The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: June, 2015

Public History Journal Entry 2: Sizing Up the Competition

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Other scholars and amateurs have already produced a number of historical walking tours for the area my own project will cover. Looking over my shoulder at them, I’m driven both by a fear of duplicating them and by a desire to compensate for their errors or oversights. Luckily, I can easily strip-mine these lists for relevant details while ignoring their assumptions and frameworks because none of them take a structural Marxist approach––or anything within that neighbourhood.

Instead, what we see in previous attempts at capturing the history of this little urban neck of the woods is a purely utilitarian and localist discussion. One of the old tours seems to have been made for what’s called a service-learning group based in a local college. Such groups exist to facilitate “charitable works” activities for students, drawing them off campus and into the surrounding area. Therefore, the tour focuses on local notables––the “founding fathers”––and some of the social problems that have arisen after the lifting of segregated housing laws in the late 1960s. It’s cursory, light on analysis, and shorn of any state or national context. Perhaps it served its purpose well, perhaps not. No doubt the leader of this tour elaborated on the written script I can read quite a bit.

Another tour, published by the city’s historical society, is more of an architectural photo tour than a historical work. Focusing on patrician housing in the area and its architectural evolution, it pains a story of the neighbourhood as being about maybe half a dozen wealthy landowners and the pretty houses they live in. It does highlight aesthetically pleasing structures that are worth noting, and supplies a potential list of attractive stops on my tour, but it leaves the user with, I would think, a minimal impression of what this area was like, especially those who couldn’t afford spacious housing.

Alongside a Marxist emphasis on context, struggle, and structural change, I hope to bring another positive value to my tour: narrative urgency. What is utterly lacking in previous tours is a sense of involvement or even an impressionistic attempt to evoke their setting. Given that my mandate is to produce something that is both history and physical recreation, I have no choice but to produce something people would actually want to read. For better and for worse, that’s a much more lax limitation on academic writing, whose purpose is to enlighten one’s peers rather than would-be “pedestrian historians.” As always, every use value is, well, valueless if it doesn’t have a use.

Part of the joy of these waking tours is discovering the art/science of writing a text with enough depth and breadth of context to be truly useful while appealing to the senses and engaging the bodies of those who want to learn something. In looking at the “competition” and my predecessors, I won’t have to work too hard to make vast improvements.

Public History Journal Entry 1: Dust Off the Books

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Pictured: a grand library where I did not do any research.

Public History Journal chronicles my experiences researching, drafting, and editing a walking tour for a neighborhood in my local city. The introduction to the series is here.

My public library’s main municipal branch has an entire floor dedicated to genealogical research and local history archives. Most of the time, the rows of microfilm machines lie idle and all you can hear other than the rustling of the pages in front of you is some elder citizen looking for mementos. Occasionally, another researcher will be sit at the table across from you with a pile of papers and books sprawled out. But you don’t really care, at least not in the first few days of research.

In the initial stages of a historical project, your objectives tend to be vaguely defined, meaning that every lead you find has some potential. Even after a few basic themes have coalesced out of the empirical research and anecdotes you’ve accumulated, the excitement only wears off once you try to track down details about specific and obscure subjects and come up with nothing. Luckily, this has yet to happen in my case, but I’m certain it will.

For this first entry, I want to lay out some of the historians’ concerns when approaching a historical project designed for a popular audience. Actually, that leads us straight into the first topic at hand: who is the audience, and how do you try to understand it?

After some initial input from the city health department, which is coordinating the project with certain people at my alma mater, I had a few basic notions about the audience we were looking for:

  1. It would include both adults and children.
  2. It would include both locals and interested outsiders, local history buffs and people looking for an excuse to get up and walk a few blocks around their neighborhood.

With that established, it was obvious that I had to do some digging to learn about the locals, the ones who will have the closest relationship with the walk if I do my job correctly. I did some digging through mapping cites, census data, and area profiles compiled by the library, which led to some useful conclusions. First, a plurality of the residents in the neighborhood are proletarian Latinx, and indeed this was one of the most highly concentrated Latinx neighborhoods in the city, evidenced by the proliferation of Spanish-speaking churches––most of them Protestant. Many of the nearby enterprises are manufacturers of plastics, machine parts, and the like, which offer low rates of pay for floor workers. In the southeastern corner of the area, however, the demographic colour of the neighborhood whitens dramatically, though Euro-Americans make up only a quarter of the population or so. There are high rates of vacant housing, foreclosures, and users of public transportation.

More intangible parts of the neighborhood also present themselves. For instance, the presence of a relatively prominent neighborhood association, one that occupies a historically significant building near the centre of the area. At the centre of the entire area, however, was the park for which the neighborhood was named. Because of deep budget cuts in the parks department for the city, the park’s facilities had undergone some degeneration over the last decade, with two of its public pools closed because the city deemed the cost of repairs too high.

After developing an abstract but hopefully accurate picture of the neighborhood and its people, I realized that there would be some particular challenges in presenting the material. Luckily, the project already has a staff interpreter ready to translate the scripts we write into Spanish. I am wary, however, of making the mistake of producing a history that only Euro-Americans will recognize or appreciate. Avoiding this requires a self-critical attitude, paying close attention to the lines of research I am following and looking at the margins of the history to see if there are aspects of the area’s history that have been suppressed or neglected. Once the drafting stage begins, it will be doubly important to edit the script under the harsh light of suspicion. Material factors already militate against the success of this project for most of the locals. For instance, the Euro-American community, the Anglos if you will, will probably have, on average, more leisure time and more interest in the history that people have chosen to preserve for this neighborhood. Indeed, it would be easy for a historian to show up at the archives, write small biographies of wealthy notable who have lived in the area, and tie those stories to old buildings on the walking tour. Nothing would be less forceful or useful, however, than producing a Ken Burns documentary on a local scale.

Next time, we’ll look in some more detail at those old historical figures and why there is so much more to the neighborhood than that. In part three, meanwhile, we’ll take a look at the urban ecology of the neighborhood and how that can be moved into the walking tour.

Parallel Histories in When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy

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Parallelism is a potent storytelling tool. Though lesser stories paper over their own bankruptcy with meaningless repetition, it’s also one of the primary raw materials for theming. Two recent releases to arrive at my local theaters are When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy, two films that have little in common at the levels of style, plot, and subject matter, but that explore similar themes using comparable narrative devices. To be brief, we can split this discussion into two: the common narrative device and the common theme.

The Common Device: Parallel Histories

When Marnie Was There is a genealogical story connecting the lives of two girls named Anna and Marnie. While Anna, a Japanese student from Hokkaido, is spending a therapeutic summer away from her foster mother and her urban home in Sapporo, she meets Marnie by some marshes that divide a splendid but abandoned mansion from a village. The catch is that Marnie is an apparition of some kind––whether a ghost, a memory, or a dream figure is never stated outright––who invites Anna into her own time and place. In Marnie’s world, at night, the mansion is full of dancing and song, as her jet-setting parents return from their frequent excursions to celebrate a few days at home per year with their daughter. We gradually learn that her idyllic party life is the only true life she leads, as the rest of the year is marked by Marnie’s psychological and physical abuse by the maids, who enjoy tormenting her.

Anna’s troubles, meanwhile, are both physical and psychological. They are, respectively, asthma and a detached mode of living, expressing no emotions and withdrawing into herself and her sketchbook. She has no meaningful bonds, even with her foster mother. The latter disconnect is the main sore point for her, the “problem” that she as a character needs to overcome. On top of that, her blue eyes give her away as a mixed-race person, causing social friction between her and the other children in the village where she stays. As she learns more about Marnie and tells more about herself, she recognizes the parallels between their lives and begins to open up not only to Marnie but also to people from her own time. Near the end of the film, we learn that Marnie was Anna’s grandmother and the woman who raised her until she died and left Anna with her foster mother. Anna’s biological mother died in a car crash one winter soon after Anna was born. The key to unraveling Anna’s psychological difficulties, then, is meeting Marnie and understanding her life and the life that her mother led, helping her to cope with what she saw as a chain of abandonment: her mother and grandmother died, and her foster mother is no substitute.

Love and Mercy employs a similar device, but rather than having two generations of people meeting each other, the film follows a single character in two mostly isolated time periods. We meet Brian Wilson, young leader of the Beach Boys, who pursues his dreams of creating the greatest pop album of all time. Working feverishly in the studio despite the skepticism of his band mates and the snide disapproval of his father, he eventually collapses due to overwork and mental illness. He is ultimately unable to complete his masterwork. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Wilson is trapped by his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, who uses his legal guardianship over Wilson to exploit the aging musician and raise his own social status. It is established that Landy and Wilson’s father are repressive and controlling twins, father figures who care much more about cash flows than harmonies and composition. Eventually, though the Brian Wilson of the 1960s, like Marnie, must leave what he treasures behind, slipping into death (literal in Marnie’s case and a functional death in Wilson’s), the 1980s Wilson, like Anna, finds a significant relationship that helps him escape the alienation and despair he’s caught in.

There are differences in how the films resolve their protagonists’ internal struggles, however. In Marnie, sexuality is present but is left relatively fluid and dynamic. Anna never fastens onto a boy; in fact, her life is almost devoid of meaningful connections to men both at the start and at the end of the film. She has a mostly-absent foster father, her biological father’s face is never even depicted, and all of her significant relationships in the plot are with other women or girls. Her relationship with Marnie is, of course never sexual in a direct way, though it has romantic overtones, but it’s the Platonic friendship that matters the most. In Love and Mercy, meanwhile, we have a more traditional story where the most important connection our male hero makes is with a woman who helps him to find a renewed life. They settle down in happy heterosexual bliss, with the boy-man Wilson of the majority of the film finally free from his childhood bed and inserted into a marriage bed. Don’t get me wrong: he is far from the protagonist of the 1980s part of the film, but he is also the only major character who has a sustained presence between the two time blocs. It is his story that we want to learn, despite the most active agent in the 1980s part being Melinda, the woman who rescues and marries Brian Wilson.

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The Common Theme: The Community of Money

Anna and Brian Wilson’s most critical relationships are undermined by money. In Wilson’s case, his father sells off the Beach Boys’ song publishing rights for a fraction of what they would eventually be worth. His doctor and his father, the two father figure-antagonists in Love and Mercy, are both attached to Wilson for the money. Of course, his relationship with his actual father are rather more complicated, since the latter was also physically and psychologically abusive and impresses on Brian that he will never succeed or achieve anything noteworthy despite his obvious talents. In Marnie, Anna’s source of alienation from her foster mother is not their lack of biological similarity but instead the fact that the latter receives state subsidies to pay for Anna’s expenses. And this has been kept “secret,” though Anna found out herself by accident one day. Traditionally family bonds, then, are corroded and even replaced by the community of money, The residual connection has a nightmarish effect on the protagonists, who feel guilty and trapped by their relationships despite their misgivings. Ultimately, though, both films resolve this in their own way. For Wilson, as mentioned, the escape hatch was a “real” relationship, untainted by a whit of care about money.

For Anna and her foster mother, the answer is resignation and acceptance. The truth is finally outed, and the two are able to continue living together. When Marnie Was There thus directly comments on the obsession with blood relations and conventional relationships: that they don’t ultimately matter. What matters is the relationships that endure for the benefit of both people, and the success of those has little to do with blood and everything to do with communication and proximity.

Robert Biel: The Entropy of Capitalism

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I first learned of Robert Biel from a quotation from him that Kerspeldebeb put on the back of The Communist Necessity. What a mystery it is how I hadn’t heard of him before, considering my insatiable interest in environmental history and its intersection with Marxist political economy. And here there was a political ecologist who had been doing significant work on Eurocentrism, imperialism, and now general systems theory in a thoroughly materialist vein. Having now read it, I can affirm that The Entropy of Capitalism, published by Haymarket, fulfilled my expectations and more. I am actually eager to revisit it after a brief respite so that I can use some of its concepts in a more rigorous way in my own historical writing.

One reason why this book might have wallowed in unjustified obscurity is its imposing ad copy. Haymarket sells it as a book about general systems theory intersecting with Marxism and thermodynamics, which sounds almost too esoteric. What is remarkable, however, is that the book is aimed squarely at a concrete study of the most important issues facing humanity in the twenty-first century: the decay of capitalism and what that might mean for the viability of society and, on the other hand, potential spaces for revolutionary work that are opening up because of capitalism’s lack of a new accumulation regime. In other words, capitalism is intellectually and institutionally bankrupt, increasingly running up against the objective limits of cheap energy and unlimited growth, and is as such consuming itself and, if we are not swift and merciless in our work against it, the basis of flourishing human life itself. “Socialism or barbarism” expanded from a slogan to a dense and relevant study.

But what do thermodynamics, information, and other parts of systems theory have to contribute to Biel’s Marxist political economy? As I read, it became clear that there are three main systems working in the book: capitalism, the human world, and the ecosphere in general. The first two, obviously, are mostly inseparable at this point, given that capitalism is the word for the current way that the human race metabolizes natural resources and processes them in production, distribution, and consumption. Being a good Marxist, however, Biel recognizes the unique human capacity for adaptation, which runs beyond the limits that capitalism attempts to enforce. His discussions use thermodynamics and information theory, along with references to cybernetics, free software literature, and other intellectual “sites of resistance’ to articulate the relationship between self-generating human society and the capitalist forces that parasitize upon it.

A large part of this is a reevaluation of neoliberalism as a “systemic turn” in capitalism, a shift from the centralized, modernistic/Fordist model of monopoly capitalism to an approach that attempts to unleash informal and self-regulating human capacities in order to profit off of them. Everything from “Japanese management” to privatization dogmas to microfinance constitutes an attempt––a last attempt, if Biel is right––to construct a stable accumulation regime that allows capitalism to function as smoothly as possible. These moves, which on the surface look like they bolster local and individual freedoms, are in fact dangerous energies that capitalism has to maintain within an enclosure preventing them from overrunning the boundaries capitalism finds acceptable. Seen through a thermodynamic lens, it is easy to see how this is a doomed proposition, as the system attempts to extract more energy from the informal sector and human intellectual capacities while also spending more and more energy containing them with militarist regimes, etc. This leads Biel into a spellbinding and illuminating account of post-1998 militarism as it develops in the core of the capitalist system and produces an “order” that encourages the chaotic tendencies of capitalism in order to justify its own repressive reflex.

The most important area of the book for me, however, is how the notion of entropy and the concept of peripheries in imperialism studies overlap throughout the book. In Biel’s political ecology, the environment and the Third World––along with enclaves within the First World and women and minority populations––are sites of both extraction, the outsides that capitalism can use for resources, and as dumping sites for entropy. Entropy takes a multitude of forms. Material forms include pollution, carbon emissions, radioactive material, and so on. Social manifestations of entropy include all kinds of social degradation and chaos. Entropy is exported along with capital, though often in unexpected ways. Witness the United States, for instance, which itself absorbs a huge amount of social entropy that is not ameliorated by social safety nets or an extensive welfare state, producing urban decay and unbounded tensions between population groups. As we’ve seen in recent years, the militarization of America is as much internal as it is external, with the system, personified by its individual rulers and private firms, expends more and more energy into containing the immense social potential of the population and channeling it into capitalist uses.

Biel’s range of intellectual references is staggering, but all of it is united by a singular and rigorous method founded in dialectical materialism. Speculative invention of concepts or futuristic stargazing are kept to an absolute minimum, and though the picture given in the book often feels bleak, it is never unjustified or alarmist. Its fundamental message, that capitalism can never operate in an equilibrium with its environment or its social peripheries and is doomed either to be overthrown or to drag humanity down into an abyss, is troubling. But we can see oppositional and revolutionary tendencies developing in embryo throughout the world, especially where the contradictions with the environment and the peripheries are the strongest––in India, especially––and this leaves us with a basic strategy for toppling capitalism in a controlled demolition rather than in a spectacular implosion. I have left much unmentioned in this brief write-up, including the whole discussion of how militarism operates, the necessity of revolutionizing agriculture, and the equation of entropy with homogenization––but I would encourage all Marxists and those interested in political ecology to give this book a read. It is certainly difficult, but more than worth the investment in time and effort because of its immense contribution to our understanding of capitalism in this time of crisis.

New Summer Series: Public History Journal

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Most of the time, this blog is strictly concerned with what I read, watch, and listen to. IT did originate as media review blog, and serves that purpose much of the time, so that is far from a bad thing. Nonetheless, I’m happy to report that my scholarly and political interests have gotten me into a more productive role. That is, I will be responsible for overseeing the scripting of a public history application for the city I live in. For my last undergraduate semester, I produced a similar project with my classmates as collaborators. The new project will be quite different insofar as I will be working alone most of the time and with much less class supervision. Additionally, I will be getting some compensation, which is somewhat surprising these days.

I hope to dedicate a whole series of blog posts to this subject, since it will likely involve a large amount of archival research and background investigation. In turn, these activities impinge on issues of historical method, which are relevant to me as a Marxist. In addition, of course, the project will be a public history assignment, meaning that it will for a wider audience than the usual academic circles. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hurley as explored in his book Beyond Preservation, endeavors like this are often tools of white colonization of whole sections of the city, displacing the original residents and creating price spirals in the rent market. Hurley’s main objective in his book was to show that history can be sued as an oppositional tool, creating local community cohesion and even fostering pride through the production of historical projects in tandem with local populations.

Since both of my projects will revolve around local parks, there might be limited opportunities for engagement with communities in a deep and considered way. I hope to at least make myself acquainted with these areas in order to give my writing a more concrete cast than it otherwise might have. Mainly, I hope to uncover the limitations of a mobile app project like this one, though I have a few ideas already. The problem, of course, is that those with the leisure and initiative to explore public history are probably going to be at least petty bourgeois, invested more in the nostalgic and entertainment aspects of history than the creation of any kind of camaraderie or local power. Not to mention, depending on where these parks are, it might be in a bourgeois neighbourhood to begin with.

All of these issues and more are likely to come up in the course of writing. This series will cover theoretical tidbits, issues of method, fun anecdotes, and frustrating problems that I encounter during the project. Let’s see where this goes.

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf

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Take a look at the commanding heights of the music industry, and you notice that most of the transformations that have occurred in producing and distributing music have left its old guard unaffected. If anything, the core music industry is more centralized than ever, a consequence of banding together to bolster their profit margins through the decline of the CD. Even the basic rituals of album contracts, release dates, and PR are more or less standing in the most lucrative parts of the industry. It’s largely been at the fringes that we’ve seen the intensely networked, more decentralized tendencies enabled by the Internet embed themselves. And even then, it was more because the old structures could no longer provide a full-time job. As in so many areas of life, musicians had to become self-promoters and “business innovators” as a second job to creating music. They’re all neoliberal entrepreneurs, or at least encouraged to do so, and the results, judging by the widespread reports about how even popular bands struggle to pay their rent, are not as promising as DIY utopian rhetoric would have us believe.

Different acts have experimented with different coping mechanisms. There was the notorious tip jar approach that Radiohead took with In Rainbows in 2007, which is now the bedrock of the Humble Bundle game sale model. Meanwhile, we have Chance the Rapper, who has yet to release anything under his own name that that requires you to pay for access––even in theory. His biggest solo release to this point, the exuberant Acid Rap, was a mixtape rather than a commercial product, whose popularity is measured in Youtube views for its songs or download numbers on mixtape sites. With the old centralized capitalist music industry hurting, he has chosen to stick to his own abilities, building webs of associations with big name rappers and producers and selling merchandise to generate publicity and goodwill from fans. And revenue, of course.

Surf is not a Chance the Rapper LP, though it, too, requires no payment. Its creator is Chicago Northsider Nico Segal AKA Donnie Trumpet, an old friend of Chance’s. But Chance does appear on almost every track in some capacity, and the band he put together, the Social Experiment, works as Donnie’s accompaniment. It’s a deliberately communitarian enterprise, sporting a “yes, and” approach to instrumentation, genre, and guest appearances. Its marketing, including the music video for lead single “Sunday Candy,” suggests that (elaborate, heavily rehearsed) community theatre supplies the underlying ethos for Surf. This seems a natural fit for the band, most of whose members developed their skills in high school youth programs and community bands in Chicago. Major label guest stars like Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Big Sean might not be native members of this Chi-town club band, but they’re treated without fanfare or ostentation, hospitably ushered into the spacious good vibes the Social Experiment summons. Jazz, rap, psychedelia, soul, whatever. It’s just about the vibes.

Given that its genesis was so loose and collaborative––and protracted––the music expresses a remarkably cohesive set of themes. The music rides a line between jazz, psychedelic soul, and hip hop, pulling in synthesized beats, real drums, Segal’s omnipresent trumpet work, and whole crowds of harmonized voices. Anti-coolness manifesto “Wanna Be Cool” praises personal authenticity with triumphant trumpets, Chance’s breathless rapping and singing, and overlapping guitars worked into the background. Not surprisingly, references to social media posting come up, and the 21-year-old Chance seemingly recognizes that, despite building his own image through those services, there is a self-destructive side to all the posing in front of the cameras.

Meanwhile, over in “Familiar,” which bridges the two halves of the album, the album makes good on the band members’ protestations that despite the difference between their music and the grim swamp of drill music, they’re all from the same musical scene. After all, how different can they be if Donnie Trumpet can comment sarcastically through his instrument while Chance the Rapper and King Louie commiserate about indistinguishable, vapid women? It’s probably the best instrumentation and arrangement on the album, with a piano, horn section, and even a 1970s-style flute player providing an upbeat accompaniment to the rappers’ cutting comments.

My pet term for huge collective music like this is “Sesame Street music,” and I previously applied it to bands like The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene. Surf’s neo-hippie optimism, excellent playing, and sunshine-drenched production all lend itself to this label, even if a few f-bombs would keep it off PBS. Though it won’t change how music fundamentally “works” for and under capital, I appreciate the attempt to keep production in the family, even if it does reinforce a certain fetishism for localism and smallness that is already too prevalent in independent music. What I see in Surf is a great example of what is possible when a chorus of egos gets roped into a huge sing-in. It’s excellent music with a beautiful way of complimenting the sunny days and sympathizing with you on the rainy ones. A keeper for sure, and hopefully a portent of more to come.

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