Melissa Roach 0:03
Hi, I’m Melissa Roach with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
This week, host Am Johal is joined by critical theorist Alberto Toscano, a UK-based scholar who is currently a visiting faculty member at the Digital Democracies Institute in SFU’s School of Communication. They speak about Alberto’s work on fanaticism, trends in authoritarianism, racial capitalism, and what Alberto calls ‘late fascism.’ I hope you enjoy the conversation.
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Am Johal 0:44
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week — very excited to have Alberto Toscano with us, who has recently joined us in Vancouver on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh people. Welcome, Alberto.
Alberto Toscano 1:01
Thank you very much for the very nice invitation.
Am Johal 1:05
Alberto, I'm wondering if we can start with you introducing yourself a little bit?
Alberto Toscano 1:09
Well, I'm, I suppose, a critical theorist of sorts. I trained, in as much as you can call it training, in philosophy, and pretty much did all of my graduate studies in the UK, where I lived until about a year ago, when I moved here to Vancouver. And so I spent the past 17 years or so, teaching at Goldsmiths, University of London, which I'm still affiliated with, in the [Department] of Sociology. And a little bit more recently — founded with my friend and colleague, Julia Ng, a Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, and have been running that for a few years. And I suppose aside from my, you know, academic, pedagogical work and the like, have done quite a bit of work as a translator. And I suppose, in the past years, more maybe even as a kind of editor for the series that I run for Seagull Books out of Kolkata, and London. And yeah, so that's a sketch of sorts.
Am Johal 2:07
Yeah, I've got so many questions I want to ask you, but I'll start with your first book, The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze, it came out in 2006. And I’m wondering if you can sketch out where the project sort of began and what you were trying to do with it.
Alberto Toscano 2:25
Right. Well, since that was really my doctoral work, it's kind of somewhat prehistoric for me, I suppose. [Am laughs] And in fact, like many people, in finishing my PhD, I initially had this somewhat phobic reaction, right? So you don't want to look at the stuff ever again, and so on. And actually the book came out, because I realized without the aid of a monograph, getting gainful employment was going to be a bit more of an upward journey than I expected. So, in any case that's what it was. And I guess, maybe it's easier to describe rather than in terms of the very dense, philosophical, kind of excavation archaeology that the book tries to do — maybe in terms of the kind of milieu it came out of. So, the University of Warwick had a quite distinctive, I suppose, tradition of work and research in continental philosophy, and especially a lot of people, friends, colleagues, comrades of mine, working on French philosophy and on the writings of Gilles Deleuze in particular. And I guess at the time also, there are a lot of people in my cohort, stranded in this business park in the Midlands — for we were doing philosophy much in severe isolation from the outside world, I suppose — who were very interested in making links to various strands of materialist thinking in the cognitive sciences, and the philosophy of biology, and you know, domains like that. So, I suppose the book is really an effort to try to get to grips with — and it says Deleuze's understanding of what he called individuation or you know, the processes, that — the often unrepresentable or molecular, to Deleuze's kind of language processes that lead to the creation of, or the genesis of individuals, in a way that would not pass through you know, dominant Western philosophies of subjectivity and representation and so on. So the book is an effort to kind of try to reconstruct some of the sources of this way of thinking. So, to look at Nietzsche's writings on life and biology, to look at the pragmatist tradition, and Charles Sanders Peirce, for instance, and how they wrote about habit. To look at a French philosopher of technology, called Gilbert Simondon, who was a big source for Deleuze to kind of try to reconstruct this sort of — this different way of thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the life sciences, philosophy and conceptions of the organism, and so on, so forth. But again, this is a very distant reconstruction on my part, as I pretty much, I mean, I've maintained a kind of interest in Deleuzism and certainly in the broader range of French philosophy. But that particular angle, which in many ways was insulated, right, from socio-political or socio-economic concerns is one that, you know, I sort of left behind. But it was an excellent, if rather monastic apprenticeship, right? [Am laughs] Particularly, in understanding this kind of tradition. But I do think if I hadn't been again, in this business park in the Midlands, surrounded by some very intense and Empire-drinking folk, and living instead in an urban space with, you know, political activity, or what have you, I could have done very different work for what it's worth.
Am Johal 5:44
And later on you did a book on fanaticism, on the uses of an idea, in 2010, I had a chance to read it, maybe five years after it came out. It's a wonderful book. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about where that project began?
Alberto Toscano 5:59
Yeah, that's still a lot closer to my concerns, and I suppose the very concrete or immediate source of it was, of course, the wake of the invasion of Iraq. And, of course there — not the resurgence, because it had been, you know, around for long, very long, in many of its mutations. But the intensification, let’s say, of a kind of discourse of geopolitical enmity, of Islamophobia of, recombinant kind of Orientalism that was used in many ways to package the war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on. Now, what I was particularly struck, or what I really wanted to target, and it's in many ways, even though, you know, it takes a detour through all sorts of seemingly very distant things like, you know, millenarian, peasant revolts, and, you know, Freud's writings on religion or what have you. I mean, the real target was a certain intellectual and even to some extent kind of journalistic response to what was happening, which was based on identifying religious extremism, or the subjective mentality of religious extremism, and it's kind of supposedly automatic consequences, and, you know, mass political collective violence, terrorism, etc. As the real source, right, of all of the troubles that we were experiencing, and it was really around the circulation of this notion of fanaticism, that I thought one could do some work, which was both intellectually and historically stimulating in its own right, but also had a kind of critical purpose, critical purchase also, vis-a-vis the present moment.
And the curious thing is that I'd actually encountered the philosophical notion of fanaticism, back when I was at Warwick in a very different context, looking at the German idealist philosopher, Schelling, and his philosophy of nature. And actually fanaticism, as I then tried to trace in the book became a very significant notion in the context of the German enlightenment in German idealism, and around the responses to religious thinking and religious modes of understanding the world in that kind of, you know, late 18th century, early 19th century moment. So you find kind of theories of fanaticism, in Kant, in Schelling, in Hegel, and so on. And I thought that that could be an interesting resource for thinking critically, you know, through positions of, of course, philosophically, terribly unsophisticated and crude that you might encounter in op-eds by the likes of I don't know, Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, or, you know, the kind of critique of religion by the likes of Dawkins, or Sam Harris, or what have you. But to try and get at that notion and use it to sort of unravel, right? To the sources of this thinking, and then perhaps allow us to think, you know, quite differently about the relationship between politics, belief, violence, and one notion, which then remained significant for me as well, which was the notion of abstraction, right? In many ways. The fanatic, at least within European philosophy, was perceived both as somebody who had this extremely intense and violent conviction, but also someone whose conviction was abstract, right? So this is the way in which Hegel, for instance, brought together in a very bizarre kind of short circuit, the supposed fanaticism of Islam, of the very figure Muhammad and the fanaticism of the French Jacobin, revolutionaries, right. So one of the things I tried to trace is these, you know, these curious analogies and short circuits, right? Where for a while, people would speak about communism as the Islam of the 20th century, only to be then relayed by people closer to us, speaking of Islam as communism of the 21st. So it was this kind of these kinds of moves that I was trying to sort of engage in a kind of critical, philosophical history of, but it was very much as a way of thinking through the social, ideological and political consequences of that, you know, moment of the early 2000s, really.
Am Johal 9:58
It's interesting. There's these figures from the right like Carl Schmitt, who wrote The Partisan, and there's a lot of philosophical debates, particularly in the French, Jean-Luc Nancy and others around friendship and community. So there was parts of reading through that that some similar themes came out of it, but that use of the word fanatic, as well as something separate from those, as well.
Alberto Toscano 10:20
Yeah. And one of the things that I also, and I still think, is at least one of the areas of the book that — one of the kind of discoveries of sorts for me, not for others, necessarily, but that that came along with the book was also the way in which this pejorative discourse of fanaticism had been mobilized in the 19th century in two very significant contexts that are still with us, right? So the context of colonial counterinsurgency, specifically, in the first half of the 19th century, in India, or something, you know, under the British Empire, something that comes out quite significantly in a lot of writings of subaltern studies historians, actually — where one can also trace this kind of counter-history of fanaticism. And the other one was, of course, the identification of radical immediatist abolitionism in the run-up to the Civil War, and indeed, also, in the context of radical reconstruction as a figure of fanaticism, right? So whether it's in the slave revolt of Nat Turner, or in the attempted revolution against slavery, instigated by John Brown, or indeed even in the, you know, nonviolent writings and agitation of Wendell Phillips, or Garrison and so on, there was this idea of the abolitionist as a fanatic. So I was very struck by this strange discourse where somehow the same figure could cover you know, Muhammad, Robespierre, you know, John Brown, peasant insurgencies in India, Lenin, and so on and so forth. Right? So I thought there was something quite symptomatic there that might allow a counter-history to draw different threats between these moments and these figures.
Am Johal 11:48
Now, you did a book with Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute, also a really interesting and unique book. I actually remember the discussion around a very obscure 1981 film called Wolfen in there, which I forgot that I had watched so long ago, I forgot that it existed and it was an interesting way to bring that back into circulation. But wondering if you can share a little bit about that project. It was definitely very different than any other things I've read in that zone.
Alberto Toscano 12:17
Oh, thanks. Yeah, I mean, that project was a very different one. I mean, in its own way, very much incited, and kind of crystallized around an event, right? So the 2007/8 credit crunch and global financial crisis. And it was the sort of confluence of trying to think through that. And then, and then doing some teaching work around film, digital representation, and so on and so forth, that kind of gave birth to that project with this friend and former student of mine, Jeff Kinkle. Who's written a very — was writing — just finished a very interesting doctorate on the late writings of the French situationist Guy Debord. Initially, it was a kind of somewhat extemporaneous thing where we just were talking about various cultural artifacts of the late 90s and early 2000s, you know, The Wire. We kind of got into writing about that together. And then we eventually a friend commissioned us to write something for Film Quarterly, reviewing fictional and documentary films that had, in some sense or another, responded to the financial crisis. And, that was the kind of germ cell — the source for then ranging in a much broader way through logistics, photography, and touching to some extent, on some novels, like those of William Gibson. And then, you know, landing on this, you know, film that both Jeff and I, I think, separately had developed a sort of curious obsession with which was Wolfen, incidentally, made by the same director as a Woodstock film. So it's an interesting periodizing object in its own right. And more recently, apparently, somebody is making a documentary about Wolfen and, and wanted to interview Jeff and myself. So I hope that still happens. Because it's kind of extremely, it's an extremely bizarre artifact of that film, as we tried to draw out. But yeah, so the idea was to then, yeah, bring all of these films, these at times, kind of very symptomatic films.That somehow sought to map the crisis and to rethink some of the debates about the representation of capital coming out of, you know, broadly kind of Marxist literary criticism, and specifically out of the work of Frederic Jameson. And try to, you know, see to what extent those kind of frameworks were still apt for thinking the present. And then engage in a kind of live, semi-live dialectical criticism about things that were being produced at the time, both in a more artistic context, and in a more kind of popular, demotic one, so to speak. But it's possibly the most fun thing I have written as well. It's kind of, it was after the rather demanding, kind of emergence into texts of those two previous books, there was something — yeah, some kind of like liberating about thinking in a more — thinking through kind of present materials, kind of as they were being produced, and also doing it with somebody else. Right, which I think also kind of frees you up in ways that solitary scholarship does not.
Am Johal 15:03
I totally agree. I wanted to ask you about your translation work. I've done some of my doctoral work related to Alain Badiou’s work, very complex and complicated. And wondering if you can talk about your relationship to translation, maybe starting with Badiou's work, how you came upon some of that work.
Alberto Toscano 15:22
So how I came upon the work was in bookshops, visiting my parents when they were living in Geneva. And I had very rusty school French. But Badiou, I think ‘97 had published this book on Deleuze. And I had, in my undergraduate degree, which was at The New School, Eugene Lang College at The New School in New York. Deleuze's work specifically actually is his book on ancient philosophy. Unsurprisingly, I got into Nietzsche in my late teens, and that got me into philosophy. I guess it’s not an entirely predictable experience. But the interest Deleuze then drew me to this book, you know. Initially, it's kind of short, very peculiar and both polemical, and curiously sympathetic book on Deleuze, was published, I guess, shortly after Deleuze's death. So I think that Badiou's book is ‘97 and Deleuze died in ‘95, I think. And it struck me as like the only really interesting response, right, the only really interesting critique, and I think it was the first text that was not the kind of text of Deleuzian commentary or exposition, but rather a critique that really, that really stimulated me or that I found really important. And so then basically, at the time, nothing was, you know, translated. So I think whilst I was doing my master's degree, I was, yeah, I was reading, I got a copy of that formidable, but formatively dense book that is Being and Event in French, and worked through that.
Alberto Toscano 16:39
And then we had this journal, Pli, a very Deleuzian title, the fold, the World Journal of Philosophy, which I worked on for a while. And what we did, there was a kind of graduate student, sort of — I don't know how you want to call it, it's a kind of scheme of sorts, where basically, we produce these issues where half the issue was translations of text by, you know, super famous, French, Italian, and German philosophers, that nobody could get. So obviously, people wanted this, a journal somewhat, you know, samisdat, DIY journal produced out of this campus in Coventry. And then of course, like, the other half of the articles were things that we'd written, right. So just a bit cheeky, but it worked very well. And that was a very, very interesting and very formative experience. I think I reviewed something by Badiou and also translated some articles. In fact, the chapter of The Century, which I then ended up translating as a whole, later on. And in fact, it was on the back of that, I think my supervisor at the time, Keith Ansell-Pearson, was in touch with Badiou for some reason. So, he sent them a copy of this, and then I got into contact with Badiou. So that was also part of the reason of how to access the translation. So initially, I suppose it was a matter of, both trying to work out my own ideas about this very interesting philosopher, who has a kind of novelty within the domain of at least the English language reception of French philosophy. Also, I guess, it is a kind of tried and true form of philosophical apprenticeship. You know, translating, sometimes editing and introducing — in the case of Badiou, who I have written quite a few things on, most of them both critical and sympathetic. It was really — I was more kind of interested in the craft of translation, rather than having these, you know, sort of bloated critical additions in which had introduced all my own thoughts about. But I kind of did that elsewhere. And I actually really liked his writing. There was something kind of satisfying just about the craft of translation and the sense of when you'd got it right — you could tell it was right.
Alberto Toscano 18:32
And he writes in very different registers, you know, at times, with great force and simplicity. Probably coming out of, you know, long history of writing Maoist, and post-Maoist pamphlets with lots of numbers, and dictums, and axioms, and the mathematical clarity. But then also the super complex syntax that comes from being a commentator on Jacques Lacan or on the poetry of Malema and so on. So it's really like — it is a great, you know — I think it was a great training school for translation. And then more recently, instead as a kind of different as part of this project, to try to make a lot of Italian literary and critical and theoretical thought previously passed over available to an English-language audience with, via Seagull. Via this list that I run, that I've done a lot of translation, more in that vein. Which is different because some of it is actually a little bit more like literary translation. And in fact, I'm doing or will be doing probably my first entirely non-theoretical bit of translation. Which is this wonderful diary, journal, by a partisan leader Pietro Chiodi, who was a philosopher but writes this political journal as a partisan. He was, in fact, ironically, Heidegger's translator into Italian. Tells, in fact, a very peculiar anecdote about being arrested by either a stop, or the German authorities. And they asked him if he knows such good German and he says he's translated Heidegger. And of course, they have no idea who Heidegger is. So they think he's some kind of communists, which is terribly ironic.
Am Johal 19:56
In translating Badiou, did you have to really become an expert in set theory and the mathematical part?
Alberto Toscano 20:02
That's tricky. That's a very, that's a very tricky match. I did. And in fact, my task was even worse, because whilst I managed the hard slog to get to grips at least at the time. But he was actually very good in his own peculiar way, like a very good pedagogue, right? About how he presents this sort of set-theoretical armature to his whole book. But the book that had the big tome, the big treatise that I translated, Logics of Worlds, goes into this even more formatively contorted bit of mathematics I category through. Which I had planned, of course, to auto-didactically school myself in, but the demands of lecturing and writing and having my own projects, including very much the fanaticism one, kind of got in the way. So I did as much as I could. But no, I can't say that I mastered category theory. Though I hope that — I have not heard of any blunders that were generated by that. I think the peculiar thing about the book is that actually, unlike Being and Event where I think the mathematical or the set-theoretical structure and argument are woven together, much more closely, I think in Logics of Worlds, it's a bit more of a compartmentalized book. So there's actually a lot of, you know, there's rather more formalism, right? In it, but a lot of that is, you can cut and paste the formulas and the equations without necessarily having to fully work them out, because the text doesn't necessarily work on that level.
Am Johal 21:23
I was gonna ask you about the edited volume you're involved with, The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics.
Alberto Toscano 21:30
Yeah, so that was done with a very good friend of mine, Lorenzo Chiesa whose out — also did his doctorate at Warwick. And who's a specialist amongst other things of Jacques Lacan, has written a great few brilliant books on him. But also is, you know, I was working on Italian thought, philosophy, critical theory and the like. And, yeah, there was a short book by — kind of pamphlet by Negri, Antonio Negri called The Italian Difference. This was before, a few years before. And I think in some sense instigated the broader project, of trying to forge this kind of thing called Italian theory by some people, including by the philosopher, Roberto Esposito, who wrote this, you know, interesting book, called Living Thought, where he goes through, especially, you know, the likes of Giambattista Vico and Gramsci, of Gentile and Croce, and so on.
So, yeah, that was a slightly, kind of extemporaneous thing of trying to build the volume around that intervention by Negri and then, you know, making some strands of Italian thought known. I mean, there's something I think interesting with any tradition of thought that's not originally in the English language or even in the English language, but that is happening in a totally different context, right? Like the Indian subcontinent or elsewhere. The patterns and protocols through which stuff circulates or travels gets translated, I find quite fascinating. And so in the case of Italian thinking, in general, but you know, also domains like literary criticism, philosophy, Marxism, there's been very peculiar histories right? So figures that are very significant in Italy are entirely unknown in the English-speaking world. But sometimes figures who were not that major or that central, even though they might be very interesting within Italy, because somebody on the outside — or some gatekeeper or intellectual producer of great significance, say something like the New Left Review is a very interesting case.
So, someone who I think is a fantastic figure, this philologist and Marxist theorist Sebastiano Timpanaro was, massively translated by the New Left Review. Things of his were published by Verso etc. He ended up being considerably better known in a kind of English context than in an Italian one, to some extent. Or still was present far longer. But then other traditions of thought are kind of, you know, never made it. Because a lot of it is also very contingent. Somebody decides to become obsessed with a particular thinker and translate all of their work, or what have you. So I think that that increasingly sort of fascinates me. And it goes back a long while, I mean, I remember years ago finding out that there was this like, obscure, follower of Schelling. Krauser, I think was his name. With the 19th century, like, completely dominated like the very conception of pedagogy and the university and like Colombia, and, and I think maybe even Venezuela, in any case, in the Caribbean, bit of Latin America.
But who nobody remembers in Germany or in much of Europe? So I think I find those — yeah, this history is kind of interesting, also, from a reflexive standpoint. Like knowing how contingent it is, who translated what when, what audiences they found, how it's circulated. And, you know, some of the work, for instance, with Seagull is based on you know, somewhat mad wager, which is made possible by the immense intellectual generosity of the people working at Seagull, and especially with the editor, Naveen Kishore, of proposing texts that have been completely buried or forgotten in Italy, to a contemporary Anglophone and hopefully more global public and seeing what happens. So that’s a bit of a long version.
Am Johal 24:52
So you've been teaching for a number of years in the UK before arriving in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University, but you've spoken quite a bit, critiquing the neoliberalization of higher education in the UK. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to what you and your colleagues have been experiencing in the UK in the university sector the past few years?
Alberto Toscano 25:15
Yeah, it's been near on two decades. And again, especially the time from the financial crash, and you know, the real onset of austerity onwards. But also how that was prepared by your neighbour governments — have been a real lesson, right? Like living inside this grim laboratory in new managerialism and in marketization — has been instructive, at times painful, often has been galvanizing at times, also in terms of the forms of resistance, or efforts at resistance by colleagues and comrades in the UCU, and the lecturers union by students in different waves of student mobilization. Especially around the tripling of tuition fees back in the winter of 2010. So, it's a very complex phenomenon, some of which, of course, replicates things that you've already experienced here. And that in other scenarios, or perhaps even more, have accelerated even faster. But there has been something, I think, very damaging and dispiriting about the turn that this has taken in the United Kingdom. And I guess one could sort of periodize it or think of it in terms of a kind of sequence whereby I guess, when I arrived, so this would have been — well to do my doctorate in the late 90s, like a year after, I guess, the establishment of Tony Blair's New Labour government — what you had was partly because of a credit-driven upward business cycle or what have you. You had that kind of sense of a bringing in, of marketizing, and auditing, neoliberal mechanisms, in a context of — the aim at increasing University attendance. So New Labour famously had this kind of 50% of high school leavers should get a college degree. And there was quite a bit of money for research, both British and European, of course, at the time. And so I think a lot of academics, especially senior academics, senior research, academics, basically accepted this kind of bargain. So they accepted the bargain of an increasing incursion of managerial auditing and metric mechanisms. Because at the time, these allowed people to get more resources for the research, to have more time off, to have assistance or what have you. And this was quite a step change. I mean, I remember being taught by somebody at Kent Law School that until the early 90s, this was at the time quite a Marxist law school, the department systematically refused to go for promotion, because then they would become management, right? So yeah, it's like, 50 to 60 year old, esteemed academics will just remain at the lecturer level or the senior lecturer level, because otherwise they join the manager class, right? So this is a complete flip, let's say from the kind of those mentalities. And then of course, when the crisis and austerity hit, and also, of course, the much more intensely blinkered conservative, you know, in purely nostalgic — and these days in a downright reactionary kind of cultural war mentality of the conservatives — became established then. And also not least more recently, the context of Brexit. Which cut off a lot of contact to European research funding and the like. This has created really a kind of untenable situation. And part of it is also a matter of the political economy of the university. I have a very — if you want to read anything about this, the work of, of my friend, Andrew McGettigan, has been really wonderful in mapping that out. One of the things that happens is, as a matter of compromise, the British state basically owns the student loan book. So, students do not pay the money upfront, they enter into debt, but this is a debt that's only supposed to be paid back once they pass a certain threshold of income. And so they've created this whole system that is now really concocted to fail at the purely fiscal level. 60 to 70% of students, more so in certain subjects, I say, philosophy, media, theater, music, etc., we'll never pay back any of their fees. Because after 20 years, or 25 years, I forget what the number is — of never reaching that level of income, which is higher than the average income, they will default on it. And so the state holds all of this massive, bad… maybe a trillion, I don't know how much money but you know, massive, bad student debt. Which they are now trying to use, for instance, to police universities into shutting departments or curtailing funding for departments that don't generate income — don't have income-generating degrees, or degrees that will lead predictably to students making enough money to pay all this, to pay all this back. And so this has created even more proliferation of even more invasive mechanisms, which are then also combined, right? So there's a kind of double game on the one hand, all of the complex neoliberal machinery to deal with this not very neoliberal situation, right? Of a state that holds this vast amount of student debt, right? It's not banks as such, yet. And then on the other hand, especially in the past couple of years in the wake of Brexit, of Johnson's super reactionary regime, also this accelerated kind of cultural war scenario. So often either the supposed incursion of a kind of office for free speech, so that, you know, you'll be obliged to let fascists speak at your university or what have you — all of these things are now creating a kind of pincer movement, right? So, a kind of austerity and reaction, and a real crisis of funding for universities. Many of which, especially the weaker ones, so to speak, to use that language, are being put in a situation, or have made bad choices to put themselves into a situation of making lots of people redundant. So there's of course, very inspiring struggles going on, but they're very rearguard struggles. They're very defensive, lesser evil struggles in this context, which has been rigged to make intellectual and pedagogic life kind of impossible. So yeah, let that be a warning. Whenever anyone introduces any new measure, [Am laughs] even if it's something as seemingly innocuous, as you know, the mandatory use of certain, software for management or timetable — just think what that apparatus, ‘dispositif’ à la Foucault, could do in the worst possible scenario, right? Like cause I think that that's what became really clear, all of the stuff that got introduced when things are not that critical or frightening, or indeed for some people, there was a fairly buoyant time where they were making more money, or having more research funding, etc. Just think of what those mechanisms can do when University funding is cut by 25%. Or when some super reactionary government comes into power at the federal or the provincial level? You know, I think that's the kind of — the sort of dystopian stress test, right? That one has to do, I think, with everything that is introduced, especially in terms of management within the university. Because once those mechanisms become normalized, it's extremely difficult to resist them, I think. And that's part of the point, right, like? Like part of the point of the auditing and managerial mechanisms, is not just their kind of ideological naturalization, but just the sort of, like, materially indispensable character to the reproduction of the university, and the way that you can't really get around them. So for instance, things like the ways in which research has been measured, right? First, the research assessment exercise, and the research excellence framework, etc., were brought in, in a way that was made attractive to academics who thought that they were very productive — that they did a lot of research, that, they, you know, etc., in this kind of competitive way. You know, my department is better than yours, and all that. But once the funding dries out, then that’s just used as a disciplinary mechanism to make people redundant. So you've kind of agreed to measure yourself for their future cuts. Like, so all of that, you know, you have to kind of like, think of yourself as in a sort of situation of like, ‘well what would these things do in the moment that a university wants to make people redundant?’ Which given business cycles and capitalist crises, is like something one should probably foresee and forecast.
Am Johal 33:11
So, yeah, definitely seeing parts of this area already unfold in the Canadian context for sure. One of the questions I was going to ask you about was some more recent writing that you've been doing. I think it originally was an article in Boston Review, but I think you're — I don't know if you're extending it into a chapter or a book. But I wanted to ask you about this notion of the returns of racial fascism in the contemporary moment in your kind of reading and thinking around that.
Alberto Toscano 33:40
Well I suppose — I mean, not to find a sort of recursive pattern. But yeah I suppose if the work on fanaticism was responding to the events of 2003, and the cartographies one, to the events of 2007–2008 I guess... you know, events which of course have very long and deep histories, in their own right. I suppose wanting to test theories of fascism against this very peculiar, disturbing moment in which we found ourselves globally. From Modi, to Duterte, to Trump, to the rise of the far-right in Europe, to Brexit, and so on and so forth — to Bolsonaro in Brazil. And myriad people have unsurprisingly, have the same theoretical insights — not least, you know. Because basically, if there was anything such as critical theory, it is an effort to think fascism as it emerges, and to try to forge some of the intellectual tools to struggle against it now.
The first thing that I tried to do, which was in a brief piece and in some talks, was to try to think about the ways — what do we make of all the ways in which contemporary fascisms or authoritarianisms — of course, the naming is itself an issue. What do we make about their analogies and disanalogies, with historical fascism analogies, which have to do with their mass basis, with the relationship to capitalist crisis, and with the ways in which, efforts to simply think the present as a repetition of the post-war period — post World War One period in Italy, Germany, or for that matter, Romania or Spain or Portugal.
It just doesn't work, whilst nevertheless, a lot of those theories do help us to grasp things about the present. So initially I kind of did that, and then I tried to map these analogies and disanalogies, and I tried to sort of propose this idea or notion of a kind of — what I call the late fascism, kind of riffing on Mandel's idea of late capitalism. Or the fact that Jameson talks about Adorno’s work as a late Marxism. I tried to use that to think, what is it about — also the kind of seemingly anachronistic, or out of time, nature of some of these fascist fantasies and desires — as they relate to the global present.
But then I suppose, I became more convinced or struck and, this is obviously also in part in response to all of the global struggles against racist state violence, and global debates about decolonization, and the like, to really try to think through the resources provided by anti-colonial and Black radical traditions of thought vis-a-vis fascism. Because in some sense, so many of the debates about the analogy and disanalogy of fascism were caught in a purely European perimeter. At least an intellectual perimeter, if not a kind of geographic and historical one. And I think working through that material, you know, from George Padmore’s writings about what he called the colonial fascism of the British Empire. Through to Aimé Césaire’s political and poetic work on the kind of boomerang effect of colonialism and the genesis of European fascism itself. All the way to the writings on fascism, of the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and then much more close to us, the writings of the likes of Angela Davis and George Jackson, which I deal with at some greater length in that Boston Review piece. That made me convinced that in some sense, one kind of has to abandon that analogical frame, which is an analogical frame, that depends on the idea that there is something, not just singular — which is uncontroversial — but entirely kind of exceptional, in some sense, isolated, about the phenomenon of intra-European fascism.
Which of course, involves bracketing out entirely the frighteningly visible influence of colonial and imperial history. But also the history of white supremacy within the United States, in the genesis of Nazi and fascist imaginaries, policies, and indeed, even legal provisions, which, there's much scholarly work on. How many of these were taken directly from the contemporary United States and from the provisions for segregation in the south, and so on and so forth. And so therefore, instead of thinking, well, there's this one moment that happens in the interwar period, we call it Weimar, we call it European fascism or etc. And then how does this match or not match what is happening in 2016, to the present? It was instead a matter of thinking, what if we expand that notion of fascisms to processes and tendencies that have both a far longer history that goes back to the forums of rule, and violence and ideology that undergird colonialism and racial capitalism. But also, what happens if we think of them as continuing after World War Two? Which was of course perceived as a sort of magical cessation of all things fascist by a certain kind of ideology. And that is, I guess, what led me to, in a somewhat contrarian way, to propose the kind of hypotheses that actually — all of those people like Davis, Jackson, but you know, there's also a lot of European versions of this in the far left. People who brought up the language of fascism in the wake of ‘68 and in the wake of the reaction to the world’s 60s were not, as is usually said in literature on fascism, simply exaggerating, or creating this Boogeyman or using this term out of all proportion, but actually getting at something intellectually and politically and theoretically very significant. Which is to think, as Angela Davis says, of fascism as this process that can take very different forms, that need not manifest itself in the guises that are familiar, or recognizable, from the very specific Interwar European history. And of course, repetition is never an identity, right? In the historical sense, so I think being sensitive to that is then what I wanted to explore — both engaging and kind of reconstructing and recovering this history, also by figures like Cedric Robinson, who himself mapped out what he called, Black radical theories of fascism, but also seeing about their kind of applicability to the present. And that's the kind of — it's hopefully a short book that I'm working on. But I think that will really be in a sense, the core of it, right? Developing further, some of those arguments from the Boston Review piece, and then kind of companion piece that came out recently called incipient fascism, black radical perspectives, where I just kind of expand that. Somewhat, somewhat more. And, yeah, and I think there's been, there's been a lot of very interesting and important recent work on this theme. So if I can make any kind of contribution to that debate, I'll be more than happy.
Am Johal 41:02
Oh, fantastic. It's such a timely piece of work.
Alberto Toscano 41:05
Yeah, yeah I wish it weren't but...
Am Johal 41:06
Yeah, that's right. So my last question to you was going to be you've landed now at Simon Fraser University. Can you just talk a little bit about what you'll be doing here while you're in Vancouver at SFU?
Alberto Toscano 41:18
So I've come as a visiting faculty at the Digital Democracies Institute. In fact, I had the pleasure of presenting some somewhat connected work on fascism there a few months ago, specifically around this book. Which is really in its own way, a kind of pioneering text on fascism and questions of communication, which is Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman’s book, Prophets of Deceit, which Verso published recently. I did an introduction, which took me to, you know, really looking at a lot of these debates in the late 30s and early 40s, right? So when the so-called Frankfurt School in exile, lands at first on the East Coast and now the West Coast of the United States — and really tries to study these forms of incipient, or potential, or latent fascism within the US. And thus, so specifically by analyzing and studying forms of communication and communication technology, not least, of course, at the time — the radio, in fact, that's how Adorno manages to get out of his PhD at Oxford, incidentally — to work at the Princeton Radio Research Project, with Paul Lazarsfeld, which is incidentally, part of the whole archaeology of Facebook, right? Which is intriguing. That's where they first do the like and dislike studies, which are the kind of precursor of the frightening present we find ourselves in. And so there's a whole irony about the study of fascism, having had this kind of key moment, in this lab. And I think in Newark, New Jersey, converted a beer factory where they were, you know, engaging in these kinds of communication and reception studies and the like. So, yeah, it's been a wonderful context, right? In which to think through these things, including in our ongoing seminars, there's a lot of — both in the institute, but also in terms of people affiliated and coming through really fascinating work being done on all of the modalities of contemporary — you know, all the ways in which, also contemporary authoritarianism, reaction, and new forms of racism and the like circulate through very specific — and are transformed and altered by their modes of circulation and communication. Through algorithms, through platforms, etc., etc.
It's also very useful for me because as a total kind of, more or less total social media luddite, I get my, my reports, my kind of understanding, at a sort of remove. And yeah, and I've been teaching — now this is my second term actually, both undergraduate and graduate students at the School of Communication. So last term, a course on media and ideology, which of course, was also a wonderful way of working through some of the same material that I'm thinking through for this fascism book. You know, whether it's the writings of Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, and Adorno’s has very different writings on the radio, and so on and so forth. And then this term I'm doing a grad seminar, which is basically an effort to bring the work that I did in Cartographies, into connection with contemporary debates around racial capitalism and race and representation. So the course is called ‘Mapping Racial Capitalism’. Mapping Capitalism was a course that I had at Goldman's, right, out of which Jeff and I came up with a cartographies book. So that's what I'm doing now. And it's been really, it's been really great with all the constraints of doing these things by Zoom. But nevertheless, I have really, really gained a lot from it. So just yesterday, we had a wonderful discussion about Cedric Robinson's critique of Blaxploitation, and what he called the misrepresentation of the politics of liberation. And Huey Newton's praise of the Melvin van Peebles’s 1971 Blaxploitation classic, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. And so thinking through those two things together, and through the very, you know — also discovering, as we were talking about these things, these weird ways in which they both — and this only really came up with a semina so clearly for me. They both deal not just with the question of capitalism, race and representation, but actually make very, very significant remarks about the place of urban space and landscape — which I hadn't caught before, but which really resonated with a lot of the stuff that I was thinking about, with Jeff in Cartographies, including in the Wolfen chapter. Which was very much about the ways in which these lateral perceptions, of the city at the onset of neoliberalism plays in these kinds of fantastical sort of narratives. So yeah, that's been really great. And I'm really looking forward to being at SFU in the empirical, Burnaby and downtown sense. And actually seeing people, and having an office, and all of those seemingly distant experiences, but yeah.
Am Johal 44:46
Yeah, Alberto, thank you so much for joining us.
Alberto Toscano 44:53
Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Melissa Roach 44:57
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with Alberto Toscano. You can find links to Alberto’s works and affiliations in the show notes, as well as a link to the full transcript of this episode. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.