Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Chandler Davis Collection

      I haven't posted for a couple days, primarily because of the beginning of the school year.  I often forget the little social rituals that open up that process, parties, meetings, demos.  In addition, I visited Santa Cruz over the weekend, which led to this essay being published much later.  As much I love my imagined micro public community, I would prefer spending time with Don, Erin, Katy, Jo, Evan, and Kim.  After that, I suspect that life is going to get pretty busy with getting the dissertation in gear, October 7th organizing, and teaching.  In any case, I leave those thoughts there.  After all, I'm not trying to create a private journal, but am interested in becoming part of that peculiar group of strangers in communication, the public.

      Around the same time that I received my copy of Damon Knight's history of The Futurians, I began reading a related book, the collected writings of science fiction author and blacklisted mathematician, Chandler Davis.  Unlike Knight's text, It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis is actually in print.  I thought it might be an interesting change of pace to write about a book that's still in print, rather than only being available in limited quantities.  The text was released this year by an imprint of the feminist science fiction press, Aqueduct Press, Heirloom books.  The material on Aqueduct's blog emphasized the book's status as the first material that the press had put out by a man, but I was more excited to find more material exploring the history of the sub-culture, particularly the way that Davis saw his position as a political radical related to his involvement in science fiction fandom.

     The early material contained in the book allows us to see that many of the conversations and controversies that occur between science fiction fans on the web have longer histories than that format allows.  In particular, the collection includes a memo directed towards the amateur press association makes a set of arguments about the representation of the other.  Davis attempts to set up a set of guidelines to avoid racist and chauvinistic representations within fiction produced by members of the association.  The practical guidelines that the memo end with are reductive at this point, but the attempt points to the similar engagements conflicts represented by the 'racefail' conflict on one hand, as well as the conscious organizing on the part of the Carl Brandon Society to "increasing the awareness and representation of people of color in the genres and in the community."

     Davis' critique of the practice of stereotyping in pulp literature has the same concern as contemporary commentators within science fiction, that is, the role of fiction in reproducing the reader's prejudices.  It represents a long running perspective within the subculture that runs from the Futurians to a multiplicity of current formations.  At its heart is a concern about the responsibility of the author.  As Davis notes, "Remember that the large majority of your readers--the large majority--either discriminate or are discriminated against; keep that in mind all the time.  Then write a story that satisfies your conscience."  (Davis 60)  The author should then use the forms of cognitive estrangement within the genre to challenge the prejudices of his or her time.  Davis' practical suggestions focus on not putting racial or ethnic groups into casually expected roles, or similarly in the roles women play in pulp literature.  There is a clear parallel to the later critiques that Joanna Russ has on the genre, expressing disappointment in a genre that both has such radical potential and such conventional notions of gender within that potential.

     Just as significantly, the interview with Lukin gives a lot of anecdotal material about fan culture of that time, most of it not all that surprising, but nonetheless adding detail to our understanding of some of the key personalities.  In particular, one gets a better sense of the key editors of the period.  Most significantly, there is a lot of material on Campbell, dealing with his politics, his racism, and his anti-semiticism.  (for instance, Judith Merril took on her pseudonym Merril to get her work by Campbell) But it also deals with the common practice of editors to simply change stories without consulting the writer.  This practice went beyond Campbell to the practices of Horace Gold, and even former Futurian, Frederick Pohl.  The material really points to the complex negotiations that occurred between radicals within the subculture and those operating within a more conventional political framework.  Science fiction (the subculture) simultaneously allowed for heretics at a time of the red scare, but that involvement meant a constant ideological and aesthetic negotiation with often conservative institutions.

     In addition to that, the text includes a number of other engagements made by Davis related to his complex role within the academy, both within it and outside of it during his HUAC enforced exile from the academy.  These essays deal with the effects of the red scare, the responsibilities of academics, as well as an interesting defense of the new left.  Personally, the material on the red scare is the most interesting of the material.  Davis' essay, "...From an Exile" written in 1960 along with the retrospective speech, ""Shooting Rats in a Barrel": Did The Red Hunt Win" given in 1995 and the interview material with editor Josh Lukin allow for a fuller understanding of the full impact that the somewhat mislabeled 'McCarthyism' had on the academic and political life of the country, erasing a series of ways of thinking and acting.  More significantly, Davis presents this without the kind of romanticism that one can find in material of this sort.  (I am primarily thinking of the Woody Allen film, The Front)  It is constantly considering the period from the standpoint of the political, rather than the sentimental.  The other essays are also material that one would hope that more potential academics would take a look at, as that most of their concerns are those of the present, and not simply the past.  (After all, the war in Afghanistan could not occur without the technical expertise of the university.)

       Davis' short stories remind me quite a bit of the material Judith Merril.  Both have a similar interest in using science fiction to explore the contemporary problems of their time, the cold war, contemporary gender relations, etc.  The common thread that I see between the two is concern with the everyday.  Both move away from pulp concerns with spaceship adventures and use the genre's engagement with futurity to think through our relationship to corporations, romantic relationships, etc.  "Last Year's Grave Undug" is a considerably darker engagement with the possible impact of nuclear war than Merril's Shadow on the Hearth, although both are concerned with the politics of survival.  "It Walks in Beauty" shows an interest in exploring the performativity of gender that links it both to Merril's narratives as well as C.L. Moore's "No Woman Born."  As a whole, the stories are fun, but they feel a little dated in the way that Merril's work often feels.  It might arise out of that sense of ideological engagement with current events that seems to be driving both authors, but that probably needs to be developed a bit more.

          Finally, Lukin provides a lot of useful information to contextualize the material contained here, linking it to Davis' origins in the Popular Front and its collapse in the cold war, his marxist intellectual and political commitments, as well as the thread of feminism that runs through that.  From a personal standpoint, it was fascinating watching Lukin work through the period that I am currently working on, and occasionally frustrating.  It was real exercise in the narcissism of small differences, as I would have drawn on slightly different sources and would have quoted Gramsci in a slightly different manner to get at very similar positions. I'm sure Nietzsche probably has a catchy epigram on the phenomenon.  All of this is quite irrelevant to the useful work that Lukin provides the reader, though.

     As a whole, this book links up with the recent feminist cultural studies work on the subculture provided by Helen Merrick's recent book also published by Aqueduct, as well as the more formally academic books written by Justine Larbalstier.  My genuine hope is that this indicates the direction in which the publisher is moving in, and not for simply professional reasons.  It's a genuinely interesting history, and the more material that I read about it, the more complex and interesting the topic becomes to me.  (As a last note, from a purely commodity standpoint, I am also very fond of Aqueduct's obvious reference to the old Penguin design work on the cover.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On Security Culture: A Critique

       This another in a line of articles that I wrote for the Arise! journal during the period of the anti-globalization movement.  For those who haven't read the earlier entry, the journal was a periodical tied to the collectively run bookshop.  My interest was to move the newsletter to take a more critical role, to become a space in which activists could critically discuss the practices and ideas of the movement, possibly an untenable goal given the public format of the journal.  This entry was the most discussed and provocative of the essays that I wrote.  It led to a number of conversations, as well as a very angry and incoherent rant on my voice mail.  I've left it largely untouched with the exception of cutting out a footnote on primitivism that I feel is largely polemical and unproductive at this point.

      In addition, this article shouldn't be taken as a critique of security culture, per se.  There are many moments when the techniques developed under that name allow for more productive actions, and the legal ramifications of direct action have only become more drastic since the article has been written.  The article is a critique of the way that those often necessary and productive techniques were used to legitimate micro-structures of exclusion and domination.  I think these are not simply faults that a small group of bad people possess.  Instead, they indicate a set of behaviors that we are all capable of.  In that, it's part of a process of considering the importance of the means of how we engage in activism, a set of practices that invariably shape the ends of what comes out of that organizing and activism.

On Security Culture: A Critique

     Within a number of activist circles, the concept of security culture has become an important one in regulating the behavior of activists. This creates a series of practices that are legitimized on the logic of preventing an external threat from disrupting the efforts of activists to resist the current state of things. There are a number of arguments that examine the question from this angle, asking whether this culture is sufficient in achieving this end, whether the methods of security culture are being used properly, etc. In effect we have a discussion that works within the ideological logic of security culture itself.

     These are interesting questions and in the case certain types of illegal direct action, crucial questions, but I am interested in asking a different set of questions, that is what does the series of practices constituted under the rubric of security culture do to internal relations within activist communities? I will argue that in effect, that security culture acts to produce privileged and unprivileged actors within activist projects. That the privileged actors to some extent constitute an inside, and those who are unprivileged acts as an outside. This process operates by the control of information, those who are trusted and inside are allowed to know more of what is happening than those who are outside. The last premise is that this mode of security culture allows for those inside to have a number of means to punish those on the outside.

      So, how does a series of practices that are designed for a single expressed purpose, to avoid prosecution and infiltration, become, in effect, an informal methodology of sovereignty? Well to understand that, we need to first look at what constitutes an inside and an outside within this logic. In effect, we need to look at the cultural formation that the activist circles that adopt security culture take.

     Within this article, I am interested at looking at security culture within the confines of two overlapping formations. The first formation is a type of anarchist politics that emphasizes spontaneity and illegal direct action politics. The second formation is a type of DiY punk culture. So in effect, the individual who is inside is marked by a number of signs that are based on a manner of dress, age, and political expressions. These signs form a simultaneous dress and speech code that demarcates the individual in question as legitimate.

     This inside is in some ways a far more exclusionary one than within traditional left politics through its very informality. After all, there is no party doctrine or code to critique. Instead we are left with a certain form of cultural and political sameness that constitutes a certain hegemonic formation. And this formation can be seen to have two distinct qualities, 1. It is very young. One rarely finds individuals over the age of 25 at the informal social gatherings of said communities 2. It is primarily white. It is not that there is a de jure exclusion of individuals that fit those patterns; rather it is a more insidious de facto exclusion. What constitutes a ‘militant’ or a ‘radical’ is constituted within very narrow categories.

      It is at this point that security culture steps back in. It acts as a sort of enforcement device of this inside. To point to a rather extreme example of this type of enforcement, a friend of mine was trying to become involved within some of the organizing around Mayday. The trouble was that he was middle-aged, dressed in a manner that made him look not that much different than the average person on the street, and he had a mustache. This immediately gave him the label ‘cop’. Now this individual, who is an anarchist, and had been involved in direct action politics when his accusers were in grade school, simply threw up his hands in disgust and left.

     I would argue that the example that I gave is the phenomenon at its most pathological, but it can be seen in a number of everyday examples that are considerably more naturalized. Instead of looking at any number of activities that I was to some extent outside of, I’ll examine something that I was involved in at a privileged inside position, the formation and the organizational politics of ROAR (Radical Offensive Against Racism). ROAR was formed when a number of individuals (primarily anarchists) wanted to be involved in protesting the Ku Klux Klan/Neo-Nazi rally occurring late in the summer of 2001, but had no interest in the official organization because of the personalities, ideologies, and tactics of its lead organizers. Ironically, when I initially started discussions with others in forming what would become ROAR, my ideas of what the group should become were open and democratic. The moment of the Klan rally should be used as a rallying point to push white radical anti-authoritarian activists into realizing that anti-racist activism had to be built on actual relations with activists of color in the context of concrete political projects. This of course, failed miserably.

     Instead, ROAR became a creature of insiderism and security culture. The meetings were effectively structured within a layered manner. First there were the open public meetings. Obviously these were limited as well, being that one had to go to the locations where they were advertised, street or internet, but anyone could walk off the street and come in. The second layer was the meetings that occurred afterwards over pizza and beers that were primarily designed to discuss tactics of the day itself. These were events that you effectively had to be invited to attend the later meetings. The third layer consisted of a number of small gatherings to come up with details on security or tactics. This layout is a bit schematic and doesn’t capture the nuances that were involved in planning, but it works as an approximate overview.

     This type of layering organizing can be seen frequently at the organizing of these types of anti-authoritarian protests. They in effect act as a sort of informal parody of the Leninist model, moving from the mass meetings of the popular front group to the meetings of the party subaltern to the inner-sanctum of the central committee. The fact that it is organized informally, based on friend networks and cultural markings doesn’t make it any less exclusionary.

     The tactics that were envisioned at those meetings followed the same logic. They were in fact a logic of putschism. The tactics that we theorized were built on a model that showed no confidence with the greater attendees of the demonstration. After all, every outside face is a potential police officer waiting to pop out. In that we came up with increasingly elaborate strategies of stopping the klan rally before it even started. We came up with structures that had no members to them. More significantly, because of our informal closed-door system, we wound up terrifying the hell out of a number of the demonstrators because they only saw the militancy of our propaganda, which emphasized attacking the klan rather than disrupting the event.

     Most depressing was the fact that we neglected the things that were most built upon mass participation. For instance, we had planned a concert for the day before the protest, but only a couple members did the work, and many neighborhoods were not fliered for the event. The discussions around the event only took place at the initial public meetings, and only briefly at that.[1] It would be a mistake to call the show that we had a failure, but it certainly held more potential than was actualized.

     This actually does relate back to the issues of security culture directly. It does because security culture is a logic that emphasizes keeping out the outsider, the “other.” There is a certain logic to it off course when one is about to do something illegal, but the trouble is that is has leaked into a whole range of other activist practices. In this case, it led to less emphasis to what could be a way of bringing people outside of traditional activist communities into the project of anti-racist politics.
     The ironic thing about this whole series of events is that ROAR’s role in the demonstration was fairly successful, but only because of the utter failure of our plans. Instead of playing at guerilla war, we wound up forming an ad hoc group that pushed out klan supporters out of the demonstration, working with a group of Latino punks, old ARA folks, and a kid who terrified the Nazis by speaking to them in German. We, in effect, did what I originally intended to do in the end, but all the hours of planning that we did, were completely wasted.

     What I wanted to capture in my discussion is the way that security culture legitimized and even created a climate of exclusion. Within this context, security culture created something along the lines of a slightly more sophisticated clubhouse, with the sign “keep out” firmly in place. I’ve seen this numerous times within activism. All it has managed to do is alienate people, keep number small, and spawn a whole series of unproductive demonstration and actions. The meeting of ROAR primarily succeeded in creating a closed community, with its own pathologies and hierarchies. This circled wagon approach also lead to attacks on activists who were critical of the project of ROAR, following in the tradition of ARA who also often took a similar, “you’re either with us or against us attitude.”
     I use the example of ROAR precisely because it doesn’t contain any of the excesses that I have heard around security culture. To point to those moments would be to allow security culture off the hook. After all, one could say that security culture within the day to day lives of activism is acceptable, but not under the excessive terms that the moments in the article suggest, but I want to go farther and argue that with few exceptions[2], security culture is far more damaging than it is productive. I think that ultimately security culture has been a hindrance upon us, as that it has kept us limited to a small community. We will need to take considerable risks, with personal issues, with security, etc. in order to expand beyond it.

     But beyond that, perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon connected with security culture is the exteriorriolization of problems. This has had comic effects such as the blaming of undercover police for the failure to raise the tripod at Mayday 2000[3], but it has had much more serious impacts on the practice and organization of the people engaged in security culture. It has allowed for the serious contradictions lying at the heart of our projects to flourish unnoticed and unexamined. We must recognize that ‘the enemy’, the society we so pathologically try to keep out, is already there. We were raised in its schools, families, and other institutions. We must recognize it in ourselves.
     This construction of the other also allows for certain individuals to accumulate the power to control through these mechanisms. For instance, security culture puts a great deal of emphasis on the policing of language, ranging from what is permissible to say to who one can speak to concerning these issues. These rules are frequently manipulated in order for individuals to quiet others, and enforce certain orthodoxies.

     Just as frequently, this mechanism becomes an isolating one, freezing people’s speech concerning controversial and dangerous topics. For example, the disastrous ISAG[4] protest was heavily marred by the use of security culture.[5] There was a lack of communication on the part of tactics; trainings were canceled because of police presence, etc. The result was that the protest was under-prepared and chaotic. Also, the large amount of allies that were sympathetic to the anarchist community, although not a part of it (what the old Leninists referred to as “fellow travelers”) were notably absent as they were in abundance at the Mayday demonstration earlier in the summer. This drastic use of said tactics also didn’t keep 50 undercover police officers from participated in the protest. And afterwards, criticisms of the demonstration were frozen out of discussions within large gatherings, and tended to occur within personal discussion. It took over a year to admit that the demonstration was a complete failure.

     But more significantly, shot through the ISAG protest and beyond, this logic became extraordinarily exclusionary. Protests were organized by small cliques of individuals who left out any outside participation same small, grainy, photocopied fliers that demanded attendance. One could see both ‘security culture’ as control and ‘security culture’ as universal fear could be seen in abundance. It became a way to enforce certain cultural and ideological codes, and a way freezing any criticism of those codes. The height of security culture became perversely, the culture of insecurity.

     There is a certain irony in this critique as that the era of security culture as a cultural dominant has come to an end, but I still think that the critique has value. The more militant tactics taken up between the Seattle WTO protests and their suspension after 9-11 point towards far stronger possibilities than the older, more traditional formations of protest. However, as old assumptions were questioned within that period, new assumptions were created and were often as destructive as the old ones were if not more. The point is that as we return to militancy, we challenge and do not replicate the forms of hierarchy and exclusion that were allowed under the cloak of security culture. The question will our militancy be based on the sprawling potential power seen in Seattle, Washington D.C. and other places, or will it be based on the closed sad militancy of the terrorist cell.

[1] There is another way of approaching this critique that would focus on the overemphasis on confrontational politics on the part of contemporary anarchist politics, but that will have to wait. There is also a critique that can be made concerning the neglect that activists often make concerning more boring and prosaic activities that nonetheless are essential, this will also wait.

[2] Those exceptions dealing with illegal direct action sabotage, I should note that, overall, my experience with the use of security culture tactics at large demos has been one of failure.

[3] For those not at the event, a number of activists tried put up a tripod in the middle of an intersection during the Mayday march of 2000. The attempt failed because neither the blac bloc nor the rest of the protesters were warned about the raising of said tripod. Typically, at the time, this was blamed on shady characters instead.

[4] The International Society of Animal Genetics held its conference within the Twin Cities in the late-summer/early autumn of 2000. Direct action street protests were organized in response. The expected national turnout didn’t pan out, and there were very few demonstrators, perhaps 150. The disaster around this protest lead to the freezing of the militant spirit that had came out of the Mayday demonstration.

[5] I should note that there was very little chance of ISAG being a successful protest. Some 600 police officers were at the demonstration, dressed in full riot gear, armed with batons, tear gas, beanbag guns, and pepper spray. However, I will still argue that if the preparations were more open, the event could have attracted more people, and simply could have been less disastrous.

Friday, September 17, 2010

More on the Futurians

    In my earlier post on the Futurians I noted that former member Damon Knight had written a history on the group, although the work was out of print.  Well, I've gotten my hands on the book, and I've managed to read through it fairly quickly.  It's prose style is a bit of a relief compared to the rather tortured and purple prose of Sam Moskowitz's writings on the subject.  [For those who don't know Moskowitz was another notable fan from the early days of fandom, and was an adversary of the Futurians.  His book, The Immortal Storm gives his side of the narrative.  Moskowitz also wrote a couple so so books on the genre, and edited the infamous collection, When Women Rule, that was a partial inspiration for Joanna Russ' Battle of the Sexes essay.]  Knight has some sense of how to communicate to an audience, and it's a pretty quick read.  At the same time, it's a lot stranger than I had expected.  Knight brings out the unmistakably abject aspect of these social networks.  It's a narrative of illness, social awkwardness, and occasionally, abject poverty.  However, those descriptions don't really give justice to the real oddity of some of the interactions.  To give you a sense of this, early in the book, Knight reveals the following habit of one of the early organizers of fan culture, Willy Sykora,

      "The ISA had meetings in Sykora's basement, where he had a jar of ten-year-old urine that he was keeping to see what would happen to it.  He'd take it out and show it to us and say, 'Now it's ten years, eight months, and three days old.  Still looks like piss."

      When I initially reached that moment of the narrative, I stopped reading.  I wound up stalling there two or three times before I got past the point of the narrative, not because of a sense of disgust, but because of laughter and the uncanny resonance contained within the awkwardness that the story had with so many early narratives of punk.  Sykora wasn't a Futurian, and the group actually had its genesis through Sykora's expulsion of Wollheim and his friends, but the group itself was only marginally more functional than Sykora.  The narrative is full of petty conflicts, violence, contained within an aura of a profound absence of communication.  I don't mean to demean the group by saying that, on the contrary, it makes me realize the extent that early fandom fits into the sub-cultural social formations that were taken up by Dick Hebdige amongst others. Hebdige begins his analysis of subculture with a reflection on a fairly well known moment in Genet's A Thief's Journal.

      Genet writes about his arrest during a raid by the Spanish police.  A tube of vaseline was found on Genet when searched, a sign of his homosexuality.  The response of the police was derisive laughter and hostile innuendos.  Genet, too, joins in this laughter, although painfully.  But, after the incident, he most vividly remembered the tube of vaseline.  Hebdige then quotes from the text directly, "I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages."  For Hebdige's semiotic approach, the importance becomes the investment put into 'the most mundane objects.'  Subcultural formations tranform those objects into signs, 'tokens of a self-imposed exile.'  But what concerns me within my analysis is the embrace of the abject, the embrace of the contempt of the other, and the transformation of that into an alternative social formation.

      This brings me back to the text.  In an interview, Knight asks Judith Merril and Virginia Kidd what they thought of an earlier analysis produced by him, declaring the group to be 'a gallery of grotesques.'  The following response is reported by him.

     "The Futurians were a very motley crew she [Merril] said, and Virginia Kidd, who was sitting beside her in my living room, put in, "Almost everybody was callow, one way or another."
      "Callow, or extremely unattractive, or both," said Merril.  "I felt I belonged to such a group, and I think this was characteristic of everyone there, that each of us regarded ourselves as grotesque, and felt comfortable in a gathering of grotesques." (Knight 149)

      A a group, the Futurians tended to come out of the lower middle classes, with a couple notable exceptions, born into a depression that was defined by restrictions and an absence of futurity, rather than the brutal desperation felt by landless farmers and unemployed workers.  However, their relationship to the grotesque, the abject came out of a different economy, an economy of illness, fallen arches, acne, and social awkwardness.  It was a set of coordinates that put them on the margins of the society of the spectacle, of mass consumption and advertising that was just beginning to be born at the time.  I'm tempted to label the formation queer, however not in the sense that is taken up by the GLBT movement in the late 1980's, but in the sense that advertising expert Paul Nystrom uses the word.

    "There will be quizzical looks, doubtful stares and critical estimates.  He will be thought queer.  He will be judged as lacking in brain power and, perhaps, as an undesirable person.  If he persists [in violating the norms of consumption]... he will, if he is an employee, lose his job!  He will lose customers if he is a salesman; he will lose votes if he is a politician.  He will lose his custom if he is a doctor or a lawyer.  He will lose all of his friends." (Ewen 95)

      To be labelled 'queer' in this context points to the transgression of the symbolic norms of the society of mass consumption.  Those put in that position fulfill a dual purpose, to map the contours of the norm, and to simultaneously show the consequences to not fulfilling those roles.  Knight's narrative repeatedly makes gestures towards this status, through the isolation of the group, but more significantly, through the contempt from policemen.  That marginality occasionally took the form of being perceived as criminals because of their mimeographs, and a police raid because one of the male dominated households was suspected to be comprised of homosexuals.  [In this sense, the term is never free of its sexual implications, its transgression operating as a floating signifier.]  I'm not interested in claiming a status of oppression for the group, but rather I want to gesture towards its marginality, a rejection of the burgeoning consumer capitalism that went beyond their often fleeting radical politics.  Science fiction became a way of transforming the grotesque signs of commodity failure into the stylization of a genre, into a contradictory and often brutal social circle.

       The other side to that stylization was a set of aesthetic practices that often uncannily match the production process of DiY punk.  The group was committed to collective living arrangements, and set up shop in any number of houses and apartments, given names such as "The Futurian Embassy" and "The Ivory Tower."  Those houses invariably centered around the collection of books and magazines, as well as the mimeograph machine, which allowed for small scale publication.  Those publications took the totality of the world as its aesthetic space, producing diatribes, articles, stories, and poetry in response to factional battles, politics, interpersonal disputes, and often, the dishes.  The personal quarrels, descriptions of daily life, and responsibilities freely intermixed with the production and consumption of science fiction.  At the same time, this process was equally defined by arguments, insecurity, and occasionally, violence.

       Members of the group were also involved in the production process of the genre.  Frederick Pohl and Donald Wollheim in particular were involved in the recruiting of small time entrepreneurs to produce pulp magazines.  Before 1943, Knight estimates that the Futurians were the editors of about half of the pulp science fiction publications.  Out of necessity these publications generally featured the work of fellow Futurians, and that work was overwhelmingly defined by collaboration, and generally published under the guise of pseudonyms.   These practices contain the same interest in finding alternative circuits of production and circulation that came out of the punk movement, and at the same time, gesture towards the collaborative practices of the avant-garde.  (although perhaps not the same literary quality...)  For the most part, these practices were designed to bring a bit of money back to the members, but they also were a continuation of the internal practices of the group.

       These practices produced a contradictory sense of intimacy and insecurity, family and adversaries.   The group imagined itself in Janus-like terms, posing a safe and intimate inside to a hostile outside, but the group quickly replicated the division between Sykora and Wollheim with a division between Pohl and Wollheim, a division that lead to fistfights, a drunken pact on the part of Pohl and Kornbluth to murder a member of the opposite faction, and a lawsuit on the part of Wollheim, demanding the destruction of his expulsion order by the other group members.  The sexual politics of the group were also murky, defined by members' contradictory views that often contained contradictorily radical and reactionary elements to them.  The sexual relationships and the conflicts that they caused are too numerous to discuss here.  (Perhaps, I'll write a third piece on this, dealing with Merril in particular.  It might be an interesting way of thinking about her particular feminism, but Wollheim is equally interesting, if not as politically progressive.)

       The group collapsed as the various members began to find success, as the genre moved from its pulp origins to struggle to some form of respectability.  There are some practices that continue from the period into the relatively gentile nerd oriented science fiction culture of today, songs, slang, etc.  But the chasm between the two moments seems fairly large to me.  In a certain sense, it can be understood through the changing mechanisms of the dominant regimes of consumption, moving into the fragmented world of neo-liberalism from the mass production of Fordism.  It would take far too long to work through that process within any real thoughtfulness in this post.  Of this, enough.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Music Criticism and the Jungle Brothers "Crazy Wisdom Masters" Bootleg (subtitled: aesthetics and failure)

      I want to make a bit of a tangent from the group of topics that I have been dealing with for the past few days, and return to the discussion of music that I had brought up in a couple posts.  Something that I have been thinking about over the past few years is a particular rhetorical trope that is common in pop music journalism, the notion of a record or a group being 'ahead of its time.'  It's a label that gets applied to a wide variety of bands, but its a term that is most often applied to the work of bands such as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.  According to this approach to analyzing music, the value of the music of those bands is reflected in the influence they had on contemporary music.  In the case of the Stooges, it is their influence on punk and metal.  In the case of Velvet Underground, it is their influence on gads of college rock bands.  (The primary narrative of rock journalism is that of the hidden father, it would seem.  We get nothing of the playfulness of Shklovsky in this process, no analogies to chess, no escape from the hetero-normative model.)

     Don't get me wrong.  I love those bands.  I remember hearing The Stooges for the first time on a alternative rock station some time in the '90's.  They played "I Wanna Be Your Dog."  I had never heard anything like it before.  I particularly remember the sound of bells that were added by John Cale's production, which introduced a droning quality to the piece, a quality also found in the vocals of Iggy Pop.  It was simple, repetitive and hypnotic.  I was obsessed, and it took quite a bit of time to track down that record in that period before the internet, and boutique record reissues.  My relationship to Velvet Underground doesn't have that immediate narrative, but those are records that I still listen to all the time.

      But I'm not sure why The Stooges relationship to a pack of mediocre punk rock bands or Velvet Underground's relationship to bunch of bad college rock band offers a very compelling explanation for why those records are so unique, so compelling.  Isn't that evident in the records themselves?  In addition, I'm skeptical of the value of influence.  After all, the first Dre lp and the first Snoop Dog lp led to a spate of terrible records in hip-hop, but despite their all too obvious misogyny, the two records are interesting and innovative records sonically.  For me, a pair of films make the point even more clearly.  George Lukas' Star Wars and Quentin Tarentino's Reservoir Dogs respectively led to a decline in Hollywood and Independent film, but I like both of those films.  Perhaps, the most productive approach to influence is the antiquarian approach, but this is drifting a bit.

      I've been thinking about this because of some material that I came across recently on the 'internet' recently from the original recordings from what would eventually become the Jungle Brothers third album, J Beez Wit The Remedy.  For those who are unaware of the band, the Jungle Brothers were hip hop group that was associated with the informal Native Tongues coalition that included groups such as De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and Black Sheep.  The groups could be connected through their common interest in expanding the sound of the genre.  They sampled jazz fusion albums, country music, sixties pop music, as well as a greater palate of R&B and funk.  In addition, their approach to MCing moved away from the aggressive, shouting approach that defined earlier acts such Run DMC, the Beasties, etc. to smoother, more laid back approach.  Lyrically, the groups oscillating between taking on serious political topics and a return to the sort of playfulness that defined early hip-hop, although, in retrospect, some of that political engagement was more conservative than initially thought.  (Something that Boots Riley has noted.)  But, I think that misses out on the primary political engagement of the movement.  Instead of looking to lyrics for politics, it would be better to look at the formal experimentation of the groups as their primary engagement, demanding hip-hop, which was so often not taken seriously by the record companies as product (to paraphrase a Roots sample) be taken seriously as an art form, as something that could move beyond novelty and the single format.  Form was the politics of the groups, operating through a combination of virtuosic play, which might be tied to the constant referent of jazz, juxtaposition, that is a commitment to originality and creativity in production and sampling, an alternative take on masculinity and sexuality, and a continuation of hip-hop's move from the single format to the album format.

     The band put out its first record in 1988, Straight Out of the Jungle, and its second album, Done By the Forces of Nature, in 1990.  Both those records were received fairly well, both critically and commercially, but didn't get the attention that were given to the more ambitious albums put out by De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.  If you contrast the records, its fairly understandable.  The Jungle Brothers records lack the aesthetic coherence of those albums.  In addition, the records sample creatively, drawing from a variety of sources, but lack the kind of virtuosity found on the Prince Paul produce De La Soul and Tribe.  Compared to Three Feet High and Rising or that really long title Tribe album, the JB's albums feel kind of patchy and tossed together, although definitely worth the listen.  (Here are a couple examples from those records.)

      However, the group made a notable shift for its third record, working with outside MC Torture/Sensational and working with producer Bill Laswell, who was both involved in the avant-funk group, Material, and was contributed to Herbie Hancock's "Rock It."  There was a clear intent on the album to produce a more aesthetically demanding and complex form of hip-hop.  The tracks bring in an even wider range of sample material, ranging from more diverse jazz sources to the Stooges.  Laswell, who had a foot in both hip-hop through "Rock It" and the aesthetic avant-garde through groups like Material and Last Exit, was a perfect choice to produce the material, reflecting the group's aesthetic interests.  At the same time, there was a commitment to remain in the continuity of hip hop.  Reviewer Joe Kenney does a good job of expressing this juxtaposition, contrasting the group's work with other work's in the genre's avant-garde.  "Some of Tricky’s stranger concoctions are similar, and DJ Spooky as well, but neither artist strives to stay as true to the hip hop beat as the Jungle Brothers. Because, no matter how weird these four songs are, the bass still shakes your subwoofer, and the beats crush."  The record simultaneously holds a commitment the flow of hip hop and the strategies of disruptive juxtaposition, noise, and dissonance of the avant-garde, and it really works.  I felt the same kind of excitement when I heard these tracks as I did when I first heard the Stooges, or the Pistols, or Public Enemy. (hint: if you want to here some of the other material from the bootleg, and some of its much better than this, there's this crazy place called the internet, and you can find this with 'The Google'.)

       Unfortunately,Warner Bros. didn't see fit to release the record as it was produced, and put out a considerably modified version of the record in the form of J Beez Wit the Remedy.  The modified record neither fit in with the mainstream hip-hop at the time, nor did it hold on to the aesthetic innovation contained in its original form.  Despite some shining moments on the record, it leaves it soggy and awkward.  It's an understandably forgotten record, moldering in cut-out bins and used record shops.  The original form of the record has only been heard by a few people in its entirety.  There is a bootleg 10" from 1999, and a few other tracks have leaked, but it's difficult to imagine the album getting the proper release that it really deserves.  At the same time, it's difficult imagining that the record would have sold, even if it had gotten a proper release.  It's sound is alien to the main trends within hip hop, it still is. The Jungle Brothers quickly abandoned this approach to hip-hop, and have continued to produced decent work, but nothing of the innovation that can be found in the early work.  In addition, hip hop in its underground and mainstream forms has made no effort to take its approach as an influence. It's an aesthetic cul de sac.

        To return to the topic I introduced this posting with, I feel that popular music criticism is far too obsessed with paternity and continuity, and doing so it loses out on the messy complexity of aesthetic production.  The untimeliness of material such as this, cul de sacs whose untimeliness deny the comfortable dialectical synthesis of the 'before its time' narrative, allow for this process to be recognized.  At the same time, the record has to be heard as a singularity, a particular aesthetic approach.  It's value exists in its own particular form and history.  Granted, there are pitfalls to this approach, tedious forms of  fetishization and snobbery that are always the danger of the arcane, but as left activist and science fiction author Chandler Davis notes, "diehard adherence to a heresy is in general less menacing to free inquiry than matter-of-course adherence to orthodoxy: because the heretic, being constantly challenged, is deprived of the illusion that his rut is the whole road." (Chandler 75)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Short Essay on Tolerence, Polemics, Sectarianism, etc. (a recent talk and a forward)

       I gave this at a conference on academic activism at the University of Minnesota last year.  I had a great time at the conference, and enjoyed spending time with my Santa Cruz colleagues, Don, Katy, Erin, and Madeline.  Each of their papers was fantastic, and is deserving of a lot of attention.  In addition, I met a lot of interesting people there, from union organizers to malcontented undergrads.  Morgan really went out of her way to get me on the schedule despite the fact that I put in my proposal far beyond the deadline, and I really appreciate that effort.  One should never forget the value of old friendships.  That being said, the conference was overwhelmingly white.  My hope is that we'll see some changes in the next conference that occurs, or at least a conversation about that situation with practical ends in mind.

     I also want to make a couple notes before I begin.  1.  The essay presents a very critical view of Lenin's approach to organization.  I would like to make it clear that this description doesn't exhaustively describe Lenin's thought or practice.  Lenin's work is dense and complex, responding to contingent situations.  Within those responses, its impossible to draw out a single coherent Lenin.  The Lenin critiqued here is a critique of a real dimension of his thought, but we can see a different Lenin other works, notably State and Revolution, but also What Is To Be Done.  That Lenin contains a radical democratic impulse, one that I am deeply sympathetic with.  2.  The talk provides a critique of the polemical controversies that have occurred in the UC system, but it isn't meant as a 'balanced' critique, implicating all sides equally.  I believe that one needs to begin with an anti-racist methodology to enter into the conversation, and sadly, that excludes some of our colleagues at this point.  To be blunt, I can't help but noting that despite their often good qualities and my genuine fondness for them, this critique is most pointedly directed at the sub-cultural anarchist formation within our school.  These last points probably need to be discussed more thoroughly, but they should be discussed in the collective topography of the class struggle.  To put it more cynically, when one has the choice between an often problematic and sectarian anti-racist politics and a sectarian politics of whiteness, the choice should not be that difficult.  I'll be interested if this produces conversation.  In any case, here is the talk.

     Within the context of the struggles against privatization at the University of California, the top administration has deployed the language of tolerance and civility to criticize the various actions against the privatization of the university, linking them with the racist actions occurring at UCSD.  The governor of California took up this approach in order to make the same claims about protests of the Israeli ambassador by the Muslim Student Union at UCI.  In both situations, disruption was reread as a sort of repressive violence, and at the same time, a legitimization of harsh disciplinary action.  Tolerance and civility then becomes a way to distinguish between a legitimate set of speech acts from a set that are illegitimate, a way of marking actors as authentic members of the academic community and those who are interlopers and upstarts.  The problems with this problematic have been discussed frequently, from the work of Wendy Brown to the frequent critiques presented by anti-racist activists in a variety of settings.  Tolerance as a method to negotiate difference is both marked by its depoliticization effect and its erasure the forms of domination and exploitation that constitute those forms of difference.

     However, the question that I want to pose is not answered by these critiques.  Rejection of tolerance as a negotiation of difference doesn’t erase the problems that tolerance the set of practices tries to respond to.  It must be recognized that the conflicts that have arisen in the movements against privatization in the UC system cannot be limited to the conflicts between activists and the upper administration.  Instead, the movement has often been defined by serious conflicts along cultural, ideological, personal, racial, and ethnic lines.  Simultaneously, a number of conflicts have occurred because differences in institutional loyalties, that is differences in the ability to speak and act due to job status or involvement in administrative positions.  Fights have occurred over both tactics and the goals of the movement.  These differences have been negotiated to various degrees of success, but the Irvine movement in particular has been marked by a series of contentious splits that have occurred from its earliest discussion.  These naturally link back to conflicts that have occurred long before the beginning of this particular budget crisis.

      These differences are irreconcilable through simple claims for a need for unity, and need to be worked through by seeing what works in practice.  One approach to negotiating these issues has been the slogan, ‘diversity of tactic’, which makes the demand for the acceptance of difference in organizing styles and political tactics.  The slogan certainly invites a form of the acceptance of difference that is far wide ranging than those contained in tolerance.  At the same time, the slogan is also used to reject any critical inquiry into the ethics or efficacy of any particular tactic, turning its negotiation of difference into an often atomistic and individualistic approach to the other.  We are given an approach that allows for the experimentation and freedom to fail that is needed to develop new approaches and conceptualizations of the problem, but the possibility of recognizing our invariable failures and collectively reimagining those projects is taken away.  In the end, we need to formulate a new approach to critique that both refuses the fantasy of easy forms of unity and the notion that every critique needs to end in an easy form of dialectical synthesis, as well as a conception of difference that refuses critique as a collective right and responsibility.  I intend to explore the possibility of creating this through the critiques of conventional Marxism made by Rosa Luxemburg in her critiques of Lenin and Kautsky.  In addition, it will draw on the exploration of ethics by Michel Foucault through his critique of polemics.

      In a recent interview, Labor Notes activist Mark Brenner noted that union activism wasn’t necessary simply for the immediate accomplishments of the movement, but also for its ability to act as a sort of training ground for a new socialist project.  In other words, the terrain of reform activity is both an end, achieving a set of concrete goals, as well as a means to creating the stage towards greater radical change.  In order to understand this, I want to look at Luxemburg’s contributions to the debates within the Second International. 

      These engagements are frequently read as conventional defenses of Marxist theory and practice against revisionist and reformist tendencies within the international, particularly her debates with the revisionist theorist Edward Bernstein.  However, rather than looking at these more conventional debates, I intend to look at a different set of debates, a set of debates that Luxemburg had with her fellow defender of revolutionary Marxism, Vladimir Lenin.  This debate, along with the longer debate with Karl Kautsky around the tactic of the mass strike, present a different picture of Luxemburg, one that emphasizes the processes of the revolution, rather than a simple set of correct doctrines, also one that takes seriously the very pedagogical tasks posed by Brenner.

     Luxemburg takes on these pedagogical questions most directly in her engagement with Lenin’s response to opportunism, in his book, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.  In response to the combined problems of reformism and the split in the Russian party, Lenin proposed a number of stringent controls over party organization.  These proposals emphasized the control of the central committee over all aspects of party life, from the naming of local committees to imposing rules of party conduct.  For Lenin, this control over the everyday life of the party would exclude the possibility of revisionism or opportunism.  The central committee would act as a disciplinary mechanism on the party as a whole, as well as a brake on forms of error arising from the subalterns of the party.  In crude terms, a successful form of organization is dependent upon the brain of the central committee controlling the body of the membership, a kind of crude organizational Cartesianism.
Discipline is the key term for distinguishing Lenin and Luxemburg’s concept of organization.  She distinguishes the two in the following terms.

      “We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term – discipline – to such dissimilar notions as: 1. the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and 2. the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation?"

      The first model can be drawn to a polemical critique of Lenin’s concept of discipline.  Lenin argued that the factory acted as an ideal pedagogical space for the working class, molding it into a collective subject. The proletariat then takes the form of the docile, manipulated body, linking it to the Taylorist project.  This concept then legitimates the control of the central committee over the automaton worker.  But Luxemburg argued that this concept of discipline misses out on the practices and forms of disciplines that allow for an insurgent social democratic politics.  In opposition, Luxemburg argues that these formations of discipline oppose each other.  Social democratic practice is defined by a collective political consciousness, a self-directed body operating through the mode of spontaneous, in incomprehensible and terrifying to the instrumental reason it operates within.  However, this second mode of discipline begins as a potentiality within the everyday practices of the work day, or what Luxemburg calls ‘unconscious’ practice.  Luxemburg argues that the shift from the “unconscious” to the “conscious” constitutes the ‘tendency’ towards centralization.  Centralization is, in effect, the ability of the proletariat to coagulate itself into a conscious and acting body.
      "The self-discipline of Social Democracy is not merely the replacement of the authority of bourgeois rulers with the authority of a socialist central committee. The working class will acquire the sense of the new discipline, the freely assumed self-discipline of the Social Democracy, not as a result of the discipline imposed on it by the capitalist state, but by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.”

      A social democratic transformation can’t be a simple replacement of the head of the bourgeoisie with a ‘socialist central committee.’  Instead it needs to operate through creating a new form of discipline, linked to the rejection of ‘the old habits of obedience and servility’ that define the current system.  The working class needs to acquire this through political practice.  But the benefits of that practice can’t be simply limited to the concrete gains from the success of those actions.  Action also allows for the working class to reconstitute itself, but this process is thwarted when the central committee makes all of the decisions.  Reconstitution needs to be linked to a collective decision making process, perhaps best identified anachronistically as participatory democracy.  This means that the terms, ‘organization’, ‘socialism’, and ‘discipline’ can only be defined through the terrain of the class struggle.  It turns the class struggle into a sort of laboratory, a space for creating new forms of life.

      Okay, how do we bring this back to the conversation of the university?  To do that, I want to turn briefly to a comment on the current struggles in California made by a significant ally, Rei Terada.  Terada notes,

       "Taken together, the student movements project formations that are sometimes difficult to describe using words like “class,” “society,” or “state.” That should not be assumed to be a symptom of incoherence, but absorbed as a sign of the unknowability of experience that is contemporary, experience that is not yet history. We can be glad that the situation requires the expression and discussion of differences without delimiting those discussions in advance."

      Terada correctly picks up on the fact that despite the gallons of ink spent, the movement remains undefined.  She links the movement’s ‘unknowability’ to the often indecipherable relationship to a series of past struggles, whether it’s civil rights, Situationism, or others, is inescapable.  This Babel of voices necessarily draws into the history of the public university, a history of crisis and struggle, inclusion and exclusion.  To put it bluntly, our relationship to this institution is changed by the ways we are overdetermined by the struggles of race, gender, sexuality, and class, particularly in the way that the post-war institution included and excluded populations into the new consensus.  Our entrance into this terrain of struggle is therefore always marked by this uneven terrain.  But Terada argues against dismissing the movement as incomprehensible because of its current unknowability.  Instead, unknowability points to the contingent possibility of the moment, the possibility of forms of political thought and action, gesturing towards the Novum.

     For Terada, this potential is allowed by the ‘expression and discussion of differences without delimiting those discussions in advance.’  But in order for this to occur we need to conceive of how this conversation can occur.  In order to pose this question, we need to shift from a conversation around classical Marxism and the contemporary struggle, to a late interview with Michel Foucault around the question of polemics.  He opposes this mode of communication with what he considers a genuinely ethical mode of communication.  For Foucault, polemics act as a ‘parasite figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth.’  He notes that,

     "The polemicist… proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question.  On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that the struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat…. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans unites interests or opinion, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.

      Undoubtedly, there is something immediately appealing to this formulation when in conversation with the state or the upper levels of the administration, but our most conversations as organizers and activists are not with them.  Instead, our most important conversations are with colleagues, allies, and new potential members of the movement.  To engage with them on this terrain of conversation may lead to new recruits in the war, but disallows reimagining the forms of struggles. Perhaps Rosellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis offers the best way of thinking of this figure, in the section on the bandit camp.  The chief of the encampment has found a set of armor to protect him from any possible threat of attack, but this form of armor also completely immobilizes him, allowing the mobile figure of the organizer to enter into the camp and destroy it through his willingness to make himself vulnerable to the bandits.  Polemics offers a perceived armor to the potential attacks from the other, but it destroys our mobility.  Most radical organizing is, on the contrary, defined by vulnerability.  That vulnerability can be seen historically in the violence perpetrated on organizers, but that vulnerability also occurs in the little risks that we take in the everyday conversations that are the day to day activities of organizing.

     This image gestures towards the concept of communication that Foucault desires, a “morality that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.”

      In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion.  They depend only on the dialogue situation.  The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given to him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on.  As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to the questioning of the other.  Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given to him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue."

     Our ability, for lack of a better term, to move forward depends on this game.  There is a tendency on the part of certain sections of the radical movement to dismiss the importance of this dialogical negotiation as ‘mere talk.’  I think that this suspicion is, in part, understandable.  After all, the primary model of conversation we are given is the kind of bourgeois synthesis defined by Habermas amongst others, and so often, those modes are used to neutralize radical activity and voices, to operate as apparatuses of capture.  But we have to recognize that we give up a lot when we accept the notion that those are the only forms of communication available.  More significantly, it’s profoundly dishonest to the actual practices that occur in social movements.  I haven’t been to an action, a demonstration, an occupation that hasn’t been anchored by often endless and lengthy meetings, and informal conversations.  If one were working in conventional Marxist terms, one could think of the event as the superstructure to the communicative base.  Perhaps, its time to take that process seriously.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Academics, Cultural Studies, and Class

      Working on your dissertation is supposed to focus your intellectual labor and interests towards a particular project, a goal, but I've found myself drifting as I try to get a better handle on the time period that my author, Judith Merril, is working in.  This drift hasn't been exclusively historical.  The relationship of Merril's novels to the melodramatic conventions of the fiction in women's magazines has led me to read about French theater, the films of Douglas Sirk, and variations on the play, Showboat.  But the historical question has been the one that has really taken up the most time, reading about the cultural history of domesticity, technologies for the home, commodity production, and the image.  One of those pathways put me in the direction of the work of Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen.

       That work, primarily under Stuart Ewen's name alone, probably would be best categorized under the category of cultural studies, although you probably could make as valid an argument that it operates within the category of social history.  His work explore the history of advertising, fashion, images, and PR, or more broadly, the mechanisms that allow for and reproduce mass consumption.  However, Ewen's work fits more comfortably generically with the cultural studies work produced within the British context, rather than the U.S. context.  Ewen links the history of those processes into the larger history of the larger structures of industrial capitalism, looking at the interconnection between advertising after Bernays and Fordism, for instance.  These connections are worked through in the best tradition of cultural marxism, avoiding the idealist mystification of simply positing the 'superstructure' as a simple expression of the 'base' of the economy.  Cultural industries such as advertising are both an expression of the interests of industrial capitalism and are intertwined in its structures.

        More significantly, it avoids the mistakes that so often make the discipline of cultural studies in the United States so boring.  We avoid the boring agency debates, the celebrations of shopping, etc., that is the individualist mystification that is such a dominant feature of that formation.  In addition, it's exciting to read critically thoughtful work that has been positioned to also be accessible.  This puts it in the same category of a lot of the British work as well, particularly the work of Raymond Williams, but also the attempts on the part of John Burger to make semiotics accessible through his television series on the BBC, "Ways of Seeing."  (Incidentally, this is available on youtube, and I recommend taking the two or three hours it takes to watch it.)  It's difficult to think of contemporary work that fits into this category of popular cultural theory and criticism, but the 1950's through the 1970's is littered with it.  (Betty Friedan, C. Wright Mills, Kate Millett, Angela Davis, etc.)

     Okay, so what's the point of this beyond simply celebrating Ewen, and perhaps slipping into the stinking morass of nostalgia?  Well, here goes.  The Ewens (Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness is one of the co-written books) shift from the general history of the mass image in industrial society, and move into some particular examples, beginning with the movies, but quickly moving into a history of fashion and the mass production of fashion.  The essay does this through the exploration of the expectations put on women through the fashion industry, through jeans, etc.  The pair do a pretty good job of showing that good materialist history can only occur through an approach that takes an intersectional analysis seriously, or perhaps, using the language of Althusser, an analysis operating on the basis of an overdetermined causal structure, rather than an expressive one.

      In any case, one of the threads that occurs in the narrative is the relationship of the semiotics of fashion to the structure of class, both in the long duree of the rise of the capitalist world system, as well as in the history of the United States.  In that history of the long duree, the history is probably a little obvious at this point, that history deals with the shift from a class structure of fashion that explicitly prohibits certain clothing items from the poor and middling classes to the open structure of signification allowed in the market.  It also is a narrative that moves from an aesthetics of leisure to an aesthetics of bourgeois severity, and finally to forms of rebellion that took shape in the counter-culture's embrace of denim.  At the same time, the narrative brings in the ways that fashion contributed to the patriarchal constructions to women's bodies, and the interdependent relationship between the mass production of clothing and plantation slavery.

      However, the thing that struck my interest is a little more specific.  The books shows how the mass production of leads to the access of professionally produced clothing for a wide swathe of the poor who were previously dependent on home production for clothing, or mass 'slop' production.  However, the narrative avoided the sort of easy celebratory democratic narrative that could be produced out of this material.  The process that allows for "Miss Astorbilt's" fashion to uncannily resemble "her father's stenographer or secretary" does nothing to change their class relationship, or the regime of exploitation that creates those distinctions.  For the Ewens, this marks a distinct innovation in U.S. capitalism.  They note, "This ability to erect a unity of opposites, social and economic disparity along with a mask of parity, is a part of the genius and achievement of American capitalism." (Ewen and Ewen 177)  The erasure of an obvious class semiotics leads to mystification of those very class relations.  It becomes part of a social democratic facade covering a variety of regimes of exploitation.

     I think that this offers a useful thread to understanding the lack of a mass working class movement in the United States.  (I'm not dismissing other threads here, for instance the critique of whiteness that runs from the analysis of DuBois to Roediger.)  Style becomes a significant mode of social mediation, an interpellative mechanism to allow for a labor peace and a kind of mobility in the bourgeois public sphere.  Perhaps, if one pushed it further, it gestures to the veracity of Voloshinov and Bakhtin's claims about language.  It does erase the possibility of two languages of fashion, leaving the semiotic struggle to occur in the ambiguity of the one.  At the same time, if we take the democratic narrative offered by this shift seriously, it is a profoundly false one, erasing the sustained violence of class exploitation.  The question is how to negotiate a radical politics within the materiality of that erasure.  (Once again, I need to gesture towards the incompleteness of this analysis.)

       As a final point, one of the things I have found fascinating has been the uptake of older modes of masculine working class aesthetics amongst many young white radicals interested in labor politics, most notably around the remaining fragments of the I.W.W.  In a certain sense, their gesture resembles the gesture made by the older skinhead movement.  As Hebdige notes, skinheads created this fantasy of tradition and continuity in order to respond to their disappointment in their parents lack of faithfulness to the working class, through their embrace of the material comforts of the welfare state and their compromises.  I don't think that our I.W.W. colleagues can be understood as operating within a homologous logic, but it might be a place to start in analyzing that sub-cultural formation.  It would provide somebody an interesting cultural studies project from the sociological angle.

(As I complete this, I can't honestly say that I know who the audience is for this material, perhaps falling into the same trap as the manifesto I earlier critiqued.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Biopower and Sovereign Resistance in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy

       I wrote this for a Women's Studies seminar a while ago.  It was during my obsession with Octavia Butler, and I actually have another, longer essay on The Parable novels, written for Achille Mbembe's Political Theology class.  That work is much more polished than this, and may have publishing value.  This is a work that I am also pleased with, but I would need some revision and expansion to be even considered for that process.  Most notably, I would need to work through the concept of biopolitics more thoroughly, but I also would like to deal with Butler's often disturbing commitment to sociobiology in some more detail.  In addition, I would probably think about the fact that a kind of homophobia is intermixed in the misogyny of the men in the resistance community.  Needless to say, if I worked through this process, the essay would look quite different.  Still, I think that this makes some genuinely interesting claims.  I'm also including some footage of Butler, who is a provocative and interesting speaker, along with a brief live performance of the jazz suite produced by AACM member Nicole Mitchell that was inspired by the novels at the end of the post.

Biopower and Sovereign Resistance in the Xenogenesis Trilogy

      To begin with, the Xenogenesis trilogy is an ambitious set of books, and they make a number of large and serious claims about the construction of the human, the relationship of the human to alterity, race, colonization, etc. There is a way that the scope and ambition that this trilogy and many other science fiction series takes up the ambitious stakes taken up by the political novels of the 19th century. There is a way that I could deal with all of it in a limited space. I want to discuss a small element of that trilogy, the construction of human resistance to the Oankali. I want to read this in relation to the discussion that Foucault takes up in Society Must Be Defended and History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. The very mode of resistance that is used against the Oankali takes up the old modes of sovereignty. This mode of resistance is not only highly inadequate to the biopower that the Oankali invoke, but it also produces its logic through a form of misogyny, and bases its resistance in the domination of women

      In order to get to that question, there needs to be a bit of a detour. I am going to begin with a discussion of the overall plot. Then I am going to move into a discussion of the structure of Oankali society and its operation through the biopolitical. This will move us into a discussion of the resistance. This resistance is created within the preconditions that the Oankali create precisely to resist the return to what they saw as the worst qualities in human society, sovereignty and hierarchy. Both of these traits find their primary expression in the domination of women, and conversely, the fear of domination. The text will end with the ease of which these modes of resistance are circumvented in the end.

      The trilogy begins at the almost complete annihilation of the Earth due to a massive civil war. The remnants of humanity have been rescued by an alien raced called the Oankali, who have also restored the Earth’s environment to a point where it can be reinhabited. They have done this in order to colonize the planet, and to combine themselves with humanity, which they find both dangerous and highly desirable because of the “deadly contradiction” that they see in humanity. This contradiction is stated in the following terms by one of the Oankali. The first trait of that he mentions is intelligence, “the newer of the two characteristics.” The second is hierarchy, the older, more ingrained trait. “When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not even acknowledge it at all… That was like ignoring cancer.”[1]

      The Oankali are extremely attracted to this deadly combination. There are two primary differences between humans and Oankali. The first is the issue of hierarchy as discussed, but the second deals with the question of alterity. Where humans fear difference, the Oankali seek it out. One of the Oankali puts it in these terms, “We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell—a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies.”[2] This desire for the other is both expressed in terms of biology—the other is thought of in terms of traits, genes, etc., and it is also explained in terms of biology, the drive is contained in an organelle that defines every part of the Oankali body.

     This drive to the other is, in fact, a form of “biopolitics of the population” to use Foucault’s term. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that this form of power “focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological process; propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity… Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.”[3] The notion of biopolitics is tied to a highly ambivalent set of political transformations within the modern capitalist world system. On one hand it’s linked to a concern with health, with working conditions, education, and inoculations for disease, on the other hand it is linked to the mass death of total war and the Nazi Holocaust. Simultaneously, nearly every modern social struggle accepts and operates within its logic, from struggles by workers, to feminism, to anti-poverty campaigns.

     This translates neatly into the engagement that the Oankali have with other species. They look to other species in order to make a “trade” to use the terms of the book. What this trade consists of is exchanging what is strongest in the Oankali with what is strongest in the trade species in order to produce something new that is a combination of the two. This is carried out by the figure of the ooloi, the “treasured stranger” who acts as a third sex and intermediary with other species. This figure both carries out the genetic experimentation that decides allows for the Oankali to decide what the new species will look like, creating the space for the intervention on the level of the population. It also carries out this task on the most intimate level, concerning itself with the reproduction of the family, the care of the individuals involved in it, etc.

      The Oankali are a profoundly ambivalent construction. At one time, they are both egalitarian to a utopian level and at the same time they represent colonial extraction in its perfect form. They take up Foucault’s notion of the new form of sovereignty literally, that is the shift from “the right to take life or let live” to an emphasis on cultivating life and letting die.[4] The Oankali take anything that is placed in front of them and either isolate it to the point of death or incorporate it into itself, as an act to enhance both. This process literally consumes the earth as the Oankali constructs continually allude in their inner monologue, but rarely express aloud.

      How would she have reacted if he had told her all he knew—that it was not only the descendents of Humans and Oankali who would eventually travel through space in newly mature ships. It was also much of the substance of Earth. And what was left behind would be less than the corpse of a world. It would be small, cold, and as lifeless as the moon. Maturing Chkahichdahk left nothing useful behind. They had to be worlds in themselves for as long as it took the constructs in each one to mature as a species and find another partner species to trade with.[5]

     This process, which is simultaneously completely colonizing and completely egalitarian, is normally done over an extended period of time, but the contradiction that is contained in humans, evidently doesn’t allow for this. The Oankali must force the process to some extent because of both their fear and their desire.

     "Once it was restored, we knew that we couldn’t carry on a normal trade. We couldn’t let you breed alongside of us, coming to us only when you saw the value of what we offered. Stabilizing a trade that way takes too many generations. We needed to free you—the least dangerous of you anyway. But we couldn’t let your numbers grow. We couldn’t let you begin to become what you were."[6]

      The cause of this is this very old form of sovereignty that continues to haunt human society, the creation of hierarchy through the ability to kill or let live. Butler’s conception of humanity, at least expressed in this book, argues with the transition that Foucault presents. She is arguing that this older form of sovereignty, at least the forms of hierarchy expressed in it, lives in the new forms. For Butler, the biopolitical for humans has a lot more to do with Agamben’s conceptualization of it, not because of the implication of Armageddon, which is of course contained in Foucault. Instead, because it conceptualizes the impetus behind biopower as being defined by the older, more ingrained trait of hierarchy. This can very easily be read as the sovereign’s right to kill, or to create a state of exception as Agamben argues.

     This fear produces the effects that the Oankali most fear. It returns to the old trope of Foucault’s that “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power.”[7] The Oankali effort to preempt sovereignty then becomes the mode of reinstating it as a mode of resistance. In effect, the Oankali enhance the quality that they most want to avoid. This sentiment is expressed by one of the resisters Tate Marah, “Oankali drove us to become what we are. If they hadn’t tampered with us, we’d have children of our own. We could live in our own ways, and they could live in theirs,”[8]

     Resistance is therefore defined by the quality of sovereignty. It returns to the old Lockean notion that to be free is to control one’s properties, only the property that is primary is no longer one’s labor, but one’s ability to reproduce. This gets expressed by the desire for the human body to operate in a space that is completely autonomous to the Oankali. I want to read the recourse to sovereignty in two valiances, the first is as Foucault discusses an inadequate mode of resistance to structures of disciplinary and biopower that are deployed by the Oankali, but more importantly as a misunderstanding of the aims and desires of the Oankali colonization itself. This will be later linked to a conceptualization of gender that reinforces the notions of domination that are contained in that old Lockean model, but let’s look at the Foucault first to understand the place of sovereignty that plays in so much resistance.

      That is why we now find ourselves in a situation where the only existing and apparently solid recourse we have against the usurpations of disciplinary mechanics and against the rise of a power that is bound up with scientific knowledge is precisely a recourse or a return to a right that is organized around sovereignty, or that is articulated on that old principle. Which means in concrete terms that when we want to make some objection against disciplines and all the knowledge-effects and power-effects that are bound up with them, what do we do in concrete terms? What do we do in real life?… We obviously invoke right, the famous old formal, bourgeois right. And it is in reality the right of sovereignty. And I think that at this point we are in a sort of bottleneck, that we cannot go on working like this forever; having recourse to sovereignty will not enable us to limit the effects of disciplinary power.[9]

     The practical context for Foucault’s remarks, the fact that the only recourse to resistance can be expressed through a discourse of rights, has even more meaning in the context of the novels. After all, the humans have no means to reproduce outside of accepting the terms laid out by the Oankali. They are put in the position of either aiding in the biopolitical project or being allowed to die off. In their response, they express their grievance in terms of a loss of control. This loss of control is also strongly placed within gendered terms. It is worth remembering that most notions of republican popular sovereignty are based on the male citizen’s control over the household. After all, they are generally drawing from the Roman model that operates out of a logic of patriarchy. He can see this in a future resister’s words.

     “They won’t,” Gabriel told her later. He too was free of the drug, finally, but he was handling it better. Kahguyaht, who had been so eager to push Lilith, coerce her, ridicule her, seemed to be infinitely patient with Tate and Gabriel.

     “Look at things from Curt’s point of view,” Gabriel said. “He’s not in control of what his own body does and feels. He’s taken like a woman and…. No, don’t explain!” He held up his hand to stop her from interrupting. “He knows the ooloi aren’t male. He knows all the sex that goes on is in his head. It doesn’t matter! Someone it pushing all his buttons. He can’t let them get away with that.”[10]

     This becomes the primary rhetorical trope for understanding the actions of the actions of the Oankali in taking away the ability to reproduce. This needs to be understood within two contexts, the first is the type of power that is being expressed, and the second is the way that gender gets configured in that understanding of power. Let’s deal with the first problem. Instead of understanding this in the context of biopower, it is understood in the old Roman sense, the power to dominate. This misunderstanding produces the entire structure of the resister villages. They become little fiefdoms that mirror their interpretation of the Oankali that they are trying to resist. This translates into increasing violence between the resister villages as the series goes on. They translate their inability to act violently towards the Oankali into violence upon each other. So just as the Oankali produce the resistance they were avoiding, the human resisters produce the logic they read on the Oankali amongst themselves.

     The structure of logic also operates on the logic of a certain logic of domination based on gender. After all, the power that is taken away is constituted on the basis of male activity and female passivity. This logic is already being arranged on the ship itself. When one of the women, Allison, refuses to operate in the sexual contract that was assumed by the figures that would form the basis of the resisters, they responded with an attempted rape. The leader of the group, Curt, makes this statement, “We pair off!” Curt bellowed, drowning her [Allison] out. “One man, one woman. Nobody has the right to hold out. It just causes trouble.”[11]

     Although Curt’s act of violence in the end of the first novel lead him to be kept on the ship the logic that he sets out in this statement becomes the primarily logic for the resisters’ society. This takes two forms. The first is that women become the most valuable medium of exchange on the planet. The narrative points to this subtly in the initial description of Phoenix City, the prime resistance city. “But Phoenix was also the richest resister village they knew of. It sent people into the hills to salvage metal from prewar sites and had people who knew how to shape the metal. It had more women than any other village because it traded metal for them.”[12] The exchange of women, like the exchange of metal becomes the basis of the society, both are commodities, and operate on the same logic of exchange.

     The other side of this structure is an economy of rape. This occurs at two moments, the first is moment of the raid. The resister society is built upon nomadic groups of resisters who trade and raid depending on the strength of the society. Where women become a commodity through the first form of objectification, rape becomes the form of theft in the raid. The economy of rape also operates when women are on their own. This becomes a sign of abjection. The logic of this is expressed by one of the characters that is captured on her own. “I was on my way to Lo. When I passed their village, they took me from my canoe and raped me and called me stupid names and made me stay in their pigsty village. The men kept me shut up in an animal pen and they raped me. The women spat on me and put dirt or shit in my food because the men raped me.”[13] By being travelling alone, she was out of the contract of sovereignty and therefore was placed into a state of exception, a state that nonetheless allows for everything else to work.

      The eventual negotiation of this conflict takes the form of yet another act of colonization. Those resisters who want to live outside of the influence of the Oankali can go to Mars, the sight of colonization for so many novels. The irony is that the Oankali see this as the most despicable thing that they could do the humans. In explaining what the act would mean to Akin, the construct that argues for the colonization of Mars. “Understand that, Akin; it is a cruelty. You an those who help you will give them the tools to create a civilization that will destroy itself as certainly as the pull of gravity will keep their new world in orbit around the sun.”[14] From their perspective, the self-destructive drive of humanity, the drive that led to the genocidal war, is completely biological. The act of colonization is merely an invitation to replicate what had occurred before.

      The second irony is that this invitation could have only occurred due to the act of miscegenation that was the primary threat that drove the revolt in the first place. The possibility for even the possibility of another existence is completely dependent on the Oankali, just as the existence of humanity was saved by them. Without the Oankali constructs, there was no way that the offer would have ever been made. They could translate the desires of the resister population into terms that were meaningful to the Oankali. They are also the only ones who can produce the conditions for the humans to move to Mars environmentally. The only way for the resistance of the humans could be made productive was precisely by linking the desire for freedom to something other than the desire for sovereignty.

      The results of this venture are left nebulous by the novels. One is never quite sure what happens on Mars. The only reference to this is the frequent reference to the resister population going to Lo to be transported. One is never sure if it produces the third term that Foucault is looking for, “a new right that is both antidisciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty.”[15] The impression given by the book is that the prospects for this new structure of humanity are fairly bleak. In a sense, the primary accomplishment of the colonization of Mars is that it allows for the goals of the Oankali to be completed more efficiently. Those who are not going to cooperate are placed outside of the Earth. But more significantly, it puts the population in contact with the Oankali once more, allowing for more contact to occur.

      The novel instead finds its ending in another act of seduction, this time on the part of the first human born, ooloi construct, Jodahs. Jodahs and its sibling become the conduit for circumventing the structures of human resistance. They simply become more adept at the act of seduction. The “talent” that the ooloi Nikanj has for humans is expanded and intensified. The interaction that the two have with a resister village at the end of the novel shows the futility of the resisters more than any of its other contradictions.

     The irony is that the village that they entered represented one of the strongholds of the resistance to the Oankali. They built this resistance off of a understanding of the world that was both patriarchal and deeply tied to a religious faith that could be best described as superstitious, reading the Oankali as a form of demon. But this falls apart when the Oankali enter. The structures that they have set up are futile in the face of this form of power that is so alien to their understanding of power.

     The contradiction is expressed in its strongest form with the interaction of Jodahs with one of the village elders.

     “He had been resisting for a century. He had been teaching children that people like me were devils, monsters, that it was better to endure a disfiguring, disabling genetic disorder than to go down from the mountains and find the Oankali.  He lay down on the bed, eager rather than afraid, and when I lay down beside him, he reached out and pulled me to him, probably in the same way he reached out for his human mate when he was especially eager for her.[16]

    With this new form of biopower, the resistance of so many years of superstition and patriarchal logic go out the window. The ooloi are initially taken prisoner, but the possibility of healing and all of the other benefits presented by the Oankali radically shifts the relationship between the population and the Oankali. The novel ends with the community deciding to stay on Earth and setting up a new community with the Oankali. The irony is that the Oankali succeed only at the point when humans are given the choice of free association that was given to the other species engaged.

    The ending is an ambivalent moment despite the great joy that is expressed in its conclusion. There is something disconcerting in it. I don’t mean this as a critique, but instead as a commentary of its uniqueness. Instead of ending in the space of freedom as expressed by the escape from the alien, it finds its moment of freedom both in the embrace of the alien, but also in the production of a freedom that goes through the production of biopower, perhaps to another form, rather than around it through an act of sovereignty. It also puts a great deal of doubt on the possibilities of the human. This is the point where I am perhaps most critical. After all, despite the interesting politics that it contains, there is still a strong degree of a progressive notion of time contained within. While I am not particularly attracted to the image of the fall that is offered by visions of the primitive as a moment of purity before the introduction of technology I am also suspicious of the notion that the narrative is progressive, from hierarchy to intelligence. We are left, perhaps at the same aporitic moment.

[1]Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 37.
[2] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 39.
[3] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 139.
[4] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 136.
[5] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 119.
[6] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 41-42.
[7] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 95.
[8] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 154.
[9] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, trans., David Macey, Ed., Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador Books, 2003), 39.
[10] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 203.
[11] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 177.
[12] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 98.
[13] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 58.
[14] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 233-234.
[15] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, trans., David Macey, Ed., Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador Books, 2003), 40.
[16] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 195.