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“…a mutation [of international institutions and international law] will have to take place. But it is impossible to predict at what pace…what remains incalculable is first of all the pace or rhythm, the time of acceleration and the acceleration of time. And this is for essential reasons that have to do with the very speed of techno-scientific advances or shifts in speed. Just like the shifts in size or scale that nanotechnologies have introduced into our evaluations and our measures.” Jacques Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2001/2003)

When you “wake up” a historical figure for a project of any sort – art, book, play, film – you cannot help but imagine their reaction to the present moment. The word imagine is apt because the process involves an identification with the figure woken and a psychical process of projection, although scholars might argue that one can rationally speculate based on a life’s discourse or work. It’s in this frame of mind that I sometimes think about Rosa Luxemburg in relation to the current political situation, particularly in regards to the issues that Edward Snowden has made pivotal today regarding democracy and our currently laughable system of “checks and balances.” It’s not that Luxemburg ever put any faith in organized politics in any case, believing that organized politics in a time of gross inequity were nothing but a farce. Others might argue, as a friend has recently in regards to a review of writings by Étienne Balibar, that some changes can to be enacted pragmatically from within organized politics. But even Balibar has standards that would place the U.S. political system outside of such optimism.

In any case, when I read the dizzying instructions below in one of Luxemburg’s letters from 1906, I can’t help but think of Derrida’s comment in regards to techno-science. One thing that comes across very strongly in Luxemburg’s letters is her ceaseless use of the postal system in her political work. In those days the post seems to have been delivered at least twice a day (sometimes it seems to be three times a day), which helped her keep up with unpredictable historical events; and the speed of delivery from country to country at that moment seems astonishingly fast. But imagine organizing a revolt by post today.

ImageIn this excerpt above she’s writing from Russian-partitioned Poland, Warsaw, where she was engaged in the mass empire-wide revolts that were taking place. Her role, as it often was, was to write and see that contraband publications were printed and distributed. Transposed to the present, she might be using twitter, or more likely encrypted emails and sites.

Whenever I read Glenn Greenwald’s twitter site these days, I am hyperlinked to countless sites and tweets and articles and videos. I’m not complaining, because it’s an education a day. But it’s the stream speed of data and its atomization that are worrying all the same. Frankly, we need Derrida’s analysis.

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Jacques Derrida, age 20; Rosa Luxemburg, age 12.

In A Few Howls Again? Ulrike Meinhof’s relatively brief 5-year trajectory as a militant and prisoner lent itself to condensation in a short video loop. My current project on Luxemburg has the more difficult task of condensing her 25 years on the frontlines of left political resistance in many arenas – in fraught party politics, Marxist pedagogy, political journalism and scholarly writings, direct engagement with revolts, personal and political relationships and friendships, as well as years of incarceration as a political prisoner. [See my earlier post.]

Partway through the research on Luxemburg, a detour led me to the brilliant 2001 interview with Jacques Derrida in the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror, a book that should be read by anyone who takes  for granted the catch phrase 9/11. Reading this interview produced for me the strange sensation that if Luxemburg’s particular intelligence and prescience were transposed to 2001, she might have sounded something like the Derrida of that interview. The ghost of Derrida resonates today –especially in a moment of particularly egregious rogue state actions by the U.S., by Europe — with Luxemburg’s ghost in unexpected ways. Distanced by 60 years (Derrida was born 11 years after Luxemburg’s death), they nevertheless shared the spirit of positions on the need for theorizing justice beyond notions of national boundaries and national citizenship. In a schematic sense, for Luxemburg that meant an internationalism of the economically, socially, and racially oppressed; for Derrida, it meant articulating the urgent need for international justice in the face of growing nationalism and a simultaneous boundary-less movement of the algorithm. For me, it raises the question of overlapping two historical figures, temporally out of place, in one project.

Interestingly, they shared some formative traumas: Derrida’s childhood as a French Jew in Algeria; Luxemburg’s as a strongly identified Pole in a Warsaw under repressive Russification. Both were “out of place.”  Both were also forbidden to attend public schools at some points in their lives (for being Jewish, being a woman, being a Pole, etc.). For Luxemburg the Russian censorship sent her to underground meetings meant to sustain Polish culture, where the label of her religion (a Judaism she rejected from a young age and until her death) was subordinated to a diverse context that shaped the cosmopolitan outlook of rest of her life.

“Given all the colonial censorships, especially in the suburban milieu in which I lived, and given all the social barriers… the only option [to learn Arabic] was at school,” Derrida writes in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, originally a lecture on mother and other tongues delivered in the United States. “The study of Arabic was restricted to school, but in an alien language, a strange kind of alien language as the language of the other, but then of course, and this is the strange and troubling part, the other as the nearest neighbour…For I lived on the edge of an Arab neighbourhood on one of those hidden frontiers that are at once invisible and almost impassable.”[From the review, “Algerian Derrida,” by David Tresilian of the 2012 Derrida: A Biography.]

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This is the room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in which Julian Assange has lived and worked for a year.

This is the room in which Edward Snowden is living in limbo in the  Moscow Airport Transit Lounge.

[This post was moved from tumblr, when I stopped posting there; originally posted on July 2, 2013]

Following a video project that “brought to life” the militant Ulrike Meinhof, one year ago I started research on a related project about Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) – “Red Rosa,” the Marxist theorist, economist, philosopher and socialist revolutionary. This is an image of her prison cell in the Wronki Fortress, where she spent 1916-1917, one of the more humane prison spaces she inhabited. 

I could not do my research without the renewed interest in Luxemburg that generated recent translations into English of her voluminous letters andwritings, nor without the well-known biography on Luxemburg. But although there are many mentions and details of her prison stays in her these books, I could not find a timeline of the dates that Luxemburg spent in jail. DId I, not being an academic, miss something? I had to cobble together a timeline as best I could, because prison time was something Luxemburg accepted as a fact of life for a leader of the international socialist movement, or for anyone committed to the “cause.” 

26 August, 1904-24 October 1904 – Berlin-Zwickau Women’s Prison (a sentence commuted by one month, against Luxemburg’s protests, by an amnesty declared to commemorate the coronation of Friedrich August von Saxe ). Sentenced for insulting Emperor Wilhelm II in a public speech.

4 March 1906 – end of June 1906 – Incarcerated in Pawiak Prison, then moved to the notorious Citadel fortress, both in Warsaw. Sentenced for possession of illegal literature and correspondence with the Social Democratic Party of Germany. 

18 February 1915-18 February 1916 – Royal Prussian Prison for Women, Berlin

10 July 1916 – end of October 1916 – Royal Prussian Prison for Women, and 1 1/2 months in a dark tiny, unlit cell in the police headquarters in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

End of October 1916 – 21 July 1917 – Wronki Fortress, near Poznan, in Prussian-annexed Poland.

22 July 1917 –  8 November 1918 – transferred to Breslau Prison to see out her term.

For the above four, jailed without trial for, amongst other similar offenses, giving a public speech urging German workers not to take up arms against workers of other nationalities, and for accusing the German military of maltreating soldiers and abusing them physically and psychically.

In effect, Luxemburg spent her years in prison due to a lack of laws protecting freedom of speech. But as dehumanizing and weakening as these stays were, she retained citizenship and access to at least a semblance of due process through her lawyers; she was in the limbo of prison cells, but not the limbo of placeless non-citizenship and non-residency.  

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