Class and identity crisis

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Mike Naylor has written a succinct response to Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article. Though I’ve already more or less said my piece on the matter, Naylor’s narrow focus on the issue of class in Fisher provides a convenient excuse for me to flesh out some ideas about its social, political, and cultural dimensions. I’ve been meaning to write something up on it for a while now. But before we embark on that divagation, let’s first attend a few things Naylor writes in critiquing Fisher. Toward the end, he avers:

We should reject Fisher’s call to ignore oppression, as if our lack of thinking about them makes them go away.

Certainly, ignoring oppression won’t make it go away. But compulsively talking about and splitting hairs about oppression isn’t necessarily a way of thinking about them. More often than not it’s an unthinking procedure ritualistically invoked, which gives the false appearance of probity and depth while in fact it remaining at an extremely superficial level of abstraction. If anything, the obsessive focus on all the particular ways one is oppressed obscures more than it clarifies the universal unfreedom of modern society: namely, that which is entailed by capital’s continued dominance over the process of production. Though intersectionality claims to finally address the actual complexity of life under the capitalist social formation in all its empirical messiness — casting light on the manifold, multiform imbalances and power dynamics — in truth it only further confounds the situation. Even the language used in trying to grasp these different aspects of oppression bespeaks an abiding confusion over how they all fit together. All the talk of “intersecting,” “overlapping,” and “interlocking” “networks,” “systems,” and “modalities” of “discrimination,” “subjugation,” and “interpellation” (concepts pilfered from the coffers of the Theory Industry these last thirty years) is simply a safeguard that ensures identity politicians won’t be surprised by new forms of oppression that await discovery or invention.

(On this note, some perceptively quipped: “Isn’t ‘intersectionality’ just another name for what we used to call [the Freudian and Althusserian concept of] ‘overdetermination’?” They’re right, you know.)

By relying so heavily on flimsy neologisms like these, identity politics is thereby allowed to neglect and even studiously avoid confrontation with the overarching totality of social relations under capitalism. Apparent heterogeneity here masks underlying homogeneity. Seemingly centrifugal tendencies toward dispersal and diffusion veil capital’s propensity toward concentration and centralization. Rather than reveal the true magnitude of this historic impasse, the ongoing crisis of bourgeois society, identity politics seizes upon the accidence and minutiae of everyday experience and anoints these as crucial sites of “struggle.” Every perceived slight, asymmetry, or indiscretion, no matter how minor, is exaggerated and thereby elevated to a matter of life and death. The fear is that without scrupulous attention to detail, revolutionary politics will end up reproducing the very forms of oppression they ostensibly seek to overcome. However convincing this oft-repeated argument might seem at first blush, it should be remembered that means and ends are not always identical when it comes to politics. Far from taking problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously, moreover, the Left seems to subscribe to the naïve belief that structural forms of social oppression can be corrected simply by codifying and bureaucratizing the way that people talk about them.

The points Naylor makes in criticizing of Fisher’s idea of class are well taken. Cultural markers such as accent or inflection, habits of dress or behavior associated with a given social stratum can hardly be considered constitutive features of class. These vary too much over time and space to have any enduring value as indicators of one’s socioeconomic standing or origin. At most, they can be considered a loose set of criteria or ensemble of expectations that stereotype different groups of individuals throughout society. It would make no sense to either exalt or abase someone on the basis of such qualities. Members of the working class should do not deserve to be demonized as “chavs,” but neither should they be condescendingly valorized as somehow more “authentic” on account of their unpretentious, slangy speech or charmingly direct mannerisms. Continue reading

On the Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review

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This piece was originally published about two years ago in the Platypus Review. Greg Gabrellas, its author, was at that point a leading member of the organization in Chicago. He and the group have since parted ways, as happened in my case as well. I repost it here not only because it’s a good piece (it is), but also because it touches on the marginalization of Marxism within leftist politics in recent decades. Beginning in the 1960s an 1970s, Marxism came to be regarded, for better or worse, as just one strategy for emancipation among many. Some of this is quite understandable, insofar as revolutionary Marxism — not just in its Stalinist and Maoist but also its Trotskyist and left communist forms — had been vulgarized to such a point that it became little more than glorified class reductionism. Today, syncretistic approaches such as “intersectionality” have been anointed as the latest word in praxis. For his part, Greg devoted much of his own attention to problems of race relations in the US today and the persistent question of sexual liberation. Yet it’s my suspicion that it was his very dissatisfaction with these discourses that led him to the historical project of Marxism as offering a more radical vision of human freedom.

At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20-24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus explored “The Marxism of Second International Radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky.” What follows is an edited version of Greg’s opening remarks.

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Despite the contrary assertions of conservatives, Marxism as a body of thought is widely known and disseminated among activists, academics, and political intellectuals. They take Marxism to mean a theory of what is wrong in the world, and how it can be practically changed — essentially a normative political philosophy with a radical disposition. Marxism takes its seat next to feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies as a philosophy of liberation. But this view is insufficient, and would have been unthinkable to the radicals of the Second International. Moreover, Marxism today is not only practically ineffectual. It stands in the way of future developments within Marxism, and with it the possibility of socialism.

This judgment might seem surprising, perhaps even shocking, to the activists, academics, and intellectuals who consider themselves Marxists or at least sympathizers. There exist Marxist political organizations, journals, reading groups, and conferences. Activist projects continue to arise, countering imperialist war and punitive sanctions against the poor and working class, and Marxists play a definitive role in all forms of contemporary activism. But the historical optimism implicit in activism for its own sake, manifest by the slogan “the struggle continues,” condemns itself to impotence. Marxism is different from radical political theory only insofar as it is an active recognition of possibility amidst social disintegration and calamity. Marxists have forgotten that self-critical politics is the form in which progressive developments within Marxist theory take place.

At first this inward orientation might seem misplaced. But just as modern painting recovers and transforms the aesthetic conventions of previous generations, so the radicals of the Second International understood socialism to be exclusively possible through the self-criticism and advancement of the actually-existing-history of the movement. Understandably, the splotches on a Jackson Pollock painting, or the overlapping figures of a de Kooning, might confuse first-time visitors to any museum of modern art. With its historical link severed, Marxism too risks becoming unintelligible amid the chatter of contemporary theory.

For example, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy, written under the pseudonym Junius while imprisoned for her opposition to world war in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

Unsparing self-criticism is not merely an essential for its existence but the working class’s supreme duty. On our ship we have the most valuable treasures of mankind, and the proletariat is their ordained guardian! And while bourgeois society, shamed and dishonored by the bloody orgy, rushes headlong toward its doom, the international proletariat must and will gather up the golden treasure that, in a moment of weakness and confusion in the chaos of the world war, it has allowed to sink to the ground.[1]

The “most valuable treasures of mankind” to which Luxemburg refers may be necessarily cryptic, but her phrase illuminates objective social sensibilities that have since vanished. Socialism was seen by the radical masses of workers and intellectuals alike as the fulfillment of humanity’s highest social and cultural achievements. Marxism was itself a historical achievement rendered possible by the organized politics of the working class. The task of Marxist theory was the criticism of socialist politics as a means of developing Marxism itself, and with it the possibility for new social freedoms. For Luxemburg, the project of political Marxism was not simply a matter of ideology or a political program that could be right or wrong. Socialism was, as she put it in the same pamphlet, “the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind.” In the wake of this movement’s crisis and ultimate collapse in the twentieth century, we must struggle to discern why and how this nearly forgotten generation of workers, intellectuals, and students came closest to achieving a real utopia. Continue reading

Postscript on identity, intersectionality

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Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampires’ Castle”:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.

When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.

First, we have his opponents:

Next up, Fisher’s allies:

Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampires’ Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.

Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Three articles belong to this “third camp”:

Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:

The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…

A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in. Continue reading

Scary architecture: The early works of Hans Poelzig

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Expressionism was an odd style, architecturally speaking. Mendelsohn’s stuff in the early 1920s was amoebic, stretching, undulating; by the end of the decade, he was committed to Sachlichkeit. Some of the dynamism of his expressionist pieces carried over into his more functionalist designs, as in the Red Banner factory in Leningrad (1926). Taut’s work in glass was marvelous, of course — and his ideas concerning the dissolution of the city were interesting as well. Hans Scharoun’s curvaceous forms were closer to the International Style from the start, but rounded or gently beveled off along the edges. A ripple runs along the façade of certain of his structures, such as Siemensstadt (1929-1931), almost reminiscent of the Vesnins’ contemporaneous ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow.

But the architecture of Hans Poelzig was from another planet entirely. Poelzig’s buildings were not merely idiosyncratic; they were positively psychotic. What Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1909) achieved in literary form, running alongside and counter to Secessionism and Jugendstil in the arts, Poelzig rendered into solid masses. The architecture journal San Rocco recently ran a call for papers on the theme of “scary architects,” with Poelzig as the cover-boy. It was no accident, that’s for sure. His buildings might never have been as formally modern as those of his peers, but they tower over the German industrial townscape with semi-traditional elements manifested at a terrifying scale. His renovations to the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin of his might even be described as a “stalactite” architecture. Nightmarish, but stunning.

Poelzig even looked demented: the circular glasses, the Moe Howard haircut, the slightly crossed eyes. Plus, in the 1934 Unversal Studios movie The Black Cat, the character Hjalmar Poelzig — an Austrian architect clearly modeled on Hans — is played by Boris Karloff. This was right after Frankenstein, too, when Karloff was at the height of his fame. Meanwhile, the costar was Bela Lugosi, right after Dracula. Below is a popular translation of his 1906 essay on “Fermentation in Architecture.” Also check out Fosco Lucarelli’s more expansive examination of Poelzig’s sulphuric acid factory in Luban over at SOCKS-Studio.

Fermentation in architecture

Hans Poelzig
Die Dritte Deutsche
Ausstellung (1906)

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Essentially, the buildings at the Dresden Exhibition of Applied Art of 1906 mirror the process of fermentation which our architecture is today passing through, whose end cannot yet be foreseen and whose products are as yet scarcely to be recognized.

The main tasks of modern architecture do not lie in the ecclesiastical sphere, nor do monumental constructions of a secular character exercise a decisive influence. Life in the modem era is dominated by economic questions; thus the participation of the people and of artists in architectural problems of this kind — from the private dwelling to town planning — is constantly growing.

This is the starting point for most of the movements towards formalistic constructions, in so far as we can speak of a movement at a time marked by the multiplicity of vacillating trends — trends which for nearly a hundred years have been changing in quick succession the fundamental principles upon which they were based.

Attempts, mostly based on the art of Schinkel, to transpose elements of the Greek language of forms onto our buildings, were followed by an unselective use of forms taken from the most varied styles of the past — from Gothic via the Renaissance in both its Italian and its German manifestation to Baroque and Empire — generally with no regard for the inner spirit of the forms, with no regard for the material from which these forms originally sprang.

And isolated attempts by outstanding teachers of architecture in South and North Germany to attain by detailed study a knowledge of the artistic language of the ancients and its true meaning were soon crossed with energetic attempts to invent a new world language of architecture, whose rules and roots would not parallel or resemble any of the styles of the past.

Interiors.

And once again there is beginning a shamefaced revival of foreign words from architectural idioms belonging to many stylistic epochs, even primitive ones, and these foreign words are frequently grafted onto stems of fundamentally different character.

In almost all the subdivisions of art that serve decoration, with its simpler basic requirements, the modern age has attained a genuine style of its own and has splendid achievements to show. After initial vacillation there was a wholesome return — influenced by a study of the art of early times and especially of that of an Asian people — to techniques adapted to the material in question and an artistic elaboration of the motif based on a detailed study of nature. Continue reading

You can’t spell “intersectionality” without “sect”

A dissection

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The concept of “intersectionality” is at best equivalent to unthought social complexity. Even then it is misleading, and potentially pernicious. 
At worst it’s just a meaningless pomo shibboleth used to stifle debate, obscure universal dynamics of capitalist society, and encourage methodological eclecticism (under the questionable pretext of a “plurality” of approaches). See the recent “‘Safe’ Spaces” piece I reposted from the CPGB’s Weekly Worker a couple months back to see the kind of spiraling madness to which this nonsense often leads.

It’s the continuation of identity politics by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

Rejecting intersectionality and identity politics does not mean reasserting a crude “class reductionist” model promoting “working-class identity,” however, as Mark Fisher seems to contend in his recent article “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (otherwise a serviceable critique of “identitarian” politics, which are always welcome). After all, this would just be another species of economic determinism, the sort that eventually leads leftists to search for “alien class elements” to root out, explaining ideological deviations by pointing to one’s petit-bourgeois upbringing (for example).

Over the summer I was hoping to co-write something with my friend Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist and Marxist from Australia, in response to Seymour’s post back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” I’m guessing the title of this entry alludes to the older Marxian concept of “the point of production.” Sadly, Jasmine became busy with university work, and I’ve been bogged down with other projects. James Heartfield’s piece will therefore have to do for now. Luckily his article is quite good. He’s better read in the history of these concepts than most of their proponents, at least. Also, it has the virtue of remaining pretty ad rem, which is more than can be said for most of Heartfield’s critics. George Galloway is one figure I find particularly repulsive, however. I’m not really bothered by Russell Brand, Lily Allen, or Julie Bindel.

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Intersectional? Or just sectarian?

James Heartfield
Mute Magazine

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Is self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand really just a “Brocialist”? Is Lily Allen’s feminist pop-video racist? Is lesbian activist Julie Bindel a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” Is Respect MP George Galloway a “rape apologist”? Welcome to the world of “intersectionalism” — or what we used to call sectarianism.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This was Flavia Dzodan’s angry challenge to a feminist slogan on a placard on a “slutwalk” march, “woman is the nigger of the world.” Dzodan did not like the “white feminist” laying claim to her the oppression suffered by women of color. “Am I supposed to ignore the violence that ensued in the N* word discussion?’ Dzodan asked: “Am I supposed to overlook its blatant violence in the name of sisterhood?”[1]

Dzodan’s meme “intersectional” was widely taken up amongst radical campaigners and bloggers. Intersectionality seemed to be a way to balance the different claims of oppressed groups. No one would be ignored, or folded into the other. Intersectional feminism would not ignore the special problems faced by black women. Nor would anti-racist campaigners ignore sexism. The watchword of intersectionality was that you should “check your privilege” before making any claims.[2]

For the radical left “intersectionality” seemed to be a way of “achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”[3] Those leftists were embarrassed by their own tradition, which seemed to them to be too mannish. They felt they had ignored questions of oppression, and would make amends through an intersectional approach. The older texts that saw women’s oppression as a footnote to the class struggle were set aside.[4] Continue reading

Moisei Ginzburg, Gosstrakh apartment complex in Moscow (1926)

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Photos and floor plans of Ginzburg’s famous housing mass (zhil’massiv) in Moscow.

 

The oikos of Wittgenstein

Massimo Cacciari
Architecture and Nihilism:
On the Philosophy of
Modern Architecture

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The limit of the space of this house 1 is constructed inexorably from within — from the very substance of its own language. The negative is not an other, but comprises the very othernesses that make up this language. There are no means of escape or “withdrawal” into the “values” of the interior. And the exterior is not designed in a utopian way, taking off from the value of Gestaltung — nor is it possible to save in the interior values that the metropolitan context negates. The work recalls neither Hoffmann, nor Wagner — nor even Loos and his “suspended dialectics” of interior-exterior. The idea of a hierarchically defined conflict between two levels of value is totally absent here. The conflict is with “all that remains,” which cannot be determined or transformed by the limits of this language; hence, it is a conflict with the Metropolis lying beyond this space, a conflict which in this space can only be silence. But, for this very reason, this space ultimately reveals a recognition of the Metropolis as now devoid of mystification or utopism, an acknowledgment of all its power.

In all this lies the truly classical dimension of the Wittgenstein house: the non-expressivity of the calculated space of the building is its essential substance.2 The building’s sole relation with what remains is the presence of the building itself. It cannot in any way determine or allude to the apeiron (infinite) surrounding it. Also classical is the calculation to which every passage is rigorously subjected, as well as the freezing of the linguistic media into radically anti-expressive orders, a phenomenon taken to the point of a manifest indifference toward the material (or rather, to the point of choosing indifference in the material, of choosing indifferent materials, materials without qualities) — but what is most classical here is the relation between the limited-whole of the house and the surrounding space.

The silence of the house, its impenetrability and anti-expressivity, is concretized in the ineffability of the surrounding space. So it is with the classical: classical architecture is a symbol (in the etymological sense) of the in-finite (a-peiron) that surrounds it. Its anti-expressivity is a symbol of the ineffability of the a-peiron. The abstract absoluteness of its order exalts the limit of the architectonic language; its non-power expresses the encompassing infinite. But at the same time, and as a result, this language constructs itself in the presence of this infinite, and cannot be understood except in light of this infinite. This presence of the classical in Wittgenstein represents one of the exceptional moments in which the development of modern ideology reassumed the true problematics of the classical. Webern would conclude his life’s work with this presence, linking himself with the first, lacerating modern perception of the classical — an anti-Weimarian, anti-historicist, tragic vision: that of Hölderlin.3 At this point the immeasurable distance separating Wittgenstein’s classical from Olbrich’s later works and from Hoffmann’s constant tendency is clear. Olbrich’s “classical” is a transformation of the Secession mask into that of a reacquired order, a recuperated wholeness. Hoffmann’s “classical” is an affirmation (or rather, an ever-contradicted, ever-disputed repetition) of the historicist dimension illuminated by a Weimarian nostalgia. But even Loos’s notion of the Roman, as we have seen, is completely averse to any simple idea of recuperation or neo-classical refoundation, or even mere Gemeinschaft. And yet, not even a trace of this Roman element can be found in Wittgenstein’s oikos.

The “Roman” is seen by Loos in terms of functionality and use. Its dimension is that of experience, of the temporal — and hence of social existence. Every project lives immersed in this general historical context: the light that brings it forth is that of time. In this way were the Romans able to adopt from the Greeks every order, every style: it was all the same to them. What was essential was the light that brought forth the building — and not just the building, but the life of the entire society. Their only problems were the great problems of planning. “Ever since humanity has understood the grandeur of classical antiquity, one single thought has united all great architects. They think: I shall build just as the ancient Romans would have built…every time architecture strays from its model to go with the minor figures, the decorativists, there reappears the great architect who leads the art back to antiquity.”4 From the Romans, says Loos, we have derived the technique of thought, our power to transform it into a process of rationalization. We conceive of the world technically and temporally, just as it unfolds in the ribbon of Trajan’s Column; we conceive of the Denkmal as a civil project — as architecture from the point of view of those who live it and reap its benefits. Continue reading

The assassination of Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race

J.G. Ballard

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From the Evergreen Review Reader 1967-1973.
Originally published in Evergreen 96, Spring 1973.
Love and Napalm: Export USA (Grove Press, 1969).

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Author’s note:
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.

Film still from the Zapruder footage

Film still from the Zapruder footage

The race

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Oswald was the starter.

From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion, Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already underway.

Kennedy got off to a bad start.

There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.

The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice-President participated. The Vice-President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson. Continue reading

Authenticity’s new jargon: Islamism, Third-Worldism, and the global Left

Arya Zahedi
Insurgent Notes

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The following article first appeared in the October issue of Insurgent Notes. Zahedi’s article is a review, so I added a title that I believe captures its main argumentative arc.

Arya Zahedi is an MA in Political Science at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. His areas of interest include political theory, revolutions, social movements, and modern Iran.
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Review:

….….Susan Buck-Morss
…..……Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and
……….….…………Critical Theory on the Left
.….…(Verso, 2003)

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The current global crisis has once again brought the questions of global struggle and world revolution into a position of importance. The basic questions posed are whether it is possible to build a “global Left” and how to rethink the idea of universal human liberation, which was the utopia once central to the left, and which has perhaps re-emerged once again. The unity of the world is indeed clearest to us in times of crisis. Susan Buck-Morss’s book on the relationship between critical theory and political Islam is an interesting and important contribution to this discussion, as it attempts to create a dialogue between critical thought in the “west” and that within the Islamic world. In keeping with her previous work on Hegel and the Haitian Revolution [Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Zahedi is somewhat off in the chronology], she attempts to resurrect and redeem the idea of universality after it had become a bad word among many in the academic activist milieu. Although the book was published some time ago, its relevance has only increased.

The loss of any conception of human universality, especially as it relates to the political struggle, has affected the understanding of social revolution. Many events have occurred since the publication of the book that demonstrate the importance of returning to the discussion of the world revolution and the universal subject that is supposed to be the agent of this revolution. Events such as the “Arab Spring” and the Iranian “Green Movement,” the riots and strikes against austerity, the unrest in Brazil in the midst of the World Cup qualifiers, Occupy Wall Street, all demonstrate some sort of global shift.

For the past twenty to thirty years, it has been almost an article of faith that any attempt to posit a universal subject should be looked upon with scorn. Indeed the word has been associated with another taboo word, “humanism.” Any advocacy of either one can be attacked for essentialism, Euro-centrism, or Orientalism, at best, and in extreme cases, even totalitarianism. One of the strengths of Buck-Morss’s approach is that she is not satisfied with just positing a universal subject from the past and dismissing the variety of these critiques, particularly that of the Eurocentric conception of the universal subject. She doesn’t just resurrect an old conception of universality; she attempts to point towards a new way of thinking about universality and the promise of human liberation. She attempts to develop an understanding of universality that remains critical of Euro-centrism.

The book carries on a theoretical struggle to understand the negotiation between universality and difference. But while the questions Buck-Morss asks are of great importance, and indeed correct in my opinion, the conclusions she draws and the method she uses to get there are way off the mark. Continue reading

(Anti-)fascist propaganda props

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May Day, Leningrad 1931. A constructivist set design depicting the global forces of reaction — a capitalist with a Howitzer coming out of his hat, an Orthodox priest mounted on top, a policeman straddling a swastika — serves as the centerpiece for a parade outside the Winter Palace in Leningrad. One can see from the pictures in the gallery below that these sets were mobile, adaptable, and collapsible, with different fitted parts allowing for various juxtapositions and transformations.

The group responsible for this monstrous mise-en-scène was IZORAM (the Young Workers’ Visual Arts [Изобразительное искусство рабочей молодежи]), a Leningrad collective that combined theatrical constructivism with strong Proletkult overtones. It was led by the rather brilliant Moisei Solomonovich Brodskii, who’d begun his career as a popularizer of cubism in Russia. Didn’t last long, though; founded in 1928, IZORAM would dissolve by the end of 1931. Presumably, this coincided with the forced unionization of the different independent art organizations throughout the USSR, a measure that allowed the Stalinist regime to impose its prescribed brand of “socialist realism” on practitioners.

Credit must go to Architecture of Doom and Semiotic Apocalypse for bringing this to my attention. Naturally, the image was discovered in the course of trawling through Russian Livejournal websites.

If the swastika was “mobilized” toward antifascist ends for Soviet parades (though this should not be mistaken for détournement avant la lettre), then it could quite easily be “mobilized” toward fascist ends as well. Principally by the fascists themselves. Seems the Nazis took to the idea of using the swastika as a gigantic mobile prop, as can be seen from a photograph taken in Hamburg during a speech in 1933. Behold:

Bizarre example of Nazi mobile architecture, a kind of "walking swastika" in Hamburg, 1933a

Bizarre example of Nazi mobile architecture, a
kind of “walking swastika” in Hamburg, 1933

The swastika could be positively “mobilized” by yet another means — namely, as mass ornament. Continue reading