Have a Good Time

September 14, 2016

For the sake of clarity

At the start of my last post from July, I mentioned an old video I had recorded discussing Slavoj Žižek and Chelsea Manning, and I alluded to Žižek’s history of transmisogyny and echoed others in suggesting that this history might have received insufficient acknowledgment from Žižek’s disciples and defenders. That was two weeks before the debacle that was “The Sexual Is Political”—which did bring things further into the open, you could say, and which now has the brilliant response it doesn’t deserve, in the form of Che Gossett‘s essay “Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble.” I’ll be returning to that piece often. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Because, to the extent that this blog remains active, it’s intended as a blog against Žižek, it also started to bother me that at another point in the same post I’d effectively put myself in the position of citing him. It was by way of a sentence supposed to originate somewhere in Walter Benjamin’s work. In an attempt to think through John Brown’s attachment to the Stars and Stripes and the afterlife of an incomplete abolition, I’d been looking for a way to recognize the validity of the designation of Donald Trump’s campaign as fascist which would remain attentive to Trump’s emergence from the mutating history of mainstream American white supremacy. So I had reached for a claim I remembered seeing attributed to Benjamin often, the claim that every fascism is the index of a failed revolution. There was a kind of archival laziness here. The problem is that, like others before me, I’ve tried and failed to find a source for this passage that doesn’t cite it as Žižek’s own paraphrase. And the last two months have provided not only (with Verso’s publication of The Storytellera reminder of the wondrous multiplicity of Walter Benjamins, but also a reminder that Žižek’s paraphrases should never be trusted; and so, when there are so many Walter Benjamins already, why cite one who, like the straw trans people who populate “The Sexual Is Political,” is probably Žižek’s invention?

That question became even more pressing for me when I was faced with a section from George Jackson’s Blood in my Eye, excerpted by Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics on the anniversary of Jackson’s killing, which conveyed everything I’d been looking for and much more. Maybe I would suggest that anyone who’s tempted to quote, as I did, Žižek’s untraceable Benjamin line—particularly in an American context—consider instead these words from 1971:

After revolution has failed, all questions must center on how a new revolutionary consciousness can be mobilized around the new set of class antagonisms that have been created by the authoritarian reign of terror. At which level of social, political and economic life should we begin our new attack?

First, we, the black partisans and their vanguard party, the old and new left alike, must concede that the worker’s revolution and its vanguard parties have failed to deliver the promised changes in property relations or any of the institutions that support them. This must be conceded without bitterness, name-calling, or the intense rancor that is presently building. There have been two depressions, two great wars, a dozen serious recessions, a dozen brush wars, crisis after economic crisis. The mass psycho-social national cohesiveness has trembled on the brink of disruption and disintegration repeatedly over the last fifty years, threatening to fly apart from its own concentric inner dynamics. But at each crisis it was allowed to reform itself; with each reform, revolution became more remote. This is because the old left has failed to understand the true nature of fascism.

We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.” We can make our definition more precise by adding the word “economic.” “Economic reform” comes very close to a working definition of fascist motive forces.

A PDF of Blood in My Eye is here. I also want to recommend Jackie Wang’s long Tumblr essay on the circulation of Jackson’s prison writing among French intellectuals, posted on September 9th to coincide with the start of the largest prisoner strike in U.S. history.

Do you want to write a note to Chelsea Manning congratulating her on the end of the five-day hunger strike that began on the same date, and wishing for a safe recovery and for liberatory justice as she prepares for a hearing on September 20 and beyond? (Sign the petition to have the government’s charges against her dropped.) Here’s her address:

CHELSEA E. MANNING     89289
1300 NORTH WAREHOUSE ROAD
FORT LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS 66027-2304

With further instructions for writing here. Or, if you want to send encouragement but you’re running short on time or resources, it would be my pleasure to write a card on your behalf. I have plenty of extra stationery and stamps. Drop me a line on Twitter or at jrmrtnn [at] gmail [dot] com.

November 14, 2011

Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left

Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.

(more…)

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!)

February 23, 2011

“We have come to give you metaphors for poetry,” said Yeats’s ghost

“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.

Levinas says:

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?

February 8, 2011

Constructive engagement (was Ronald Reagan’s plan)

Of course Ronald Reagan’s centennial was yesterday, the day of the 45th Super Bowl, and I’ve found it’s been important to my emotional health to spend some time with a personal canon of texts running counter to the national celebration of an abominable, unkillable legacy—a canon that would include passages from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Davey D’s post on what children should be taught about Ronald Reagan; an assemblage of queer and feminist voices of opposition, put together by Queers for Economic Justice in 2004; Janelle Monáe’s video (still) for “Cold War,” a wonderful Foucauldian reading of which Robin James just published … and, maybe above all, another music video, made by Jonathan Demme in 1985 (when Reagan was president and everyone knew the Cold War was still going on) but in some interesting ways a video not so far away from Monáe’s.

When I watched “Cold War” for the first time, part of my reaction was to wonder—even as I knew there were crucial specificities here—why more artists didn’t make music videos that consisted of their just singing into a camera, in closeup, in one uninterrupted shot.  It’s beautiful, it works.  And it occurred to me that this was the same reaction I’d always had to seeing movies directed by Jonathan Demme, distinguished by a signature touch that’s fascinated me for a long time: why don’t more mainstream filmmakers construct scenes of dialogue or intersubjective engagement using direct-eyeline compositions?  When and how was it decided by the grammarians of cinema that actors, as characters, wouldn’t look straight into the camera?  For me, when two people in a contemporary American movie are together and suddenly I’m jolted and yanked in by feeling one of them look me right in the eye, almost like Ronald Reagan on TV, it’s immediately recognizable as Demme—it’s almost an auteur’s (unblinking) wink; it took me a while to appreciate how much sense it made that he had a special relationship with a band named Talking Heads—but this wasn’t the way film had to develop, was it?

I’m sure there are plenty of good discussions of this technique, but the best example that I know of right now, touching on its relation to André Bazin’s “Holy Moment,” comes in Keith Uhlich’s 2004 article on Demme for Senses of Cinema (which is full of excellent things, including a challenging, generous rereading (possibly too generous) of the queerphobia of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I think I’ll always have a painful relationship with—I’m not sure how to feel about Jack Halberstam‘s argument either…).  And the one text that Uhlich leaves out, but which I think confirms better than anything else his interpretation of Demme’s sense of cinema as a “medium of address,” is the “Sun City” video, codirected with Hart Perry: possibly my favorite thing Demme has ever done, definitely my favorite thing Bono has ever done, and, above all, still an amazing work of political art.  I first saw the video only about a year ago, thanks to Daniel, who I think had been turned on to it by friends passing it around as a much-needed antidote to Paul Haggis’s “We Are the World” remake (and wishing aloud that someone would make a “Sun City” for Palestine and the BDS movement).  Haggis’s “We Are the World 25,” remember, is the video that (in Jay Smooth’s mostly-joking words) killed rap music once and for all.  As for the original, anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I’m not going to pretend this was a high moment.  Even irrespective of musical quality, though, the differences between “Sun City” and both iterations of “We Are the World” are profound.  While one song is an attempt to conjure or invoke, out of its “we,”  a universal (Western) subject who should just be better at being good, the other is a powerfully angry, defiantly specific statement of solidarity, from artists who recognize the complications of their own subject position and are telling us what they won’t do, with a refrain that in its particularity has all the force of Tony Kushner’s angelic “I, I, I am the bird of America”: I (I) I (I) I (I) ain’t gonna play Sun City.

This intensity is complemented by a formal distinction between the video for “Sun City” and the videos for “We Are the World” that makes all the difference in the world: almost everyone in Demme’s clip makes their declaration right into the camera—as in a conventional music video, except, I think, not.  (One of the related pleasures of this particular clip, the copy of “Sun City” that exists on YouTube, is that we get to watch a rosy-cheeked video DJ transformed by their address: before playing the song he seems not to know how to pronounce “apartheid”; afterward he says, with lovely enthusiasm, “That was great, I never, I don’t, I don’t think I ever looked at that real closely, if i’ve seen it, but … that was great…”)*  The 1985 rendition of “We Are The World” relies on an uneasy half-transparency in relation to its own production, with the team of musicians who “are saving [their] own lives” shown singing together in a studio but never meeting the camera’s gaze, instead staring off to the side, into the phantom space of liberal charity (while Haggis’s shockingly misjudged update combines shots of the same kind with footage of what can only be described as a happily abject Haiti).  “Sun City,” in contrast, reverses the terms of this artificiality and goes out onto the streets of urban America—shown, at the climax, to be the same streets as those of apartheid South Africa and of the murderously segregated American South in the 1960s.  The video’s open acknowledgment of American complicity with injustice is crystallized as George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall, and Darlene Love, respectively, look out at the viewer and sing four lines which, in early February 2011, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, feel at least as resonant as ever:

Our government tells us, “We’re doing all we can”

“Constructive engagement” is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.

Quiet diplomacy.  I think of Reagan’s announcement that he and Hosni Mubarak were “close friends and partners in peace,” very explicitly echoed in recent days by Joe Biden, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton, and implicitly confirmed by the (imagined) quiet diplomacy of Barack Obama.  To be clear, this is not to say that Egypt is apartheid South Africa, or that Obama is Reagan.  It’s only to say that the video for “Sun City,” which was, on its own terms, a genuinely (de)constructive engagement seeking to educate, to raise awareness of the United States’ inextricability from global systems of violence and domination, and to inspire action, feels to me like the bearer of some really important reminders.  One of which would be that the model of “constructive engagement” personified by Ronald Reagan, and, ever-increasingly, in his long movie-star shadow, embodied by a president I supported with all my heart in November 2008, is a model that really amounts to looking the other way.

*Edited to add: These sentences refer to a clip removed from YouTube, sadly.

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