The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: May, 2014

Samir Amin: The Liberal Virus


“The virus caused among its victims a curious schizophrenia. Humans no longer lived as whole beings, organizing themselves to produce what is necessary to satisfy their needs (what the learned have called “economic life”) and simultaneously developing the institutions, the rules, and the customs that enable them to develop”

In The Liberal Virus Samir Amin diagnoses the world with a case of chronic liberalism. Most acute at the metropolitan capitalist centres, this epidemic has rampaged through the world, causing innumerable deaths, immeasurable suffering, and a tragic distortion of human life as it ought to be lived. Liberalism for Amin names not just the jelly-kneed social liberalism of North America but the overarching ideological justification for the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism fractures people into atomized units and submits society to a crude, worshipful economism, placing the entire economic life of society into the hands of “market logic.” Meanwhile, liberalism severs political life from the economy, ensuring a complete lack of democracy in the regulation of economic life. Technocrats and monopolists govern societies with golden fists, and even the so-called market is not free but constantly hemmed in by monopolies and imperialist distortions. Within liberalism’s feverish dream world, the United States becomes exalted as the world’s fountain of genius. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, though the liberal imagination can only imagine the continuation of capitalism into eternity.

Amin begins this short volume in a hopeful future where liberalism has been overcome by socialism and works back through the present to the origins of liberal ideology before outlining a “battle plan” against liberalism in the final section. In the second chapter, he generalizes his Marxist critique of this system by noting that, while liberalism imagines capitalism to produce desirable equilibria in society, it is actually “synonymous with permanent instability” (14). Liberalism’s purpose within capitalist relations is to obscure capitalism as it really exists in order to legitimate it as a “transhistorical legitimacy” that will forever be the gold standard for social organization. Postmodernism fits into this scheme as an account for imperialist capitalism’s obvious disarray without striking at the heart of the political problem. It reproduces the logic of liberalism rather than undermining it. Though it might produce valuable insights, Amin believes its only praxis is to cope with the situation, to refrain from radically questioning capitalist logic. Its rejection of “progress” and Enlightenment of any kind fits into this narrative, creating a defeatist cynicism that plays well with academics and First World malcontents but ultimately soothing people into complacency. It is, in short, the siren song of American hegemony, a project that, though in this author’s opinion retains some descriptive value, heralds the present as the crowning moment in history.

Most importantly, however, the liberal virus pretends that the world can “develop” its way into universal prosperity. Amin discusses the new obsession with eliminating poverty (think the UN Millennium Development Goals) that merely globalizes charitable giving from imperialist surpluses. Amin notes that one of the foundational contradictions of capitalism rests in “the gap between what [its] development would potentially allow and the actual use made of this development” (30). Instead of harnessing the economy to rationally solve social problems, the anarchy of imperialist monopoly polarizes the world into an exploiting centre and an exploited periphery. Populations are run over roughshod, their economies warped until they serve the needs of their neocolonial masters. His account here is all too brief but compelling, wrestling with the material problems that our polarized world presents to the left, including the lack of democratic management that plagued actually existing socialism in the USSR (despite Stalin’s attempts to solve this problem) and the creation of a society of consumers and spectators in the liberal West. Robbed of agency in the economy and reduced to passive observers in the democratic process (even many liberals in America have now awakened to the fact that elections and legislation are bought and paid for by the upper slice of the capitalist class), there is no longer any room for progress, nor even more than the attenuated notion that there could be.

In his chapter on the origins of liberalism, his story runs on familiar lines: liberalism develops alongside capitalist production in Europe, inspiring radicals in the French Revolutions (among whom the Jacobins were far ahead of their time in attempting to push the revolution further than the times would ultimately allow) and permitting a gigantic leap forward in production before curdling into imperialism and monopoly during the nineteenth century. Europe managed to hold onto a more  egalitarian social conception because it was not subjected to waves of immigration that stifled class consciousness in the United States and permitted what Amin calls “communitarian” politics.

The book is more of a manifesto than a detailed analysis of capitalism and imperialism. At the same time, it is an essential introductory text for those who are beginning to read Amin. Reading his other writings will clarify some of his terminology, especially his use of a term called “underdetermination” that is meant to supplant the Althusserian “overdetermination” in defining social relations. His formula for the destruction of the liberal virus is twofold: redefining the European project at the expense of Atlantic cooperation with the United States and reestablishing a unity of peoples in the Global South. Though he admits that prospects for the first appear dubious, and he wrote the book before the EU began its recent round of disintegration. Nevertheless, Europe (and Japan) take the junior positions relative to an almost absolute American hegemony. Even though that supreme position has been seen as eroding in the face of new challenges from China and elsewhere, America’s military might alone will continue to prop it up as the center of global imperialism for some time now. For the South, the concept of “delinking” becomes vital, liberating nations from the global market economy and forming pacts with each other to foster independent development and starve the United States of its surpluses. Because this section is the most hypothetical, it is also the most debatable. It is probably unwise for the global Left to count on a split between the United States and its subordinate imperial partners. Additionally, its usefulness might be lessened because Amin wrote it before the great financial crisis, but I believe its general framework is still largely applicable to the world today.

Though Marxism remains weak in most of the world, especially in the metropolitan centres, the current century is shaping up to be a critical one. Environmental catastrophes, imperialist violence, and inequality and exploitation feel more threatening than ever before. Crisis seems to follow crisis with increasing frequency, and though no one can tell if the result will be socialism or barbarism, the worldwide Left should take this opportunity as an honorable burden, the opportunity to open up the road to a new future where the exploitation and suffering of the past is left behind as a mere memory.


Chimurenga Renaissance: riZe vadZimu riZe


Before the 2010s, the biggest rap star Seattle ever produced was Sir Mix-A-Lot. That’s not nothing, but being the mailing address of the auteur behind “Baby Got Back” was never going to make Seattle a hub of West Coast hip hop. In 2011, though, Palaces released Black Up, the album that got me into hip hop. Where Shabazz Palaces is Lazaro’s more Afro-Futurist project, with multi-instrumentalist and rapper Maraire in a supporting role, Chimurenga Renaissance concentrates on Maraire. His father was a famous musician in his native country of Zimbabwe, and Baba’s projects have alternated between traditional Shona mbira music and rap. On riZe, vadZimu riZe, Maire and his collaborators combine the two, building maximalist beats out of mbira, African choral vocals, and an array of electronic instruments. To this is paired Maraire’s nationalist convictions that

Zimbabwean culture and even politics are woven throughout the record so thoroughly they are indispensable to understanding its meaning. “Chimurenga” is the Shona word for an African war of resistance against white colonial rule. “Vadzimu” refers to the vengeful spirits who, according to tradition, rose up after the British killed a charismatic African spiritual leader and killed Cecil Rhodes, whose name was synonymous with the country now known as Zimbabwe for a century. Maraire’s political convictions shine through all of his songs. Though dance music and political activism seem like unlikely partners, the two have been entwined for decades. Reggae alone furnishes a ready demonstration that the gap between celebration and mourning tends to be thin in places with a history of colonial oppression. This apparent contradiction works itself out in songs that shine with beautiful, messy production and poignant lyrics that jump between celebrations of love (“The Taste of Her Lips”), anti-consumerist anthems (“The B.A.D. Is So Good”), to indictments of Western imperialism (“Wow”).

In sharp contrast to Shabazz Palaces, which uses disorientation , Chimurenga Renaissance thrives on fullness. It’s easiest to see this difference when you consider the use of the mbira in each act. For a song like “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” from Black Up, Maraire paired the instrument’s unmistakable chime with the syncopated beat to create a sense of foreboding. In “Go Go Gettem,” the mbira is only one rhythmic element in a wide palette than includes synth blasts, snare-heavy beats, and African drums. In “The B.A.D. Is So Good,” the lead single for the record, it takes a more prominent role but still works within a much larger ensemble of sounds. Maraire here crafts music that is Zimbabwean in spirit and content while innovating within the framework of hip hop.

Though Maraire’s lyrics range over a variety of subjects, a black nationalist tendency emerges. At the beginning of “Nobody Think Nomo,” he issues a statement of purpose:

“I celebrate the freedom of a land you ain’t never seen

You can’t ditch me man, I’m living the dream

In ’80 we ended Rhodes’ regime

Now all of the diamonds belong to me”

While that last line might come across as more of the crass materialism Maraire criticizes elsewhere on the album, diamonds have a rather more weighty significance to Zimbabwe and to Maraire than the average rapper concerned with shiny stones. Every song vibrates with this sort of tension, and Maraire, along with collaborators Lazaro, THEESatisfaction, and others approach each track as a life and death struggle. It’s invigorating and uncomfortable, in its own way every bit as disorienting as Black Up was to me in 2011. Here, though, the music is far more vivid, enlivening even as it tears down opponent after opponent.

The Myth of Independent Filmmaking


Though I don’t read film reviews as often or as voraciously as I once did, I make a point to drop by the Pitchfork Media site The Dissolve every once in awhile to read an amusing feature or two. The site employs competent, opinionated writers and has an excellent rapport with their fan community, which often means the comments section of a given article is richer than the main feature. Given how rare that is on the Internet, even among sites catering to those with more cultivated tastes, they deserve some applause for this. At the same time, the site’s discussions usually stay within the bounds of “pure cultural” discussion that doesn’t draw connections between filmmaking and deeper structures of social relations that shape how films are made.

One of the most recent examples of this is their roundtable discussion on the “calling card” film narrative and how it affects film production and reception. Basically, the idea is that independent filmmakers who make more “personal” projects on smaller budgets make their films as calling cards to bring to Hollywood studios. It’s assumed that indie directors and screenwriters are teleologically bent toward directing gigantic mass market films and only “slum it” in the independent world because that’s all they have. It’s essentially the corporate ladder narrative transposed into the much more fragmented and chaotic world of artistic production. This assumption probably gained traction because of a few historical trends in the film industry.

1. After the 1970s “New Hollywood” renaissance exhausted itself, large corporations bought out the American film industry and executives began to take a much stronger role in managing production. Taking the blockbuster model that originated in the 1970s and perfecting it, the new corporations created huge top-heavy bureaucracies that rigorously market-tested and shaped mass market films to appeal to the most lucrative demographics. Another factor in this trend is that American theatre attendance has been declining in absolute numbers and relative to other forms of media since the 1950s, meaning fewer films produced but with huge promotional campaigns to supposedly ensure profitability. This trend has accelerated even further since the 2000s.

2. Hollywood’s relentless targeting of youth and inability to produce much other than prestige films for established directors and blockbusters led to the rise of a respectable independent film industry in the 1980s and 90s. Improvements in technology also allowed for films to be competently made without huge capital investments, though the barriers to entry were still high. Eventually, independent companies like New Line and Miramax were bought by major studios as boutique divisions. Smaller films could get made and distributed, but major studios and corporations increasingly called the shots.

Take, for instance, the director of the latest Godzilla film, Gareth Edwards. His supposed “calling card” film is Monsters, a 2010 monster movie with a socially conscious bent to it that was produced by Vertigo, a company based in the UK. Vertigo is a subsidiary of Vertigo Records, which is part of Universal Music Group, itself part of Vivendi, a gigantic Paris-based media conglomerate. Godzilla is a Warner Bros. film. Though Monsters has some cachet for being a low-budget monster movie rather than a titanic blockbuster, it was still a corporate product through and through. This is the trend for most American independent film, which is little more than the more respectable wing of the bloated Hollywood mansion. There is certainly still a stratum of film production that escapes gigantic studios, but it is far tinier and more obscure, and still falls victim to capitalist logic. Even European art cinema tends to be financed by a collage of companies who are like any other company in that they are producing a product for the market and not attempting to fulfill some human need.

None of this is to say that films produced this way, taken on their own terms, are in any way bad. To say so would be the same as refusing a meal because someone is profiting from it. The logic of capitalism permeates all production in the world today, subjecting every area of human life to its relentless drive for profit. This means that the films that tend to get made are those that reinforce the ruling ideology of our time, and that revolutionary filmmaking is suppressed. Media, including film, thus plays an important role in reproducing capitalist society, maintaining its illusions and, more to the point, keeping for-profit companies solvent. As I said, cinema is not at all unique in this regard, but because it is an artistic industry, at least in theory, it is subject to a special kind of mythical delusion. We often imagine that a film is less tainted by money because the producers spent less money on it, that artistic production is inherently more pure or moral or praiseworthy because it is more obscure.

To be sure, the greater latitude creators have to take risks and break from the suffocating homogeneity of Hollywood cinema is a virtue, but it has its own attendant risks. The risk is that we lionize “auteurs” and other creative workers, imagine them to be special because they don’t make vulgar consumer goods, that we begin to believe there is something sublime or ethereal about cultural or mental production that is not shared in manual labour. While art has a unique place in human life, this particularity does not bestow a hierarchical advantage to it. Filmmaking is an industrial endeavor like any other, full of workers exploited to a greater or lesser degree, exploiting the labour power of the majority to line the pockets of the minority.

By no means does this permit us to automatically discard films produced under this system as having no worth, but we must recognize that all genres, all of what we take for granted in the industry, is historical and ephemeral. Revolutionary thought and practice needs to fundamentally rethink artistic production, soldiering on despite some failed attempts at doing this in former socialist countries and elsewhere. As much as we might enjoy the artistic production we are served under capitalism, it should be that more tantalizing to imagine the possibilities of an artistic sphere free from profit incentives and united to the service of humanity rather than idiosyncratic fantasies or marketing campaigns. Let’s not imagine that small capitalism is a replacement for large capitalism, or small celebrity for large. We need to rather think deeply about the division between mental and manual labor and work toward overcoming it through socialism.

Hollow People: Russian Literature and Liberal Humanism


Intro: This is an essay on Russian literature written for a class, and so I avoid many of the references to Lenin and Mao that I would normally rely upon in discussing these issues. 

Authors from Russia’s literary Golden Age––roughly spanning the nineteenth century––wrestled over the meaning of the social upheavals that wracked the country throughout its transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy. Liberalism, favoured ideology of Westernizers, naturally found its way into the pages of Russia’s best regarded novels. Turgenev and especially Dostoevsky, by dramatizing the struggles and successes of a newly ascendant middle class, captured and illuminated a historical process that, while retrospectively obvious, seemed quite uncertain at the time. Comparable to a particularly thorny adolescence, Russia’s difficult development produced brilliance and recklessness alike, and hindsight enables the sorting and evaluation of this period’s strengths and weaknesses. Liberal humanist ideology, as exemplified in Fathers and Sons, ultimately comes to grief on its abstract conception of human beings. Dostoevsky in particular noted this, and through his work developed a criticism of this ideology based on his Orthodox Christian convictions. While Dostoevsky correctly identifies the problem, his analysis does not provide a concrete or radical criticism of humanist abstraction or capitalism. In order to deepen and correct Dostoevsky’s protest, I turn to Marx, after which I consider renewed humanist objections taken up in Zamyatin’s modernist anti-utopian novel We.

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons dramatizes the gap between two generations of liberal humanists, its characters embodying liberal ideology at its most idealist. Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov, “Man of the Forties” and the protagonist’s father, laments his obsolescence: “I have done well by the peasants, set up a model farm, so that all over the province I am known as a radical. I read, I study, I try in every way to keep abreast with the requirements of the age,” (Turgenev 119). Nikolai here summarizes liberal humanist tenets: emphasizing a progressive view of history, a focus on individual improvement through intellectual development, technical solutions to problems, and a view of every person, even serfs, as equally sharing in a universal human nature. Nikolai emancipates his serfs, turns them into employees of his farm (73), and replaces much of their labour with hired help, a sure sign of the old land bondage system’s mortality and the ascent of capitalism. However, this “emancipation” does not improve the peasantry’s conditions, given that it has only replaced feudal bondage with waged labour, both of which produce profits appropriated by the landlord. This is not even taking Nikolai’s demonstrable incompetence under consideration. Arkady, on returning from university, sees Nikolai’s “model farm” overrun with indolence and decay: “there is no prosperity here, no sign of contentment or hard work. It just can’t go on like this: this must all be transformed…but how are we to do it?” (83). Arkady shares his father’s essential optimism, untempered in his youth, and belief in the use of rational, technical solutions to problems.

For his part, his friend Bazarov suffers from none of his pupil’s tentativeness, as seen in this fiery speech he makes later in the book:

“Our so-called progressives and reformers never accomplished anything…while all the time the real question was getting daily bread to eat, when the most vulgar superstitions are stifling us, when our industrial enterprises come to grief solely for want of honest men at the top, when even the emancipation of the serfs…is not likely to be to our advantage, since those peasants of ours are only too glad to rob even themselves to drink themselves silly at the gin-shop” (126).

His liberalism is even more concentrated on material issues. After all, in his words, “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it” (116). His intense pragmatism betrays an almost absolute faith in rationality, to the point where he is willing to dispense with all abstract universals except the truth of empirical observation and experimentation. Human beings should treat nature, and their own societies like Bazarov’s frogs, using reason’s surgical tools to dissect and understand everything so that it can be rationally ordered for the solution of material problems. Liberal humanism in this form, therefore, places reason above all else and conceives of humanity as a herd of equal, rational individuals who only need proper scientific education to diagnose and cure social as well as biological diseases. No qualitative distinction is made between human beings as individual animals and humans as social creatures, which is crucial in Marxist thought.

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground reflects at length on how such an instrumental view of human society destroys any notion of human freedom. In its pursuit of a perfectly rational society, the civilizers and reformers trample over the very people they want to rescue. “Have you noticed that the most refined blood-shedders have almost all been the most civilized gentlemen,” the Underground Man asks, and continues to make his point: “laws of nature need only be discovered, and then man will not be answerable for his actions…Then the crystal palace will get built” (Dostoevsky 23-25). The Underground Man throws rhetorical stones at the crystal palace, condemning it as an impossible dream, the abstract yearning of humanists who do not understand concrete human beings. Later in the book, the Underground Man himself plays the part of such a foolish dreamer, conjuring the romantic notion that he should embrace all of humanity at once. Unfortunately, his social life is rather truncated and he only has the option of embracing a single person who is rather inconveniently only available for embracing on Tuesdays (59). His aspirations are frustrated, revealing the rift between liberal humanism’s theoretical reasonableness and its inability to offer any practical help. Modernity, rather than offering a rational solution, has only used rationality to intensify human suffering and suppress human freedom. This is the essence of the Underground Man’s criticism of “Enlightened” modern society, which is not coherently “right” or “left” but merely anti-liberal and by extension anti-modern.

Dostoevsky’s characters endure modern life as a burden, and conclude that the origin of their suffering lies in modernity and reason per se rather than its subjugation to bourgeois ideology. Radical theorist Samir Amin argues that Enlightenment rationalism’s emancipation is “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows,” since the latter developed along with and limited the former (Amin 14). Because the Enlightenment premised its liberation on the existence of transhistorical, rational individuals who shared in an abstract “human nature,” it necessarily opposed the collective attempts of the working class to liberate itself as limiting the “rights” of the bourgeoisie (i.e. life, liberty, and property). After all, seizing capitalist property and redistributing it violates the sacred right of private property. Though the liberal humanist Enlightenment imagines itself capable of liberating all of humanity, it is based in private property and therefore protects it from the possibility of real emancipation. Marxism, a “modernity critical of modernity,” liberates reason from the fetters of capitalist ideology to fulfill its universal promise of human liberation (Eurocentrism 17).

For Dostoevsky, by contrast, human beings can only cope with suffering and deprivation charitable acts, accepting the absurdity of their situation as a consequence of human freedom in a fallen world. Critic Anatoly Lunacharsky notes that this is convenient for the ruling powers since it does not disturb the concrete structures of power that created suffering in the first place (“Dostoevsky’s Plurality of Voice”). Marxism, as it has developed since its first articulation by Marx and Engels, is a concrete political program that unleashes forces immanent in modern society to revolutionize it. Its method of analysis proceeds from “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity” (“The German Ideology”). A Marxist criticism of liberal humanism can, therefore, not only identify the contradictions inherent in a capitalist society––as Dostoevsky masterfully does––but understand their origin. It overcomes the gap between the promise of reason and its result under capitalism, which is ever-intensifying exploitation of the vast majority.

Marx rejects the idea of a static human “essence” shared by individual subjects. To suppose an abstract human essence is a mistake, since, in reality, the only human essence is “the ensemble of the social relations” (“Theses on Feuerbach”). Since people cannot live without relating to others, to separate them from society is to make a false distinction. Later Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser expands this criticism of liberal humanism’s abstraction by noting that it implies two things: empirical individuals and an abstract essence that is carried in each individual. Thus, for a humanist, individual human beings make history through a pure exercise of will. However, for Marx, “the ‘subjects’ of history are given human societies, [which] present themselves as totalities” (Althusser 1964). Therefore, Marxism replaces the abstract individual subject with a social totality that develops through historical struggles.

This totality is not uniform but complex and stratified, composed of different economic classes and especially of those who live from the labor of others (e.g. the bourgeoisie) and those who live to labor for others (e.g. the proletariat or, in feudal times, the peasantry). History unfolds through the struggle between these classes, and as long as these classes continue to exist modernity and reason cannot fulfill their promise. Marx proposed not the temporary alleviation of exploitation but the complete reorientation of society around the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (“Critique of the Gotha Programme”). The Marxist criticism of liberal humanism thus extends beyond Dostoevsky’s, not merely pointing out the hypocrisy of “civilization” under capitalism but working for revolution in order to create a society where reason and technology are instruments for the people rather than weights that press on them.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We essentially restates the humanist case against any form of social control. The protagonist, D-503, is an aerospace engineer who joins the ranks of an anti-government revolutionary group through his relationship with a woman named I-330. D-503 collaborates in the destruction of the Green Wall that separates a primitive group of “Ancients” from the civilized utopia within the border. Immediately after the explosion, he recalls, “I…ran to her. Why? I don’t know. I stumbled: empty streets; a foreign, wild city; the incessant celebrating of the avian uproar; doomsday…I saw…female and male ciphers shamelessly copulating, without even lowering the blinds” (We 192). Though D-503 at first refers to his burgeoning sexual desires for freedom as a sickness, he eventually celebrates the downfall of the great wall and wildness’ intrusion into civilization. This scene merely consummates book’s sexual theme, which is intimately connected to Zamyatin’s conception of “revolution.”

Critics have noted that his conception of revolution prizes spontaneity and irrational enthusiasm (Hoisington and Imbery 167). D-503 and his lover I-330’s revolution is not one stage in a linear historical process but a necessary explosion––here identified with desires, spiritual longing, and ecstasy––and destruction of false happiness. Revolution is always necessary because, in the words of I-330: “We know…that there is no final number. Though we might forget that too…And then, unavoidably down we will go like autumn leaves” (We 154). Revolution is a burst of springtime, a necessary defibrillation that prevents life from ossifying into numbing, mechanical sameness. As the author writes in another work, “errors are more valuable than truths” (“On Literature, Revolution, and Entropy”). Like Dostoevsky, Zamyatin upholds absolute human freedom as a necessity, and condemns rational social policy as inherently restrictive. Unlike Dostoevsky, an anti-liberal who sees that humans are not inherently rational creatures but calls for repentance and service in organic community, I-330 celebrates id-driven irrationality as humanity’s crowning attribute. Like Bazarov, she defines human beings by the measure of an abstract “nature,” with the only difference being that she emphasizes irrationality rather than reason. Zamyatin’s individualistic heroes bring about a Bazarovian negation, but neglect to notice that in doing so they discard the very technology and organization that enables human beings to fulfill their needs. Their anticipated Eden will likely involve much more grueling subsistence labor than they envision.

Russian novelists recognized the immense social changes that swept throughout the country in the nineteenth century, culminating in the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Each author offered a trenchant protest against the excesses they perceived. These voices were largely conservative, cautioning against the transgressions of Bazarov, rational egoists, romantic liberals, and the Bolshevik Party. Turgenev’s characters debate over the liberating potential of a nascent Russian liberalism. The Underground Man reacts with horror at the suffering capitalism unleashed through its instrumentalization of human life. Similarly, although We cunningly satirizes contemporary Futurist rhetoric, its alternative vision is ultimately an impossible return to paradise and innocence. Human beings are social creatures whose essence is determined not by an abstract essence––rational or irrational–– but by their relations with others in society. Without fundamental changes to economic and social organization, without abolishing class society, the justice these writers clearly crave will never be.

Works Cited

1. Althusser, Louis. “Marxism and Humanism.” Cahiers de l’I.S.E.A May 1964. Web. 16 May             2014. <;.

2. Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. 4-7.

3. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993. 25-59.

4. Hoisington, Sona S., and Lynn Imbery. “Zamjatin’s Modernist Palette: Colors and Their Function in We.” The Slavic and East European Journal 36.2 (1992): 159-71. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2014.

5. Lunacharsky, Anatoly. “Dostoevsky’s Plurality of Voice.” 1929. Web. 16 May 2014.


6. Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Programme.” 1875. Web 12 May 2014.


7. Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” 1845. Web. 12 May 2014.


8. Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” 1845. Web 12 May 2014.


9. Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Trans. Rosemary Edmonds. New York: Penguin                         Books, 1965. 73-126.

10. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters.” A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Ed. Mirra Ginsberg. N.p.: Chicago University Press, 1970.

11. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Natasha Randall. New York: Modern Library, 2006. 154-192.


Primitivist Revolution in We


Henri Matisse–Dance (II)


We is an anti-utopian novel showing how the sexual awakening of an aeronautical engineer can bring down a futuristic Tower of Babel. Its author Yevgeny Zamyatin, a modernist who wrote the book in the early days of Red power in Russia, identified with a school called Neo-Realism. That school is deceptive, however, because, Zamyatin denied the existence of a world beyond human perception, stating: “the finite, fixed world. . . is a convention, an abstraction, an unreality. And therefore Realism–be it ‘socialist’ or ‘bourgeois’-is unreal.”¹ We, therefore, does not depict an objective reality but rather sense perceptions, the hyperreal world that escapes limitation and organization. Rooted in the subjective first-person perspective of protagonist D-503, the book’s prose style alternately mirrors the mechanistic reality of the One State and the fecund chaos of the Ancient World, the world that exists outside the gleaming walls of utopia. Though I indicated that the book is anti-utopian, this is somewhat misleading because the author is not merely concerned with the destruction of false “castles in the air” but is also invested in creating his own. I would argue that, by all indications, his idyllic vision of the Ancient World and his romanticization of irrationality and “free love” constitutes a utopian ideal all on its own.

This utopia has to be achieved through revolution, though Zamyatin’s precise idea of what “revolution” means deserves some explanation. For him, revolution is not a unique social-historic moment that sweeps away one economic and social order for another. Rather than an event in a linear history, revolution is a moment of cyclical renewal, meaning “the birth of new life.” It is essential to life, a critical moment where death is averted through drastic change, signifying “fundamental transformations not only without [social relations between people] but also within [spiritual and sensual].”² One of the critical aspects of the revolution that occurs in We is its connection with the feminine and sexuality. To be brief, I argue that Zamyatin’s modernist utopia is constructed using sinews tied to idealized feminine archetypes. These archetypes are well in line with those depicted in many primitivist-modernist paintings like those of Picasso, the Surrealists, and especially Fauvists and Paul Gauguin.


Paul Gauguin–Where Are You Going?

In Record 13 of the book, D-503 and rebel leader I-330 have sex, which is depicted in fairly hyperbolic language like this:

I looked silently at her lips. All woman are lips, all lips. Some are pink and firmly round: a ring, a tender guardrail from the whole world. And then there are these ones…like a knife slit–they are here, still dripping sweet blood…

We are one, she flows into me and I know: this was the necessary part…And I submitted to this “necessity” with joy (63).

This scene goes on into a description of the world with a traditional link between Earth and Motherhood, albeit with that modernist sexualized edge:

The whole world is one immense woman, and we are in her very womb, we are not yet born, we are joyfully ripening. And it is clear to me, it is indestructibly clear to me that everything was for my sake: the sun, the fog, the pink, the red, the gold were all for my sake (64).

I-330’s organic connection to the earth is thus established. Heterosexual sex–the only kind depicted in this book–becomes a way for the repressed protagonist to awaken to the reality of his situation, to reject the world of the modern city (We is as much of an anti-urban book as an anti-socialist one) and join the revolution of the primitive Ancients. It’s not as though I-330 has no subjectivity as a character, but her  primary narrative purpose is to “pollinate” the protagonist, to prepare his virgin soil for the harvest of revolution, so to speak. The colors pink and red refer, in different respective shades of intensity, to either the repressive sexual apparatus of the “pink tickets” or to the freewheeling (hetero)sexuality Zamyatin seems to prefer. Also notable is the fact that, in the thirty-seventh chapter when the wall of the city explodes, the “ciphers” (the people of the city) begin having sex without regulation and in broad daylight. Revolution, then, is more akin to Mardi Gras than May Day in We, albeit without the religious element.


Pablo Picasso–Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

It’s also notable that another rebel in the story, R-13, has “African” lips. Zamyatin, in fact, insists on this nearly every time he refers to the character. What this does is further reinforce the symbolic connections between primitive earth–woman–non-Western–irrational. While the author thinks of these as positive traits, he does so in the way Gauguin does: objects and foreign experiences that can be appropriated by modern civilization to cure its “over-rationalization” and return to a more sublime and sensual existence without all those pesky machines and social structures. While Zamyatin was understandably anxious about some of the Futurist rhetoric and support for Taylorism and industrial reform in the early Soviet Union, his reaction is a retreat to a kind of liminal colonialist, sexualized utopia where desires are natural and rugged unity is rough and intimate rather than abstract and “comradely.” He clearly does not believe that society is anything that can or should be understood or controlled, but rather a kind of Fauvist riot. There is much suffering in his world, true, but also, he would argue, much real pleasure rather than mundane happiness that curdles into so much drudgery.

Before I didn’t know this, but now I know, and you’ll know it too: laughter comes in different colors. it is only the distant echo of an explosion occurring inside you: it might be festive rockets of red, blue, gold, or it might be shreds of human bodies flying upward…(193).

Give Zamyatin ecstasy or give him oblivion. I clearly have objections to the primitive utopian vision offered in novel: its sexism, appropriating “primitivism,” and romantic delusions dissuade me from endorsing it. That is not to deny its appeal or its relevance and harmony with the times, however. It is a compelling vision, especially for people who tend to essentialize humans into “natural” creatures with a fixed essence. That said, it places an undue revolutionary burden on sexuality, and I doubt that short bursts of ecstasy are sustainable as revolutionary strategy.


1. Sona S. Hoisington and Lynn Imbery, “Zamjatin’s Modernist Palette: Colors and Their Function in We,” The Slavic and East European Journal, 36, no. 2 (Summer 1992), 170. It’s citing Zamyatin’s piece “Literature, Revolution, and Entropy.”

2. Ibid, 167.


The Holy Mountain


The Holy Mountain is the perfect film for 1972. All of the undigested psychedelia, religious mysticism, and Technicolor obscenity that failed to find a home in the 1960s explodes off the film’s frames. Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky begins his film on the streets of Mexico City, offering up a string of bizarre images including a reenactment of the conquest of Tenochtitlan (with frogs, naturally), boorish American tourists, Catholic fanatics, and a whole warehouse filled with papier-mâché replicas of Jesus. Though the setting often departs from Mexico, and is often undefined or utterly fantastical, it never leaves behind a peculiarly Latin American syncretism. Organically and often absurdly mixing spiritualities and symbols, the film is a rainbow-colored ode to the outrageous. Despite its often awed reverence for the mystical–the titular mountain is the site of a world-saving pilgrimage in the plot–it is also gleefully profane and anti-clerical, making it perhaps one of the most sincere religious films I’ve ever seen, though one could easily forget that while watching it.

Todd Terje: It’s Album Time


Terje Olsen, AKA Todd Terje, has kept us in suspense for ten years. Ten years after the nu-disco master began building his reputation by filtering every disreputable genre from disco and 80s album-oriented rock to smoky lounge through his Balearic sensibility, he’s finally ready to unveil the big show. It’s Album Time brings together one hour of Terje’s kaleidoscopic dance music into one sleek package, and it’s mostly worth the extended wait.

Artist Bendik Kaltenborn’s cover art portrays Terje as a bejeweled lounge singer leaning thoughtfully on a piano. Technicolor cocktails sit next to him, and his body is covered in an electric blue leisure suit. The portrait, like the music, conveys good-humored decadence. Laid back and so confidently uncool it becomes cool, It’s Album Time feels indulgent for the listener rather than the musician. From the starry opening title track to the lively sounds of applause that bring the album to a close, it brings heart and creative spark to a genre that so often feels like a creative dead end these days. “Preben Goes to Acapulco’s” title hints at a tropical vacation, but the song itself feels more like a short resort stay at a space station, all funky bassline, ascending synth chatter, and jazzy percussion. Add in a flourish of strings or two, and it becomes the opposite of pedestrian. Following swiftly behind is a cover of Swedish singer Monica Törnell’s Svensk Sås” entirely composed of vocal scat samples. It undergoes several manic transformations in under three minutes, its slowly mushrooming low-end turning what could have been an annoying lark into a weird masterpiece of Latin club jazz.

Terje is at his most playful working with pure four-on-the-floor house music, though. “Strandbar” keeps the the cosmic party atmosphere going with its joyous piano chords and more of Terje’s ever-delicious bass work. “Delorean Dynamite” is genius, its dense low end swept up in dramatic waves of synth before finishing with a peaceful coda. In the album’s second half, “Oh Joy” and “Inspector Norse” bring more of this dance floor power to bear, giving the album an overall brisk pace. There is one exception to this, however.

Placed in the centre of the album, Terje and Bryan Ferry’s cover of Robert Palmer’s foggy love song “Johnny and Mary” is the eye of the hurricane. For six minutes, the beats per minute plunge into the 60s and the album takes a sharp turn for the contemplative. Ferry imbues the song with passion and longing, emphasizing the circular nature of the song’s titular protagonists’ problems in the chorus. High vocal samples accentuate the mood, and at one point a crystalline piano belts out the song’s melody, producing a refined melodrama. By itself, “Johnny and Mary” is It’s Album Time’s peak, gorgeous, lush, and perfect for slow-dancing. As the centerpiece of the record, however, it breaks all of its momentum. It would have worked even better as the album’s closer.

Terje has admitted that It’s Album Time’s production was a rushed affair and that he was dismayed that he had to pad it with previously-released tracks. Given the peerless quality of his best singles, there is an unavoidable sense of disappointment when the full-length doesn’t live up to that standard. Nonetheless, the older tracks like “Inspector Norse” haven’t tarnished at all with age and the album remains completely solid despite its creator’s misgivings. Spending an hour with Todd Terje remains one of the rare pleasures of music listening, and It’s Album Time is one of the best full-length debuts of recent memory.

Ramiel Dispatch

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