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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Roberts and Civil Rights

On Friday last, the federal appeals court in DC, headed by none other than John Roberts gave the administration a blank check as regards the detainees at Guantanamo. At issue was whether the detainees could be tried by military tribunal; two lower federal courts said they could not. As rulings go, this one was a slam dunk—no qualifications, no concessions of any sort to the plaintiff.

Here’s the gist of the court’s decision (which Roberts did not write; his was a silent assent):

1) The Geneva Conventions do not “create judicially enforceable rights,” so detainees cannot go to the courts to complain that the US government is ignoring those conventions. It does not matter that the Convention was ratified by the Senate.

2) In three resolutions dealing with terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, Congress authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force.” Therefore, whatever the President decides is the proper course of action toward detainees—in this case, military tribunals—is OK.

3) And, I guess as a corollary of No. 2, it doesn’t matter that the tribunals at Guantanamo aren’t even following the procedures of military tribunals. (Notably, the defendant is not allowed to be present throughout the whole proceedings—on the grounds that classified information is presented that the defendant cannot hear.) The President can set the procedures of these tribunals in any way he desires.

This ruling grants the Administration what it has wanted all along: confirmation that the President stands above the law. What he says goes. That is what Alberto Gonzales told the Senate in his confirmation hearings for Attorney General. Their basic claim is that, as Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to do anything needful in this undeclared war. And their secondary point is always: we are the forces of righteousness and we are horribly hurt that you don’t trust us. Our good intentions are so obvious, as is our fundamental goodness. It’s the other side that is evil, remember?

The Administration, from Bush on down, either does not understand what the rule of law means, or does not think that the rule of law applies to bad guys (as identified by them outside of any legal procedure), or they simply hold the law in contempt as contentious and overly intellectual crap that stands in the way of getting done what needs to be done. I suspect it’s a combination of all three.

In any case, Donald Rumsfeld announced on Monday that the tribunals that the court ratified on Friday will now go forward. And Rumsfeld made it clear that the administration fully understands that it is acting outside the Geneva Conventions.

“The court’s ruling marks an advance in the global struggle against extremists and aids the effort to protect innocent life,” he said. “It vindicates the president’s determination to treat suspected terrorists humanely but not to grant them the protections of the Geneva Conventions as a matter of right.”

Not content to suspend all rights for non-citizen detainees, the Administration argued before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday of this week that it can hold Jose Padilla indefinitely without charging him.  As Padilla’s lawyer put it to the judges:  “I must be the first defense lawyer ever to stand in front of you and plead for my client to be indicted.” Padilla, you will recall, is the American citizen arrested in Chicago shortly after 9/11 who has been held without charges as an enemy combatant for over three years now.  Two federal judges have already ruled that he cannot be so held, but the Administration has appealed the case. 

The Administration has already lost the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, the other American citizen it attempted to hold without charging.  Hamdi was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but the Supreme Court ruled he could not be held as an “enemy combatant.” Instead of charging him, the US government handed Hamdi over to the Saudi government. (So even winning his case before the US Supreme Court didn’t win Hamdi his freedom.  This Administration will ignore or circumvent the Supreme Court along with every other “check” to its desires.) The government clearly didn’t have a case against Hamdi that they felt could stand up in court. It’s fair to infer that the government also can’t have much of a case against Padilla, who they have accused—but not in court—of wanting to explode a “dirty bomb.” If they could get a conviction, they wouldn’t be resisting charging him with a crime.

In oral arguments for the Padilla case, Judge Michael Luttig (whose name was also on the short list of potential Supreme Court nominees) pressed the idea that, in the war on terror, every place is part of the battlefield.  Under that logic, Luttig suggested, it doesn’t matter where you are arrested.  Anyone can be an “enemy combatant” anywhere.  Obviously, this line of reasoning collapses any distinction between capture and arrest, between military and civil law, or between the President as Commander-in-Chief and the President as the chief executive officer in a constitutional government.  War is everywhere and everywhen now; we are all soldiers--or traitors--and the President is a full-time Commander-in-Chief.  That’s the conservative doctrine, as Karl Rove’s speech about the difference between conservatives and liberals a few weeks ago made clear.

Expect the Administration to win the Padilla case in the 4th circuit (the most conservative in the country), just as it won the tribunals case in DC.  Presumably, both cases are headed to the Supreme Court.  So far, and just barely (with obvious reluctance, bobbing and weaving, sending cases back to lower courts for re-examination etc. etc.), the Supreme Court has not given the Administration a blank check.  But, given Roberts’ acquiescence in last week’s decision, he does not figure to be a judicial bulwark against the Bushies’ attempt to ignore some of our most basic civil rights. If the Administration wins the Padilla case in the Supreme Court, we will have the first abandonment of the rule of law in relation to an American citizen.  (First abandonment in the sense of a court-sanctioned suspension of the law in favor of the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief.  Of course, citizens’ rights have been violated all the time in the past, but not with a court’s approval.)

The one hopeful note in all this legal jostling also reminds us how crucial the Supreme Court is: a June 2004 Supreme Court ruling (6-3, with the terrible trio—you know who they are—in dissent) gave the Guantanamo detainees the right to “use the civilian court system to challenge their imprisonment.” Nearly 200 of the 520 detainees have started such proceedings. Of course, none of those cases has made much progress so far. The wheels of justice grind slowly.

Two tangential final comments:

Where did SCOTUS come from?  It speaks to me of the on-going militarization of our society, making the Supreme Court sound like the site of some military operation.

And do you think Laura Bush is pissed that she got used by her hubby and his White House operatives as part of their feint toward Clement?  They were determined to have their surprise, weren’t they?

Posted by John McGowan on 07/21 at 09:41 AM
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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Q and A

Q.  All right, Michael, how come you haven’t posted anything all day?  Are you sulking because Bush’s SCOTUS nomination diverted everyone’s attention from Theory Tuesday?

A.  Not at all.  Bush’s SCOTUS nomination diverted no one’s attention from Theory Tuesday.  What diverted everyone’s attention from Theory Tuesday was that weird head-fake about how the nominee was going to be Edith Brown Clement.

Q.  So that’s what the Clement thing was all about?

A.  That’s what the Clement thing was all about.

Q.  Why would the Rove Administration pull such a stunt?  Are you saying that the White House reads Theory Tuesdays?

A.  The White House doesn’t just read Theory Tuesdays—the White House fears Theory Tuesdays.  Bush, Cheney and Rove know that critical theory is the only thing that can break their stranglehold on power: in its capacity to question every form of representation and uncover the hidden workings of every last cultural formation and historical bloc, critical theory presents a challenge to the Bush Administration unlike any other it has ever faced.  So I’m telling you to watch out for a fresh diversion next Tuesday.  The lines have been drawn.

Q.  You sound angry about this.  Are you?

A.  Not at all.  It is to be expected that the centers of power would respond at once viciously and deviously to Theory Tuesdays.  Now, something like this, by contrast—that really makes me mad.

Posted by Michael on 07/20 at 05:43 PM
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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

We interrupt Theory Tuesday . . .

. . . to introduce you to John G. Roberts, the co-author of the Stalinist “gag rule” (Rust v. Sullivan, 1991) prohibiting all federally-funded American family planning programs from counseling clients about abortion or referring them to abortion services.  And according to the Alliance for Justice, which opposed Roberts’ nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the Washington Times hailed him and Miguel Estrada in June 2001 as “offer[ing] business the best opportunity in years to free itself from government regulations.”

Hat tip to Hunter at Kos for the Alliance for Justice pdf.

Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 08:12 PM
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Theory Tuesday II

OK, so I’m a few hours late with today’s Theory Tuesday.  That’s because I left my copy of Russian Formalist Criticism:  Four Essays on top of the refrigerator last night, and spent way too much time this morning running around looking for it.  (I don’t write these blog entries in advance, folks—they come to you fresh from the keyboard, hand-crafted on the very day they go up.  How do I post a 2200-word theory-thing in one day?  It’s simple:  I type really, really fast.)

Now to Viktor Shklovsky, as I promised last week.  Why Shklovsky, why now?  Because long ago in 1986, my dissertation director, Michael Levenson (about whom more in a future installment), taught an introduction-to-theory class in which he suggested not only that modern literary theory begins with the Russian Formalists, but more specifically that Shklovsky’s idea of “defamiliarization” (or deautomatization, or more precisely, for those of you who speak Russian, ostranenie) runs throughout twentieth-century literature and literary theory, even (or especially) where it doesn’t declare itself by name.  The more I read, the more I came to think that Michael was right on both counts.  The world of “Theory” (I will pretend for now that there is such a world, and that it was not created one day last week by the Valve) began to seem to me like an ostranenie-o-rama: if there was one thing that feminist critics, psychoanalytic critics, Marxist critics, and deconstructionists wanted to do to me, it was to make me see things anew, to make the familiar strange.  Whether they sought to reveal the workings of patriarchy, of ideology, of the unconscious, or of language itself, they were engaged in the Shklovskian task of laying bare the device.  Even Hans Robert Jauss’s “reception aesthetics” depends on the idea of defamiliarization, when it claims that the value of a work is a function of the degree to which it violates the “horizon of expectations” of its readership.  And then four years later after I took that course, Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, with its now-famous analysis of gender performativity and the meaning of drag, and I thought to myself, wow, still more defamiliarization!  Drag denaturalizes, disidentifies, and defamiliarizes!  Hey, Michael was right!

So if you want a handy entry-point into Theory, you can hardly do better than Shklovsky, for all kinds of reasons.  Not only because he devises a theory of “poetic” as opposed to “ordinary” language, thereby setting the terms for another six or seven decades of debate, but because he names a project that, taking its motive from the aesthetics of modernism, became part of the armature of theory itself.  Here’s what I mean: many of the successes and many of excesses of theory can be traced to its desire (yes, it has desires) to defamiliarize, to make strange.  I think this is where much of the energy of theory, and much of the frustration and hostility it’s aroused, ultimately comes from: whereas just-plain-vanilla literary criticism usually tries to explicate a text, or to take it apart and put it back together, or simply to describe what’s going on in this or that difficult passage, literary theory’s ambitions (for better and worse) are grander.  When theory works—when it leads you to see things about texts and textuality that you’d never seen before—it’s a remarkable thing: you come away thinking, “well, I’ll never look at rhetorical questions quite the same way again,” or “I’ll never look at drag the same way again,” or (for you Raymond Williams fans out there) “I’ll never think of the word ‘culture’ in the same way again.” When it doesn’t work, well, that’s when it looks more like a bunch of people dressing up banal or insane propositions in ornate and/or ungainly and/or neologistic language.  That’s when you get people like Baudrillard saying, “by the orbital establishment of a system of control like peaceful coexistence, all terrestrial microsystems are satellized and lose their autonomy,” at which point you should decide to move away from the guy who’s clearly been in the coffee shop too long and has been slipping absinthe into his espresso since noon.  (I note in passing that very few people bother to read—or even anthologize—Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” all the way through.  There’s a good reason for that.)

Now, I imagine that some of you are already thinking of this or that objection to the preceding paragraph, because you’re just that way.  For one thing, Shklovsky’s theory of “defamiliarization” isn’t supposed to be a theory about theory; it’s supposed to be a theory of literariness (not of “literature”: this is a crucial distinction, the very foundation of Formalism).  Fair enough.  Let’s go to the text: “Art as Technique,” also translated as “Art as Device.” It was published in 1917, a very busy year for most of Russia.

Shklovsky opens by taking issue with people who claim that “a satisfactory style is precisely that style which delivers the greatest amount of thought in the fewest words”; he calls this kind of stylistic efficiency and compression “algebrization,” since it tends toward the reduction of concepts into handy single-letter symbols (through which “we see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack”).  And he denounces the “habitualization” to which it inevitably leads, in this searing passage:

And so life is reckoned as nothing.  Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. . . .  And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.  The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.  The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.  Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (Emphasis in original.)

A bit later on, the Marxists will have at Shklovsky for that last line; Bakhtin and Medvedev, for instance, will insist that Shklovsky “radically distorts the meaning of the device, interpreting it as an abstraction from semantic ideological significance.  But, in fact, the whole meaning of the device is in the latter.” They have a point: if you bracket the object altogether, you wind up unable to say just what it is that’s being made strange.  But Shklovsky is also making the entirely necessary (and very modernist) point that the aesthetic is not a function of objects-in-themselves: it is not the case, he says, that some objects are naturally aesthetic and some aren’t.  It is a question of technique, of device: where you find ostranenie, there you find art.  A few pages later, Shklovsky says this in so many words: “I personally feel that defamiliarization is found almost everywhere form is found.”

This is great stuff, and I bet most of us believe some version of it.  In fact, it’s become kind of (ulp) familiar, and you can find versions of this argument not only in literature departments but in arts-foundation rhetoric and museum brochures (and other places too, as you’ll see if you keep reading).  Art renews perception, art is a way of seeing, art deepens the spirit, art renders the world anew.  All of which can be quite true, you know—or else I wouldn’t bother with art myself.

But it’s obvious that this is a modernist theory of art.  A neoclassical theorist like Boileau (as John mentioned on Thursday) would insist instead that art involves the correct presentation of the unities; a straight-up classical theorist like Horace would suggest that the function of art is to delight and instruct; and legions of readers in every era might say (I’m looking especially at you medievalists) that the function of art is to make the unfamiliar familiar, so that we can better understand our place in God’s creation. 

In one way, to call Shklovsky’s a “modernist” theory is simply to remark that Russian Formalism went hand-in-hand with Russian Futurism, which, in the person of Vladimir Mayakovsky, partook eagerly in the Russian Revolution: the new society would have a new literature and a new literary criticism and theory (now that’s excitement).  For Russia, of course, the period was marked not only by the aesthetic turbulence of international modernism but by the radical (and violent) change from feudalism to Communism, and as a result, there was some really intense and energetic theorizing going on until Stalin shut down the whole show in 1928 (after which some of its participants packed up and moved to Prague, where they were permitted another two decades of speculative thought before the Iron Curtain fell on that stage as well).  Boris Eichenbaum’s account of the time in “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’” sometimes makes it sound as if the Revolution were fought not by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks against Tsarists but by rival schools of poets and theorists:

The historical battle between the two generations—a battle which was fought over principles and was extraordinarily intense—was therefore resolved in the journals, and the battle line was drawn over Symbolist theory and Impressionistic criticism rather than over any work being done by the Academicians.  We entered the fight against the Symbolists in order to wrest poetics from their hands—to free it from its ties with their subjective philosophical and aesthetic theories and to direct it toward the scientific investigation of facts.  We were raised on their works, and we saw their errors with the greatest clarity.  At this time, the struggle became even more urgent because the Futurists (Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Mayakovsky), who were on the rise, opposed the Symbolist poetics and supported the Formalists.

It sounds almost like a Monty Python bit; you expect to hear next that Alexander Kerensky was defeated by the experimental poetics of the Opoyaz group, and that the Battle of the Journals set the terms for the Second Congress of Soviets in October 1917.  But Eichenbaum’s not kidding: some of the polemical energy of the Formalists was drawn from the sense that they were fighting the old society in the name of the new, just as Lenin and Trotsky were.  Of course, Trotsky himself repeatedly weighed in on Formalist and post-Formalist debates in the 1920s and 1930s, so that sense was not all that delusional.

But the theory’s debt to modernism is also its undoing.  Part of the problem, as I’ve noted above, is that the idea of defamiliarization sets at a discount every earlier form of art whose purpose it was to put things in their proper place.  But another part of the problem is that defamiliarization is contingent on the existence of the familiar, and the “familiar” is (guess what) historically and culturally variable, as Shklovsky inadvertently demonstrates (and as Michael Levenson pointed out to his class almost twenty years ago):

Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object.  He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. . . .  For example, in “Shame” Tolstoy “defamiliarizes” the idea of flogging in this way: “to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and to rap on their bottoms with switches,” and, after a few lines, “to lash about on the naked buttocks.” . . .  The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.

Over the years, most of my students, up until the Era of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, have responded to this passage by saying, “huh?  The familiar act of flogging?” (I suppose we should stop here and thank George Bush and Alberto Gonzales for making this aspect of Shklovsky’s work more teachable today.  Thanks, guys.) And once you pull that thread, the whole fabric of the theory starts to unravel.  First you start to realize that defamiliarization is a modernist/ avant-garde defense of art, and then you realize that the idea itself has to be historicized.  Then you have to start taking account of which times and places might have found flogging to be so habitual that their artists needed to “defamiliarize” it in order to renew perception, and before you know it, you’re asking about the social and cultural norms that art seeks to illuminate or violate, and presto, you’re not a Formalist anymore.

And then you start thinking, hell, what if defamiliarization isn’t specific to “the literary” in the first place?  What if the pictures of Abu Ghraib, rather than the short stories of Leo Tolstoy, render the world unfamiliar and strange?  What if theory, rather than literature, makes the stone stony?  Or if you still don’t like “theory,” try this:  once upon a time I was reading an airline magazine when I came across an ad for an ad agency.  The agency promised its potential clients that its innovative campaigns would “defamiliarize” products and companies, leading consumers to see them in a wholly new way.  This ad made my head hurt.  It was as if Entertainment Weekly were quoting Walter Benjamin’s line about how “the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question.” I half-expected to read “we’ve got ostranenie and we can make it work for you.”

Of course, there’s a way around this problem, but it’s a circular way: you can say that defamiliarization is a property of the literary, and that (as Shklovsky suggests) the literary is found wherever you find defamiliarization—in an advertisement, in Gender Trouble, in Abu Ghraib.  But that’s not a very satisfying argument, is it, now.  What do you do?

Tune in to find out the chilling answer in next week’s Theory Tuesday!

Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 01:38 PM
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Monday, July 18, 2005

A nice short post for a change

On Saturday Jamie and I had the day to ourselves (and then on Sunday he and Janet had the day, and I wrote wrote wrote like a fiend).  We went to the Penn State Natatorium, where he was willing to jump off the one-meter platform into the deep end, but the one-meter platform was closed.  The lowest platform available was the 5m, and he wouldn’t go up there (and I wouldn’t let him), but he said he wanted to watch me take the plunge.  And you know what?  It turns out that five meters is a long way to fall.  But it was good scary fun (I managed three jumps), and I’ve promised Jamie that before the summer is over I will find the nerve to go off the 7m.  “How about the ten?” Jamie says.  I cower and tell him the ten is too scary, and it is.  But he thinks this is very funny.

Then we went to buy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  I won’t reprise last year’s Azkaban blogging (as Jamie says, “we did that alreadywink, but I do have a simple question, now that I’m 120 pages in:  has there ever been a children’s/ fantasy author who’s had to deal with the frenzy of anticipation induced by these books?  I know that Tolkien didn’t have to worry about this stuff—it wasn’t like people were lining up at bookstores, dressed as Gandalf, waiting for the first shipments of The Return of the King. It wasn’t a mass-culture phenomenon.  On the contrary, when The Lord of the Rings was published it was a mere curiosity, an elaborate hobby indulged by that odd pipe-smoking medieval scholar down the hall.  And though Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia picked up some public momentum as they appeared in yearly installments, I don’t believe that there were any Canadian courts issuing injunctions to embargo the premature reading of The Horse and His Boy.  I suppose we needn’t feel sorry for Rowling, whose wealth can no longer be calculated in the Hindu-Arabic numeric system, but still, the fact remains that she has written most of this series, at least since 1998, in the knowledge that about a billion people are desperately awaiting her next move.  I don’t know about you, but that kind of pressure would drive me mad.  I’d rather jump off the 10m platform any day.

Posted by Michael on 07/18 at 10:18 AM
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Friday, July 15, 2005

Arbitrary.  Fun.

Charlie Harris, professor emeritus of English at Illinois State University, contemporary literature reader/critic extraordinaire (secretary of the Center for Book Culture.org and former director of the Unit for Contemporary Literature), and all-around fine fellow, informs me that a bunch of literary-minded folk are putting together a list of Great First Lines in Novels, as an arbitrary-but-fun counterpart to the American Film Institute’s 100 great movie lines.

So far they have over 150 nominations, and many of them are what you’d expect:

Call me Ishmael. 

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. 

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. 

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

But there are a few surprises and flights of whimsy, as well: “It was a pleasure to burn,” from Fahrenheit 451; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” from Beckett’s Murphy (a personal fave—the line, and the novel); and even, from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, the immortal

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. 

So, then, today’s Arbitrary but Fun game is this:  suggest more Great First Sentences for the list.  I offered them “A screaming comes across the sky” and “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting,” but they already had ‘em.  When Charlie emailed me the full list-in-progress, however, I realized that they had overlooked one of the greatest lines of the late twentieth century:

There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads.

Was there ever a more devastating opening than this gem from Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County?  “But it sucks,” you say.  “It’s just hideously godawful.  It doesn’t make any damn sense, either—it’s like ‘there are musical compositions for which you do not have to pay royalties, and they come from this really bizarre kind of plant that has eyes.’” But that’s the point, of course.  It is a great first line in that it not only encapsulates everything that Waller is about to inflict on his readers, but serves as its own best parody as well.  (Try to outdo it.  Try again.  See, I told you.)

In Swann’s Way, Proust writes that Swann had “a sort of taste, of tact, so automatic in its operation that . . . if he read in a newspaper the names of the people who had been at a dinner-party, [he] could tell at once its exact degree of smartness, just as a man of letters, simply by reading a sentence, can estimate exactly the literary merit of its author.” Wow! You think.  That must have been back in the days when literary critics were really good, back before all this Theory gunk got into the evaluative machinery!  But sometimes it works, you know . . . when you’re reading a truly Great First Line.

Posted by Michael on 07/15 at 11:45 AM
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