termed “Austrofascism.” One of the things I so admire about your book, though, is that it very carefully, but fundamentally refuses exactly the trajectory that I have just clumsily laid out: a story that plunges from utopia to dictatorship, from emancipatory socialism to repressive fascism, as if this were a simple reversal, a story of action and reaction. Instead, you understand the modernist utopian project as already carrying its Janus-faced other inside itself as potential, which you convincingly demonstrate, not least by tracing all the way back to mid-nineteenth century debates and practices the backstory of the modernist body—the body on display, the body in motion, on stage, on camera, the body in pieces, as pedagogical instrument, in operating and delivery rooms—in this way shifting a certain weight from the foot that wants to understand modernism as a radical break from tradition. But your book does something very crucial that other dialectic-of-enlightenment narratives don’t: You have placed the working-class body at the center of your story, alongside the bodies of our familiar “others”: the Jewish body, the female body, with special focus on the pregnant bodies of working-class women. I’m wondering if you could explain your decision to start with these bodies in particular: Why these bodies? What about them inspired you to trace this comprehensive counter-narrative? And to what unexpected places and conclusions did they lead you?

ALYS: I want to thank you for this really generous introduction to my work and for the invitation to talk with you both today.

I think to start with the question “Why these bodies in particular?” might be overlooking the more fundamental question I found myself asking when I began studying this time period, the time around 1900 and into the interwar years. For me, the initial question was not “why these bodies” but “where is the body” at all in an historiographic narrative that’s dominated so strongly by the psyche. We know the story about how Freudian psychoanalysis profoundly influenced the development of culture around 1900 and after, and this is the narrative that’s long been associated with Viennese modernism. But as I was looking at primary sources across disciplines and media, it struck me how many bodies I was seeing. And the more I looked beyond bourgeois high culture to various forms of popular culture, I started thinking, yes, there is this clearly relevant and legitimate narrative of the psyche, but there was also a deep-rooted fascination with the body that housed the psyche, and that fascination pre-dated the emergence of psychoanalysis. So the question I asked myself, initially, even before I got to the question you asked—which bodies?, because there’s obviously not one singular body––was: Where is the body at all in this narrative of homo psychologicus?

Also, what kinds of “culture” are we looking at? Because it’s not just canonized forms of cultural production––portraiture, novels, plays––created by canonical figures who are all well-known. There were so many disparate forms of cultural production that don’t even get considered in the hegemonic historiography of this time period. A lot of it is severely under-researched, and a lot of the figures have disappeared into the annals of history, never to be recovered for the most part. There was just no systematic overview of this time period that took account of this production and that sought to really shift the frame. And that’s what my project strove to do.

You also mention this question of breaks, crises, ruptures, in historical terms, Lauren. We like to think in neatly delimited time periods, right? In the case of Vienna, the period from 1890 to 1910 is classically defined as Viennese modernism. World War I ostensibly puts an end to all that, and something new begins in 1918/1919 with Red Vienna, which then comes to an abrupt end in 1934 with the rise of “Austrofascism.” I see the necessity in historiography of defining history in these small packets. However, I think that narrowing in this way, to a series of soundbites, really does a disservice if you’re looking at the long arc of history, which is one of the things that I aimed to do. And something I noticed in my initial research was that there was a lot more continuity here than just the well-worn story about fracture and crisis. Which is why I took a long view from, let’s say, 1870 at the outset through 1938. This allows us to discern what happens with specific discourses: how they emerge, evolve, and can be easily co-opted to different ends. It’s up to us to interpret them contextually and see their pre-histories, their afterlives.

LAUREN: It’s super interesting that, in counterpoint to the tendency to periodize that you’re describing, especially around modernism, when rupture and crisis are such themes, and “movements” in art especially tend to just accelerate, one after another after another, etc., it’s interesting that the body is the thing that provides this element of continuity. And how you make this corporeal element the counterweight to a narrative of breaking and rupture. For instance, you’ve traced from the 1870s through the 1930s the public habits or practices of gazing at and exhibiting the body. You find “exotic” bodies brought to Vienna from elsewhere, for the edification and entertainment of the Viennese public, but then later, in the interwar years, in Red Vienna, the gaze shifts and it’s the Viennese public’s own body that becomes the object, in the context of a new consciousness about hygiene practices and sanitation.

And so it’s interesting that the body allows you a measure of historical or temporal continuity. And then, at the same time, it allows you to cross disciplines and examine such a wide array of material culture and intellectual constructs.

ALYS: Yeah, there’s something key in this, in the public display of the body or the study of the body. The story kind of starts for me, like you said, in the mid-1800s, but these human displays really hit a high point in the two decades around 1900, with people being brought to Europe from overseas and put on display for profit, though this was by no means a uniquely Viennese phenomenon. There’s plenty of research on this, on how these exhibitions are implicated in, are used to define what it means to be European—right at the same time that sciences like anthropology and ethnography are emerging as disciplines in their own right and sort of feeding off of these displays, using as their material objects precisely those bodies which are staged in a popular cultural arena. So you get this really fascinating and disturbing intersection between popular culture and hard science, where the two domains feed off of one another and the object of study is the body of the other.

And if you trace that line, of the public staging of bodies, what the “other” is does change over the course of the first few decades of the twentieth century. As you know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ends with the end of World War I, and we have, for the first time, an Austria. It’s a rump-state republic that’s lost its imperial identity. At the same time, you have all of these antecedent medical and hygiene initiatives, which you can trace back to the late eighteenth century. Then interwar Red Vienna biopolitically codifies public health and hygiene directed at improving particularly working-class people’s lives, and governmentally assumes the utopian mantle of bettering, optimizing both the body and its living conditions.

And that’s where it intersects with looking—only now it’s looking inside one’s own community. Now, the object of study is not so much people from other places, it becomes people from other classes. So the working classes, for example, come more sharply into view and are the object of study for many of the foundational initiatives that have come to underwrite what we identify with interwar social democracy in Austria.

LAUREN: That’s really fascinating, also because I think that the narrative that you’re writing against, this retreat into the “garden of aestheticism,” the classic Carl Schorske—when was that written?

ALYS: It was based on a series of essays published in the 1960s. When it was published as a book, in expanded form, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

LAUREN: Ah, so a while ago.

ALYS: It’s been a while, yeah.

LAUREN: So there’s really a stark contrast between that now classic or canonical take on Viennese modernism, as a kind of retreat into a sort of untouchable, apolitical space of the interior, and the story that you’re telling, which is almost exactly the opposite. And I think that’s what’s so compelling, too: that there is a certain kind of turning inward in this history of the body, but it’s a directing of the gaze from the bodies of the other to the bodies of one’s own community. And interestingly, this inward turning actually leads back out into an explicitly political project.

ALYS: Right, it’s deeply political. In fact, I would argue that bodies are never not political. And that’s where this discussion comes together with your great translation of the really important introduction and round table discussion from the exhibition catalog to the Red Vienna exhibition that just ended a few months ago in Vienna.

I love how the curators describe it in their introduction: Red Vienna is this “space of possibility,” where, in some sense, the central question is: How should one live? How do we construct our lives? And that’s actually a project of engagement with all kinds of lifeworlds that are not encompassed by the old Schorskean narrative of an ahistorical retreat into the “garden of aestheticism,” which had resulted from a deep disappointment in liberal politics. Yes, aestheticism, decadence may have been the dominant strand of high literary production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was not reflective of many people’s actual lifeworlds. And I think that’s what brought me back to the body. It’s that the mind is ultimately always embodied, and so we can look at the body as a site of lived experience, a site of knowledge production, the body as actual material, but also as a trope and metaphor in culture.

My approach comes from cultural history, from cultural studies, where we consider not only high culture, but where we also study people’s rituals and practices, where we study popular culture. It’s a more encompassing, fuller view, and it allows us to sort of break out of some of these really entrenched narratives that center on a kind of cultural production that in reality is relatively divorced from most people’s lived experiences. The high-mindedness of homo psychologicus doesn’t account for most people’s lifeworlds. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to bring it back to the body in which that mind lives.

LAUREN: This comes across so clearly in your book—so many lifeworlds, so many different bodies attached to these, a much more pluralized view of the people who were actually participating.

ALYS: In this moment, in particular, the lifeworlds of women. The story of first-wave feminism intersects in really interesting ways with the emergence of social democracy as a political movement, too. It’s the marginalized voices that are really raising themselves up to be heard, and, in essence, they want to be at least considered as part of this project. This starts to get realized more fully in Red Vienna.

LAUREN: Could be I’m belaboring the high-low divide a bit, but I like to think about the avant-garde as a kind of outgrowth or excrescence of the dominant class—in the case of modernism, the primarily male bourgeoisie. Accordingly, a cultural history focused on the avant-garde would be in a kind of feedback loop with the concerns of the dominant class. I’m interested in how your research, how following these working-class and women’s bodies, led you outside of avant-garde cultural production, into the newspapers, to the fairgrounds, how you end up exploring places where the avant-garde is not necessarily hanging out, or not exclusively.

ALYS: I would say that the avant-garde is also going to the movies, is also going to the fairgrounds. I mean, these are the “democratic” sites of more popular culture, to which, in theory, everybody has access, and these more democratic spaces have always interested me because there’s serious cultural production happening there as well. Fairgrounds, for example, figure centrally in the works of modernist writers whose names one would recognize, like, for example, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Felix Salten. And film is huge for Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Robert Musil, all of the major Viennese modernists. They themselves were consumers of popular culture, and they were also producing high culture that, at minimum, reflected on these popular cultural forms—pantomime would be a great example of that. So many famous Viennese writers dabbled in writing pantomimes. And staged them at the fairgrounds in some cases, too.

Even beyond reflecting on the question of who counts as the avant-garde, who is producing and who is consuming what type of culture, we have to also look at the spaces where culture is disseminated and consumed. How open are they? I can’t imagine too many working-class people went to the Imperial Theater, for example, to see Schnitzler’s latest play. But, in the interwar years especially, there were different types of theater and performance initiatives precisely for the working classes, where they created their own culture and staged it for themselves, but where the cultural avant-garde was also really involved in the programming and conceptualization. There was an attempt to precisely break down the barriers to access to culture and knowledge. It’s the question of accessibility both to consumption of culture and knowledge, but also to its means of production that has never stopped fascinating me.

LAUREN: Part of the project of Red Vienna was an effort to create subjects out of the mass administrative object that the working class had been under imperial management, to create a working-class culture, comprised of self-determining, working-class political subjects. I wonder if this is an element of what you’re describing.

ALYS: Yes. It has to do with the cultivation of a thinking subject and, in precise terms, it’s the cultivation of a thinking political subject that has agency. But it’s a double-edged sword, because this kind of cultivation, while utopian in conception, operates on a kind of paternalism. So we have to make sure to not lose sight of what that actually meant for people’s lived experiences. While the municipal government in Red Vienna may have provided the tools, largely through access to knowledge, for people to become politically engaged subjects, they were still very highly administered by the state, and that administration really reached into every aspect of their lifeworlds. I mean, this is not just housing and nutrition, not just education, but gender relations, leisure and culture, sexuality and public health––basically every aspect of life. That administration served two purposes: one, more broadly, to improve people’s lives and encourage self-determination, and the other to create enlightened political subjects, which essentially aimed to create a base of voters who would then, because their lifeworlds had been so dramatically improved, ideally go to the ballot box and vote Social Democrat.

If we take voting rights as an example: In 1918, half the population—namely, women—were enfranchised. The vote, in practice, becomes more representative, but women’s electoral behavior was also tracked in the decade between 1920 and 1930 through the use of differently colored ballot envelopes. So here we see the dual aims of self-determination and equal rights, but still with a really clear, politically pragmatic, administrative-disciplinary bent.

LAUREN: I see a lot of parallels to the present, when looking at the problems facing the municipal government of Red Vienna—not least among them disease, infection, outbreak. A huge percentage of the urban population was mal- or undernourished, homeless, suffering from tuberculosis after the war. Could you say more about this pragmatic utopianism, specifically in regard to the ways that Red Vienna’s administration addressed the fears and the real material concerns brought about by food scarcity, housing insecurity, above all an epidemic? Is there anything here that might be informative for the present?

ALYS: That’s a really good question. It makes me think of the networks that existed, networks of knowledge in public health, medicine, epidemiology, and politics in Vienna. There was very clear precedence given to expertise in these areas. The famous anatomist, Julius Tandler, who was basically the architect of Red Vienna’s public health and hygiene initiatives and the head of the municipal welfare office from 1920 on, was kind of the Anthony Fauci of his day. He had a very long history of giving public lectures, since the late 1890s, for women and the working classes, open university–type courses, adult education, advocating that you need to know your body in order to know yourself. In this way—the role medical experts were given, how much weight their voices had, how much leverage they were given to create policy in really practical terms—Red Vienna could be a model for the present.

The focus on reducing infant mortality was also an issue that might be informative for our state of affairs. The US currently has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world. In the late 1800s, Austria had the highest infant mortality rate in western Europe. Tandler really made mothers and mothers-to-be the center of his policy-making, giving priority to investment in improved access to health care, improved home environments––practical, material support. He advocated an early-intervention approach, and by “early” he meant even before conception. He recognized the socioeconomic factors that lead to poor birth outcomes and implemented concrete municipal support programs to counteract some of the more tenacious issues of access to information, education, care, etc. The result was that the infant mortality rate declined by half under his watch.

All of this was happening immediately in the wake of World War I, which resulted, among other things, in huge disease outbreaks in 1918/1919 and repeatedly in the 1920s. The number of total deaths that could be attributed to tuberculosis was something like twenty-five percent. And tuberculosis is a disease much like the coronavirus, which, though caused by bacteria, is highly infectious and attacks the lungs. Its spread is fostered by urban overcrowding and poor housing conditions. So of course it affects higher percentages of working-class people. Tandler and other officials in Red Vienna knew that they couldn’t fight disease, for example, or infant mortality, without also holistically addressing housing conditions, access to healthcare and health information, benefits for mothers, etc. I think it’s the holistic view alongside the valuation of expertise that could be real models for the United States.

An important aspect of these networks of knowledge is that the cultural elite were not siloed off from, let’s say in this case, medical experts and politicians, but instead worked together. Maybe it’s by virtue of Vienna’s size, as a somewhat smaller city, and certainly its strong tradition of medical knowledge and expertise. People were very deeply invested in bringing knowledge to the people, and I think there was a kind of mutual influence.

Let me give you a concrete example. Take modern dance, and how that evolved away from ballet in the early twentieth century. You have this idea of a more natural body, free dance, expressive dance, and many of the most famous modern dancers opened schools of their own starting in the early 1920s. Social Democrats—the party, the arts and cultural bureau—saw an opportunity here, because they thought, biopolitically speaking, if people are healthy, then they’re going to be able to lead better lives. So dance is one way that we can encourage healthy living and physical fitness. A key aspect here is how individuals could improve their physical health, not just through workers’ sport initiatives, which were also important, but through high culture, through dance. And these dancers were partnering with the ruling political party to offer free modern dance classes to the public, classes that took the workers’ lives into account, offering classes that fit with their work schedules.

Another example might be exhibition culture, like the series of hygiene exhibitions that were really popular in the German-speaking world, starting in the early 1900s and held with increasing frequency throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These were exhibitions anyone could attend (again addressing the question of accessibility), held in public spaces, with minimal or no entry fees, with convenient and extended opening hours. The experts who designed these exhibits—sociologists, physicians, politicians, designers––were thinking in very smart ways about how information can be communicated, how to make it understandable without watering down the serious scientific content. Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister (later Neurath) developed the “Vienna method,” later called Isotype, using numbers, symbols, and images instead of words to communicate statistics in a way that’s visually very impactful, easy to understand, even with limited literacy, but no less coherent and specific.

LAUREN: It’s just such a shocking contrast, that you can have these really strikingly similar moments of affliction—similar in scope and intensity, separated by one hundred years almost exactly—and then such fundamentally different worldviews that reside at the base of the approaches taken to crisis management, health crisis management, in each moment. In the United States, in the present, you find sheer disregard for health and well-being, willful ignorance and the spread of misinformation for politically spurious ends. Meanwhile, one hundred years ago, you have a similar measure of real, widespread misery and what you find underwriting the management of that crisis is the good a person is assumed to be, the good a person is assumed capable of doing. That’s the starting point. The contrast with the present, in the United States, couldn’t be more discouraging. 

ALYS: Yes, absolutely. And this question of expertise plays a big role, it’s a really clear contrast between what’s going on now in the US and what was going on one hundred years ago in Vienna. There, the experts really were the center of policy-making, specifically for health, hygiene, and welfare. Currently in the United States, we see the government either appointing inexperienced or unqualified people to major policy-making positions and/or trying to undercut the legitimacy of its own appointed experts in these fields. Instead of making the experts the center, their scientific knowledge is being undermined, and that’s exactly the opposite of what was going on in Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s.

ELIZABETH: I’d like to pick up on this question—of the specificity of the pandemic, of interwar Vienna and the present—and zoom out a little, to think more broadly about “crisis” and “crisis management.” In the roundtable discussion that Lauren translated, the question comes up regarding to what extent Red Vienna can be understood as a product of crisis management, as a reaction to current events and circumstances, and to what extent that view is limiting. And hearkening back to something we were discussing earlier, modernism is often understood as, at least in part, a response to a series of world-historical “crises”—political, epistemological, philosophical, aesthetic—albeit of a less immediate and definable nature. I’m wondering if there’s some productive way to think about the coexistence, and possible intersections, of these two senses of “crisis” in Red Vienna?

ALYS: What comes to mind for me, first off, when listening to your question about crisis and crisis management, Elizabeth, is how, around the turn of the century and certainly during World War I, there’s this perception that the world order is somehow shifting in a way that feels very uncontrollable and threatening. And I think what the Social Democrats do in a really productive way is to imbue that moment of crisis with a sense of potential. It’s not just a sort of navel-gazing, grievance-laden look back at all of the things that we’ve lost. It’s a forward-oriented view, asking: How can we actually actively create the type of society that we would like to live in and be a part of? And so there’s a kind of inflection point, and that might be represented by the war. But actually, I think it’s a generational imperative, too, and that, for many younger people who didn’t fight in the war or consciously experience the high times of imperialism and colonialism, there’s a lot less mourning what came before. So maybe there was also a sense of destruction as a starting point rather than an end point.

LAUREN: That’s super interesting, bringing in the question of generations. There is a generational conflict in interwar Vienna. And, in spite of the social democratic rule, there is still class conflict. And conflict within the party, which is expressed generationally and also on the issue of what are acceptable trade-offs, with for instance bourgeois interests. These things become smoothed over with historical distance, what was rough or gnarly and more complicated in the moment. It strikes me that maybe it’s also at this point of generational difference or conflict that the strands Elizabeth is referring to are actually coming together, where the psychological-aesthetic-epistemological and the embodied-practical-political are coming together. One of the participants in the roundtable from the exhibition catalog brings up certain forms of ritualized public gatherings, as an example of, in his view, a persistent anachronism, that separated, if not generations from one another, then certainly the more progressive from the less progressive wings of the party. He describes these older forms that just didn’t connect anymore with the younger generation, who may have only come of age during Red Vienna. And some of this younger generation, especially in the left wing of the party, were taking part in political cabaret, which had a strongly communist bent, rather than in the consecration or mystery plays that the party otherwise put on, which were themselves much older forms adapted to the reformist values of social democracy.

ALYS: Those “anachronisms” can be so revealing, though. It’s a question of creating the broadest possible reach for one’s messaging, and mass performances would be what comes to mind here. Political cabaret is fantastic, and deeply necessary, but it won’t typically have such wide reach. So old forms are given new shape. Austria is a very Catholic country, still today. And this was a rather conservative Catholicism that was exercised, not just in politics, but also performatively, in ritual practice. How the medieval tradition of Catholic mystery plays comes to be a cornerstone of high-cultural and political performance in the 1920s is really interesting. If you look at the Salzburg Festival—first held in 1920—they used all kinds of mass performance elements that harkened back to these really deep Catholic roots, but at the same time, they gave them a new-old setting––a public space outside of the confines of the theater, but a cathedral square. And then you have the Social Democrats in Vienna using similar means—taking performance outside of the theater, the mass movement of bodies, the communalism and striving toward a higher ideological purpose––in publicly staged performances in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I’m interested in the reach here—they’re drawing on older traditions and practices and rituals, but also in some sense experimenting with how they can make those rituals, traditions, practices relevant for the present moment. So they’re familiar, yet also imbued with political purpose. It’s adapting old means to new ends. And it’s interesting that, as soon as the so-called Austrofascist government takes power in 1934, these same types of mass performances are seen in copycat form. They become, of course, not much later an integral part of National Socialist political culture as well. By tracing certain practices, and seeing how they are altered or amended, are used and deployed in various contexts—it becomes clear that the practices don’t disappear, the rituals don’t disappear, the individual forms of cultural production don’t disappear, but they are changed to suit the ideological purpose. Considering these developmental arcs is really interesting. Taking the long view, rather than seeing things in clearly delimited time frames defined by significant world-historical or political events.

LAUREN: And there’s a dark side to this sort of story, too, which you gesture toward at the end of your book, Alys: the quick appropriability of practices and discourses both. In Red Vienna, the body becomes highly visible, a descriptive inventory is made of it, and this is done with an eye toward a certain kind of emancipation, with an eye toward producing self-determining political subjects. But a tension is implicit here, between knowledge, self-knowledge, and discipline, which is enacted on bodies by the state.

ALYS: A specific biopolitical example strikes me as important in this context, and that would be eugenics. This is clearly part of the history of the body and the history of science and medicine, with roots in the previous century. Julius Tandler, whom I mentioned before, this really enlightened sort of health hero of Red Vienna, was also a proponent, like many other doctors of his day, of eugenics. His kind of “positive” eugenics had nothing to do with forced sterilization or other “racial hygiene” measures that would later be implemented by the Nazis. The idea instead was to improve the social body as a whole by cultivating the healthiest possible individuals within that whole. Tandler’s form of eugenics, all of it voluntary, might be called humanist: It used education, marital advising, and reproductive counseling to try to positively influence the health of the population. Which is not to say that many of his statements would not be considered controversial by today’s standards. It just goes to show how eugenics is a kind of body-oriented, scientifically based policy that can easily be appropriated to a variety of political, ideological ends, not least, in the end, Nazism and genocide. Today, looking back, we cannot help but have that association, but in the first decades of the 1900s, there really was a notion of “positive” eugenics, untainted by what would come just a few years later.

ELIZABETH: I’m thinking of something you mention, Alys, in the introduction to your book: You refer to Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary study of the body in pain, in order to point to the kind of prominence that bodies achieve at moments of philosophical, ideological, cultural, political, and practical change and upheaval. You write that the appeal to the body, its “sheer material factualness,” lends a much-desired “realness” or “certainty” to lifeworlds in uncertain times. The premise is that, in face of whatever crisis, the body, in all its complexity, is after all a kind of material reference that one can always refer back to. But then again, at the same time, in its manifest potential for difference, it is also a producer of perceived “crisis.” So it has this inherent ambivalence: We can have a body, we can touch it, we can study it, we can cut it open, we can measure it, we can make all these records of it, but it is nevertheless forever producing difference. And eugenics emerges as a kind of “crisis management,” as a management of difference—many kinds of difference.

ALYS: That’s such an important summary, Elizabeth. What you say about the body being a material fact, one which we constantly try to know, understand, improve, but also a persistent producer of and marker of difference, which we need to somehow manage, control, discipline: that gets right at the heart of what many of these examples point to.

ELIZABETH: Right, and with eugenics we see difference taken as a threat, broadly speaking, and that leads to a certain kind of management of difference. But during the same time period, we also see other sorts of gestures, in political and cultural practices and in cultural production, where there are other approaches to an understanding and appreciation, if not “management” per se, of difference. How might we frame this particular confluence of aesthetic and political cultural forces in Red Vienna, in its treatment and management of bodies?

ALYS: I have a gut-reaction kind of answer to this, something that in my mind that sets this type of municipal project apart from other national contexts. The word that comes to mind for me is care. Comprehensive care and enlightened humanism as ethical imperatives, as a political basis. Even if we account for the Janus-faced aspects of how that care became manifest administratively, the systematic application of care as the cornerstone of all of these initiatives is really impressive.

LAUREN: Do you mean to say that somehow the body comes to the fore in Red Vienna, beyond physiological typologies, beyond the kind of epistemological projects that display and measure and categorize it, that the body enters public space also as an imperative, as a thing from which action rather than knowledge must follow? Is that what you mean by care?

ALYS: Absolutely, and it builds in some sense on what Elizabeth was saying. Your question really crystallizes down precisely what the two-sidedness of this is: On the one hand, the body as a basis for knowledge and, on the other hand, a generator of action. And I think that’s precisely the Janus-faced character of what we’ve been discussing. The body is the source of the knowledge, in that it is an object of study, but it also has this liberating potential in that, through care and cultivation, it can potentially become the agent of action and of change. It’s subject/object, it’s also knowledge/action. It’s the hinge in a way between these dualities.

ELIZABETH: I think this also plays into the question of productive identification or recognition and how this is to be fostered; how one comes to recognize the shared humanity, or to identify with, the “other”—not in the way we see problematic (mis)identification occasioned by the nineteenth-century human exhibitions that we were discussing earlier, but in a way which is more equitable, which involves more will to mutuality and understanding than fantasy and projection. And this idea of care that you bring up makes a lot of sense, in terms of the care and cultivation of an individual, and also in relation to a politics of scale. It makes sense that an ethics and politics of care could be best enacted in a municipal framework; and of course the argument is commonly made that, in general, urban centers are always more social democratic–leaning because you see or perceive yourself as more involved in a community with others. So it’s not just the care of your individual body and the cultivation of it, but that this is tied up inherently with everybody else’s care and health, their bodies are intimately linked with yours.

ALYS: Exactly. It’s a communal, holistic mindset for political––and social––reality.

LAUREN: And it’s not to be overlooked that specifically in Red Vienna living circumstances were different, were changing, and actively changed: Privacy, this liberal value, and the nuclear family were being reviewed, its structure worked against. Inequality, in terms of gender, in terms of gendered labor, was under review. Even inside the private home. The private home became an object, a site of planning and administration—and design, there were design consultants provided for the working-classes, to help with the question of how to organize, optimize domestic space. In light of an epidemic, for instance, the home has to be sanitized. And domestic work collectivized, to lift the burden on working women and mothers. And the Red Vienna housing projects weren’t suburban, these were not banlieue, they were scattered all throughout the city, even in the inner city, everywhere, by design.

ELIZABETH: It’s just so cool, the fact that these were implemented, and so widespread, and that it was not just a housing project but also ideologically remaking how one understood the family or “household” unit. Alys, when you brought up care, my mind immediately shot off to feminist theory, to the large body of scholarship around what is a kind of feminist ethic or politics of care.

ALYS: You’re spot on. So many of the initiatives in Red Vienna took care as a pragmatic value, an ethical imperative for political and social change. The contrast between Vienna a century ago and our time and place could not be starker. Here, again, is where I see Red Vienna as a real paragon: in its realization of a politics of care, it has a lot to teach us––if we’re willing to listen. And the feminist ethic you allude to was also explicit there: So many of the theories that underlie the concrete reforms that were taken in Red Vienna began with women, and specifically with mothers: support for working mothers, attempts to enable different types of living outside of the bourgeois nuclear family, the struggle for reproductive choice.

But going back to the municipal housing initiatives: They also return us to the body, because the individual apartments were designed above all with efficiency in mind, and efficiency not only in the sense of: How can the city afford to alleviate housing insecurity by building this number of apartments? Especially when space is at a premium? They had to scale down. I mean, these apartments were tiny by today’s standards: People got roughly 40 square meters for a family with multiple children. And that space was highly optimized on the basis of scientific studies that measured the average human arm span, for instance—

ELIZABETH: And here again: the scientific study of the body . . .

ALYS: Physiological optimization, yes . . . But to draw the arc to the present day in statistics: In 1900, 300,000 of Vienna’s population of two million did not have an apartment; over 65,000 public housing apartments were built in the interwar years, and one in ten Viennese lived in public housing by 1934; today, that number is one in four. These are among the most lasting legacies of Red Vienna: affordable housing, infrastructure and public works, greenspaces––positively affecting the lives of as many Viennese as possible. No wonder, then, that Vienna has been ranked the city with the highest quality of life for a number of years running, as you mentioned earlier, Lauren.

Barricade Recommends: Transit Books

Transit Books is a young press—it was founded in 2015 with the aim of bringing an open-minded and international sensibility to an industry that is notorious for its insularity and resistance to the unknown. The risk of starting a new business and choosing to focus on the areas that conventional wisdom describes as the most challenging (translations, novellas, literary and narrative nonfiction) paid off for Transit Books. The fiction and nonfiction that they publish all display a powerful intimacy that perhaps is one explanation for their unlikely successes. One of their first books, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and several others had prominent critical acclaim and sales success. 


My personal affection for Transit (barring their fantastically pleasing and consistent cover design) comes from their publishing approach and editorial sensibility. Transit is a press that thinks carefully about the particularities of publishing work in translation without obsessing over difference and over-emphasizing the exotic to feed an ignorant market. They put care and attention into editing their translators and producing readable, pleasing, artful books, but do not then rely on translation as a novelty selling point. They choose to publish work that often does not relate in obvious ways to the perception that the US has of the authors’ countries of origin, and they publish work that doesn’t easily fit into the same worldview that supports those stereotypes. 


Recommended reads from Transit Books:

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba—a surreal novel about the violence of girlhood in a Spanish boarding school

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi—an expansive and immersive historical fiction of the Buganda Kingdom 

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin—a collection on digressive, critical essays on intimacy, grief, and peculiarity

The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra—an autobiographical novel about family secrecy, terror, and memory

—Yana Makuwa