The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: December, 2013

Anatoly Lunacharsky on Marxist Criticism

Lunacharsky

Lunacharsky was the first People’s Commisar of Enlightenment after the Russian October Revolution and commented frequently on matters of art and literature. Here are some choice quotations from his “Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism,” published in 1928.

1. On the distinction between literary history and criticism:

Marxist criticism is distinguished from all other types of literary criticism primarily by the fact that it cannot but be of a sociological nature – in the spirit, of course, of the scientific sociology of Marx and Lenin.

Sometimes a distinction is made between the tasks of a literary critic and those of a literary historian; this distinction is based not so much on an analysis of the past and present, as, for the literary historian, on an objective analysis of the origins of the work, its place in the social fabric and its influence on social life; whereas for the literary critic, it is based on an evaluation of the work from the point of view of its purely formal or social merits and faults.

For the Marxist critic such a distinction loses nearly all its validity. Although criticism in the strict sense of the word must of necessity be a part of a Marxist’s critical work, sociological analysis must be an even more essential fundamental element.

2. On the interaction of literature and art with class:

A work of literature always reflects, whether consciously or unconsciously, the psychology of the class which the writer represents, or else, as often happens, it reflects a mixture of elements in which the influence of various classes on the writer is revealed, and this must be subjected to a close analysis.

3. On Marxist criticism as a constructive, active force:

Marxism is not simply a sociological doctrine, but an active programme of building. Such a building is unthinkable without an objective evaluation of the facts. If a Marxist cannot objectively sense the ties between the phenomena which surround him, then he is finished as a Marxist. But from a genuine, all-round Marxist we demand still more – a definite influence on this environment. The Marxist critic is not some literary astronomer explaining the inevitable laws of motion of literary bodies, from the large to the very small. He is more than this: he is a fighter and a builder. In this sense the evaluation factor must be regarded as extremely important in contemporary Marxist criticism.

4. On the fundamental criterion of Marxist criticism of content:

What must be the criteria on which the evaluation of a work of literature should be based? Let us first of all approach this from the point of view of content. Here, generally speaking, everything is clear. Here the basic criterion is the same as that of the nascent proletarian ethics: everything that aids the development and victory of the proletariat is good: everything that harms it is evil.

The Marxist critic must try to find the fundamental social trend in a given work; he must find out where it is heading, whether this process is arbitrary or not. And he must base his evaluation on this fundamental, social and dynamic idea.

5. On the positives and negatives of polemics in criticism (probably what I find most useful in the whole article):

Generally speaking, sharp polemics are useful in that they keep the reader interested. Polemical articles, especially where both sides are wrong, all other things being equal, have more influence on the public and are better understood. In addition, the martial spirit of the Marxist critic as a revolutionary leads him to express his thoughts sharply, but at the same time it should be mentioned that to camouflage the weakness of his arguments with polemical brilliance is one of the critic’s greatest sins. Generally, when there are not many arguments but a multitude of various scathing remarks, comparison, mocking exclamations, and sly questions, then the impression may be gay but not at all serious. Criticism must be applicable to criticism itself, for Marxist criticism is at the same time scientific, and, in a way, artistic work. Anger is not the best guide in criticism and often means that the critic is wrong.

There is some excellent material in this essay, which I would recommend to anyone who is looking to develop their Marxist “senses” in order to criticize arts and literature. Marxist critical theory is, of course, a vast and well-populated field, with towering figures like Lukács, Adorno, and Bloch to contend with, but I think Lunacharsky is something of an overlooked figure, and much of his writing remains obscure, at least in English.

Notes:

Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism,” trans. Y. Ganuskin. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1928/criticism.htm

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Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 2: Frank Miller

Editor’s Note: See here for part 1, where I discuss some of the theory underlying this critical investigation.

Frank Miller makes for too tempting a subject not to discuss first, as his work presents the bloodiest and most over-saturated justifications of American imperialism and metropolitan superiority one is likely to find in popular culture. In many ways, his work is difficult to approach with an eye for critical depth because the surface is so bald and blatant, deliberately taunting critics. His book 300 is an anomaly in this investigation, the only one depicting an ancient rather than contemporary conflict. It is a pulpy, mythic retelling of the legendary 300 Spartans soldiers of Thermopylae who perished in the defense of Greece against the barbarian Persian hordes. It is a simple and stark war between noble warriors and faceless slaves, depicted with artwork reflecting its cosmic drama in all its excess.

Said himself reflects on the appropriation of Greek culture as the pure birthplace of Western society, shedding light on how “today’s anxieties and agendas on the pure…images” we construct of Greece saw its culture “redesigned as ‘Aryan’ during the course of the nineteenth century, its Semitic and African roots either actively purged or hidden from view.”¹ That purity, a purity born of exclusion and what could crudely be called “whitewashing,” is evident throughout 300’s narrative of a few free patriots defending their country. With a certain cruel pleasure, Miller’s narration idealizes the ironclad strength of Spartan society: “[Spartans] are born. We are inspected. If we are small or puny or sickly or misshapen, we are discarded. We are starved. Driven to steal and fight and kill.”² [emphasis original]. Persians are, meanwhile, portrayed as decadent and effeminate, especially the ruler, Xerxes, whose confrontation with Spartan leader Leonidas is depicted with him astride an enormous golden throne supported by kneeling slaves, a parody of the phalanx formation employed by the Spartans (Fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Leonidas confronts Xerxes, who rests on a throne held up by numerous slaves. Leonidas stands alone.³

 

Against such barbarians, the text reasons, what force could not be justified? One of the ironies of 300 as a narrative is that its excessive admiration of Spartan discipline and masculinity ends up barbarizing the forces with whom the reader is meant to sympathize. Though the Persians are depicted as black, alluring, mysterious, and savage—the ideal villains, in other words—the Spartans’ depictions as hyper-masculine, almost fascist figures renders them somewhat ridiculous. There are elements of what biblical scholar Roland Boer has called “Orientalist camp” at work in the portrayal of the Persians as sensual and feminine, but the excessive bloodshed and almost certainly unintentional homoeroticism of the Spartans renders them camp figures in their own right.⁴ Constant references to Persia’s slave class also render these Spartans hypocrites, given that Greek society as a whole depended on masses of enslaved people as well. Miller’s narrative works to define the West as “everything that the East is not,” a shadow or repository for everything alien and exotic.⁵ A close reading, however, reveals that the images and text of 300 uncover the internal contradictions within European society, which are only subsequently projected onto the Oriental Other. The steeled and murderous discipline of the Spartans is almost more repellent than that of the great Asiatic king on his slave-borne throne who represents the might of the subaltern non-West.

If 300 sowed the seeds of Miller’s political and psychological justifications for a renewed Western militarism against the “colossal mass”⁶ of alien elements coming from without, the internal nature of the threat and its contemporary implications are the subject of Holy Terror. While this book was thoroughly criticized for being unabashed propaganda on its release, it is a useful work in that it demonstrates the heights of post-September 11th hysteria in the United States, boldly dramatizing the psychology of imperialist justification.⁷ Most of the book lacks any color or shades of grey, its images perfectly mirroring the narrative’s bleak moral logic. Taking place in “Empire City,” a transparent fictionalization of New York, its plot concerns a pair of superheroes dealing with the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, eventually infiltrating a gigantic underground city swarming with Muslims/terrorists bent on the destruction of America. This book repeats 300’s tactics, dehumanizing Muslims by covering their faces, blackening their skin, and showing them massed in anonymous groups. The one exception to this rule is a young humanities major and Arab American named Amina, who pontificates on the blasphemy and decadence of American society before unleashing a hail of nails on unsuspecting Americans. (Fig. 2)

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Figure 2. Amina comments on cultural differences. Note her overt sexualization.⁸

Holy Terror is animated by a conviction that the enemy, that alien shadow that despises Western culture and values, has already infiltrated as is actively working to undermine that society. It transposes the ancient conflict between Persia and the Greeks into the contemporary time, its imagery deliberately evocative of September 11. Here, the Americans take the place of the soft and decadent Athenians, the warriors willing to do anything for the cause are superheroes who exact extralegal justice. Miller’s work, complimented by his often inflammatory remarks on his blog and in interviews, is unabashed justification for an “any means necessary” approach to the destruction of foreign enemies both at home and abroad. Both of these books represent one pole of the Western response to the Islamist reaction to American imperialism: they distort a tiny movement of religious radicals until it consumes a whole culture. Said cites Richard Barnet’s analysis, summarizing American self-perception thus: “The United States, uniquely blessed with surpassing riches and an exceptional history, stands above the international system, not within it. Supreme among nations, she stand ready to the the bearer of the Law.”⁹ In Holy Terror, however, the law can be ignored even in the metropole, since the foreign element rests within and not merely around America.¹⁰

 

Notes:

  1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 16. Here, he cites the work of Eric Hobsbawm and Martin Bernal.
  2. Frank Miller, 300 (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 1998), 31. Pages are not labeled in the text.
  3. Ibid, 50.
  4. Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 121-123. Boer’s analysis pertains to scholar Allan Edwardes’ Erotica Judaica and specifically interacts with Said in defining camp of an Orientalist variety.
  5. Ibid, 122.
  6. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1968), 314. Cited in Said, 195.
  7. For an exemplary review, see David Brothers’ review at Comics Alliance. http://comicsalliance.com/frank-millers-holy-terror-review/
  8. Frank Miller, Holy Terror (Burbank, CA: Legendary Comics, 2011), 35. Pages are once again not numbered.
  9. Richard J. Barnet, The Roots of War (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 21. Cited in Said, 286.
  10. Holy Terror was also dedicated to right-wing martyr Theo van Gogh. See Miller’s comments on his blog: “3000 of my neighbors were murdered. My country was, utterly unprovoked, savagely attacked. I wish all those responsible for the Atrocity of 9/11 to burn in hell.” http://frankmillerink.com/2011/9/propaganda.

 

Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 1: Introduction

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This is part one of an eight-part post critiquing six graphic novels through the definitions and methods employed in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. In this part, we look at how Said defines culture and imperialism, and how graphic novels seem to have a special relationship with the Middle East as a subject.

Graphic novels represent a new frontier for cultural critics. Today, the graphic novel has taken its place alongside the action blockbuster and the evening (and morning, and afternoon, and nightly) news, America’s favorite source of education about the Middle East. That is no cause for either simple celebration or lament. Peering through the lens of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, this paper will try to see what Americans might be learning from this relatively young medium and what kinds of ideology they might be imbibing. Following a discussion of Frank Miller’s propagandistic oeuvre, the humanistic fairy tale of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad, and Iranian-Western counterpoints Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise, the paper will briefly point to the potential of a renewed cultural criticism grounded in Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,”thus grounding his analysis of Western false consciousness in a material analysis of global political economy.

First, however, the reader will benefit from a short exposition of the key concepts and terminology Said uses in Culture and Imperialism, especially the terms “culture” and “imperialism.” Despite Said’s fondness for complicated syntax and burying the lede, he readily supplies such definitions. For “culture” he provides two definitions: first, he means “practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation” which are relatively autonomous from social and political forms. In the second sense, culture is “a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the beset that has been known and thought.”¹ Culture is in this way situated as a source of identity, a structuring of attitudes at both a mass level (first definition) and an elite one (second), a discourse that is supposed to transcend everyday existence and provides narratives for the nations that produce and protect it. In turn, Said believes culture becomes a “protective enclosure” that can stifle criticism as much as promote it.²

Imperialism is defined as “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory,” which is not simply an “act of accumulation and acquisition” since it is “supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations.”³ Imperialism  is possessive and constitutive of culture in both the dominating metropolitan center and the occupied territory, with culture driving the immense expansion of European and American domination over land. Land is the crux of the analysis, because in his method geography defines the position of the author involved. His method of reading, known as contrapuntal reading, “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”⁴

Throughout the text of Culture and Imperialism, Said practices this discipline of reading on the margins, searching for and teasing out the critical psychological and cultural pillars of imperialism latent even in anti-imperialist texts. In the present study, the subjects of criticism are far newer, emerging in an environment already aware of Said, and there is already within these texts an awareness of the tropes they are using and the position of the narrative subjects as residents of either dominant or dominated regions of the world. This paper will therefore not be “including what was forcibly excluded,” but rather engaging texts—and images—which are in some way cognizant of the colonial and imperial legacies in which they reside. The current study will employ this contrapuntal method by taking into account books authored from both American and Middle Eastern perspectives, searching for the way ideologies of imperialism are propagated and how those who are marginalized respond to Western impositions.

By the end, however, we will find that there are significant limitations to Said’s method because it decouples culture from politics and the economy. Any discussion of imperialism that neglects these and focuses solely on ideology and culture is bound to be somewhat bloodless at least and at times even misguided.

Notes:

  1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), xii-xiii.
  2. Ibid, xiv.
  3. Ibid, 9.
  4. Ibid, 66-67.

Reading Highlights of 2013

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At the moment, I have read around one fourth of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, on which more in a few days. I assure you, I will have much to say on it, not least in touching on the tedious, pulp-wasting preface Penguin decided to jam between the front cover and the poetry. To invert a phrase coined by pop music reviewer Todd in the Shadows, it has all the flavorlessness of literary criticism without the nourishment. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I bring up Eugene Onegin because it deserves to be mentioned in a summary of my reading this year. It is especially notable because it is the only long form fiction I have read all this year. With the exception of some by-now-forgotten short stories, my reading this year was consumed by theory fermented with philosophy and history. This by no means indicated a lack of passion in my reading; I nearly wept at at a passage in Karl Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital. I managed to get my narrative fix through film and television, but reading Onegin does make me wonder whether forgetting to indulge myself in a few more novels was a mistake. At the same time, I find that the college atmosphere is not conducive to recreational reading.

Reading Highlights of 2013:

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said

An incisive and revealing study into the literature and culture of colonizing societies and how even authors like Jane Austen can be read as complicit in the Rule of Britannia. Though his prose has an appealing tone of righteous indignation, it can be somewhat longwinded as well. The book also puts culture and communication on a pedestal, strangely arguing that the imperialist strain in Western culture ran ahead of political and economic reality rather than intertwining with and justifying imperialism. It’s a valuable but distinctly limited work, one that fed my recent string of graphic novel features.

Deconstruction in a Nutshell by John D. Caputo

Derrida has lost most of his lustre for me after a brief and impassioned flirtation over the spring, but I still fondly recall the long few nights I spent reading this book, which is an attempt by philosopher-theologian-king John D. Caputo to translate (in a nutshell, he so insistently reminds us) “deconstruction” to an English-speaking audience. His style is energetic and his prose rarely overcomplicating what should be left simple. At the very least, after reading the book, I can confirm that deconstruction’s nutshell is as unsteady as it should be, and that I vastly prefer Caputo’s prose to his subject’s.

Writings of Hildegard of Bingen

Letters, morality plays, works on healing and religion–Hildegard was an accomplished scholar, political figure, religious leader, and prophet from the high middle ages. Her writings show her outwardly prostrating herself before male authority figures while claiming to speak with the mouth of God. Always audacious, her commitment to her visions and to the truth make for riveting literature as well as a uniquely compelling historical figure. Like most of the writers on this list, she was also a thoroughgoing troublemaker. I seem to be attracted to such people.

Pining Wind by Zeami

Japanese Noh drama is meant for the stage, but many of them also read rather well, even in translation. Pining Wind is a stirring peace of writing, and though Noh is by nature derivative and laced with obscure references, I quite enjoyed it. I only hope that I will be able to read them in the original language someday.

The dream is gone, without a shadow

night opens into dawn.

It was autumn rain you heard,

but this morning see: 

pining wind alone lingers on

pining wind alone lingers on

The Book of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe was a troublesome one. She stumbled as an independent business owner, but found a later career as a mystic and visionary. She cuts a somewhat fearsome profile, and her quarrels with her husband and gentlemen callers are something to behold. I loved reading this despite it being required for class, and it’s quite an instructive bit of writing for those looking into late medieval society.

Saint Paul and the Foundation of Universalism and Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou

I have some misgivings about Badiou, especially given his affinity for Plato, but this book and the fragments of In Praise of Love that I have read compel me to suspend judgment. While I have been somewhat familiar with the ongoing fascination of atheist political philosophers with Saint Paul, this was the first example of this literature I actually read. Badiou has a spellbinding style in his prose, and his writing about Paul has been helpful in my ongoing process of fashioning and refashioning my views about the Bible. Philosophy for Militants, which is a pocket-sized compilation of three essays on, well, philosophy and militant politics, was my introduction to Badiou, and a fine, cheap volume in which to start reading this French Marxist.

Various Works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The only writing that moved me to tears this year was “Wage Labour and Capital.” Let there be no excuses about clouds of dust in the air or aggressive winter allergies. Whether this is a mark of personal virtue or shortcoming–or lack of sleep–I believe it has at least something to do with the fact that Engels and Marx are brilliant wordworkers. Capable of expositing delicate technical distinctions or stabbing an idea home with a polemical point, they are distinct but often united voices, and critical to my intellectual development in this past year, as well as–I hope–my political future. Let this be the beginning of a long and fruitful reading relationship.

Selected Works Vol. 2 and 3 by Vladimir I. Lenin

If I were giving out awards for the most entertaining writer I discovered in 2013, it would be bestowed on this entombed Bolshevik. Lively and fiery–at the college I attend they would call him “prophetic” if they were to pay him a compliment–he spares no one criticism and manages to make policy documents and political strategy explosive literature. Of course, his theoretical and intellectual achievements are considerable, not to mention his revolutionary credentials, but it should not be overlooked that he is a wonderfully blunt stylist as well, making for engaging as well as informative reading. The first volume will be next spring’s project.

Selected Works Vol. 5 by Mao Zedong

Mao is not the great polemicist or theorist that Lenin is; he has a rather dry and methodical way of breaking down everything he is talking about and arranging every detail until it numbs the mind. That said, it is not for nothing that his writing became required for militants throughout the world–including the West–in the 1960s. I found this historically enlightening and also somewhat infectious; revolutionaries seem to have boundless energy, and it leaks and pours out of their texts. He’s no Lenin, but Mao is still more than just a pretty face.

Political Grace, Lenin, Religion, and Theology and The Earthy Nature of the Bible by Roland Boer

As I have an obsessive interest in both the Bible and Marxism, Roland Boer has felt to me more like a companion or (much cleverer and more handsome) peer than a teacher. That may be because we are both on WordPress , but I digress. Both of these books are excellently written and, like many of the highlights of this year, almost seductive in the way they are written. There truly is something of the erotic in the relationship between words and reader, something I would like to explore more in depth someday. I would recommend all three of these books, especially the book on Lenin and religion, which served as a wonderful companion to reading his Selected Works.

Honourable Mentions:

Rosa Luxembourg, various shorter articles

Epilogue: Worst Books/Reading Experiences Of 2013

Habibi by Craig Thompson and Holy Terror by Frank Miller (and, yes, they belong together)

On Belief by Slavoj Žižek (I’ll read more of his books and see if it makes more sense later)

God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation by Jonathan Wilson (it should be banned)

The Lollards by Richard Rex (not bad so much as misleading)

Class Warfare in Dishonored

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The central plot of Dishonored is as follows:

1. Monarch is murdered, and her loyal bodyguard (the player) named Corvo is framed for her assassination. The former spymaster now serves as a regent and imposes tyrannical state rule while combating a horrible plague.

2. Corvo joins a conspiracy, kills or neutralizes a bunch of noblemen, and after being betrayed by his allies, eventually restores the true monarch to the throne.

There are some variations to this plot, since the game has a few different endings that are more or less dark. Emily, the empress you put back on the throne, might end up a wise ruler or a cruel tyrant. Perhaps the plague is cured, or maybe it isn’t. None of these variations change the overall arc of the plot, however, and no matter which route you take, it’s fairly boring stuff. Sure, the presentation is more than adequate and there the plot payoffs, while standard and expected, are occasionally satisfying. But most of the best storytelling in Dishonored is accomplished on the margins, especially in its depictions of class relations in a rapidly industrializing society.

Throughout your bloody campaign to replace one opportunistic dictator with another, killing some aristocrats on behalf of others and then killing your former employers, you come across a whole swathe of society. This includes dozens of plague survivors and lower-class types, who are going to have it hard no matter which side wins. Eventually, you discover that the plague was introduced as a weapon of class warfare, a biological agent for killing off the empire’s undesirables. Of course, being a pathogen, Rat Plague, as it is named, ravages everyone, devastating the lower classes but also killing off many of the nobility and causing disasters like the flooding of the city’s financial district. Essentially, the game shows Wall Street as a flooded swamp that hosts a den of assassins.

Ultimately, if you take down enemies non-lethally and generally act in a morally upright fashion, you get a Victorian fantasy payoff in the form of a royal utopia under Empress Emily. So I’m not arguing that the game is some kind of Marxist propaganda piece, merely that its treatment of class and the rampant suffering and inequality, not to mention disease and urban squalor brought on by industrialization, are both its most valuable aspects and far more sophisticated than in most games. Dishonored reveals a potential benefit of games being more expansive–it leaves much more room for the environment and lore to make up for what are generally disappointing central plots.

Not to mention it sheds light on just how elite-centred most game plots are, including this one. After all, the actions the player takes in the game end up restoring another elite onto the throne, even after some commentary from another assassin in the game, Daud, who explicitly questions the value of such an enterprise. Maybe the game is still too much of a power fantasy to put so much trust in disreputable non-player characters or a democracy–maybe the entire medium of video games is inherently individualistic and, in that sense, elitist. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see the effects of a game’s events play out across an entire social spectrum, even giving some voice to the marginalized people that either don’t exist or are stripped of a voice in interactive works.

2013: A Torrid Year in Music

I don’t tend to write many lists. I find them difficult to compose and tedious to write. Additionally, an interested reader could find far more comprehensive and authoritative end-of-year lists elsewhere–I can’t compete with Pitchfork or the New Yorkerand I am not yet strong enough to attempt their overthrow. For this tiger, however, lists are not unintelligent or useless per se. They serve a vital role in preserving memories, provoking debate, and indicating both to others and to yourself what you seek in a work of art. Lists tell people both what the menu was like in a certain year and what one’s particular tastes are. With that in mind, I would like to present this unranked list of what I considered the most worthwhile musical releases for 2013. Consider it both an appreciative look back at the year that was and a hopeful wish for a similar bounty next year.

Best Music of 2013–Alphabetical

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Ceramic Dog–Your Turn

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Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society–Brooklyn Babylon

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Forest Swords–Engravings

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Jaimeo Brown–Transcendence

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Kanye West–Yeezus

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The Knife–Shaking the Habitual

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Matana Roberts–Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile

melt yourself down

Melt Yourself Down–Melt Yourself Down

MOONFACE-JULIA

Moonface–Julia With Blue Jeans On

Slippery-Rock mostly other people

Mostly Other People Do The Killing–Slippery Rock

Robert-Glasper-Experiment-Black-Radio-2

Robert Glasper Experiment–Black Radio 2

Burn (Bonus Track Version)

Sons of Kemet–Burn

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Steven Wilson–The Raven that Refused to Sing

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These New Puritans–Field of Reeds

Also, there were some older albums I heard this year that were equally if not more memorable than the new music I found.

ABC–The Lexicon of Love

Digable Planets–Blowout Comb

Eric Dolphy–Iron Man

Evan Parker–The Voice Is One

John Coltrane Quintet–Sun Ship

Medeski Martin and Wood–End of the World Party (Just In Case)

MGMT–Congratulations

Peter Gabriel–Peter Gabriel (Car)

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet–Live at “A Space” 1975

Sunset Rubdown–Dragonslayer

 

What Is Revolutionary About Utena?

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Revolutionary Girl Utena provokes far more questions than it answers, and that has led to the creation of an entire sub-sub-community based around it. It tends to attract a much more intellectual set than your average animated show, and for good reason. Unfortunately, though the show has a number of merits–and I would count myself enthusiastic about the show overall–its use of the word “revolution” initially distracted me from what is going on in the narrative.

Unlike Les Misérables, Utena is not about a political or economic or historical revolution. Its revolution is almost synonymous with adolescence, which means it’s appropriate that the film’s title is either Adolescence of Utena or, in some English editions, just Revolutionary Girl Utena, since the character of the revolution in the show is subjective and developmental rather than a decisive and disruptive transition between different political orders. Even the manipulative Lucifer figure, Ohtori, retains his outward power at the end, and the implications of the show’s ending are confined to a few privileged members of an elite academy. This is why I understand “revolution” in the show to mean a transition to a higher stage of maturity, involving disillusionment with former idols (the Prince and Princess figures), leaving the “womb” of the home (in this case represented by Anthy breaking out of the coffin-shaped academy and her literal coffin), and loads of diffuse sexual tension that occasionally hardens into something acute.

A writer under the name Etrangere contributed an essay on the connections between Utena and politics, and concludes with this paragraph:

Yet Utena succeeds, not as a Prince, but as a Revolutionary, by inspiring Anthy to step up herself out of her subservient role as the Rose Bride and save herself. Thus, together they destroy the archetype of the Prince and the Princess and are on their way to create a new, more equal ideal as friends and soulmates. Their example also manages to help all the Duelists break from their fixation on their idealized memories and move on toward smashing their own coffins. This is the Revolution in [Utena].

I think that this is basically accurate, making the revolution here more Freudian than Marxist. Ultimately, the entire show is a gigantic session of psychoanalysis, interrogating the show’s characters, prodding and questioning their motives and unmasking deep repressed drives. Memories are conjured and shown to be constructs, mere wishes that have been fixed by the characters’ inability to mature. Utena’s sword vanquishes the stifling present and cuts the chains connecting people to an imagined past. At the end of the show, we see history beginning, as Utena’s sacrifice has destroyed the endless cycle of repetition that was held in place by the figures of the Prince and Princess, these eternal roles that people try to fit until they finally crumble of their own accord. These roles are like eggs–a metaphor employed by the ruling authorities of the school throughout the show–protective barriers that must be temporary. If the chick cannot transcend the egg, that fixed location and gestating stage, it will die.

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Seductive and glorious, the Prince is still nothing but a betrayer.

It’s unfortunate that the show has no more useful political content, and more generally it is dispiriting that most anime makes no attempt to engage with contemporary Japanese capitalism in a substantial way. I do think, though, that a narrative showing a character, Anthy, actually overcoming oppression and entering into a new and more real life is nothing short of inspiring. We are not merely dazzled with a menagerie of illusions and brilliant imagery and left gasping, wondering what is real and what is not. By the end, we see that there is a real core to the show, that underneath all the symbolism and sleight of hand there are real lives at stake, that are being oppressed by real forces of oppression. It’s all quite weighty in comparison to most anime, and though I was initially disappointed by the narrative’ s refusal to travel outside of its safe protective sphere and engage with history at large, and while this is by no means a revolutionary show by Marxist standards, it shows that people can transcend fixed categories and identities and gives us hope for the destruction of everything that holds humanity back. Honestly, that’s more than ninety-nine out of a hundred shows gives us, and it looks absolutely fabulous while doing it.

Before leaving,  I think it’s best to leave my readers in the hands of Maoist-turned-Platonic-Communist Alain Badiou, who wrote this in his In Praise of Love:

The process of love isn’t always peaceful. It can bring violent argument, genuine anguish and separations we may or may not overcome. We should recognize that it is one of the most painful experiences in the subjective life of an individual! That is why some people promote their “comprehensive insurance”propa­ganda. I have already mentioned that people die because of love. There are murders and suicides prompted by love. In fact, at its own level, love is not necessarily any more peaceful than revolu­tionary politics. A truth is not something that is constructed in a garden of roses. Never! Love has its own agenda of contradictions and violence. But the difference is that in politics we really have to engage with our enemies, whereas in love it is all about dramas, immanent, internal dramas that don’t really define any enemies, though they do sometimes place the drive for identity into conflict with difference. Dramas in love are the sharpest experience of the conflict between identity and difference (61-62).

I think, in Utena’s case, truth very much is something constructed in a bed of roses.

Criticism and Militancy: A Conversation With Evelyn the Marxist Owl

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In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.

–Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 86.

Evelyn: One of the best things about our partnership, I think, is that it has been pulling both of us toward a central meeting point. And that’s not a neutral space somewhere between politics, which is my focus, and culture, which is yours, but a point at which the two of them are really the same.

Alexius: Culture is, in the final analysis, political. You can’t ever make a full-blown distinction between the two, which is why cultural criticism, in my mind, needs to have a militant political component. Up to this point, the work on this blog has been largely geared toward just an eclectic appreciation of culture, whereas I would like to take it decisively in a more political direction. That’s not to say that I would be reporting on politics like the nightly news, but understanding that the work of cultural criticism is a class endeavor, a criticism not just of aesthetics but of political content. 

Evelyn: Unfortunately, my talons prevent me from doing much original work on tumblr, and I think that original writing is difficult to come by on that site because the format is so geared toward just propagating images. But at the same time, that is also political work, and it compliments the longer and original pieces here, and some of the pieces you’ve written have come out of what I’ve been sharing, so it’s facilitated a virtuous cycle.

But, as for the blog, what kind of changes can people expect?

Alexius: The major change is that I’m going to be talking about the political dimensions, not just of artistic creations, but also of artists and the production of art. For example, I think one of the main things I’ve neglected on this site that I’ve wanted to do is advocacy for artists. And not just telling people not to pirate stuff or calling out corporations for monopolizing and ruining everything, I mean articulating genuine political changes that would be beneficial to art in North America.

For example, there is a pressing need for a guaranteed basic income. Everyone should be entitled to a minimum standard of living regardless of whether they can be employed or not, and that would free artists to do what they want without having to pander to donors or their audience or to big corporations, all of whom can have a detrimental influence on artistic quality. So one big change is that I want to talk more about both what kinds of economic and social changes would benefit artists. Another point I want to emphasize is that agitating for revolution and raising political consciousness are going to be a larger part of the blog. That doesn’t mean that fun and games are going to stop. I’m going to keep posting about anime and music and film and so on. But the focus is going to shift from purely analyzing and enjoying these works to getting at their politics and trying to sort out the good from the bad. It’s abandoning a postmodern perspective and adopting a revolutionary perspective. That means I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but there is a thriving community of Left bloggers who are committed to this sort of thing, so I have precedents to look to.

Evelyn: My sense is that there should be a basic alliance between critics and artists rather than an antagonism. Critics should advocate for artists, make their criticism worth reading–works of art in themselves–as well as working with people in other ways, in more tangible ways, to organize and raise political consciousness and so on. And hopefully, with conscientious and dogged critics working, artists will begin to adopt a more revolutionary stance. Art isn’t the meat and potatoes of a revolution, that would be normal people and Communist parties. But art, like theory, is important. It should serve the people, not oppress them. Of course, it should also maintain a degree of independence, serving almost as criticism in its own right.

Alexius: I agree, mostly because we’re the same person. But the conceit is delightful.

Evelyn: I understand you also hope to become more involved in organizing and community politics at the college your editor attends.

Alexius: Unfortunately, students at Calvin College are incredibly apolitical. For a college with such a loft mission, it seems to, like much Marxist criticism, actually, have capitulated to a kind of despair. Everything is all about culture, about changing culture instead of affecting people’s material situation. The school is quite conservative, but it’s a complacent, quasi-progressive, almost shamefaced conservatism. So even the old Calvin College Conservatives group barely existed and now, as far as I know, doesn’t exist at all. I don’t think much can be done at a rich white private college that overspent and needs to impose some austerity, but I think the student body is a massive waste of potential, so I’d like to explore some possibilities there.

Evelyn: Thanks for this discussion. I’m looking forward to the changes around here. A more militant tiger is nothing to sneeze at.

Alexius: Thanks. You too.

Angels Have Critics?

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Mr. Harold Zo, when we last met him, had had a rather odd encounter with a group of wandering angels. Their purposes obscure, it ends up they had whisked him away to a stadium gig in the Empyrean Heaven, which is a few city blocks from the choking wreckage of Tiger Heaven. Celestial property values had plummeted ever since that incident.

Mr. Harold Zo: How are we going to measure up to a whole crowd of angels? Aren’t the choirs of heaven supposed to be achingly beautiful? We’re mad to even try.

Quivver: If they are angels, I’m sure they’re going to be forgiving sorts of folk. I can’t imagine we’ll get a raw deal on pay, either. Relax. Breathe. Just play your guitar and we’ll have this over with in no time.

Quake: I agree.

Mr. Harold Zo: OK, fine. Let’s just go out and do this. Dammit! Except that we forgot the amps. Just noticed that. How could we have done that?

Quake: I’ve been meaning to tell you: we lost them somewhere between the level of the moon and the fires of Purgatory.

Mr. Harold Zo: Great, great, great, great. OK, so it’ll be an acoustic-electronic set. I hope they at least have outlets up here.

Suffice to say that their show went over like a lead balloon, or so the saying goes. Photography and all journalism was forbidden at the show, though a couple of bootlegs did manage to leak out. It became the subject of an investigation by the Divine Council, Subcommittee on Arts and Copyright.

Though they tried their hardest, the band was clearly not heavenly material. The angels who had spirited them away to begin with scoffed and refused to even acknowledge them. It was so bright in there that no one knew what was going on. After receiving an admittedly lucrative payment from a gruff accountant angel, Zo, Quivver, and Quake was escorted back to their tour van.

An angel critic knocks on their door. They open it and radiant light shines through. They quickly usher their guest in and have him seated. Thick blinds dull the searing rays of Empyrea somewhat, but all of the band members are still outfitted in dark sunglasses. Both for style and function, of course.

Angel Critic: Don’t you find twilight such an invigorating time in history? Why, it sings through my very veins.

Mr. Harold Zo: I’m afraid that I’m not acquainted with you.

Angel Critic: I’m an angelic music critic, delivering messages of cultural import to the various Subcommittees who employ me.

Mr. Harold Zo: What’s the point when God runs the whole business?

Angel Critic: Ah, like most humans, you are terribly late in catching on. In case you haven’t noticed, the real estate around here has taken a real hit. Honestly, this used to be such a great neighborhood before housing prices started spiking up. And now we’re living through a slump, the inevitable backlash. No one wants to buy in Empyrea, so we’ve been forced to abide in lesser celestial realms. Many of us, like the ones who brought you here, are wanderers, perpetual drifters through the material universe.

Mr. Harold Zo: Right, since Tiger Heaven collapsed.

Angel Critic: But I haven’t talked about God yet. Well, that’s probably for the better. You’re all familiar with God, I take it?

Quake: Not a personal acquaintance, but we’ve had some pleasant intercourse.

Quivver: Oh, shut up. Never knew him, though I have heard rumors. Few people on Earth can ever shut up about him.

Angel Critic: Oy. Yes, well. Let’s just say that if the divine one were still around, we wouldn’t need a sprawling bureaucracy just to ensure basic communication services throughout the universe. Honestly, you should see the payroll the Subcommittee on Cosmic Discourse.

Quake: I see. So when we come back to Earth, we can say we have confirmation of God’s nonexistence? Angel Critic cocks its head and gives a quizzical look. Well, at least non-efficacy?

Angel Critic: That would be fair to say. Thanks for the show, by the way. You’ve been a great help to us, despite the difficulties we were all seeing.

Mr. Harold Zo: I’m glad you noticed, but I’m not eager to discuss them. Could you get to the point? I would like to get back to Earth in time for Christmas.

Angel Critic: Quite right, quite right. I will be quick. While the rabble here have all dismissed you as charlatans and, quite frankly, bad singers, I think you have something revolutionary here. I plan on sending out a message to this effect.

Quivver: Great. But why do you need to bother us to do that?

Quake: Shh.

Mr. Harold Zo: No, it’s a valid question.

Angel Critic: Right. I wanted to say sorry, to console you. I know that it’s hard playing such a rough crowd, and I wanted to make sure you were doing fine.

Mr. Harold Zo: Well, you’re certainly the only conscientious angel we’ve met for a long time. Everyone else seems to be hell-bent on drafting us into one gig or another. Is that all?

Angel Critic: Afraid so. What I want to make sure of is that you are invited back, and this time allotted proper equipment and a crew. It is the mission of the critic to assist artists in whatever manner he or she can.

Mr. Harold Zo: Great. Now, can you get out of our van?

Angel Critic: We’re not all as bad as we seem. It’s just that we’re somewhat…confused right now.

Quake: Thank you.

The angel nods goodbye to everyone and exits silently.

At that moment, the van fell from the heavens into the depths of space. The light faded, and I, Alexius, noticed a meteorite  streaking in the sky. I watched as it landed in my backyard, considerably slowed by a large parachute.

Alexius: This gives me an idea for a piece I need to write. I sure hope they survived.

Ruins: Tzomborgha (and a Detour into John Zorn)

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I find that few other bands provide the simple, visceral pleasure of Ruins, led by best-drummer-in-the-world contender Tatsuya Yoshida. What astounded me when I first discovered Ruins, and what continues to bring me a certain degree of joy, is that the band that created the sounds you hear above is a duo. With only two members, the band is somehow able to conjure up enough frenetic energy to put most thrash punk bands to shame. Most of the time, when rock fans who are up on their history tell the story of rock in the 1970s, punk and prog rock are the primary contestants, with the latter collapsing into dust before the onslaught of the former. Forms of prog rock that align with more avant-garde jazz tendencies, though, tend to sound more like punk than fans of the latter would probably admit. And there remain huge gaps in terms of approach and values. What we should all acknowledge is that, whether generated through anarchic passion or mind-bending technical shredding or a combination of both, it’s tremendous fun to let music burst through staid conventions.

For those entranced by the thrash/jazz/prog combo you hear above should consult the work of John Zorn, whose encyclopedic eclecticism is unmatched in the jazz world today. He’s one of the most talented noise architects in the business, and with him, no genre is sacred.

Definitely more influenced by metal, though with wild improvised vocals courtesy of Mike Patton, who lends the whole affair an air of distinguished Satanic glee. Or, if you rather, the rage of pure id. In music like this, we see that the boundaries between pure noise and music, between genres, and maybe even between enjoyment and cringing, are pretty artificial. Just let the sound twist you and throw you to the floor–if you take it in stride, it’s less likely to put you in the hospital.

 

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