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A New Language for a New World: Review of Laust Schouenborg, International Institutions in World History

The basic insight that drives the argument presented in this book is that we need a new way of thinking about international politics which does not privilege European experiences and the idea of a sovereign state. This is required since we need to be able to talk about other parts of the world, about European history before the rise of the state, and about a future in which the state no longer will be with us. World history, simply put, is not about the state, and it really isn’t the case that der Gang Gottes in der Welt daß der Staat ist. And people who claim that this is the case — not only Hegel, but all philosophers of history from Adam Ferguson to Walt Whitman Rostow — are simply mistaken. Compare the recently fashionable idea of a “failed state.” To identify a state as having failed is to identify it as not living up to a European standard. It is like saying that a woman is a “failed man.”

Laust Schouenborg‘s suggestion is to dispense with state-talk in favor of a discussion of political functions. We should stop talking about what political entities are and focus instead on what they do. Perhaps we could think of this as a move from ontology to practice. We are in Durkheimian territory, in other words, or Talcott Parsonian. The state, says Schouenborg, can be disaggregated into four functions having to do with 1) legitimacy and membership; 2) conflict regulation; 3) trade, and 4) governance.

Since all polities of whichever kind they may be fulfill these basic functions, this, not the state, should be our focus. Instead of a state-centered vocabulary which only allows us to talk sensibly only about Europe, a function-centered vocabulary allows us to talk sensibly about all of world history and everyone everywhere.  This taxonomy provides a “basic grid,” says Schouenborg, which is neutral between historical and geographical contexts. “So, my general argument in this book is not only that four functional categories can be used to capture social institutions throughout history. I also argue that we should discard the main alternative conceptual framework in the form of the state and the attendant stage models.”

In order to demonstrate the viability of this idea, Schouenborg goes looking in some pretty remote places; the remotest ones, in fact, that he can find: nomadic Central Asia, the rainforests of tropical Africa and the Polynesian islands. If his four functions operate in these environments, is his argument, they should operate everywhere else too. This is why we are treated to a review of topics as diverse as lineages and kinship systems in Polynesia (legitimacy and membership); tribute giving in Northeastern Asia (conflict regulation); the use of raffia cloths among the Lele (trade); and sacral kingship among the Khazars (governance). Schouenborg has a predilection for the terminology recycled by anthropologists and he sprinkles the terms evenly throughout the book: bo’ol, qarachu, qariki, tapu, aloha, trombash, gama, malaang, lemba, nenekisibwami, and so on. And he likes bizarre examples: in battle the Marquesans would beat their enemies to a pulp, cut a slit through their bodies and then wear them as a large, rather unwieldy, poncho; among the Lele there were “village wives,” purchased with funds from the village treasury, and employed to provide local youths with sexual experiences. Apparently the occasional married man could rely on their services too.

The world really is a weird and wonderful place, and world history even more so, and strange people have done the strangest of things, but — and this is the point of this disparate collection of trivia and obscure terminology — it can all be summarized by means of Schouenborg’s four functions.

The conceptual framework

One obvious question is why we should focus on these four functions and not some others. States are doing many other things after all — dispensing bread and circuses, enforcing religious truths, organizing child care, planning highways, handing out unemployment benefits, and much else besides. Schouenborg’s strategy here is to argue either that these other functions are unimportant or that they can be subsumed under one or the other of the four functions he has identified. We might decide to trust him on this, or we might not, and it is interesting in its own right to ask how we ever would decide such an issue. Let us think some more about this.

A problem for all functionalist accounts of society — Schouenborg’s included — is that a given social practice simultaneously can serve many different functions. What is the function of a family dinner, we might ask. Surely it is to feed the family members, but it is also to give cohesion to the family, affirm its difference from the outside world, or perhaps to prop up the patriarchal system, or bourgeois society, or the agro-industrial complex. Which of these functions to pick is not obvious, and there is always a temptation — from Marx to Bourdieu — to pick the function which is least obvious to the naked eye. This is one of the ways in which social scientists make themselves into “truth tellers” who reveal the “mechanics” that “underlie” the surfaces of our everyday world. The better hidden the function, we are supposed to believe, the more fundamental it is — and the more remarkable its discoverer.

On the other hand, once we have decided that a certain function must exist, we will always manage to find it. It is a bit like reading a medical dictionary. If you read about the symptoms for “gout,” for example, you will inevitably discover that you have them, and the same goes for the symptoms of “tennis elbow” and “housemaid’s knee.” If we say, for example, that all societies must provide answers to questions regarding “the meaning of life,” we will find that this function is fulfilled by churches in some societies, by mosques and temples in others, but also that some societies rely mainly on technology for answers or even on slivers of wafer-thin mints. Likewise, if we decide that all societies must find a means of assuring social stability, political legitimacy, justice or freedom, we are bound to find that they all, somehow or another, do. Functionalism, in other words, is difficult to falsify.

Functionalism is also, as Dennis Wrong once famously argued, bad at explaining social change. And this is the case since functionalism cannot stipulate the conditions for functional breakdown. And this, in turn, is a result of the bracketing of human agency and the inability to account for the appearance of the new. There is a stasis at the heart of all functional models. Schouenborg inherits these problems but at least he is explicit about it. What interests him is the “second-order dimension” of society, he says, not the “first-order dimension,” that is, individual human beings.

Besides, as he makes clear, he is not in the business of providing explanations anyway. “The functional categories are a typology, a system of classification. They do not explain anything; we are not dealing with an explanatory theory.”  The typology may explain something in the future but “that is beyond the scope of this book.” “I have made an argument for a new measuring rod. That is all for now.”

But this is also the problem. There is no given way in which the world must be and there is consequently no particular way in which it must be divided. There are no concepts, taxonomies or basic grids out there in the world. Instead you divide, conceptualize and taxonomize for a certain purpose, in order to explain a certain thing. Ontology is theory-dependent. This is the reason why you cannot, in abstracto, say which conceptual scheme that is better and which one that is worse. This is also why attempts at conceptual legislation fail. The only way you can establish a new conceptualization, and its attendant vocabulary, is by showing what work it can do. If others are convinced by your explanation, they will use the same framework and the taxonomy will eventually stick. But Shouenberg is explicitly not theorizing, only legislating.

The issue here is very similar to the problem that plagues Emanuel Adler and Vincent Poulliot’s recent attempt to convince colleagues to make use of “practices” as a key notion in the study of international politics. “Adler and Pouliot make the mistake of treating practices as though they were “raw data” ― data which is given prior to any theorization ― yet there can be no such thing as a practice apart from the theories and research questions which identify it.” Shouenberg, we said, has moved from ontology to practices and he too forswears theories and explanations, but you will never know which way to slice up the world unless you know which slices your theoretical framework requires. Thoughts come before words, not words before thoughts; you need to know what to measure before you design your measuring rod.  Schouenborg’s conceptual framework may be brilliant, but him saying so isn’t enough.

The empirical cases

Since the empirical case studies are illustrations of the conceptual framework and not studies in their own right it is nitpicky to criticize them. What we are given are not research notes but the notes which Schouenborg’s took as he was reading the works of others. And as he rather disarmingly admits, these readings were neither as extensive nor as detailed as he would have wished. This is fine of course. No one really cares about the Lele or the Xiongnu anyway. They are just illustrations. It is the big picture that counts.

Yet Schouenborg is a prisoner of the books he has come across and this does influence his analysis. Jan Vansina‘s work on the Kuba and the Anziku in Congo is indeed pathbreaking, but Vansina discussed societies of sedentary farmers not the societies of Pygmies who also live here. Since Pygmies are hunters and gatherers the logic of their social and political organization is quite different. Compare the unforgettable account of the “forest people” provided by Colin Turnbull.

Similarly, in his discussion of Central Asia Schouenborg relies heavily on the work of David Sneath and Nicola di Cosmo, but there are no references to Anatoly Khazanov, Etienne de la Vaissière, or even Owen Lattimore. As a result he doesn’t confront Khazanov’s insistence that the nomads of the steppes always and inextricably were dependent on their farming neighbors and he doesn’t deal with Lattimore’s claim that the walls of northern China were built to keep Chinese farmers in as much as to keep the nomads out. The Chinese tributary system was not, as Schouenborg implies, a way of extorting revenue from the peoples of the steppe but rather a way for the Chinese to forge a social, patrimonial, relationship with potential enemies.

These facts matter not only for the sake of the historical record but also for the conceptual framework. Take territoriality. The four functions are bound to operate quite differently in a society which is peripatetic rather than sedentary. Indeed they may operate sufficiently differently for the functions no longer to be the same. One example is social control. The steppe is vast, and as long as you have two rested horses and a saddlebag of supplies you can escape most attempts to control you. This means that questions of membership and conflict resolution will function quite differently in such a society, but so will questions of trade and governance. If running away and being judged by state courts both are ways of “conflict resolution,” the concept is stretched to breaking-point. A hole made in the sand by a child’s shovel, as Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued, and a hole made in the ground by a B52 bomb plane are both “holes,” yet comparing them is unlikely to be all that enlightening.

Moreover, the Mongols did indeed, as Sneath points out, have an “aristocracy,” but aristocracy among nomads is not the same institution as in medieval Europe where aristocrats controlled a piece of territory as well as the peasants who worked on it. You can call both “governance” if you like, but again the conceptual framework is creaking rather loudly.

Or take stateless societies. Many societies of hunters and gatherers have a flat social structure with no inherited inequalities of social status. Indeed societies on the move tend to be more egalitarian than sedentary societies since the kinds of resources that sustain sharp inequalities are difficult to transport. Moreover, in societies where there is no storage of food or other resources, there are no wars. These cases of stateless societies do not seem to fit into Schouenborg’s conceptual categories. They are further out, further away, than he is able to go.


Schouenborg is very much a card-carrying member of the English School. He dedicates the book to two of its leading proponents — one of whom, he reveals in the preface, writes letters of recommendation for him. He is a professional, in other words, and there is no doubt that he has a promising career ahead of him. At the same time, some of the references to the English School canon are pretty oblique and a bit difficult for non-card-carrying colleagues to follow. It is as though one has stumbled upon a conversation that has been going on for a while: it is difficult to pick up the arguments since we don’t know what already has been said, by and to whom.

We can nitpick regarding details; we can rehearse hackneyed critique, but in the end Schouenborg is right of course. We do indeed have to undo, unthink, the sovereign European state. This is imperative both for intellectual and for political reasons. It is only in this way that we properly can understand world history and only in this way that we creatively can confront our future — not to mention avoid making a mess of things today. Schouenborg’s book is an imaginative and thought-provoking contribution to these crucial tasks.

Comments on Comments

My short, 1,500, word piece with “Comments on McCloskey and Weingast” was just published in Scandinavian Economic History Review. You can read it here.

Remarkable how this happened. Once I finally realized that McCloskey had discussed my work to some considerable extent in her original article, I contacted the editors of the journal and suggested that I’d write a short comment. They agreed but gave me a tight deadline. It was a Thursday and they wanted the final version the following Monday. Putting other work aside I happily obliged. The article was accepted the same day, and now only a month later it is actually published. I wish all articles I write were as quick to get into print.

While the piece was in draft form I put it up on Academia. edu where I got first-rate comments from Michael Schmitz, Astrid Nordin and Göran Sonesson among others. I’m much obliged. Deirdre McCloskey also commented in an email. Deirdre and I agree on many things, but we disagree on the role of institutions.

A newer, more radical, modernity

I just finished another article, “A Newer, More Radical, Modernity: A Prolegomena to a Politics of the Potential.” You can read it here.  The abstract goes like this:

Radical politics in modern society was premised on a constructivist ontology which now increasingly has been abandoned in favor of political solutions based on an ontology of self-organization. As a result, radical politics is in decline. Yet the self-organizing model is unable to explain the most salient feature of modern society — the relentlessness and automaticity of social change. Change can only be explained by an ontology which focuses on the self-actualization of the potential. This alternative ontology can also serve as the foundation for a new form of radical politics.

Truth be told, I originally wrote this a long time ago as a sort of summary of the best ideas from my Why Europe Was First book. I sent it to a journal, forget which, and the editor got back to me to say that although the article was very interesting it was really a summary of a book. He was right of course.  This version is entirely reworked and has a different focus. It’s all about the potential, man, and what only could happen if we took our imagination seriously and found a way of embedding it into the institutions that organize our lives.

Comments on McCloskey and Weingast

I wrote this brief, 5-page, article in response to the articles by Deirdre McCloskey and Barry Weingast in the Scandinavian Economic History Review.

A few quotes:

“McCloskey is provocative to be sure, passionate as always, but also perfectly persuasive. Yet something is still missing from the analysis.”

“Barry Weingast makes this point eloquently and he too is right. Indeed, there is no contradiction here only a dogmatic refusal, on McCloskey’s part, to expand the analysis to include the blatantly obvious.”

“Instead of rejecting institutions, we need to pay more attention to them. Weingast’s suggestions provide a first step, but his perspective is needlessly constrained to “incentives” and their permutations. In a self-actualizing social ontology three sets of institutions are relevant.”

McCloskey on Why Europe Was First

This is an excerpt from an article by Deirdre McCloskey where she discusses my book Why Europe Was First.

/ / /

The Swedish political scientist Erik Ringmar’s answer to the question Why was Europe first? begins from the simple and true triad of points that all change involves an initial reflection (namely, that change is possible), an entrepreneurial moment (putting the change into practice) and ‘pluralism’ or ‘toleration’ (I would call the toleration the ideology of the Bourgeois Era, namely, the Bourgeois Revaluation, some way of counteracting the annoyance with which the naturally conservative majority of humans will view any moving of their cheese). ‘Contemporary Britain, the United States or Japan’, Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 31) writes, ‘are not modern because they contain individuals who are uniquely reflective, entrepreneurial or tolerant’. That’s correct: the psychological hypothesis one finds in Weber or in the psychologist David McClelland or in the historian David Landes does not stand up to the evidence, as for example the success of the overseas Chinese, or indeed the astonishingly quick turn from Maoist starvation in mainland China to 9 or 10% rates of growth per year per person, or from the Hindu rate of growth and the License Raj in India after independence to growth rates per person since 1991 over 6%. Why would psychology change so quickly? And now could a rise of an entrepreneurial spirit from, say, 5% of the population to 10%, which could have also characterised earlier efflorescences such as fifth century Athens, cause after 1800 a uniquely Great Enrichment of a factor of 30?

But then unhappily Ringmar contends in Douglass-North style, ‘A modern society is a society in which change happens automatically and effortlessly because it is institutionalized’ (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 32). The trouble with the claim of ‘institutions’ is, as Ringmar himself noted earlier in another connection, that ‘it begs the question of the origin’ (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 24).99 Ringmar’s remarkable literacy in an English not his native tongue, by the way, shows in his accurate use of the phrase ‘begs the question’, which is widely used to mean ‘suggests the question’.View all notes It also begs the question of enforcement, which depends on ethics and opinion absent from the neo-institutional tale. ‘The joker in the pack’, writes the economic historian Jones (2010 Jones, E. L. (2010). Locating the industrial revolution: Inducement and response. London: World Scientific. [Google Scholar]) in speaking of the decline of guild restrictions in England, ‘was the national shift in elite opinion, which the courts partly shared’:

The judges often declined to support the restrictiveness that the guilds sought to impose … As early as the start of seventeenth century, towns had been losing cases they took to court with the aim of compelling new arrivals to join their craft guilds … A key case concerned Newbury and Ipswich in 1616. The ruling in this instance became a common law precedent, to the effect that ‘foreigners’, men from outside a borough, could not be compelled to enrol. (p. 102–103)

Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar]) devotes 150 lucid and learned and literate pages to exploring the origins of European science, humanism, newspapers, universities, academies, theatre, novels, corporations, property rights, insurance, Dutch finance, diversity, states, politeness, civil rights, political parties and economics. But he is a true comparativist (he taught for some years in China) – this in sharp contrast to some of the other Northians, and especially the good, much missed Douglass North himself. So Ringmar does not suppose that the European facts speak for themselves. In the following 100 pages, he takes back much of the implicit claim that Europe was anciently special, whether ‘institutionalized’ or not, by going through for China the same triad of reflection, entrepreneurship and pluralism/toleration, and finding them pretty good. ‘The Chinese were at least as intrepid [in the seas] as the Europeans’; ‘The [Chinese] imperial state constituted next to no threat to the property rights of merchants and investors’; ‘already by 400 BCE China produced as much cast iron as Europe would in 1750’; Confucianism was ‘a wonderfully flexible doctrine’; ‘China was far more thoroughly commercialized’; European ‘salons and coffee shops [were] … in some ways strikingly Chinese’ (Ringmar, 2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], pp. 250, 254, 274, 279, 280–282). He knows, as the Northians appear not to, that China had banks and canals and large firms and private property many centuries before the Northian date for the acquisition of such modernities in England, the end of the seventeenth century. (So too on many counts did England itself, for that matter.)

The economist and historian Ogilvie (2007 Ogilvie, S. (2007). ‘Whatever is, is right’? Economic institutions in pre-industrial Europe. Economic History Review, 60, 649684. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2007.00408.x[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) criticizes the neo-institutionalists and their claims that efficiency ruled, arguing on the contrary for a ‘conflictual’ point of view, in which power is taken seriously:

Efficiency theorists do sometimes mention that institutions evoke conflict. But they seldom incorporate conflict into their explanations. Instead, conflict remains an incidental by-product of institutions portrayed as primarily existing to enhance efficiency … Although serfdom [for example] was profoundly ineffective at increasing the size of the economic pie, it was highly effective at distributing large slices to overlords, with fiscal and military side-benefits to rulers and economic privileges for serf elites. (pp. 662–663)

The same can be said for the new political and social ideas that at length broke down an ideology that had been highly effective at justifying in ethical terms the distribution of large slices to overlords.

Why, then, a change in a system so profitable for the elite? Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], pp. 72, 178, 286) gets it right when he speaks of public opinion, which was a late and contingent development in Europe, and to which he recurs frequently. The oldest newspaper still publishing in Europe is a Swedish one of 1645, Post- och Inrikes Tidningar (Foreign and Domestic Times), and the first daily one in England dates to 1702. Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James quickly imitated in Boston in 1721 the idea of a newspaper and became, with the active help of adolescent Ben, a thorn in the side of the authorities. That is, the institutions that mattered the most were not the ‘incentives’ beloved of the economists, such as patents (which have been shown to be insignificant, and anyway have been universal, as state-granted monopolies, from the first formation of states) or property rights (which were established in China and India and the Ottoman Empire, often much earlier than in Europe; and after all the Roman law was clear on property). The important ‘institutions’ were ideas, words, rhetoric and ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment. What changed circa 1700 was a climate of persuasion, which led promptly to the amazing reflection, entrepreneurship and pluralism called the modern world.

It is not always true, as Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 37) claims at one point that ‘institutions are best explained in terms of the path through which they developed’. He contradicts himself on the page previous and there speaks truth: often ‘the institutions develop first and the needs come only later’. It is not the case for example that the origins of English betterment, if not of individualism, are usefully traced to early medieval times. It is not the case that, say, English common law was essential for modernity. The historian David Le Bris (2013 Le Bris, D. (2013). Customary versus civil law within Old Regime France. Unpublished paper, KEDGE Business School. Retrieved from ) has shown that within France before the Revolution the French north was a common-law area, while the south was a civil-law area, but with little or no discernible differences in economic outcome during the next century. Places without such law, further, promptly developed alternatives, when the ideology turned, as it often did turn suddenly, in favour of betterment.

Why England? English rhetoric changed in favour of trade-tested progress. To illustrate the change in one of its aspects, it came out of the irritating successes of the Dutch. The successes of the Dutch Republic were startling to Europe. The Navigation Acts and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars by which in the middle of the seventeenth century England attempted in mercantilist, trade-is-war fashion to appropriate some Dutch success to itself were the beginning of a larger English project of emulating the burghers of Delft and Leiden. ‘The evidence for this widespread envy of Dutch enterprise’, wrote the historian Paul Kennedy (1976 Kennedy, P. M. (1976). The rise and fall of British naval mastery. New York: Scribner’s. [Google Scholar]), ‘is overwhelming’ (p. 59). Similarly, the historian Kadane (2008 Kadane, M. (2008). Success and self-loathing in the life of an eighteenth-century entrepreneur. In M. C. Jacob & C. Secretan (Eds.), The self-perception of early modern capitalists (pp. 253271). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.[CrossRef][Google Scholar]) recently accounted for the English shift toward bourgeois virtues by ‘various interactions with the Dutch’. The English at the time put it in doggerel: ‘Make war with Dutchmen, peace with Spain / Then we shall have money and trade again’. Yet it was not in fact warring against the Dutch that made England rich. Wars are expensive, and the Dutch admiraals Tromp and De Ruyter were no pushovers. It was imitating them that did the trick. It was ideas.

Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society of 1667, early in the project by some Englishmen of becoming Dutch, attacked such envy and interaction and imitation. He viewed it as commendable that ‘the merchants of England live honourably in foreign parts’ but ‘those of Holland meanly, minding their gain alone’. Shameful. ‘Ours … [have] in their behavior very much the gentility of the families from which so many of them are descended [note the sending of younger sons into trade]. The others when they are abroad show that they are only a race of plain citizens’, disgraceful cits. Perhaps it was, Sprat notes with annoyance, ‘one of the reasons they can so easily undersell us’ (1958 Sprat, T. (1958). The history of the Royal Society. J. Cope, & H. Jones (Eds.). St. Louis: Washington University Studies (original work published in 1667). [Google Scholar], p. 88). Possibly. John Dryden in 1672 took up Sprat’s complaint in similar words. In his play Amboyna; or, The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants the English merchant Beaumont addresses the Dutch: ‘For frugality in trading, we confess we cannot compare with you; for our merchants live like noblemen: your gentlemen, if you have any, live like boers’ (Dryden 1994 Dryden, J. (1994). The works of John Dryden: Vol. 12. In V. A. Dearing (Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (original work published in 1672). [Google Scholar], 2.1.391–393). Yet Josiah Child (1668/1698, arguing against guild regulation of cloth, admired the Dutch on non-aristocratic, prudential grounds: ‘if we intend to have the trade of the world we must imitate the Dutch’ (pp. 148, 68). Better boers we.1010 The Swedish historian Erik Thomson has shown that the English were not the only Europeans startled by the economic success of the United Provinces and ready, with some reluctance, to imitate them (Thomson, 2005 Thomson, E. (2005). Swedish variations on Dutch commercial institutions, 1605–1655. Scandinavian Studies, 77, 331346.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes

Ideas, not capital or institutions, made the modern world.


The complete article is here;

Uncle Bob in Lund

Of all our family members, it is really only Uncle Bob who regularly comes to visit. He visited us when we lived in Shanghai, in north London and now in Lund. Yes, he was in Lund last night, our little medieval university town in southern Sweden. I brought Diane and two daughters. Blood is thicker than water.

Bob has once again reinvented himself. “Why change me now?” he asks in a borrowed Sinatra lyric, but it is not us trying to change him as much as he continuously changing himself.  At the age of 75 that’s pretty remarkable. Those who are not busy being born are a-busy dying.  And Bob Dylan is not dying.

He has, however, gotten quite a bit older since we saw him in Helsingborg three years ago. He moves more slowly on stage. He dances — yes, dances — but it’s all a bit awkward.  And he has to leave the keyboard and stand in the middle of the stage with his legs wide apart in order to be able to belt out the jazz standards which now feature as a regular part of his repertoire.

The jazz standards are not bad. Dylan’s raspy voice works well in combination with the silky smooth arrangements. And yet, I can’t help thinking that he is doing karaoke. Dylan karaoke is better than most kinds of karaoke, and I respect him deeply for doing what he wants to do, but it does sound to me like a hobby project rather than something to take with him around the world.

The real reinvention, however, concerns his transformation from a blues and rock ‘n roll artist into a sort of vaudeville performer. He and the band are playing circus music, in a Sergeant Pepper vein, or in the style of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. You fully expect acrobats, jugglers and bearded ladies to come on stage. Yet it is not festive as much as grimy — “After Midnight” — grim — “Paying in Blood” — and sad — “Long and Wasted Years.” The furrows in the face of the clown have grown deep, the make-up of the septuagenarian prostitute is running. It’s a remarkable world into which Bob inserts the songs from his 1960s song-book as well as the new Sinatra classics. Yes, they all fit, and thanks to the tight accompaniment of the band and the imaginative arrangements of the songs it’s always interesting.

But how good is it?  I like my blues rock and the Dylan who stopped by here in Sweden only a few years ago was a first-rate blues and rock man. I liked his harmonica playing, for one thing, but there was no harmonica in sight last night and he made no pretense at playing guitar. The clothes are the same as before — that riverboat gambler outfit — but the band members should really be wearing jester’s costumes. I must confess, the vaudeville musician Bob Dylan is all in all less interesting to me than the bluesman, but OMG, he remains endlessly creative, enigmatic and remarkable.  We are lucky that he still comes to visit. Come back soon uncle Bob, we already miss you.


More on internal exile

I’ve thought a lot about the internal exile which Brexit/Trump seems to have confined me to. It’s not good, it’s not responsible. As though I didn’t care anymore.  I was somewhat encouraged to read this from Tracy B. Strong, written in 2008 and relation to the Bush presidency, not Trump:

“In what does tyranny consist? For Nietzsche, it is the insistence that the world is and is only as I will it to be. Challenges should be ignored or eliminated. Similarly, in the Persian Letters, Montesquieu argued that it consists in requiring that others have no existence for oneself except that which one allows them. This seems to me exactly right: tyranny consists in speaking for oneself and having the power to impose that speech on others, to hear only one’s own words. I note with political distress that when Bush comes on the TV, I turn to the World Poker Tour. I did not do this with Nixon or Reagan, much as I disagreed with them. My distress is almost unpolitical, for my channel changing is a form of not being willing to share the world with G.W. Bush. I want, in other words, not to deal with the fact that he is our president, that is, not to accept that he and I share what Nietzsche called “the life of a people.” My avoidance strikes me as dangerous: it is as if I were pretending to myself that he is not our president, refusing to acknowledge the world of which he and I are a part. This is a consequence of tyranny.”

Strong, Tracy B. “Nietzsche and the Political: Tyranny, Tragedy, Cultural Revolution, and Democracy.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 35, no. 1 (November 28, 2008): 62-63.