The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: December, 2016

Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

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Paul Burkett wants to show that Karl Marx is not an anti-ecological figure. Marx and Nature is an interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own work on the subjects of class struggle, nature, and communism, functioning as an exploration of the ecological possibilities contained in Marx as well as an apologetic defence. As a starting gesture, I will say that this book will only be worthwhile to you if you are already invested in this debate and have some working knowledge of both Marx’s more significant texts and, maybe, some of the criticisms that have been levelled by ecologists against Marx’s communist ideas. If you are a Green activist or leftist who is just interested in the historical question of how well Red and Green approaches to politics have mixed since the nineteenth century, this will not satisfy your curiosity. Rather, it is an almost purely textual and abstract consideration of the problem.

Before moving into more detail, we should consider just how valuable a purely abstract consideration of Marx’s relationship to ecology might be to us. By treating Marx’s ideas as more or less self-contained and present in our own time, Burkett opens up possibilities for his investigation but also closes some off. As he does in this book, he can try to prove that Marx’s theories are not, in themselves, anti-ecological. By pushing the concrete history of 20th century Marxism to one side, he can try to reclaim an ecological dimension of Marx that remains uncultivated or ignored. On the other hand, he forbids himself the opportunity to examine why anti-ecological tendencies flourished among those claiming fidelity to Marxism for so long. He can point to pro-ecological possibilities in Marx, but cannot definitively establish why, in reality, those possibilities lay fallow and tendencies from the early 20th century to present-day “luxury communists” and accelerationists could grow while upholding many of the same basic tenets of Marx’s thought. So the value of the book’s high level of abstraction is that it can answer theoretical questions more precisely and show, perhaps, how Marx can contribute to present-day ecological struggles while relegating anti-ecological Marxisms and Marxists to a shadowy dimension beyond the text.

With that established, we only need to put down a few more points about the book to show how it both succeeds and fails to fulfill its initial promise:

1. Burkett is able to articulate why Marx is not an unalloyed anti-ecological thinker. He does this in a sensible way: recalling that, for Marx, both nonhuman natural processes and human labour are part of the same class of natural forces. Decisively refuting the idea of a pure nature, he notes how both Earth’s resources and human bodies become the playthings of capital, little sandboxes that can be reshaped or dug out to its heart’s content. Likewise, he successfully argues that Marx’s vision of the full development of human life under communism is not a consumerist fantasy. Rather, it contains a live possibility for the rational socialization of natural resources. Burkett’s Marxism is one that is not blindly industrialist or dismissive of traditional or indigenous knowledge systems and governing practices.

2. In later chapters, drawing not just on Marx but also on thinkers like Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, David Harvey, and André Gorz, Burkett shows how workers’ struggles cannot and should not remain in the realm of wage negotiations. They must press for the establishment of a more rational and democratic management of society, including socialized nature. Class struggle can, he argues, be articulated broadly to mean the advancement of all workers’ interests as a whole, including their interest in preserving nature.

3. Yet, I would argue, Burkett’s book can only prove that Marx is not anti-ecological to the bones. He cannot prove that Marx, brought into the realm of Green politics, is necessarily pro-ecological.  This would be a foolish argument since many if not most appropriations of Marx have been anti-ecological or at least ignorant of core environmental problems. A politicized or governing working class––the associated producers, as Marx names them––is not necessarily pro-ecological, and would, as Burkett wisely notes, require a shift into political values that concord with the flourishing of all living and nonliving processes. So although Burkett can give Red a place at the Green table, he does not prove that Red is always Green, and certainly not that Green must always be Red to be effective. Put another way, it remains for other books to try to make the argument that Marx and the entire tradition of thought he initiated is essential to a Green movement or a Green society. Perhaps, at this stage of history, that argument is impossible to make and requires a drastic shift in our current political situation to judge properly.

Revolution and ecological politics are not necessarily friendly to each other. We know this from hard-won experience. However, Burkett’s book, despite its limitations, is certainly valuable within a certain niche. It is, if nothing else, an intelligent and timely intervention within the study of Marx and how useful this nineteenth century might be to a time fraught with signs that life on Earth cannot continue to flourish much longer under the reigning capitalist system.

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Report on Reading: 2016

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Art of the Voracious Reader from Magic: The Gathering

If we count the two books I’m reading at the moment, I will have read and finished at least 60 books in 2016. Though I accumulated many of those conquests in the headlong rush of graduate school history reading (with all of its shortcuts), I was nevertheless able to complete more than a book per week on average. In this post, I will be reflecting on how my reading habits have changed over the past year and what the highlights were. Commence!

Fiction Goes Away Again

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Summer 2015 saw me returning fiction after a long drought. By contrast, 2016 was fiction-free with the exception of a few comics, one book by Jeff Vandermeer, and, if it counts, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Although I could blame the pressure of graduate school for dissuading me from reading much if at all for pleasure, this excuse does not hold water. I spend a great deal of time reading nonfiction in my spare time, and if there were any fiction I wanted to read, I certainly would.

And there were one or two books that caught my eye. After all, why else would I start reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a multi-volume novel? I stalled a couple of hundred pages in and have not looked at the book since, but it’s still a live prospect until I have to return it to the library.

My reason for avoiding fiction has less to do with free time and the lack thereof than the fact that I find fiction less fun and more difficult to read than nonfiction. History, in particular, is highly readable in most cases because modern authors structure their work in the form of linear arguments and narratives that are easy to follow from one point to another while glossing over details that may or may not of any intellectual value to me. I do read fiction in a similar way much of the time, looking for themes, through-lines, and remarkable imagery while often passively forgetting the plot and even character names as I go, it feels somehow less appropriate with fiction. Fiction authors write their books to communicate ideas, of course, but they are also meant to be stimulating and enjoyable in their own right. I feel guilty for reading fiction the way that I do, which also reflects the very theme and idea-driven way I’ve always written fiction and poetry.

One solution to this problem–-since I recognize that my inability to enjoy fiction is a not a particularly attractive or constructive quality––is to simply embrace the fact that I read differently from other people. Not caring about plot or conflict in the slightest, actively seeking out so-called “spoilers” to reduce plot tension that might be emotionally distressing, I have a certain rhythm to the way I read that I may as well own. It certainly lacks some of the spontaneity of a cold-read, a reading that follows the plot beat-for-beat and invests energy into characters, but it has its advantages as well. In particular, once I’ve finished a book for the first time, I can summarize it well enough to get by in a casual conversation and, further, have enough of a deeper grasp of the themes, style, and ideas underpinning the book that I can write worthwhile articles and blog posts about it. Since I don’t plan on writing about fiction for a living, that’s all I really need. Other people have the snarky plot summaries and character analysis covered anyway.

Digging into Braudel and the Annales

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Having buried myself deeply into Marxist historiography in the past, I found myself thinking and writing a great deal about one Fernand Braudel. Partly because of academic obligations and partly because of genuine fascination/affinity, I dedicated many hours to reading The Mediterranean, Braudel’s gigantic two-volume history of the Mediterranean world in the 16th century. After writing over 20 pages about it for a course, I feel I have an adequate grasp on the French historian’s method and his significant shortcomings. That said, I found him an especially slippery figure because he embodies disparate qualities that are not normally concentrated in one person. For instance, though he’s interested in a fine-tuned analysis of geographical and economic trends in European history, he also uses prose in an almost romantic way. Each chapter, though it claims to present some kind of structural analysis of historical epochs, also swarms with the filigree of detail and drama. In short, he’s a fantastic writer, albeit one whose ambitions naturally exceed even his great ability. Forging a unified social science on the basis of a global history is obviously  beyond the capacity of any one scholar, no matter how prolific.

I would recommend reading Braudel in sections and short bursts. He has the quality of a short story writer in his chapter construction, albeit with more of a wandering eye. He reminds me of Henri Lefebvre in the way he combines theoretical analysis with a wide-ranging humanism. It dies from a thousand flaws when stretched out long enough, but a little Braudel goes further than a little of any other writer I know.

And, hey, if you have the time and the shelf space, read the entire Mediterranean in bed at night. It’s history gone picturesque.

Finding a Niche

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At the beginning of 2016, I planned on being a relatively conventional economic and social historian with a bit of a cultural edge. I know my way around a spreadsheet about as well as psychoanalytical criticism of advertising––which is to say, I know it but don’t particularly like it. Taking a pre-industrial environmental history course, however, eviscerated my preconceptions about history and my work. Since reading The Entropy of Capitalism, I’ve been reading a steady stream of scientific articles and even mathematical discussions of subjects like nonlinear dynamics, modelling, population biology, and how all these subjects can be connected to social sciences and the humanities. I don’t fancy myself the proprietor of a kind of total history, but I have a strong affinity for fields that are able to synthesize insights from across porous disciplinary boundaries. These pores and connections have to be made rather than just used as if picked off the ground. Environmental history excels at putting cultural, economic, geographical, biological, and traditional historical knowledge together in a way that rarely feels forced or eclectic. For my money, it’s where leftists should be going in history right now, especially given the tremendous scale of the environmental issues currently staring us down.

Looking Forward

Though I plan on discussing this further in another entry for A Hundred Thousand Names, I have to address one reason why this blog has been less active lately. One reason is certainly the fact that I was writing multiple 15-plus page papers as well as enrolment applications while handling other everyday demands. As with the fiction example, however, I have to recognize that I could have been spending more time writing blog posts and less time playing Magic: The Gathering or making weird graphic design challenges for myself. My mind has been in ferment lately, and for a variety of reasons ways of thinking and acting that satisfied me before have become increasingly difficult for me to accept. None of this turmoil has been traumatic or painful. Rather, it has simply rendered me less able to put thoughts down in an order and language that pleases me. It’s a pall of uncertainty accentuated by the cold and the dark, and I hope I can use this blog as a forum for subtly working through some of these more difficult issues.

We’ll see what this blog looks like once I’m in a more confident position, but for now, best to everyone and happy reading in 2017.

Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild

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Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:

The term [kitsch] is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well.

In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink.  Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.

Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.

Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.

None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.

At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:

1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?

2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?

Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.

As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.

This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.

I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.

 

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