The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: October, 2014

Ramblings on The Object of History

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One of the most important lessons I’m learning about academic study is that when you are engaged in a task it is easy to become enraptured in it. Historical research has a tendency to privilege the particular and prefer filling in the gaps in existing thought rather than summarizing or theorizing about what has already been discovered. Drilling down into an endless stack of books and articles, we historians start to fancy ourselves empirical scientists of a sort, looking scornfully on theoretical systems that inevitably fail to capture what we would call the “true complexity” of a given moment. If we were artists, we would be the French academic painters sneering at Manet: we’re committed to precise representation and mannered storytelling.

Most of the time, therefore, we’re not concerned with what we’re actually studying, what we’re digging for in those dusty archives. This is because when we are enraptured by the texts, we seem to believe that they simply supply us the subjects. It’s a natural enough assumption: if you want to understand Meiji Japan, find a book with a relevant title, then another and another, until you have a good sense of what people have already said. Then move on to the primary sources and read them closely, since these are the all-important raw materials with which we fashion our sleek designs. Once we find something novel, we integrate it into a story that is mostly repetition of existing stories couched in a critical tone in order to highlight our own discoveries. We expose the inadequacy of our predecessors and make the existing historical edifice a little stronger. In our mode of communicating, we’re not too different from bards or oral storytellers who gild old tales with their own particular twist. The crucial difference, we would protest, is that we don’t pretend that our stories are definitive and have a whole empirical-critical method that allows us to sift facts out of old documents and artifacts.

The point: when we’re in the rabbit hole of historical research and writing we normally take what we’re studying for granted. That is, we take the object of our study as a given for us rather than something that itself might have a history or a glaring gap or mistake. We then “find” our objects of study in the texts we study, not realizing that while we’ve been holding up a tome in one hand we’ve been carrying our object with us the entire time. Inevitably, this uncritical object is going to have a strange shape, a chimera of our own prejudices and the institutional and methodological baggage a longstanding discipline accumulates. We become spontaneous theorists, naively producing volume after volume of work while working with a potentially damaging or useless framework for making sense of what we find. At this point, we need to break out of our tunnels and expose these strange objects to the light. We need to ask the question: what does the historian study?

Simple answers to this question are not hard to find. David Christian, for example, in an essay contextualizing human history in a systematic cosmology, names world history “the discipline that studies the history of human beings.”¹ It’s somewhat confusing that the word “history” appears in both the definition and the term being defined, but this is nonetheless a good commonsense answer if you just assume that the “history” in the definition means “the past” and the term refers to the discipline. So history is “the discipline that studies the past of human beings.” It’s enough to satisfy most curious onlookers or pesky interrogators. It seems obvious for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the only part of the past that we can have more direct knowledge of. It’s not the Pleistocene or the birth of the universe, events that lie beyond the reach of textual evidence and need to be reconstructed with other tools in other disciplines. Second, the human past, at least the last five thousand years or so, is documented by human beings. Who or what else could we be studying except the human beings that produced this text.

We can think about this individually, i.e. studying the people who wrote the text or are mentioned in it. Or we can think of it collectively, thinking about the societies and cultures that produced it and the place of the individual within it. Unless we’re going to posit a God who directly puppeteers human beings into doing what they did, we can assume that the same humans who made the texts are the ones who made the history documented in the texts. And that’s the way narrative forms work for the most part. Classically, narratives boil down to very simplistic sequences. A person does this, another person does that, there is a thing they both want, and one of them, both of them, or neither of them gets that desired thing, depending on the genre. Historical narratives tend to work the same way. These narratives are the means we use to communicate historical truths, that make it possible to take narrative and non-narrative sources and infuse them with meaning. Modern stories like those in novels, which influenced modern historical writing, focus on the reasons for why humans perform actions and the consequences of those actions on things and other people. If history can be thought of the same way, most historical narratives have a three-part subject:

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This simplified representation emphasizes both the social nature of history––people interact with other people––as well as the importance of environment and other objective factors (“things”). Any historian will add that this three-part subject evolves over time. So if we imagine this graphic spinning and anchored to a timeline, I think it gives a good impression of how narratives, including academic historical narratives, tend to operate. Some will emphasize people over things, and others things over people, and some will emphatically make the “other” or “subaltern” the subject of their stories. At all points, however, people are posited as free human beings who make decisions based on their own dispositions and their interactions with other people and their environments. It has the benefit of removing a grand puppeteer from history but it ends up creating another, smaller one in its place, transcendent individuals or collectives that, despite all limitations of context, move history inexorably forward by force of decision.

But you can take numerous examples from recent reading I’ve done to illustrate this basic scheme. In David Christian’s article, which I quoted above, the primary “thing” at stake in the story is energy, and the role of every object in the universe, including his human subjects, is to appropriate that energy to perpetuate itself as an ordered complex being. You find a similar story in Shigeto Tsuru’s Japan’s Capitalism, where the people are the Japanese, the international community is the “other people,” and economic growth, natural resources, human development are the “things.” More generally, the things are factors of economic production. These are clearly deficient categories in numerous ways, but they help make sense of the various actors in stories and what they are acting upon. David Worster, an environmental historian, wrote an article called “Hydraulic Society in California.” To him, history is about looking at “the interplay between humans and nature…and the social consequences it has produced––to discover the process by which, in the remaking of nature, we remake ourselves.”² That’s a clear instance of this tripartite narrative. People produce useful things from nature and there are social consequences. While that has a specifically environmental and Marxist ring to it, bourgeois history tends to follow the same outline, only substituting “culture” or “ideas” or “politics” as its engine rather than the economy or nature itself. And many histories emphasize the “multivalent” aspect of historical causation, or deny we can find it and simply produce narratives about how people redefined meanings and language because of historical events. These, too, are looking at social consequences that result from human interactions with each other and with non-human objects from cities to farmland to mountains.

The past can be interpreted in other ways as well, though. Just because this method of historical inquiry and communication are dominant does not mean we should accept them as given. At the same time, outright rejection seems unwarranted since narrative is a singularly powerful way of organizing meaning in an intelligible way. My point is that historians need to ask their documents the right questions, and it is worth examining whether the narrative/human subject questions are the right ones, and whether the three-part subject comprises the sum total of what history can investigate. It’s also worth examining the effects of narrative forms on the possibility of establishing a truly scientific history, one that transcends description and interpretation to offer more powerful explanations of reality. Here, we need recourse to philosophy of history, a voice that can help orient us towards a more critical conception of what we’re studying when we’re reading sources.

Althusser’s Contribution: Generating Proper Concepts, Asking Proper Questions

Louis Althusser was a structuralist and Marxist French philosopher who wrote his most important works in the 1960s. These books, For Marx, Reading Capital, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, and various other articles, constitute a theoretical assault on humanistic and historicist Marxism. These positions are summed up best in a polemical letter to John Lewis, where he sets the humanist theses of history against his own.

Humanist theses:

  1. It is man who makes history.
  2. Man makes history by transcending history.
  3. Man only knows what he himself does.

Marxist-Leninist theses:

  1. It is the masses who make history.
  2. The class struggle is the motor of history.
  3. One can only know that which exists.³

We should recognize the humanist theses, since we’ve been dealing with them in one form or another in this entire post. What’s important about them is not so much that they are inaccurate. What’s important is that they restrain the development of history as a science, as a discipline that can produce truth in theory and practice. Communists often need to employ historical narratives in an ideological and partisan way to expose bourgeois fabrications. Such stories, however, are the products of but cannot nourish a revolutionary movement. Revolutionary movements need revolutionary theories, and revolutionary theories must be scientific, capable of providing truly objective knowledge of the state of class struggle and how that struggle can be waged. Though it seems like an ideological history from a Marxist perspective about how Communists and party members make history would be more useful and inspirational to militants, such histories can only harm a revolutionary movement when they depart from the truths about class struggle discovered by historical materialism.

History, therefore, must be transformed into the history of class struggle and all of its configurations. Balibar, in his contribution to Reading Capital, phrases the matter in a less politically overt way. Historical materialism in his account is the study of particular social formations, combinations of invariant elements whose configurations change through revolutions that emerge from contradictions inherent in their combination. Each level of practice in a particular society, from the economic “infrastructure” to legal, political, and cultural practice, conforms in the last instance to class struggle but the various practices are all relatively autonomous. They have their own history and their own time despite relating to the other practices in profound ways.⁴

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My crude first attempt at laying out a scheme for the political economic infrastructure and various configurations of elements that make up the whole.

The human subject disappears because the structure evolves without reference to human activity, with new combinations emerging through frictions inherent in structures rather than because of human action. It takes the triangular subject above and diminishes the points while reemphasizing the geometry. Obviously, certain readings of this idea seem to suppress the importance of political activity and establish an absolute determinism despite notions of “relatively autonomy.” Yet the emphasis on class struggle as the motor of history and the continuing importance Althusser clearly placed on the role of the party and the militant suggests that this scientific history that divests itself of a human subject, that analyzes structures and relationships instead of “humanity” in the traditional sense, can be reconciled with political practice. After all, political practice is a separate activity from historical knowledge production, even if they are articulated together. That practice, class struggle, is what history as a science mines for its study, thus keeping the connection.

Of course, all of these are provisional thoughts. I think the critical value of Althusser in my historical theory at this point is that he emphasized the role of correct concepts. Concepts that can explain the world are more powerful than ones that cannot, and producing such concepts is the role of historical study. These are artificial but not arbitrary, concepts that are not reality but can correspond to reality in such a way that we can explain how reality works. These concepts are not generated through theory alone but through the practice of class struggle, “from the masses, to the masses, ” as Mao would have it. After all, it is the masses who make history, who provide the historian with the raw materials. The second valuable insight I find in Althusser is that human beings are born into structures that operate beyond simple human decision. The world is not driven by sinister conspiracies manipulating events, nor by the brave heroism of individuals or mere aggregates of individuals. Rather, as in nature, individuals are locked into interdependent and objective social structures that have a life of their own. Althusser, as Mark Poster notes, gives this level of history, the history of structures, a life of its own, one that we can now identify and study with greater precision, carrying on the work of Marx and other historical materialists since.⁵ Part of this work is theoretical, the other political and practical, united yet separate moments of scientific work that changes the world rather than interprets it.

That is the task of historical materialism: revolution. For my part, as a historian, the problem is how to produce scientific histories that can inform and edify revolutionary movements. This is not the most important task of a revolution by far, and intellectual production per se has only very specific uses. It is only when theory becomes the weapon of the masses that it can materialize in the world. Though I doubt that I’ll be able to divorce myself from a narrative form, it is always helpful to take a moment and consider the impact of one’s practice beyond just the next paper, the next book or presentation. This has been a somewhat hasty presentation of a highly complex idea, but I at last feel somewhat equipped to ask the right questions about what I’m studying and for what reason.

Notes:

1.David Christian, “World History in Context,” Journal of World History 14, no. 4 (December 2003): 437-52.

2. Donald Worster, “Hydraulic Society in California,” Agricultural History 56, no. 3 (July 1982): 503-515.

3. Louis Althusser, “Reply to John Lewis,” in Essays in Self-Criticism, 1973. http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ESC76i.html#s1a

4. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital, 1967. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1968/reading-capital/ch03.htm

5. Mark Poster, “Althusser on History Without Man,” Political Theory 2, no. 4 (November 1974): 393-409.

Gabriel Over the White House

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Film critics like to say that every film is susceptible to criticism. Perhaps, but I wonder if film criticism in the usual sense could tell us anything insightful about a piece of work like Gabriel Over the White House. Gregory LaCava’s 1933 political film is more like an ideological fever dream, more yielding to the questions of a psychoanalyst than the eyes of the trained critic. Its characters are Jungian-scale archetypes of American political memory, fossilized giants from the Great Man History resurrected and given free reign over the land. That description might imply that this picture is a propaganda piece, and it did serve a role in pushing financier William Randolph Hearst’s agendas. Despite this, the film is bizarrely nonpartisan despite making American political and economic problems its whole subject. In that sense, it’s more of a superhero movie dragged into the Oval Office, a story of a divinely-inspired Superman burdened with a mission from God. Compared to the Blues Brothers, his task is far more Herculean: the salvation of America.

The president has a name, and it’s Judd Hammond (Walter Huston). Initially elected through machine politics and willing to follow a strict party line while in office, he dismisses an army of angry veterans and the problem of organized crime with the wave of a hand. He’s chummy with his staff, plays with his nephew in the Oval Office, and goes on high-speed joyrides on the highway with his motorcycle entourage. Like Tsar Nicholas II, he’s an unenthusiastic ruler, preferring to let his cabinet of machine cronies decide policy for him. When he suffers traumatic injury in a car collision, he seems near death. Not only is he alive, however, but he’s been reinvigorated by a mandate from the angel Gabriel, represented in the film by blowing curtains. Having undergone his Transfiguration, he assumes a heavenly glow and sets to work solving America’s problems through force of will.

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Hammond’s reborn incarnation suggests numerous historical figures. His office is stuffed with neoclassical busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln keeping silent vigil over him. Just as the American Revolution and the French Revolution cloaked themselves in the senatorial togas of the Roman Republic, Hammond conjures the past as a cover for his own patriotic coup d’état. Marx describes French bourgeois society before the 1848 revolutions as “Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle,” so that it “no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.” Similarly, Hammond’s America is in the midst of a Depression, the hangover following the speculative bingeing of the 1920s. This dream president is no socialist, but a savior of capitalism. What needs to go, in his eyes, is not the market but the laxity of the state. He applies the iron vice to the bootleggers, crime lords, and bourgeois politicians because they’re too blind to realize that their wealth depends on the repressive hand of the state. Foppish European politicians likewise, as Hammond blackmails the world into accepting a peace accord entirely on American terms.

In the film we hear echoes of the rise of Mussolini’s rise to power, of Hitler and, more precisely, in the ascent of FDR. These three persons might seem incongruous but each, in their own way, used the power of the capitalist state to subdue the excesses of capitalist liberality. Gabriel Over the White House has a certain chilling resemblance to fascist propaganda, but that reading is inadequate. It is somehow unable to account for the contradictory balance of camp and horror you feel when you watch a scene of a firing squad gunning down criminals while the Statue of Liberty looms in the background. Statues are imbued with a peculiar quality of life in this film, as I alluded to when discussing the busts. They’re symbols of a patriotic American purity, which is the real subject of this film’s adulation. Its combination of God, country, and state, purified of petty partisanship and wielded as a weapon on behalf of the oppressed, is a peculiarly American one. It’s a Kirk Cameron film for American civic religion, propaganda but not only that.

The film attempts to muddle its fascistic overtones, which were just as apparent at the time as now, with an ending in which the Good President dies of a mysterious illness just as he ensures world peace. Passing away peacefully in the chair, apparently awakened from Gabriel’s possession, he dies a modest American citizen. This is the loophole the film exploits to cover itself: dictatorship, but not a Third Reich. Authority must give way to democracy, the state to private enterprise, the firm hand to the invisible one. At the same time, it marks itself decisively as an escapist fantasy. It therefore fails to even keep the courage of its convictions all the way through, averting its eyes to the consequences of its own logic. Deeply fractured, the dreamscape of the film cannot make up its mind as to what ideology it prefers, opting for a pragmatic mix of fascism and “normal” American republicanism. Racism, sexism, the mythology of the free settler taming the land and bringing God’s order to the world––all the classic subconscious touchstones of American politics––surface here in a clear yet inchoate way.

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At the end, Gabriel Over the White House’s excesses can be safely laughed off in these postwar days. Simultaneously, for a communist like me, it speaks candidly about the way American liberty and American military and police force commingle. It is the perfect encapsulation of the liberal ideal in its true form: freedom for the few to exploit the many. We should laugh at this bleached demigod and the ridiculous tanks he has his Federal Police ride around in––then stop. Once we leave the dream, we find ourselves in reality, in which the cops ride in tanks and train their weapons not at warehouses full of liquor but protestors and children in the streets. Gawk at the show trial scene in the film only as long as you can bear the fact that such military tribunals actually function in the real world. Empire is our nightmare all the time, and Gabriel Over the White House only seems strange because it is so candid, almost shorn of euphemisms. The problems it reveals are not the domain of interpreters but militants and organizers, those willing to strike at the rulers watched over by the silent statues.

 

The Importance and Limits of Rigorous Language in Theory and History Writing

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Antoine Lavoisier is a figure about whom I’ve read quite a bit in recent weeks. Part of my ongoing attempt to strengthen my own grasp of Marxist theory has involved an intensive reading program. At the moment, I’m neck-deep in Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar’s Reading Capital, which has yielded a whole notebook worth of insights about the nature of historical materialism and the importance of creating a precise and powerful theoretical vocabulary. Marxism as a concrete abstract theory––a paradoxical phrase that nonetheless makes sense when we have the correct concept of concrete in mind––cannot correctly guide revolutionary action without language that can make sense of the world. Of course, language cannot take primacy and has to derive from and really reflect revolutionary practice. Failure in this regard produces an idealism of language, one that makes refined vocabulary the ultimate goal rather than a tool for overthrowing capitalism and enabling socialist construction. Lavoisier figures prominently in both Reading Capital and Engels’ introduction to the Second Edition of Capital volume one.

Understanding that Marx is at the threshold of a new “continent” of science, one that can revolutionize the world just as assuredly as chemistry and physics, Althusser points to Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen as a concept as a template for what Marx did with surplus value.² I am also reading a book about the institutional history of knowledge in the Western tradition that mentions Lavoisier’s commitment to specific terminology.¹ Earlier theorists might have produced the word and most of the language we use to describe political economy, but their language was ideological and not scientific. That is, it failed to explain anything in concepts that accurately encapsulated the real world. Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov also grappled with this problem, and writes,

The concept of a phenomenon exists, in general, only where this phenomenon is understood not abstractly (that is, not as a recurring phenomenon) but concretely, that is, in regard to its position and role in a definite system of interacting phenomena, in a system forming a certain coherent whole. A concept exists where the particular and the individual are realised as more than merely the individual and the particular (though recurrent) – they are realised through their mutual links, through the universal construed as an expression of the principle of these links.³

In short, a concept only has meaning in a larger system of words, all of them expressing concrete relations between objects. Understanding situations in concrete concepts rather than as abstract and one-sided phenomena allows us to explain the universal significance of particular situations. Of course, none of this has any relevance if we don’t have a solid hold on the actual situation going on in the real world. All the rigor in the world won’t save an analysis of the war in Kurdistan, for instance, that lacks the facts of the situation. Indeed, here is where we have to reassert the vital, living link between practice, which is the primary field of scientific work, and theory, which is the secondary. Lenin’s aphorism that there is no revolution without revolutionary theory is still valid, but the opposite is equally true. Theory is not revolutionary until it is employed in revolutionary practice, until it passes from the theorist into the hands of the cadre, the organizer, the proletarian soldier, the masses.

It’s these masses, these practitioners, and not philosophers, who are the real agents of historical change. Scientific vocabulary and rigor is only a tool in their hands. If elevated to lofty heights, this becomes what Mao calls book worship, producing a cloistered and deeply flawed tunnel-vision view of the world. Rigor emerges precisely from a rejection of idle intellectualism and through an all-around fusion of people Gramsci called the “organic intellectuals” of the working class and the proletarian rank and file.

To end, I want to venture into the unknown and ask what this has to do with writing historical narratives. Is it merely enough to use theoretical terms in the correct arrangements to discover the underlying structures and processes that govern history at a particular moment? History writing with a revolutionary character is so often merely bourgeois history written in the ideological vernacular of Marxism. There is no decisive separation between materialist method and idealist method in this sense. We still rely on the narrative form, on language that is often meant to serve as an instrument for justifying a particular politics. If our politics and our history are going to be scientific, it seems we have much work to do as historians in reshaping our craft to serve materialist goals. The beauty of the matter is that a properly executed, truly objective account of history will, by its nature, offend the bourgeoisie and serve the cause of revolution. The trouble is that partisanship in history, though necessary, is often a cover for a lack of scientific methodology. Hopefully I can help contribute to the continuing solidification of the science of history and the socialist political mission with my current research on the Middle East. There is no royal road to science, as Marx reminds us, and we should not yield to the temptations of ideological conflict when our aim is to refine and empower our own theory. Conflict of that kind will always been necessary when we’re in the opposition, but this kind of history is not nourishing enough for us, satisfying to our passions but ultimately insufficient for the development of historical materialism.

Notes:

1. Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, 217.

2. Louis Althusser, Reading Capital.

3. Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital.

Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!

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Electronic music’s earliest artists distinguished themselves by a certain purity. They had only a few simple synthesizers, editing instruments, and samplers with which to compose, giving their music a stark minimalism. Digital tools have caused a profound shift in how electronic music gets made, and Flying Lotus is one of the prime examples of this trend. His music can be best described as jazz reinterpreted as sound collage. Chaotic and eclectic, his music thrives on jagged transitions, surprising clashes between sounds, and a playful, even mystical futurism. His new album is entitled “You’re Dead!” and packs nineteen frantic tracks into 38 minutes. Bewildering even when the mood becomes chill and calm, it is a delightful adventure for those willing to accept a storm of ideas that often remain unfinished.

Flying Lotus’ most distinctive musical hallmarks are firstly rhythmic. As heard in tracks like “Cold Dead,” “Turkey Dog Coma,” and “Tesla,” the bass and percussion often take the lead. Overlapping rhythmic elements create a denseity of sound that aims for overwhelming. This instability makes it difficult to approach “You’re Dead!” from a cerebral point of view, and impossible to put it on as background music. Even where the album diverts into quieter songs, the songs maintain the unease characteristic of his work. “Descent into Madness,” which features the bass and vocal work of frequent collaborator and virtuoso Thundercat, would be calm if not for the way the vocals and guitar track mirror each other. With vague titles and few discernible vocals other than occasional rap verses, the songs stand or fall on how impressive their sounds are. On that count, “You’re Dead!” rarely stumbles.

Speaking of rap verses, Flying Lotus contributes his own vocals as well as production here. His rapper persona is Captain Murphy, named after a character in the Adam Reed parody show “Sealab 2021.” Like everything in his music, his rap style is highly abstract, being either barely intellgible as in “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep” or comical and absurd as in “Dead Man’s Tetris.” The latter track also features a contribution from Snoop Dogg, who arrives after one of the album’s most explosive bursts of sound. He and Kendrick Lamar, who has a stunning rap in the jazzy “Never Catch Me,” represent the more “pop” aspects of this project. Needless to say at this point, they are anomalies, swamped by the more experimental side. After the halfway point in the album, these more accessible elements tend to be dissolved in the chaos of sound. The final track, “The Protest,” brings energetic piano playing and a choir singing “We will live on forever and ever” like a mantra.

Death is indeed one of the album’s overriding themes, though it makes no definitive statements on the topic. Instead, it’s content to let moments of frenetic activity, grinding fear, and insecurity swirl and mix. Because it switches between sounds and ideas so quickly, the album is restless. Intentionally mysterious and often abrasive, “You’re Dead!” is a successful fifth outing for Flying Lotus, who has shown himself to be one of the few artists capable of using computers in a way that consistently produces great music.

JMP: The Communist Necessity

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“The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of the Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

JMP’s The Communist Necessity is a fine example of what we can call agitational literature. Cast as both a polemic against fragmentary post-Cold War political practice and as what the author whimsically calls a “prolegomena to any future radical theory,” the book’s primary rallying cry is for a new return to a scientific revolutionary theory that can bring communism into being. In other words, it’s a work of creative destruction as well as an almost literal call to arms. After marking down some preliminary evaluations of the book, I want to use the book to pose questions about the value of historical interpretation as practiced professionally and its potential alliance with historical theory and the practice of historical materialism. Primarily, I want to ask professional history writing the same questions Althusser posed to philosophy in Lenin and Philosophy: in the wake and now the shadow of the new science of history, what is the role of historical narrative writing in the communist project? First, however, we need to establish the book’s precise relationship to history in order to orient the remarks concerning that grand, dusty discipline.

The book’s title is a play on Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis and Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, recent works that have made the name communism respectable and even fashionable again in certain academic circles. JMP does not, however, want communism to make a return in name only, and so foregrounds the concept of necessity throughout the book. To briefly elaborate, he argues we should not idealize communism or fix it as a mythic and distant narrative. Rather, the concept of communism should be articulated as a demand, a collective human need generated, as he says, by the logic of capitalism itself.⁠1 This is a crucial point, since it establishes a firm link between radical theory and a notion of social-historical development that produces structural problems that need to be resolved. And, of course, being a consistent materialist, JMP does not neglect to tell us that these problems cannot be resolved in thought alone but in the practice of history, in its conscious remaking through politics.

Movementism appears in the book as one model of how that transformation should be carried out. In brief, movementists are those who theorize revolutionary politics as the work of an ideologically disunited aggregate of interest groups and popular movements.⁠2 It mostly functions as a general term for any anti-capitalist group that rejects ambitions for state power or the vanguard party, an instrument for seizing control of the state. In the author’s interpretation, this chaotic fragmentation and ineffectiveness is partly attributable to theories that neglect communism as a necessity. Rather, Badiou, Dean, and others participate in “language idealism,” fanciful theorizing that remains speculative because it is not rooted in the necessities already embedded in history. These discussions are worthy of close attention despite their polemical character because they provide an unflinching, if incomplete, articulation of the need for a new return to a unifying project. From the perspective of a newly politicized Marxist like me, it’s apparent that the bewildering array of social movements active in my city have had little success in opposing the monolithic power of capital, which continues to reshape the world according to its own designs.

These ideas touch on a similar vein as that of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities, where the venerable British geographer discusses the urban spatial context for many of these scattered movements and their apparent failure to stitch together a common, effective program and implement it. JMP does not speak in such concrete terms about these movements and the particular temporal and spatial reasons they might have emerged in the way they did. In short, though the history of movementism we find in The Communist Necessity is certainly one of failure, the same is true of the New Communists of the 1970s.

JMP largely evaluates the failures of the movementists according to their lack of a revolutionary theory. This, in turn, he explains by invoking the privileged status of labor aristocrats and student social activist populations in the centres of capitalism. The necessity of communism appears in a more obscure fashion further from the burning edges of the capitalist world where accumulation by dispossession is the norm and large armed movements like the Naxalites and Nepalese Maoists, among others, have shaken bourgeois power over large territories. The book does not go into the problems of the built environment or the nature of the modern city, wherein most of these new urban movements have found their home. Instead, the book remains at a fairly abstract level, rightly criticizing vague and toothless theories but offering little material explanation for why they arose and why the author believes they may be on their way out in favor of a New New Communist Movement that can unite the hard core of the proletariat with other mass movements to produce a revolution in North America.

One peculiar passage illustrates some of the difficulties I have as a historian with the language of historical necessity and how it’s elucidated here. For most of the book, necessity is a kind of unbending reality to which politics has to conform. Recognizing it is the key to producing real advances in the science of history and furthering its revolutionary goals. Yet in evaluating the New Communist Movement, JMP writes,

“Although many of these anti-revisionist militants were once trained in the discourse of the New Left…they attempted to discard the limitations of this discourse in the face of revolutionary necessity. Thus, when judged against the standard of revolution, the New Communist Movement should be considered significant, though also limited by historical necessity.”⁠3

Here the ambiguities of the word “necessity,” the tension between the mechanical and the more historically useful definitions of the word, come into conflict. Though the author makes special efforts to ensure that necessity does not entail inevitability, he also appears to be ascribing hard limits on the New Communist Movement’s ability to achieve revolution. Whereas a recognition of revolutionary necessity provoked these anti-revisionists to surpass the mainstream and academic New Left, historical necessity constrained them. Not to split hairs too much, but this provokes a number of problems we need to pose in order to understand how historical science establishes itself in continuity-rupture with the theory from which it launches its investigations and experiments. What historical necessities constrained the New Left that enabled the New Communists? What is the importance of theory in potentially transforming necessity from an encumbrance into a means of furthering revolution? On the one hand, it seems, necessity operates as a historical choice––revolution or death––and the logical subsequent questions we have to ask about constructing socialist societies on the rubble of capitalist ones. In the second instance, it appears to represent a hard historical limitation on human agency. Given that JMP has elsewhere articulated a need for a dialectic of continuity and rupture with past theories and practices, and with Marx’s quote about the masses making history but not on their own terms, I think this tension is a necessary albeit dangerous one, and it would have been prudent to spend more time discussing this question in the book.

Overall, The Communist Necessity is a promising beginning for a Maoist philosopher, even if it’s difficult at this moment to speak of a Maoist philosophy in the West. It contains for the reader a pressing summary of the left’s failures in the last two decades, gets some distance toward an interpretation of this failure, and moves boldly to propose how to change this. One of the best ways the book does this is in introducing to a wider audience the stratagic writings of the PCR-RCP in Canada, a promising fledgling Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party that has been expanding its party and mass presence through the last eight to ten years or so. If communism is to gain a material foothold among the masses as a necessity, rather than merely among dreamers and philosophers as a horizon or hypothesis to be tested, it needs to creatively engage with new articulations of Marx’s revolutionary science wherever they might be found. As an attempt to recapture the heritage of Marx and instrumentalize it for revolutionary purposes, however incomplete, this is a fine book. I hope that upcoming manuscripts from JMP and other Maoist intellectuals will continue to clarify and elaborate on some of the ideas presented here, given the grave situation of international capitalism throughout the world.

Notes:

1  JMP, The Communist Necessity, 28

2 Ibid, 9 and 65

3 Ibid, 119.

Iannis Xenakis: Metastasis

Forgive me for taking on a rather impersonal voice these last many months. Transitional times are always hard on the more instinctual animals, and long periods of turmoil and uncertainty are bound to mute the strongest voices after awhile, especially if they’re inclined to sleep all day rather than work hard on writing projects. Nonetheless, my life has resumed a modicum of order, as I continue to stalk the same college campus, picking off hapless squirrels for fun and subsisting on beef imports from the southern states.

In any case, stability has brought a return to my curiosity for modern classical music. Marginalized by declining public patronage of the arts and the indifference of the Romantically-inclined ruling class, its experimental methods tend to be lost on people who, like me, were given a subpar arts education at the primary level. Nonetheless, I acquired a taste for serialism late in my adolescence, and have wanted to explore further into the music that developed after Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Living in an animal-friendly apartment complex means I have to keep the volume low, lest I disturb my neighbors, but a keen sense of hearing compensates rather nicely. On the other hand, my editor has had several serious outbursts  because of I play music on repeat for hours.

To our subject: Iannis Xenakis’ life sounds like that of a 20th century Renaissance figure. Accomplished architect who studied under Le Corbusier, trained mathematician, and innovative composer tutored by Olivier Messiaen, and, what’s more, a former Greek partisan who achieved all of this as an undocumented immigrant in France. His partisanship had been for the Greek communists, and in the White Terror after the war he was condemned to death for his socialist politics and forced to flee.

Listening to interviews with him can be trying since I don’t grasp some of the basic concepts in which he works––especially mathematical ones––and yet I find myself compelled by the music. The piece posted above is Metastasis, which attempts to break with traditional music using Einstein’s conception of time as a model. The piece works in density of sound developing in a more flexible time structure. What you see in the video is the piece’s progression mapped out in a preliminary sketch, composed not in notes but in an architectural diagram. Nothing is resolved in a linear way, and despite some scattered melodic fragments one can discern in the second part of the piece, it remains decidedly unconventional. On the second listen, I noticed that the dynamics of volume in the piece were especially interesting, speaking as a non-expert whose anatomy doesn’t allow for much experimentation with musical instruments. In any case, the piece defies my attempts to understand it, though I can’t help but return to it.

I’m hoping that further study will broaden my knowledge and understanding of “new” music like this. It’s a testament to the continuing hold of Romantic music on our imagination that a piece almost five decades old can still inspire bemusement. Our capitalist societies have not yet digested music like this except in the avant-garde itself, and I’m curious about the political and historical importance of music even when it’s listeners tend to be intellectuals. Call this a first step, a somewhat coherent jab at a target cloaked in shadow.

Prince: Art Official Age

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Last year, Prince appeared as a guest artist on Janelle Monáe’s album “The Electric Lady,” and at the time I took it as a sign of how far Prince had declined relative to his own legacy. His work since 1990 has been solid but mostly uninspiring, subtly updating the same 80s style Prince pioneered but which has since been surpassed by successors like André 3000 and the aforementioned Monáe. Now Prince has released two albums at once, “Plectrum Electrum” with his all-woman 3rdEyeGirl band and “Art Official Age,” a solo project. This review is of the latter only, because though they can be considered companion pieces in some ways, they are also very different works. “Art Official Age” is a strong release, remolding Prince’s signature eccentricities in the image of 2014 pop.

Wrapped in a gauze-thin sci-fi concept, “Art Official Age’s” direct predecessor is the 1987 album “Sign O The Times,” which similarly took a futuristic look at present troubles. Politics always takes a backseat to the erotic with Prince, though, which means the songs here tend to be about personal ambivalence toward technology and communication. “Clouds,” for example, contrasts the spontaneity of personal interaction with the distance of online interaction, especially in a world of web-produced mini-celebrities.  Nothing here is polemical, which is remarkable considering Prince’s well-known past aversion to the Internet.

As the title suggests, the album considers the ways that people find themselves caught in limiting roles they cannot escape. Well-worn territory for Prince, this title should remind us of Prince’s ugly battles with Warner Bros. in the past, when he used to go to public events with the word “slave” taped over his mouth. These themes emerge in the romantic ballads as well as the sharper tracks. The music bears a strong resemblance to Monáe’s last two albums, albeit without most of the orchestral grandiosity Monáe likes to employ. Guitar work is generally stellar,  and everything from “Gold Standard’s” horn stabs to the title track’s astral arrangements sound pristine. Resemblances to earlier Prince songs are easy to spot. “Breakfast Can Wait” strongly recalls “Starfish and Coffee” while “Funknroll” borrows the demanding dance floor vibe of “Housequake.” Still, nothing sounds dated or sterile in any of the thirteen tracks.

“U Know” uses synth-heavy production, backwards vocals, and a surprisingly strong beat to deliver an elliptical song about a difficult relationship. While the verses have Prince using a robotic speaking style, the choruses showcase his wide vocal range and capability for tenderness. The language of contracts works its way into the song as well, further linking this song about love with careerism. While Prince is not always so successful here–– “This Could Be Us” has bright moments but stretches its meme-based premise too far––a combination of terrific musicianship and skillfully produced grooves make it far more enjoyable than Prince has been in too long.

“Funknroll” represents the other, more ferocious part of the album. From the outset, it’s uncompromising, putting a foreboding beat under this record’s most biting vocal performance. Claustrophobic yet danceable for most of its running time, it bursts its dense coils in the last ninety seconds. It’s a thrilling breakdown leading into the end of the album.

Prince’s output since 1990 has been alternately criticized for trying too hard or slacking off. That’s understandable when much of that output was either driven by contractual obligation or packed into gigantic triple albums. “Art Official Age” certain has ambition, and it showcases Prince’s characteristic quirks, but it is still highly enjoyable. It makes one optimistic for the future of spaced-out funk in the coming years.

Marx: The Historian who Ignited History

The Paris Commune briefly took control of Paris in the midst of a war between France and Prussia in 1871.

The Paris Commune briefly took control of Paris in the midst of a war between France and Prussia in 1871.

Marx was not an academic historian, nor was historical writing his predominant intellectual work. But as often happens, the demands of his revolutionary politics required interventions in the field of history. So, while Engels’ historical writings on the family and the history of Christianity are better known, Marx also produced historical volumes. Unlike academic history, the audience for books like The Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte were largely workers and intellectuals involved in political struggle. Unconcerned with the demands of the academic market, they not only depict history but they ignite it. By this I don’t mean that they’re merely instrumental or propagandistic, but that they articulate the events of the past as having concrete demands on the workers’ parties of the present. The failures and brilliant successes of the Commune as recounted in The Civil War in France were still fresh when Marx was writing, and the book has something of the journalistic flair to it. But the sense I got from reading this address to the International was that Marx was reporting a fantastic scientific discovery.

Historical materialism, as a revolutionary and scientific approach to history, sees every event weighted with an instructive significance, every historical moment as shedding light on the development of society according to certain laws. Walter Benjamin talks about materialist historians as seizing hold of memories at critical moments.¹ That principle animates the discipline of history more than dry adherence to the sources, necessary as the latter might be. What Marx does in The Civil War in France is to take what from above seemed like a minor detour in the wider Franco-Prussian War and show that it is the true experimental breakthrough. It is the first experiment in proletarian dictatorship, which has far more prophetic and historical weight than yet another clash between monarchs, even if that war has been one of the most total in European history. Even while the war machines of the European capitalist states flexed their muscles as never before, Marx zeroes in on those fragile months of Communard rule in Paris as a sign of the irrevocable decay of capitalist power.² The Commune was only the leading edge of a much larger wave. Looking from the present, we might despair or laugh ironically at such a statement; every subsequent dictatorship of the proletariat, small or large, has succumbed or collapsed in the face of imperialist pressure.

At the same time, where Marx could look to the Commune as a few months of proletarian rule and foresee a potential far greater emerging, we have the luxury of seeing far larger and grander experiments in China, the USSR, Albania, and elsewhere. Part of what I hope to do as a historian is to disrupt the narrative of the victors. That story is that history, as Ford had it, “is bunk.” All we have to look forward to is larger and faster cycles of crisis, reckless expansion, and crisis that characterize capitalism. Yet we’ve seen those rhythms frozen in 1917, petrified in the Cultural Revolution, reduced, for a few years, to the sad statue it really is.

What’s strange in all of this is that Marx is quick to emphasize the “accidental” character of history, the importance of understanding time outside of a crude teleology. In a letter to a physician involved in the International, Marx argues that if there were no accidents we could just wait and gather strength until times were the most fortuitous.³ Unfortunately, the truth is that revolution requires daring and even heroism––though not in the individualistic sense. A scientific view of history requires us not to wait for history to present itself in a perfect way, but rather to intervene and change history in the favour of the working class. The many, many scholars who regard Marx as a theoretician of history as an “economic machine” should be confounded by The Civil War in France. It portrays history as guided by laws but those laws are derived from class struggle, which has more than enough of an “accidental” character to deflect the temptations of teleology.

Notes:

1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 255.

2. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm

3. Karl Marx, “Letters to Ludwig Kugelmann in Hannover.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_17.htm

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