The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: March, 2015

Historicizing Individuals: The Curious Case of Morgan Shuster

W. Morgan Shuster

W. Morgan Shuster

The following is a set of notes that is not properly cited and is more of a throat-clearing exercise preceding the actual work of doing rigorous history. Comment and ask if you want clarifications or a specific source for a claim.

I find myself in an unenviable position. In order to keep my academic career’s wheel spinning forward, I have to complete a large-scale project that, through one twist or another, has ended up focusing on an individual. All of my historical and Marxist instincts run against the idea that history is driven by individuals or collections of individuals who somehow transcend their situation in heroic fashion. I accept that history is a process without a subject, as Althusser would put it, and that in most cases the historical actors who are most successful in effecting change are those who recognize historical necessity. Not in a deterministic way, but in grasping their own concrete situation and recognizing both what must be done and the negative side, that is, what would happen if necessity goes unfulfilled. If this seems abstract, I will attempt to enliven this idea in the following example that pertains to my current research. Add to this one other point I want to make about people sometimes being lost in the plots they’re caught up in and how we can both set them and ourselves a bit straighter though proper concrete analysis.

In the twilight of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the reconstituted Majlis––parliament––of Iran, having recently regained the upper hand against a counter-revolution and established a shaky security for itself on the basis of an alliance with Bakhtiari chieftains and the heroic efforts of leftist and democratic forces, decided to hire American financial advisors to put their country’s taxation and customs in order. This American delegation included the main subject of my research, William Morgan Shuster, an imperialist prodigy who had taken high administrative positions in the American colonies in Cuba and The Philippines before retiring into a comfortable law practice in Washington, D.C. He sailed for Tehran with a technocratic understanding of his mandate in Iran, and without the backing of the American government in any capacity.

The United States, though verbally sympathetic to the Iranian democratic forces, at all points refused to compromise their airs of neutrality. Great Britain and Russia, meanwhile, had divided the country into two spheres of influence in 1907, and though they were at first willing to suffer these Americans’ attempts to collect Iran’s taxes, quickly proved that they had no intention of allowing even foreign citizens to impede on their self-declared “rights” in Iranian territory. In short, Shuster attempted to expropriate the property of Russian proteges in the Persian court as well as those related to the old deposed shah. Equipped with a small gendarmerie specifically assigned to treasury duties, he forced his way through Russian opposition and seized the properties in question. This provoked a renewed Russian invasion of Iran, culminating in the shelling of the Majlis and the end of a brief experiment in parliamentary rule in the country. It also extinguished the last strength of the democratic forces in the country, at least in any ruling capacity, and set up the country for a decade of chaos culminating in the ascent of comprador ruler Reza Shah in the 1920s––using elements of the army that had been constructed during and just after Shuster’s tenure as Treasurer General. In short, this critical, revolutionary period in 1911 set the stage for the long reign of reaction in Iran throughout the rest of the 20th century, challenged in brief bursts but always triumphant in the form of latent reactionary forces garbed in religious clothing or imperialist meddling.

As I mentioned, Shuster had a strictly technocratic view of his duties. In his memoir, The Strangling of Persia, published in 1912, he paints himself as a friend of the Iranians and a loyal employee of the state who stepped on colonial powers’ toes in the mere exercise of his duties to his employers. He was a middle manager and nothing more. Yet this does not easily square with the vivid tales of sending gendarmes to cow Russian Cossacks, expropriating aristocratic property, and excoriating imperial powers in the pages of the London Times. Nor does it seem routine for a treasurer to send telegrams to the State Department asking for military manuals for the training of gendarmes. But, as it turned out, Shuster’s self-perception as an apolitical actor just going about his business and receiving the unjust hammer of Russian aggression in return is profoundly incomplete. Shuster was no mere functionary, but rather a powerful political actor. Indeed, the Iranian people and sympathetic elements of the Majlis applauded Shuster’s use of force in seizing property over Russian objections. His actions fulfilled the necessity of what must be done within the limits of revolutionary Iran’s capabilities at that time. Those treasury officers, along with Tehran’s police force headed by the Armenian Eprem Khan, constituted the national government’s only reliable armed defense. From the start, the early 20th century Iranian revolution was a guaranteed non-starter because the country it liberated from absolutism had already passed beneath the pall of imperialist power.

When I write this, I account it strange because I am normally a proponent of the view that all revolutions’ relation to failure or success is determined internally by the revolutionary situation itself. External interventions can exacerbate problems, as did the USSR’s attempts to keep pace with the American arms race, but the failures of a revolutionary movement/party/state can be traced to internal contradictions. But, in considering the fate of the revolutionary constitutional state of Iran, 1906-1911, I cannot help but group the British and Russian interventions as internal rather than external factors because Iran itself was not a free nation capable of maintaining its own order at any point during that time. Its prior integration into the capitalist world system mandated that its rulers, whose personal venality was only matched by their shortsightedness, concede their national sovereignty to European powers, the metropolitan areas of world capitalism. This provoked a series of intensifying popular revolts that won the country its first constitution and even a successful defeat of a counter-revolution. At the very point where the revolutionary forces attempted to extend national sovereignty in a direction that endangered what Russia and Britain considered their interests (and that the Americans recognized and even supported implicitly) they were unable to do so. Deprived even of the ability to manage their own taxation, they had relied on incompetent, grasping Belgian and French officials beforehand, and the Americans were different only insofar as they aligned themselves with the democratic forces and attempted to fulfill their mandate, to disastrous results.

Shuster was, therefore, aligned politically with one side and against another. In breaking his neutrality, which was the only way to put Iranian finances on a sound basis, he had to confront Russian and British imperialism, as well as the indifferent complicity of his own government. One argument that I have seen repeated by several British commentators, including both diplomats and historians of the matter, is that Shuster would have been able to fulfill his duties had he kowtowed to the British and Russian interests in Iran. Of course, this is ridiculous, since recognizing those interests in the way the British and especially the Russians wanted would have prevented him from performing his duties. What we have here is the odd case of a zealous imperialist becoming a de facto ally of an anti-imperialist revolution––this position being facilitated by perceptions of American neutrality shared by all sides––and pushing the constitutional cause to its utmost limit before it collapsed. Russia and Britain would never tolerate a strong government in Tehran with an independent streak, even if that independence in fact depended on the work of American citizens whose jobs bear some resemblance to the hated troika in Greece. In a situation produced by crippling debt, military weakness, and geographical proximity to two competing empires, the constitutionalists may not have been able to hope for a better result.

Of course, that is not to exonerate the progressive forces of the time either. Their own largely condescending attitude toward the mass forces of the revolution, their lack of internal coherence or unity, and that crucial problem of having no control over their own country either militarily or economically made realizing their goals impossible. Considering that their goals were often contradictory and that no singular party was able to capture the revolutionary spontaneity of the Iranian people and educate and form it into a lasting state project is a testament to the fragility of the whole affair. At the same time, those people themselves proved themselves heroic actors, documented with equal heroism in Janet Afary’s book on the subject. Shuster, meanwhile, almost immediately got involved in petty bickering over his lost paycheques. At the same time, he was not unchanged by the encounter with the revolution, and his book proves this. It hardly made him into a committed critic of imperialism, and his typical devotion to American exceptionalism meant he never, as far as I know, repudiated his work in the American colonies, but he instilled into Iranians the strong and false impression that Americans were willing to stick up for the oppressed and colonized. America, too, even at this late date, retained some of that sensibility, which has not been wholly discarded to this day. Indeed, I think we can see the Shuster affair as generating sentiments in the American press and among the American bourgeoisie that remind me of those whipped up in favor of “humanitarian interventions.”

In closing, we come back to the problem of necessity and the related problem of writing about individuals without transfiguring them into transcendent heroes. We can return to Marx’s old aphorism about people making history but not in the conditions of their choosing. But in writing history and theory about real revolutionary moments we have to be willing to enter into that tension and investigate both the people and their conditions, the what must be done and whether it was done and why or why not. A properly materialist and dialectical view of history might view it as a process without a subject but it also behooves us to understand the uneven and strange tectonics and dynamics of that process. How can the continent of history suddenly slip and create tremors, forcing up new mountains and slashing new valleys in its own surface? In writing about Shuster I have to write about his place in that terrain, situating him objectively while also learning about the way he, often erroneously, thought of his own position. Learning about the past and instrumentalizing it in the present means that we not only have to discover what happened and why but why people were wrong or right about their own roles, and, by extension, what the source of our own illusions might be.

Mark Twain on Revolutionary Violence

My good comrade over at Hello.Lenin! provides this for our Sunday satisfaction. Let’s think on it together.

The Bad Plus + Kneebody Concert

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I’ve just gotten back to the computer after a stimulating night of jazz music from two modern bands: New York based The Bad Plus and their opener, the LA jazz group Kneebody. Though both groups are broadly similar in being white and drawing either stylistic inspiration or material for interpretation from rock music, with Kneebody doing the former and The Bad Plus the latter, they have significant differences in musical approach. Kneebody is a five-piece group that leans heavily on grooves and a steady pulse to ground its horn section’s exuberant improvisation. Meanwhile, The Bad Plus is a trio, meaning its workouts are almost always first and foremost rhythmic, with less space for solos but, on the flip side, a deeper focus on tight group dynamics. The contrasts proved more than palatable in practice.

Though I have been an enthusiast for jazz for many years, my living situation and location have prevented me from seeing it performed live until now. I came away with some impressions into which I wanted to inject some structure.

1. Connections between music and comedy:

Both of the bands relegated to their bassists the task of announcing songs and interacting with the audience. Each group also leaned heavily on comedy, with The Bad Plus performing what sounded like a spontaneously invented song attempting to sell us merchandise after the show. Each of the band members accentuated the joke with their own musical contributions, and everyone in the––admittedly, Midwestern and politely square––audience, including my partner and me, laughed more than a little. It’s notable that both comedy and music are time-based art forms, and both comedy and music have popular improvised forms. Music is all about stretching and bending time into the right shape, punctuating it and using sound to accentuate the effects of time. Comedy is, famously, about injecting an unexpected shift or change at the right time, many times saying the perfect wrong thing at the correct moment. It’s no surprise, in light of this, that Bugs Bunny cartoons are so heavily linked to a musical score, which can often be just as funny as the action we see.

2. Jazz Audiences:

Keeping in mind that the demographics of the town in which the concert took place are overwhelmingly white, it was no surprise that the audience for the show was virtually all pasty. Jazz developed as a black musical form, and continues to be one of the most vital and innovative veins of black music, but in the United States groups tend to play for white crowds. Contributing to the financial crisis in jazz, those crowds are also aging rather than getting younger. I’m not going to wring my hands about the future of this musical form I love, but it was notable that, though the crowd skewed much younger than I expected, it was a sea of whiteness.

3. Enjoy the vibe

Unlike most pop shows I’ve been to, the presentational form was very subdued and focused intently on properly lighting the musicians and their instruments. No pyrotechnics, no dramatic lighting changes, etc. Perhaps the show could have benefited from those additions, but I think it would have compromised the overall spirit of the show, which was focused on making unexpected pleasures out of sound. It was thoroughly enjoyable regardless of its lack of pomp, which actually highlighted the playing. The music, is, after all, why we were there.

Thoughts on Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 1

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At last, I finished my reading of Henri Lefebvre’s 1947 Critique of Everyday Life Volume 1, the beginning of a trilogy of volumes examining the quotidian. As the Michael Trebitsch’s preface to this edition notes, the book appeared at a time of acute division in the world, the moment where the euphoria of fascism’s defeat collided with the realization that the world had split into two camps, crystallized by Churchill and Truman on one side and Zhdanov on the other. Soon after its publication, his membership in the French Communist Party ended acrimoniously and he retreated from writing on Marxism for some time. This is, therefore, a biographically and politically pivotal book that explores many of Lefebvre’s core principles in regard to Marxism and its relation to sociology and philosophy.

Central to the entire scheme of the book is the theory of alienation. It is not too far a stretch to say that alienation is the conceptual core of his critique of everyday life, the measuring stick by which we can qualify the emancipation of true humanity from its capitalist shackles. Before he defines his critique of the everyday, though, he launches a preliminary barrage on other modern treatments of the everyday, particularly that of modernist literature and the Surrealist camp. He castigates the Romantics for denigrating everyday life, which looked so pale to them exposed to the light of the marvelous. Baudelaire, to Lefebvre, was a more subtle saboteur, exploring the everyday for a repository of symbols and avatars of the Bizarre. At this point, there is a fascinating passage that connects to theories of orientalism and imperialism. He quotes Baudelaire:

“When Flaubert set out for the Orient – Flaubert the petty bourgeois who hated the petty bourgeoisie (they all hated and despised one another) – he was unaware that the journey would change nothing, that he would end up once more living on his private income in some provincial backwater – with his ageing mother – and with nothing to show for it but oriental bric-à-brac and incipient syphilis – just as Baudelaire, that half-starved bohemian clown, lived with his memories of tropical islands, black women and a pampered childhood.”[1]

I would also connect this to a Baudelaire quotation that Lefebvre uses: “Cruelty and sensual pleasure are identical.”[2] One of the most important facets of Orientalism is that it sees the East as a land of overt cruelty and unhinged passions, where the moderate middle––the Ego of the Universe that is the West––holds no authority. Everything is both punitive and rigid and loose and libertine. In this context, Gauguin is clearly of the same type, though he might emphasize the pleasure end of the oriental rather than that of cruelty. Though Lefebvre does not speak to this point, it indicates that the birth of the literary nineteenth century was marked by surging European colonialism, for only then could the “memories of tropical islands” and “black women” intersect with that of Flaubert’s indulgent childhood. This denigration of everyday life––as Lefebvre argues, actually everyday life constrained by capital––has as its companion the fetishization of both the subconscious and its geographical partner, the Orient of the Western imagination.

One of the more difficult passages to read was the author’s denunciations of Surrealism along similar lines: it sanctified the bizarre and strange through its techniques of juxtaposition and what Lefebvre calls its false dialectic of dreams and reality. The Surrealist desire for purity and pure experience led them to condemn all of waking, everyday life. He sees the entire movement as a symptom of the greater malaise of bourgeois society and the art world after the First World War, mired in cynicism and continuing to disparage the everyday. I mentioned that this part was difficult, but it is not because of a language barrier or the esoteric nature of the history Lefebvre cites, but rather that I was an enthusiast for Surrealism when I was younger. I have to admit that most of his criticisms meet the mark, however, and it is clear that Lefebvre has some remaining sympathy for them.

As previously mentioned, the rest of the book is an examination of Marxism and its relation to everyday life, to sociology, and to philosophy. Lefebvre wants to enshrine for the quotidian a place among the great subjects for all three fields. He even defines Marxism at one point as the critical knowledge of everyday life. His primary tool in this final section of the book is the concept of alienation, as humanity creates things that turn back to oppress their creators. Capitalism alienates the products of labor from the worker, of course, but for Lefebvre, alienation is a much more total concept, a description of the all-round separation of human beings from their true potential. He even names this potential as “true man,” in the patriarchal style of the time. His writing puts him as far away from Althusser and the anti humanists as possible:

“Man and the human have always constituted a whole: in and through contradictions, i.e. alienations. As for the total man – universal, concrete and alive – he can only be conceived of as a limit to the infinity of social development.”[3]

Alienation plays out in every facet of life. Technology, religion, relations of production, education, etc. At every point, Lefebvre sees the human subject torn from his rightful possessions and rightful power over everyday life. Alienation and the process of dis-alienation are the great measures of how far humanity has progressed towards communism. I admit that I have difficulty accepting either this full-throated affirmation of the human subject as the subject of history as well as the employment of alienation in this way. It would seem to me that, though the word has its uses in understanding the parasitic nature of the capitalist, “alienation” tends to be too general to be descriptive of what’s going on in the realm of ideology or even in the process of capitalization and exploitation. Perhaps it comes down to my historian’s preference for specificity––and my philosophical preference for Althusserianism or a version of it rather than Marxist humanism––that prejudices me against this idea. I don’t believe that it explains historical development, and that Lefebvre made a mistake by employing it so liberally in this manner.

All the same, the book is an impassioned work of literature as well as a tome of philosophy. I have to admit that I found its tone and prose infectious, and its insights, despite their somewhat defective or at least metaphysical foundations, can be powerful. I’ll end with one of my favourite bits:

“Woe betide the bewitched adolescent! He is in danger of being lost for ever; he is in danger of no longer belonging to this world; polluted, fanatical, his blood has become tainted. Did he long for a mysterious woman. absolute love, ‘ideal’ beauty? Real love, real women, real beauty will never be his. ”[4]

Notes:

1. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (New York: Verso, 2014), 342. ebook.

2. Ibid, 341. ebook.

3. Ibid, 236. ebook.

4. Ibid, 377-8. ebook

Steven Universe: “Alone Together” Analysis

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“Alone Together” is the thirty-seventh episode of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe to be broadcast. Considered in terms of the show’s developing plot, it has little importance, containing no revelations directly tied to its cosmic mythology or the character’s identities. This make it an outlier among the last twenty episodes, which have unfolded various twists and broadened the scope of the show’s subject matter. As its title suggests, this episode retreats inward, following the thirty-sixth episode’s introduction of new characters and complications with a small scale story about a so-far isolated event. In other words, it is light on incident. Its significance derives from its introduction of Stevonnie, a fusion of half-human half-gem protagonist Steven and his human friend Connie.

Stevonnie has inspired an avalanche of fan appreciation, much of it tangible and visible on the tumblr tag of the same name. This appreciation ranges from purely aesthetic to romantic, encompassing forms from cosplay to unofficial drawings. It also tends to accompany speculation about the character’s gender identity, as queer fans discuss the intricacies of whether the character is agender, genderfluid, or whether they fill some other non binary category. More than any other American animated show, the adult and teenage audience for the Steven Universe includes a large contingent of queer people, especially women and those who identify as gender outsiders of numerous stripes.

To fully assess the meaning of this episode, we have to move through a few layers of analysis. First, we will examine the apparatus of production behind “Alone Together.” Next comes an analysis of the class character of Steven Universe’s production staff and the cultural resources it draws on for this episode, focusing on conditions of late capitalism in the United States in 2014. Third, we’ll try to situate the show in a political context, focusing on issues of gender and connected issues of the family and intimacy. Within these three stages, we can address some specific aesthetic issues including the episode’s relation of dance to character relationships and its idealized portrait of gender relations in its universe.

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Part 1: Cartoon Factory

The show is funded, produced, and linked to larger brand efforts by Cartoon Network, part of the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which is under the banner of Time Warner. Time Warner is one of the gigantic monopolies that controls the vast majority of mass cultural production in the United States. Cartoon Network is thus a single niche or tentacle for a much larger profit machine, creating programming largely aimed at children and younger boys in particular. Its corporate press page boasts, “Cartoon Network (CartoonNetwork.com) is consistently the #1 U.S. television network in prime among boys 6-11.”¹ Additionally, Steven Universe itself, as of February of last year, ranked number one in its 8pm time slot among both all kids from age two to fourteen and among “targeted” boys 6-11 and 9-14.² Such statements clarify Time Warner’s true interest in the show, which is as a marketing outreach to children––boys in particular, since they did not mention the show’s performance among girls.

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Whatever creator Rebecca Sugar and company wanted to accomplish with the show, the class of big capitalists above them are likely interested in programming like Steven Universe precisely because of the cynical numbers listed above. The show’s vaunted diversity is also much more likely to stir executives’ imaginations because of its appeal to what Nielsen––the company that accumulates and publishes media data––calls “the multicultural consumer.”³ Though the show often takes supposedly progressive positions on gender relations, the family, and so on (more on this in a moment), this may be read not as subversion but as the further commoditization of queerness, the conversion of oppositional populations into rampant consumers who identify with products––including Steven Universe and its merchandise, potentially––as described by Nicholas Martin Arrivo:

Rather, capitalism has co-opted homosexuality and is wielding it as a tool, crafting imagery and definitions of “homosexuality” in order to push products, or rather, push subjectivities, shaping and sexualizing the way consumers view themselves and the world.⁴

So far, there does not appear to be any official merchandise featuring Stevonnie, but the production of products with which the show’s considerable queer audience can identify would be a major source of profit and bonus cultural prestige with left liberals who believe that collusion between big media capital and upwardly mobile middle class, mainly white, queer people to be progressive. We can sum up this way: “Alone Together” is a commodity, the product of a vertically integrated production process controlled ultimately by monopoly capital, which is more interested in marketing to ascendant consumer groups than overthrowing the patriarchy or any other exploitative or oppressive social structure. Of course, the episode cannot be narrowly defined in that way, and contradictions with the simplified scheme just stated emerge as soon as was analyze the class position of the show’s direct producers and creative staff.

Part 2: Knowledge Workers and a Consumer Setting

Cartoon Network Studios produces Steven Universe, on occasion with assistance from Rough Draft Studios in the Republic of Korea. Underneath that umbrella, most of the intellectual labor that goes into creating an episode like “Alone Together” falls under show runner Rebecca Sugar, who was an artist, writer, and songwriter for another show, Adventure Time, until 2013. The animation industry, like all appendages of mass media production, is administered by big capital but its primary “labor inputs” are educated white collar workers who have some advanced technical training––like Sugar’s at art-oriented high schools and colleges––that gives them relatively more control over the content of their work than an assembly line worker.⁵ Of course, their work is always subject to the approval of capital and the primacy of the profit motive, but within certain boundaries (not only monetary but also in terms of content determined by marketing demographic categories) they have free creative play. Mike Wayne reminds us of the dual role of this group as intellectuals reproducing relations of production and ideologies and as productive workers within enterprises:

From the point of view of the impact of their symbolic products, they may be engaged in reproduction (producing ideas and values, otherwise known as ideology, which legitimise the dominant social order); but, viewed from the point of view of production, it is clear that they produce commodities which realise surplus value for media capital, and, indeed, cultural goods as commodities have become increasingly important for capital investments and profits. There is, however, no necessary fit between the economic imperative and cultural values and, indeed, there are good reasons why they often diverge.⁶

In that last sentence, Wayne points to the fact that, though often allied to capital in material ways, the middle class “creative worker” operates at a remove from the values of their managers and employers. Indeed, this “cultural mass” of relatively privileged intellectual workers and white collar specialists is notoriously unstable, to the point where Lenin called them and other petty bourgeois a vacillating class.⁷ David Harvey, for his part, remarks that this class of cultural workers can take on either a parasitic or eclectic role in forming its identity, which is otherwise atomized and nebulous. Subservient to the money power of the bourgeoisie proper to mobilize their creative efforts and yet endowed with “cultural capital” and other privileges, they are subject to “movements of fashion, localism, nationalism, language, and even religion and myth” to a greater extent than other classes with firmer roots.⁸

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Charles Barsotti Wilson

Sugar and the staff have created a cast of characters that represent this class above all others. Every character is either a service worker––Sadie and Lars at the doughnut shop, Steven’s father at a car wash––a small business owner––proprietors of the local restaurants––or white collar workers of some sort––Connie’s parents, a security officer and a doctor. Of course, Steven and his family of gems are without remuneration of any kind, and this is never brought up throughout the show. Presumably, the gems have an arrangement with Beach City, the town in which they live, but, again, this is left unmentioned.

Beach City itself is a nostalgic paradise of sorts, an idyllic tourist town apparently oriented around tourism. School appears to be optional, as no truancy officers have been after Steven despite his total absence from compulsory education. Depicted as a collection of soft but imposing hills and cliffs surrounding a nest of low houses and small shops, it serves as the perfect staging ground for the idealized environment the show generally chooses to employ on the show.

Steven himself is a consummate consumer, a typical child of late capitalism. Obsessed with pop culture ephemera, food product mascots, and low-quality local food, he has been modeled after Rebecca Sugar’s own younger brother Steven and can be read as the show’s “typical” child. His life embodies that of the production team’s class upbringing: eclectic, rootless, urban (despite the small-town setting), and oriented around consumption as an identity marker. Of course, this is peripheral to the focus of the show, which is on his heroic adventures and coming of age, but his characterization is so firmly rooted in consumer culture that it cannot be ignored. My main conclusion in this section is that the show’s setting embodies the class assumptions of urban knowledge workers in being disparate, eclectic, and rooted in the consumption of identity, which is otherwise difficult to form for such an atomized and individualistic social class.⁹

Part 3:  Political Stakes of the Family and Gender

“Alone Together” is the example par excellence of the political stance the show takes on gender and family issues. Steven’s domestic system is essentially three non-human characters identified as female or feminine raising one boy. There are no biological underpinnings for this relationship, since Rose, Steven’s mother, was not shown to be related to any of the gems. Rather, the family is founded on friendship and mentorship. There is a significant age and power imbalance––all the more profound since the gems are centuries old––but it is not a traditional family in any sense except that the relationships play out within a single home structure. Most of the time this unusual arrangement goes unquestioned, though in the episode “Fusion Cuisine” Steven’s friend Connie is embarrassed to introduce this strange family to her more traditional parents. This shows that Steven Universe is not merely naïve or idealistic, but that it is fully aware of what it is doing. Though the show does not have an overt pedagogical bent, in that there are no Very Special Episodes or didactic asides about the importance of tolerance or whatnot, it serves an important role in forming subjectivities and in transmitting messages about political issues to its largely young and young adult audience. We can return to Wayne, who reminds us, “Under capitalism, the elaboration and dissemination of ideas become specialised within a particular category of people who monopolise premium modes of knowledge.”¹⁰

Most of the time, the creators of Steven Universe have remained resolutely apolitical in discussing their creation. See several of Rebecca Sugar’s interviews for examples, including ones in which she mostly disregards her status as the first and only woman show creator in Cartoon Network’s history.¹¹ Interviews are always directed at other ends than just answering questions, so it is likely that this reticence to talk politics comes from both personal reluctance and the diplomacy of doing art under corporate auspices. Naturally, none of this reduces the political content of the show, since it is championing what I would define as a liberal pluralist politics of representation and “diversity.” It advocates multiculturalism and inclusiveness through representation, which is, not coincidentally, perceived as a genuine weapon of ideological struggle by its large adult fanbase.

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That commitment to representing marginalized populations extends beyond unconventional families. In “Alone Together,” Stevonnie has a child’s mind but an adult body, one that is drawn and portrayed though situations as immensely beautiful and capable. We see the character sprinting with ease, diving off of a cliff into the ocean, and dancing with instinctual virtuosity. Every character shown interacting with Stevonnie is smitten or awed with their beauty. This includes both male and female characters, notably in an early scene in the doughnut shop where the friendship/possibly romantic duo of Sadie and Lars give Stevonnie free doughnuts out of bashful amazement. At first, the new fusion revels in this attention, just as they revel in the pure expression of bodily autonomy––recall the running, dancing, and acrobatic dives. But the true arc of the episode comes from the writers exposing the continued rifts between the two minds inhabiting the body of Stevonnie and that body itself, or more precisely how people react to them.

The second half of the episode, which takes place at a local rave in a ruined building, their enjoyment of dancing evaporates, replaced by social anxiety and withdrawal. The episode visualizes this in a dreamlike sequence where Stevonnie is trapped inside a gigantic disco ball ringed with crystals. The bright lights and intense gazes of the other people at the rave are oppressive to them. Kevin, a young male character previously shown standing against a wall with contempt for the others, is impressed by their dancing skills and breaks through the crystal wall, addressing Stevonnie directly. He mistakes them for a woman, calling her “girl,” and “baby,” and begins sexual overtures, dancing in a way that is meant to impress his new love interest. The two children-in-one-body have no framework for dealing with this kind of cynical attention and bolt from the dance floor. Despite their joyous unity, the two characters feel isolated by people like Kevin, who are giving them unwanted attention. Finally, they split apart and laugh uproariously, finally relieved of the bizarre body that brought them initial joy and ultimate anguish.

Other characters sexualize Stevonnie, but they have no reference for reacting to this since they are mentally children. Here we see the show’s creative staff developing their premise in a believable way, but to the detriment of Steven Universe’s otherwise idealized portrayal of how gender politics are handled in Beach City. Introducing elements of real sexuality into the show, even subtly, leads to some thorny contradictions that leave the episode in a thematic jumble by the end. This is not wholly unwarranted, but it exposes the ungainly contradiction between the show’s need to keep itself appropriate for boys of a younger age while catering to adult fans. In fact, the children-vs-adults tensions in “Alone Together” could be seen as a loose allegory for this contradictory need to please two audiences: children who just want to have fun and adults who enjoy the show for its realistic social situations and willingness to deal with heavier dramatic material.

Steven Universe has never had pretensions of being a revolutionary show. It fastidiously avoids dramatizing political issues except in the most tangential of ways. Mostly, it functions as a fantasy, not just in the strict sense of genre but as an escapist outlet for imagining a more tolerant and easygoing world. Though it has worn its love of Revolutionary Girl Utena prominently on more than one occasion, it has none of that show’s engagement with larger political structures, preferring a softer and gentler approach that might court controversy but ultimately prefers to tease and insinuate rather than confront. There is merit to this approach, of course, but this conservatism has to be recognized and criticized if we are going to discern the truly revolutionary from the merely subversive. Subversion of this kind is easily encapsulated and marketed, and while it’s true that even revolutionary art can be commodified, Steven Universe’s origins in big capital and its creators’ own restrictions make it less exciting than it could be.


Notes:

1. Cartoon Network, “Cartoon Network Viewers ‘Believe in Steven,’ February 7, 2014, https://pressroom.turner.com/us/cartoon-network-viewers-“believe-steven”#.VQsmw0Id1V4.

2. Ibid.

3. Nielsen, “The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers,” abstract. March 18, 2015, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2015/the-multicultural-edge-rising-super-consumers.html

4. Nicholas Martin Arrivo, “Selling Sexuality: A Critical Genealogy of Homosexuality and Capitalism,” https://twp.duke.edu/uploads/assets/Arrivo.pdf.

5. Mike Wayne, Marxism and Media Studies (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2003), 17.

6. Ibid, 21.

7. For one among many instances see: Lenin, “The Class Origins of Present-Day and ‘Future’ Cavaignacs,” Pravda 83 (June 29, 1917), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jun/29.htm

8. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 347-348.

9. For a kind of origin story for this brand of consumer “liberation” see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: American Century).

10. Mike Wayne, 17.

11. Eric Kohn, ‘”Adventure Time’ Writer Rebecca Sugar on ‘Steven Universe,’ Being Cartoon Network’s First Female Show Creator And Why Pop Art Is ‘Offensive,’” Indiewire, November 1, 2013. http://www.indiewire.com/article/television/adventure-time-writer-rebecca-sugar-on-steven-universe.

Review of Perry Anderson’s European History Part Two: Absolutism

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In the second of the two volumes of his encyclopedic history of Europe, Perry Anderson attempts to explain absolutism as a Marxist concept. That is, he is staking out a particular territory on the Marxist theoretical terrain, drawing boundaries around it and attempting to describe its importance to the reader. Striking against the historical obsession with particularity and neglect of general scientific concepts, he positions his book within the tension between empirical and theoretical. As he writes:

“The premise of this work is that there is no plumb-line between necessity and contingency in historical explanation, dividing separate types of enquiry – ‘long-run’ versus ‘short-run’, or ‘abstract’ versus ‘concrete’ – from each other. There is merely that which is known – established by historical research – and that which is not known: the latter may be either the mechanisms of single events or the laws of motion of whole structures. Both are equally amenable, in principle, to adequate knowledge of their causality” (Foreword).

Part of the reason the book remains distinctive even decades after its publication is that its object of study is a political form––the absolutist state––rather than a single country or expanse of time. The whole of Europe, including the territories of the Ottoman Empire, fall into his analysis, supplemented with an appendix about Japanese feudalism.

Anderson’s main contention is that the absolutist state is a state of the whole landed aristocracy organized under a strong central state for the defense of feudal interests. This is, he writes, in contrast to Engels and Marx, who claim that the absolutist state represents an equilibrium state between a nascent bourgeoisie and the remains of the feudal landlord class. Anderson writes:

“Absolutism was essentially just this: a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position…In other words, the Absolutist State was never an arbiter between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie…it was the new political carapace of a threatened nobility.” (Chapter 1)

To prove this his scholarly eye ranges from the beginnings of absolutism in the Iberian peninsula to its sunny apex in ancien regime France to its late-arriving and more terroristic forms in Eastern Europe. For the latter, the absolutist state did not emerge organically out of the decay of feudal labour rents and the ascendancy of the towns, but rather assembled itself in the face of Swedish military aggression. Nations in the east that did not create absolutist states––like Poland––succumbed to destruction. Meanwhile, the absolutism that entrenched itself in Eastern Europe lasted far longer than that in the West, with the Russian variant persisting until the revolutions of 1917.

One final goal of Anderson’s study is to explain the peculiar dynamism of the states that emerged from feudal Europe. For without that explanation the fact that Europe produced industrial capitalism remains a mystery. The author, correctly I believe, argues for a more narrow definition of feudalism that restricts itself to Europe and Japan. Other tributary modes of production (to borrow a phrase from Samir Amin) exist in much more variety than classical Marxist thought supposes.

Unlike Japan, moreover, which isolated itself from overseas markets and used the apparatus of the Tokugawa state to suppress merchant initiative, the European colonial adventures provided the kickstart for primitive accumulation towards industrialization. The book argues this point step by step, providing an immense reservoir of facts on which it can draw. Its theoretical interventions are welcome to this historian, who has always found it difficult to believe that feudalism could have been a mode of production embracing all of Eurasia. Of course, once Japan received the shock of encountering the superior force of Western militaries, it was able to mobilize its long-ossified feudal society to begin a crash industrialization of its own.

This book is lengthy and its conclusions unlikely to stir revolutionary fervor, but aside from being a handy resource for facts about the development of European history it clarifies the concept of absolutism, making it both coherent and broad enough to be useful. Marxists of all stripes, and those interested in a look at the history of Europe from a conceptual rather than periodic perspective, should take consider adding this book to their libraries.

Excerpts from Lefebvre for the Day

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My most significant reading project at the moment is the first volume of Henri Lefebvre’s elephantine Critique of Everyday Life, which he published over decades of work. It attempts to lay the analytical foundations for a Marxist criticism of life as lived. I’m mostly familiar with Lefebvre from fragments of his Production of Space, which I read to better understand some of David Harvey’s innovations in political geography. In any case, I wanted to share some choice excerpts from Critique of Everyday Life to stimulate the collective blog-reading mind.

On the Consumption Habits of the Lower Classes

“Agreed, it is not unusual to find peasants owning electric cookers, but the houses they live in are still dilapidated; they manage to buy gadgets, but cannot afford to repair their houses, and even less to modernize their farms. In other words, the latter are given up for the sake of the former. In the same way quite a large number of working-class couples have a washing machine, a television set, or a car, but they have generally sacrificed something else for these gadgets (having a baby, for example). In this way problems of choosing what to buy – or problems associated with hire-purchase, etc. – are posed within working-class families, and these problems modify everyday life.18 That relatively poor peasants, or workers, should buy television sets proves the existence of a new social need. The fact is remarkable. But it does not tell us the size or the extent of this need, nor the extent to which it is satisfied. Nor does it prove that this need has not been satisfied to the detriment of another.”

On The Wolf of Wall Street Luxury in Film and Its Allure

“The display of luxury to be seen in so many films, most of them mediocre, takes on an almost fascinating character, and the spectator is uprooted from his everyday world by an everyday world other than his own. Escape into this illusory but present everyday world, the fascination of ordinary objects which scream wealth, the seductive powers of the apparently profound lives led by the men and women who move among these objects, all this explains the momentary success these films enjoy.”

Lefebvre is not only highly readable for the most part, but also perceptive and eager to give examples and summarize what he has already put forward, making him a pleasure to study.

Review of Perry Anderson’s European History Part One: From Antiquity to Feudalism

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Last year I accomplished an extensive reading through Louis Althusser’s works and those that took inspiration from his work or engaged with concepts he created. No ŽIžek, as I decided to storm that particular fortress at a later date. Moreover, because I’m more historian than philosopher, I went straight into the surprisingly narrow canon of historical books written in a structural Marxist key. One of the most obvious examples is Perry Anderson’s two-volume encyclopedic summary of European history from antiquity to roughly the advent of the October Revolution. Despite it being more of an interpretive gloss on existing studies than an original contribution to history, I found it an invaluable companion to my studies of European and Middle Eastern history, particularly when reading it while in Turkey.

As I implied earlier, the two volumes, entitled Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, are not based on extensive research into primary sources. Rather, they take from established authorities on their topics and stitches together a larger narrative about history. This being a Marxist history in a structural vein, it takes “history” to mean an evolutionary and revolutionary history of the great European modes of production. For those unfamiliar with the traditional progression of Western history as defined by Marx, it generally goes: Primitive Communism––>Slave mode of production––>Feudalism––>Capitalism. Those categories can be augmented with less famous concepts like small commodity manufacturing and the rightly excoriated “Asiatic mode of production.” Marxists these days are not likely to take these as universal categories but rather mostly applicable to Europe, and within Europe subject to considerable taxonomical variety. Eastern Europe and Western Europe, for instance, obviously followed quite different historical trajectories, which provides the basis for a persistent and identifiable difference between the two to this day. Anderson’s goal is to examine the empirical studies done on European history and trace the history of distinct social formations that articulate these modes of production together. It’s economic and political history “from above,” devoid of close analysis of local conditions and concerned with the evolution of state forms and macro-level economic trends for the most part.

Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism covers a stretch of history from ancient Greece to the end of the Roman Empire, seeking the inner mechanisms of the sharp arc of ancient Western history from its flourishing rise to its catastrophic collapse in the west. Its method of presentation is clear and rigorous, and although Anderson’s prose is often vocabulary-stretching, there are almost no digressions to speak of. Instead he builds his basic thesis and elaborates. Chapters move in chronological order as one would expect and also tend to revolve around either a particular theme, like an explanation of the slave mode of production’s more abstract qualities, or the way those modes of production functioned in particular geographical areas or state formations. Anderson’s most important proposition is that the ancient slave mode of production on which the Greek and Roman civilizations were based depended on expansion and warfare:

“Military power was more closely locked to economic growth than in perhaps any other mode of production, before or since, because the main single origin of slave-labour was normally captured prisoners of war, while the raising of free urban troops for war depended on the maintenance of production at home by slaves; battle-fields provided the manpower for cornfields, and vice-versa, captive labourers permitted the creation of citizen armies” (34)*.

Upon this crude, technologically stagnant economic base, the Romans and Greeks constructed a leisure class of urbanites whose incredible superstructural achievements were not equalled in the West until the birth of modernity in the Renaissance––a time of reclamation. When the Roman Empire stopped expanding, however, its internal limitations caught up with it and produced structural crises that culminated in the infamous fall that produced the middle ages.

Having documented history thus far, Anderson goes on to explain the feudal mode of production as a much more technologically dynamic method of organizing society, since it allowed for peasant initiative and incentivized improvements in land cultivation. In the author’s interpretation, the feudal mode of production is a hybrid form that emerged from a synthesis of the classical slave mode of production and the tribal form of organization found in incoming German societies. Keeping in mind the essential structural and dialectical principle of uneven development, Anderson recognizes that feudalism did not implant itself through all of Europe in the same ways or on the same timelines. History advances here slowly, here with astonishing rapidity, and here with a measured pace. The heartland of medieval feudalism in Europe was northern France, and other less pure forms of fiefdom and fealty developed in southern and eastern Europe and in the Iberian Peninsula. He also discusses the outlier of the middle ages, the Byzantine Empire, and its own road from glittering peak to eventual dissolution in the face of Ottoman invasions and internal conflict.

The book is now a few decades old, but still impresses for the scope of its coverage. Considering abstract theory and concrete circumstances in which social formations exist and incubate multiple modes of production, his approach is hardly crude and makes for arresting reading. It’s a story of tension and dynamism, one that seems suitable to Marxist study. In considering both the particular in which the universal must be expressed and the way we conceptualize those universal concepts like the slave mode of production, it represents an admirable Marxist recasting of political and economic history. As someone fascinated by comparative and transnational history, I found much to admire and draw from here, even if its age makes it somewhat suspect as an absolute guide to European history.

Come back for part two where I will review Lineages of the Absolutist State and extrapolate from this two-volume exploration some basic principles of Marxist history that this book gets right, along with some more critical commentary.

Alienation from History in Steven Universe

Children in animated media meant for kids are often orphaned or somehow isolated from their parents. Steven is no exception, but in this show the disappearance of his mother and relative absence of his father connect to a larger theme––that being alienation from the past. Both Steven and the Crystal Gems are defined by their separation from the past. Steven is kept in the dark about his mother, whose dissolution was somehow necessary for his creation, and the Gems, in turn, are divided from their home world because they chose to defend organic life on Earth against Gem colonization attempts. They are isolated from their history, personal in Steven’s case and more cosmic in the case of the Gems. In some ways, their identities are defined by the absence of their origins, since the Gems Steven lives with are Crystal Gems only insofar as their loyalties are set against the rest of their race and Steven, who carries his mother’s gem, can only exist through her negation.

Beach City, and the broader universe in which Steven Universe takes place, therefore, is a land of “shallow history,” aesthetically eclectic and isolated from the rest of the world. Throughout the show, rootlessness and absence are constant themes. This includes the “Cookie Cat” backstory, which actually foreshadows later revelations about the gems, and the later episode “On the Run,” dealing with homelessness and wandering. Unfortunately, the first season is not yet over, so there is more to be seen, but this is a thematic thread to keep track of.

Steven Universe Series: Introductory Review

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The following is a basic review of some themes and aesthetic qualities for the show Steven Universe. I plan to write two more posts about it this week, including one on the theme of alienation from the past and another that will do a closer reading of one episode in particular, “Alone Together.”

Steven Universe is first of all a fantasy, dreams filtered through the lens of technical studio production and broadcasting. Its protagonist is Steven, a portly preteen boy who resides with a trio of magical beings called Crystal Gems. He is a human-gem hybrid who possesses similar powers, though at the beginning of the show he has little control over them. His housemates, the fastidious Pearl, feisty Amethyst, and stoic Garnet, are his guardians and mentors, bringing him along on their adventures while slowly drawing him into their own troubled histories. Along with his vagrant pet Lion and a smattering of other residents, they inhabit idyllic Beach City, protecting it from bizarre creatures and other threats.

At first, therefore, the show appears to be a conventional power fantasy, though certainly much more feminine and inclusive than the vast majority of superhero stories. Beneath the show’s buoyant, rounded aesthetics and speedy pacing, though, the major themes that emerge revolve around disconnection and amnesia, the struggle to connect with others and guard them against lurking dangers. Because only an intrepid few would immediately connect with a show that begins by expecting viewers to figure out a complicated world, “Steven Universe” anchors the viewer to Steven’s perspective. Since he is only partly privy to the world of the Gems and lives a carefree life little boys can only dream of––no school for him––he and the viewer can share in the shock of new revelations. Most of these start have come in the second half of the season, which expands the world both spatially and temporally in some tantalizing ways, though its potential has yet to be realized.

Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, gave up her physical form in order to produce a child with Steven’s human father, Greg Universe. Steven’s only relic of Rose is the gem embedded in his navel, the source of his powers. His attempt to control these abilities mirrors his growing knowledge about his mother, whom the show implies was an imposing magic user. Where the early episodes of the show play as pure fantasy, later revelations complicate Steven’s childlike view of the world, and as the show develops his companions’ imperfections become more obvious to him. Steven Universe never ceases to be a fantasy, but, like its protagonist, it becomes both more enlightened and less sure of the basic goodness of the world it portrays. The bonds established between characters early on take on renewed significance when placed in peril by the normal friction of human interaction––not to mention omens of impending trouble.

Aesthetically, the show is similarly fragmented, awash with visual jokes and references to everything from Revolutionary Girl Utena to Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, both classic anime. Like its premise, the look of the show is warm and inviting, combining nostalgia for classic video game sprites with clean, flat compositions and soft color palettes that are heavy on secondary colors. Beach City and the many fantasy landscapes the show introduces are not over-rich with detail, but they all combine small-scale familiarity with an element of the fantastic. A significant part of the show’s animation is its characters’ ability to transform and fuse into one another, giving them fluid forms at times charming and at other times frightening. Despite being so friendly, the show has managed to use its animation to make some truly revelatory images, which are best seen rather than described.

Though it is not yet through its first season, Steven Universe has already outgrown its limits several times. Later episodes, particularly “Alone Together,” take what creator Rebecca Sugar has called the “safe space of fantasy” and used it to results that are moving and careful depictions of social anxiety and the liberating feeling of closeness with another person. It is not a political show per se but rather an idealized space, a fantasy of universe that is not devoid of threats but that deals with them together. I invite anyone interested in animation to take a look, because I expect that few will be disappointed.

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