The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: August, 2014

Boyhood, Or, the Destructive Power of Men



Richard Linklater’s indie hit Boyhood has a pervasive sense of aimlessness. This not only extends to technical matters like the indifferent visual style and the episodic plot structure, but also to the characters themselves. I should add a caveat to that; it’s the men and boys in the film who are aimless. Going down the line we have our protagonist, Mason, who at age 18 remains the same idle dreamer he was at six. Next we have his mother’s partners, including a deadbeat father, an alcoholic professor, and a former soldier with whom the film dispenses offscreen. Mason’s friends are likewise shown as fragmented and rudderless, lacking depth below their male posturing and uneasy, even antagonistic relationship towards women.

Though Boyhood seems to be a coming-of-age story, maybe even a paradigmatic example of the genre, the film is less a document of how a character grows up and more a vehicle for showing the destructive limitations of masculinity. Mason is a more or less static personality whose character usually surfaces only in contrast or comparison to older men. Even in this case, however, it’s his mother who takes the brunt of their failures, physically and emotionally, rendering Mason an observer. His interest in photography supports this interpretation, where the dreamer grows up preferring to see the world through a lens than actively participate in it. Like Linklater himself, he prefers to shoot around the action, as in a scene where he takes photos at a football game but avoids the players.

The football scene is doubly meaningful because Mason has not been an observer of just anything. Rather, his observations and learning center around how to become a man. At every turn, his efforts to find a durable identity end in frustration. One father figure after another appears onscreen, and one after another their lives reveal themselves as desolate at best, destructive at worst. His father shifts from a joyrider to a dull family man with a minivan and devout in-laws. His mother’s husbands all betray her trust, and even apparent paragons of masculinity like her soldier husband are abusive and dangerous. His avoidance of the spectacle on the football field indicates a disillusionment with the stereotypes of masculinity, even as the film draws parallels between Mason and his father, casting doubt that the son will ever be able to avoid repeating the last generation’s mistakes. The son can wear earrings, commune with nature in the desert, and turn inward all he wants, but the demands of capitalism, and the patriarch’s place in it, are unyielding. As his photography teacher reminds him, people who want to make art for a living have to submit to ruthless discipline. Merely seeing, it seems, is not enough to make the profound changes necessary to live as a whole human being in a world dominated by masculine roles.

Compared to his mother, of course, Mason has a light time of it. In the midst of all of its meandering, the film has enough thematic consistency to show that women are the first victims of the violence committed in the name of defending “manhood.” His mother suffers cruelly because for years she has to depend on men to achieve a middle-class living standard. Stuck alone with the responsibility of raising children, she has to struggle for every penny she earns. For most of the film, she is the primary actor, subjected to numerous indignities and abuses but still persevering. If masculine roles are limiting and dissatisfying for the men in Boyhood, they are downright poisonous for the women, who have the double responsibility for their own integrity and the support of the ragged men around them. Women in the film tend to exude a solidity lacking in their male counterparts. Most of them are peripheral characters with only a few scenes––Sheena, who develops a relationship with Mason and abruptly breaks it off before college is an exception––but have a stabilizing presence overall. Whether Linklater can be accused of leaning on the women of his film in the manner of the men he depicts is a question worth asking.

Perhaps the reason I felt that Mason’s character deteriorated as he grew up, becoming less and less distinctive, is inherent to the way boys become men. A byproduct of his resistance to fitting into the prepackaged moulds he finds is a lack of any distinctive characteristics whatsoever. He becomes a negative space, agnostic about himself and unsure of which, if any, values to embrace. As lighthearted as Linklater’s filmmaking tends to be here––albeit balanced with more tense or sombre moments––the film is at its core deeply pessimistic, and with good reason. Manhood is a bankrupt institution, morally and spiritually as well as politically. If this film left me ultimately unsatisfied, it’s because it refused to press this point, no doubt leaving many under the continued impression that manhood, albeit “flawed,” is worth supporting. I know it may be sacrilege to demand anti-patriarchal propaganda from a coming of age film, but what could be a more worthy subject, a more apt genre, to show the hollowing-out that occurs in adolescence? If art is going to be transformative rather than merely reflective, it needs a sharper edge. Instead, Linklater is content to let things play out as they will inside the camera lens, placing stoned detachment above incision. This certainly renders Boyhood more palatable and watchable, but also robs it of effectiveness. There’s a great film lodged in Boyhood’s empty chest, but it’s hard to see it behind the far blander period piece we got.



The Battle Lines of Contemporary Jazz: A Review of Icons Among Us


One contradiction all documentary films have to navigate is that between breadth of scope and depth of analysis. Dwelling on a single aspect of a subject for a long time will take away from the finite time for other aspects. Attempting to summarize an entire genre of music, even just its contemporary moment, could lead to a weightless work, one that skims over so much so quickly that it fails to make substantial points about its subject matter. Icons Among Us, released in 2009, guides listeners through the fractious, often obscure and esoteric world of contemporary jazz. Despite lasting only ninety minutes, it manages to hold its dazzling array of content together because the whole project is grounded in a fascinating conflict. It develops the conflict through interviews, musical excerpts, and historical digressions, presenting the listener with a coherent, though necessarily complicated and incomplete, picture of the struggle for the future of jazz. In the process, Icons Among Us manages to depict jazz as it should be: an open debate, both friendly and highly contentious. Unlike the borderline hagiographical classicism of Ken Burns’ turgid Jazz documentary, Icons Among Us finds a way to present the art form as a living being rather than a museum piece. 

To simplify greatly, the documentary devotes attention to four perspectives on jazz. These perspectives all must grapple with the cultural and commercial decline of jazz in the United States. The latter gets special attention, especially given the fact that, under capitalism, culture gets its funding through surplus value production. Record labels expect jazz to conform to the same profitability standards as Top 40 radio, though on a lesser scale, meaning that musicians are put in a bind. This contradiction between profitability and artistic integrity receives more than a few mentions, with musicians either meekly coping with financial pressures, outright rejecting the importance of money to their art, or accepting it as a normal part of their business. The four perspectives are:

  1. Classicism in the Wynton Marsalis/Jazz at Lincoln Center vein. Notably, this is the only jazz institution mentioned in the film that seems financially solvent. White patrons, it seems, are more willing to fund the Marsalis’ suit-and-tie formalism than radical experimentation.
  2. Europeans. Though pianist Robert Glasper scoffs at the trend of Europeans playing jazz, noting how their classical training restricts their ability to understand the music, interviews with Dutch musicians show that the European market for jazz is far healthier than the American one. One often hears these days about American musicians playing to sold-out venues in Europe far larger than the claustrophobic clubs that have to do the legwork of financing much of the American jazz scene.
  3. New blood. Musicians like bassist Esperanza Spalding and Brian Blade talk about the simple joys of making music despite the difficulties. In contrast to the fourth group, which is also composed of mostly young musicians, this group is less political and tended to be associated with more accessible music.
  4. Anti-classicists. Robert Glasper, Matthew Shipp, and Nicholas Payton represent for this group, though the latter has been far more vocal since the documentary wrapped up. Glasper openly mocks the idea that jazz no longer produces geniuses, defiantly suggesting that those who don’t think you can be as good as John Coltrane are mistaken. Shipp, meanwhile, offers a “fuck you” to those who want to pin jazz down to a single sound or cultural scene. Readers should know I am most sympathetic to this group.

All of these perspectives get roughly equal shares of time, and the documentarians do not indicate their own allegiances. In tone the film is optimistic and breezy, giving air to the arguments but focusing on the music first and foremost. Given that the music forms the subject over which the debate is raging, that seems correct. After all, what better argument could you have for your own interpretation of a musical genre than a piece of music? Though I would, predictably, have preferred a more politicized piece combatting the crust of traditionalism––and exposing how it’s complicit in the white bourgeois attempt to redefine black music for its own purposes––I concede that the presentation here is elegant and at least acknowledges that jazz is in a great deal of trouble without slipping into defeatism. Even if you are pessimistic about the future of jazz in the United States, the music found in Icons Among Us, complemented by special features on the DVD, should convince you that there’s no shortage of brilliant talent still working in dialogue with the tradition.

While it’s nothing spectacular and for much of it stiffly adheres to the informational documentary form, Icons Among Us brings the music and the debate to the center. I would encourage those interested in jazz today to give it a watch. It’s one of the few documentaries to summarize such a broad topic in a dialogical and coherent manner, and for that it should be commended.

Soundtrack for a Police State

Police have made themselves a spectacle in Ferguson, Missouri. While the job of defending white capitalist state power and brutalizing black people is never a clean business, the debacle in the St. Louis suburbs has taken on a far more menacing appearance than usual. This has happened to the extent that mainstream journalists and liberal humanitarian NGOs have taken notice, which shows the staggering scope of the Ferguson PD’s miscalculations. Not to mention the anxiety provoked by cops decked out in heavy armor Americans are more used to seeing rolling around Baghdad streets than on the streets of Somewhere, USA. 

Perhaps this post will seem too featherweight for the occasion. But rather than duplicate some of the more impassioned or in-depth analyses I’ve seen, I would like to encourage everyone to stay vigilant and informed on the matter. My own contribution is a musical one. Or, rather, a document of some of the music that might inspire, unite, and comfort in light of what’s happening. While the main importance of a protest or moment of contemplation is the content and force of the people involved, music has always had an important supporting role to play in people’s solidarity, revolutionary movements, and past socialist states. Since the current moment is characterized by grieving and anguish, more celebratory songs didn’t feel appropriate. The following, therefore, is a mostly sombre list of songs alloyed with a reminder that hope never dies and that the masses make history. 

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: “The Burning”

This movement from the group’s 2011 album Race Riot Suite dramatizes the terrorization and ultimate destruction of a prosperous black community in Tulsa, OK in 1921. Tulsa became the first city in America ever bombed from the air, and this took place against the backdrop of a storm of racist violence that is definitive of American history. While the crowd’s enthusiasm for this live performance can be unnerving given the music’s narrative context, the piece itself is appropriately frantic. It gives a degree of life to a mostly forgotten period of history that bears a painful resemblance to the present.

Bambu: “Pepper Spray”

Bambu is a Filipino nationalist rapper and Los Angeles community organizer who discusses the pernicious power of the police in a number of his songs. This one, however, seems to fit Ferguson the best. It’s fairly blunt and self-explanatory, and it has the clarity we need at a time like this.

Killer Mike: “Reagan”

Draws some crucial connections between American imperialism on “home soil” and abroad. The answer is unsurprisingly connected to the profit motive, though not always in a simple or transparent way. Also takes some well-placed shots at one of history’s most visible monstrosities.

Charles Mingus: “Original Fables of Faubus”

While the record label forced Mingus to strip the lyrics from the version of the song that got a studio release, this live cut preserves its mordant political wit intact. It reminds us of the historical continuity where Ferguson is situated, and how little progress has been made since Faubus sat in the governor’s chair.

Christian Scott: “K.K.P.D.”

I wanted to end on a more contemplative piece. Even as we should keep our anger stoked and our eyes sharp for what comes next in Ferguson, we need to remember to refrain from being rash, especially if we’re not in the community. While we can recognize the sinews––capitalism, imperialism, the resulting white supremacy and media obfuscation that result––we can’t forget that the people who are suffering experience this anguish more immediately. Eventually, the standoff in Ferguson will probably end, but the underlying mechanisms that explain its origin will continue to oppress, exploit, and kill those who don’t amass obscene profit from it. We can’t be bystanders, but we must temper our rage with wisdom, direct our will to act with proper understanding. Most of all, we need to go out into the world and organize in our own communities, whether we’re working with a party or not. And remember that, however sensational and bizarre the images we see on the news or online appear to be, they are only the mundane reality of capitalist USAmerica.

David Harvey on the Commodification of Art and the Aesthetics of Daily Life

David Harvey is a geographer and political economist and one of the most influential Marxist thinkers still working.

David Harvey is a geographer and political economist and one of the most influential Marxist thinkers still working.

The struggle to produce a work of art, a once and for all creation that could find a unique place in the market, had to be an individual effort forged under competitive circumstances. Modernist art has always been, therefore, what Benjamin calls ‘auratic art,’ in the sense that the artist had to assume the aura of creativity, of dedication to art for art’s sake, in order to produce a cultural object that would be original, unique, and hence eminently marketable at a monopoly price. The result was often a high individualistic, aristocratic, disdainful (particularly of popular culture), and even arrogant perspective on the part of cultural producers.¹

This is how Harvey characterizes the avant-garde of early European modernism. Unchained from the constraints of aristocratic patrons and forced to market their wares to a specialized audience of cultural consumers––namely the bourgeoisie––they had to establish a monopolized “seal” or “aura” of integrity, or else their products could be sullied. The connections between this attitude and lingering debates over “authenticity” even in popular art production should be apparent. Harvey turns the page, however, and finds that the artists’ aura was largely illusory, since their aesthetics had to grapple with the increasingly accelerating change in how mundane life was lived in industrializing Europe.

The facts of daily life had, however, more than a passing influence upon the aesthetic sensibility created, no matter how much the art its themselves proclaimed an aura of ‘art for art’s sake…’ It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that the modernism that emerged before the First World War was more of a reaction to the new conditions of production (the machine, the factory, urbanization), circulation (the new systems of transport and communications), and consumption (the rise of mass markets, advertising, mass fashion), than it was a pioneer in the production of such changes.²

This is unsurprising since Marxists understand that being determines consciousness rather than the other way around. It would be wrong, however, to hastily close the book on the matter.

Not only did [modernism] provide ways to absorb, reflect upon, and codify these rapid changes, but it also suggested lines of action that might modify or support them…As Relph goes on to point out, the Bauhaus, the highly influential German design unit founded in 1919, initially took much inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement that [William] Morris founded, and only subsequently (1923) turned to the idea that ‘the machine is our modern medium of design.’³

Aesthetics evolved from and with the changes material conditions of life, reflecting upon them and changing course frequently, creating a panoply of new movements and aesthetic schools all competing for attention in a world of mass consumption. Today, the situation is no different except that the dynamics of capitalism have pulled the “aesthetics market” in contradictory directions, with control of artistic production and distribution increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer firms. On the other hand, the Internet has galvanized a movement in the opposite direction, as these more and more monopolistic enterprises divide and conquer their markets, refining and specializing their products and branding for ever-tinier demographic targets. In every way, the festive parade of innovative new fads in design and art reflect the acceleration of market turnover, and this is only because cultural production is an increasingly efficient branch of capitalist production. Where some see the Internet as bringing revolution and disruption, it seems to me that it’s merely changing the geography of how we consume, connecting us to more places and people and quickening those connections––usually to the benefit of some media or technology titan gracefully providing us the tech to do so.


1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1989), 22.

2. Ibid, 23.

3. Ibid, 23-24

Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty



Recently, some rumors circulated to the effect that I am not a tiger. They go on to claim that I am in fact a human masquerading as a noble beast for the purposes of a blog gimmick. Allow me to allay any such concerns with a cleansing palliative. I am a tiger, albeit an unusual one. Those who want to continue propagating this rumor can direct their conspiratorial ramblings to my editor. That said, I only bring this up because the arrival of Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty marks an important milestone for this humble publication. The Tiger Manifesto––then under the name Memoirs of a Culture Stalker––began on August 7, 2012, meaning that yesterday was the second anniversary of my only successful blogging project. On August 12 of 2012, I reviewed Shabazz Palaces’ first album Black Upand I enjoy the synchronicity enough to publish this a few days before that.

This blog has undergone much renovation in two years, moving from a scattershot blog featuring reviews and scattershot ramblings to a more focused Marxist theoretical blog. We’ve gotten almost 20,000 hits since then, leading me to hope that there are at least a few of the original readers still sticking around.

With that backward gazing out of the way, let’s turn our eyes to the skies. I’ve written about my distaste for apocalyptic fetishes and the No Future mope that has crept into so much bourgeois American music and film these days. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I’ve gravitated toward futurist music, especially Afrofuturism, since they tend to hit my sweet spot somewhere between political activism, embrace of modern technology, and psychedelic forms. Lese Majesty lands right on target in this regard, combining a confident improvisation in lyrics with rigorous editing an track arrangement. In that way, the album sounds ceremonial, harnessing spontaneity within strict limitations that focus and concentrate it. Compared to my other favorite Afrofuturist musical act, Sun Ra, Shabazz Palaces has a far more concise method of communicating its spacey concepts. Where Sun Ra’s compositions provided enough temporal space for lengthy instrumental improvisations and deep-space excursions, the music of Lese Majesty is compressed and intensely verbal. The album has the efficiency of a They Might Be Giants album, packing eighteen tracks into forty-five minutes.

Most of these tracks are under three minutes in length, and cannot or will not stand on their own. In particular, tracks like “Solemn Swears” sound more like mantras than songs, impeccably produced but cut short before they can develop. Another song sweeps in to fill the gaps, and the album proceeds in this staccato fashion for most of its runtime, pausing for one of the seven longer tracks once in awhile. It would be fair to call much of this album sketchy or even incomplete if not for its mastery of flow and surprise. The songs are split into seven suites, which are described in the booklet that comes with the iTunes and CD versions of the album (perhaps among other versions).

Though the lyrics are hardly a tertiary concern for the album, as they’re quite pointed and even militant at times (especially against the superficiality and narcissism of mainstream hip hop), they don’t weave into an overall concept. Instead, the music itself functions as the album’s connective tissue, tying the disparate fragments and tracks in a sort of web that keeps enough consistency to ground the various tangents and diversions the album confronts you with. There’s plenty of ornamentation here, incorporating more synthesizers and reverb into the mix, but it’s never ostentatious, and it’s hardly the point in any case. This are space grooves, and there’s no point in visiting outer space if you’re not going to take an awed look around once in awhile. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “the future of hip hop,” since it’s right here with us now, but if it is a prophetic glimpse into the future, I’d have to call it one of the most hopeful glimpses I’ve seen in a long while.

No Progress: Edward Said on Palestine and Zionism

Palestine Flag HD Wallpaper

Rather, I think, Zionism’s effectiveness in making its way against Arab Palestinian resistance to it lay in its being a policy of detail, not simply a general colonial vision. Thus Palestine was not only the Promised Land, a concept as elusive and as abstract as any that one could encounter. It was a specific territory with specific characteristics, that was surveyed down to the last millimeter, settled on, planned for, built on, and so forth––in detail…The Zionist challenge [is] a policy of detail, of institutions, of organization, by which people (to this day) enter territory illegally, build houses on it, settle there, and call the land their own––with the whole world condemning them.¹

That Said wrote the above text in 1979 should give us pause. Four decades later the detailed logic of Zionism continues unabated despite near-universal international condemnation. Only its key liberal imperialist patrons––the United States being chief, of course––continue to uphold the twisted “justness” of the Israeli colonial project, matching their rhetoric with funds and materiel worth billion of dollars. This “policy of detail” unfolds according to a perfectly visible logic, and its survival depends on the kind of erasure (read: displacement, terrorization, and media smokescreens) only imperialist hegemony can buy. Israel acts as if it has impunity because it feels that it does, and one more screed from an American Marxist, one more carefully constructed attack on the vice-grip of Zionism on the American consciousness, is not likely to give them pause.

Instead, I want to reflect very briefly on the depth of the kinship between Israeli and North American imperialist ideologies. Though both have their own particularities, they arise from the same set of political motivations and strategies. As Said discusses in detail in the document linked above, Zionism arose during the famed “Scramble for Africa” and absorbed almost the entirety of Western imperialist ideology about native inferiority, the European “destiny” to rule, and the use of coercion and outright slaughter to produce and extend colonial rule. In North America the acquisitive drive produced ideologies like Manifest Destiny and analogous appeals to the vagaries of a “Promised Land” that needed to be redeemed from “indolent and wasteful” First Nations. Frontier settlers backed by state money and violence figure prominently in both, serving as a vanguard for the “civilized” Europeans to clear and inhabit land they believe theirs by right. Once established, the settler-colonial state can appeal to law and order, initially established through force and terror, in a far less overtly violent or exclusive way, using legislation, the courts, and persistent ideological control to restrain attempts at rolling back the occupation. Though Israel is not nearly as secure as Canada and the United States in this regard, it has managed to avoid any accountability for its widespread abuses, largely thanks to the intercession of the latter in forums like the United Nations Security Council.

The geographical, concrete manifestations of settler-colonial society are readily visible. Canada and the United States are strewn with pockets of poverty-stricken reservations, dilapidated urban areas, and an enormous prison system. And though Canadians have a far lower incarceration rate, the trend for Canadian governments has been to mimic the American obsession with criminalization as a means of repressing dissent and disenfranchising oppressed populations without resorting to open warfare. Israel is not fundamentally different from other colonial projects; its wounds are just fresher and its methods more obviously condemnable. The logic of ethnic cleansing, even genocide, remains more vital when complacent people in North America believe that the age of empire can be consigned to dusty history books and the realm of escapist fiction. Defeating the jailers and gendarmes in Israel requires the defeat of the chief jailers in North America and Europe. This blog’s mandate is largely cultural, and as a tiger of my word, I promise you that it remains so. Yet the sickness of American and general Occidental culture has no cure other than political action. If we want to stop our fantasies and science fictions from warping into colonial delusions, if we want a culture that celebrates justice and furthers its cause rather than presenting one of its greatest stumbling blocks, we need revolution, political and cultural. The trouble is that its prospects appear dim, even impossible. We have bought into the lie that history is now on autopilot, that the proper authorities can dispose of the world’s problems without our interference. Now the results of our failures confront us, their spatial magnitude and spiritual depth horrifying to behold. I think those of us who recognize the necessity of communism would do well to galvanize ourselves and begin to amass forces so that we pose a real threat to the dictatorships of the bourgeoisie. Reject cynicism and reformism and take up our historical destiny, both necessary and contingent on our own power. If we have had no progress, we cannot shift the blame.

Unsheathe your claws.


1. Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” Social Text no. 1 (Winter, 1979), 36-37.


“Food Chain” and Adventure Time

Apparently on a field trip to a natural history museum in the desert, the candy children in “Food Chain” don’t care much about their biology lessons, preferring instead to muse about whether nonhuman beings play football or galumphing about the building cheering at the top of their lungs. Meanwhile, Finn the human and Jake the dog are similarly unimpressed until, on the way to the museum snack bar, they encounter the mischievous (and more than a little malign) Magic Man, who gives them a rather direct and harrowing lesson in empathy for the little creatures. What follows is a kaleidoscopic journey through the food chain, where our heroes go from decomposing corpses to ravenous predators, hungry caterpillars and plants that are horrifyingly conscious of being eaten.

While its value as an educational tool might be dubious and its narrative can be charted in a four-step circle, the episode is noteworthy for showing why Adventure Time is such a reliable font of wild creativity. The show is rooted in characters’ personalities rather than narrative tropes. Unlike a great comic strip like Krazy Kat, where the characters are put through infinite variations of the same plot for results both poetic and funny, Adventure Time takes its characters into the unknown more often than not. And though “Food Chain” is breezy and self-contained, likely having no impact on the rest of the show’s world (the episode’s setting is left almost totally abstract) its gratuity is a virtue rather than a problem. Though the show has no problem venturing into emotionally fraught, mythic, or heavily plotted  territory, I feel that it’s never more at home than in episodes like this, including the “Graybles” episodes. The children can enjoy its pure colorful weirdness and musicality––and maybe learn a thing or two about biology––and animation obsessives like me can marvel at Masaaki Yuasa’s mastery of his craft, along with the stark depiction of death and animal drives the episode contains. It’s not profound, but rather gratuitous and joyful.

Both the current episode and the Graybles start from the standard format of a children’s educational show: a patronizing narrator telling children what’s up. From there, “Food Chain” gets into the meat and bones of what the food chain really is, taking a humorous look at its grotesque aspects, speculating about how different species perceive the world in different ways. At the end of the episode, Finn is enlightened, having transcended pure book knowledge and really grasped how the food chain works. It’s tremendously optimistic and constructive filmmaking, even if it’s also very fluid and lively. I find it an irresistible pick-me-up, almost like a song in that I can watch it over and over again without tiring of it quickly. Indulge your creative side and give “Food Chain” a look or ten.

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