The Noise of Nongovernance

Jacques Attali, who was otherwise only known to me as the author of a great little book on “noise” but was actually founding president of the European Development Bank (shows where i’ve had my head…), has penned this curious piece calling for a “UN for NGOs”–essentially a formalization of their role in global governance. This strikes me as very french (though not in the way that Attali’s book on Noise will no doubt strike many as very french), especially the demand to rename them “solidarity institutions.” But what I find most curious is the unrepentant, somewhat naive glorification of the NGO as the motor of civil society. Clearly there are bad and good NGOs, and at least a few dissertations I have supervised have focused on the weird parasitic role these institutions often play, especially in poorer nations, on the activities of well-meaning citizens. Even when they work (Grameen Bank, perhaps), they demand a critical eye, and they are best held to account precisely because there is no global or local guarantee of their existence. Attali seems to want to formalize them in order to ensure the existence of “civil society.” This strikes me as particularly poor thinking–since civil society, like that other mysterious entity “the public” exists only when it has no singloe concrete form. But, I ask, what do savage minds think? Global governance by NGOs: hot or not? And what’s a better name than “solidarity institutions”?


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

10 thoughts on “The Noise of Nongovernance

  1. In my first novel, the first thing the aliens do when they land is execute Brian Massumi, the translator of Noise. Just wanted to share that.

  2. Clearly your aliens misunderstand the Nature of Evil. Do they get their comeuppance at the hands of a solidarity institution tribunal presided over by french philosophers-cum-civil servants or do they learn to live peacefully with the Quebecois?

  3. I asked Vinod Raja if there were any organizations people could contact if they were concerned about the issues raised in his guest post on my blog. His response was that the local population did not trust NGOs. Makes you think just how much of a force for good they might be?

    (On the other hand, I do know of excellent NGOs doing good work in other parts of India, with strong support from the local population.)

  4. Brian Massumi is professor of Literature at University of Montreal, in addition to being an inveterate translator of French philosophy and fictional victom of golubdignian aliens. I actually have no idea if he is quebecois, or if the general population of montreal would mourn his evisceration by aliens. How exactly did they execute him, rex?

  5. blockquote cite=”I actually have no idea if he is quebecois, or if the general population of montreal would mourn his evisceration by aliens”>

    Well, I’m not entirely convinced that the bulk of our city’s population even knows of his existence so . . . I really can’t comment on that. I mean, as long as these aliens leave us our bilingualism, Sunday tam-tams on Mont-Royal, the Jazz fest and a few other Montreal institutions, I think they’ll be OK. Heck, if they fix our pot holes and the metro system, Montrealers may even come to worship them.

  6. My earliest and most indulgent piece:

    “…Their massive, analysis-defying ship hovered silently above the earth in a geosynchronous orbit over Perth as the world awaited their first move with baited breath.

    Naturally, no one was expecting the raid that followed, as alien warfighters descended like raptors through the earth’s atmosphere and screamed towards Brisbane, where they inexplicably and unexpectedly hunted down and executed Brian Massumi, an assistant professor of English at the University of Queensland, with a brutal and ruthless efficiency. Even more unexpected was their announcement, made in fluent American English, that the human species was massively in debt to the interstellar community for forty thousand, five hundred and fifty three years and seventeen days of continual use of energy from the sun. In the years that were to follow the date would have shattering implications which would vex generations of theologians and evolutionary biologists. In the immediate post-contact period, however, what was more immediately pressing was the fact that the aliens claimed that Earthlings had never made a single payment for this use, resulting in an energy bill forty millennia into the red. The proposed ‘structural adjustment program’ meant to redress the earth’s bad credit was, at first, equally enigmatic. What did the aliens want with Minnesota? And how would its secession from the United States and administration by the Aliens as a ‘mandated territory’ of the interstellar community appease the planet’s new extra terrestrial overlords?

    As the first days and weeks of the millennium passed, the depth of the earth’s crisis slowly became apparent. Aliens descended on the land of a thousand lakes like a plague of locusts, rounding up Minnesotans to serve as slave labor while simultaneously undertaking a massive expansion of the University of Minnesota press’s printing operation. While most acquiesced or were forced into the labor camps, a few brave people resisted. In March of 2000 the town of Mankato, MI became a symbol of freedom for the United States and the world when its inhabitants rose up against their captors and attempted to make it to the South Dakota border. Over three thousand people were brutally slaughtered by the aliens and their bodies displayed live on CNN _pour encourager les autres_.

    By the time the first alien cargo ships left for – it was presumed – the alien homeworld, the pieces of the puzzle were finally beginning to fall into place. No one understood why English-language translations of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical meditation Ten Thousand Plateaus – printed by the University of Minnesota Press and translated by Brian Massumi – were the most valuable item in the entire universe. But it was clear that the aliens would go to any length to get them, and were obsessed with assuring that each one looked and felt exactly like the volumes produced before takeover. The small, short-lived burst of black-market forgeries never even got off the ground – the aliens could clearly not only read English, but could detect even the slightest hint of inauthenticity, ranging from the sorts of trees out of which the paper was made to the exact tones of the white and green cover.

    No-one knew what the aliens wanted with that much Deleuze and Guattari. Some speculated that the book was central to their obscure non-human religious beliefs. Others believed that the postmodern dialectics of the book were somehow extracted by the aliens via some sort of secret device and their reality-warping narrative was used to power the hyperdrives that propelled their hive-ships across the vast empty distances of space. Others speculated that the aliens saw the people of earth as some sort of lesser culture and that alien art collectors had picked up on our books as a form of primitivist and or tribal art that was fueling some avant-garde artistic movement back on the alien planet. Some people just thought they ate them…”

  7. I’m particularly fond of “their massive analysis-defying ship” but I think that they should have executed Massumi from “geophilosophical orbit” instead of geo-synchronous. When I am old and have no purpose except editing the jugendschreiben of Rex Golub, I will make this change unnoticed…

  8. Attali was kicked out of his EBRD job for spending as much as he could of the fund for reconstruction and development on reconstructing and developing his Exchange Square office and flying around in private jets, so the chance that his proposals re other any other plump little lambs will be taken seriously anywhere have got to be pretty small.

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