Have a Good Time

June 16, 2011

Ron Silliman and the Amina hoax

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!)

July 9, 2010

Four videos

[Six Israeli soldiers walk toward the camera down a street in Hebron, as the Muslim call to prayer is heard; suddenly Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” begins to play and the soldiers stop and try to dance to the song]

[13-year-old Kesha Rose Sebert performs Radiohead’s “Karma Police” at a school talent show with piano and acoustic-guitar accompaniment]

[Jonathan Glazer’s music video for “Karma Police”: description here]

[William Kentridge’s 1996 short animated film History of the Main Complaint: description here]

What would justice look like? Thinking about Gaza and Oscar Grant

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.

May 6, 2010

Darwish on revolutionary poetics (via Oppen and Armantrout)

Much of the radical poetics I find interesting comes from the work of privileged white men and women: Stein, Williams, Oppen, Olson, Bernstein.  The revolutionary nature of this work relates only to what’s on the page, because none of these writers would claim to be a revolutionary subject in anything but the aesthetic field.  Oppen famously exited poetry for a few decades of politics with the claim in his essay “The Mind’s Own Place” that “There are situations that cannot honorably be met by art.”

I very much want this to be false due chiefly to my personal beliefs and commitments; for me radical politics without radical art feels insufficient, and radical art without radical politics feels false.  So I am intrigued by Palestinian novelist Ghassan Khanafani’s idea of “literature of resistance,” I am eager to find affinities between aesthetics and politics, and I was glad to find that the first section of The Palestinian Wedding: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry is entitled, “Aesthetics of the Revolution.” The anthology starts with Mahmoud Darwish’s “The roses and the dictionary” which begins:

Be that as it may, I must…
The poet must have a new toast
And new anthems.

The poem is undated but we may imagine “Be that as it may” referring to any of a number of Palestinian national catastrophes–whether 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982, or 2008-2009–or merely the general condition of exile following the Nakba. It is a post-facto situation that implies a necessity, but the nature of the necessity is obscure.  In the wake of disaster, the personal imperative “I must” is unresolved and dissolves into ellipsis; Darwish shifts to the general and prescriptive “The poet must,” a shift from morality to aesthetics.

But aesthetics are not an alternative to morality, or to the problems that stymie the definition of a moral imperative.  Rather the moral imperative is fought on aesthetic lines.  “I must…/The poet must[…]” is as much a displacement of the moral question onto poetics as it is a claim that (at least for this speaker) the moral question can only be resolved by means of poetics.  The second stanza begins, “Be that as it may, / I must refuse death / Even though my legends die. / In the rubble I rummage for light and new poetry.”  “Light” and “new poetry,” found among the rubble, constitute the refusal of death, the moral work.  The literal rubble of war must be the root of both politics and poetics.

Darwish goes on to criticize a certain non-revolutionary poetics; perhaps like Oppen, aware of a time in which art seems dishonorable, Darwish asks:

Did you realize before today, my love,
That a letter in the dictionary is dull?
How do they live, all these words?
How do they grow? How do they spread?
We still water them with the tears of memories
And metaphors and sugar.

Since “today,” since the preeminence of rubble, a poetics built from the dictionary alone is “dull.”  Not only is such a poetics rejected aesthetically but it becomes impossible without an ethical sacrifice: its furtherance cannot be accomplished proactively but only through nostalgia (“the tears of memories”) and artificial sweetness.  Sentimentality alone isn’t fecund when resistance is demanded. The poem ends:

Be that as it may, I must reject the roses that spring
From a dictionary or a diwan.
Roses grow on the arms of a peasant, on the fists of a laborer,
Roses grow over the wounds of a warrior
And on the face of a rock.

The final stanza is an assertion of the Williamsian “no ideas but in things.”  Roses (a metonym for poetry) remain Darwish’s vocation, but they must come directly from “the arms of a peasant,” “the fists of a laborer.”  In short Darwish shares Oppen’s skepticism of the possibility (which is to say, the morality) of poetry in certain situations.  But for Darwish the political and the aesthetic solution are one and the same: an Objectivist kind of poetics that is built on the political conditions of real life and not on a poetry whose matter exists separate from the fractured world.

Along these lines, I am thinking of Rae Armantrout’s response to Ron Silliman’s suggestion that groups subject to “exclusion and domination” respond to that exclusion by reclaiming conventional forms of representation, and not by challenging those conventions with avant-garde or experimental writing.  Armantrout replies that the representation of women’s lives in fact requires disruption of traditional forms.  This isn’t precisely agreeing with Cixous about “ecriture feminine,” but simply noting that disruption, disjunction, contradiction, and unclarity are the reality to be represented for excluded and dominated groups.

Elsewhere Armantrout has said, “I think that if I didn’t ‘write against norms,’ I wouldn’t be writing at all.”  Manifestly, this is the case for Darwish.  Writing an Objectivist-style resistance poetry may not be the only way for poetry to emerge out of the rubble of Palestine; the second stanza alludes to the possibility of a poetry “water[ed] with the tears of memories” (and the anthology I’m quoting provides examples of such poetries).  But a poetry that finds its ideas in things, that begins with reality and not nostalgic sentimentalism, functions as an ethical and political response itself, alive to the concerns that Oppen raises in “The Mind’s Own Place.”


April 14, 2010

letter of support for BDS at Berkeley

Filed under: anti-zionism — by Daniel @ 8:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Below is a letter from the Chicago chapter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network to the Berkeley student Senate regarding their vote to divest from two companies that work for the Israeli military.  (I am a member of Chicago IJAN.)  The original divestment vote was vetoed by the Senate president, and the Senate is voting tonight on whether to overturn the veto.  See the Daily Cal for information, as well as the letters of support linked below (especially Judith Butler’s).


The Chicago chapter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network congratulates the Berkeley student senate for voting to divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.  We encourage the Senate to vote tonight to overturn the president’s veto.

In voting to divest, the Berkeley senate honors the call by Palestinian civil society for an international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the State of Israel until it begins to comply with international laws, ending the illegal occupation and dismantling the apartheid system.  The international BDS movement is a powerful nonviolent method of solving the crisis in Israel/Palestine and builds on the success of the international BDS campaign against South African apartheid.  Berkeley students were on the vanguard in that international anti-Apartheid movement, and we appreciate your courage in taking a similar role in the struggle today against Israeli apartheid.

The lopsided 16-4 vote in favor of divestment indicates that you have a grasp of these issues and the importance of divestment.  But the veto message from President Smelko and a subsequent statement by Zionist organizations attempt to challenge your actions with veiled accusations of antisemitism.  Particularly, we would like to rebut the claim by President Smelko that the divestment bill is “a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students.”

It simply incorrect to imply that targeted divestment from companies involved in the occupation constitutes an attack on the Jewish community.  Chicago IJAN is one of many Jewish organizations who oppose Israeli apartheid and who support divestment.  The letters of support from Jewish Voice for PeaceJudith ButlerNaomi KleinNoam Chomsky, and others make this abundantly clear.

letter from a large group of Zionist organizations says that the actions by the Senate “marginaliz[e] Jewish students on campus who support Israel.”  We see this as a veiled accusation of anti-semitism, suggesting that challenging Israeli policies amounts to hurting Jews who support them.  But we find this argument far more anti-semitic than its supposed target.  To imply that Jews are marginalized by criticism of Israel only marginalizes those Jews, like us, who oppose Israeli apartheid from the Jewish community.  To deny our Jewishness and to associate that Jewishness with immoral and violent policies is anti-semitism.  Our criticism of the State of Israel is based on the illegal actions of the State, not the identity of the perpetrators.

Chicago IJAN would like the Berkeley Senate to know that Jewish groups like J Street, AIPAC, and the World Zionist Organization do not speak for all Jews.  As Professor Butler makes clear, there is a deep Jewish tradition of social justice and respect for co-habitation from which perspective the occupation is abhorrent.  Some of us call on this Jewish tradition in our support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.  But more importantly, none of us are “marginalized” by the BDS movement.  In fact we are empowered and encouraged by it.  Chicago IJAN stands beside the Berkeley Senate in its support for BDS, and we look forward to continuing the nonviolent international resistance to Israeli apartheid together with you.

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