The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: August, 2013

Pom Poko and the Triumph of Japanese Capitalism

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Written by Evelyn the Marxist Owl

Editor’s Note: Alexius is taking another weekend break and allowing yet another humanlike animal to take up his pen and write. Evelyn blogs here on tumblr, posting all sorts of ephemera related to Marxism, politics, and art. He is an owl, but he’s not as special as he thinks he is.

Last week, I took a talon stab at a Marxist reading of the animated film from Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke. This post will serve as an epilogue to that reading, in which I’ll be showing how the two films relate to each other in terms of their depiction of labour relations, the supernatural, and Japanese history and folklore. Though Pom Poko is widely acknowledged to be the lesser film of the two, with Mononoke being accredited as a modern masterpiece and the former dismissed by many as mediocre, they share a number of key similarities that serve to illuminate the significance of both films. Engaging in this re-reading of the film altered my opinion of Isao Takahata’s nostalgic, didactic take on this subject, and I hope that this will at least open the reader up to new insights.

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Pom Poko deviates from established family film storytelling conventions in two significant ways. First, it features a great deal of voiceover narration, roughly similar to the type found in a typical nature documentary. Picture a Japanese David Attenborough speaking pleasant exposition of fantastical animals’ strange behaviour. Second, its narrative focus is not on individual people or animals but collectives of them. Most of the tanuki or raccoon dogs who form, as a group, our main protagonist, are unnamed and most of those who are named are identified purely by their role within the tribe. The plot can be summarized as follows: a group of tanuki, animals with the gift of transformation and illusion, come out of hiding to combat a massive development project sprawling around Tokyo that threatens their ancient forest homes. Though punctuated by numerous successes and scenes of festivity and celebration, they are finally defeated and subsumed into the new housing project, forced to scavenge and struggle for sustenance. Japan’s modernization, whose embryonic stage we saw in Mononoke, has reached its apogee, disenchanting the world and forcing nature to conform to human designs.

Takahata uses the tanuki as just one of many visual representatives for a broadly defined “traditional” Japanese culture, defined by human reverence for nature, an enchanted worldview, observance of seasonal festivals, and traditional clothing. Tonally, the film is elegiac and melancholy, concerned with a community’s endurance and ingenuity in the face of genuinely impossible odds. It is, in effect, a cinematic lament for the passing of an entire world, not into annihilation, but into the status just another commodity among a million others, components of the sleek edifice of modern capitalist society.  A scene at the end of the film solidifies this perception: a human girl and one of the tanuki meet while she is standing on the balcony of her family’s new dwelling. They lock eyes, and the animal, whom we have seen has extraordinary powers to amaze and transform, stays still before scampering back to its home. Human perception of the natural world has become alienated and utilitarian, and Takahata seems to invest the possibility for a new relationship in a childlike reappraisal of nature as the site of wonder and imagination. His film is certainly visually inventive enough to back up such a claim. The tanuki who can transform live as humans, and, like those who cannot, forage for the scraps from the capitalist table. It’s just that the ones who can transform wear suits. Many times throughout the film, the tanuki lose their anthropomorphic appearance and take on a far more naturalistic look, which is rendered permanent for many at the end.

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While the film implicitly prefers the more “traditional” communal structure held by the tanuki, with matriarchs and patriarchs dictating policy while the young and resourceful lead courageous sabotage missions against the development, it also depicts, from afar, the relationship between labour and capital in human society. In one sequence, the tanuki impishly haunt the workers’ workplaces and living quarters, assuming ghastly or playful shapes to cause psychological distress. Some of the frightened construction labourers quit their jobs and flee in terror, causing celebration among the tanuki. The next day, however, they are replaced by a new batch, turning their festive attitude into one of despair. Human work, in this situation, is shown as easily replaceable. Japan’s postwar recovery and economic “miracle” created a massive construction boom, with huge numbers of Japanese taking jobs building roads, housing, bridges, and other projects. Ultimately, they are captive to wage labour and, in the case of Japan, a centralized, state-sponsored capitalist ethos dedicated to “catching up” to the West. Recall this quotation from Marx used in the last post:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground…” (Communist Manifesto 17).

To this, Marx later adds:

“But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour” (23).

What we see in Pom Poko is human workers building homes they will likely never own on behalf of firms and a state that is committed to ever-increasing development at any cost. They work for a wage, far from equal to their contribution to the enterprise (or else how would the capitalists earn their profits?), and thus deprived of the actual value of their labour through domination. In their more primitive state, the mass of tanuki are not free since they are subjugated by tribal warrior lords and religious figures, but their lifestyle, while simpler, is certainly more carefree and expressive than that of the humans.  Another factor to consider is the context of global competition that has driven Japanese history, and thus the events of Pom Poko. Connected to a first-world alliance of liberal capitalist powers, Japan was under enormous pressure to modernize and transform its country into an engine for the global economy. In fact, as a country without a proper military, Japan has been a nation that has exerted its late twentieth century superpower status almost purely through economic means. Extraordinary growth and technological innovation, accelerating around the time the film is set, led to the disastrous financial crisis that has dragged on far longer there than in any other developed country. Given that the film was produced in 1994, just a few years after the collapse of the bubble economy, I cannot help but think that the stagnation and national soul-searching fed into the narrative here. Therefore, another potential reading of the film could be as a critique of the wasteful development policies that the country took on during the postwar era that led to the catastrophes of the early 90s.

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The animators at one point give us a vivid mythological spectacle in the form of a carnival of gods and monsters put on by the tanuki to remind the humans of what they have forgotten. In a cruel twist, their stunt is appropriated by the proprietor of a new amusement park nearby. Capitalism commodifies even the glories of the past, and through marketing our sense of awe is dulled to a vague and unfocused drive to consume and be entertained. This is further reinforced by scenes featuring an assimilated fox, whose shrewdness and capability for illusion has made him uniquely suited for the role of capitalist lackey. Sitting in his plush Tokyo quarters, devouring fine meats, he is still an ally to the tanuki but only in order to enable their absorption into the human workforce. Deprived of their homes and their ability to practice their traditional culture, the tanuki–the “lucky” ones, at any rate–become yet more cogs in an exploitative system. What they possess that other humanlike creatures do not is a strong connection to those premodern times and a real awareness of the cultural and aesthetic poverty of modern life.

While the film is apt at showing the tension between the premodern, idyllic ideology of tanuki and the hard, capitalistic ethos of modern human society, it does not go a step further to ask why the Japanese, who were supposedly so “in touch” with nature, are now cutting down all the trees. This is unfortunate, and robs the film of some of its critical power. Though the humans are not demonized and actually serve as the potential redemption out of the film’s dour ending, they are also not properly understood or realized as historically rooted and ever-changing. The humans, just as much as the tanuki, are transforming and transformative creatures. To Pom Poko’s credit, there is a thread in the film that looks at this commonality between the two sides, but it is never brought to the surface in a meaningful way. This lack of historical perspective, which could have meshed well into the narrative given the communal focus of the film and its critical posture toward modernity, is one of the film’s many flaws which makes it at times more annoyingly nostalgic than clear-eyed and melancholic. Takahata’s film does not harbour illusions: the time of magic tanuki and the gods has passed. Without this realization, the story might well have fallen into insufferable fantasy. As it is, it, like Mononoke, stands above your typical environmental fable. Where it suffers in comparison to that greater Miyazaki work is its failure to live up to its potential. At the very end, Shoukichi, one of the better-developed raccoon characters and the closest we get to an individual protagonist, turns to the audience and implores them to recognize the remnants of nature all around them. This, like the reliance of televised exposition, is a narrative failing, though not a fatal one. Rather than trusting in the inherent melancholy of the story the film makes its call to arms directly. This could have worked, but its execution and placement in the story makes it ineffective.

Despite these shortcomings, Pom Poko gives its audience a rough critical glance at the state of modern society, both in terms of environmental degradation and the inherent alienation and competitive drives of capitalism. I would argue that it stands as a strong aesthetic work and one that can furnish a number of productive readings, of which I have attempted but one. I know that Takahata’s new film, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, is due for release in Japan this year, and hopefully be granted a North American release not too far from now. Watch on, readers, and Alexius will be back soon with another post on Christian Kitsch. Evelyn out!

Addendum: Evelyn back! I came upon another thought, though I could not integrate it into the structure of the main post. Let it hang here naked and exposed, but I feel compelled to articulate it. Another point on which the film could be justly criticized is its sense of inevitability, as its characters ultimately have no agency over their fate. The triumph of Japanese capitalism appears to be set in stone, forever etched into the landscape and the people living within it without recourse to reimagine or construct a new society. There is a scene near the end where, convinced of their doom, the tanuki join forces to stage a final grand illusion. For a brief moment, the land around them is restored to its former agrarian/forested glory before it vanishes. Is this moment an admission of cinematic illusion to the audience by the film or an expression of the film’s genuine wish for an illusory, ultimately romanticized and empty, vision of the past to be revived? Probably both, but if it is the latter there is still a sense in which this futile and romantic gesture shows us the power of film to revive the past and allow us to see what we have lost. In that way, Pom Poko establishes itself as a vessel of memory, an imperfect and prosthetic apparatus by which the Japanese audience might catch a glimpse into their alienated past.

Princess Mononoke and the Birth of Japanese Capitalism

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Written by Evelyn the Marxist Owl

Editor’s Note: Alexius is taking a weekend break and allowing yet another humanlike animal to take up his pen and write. Evelyn blogs here on tumblr, posting all sorts of ephemera related to Marxism, politics, and art. He is an owl, but he’s not as special as he thinks he is.

“Miyazaki’s intent was never to create an accurate portrait of medieval Japan. Rather he wanted to portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization – a conflict that has continued to this very day. Throughout, Miyazaki resists forging simple villains or stainless heroes. The human polluters are not so much evil as merely attempting to survive in a world that has pushed them to the edge. San and the forest gods are not entirely noble, either; their long, losing battle with humans has hardened their hearts, sharpened their anger and divided their own ranks. Yet in the interaction between the two – however hard won – something magical occurs.”

I dug up the above quotation from Princess Mononoke’s official site. It provides us with an entry point into why this film’s story is so rich and worthy of analysis. Most films that deal with antagonisms between nature and humanity tend to flatten out complexities to sharpen the opposition. The 1990s were a wasteland of kiddy environmental agitprop films. From the creatively bare chasms of Ferngully to Disney’s pretty but empty Pocahontas, these films tended to revolve around a stark conflict between evil developers and colonizers on one side and pure nature allied with sympathetic humans on the other. Shrill Internet reviewer Nostalgia Critic based one of his most memorable running gags on the absurdity of this idea. A-like so:

A large part of the appeal Princess Mononoke held for people, at least in the West, was that it managed to tell a story about this conflict in an accessible and entertaining way while also maintaining narrative integrity. Its characters are driven by realistic motivations that, while not always admirable, remain understandable. Our antagonists are not moulded into monsters by the needs of a lazy script but keep their humanity–and, crucially, much of their animalism in the case of the anthropomorphized animal characters–and dignity. Roger Ebert’s review, through which our kind editor first heard of this film, mentions that the film is “more like mythical history than action melodrama.” It is precisely as mythical history, more specifically as etiology or a story of origins, that we are going to be looking at Mononoke. Specifically, I want to read the film as a myth about the triumph of capitalism in Japan. Besides the obvious mythical overtones of the film, especially the fact that it begins with dramatic framing narration, we can also read the comments we began the post with, as well as the fact that the movie is set in the late Muromachi period, a time of significant social turmoil in Japan and the beginning of the end of the Japanese feudal system that had been dominant since about the 13th century, though the situation is in fact more complex than that.

According to historian Pierre François Souyri, Japanese feudalism was never able to establish a cohesive social order that allowed it to complete its hegemonic control over the islands. While the warrior-state under the control of the shogun certainly wielded the lion’s share of power through the various shogunates of what we can call the Japanese Medieval period, they were forced to collaborate with the old aristocracy and especially the imperial court. These vestiges of the old order still held significant economic and symbolic power, and by the time the warriors were able to seize dominion in the 16th century, “Japan was beginning to undergo another transformation” (The World Turned Upside Down 213). Feudalism was being entrenched further by the Edo period shoguns, the Tokugawa, whose regime eventually set the stage for the restoration of the emperor in the 19th century and the rapid creation of a Japanese nation-state/empire along European lines. The late Muromachi, therefore, which is also called the Warring States Period, is a transformative moment in Japanese history, right on the brink of the first European contact and the end of the unstable period of domination by warlords. As Souyri writes, “This unification ended the war. It also ended the multiplicity of land regimes and laid the groundwork for a new and unprecedented rise in population growth, which continued throughout the seventeenth century” (216).

Of course, much about Princess Mononoke is ahistorical. Locations, when named, are never precisely situated. The people, with the possible exception of the unnamed and unseen emperor, are fictional. This does not mean, however, that we cannot watch this film and see its relevance to Japanese history. Nor should we deny its importance in getting a glimpse at how a particular Japanese, Hayao Miyazaki, views this history.

Because capitalism is, before anything else, a system of organizing labour, I will be employing Marx and other critics in the Marxist vein to analyze the way labour relations are depicted in the film.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx describes the conditions under which the feudal aristocrats were overthrown by the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie or middle class. He writes:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground…” (17).

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Lady Eboshi’s settlement, Irontown, is a perfect example of a frontier capitalist town. We the audience are not privy to the details of how it was founded or why, but we can see what it represents: the advancement of production and the subjugation of Nature to human ends. Our protagonist, Ashitaka, represents an earlier ideal, that of placation of nature. He respects the divinities that patrol the forest, even when they are fearful or hostile. He clearly sees that it is Eboshi’s disrespect for these sacred laws that govern human-nature relationships that is the cause of his curse. She, however, sees nature as demystified and commodified. She kills the forest god. It exists only for the purpose of human exploitation, and with her technology and loyal armies nothing can stand in her way. Positive criticism of the film tends to praise her for harbouring lepers and former prostitutes, even inverting gender norms to an extent. There are men as well, but they play a subordinate role. I would argue, however, that her recruitment from the margins is more canny than compassionate.

As we see as the story progresses, Eboshi’s enemies are many. Gods are not the only members of the old order who are contesting her dominance. Samurai and daimyo, the symbols of Japanese feudalism, also invade seeking to seize her technology and the raw materials that underly it. Therefore, Irontown’s labour population has to be composed of people their overlord can trust. Prostitutes and lepers are among the most dispossessed and marginalized groups in society, unbound by loyalties to the old system. According to Souyri, they were classified as hinin or “pariahs,” people who, though granted certain protections, were entirely dependent on charity and subject to discrimination (97-98). Lady Eboshi is the only person willing to give them anything resembling a dignified life, even if she is also exploiting their labour for her own purposes. She is therefore a vanguard of capitalism in a largely feudal society, and someone who disregard the divinity of nature in a world where the lines between animal and human are not as well defined as they have become in modern times. Not only this, but the film depicts the beginning of labour organized around producing surplus capital rather than subsistence. The town is dependent on trade in food and other necessities, indicating the greater specialization for maximization of capital profit inherent in capitalism.

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The reason we probably label this early captain of industry a sympathetic character is because her values are the closest to ours. We have no qualms about cutting down that annoying oak tree that blocks our view. We don’t offer supplicatory prayers to nature spirits when we kill animals or eat meat. Most of the time, our own view of nature is that it’s an instrument for human consumption and exploitation. I could easily see a remake of this film focusing on Eboshi as the protagonist, a lone voice of reason putting the old superstitions to rest, slaying the gods that hold back human progress and getting rid of the oppressive feudal lords. That would be a more triumphalist and probably less nuanced film, but it would be more familiar. Industrial innovators and early inventors are lionized in our society, usually with scientific measurement units named after them. We celebrate human conquest of nature, and Mononoke shows us how the world became so safe for us to ransack. Now that the gods are dead, nature has no agency of its own, and though it might occasionally inconvenience our development, it is fundamentally inert.

Hayao Miyazaki’s film ends with the death of the forest god, the temporary destruction of Irontown, and the realization that the formerly close relationship between humans and nature has been torn asunder. San and Ashitaka are forever alienated from one another despite their mutual affections, reflecting the new system of order governing nature and humanity. This ending marks the end of the beginning, and prophesies, in hindsight, the ever-accelerating pace of development in Japan and throughout the world. It does not sentimentalize the loss of nature, nor does it fail to see the real benefits gained in the advance of modern capitalism, but it also shows the problems inherent in treating the world as a static reserve for resources. Though Eboshi’s vision of society is more inclusive of the outcasts, it continues to exploit them, and only exacerbates the tensions between humans and nature. Presently, the great forests of Japan have all but vanished, and in their place humans have erected Iron Towns far more colossal and populous than she could have ever dreamed.

Next week, we’ll continue our analysis of Japanese film in the 90s and its discourse on nature with a look at Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko. If Mononoke is the etiology of Japanese capitalism, that film is a mournful reflection on its final victory.

Pretension In Art

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Pretension is a word that can inspire wounded, futile argument like few others. This has lead me to question its usefulness on more than one occasion. After all, it tends to be used as a knee-jerk accusation without much content or meaning other than, “this isn’t fun and makes my brain think, so you are an asshole.”

On the other hand, even overeducated and self-reflective tigers like me can appreciate the grating sense that an artist is using cheap shortcuts to profundity, making hollow and portentous gestures toward meaning and depth their works do not merit. A band like Emerson Lake and Palmer should rightly be excoriated for appropriating classical music for cheesy and often hilarious ends. Props to the band for being ambitious and gifted, but the sad truth is that they contributed little to music other than a staggering sense of self-entitlement, though that can at times be exhilarating in itself. ELP is best appreciated with an ironic distance and biting sense of humour. Whereas Henry Cow, another intellectual and “arty” band from the era, made more modest claims for itself and probably exceeded them in their own way.

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So a working definition of “pretension” seems achievable and even necessary. People are going to disagree over what works fit the title, and calling an artist pretentious just because they are intellectual and have made some subpar work seems unfair. I would define the word so that it could only apply to a specific perceived dissonance between an overambitious authorial intent and a work that cannot hold up to it.

My definition is as follows: an unwarranted assertion of authorial intent, either within or outside the text. It’s fairly specific and limited, but can still be employed against offenders. Part of the risk of making art is that your ambitions won’t line up with the product, and you can assume that your work communicates your good intentions far better than your actual skills will allow. I hope this definition will be a strong enough tool while helping to put a stop to its use as a term of abuse toward any art deemed intellectual.

Christian Kitsch #2: Purity Rings

Source: Stuff Christian Culture Likes

Source: Stuff Christian Culture Likes

I admit that I struggled over what kind of Christian kitsch to examine after my inaugural post on Archie’s Sonshine went so well. There is such a grotesque excess of these objects in existence that deciding on a second post proved more difficult than I imagined. Spending some time contemplating Christian kitsch with less innate humor, however, has proved productive since it requires more delicacy and care in the composition and editing processes. I relish a challenge, and thus elected purity rings as my next subject. The practice of wearing purity rings originated in the 1990s among evangelical circles. In my estimation, it’s another outgrowth both of Christian right social “values” policing and their growing obsession with youth. People in their teens have been having sex since ancient times, but through most of history were usually married by the onset of sexual maturity, especially women. Youthful marriages are, of course, not just an ancient relic but a living reality today. In Western countries and others that have reached an advanced stage of consumer capitalism, however, marriage tends to be delayed if it is ever enacted. Marriage has become a status symbol for middle class economic stability in the United States, and that means people are waiting until they have completed their educations and attained stable career jobs before marrying. By implication, this means that many people in the working classes are not marrying at all, contributing to higher rates of single parenthood and births in non-married relationships. These are neither good nor bad social shifts, but they are indications of a society that seemingly cannot conceive of marriage and family apart from class and economic achievement.

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The upshot of this is that young people are going through their lives without marrying until their late 20s and even early 30s. The average age of marriage in the United States is now 29 for men and 27 for women. Puberty now begins in girls and boys sometimes before they reach double-digit ages. That means young adults are living as sexually mature bodies for over a decade or even two before they get married. In a conservative community where [heterosexual] marriage is seen as the only proper sanction for sexual relations, this presents a conundrum. Young Christians have to deal with “temptations” for a far, far longer time than their parents and especially their grandparents did. One way of coping with this social evolution is the abstinence pledge, which is essentially a vow of celibacy until your future spouse and you are married. Unsurprisingly, these pledges, and the kitsch rings people wear as a sign of them, are only marginally effective at delaying vaginal intercourse and not at all effective at stemming sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. It’s well-known that abstinence-only education is utterly useless and those states in America which practice it also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. However, people continue to buy them, and there are numerous apparently thriving markets for them on the Internet.

As a tiger, it would seem the solution would be to recognize that prohibitions on sexual relations before marriage originated because they had detrimental consequences for mother and child, and now that these can be easily avoided with birth control it should be reevaluated and probably dropped altogether. Not teaching people about effective means of birth control only compounds the problem of unwanted and damaging pregnancies, and marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient in my eyes for moral sexual expressions, though it can certainly be helpful. Sermon over.

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Because purity rings can serve as a worn symbol of a (purportedly) sincere religious vow of chastity, their status as kitsch might at first seem ambiguous at best. Just because something is a purchasable commodity does not, in itself, designate it as kitsch. Communion wafers used in Catholic Eucharist are not kitsch, though companies undoubtedly profit from supplying them to the Roman Church. With that noted, however, I believe that purity rings qualify under my  general criteria for kitsch. They do not in any way resist easy consumption, serve as markers of an identity, and serve as an uncritical and self-assuring reminder of one’ belonging in a certain community without challenging any norms of the people around them. One could argue back that a Christian abstinence pledge can generate conflict and challenges some aspect of the status quo, but my suspicion is that those who purchase these rings have children who are involved in some kind of church community. Since I suspect it is largely parents to whom these rings are marketed and sold, I believe that these are also prime gift items, especially for sixteenth birthdays and other cultural “coming-of-age” occasions. So here we have items that are purchasable commodities, heavily marketed and stylized, replace secular jewelry products, and broadcast a compressed “Christian” identity marker (abstinence) without requiring a real commitment. Therefore: kitsch.

Another notable aspect of purity rings is their totemic quality. Their function is at least in part analogous to that served by lucky rabbits’ feet and horseshoes. The ring is not purchased so much for its beauty or intrinsic or economic value but rather for a certain symbolic and even magical value they are supposed to have. Protecting (largely) young women from perceived sexual temptation is a primary motivation for many people to buy them. The ring is meant to be an easily-worn, relatively inexpensive symbol of God’s omniscience. Big Brother God is watching you from heaven, dear one, so you had better keep in line. It’s a form of indirect divine, and parental, supervision. Now, if the rings could actually give you an electric shock, they would be practical. And if you’re that worried about the status and position of your offspring’s genitals, you should find a solid chastity belt with a GPS attached.  It would at least let your children know how much you care.

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Purity rings are fairly unremarkable as objects. They tend to be inexpensive–around $20-$30–and relatively inconspicuous, so the only way most people are going to know what they are is if the wearer lets them in on it. Sterling silver is a popular material, and engravings tend to be pro-abstinence slogans like references to Bible verses or pithy phrases like “true love waits.” Other popular engravings include flower buds and more generic Christian symbols like the ICHTHYS fish, crosses, and hearts. They are sold to both genders, and reflect their intended gender rather directly. You won’t find floral inscriptions on guys’ rings, and the male rings tend to be simpler, lack stones, and emphasize black. Rings for men often feature phrases that include references to the “armor of God” or war and conflict. Women’s rings emphasize patient endurance and a more passive posture, which is unsurprising given the regressive sexuality and gender norms at work in the entire idea of a purity ring. Even worse, organizations that distribute these products, such as the Silver Ring Thing (which got federal money to promote its message), promote the idea of abstinence until marriage with promises that sex after tying the knot will be so perfect the Marquis de Sade would be blinded by the sheer heavenly radiance of its pleasures. Of course, this is nonsense, but as we discussed earlier, part of the culture that produces Christian kitsch is its willingness to say anything to promote its message and sell product. If someone doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, they should not be subject to undue pressure. Making it an iron moral requirement for “purity” seems a recipe for personal disaster, however, and creating a market around exploiting paranoid Christian parents’ worries about their daughters’ vaginas is especially pernicious.

Next time, we’ll be covering something slightly less depressing: Christian parody T-shirts. More jokes incoming, I promise.

Links for more on purity culture:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sarahoverthemoon/2013/08/you-are-not-your-own-unmarried-women-belong-to-their-parents/

http://diannaeanderson.net/blog/1288

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/print/2013/05/why-some-evangelicals-are-trying-to-stop-obsessing-over-pre-marital-sex/276185/

 

Return Post: I Am a Jazzbro

I apologize for my uncharacteristically lengthy and  unexplained absence from this blog. I have every intention of producing more content, starting tonight and including catchup posts for Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. For now, I would like to draw your attention to an article published for The Atlantic discussing my favourite genre of music, jazz, and its current dearth of popular support. At the moment, the article claims, three key demographic groups buy most jazz music and pay to see live concerts. These are:

1. Aging Fans: people who cultivated a passion for jazz when it was more popular and visible in the media landscape.

2. Aging Concertgoers: the jazz, hipper equivalent of the bourgeois casual classical concert attendee. These people are most likely to be wealthier and financially supportive of higher-class spaces for jazz concerts.

3. Jazzbros: young men who, convinced of the superiority and marginality of their tastes, tend to proclaim jazz’s value to others and cultivate closed communities. According to the article, they also tend to be boisterous and exist at some stage or other of music education.

The main reason that I wanted to spread the news is that, while I don’t identify as a jazzer because I do not feel that I am as obnoxious as those described in the article, I am passionate about broadening popular awareness and appreciation of jazz as a musical form. I also acknowledge that, as a tiger with a white editor, I am not the group to which most jazz has historically been directed, nor am I the person for whom jazz was meant to supply a voice. Its emotions and spontaneous subversions, even its celebration of freedom, where present, are articulated on behalf of African Americans and other marginalized people. My appreciation of it, therefore, needs to be undertaken in awareness of that racial context. At this point, the most vital jazz scenes are not American and most jazz musicians that one would be likely to see on tour, even in America, are white and highly educated. That said, the music still has a lively vitality to it, and a wave of recent releases from numerous musicians has confirmed that jazz, as an aesthetic form, has far from outlived its relevance.

This is why I am going to rededicate this ongoing publication to “evangelizing” about jazz as well as providing some history and basic education about the music, its history, and major artists from the past and present. The latter are especially important, since art would be nothing without its practitioners. Neither would be it comprehensible in any meaningful way without an engaged and, hopefully, literate and knowledgeable, audience. One article per week, usually shorter than my normal output, will be dedicated to jazz in all of its complexities and knotty difficulties. I don’t want to spend too much time lamenting the genre’s commercial decline, so I will try to avoid the language of martyrdom. Though there may be times where I feel despairing, I want to maintain a feline, steely resolution to keep hope. Jazz, by its nature, is a musical form whose essence is constant turmoil and shifting, and as long as there is a dedicated community of listeners and writers and musicians communicating with each other in a productive manner, the music I love will continue to inspire and entertain.

 

Poetry: Apocalypse Guidebook

Masterless, the angels are tourists in the year 4000
Though they just call it Thursday, since the days outlasted years
Armed with cameras, stakes for tents, titanium space ships,
They touch down on the blue planet.
They don’t come to visit me. I have escaped their vision.

My true victory wears a wolf’s head in the forest. It speaks without humanity.

The only One who knew me scared himself to death in the mirror
Whether because he was so empty there was nothing there
Or because he was everything, and everything is horrible,
He put his head through the glass,
And we are all forgotten.

Rudderless, the angels plough the Atlantic, heedless of the wrecks below
They ride titanic waves in straight lines, weather the hurricanes,
Arrive on shore in Guyana, express line to Suriname.
Pay no mind to the dust, they tell themselves, Except if you are allergic.
Even those who sneeze can douse the sensations with surgical masks
And I am still five thousand miles away

When my cells cried for remembrance, when the world was rotted
When I dashed myself in joy against some adamantine wall,
When I left my last manifesto splattered in blood and marrow on the wall
Glorious in life, my grave wept for what would have been,
For the joys I planted to reap sorrows.

Nebulae that some purposed gaze would find beautiful or amusing, places for celestial hedgehogs to gnaw, for the rustling creatures of Earth to find purchase, to

Meld others in obscene and warlike shapes, or else cup their cheeks in sorrow
Yet now, in the dark, my grave can only whisper, the dust chatters intermingled with a multitude
At last, it ruefully chuckles, we are all one and equal

The angels with their cameras pass over the spot, the very spot.
After a day, the blood was washed. After a week, an old woman hung on a rope.
After a year, the wall grew higher. After a decade, they broke it. For a moment, a ray of light.
After a century, we lost count. After a thousand years, the wall was gone. After two thousand years,
There was no one to remember the wall.
Only glass, which does not recall the reflections sliding like ice on the surface of the sea.

Plotless, the angels camp under the mountains, observing small herds of animals and tall trees.

[Look there? What was that? I think it used to be called a bat.

You’re full of it. No one knows that for sure. No, but it’s still annoying.]
They take blurry photos. No one knows the rules.
What are angels good for? Not keeping promises, to be sure.
They fumble with their tent stakes and tell ghost stories at night.
Stories that start with “on a dark and stormy night.” There are no veins in them for horror, and they
Laugh
and Laugh
and Laugh

***

Everyone is used to poets trying to talk to them through the words.
No one will flinch when I write, “listen up!” Unless I leapt from the page and stabbed them in the heart, what could fail to bore them?

Still, consider this the adamantine wall. This is a stone you must stomp on. Offend my words. Crowd them out with your own graffiti. Colour between my lines. Do anything but let this die.

Because at the end no one will remember, and though death is not everything it is how it all ends. And when people leave a film or stop reading a poem, it is the ending that frames their response.

Arca: “&&&&&”

Further and further into the jungle now. Every turn leads me down the stranger path.

I try to avoid                                   IT                 ,,,,,              but IT keeps traveling along the same line, as though we

are both bound to the the same rail network.

(And I cannot begin to tell you what IT might be. I know that IT steps in the same footprints as I do, and invariably follows me. I feel it and see it through my own eyes, but it is more like a fabric stitched into me, almost at random, than a sheath over my body.)

Indian_Railway.svg

And it’s no surprise. This is the most heavily patronized rail network in the world, helping 9 billion people connect one point in history to another. Steel rails scrape the ocean, furrow their way through forests, wind around cities. Metaphors biological–arteries, nerves, intestines–and inorganic–circuits, rivers, abstract lines–come immediately to mind. Yet there is no point, it seems, in reaching for inorganic images to try to illustrate railways.

I imagine that I have leapt onto a train, left the ground on one end of the country and, when I step back onto that piece of ground, I have somehow returned.

092049-glossy-black-icon-signs-railroad-tracks

Yet, like blood cells, I have an expiration date. Like veins, the places over which we travel are endlessly reconfigured. It is in the shifting sands of the desert and the endless turmoil of the Atlantic Ocean that we perceive the true nature of our situation.

I stepped off the train back in Mumbai, and, though the airport was still there and the plane that carried me back over to the United States operated on the same principles as the one that carried me here,  I know that nothing is the same. Though my journey to find my own origin ended in failure, it has still left me changed. Why, though, is everything in my environment so uncannily convenient? The name of what I am feeling has a fearful name. It’s paranoia, the feeling that I am under constant surveillance, that I am being dispersed and exhibited for someone else’s benefit. Tigers can’t really talk, can they?

On the plane home, I listened to Arca’s new 25-minute release “&&&&&,” whose enigmatic name conforms precisely to the shape of the music it names. Chopped-up, titanic basslines overwhelm my headphones. The rhythms are uncertain and ambiguous at times. While the track is aimed at the body, its buildups and climaxes tend to stack on each other without a comforting structure, and it leaves me with a curious feeling of awe. Its beauty is the beauty of the broken and glitched. Someitimes distorted and shattered voices enter in. It is not entirely successful. But it is endearing in its alien-ness. Shapeshifting is its way, and it is best to go into the track’s world with that in mind.

Christian Kitsch #1: Archie’s Sonshine

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For the first proper entry in this series on Christian Kitsch, I’m going to take the digital/textual time machine all the way back to 1974. I was remiss as a scholar in that year, since I failed to come into existence until almost two decades later. A quick Wikipedia search, however, should go a long way toward making up this unfortunate miscalculation on my part. I now know that Portugal’s fascist regime collapsed that year, UPC scanners were first used to check out products, Pepsi started selling sugar water to the Soviets, and plenty of great music was released. King Crimson’s Red, Miles Davis’ Dark Magus, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway all hit shelves that year. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the theatrical release of Phantom of the Paradiseprobably the greatest film ever made about rock and roll music.

At the same time, though, it was a sobering time for Archie comics. I have never patronized the Archie publications, mostly because my parents never had any tatty copies of them lying around in dark, child-friendly crawlspaces and I never showed any interest while passing them by in the impulse purchase section of the grocery store. Despite this, I did know to be surprised when I found out that the Archie brand had been coopted for Christian propaganda by a publishing company called Spire Comics. Spire itself was just one arm of the Fleming H. Revell Co., whose founder and namesake had been a friend of famous Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The comics themselves were written by Al Hartley, whose father was the Hartley of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which critically weakened organized labour in the United States. His son was evidently not the rebellious type, at least where political alignment was concerned, and a cursory reading of any of the Christian Archie comics produced by Spire in the 1970s is evidence enough that Al Hartley was just as invested in conservative advocacy as his father.

Archie’s Sonshine, our Spire showcase for the day, is a curious mix of the banal and the batty. It tells a loosely plotted story about Archie going to a beach that has been overrun with sanctimonious white people along with their deluded, freedom-loving counterculture adversaries. While the different parts of the book all appear to take place during the same day and even in chronological order, the only overarching point any of them have is that Jesus is a cosmic panacea for all of your first-world irritations. Shortage of available hetero male flesh for romancing? Jesus can play substitute until you find your soul mate.

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On the very next panel, our Very Special Guest for this comic shows up.

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Yes, Jesus himself comes down from the Throne of God to deliver his all-important message to the beachgoing youngsters of this bizarro alternate Archie universe. Or, that’s what I believe the comic intends us to believe. If, like me, you find that Jesus’ Second Coming taking place in this manner is a physical and theological impossibility, you have to assume that this is some kind of uncannily savvy and sickly youth-oriented pickup artist in a “Love” van. The feathered hair, the curious lack of a navel, and his all-denim getup strengthen my confidence in that conclusion. Well, this acid-washed facsimile of the Messiah, having shown up at the beach with all the sober dignity of Archer’s Dr. Krieger, proceeds to preach a hip new version of the Sermon on the Mount that’s more suited to the comic-reading youth of 1974. The older version, found in the book of Matthew chapters five through seven in the Bible, certainly has its moments. But surely we can all agree that it lacks a certain something in the leering campiness department.

Watch Archer. Watch Archer. Watch Archer.

For instance, while the original referred to the legendary King Solomon, the greatest king and walking marriage-industry subsidy of ancient Israel, is replaced with a more contemporary reference. This gives us the following glorious panel.

Liberace in a field of flowers.

Liberace never threatened to cut a baby in half for the sake of Justice, though.

That, in turn, is followed by this rather unsettling pair of drawings.

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Krieger-Jesus reassures us that human lives are more important than those of plants. I am unsure as to why that required an uncomfortable scraggly-revealing closeup panel, but I appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, when I look into Betty’s eyes in the second panel I see nothing but a Hall of Psychotic Mirrors, endlessly reflecting maniacal evil through an infinite chasm,. Everyone else in the audience seems to be paying close enough attention to Krieger-Jesus (let’s call him Kriezus from now on), but she is clearly enraptured by a brief glimpse through the very fabric of the Fourth Wall. The material of her being, the ink and paint from which she has been crudely fashioned, yearns for human contact, and yet, lacking all empathy, can only smile outward at us in an attitude of becalmed despair.

After this, Kriezus continues his pitch to the ladies, showing his chest at every turn–and no, his navel never makes an appearance, suggesting that he is a laboratory fabrication and more closely connected to Dr. Krieger than I first imagined–to emphasize just how hot your time in heaven will be. Well, at least he’s better at maintaining this façade than Fritz the Cat, though the latter did actually convince a pair of his listeners to join him in a bathtub escapade. After a few panels, we get another gem.

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What’s truly amazing about the panel is that we can see what an Archie character looks like with a tongue. There’s a little splotch of red in their mouths. Reg, on the other hand, has nothing but a black hole, suggesting that Kriezus has indeed absconded with his tongue to bring it back to his mad scientist master. Also, Betty still only has eyes for you, reader. Bleak and black as ever. The next several pages cover short plot points about how Big Ethel is enthusiastically sharing the Good News with sand sculptors and Jughead is appalled by the wasting of food meant for a luau. These are comparatively less interesting parts, so I’ll just skip to the final three panels of this masterpiece.

Kriezus leaves the beach after no one agrees to get to know God in the back of his van.

Kriezus leaves the beach after no one agrees to get to know God in the back of his van.

Thus, in a puff of exhaust and a cloud of dust, the impostor disappears. He will spread his message of unsettling good will from beach to beach for as long as he evades the authorities.

Jokes about the squicky subtext of this comic aside, I find it one of the more redeemable and entertaining pieces of Christian kitsch floating out there in the camp-o-sphere. There’s enough eyebrow-raising weirdness involving the pseudo-Jesus and his groovy van, the alterations to the Sermon on the Mount, and  sundry other curiosities to keep me laughing most of the way through. As I wrote in my introduction post, though, this mostly innocuous obscurity is a symptom of deeper and potentially more disturbing cultural forces at work in American Christianity. When evangelism and outreach are the most important work you can do, when the sole purpose of your Christian mission is to get as many people out of hell and into heaven as possible, you can justify this sort of surreal propaganda. Absolutely nothing about this depiction of Jesus makes him look like an actual historical person. If you were a casual Archie reader and came upon this comic not knowing anything about Jesus, I’m not sure what kind of impression you would get from this depiction. Of course, I doubt that many people other than conservative evangelical Christians bought this in the first place. That, in many ways, is the ultimate puzzle of Christian kitsch like this: if only the people who already agree with you are buying it, what’s the point of making it other than to pat yourself on the back for being oh so right? 

If you are interested in reading this comic in its entirety, you can find them with some quick searches. I’ll be doing more of these as part of a series, but I’ll try to space them out because I suspect they will always tend to generate long articles. For a history of these comics (the accuracy of which I cannot guarantee), see here.

Editor’s Note: Christian Kitsch Series Intro

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Unoriginality and trite “parody” are hallmarks of Christian kitsch.

Every once in awhile, Alexius feels down and out, and the words don’t come as readily as he wants. This happens to all of us. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to fill in for him, as I have been trolling the Internet and found just the subject from which to fashion an ongoing series. While most of the culture Alexius and I address on this site consists of art objects from accepted categories–music, film, painting, etc.–much of popular culture is not so elevated. “Christian Kitsch,” as a series, will be oriented around relatively lighthearted reviews of kitsch objects. Focusing on Christian T-shirts, mugs, toasters, jewelry, and the like is natural since it’s the area of kitsch culture with which I am most familiar and qualified to comment on.

For this first post, I want to offer a definition what Christian kitsch is and come up with a couple of reasons why it exists. Kitsch itself is a somewhat nebulous concept, befitting the ephemerality of the objects to which the label applies. The term 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. According to this analysis, cultural critic Walter Benjamin notes that kitsch “undermines the distinction between art and the utilitarian object,” and, rather than creating a critical distance to allow itself to be an object of sublime observation or intellectual challenge, it is instead superficially intimate and warming.

One of the best examples of this is coffee mugs plastered with phrases like “Best Dad.” They’re objects intended to be utilized for some practical purpose–to hold coffee, for instance–but they also convey easily digestible and “cute” messages that never disturb or cause undue personal reflection. After all, you don’t want the person who receives your coffee mug to be so paralyzed by the messaging of their avant-garde coffee mug that they can’t sip their caffeine in peace.  According to Benjamin, kitsch, unlike art that you see in museums, has “100 percent, absolute, and instantaneous availability for consumption.” There is nothing about kitsch that resists or critiques mass production and commodification. Rather, the very nature of these objects is that they offer no barriers to purchase. While you could say with ample justification  that “high” art is just as commodified but with a more blue-chip clientele, I think we can still hold up a useful distinction between “real” art and kitsch, even if the line between the two has been intentionally blurred by many artists from Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami to Jeff Koons. Kitsch aesthetics are often fascinating because of their innate appeal, and there is a great deal of critical work to be done in visual art by parsing and screwing with our attraction to such objects.

Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton bag on sale at eBay

Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton bag on sale at eBay

When considering Christian examples of this phenomenon, one could well ask: if Christianity is supposed to be anti-materialistic, or in some way opposed to or at least aloof from the capitalist order, why is there so much Christian kitsch? Well, Christianity in the United States is, in general, successful in large part because, rather like kitsch objects, it readily identifies with and succumbs to the values of the culture around it. That’s in large part because, as the privileged religious/cultural order in America for centuries, Christianity has had a huge hand in creating American culture as it is now. If Christians want to be critical of American culture, they must be self-critical. But kitsch, as we have established, is not self-critical, and is a material symptom of the wholesale succumbing of Christianity to capitalist values.

This identification is easily justified since, after all, Jesus followers are supposed to spread the message. What’s wrong with letting people know about Jesus with sandals that leave inspirational messages on the ground as you walk? So there’s a utilitarian ethic underpinning much of the marketing and production of these objects. And one could look at Christian kitsch as just another manifestation of religious folk culture, just with a whole new set of amulets, totems, and icons. Rather than warding off evil spirits or winning material favours from a spectral realm, the “rational” consumers of today’s folk objects derive comfort and affirmation from their purchases. Objects made by humans are extensions of the human body, and so these products are basically physical manifestations of how they want to feel on the inside. They reinforce the hormones and neuron pathways that make them feel tingly. They’re doing good work by buying this junk, because anything that uses Jesus’ name in some vaguely “nice” way is good, right?

Issues with idolatry and capitalist exploitation of easy emotional payoffs aside, my fascination with these objects comes from the fact that they are unaware of just how disjunctive the marriage of message and medium is. Because we’re culturally conditioned to see kitsch objects as passive and “innocent” there is a trove of humour to be mined from these objects when they exceed a certain strangeness threshold. These coat hangers, for instance, take a graphic, theologically-loaded act of violence against Christianity’s central figure and transform it into stuff you throw your clothes on after walking in on a cold day. If there were any ironic distance to these, I would call it a good attempt at high art. As it is, though, I can only laugh and shake my head at them because they’re marketed and contextualized as sentimental and innocent. The graphic violence of the crucifixion is so tame and absorbed into the cultural ethos of America that it has lost all inherent meaning except as a signifier of the vaguest “Christian” emotion. I could spin this into a much longer critique about how evangelical Christianity has so emotionalized the Christian narrative to make Jesus palatable and intimate that it’s lost all meaning other than as a false banner for conservative politics and insular group therapy “worship,” but I don’t have the time for now.

While I will certainly be harsh on the kitsch objects I examine in this series, remember that I wouldn’t be writing about these items at all if I didn’t have some kind of gut attraction to it. Manufactured, plasticky knickknacks appeal to me in the same way as they do to other people, because they’re designed to be attractive. It’s only through ironic distance and intellectual consideration that I can summon up the energy to truthfully hate on them. And, even now, laughing at them brings me pleasure. What I want to end on is that simply condemning kitsch doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to understand it, like scientists trying to defeat a sea monster in a B-movie. Without looking at the material conditions in society that produce the desire for these things, we won’t be able to see them for what they are and proceed to comment on them.

Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah


Yesterday, I finally caught a glimpse of a Bengal tiger. In the wild, our instinct is to avoid one another, to stake out vast hunting territories so that we won’t interfere with each other’s survival. Tigers meet only to mate, and I realized how humanized I have become. I remember all of these facts, but they have become mere facts to me, not even anything as personal as memories. I wonder if human beings have similar relationships to events in their childhood that occurred before they truly formed memories. You can look back at a photograph and even tell the story of how you visited Mount Rushmore or the Mall of America when you were two years old. But even though you’re telling your own story, it’s secondhand, transmitted to you from other people’s memories or the prosthetics of photographic images, diaries, or digital video.  As a humanized tiger, I study and study, learn and attempt to better myself. The tigers out here don’t think about any of that. Everything above survival is a perk to be greedily consumed. My journey to India is turning out to be exactly as prosaic and commodified as I feared. Of course my parents are both dead. They’ve been dead for over a decade, more than likely.

I hope I don’t sound depressed. This is nothing I haven’t come to grips with many years ago. It’s only that visiting India has realigned my expectations. Everything human in India is fast-paced, frenetic, breathless. It’s jostling in a sun-baked sandstorm of bodies. Now I’m turning a real place into nothing more than one of the characters in my life’s little play.

Every step forward is a step back. Every attempt to impose order means creating a new sort of chaos. That’s what culture stalking is. Staring into a kaleidoscopic pool of created stuff and sticking your hands in it. You watch the ripples change everything in their path. No victory lasts forever. No defeat, except death, is enough to stop you from messing with the pool.

Christian aTunde Adjuah (AKA Christian Scott) expels frustrated energy in this piece. Among the pieces on his latest double album Christian aTunde Adjuah, it is uncharacteristically dense through most of it. Periods of calm are not quite as simple as they seem. Triumphant trumpet solos tear defiant streaks in the air, but they stand atop a restless rhythmic foundation, too elastic to let  the listener rest. None of this is packaged too easily or allowed to settle. It’s messy and fractured, but it is also recognizably shaped and intelligible. Perhaps there is still hope for a wanderer like me, whose first instinct is to run into the hurricane rather than away from it. Musicians that do their jobs right are going to be troublemakers of some kind or another.

Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

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Revolutionary Anamnesis

Anamnesis is a Platonic theory of knowledge that posits the soul's ability to recollect the things it knew in past incarnations, or an eternal knowledge, recovered through reasoning.

PERIPHERAL THOUGHT

“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”| Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer. | A vulture of silence will eat your gut. | Your own misery will pick at your soul. | And you will be mute in your shame.” --Otto Rene Castillo, Apolitical Intellectuals

Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee

Raising Revolutionary Consciousness

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Critical Hit!!

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