9780802143006

Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Sunit Singh

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Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)

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Originally published in the Platypus Review.
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New York: Grove Press, 2008

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It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), hereafter BSWM], since in this first book, Frantz Fanon himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth [Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), hereafter W of E], fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading

Karel Teige, Melancolia

Left-wing melancholy: On Erich Kästner’s new book of poems

Walter Benjamin
Die Gesellschaft
Vol. 8 (1931)

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Today Kästner’s poems are already available in three imposing volumes.[1] However, anyone wishing to study the character of these strophes is advised to stick to the form in which they originally appeared. In books they are too crowded and somewhat stifling, but they dart through the daily papers like fish in water. If this water is not always of the cleanest and has quite a lot of refuse floating in it, all the better for the author, whose poetic minnows can fatten themselves thereon.

The popularity of these poems is linked to the rise of a stratum which took unveiled possession of its economic power positions and prided itself as none other on the nakedness, the unmasked character of its economic physiognomy. This is not to say that this stratum, whose only aim was success, which recognized nothing else, had now conquered the strongest positions. Its ideal was too asthmatic for that. It was the ideal of childless agents, parvenus of insignificant origin, who did not, like financial magnates, provide for their families over decades, but only for themselves, and that hardly beyond the end of the season. Who cannot see them — their dreamy baby eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, their broad pale cheeks, their drawling voices, their fatalism in gesture and mode of thought? From the beginning, it is to this stratum and to this stratum alone that the poet, has something to say, this stratum that he flatters, insofar as from dawn to dusk he holds up a mirror to them, or rather holds it against them. The gaps between his stanzas are the folds of fat in their necks, his rhymes their thick lips, his caesurae dimples in their flesh, his full-stops pupils in their eyes. Subject matter and effect remain restricted to this stratum, and Kästner is as incapable of striking the dispossessed with his rebellious accents as he is of touching the industrialists with his irony. This is because, despite appearances, this lyricism protects above all the status interests of the middle stratum — agents, journalists, heads of departments. The hatred it proclaims meanwhile towards the petit bourgeoisie has itself an all too intimate petit bourgeoisie flavor. On the other hand, it clearly abandons any striking power against the big bourgeoisie and betrays its yearning for patronage at last in the heartfelt sigh: “If only there were a dozen wise men with a great deal of money.”[2] No wonder Kästner, in settling accounts with the bankers in a “Hymn” is as obliquely familial as he is obliquely economic when he presents the night thoughts of a proletarian woman under the title “A Mother Strikes the Balance.”[3] Ultimately home and income remain the leading strings by which a better-off class leads the mewling poet.

Melancholia, by Jacek Malczewski (1894)Melancholia

This poet is dissatisfied, indeed heavy-hearted. But this heaviness of heart derives from routine. For to be in a routine means to have sacrificed one’s idiosyncracies, to have forfeited the gift of distaste. And that makes one heavy-hearted. It is this circumstance that gives this case a certain similarity with that of Heine. The notes with which Kästner indents his poems, to give these shiny children’s balls the appearance of rugby balls, are routine. And nothing is more routine than the irony which, like baking powder, helps to raise the kneaded dough of private opinion. It is only unfortunate that his impertinence is as much out of all proportion to the ideological forces at his disposal as it is to the political ones. Not least does the grotesque underestimation of the opponent that underlies these provocations betray how much the position of this left radical intelligentsia is a lost one. It has little to do with the labor movement. Rather, as a phenomenon of bourgeois dissolution, it is a counterpart to the mimicry of feudalism that the Kaiserreich admired in the reserve lieutenant.[4] Left radical publicists of the stamp of Kästner, [Walter] Mehring, and [Kurt] Tucholsky [5] are the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat. Their function is to give rise, politically speaking, not to parties but to cliques, literarily speaking, not to schools but to fashions, economically speaking, not to producers but to agents. And indeed, for the last fifteen years this left-wing intelligentsia has been continually the agent of all spiritual conjunctures, from Activism, via Expressionism to New Objectivity.[6] However, its political significance was exhausted by the transposition of revolutionary reflexes, insofar as they arose in the bourgeoisie, into objects of distraction, of amusement, which can be supplied for consumption. Continue reading

THE_SPY_WHO_CAME

Spy vs. spy

Parvus & Harry Dexter White

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Image: Richard Burton in the Cold War classic,
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, (1965)

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Was Harry Dexter White an inverted Parvus?

Aleskandr Parvus, German imperial spy and prominent Marxist theoretician

Aleskandr Parvus, German imperial spy and prominent Marxist theoretician of permanent revolution

1. A German imperial agent planted into the highest echelons of Second International Marxism substantially contributes to Leon Trotsky‘s theory of permanent revolution and helps smuggle Vladimir Lenin out of Zurich into Russia following the February 1917 revolution, thus paving the way for the glorious October Revolution that same year.

Harry Dexter White

Harry Dexter White, Soviet spy and savior of the postwar US financial system at Bretton Woods

2. A Soviet double-agent planted in the highest echelons of the US financial establishment helps devise the Bretton Woods system, fastening international currency to the gold standard and thereby saving postwar capitalism from itself (until the rise of stagflation).

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Some preliminary thoughts on Endnotes’ critique of Platypus

On materialism and idealism

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Image: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) 
grenzt sich mit dem Begriff „Bildungstrieb“ (1781)

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A few ruminations on Endnotes’ critique of Platypus, as laid out in the closing plenary to the 2013 Platypus International Convention. These are just my thoughts, and as such are not necessarily indicative of anyone else’s opinion.

The contraposition some have latched onto lately  ⎯ whereby the focus on politics/history of the Left = “idealist” while the focus on economics/history of the capital’s transformations = “materialist” ⎯ is more than a little crude. Of course, this is not at all to suggest that those members of Endnotes who first advanced the critique fall victim to such an unnuanced view. Considerably more intractable problems arise, however,  for those who’ve tried to assimilate this critique to their own polemics against various “idealist” groupings they’ve recently vowed to destroy. Since their own aspiration is simply to erect a new international propaganda tribune (webzine) from which to spread socialism to the ignorant masses, they are forced to confront the embarrassing logical consequence of programmatic politics’ impossibility that the argument implies.

Doubtless, the argument is to be taken seriously. Its validity or invalidity cannot just be assumed. It would be overhasty to dismiss the thesis advanced by Théorie Communiste and others regarding programmatism out of hand. Part of the interest in critically engaging with the various currents of communization theory is that I feel there is quite a bit of common ground in our diagnosis of the present state of politics, especially as regards the (non-)viability of working-class militancy or mass forms of organization today. This remains so even if the emphasis we lay on the accumulation of past political defeats versus Théorie Communiste’s (and others’) emphasis on subsequent (post-1917, post-1968) transformations within capitalism’s mode of subsumption, real vs. formal, is somewhat different. Continue reading

SOS

On the preservation of Konstantin Melnikov’s works and heritage

An open appeal from architects
and architectural historians

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Image: “SOS” projected onto Konstantin
Mel’nikov’s cylindrical house (1928)

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I recently received an e-mail from Ginés Garrido of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and S. Frederick Starr of the Johns Hopkins University requesting that I help spread the word about an initiative they’ve developed to assist in the preservation of Soviet avant-garde architect Konstantin Mel’nikov‘s works and heritage. My decision to do so was not as immediate or as obvious as it might at first seem, however.

Let me explain: As a student of history and a great admirer of Mel’nikov’s architectural corpus (built and unbuilt), I am of course in favor of maintaining and restoring the many iconic examples of his work that remain. But knowing that pitiless, unsentimental attention to the demands of technical turnover and the imperative to overturn obsolescence formed part and parcel of the worldview animating Soviet modernism, it is impossible to deny the irony of the fact that preserving buildings that no longer serve any meaningful function except as a physical reminder of the project that was once underway in Russia. Nothing would seem so preposterous to an avant-garde architect of the time than to cling to the past out of melancholy or nostalgia, let alone museumify it. Continue reading

Tony Cliff 1967

The anti-political party: Tony Cliff and the Socialist Workers Party

by James Heartfield

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Image: SWP founder and chief
theoretician Tony Cliff (1967)

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Reposted from Platypus Review.

Book Review:
Ian Birchall. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks, 2011.

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The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the largest political party left of the Labour Party, and has been active on the far left since 1977 and before that as the International Socialists since the 1960s. The party was led by Tony Cliff until his death thirteen years ago, and Ian Birchall, who has written this diligently researched memoir, is still a member since joining in the 1960s. Birchall’s “warts-and-all” examination is motivated by a marked unhappiness about A World To Win, the autobiography which Cliff apparently wrote based on recollection, without access to the relevant documentation. Cliff, Birchall remarks, was sometimes abrasive and “often underestimated the contributions of other comrades” (ix, 543). However, whatever its deficiencies, A World to Win narrates the story of the SWP pretty much as it appeared to Cliff, as one that was inseparable from his own life story. And as Cliff made clear, “there was no time in which militant workers were so open to us as in 1970–74,” under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, “not before and not since.”[1] Yet if we take this claim seriously, no organization better embodies the failure of the British workers to take power than the Socialist Workers Party, which has endured for more than half a century, though not for the reasons that its leaders think.[2] Indeed, it might be argued that Cliff’s real achievement was to found a movement that rode a wave of disaffection from mainstream politics, unburdened by too many dogmatic ideas.

Birchall recounts that Tony Cliff joined the small Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League in Palestine before coming to Britain after the Second World War. The movement he joined faced some big problems. First, like all far left groups, it was guilty by its association with the repressive dictatorship that Stalin had built in the USSR. Second, the Trotskyists were saddled with an analysis that the economic crisis would get much worse after the Second World War (the destruction of the war had laid the basis for a revival). Third, globally, the working classes were divided between the peoples of the developing world, who were denied their freedom by military imperialism, and those of the developed world, who tended to support reforms offered by the state.

It was in this context that Cliff started to develop new theories to explain the new conditions in which the Left found itself, along with his early collaborators Mike Kidron and later Nigel Harris. He broke with orthodox Trotskyism to argue that the Soviet Union was not socialist, but actually capitalist, “state capitalist,” only masquerading as socialist (anti-Stalinists like Max Schachtman and Raya Dunayevskaya drew similar conclusions, and later some Maoists argued the point). He also countered the prevailing claims of the Marxist left that the 1960s would be years of crisis, arguing that government spending on arms would boost the economy, what Cliff referred to as the “permanent arms economy.” Lastly, against British comrades who believed in the importance of Lenin’s argument about imperialism, Cliff held that it was not the highest stage beyond which capitalism could develop, but the “highest stage but one.” Together, Cliff thought of the theories of “state capitalism,” the “permanent arms economy,” and the end of imperialism as a “troika” of intellectual achievements.

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Although Birchall does not acknowledge it, these were not really theories so much as an intellectual spinning of the facts, worked up to avoid specific problems. It was wise to say that the International Socialists did not want to make Britain into the Soviet Union, but bizarre to say that what was wrong with Stalinism was that it was capitalist, as if “capitalist” were a word that you applied to anything that you did not like. For as Kidron went on admit, the “state capitalist” “analysis was never a general theory,” and the “permanent arms economy” was a piece of Keynesian thinking.[3] These “theories” saddled the group with false prognoses that had to be reversed later on. The spending on arms, which was credited with preserving capitalism, was later credited with precipitating a new crisis. And while the International Socialists thought that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was superseded in the 1960s (just as the conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere were mounting) the SWP later embraced the struggle against imperialism in 2003 when it rallied to support for what the party called “the resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan.[4] Continue reading

jjp-oud-spangen-municipal-housing-scheme-blocks-1-and-4

The practicalities of Oud

The Spangen municipal housing
project in Rotterdam, 1920-1923 

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Image: Construction site for Oud’s
Spangen municipal housing (1920)

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J.J.P. Oud, the pioneering Dutch modernist briefly associated with the journal and artistic movement De Stijl, is seldom mentioned alongside the other “great masters” of classical avant-garde architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Yet many of the themes that other modernist architects would only come to later — standardized mass housing, the industrialization of the building process, and the use of modern materials to create modern forms (apotheosized in the flat rooftop, hitherto unachievable) — Oud grasped already during the years of the First World War. The renowned Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg later speculated  that this had something to do with Holland’s neutrality throughout the conflict, writing in his 1926 article “The international front of modern architecture” that

Holland, not having participated in the world war, found it possible during this time to carry out far more of their projects than other countries. In recent years, there have been erected not only many separate buildings, but also a whole range of new settlements. While the European architect dug trenches, the Dutchman [J.J.P.] Oud built 3,000 inexpensive apartments in Rotterdam.

The following are hi-resolution scans of plans, sketches, and photographs from Oud’s Spangen municipal housing project, begun in 1920 and completed in 1923, succeeded by the Jaffé translation of Oud’s 1918 essay “The monumental townscape,” originally published in De Stijl. Continue reading

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The 3 Rs: Reform, revolution, and “resistance” [Frankfurt, Germany]

The problematic forms of
“anti-capitalism” today

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Image: Photo from the 3 Rs
event in Frankfurt, Germany

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Thomas Seibert, Norbert Trenkle,
Daniel Loick, and Janine Wissler

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Platypus Review 55 | April 2013

Originally published in the Platypus Review.

Last summer, the Frankfurt chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted the latest iteration of “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance,” a series of events for which speakers were invited to reflect on the contemporary state of anti-capitalist politics. Similar events were previously hosted in New York in 2007 and Thessaloniki in 2012.[1] Panelists included Thomas Seibert of Interventionistische Linke, Janine Wissler of Die LINKE/Marx 21, Norbert Trenkle of Krisis, and Daniel Loick from Goethe University Frankfurt; Jerzy Sobotta moderated. What follows is an edited and translated transcript of their conversation, which was held on June 25, 2012, at Goethe University Frankfurt.

Thomas Seibert: I don’t believe that the Left is at a historical low point today. The Left reached a nadir in the nineties, which was a depressing time, when many former leftists abandoned the Left. This has been reversed today, especially since 2011, since the return of a protest form that was thought to have become historically obsolete, i.e. of insurrections based on people rallying in public squares. Then they stay there and demand the overthrow of the government.

Let me begin, however, with a definition: resistance is rebelliousness and revolt. I see resistance as located in everyday life, in small matters such as sabotage at the workplace, skipping work, or located on an even smaller scale. You can also detect resistance where the political unconscious comes into play: people get sick by the thousands, for example, and mental illnesses have increased by 40% in Greece in the past months. The most determined form of resistance in its classical form occurred in Tottenham, England, in 2011. These sorts of riots are a central pillar of collective resistance, that is, rebelliousness and revolt.

Many people who see resistance as their approach to politics do so because they have turned away from such concepts as reform and revolution. And they do so to avoid posing the difficult questions that arise from the issue of reform and revolution: Are we confronted with a totality? Do we arrest this totality? How do we overcome this totality? There is a tradition on the Left that simply evades such questions that have supposedly become historically obsolete; these vexations are instead replaced by a notion of resistance, which is limited to specific aims, rather than at the social totality. This idea is evident since the 60s, in the work of Michel Foucault, and has appeared again and again since the 80s-90s. Such approaches no longer pose the question whether the whole, which is to say capitalism, can be abolished. This is seen as too complicated, unattainable, or simply theoretically wrong-headed. This is where this micro-political resistance comes in. Continue reading

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A conversation on the Left

A moderated panel discussion 

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Image: Image by Augustine Kofie,
with text added by Ross Wolfe

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WHO

James Turley (CPGB)
Bhaskar Sunkara (Jacobin)
Ben Blumberg (Platypus)

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WHAT

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Recently, a series of exchanges between the Communist Party of Great Britain (PCC), the International Bolshevik Tendency, and the Platypus Affiliated Society has unfolded, mapping a field of positions and historical perspectives whose contours trace some of the most provocative contemporary perspectives on Marxism, socialism, and democracy.

With this public forum, speakers will take stock of the points of convergence and divergence that have emerged in order to push the conversation further on key issues such as Left unity, neo-Kautskyism, factionalism, Trotskyism, sectarianism, Leninism and Bolshevism, democratic organization, and political program.

WHEN

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April 18, 2013
7:00-9:00pm

WHERE

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NYU Kimmel Center, Room 904
60 Washington Square South
New York, New York 10012

WHY

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For the self-criticism, self-education, and, ultimately,
the practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left.

shadows in the time of science, 2010

The humanization of nature

A sorely-needed corrective 


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The socialist revolution calls for terrifying windowless towers, desolated lots and plazas, massive concrete slabs thrown into the earth.

It goes without saying that people ought only live in buildings that they might once have feared. Someday we may all feel so free and at ease in the world we have built as to dwell in buildings that would have formerly dwarfed and intimidated us.

This requires absolute atmospheric agency: the conquest of gravity, victory over the sun, fantastic weather machines, a translucent vault or dome to seal off the heavens (when need be). Inside the enclosed space, an architecture of the well-tempered environment, with universal ventilation and air purification [respiration exacte] to accommodate the human lung. Mosquitoes will have been abolished.

Not only this, however. The socialist reconstruction of nature [социалистической реконструкции природы] also demands total geological dominion: vast terraforming projects that effortlessly tunnel through tough silicate and shruggingly shear off the sides of mountains, complete orthogonality, a Vernean clockwork at the center of the Earth. No longer Níðhöggr gnawing at the roots of the world-tree — the wyrm instead replaced by gears and wires stemming from the centrifuge. Tectonic plates will still shift following the revolution, but only when they are compelled or granted permission.

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From this it clearly follows that the dictatorship of the proletariat [Diktatur des Proletariats] heralded by Marx would at the same time simultaneously constitute the dictatorship of the right angle [dictature de l’angle droit] attributed to Corbusier by Lefebvre. A common demiurgic impulse thus seems to underlie both the Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo envisioned by the Italian futurists (future fascists) Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero and some of Trotsky’s closing lines in Literature and Revolution: Continue reading