The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: July, 2015

And the Clouds Burst Open: The End of My Fiction Drought


Trying to understand my own habits reminds me of trying to understand history. Of course, I’m a historian, so many of my habits already have something to do with historical investigation. Putting aside the occupational hazards for a moment, let me explain. Habits are cycles of behavior, circular chains of acts and periods of rest. Though they can feel automatic at times, you have to act, even if it’s without thinking, to maintain them. It would seem that habits are incredibly fragile cycles, but they are often incredibly difficult to dislodge. Often a habit will appear to be dragging the person by the chain rather than the other way around, like a person who gets stuck in a ferris wheel gone Final Destination. My points is that both habits and history can be described using categories of continuity and change.

Explaining history requires that you look at how a phenomenon began, always arising from a context that predated it, and how that phenomenon perpetuated itself. You can look at it, as I often like doing, as a kind of organism: what does it feed on to keep going, what kind of energy does it possess, what is its behavior, and how does is it affecting/being affected by its context? “Old habits die hard,” or so the saying goes, but why is that? It seems as though it becomes an extra-personal process, and whether it’s healthy or alienating has a lot to do with how we view it.

Many kinds of chemical addictions have often been personified as demonic beings pushing people into situations and behavior they would never have been involved in otherwise. Historical and geographical systems––interlocking in space and time––possess the same extra-personal and systemic quality. Does that mean we can write off capitalism as a highly destructive collective habit we’ve developed? Not precisely, but the analogy is useful if (and this is an elephantine “if”) you believe the solution to it is to radically change material conditions. Even after an undesirable habit is suppressed at last, its effects linger, etching scars on the body and mind.

Thinking in this vein, it’s curious to me why I stopped reading fiction after my second year in university. I had been a voracious reader of every sort of book before then, and never made a conscious resolution to read only nonfiction for nearly two and a half years. But my diet of Marxist theory, church history, geography, philosophy, and all the “nonfictional” subjects that predominated in my university’s academic library subtly pushed fiction out of my life. Once again, we can call upon the categories of continuity and change.

Before the drought, I read fiction for a variety of reasons. As a young adult, I read mainly science fiction and fantasy books, mainly for entertainment or because the book had a reputation as an “essential” read. Hence why I read so much Isaac Asimov in high school. Other than a few “unshakable” classics, however, my taste for fantasy dried up as I grew up. One reason was shallow: adult fantasy and sci-fi book covers are repulsive to look at. Skittish about sexual content (I was still a Calvinist back then), I rejected anything with T&A on the cover outright. Cheesy illustrations and gaudy font choices didn’t help matters either. High school English classes also imparted to me an appreciation for so-called literary fiction, so by my late teens I had gravitated toward reading canon books like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner, a smattering of modern masters like Paul Auster, etc. Occasionally I would invest my time in a book by China Miéville to satisfy my lingering hunger for genre fiction, but I stuck to a fairly austere regimen through my fourth year of secondary school and on into university.

The edition of Kraken my local library had. What a trip this was when I read it in high school.

The edition of Kraken my local library had. What a trip this was when I read it in high school.

Eventually, I gave up because I found nonfiction so much more worthy of my time. Other than a Russian literature class and a few historical novels we read in history classes, I stuck to the more sober and fact-based stacks in the library. Out with Joyce, in with Marx. Out with Miéville, in with Spinoza.

After graduating from my university, though, I started, without much conscious reason, heading back into fiction. My partner prodded me in this direction, turning me on to comics––a medium I rarely even touched before I was 20 or so. More improbably, I dove back into the long-neglected pool of speculative fiction. Nnedi Okorafor, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jeff Vandermeer have all featured on my reading lists for the last couple of months. I plan to write about all of them in another post later, but I’m also hoping to get back into China Miéville, whose work I once planned to consume whole over a summer. I now recognize that not all of fantasy and sci-fi is tied up in toxic white male self-affirmation and cult-building. It’s not all reactionary crap, in other words, despite my lengthy experience with fan communities that drew me to the opposite conclusion. So here I am, one who scoffed at the idea that there could be transgressive genre fiction––despite being introduced to adult “weird” through a Marxist legal scholar!––biting the dust of my old dead words.


I don’t know how long this renewed interest will last, especially with all the transformations going on in my life in the near future. At the moment, though, it seems this break in the drought indicates a certain new maturity on my part, a recognition that fiction can serve the revolutionary mind just as well as theory, or even better depending on what you’re reading. Constructing a whole new world requires, first, the force of obliteration, which can be revolutionary as well as paranoid and reactionary. Fantasy and science fiction, fueled by visions of a better future rather than a dreamlike and ideological past, have won their place in my life.


Princess Mononoke and History

A piece that my human editor wrote for his alma mater’s history department blog earlier this summer. It’s a fine piece of writing for a human being.

Historical Horizons

by Jonathan Hielkema.

No. When you talk about plants, or an ecological system or forest, things are very easy if you decide that bad people ruined it. But that’s not what humans have been doing. It’s not bad people who are destroying forests.

–Hayao Miyazaki

Title art of Princess Mononoke film featuring girl on a white wolf and prince on an ox.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononokefollows a young native Japanese (Emishi) prince named Ashitaka. In the opening sequence, a dying boar demon curses him, leaving him exiled from his dwindling tribe and seeking the source of his affliction. He discovers that the demon was in fact a transformed boar god, shot by a bullet made in Iron Town, a new industrial city in the midst of Muromachi Japan run by Lady Eboshi.

Eboshi is a proto-bourgeois revolutionary who provides dignified labour for lepers and prostitutes while laying waste to nearby forests to feed the forges and waging a war of attrition against the nature gods guarding…

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Public History Journal Part 5: Human Ecology


“Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”

-Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”

When settlers built the city, they built it to face away from the rivers and streams. Housing all turned inward, putting these vital flows of water “out of sight, out of mind.” Though the pre-railroad age utterly depended on rivers and streams for shipping and transportation, in the era of industrial capitalism the rivers became sinks for entropy of all kinds. Undesirable people are sent “up the river” just as refuse and wastage formed rancid slurries in the streams. you could always tell what color the refrigerator plant was painting its wares because the excess paint drained directly into one of the creek’s tributaries. From the beginning of white settlement in the area, the creek functioned as a periphery, an “outside” that could be mined for gypsum and filled with all the undifferentiated garbage the humans didn’t care for any longer.

Reading back through old histories of the city and the region around it, one never gets the sense that people lived with these streams and rivers just as much as they lived with each other. You learn that the rivers carried logs, ships, rafts, the occasional group of swimmers. Every once in awhile a drowning, a logjam, a stoppage would cause some alarm, and then long bouts of silence.

In the neighbourhood I’m studying, there is a creek. It’s no Mississippi or Seine or Hudson, and in many parts of the area it’s barely visible even from a few yards away. A local family park is named after it but it offers no view of the water itself. Not that you could do much with the water if you could see it; merely touching it might be enough to make you seriously ill. Old stories from a century ago reminisce about naked boys splashing in the streams. Long ago, the water agreed with the human body, where now it is pure poison. Even now, the community is built with its back turned to the creek. I’m guessing many longtime residents are scarcely aware of the creek’s existence.

Telling the history of the neighborhood means telling the story of the creek. Without the creek, without the river it drains into, there is no city. Human societies function on the backs of these natural flows, flows that can be tamed––a WPA project buried one of the local streams underground so it could serve as a storm drain––but that are usually allowed to subsist at some level. Paradoxically, the more human inputs have changed this creek, the more that it escapes control. Flash flooding is now so extreme that the banks of the creek cannot possibly be repaired for years. People are working on it, working to transform the water, but it will take many years to undo more than a century of worse-than-neglect.

How to make the stream part of the human story here? Partly because, as you might have guessed, the health of the community is linked to the health of its water. Secondly, the creek figures in the memories of notable people from the area. Thirdly, it remains there, and its current state is a testament to the struggles of the neighborhood, relatively impoverished and forgotten itself, and how the wealthier people upstream give little heed to the people who might accidentally bathe in their agricultural phosphates. But it’s important to recognize that bad people didn’t make it this way. Moral evil did not pollute this waterway, at least not mostly. In the vast majority of cases, we are talking about an entire society that simply does not know the value of the river, does not taste the venom it’s dousing its own blood with. Not only ignorance, but also the demands of capital accumulation. Nature gives, nature takes away if taken from too much.

Integrating ecology and human societies is not as difficult as it may seem. Karl Marx recognized this because he recognized that human beings are not merely laborers. They are also natural beings, and even the stellar reaches of their consciousness are the effects of natural materials. What we don’t want to do is differentiate too far, to draw hard lines where creeks meander softly through residential areas, green spaces burst sidewalks, and people fish in dead rivers for salmon only blocks from their houses. What history must do in this case is to turn people’s faces toward the water, allowing them to grasp, even if only partially, the fact that our environment is an index of our social ills, and only when we make a tough reckoning with the past can we correct our current deviations. History can’t do all of this on its own, but without it we would forget when the creek was still a swimming hole.

On the Crisis in Greece and Capitulation of Tsipras Government

We need to offer our support to the Greek masses and especially the progressive forces that have been organizing resistance among them. Sison’s message is timely, even if it appears as though victory is out of reach.

Public History Journal Entry 4: Funny Bits

Zoning meeting

Zoning meeting

Doing history at the local level is often tedious. Just today, I worked my way through an archive of old neighborhood association newsletters. Such publications are the definition of empty repetition unless you have a personal stake in the endless notices about the importance of not parking your car on your front lawn.

After all, the neighborhood association got that zoning ordinance passed, so they’ll be damned if they let their own members violate it. And on and on ad infinitum. Every year an annual Easter Egg hunt, every year another commemoration for the dead rich white guy the area was named after. But every once in awhile you get something that gets you to laugh for sheer antique absurdity.

Photo on 7-16-15 at 3.35 PM

Above is a yellow-paper flyer distributed with the neighborhood association periodical. It’s informing citizens to go to a zoning policy meeting to enact ordinances against installing arcade cabinets in certain businesses. Grievances include children “hanging out” and blocking sidewalks, rowdiness, and overall grunginess. Every thirty-to-fortysomething’s arcade nostalgia flipped through a dark mirror or paranoia.

Here the historical appeal is that arcade cabinets were at a liminal stage in American history. they were ubiquitous enough to spark the interest of the neighborhood association, and also just mysterious and new enough to make that interest entirely negative. Never underestimate the capacity of worried homeowners to overreact to “kids these days.”

Its humor stems both from the already-mentioned absurdity, particularly the over-hyphenated, hyperventilating spelling of video games as VIDEO-GAMES. It’s not exactly like reading Chaucer, but the humble line separating video from games ignites enough of a shock of recognition to get a laugh out of most people I show this to.

On a more serious note, or at least as serious as this bee-coloured bit of property value panic can get, we can see the typical role played by the post-1967 neighborhood association in social struggles. Because their funding and membership stems from homeowners and its political goals are all oriented around social harmony and, of course, property values, their relationships with youth, the police, and “disreputable” institutions all take certain predictable avenues. That its opposition to unsupervised youthful free time extended this far at one point is certainly telling––and, in hindsight, hilarious.

All the News Fit to Buy: Samir Amin, the Death of the Dissolve, Media Power


Global capitalism has often been caricatured as a Godzilla-sized octopus, sucker-studded tentacles tenaciously gripping the globe. No doubt no slander or libel is directed at real, fleshy octopi, who are delightful creatures with impressive flexibility and intellect. But let’s take a leap into the fantastical and mistake capitalism for a real octopus––well, what do we expect of such a beast? We know from the caricatures, and our own elementary observations, that the octopus has tentacles and suckers. When it wants to conceal itself, though, the octopus has other, more diabolical weapons to deploy. Camouflage, sheer speed, and, of course, its cloud of ink. Before losing our heads in this multi-armed analogy, let’s remember that capitalism relies just as heavily on ink for its own evasive manoeuvres as the humble mollusk.

Capitalists do not carry around bags of ink to throw in workers’ faces in a pinch. Capitalists deploy ink in even more subtle ways. Money is, at this time in history, the master of media. We could even say that capitalist oligopolies are the animating intelligence behind almost all media, providing the axioms that govern how the masses receive and process information. Why is this? In the majority of cases, the media propagated to the world flows to us directly from monopolistic companies. At the corporate level, shareholders and management determine information policy and what kind of standard the company’s output will conform to. Samir Amin writes about how this process operates in our own moment:

“What is unfolding is not what is called a ‘market economy’ but a ‘market-oriented society. Within this framework, media…realizes that [its] autonomy has diminished, relatively speaking. Without necessarily becoming instruments at the beck and call of others, they find themselves in situations where they have to fulfill useful functions that are necessary to guarantee the success of deployments of supreme powers of global monopolies.”¹

Even when people working in media are not mere sock-puppets for capitalist firms and states, therefore, they have to conform to the overall logic of the system itself. That logic is capital accumulation directed by imperialist monopolies and the states that nurture and protect them. Independent and democratically minded reporters working for a large news corporation, for instance, might submit and occasionally even publish reporting that informs and educates the public in a way that escapes the mandate of the organization, but this will become increasingly difficult if it conflicts with the needs of the stockholders, advertisers, or, in some cases, a reactionary commentariat.

Media remains an autonomous entity within society, but it is nonetheless subordinated to capital. Usually, this does not mean a resort to absolute falsehood in reporting or the fabrication of outright propaganda in a film studio. Instead, capital prescribes the limits of what can be said in media, valuing ideological consistency secondarily and profitability primarily. Just as capitalist profits could be compared to a form of taxation imposed on workers, the logic of the capitalist system operating within media can be compared to a form of censorship, occasionally enforced with an iron hand but usually operating in a subterranean way, absorbed and normalized by the people employed within these firms.

Profitability also determines the editing and selection process in creating media and the form in which it’s published. Online, the fact that most websites earn money though advertising means that whatever drives the highest statistics is what will be featured. The recent shutdown of the film site The Dissolve illustrates the fate of even relatively populist and “inclusive” enthusiast media sources under this ruthless profit regime. While producing writing that was of a high standard of craft and tending to include either soft left-liberal or apolitical content, the site was nevertheless shut down by its corporate owner, Pitchfork. In the rushing waterfall of monetary flows, the most ardent ideals are bound to falter against the current. As capitalism does, it is intensively commodifying cultural production of all sorts, taking some of the inherent goods of the internet––its low level of entry, its openness, its networked structure, its immediacy––and using them in a parasitic way, beating writers into submitting to low or no pay for high value product. Take this blog as an example, though I would hesitate before claiming that I could generate “high value” for anyone here.

It’s easy to “feel” the spatial vastness and fluid networking of the internet and see it as empowering for artists and other creators. To do so is ignoring that even a potentially liberating space, if controlled by parasitic forces, will be “enclosed’ and put to work for the bosses. Of course, that enclosure is not complete, and there are oppositional forces using the Internet to facilitate their activities. But they do so against the ingrained logic of how media, online or not, functions in capitalism. Capitalists need depoliticized, misinformed, atomized subjects, and the bourgeois media does its bit to produce those subjects. It gives you the hunger before you start to feel that you need what it’s feeding you.²

In that way, media fits right in with the rest of contemporary capitalism. It’s crucial for communists and the rest of the radical left to understand this and use it as a basis for rallying resistance to the colonization of everyday life in all its qualities by capitalism. Not just resistance, even, but the overthrow of the entire situation, and the beginning of a long road to socialism. We had best start using our imaginations now.


1. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2013), 36-37.

2. All of this would, of course, benefit from an injection of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the role of the Marxist party in struggling for dominance within these “civil” institutions, but I did not have the space for it nor the foresight to realize how invaluable such a contribution is.

Public History Journal Part 3: Motion Tracking and Stories of Struggles

After doing some initial drafting in the morning, I took an extended walk through the neighborhood my project is covering. I had already taken a preparatory look with a walk through a local wooded preserve and park, but I knew that I would have to test out the routes I was planning. Getting beyond the abstraction of mapping software, statistics, and Google Streetview, despite the usefulness of these tools, is essential for creating a worthwhile walking tour. After all, the proof of whether it’s a good script or a good route is in reading while walking.

Other than taking note of landmarks that hadn’t shown up in my research before, re-applying sunscreen, and noting routes that are especially desirable or unworkable, I spent the three hours reflecting on the project and letting my mind wander. Hopefully this post will grant some insight and concreteness to these thoughts.

1. Historical walking tours are much more sensitive than academic papers to the intersection between time and space. Ideally, stops on the tour are places where time is more condensed and visible than in others. What I mean is that these places are able to embody the processes of change that have transformed the local area through time. A local park contains a closed swimming pool, a lodge housing the neighborhood association HQ, and the gravestone of a local notable. These are significant visual cues for researchers and people who are taking the tour, either because they are artifacts of a remote period or because they provoke a historical question. Why is the pool closed? When and why did this neighborhood association come into being? Why are most of the churches to the west of the park Spanish-speaking while most of the ones to the east are English-speaking?

Of course, these are only preliminary questions. One round of research will allow you to take what you known and reconsider the way the question is posed and what possible answers present themselves. For example, we know that the local pool was closed because of a municipal budget crisis and that there is a colossal private aquatic center just to the south of the park. We can now start digging into the layers, asking why the balance of social forces permitted such a closing and why the for-pay athletic center looks a great deal more opulent than the park in its current state. Wider conditions obviously contributed to the crisis in such a small city, opening a road to a whole branching tree of questions and tangents waiting to be tapped. Not every single one can be accounted for in a small walking tour, but the important point is that the contradictions and forces present in the area always both local and more global.

2. Finally, a question: how can the historian convey the political and class-struggle character of a given neighborhood through historical bits attached to existing “significant” points? The nature of the built environment is that it appears permanent and unchanging except during extraordinary times. Breaking the stasis of the environment, opening people’s eyes to the collective struggles that shape the neighborhood and its ecology, are just as important tasks as getting all the facts checked and verified. It’s difficult, but I think a walking tour, with its strange and wandering character, can assist in shaking off some of the complacency associated with such recreation if it nudges in the right way. How to do this is still a mystery to me.

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