The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Christian Kitsch #13: Riverdale Edition: Archie’s Parables

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In honour of the ongoing CW/Netflix series Riverdale, the seedy soap opera adaptation of the Archie universe, we will return to Spire Comics’ 1970s Christian propaganda comics featuring the Riverdale gang. There are two reasons for this, the yuks being one and the other is the fact that I think these old comics might provide fodder for another twisted Archie adaptation. These crinkly old pages might harbour a gold mine of intellectual property.

Today’s subject is another anthology comic, 1975’s Archies’ Parables, which attempts to appropriate the allegorical narrative form Jesus used to teach many of his most valuable insights to his clueless followers. I don’t expect storytelling on the level of elegance as, say, the parable of the sower or the Good Samaritan, but in the hands of Al Hartley even the most despicable material can yield some winking enjoyment. Note, however, that the book contains six parables rather than seven, meaning the editors of this volume missed out on a great thematic link with the rest of the Bible, which is as rife with 7s as lucky slot machines.

Crack open the book and behold, the first parable:

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Transported to the medieval setting, we see that Archie might have grown a Prince Valiant hairdo but still lusts after the rich girl in town. Meanwhile, Jughead is using tongs on an anvil. Hartley could have left this blacksmithing equipment as a nonsensical but innocuous bit of set dressing, but he’s far too insidious for that.

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What is wrong with him?

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And why is he staring at me?

Had Hartley given Archie and Jughead any other medieval-looking profession other than blacksmith, his logic would have been airtight. Armour was expensive! Only the wealthy could afford it! However, he decided to make Jughead and Archie blacksmiths, which, although not known their combat prowess, probably would have been able to make custom armour for themselves if they wanted to. Compounding the issue, we have the Ren-faire turkey leg trash can occupying some Magritte-ian void with three boards across a door leading into some kind of wood-floored room. Perhaps Hartley thought, “Hmm, Archie won’t be able to cut holes out of a metal trash can and wear it like armour if he isn’t in some kind of metalworking profession, but I also want to make sure Reggie is a rich asshole and make Archie look like a goof with his head stuck in a…lantern?” Indeed, Al, and a lantern that has no air holes in it, to add insult to injury.

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I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the star patterns around the dragon make it look drunk or at least punch-drunk

Off ride our Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, here to tilt at empty signifiers. Except in this case, the mythical beasts are quite real, though Jughead seems to be lusting after the dragon’s tender flesh. I think Hartley is trying to write a motivation for Jughead into the story while also moralizing about gluttony, but trying to do both at the same time makes Archie look weirdly manipulative. Indeed, this logic knot tightens further in the next panels.

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In addition to the weird perspective and hatch lines on Archie’s head making him look like bizarrely bread-like (about to be toasted!) in the left panel, Jughead has blurted out the supposed moral of this story without making it clear at all. It takes real effort to be both blunt and utterly puzzling, so let’s give Hartley a gold star for flexibility.

How is prayer supposed to help against a dragon? Well…

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…it doesn’t really. With Jughead serving as a distraction, Archie pulls out his Anachronism Machine and chases the poor beast across the countryside.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.06.png

And of course Archie doesn’t get Princess Veronica, who ships off with a sketchy beau in her carriage, but still gets a Sexy Reward Woman for saving the kingdom, as is a man’s right (ahem). Betty, by the way, has not been in this story at all until the middle panel in this last set, which means her entire role in the story is to wander into Archie to serve as his Dragonslayer Trophy, no doubt doomed to be plucked, stuffed, and shut in a trophy case in some obscure basement.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.16.png

And speaking of unsettling implications, note how Neighbourhood Watch Archie and his trophy doll Betty (she deserves better!) stare unblinkingly forward telling you how to clean up the riffraff in your area. As far as dog whistles in this comic go, this is one of the subtler ones, and Hartley covers for it by associating the dragons not with people but with bad vibes or antisocial tendencies, which is a Decent Save. But alas, we can’t tarry long, friends, for we have five more of these to polish off! Now that we have the format down, we can tear through these a bit faster. Hold onto your necks!

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From medieval fantasy-land we travel long roads before dusting off our feet at a seedy saloon where clean-cut Sheriff Archie finds himself nestled with the vipers.

Video posted apropos of nothing.

After some scuffles with the armed miscreants, racist-caricature Jughead bolts through the swinging doors with an urgent announcement:

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Oh, this is going to give me a headache.

Despite this story being dull as blanched tripe on stale bread, it manages to set off more racism tripwires in four panels than any comic I’ve read outside of Holy Terror. For one, as mentioned, Hartley has decided to dress Jughead up as a racist caricature and give him stereotypical speech patterns. If you don’t understand the problem with that, I’ve got nothing for you. On the other hand, my supersonic hearing has picked up another dog whistle, this one much sharper and more sinister.

For those who haven’t picked the signal, refer to the last panel (panel 7). While its reference to school busing is certainly jarring in the context of the Old West, this was in fact a huge hangup for racist conservatives in the 1970s. Institutionalized school busing designed to produce racially integrated schools had white people’s hackles all up in a dander, because God forbid (literally in this case) that black people and other “troublemakers” associate with their pure Aryan children. This is still a simmering issue in many places, especially as urban areas in the United States remain and become more segregated by neighbourhood.

In any case, choking back bile, we return to the task at hand:

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Indeed, with the knowledge of their simian origins, the schoolchildren unleash a reign of chaos, egged on by “Filthy Books.” Oddly enough, however, Archie’s scheme is not to bring the iron hand of the law down and enforce a strict censorship regime. It’s rather more…enterprising.

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While admirably non-coercive, I’m not sure that the children of the school will willingly head to the newfangled Christian bookstore (so many of those in the old western towns) when the local trading post will apparently peddle the latest “filthy books” to them without repercussion. And we’re treated to that trademark Hartley End-of-Book Stare from Betty––who at least had something to do in this story––and a hell of a coda:

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Archie making sure Jughead gets all of his fibre. Time for the third story. We’re almost halfway through this drudgery, and we’ve already cleared through the worst racist dog whistles.

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From one pulp genre to another, we streak out of the sandy, semiarid American West and into the final frontier. After annihilating the bleak stretches of nothingness lying between them and their objecting, our in-tepid explorers park their pale butts on a strange landmass.

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“A Tale of Two Planets!” is basically The Sneetches with its message chomped up and twisted into right-wing space trash. Here we have a brave refutation of genetic determinism as a multitude of identical twins abjure each other, and act more like evil twins than identical ones. The pedagogical point of this is probably clear already.

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Because the author understands that setting up a straw man still takes a bit of effort he pauses to consider “maybe they’re just stressed out because they live in an environment that’s been polluted and made inhospitable…”

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“Nah, that’s not stark enough.” Again, the Respectability Police creates a twisted Great Chain of Ill Logic, which basically looks like this: People who live in rundown areas=bad people=thieves…Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.03.09.png

= poor caricatures of anarchists, I guess. The people on the unhappy planet are, as usual in these comics, furnace-blasted alloys of every right-wing phobia-object forged into one. No doubt disappointed by the banality of space, Archie and Jughead haul ass back to the Pleasantville from whence they came.

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Nevermind, this Archie and Jughead are as good at recognizing banality as fish are at recognizing water. Or maybe they’re just shocked that they found their Riverdale counterparts sleeping in the trash heaps on the bad planet.

What genre are we pillaging next time, Al?

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Let’s just hope we find Bugs Bunny in there.

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I’ll just leave this here.

Because I know my audience, and what they expect, I assume that you’re wondering what kind of awful reactionary stuff Hartley pulls in this story. Patience, patience. We have some setup to summarize. Archie and Jughead find themselves in the hospitable care of Beelzebub, of course, but what form would this diabolical being take (other than the example I’ve contributed above)?

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I can’t say I’ve ever seen the Lord of the Flies represented as a mad scientist––

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––except here of course––

but other than his unsettling smile I see no sign of any diabolical intentions. And we know how Jughead, the gourmand, loves his banquet food.

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So it turns out that Dr. Beelzebub’s evil plan is to lure children to his castle and give them what they want––food, in this case––and then keep them in his “spare rooms” (AKA prison cells) for an indeterminate amount of time. Probably just long enough before they get boring. Or else his castle is some kind of subtle metaphor for hell and they’re stuck there until the winds of time skeletonize them. Indeed, there’s a whole cornucopia of vice-ridden teens in this ghoulish museum of horrors:

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Archie is an avatar of purity, of course, (laugh here if you’ve seen Riverdale at all) but we as an audience collectively gasp as he is put to the test. What could be the means of temptation that Dr. Beelzebub will use? In other words, what do you give to the protagonist who already has everything? Well, before we find out, the good doctor shoves Archie in a cell while he’s preparing his “killer app.”Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.14.png

As much as I disdain cops and marines, and the entire repressive system we have to wriggle under in this day and age, Archie is probably closer to a solution to his problem than Betty simply because muscles and other forms of kinetic energy will probably be necessary to spring him from a dungeon. And, once again, Betty appears like a bolt from the black, though here it’s more as divine intervention than a prize to be won.

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What would Riverdale Archie do in this situation? Yeah, the age difference probably wouldn’t bother that guy very much.

Beelzebub is clearly strained, worried that Archie might yet resist him, though I suppose he could just keep Archie confined regardless of whether he has his soul or not. And though I would chastise the Lord of the Flies for supporting sexual unions between teenage boys and adult women when that’s a clear violation of consent laws and customs in this day and age, he is a devil, so I would rather blame the author and leave it nice and clean. Well, as clean as possible.Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.53.png

And the swipe at peer pressure here is just weird, considering that a bunch of your friends trying to get you laid or drink or whatever is not quite the same as an evil scientist who has threatened you with eternal confinement trying to coerce you into joining an orgy. Just saying that even as a “parable” this particular grayble has some jarring narrative choices.

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Archie survives in his time-and-space transcending Didactic Bubble, but it sure looks like everyone else is fried jumbo shrimp. Hartley makes it quite clear that the Betty just wished for a lightning bolt to destroy the entire castle. Not, you know, just freeing everyone and moving them safely outside and then destroying the fortress of sin-itude. Betty and God have some ‘splaining to do, is what I’m saying.

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Dammit, Hartley, you don’t get to have it both ways!

I’m sick of this, let’s get moving. While I’m recovering from my Archie-induced illness, let me just show the first full-page spread from the fifth story and let you fill in the rest.

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Note all the Hartley-signature triple “!!!” in this panel.

No further comment needed on that one. Suffice to say that JoHnathan got nice and reintegrated into the status quo in the end. Goodbye and good luck, JoHnathan. Next!

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Stop grinning, it’s not what you think.

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Also, just quoting “go out and attack the enemy” out of Chronicles of all books is just disingenuous considering that that book is a family history of the disobedient, prickish kings of Israel and Judah. Yes, in context, this is a message from the spirit of God speaking through a priest telling good king Jehoshaphat and the rest of Judah to go out killing Moabite and Ammonite soldiers, but I hope this brief lesson shows how quoting pithy verse passages from esoteric corners of the Bible to justify, say, a terrible comic book might be a bad idea.

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I wonder what it could be?

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Oh. Huh.

I guess the German army fought WWI with balloons adorned messages that don’t fit the advertising standards regulations! Scholars weren’t wrong when they talked about how important the air was was in those days, let me tell ya. In any case, Archie and pals shred the lie balloons and win the day. How?

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Yes, by dropping bumper stickers on the balloons.

And if you’re wondering what the title has to do with anything…

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Yeah. Go to church. Find one for you. I’m not sure whether the comic is saying that you will get high by going to the 11:00 morning service, or whether you just get high at church at 11:00, or if it’s just referring to the aerial system of indicating directions by using the clock positions. Still, I hate it.

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Fiiiinally.

While I’ve complained about the various rightist screeds, hackneyed or lazy art, and other assorted oddities we’ve become so used to in this corner of the Internet, I wanted to address a big structural problem with Archie’s Parables. That problem is its use of the genre of “parable,” or at least its attempts to claim ownership of that genre. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to quote a parable in its entirely from the Matthew’s gospel, the so-called Parable of the Sower:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[b] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

A parable is pithy and highly metaphorical vehicle stories, using symbolic shorthand to get a moral or social point across while leaving ambiguities. Jesus uses parables, as he says here, to conceal and obscure his true purpose, which is an especially important theme in Mark’s gospel but shows up here as well. Note that Jesus didn’t say, “A man was fighting in a war and he was good and bombed lie balloons out of the air. Those lies were things like ‘churches are full of hypocrites’ and other such absurdities. Church is good and you should shop around before giving up on them. Good night.” Parables are didactic and allegorical, which Hartley gets, but they’re also to a degree ambiguous and riddle-like, creating as many questions (some good, some not, as the discipline show) as they do answers. Jesus’ parables vary in terms of their clarity and literalism (the Good Samaritan being more straightforwardly political and understandable) but none of them try to think for the listener as much as Hartley tries to basically substitute his work for listening and consideration.

This is the essence of bad propaganda kitsch: project an easy triumph against degenerate and weak-yet-powerful enemies and try to shut down thinking with appeals to emotion and prejudice. Trying to call these parables, while not a terrible crime in itself, shows the lack of appreciation these hacks have for their own supposed religion.

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Book Review: Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain

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(Disclaimer: I am colleagues with the author [one discipline removed] in the academy and know him. We also both have a tenuous academic career, though I am perhaps still more recklessly hopeful. While I’m here in the parentheses, I want to say that I think the author’s acknowledgements and dedications are some of the best-written and most sincere I’ve read, which shows the integrity of their author. Love to all of you in the movements!)

Continuity and Rupture serves a very specific purpose. The book is neither history nor theory because, as the author indicates, it incorporates history and body of theory into its basic premise. We’ll discuss what that history is as we go through the review, but the body of theory––which it calls Maoism-qua-Maoism or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM for the sake of my carpal tunnel)––should be explained first. In order to explain what Maoism means for the unaware or misinformed audience, the author has to show where it came from as well as what direction it is metaphorically travelling.

For Moufawad-Paul, MLM emerged as a coherent body of theory in the documents of the Communist Party of Peru––Shining Path (PCP) in the late 1980s. Over the next few years, the story goes, the party’s theory coalesced on an international level within the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Maoism preexisted this historical and theoretical sequence as a term, the author argues, but in the 1970s it largely functioned as a synonym for a party or an individual’s alignment with China as opposed to the Soviet Union. This pro-China attitude often corresponded with an anti-revisionist orientation. Though revisionism is a slippery term that communists graft onto any number of perceived or real errors, here revisionism indicates parties that professed Marxism while abjuring revolution and arguing for a peaceful and gradual path to socialism through elections.

As anti-revisionists, groups like the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party in the US, La Gauche Prolétarienne in France, and revolutionary organizations from Turkey to The Philippines, arrayed themselves behind Mao’s criticism’s of the post-1956 Soviet Union and, by extension, parties that still maintained connections with Moscow. So the revisionist rogue’s gallery included a majority of the older, established capital-c Communist parties. But, Moufawad-Paul argues, simple support for China did not mean that they had transcended the limitations of Marxism-Leninism (ML), and in fact were ML orthodoxy incarnate. In fact, the author notes, the parties disintegrated precisely because their adherence to ML rendered them incapable of grappling with various social movements that had emerged in the 60s (movements in which the creators of these anti-revisionist parties had usually participated in some form). The typical example is the RU/RCP’s homophobic line, which relegated gay members to what has been dubbed the “Red Closet.”

Maoism, in order to be a relevant improvement on ML, had to resolve the contradictions of traditional ML. Moufawad-Paul’s fundamental argument is that it has done so without jettisoning the important insights of its anti-revisionist predecessors. Within its rupture from traditional ML, it preserved the continuity. In fact, he goes so far to propose that its rupture was not just simultaneously contiguous with its tradition but in fact necessary to the preservation of the entire Marxist theoretical edifice. MLM puts its ancestors to death in order to keep them alive, we could say.

Fundamental to the flow of Moufawad-Paul’s argument is the notion that Marxist theory constitutes a scientific, rather than merely ideological, tradition. Therefore when he appeals to the work of someone like Thomas Kuhn and his ideas about paradigm shifts in science, he is not being analogical but rather quite literal in ascribing to Marxism the same evolutionary process as physics, chemistry, and the like. Not that he thinks Marxism is a natural science or that it has any authority over such areas (he mocks those who do argue Marxism’s hegemony over all of science). Rather, like Louis Althusser, he sees Marxism as a form of knowledge and practice that can pose and answer questions scientifically, constantly negating its own theories even as it preserves core principles and “methods.” Thus, just as physics got its atom from Democritus but endowed it with a fresh and empirically useful meaning, Maoists took a word that had one meaning and transformed it. Words and concepts, in other words, are not identical.

Whether or not one supports the idea that politics can be scientific, the analogy with paradigm shifts in science is an illuminating device. We can see, throughout Continuity and Rupture, the ways in which Maoists deploy old Marxist concepts like class in a different way than Leninists, and how these differences are relevant enough to separate the two fairly strongly despite their shared embrace of the vanguard as a useful organizing concept. The author also dispels some misconceptions about Leninism and its ties to historical periodization in a way that I found very satisfying. The idea, for example, that Leninism is “the Marxism of the era of imperialism,” petrifies Marxism as long as imperialism exists. Linking the development of Marxism to the vicissitudes of capitalist evolution rather than the actual practice of communists seems foolhardy and self-negating as well as historically dubious since, as Moufawad-Paul observes, imperialism hardly waited for Lenin’s say-so to come into being.

In sum, the book does what it says on the cover: convinces me that Maoism came into being in the late 1980s and has created a novel set of theories and practices that have made some headway in challenging capitalism in parts of the world. I already shared this understanding with the author, but I think it makes a convincing case even to the relatively uninformed. Those who are hostile to Maoism in all forms would also benefit from this book because it offers a coherent explanation for what it is.

That’s not all a book like this has to do, of course. I’ve spent the first half of this review talking about the book in terms of its argumentative structure and commentary. However, the real question Moufawad-Paul has to answer, especially to the vast majority of people who are not Maoists, is why it matters. After all, if Maoism is irrelevant to the reader, an explanation of what it does and how it talks and where it was born is nothing but an abstract exercise. Almost like a taxonomy for mythical creatures: elaborate and fascinating, but of no immediate value except to nerdy enthusiasts like me.

After all, as the author admits, Maoism has no claim to hegemony either over the broader left or within Marxism more narrowly. In India, The Philippines, Peru, and Nepal it achieved/still is achieving some level of organizational success, and in the latter case was upheld by the party controlling essentially the entire country outside of the capital region. However, Nepal’s revolution has splintered and dissolved, seemingly held in perpetual stasis. The Peruvian Maoists capitulated after the capture of the leader they venerated, Gonzalo. In India, the party is under immense strain as a result of state repression. In The Philippines, the people’s war has been protracted indeed, though it seems the most stable of the movements at this time. This is not to speak of Maoist movements in the West, which are nascent or at best have achieved the status of marginal forces in certain cities. A reasonable and honest radical might rightly, I believe, still approach Maoism with skepticism.

Still, Moufawad-Paul declares, Maoism’s emphasis on putting communism into action, on bridging the here and now and the communist future, puts it on firm ground. And I think it’s at least undeniable that the old communist parties are moribund, especially in North America, and that Maoist movements are often militant bright spots, along with certain anarchists, in many urban settings here in North America. We might say that Maoists are making some of the most valuable and worthwhile mistakes of any leftist tendency today. So I would keep an eye on Maoist movements as the global situation tenses and we see a resurgence––how powerful we cannot reckon––of old reactionary and fascist tendencies. The margins are often the most fertile breeding ground for successful ideas, and I think Continuity and Rupture makes some of Maoism’s best ideas legible to those who might scoff at party documents. And that’s a valuable contribution indeed.

 

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

***

Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.

Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

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Paul Burkett wants to show that Karl Marx is not an anti-ecological figure. Marx and Nature is an interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own work on the subjects of class struggle, nature, and communism, functioning as an exploration of the ecological possibilities contained in Marx as well as an apologetic defence. As a starting gesture, I will say that this book will only be worthwhile to you if you are already invested in this debate and have some working knowledge of both Marx’s more significant texts and, maybe, some of the criticisms that have been levelled by ecologists against Marx’s communist ideas. If you are a Green activist or leftist who is just interested in the historical question of how well Red and Green approaches to politics have mixed since the nineteenth century, this will not satisfy your curiosity. Rather, it is an almost purely textual and abstract consideration of the problem.

Before moving into more detail, we should consider just how valuable a purely abstract consideration of Marx’s relationship to ecology might be to us. By treating Marx’s ideas as more or less self-contained and present in our own time, Burkett opens up possibilities for his investigation but also closes some off. As he does in this book, he can try to prove that Marx’s theories are not, in themselves, anti-ecological. By pushing the concrete history of 20th century Marxism to one side, he can try to reclaim an ecological dimension of Marx that remains uncultivated or ignored. On the other hand, he forbids himself the opportunity to examine why anti-ecological tendencies flourished among those claiming fidelity to Marxism for so long. He can point to pro-ecological possibilities in Marx, but cannot definitively establish why, in reality, those possibilities lay fallow and tendencies from the early 20th century to present-day “luxury communists” and accelerationists could grow while upholding many of the same basic tenets of Marx’s thought. So the value of the book’s high level of abstraction is that it can answer theoretical questions more precisely and show, perhaps, how Marx can contribute to present-day ecological struggles while relegating anti-ecological Marxisms and Marxists to a shadowy dimension beyond the text.

With that established, we only need to put down a few more points about the book to show how it both succeeds and fails to fulfill its initial promise:

1. Burkett is able to articulate why Marx is not an unalloyed anti-ecological thinker. He does this in a sensible way: recalling that, for Marx, both nonhuman natural processes and human labour are part of the same class of natural forces. Decisively refuting the idea of a pure nature, he notes how both Earth’s resources and human bodies become the playthings of capital, little sandboxes that can be reshaped or dug out to its heart’s content. Likewise, he successfully argues that Marx’s vision of the full development of human life under communism is not a consumerist fantasy. Rather, it contains a live possibility for the rational socialization of natural resources. Burkett’s Marxism is one that is not blindly industrialist or dismissive of traditional or indigenous knowledge systems and governing practices.

2. In later chapters, drawing not just on Marx but also on thinkers like Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, David Harvey, and André Gorz, Burkett shows how workers’ struggles cannot and should not remain in the realm of wage negotiations. They must press for the establishment of a more rational and democratic management of society, including socialized nature. Class struggle can, he argues, be articulated broadly to mean the advancement of all workers’ interests as a whole, including their interest in preserving nature.

3. Yet, I would argue, Burkett’s book can only prove that Marx is not anti-ecological to the bones. He cannot prove that Marx, brought into the realm of Green politics, is necessarily pro-ecological.  This would be a foolish argument since many if not most appropriations of Marx have been anti-ecological or at least ignorant of core environmental problems. A politicized or governing working class––the associated producers, as Marx names them––is not necessarily pro-ecological, and would, as Burkett wisely notes, require a shift into political values that concord with the flourishing of all living and nonliving processes. So although Burkett can give Red a place at the Green table, he does not prove that Red is always Green, and certainly not that Green must always be Red to be effective. Put another way, it remains for other books to try to make the argument that Marx and the entire tradition of thought he initiated is essential to a Green movement or a Green society. Perhaps, at this stage of history, that argument is impossible to make and requires a drastic shift in our current political situation to judge properly.

Revolution and ecological politics are not necessarily friendly to each other. We know this from hard-won experience. However, Burkett’s book, despite its limitations, is certainly valuable within a certain niche. It is, if nothing else, an intelligent and timely intervention within the study of Marx and how useful this nineteenth century might be to a time fraught with signs that life on Earth cannot continue to flourish much longer under the reigning capitalist system.

Report on Reading: 2016

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Art of the Voracious Reader from Magic: The Gathering

If we count the two books I’m reading at the moment, I will have read and finished at least 60 books in 2016. Though I accumulated many of those conquests in the headlong rush of graduate school history reading (with all of its shortcuts), I was nevertheless able to complete more than a book per week on average. In this post, I will be reflecting on how my reading habits have changed over the past year and what the highlights were. Commence!

Fiction Goes Away Again

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Summer 2015 saw me returning fiction after a long drought. By contrast, 2016 was fiction-free with the exception of a few comics, one book by Jeff Vandermeer, and, if it counts, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Although I could blame the pressure of graduate school for dissuading me from reading much if at all for pleasure, this excuse does not hold water. I spend a great deal of time reading nonfiction in my spare time, and if there were any fiction I wanted to read, I certainly would.

And there were one or two books that caught my eye. After all, why else would I start reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a multi-volume novel? I stalled a couple of hundred pages in and have not looked at the book since, but it’s still a live prospect until I have to return it to the library.

My reason for avoiding fiction has less to do with free time and the lack thereof than the fact that I find fiction less fun and more difficult to read than nonfiction. History, in particular, is highly readable in most cases because modern authors structure their work in the form of linear arguments and narratives that are easy to follow from one point to another while glossing over details that may or may not of any intellectual value to me. I do read fiction in a similar way much of the time, looking for themes, through-lines, and remarkable imagery while often passively forgetting the plot and even character names as I go, it feels somehow less appropriate with fiction. Fiction authors write their books to communicate ideas, of course, but they are also meant to be stimulating and enjoyable in their own right. I feel guilty for reading fiction the way that I do, which also reflects the very theme and idea-driven way I’ve always written fiction and poetry.

One solution to this problem–-since I recognize that my inability to enjoy fiction is a not a particularly attractive or constructive quality––is to simply embrace the fact that I read differently from other people. Not caring about plot or conflict in the slightest, actively seeking out so-called “spoilers” to reduce plot tension that might be emotionally distressing, I have a certain rhythm to the way I read that I may as well own. It certainly lacks some of the spontaneity of a cold-read, a reading that follows the plot beat-for-beat and invests energy into characters, but it has its advantages as well. In particular, once I’ve finished a book for the first time, I can summarize it well enough to get by in a casual conversation and, further, have enough of a deeper grasp of the themes, style, and ideas underpinning the book that I can write worthwhile articles and blog posts about it. Since I don’t plan on writing about fiction for a living, that’s all I really need. Other people have the snarky plot summaries and character analysis covered anyway.

Digging into Braudel and the Annales

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Having buried myself deeply into Marxist historiography in the past, I found myself thinking and writing a great deal about one Fernand Braudel. Partly because of academic obligations and partly because of genuine fascination/affinity, I dedicated many hours to reading The Mediterranean, Braudel’s gigantic two-volume history of the Mediterranean world in the 16th century. After writing over 20 pages about it for a course, I feel I have an adequate grasp on the French historian’s method and his significant shortcomings. That said, I found him an especially slippery figure because he embodies disparate qualities that are not normally concentrated in one person. For instance, though he’s interested in a fine-tuned analysis of geographical and economic trends in European history, he also uses prose in an almost romantic way. Each chapter, though it claims to present some kind of structural analysis of historical epochs, also swarms with the filigree of detail and drama. In short, he’s a fantastic writer, albeit one whose ambitions naturally exceed even his great ability. Forging a unified social science on the basis of a global history is obviously  beyond the capacity of any one scholar, no matter how prolific.

I would recommend reading Braudel in sections and short bursts. He has the quality of a short story writer in his chapter construction, albeit with more of a wandering eye. He reminds me of Henri Lefebvre in the way he combines theoretical analysis with a wide-ranging humanism. It dies from a thousand flaws when stretched out long enough, but a little Braudel goes further than a little of any other writer I know.

And, hey, if you have the time and the shelf space, read the entire Mediterranean in bed at night. It’s history gone picturesque.

Finding a Niche

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At the beginning of 2016, I planned on being a relatively conventional economic and social historian with a bit of a cultural edge. I know my way around a spreadsheet about as well as psychoanalytical criticism of advertising––which is to say, I know it but don’t particularly like it. Taking a pre-industrial environmental history course, however, eviscerated my preconceptions about history and my work. Since reading The Entropy of Capitalism, I’ve been reading a steady stream of scientific articles and even mathematical discussions of subjects like nonlinear dynamics, modelling, population biology, and how all these subjects can be connected to social sciences and the humanities. I don’t fancy myself the proprietor of a kind of total history, but I have a strong affinity for fields that are able to synthesize insights from across porous disciplinary boundaries. These pores and connections have to be made rather than just used as if picked off the ground. Environmental history excels at putting cultural, economic, geographical, biological, and traditional historical knowledge together in a way that rarely feels forced or eclectic. For my money, it’s where leftists should be going in history right now, especially given the tremendous scale of the environmental issues currently staring us down.

Looking Forward

Though I plan on discussing this further in another entry for A Hundred Thousand Names, I have to address one reason why this blog has been less active lately. One reason is certainly the fact that I was writing multiple 15-plus page papers as well as enrolment applications while handling other everyday demands. As with the fiction example, however, I have to recognize that I could have been spending more time writing blog posts and less time playing Magic: The Gathering or making weird graphic design challenges for myself. My mind has been in ferment lately, and for a variety of reasons ways of thinking and acting that satisfied me before have become increasingly difficult for me to accept. None of this turmoil has been traumatic or painful. Rather, it has simply rendered me less able to put thoughts down in an order and language that pleases me. It’s a pall of uncertainty accentuated by the cold and the dark, and I hope I can use this blog as a forum for subtly working through some of these more difficult issues.

We’ll see what this blog looks like once I’m in a more confident position, but for now, best to everyone and happy reading in 2017.

Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild

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Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:

The term [kitsch] is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well.

In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink.  Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.

Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.

Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.

None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.

At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:

1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?

2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?

Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.

As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.

This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.

I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.

 

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

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“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.

Film Review: Concerning Violence

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In the late 60s and early 70s, anti-imperialist films from directors like Gillo Pontecorvo and broader movements like Third Cinema had a significant if small presence in the film world. Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, responsible for Concerning Violence and Black Power Mixtape, is animated by more antiquarian concerns than films like The Battle for Algiers. Concerning Violence, which combines documentary footage with dramatic readings from Frantz Fanon’s classic book The Wretched of the Earth, retains immediate relevance but concerns itself with the national liberation movements of the past rather than the present. One could, therefore, make the argument that the film is pairing Fanon and footage of FRELIMO guerrillas to outline a purely historical conjuncture of theory and action.

Though I appreciate its presentation of the both the text and footage from the last major burst of national liberation movements in Africa (the overthrow of the Portuguese colonial regimes in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola as well as the collapse of Rhodesia), its excavation of the past leaves room for its audience to take a more comfortable position. Leftists can use the film as a nostalgic trip back to halcyon days, and even liberals, while probably not being as pleased with the Fanon readings endorsing violence, could say “well, it was a different time.”

Of course, the film is a product of a 2014 release. It also begins with a prologue by Gayatri Spivak that, while cinematically inert, positions Fanon and the events of the film in a context of revolt and revolution that continues to this day. The effectiveness of this move is somewhat blunted, of course, considering that Spivak’s presence only reinforces the sense of the film as more an academic exercise than a call to arms. At the same time, the ending, which inches closer to the present, pricks the film’s audience to link the past and a possible future. At all times, the film avoids the affectations of a propaganda poster, which is welcome, and the film’s limited historical scope is not necessarily a negative. However, Concerning Violence does not fill the desperate need we have for films to capture the revolutionary energy of present-day movements. That is simply not what it is, despite the obvious relevance of its core ideas.

One commendable aspect of the film is that it features interviews with white settlers and missionaries. The latter are memorable largely for the air of politeness and naïvety that they exude. After talking confidently about the un-Christian character of African polygamy, the interviewer asks whether their perspective is a religious one or a European one. He asks them whether there is explicit support for monogamy in the Bible, which gets a sheepish and evasive response. The missionaries are tellingly far more interested in talking about a church construction projects happening in the background than the basis of their theological assertions. It’s an attitude of empty-headed enthusiasm I have seen many times in my own long history of church attendance.

One final aspect of the film I want to address in this quick analysis is its treatment of a group of FRELIMO guerrilla women. FRELIMO, the Mozambican national liberation movement that drove out the Portuguese colonial government, had, like many other guerrilla movements, a large number of women soldiers and other cadres. These segments, in which the women discuss their passion to build a new nation and their equal position as soldiers for FRELIMO, has a complex relationship to Fanon. As Spivak notes in her prologue, Fanon rarely mentioned gender and wrote in a male-centric style that emphasizes the masculine aspects of national liberation. And, despite the long history of women playing a key if not leading role in the rank-and-file of revolutionary movements, gender liberation has not been systematically applied in most liberated countries. This is not to negate the example or the ardour of the FRELIMO guerrillas or the women serving in liberation movements and people’s wars now, but rather to say that their sacrifices have been, overall, unrewarded. I am glad that the film does not just let Fanon’s more male-centric language stand without commentary from within the film.

I have been looking forward to seeing Concerning Violence since it came out. Though this article has focused on my criticisms, I still recommend the film to anyone who has an interest in Fanon’s work. Moreover, the positive depiction of even historical national liberation movements is all-too-rare in the cinema, which doesn’t give Olsson a pass for mistakes but does mean there are few alternatives to which we can compare his work. The film is still a powerful document about the inhumanity of imperialism, its bankruptcy and bloody thoughtlessness, and the necessity of tearing it down and creating a new society in its place.

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