The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: January, 2015

Whitewashed History in Pleasantville

Gary Ross’s 1998 Pleasantville has a singular narrative purpose: to reveal that American nostalgia for the stifling, idealized small town presented in 1950s television shows is a dangerous fantasy. It succeeds, and while doing so illustrates the way privilege insulates white men and leaves them bemused and dangerous when the people they stand on decide to shed their burdens. The basic visual scheme of the film is this: within the television show world, those who become full human beings turn colour while those who remain in Plato’s prime time cave stay pasty black and white. Manly hangouts like the bowling alley and barbershop stay plunged in grey scale while transgressive art shines with reds, blues, and dozens of other colours that threaten the basic “pleasantness” of the town.

Violence is repressed from the screen in old comedies, of which Pleasantville, the show within the film, is a direct parody. What the film shows, however, is that the black and white seams cannot hold back that violence once the privileged order is challenged. A crucial scene in the film occurs more than halfway through. Joan Allen’s character, Betty Parker, confronts a group of attempted rapists, all of whom remain in black and white. The film notes that this violence is inherent in the world itself, and was not introduced with the “colours” of real life. Our recovering nostalgic of a protagonist, played by Tobey Maguire, does not realize this until he has to defend Betty from this gang with force. “People change” is the film’s manifesto, but the virtue of the film is in showing–if not exactly recognizing–that changes come at a profound cost. Reactionaries change as well as revolutionaries, but they tend to only retreat inwards, expressing more and more violence towards the forces threatening their hold on power.

At the centre of the film, however, is a vast emptiness it cannot contemplate. Because it chooses to wage its battle against reactionary nostalgia within the imagined world of a television series instead of history as it was, it accepts, to an extent, the rules those old shows played by. This means that racial, sexual, and gender differences vanish; the characters are apparently entirely white, straight, and cis. Black culture, in particular, hovers around the edges of the narrative, emanating as rock and roll from jukeboxes or taking the form of Miles Davis music in the soundtrack. In its naivety, the film sets up a division between black-and-whites and “coloreds,” including actual segregated courtrooms and businesses. This brings the lack of actual black, Latin@, Asian, or Native American representation in the film to a painful obviousness. Despite the air of sexual awakening that permeates the town during its transformation into colour, LGBT people make no obvious appearance when awoken from their broadcast prison. Last but not least, class is utterly repressed, and the fantasy economics of a 1950s suburban television show remain in place, excluding homelessness, destitution, debt, and all other forms of class struggle or exploitation. Pleasantville is the 1990s bourgeois narrative of sexual and intellectual liberalization brought to the screen. Having vanquished its enemies Repression and Censorship, it leaves the town in an apparently Edenic state, a little white capitalist utopia as pure as it was before the time travelers started mucking with everything.

It can still be appreciated as an anti-nostalgic gesture from Hollywood, which of course has gone on merrily strip-mining people’s sentimentality from here to China. All the same, its version of “debunking” official narratives of history has to be considered critically and from the vantage point of the oppressed to see its limitations.

Perhaps the Sword Is Mightier: Neruda and Nixon

Long and unwieldy titles are usually the product of academic minds mired in literalism. I know that, after composing a long academic essay, the process leaves me creatively desiccated and I want nothing else than to slap the verbal equivalent of a bar code on my essay and ship it off for the Judgment of my superiors. That said, there is untamed beauty in a snaking title like A Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution, which appears on the cover of one of my favorite Pablo Neruda books. The poetry within the book is much more concise, relative to its form and to Neruda’s previous work, excising experimentation or metaphor to produce a direct polemic. Its target it clear; its mean for accomplishing the destruction of Richard Milhouse Nixon are much more obscure.

One reason for this is that the Chilean Revolution, guided by the radical democratic forces of Popular Unity and the country’s president, Salvador Allende, prided itself on its legality and relative pacifism. Neruda, who earlier in life published paeans to the Red Army and the fighters of Stalingrad, by this time no longer wants to extol revolutionary violence, at least not in the same way. He commits a poetic assassination of the dictator of world capitalism, the butcher of Cambodia, but struggles with what he calls his “terrorist” sonnets throughout the short text. He has lost none of his rage nor his pride in his country, but it seems to me that the limitations of the parliamentary revolution tragically cut short by an American-backed coup and economic blockade expose themselves within his verse. Chile’s communists had no better poet than Pablo Neruda, but poetry makes for a poor national defense, and Nixon was to have his way despite his ritualistic obliteration in this book. Nixon died comfortably, rehabilitated and pardoned. Allende died violently, and the revolution with him.

Still, we can implant ourselves with these vital words, the words that Neruda chose to open up his book of verse:

Because I love my country
I claim you, essential brother,
Old Walt Whitman with your gray hands.
So that, with your special help
Line by line, we will tear out the roots
And destroy the bloodthirsty President Nixon.

There can be no happy man on earth,
No one can work well on this planet
While that nose continues to breathe in Washington
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
Armed with a terrorist’s sonnet

Because I must carry out with no regrets
This sentence, never before witnessed,
Of shooting a criminal under siege,
Who in spite of his trips to the moon
Has killed so many here on earth
That the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
To set down the name of this villain

Who practices genocide from the White House

Reading in 2015: a One-year Plan

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Hopefully, this will become an annual tradition: mapping out a year of reading in advance and reporting on it as I go. Last year, I sunk my teeth into structural Marxism and find myself greatly enlightened on how history marches forward. This year, I want to strike a slightly different chord, reading more concrete history, doing my own local investigations, and reading more literature proper. With that in mind, the one-tiger education committee that runs this blog has formulated the following list, in no particular order.

Historical Books:

  • Class Struggles in the USSR by Charles Bettelheim
    • I have been told this is an essential work exploring the way that the party-state of the Soviet Union formed and became distorted by its internal and external situation.
  • Japan’s Capitalism: Creative Defeat and Beyond by Shigeto Tsuru
    • Japan is my preferred area of study for history, and Tsuru was pals with an author I rather like, Paul Sweezy, so I will give this a shot.
  • Shinohata: A Portrait of a Japanese Village by Ronakld P. Dore
    • It will make a good companion for Hinton’s book, further down the list.
  • The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining in Japan by Kazuo Nimura, Andrew Gordon, Terry Boardman
    • More social and economic history of Japan to whet my appetite for the incoming grad school deluge––assuming I get in.
  • Fanshen by William Hinton
    • I have been looking for some more informative micro-level “history from below” of the Cultural Revolution, and this looks like a good place to start.
  • Rise of the Red Engineers by Joel Andreas
    • Similar to Class Struggles in the USSR, it’s a document of the rise of a new class of educated and politically connected party officials who became the social basis for revisionism in China.
  • Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Chile by Paul Sweezy
    • I seem to be very interested in the vicissitudes of revolution this year.
  • The American Film Industry by Tino Balio
    • Film economy is a subject about which I know precious little, and this seems like a good starting point for learning about it.
  • Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon
    • A reputed masterpiece that I have to get around to eventually given my interest in environmental and social history.
  • Lineages of the Absolutist State by Perry Anderson
    • I’m already reading this book and finding it immensely helpful and informative.
  • Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz
    • Recommended by David Harvey in one of his Capital lectures, it has a sweet and painful subject matter and appears to be fairly short.

Literature:

  • Various Bertolt Brecht Plays
    • Not sure how I’ve avoided reading any of this prominent communist’s plays up to this point. It’s unnatural!
  • Human Landscapes from my Country and other poetry by Nazım Hikmet
    • Another communist poet, this time from Turkey, who died in exile from his beloved country because of the Cold War.
  • The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda
    • I already wrote about Neruda earlier, but have only begun to dig into the author’s multitudinous poems.
  • The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1 by Peter Weiss and Joachim Neugrosche
    • An intriguing novel about radical politics.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
    • Reputed to be excellent science fiction, and not from the usual white male source.
  • A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
    • Something about a society that considers the printing press to be magical. Sounds good.
  • Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
    • Beautiful manga written for girls from a master mangaka.

Theory and Philosophy:

  • The Possibility of Naturalism by Roy Bhaskar
  • Rationality and Irrationality in Economics by Maurice Godelier
  • An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory by Ernest Mandel
  • Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth by James Yaki Sayles
  • Theory of the Subject by Alain Badiou
  • Machiavelli and Us by Louis Althusser

Track Review: “Asiam (Joan)” by Ambrose Akinmusire

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Now that I am on the western side of the Atlantic once more, this tiger is ready to reengage in writing about music,from which I have taken a long and mostly unintentional hiatus. Part of this is because I buy and listen to less music than I did in years past. Another part is that the political content of the blog often dictates that I write about books or events rather than exploring albums or songs. That said, 2014 did bring a remarkable selection of songs to me, some of which rank as new favorites. One of those is “Asiam (Joan),” the middle track of Ambrose Akinmusire’s poignant The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, which took its rightful place near the top of many jazz enthusiasts’ lists of the best album of the year.

Singer Theo Bleckmann, a fascinating artist in his own right, begins the song with a pair of tender verses. The title of the song comes from these lyrics, pronounced “as I am.” Its words are devotional, affirming the value of the self “as I am,” despite the fears and anxieties that plague the narrator of the song. Meanwhile, pianist Sam Harris accompanies the song with a spare arrangement, which eventually swells into a full band playing––Akinmusire’s soft trumpet, the piano, drums rumbling in the background, and eerie vocals from Bleckmann. No longer verbalizing, Bleckmann’s presence on the song transforms from a reassuring voice to a much more plaintive one, working with the trumpet as the track unfolds over the remainder of the song before a reprise finishes things off.

In context, the song has a much less individualistic connotation that if listened to alone. Much of the rest of the album contemplates social struggles, working in the tradition of Charles Mingus in particular. It’s self-affirmation with a communal bent, and it leads into the almost funereal second half of the album leaving the listener with an altered state of mind. A real gem of a song.

How to Define Anime? Japonisme Lights the Way

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Esteemed comrade in blogging Critical Hit!!! has had an excellent two-part polemic on the definition of anime up for a couple of months, and I was not planning on contributing to this discussion until today. I hope that this short exposition will help clarify my position on the matter, which I share with her. Simply put, anime’s most useful definition in an English-speaking context is: animation from Japan (broadly) and animated products of the Japanese television industry (narrowly). Attaching stylistic connotations to that definition inevitably narrows audience expectations of what anime can entail, which in practice means that the “stylistic” definition of anime will inevitably be overdetermined by trends in popular shonen, meaning that it lacks any kind of analytical coherence.

Calling Avatar: The Last Airbender anime is, for supporters of such notions, meant to be a compliment, despite the fact that much anime is irredeemable excrement produced on a shoestring budget for a fairly disreputable and easily titillated consumer base. It’s an industry that produces pulp, and that means that creators with dedication and iron resolve can produce masterpieces like Revolutionary Girl Utena, The Tatami Galaxy, Trigun, and the like. It also means that there is far less quality oversight in anime than there is in, say, the Hollywood machine, which means that overall quality levels of production are going to be lower. Avatar is actually much, much better than most anime, guaranteed. What’s really going on is the result of a couple of factors I want to outline quickly before we get to the discussion of japonisme and its relationship to Japanese art proper.

Animation in the United States is immediately associated with the Walt Disney Company and its output, which means that there are a few traits all animation is expected to have by nature:

  1. “Family Friendliness:” animation is expected to be relatively inoffensive. Not lacking in drama or suspense necessarily, but definitely devoid of content that would offend the elusive “middle American family.” Essentially, the white, middle class Christian family is the expected default audience for animation: designed for the kids and a pleasant diversion for adults.
    1. This needs to be qualified by the fact that The Simpsons has single-handedly spawned a set of works that are in active dialogue with, and are thus also partially determined by, Disney’s influence. Offensive and “transgressive” shows like South Park are animated because of two aspects of animation’s cultural place in the US. First, animation gives you more freedom to show offensive content without causing legal sanction, as Ralph Bakshi (a director definitely working in direct antagonism to Disney) realized back in the early 1970s. Sex and violence are felt to be super-transgressive if shown in an animated format because of assumption 1 above. So on televion, animation is expected to be either for children or exaggerated comedy for adults.
  2. It’s expected to be comedic at least in part. Pixar gets acclaim for working in some proper drama once in awhile, for instance the opening scene of Up, but every Pixar film is also heavily comedic. Disney’s own canon is fairly heavy on romances with big swathes of time handed over to comic relief characters, to a more extreme extent in Aladdin and to a lesser extent in a film like Pinocchio. An animated film without laughs is an anomaly, indeed almost anathema, to the culture industry in America.
  3. Animation is expected to be fantastical. Television comedies, because of the vast influence of The Simpsons, can adhere to this rule to varying degrees––witness King of the Hill––but it’s more or less unchallenged in the cinemas. Superheroes, dragons, talking animals, princesses, magic, and science fiction are all “appropriate” subject matter for animation, while realistic films like Whisper of the Heart or a television show like The Flowers of Evil would be met with questions like “why is this animated?” Live action is taken to be the default for portraying reality, and animation is expected to be far more dreamlike. Japanese animation has plenty of fantasy too, but it isn’t entirely fantasy like in the United States.

There are others, but they tend to fit well within those three categories. Now, Korra adheres to all of these rules extremely well. It’s a textbook instance of American animation in the Disney style: a lushly drawn fantasy adventure that cedes considerable screen time to romance and comic relief that is palatable for middle America and avoids showing death or real suffering (or sexuality) whenever possible. Of course, plenty of anime fit that as well, though with certain specific content markers like blood and titillation (never actual sex except in porn, for the most part) being more acceptable to the consumers anime production teams are targeting.

Given all of that, most animation is structurally incapable of attaining the dubious honors of institutions like the Academy Awards even if some cartoons have been interred in the Library of Congress or given sundry honors. Animated films do not fit the Oscar model: they are fantastical, comedic, and for children in this ideology, all three of which disqualify them, with certain exceptions, from serious consideration. Few animated films get canonized in American cinema, in sharp contrast to Japanese or mid-century Soviet cinema.

This means that there’s a cache attached to the term anime that is utterly unwarranted. Since most people don’t know anything about Soviet animation, “anime” is the only word most Americans have for animation that in any way finds itself outside of the fantastical, comedic, for children triangle. Even if Korra or Avatar actually fit those categories very well, they feel like they don’t because of their vast scale and tightly integrated and serialized storytelling, both borrowed from shonen conventions that fans recognize as “anime.” This is how the stylistic definition gets its political weight. Animation in the United States has a dearth of critical recognition. The only community that actively cares about and consumes animation intentionally and defines themselves by that consumption is the anime community. Being excluded from that community’s discussion means exclusion from the only modicum of respect that animated works get in the United States besides a few prestige films.

That means there are real stakes to this definition problem. Unfortunately, the stylistic definition has no weight to it. In any case, I would recommend that fans of shows like Ben 10, Samurai Jack, Korra, et al, start to build up and advocate for American animation on its own terms, rather than using the term “anime” as a crutch. It can be useful, of course, to compare Korra to anime because that’s part of its taxonomy. Refusing to consider the comparison would be like refusing to compare birds to reptiles out of an obsessive need to idealize and seal off categories you happen to like despite the evidence. On the other hand, no one calls birds “reptiles” just because they think reptiles are cool and birds don’t get much respect (hypothetically); the categories are scientific rather than founded on the caprices of prestige and cultural “capital” each term might carry.

After that long and winding road, we’re finally up to japonismewhich bears some direct resemblances to the current American fetish for anime stylings. Japonisme was an artistic mini-movement in France in the later nineteenth century. It resulted from French artists’ exposure to ukiyo-e (floating world) woodblock prints, which made them want to experiment and incorporate that specific style into their artwork. A Japanese original might look like this piece from Utagawa Toyokuni :

Utagawa_Toyokuni_ukiyo-e_woodblock_print

While Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh produced the following image, entitled Le Courtesan:

Van_Gogh_-_la_courtisane

The image is instructive because it’s such a clear melding of different aesthetic heritages. It’s flat figuration and cultural marks are unmistakably Japanese, but no one would be surprised that Vincent Van Gogh produced it. It has an entirely different cultural meaning than the first image because it is produced in conscious imitation rather than organically according to traditional standards. Van Gogh is being transgressive, using a foreign style in order to disrupt the status quo in his own field––not to mention being extremely orientalist, but that’s mostly beside the point.

Likewise, compare this character set from Bleach…

bleach-anime

To one from Korra:

THE LEGEND OF KORRA

There are individual idiosyncrasies in things like the angularity of lines, density of the characters, etc. At the same time, these differences are enveloped within a broad derivation that Korra makes from shows like Bleach. Korra’s Asian-inspired fantasy setting also contributes to this sense of closeness to the anime “look.” At the same time, just like Van Gogh was not making ukiyo-e, since his art served a completely different cultural purpose and in a separate context. It’s produced for American eyes by Americans (with Korean wage slave labor) in the context of the Disneyfied American animation industry.* None of the key creative decisions were shaped by the Japanese industry and despite the off-and-on participation of a Japanese animation studio, that studio had no control over the content of the show per se. It is, fundamentally, not Japanese and therefore cannot be considered anime. It’s not even a compelling edge case like Masaaki Yuasa’s episode of Adventure TimeAnd attempting to call it anime is doing it a disservice, cheapening the admittedly extraordinary achievement of producing a relatively dramatic serialized animation for Nickelodeon, of all channels. Avatar and Korra are breakthroughs and they used a language borrowed from anime to bridge the gap. For what it’s worth, the more profound achievement will come when such a show can exist on American television free from restrictions and in a unique style that does not rely on these kinds of associations to connect to a particular audience. Because the Avatar story, as all capitalist stories go, is just as much about realizing investment capital as it is creating an artistic work. Anime fans were a viable market in the mid-2000s, and therefore Nickelodeon attempted to get them to watch their channel with something more like anime.

If animation is going to flourish here, the capitalist censors and the profit motive have to go. For now, we need to celebrate something like Korra, and criticize it, according to categories that make sense instead of attaching an irrational value judgment to a word it does not belong to. By Van Gogh’s missing ear, that’s the last I have to say on this matter.

*Japanese animation is also Disneyfied, but in a much more elliptical way since Disney’s influence is very much secondhand, absorbed through Osamu Tezuka’s idiosyncratic adaptation of the Disney style.

Glimpses of Lesbos from Turkey

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As I have noted before, western Turkey is suffused not only in Muslim and Christian history but also the ever-present remains of pagan antiquity. One of the more remarkable sights I’ve seen was from the top of an acropolis in the old city of Assos. Other than the temple, which was in remarkable condition given its age, there was also a phenomenal view of the Aegean Sea. Over that sea lay the island of Lesbos, Greek territory and home of the famous poet and intellectual Sappho. Her erotic paeans to women made her an obvious candidate for feminist reclamation, especially within lesbian feminism. Her poetry is worth sharing at any time, but this was a perfect excuse to share some excellent verse along with a misty photograph I took of the island itself.

To Atthis

Though in Sardis now,
she things of us constantly

and of the life we shared.
She saw you as a goddess
and above all your dancing gave her deep joy.

Now she shines among Lydian women like
the rose-fingered moon
rising after sundown, erasing all

stars around her, and pouring light equally
across the salt sea
and over densely flowered fields

lucent under dew. Her light spreads
on roses and tender thyme
and the blooming honey-lotus.

Often while she wanders she remembers you, gentle Atthis,
and desire eats away at her heart

for us to come.

–Translated by Willis Barnstone, found at Isle of Lesbos

I can’t offer much insight into her writing since I am a new reader, but I can say that I find that the translations available convey sentiments that still resonate with a modern person. Even though almost all of her work is extant only in fragments, she has had a terrific impact on poetry to this day. I can easily see why given compelling examples like those above, which I have only begun to understand. Much like the island itself, which I could only glimpse from the hilltop in Assos.

Constructing the Past in Turkey

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Foreground: image of Ataturk, father of the modern Republic of Turkey. Midground: remaining pillar from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus Background: Mosques and churches as well as a fortified hilltop.

Construction is as common as tobacco-choked air and urban haze in modern Turkey, the result of an expanding economy and a need to circulate and realize capital pouring into the country. The ruling AK Party, known for using populist Sunni rhetoric to win popularity, also uses its capitalist state muscles to spread the capital around in a politically beneficial way. Political patronage networks, therefore, snake all over the country and, like in Japan to this day, construction reigns at the top of the chain of being. All of this I either knew or suspected before coming here to Turkey. What’s more intriguing, however, is the way that the archaeological digs and historical sites are articulated into this same construction/patronage complex. Numerous fine examples of mosques, city walls, and other structures are undergoing unnecessary renovations both for the sake of making them appear more palatable and to provide stimulation to local economies. This is the so-called “chain of happiness,” where you have a party official or sympathetic contractor at one end and a whole series of people who benefit from the income that pours into the city for these projects.

The naive sense i used to have about such projects is that they were primarily determined by intellectual discovery and the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, in a country like Turkey, sponsorship of such projects is in the interest of national pride––as they are in other places, especially Egypt––and you often see Turkish flags and other nationalist icons in museums and around dig sites.

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Curiously enough, not intended to be an exhibit in the Ephesus museum. It’s one of the first things you see when you come through the door.

This line of observation illustrates two important ideas for Marxists to consider:

1. The omnipresence of the state as an entity not only in ideological reproduction but also in the distribution of wealth. This is basic for Marxists, but if we recognize politics as a contest among classes for state power and the use thereof––with the later dissolution of the state through socialism––considering how to deal with matters of archaeology, nationhood, and development is essential. The current regime is elitist and blatantly propagandistic in its treatment of important historical sites. What is the nature of a socialist transformation of these areas?

2. Understanding that the past, as Benjamin put it, part of the spoils of victory for the ruling class is control over the past and people’s relationship to it. This is certainly the case in Turkey, whose multifarious layers of deep history are by now fully articulated to the aims of its capitalist state.

Pablo Neruda’s Poetry of Love and the Void

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Travel produces vigorous hungers in the would-be world explorer. It’s as if the body’s cells, knowing that you have lost the anchor of familiarity, press their case all the harder. They demand the satisfactions of food and drink and bouts of stimulation so alien to normal life they can leave you sullied with nervousness. Loneliness, too, becomes a belligerent companion, stalking you like a mannequin in the shape of absent lovers, friends, or companions. Unusual pleasures like the thrill of awkwardly hauling yourself onto old fortress walls, seeing a modern city unfurl like a blanket of light under a mountain ridge, or letting your body and mind soak in the damp of a sauna, provide only temporary comforts. I find myself constantly unsettled, and have confronted a mirror of this nervous unsteadiness in the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and socialist political leader whose death was robbed of official recognition by US-sponsored murderers led by Pinochet.

I feel that now,

with the dead year of drought scarcely over,

now that the mistakes which bled us all

are over and we begin to plan again

a better and juster life,

the menace once again appears

and on the walls a rising rancor.

– From “Insomnia,” translated by Alastair Reid

Neruda’s poetry maps the disquieting facts of modernity: love always haunted by absence, revolutionary struggle, death’s omnipresence, and rivers of chaos. His writing on modernity is not the messianic militarism of fascists and Futurists or the slate-grey and cynical dance of postmodern literature. Unlike the fascist, Neruda’s poems do not stage overripe festivals for the nation or envision a monstrous and divine plenty belonging to the us who should be fed. And while he observes and takes an accounting of chaos, he does not see the rush of wordplay as its own reward. Rather, his poems pinpoint the voids and interruptions––opportunities either for destruction or renewal––that constantly present themselves in critical moments.

Come on, let’s leave

this suffocating river

in which we swim with other fish

from dawn to shifting night

and now in this discovered space

let’s fly to a pure solitude.

–From “The Future Is Space” translated by Alastair Reid

In the poem above, the narrator and an unnamed companion have to communicate to each other across mountains. Separation and the quiet fury of the day are taken as the default; the unity that love brings is temporary and exceptional, something discovered or wrought with sweat rather than natural. Another poem illustrates the same theme:

I like it when you’re quiet. It’s as if you weren’t here now.

As if you were dead now, and sorrowful, and distant.

A word then is sufficient, or a smile, to make me happy,

Happy that it seems so certain that you’re present.

–From “Twenty Love Poems: 15” translated by Robert Hass

Once again we have a dialectical unity of opposites, a spiraling motion between presence and absence and between uncertainty and surety. Out of the quiet of death, the void of silence, erupts a profound transformation. I find, in my own observations, that such “miraculous” occurrences can only emerge from a chrysalis of emptiness and doubt. Separated from the person I love most, I find myself sensitized to light, as it were, so that the mere thought of her brings a sense of momentary joy. Then, of course, a pang of sadness for the absence. Reading this poetry brings these feelings to an acute climax. So many cliches about the power of poetry have propagated that I feel reluctant to gush further.

Neruda was a man blessed and cursed to witness a peaceful transformation in his native country of Chile and then to watch it unravel in blood and smoke and gunfire while he was dying of cancer. Without unwarranted romanticism or needless phrases, his words have the power of truth, the distorted mirror that shows the vanity of the capitalist and imperialist west for what it is rather than what it fancies. In Turkey, in the United States, and everywhere else, we require the talents of such companions as Pablo Neruda. As much as water and bread. As he himself wrote,

“On our earth, before writing was invented, before the printing press was invented, poetry flourished. that is why we know that poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and peasants, by all our vast, incredibly, extraordinary family of humanity.”

Post Delay : Travel in Turkey

Spent much of the morning and part of the afternoon in the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Spent much of the morning and part of the afternoon in the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Currently, I am on a trip to Turkey, and so can only update at night. I may post short reflections here, but the main blog is at anatoliantigers.wordpress.com, which I will update as close to daily as I can possibly manage. For now I can say that I had a wonderful group conversation with our tour guide about some of the changes that the country has undergone since the military coup of the 1980s. Also expect a post on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in the near future––meaning as soon as I have time. For now, see you in a while.

Book Review: In Defense of the Terror by Sophie Wahnich

In Defense of the Terror

I must admit that, even after a careful reading, Wahnich’s in Defense of the Terror evaded my full comprehension. Before opening this short book, I assumed it would be a revisionist or politically pointed historical study. Its title and publisher Verso’s presentation of it reinforced that preconception, which I believe collapsed upon a first reading.

Not a Work of History: The Archaeology of a Word

Just because a historian writes a book does not make it history. Wahnich might be engaging with historians’ interpretation and making use of written sources in a similar way, but the book is not primarily an exposition of the French Revolution in any normal sense. Rather, it is a kind of archaeological study of terror––not just the Terror of the French Revolution but the idea of terror as it runs from the 1790s to the present. Coupled with this is the word “terrorist,” a word that, she notes, originated in the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794. Her primary purpose is to demonstrate that revolutionary terror was a justified intervention on behalf of a revolution beset by the dread of its enemies. it was “a process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty in which the object was to conquer tyranny or die for liberty.” It was, therefore, not related to the epithet “terrorist” until it was defeated and de-legitimized by the conservative reaction to it. Revolutionary terror, she believes, actually channeled popular emotions connected to revenge and warfare and restricted rather than promulgated chaos and anarchy. It was a sovereign act conducted by the revolutionaries in the name of liberty.

Given the above, In Defense of the Terror cannot be classified as a conventional history book. Its intentions are too present-minded even if it refracts them through a historical detour. The end of the book is a reflection on the incidents of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. Wahnich’s concluding sentence is telling: “The violence exercised on 11 September 2001 aimed neither at equality nor liberty. Nor did the preventive war announced by the president of the United States.” The book works its way up to that sentence by traveling through history and unearthing an analogy that can disprove the “democratic” ideals of the American wars of reprisal.

Emotions:

Wahnich’s primary analytical frame throughout the book is emotional. Discussions in the book often centre on the kinds of feelings experienced by the people and articulated by the leaders of the French Revolution. Beginning with the death of Marat and the dread it provoked, she lays out a scheme for how this dread could be transformed into a justification for terror. The enemies of the revolution milled about unchecked, and if one of the great leaders of the people could fall to their blades, there was a sense of danger as well as an outpouring of desire for revenge. For the most part, therefore, the Terror was a kind of sovereign act of revenge on the enemies of the people. Those who opposed this terror were eventually identified as enemies as well, and the entire affair escalated into a state of war before long. Enemies who could previously be “othered” and imprisoned became targets that death alone could quench. As a result, Robespierre and the other prosecutors of the terror put thousands to death by guillotine in the name of liberty. Wahnich aims to prove that this was not a paradoxical notion, that defense of the revolution demanded such a response, which she defends as far more moderate than what the people otherwise might have done.

Political Importance:

Politically, In Defense of the Terror functions here and now not so much as history but as a treatise in favor of the violence of revolution. Exercised in the name and for the defense of the people, it struck righteous terror into the minds of the enemies of the revolution and attempted to normalize the values of liberty and equality, the civic religion of revolutionary France, into society’s emotional core. It also removed the obstacle of reactionary enemies. Though it ultimately failed to safeguard the most radical phase of the revolution, with its defeat giving way to Thermidor, Napoleon, and the Restoration, it proved an apt example for the Red Terrors of the twentieth century. Given the immense and entrenched military power of the bourgeoisie in the twenty-first century, we are behooved to remember that no revolution has proceeded without terrors both White and Red, and that the primary aim is to defeat the first and establish the second as law. Though the book is often elliptical in making its points and even too timid at times, it has some salient points despite these limitations. Strongly recommended to those interested in the French Revolution or the contemporary meaning of terror and terrorism.

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