The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: March, 2014

Timber Timbre: Hot Dreams

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Taylor Kirk, frontman of the band Timber Timbre, wears his masculinity like Nicholas Cage’s bear suit from The Wicker Man remake. Singing in a baritone composed of half Stephin Merritt and half grizzled swamp dweller, he tells of love, threats, and promises with an idiosyncratically desperate glint in his eye. His 2011 album’s title, Creep On Creepin’ On, lets us in on the “joke” if it can be called that. To be precise, it highlights the high kitsch that is the lifeblood of their music. Kirk’s voice has been called an embodiment of Halloween, the music he makes with his band is frequently called “cinematic.” If so, their scores would accompany Italian B Westerns and gothic romance. For, while there’s nothing unserious or winking about Hot Dreams or any of its predecessors, the music has a heightened affect to it. When Kirk is being seductive or alluring he accompanies it with a prowling menace that has just a shade of cartoon fakery to it. Halloween is a good analogue for this band because it can be plenty threatening if you take all the ghouls seriously, but it’s also a cesspool of seedy pranks, “sexy” costumes, and Vegas-level exploitation. The falseness is half charming, half repellent, and this is the fine line that Timber Timbre walks, mostly successfully.

I admit, though, I was worried about this one. When the band released the title track as a single for promotional purposes, they paired it with a music video that reminded me of the worst parts of One From the Heart. It was all leering sexual exploitation, misogyny, and empty glitter, a strip-club spectacle that robbed the song of all of its sultriness. Sexy music and sexy imagery often don’t go together as well as you might think, and this video is a good example of that. After watching that, I doubted both the quality of what was to come and my affections for Creep On Creepin’ On. Kirk’s wolfish way of singing about women was and is by far his least appealing tendency, and the “Hot Dreams” video made my hands go all clammy.

After listening to the album a few times, however, I realize I overestimated how much Vegas neon had crept into the band’s work. As always, the true American touchstone for Timber Timbre isn’t the Strip but Hollywood. When it’s sleazy it’s sleazy like the inside of a car at a drive-in. The music has this gentle majesty to it, an Ennio Morricone-esque ability to evoke wilderness. Kirk’s voice reverberates through these cavernous compositions in its world-weary fashion, and songs usually slither and creep along at BPMs way down in the double digits. Longtime collaborator Colin Stetson lends his saxophone to the proceedings, exploiting the instrument’s sensuality as well as his own unique capacity to produce nightmarish walls of sound through circular breathing techniques.

While I do think that most of the roughed-up dark stranger persona Kirk uses is nothing more than a theatrical mask, the music still has a violent edge to it that I can’t entirely disregard as an act. The penultimate track on the album, “Run From Me,” is a hair-raising piano number that’s self-deprecating and lovelorn but also intimidating. Unlike most threats you hear in pop music, you believe Kirk when he sings it, and the fact that the song transforms from what sounds like a murder ballad-to-be into spaghetti western soundtrack music leaves the song mired in ambiguity. Suffice to say that Hot Dreams has some unpleasant sexual and gender politics buried in its (sub)text. While that’s more interesting than some of the bland treatments those subjects get in some music, it’s still not something I’m willing to forgive all the way.

Hot Dreams brings the formerly swampy sounds of Timber Timbre into the arid wastes of the American West. It’s still unsettling and fraught with peril, but for the most part worth the risk. Few folk albums are likely to come along that sound so fully developed, even if the ideas running through them might be more endearing than what we find here. It’s certainly an incisive if somewhat heightened portrait of insecure, predatory masculinity, and there’s enough of a critical remove to appreciate it, but I’m never entirely sure what the band is thinking.

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Lunacharsky on Bakhtin and Dostoevsky

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Currently, I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, and have already completed Notes From Underground, for a class on Russian literature. Suffice to say that the reading list leans heavily on conservative and anti-socialist, even outright reactionary, texts. We’re getting to Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Stalin propaganda later in the semester, and I’m sure to have some thoughts on that as well. For now, however, I’m waist-deep in what is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most famous novel, especially its long dialogical musings on Grand Inquisitors and Christian utopias. Though we’re not using much in the way of literary theory in our approach to the book, the professor introduced us to Bakhtin’s polyphonic reading of the book. The theory goes this way: Dostoevsky’s authorial voice is subsumed by the clashing, co-equal voices of autonomous characters. The book is essentially a string of extended debates, and the author confines hir role to narrating the conflicts with as much remove as possible. When reading the book, however, one cannot help but noticing that Dostoevsky, though he avoids the overt didacticism of, say, later Tolstoy, definitely favors one view over another. His reactionary position is complicated, often self-contradictory, and politically bankrupt, betraying deep personal division, but it’s not difficult to parse from the book.

I’ve recently come across what Soviet Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote about Bakhtin’s analysis:

“I am rather inclined to agree with Bakhtin that Dostoyevsky -if not at the stage of completion then certainly when working out the first ideas of his novels and the gradual evolution of their plots – hardly ever kept to any preconceived constructive plan, that his method of work was indeed polyphonic in the sense that it was a commingling and interweaving of absolutely free individuals. It is even possible that Dostoyevsky himself was excessively and most intensely interested in the outcome of the ideological and ethic conflicts between the characters which he created (or which might rather be said to have created themselves through him).”

Despite this agreement, however, Lunacharsky has his own spin on the matter: he writes that Dostoevsky’s early association with utopian socialism and his subsequent imprisonment continually erupted in his work:

 One would have to be completely devoid of all psychological sensibility and, moreover, have a whole series of politically responsive strings missing in the instrument of consciousness, in order to doubt (even in the absence of direct proofs) that the young Dostoyevsky was among those who “sought for a city.” He was indubitably full of anger against social injustice and so profoundly so that, at some half-hidden subterranean level, this anger continued its volcanic work throughout his existence. Its grumblings and rumblings can only be ignored by the politically deaf, and the glow it throws up – only by the politically blind.

He comments further on Dostoevsky’s use of religion in his work:

In this way, God, Orthodoxy, Christ as a democratic, individual, purely ethical principle of the Church – all this was quite essential to Dostoyevsky, for it gave him the opportunity to avoid a final spiritual break with socialist truth while, at the same time, anathematising materialist socialism.

These positions also gave him the chance to assume a profoundly loyalist attitude in relation to the tsar and to the whole tsarist regime. At the same time, from the altar end of the Church, the end facing the congregation, it was possible to embellish these ecclesiastical modes with all kinds of effective graces. In this way, Dostoyevsky’s Orthodoxy is at once a profoundly conservative principle and, at the same time, a kind of maximalism. Maximalists in the sphere of religion have always been in a position to say to materialists: “You will never dare to include the right to immortality in your programmes, will you? You will never be able to demand absolute bliss and the merging of all men into one ‘all-spirit’, will you? We, on the other hand, can manipulate these beautiful, delicious things as much as we like, representing them as the true reality.”

Lunacharsky, therefore, reads Dostoevsky as deeply divided, his fractured, polyphonic novels the result of a consciousness that “tends toward schizophrenia” and also reflects the social fracturing caused by Russia’s nascent industrial revolution. The Brothers Karamazov is a powerful social protest against inhumanity, but it ultimately finds its safe haven in the arms of the Church and the Tsar. It lets the materialists and atheists have their speeches, but all the while Dostoevsky can resolve the matter however he wants. He is not in full control of his characters, is incapable of suppressing their tendencies within his work, but it is clear where he prefers to stand. Lunacharsky again:

It seems to me that only if we adopt this approach to Dostoyevsky will we understand the true substructure of that polyphony which Bakhtin has noted in Dostoyevsky’s novels and stories. Only Dostoyevsky’s split consciousness, together with the fragmentation of the young capitalist society in Russia, awoke in him the obsessional need to hear again and again the trial of the principles of socialism and of reality, and to hear this trial under conditions as unfavourable as possible to materialist socialism.

Viewed this way, his dismissal of Chernyshevsky in Notes From Underground makes perfect sense, as well as the hagiographical treatment of characters like Zosima in Karamazov. Paradoxically, it is those who have rejected the world–the monks and the true believers–who are best able to love it and help other people in the novel. Not in the way that Ivan “returns his ticket” and refuses the arrangement of the world, but rather those who reject the world in favour of an eternal reality that is supposed to break in. Orthodoxy alone is presented as real, Orthodoxy as the fantastical world of the peasants, the dignified servants, the generous rich, the wise monk, etc. Dostoevsky is brilliant but almost always wrong, the kind of writer that drives me batty. Nevertheless, his treatments of morality are at least far less moralistic than the most dogmatic reactionaries, making him easier to read than, say, Solzhenitsyn or, God forbid, later Gogol.

See the rest of Lunacharsky’s essay here.

David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism

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David Harvey’s book attempts to contextualize and explain the ideology and practical work of neoliberalism as an attempt by the capitalist class to wrest wealth back from the working classes. The latter had, in the industrialized First World, fought hard and won several important concessions from capital, which, taken together, can be called a “social democratic consensus.” While labour’s victories were more extensive in Europe than in the United States, the period from the end of the 1940s through the middle of the 1970s saw the emergence of a collaboration between labour, capitalists, and an interventionist state that created more extensive welfare, health care, and other social provisions while overseeing an unprecedented rise in living standards even among the industrial working class.

After the end of the 1970s, when the First World shuddered in the wake of oil shocks, over-accumulation, and stagflation, new political forces took advantage of the situation and, rather than pressing for more complete state control over the economy, tore up the “social democratic consensus” and instituted a campaign to redistribute wealth and power back to the capitalist class. Since that time, wages for workers and the petty bourgeoisie have stagnated while the very wealthiest have become fabulously wealthy, and this process has only intensified over time.  Starting with some imperialist experiments in Chile (after the CIA engineered the leftist president Salvador Allende’s downfall), the United States and its allies restructured their economies around a policy of enriching the capitalist class at the expense of all others and intensifying their neocolonial exploitation of the Third World through IMF policies, “soft” power, and near constant military interventions.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism makes the above argument, in a nutshell, over the course of two hundred pages or so. He also dedicates chapters to the post-Mao degradation of China into an increasingly capitalist country and a proposed solution, more on which later. There are numerous illustrations, graphs, and charts to make his point, along with copious footnotes annoyingly squirreled away in the back of the book because popular readers are apparently terrified of them. His prose is lucid and direct, the book accessible, and its conclusions, in many ways, well-made. Though Harvey published the book before the financial crisis and the current, seemingly permanent, reduction of the workforce and austerity in wealthy countries, his description of the neoliberal consensus is still apt:

“Thirty years of neoliberal freedoms have…not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and retailing…The freedom of the market that [U.S. president George W.] Bush proclaims as the high point of human aspiration turns out to be nothing more than the convenient means to spread corporate monopoly power and Coca Cola everywhere.”¹

One hardly needs to read a contemporary work like Harvey’s for such insights. One of the major problems with Harvey’s text is that it mistakes neoliberalism for the enemy when capitalism itself, whether in “social democratic” or neoliberal forms, is the basis of all of the ills he sees. Lenin scooped Harvey on many of his findings almost a century ago in his Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. For instance, Lenin writes:

“Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits…strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levis tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of the monopolists.”²

Though there are certain features of neoliberalism as a manifestation of capitalist statecraft, most notably its authoritarian hostility to even bourgeois parliamentary democracy, that are unique, it is not uniquely imperialist. Social democratic politics in the First World are also inevitably paid for with profits extracted from the imperial exterior or Third World. The difference is that discontent with the status quo is far sharper in imperialist countries under neoliberalism because the state uses nationalism and more overt coercion to control proletarian dissent, preferring sticks where Keynesians preferred carrots. Neoconservative politics, which were in vogue in America when Harvey published the book but have since waned in favour of an isolationist and populist rightism (i.e. the Tea Party and so-called “libertarians”) are here explained as the right-wing response to the dissolution of social cohesion under neoliberalism. That is fine as far as it goes, but Harvey makes the bizarre mistake of calling for the Left to develop its own morality discourse, when that probably represents a retreat in favour of the right.³

As usual with this kind of text, when the author jumps the gap between historical analysis as proposals for action, the book founders. Harvey’s solution is purely an appeal to return to social democracy and “popular rule,” or a “purer” form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. He wants to break neoliberal ideology’s grip on ideas like “freedom,” shattering its associations with pure, unregulated finance capitalism and the degradations with which it is associated. I doubt that simply reestablishing the old regime is going to work. His plan is all about laying out “alternatives,” constructive a left discourse around “alternative” notions of human rights and freedom. He does not address the fundamental untenability of capitalism in general, the revolutionary idea that the working class–most of which is outside the First World–must liberate itself by force of arms. It’s a short chapter and a highly speculative one, but it need not have been. The legacy of Marxism is full of far more concrete and viable solutions to the problems of capitalism. Those solutions start with the end of capitalism and the construction of a socialist state which will unite the death of capitalism with the birth of a new horizon in human history, the establishment of communism. While I would recommend Harvey’s book as an often trenchant protest against the inhumanity of our current situation, I reject his proposed remedies outright. One might as well try to cure cancer with ibuprofen.

As Mao writes:

“Revolutions and revolutionary wars are inevitable in class society, and without them it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development and to overthrow the reactionary ruling classes and therefore impossible for the people to win political power.”⁴

Without wresting political power away from the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will be condemned to suffer exploitation.

Notes:

1. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2004), 38.

2. Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm

3. Roland Boer, “For an unethical and unmoral politics,” http://stalinsmoustache.org/2012/06/13/for-an-unethical-and-unmoral-politics/

4. Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction,” Selected Works, Vol. 1, 344.

One from the Heart

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One from the Heart tells a simple story: two people living in Las Vegas (Frederic Forrest as Hank and Teri Garr as Frannie) are on the verge of splitting up. Hank wants to settle down and buy a house; Frannie wants to fly to Bora Bora for adventure. After a heated dinner conversation, the two break up and fall into the arms of their ideal lovers. For Frannie, it’s the handsome waiter and piano player Ray, played by an effortlessly suave Raúl Juliá. Hank’s love interest is Leila, a circus performer gifted with supernatural powers. Eventually, however, they realize that their love for each other is more enduring and valuable than these fleeting illusions, and they reunite in the final scene. It would be difficult to tell a simpler story in a hundred and ten minutes.

From the outset, though, we know that Francis Ford Coppola’s film is not interested in being a straightforward love story, despite that fact that, at its core, that is what it is. Formally, the film is a quasi-musical: none of the characters sing, at least not in a way that suspends the plot, but the score dominates the soundtrack and the songs, written by Tom Waits and sung by him and Crystal Gayle, often narrate the action, evoke what characters are feeling, or speak directly to the characters. Coppola conceived of the film as a stage musical/film hybrid, filled with live spontaneity and grace while also allowing him precise control over editing and mise-en-scène. His camera is usually in motion, gracefully gliding this way or that over neon-soaked sets and bodies. Edits can be elaborate and surreal, as when the film changes setting by juxtaposing two different scenes–one in the back and one in the front–before gently allowing the foreground to fade away. Other times, the transitions are even less clear. The reality of the world is an obviously filmic one, its sets entirely constructed on sound stages, filled with twelve kinds of ostentation, and filmed with long crane shots that reveal the artificiality of the setting. In that way, it gets Las Vegas perfectly right.

Unfortunately, Coppola’s “theatrical” strategy can leave the actors in the lurch. Forrest, Garr, Kinski, and Juliá all deliver good performances, but the camera doesn’t flatter them. Various screenplay problems don’t help either, but the strange hybrid of filmed play/staged film and the long takes can make certain scenes much more slowly paced than they ought to be.

The screenplay veers from tragedy to melodrama to romance to slapstick and surrealism, and these are often all contained in one or two shots. In one scene, Hank clumsily climbs onto the roof of the hotel room where Ray and Frannie are staying. After some genuinely funny slapstick moments where he falls through the ceiling, he picks up an unclothed Frannie and hauls her, caveman style, to his car. She offers no physical resistance and allows him to take her all the way back to the house they share. Within the first thirty minutes of the film, she is shown undressing three times, and is more often placed in a vulnerable position than not. Her eventual reunion with Hank caused me some incredulity; I expected it to be a dream, but alas it was not. While I think Hank is supposed to be an emblem of the hardworking, sensible American man, the antithesis of the brutality and exotic sensuality of Vegas, he ends up being a mostly unsympathetic brute. By the end of the film, despite some dramatic gestures to win her back, I did not believe for a minute that a rational person would want to spend two minutes much less a whole life with him. This is a consistent problem with the film; characters do things for reasons that are not adequately explained and they have implausible consequences.

Raúl Juliá’s character is charming and romantic, and though the actor struggles to pantomime piano playing, he infuses his scenes with the right mixture of romantic danger and intrigue. This is for the best, since slow pacing, often incongruous tone-mixing, and simplicity of the main story means that the film lacks narrative tension. I watched the film with a human, and she had a hard time forcing herself to watch all the way through. For me, the stunning visuals (along with some Coppola motifs I recognized from Apocalypse Now including fireworks) carried me through, but even those were not enough to cover for the film’s many flaws. I would credit Tom Waits’ perfect musical accompaniment as the primary reason to see the film, as the mordant and gravel-voiced singer-songwriter appears to understand the story better than Coppola did.

Unfortunately, One from the Heart also has a regressive view of women. In trying to celebrate or pay homage to 1950s musical spectacles, Coppola has absorbed their gender politics as well. The ending of the film is almost bizarrely pro-traditional American values, especially coming from Coppola, and while the constant barrage of objectified bodies and voyeuristic scenes certainly make the film a convincing male fantasy, it detracted from the my enjoyment.  Far from conventional formally, the movie is almost politically reactionary, rejecting crass commercialism for the most milquetoast (and borderline abusive) relationship I’ve seen in some time. Approach with caution.

One from the Heart demonstrates the dangers of simplifying story in favour of spectacle. Even talented actors can’t ultimately save the screenplay from itself, and the visual fireworks are sexist just as much as they are beautiful. I give it credit for its wildness and experimentation, as well as for some moments of sublime playfulness, but I would recommend against watching this film except for historical interest.

L’Odyssey de Cartier: Ad Kitsch Epic

I understand that I am lagging behind the times, and that this ad has been a thorn in humankind’s side for two years. All the same, most of the reactions I found online were hardly critical, offering up vague oohs and ahs. Comments on the ad’s Youtube page can be almost as overblown as this three-minute monstrosity. Since this ad took two years to make, it’s only fair for me to jab it two years after it lands on us. What makes this ad fascinating to me is how it dolls up its “sophisticated” and “elegant” imperialism,  offering us the same kind of jewel-encrusted finery we saw in Craig Thompson’s Habibionly this time it’s literally jewel-encrusted. Running a company that shills out shiny rocks extracted from semi-colonial countries is a wretched business at the best of times, but Cartier expends an astonishing amount of effort trying to make you buy into their colonialist dream world.

Basic concept of the ad: a French leopard escapes from its diamond prison and goes on a fantastic journey through the colonized world before returning to Paris on an old-timey airplane. On the way, he encounters a Chinese dragon,

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more sad-looking bedazzled animals,

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an Indian city speared into the back of an elephant,

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Anyone who wants to make Salvador Dalí jokes can keep it to themselves.

this white dude,

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here the ad reaches peak mist

and a mysterious woman in a red dress, just to push some last-minute sexist decoration into the ad.

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The entire commercial runs three and a half minutes, making it the Gone With the Wind of advertising in more than one way. You need to understand that I am a big cat. I have almost inexhaustible reserves of sympathy for the plight of cats in film and television roles. When our kind gets a big shot at fame like this, I am hard pressed to insult the product. At the same time, turning China and India into unpopulated fantasy worlds that exist only to lend false grandeur to your ostentatious mining products seems a step too far. Maybe two or three steps, actually. At the end, you pair the exotic cat with a vaguely exotic-looking woman (no one’s done that before, right?), and the wheel of clichés goes full circle. Children’s choirs that sound like they were sampled from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores don’t help matters much, being only slightly less ridiculous than the ad’s nostalgia for the French empire. I imagine the leopard didn’t go to Africa–where most of the diamonds Cartier is sticking to animals come from– because that would be a bit gauche. Must keep within good taste, eh?

Cartier is attempting to infuse its products with some exotic mystique, and at that they succeed. Everything in the ad is ratcheted up to the highest level of pretentious schmalz, making “L’Odyssey de Cartier” the ruling class version of those “every kiss begins with Kay” commercials. Suffice to say, I’m not impressed. This is Orientalism at its nadir, dressed up in ugly diamond coating and put up on a pedestal to inspire the awe of the masses and open the wallets of the nouveau riche. I’m sure if the Victorians had had the Internet, they would have dropped their monocles at it.

Looking Forward: Chimurenga Renaissance

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Quivver and Alexius are sipping/lapping red wine on the porch. Springtime is coming, and the snow has finally bowed out, rain coming down to replace it. Eventually, all traces of the silver world will be erased, and the early brown, ramshackle spring days will start. 

Alexius: What was the last leg of the tour again? Mars?

Quivver: Yeah, we managed to get a show on the Red Planet. Sponsored by NASA and everything. Would have been a huge endorsement in the 1960s, but hey. It’s work. Not like it means anything to us right now. Since we got free of our confinement in hell, we’ve been on a stellar trajectory.

Alexius: Takes a lot longer to get from here to Alpha Centauri than Mars.

Quivver: Yeah, but we’d have so much time just to chill out and play tunes, you know? I’d have days and weeks just to work on my beats. Quake could bring his keys along, and we’d jam until…well, there would be no day and night, so all the time.

Alexius: I doubt there’d be enough music to last the whole centuries-long trip.

Quivver: Not if we took all our equipment. By the time we made it to Alpha Centauri, we’d have forgotten who we were when we made the first songs. At that point, we could just listen to that. One of the benefits of being creative with almost infinite time to create on cheap equipment.

Alexius: And I suppose you’d just invent new instruments if you got bored enough.

Quivver: Speaking of being bored and having a lot of time on your hands, you know there are over 200 posts on this blog, right?

Alexius: Yes, though I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss about it.

Quivver shakes her head. Alexius puts his head on her lap and she strokes his ears.

Quivver: You know what this moment needs?

Alexius: (I know what she’s going to say.) What?

Music, of course.

Chimurenga Renaissance includes Palaceer Lazaro, whose album Black Up–recorded as Shabazz Palaces–was one of the very first reviews I posted here. The other member of the group is Baba Maraire, who takes the centre stage in this act. He carries most of the raps and brings his experience in Zimbabwean music to this unique group, whose first LP, riZe vadZimu riZe, is due out on the 25th of this month.

So far, the group has only released a single track from the new album, “The B.A.D. Is So Good,” which is posted above. I would also recommend looking at the group’s website, which explains the origins of the group’s name and its connection to anti-imperialist struggle in Zimbabwe.

From the site:

True, the economic situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated considerably since the end of the 80s and the implementation of Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and reinforced by the Washington Consensus3– Zimbabwe should never have opened its fragile, war-torn economy to the world market and cut government spending, but instead committed to targeted internal development and the very same industrial policies that advanced countries like the United States technologically4. Nevertheless, despite how things have turned out so far, despite the setbacks, despite the economic challenges, our ancestors were not wrong to challenge Cecil Rhodes and European imperialism. They were morally in the right, and anyone who is politically and spiritually aligned with them is also in the right. Many have betrayed this spirit of rebellion, but this does not mean our ancestors were wrong to fight for their rights5 and land6. Indeed, Maraire’s fiery rap track “Boom”7 is all about his fidelity to the political project initiated by his ancestors, the project of establishing once and for all black justice and independence.

Given who is involved and the abundance of passion and skill poured into this project, I am anticipating great things.

Thank you for sticking with me and my editor through over 200 posts. I never though I would reach nearly as many people as I have. I remember feeling giddy when my friends and fellow students would read it. For now, this is Alexius the tiger letting you know that plenty more is coming to this site. I’m hoping to make it far beyond the next 200 posts.

Sisyphus: “Alcohol”

Sisyphus is rapper Serengeti, songwriter and heartbreak specialist Sufjan Stevens, and producer Son Lux. For three weeks, the three of them hunkered in a studio crafting Sisyphus, their first proper LP. This self-titled debut does not drop until the 18th of this month, but the group has, as is the custom in these times, let out a trickle of preview tracks to whet our consumer appetites. British newspaper The Guardian is also hosting a full stream of the album here, and I have had listened to it a number of times, meaning I now have a good grasp of both “Alcohol” itself and the context in which it appears. I’ll keep my thoughts brief and on-task, but I want to use this opportunity to point out what numerous observers and Sufjan himself has noticed: Sufjan Stevens is going through an identity crisis.

While critics probably oversold the differences between Stevens’ 2011 LP Age of Adz and his previous work–especially Enjoy Your Rabbit–this does not minimize the huge deviations in tone and sounds between the “folk trilogy” stretching from 2003’s Michigan through 2004’s Seven Swans to 2005’s Illinois (both of the state albums have much longer and nigh-unprintable official titles) and his musical output since 2007. Starting with his indie-classical ode to the infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he has transplanted his Philip Glass-inspired minimalism and orchestral grandeur from analog folk to hip hop. The language is the same; the accent is almost unrecognizable. Stevens’ three folk albums balanced grandiose ornamentation with at times unbearable intimacy. Always a sensualist, both lyrically and musically, Stevens’ preferred tactic is to use sentiment and cutting irony as clashing extremes. This can be seen even on his most religious and sincere record, Seven Swans. 

“In the Devil’s Territory” begins with a long buildup, not too dissimilar to “Alcohol” except using banjos instead of drum machine beats. Its lyrics, which portray the narrator eagerly anticipating the apocalyptic war between Satan and God. Most of the time its immaculate surface, fussy and bouncy, stays intact. However, at two points in the song, Sufjan’s irony bares its teeth. Eerie whistles erupt out of nowhere, letting us in on–well, it’s not exactly a joke, but nonetheless it constitutes a break in the texture of the song, forcing us to accept both intense reverence and playful irreverence in the same moment. Since The BQE, which is a stately ode to a highway more notorious than beloved, the irreverence and sensualism have become more pronounced, especially because of his transfer from American folk idioms to hip hop ones. Age of Adz, though it is the critical break in his body of work, is an anomaly compared to his work since that record because of its confessional character. S/S/S, now Sisyphus, makes music that is just as synthetic as Adz but replaces the often overt

Hip hop takes numerous forms, but the ultra-hip, detached form that Stevens has been making with Serengeti has allowed the former’s irreverent and downright ironic tendencies to sharpen. Meanwhile, the rustic orchestral accompaniments from the folk trilogy have moved in from the nostalgic suburbs to the inner city, from the Midwest to Brooklyn.

“Alcohol” has a title that makes it sound like a parody of a hip hop track. Almost like calling a song “New Car” or “Sex,” and I’m genuinely surprised that the latter isn’t a song title on this album. While it’s a broad song title, though, its first two minutes are dense and wordy. Listening to it, one never gets the sense that it’s party music or anything close to it. The beat rarely changes at all, repeating and repeating and repeating until it nestles into your brain much better than any of the lyrics. Though Sisyphus adds a piano riff and submerges the insistent beat under more pleasing synth textures, it makes the song sound more desperate, not less. Stevens’ voice hardly comes through in the tumult, which hardly fits the boozy depression of alcohol. Overall, “Alcohol” is addled, packing in too much for its own good and valuation pure sensation over definite meaning.

Of course, the kicker is that Stevens has been doing that kind of music for a long time now, and one wonders listeners are growing more accepting of this manic sensory overload or, as the cliché goes, familiarity is breeding contempt. For me, the song succeeds, but, as with the video, doesn’t seem to be concerned with anything in particular, hopping from one triviality to the next while the actual point flashes by in an instant.

Editor’s Note: Proletarian Feminism and Calvin College’s Anti-Choice Group

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Two weeks ago I published an article in my college’s student paper, Chimes. It was a personal intervention meant to give constructive advice to pro-choice students on campus as well as fortify their resolve in the midst of a hostile environment. The college and the church that puppeteers it are both committed to anti-choice politics, and in this environment the assumption is that everyone follows that political line. When my article proved that that was not the case, it touched off a minor firestorm on Facebook. “Respectable” people from here to Iowa derided me for writing the piece and attacked my editors at the paper for having the gall to publish it. Though the response was overwhelmingly negative in the comments section, I received thousands of Facebook “likes,” for whatever they’re worth, as well as much more meaningful personal “thank yous” from women on campus who had had abortions and others who were happy I stirred up the conservative hornets’ nest.

My article is linked here, and because of its brevity and overtly polemical tone should not be taken as a complete argument for a pro-choice position or anything like it. I would be more than willing to accept substantive criticisms, especially from sympathetic comrades. Among its many problems, it fails to address the fundamental theoretical basis of my argument, which stems from a class analysis of the situation. Divorced from a political party with which to affiliate and any practical basis for my analysis, I often slide into abstractions and at one point even use the dread word moral. I intended to use this as a provocation against reactionaries but accidentally implied that I believe that abstract morality has bearing on the situation. I repent for not emphasizing both the concrete nature of the oppression of women, particularly proletarian women. Because I am addressing an overwhelmingly anti-choice audience with the article, or at least ended up doing so, I did not put nearly enough emphasis on the way in which women were not all equally oppressed by anti-choice politics. Queer women, women from racial minorities, disabled women, and proletarian women are especially affected. This explains my accusation that pro-life morality assumes a primarily racist as well as misogynistic form when it becomes concrete, though this was misunderstood by most of the conservatives spewing bile at me.

While I do not want to get into the particulars of proletarian feminism as a developing political line–both because of my aforementioned lack of participation in practical work and a lack of space–I would like to refer readers to a few posts on the topic. Evaristo Marrero, writing for the estimable Maosoleum blog, summarizes some of the goals of proletarian feminism this way:

We need to reject patriarchal women’s emancipation, and struggle for proletarian feminism, for the reforms necessary under capitalism that weaken patriarchy, for the reforms necessary under socialism to overcome patriarchy, and for permanent cultural revolution until the overthrow of patriarchy.

Universal access to abortion is one of the requisite “reforms necessary under capitalism” that weakens the grip of patriarchy on women. Reactionary governments in numerous American states have imposed increasingly onerous restrictions on legal induced abortions, putting it out of reach for countless women for whom it is a necessity. Though the law protects abortions in theory, it is becoming more and more difficult for women–especially proletarian women, queer women, and women of oppressed racial groups–to gain access to basic services. The struggle against patriarchy must take an active character, and those of us on campus who oppose these restrictions as well as the “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that spread vile misinformation and specifically target underserved groups must recognize that the boundaries of the college are not the edges of the world. Though the institution is privileged and denies the greater community access to its space and resources, this is no excuse to carry on practical work only inside the college. This is developing into a tangent on the unfortunate split between academic spaces and others–and between mental and manual labour as well–so I will get to the central point of this post, which is to criticize a response from the Calvin College Students for Life published in Chimes this week.

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The picture that appears above their response article’s online version. They look like a Mormon extended family.

This article, written by two women named Sarah Weiss and Laura Wheeler,  runs through the expected gamut of pro-life deceptions. While taking a conscious stand for “promoting the inherent dignity and value of all persons,” they apparently do so in an entirely abstract fashion. Their weak-tea humanism is all about supporting “all human life,” which they in their infinite grace extend to fetuses. This is all despite their political position which robs women of basic agency. Don’t worry, proletarian women! Students for Life (S4L) is not a “political activist group” but instead a place where people just assume control over your body is off the table while thinking fuzzy thoughts about you. Charming. Of course, the unstated fact here is that S4L doesn’t need to operated in a militant fashion, and can hide behind a privileged mask of civility, because the entire community as a whole already agrees with them. Anti-choice activism has hegemony. It is institutionalized in their churches, pressed forward by those who harass pregnant people walking into clinics, and is embodied in its purest form by murderers who spread death and fear so that quaint little groups like this don’t have to. It’s wonderful that privileged women and men in S4L will be so civil and polite. After all, the curtain of niceness that stifles meaningful debate at our college and in our community will protect them much better than it will those who stand in solidarity with the 1 in 3 women in our country who will get an abortion at some point. Religious idealism and abstractions run so thick in the article that I would have to parse word by word to get to it all, and maybe even ferret it out of the spaces. Suffice to say that their ruling class ideology and concrete position blinds them to the concrete reality of the situation.

Sickeningly, they even attempt to take a moral high road, once again demonstrating that this ruling morality serves the ruling class. “We are a group that not only promotes life but speaks life as well. We are, however, willing and in fact eager to discuss our views with anyone who is interested, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with our convictions,” they write. Perhaps we should give them a blue ribbon for magnanimity.

I would not even be addressing this if it did not concern me personally. My own article is nothing spectacular, and contains numerous errors and omissions I am working with some comrades to rectify. As a person in a privileged economic position, attending the same private college as these two writers, I am in no position to claim revolutionary vanguard status. My mistakes are many and my complicity in oppression is a fact. It will continue to be a fact until capitalism is overthrown and patriarchy extinguished through cultural revolution. At the same time, I hope it is clear that the vague and ethereal “love” practiced by S4L is nothing more than a screen for reactionary politics and should be criticized as such. Despite my imperfections, I hope I have offered a strong criticism of this group, and I hope to offer a reminder to my readers that, no matter what words they use, anti-choicers perpetuate the oppression of women as a class.

Links on Proletarian Feminism:

J. Moufawad Paul: “In Defense of Proletarian Feminism” and Radical or Proletarian Feminism

Evaristo Marrero: “A response to the NCP(OC): Gender Whateverism is not Proletarian Feminism”

Anuradha Ghandy: “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement” (more of a critique of liberal, radical, and Marxist feminism, but still highly informative)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

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Yukio Mishima is not a subject to be approached lightly, especially in a biographical film. At once Japan’s foremost literary figure and an ardent fascist with his own private army, he was a domineering figure who lived at a critical time in Japan’s history. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a hybrid film, combining “present-day” scenes leading up to the author’s suicide with black and white flashbacks to his childhood and scenes adapting parts of his books. Though the juxtaposition of fictional scenes with more straightforward biography might seem strange, it seems the only way to tell a visual story about Mishima, whose unrelenting quest for “unity of the pen and the sword,” between art and action, dominated his life. Framed by Schrader’s camera with a sense of cold detachment, which is only enhanced by Philip Glass’ minimalist score, the film strives to depict Mishima as a man of unresolved contradictions.

Three of the film’s titular four chapters are meditations on themes that connect a certain Mishima book to events in his life. The scenes taken from Mishima’s works are the visual highlights of the film, abstract, theatrical spaces that the film serves up as “dreams” for the audience to interpret. In the other Paul Schrader film I’ve reviewed, Hardcore, California’s crimson-lit brothels serve as oneiric settings for moral conflict between the Calvinist protagonist and the libertine society around him. Here, too, the colorful sets, which reek of excess compared to the austerity of the rest of the film, serve to show a society in decay. A major thread that emerges from these scenes is the destruction of beauty. A young Zen acolyte who finds himself alienated from women because of his speech impediment burns down the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. The son of an indebted woman sells his body to a creditor and lets her cut his toned skin. The leader of a group of student anti-government conspirators, trained in the art of the sword, commits suicide while the sun rises. Beauty, it seems, can only emerge in death and destruction. Freudian psychosexual undertones pervade the film, with Mishima’s character noting that, when men seek beauty, they inevitably seek after death. Implicitly invoking Freuds thanatos or death drive, the film observes Mishima and his literary avatars seeking to transcend their limitations and petty contradictions and emerge, in a burst of flame and blood, into a pure land.

To Mishima, Japanese society had degenerated into crude materialism, its people weakened and feminized/infantilized through their subjugation to foreign impurities. As portrayed in the film by Ken Ogata, however, he discovers himself on a trip to Greece, admiring their grasp of the ideal human form. While his attraction to Western culture is certainly more sublime than the rampant importation of American products and culture, he is still “impure.” His private army might dress in white uniforms, but De Gaulle’s tailor had a hand in creating them. His urge to purge all vestiges of the West from himself and his country, therefore, can only end in suicide, a pure act of will that, to him, unites his art and life in a single moment.

Mishima never flinches when depicting its subject’s fascist views. At no point does the film demonize or even strongly criticize these views, though there are moments of clarity throughout. Schrader, a filmmaker who also wrote criticism and theorized a cinema of transcendence, sees Mishima as a fellow traveler in some sense. Perhaps he even envies the writer’s sense of purpose and discipline. Both Schrader and his subject are noted interrogators of social corruption–Taxi Driver’s right-wing assassin bears more than a little resemblance to Ogata’s performance here, albeit stripped of the latter’s serene dignity. The director also grew up in a Puritanical Calvinist setting, and the intense work ethic and insistence on purity and depravity seem to resonate with the rarefied spirit-driven world Mishima wants to create. Both Calvinism and extreme nationalism are idealized ways of dealing with the existence of evil or impurity in the world. The former insists on the total depravity of everything and absolute dependence on the divine, while the latter places the same faith in the “spirit of the nation.” Both of these notions are creations of faith, abstracted and removed from the actual unfolding of history. Nevertheless, as we see here, they can be sources of intense energy and creative genius.

At a certain point, however, the kinship between Mishima’s vision and Schrader’s stops being fascinating and becomes disturbing. In an article for Cinéaste published two years before Mishima was released, critic Ken Eisen classified Schrader as one of the “young misogynists of Hollywood,” citing the lack of agency displayed by characters in his remake of Cat People and his well-known collaboration with Richard Gere, American Gigolo.¹ This film would have made a perfect source for Eisen’s theory, since its female characters are invariably sadistic black widows, passive objects–one literally describes her own body as a “mirror” for a man–or domineering mothers. In the Freudian logic of the film, Mishima’s lack of a father seems to produce not only his homosexuality but also his inability to relate to women. Even in a scene depicting a left-wing university rally, during which Mishima comes off as the “sane” one despite his extreme views, Schrader only depicts male students. That seems exceedingly unlikely, though I am not familiar enough with the gender balance of the zengakuren and other radical leftist groups to know for sure. Though women of course participated in the film at all levels, including Eiko Ishioka contributing her astonishing production design, the film’s politics are regressive. While it certainly gives an accurate portrait of its subjects views, it aligns with them too closely in its depiction of women. Before seeing the film, having only watched Hardcore in the past, I tended to defend Schrader from charges of misogyny, but I can say that  this film has a strong anti-woman tendency.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a beautiful exercise in style, and unfortunately is also a good example of what Walter Benjamin called an “aestheticization of politics.”² That is, its aesthetic skill only serves to obscure politics and agendas which are anything but progressive. Yukio Mishima, for all his achievements, is not someone who should be celebrated, since he dedicate his life and life’s work to the cause of fascism. The only concrete expression his idealized views could find is violence. As Benjamin writes,

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.³

Mishima’s condemnations of capitalist materialism, as shown in the film, are mere moralistic phrases, since the alternative society he wants to construct is reminiscent of modern Japan and not the Japan of an imagined primeval past. When he addresses the radical leftist students at their rally, he is right when he says both he and they want to change Japan. Though he would call the students naïve, the irony is that he was the more naïve one, believing that a perfect world could be brought into existence through the militarization of society. Considering the direction in which today’s Japan seems to be going under Shinzo Abe, we should take heed. There are more like Mishima out there, radical nationalism has always had a foothold in Japan (even if the paperwork tells us that it is a pacifist nation), and there is always the risk of people finding these sorts of people attractive. For its accurate portrayal of a fascist threat and its considerable aesthetic virtues, Mishima is essential viewing. Its distressing positivity about its subject, on the other hand, stops it from displaying a full understanding of Japan’s history and Mishima’s role in it.

Notes:

1. Ken Eisen, “The Young Misogynists of American Cinema,” Cinéaste 13, no. 1 (1983). This gives more evidence to my notion that, though American auteur cinema is more stylistically daring than standard Hollywood fare, it also tends to replicate Hollywood’s gender politics to a disturbing degree. Note that, despite the rise of the militant women’s movements in the 1970s, the standard narrative of the New Hollywood is entirely male-dominated.

2. Another director who seems to be Schrader’s heir as a master chronicler of male violence and social ills is Nicholas Winding Refn. A comrade reviewed his Valhall Risingwhich has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Mishima despite their vastly different content.

3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

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