The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: History

Out Like a Lamb: Day 14: Let’s Talk Chaos

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OK, what does a trans person in academia like? Well, if you were to ask that question about me, I would reply with something resembling this post. It’s time to lay back and discuss some of my most cherished personal interests. In particular, I’ll be focusing on a couple of intellectual topics that are both interconnected and drive a lot of the scholarship I do both for school and for pleasure. Neither of them is directly related to my trans experience, but they both inform how I see myself, my body, and my place in the wider world.

1: Chaos and Complexity

This has been a preoccupation of mine for a few years now, though I am just starting to get a decent grasp of what theories of chaos and complexity mean for historical studies. This is mostly because I had not read as deeply in environmental history and the mathematical and scientific basis for complexity as I have now. In a nutshell, the reason I am interested in chaos (ways of describing very sensitive, non-linear systems) and complexity (mostly around the issues of predictability and what exceeds human control is because they are useful concepts for linking my sense of an unruly or unpredictable body to a larger set of relationships.

I find this especially pertinent since we are living in an age that is beyond purity. Our bodies are collectives formed not just of human bits but also of synthetic chemicals, organic agents, micro-organisms, and other products of a permeable and open body. Our skin, as it turns out, is not a good separator, but rather a bridge that, while it does filter out certain kinds of environmental detritus, also links us with the wider world, especially where chemicals are concerned. Learning how to think about humanity’s place within energy systems, air and water circulation, and other structures that we have built but have become an imposition or alienated from us like pollution is a vital task. We have to learn to cope with our own fundamental impurity and integration into our surroundings, as well as with fellow human beings and other forms of life. The politics of purity, exemplified by border security, policing, Christian morality, and racial logic, have bared their fangs, and defeating them requires a robust sense of how to live with and thrive with impurity.

Complexity and unpredictability are also an important aspect to this. Advancements in scientific studies of complexity and chaos, as well as biological and social applications of these concepts, have led to a greater understanding of just how much human beings could control even in an ideal scenario. Attempts to reshape the natural environment, or centralized attempts to reorganize human society and its relationship to nature, are often reckless and ill-considered. Even with perfect information, however, the sensitivity and chaotic nature of open systems makes planning every outcome impossible. Even acknowledging the value of large-scale social organization in some cases, as well as some forms of centralized coordination, our interventions require careful consideration and a more pronounced emphasis on flexibility and decentralized social power.

2: Oceans!

Environmental history is overall pretty great. It contributes some of the most vital perspectives within the entire discipline. Despite its many advances, however, most of its thinking has been dedicated to terrestrial landscapes. Since my heart yearns for the sea, I have taken on the challenge of studying the ocean, which is a challenging task for a variety of reasons. With some numerous but isolated exceptions, most human beings do not make permanent dwellings on the ocean. Though there are examples of oceanic nomads in history (golden age pirates being the most well-known in my circles) oceans are typically seen as transit points rather than places where events or large-scale processes unfold. Or else, as in a lot of spatial theory, the oceans and seas are treated as social or cultural metaphors. One or the other.

Oceans are, however, the site of both extensive resource extraction and scientific investigation as well as warfare. Though I haven’t read too deeply in oceanography or more humanistic oceanic studies, I think these bodies of salt water remain some of the least studied despite how vital they have been throughout recorded history. Not just as transit, but as sites of sacred fear or reverence, war, flight, and technological development. In other words, oceans are screaming at us to pay attention, but relatively few of us do. Rather than resent this fact, we’ll see what I can do about rectifying that.

OK, time for the next three posts! Getting into the home stretch:

March 25: Here I’ll be musing on about some issues related to how trans and queer people relate to each other as well as the concept of relationship anarchy. Serious issues, but full of potential hope for the future.

March 26: City mouse here talks about my affinity for cities and my struggles when I lived in a more rural area.

March 27: Left-wing politics have been a cornerstone of how I live my life for the last several years, so it’s about time I gave them their due with a journal entry.

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

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Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

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“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.

Insights from Richard Grove: Imperial Conservationism

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Reading history in academia often means gutting and flaying a book like fresh snapper. The practice transforms an object with intrinsic worth and literary integrity into a utilitarian conversation piece. Analogies like “strip-mining” and “gutting” try to capture some of the violence of this practice, which is conditioned by necessity and enforced by convention. Only rarely, therefore, do books read for class have an immediate emotional impact on me.

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, or Green Imperialism to its friends, made an unusual impression on me as I read it. Hastily turning pages and searching for topic sentences, I lamented that I was not able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the book and its argument. Nonetheless, I wanted to present some excerpts from the book with light commentary with the intent of sharing its virtues.

Insight 1: Physiocrats and Bureaucrats

“The environments of tropical islands thus became even more highly prized, so that it may come as no surprise to discover that it was upon one of them, Mauritius, that the early environmental debate acquired its most comprehen- sive form. Under the influence of zealous French anti-capitalist physiocrat reformers and their successors between 1768 and 1810, this island became the location for some of the earliest experiments in systematic forest conservation, water-pollution control and fisheries protection. These initiatives were carried out by scientists who characteristically were both followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and adherents of the kind of rigorous scientific empiricism associated with mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment botany. Their innovative forest-conservation measures were based on a highly developed awareness of the potentially global impact of modern economic activity, on a fear of the climatic consequences of deforestation and, not least, on a fear of species extinctions.”

–Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, 11.

For those without the patience for blockquotes, I’ll summarize: tropical islands became on of Western environmentalism’s first theatres of struggle. Under the influence of the Physiocrats, early political economists who thought agriculture was the only truly productive economic activity, French intendants in places like Mauritius implemented conservation regimes. Tropical islands were especially important areas for the development of Western imperialist environmentalism because it was there that the contradictions between colonial resource extraction and the vitality of natural systems was the most obvious. In other words, islands are small, vulnerable places that are both more easily experimented on and more easily drained of resources.

So much for a brief summary of the material contradictions that incited these attempts to design and implement conservation policies. Another aspect that Grove emphasizes is the European association of tropical islands with Eden and paradise.

The increasing empiricism of travel literature derived simply from the greater frequency and regularity of long-distance travel. During the seventeenth cen- tury, as the work of John Donne suggests, the axis of interest began to shift away from the Americas towards the East, where a growing intellectual and Orientalist curiosity was developing alongside commercial concerns…Because of their geographical position astride the trade routes, St Helena and Mauritius became naturally prominent in this literature. Both islands were important staging posts on the Cape and Indian trading routes. Being uninhabited, they were peculiarly amenable to the kinds of projection and Edenic treatment described above. To sailors exhausted and weakened by long voyages, they were veritable paradises, bowers of untouched woodlands made up of plant species and inhabited by birds never before seen by man.

Green Imperialism, 42.

Tropical islands, especially uninhabited ones like Mauritius, embodied the aspirations of people who wanted a clean break from a morally unclean world. Aside from the real relief they provided to sailors, they also captivated travellers and writers, including Shakespeare. It now seems apparent to me that ideologies of protecting untouched nature or an edenic paradise and the “empty land” ideologies of settler-colonialism share a common nature. That is, they fabricate an ideal to which the land must conform and produce that imagined space in the real world, displacing previous inhabitants where they exist. Indeed, liberal and reactionary environmentalism often dominate over the radical kind, and even the physiocrats put up a stronger anti-capitalism than many present-day green activists we’re familiar with.

I plan on reading Green Imperialism more thoroughly over the next few weeks. At some point, I may produce a full review of the book. For now, I have presented some of its key insights, which are developed with rich detail and an admirable attention to method in the book. I am still grappling with its underlying thesis, but I feel fairly sure of its relevance to us: the periphery of the colonial system was the place where the contradictions of capitalism and the environment first became apparent. That thesis is just as true in the era of climate change as it was when the dodo was just going extinct.

Gramsci and Braudel

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I recently borrowed a book called Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation by philosopher Esteve Morera. Because I knew a couple of points I wanted to explore immediately, I hurriedly read the introduction and pushed into the index. Once I found the brief portions on Fernand Braudel and the Annales, I began studying without delay. Coincidentally, my used copy of Braudel’s monumental The Mediterranean lumbered to my doorstep that same day. I wanted to use some of the commentary in Morera’s book to anchor a brief post? Its subject? The fascinating and, to me, novel parallels between Braudel’s project and Gramsci’s, as well as some of their profound differences.

So we have three writers in the room: Braudel, Morera, and Gramsci, with the second naturally bridging the two. His discussion of Braudel comes in the midst of a larger discussion of Gramsci’s historicism. Since Gramsci is famous for proclaiming his thought an “absolute historicism,” it’s worth pondering what that means, and Morera wisely breaks down this complex issue into a few pieces. The first aspect he ascribes to Gramsci’s historicism, an affirmation of the transience of all historical phenomena, leads to the discussion of different ideas about the complexity of historical time, from Marx to Kondratiev and, of course, Braudel.

Given how famous he is for advocating the primacy of structure and geographical forces in the course of history, there is some irony in the fact that Braudel is placed in a discussion of historical transience. Yet the connection here is more natural than it first appears. As Morera argues, Gramsci is interested in a “holistic” history that can only be understood from a long-term perspective.¹ He summarizes Gramsci’s views on the temporality of history:

First, an organic theory of society which rejects the atomist conception of history as a series of events; second, the rudiments of a history of historical time…of the various tempos that criss-cross each other in history.²

Anyone familiar with Braudel will already sense the trajectory of Morera’s argument as it leads directly from here to a discussion on Braudel’s triple-layer scheme presented in The Mediterranean. Level one is the realm of geographical time, where the relatively permanence of natural space and structure reigns. Social and economic time forms the second level, and it was here where the intersection between the relative permanence of structure intersects the most with the more short or medium-term conjuncture, which is often cyclical. As Braudel puts it: “swelling currents…economic systems, states, societies, civilizations, and, finally…how all these deep-seated forces were at work in the complex arena of warfare.”³ At last, we reach the final level, where all the froth and dust of political and diplomatic history are kicked up. It’s here, at the third level, where the contingent events follow their wave-like course, emerging for a brief time before disappearing into the sea of continuity and strong currents beneath.

So Gramsci and Braudel share a methodological commitment to holism and an emphasis on the long-term, what Braudel called longue durée. Their commitments each lead them, as Morera notes, to critique sociology and other social sciences for their fetishization of empirical models and the short-term time span. Though neither of them is hostile to the social sciences as such––this is arguable in Gramsci, but Braudel hoped that history could unify all the human sciences––they both understood that the long term perspective is key to grasping the entirety of human social relations and their evolution over time. Gramsci’s analysis of “situations”develops through study of the dialectical unity of structures, conjunctures, and events, which broadly correspond to the terms Braudel uses. I would note in passing, however, that Braudel is careful to avoid stitching these layers together with any kind of “dialectical” or theoretical glue, and his holism is a great deal more empirical and fragmentary than the Marxist or Gramscian theories of history.

Morera later notes, correctly, that where Gramsci and Braudel most differ is in the matter of politics.⁴ For Braudel, politics are part of the ephemeral flows of “the history of individuals,” and not of central importance to his project. Gramsci, being a (jailed) leader of a communist project in Italy, gave politics the most prominent place in his conception of history. Of course, both of them reject the idea of statecraft and royal rosters as the foundation of history, but Braudel ultimately wants to relegate all of politics, including mass politics, to secondary or even tertiary status.

When reading The Mediterranean, I noted that Braudel’s sense of structure was much more fatalistic and continuous than the Marxist concepts I knew. Though there are also more structurally-oriented versions of Marxism that have been criticized for being fatalistic or “static,” Marxists tend to at least subscribe to the theory that human beings make history. Marxists will then make the structural qualification that humans only make history within the more-or-less determined situation into which they are born. Marxist history is the history of catastrophes, revolutions, and class struggle, the processes through which structures, so durable and powerful, prove their transience. “All that is solid melts into air.” With Braudel, I get the sense that it is rather history that makes people, and that people are merely swept along the currents. That said, unlike Althusser––who criticized the Annales journal and Braudel for not having a specific enough theory on the complexity of historical time––Man, capital-M, is the subject of Braudel’s history. He’s still at the centre of the story, but his natures and his actions are tightly bounded by land and water, prices and travel times, the very mental conceptions we’re taught. It’s not “process without a subject” pushed along through the energy of class struggle, it’s a process with a fatalistic subject who can take some reassurance that despite the tumult around him, the great immobile structures and whirling cycles will endure.

I should say that the above is a rank generalization, and Braudel’s histories are almost indescribably complex and eclectic. But I appreciate Morera’s insight into the relationship between Braudel and Gramsci because it called attention to my lack of knowledge about Gramsci and clarified the latter’s thought, which to me has always been less penetrable than that of his contemporaries. Engaging with Morera has pushed me back to reading Gramsci again, this time with a wiser frame of mind, and I’m glad I crossed this bridge between historians.

Notes:

1. Esteve Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation (New York: Routledge, 1990), 83-4.

2. Ibid, 85.

3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II vol. 1, trans. Sîan Reynolds (New York: HarperCollins, 1972), 21.

4. Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism 93.

Makoto Itoh: The Japanese Economy Reconsidered

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The Japanese Economy Reconsidered is a short slice of Marxist economic history and analysis. Effectively summarizing the Japanese “lost decade,” which has by now accordioned out to more than two decades of stagnation, the book is an incomplete but strong primer on the Japanese economy in the 1990s. More than a factual account, however, it also offers a preliminary definition and critique of neoliberalism in the Japanese context.

It’s worth asking how Itoh is “reconsidering” the Japanese economy. He asks some of the same questions everyone was asking about Japan in the 1990s: what happened? Before the bubble burst, popular chatter about Japan ranged from idolization to outright terror.  Where he differs from the mainstream liberal discourse on Japan is in his diagnosis of the Japanese economy from the 1973 oil crisis onwards. Many accounts I’ve ready discuss how Japan weathered the oil embargo with relative ease, shifting towards an export-focused industrial strategy that ensured steady growth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Itoh, meanwhile, opens his book with: “In 1973, high economic growth in the Japanese economy…came to an end.”¹ Following the resource crunch and inflationary crisis of the 1970s, the Japanese state aggressively injected money into grandiose public works projects, assisted the implementation of automation in factories and offices, crushed public sector unions through privatizations, and fueled a temporary recovery. What came out of that was the famous bubble, where land prices escalated beyond all reason and financial speculation in land and stocks was feverish. After this bubble inevitably detonated, near-zero growth became the norm, which, combined with an aging population, has created an immense problem of planning and legitimacy.

Itoh fills in that basic narrative in chapters 2-5, investigating the role of information technologies, industrial hollowing-out and the effect of the boom and depression on family life, the process of the bubble’s bursting, and Japan’s position in the globalizing capitalist system. In that final chapter, the book focuses on Japanese industry’s increasing capital exports into other countries in Asia, particularly China and Southeast Asia. Given the publication date of the book (2000), it’s not surprising that it ends with a brief autopsy of the Asian boom of the 90s and the subsequent collapse of that bubble.

There is nothing difficult or unclear in Itoh’s book; there is nothing all that striking either. Well, there is one possible exception. While his diagnosis of the “failure of neoliberalism” in Japan might seem obvious in hindsight, it partially synthesizes its analysis of neoliberalism with the idea of Japan as a “company-cented society.”² We see the echoes of his concluding remarks in the 2007-8 global financial crisis, which reproduced many of the dynamics of the Japanese collapse in the 90s: “Company-centred restructuring combined with emergency economic policies that place priority on alleviating the difficulties of big business has deepened the hardship and worry in the economic life of the majority of people.”³ This reality, this induced existential fear, he argues, is part of what has depressed the Japanese birthrate to such lows.

It might be useful to take the longtime category of “company-centred society” and bring it to a more general analysis of neoliberal capitalism. When looking at the kind of civil societies the last forty years of capitalist mutation have produced, we see the gravitational pull of private firms increasing, orienting more and more of the rest of the state and nonstate sectors (NGOs, media, online communities, etc.) around capital accumulation. Indeed, given that most states’ response to the crisis was to violate neoliberal principles with gigantic public bailouts, the idea of company-centrism might even be more generally descriptive of the current form of capitalism in the First World than neoliberal.

Unfortunately, the lot of the Japanese working class has only deteriorated further in the sixteen years since the publication of The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, and the current Japanese government offers no chance of rescue from the vultures of corruption, bureaucratic domination, and industrial decay that have preyed on Japan for most of living memory. So Itoh’s short and straightforward work serves about as well as a book can: it informs and outlines what possible paths the Japanese people might take in liberating themselves.

Notes:

  1. Makoto Itoh, The Japanese Economy Reconsidered (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 1.
  2. Ibid, 94-95.
  3. Ibid, 135-136

 

G.A. Hoston: Japanese Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan

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Marxism is a powerful analytical tool due to its ability to extract the universal significance of historical processes that necessarily occur in particular places and times. Strong internal tension between the particular and the universal presents both incredible barriers and opportunities for revolutionaries and scholars to push social research and political action forward to new heights. Marxists from all over the world have grappled with the unique challenges of their own regional and national contexts, and Germaine Hoston’s book is a case study in how a generation (or two) of Marxists engaged in a sustained debate over how Marxism could contribute to revolutionary action and the production of new knowledge. And the fierce theoretical/historical struggle between the Kōza-ha and Rōnō-ha groups fostered the development of intensive research into Japanese history and, in the process, altered and stretched the boundaries of Marxism as a body of thought at the time.

Hoston’s book is an intellectual history of sorts, a narrative about the inception of indigenous Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and early struggles to define what Japanese Marxist politics and theory would look like. As mentioned, major participants in the debate typically lined up into two factions: the Kōza-ha (lecture school) and the Rōnō-ha (worker-farmer school). These debates were shaped by a number of factors, political as well as academic. For one, the emergence of Marxist political organizing in Japan owed much to the successes of the Russian Revolution and the Leninist advances in Marxist thinking on imperialism and revolutionary strategy. More directly, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) emerged––twice, since the first attempt collapsed after a short time––under the wing of the Soviet-dominated Comintern. Because of this international situation, the relative immaturity of Japanese Marxism, and the paucity of historical materialist studies of Japanese history, as well as for institutional reasons, the Comintern theses on Asia, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), and revolutionary strategy in Japan carried considerable weight, and in many ways defined the line split in the debate.

Factors internal to Japan also had weighty bearing on the debate. Japan in the 1920s and early 30s was experiencing what has been commonly referred to as Taishō Democracy, where bourgeois political parties were more prominent than in the preceding Meiji period and universal male suffrage was put into effect (1925). An air of relative relaxation prevailed in universities, permitting the open nature of the debate over the Marxist terrain until the 30s saw Japanese militarism ascend to a more dominant role as the country entered open war with China, most of Southeast Asia and, eventually, the United States. Japan’s entry into the capitalist world also varied considerably from the English model Marx used as the basis for his theorizing, meaning that scholars’ positions in the debate often sprung from how they reconciled Japan’s unique circumstances (late entry into the capitalism, imperialist voraciousness combined with a stagnant agricultural sector, status as an “Asiatic” society) with the universality of Marxist theory.

The Kōza-ha, on one side, endorsed and vigorously defended the Comintern position. In brief, they argued that advancing to socialism in Japan required a two-stage process. First, the socialist movement had to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly in the countryside and in the realm of political liberties. Only once that phase was complete could a proletarian revolution be carried out. Their reasons for supporting the Comintern line were the obvious deficiencies of even “Taishō Democracy” and the persistence of what they saw as feudal landlordism in the countryside. The emperor system also factored into their arguments, which varied and often proved innovative despite their commitment to a preexisting line.

Rōnō-ha, on the other hand, endorsed the view that the bourgeois revolution in Japan had been completed by the Meiji state and that a broad-based open socialist party could complete the revolution in a single step. They often appealed to Nikholai Bukharin’s ideas about advanced capitalist societies and noted the power of state-monopoly capital (the zaibatsu combines) and the instantiation of universal male suffrage in 1925. They acknowledged feudal remnants that persisted––the emperor and certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship in the countryside––but argued these were irrelevant anachronisms and that the feudal Tokugawa landlord class had been forcibly integrated into a bloc with the dominant bourgeoisie through the crash industrialization of the country during the Meiji era.

Hoston’s documentation of their debates is fairly exhaustive, covering a number of theorists on both sides as well as certain rogue ideas that often sparked soul-searching among all Marxists in Japan. The example of Takahashi Kamekichi is particularly fascinating. Although Takahashi pioneered disciplined historical materialist study in Japan, his theory of “petty imperialism,” which argued that Japanese expansionism did not constitute imperialism in the Leninist sense and that vigorous colonization of Asia was indispensable for Japanese socialism, obviously prefigured Japanese imperial arguments about the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the Great Pacific War. His use of Marxist theory and techniques for quasi-fascist ends––he went so far as to say that the left should seize an ultra-nationalist position to avoid ceding it to the far right!–– provoked a storm of critique and research from the more left-wing Marxists in Japan.

What I especially enjoy about Hoston’s thematic approach, where she takes individual facets of the debate like that of the agrarian question in a single chapter, is that it highlights the specific achievements of Japanese Marxists in particular areas. This is especially evident in the chapter on debates over the nature of the Japanese state. She notes that the conditions of the debate and the Japanese historical moment encouraged the creation of remarkably advanced theory that was, in many respects, only matched by European studies of the late 60s and 70s. She includes detailed descriptions of the theories each scholar advanced, and in many cases does not hold back from indicating what the stronger and weaker theories were on each side of the debate. Her own insights make the book’s examinations of these theories not only academically interesting but more useful to readers interested in doing their own theory.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s overall tenor demonstrates the rather powerless position of the Marxist left in Japan for most of its existence. Despite Marxism’s quick entrenchment into Japanese academia, the broad left parties, including the JCP, have been quick to use their theoretical position to justify legalism and gradualism. Although the debates on the topics of the Japanese state and the agrarian question were lively, they have often been confined to the classroom and library. This takes its most direct form in the ideas of Uno Kozo, who openly advocated the separation of economic theorizing from political action. Of course, this scission between academic brilliance and a fairly impoverished real movement is not unfamiliar in many parts of the world, particularly the First World, but Hoston’s book exposes the tragic split between the brilliant efforts of both factions to create a truly native Japanese Marxism and the state of revolutionary action in that country, then and now.

What’s important, however, is that many of these challenges were seen, at least latently, in the arguments of the debaters in the 20s and 30s, especially in the pessimistic outlooks of the Kōza-ha theorists. Hoston’s history is relatively straightforward and light on context, but as a historical analysis of intellectual trends in Japanese Marxism it serves a useful purpose. It impresses upon all of us the critical necessity to take the examples of the past and subject our own contexts to rigorous analysis while––at the same time––developing and deepening our political activity.

Akira Narusawa: “The Social Order of Modern Japan”

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Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.

Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.

But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.

To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.

Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:

“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²

In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.

Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:

“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery,  but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴

Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.

This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.

I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:

“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵

Notes:

  1. Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
  2. Ibid, 215.
  3. Ibid, 217.
  4. Ibid, 214.
  5. Ibid, 236.
Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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