The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: March, 2016

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective 3: Coonskin

Bakshi Logo

In 1975, Ralph Bakshi completed his trilogy of hammer-blunt urban satires. Coonskin not only cares the torch forward from Fritz and Heavy Traffic, it stokes it and hurls it through the nearest window. Bakshi sold the film to his producers as a corrosive remake of Song of the South, uprooting the Uncle Remus tall tales from the Cotton Belt and resetting them in Harlem. Like the previous two films, Coonskin is a mixed-media work, using another live-action framing story and making liberal use of stock footage, photographic backgrounds, and multiple animation styles.

Framing narratives are often a waste of time, but here, as in Heavy Traffic, the films are wise to give the audience some kind of entry point. In this case, our framing narrative is a prison break being stage by two black inmates. They huddle underneath a guard tower and the older of the two (Scatman Crothers) tells the stories of Rabbit, Bear, and Preacher Fox to the younger man (Philip Michael Thomas) to pass the time and soothe their nerves. Meanwhile, their getaway car approaches, driven at high speeds by Samson (Barry White). While it doesn’t take up much of the running time, the framing story is put to great use. Other than giving us a foothold in the chaos to come, its rural Southern setting presents a strong contrast with the Harlem crime story to come.

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The film opens in the relatively tranquil South before moving into the urban murk.

Our three protagonists, Rabbit (Thomas), Bear (Barry White), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone), are leaving the South after Rabbit sells off his house to a brothel owner. They drive off to Harlem and quickly stir up the hornets, inciting a number of colourful incidents. What they discover is that the neighbourhood is far from a paradise of black brotherhood. The mafia holds the town under their thumb, spreading heroin among the population and siphoning money to the whiter areas downtown. The cops are in the bag for the mob as well, collecting protection money from vice and prostitution rings. Even the local revolutionary preacher is nothing but a fraud peddling radical politics and pigging off of his congregation’s generosity.

Unlike Heavy Traffic, which at least tangentially dealt with labourers and artists, there is a total lack of constructive labour going on in Coonskin. Everyone is either working for or patronizing criminal operations, creating a suffocating portrait of urban life. Bakshi stamps out all traces of romanticism; his Harlem is no paradise but a place to escape from, as illustrated in the best single scene in the film.

A black mother rocks her child to sleep and tells the audience the story of a cockroach who lived in the floorboards of her rickety apartment. She fades into a monochrome silhouette while the animated story plays out against a black background, paying homage to the style of cartoonist George Herriman. The cockroach, which is at first a source of annoyance and fear, gradually sticks around so long that it becomes a familiar touchstone in the apartment, and the woman and the bug eventually stop taking their Tom and Jerry chases seriously. Eventually, though, the little insect packs up his bags and leaves, telling his human roommate that there’s no future in Harlem and that he has to move on to a better place. The drawings, voiceover, and pacing of the scene contribute to a sense of loneliness and despair, the more private and inward side of suffering in Coonskin. 

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Most of the time, though, we’re following our trio of animal protagonists on their quest to make it in the city. Rabbit, in a parody of the classic briar patch story, tricks the false prophet into throwing him into a garbage can out the window. He kills the preacher and goes on a quest to break the grip of the mob on the city and keep Harlem’s crime business in black hands. We see his confrontations with a racist and homophobic Irish cop and his employer, the grotesque Godfather. Bear eventually becomes a mafia boxer and media sensation, while Preacher Fox runs a church/brothel where he sells one-day marriages to make the whole business nice and legal. Each of them is portrayed in a manner befitting their animal namesakes: Rabbit is a clever survivor, Bear a lumbering giant who wants to protect his people and his friends, and Fox is, well, not to be trusted. Unlike the original Remus tales, their escapades are not meant to teach moral lessons as much as to express righteous outrage at racism and exploitation. None of our leads are honourable, and their main virtue is their loyalty and their unwavering opposition to the Mafia and the police. They survive, and in a city this bleak, they have little else to which they can aspire. And if they can get rich while doing it, so much the better.

While Bakshi’s use of racial stereotypes is what rightly gets the most attention from critics, the black caricatures are actually less intriguing to me than his treatment of the Godfather’s family. To put it bluntly, he pushes his images into an almost pure surrealism. Our mafia kingpin and his family live in the New York subway at some indeterminate location. Their living space is depicted as literally hellish, populated by bloodsucking imps, nude nymphs, and the diabolical spectacle of the Godfather himself. His body is disgusting and alienating, particularly his face, which looks like the aftermath of an unlucky meteor shower. He speaks in a stereotypical Italian accent and consorts with his prime advisor, a Punchinello-esque child (or person of short stature) clown who swings around the subway on a rope. On first viewing, the effect is jarring. The world of the mob, while showing the polar opposite of the romanticism of Coppola’s The Godfather, is also completely detached from reality.

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Coonskin is a chance for Bakshi to take caricatures and try to wring cartoony catharsis out of them. Every racist character is given an over-the-top comeuppance, whether trapped in a tar baby posing as Rabbit, burned to death while wearing blackface and a minstrel outfit, or painted black and set loose for the cops to slaughter them. One of animation’s greatest assets is that it can freely use abstract or more iconic imagery to communicate more clearly and more indirectly than live action. Caricature is one of the most politically and racially loaded techniques available to animators, and Bakshi and his collaborators have gleeful fun throughout Coonskin skewering white hypocrisy, black sellouts, Italian mobsters, gay drag queens/mafia hitmen, and the entire edifice of Disney-sanctioned stories about racial harmony. The film doesn’t have political points to make; it has targets to destroy. It’s an almost pure blast of negative energy that has no patience for humanity or tenderness. If we agree with its portrait of life in mid-70s New York, we have to conclude that the film matches its subject matter perfectly.

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Bear, Rabbit, and Fox strolling into Harlem for the first time.

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned that Bakshi fits perfectly into the New Hollywood. One of the reasons why I said that is that his films victimize women constantly and in ways that are, unlike his treatment of racial and class issues, uncritical. Throughout his filmography, women are helpless victims on one hand or are just shoved into misogynistic forms. This is par for the course in American cinema in the 70s, which was if anything more hostile to women than earlier eras, with a distinctly macho air to most of its output. In Coonskin, the main offender in this regard is the figure of Miss America, a symbolic succubus who is shown as a busty blonde with a freckled face and a gun in her vagina. Her main role is adjacent to the plot, brutalizing a black man who represents African American struggles, switching from an integrationist to a revolutionary and finally to an execution victim. I don’t have a problem with the point that the United States curries favour with black people and then crushes them underfoot, but that the film sexualizes the allegory. And while it’s true that white women have been complicit in enforcing racism in the United States, the depiction here still soured on me almost immediately.

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Like all of Bakshi’s work, Coonskin never aspires to perfection. It spits on perfect, contemptuous of whitewashing and romanticism of any kind. Here the “Bakshi film” reaches its maximum potency and noxiousness, a kind of protest or propaganda film that dares you to blame the messenger for making you feel bad about the state of the world. There’s room in the world for films like this, ugly and ungainly as they are. Coonskin marks the end of Bakshi’s most controversial work, as it was protested by former civil rights group CORE (the group that endorsed Nixon for President and works as a shill for oil corporations today). From now on, Bakshi got much more palatable but, arguably, much less important as his voice shifted from that of an outsider who lucked into the system to someone working in more familiar modes. Still, he might have a few twists waiting for us in the land of Wizards.

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Japan at Nature’s Edge 2: “From Meat to Machine Oil”

Miller

Our next foray into the environmental history of Japan is this short and sweet essay by Jakobina Arch. “From Meat to Machine Oil” tells another nautical tale, this time about the modernization of the Japanese whaling industry and its shift from shore-based to pelagic (aka oceanic) operations. She frames this narrative within the larger context of both the Meiji modernization campaigns and the depletion of easily accessible whales by industrial Western and Japanese whaling operations.

Japanese fishers had, of course, hunted whales from the shore for a long time before the Restoration. According to Arch’s account, traditional whaling was dominated by “local family elites” based in coastal villages. One consequence of the modernization of whaling was the consolidation of operations, so that “by the 1910s, the there were only three whaling companies in Japan running all offshore operations.¹”

What’s notable is that the revolutionization of whale hunting and processing did not proceed evenly throughout Japan. Those who were at the centres of traditional whaling struggled to adapt to the introduction of new technology. Adaptation to a global shift in fishing, which required advanced technology to pursue increasingly scarce and evasive prey, mandated not only massive amounts of capital––and thus the aforementioned consolidation of the industry––but also the redefinition of whaling in subjective terms. Whereas the whaling had previously been restricted to short-term missions where prey was caught close to shore and brought in for processing, the space for it opened up to long-term voyages into the ocean.

Arch’s article points out the problem with the common Western (and Japanese) view of the Japanese as inherently “in tune” with nature. Indeed, Japan has been at the centre of controversy for its continued pursuit of whaling long after its prohibition in other countries, who are now content to exploit whales in theme parks and aquariums. Under pressure from global capitalist developments as well as nationalist imperatives to expand the fishing and whaling industries, the local fishers were transformed into a seafaring industrial proletariat, torn from their villages and traditional ways of life and thrust out far into the sea. Whatever sacred connotations the sea might have had and even retained through the Meiji Restoration was transformed and dissolved by exposure to the demands of capital.

Notes:

  1. Jakobina Arch, “From Meat to Machine Oil: The Nineteenth-Century Development of Whaling in Wakayama,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 49.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 2: Heavy Traffic

Bakshi Logo

Pinball Machine

At one point during the production of 1973 animated film Heavy Traffic, the movie’s producer Steve Krantz, got some unpleasant news. He learned that his director, Ralph Bakshi, was talking to other producers about another film, then called Harlem Nights, and his reaction was, shall we say, not relaxed. Krantz fired Bakshi from the movie, allegedly tapping the animator’s phone line, and tried to get someone else to finish what the “disloyal” director (who had been ripped off on Fritz the Cat) wouldn’t. One of the distinguished men they tried to hire was none other than Chuck Jones, who turned them down flat. The film’s financier, a man named Samuel Arkoff, demanded that Bakshi be rehired, and Krantz relented.

It’s an amusing story because it fits perfectly into the leitmotif of Heavy Traffic: a flashing penny arcade pinball machine. Outside of the tight group of animators and other creative staff, nothing was every cordial, with the different players whizzing around and colliding every which way. Heavy Traffic is widely considered Bakshi’s best work, or at least his definitive one. It lacks the sheer confusion of Fritz the Cat. It’s still a collage of narratives and styles chronicling life in New York City, but it doesn’t have the aimless road trips, the Nazi bikers, the evil terrorists, the sheer thematic and political aimlessness that gives Fritz its shotgun-like explosiveness. It’s his first film made leaner and more personal, yet still encapsulating a gigantic amount of information. Luckily, it’s much easier to write about because of this.

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Bakshi open the film with a live action segment showing his protagonist, underground comic artist Michael, playing pinball while the credits play. Eventually, we see the machine fade away, replaced by an image of an animated black man walking against a photographic background of New York City. Tattered posters, brick façades, and a slate sky completely dwarf this figure, who soldiers on to meet a friend by a fire in a barrel. After this, we see a man and a woman walking together, then rapidly cut to a drunk and a man in an aviator coat carrying a handgun staring down in front of a window. The couple moves past the gun-toting man, who levels the man and chases after the woman, his pants falling down and showing his genitals. We cut back to pinballs.

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There are two layers to this visual cleverness. The first is, of course, the idea of the film as taking place in a tightly contained space, one that is nevertheless densely populated and more than a little sleazy. Our New York is in the pinball machine. The second is that live-action Michael is the only one with any kind of control over the kerfuffle in the machine, and yet that control is hardly complete. As we’ll soon find out, Michael is something of a stand-in for Bakshi, albeit hardly a flattering one. He peers over the delirious activity in the pinball machine trying to keep the balls moving but hardly able to. We could certainly see in this a reflection of Bakshi’s own difficulties getting his films made, not to mention managing the storm of ideas that he seems to be trying to compress into each one. Just in the first few minutes we have robbery, assault, the deaths of a nameless store owner and a hapless cop, an accident with a taxi, and so on. It’s a chain reaction no one could have predicted, but all too common, Bakshi seems to be saying, in modern urban life.

Collage

And urban life is, more than any other issue, the central subject of Heavy Traffic. While we do have a protagonist or two, a set of side characters, and numerous other human faces, the real star of the story is New York itself. The city is a deeply unsympathetic character. Stitched out of a collage of photographs, animated cels, paintings, and stock footage, the city shambles like a Frankenstein monster, giving its residents a jittery and unbalanced kind of life. Bakshi notes in an interview that this collage technique extends further than the visual:

“Sound is a very important element in all films. So it’s various approaches to dialogue and sounds that are scripted, that are ad-libbed, that are real, and you put all of that together and collage it. The whole trick is not to pick a line that doesn’t fit what you really feel about it, no matter how good the line is.”

Bakshi’s approach to the problem of how to create a portrait of New York in an animated film is to use “every trick in the book,” shifting styles to accommodate the needs of every individual scene. So the bookend segments are in live action, lending the film a more authentic tether to the world the director and his animators are trying to represent. In a scene where Michael’s Mafioso father Angelo tries to intimidate striking dock workers, Angelo is shown in the usual cartoon style while the backgrounds are photographs and the workers are shown in a heavily-hashed style rarely seen elsewhere in the film. The contrast between the almost statuesque strikers and the cleaner, more elastic characters in the rest of the movie emphasizes their communal strength––and their lack of fear in the face of Angelo’s empty threats. The scene illustrates Bakshi’s point: Disney and Pixar-esque house styles are not the only or even the best way to put together a good animated film. Particularly when you don’t have a king’s ransom for a budget.

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Angelo stares down the striking workers at the mafia-controlled dock.

Hell Is Family

One of the consistent themes in Bakshi’s films is that traditional “solid” kinds of relationships are not reliable anchors in modern society. As Karl Marx notes in the Manifesto, under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air.” Deleuze and Guattari might emphasize that capitalism is an acid that dissolves all preexisting codes, reassigning them for its own purposes but constantly revolutionizing itself. The result is a precarious and unstable kind of life, exemplified by, well, every character in Heavy Traffic.

As an example: Michael has a difficult home life. His mother Ida is a devoutly Jewish woman who is violently unhappy with her husband’s philandering and lack of investment in her son. She dotes on Michael, feeding him impossibly huge breakfasts and enabling his chronic unemployment. While he draws his underground cartoons in his bedroom, his mother attempts to murder his father by shoving him in the oven and turning on the gas. They later have a violent confrontation when Angelo brings a prostitute home to take his son’s virginity “as a present.” She reveals that she keeps an axe with the Magen David printed on it for self-defence in one of the film’s most hilarious moments.

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Moreover, Angelo’s other traditional attachments, to his job for instance, are further problematized. His job with the mafia is nothing if not unreliable, particularly when he falls on the  racist godfather’s bad side for threatening to break the dock strike by bringing in black men as scabs. Michael certainly has no use for his family, though he’s happy to live in their home and eat their food as long as they leave him alone. What we seen, then, is that the story values the temporary and serendipitous relationships over blood bonds. Protagonists Carole and Michael have little in common other than a shared bitterness and desire to flee their awful situations. After she loses her only tie to the city, a job, she and Michael scheme to go out west and to procure the necessary capital by any means available, culminating in murder. But their friendship, as perverse and inauspicious as it turns out to be, is solid and real, reinforced by its presence in the live-action framing narrative.

The situation is even more bleak than I first indicated. The film’s climactic scene comes when Michael is shot and killed by a legless hitman. Carole has been seen rejecting the shooter’s advances before, which makes this partly a crime of passion. But, as always, money also sticks its nose in. Angelo, horrified that his son is keeping a black woman in his room, orders a hit on him, taking the racism of his boss the godfather and passing it along to his son. Family and work stab Angelo and his son Michael in the back, ultimately showing that being close to someone has nothing necessarily to do with real love.

Which is not to say that Heavy Traffic has a straightforwardly negative view of family. One of the sources of tragedy in the movie is Ida’s strong attachment to her Jewish heritage and family legacy. In one of the most sombre scenes in the film, she takes a moment from frivolous dancing in a club to contemplate her past. Images of deceased family members flash in and out of frame, until she is eventually confronted with a picture of herself as she was in her youth. The sheer distance between her idealized family history and the shattered reality of her “traditional” American family is unbearable. In the old country, things were far simpler at least where relations were concerned; the United States melts down all ties, and she and her photo slowly diminish into the busy city shown behind them.

Ida and a photo of herself.

Ida and her younger self against a bustling New York backdrop.

 

As for Angelo, his only solace in the film comes not from boss, wife, or son, but from a trans woman who hooks up with him in the back of an abandoned delivery truck. Where Fritz the Cat was a dark reflection on the often misogynist and abusive outcomes of so-called “free love,” here the focus is more on the evils of being trapped in relationships one did not choose. Instead, characters make do with what they can get. No character embodies this pragmatic ideal more than Snowflake, the aforementioned trans woman.

Snowflake

In my view, Snowflake, a transgender woman who appears in a few scenes, is much more than a comedic side character. She embodies more than anything the real desires and longings at the heart of Heavy Traffic. The emotional core, if you will. First introduced to us dressing up to go out on the town, she later appears at the bar Carole works at. Desperate for human contact of any kind, she starts flirting with a drunken construction worker. The man savagely beats her when he realizes that she’s “a queer,” and her reaction to this is both disturbing and telling.

She appears to be some kind of masochist, enjoying the transmisogynist abuse simply because it’s someone validating her with attention. It’s not flattering, and in a different context this would be the sign of a hateful film. I’m not sure that it’s the case here, though, since all the sympathetic characters treat her more or less as just another person. Carole’s boss even berates her for not protecting Snowflake from the construction worker, and the former shows some concern for her well-being. While Bakshi’s portrait of Snowflake as a lonely and needy soul who will take abuse with equanimity is ugly, it’s actually far less galling than, say, the casual transmisogyny you find in comedies that bring up the topic of trans women. She’s treated as a real person, is never misgendered, and is portrayed in a relatively positive light.

Snowflake in the bar.

Snowflake strutting in the bar.

But the central point is that her lack of attachments and willingness to live her own way are what puts her in the “sympathetic” category. She’s uninhibited and shameless, and in some ways that makes her more robust and durable than Michael, who is burdened by an almost demonic resentment that manifests in his nihilistic cartoons (two of which we see in the movie). Snowflake’s desire for community and value for even the most fleeting of alliances with other human beings puts her right at the centre of Heavy Traffic’s thematic appeal for me. She’s a victim of the ruthless world she lives in, just like everyone else, and her opportunism is reflective of this grim material situation.

End: Animation Unleashed

My retrospective piece on Fritz ended by noting that that movie’s transgression was historically important, carving a vital niche for animation at at time when the art form was in a state of disgrace. Heavy Traffic ultimately delivers on the promise of Bakshi’s talking-animal feature debut, stripping out the animals and giving us an animated film about real (fictional) human beings in a well-realized setting. It’s a great piece of animation and much more than just a historical artifact. Fritz gets leeway for being “first,” but Traffic earns its place in animation and film history through sheer quality. As the pinballs continue to spin and collide in unexpected ways, we find Bakshi’s focus narrowing even further on his next project, a film explicitly about race relations called Coonskin. And what a movie it is.

Gabriel Kuhn: Life Under the Jolly Roger

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Recommended to me by a friend, Life Under the Jolly Roger proved to be a diverting and informative read that had much more heft than I initially assumed. Though the subject has been both vulgarized and sanitized by innumerable Hollywood adaptations, Golden Age piracy remains a fascinating period in history. Life Under the Jolly Roger is a relatively short but sophisticated and nuanced take on pirate history and myth.

Gabriel Kuhn, an anarchist from Sweden, draws on a range of theorists and historical accounts of piracy, notably Deleuze, Hobsbawm, and, surprisingly (at least to me) practitioners of guerrilla warfare from Che to Mao. The central political question of the book is how present-day radicals should relate to the pirates and their example. That’s particularly important because there is a lot of romanticization of pirates on and off the silver screen, particularly by radicals who see them as consummate egalitarians, precursors of modern anarchists and guerillas.

Kuhn, to his credit, dispels much of the glossy shine of the pirate legend. While it’s undeniable that pirates shared certain traits in common with nomadic societies and spontaneously developed certain democratic institutions––elective captains, more equitable sharing of plunder, etc.––they also frequently employed black and indigenous slaves and practiced cruel violence. Violently hyper-masculine and often brutally violent towards women, the pirates were never feminist paladins either. Kuhn weaves these details into an argument against radical fetishization of the pirates, bereft of criticism or proper historical analysis. Despite not being a Marxist, his approach fits quite comfortably in the historical materialist category, analyzing the pirates in the context of burgeoning European capitalism and imperialism, how they fit within that larger totality.

One of the author’s best insights is that the pirates, though lacking any conscious political motives, functioned objectively as an anti-state war machine, carving out their own lines of flight over a then-unbounded ocean. With numerous networked ports of call and even small pirate settlements like those in Madagascar or Tortuga, the pirates could ply the seas with relative impunity until the first half of the 18th century.

This fact is at the core of Kuhn’s argument for a critical appropriation of the pirate legacy, one that sees them as “social bandits” (after Hobsbawm) who functioned in opposition to and rebellion against capitalism even though unguided by revolutionary aims. In fact, Kuhn argues that the dismemberment of Spanish oceanic hegemony in the Atlantic––a revolutionary result, in his argument––was in large part thanks to pirate and privateer activities. Moreover, he makes an effective comparison between the Golden Age pirates and their military tactics and those of guerrilla armies, without claiming that pirates were some kind of liberation army.

I would disagree slightly with Kuhn’s claims that pirates constituted some kind of objectively revolutionary force, particularly because their armed actions lacked explicit political content. However, I take his point that their rebellion and their egalitarian authority structures, not to mention their lackadaisical attitudes toward work, merit serious consideration. They’re certainly an inspirational bunch despite and partly because of their violent and unsavoury aspects. After all, a revolutionary has no business being respectable when it comes down to it. Not to say that I want to outfit myself in a pirate hat and shirt (not for political reasons, anyway), but with Kuhn’s help I have a much better idea of who the pirates really were, and hope to read more about them someday. If you’re someone whose knowledge of pirates stops with Errol Flynn and Jack Sparrow but you wanted to learn more, Life Under the Jolly Roger will be just the grog you’re thirsting for.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 1: Fritz the Cat

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Introduction:

I first saw Fritz the Cat in my sophomore year of university. My partner ended up writing a paper that centred around the film for her “capstone” course and it led us to discuss the film fairly extensively. While larger histories usually remember Fritz the Cat simply as “the first X-rated animated film” and emphasize its affinity with exploitation films, we found it far more serious and sincere––albeit more confused––than those movies. If anyone is guilty of exploitation, it’s those who handled the marketing and distribution of the film, and though they made it a hit they might have permanently clouded popular perception of the movie. Even in an interview conducted at Wondercon 2012, the interviewer found it important to tell Bakshi that he masturbated to the movie. I wonder not only at the impulse to confess to such a thing in an otherwise mundane interview but also the fact that one could get that kind of pleasure out of the sexual aspects of this film at all.

What I mean by this is that Fritz the Cat is far from pornographic. In fact, its sex scenes, which caused such a sensation at the time, are so outrageous and crudely rendered, not to mention suffused with social tension, that I’m personally more apt to wince than indulge myself. I suppose youthful desperation will win out in the end.

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But if Fritz can’t be classed with pornography, what is it? Predominantly, it is a collage of episodes, scraps of insight, improvisation, rushed animation, Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, and chaotic editing all held together with a few common themes and sheer conviction. Released in 1972, it had a budget of under a million dollars, which even then was chump change for a feature-length production. Bakshi’s method of compensating was to create the film without pencil testing the timing of the animation and working a number of jobs not normally occupied by a director. It’s a collage of a film, smashing different tones, moods, animation styles, sound recording techniques, and stories together with varying effects, none of which could be called “graceful.” In terms of quality, the film is rough-hewn and obviously suffered from a dearth of time and budget.

At the same time, looking at this film in 2016 is going to be an entirely different experience. Our perception of sketchy hand-drawn animation is coloured by the fact that the contemporary animation scene is dominated by labour-saving computer tools and 3D CG graphics employed in both amateur films and gigantic blockbusters. The advent of the computer frees hand-drawn animation from the tyranny of naturalism much as photography did for painting in the 19th century. When discussing his latest film, The Last Days of Coney Island, he noted:

“…I don’t have to be slick now with hand-drawn animation; that’s ridiculous. The computers are slick enough, for everybody. So I was freed up to use different kinds of lines, and approaches to the backgrounds, color changes, and all of the things that used to bother us, and it worked. It wasn’t just done for the sake of doing it”

We have much more convincing means of replicating the observable world now, especially as computers are able to simulate cloth, water, facial expressions (to some extent) and texture in general with far more fidelity than traditional cel animation. Cel animation’s power is now seen in its relative abstraction, as a craft of the painter or the artist rather than the commercial cartoonist. Much as Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters now tickle our fancy rather than break our suspension of disbelief in a negative way, films like Fritz the Cat appreciate in value as technology overtakes them.

Rather than discuss the film in a linear fashion, I want to examine in through a few thematic lenses. All the better to do justice to its episodic and collage-like nature.

Theme One: A Bunch of Phoneys

Much of the film is caught up in fitfully grasping for an authentic way of being. Fritz and his friends, as seen from the beginning of the first scene, are only superficially interested in music, art, politics, poetry, philosophy, or anything else. Bakshi portrays them as consummate hucksters, hippies who are only interested in sexual gratification. Fritz has two lengthy soliloquies in the movie, which occupy opposite poles of the authentic—phoney spectrum. His first basically functions as a set of bookends for the movie, recited once in the park and once while he’s lying in the hospital bed after setting off an explosion at a power plant. The entire speech is worth reproducing:

“My soul is tormented

I’ve been up and down the four corners of this old world.

I’ve seen it all.

I’ve done it all.

I’ve fought many a good man.

I’ve laid many a good woman.

I’ve had riches and fame and adventure.

I’ve stood face to face with danger and death countless times.

I’ve tasted life to the fullest and still my soul cries out.

Yes, cries out in its hungry, tortured, wracked quest.

More!”

When first delivered, he’s only using it to pick up three naïve women he first sees talking excitedly about black power to an uninterested black bystander in the park. Seeing them as basically vapid and self-centred, he plays on their apparent need for significance and basically seduces them into group sex. Bakshi’s point is that much of the––specifically white––hippie movement is hypocritical, using progressive or revolutionary language to fulfill selfish desires. Fritz poses as an existentialist poet searching for real significance. But the true essence of Fritz’s cry is that, despite all he has already experienced and done, he has an insatiable drive to consume more––more women, more experience, more thrills. Seen in hindsight, it’s correlates well to the narrative of a generation of 1960s radicals who were bought off with cheap consumer goods and who chased the good life rather than the revolution.

After escaping from the cops as a fugitive, Fritz returns to his dorm at NYU to find his friends from the park poring over their notes and textbooks studying for exams. The background recedes and Fritz, gesticulating wildly across a black background, rants about the emptiness of intellectual life, emphasizing that all he wants is adventure. It’s notable that he’s completely isolated in this scene, reflecting this cat’s essential narcissism. He has a contempt for knowledge and a thirst for action, a kind of hedonistic nihilism that, as we see throughout the film, takes a number of different guises. Whether it be his attempts to seduce women in the park or his fiery declarations of revolution in Harlem, his character is exposed here as an empty shell, desiring a more authentic and fulfilling existence but unable to achieve it.

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Fritz is therefore both mercilessly opposed to phoneys and more than a little false himself. He’s the spitting image of the “conscious” white liberal or leftist who prides himself on abstract knowledge and his tolerant, open-minded attitudes while being a complete jerk to everyone. This is especially evident in his interactions with black people, as he comes into Harlem seeking that real adventure and finding out just how little he knows. Yet this doesn’t cause him to evolve as a character or to have a real arc. In fact, since the film ends just as it begins, with Fritz using his injuries and heart-tugging speech to win sympathy and sex from women, it posits him as a kind of oblivious sort who is immune from learning anything from his mistakes.

One final note on this theme: it’s consistently the women of the film who are portrayed with and receive the least sympathy. From the gullible trio that Fritz seduces to the woman who clings to her Nazi rabbit boyfriend, women are exploited and even seem to desire their own subjugation in the typical heteronormative arrangements. The film certainly sympathizes with oppressed racial subjects in its own way, but the absence of any kind of feminist voice or active, positive female character is telling.

Theme Two: The Eroticization of Destruction

Though some critics, including R. Crumb, the writer of the comics from which the film is adapted, have seen this film as an attack on the radical left, there is actually a dearth of real political discussion or political subjects in Fritz the Cat. Sure, characters will talk in generalities about “revolution” and being against “the man” or “the establishment” but the level of discourse never rises to any specificity. That’s curious in a movie that’s committed to showing a gritty and more realistic portrait of the 1960s countercultures. Other than one spare mention of the Black Panthers, not a single organization or ideology is named. In one scene, where Fritz is trying to incite a riot among the residents of Harlem by pontificating from the top of a car, he drops the word “proletariat” but that’s about the extent of his non-rhetorical political vocabulary. What the film shows is not really politics but a kind of eroticized love of destruction encrusted with political language. Fritz the Cat might be a political film, as Bakshi would have it, but whatever politics it contains are deeply fetishized.

To illustrate this, it only takes a quick look at the cabal of terrorists introduced in the latter part of the movie. Fritz, ditching his girlfriend in the desert, comes upon a group of cloaked lizards and a Nazi rabbit who plan to destroy a power plant with dynamite. Their meeting space is in a church surrounded by an impossibly huge cemetery. Their surroundings are suffused with death, and they appear to have no interest in any kind of positive programme or politics. They brutally beat and (in an implied scene) rape the Nazi rabbit’s lover when she tries to interrupt their meeting. Fritz can offer nothing except empty protests, as he’s unwilling to put his body at risk. As he’s planting the explosives, he shifts positions and realizes that these people “have no idea what a real revolution is.” Bakshi’s script halfheartedly implies that love is at the centre of such a real revolution, but this is given mere lip service before the hedonism of the final hospital scene asserts itself.

I wouldn’t claim that the film is making any coherent political point at this stage of the film. What it does do, however, is hint further at the ways in which revolutionary trappings and language are used by the more nihilistic and violent types of the right. I interpret this cabal of terrorists as a right-wing organization not only because of their lack of any obvious left-wing insignia or symbols but also because they’re welcoming of a Nazi biker rabbit who obviously enjoys inflicting violence for its own sake. What I largely see in Fritz the Cat, therefore, is not so much a rejection of the radical left––even if Bakshi himself might have done so in his own life––as a rejection of terroristic violence, adventurism, and the fetishization of violence as a goal in its own right rather than one means among many for achieving positive change. The film itself has its own mystified and fetishized view of what communist and anti-racist politics are like (though, notably, will not even tolerate the presence of a feminist voice, no matter how distorted) and it rejects that relatively shoddy construct rather than any focused notion of revolutionary politics.

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The way the terrorists are portrayed in Fritz the Cat. These later scenes are where the film’s connection to urban life are at their most tenuous and its grasp on reality is weakened.

Theme Three: Animation Against Disney

Whatever its depiction or understanding of radical politics, the film’s actual political aims are much more narrow. Namely, it wants to open up the field for animation and win the medium the respect it deserves. Like all good revolutionaries, it has a clear sense of who its enemies are. Since American feature animation in particular and all animation in general are basically constituted either with or against Disney, that omnipresent animation house receives some of Fritz’s copious bile.

During a riot partly incited by Fritz and partly provoked by scared pigs, the full weight of American armed repression falls on Harlem, including several fighter jets that strafe the area. While one article about the film correctly notes that the too-rapid buildup to this moment makes this feel absurd in the movie, the United States has actually bombed black neighbourhoods from the air in its past.

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Bakshi gleefully connects the Disney corporation and its mascot characters with the company’s history as both purveyors of actual propaganda and the bedrock of the repressive animation industry Bakshi wanted to break open. Fritz the Cat has its serious moments and some connection to urban social life, but it’s also a celebration of animation freed from Disney’s naturalism and family-friendliness. The more specific historical context matters here as well: Disney’s animated output had consistently declined in both quality of writing and its animated grandeur throughout the 60s and 70s, leading them to put out flaccid tripe like Robin Hood and The Aristocats. 

Most of the reason why Bakshi’s animation and script are so exuberantly excessive is because American animation has been consistently held back by fidelity to Disney. Disney is also connected directly to the establishment the counterculture hated so much, a bastion of middle-class respectability and “family values.” Though I’ve made the point many times that Fritz has no clear sense of itself as a piece about politics or city life or “the revolution,” it is absolutely clear in its stand against Disney and for animation as an art form that can carry “live action”-calibre stories and themes. It’s one of the few times I can also unconditionally accept the film as a vital piece of art, one that struck a crude first blow against the homogenization of an entire medium. It injects some of the freewheeling spirit of the 1930s and 40s into a feature and grounds itself in real social issues, however confusedly. That’s quite an achievement in and of itself and makes Fritz the Cat worth a watch if only as a historical artifact.

Review: Cyber-Proletariat by Nick Dyer-Witheford

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After reading about this book on a comrade’s blog, I quickly procured a copy and read through it within two days. One of the reasons I set other readings aside to focus on this book is that it tantalized me with a “harder” analysis of the impact of high technology on global capitalism. Though my primary research area these days is Japanese history, it’s obvious to me that a deeper knowledge of the general principles guiding high-tech development and how it transforms the global systems is essential to understanding more specific areas of knowledge. I was not at all familiar with Dyer-Witheford’s work, so when I began I had no preconceptions beyond the snippets of text that Bombard the Headquarters published. What I found was a book that, correctly I believe, embeds its discussions about information technology in the actual labour process, and in particular areas of production like mineral extraction and silicon processing that I find both fascinating and more immediately helpful in a political sense.

The basic argument of the book is encapsulated in the image of the vortex. It argues that the capitalist world system can be represented as a storm that draws in and expels labour power and means of production, constantly revolutionizing and destroying itself while maintaining a chaotic cohesion. He introduces the concept this way:

“The capitalist vortex is self-expanding value: money making money. The entities and activities hurtling around in the vortex, including the activities of human beings, take the form of commodities, ex-changed into money, then re-coalescing as new objects and actions to be in turn volatilized into yet more money.”

Early chapters use the image of a vortex to explain the basic elements of the Marxist theory of capitalist production, circulation, and realization as elaborated in Capital.  From there, Dyer-Witheford elaborates on this metaphor and applies it to several more concrete processes he finds in the current world. A theme in these more specific investigations is the coexistence and connection between high-tech––automation, robotics, algorithms, smartphones, networks, etc.––and the brute fact of “antediluvian” mining and manufacturing conditions in Southern and Northern countries alike. Drawing all of this together is an emphasis on the ways in which capital and the proletariat struggle over the implementation of technology (means of production).

Struggles can take myriad forms, though at the moment it appears that capital is ascendant. Some of the more poignant case studies the author uses are those where intensifying labour struggles in places like China and Brazil trigger the mass deployment of automation technologies to disrupt workers’ aspirations for better conditions and wages. Chapter 3, “Cybernetic,” ties these narratives to an older story of Norbert Wiener, a pioneer of cybernetics, delivering an urgent warning to American auto union leader Walter Reuther, saying that it was imperative for labour organizations to buy up the rights to new information technologies before corporations could use them to reduce their workforces and discipline the workers who remained. The American labour movement’s failure to heed the threat of automation, and the endless onslaught of technological change that both disrupts and empowers capital’s expansion processes, helped assure its defeat in the neoliberal period. Such is Dyer-Witheford’s analysis.

What’s notable is that the author’s study carries this story from the institutions behind the massive de-industrialization of cities like Detroit to the social and environmental consequences of those processes. Urban decay and the decimation of neighbourhoods in Michigan is another dark consequence of the same high-technology initiatives that fuelled the growth of plutocracy in Silicon Valley. Social entropy, spatially intertwined with the production of new productive spaces for capital, is an inevitable product of an exploitative and polarized mode of production like capitalism.

Later parts of the book cover the connections between the working classes in China and the United States––subsidizing the living standards of the latter at the expense of the former––and the global ideology around cellular phone infrastructure in the Global South, which is supposed by some to empower people where it actually becomes another way for employers to exploit proletarians in their power. Without a phone, one can’t get a job, in other words, which makes their rapid adoption in places like Sub-Saharan Africa more troubling than hopeful.

The entire book handles the nuances and contradictions inherent in these dynamic processes rather well. I also appreciate its more ideological critiques of “left” modes of political strategy like accelerationism, which advocates a full-on, nihilistic embrace of capital’s vortex-like qualities. However, I do differ with Dyer-Witheford’s rough allegiance to operaismo and autonomist Marxism, which preclude strong, unified party organizations as strategic necessities. I could also take issue with the relative absence of a theory of state power and the importance of the capitalist state in enabling and reproducing both the material and ideological components of high-tech capitalism. As a scholar of Japan, which is among the most obviously interventionist and bureaucratic of capitalist states, this is a key omission and one that also precludes getting more valuable insights for organizing not just in workplaces or neighbourhoods but explicitly against the state.

I do take heed, however, to some of Dyer-Witheford’s more dramatic warnings about the fact that capitalism may have found a way to automate itself out of the need for a workforce. The production of vast “surplus populations” outside of regular work and marginalized from urban areas (though the consequences of such populations on urban development is not explored in depth in this book) has grave implications for proletarian health and well-being throughout the world, and makes it all the more urgent for communists and other leftists to think through these ongoing processes. Cyber-Proletariat does hold out hope that the vortex is prey to objective weaknesses and snag points, but I would be willing to bet that it will continue to deform and expand itself throughout the world until destroyed through attrition. One of the book’s most perceptive passages comes at the end, though it deals in fairly broad generalities:

“To counter [capitalism’s destructive dynamics], new, cross-segmentary struggle organizations are urgently needed: without invoking too much left-historical baggage, let us call these ‘syndicates’. Some principles that should inform such organizations are: a) alliances of the working, workless, and precariously employed; b) taking responsibility for the social reproduction of the destitute and crisis-struck, without becoming a voluntarist substitute for a destroyed social safety net, but instead maintaining a fighting front; c) adopting a stance of ‘raising from the bottom up’, prioritizing the needs of the most precarious and pauperized workers in a racialized and feminized workforce.”

Without a doubt, the vigorous organization and concentration of the masses in democratic and socialist struggles is critical. And, despite what I would describe as an untenable commitment to “horizontal” strategies, Dyer-Witheford’s book is a useful study that I found quite enlightening, especially in its discussion of specific struggles going on in parts of the world that are often hidden by information tech’s dazzling glint. The book reminds us that, despite the virtual face of information technology, real bodies and production cycles are still going on behind the screen.

Notes:

  1.  Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 22.
  2. Ibid, 201-202.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective: Introduction

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Ralph Bakshi: An introduction

Ralph Bakshi is one of the most important film directors of the last fifty years. This is obvious to animation fans, who greeted his latest short film Last Days of Coney Island with a flurry of coverage. Here was a titan of the counterculture and animation history delivering an independent project long after he quit wrangling with Hollywood in disgust. Of course he deserved the attention. Curiously, however, serious academic and analytical work on Bakshi’s films is rarely if ever published. Moreover, material that does exist is often difficult to find. Animation studies is a young field, to be sure, but I would have expected a much more concerted effort among scholars to dig up Bakshi’s work and cut their teeth on it. To me, after all, few animators in any country have produced work as invigorating and influential as he has. And yet he’s rarely mentioned in studies of New Hollywood, 1970s American films, or anywhere animation fans haven’t been able to get a foothold.

The purpose of this ongoing series, therefore, is to put out concise but enlightening posts about Bakshi’s work. My focus will be on his feature films, though I may discuss some of his television work later. Beginning with 1971’s Fritz the Cat and ending with Cool World, released some twenty years later, I will analyze the films themselves and put them into historical context, particularly since much of his work is so tightly connected to the social milieu of their time. My aim is to make them broadly accessible, so detours into theoretical talk or historical minutiae and trivia will be kept to a minimum. Those interested in the full treatment of each film should check out the book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, though that volume is currently out of print and my only access to it will be through a reference library.

As far as sources go, I will be drawing information from interviews that Bakshi has given––and he’s a talkative and opinionated filmmaker, which makes things easier––as well as the aforementioned Unfiltered book, the films themselves, and any scholarly material I can find about them. Luckily for me, however, the field of Bakshi Studies is almost nonexistent, which means my primary goal can be as modest as getting a conversation started right here on the blog. Hopefully I can interest more dedicated animation scholars in his work and bring his films some much-needed attention.

2016 is an opportune time to revive interest in his work for more than just the cold shoulder it’s gotten from cinephiles and scholars. Just as the work of Japanese directors like Oshii, Kon, and Miyazaki remains live and relevant to our everyday concerns decades after their release, many of Bakshi’s films speak directly to our situation, albeit through a lens bent by time. Heavy Traffic is a great film about urban crises and the life of a New York that has all but vanished. Wizards is a dark antifascist film with an oblique but clear resonance with today’s disintegrating, militaristic world. These are Bakshi’s films first and foremost, but they are for audiences to claim, and as a Marxist I want to intervene in the conversation Bakshi started, to speak back to these films and see what kind of legacy young leftists and historians alike might gain from engaging with them. Perhaps most importantly, I want to reclaim some space for these films to show, for the thousandth time, the sheer energetic power of animation to convey a point of view, to connect the subjective and the objective, fantasy and reality, in a world that needs a way to translate visions of a better world into the everyday.

Considering the ungracious and often confused nature of many of Bakshi’s films, and their troubled production histories, I don’t expect to be uncritically claiming any of his movies as masterpieces or works of genius. These are not such useful categories in any case; what’s needed is to understand the work of this particular individual and how it informs our perception of the past and our present, how we can mobilize the creation of new works of art that take Bakshi’s best virtues and carry them forward. It’s also, yes, about ruthless criticism, and I’m sure that Bakshi, of all people, would not be afraid of a little written roughhousing.

With that focus and that ethos in mind, I hereby declare the Ralph Bakshi Retrospective open.

 

Announcement: Accelerated Posting Schedule

I have been rather more infrequent in posting on this blog than I would like. To help reenergize myself and get in the habit of writing every day, I will be doing a whole week of posting once per day. These articles will be just as extensive as the normal weekly output I’ve been managing for the past few months, but I will release it daily rather than once every ten days or so.

As an added incentive for myself, I will list the names and subject matters of each coming post below. The plan is to publish about three times per week from here on, which has been a sweet spot for me for quite awhile. I admit that laziness and lack of focus have been the main reasons why I have not been able to meet my previous standards. After all, when I was at the peak of productivity for this blog, I was writing two articles weekly for the school paper and school assignments at the same time; I have far more time on my hands than I once did, but also far less discipline, which I hope to rectify with a blitz of articles followed by a more measured standard of output. More details are on the way, but here are the topics I will be covering:

Monday, March 20: Introduction to my series of articles on Ralph Bakshi’s entire filmography, which will hopefully be comprehensive despite the fact that some of his films are out of print or difficult to find. For instance, none of his film work is at the library of the local university. If I have to interrupt the series because I can’t get a copy of Hey Good Lookin’, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.

Tuesday, March 21: I will be reviewing Cyber-Proletariat, a new book about the information economy and its discontents as well as its structural qualities by Nick Dyer-Witheford. It’s attacking the issue from an autonomist Marxist perspective, which, while different from my own, has been quite illuminating. More to come in the actual post.

Wednesday, March 22: The proper start of the Ralph Bakshi series, since the introduction will mainly be outlining a schedule for that series, putting out some of my general impressions of his work and historical significance for the art of animation, and some framing concepts that I will be using to analyze his work. This Wednesday will begin with a proper review of his first feature, Fritz the Cat, which set up the remainder of his career and made his reputation both with audiences and in his own artistic/professional community.

Thursday, March 23: Another book review, this time of Gabriel Kuhn’s Life Under the Jolly Roger, an excellent and brief study of pirate life and ideals from an anarchist author based in Sweden. I read the entire book in one sitting just today, so my impressions of it are still quite vivid, which should help make this engaging reading.

Friday, March 24: Bakshi entry number two. This one will focus on his second film and self-proclaimed best film Heavy Traffic. 

Saturday, March 25: Another entry in my series of reviews of Japanese environmental histories, this time working through an article about the Japanese whaling industry by scholar Jakobina Arch.

Sunday, March 26: This article will be more generally political and focus on how my political perspective and position as a historian intersect. It’s well-trod territory that every historian has to wrestle with, but it also makes for some of the best reading historians can put out, which makes it an attractive topic to cover.

After this onslaught of content, the plan is to publish one article every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. I plan on theming each of them:

Sunday: book reviews

Wednesday: cultural commentary––reviews of other media as well as fictional literature, and more general commentary on cultural matters.

Friday: Political and historical discussions of various topics that will not be strictly centred around books.

I’ve promised to inject more life into this blog several times before, but I have finally gotten some of my own personal affairs settled and believe I can finally achieve my goals.

Japan at Nature’s Edge 1: “The Pelagic Empire”

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Print commemorating the Japanese naval victories over the Russians in their war.

Environmental history is a concerted attempt to add critical bite to the common sense assertion that the development of a country cannot be separated from its physical geography. Japan at Nature’s Edge, a bound collection of articles edited by Ian Jared Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Brett L. Walker, contains a number of entries that have inspired me to write about them. Situating modern and premodern Japanese history within an oceanic, terrestrial, ecological, and health context, the collection’s authors all explore the relationship between the human and the non-human in Japan’s history. For each article, I will briefly summarize the contents before offering a brief word of criticism, praise, or insight inspired by the article.

Our first entry, and the opener of the book, is William M. Tsutsui’s “The Pelagic Empire,” which attempts to reframe modern Japanese imperialism and expansion in oceanic terms, correcting what he sees as a “terrestrial bias” in the work of historians to date. When considering imperialism theoretically and empirically, historians attend most closely to its earthbound elements: factories, workforces, military campaigns, financial institutions, colonies, neo-colonies, etc. Oceans, meanwhile, are considered, if at all, as “negative spaces” just serving as barriers/avenues for transportation between landmasses. Tsutsui’s goal is to see the sea itself as a zone of exploitation and expansion, as a live and human territory deeply marked by imperialism. An unusual goal, to be sure.

In order to realign his readers, Tsutsui chooses to focus on Japan’s exploitation of fishing resources in the Pacific Ocean. In the short history he produces, Japan’s late 19th century imperial expansion is identified with, though obviously not exhausted by, the growth of a modern fishing industry in the deep Pacific. What had been a traditionally subsistence or lower-scale mercantile economic activity largely confined to coastal fisheries ballooned, by the 1940s, into a complex, state-sponsored sector of imperial Japan’s economy. As Tsutsui notes, the Japanese state mobilized scientific resources to rationalize fishing:

“A number of prefectures opened their own fisheries experiment stations, the central government operated numerous oceanographic research vessels, and marine science degree programs were offered at imperial universities in Tokyo and Hokkaido.”¹

In other words, the creation of a vast industrial fishing army required not only immense capital investments in fuel, steel, proletarian workers, etc., but also the organization and regulation of knowledge. The empire Tsutsui discusses imposed its borders and logics––in other words, its sovereignty––over a vast area of the ocean from the Antarctic to the Arctic Circle.

In the second half of the short article, the author discusses what might be called the ideology or subjectivity of the Pelagic Empire. He asks how the material reality of Japan’s oceanic dominance reflected in the minds of its ruling class, citizens, and international observers. In Japan, academics and elites identified the Japanese as “children of the water,” or as native island people, seafarers who possessed a natural mastery of the ocean. In 1941, the country even proclaimed a Marine Memorial Day (海の記念日)dedicated to the “blessings of the sea and…the prosperity of maritime Japan.”²

Tsutsui’s argument is essentially that Japanese Empire of the early 20th century and late 19th was primarily a maritime one, and that it envisioned itself as such. These are two separate arguments but they are both fairly well supported despite the brevity of the piece. At the same time, a few of his historiographical claims and comments about prevailing theories of imperialism are more questionable. For instance, he argues that Lenin and Hobson, early theorists of imperialism, “were clearly not thinking oceanically when they proclaimed the motor of imperialism to be the capitalistic hunger for for new outlets of surplus capital and new markets for surplus production, neither of which could apparently be satisfied at sea.”³

Obviously, most Marxist theorizing on imperialism is not focused on the ocean because it is primarily focused on understanding not the territorial expansion of empires over the sea but rather its parasitic domination of dependent nations and peoples. It only takes a slight geographical adjustment to make Lenin’s theory of finance-driven imperialism apply equally to competition over oceanic resources, understanding the sea, too, as a site of imperialist exploitation of workers, nations, and natural resources. At the same time, the fact that people do not generally live out in the open ocean where Tsutsui focuses makes the impact of imperialism on its more muted from a human vantage point.

Still, it seems valuable to me to include the ocean in considerations of Japanese imperialism, at least. Its territories and ambitions clearly included marine conquests as well as land-bound ones, so I would consider Tsutsui’s intervention to be quite positive overall, even if it doesn’t present its case with much theoretical elaboration.

Notes:

  1. William Tsutsui, “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 28.
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid, 22.

Joseph Dodds: Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos

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I picked up Dodds’ Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos purely because it had an intriguing title. Not because the title is exciting stylistically––it’s boilerplate academia in that way––but because it connects three subjects I am currently researching: the mind, ecology, and complexity theory. Before digging into the book proper, I want to outline exactly why I find these fields fruitful despite them all being somewhat peripheral to my academic specialty, which is history, and my political alignment, which is Marxist.

Dodds begins his book with an outline of the climate crisis: human activity has produced a colossal increase in the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Slowly but surely, the planet will warm because of this, causing irreversible and unpredictable changes across the Earth. Despite the known and urgent nature of the crisis and the multitude of official assurances that “something is being done,” the core capitalist countries have made no serious attempts to curb greenhouse gas output. Agreements and protocols come and go, and vague sermons about the “shared responsibility” of the world’s people to avert global disaster proliferate like so many weeds, but we are no closer to a workable solution or even a good-faith attempt at one on the necessary scale. Further, though everyone is conscious of the problem at some level––often joking about it during periods of strange weather––people normally carry on as if nothing were wrong.

Psychoanalysis/Psychology and History:

For me as a historian and a Marxist, this situation presents a problem of the utmost importance. One of the most important questions for both Marxists and historians is how to connect people’s actions to motivations. Historians’ usual method of constructing explanations for why events occur the way they do is to find our raw materials in historical documents. These texts are obviously written by human beings, whether they be diary entries, diplomatic papers, letters, legal documents, etc. That means we have to be adept at deciphering the connection between often disparate and singular documents and the more general stream of our historical argument. What makes this difficult is that we don’t have the privilege of speaking to our subjects face to face most of the time, especially when talking about more remote areas of the past. Psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and other connected fields are, therefore, potentially valuable to historians because they help us construct a working idea of how conflicting and chaotic base motivations can translate into ordered documents and concrete actions. We don’t just need to understand people’s structural positions; we also have to know how people will make sense of their position and the way they relate to their own social being.

Ecology and History:

If anything, the need for historians to put their histories in touch with ecology is even more pressing. Environmental history is a living sub-field within the discipline, but it tends to be overlooked in favour of a new wave of cultural histories that focus more on textual reading. To put it bluntly, human societies and human persons would be nothing without their ecologies. A human being, a collective of human beings is not just the individual bodies nor just the bodies in relation to each other, but also in relation to what is traditionally thought of as “exterior” to those bodies. Food systems, the air, water, and energy systems are all inextricable parts of their lives. Ecological thinking can also be productive by giving us models for how complex systems unfold along with their constituent parts. Studying a group of communities in relation to a single, limited water source, for example, will let us see their struggles and cultures in a much more complete way. Given both the environment’s ability to affect human society and the human ability to consciously and unconsciously (psychoanalysis) reshape nature, an at least basic understanding of ecology is necessary for historians today.

Complexity Theory:

Perhaps the most general and abstract field of the three, mathematical findings and concepts like complexity, nonlinear equations, crisis, attractors, etc. are finding more and more application in a variety of humanities disciplines. Despite its origins in mathematics, complexity theory has made healthy contributions to ecological and social thought, not to mention the many philosophical volumes that engage with it. Though no historical or social system will behave exactly according to nonlinear models, the analogies I’ve found in this discipline for creativity, emergence of layers of complexity, and ideas like “the edge of chaos” mentioned in the title are an exciting prospect for me. Though I’m far from certain that complexity theory will completely reshape the way I do history, I have already internalized some of the terms and methods associated with it, and I’m confident that our understanding of densely-packed systems like capitalism will benefit from a certain injection of chaos.

Now, the Review Portion of this Post:

Now that I’ve outlined some of my areas of interest, we can move on to the book itself. First, the book’s chapters don’t feel as though they construct a single argument across the entire book. Each of its four parts feel fairly independent of each other despite touching on related issues. Further, and this might be exposing me as old-fashioned, I found it bizarre that Dodds chose to incorporate so much analysis of popular culture and literature into this book, which is ostensibly focusing on ecological thinking about mind, the Earth, society, etc.

I understand that psychoanalysis’ most lively academic pursuit for the past few decades has been in film theory, and that “readings” of popular culture artifacts are a fort of psychoanalytic writers, but I still found it jarring that a whole chapter of the book was dedicated to a discussion of horror genres in media. Not to mention the passage about the ecological consciousness of the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s true that vampires, werewolves, aliens and other uncanny elements of horror are connected to human anxieties about nature. And it allows the book to bring in the passages of Deleuze and Guattari about the Wolf-Man and becoming-animal. But despite that, the chapter feels utterly stranded and, despite its insights about our relationship to animals and the uncanny, only tenuously helpful in discussing what psychoanalysis and ecology can do for us in the climate crisis.

Here is the conclusion of the chapter on horror and nature:

“the ‘home’ of ecology is no longer a fixed, stable place of habitation but becomes a strange ecology, an uncanny ecology deterritorialized into a web of human-animal-plant-mineral-climatic assemblages…[this theory] allows us to move beyond the anthropomorphized animal as projection of human traits to the pleasures (and anxieties) that such a transformation entails…”

p. 135-6.

The following chapter then justifies the excursion into film and art by arguing that art is a privileged spot where human beings can explore the unconscious, where we can imagine other worlds. Fair enough, but it could still have been trimmed for brevity or published as an entirely separate article. From my point of view, it seems strange to explore Avatar as a projection of our “ecological unconscious” and shared social anxieties simply because those who produced it do not constitute some perfect average subject but rather elites who try to deliver on what they think people want. It’s too similar to reductive “zeitgeist” pop-psychologizing for my comfort, and seems more like a way to make pages of theorizing more “relevant” to people than a strong mode of analysis.

Beyond my criticisms about the sometimes disjointed and overly eclectic nature of the book, I would say that the book makes a mostly compelling argument for thinking ecologically about the mind, the world, and human society.Early chapters include material that would be more vital or useful to someone working in psychoanalysis, including discussions about Freud, ecotherapy, and Zizek. It’s in the later chapters, which most explicitly engage with complexity theory and the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, that provide the meatiest material.

One of the most important concepts here, for Marxists and for historians, is self-organization. I loved the following discussion of the social intelligence of school fish, for example:

“As a termite colony grows, ‘starting from a single unhealed foundress, more and more stimuli are likely to appear…forming a richer and richer stimulatory environment…thereby inducing new types of behaviour (Bonaeau et al. 1997: 207). Construction is therefore a ‘morphogenetic process during which past construction sets the stage for new building actions.'(ibid)”

p. 154-5

In other words, the nest itself becomes a more and more complex structure that serves as a communication network as much as a protective shelter. Notably, however, the best material in the book is quoted from scientists and other thinkers, which suggests to me that I’ll end up using this book more for its bibliography than anything else. Still, the notion that human social structures and communication systems have analogs in the nonhuman world, similar solutions for similar problems, provides some insight into human behaviour and its relation to the environment, built and unbuilt. The book succeeds in arguing for a decentering of human beings, shaking off the notion that we are privileged within the natural world or that we have an ordained superiority over it.

Any other criticism I might have of the book is that its sense of politics and strategy is woefully underdeveloped or else politely understated. When books like this and others from the scientific community recommend radical social change, they often leave the matter to the imagination, as if the act of, as this book states, finding a “more open vision of ourselves, as subjects, as societies, and as a species” were as simple as writing a book about it. Whatever role nonlinear ecopsychoanalysis might have to play in the destruction of capitalism and the experimental construction of new societies and ecologies (of mind, humanity, and the world), it will have to assume a political consciousness as well as an ecological one. Indeed, I would wager that any intellectual field devoid of liberatory politics is likely to be experimenting in the dark, sure of the need for change but unsure of how to link its own struggles to a wider project of human emancipation. Marxism has a name for that project: communism.

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One trans queer's conversion to Judaism

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Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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