Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fire on the Mountain and the Representation of History

     The recently proposed television series, "Confederate", by the showrunners of Game of Thrones has created a great deal of controversy online.  The show proposes an alternative history in which the civil war ends as a stalemate and the Confederacy persists as a slave-holding nation.  Unsurprisingly, the proposal has been greatly controversial, particularly in the face of the explosion of authoritarian white nationalist activism and organizing in the past few months.  The push back against the proposed show has taken multiple forms, from challenging the ability of the showrunners to create such a narrative in a thoughtful manner to the persistence of such narrative recreating the "Lost Cause" myth and even the legitimacy of white artists creating the narrative.  An additional response has been a proposed alternative history that would imagine the country after reparations.  However, within the margins of these conversations, a number of science fiction fans have brought up an alternative narrative, Fire on the Mountain, a 1988 novel by Terry Bisson that imagines a history where John Brown's uprising succeeds due to the participation of Harret Tubman in the uprising.  As far as I can tell, very little attention has been given to the Bisson narrative within the context of the above controversy, so I thought I would write a brief essay discussing its imagined alternative history, and its explicit assessment of the history of the country.

The narrative of Fire on the Mountain itself is richly created, oscillating between the narrative of a former slave who participated in the uprising and his great-granddaughter, who is reviewing the memoirs of her grandfather in the socialist republic of the southern United States in the late 1950's.  The story richly imagines the experience of the successful slave uprising, while constructing a plausible southern socialist republic, preparing to send astronauts to Mars after a failed previous mission.  The first imagines the uprising as a slow build up of resources, with the insurgents first taking to the mountains to engage in a guerilla struggle before succeeding in putting together a successful army, and brings the historical personas of Brown and Tubman alive through their engagement with the youthful protagonist of that section of the novel.  The southern socialist republic in turn is created through references to novel technological developments and social structures, pointing to a radically different society  Between those stories, the slave revolt and successful construction of the independent republic contributes to a series of global rebellions, from a successful Paris Commune to an eventual successful workers' revolt in the north, starting in Chicago.

Through that process,the novel effectively poses the successful revolt as a novum, a novelty that transforms the terrain of history, and takes up the hypothesis in the first German preface to Marx's Capital, where he states, "As in the 18th century, the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so that in the 19th century, the American Civil War sounded it for the European working class." A prognostication that he expands with the following material on the process of the destruction of slavery, "At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade,vice-president of the United States, declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next upon the order of the day. These are signs of the times, not to be hidden by purple mantles or black cassocks. They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing"  Within the context of these statements, the destruction of the institution of slavery creates a possibility of transformation if fully implemented, albeit an uncertain one.  Bisson simply extrapolates from the other side of this hypothesis.

At the same time, it presents a stark image of the present of the present within its pages through an illicit parody novel produced by proslavery forces in the revanchist North that imagines a path of history that look remarkably similar to our own.  To get a sense of how this is described, we need to a look at an extended passage of the novel that describes the parody novel and its story. 

      "You never read it? I wrote a paper on it in college  It was a bestseller in the 1920s.  It's a border fantasy, a what-if."
      "You mean it's pro-slavery?"
      "Well, not exactly," Grisson said.  "Worse than that, really.  It's a sort of white supremacist utopia, mis-topia maybe."
      "So if its not about slavery, what's it about?
      "Empire.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery was about finished anyway," Grissom said. "Africans around the world were throwing it off.  The real issue in the Independence War was land. Nationhood."
      "So there's no Nova Africa." Yasmin riffled the pages. "Does Tubman hang too?"
      "She's not there," Grissom said.  "That's the trick the plot turns around.  The idea is that instead of going on the Fourth as planned, Tubman gets sick.  The raid is delayed until fall, October, I think.  Brown goes without her.  Now according to the book--and in actual fact--Brown was more of a strategists  than a tactician.  Without Tubman he hesitates, takes hostages, lets the Washington train go through.  You know, in real life it was Tubman who insisted on blowing the Maryland bridge and cutting off the train.  Anyway, in the book they don't blow the bridge; they get trapped in the town, captured,and hung as traitors."
      "So we have John Brown's body and now war."
      "There's still a war.  It's just not an independence war.  It's fought to keep the old U.S. together rather than to free Nova Africa."
      "So who wins?"
      "The North. Lincoln," Grissom said.  "In the book, he become president and the war is started by the slave owners, who are trying to set up a separate country--like Nova Africa, as a matter of fact, on pretty much the same territory."
     "But a slave country, run by the slave owners."
     "They already had that, for all practical purposes," Yasmin said.
     "They were losing it by 1860, or at least thought they were.  They didn't want another Kansas.  Anyway, in the story the North fights to keep the South in the Union. And they do. They win."
     "And we lose."
    "And how. Listen, this book was a bestseller in the U.S. in the 1920's.  Lincoln's a big here; so's Lee...."
     "He leads the army for the South.  He plays the good loser, the Virginia gentleman generous in victory, gallant in defeat, shaking hands at the end--all that."
     "Amazing," Yasmin said.
     "White right prevails; the slave owners keep the land, even get more.  The slave system is modified so that n'Africans end up as serfs; or worse, as a sort of landless nation packed into the slums of Chicago and New York for occasional servile labor."
     "No Nova Africa."
     "Afraid not, comrade.  One nation indivisible--it's old Abe's dream, and your nightmare.  You don't even get a hundred acres and a Mule."
     "Mis-topia, dystopia, wishful thinking." (Bisson 75-76)

In a curious sense, this brief conversation of an imagined parody novel of the defeated North contains the ethical core of the novel; it imagines the history of the United States as a nightmare, or a horrible parody, as terrible as it is improbable from the rational standpoint of the socialist republic.  It demands that we estrange ourselves from this nightmarish history, to imagine another approach, to reject the inevitability of the present, which is presented as the result of a small series of unfortunate contingencies.    At another level, it's a commentary on the possibilities and failures contained in what is often called the second reconstruction, the civil rights era, which the author participated in and saw collapse into the counter-revolution of Reaganism.  To return to the initial controversy, the novel demands that we both reassess our history and to fight to create radically new social relations, a demand also implicit in the destruction of Confederate Memorial statues by anti-racist protestors.  Within this context, we need to break out of the fantasies of innocence that often frame our narratives about the violent white supremacists calling themselves the alt-right. As I noted a few days ago,

I've been thinking a bit about one of the ways that the so-called alt-right movement has been criticized, notably the narrative of treason. A lot of material has accused the movement of treason because of its invocation of the confederacy and Nazism. The logic is, implicitly, since these organizations support either seditious or enemy forces, they must be condemned. I think this is a mistaken narrative. By this logic, we should condemn John Brown, a man who clearly engaged in military actions against the United States government in his efforts to overthrow slavery. The problem with aligning oneself with the Nazis, the confederacy, and the Klan is that these are brutally racist and authoritarian social movements, not that they are treasonous. Implicit in the effort to brand these movements treasonous is an effort to declare them exogenous, outside the national narrative, which strikes me as a profound erasure of the history of our country. Rather than engaging in this fantasy, we should acknowledge that these forces are fully a part of our nation, and because of that, need to be combated all the more. The fight against fascism should be a fight to transform the nation and perhaps even to obliterate it as it currently exists, not to preserve it.

In either case, the novel takes the forms of estrangement embedded in science fiction and creates a remarkable alternative world, refusing the abyss of the counter-revolution, even as it marks that abyss. Within this framework, the novels demolishes the 'Lost Cause' myth by showing the continuation of the white supremacy at the heart of the supposedly defeated Confederate cause, showing its preservation in the post-reconstruction era.  In this sense, the estrangement embedded in the imagined narrative of Confederate contains a deep mystification, and an inability to grasp the history of the country.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Colonialism and Science Fiction

Within the context of the recent Hugo Awards, science fiction writer, Cixin Liu made the following comment, “If the aliens would like to attack us, they would never consider whether you’re from China or the U.S.”   The comment is obviously meant to reference a common humanity, one that spans the divide between two countries who have a long history of conflict.  It also implicitly references a common interest of Chinese and U.S. fans in science fictional narratives.  So, we’re all human, and we all like science fiction.  At the same time, it also mirrors a curious remark made by Ronald Reagan to an apparently perplex Mikhail Gorbachev during diplomatic talks.  Reagan evidently noted that the two countries would by necessity unite in response to a common Martian threat.  It should be noted that this narrative structure has been used in a lot of popular science fictional narratives to imagine a United Earth, from blockbuster movies to far more esoteric narratives.  But, does this basic premise hold up?  I don’t think so.

It operates on the premise of an alien attack that lacks any tactics, strategy, or any subtlety.  When we turn to the history of colonization, which these narratives from the time of H.G. Wells[1] have been referencing, we see a far different approach to attack.  Within those context, whether the destruction of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the colonizing projects in Asia and Africa, we see a process in which the colonizers make temporary alliances with local elites, create divisions within populations and exacerbate already existing tensions.  This process is intimately linked with the process of knowledge production and categorization. The enlightenment’s love of the construction of taxonomies and the process of the primitive accumulation of capital are profoundly intertwined.  Perhaps to put it more simply, the desire to understand through category is not easily separable from a desire to control.  Within this process, knowledge production is not simply a reflection of existing conditions, but an active reshaping of those conditions, at times deliberately, at times accidentally.[2]

 So, if we look at India, for instance, we see an entire religious category, the “Hindu”, constructed out of a multiplicity of religious traditions that often overlap, but also often contradict one another.  These categories then are taken up by the populations themselves and often take a life of their own, for instance, in the form of “Hindu Nationalism.”[3]  We can see a similar process in the creation of the concept of blood quantum designed by the United States government to decide who qualifies for tribal membership or the construction of townships in South Africa.  In effect, colonial governance continues along the same lines as imperialist aggression, constructing an elaborate and hierarchical taxonomy of the governed population, creating divisions and rivalries built upon the always inadequate resources distributed by the colonial regime.  In that process, the categories constructed become lived experience for those who are classified under them.  After all, it defines what access they have to resources, education, and employment.  It also often constructs local elites whose power is enhanced by the colonial process, who are invested in the imperial government.[4]

This all adds up to a very elaborate way of saying that there is a very good chance that our future alien overlords may care very deeply about the differences between the United States and China, and further divisions that may in fact be deeply incomprehensible or meaningless to us.  I see no particular reason why an aggressive alien species that has clearly developed the advanced forms of military technology needed for such an invasion wouldn’t also be able to develop the same set of knowledge skills that allowed Europe to transform itself from a backwater into the center of the world system.

[1] War of the Worlds, First Men on the Moon
[2] Too many sources to be mentioned
[3] The basics of this get covered by Karen Armstrong in her book, Fields of Blood, but there’s a lot more scholarship on the topic, particularly on the part of post-colonial scholars.
[4] See Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, which this analysis borrows heavily from

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

M'Boom Live

I came across this recording on YouTube in my attempts to find music suitable for playing while my students worked with each other on their papers, and thought I would share it with you here.  It's a early seventies recording of Max Roach's percussion group M'Boom, which he founded in 1970.