“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide
November 25, 2011
June 16, 2011
Poet-theorist-blogger Ron Silliman hasn’t weighed in yet on the Amina Arraf hoax, where a white heterosexual male from the United States pretended to be a lesbian Arab woman from Syria. Or has he?
Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example – are apt to challenge all that is supposedly “natural” about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who do not identity as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers – women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the “marginal”—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to who is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.
Silliman, in this extract from a 1989 article in Socialist Review, argues that a white heterosexual [cis] male would be more able to criticize the formation of subjectivity from a radical perspective than a woman or person of color. The oppressor more able to criticize the oppression. Not an unfamiliar perspective historically, but a joke for anyone with any exposure to contemporary social movements by women or people of color.
Leslie Scalapino replied to Silliman, in an exchange published in Poetics Journal :
The conception of a “unified subject” is merely taught, in certain conventionalizing settings such as school or workshops, i.e., people writing would not otherwise have such a view. Your argument is that this conception is inherent in the “experience” of women, gays, and minorities.
The very notion of the “unified subject” is a white, “Anglo” description which conventionalizes writing radical in its own time such as that of Flaubert or Williams.
As Scalapino points out, in Silliman’s argument the “male white heterosexual” is attempting to critique the position he hegemonized. He forces the myth of a unified subject and then denies those who are forced into it the right to critique it.
This is not identical to MacMaster’s delusion. MacMaster knew that as a white heterosexual cis man his voice would be taken to have less value on matters relevant to non-white non-heterosexual women. But the deeper content of his racism is analogous. Non-white non-straight non-cis non-male people, in this view, have no particularly important experience of marginalization. The value given to their subjectivity is only a matter of political correctness.
Silliman replies to Scalapino, towards the end of their exchange:
My point here is…that none of us is privileged, yet each of us is positioned. The question of politics in art can only be how conscious we are of the multiple determinations that constitute position, and the uses to which these understandings are put.
Well, yes and no. The multiple determinations that constitute our position include privilege, and to pretend unawareness of that is Silliman and MacMaster’s mistake. Their taking the task of speaking for marginalized groups, whether through ventriloquism or supposedly politically salient poetry, is just another silencing, nothing new in the history of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism. That it is in the sheep’s clothes of the left, Silliman attempting to speak as part of a Marxist vanguard in poetry and MacMaster against “orientalist assumptions,” should only increase our vigilance.
(See also: Racialicious asks “how the media environment got so skewed that fictionalized accounts by white writers get more media attention than actual accounts by people of color”; actual LGBT bloggers in Syria say, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know”; Amina is just one example of how in the Western response to the Arab revolutions, “One establishes a mirror vision of the ideological image of oneself and then sets it up to be emulated”; important observations about the implications of the Amina hoax with respect to pinkwashing. Thanks JR for the links!)
February 23, 2011
“From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” (Seamus Heaney)
“Are Gang Injunctions the new Guantanamo?”
“Ali Abdullah Salih says: Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia. Qadhdhafi says: Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Mubarak: Egypt is not Tunisia. You fools: the entire Arab world is Tunisia.”
“Echo of the permanent saying of the Bible: the condition—or incondition—of strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt brings man closer to his fellow man. Men seek one another in their incondition of strangers. No one is at home. The memory of that servitude assembles humanity.” (Emmanuel Levinas) [Levinas is referring to the refrain in the Bible of “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At the Passover seder, Jews say that in every generation, each person should feel as if they themselves have left Egypt.]
Comparisons are odious, right? But not more odious than Seamus Heaney’s North, which is a pure example of the most ideological political poetry. Jack Spicer said in 1965: “You can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole, and you can come up with a good poem. But it will be just by chance and will undoubtedly not simply say that President Johnson is an asshole.” The poems in North attempt to be about the Troubles, but they are about how Seamus Heaney is an asshole. I refuse to link or quote from Heaney’s poem “Acts of Union” because I refuse to give oxygen, as Thatcher might have put it, to this politically offensive and dangerous ideological poetry. But if you look for the poem on Google you will find that Heaney is willing to compare the British imperialist penetration of Ireland to his penetration and impregnation of (one imagines) his wife. I almost encourage you to look up this poem because its offensiveness beggars belief.
The outdated dichotomization of the poet searching for some images and symbols for a predicament they hope to adequately fit offends me on account of Spicer, but also on account of Walter Benjamin. Isn’t such a project always going to tell you more about the poet’s particular ideological position than anything about the political situation he is attempting to “capture”? But isn’t that idea of “capture” equally offensive from a purely political, non-aesthetic standpoint? When the Trotskyists start analyzing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in terms taken from (say) the Russian Revolution, one balks because they are clearly not attending to the historical particularity of these uprisings and allowing that particularity to speak.
Nonetheless comparisons and linkages do seem to be powerful. Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is very clearly not a film that is meant to be “adequate” to the Troubles or even to Bobby Sands. But Hunger seems “adequate,” I would say, as a piece of political art about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and modern instances of prisoner abuse, of sovereign exception, of internment, of population control. Thatcher’s ghostly voice in Hunger (I wonder if the credits should not include Margaret Thatcher playing herself) reminds us that the power of the state haunts and repeats.
It is powerful and political to say something like “everywhere is Tunisia” even when that’s obviously false. Bobby Sands is not a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay and a film that uses him to make a point about Guantanamo risks a violence to Bobby Sands’s memory and to the political particularity of the hunger strike. But it’s a risk that McQueen is conscious of taking, I think. The overly conscious formalism of Hunger, even the method acting taken to its deepest extreme, reminds us that this is a film, made by a director. McQueen’s overt isolation of Loachian political discussion into a single, still, 17-minute take tells us that McQueen is very skeptical about the project of providing representation for that kind of discussion in film. At the moment where the film comes closest to seeking adequacy to the particularities of the Irish predicament, McQueen refuses mise-en-scene. With the intense lyricism of the filming of Bobby’s last days, which features the first appearance of non-diegetic music and the idyllic imagining of Bobby’s story of the foal, along with Fassbender’s intense method acting, one leaves the cinema deeply aware that this was a film made by a director in a particular time, with actors in a particular time, speaking to viewers in their present and bodies in their present.
The crisis of humanism in our times undoubtedly originates in an experience of human inefficacy accentuated by the very abundance of our means of action and the scope of our ambitions. In a world where things are in place, where eyes, hands and feet can find them, where science extends the topography of perception and praxis even if it transfigures their space; in the places that lodge the cities and fields that humans inhabit, ranking themselves by varied groupings among the beings; in all this reality “in place,” the misconstruction of vast failed undertakings—where politics and technology result in the negation of the projects they guide—teaches the inconsistency of man, mere plaything of his works. The unburied dead of wars and death camps accredit the idea of a death with no future, making tragicomic the care for one’s self and illusory the pretensions of the rational animal to a privileged place in the cosmos, capable of dominating and integrating the totality of being in a consciousness of self.
McQueen takes a chance for humanism with his speaking to Bobby Sands in speaking about Guantanamo Bay. He is talking to a ghost in an attempt to understand the present. When we say Belfast is Guantanamo is Oakland, when we say Tunis is Cairo is Madison, aren’t we just speaking against the univocity of global capitalist imperialism that cause this human inefficacy–and speaking in favor of a future humanism to come in which we will be able to speak to these distant others in these distant places without metaphor, in a language that does not do violence?
October 30, 2010
July 9, 2010
On July 6 Israel announced “justice” for the massacre of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza:
The staff sergeant accused of killing at least one civilian faces a manslaughter charge. Beyond that, the military said a battalion commander was indicted on suspicion of deviating from “authorized and appropriate” army behavior and from an Israeli Supreme Court ruling when he authorized a Palestinian man to act as a kind of human shield by entering a house where militants were sheltering in order to persuade them to leave. […]
In a third case, the chief of staff ordered disciplinary action against an officer who ordered an aerial strike on a militant involved in launching rockets. The man was standing outside the Ibrahim al-Maqadma mosque, the army said, and the shrapnel caused what it called unintentional injuries to civilians inside. The Goldstone report said that an Israeli projectile struck near the doorway of the mosque, in northern Gaza, during evening prayers, killing at least 15 civilians who were mostly inside.
The military said that the officer had “failed to exercise appropriate judgment,” adding that he would not serve in similar positions of command in the future and that he had been rebuked.
In addition, the chief military prosecutor ordered a criminal investigation by the military police into an airstrike on a house that held about 100 members of the extended Samouni family in Zeitoun, a district of Gaza City.
On July 8 the verdict of “involuntary manslaughter” was announced in the Oscar Grant trial. This is the Ella Baker Center’s response:
However, with the verdict of involuntary manslaughter, even with the gun enhancement, the jury has decreed that Mehserle will receive a sentence of five – fourteen years. Giving up a handful of years of his life seems like a small price for Mehserle to pay for the fact that nothing can bring Grant back to his loved ones. Given the long history of police brutality against members of our communities, describing what happened to Oscar Grant as anything less than murder feels not only inaccurate but also a missed opportunity to affirm that violence against communities of color, especially when inflicted by the police, is unacceptable. When you can watch a video of a young, unarmed Black man being shot to death at close range, calling it anything less than murder feels gravely injust.
No one in the Palestine movement, I think, was much interested in the Israeli military court findings about the Gaza massacre, or surprised by the obvious injustice of, for example, a demotion and a rebuke as punishment for 15 murders. The boycott/divestment/sanctions call, five years old today, is for “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” And that might not be all we should demand. The Oscar Grant murder is a reminder that legal equality does not mean an end to the injustices, economic and otherwise, that racist systems bring.* But at any rate, it’s clear that an Israeli military court is not where justice will be found: it will come from the struggle led by the Palestinian people.
So while I’m horrified about the verdict in the Mehserle trial, I’m trying to remember: real justice will never come from a court that’s very much a part of the system that contributed to the crime. Here is more from Jakada Imani of the Ella Baker Center from before the verdict, my emphases added, and worth considering for Palestine as much as for Oakland:
On New Year’s day 2009, Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back, that much is clear. What’s less clear is what justice in this case should look like.
I am clear that Mehserle must be held accountable. But that alone is not justice. Locking him up won’t give Oscar Grant’s daughter her father back. It won’t give his mother the chance to see her son continue to grow. And it won’t take away the terror in the hearts of black and brown boys when they are stopped by police officers this summer. A guilty verdict for Mehserle won’t make up for decades of police brutality, racism, unequal justice, exploitation, racial profiling, or socio-economic systems that are rigged against the poor.
I have been an activist for far too long to think that sending someone to prison ever sets things right. Prison adds damage-to-damage and trauma-to-trauma. We don’t want prison to be the only option for young folks who make mistakes. Is it really the only answer for police who make mistakes?
At the same time, Oakland Police and leaders are preparing for the worst – riots to erupt in Oakland, civil unrest- if the verdict of the trial absolves Mehserle. The media is more interested in the idea of cops facing off against the community than uncovering the problems of the justice system, police accountability, and racism at the root of this case. Furthermore, the resources being spent to address this possible unrest would be better used in addressing the distrust and strained relations and trust between police, community leaders, young people and residents. It’s as if the authorities in our community expect the worst from us, planting seeds of fear which could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than investing in true community safety and system reform.
In all the media hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage, something is lost. That something is healing, transformative justice. How do we transform the system that recruited, trained and armed Mehserle and thousands just like him? How do we change the fact that police and civilians alike see young men of color as threatening? How do we build a powerful social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we have to take to the streets. I am down to march, chant, rally, block an intersection, commit civil disobedience- what ever it takes. But not just to make myself feel better. When we take to the streets, we should be saying what we want, clearly and resolutely- not just point out the problems but also demanding the solutions. I know too much to protest the sky, to mistake commotion for motion.
That is why we are supporting Emergency Leadership Forum. A gathering of young leaders from through out Oakland, organized by our allies at Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising. The four-hour Leadership Forum will inform youth about the status of the current legal case, provide young people with a positive process through which they can explore their feelings and frustrations about the situation, and educate them about Social Movement history. The Forum offers youth the tools and the space to work on not just a vision for justice, but a plan. Young people did not get us into this mess, but do have the wisdom to help get us out. Please invest in Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising by donating your time and/or financial resources to work with youth on peaceful responses to violence.
In our Families for Books Not Bars Network, we train parents to advocate for their children in the juvenile justice system by telling them not to let the court see their children as the sum total of their worst moment. For Johannes Mehserle, it’s too late. He will forever be seen as the cop who killed an unarmed Black man, as he lay prone. He will have to live with that reality for the rest of his life no matter what the jury decides in Los Angeles.
But for you and me there is time. How will we be remembered? When the jury makes its decision, will we feel victorious or defeated? Which outcome would trigger which response, anyway? What solution would mean that justice has been achieved – for Oscar and his family- and for all of the victims of State violence in our communities? Please share your ideas, your questions, and your feedback so we can move forward together.
As we heal our society so that there can be true and transformative justice, I am reminded that there is just us- we are all we have. We must come together to find the answers and move forward with our heads held high and our commitment to real solutions always lighting our path.
* In addition to healing the trauma, like Imani says (or perhaps as a part of it), reparations seem necessary.