David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia

I don’t intend this to be a proper review but a short comment on David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (1993), which I just finished reading.

The book, the first of the kind to have been published in English, although outdated now, is a good introduction to the history of Colombia from colonial times (first chapter), the period just before and after Independence (chapter two),  the three stages of Gran Colombia (chapter three), New Granada (chapter four) and, finally, Colombia (from chapter five to eleven). Its chronological organisation helps framing events although many of them obviously overlap.

The author shows a good outstanding and vast knowledge of the country and its history, and its style makes the text easily accessible for any type of reader. This last point, though a quality, also hints at a shortcoming from the point of view of those readers in need of a fully referenced academic book. Though the author provides some references to certain claims in endnotes, many other (quite important) remain largely unreferenced.

My main critique to The Making of Modern Colombia is that it is a somewhat ‘sanitised’ version of the history of the country which, firstly, starts from the premise of modernisation as the unique desired goal of any social organisation, while paying only marginal attention to its nefarious effects; secondly, it presents every single government in the history of Colombia as a Nation-State in a far too positive light. Although, Bushnell  notes some negative traits of successive administrations, he seems to relegate the worst to the margins in a way that minimises them. His narrative seems thus framed as to leave in the reader the idea that although there have been problems of many kinds with the political class that has always ruled Colombia, the successive administrations have mostly done all they could have so as to finally bring Colombia into modernity.

There are some problematic phrasings which evidence that the author seems to put the emphasis on the goal –making of Colombia a modern nation– without caring too much about the means. On page 267, for instance, when reporting on the reduction of cocaine business in Colombia, he expresses himself in the following terms: ‘Thanks in part to the Colombian government’s efforts at repression, Colombia’s relative share of the [cocaine] business had been slipping vis-à-vis’ neighbouring countries, where ‘repression’ seems to stand as being a good measure (emphasis mine). Another euphemism that seems employed to cast a not too damning light upon the State is found on page 253 when referring to the theft of arms from a military installation in Bogotá in 1979 by members of the left-wing urban guerrilla M-19: ‘The army succeeded in recapturing the arms and seizing a large number of M-19 activists and left-wing sympathisers, many of whom were very roughly handled in the crackdown’ (Bushnell, 253) (emphasis mine).

That state violence has been a constant along the history of Colombia is just hinted at but not given much importance. Morever, it is practically never mentioned in the book. One of the rare occasions the book mentions this comes on page 257 where state violence during Turbay Ayala administration is referred to only to be instantly downgraded by comparing it to the abuses under the military governments of Argentina or Chile. According to Bushnell, in contrast to these dictatorships, under Turbay’s (democratic) rule abuses were discussed in open fora ‘(though not without danger at times to the denouncer) [!]’ (Bushnell, 257). Yet, he seems to complain, ‘by the early 1980s Colombia was receiving much unfavourable attention from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International’ (Bushnell, 257).

Finally, terms such as displacement, rape, enforced disappearance, and torture appear seldom, if ever. Which is striking given the context. For instance, by 2012 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had already been established in Colombia for 40 years, Colombia is indeed their largest operation in the Americas). Nothing is said of paramilitaries and their early links with the state and public figures, thought it is also true the peak of paramilitary violence came after the publication of the book.

 

 

Translation: In praise of the black woman

The following is the (unauthorised) translation of “Elogio de la mujer negra”, a text by Jaime Jaramillo Escobar published in Colombian magazine SoHo for Edition 143 (March, 2012). This edition was marketed by SoHo as an ‘ironic’ ‘anti-racist’ response to the central photograph accompanying an article about the Zarzur women (a powerful family in Cali, Colombia), published in December 2011 by the Latin edition of Spanish magazine ¡Hola!. The original photograph caused outrage in Colombia and launched a debate about race, racism, and classism in diverse media. The original text in Spanish (easily found through Google) is badly structured, poorly written, and confusing. I will translate whenever possible, and interpret when necessary. The translation corresponds to the online text available in the SoHo website.

I am providing this translation as reference for my research work, which is entirely in English, and mostly destined to an English speaking audience.

In praise of the black woman

by Jaime Jaramillo Escobar

[N.T. This first paragraph appears in the online version, and not in the paper one]

In ¡Hola!’s edition, the doña posed all in white with her daughter, Sonia Zarzur de Daccach, her grand-daughter Royi, and her great-grand-daughter Rosa, in her ‘Hollywoodian mansion’ in Cali while a couple of black maids carried — in perfect symmetric decoration — exquisite silver trays. SoHo decided to rise to the challenge of continuing Hola!’s legacy and with this aim in mind invited Belky Arizala, Yésica [sic] Paola Montoya, Diana Mina and Vanessa Parra — four spectacular Colombian models — to pose all in black in a powerful Hollywoodian mansion.

Returning of attentions with some photographs taken in the formidable Cundiboyacense Beverly Hills.

[N.T. Here begins the text by Jaramillo Escobar as published in the print version]

The colour of humankind is the one called black. We are all black and African. Humankind was not born in the fertile valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates, it was not created by a blond and haughty god, as the religious tale goes. Humankind was born in today’s disreputed Horn of Africa (Unesco. History of Humankind).

As nomad groups moved nothernwards, finding less warm lands, people started losing melaline, which protects against the damaging effects of the sun. So we are discoloured and pretentious blacks. [N.T. The shift in grammatical subject here is of course problematic. The reader is also left to guess who that ‘we’ stands for.] The white man looks down on the black man, and the black man looks down on the white man, yet [N.T. There is a conjuntion here in the original text] both are the same animal that disavows and despises himself. Long before the end of the Stone Age — Sir Leonard Wooley signals — the main branches of human race were already differentiated physically and also, to a certain extent, mentally.

The first men of the black race — states Jacketta Hawkes — appeared in the north of Ecuador — in Asselar, around 300 kilometres to the north of Timbuctú — at the end of the Pleistocene, or sometime later. In Blaise Cendrars’s Anthologie nègre, Nzamé created everything and called Mebere and Nkwa to show them his work. [N.T. there is no way of knowing from the text whether Nzamé is male or female, but it’s highly probable it is male.]  A work completed with groups of enemies that, up to today, keep pleasing themselves in destroying each other. As a means to moderate his own excess, he gave them laws as these: you won’t steal within your own tribe. You won’t kill those who have not hurt you. You won’t eat others at night.

Centuries later [N.T. it is impossible to know what is the point of reference for this ‘later’], black populations begin arriving to this continent [N.T. Again, it is impossible to know what continent he is referring to by ‘this’. From the reference to Borges one can infer it is South America, yet, this contradicts the statement supposedly taken from Hawkes in the paragraph just above], in the well known manner registered by Borges in his Historia universal de la infamia: in 1571, Bartolomé de las Casas felt sorry for the Indians who were extenuating themselves in the working hell that were Antillean gold mines and suggested to the Emperor Charles V he replace them with blacks who will extenuate themselves in the working hell that were Antillean gold mines.

Genetic crossings and geographic and cultural reasons make physiognomy and skin colour change so that a notable variety of [racial types] called yellow and morenos have been created. Yet, these manage to ignore each other. [N.T. This sentence here is particularly problematic because the grammatical subject changes in the middle of the sentence. There are also semantical issues. How what’s said here connects with what is to come is also unclear]. Thus we have the splendid and lustful presence of the models who are embellishing this edition with the grace and finesse with which photography outpowers words.

How the people euphemistically called of colour have survived to adverse circumstances [N.T. rather than ‘people of colour’ the euphemism here is ‘adverse circumstances’], so that they [N.T. again, grammatical subject issues. He starts with ‘black people’ which suddenly becomes ‘the four black models of this edition’] arrive to the exclusive pages of SoHo is an interesting story. Such beautiful women are the product of amazing transformations. They are proof of the existence of God, says the poet Verano Brisas.

Such beauty is this way [N.T. Not clear what ‘this way’ exactly means] because it is backed up by the strength which allowed the race to resist. It was because slaves had so much own life [N.T. ‘tanta vida propia’, I don’t know what this means] –writes Ramón Gómez de la Serna– that they managed being slaves. Slavery would have absorbed and diminished the white man. The black man dances as if possessed by the great original beast, sings Luis Palés Matos.

Time passes and results are astonishing [N.T. I don’t know what this means]. The influence of Africa on Europe and America renews the arts with unsuspected force.

In 2010, the [Colombian] Ministry of Culture published the collection Biblioteca de literatura afrocolombiana ‘Library of afrocolombian literature’, in 19 volumes, with 74 representative authors: 16 men and 58 women. Which means that not only beauty and festive sensuality are displayed. [N.T. again, it is not clear who is displaying what or where. Nor the previous neither the following sentence implies it is the displaying of the models in SoHo’s edition what he’s referring to.] The admired woman [N.T. we don’t know which woman in the singular he is referring to] is also backed up by a solid artistic tradition, a tradition solidified in sternness, which makes it significant and of everlasting importance for national memory.

Literature and arts have dwelled on praises of the morena woman since the famous verses of “Cantar de los cantares” [“Song of Songs”]: Black I am, but gracious./ don’t pay attention to my blackness: it is because the sun burnt my skin [N.T. ‘No os fijéis que soy morena’. He uses ‘morena’ as an euphemism for black].

Or what Luis Palés Matos evokes: the black woman is the one who sings / and her sensual singing extends / as a clear air of happiness / below the coconut tree.

And not only voluptuous memories. Let’s be sensible: also the wet nurse, lady of milk, the most important of all, the one no artist forgot, the one everybody cried when she died, remembering the beloved days of childhood. And this way sings Ciro Mendía: ¡Ay, Rosa, brave Rosa, / Ay, how much I liked how she beat me / if I didn’t run to the well / to bring poems of water.

The scandal aroused recently in [Colombian] written media because of a photograph of some women from Cali, with their maidservants carrying some tableware, is an excellent example of social hypocrisy and of how easy it is for a magazine like ¡Hola! to manipulate it for marketing ends [N.T. No idea what he means by ‘hypocrisy’ or how ¡Hola! is manipulating it]. It should be noted that [we live in a place and time] where you get the stick whatever you do [N.T. now he is siding with the Zarzur]. If you offer work to the morenos it’s exploitation, if you don’t it’s injustice. But those very same people who defend them call them pejoratively negros. Negros who with their work, their music, their songs, their admirable art, are the complement of a culture [N.T. not clear which culture blacks are complementing and influencing] which they infuse with vigour, joy, and generosity, ignoring their own history of being mistreated and marginalised. This is why [N.T. not really sure what’s the ‘why’] we are doing this parody in SoHo, as a sort of negative of the original photograph. A tongue-in-cheek but friendly critique, not of the Spanish magazine [¡Hola!], but of the social hypocrisy that makes an out of proportion fuzz from such an insignificant, wrongly or rightly calculated, event given that there are so many really important issues demanding serious and informed public attention.

What is the point of academic writing?

I’m fed up with this chapter I have been “on the verge of finishing” for the last three months. I’m fed up with the corpus the chapter deals with, a semi-pornographic magazine I loath and yet think is worth writing 30000 words about. I have become so damn familiar with my tools and objects of study that I no longer see the point. I am depressed of knowing once all this is written only those already agreeing with me will agree. Worse: only those already agreeing with me will be reading it. What is the point of academic writing? When I decided to move out of literary criticism I did it because I wanted to have a closer connexion with the real world. I was tired of that strain of intellectual elitism that idealises literature. I no longer agreed with putting the written word on a pedestal. I wanted to do research that had a certain impact, research that could lead to improve people’s life, for instance, the lives of those who, unlike myself, didn’t go university. I discovered Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Deborah Cameron’s work and thought that studying linguistics would imply a move towards an area that had more serious involvement with everyday life. I saw it as an excellent opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and the real world. How wrong I was. Once enrolled in the university and settled in the country this university was based it appeared that CDA was not even considered linguistics proper, so I found myself writing, among other unwanted essays, a seriously-difficult-to-conceive essay for Syntax on the universality of the grammatical subject. Apparently, “real impact” would have to wait. Once I finished my MPhil in Linguistics I started my (funded) PhD in Cultural Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Studies. Finally, I naively thought, my work is going to be moving out of the ivory tour of intellectual masturbation towards the terrain of the quotidian. If the object of study concerns the lives of so many people, I argued with myself, studying it would obviously have some impact, right? Once again, wrong. My work won’t have any impact. What seems obvious and is dear to me is clearly still miles away from being grasped by the vast majority of the people I wish would care. Nobody will care, apart again, by those who already care and already agree with me. Though I work on mass media and culture, and how these intersect with the political arena –the fields virtually everybody is concerned with– what I write will remain forever out of  reach. The language, the scope, the theoretical underpinnings, everything. So, again, what is the point of academic writing?

 

Framing terror

Europe is in turmoil since Tuesday when a Germanwings plane crashed in the French Alps killing the 150 people on board.  Two days after the accident the turmoil is far from abating because French investigators reported the recordings from the cockpit provide evidence that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot. Such a piece of news is more surprising and scary than any other because human actions are more difficult to control than technical failures. It actually made me think that every time you take a plane you are placing your life in the hands of those piloting it, not a thought that will calm the anxiety about flying I have been recently developing.

This piece of news –and how it is reported around the world– is quickly becoming an excellent corpus for exploring the politics of race at work in the Western world.  Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot, was a white male German citizen and this fact has entirely shaped the terms and frame of the news. After a few hours of investigation the French prosecutor had already ruled out that this was a terror attack. Newspapers were quick at speaking of ‘suicide’, The Guardian spoke of ‘killing’, while The Independent of ‘suicide and mass murder’. How to refer to what happened has been one of the main issues. Had the guy been a German citizen of Turkish descent journalists, aeronautics personnel, government officials, and plain citizens would be speaking of ‘terror’ even before the beginning of the investigation. Things would have actually been easier to handle in terms of how to frame the debate because this is indeed the point: race in its specific connexion to Islam is what allows for ‘terror’ to take place.

But as Lubitz was white and German the consequences are entirely different. This is not a terror attack so his family is not under police surveillance and airports are not in a high state of alert. One easily gets the picture: when the agent of a wicked act is a brown and Muslim-related man, that man is the embodiment of ‘evil’, nothing more than the antithesis of humanity, and the attack is a terror attack; otherwise there has to be a sort of psychological explanation for somebody ‘essentially’ good carrying out an isolated evil act.

The investigation and reports are thus turning now to Lubitz’s state of mind and his apparent history of depression, and some outlets have even speculated that he was going through a romantic split. People in Twitter have pointed –rightfully– that it is not depression what kills and that there is no intrinsic link between suffering from depression and being a potential mass murderer. Although I couldn’t agree more with the points raised in this respect I have to say that being granted the possibility of having a mental health issue, of acknowledging that psychological or emotional issues could eventually affect your social behaviour can also be read as one of the manifestations of white privilege. Thus when a white man –and yes, I think this is also articulated around the gender axe– crosses a gross line, the West  –media, police, government, civil society– is willing to ask the question of ‘how an “essentially” good man can do something so atrocious’ *. Conversely, when the man is non-white, and on top of it, he is a Muslim, that question will be never asked because the answer is taken for granted: he will be the personification of evil.

* I don’t believe in ‘essences’ and actually challenge them, I am just reporting this from within a Western frame of representation. See my last post about Angelina Jolie’s ovaries and the question of ‘feminine essence’.

Angelina Jolie had her ovaries removed, so what?

One of today’s big news  –only sidelined by the plane crash in the French Alps– is that Angelina Jolie had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. The news is reported in virtually every news-platform from around the world, in USA, Britain, France, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, to mention just a few places.

Why the fuss? What’s the big deal? Why is her decision presented by all these media as uncommonly brave? I didn’t have the patience to read any of the dozens of articles that were thrust upon my TL because I seriously cannot care any less. The woman is nearly forty and has already six children –three of which are biological children– so why is her decision framed as being a huge and brave step?

The only quick answer that comes to my mind is that the issue has perhaps to do with essentialist questions about ‘sex’. Jolie has been made to stand for the femme of the century, the ultimate female sex symbol, the ideal embodiment of what any ‘woman’ should aspire to be: she is beautiful, successful (reports always ignore the blatantly obvious fact that her success is highly dependant on her looks), and a ‘fulfilled mother’ of six. She has been construed as the epitome of ‘the woman’, the epitome of ‘femininity’, and we know that in Western culture, when it comes to discussing womanhood and femininity, the female body is what matters. But then she has no longer ovaries nor fallopian tubes: is that to be read as a challenge to her uncompromising femininity, the essence she is supposed to be the embodiment of?

Perhaps this is what is going on in here: an emphasis (or backlash?) on an essentialist approach to sex and femininity of which she is a major symbol. Curiously as I was writing this post one of the Twitter accounts I follow –@ThisIsFusion– sent this tweet with a picture of her, a quote of the text she published in the New York Times where she discloses what she did, and a link to the article in question. Again, being as busy as I am, I don’t feel like spending time in reading any of her ‘Diary of a surgery’. I will just point to the first words cited by @ThisIsFusion which are ‘I feel feminine’. This type of utterance exasperates me. It also makes me wonder what the person who utters it means by it. Although I am –and have always been– a self-identified woman, I truly don’t know what ‘feeling feminine’ refers to. I will perhaps end by reading her ‘Diary’ looking for an answer.

Link: “Freakish Fat,” “Wretched Black”

For those interested in Cultural Studies, Judith Butler’s theoretical work on subjection and the performativity of gender, and/or Colombia, here I am providing the link to my article “‘Freakish Fat,’ ‘Wretched Black'” that just appeared in Feminist Media Studies.

Abstract

This paper explores the construction of female abject beings in Colombian contemporary media and culture comparing a character in the 2010 telenovela Chepe Fortuna named Venezuela, and the cultural representation of Piedad Córdoba. I argue that the construction of these two characters as abject beings is coherent with the dominant discourse of Alvaro Uribe’s national project, which relied on a strong nationalist rhetoric based on binary oppositions of the type “we/other.” In this context both Chepe Fortuna’s Venezuela and Piedad Córdoba are constructed as “other.” While Venezuela’s abjection is partly effected on the basis of her being fat and black, Córdoba’s is on the basis of her being a left-wing politician, and mediated through her being a black female. These two instances evidence an approach to femaleness that goes hand-in-hand with particular understandings of female subjectivity within current post-feminist paradigms.

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/3PsGhzmKhp9TB3wt83X7/full

 

 

Ideology matters

I am today discovering Samuel Huntington’s “The Erosion of American National Interests”, a fascinating pamphlet that serves as an excellent example to the question of ideology I very briefly discussed in my last post in Spanish.

“The Erosion …” was published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1997, a few years after the end of the Cold war. In it Huntington expresses his thoughts about American identity and American power, and his views on the importance of keeping American hegemony. Huntington’s argument is blunt and clear: for American identity, national interests, and hegemony to be preserved, America needs an enemy. He states, not wrongly, that the “Cold War fostered a common identity between American people and government” (Huntington 31) and that its ending had perceivable “[d]isintegrative effects” (Huntington, 32) since “the existence of an enemy may have positive consequences for group cohesion, morale, and achievement” (ibid). Further, he continues, these consequences are reinforced by “changes in the scope of immigration and the rise of the cult of multiculturalism” (Huntington 32, emphasis mine). He also bluntly states that “[m]ilitary action against Saddam Hussein was seen as a vital national interest because he threatened reliable and inexpensive access to Persian Gulf oil” (Huntington 35), and has no qualms whatsoever when listing all the military enterprises –which he refers to as “the great American initiatives in foreign policy” (Huntington, 30)– the United States undertook in order to quash the threat of communism. (It might be noted, however, that military coups in Latin America are conspicuously absent from his list.) In sum, the fall of the Soviet Union left America in a situation where “the need is not to find the power to serve American purposes but rather to find purposes for the use of American power” (Huntington, 35).

For Huntington the United States are and will remain “a global hegemon”, but its dominant role is changing. He explains the phases of hegemonic power, and what the United States has done to become the global hegemon it is:

In their first phase, the influence of hegemons stems from their power to expend resources. They deploy military force, economic investment, loans, bribes, diplomats, and bureaucrats into other countries and often bring those territories and populations under their direct or indirect rule. American expansion in the 1950s and 1960s did not expand American rule, but did produce an American military, political, and economic presence in large areas of the world. (Huntington, 44)

But now, Huntington complains, American power has become “the “soft power” to attract rather than the hard power to compel” (Huntington, 44).

What makes Huntington’s article fascinating in my eyes is its bluntness: it does not pretend that American power is good for the world, as many successive administrations of the United States have relentlessly and disingenuously hammered through every possible communication channel. Rather, it makes absolutely clear that American power is good for the sake of American interests solely, and for the sake of holding power itself. Power is not simply the means, but the end. Power is the crux of the question, which ties nicely with the issue of ideology, one of the article’s main topics. This is the second reason why I find this article interesting. It is a text that is self-referential as it enacts one of its central themes: ideology. The text is a prime example of ideology at work at the same time that it defends the importance of having competing ideologies for American power, firstly, to be deployed; secondly, to remain uncontested. The openness of Huntington with respect to ideology appears surprising to me because the post-war period had been characterised by the idea that ideologies were something only the communists –or left-wingers– had. In Ideology: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton quotes Kenneth Minogue, a right wing political theorist who claims

Ideologies can be specified in terms of a shared hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics (cited in Eagleton pp. 6)

So, for Kenneth, as Eagleton notes, “supporters of socialism are ideologues whereas defenders of capitalism are not” (Eagleton, 6), an assumption that is ideological itself. Eagleton argues that

The extent to which one is prepared to use the term ideology of one’s own political views is a reliable index of the nature of one’s political ideology. Generally speaking, conservatives like Minogue are nervous of the concept in their own case, since to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation. (Eagleton, 6)

All this takes me back to my last week criticism of Colombian weekly Revista Semana, one of the most powerful media in Colombia that has tight links with the also powerful Santos family.  Revista Semana describe themselves as practitioners of “a ground-breaking journalism that broke the custom of the activist and ideologised press [of the eighties in Colombia], and that was more in tune with a country asking to be well informed from unbiased perspectives” (see original text in Spanish). Revista Semana‘s claim, it is crystal clear, is as ideological as Minogue’s.

It might be high-time for Revista Semana to refresh their notions and update themselves to contemporary critiques of communication, news making, journalism, politics, and culture, and even take the step of coming out of the ideology closet. As the example of Samuel Huntington shows, even if you are a right-winger –as Revista Semana clearly is– you can do it. It is not going to tarnish your reputation, rather it would at least show firstly, that you are not acting disingenuously, secondly, that you don’t have the self-awareness of a rock.

References

  1. Huntington, Samuel (1997). “The Erosion of American National Interests”. In: Foreign Affairs. 76.5, pp. 28-49.
  2. Eagleton, Terry (2007). Ideology: An Introduction. London & New York: Verso.

The tyrannical hegemony of MS Word

Today is the day when I say it bluntly: it is high time for the humanities to catch up with certain scholarly practices that have been established in the sciences for a while now. I am talking about platforms for producing knowledge, such as document preparation systems, and platforms for the circulation of that knowledge, such as repositories. I think there is no doubt that these practices are of benefit for both the development of the areas themselves –be it mathematics or anthropology– and for the researchers working in those areas. There are, however, certain domains of knowledge for which these issues should occupy a top spot in their rank of priorities. I am talking about those areas in the humanities where theoretical concerns include the question of the imbalance of power between, for instance, the global North and the global South, and how such imbalance impinges upon the question of the production and the circulation of knowledge.

I decided to write about this now because I have just been confronted to a particular situation where there is clearly no overlap between the scholarly topic I am engaging with and the technical practice the journal I am submitting to encourages to engage in. Part of the argument I made in the article I wanted to submit to the journal in question relates to English as the language one must master for being granted scholarly legitimacy –even existence– in mainstream academia. Yet this journal, which uses the ScholarOne Manuscripts system,* has a very restricted range of file types it accepts: it restricts almost everything but MS Word documents. This means that not only one as a scholar has to have a premium command of English, the dominant scholarly language, but one also is compelled to use MS Word, the dominant typesetting tool.

While it will take probably forever to challenge the dominance of English as the academic lingua franca, challenging the dominance of technological tools is a real possibility. Yet as long as journals don’t open up to that possibility this situation will remain uncontested.

So, what is the problem with MS Word?

A straightforward answer to this question would be “everything”, ranging from technical issues up to political ones. Charlie Stross summarises MS Word ills in these lines:

Microsoft Word is a tyrant of the imagination, a petty, unimaginative, inconsistent dictator that is ill-suited to any creative writer’s use. Worse: it is a near-monopolist, dominating the word processing field. Its pervasive near-monopoly status has brainwashed software developers to such an extent that few can imagine a word processing tool that exists as anything other than as a shallow imitation of the Redmond Behemoth.

Stross, as he says in the text where I am taking this quote from, has a long experience in working with word processors and text editors. My own experience is far more limited. Although I work now in the humanities, I was initially trained in Computer Engineering. There were only two good things that came out my getting a degree in that field: first, I got a scholarship to move abroad, which allowed me to change my career orientation; second, I learned to use LaTeX.

LaTeX is everything MS Word is not, that is, a free and open source document preparation system designed to handle medium to large documents with high quality results. MS Word, on the other hand, is a paying WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor that is simply incapable of handling medium documents, such as articles, let alone long documents, such as theses or books. Worse: it cannot make optimal use of automatic referencing systems, which, I believe, is an essential tool when it comes to academic writing.

I stopped using MS Word 15 years ago after the nightmarish experience of having to write my 100 pages long Master’s Thesis in Engineering. Some people keep telling me that surely MS Word must have improved in fifteen long years. Sure, MS Word has improved. And yet, it still manages to remain rotten. As recently as a year ago, a colleague of mine was finishing her Doctoral dissertation. I had been trying to convince this person to move out of amateurish MS Word to something professional, but she didn’t really have the time to do it. By the time she had to organise her nearly 300 pages document for submission she was banging her head on the wall. She had a file for each chapter and trying to put them together proved impossible. The solution she had to retort to was to do the pagination manually, compile her references for each chapter individually (apparently if you do it as you write the programme slows down to the extent you cannot use it), generate a PDF for each chapter, and find a program that will integrate those PDFs in a single document. On top of that, you need to buy a licence in order to use this Marvel of Technology. I mean, this had to be a JOKE, unfunny, but a joke nonetheless. The weird thing, however, is that it isn’t. MS Word is by far the world’s dominant typesetting tool.

Thus scholars keep paying for a product that makes their lives difficult. We could recite neoliberal mantras here: “everyone is free to buy what they want”, “we are autonomous individuals that have choices”. Fair enough. Yet, one thing is for the majority “to choose” a useless dominant tool, and another very different one is for journals to force scholars to use dominant typesetting tools that are both expensive and rubbish. And this falls indeed in the realm of responsibility of each journal, especially those journals which capitalise on academic work that is asking questions about imagining the world otherwise.

Free and open source software is indeed a real possibility for contesting technological monopolies. The fact that it is free –although if you use it you should somehow contribute to the system– implies that you don’t need to have money in order to have access to good products. The fact that it is open source implies anyone in the community can contribute to make it better for the good of the products themselves and for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Hence, I think we need to bring this discussion to the table within the humanities. It is really for the benefit of all.

 
* The ScholarOne Manuscripts system is also used in science, so they have the technological capabilities to deal with LaTeX (.tex) files (also PDFs). So, if a journal does not have that option it is because of the journal not because of the system.

Postscript

A few months ago I started a blog where I tried to introduce LaTeX for the uninitiated. If you are interested you can access it here. I would recommend to start by post 1.

My Zwarte Piet diary (one)

The Netherlands, Christmas 2014

This is going to be an entry different to what I usually write in this blog. It will be written in instalments as I record the debate –from my own point of view– about the Zwarte Piet during this my first (and only) Christmas in The Netherlands.

Preamble

I discovered the Zwarte Piet this June at a summer school on Slavery that took place in Middelburg, a small city in the South West of The Netherlands, and of particular importance in the history of the slave trade and of the Dutch colonial past. For one of the sessions the summer school organisers –among which was giant decolonial semiotician Walter Mignolo– invited Quinsy Gario (@quinsyg), an artist and activist from the Dutch Caribbean who, some time ago, started the campaign Zwarte Piet is Racisme. Quinsy presented this tradition to the audience and talked about his experience as a Dutch black man daring to say the blatantly obvious many white Dutch people refuse to acknowledge: that Zwarte Piet is racist.

For people with a certain sensibility about social justice, discrimination, and oppression, stating that Zwarte Piet is racist comes as a truism. Yet, in the Dutch context it apparently isn’t as a vast majority of Dutch people refuse to see it as racist. Further, they refuse to link it to slavery and colonialism, which is, I think, the most astonishing part of the debate.

The debate has been raging for a while now in The Nethelands. I will put myself to the task of recording what I can.

Nov, 11

a.

I get an email from my son’s school where I am informed ‘Sinterklaas’ and his coloured ‘Pieten’ will visit the school early December. I go to Twitter to share my shock with the world, then add that the school my son goes to is an International one, and that many of the families there come from India. I add the HT #zwartepiet to my Tweets.

I Tweet Dutch people refusal to acknowledge how racist Zwarte Piet is “is either colonial blindness or colonial amnesia. Perhaps even secret colonial nostalgia.”

b.

One twitter user (@DJSabroso) –somebody who masters both Dutch and Spanish– enters in conversation with me, retweets my tweets, we end up by following each other. From his tweets one easily gathers he is seriously active against the Zwarte Piet. I also realise that there are many others involved with various campaigns. They are organising marches in Gouda and Amsterdam. I am still reflecting on whether I should take part in these protests. Zwarte Piet is racist regardless of whether you come from The Netherlands or not. Yet, I don’t feel legitimised.

c.

Two other (presumably) Dutch (presumably white) Twitter users react to my tweets. In a nutshell it is me who doesn’t get it (the usual drill). About my mentioning the fact that there were many Indian families in the school one of these users tells me that before judging the Dutch I must remember “Indian people are known as the worst in enslaving others”. I reply by noting such affirmation is sort of … you know … racist. This person says that since I clearly have no arguments I opt for brandishing “the R word”. Now, the “R word”? This is PC madness. The word is racism! Repeat after me: /ˈreɪ.sɪ.zəm/. Racism.

You will easily remark that the person denying this tradition is racist did not have any qualm whatsoever in ranting about Indians. Actually, the crux of her/his argument about the Zwarte Piet being not racist at all was to point out the horrendousness of Indian people. Yet, she/he can’t utter the word racism.

You will also easily remark the difference between stating “Zwarte Piet is racist” and “Dutch people are racist”, which I never said.

The other Twitter user claimed linking Zwarte Piet with colonialism and slavery “is the stupidest argument” ever. Wow.You have to admit these are strong arguments.

This is going to be an interesting Christmas, a sort of rich fieldwork.

Nov, 14

I discuss Zwarte Piet with my son. He is 9. He is also white, green eyed, and European. I tell him about the tradition without telling him what I think of it. He knows me though. We have spoken a lot about gender and race, and about privilege. I explain to him that in The Netherlands there is a sort of Father Christmas who’s got some white-painted-in-black persons as his personal assistants. He is shocked. He does not get it. “Why do they paint their faces black?” he asks me. I say I don’t know. Suddenly he opens his eyes wide and tells me: “But mum, the school is full of Indian children. They won’t feel at ease with that”. You are right my love. Altough my kid is young he’s become sensible towards these issues. He witnessed once how one of his school mates from Bangladesh got spat at by a couple of white teenagers. My son and his friend were six and a half. That episode left its mark on him.

Nov, 15

Quinsy shares this link. The article is worth reading and the videos are worth watching.

Let’s talk research (but money is the issue)

Dutch universities are reputed in academia for their ruthless neoliberal way of functioning. Yesterday I got proof of it while attending a research meeting at the department where I am spending this academic year. This department, which I won’t mention out of respect for the people being part of it and who are not to blame for how the university (the world) works, is one of the good ones within the faculty of humanities. It also has an excellent academic reputation in the Netherlands, in Europe, and even overseas.

The meeting comprised three parts: a round of presentations of the new people, presentation and discussion of one PhD candidate’s research proposal, and details about current projects, future events, and money issues. Nothing remarkable emerged from the two first activities. The third one, however, was a whole new experience for me. The department’s director talked about various things: diverse European networks to which the department belongs, upcoming academic events, conferences. I was having trouble following what she was saying, which is not surprising given the fact that I know nothing about this University and this department. But then it struck me: she was using a lot of terms I was unfamiliar with in the context of a research meeting. I was so astounded about the nature of the terms she kept using over and over that I took my notebook and wrote them down.

She spoke of money, stakeholders, consortium, strategic teams, lobby (a particular woman who was a lobbyist in Brussels that would be good to contact), 15 million Euros we could eventually demand to the UN. Another woman who got one and a half million Euros for a project from some entity was also explaining to us how the strategy for organising certain conferences was to follow the money. Money is the cue. Not ideas, research interests, research needs, academic collaboration. No. The cue, the issue, is money.

Although I have been in various universities in different countries this was a first time experience for me. We all know how academia, and more particularly the human sciences, has difficulties surviving in the profit oriented world we live in. Working conditions for academics at universities everywhere are horrendously precarious, and money and funding are a central issue. They have become THE issue.

It was not encouraging at all. It was sad and worrying. It made think of Bruno Latour reporting on his ethnographic work in the seventies. The academic world has not got any better since Latour published La vie de laboratoire. In fact it is getting worse by the day.