Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect

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The prominent Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has recently come under fire in the press due to her alleged indifference over labor conditions in Qatar. Hadid’s curvaceous design for the al-Wakrah soccer stadium was selected by the Gulf state to house the 2012 FIFA World Cup competition. Revelations emerged in the Guardian newspaper last week regarding the extraordinarily high number of worker fatalities involved in the execution of her design, particularly among precarious migrant populations. Five hundred or more Indian workers have already perished in the construction of the building so far, in addition to almost four hundred deaths of Nepalese nationals.

Confronted with these figures, Zaha first pleaded ignorance and subsequently claimed powerlessness. She said:

I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.

[W]hat do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.

I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Zaha’s remarks came across as cold and detached, if not utterly insensitive. Though she spoke of her “concern” over the situation, she refused to take the blame for any of it. In the opinion of many analysts and architectural critics, this simply confirmed what they’d suspected about her all along: namely, that Hadid is an architect without an adequate sense of civic responsibility, a near-perfect embodiment of the “designer” (in Hal Foster‘s sense) in the neoliberal age. Dezeen points out that even close peers and contemporaries such as Richard Rogers or Daniel Libeskind, who have often been criticized along the same lines as Hadid, have spoken out about the architect’s duty to society at large.

Actually I tend to agree with Zaha here, though it probably bothers her — it should bother anyone — on a purely human level. (Which she has already said that it does). Hadid must be made to answer for her designs, however, specifically “as an architect.” Personally, I think this qualification is crucial to any balanced assessment of her what she said. Unless there was something intrinsic to her design that would necessitate cruel labor conditions or expose workers to undue risk, there’s nothing about the project that demands she take responsibility “as an architect.” Continue reading

History and the bomb

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PHOTO: Left to right — U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H.P. Blandy, his wife, and Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry cut a cake made in the shape of a mushroom cloud at a reception for Operation Crossroads (November 6, 1946). More information about the “atom cake” scandal can be found here. An extract from the Washington Post a week later details reactions to the photo in the Soviet press can be accessed by clicking here.

It should probably be said that I am personally in favor of nuclear energy, though I’m fully aware of the risks or dangers involved. Nuclear waste is a major problem, one for which no adequate solution has yet been found. Obviously, if any safer and more efficient energy source were to be discovered that might replace nuclear power, I would be in favor of that instead.

The following passages are excerpted from two texts by the German sociologist and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and pertain to the problematic fact of atomic warfare in a philosophy of history envisioned as the progress of human freedom.

Bikini atoll copy
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No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.

— Theodor Adorno, Negative
Dialectics
(1966), pg. 320

It is not my task…to enter into the detail of the way in which history is constructed. Even so, I believe that, if we are to treat certain fundamental questions of the philosophy of history, we cannot ignore such matters entirely; and I believe further that the knowledge of historical matters is in the first instance a question of distance. If we approach details too closely and fail to open them up to critical inspection, we will indeed find ourselves in the proverbial situation of not seeing the wood for the trees. On the other hand, if we distance ourselves too much, we shall be unable to grasp history because the categories we use themselves become excessively magnified to the point where they become problematic and fail to do justice to their material. I have in mind concepts such as the progress of freedom, about which I [have] offered some critical comments…

So I would say that we need to keep a certain distance. This will enable us both to dissociate ourselves from a total theory of history and equally to resist the cult of the facts which, as I have explained, have their own conceptual difficulties. We can illustrate this by saying, for example, that we cannot really speak of something like progress in general, as indeed I have already argued. Incidentally we shall take a closer look at this concept towards the end of the section in which we discuss the philosophy of history.
Continue reading

The artist at work

Robin Treadwell
Platypus Review
February 1, 2014
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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013

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On a May night in 2012, Sotheby’s sold a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for 119.9 million dollars, setting a new record for the price paid for a single work of art. Meanwhile, union art handlers, locked out in a months-long dispute over a new contract, picketed the auction house along with Occupy Museums activists. While this sad little snapshot of art world disparity is not exactly new, the past few years have seen this type of excess thrown into sharp relief — against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Occupy movement. Niche art blogs, art magazines, and more mainstream outlets are increasingly scandalized by the intersection of art and money, perhaps because it has become so glaring. For instance, last year Reuters’ finance blogger, Felix Salmon, wrote an outraged piece chiding a Citibank “research report” on the artist Gerhard Richter, complete with a graph tracking his auction prices and those of other blue-chip artists in comparison to the S&P 500.[1] In 2011, the New York Times published a lengthy expose of Ronald Lauder’s strategic donations of art to his own museum, the Neue Galerie, as a sophisticated tax evasion strategy.[2] Prominent art writer Jerry Saltz periodically chimes in on the subject, lately with complaints about the dominance and corrupting influence of “mega-galleries” such as Gagosian, a franchise with fourteen locations worldwide, calling them “too big not to fail.”[3] The legendary art critic Dave Hickey has opted out of the game altogether, preferring not to continue on as a member of the “courtier class”: “All we [art editors and critics] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time,” he told the Observer.[4] Additionally, museums and other art institutions host a seemingly endless series of public forums, talks and panel discussions with titles such as “Materials, Money & Crisis” and “Art Against Reification.”

Artists, too, have long voiced concerns. The artist Andrea Fraser has made a career of institutional critique; her inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial may be a sign of this particular genre’s renewed cachet. The Biennial is traditionally viewed as an indicator of the art world’s general mood, and in 2012 this mood was introspective art-about-art. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the show for its avoidance of “usual suspects and blue-chip galleries,” going on to write that it “separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists.”[5] Fraser’s contribution, an incisive essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” argues that art discourse, her own brand of institutional critique included, has itself become co-opted; moreover, it often serves as a way to avoid actually dealing with issues in a meaningful way — critique as a form of inoculation.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the economics of the art world, one rarely finds class mentioned, much less Marxism. This despite the fact that art theory still employs the language of (Marxist) cultural theory via the Frankfurt school — as Andrea Fraser puts it in the above-mentioned essay, the “broad and often unquestioned claim” is that “art in some way critiques, negates, questions, challenges, confronts, contests, subverts, or transgresses norms, conventions, hierarchies, relations of power and domination, or other social structures.”[6] One gets the sense, however, that the contemporary art world considers itself much too (post-)postmodern and sophisticated to seriously give credence to anything as reductive as Marxism. Yet there is clearly a yearning, at least in some quarters, for a more systematic way of addressing the situation art finds itself in at present.

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

This is the somewhat fraught atmosphere into which Ben Davis’ new book of essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, emerges. Davis, a self-identified Marxist and activist who was until recently the executive editor of Artinfo.com, wrote the title essay as a contribution to a show at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. The show, “#class,” was a response to yet another art world controversy, over a show at the New Museum devoted to the collection of a wealthy trustee, Dakis Joannou, and curated not by one of the museum’s staff, but by an art-star friend of Joannou, the much-loathed Jeff Koons. A numbered, cross-indexed series of declarative statements, which Davis originally taped to the gallery door a la Martin Luther, the essay stands out as the book’s boldest and most rigorous chapter:

Thesis 1.0: Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.

1.1: Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent of society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts.

1.7: …a critique of the art market is not the same as a critique of class in the sphere of the visual arts. Class is more fundamental and determinate than the market. (27)

The essay’s central argument is that “the predominant character of this sphere [of the visual arts] is middle-class” (28). By this, Davis means that artists have a degree of authority over the conditions and, to some extent, products of their own work that wage-laborers, no matter how well-paid, do not; but that, unlike the ruling class, they are not “capital personified,” i.e., they pursue their work for more than simply profit. Continue reading

Graham Greene’s infamous review of Wee Willie Winkie (1937), starring Shirley Temple

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Shirley Temple passed away a little over a week ago. Now that some time has gone by, though, I thought I would take this opportunity to repost a hilarious 1937 review written by Graham Greene of her movie Wee Willie Winkie. Greene, one of the great British authors of the twentieth century — and there were many — wrote with such searing cynicism and shocking innuendo that Temple’s guardians ended up suing him. He was practically forced to leave the country.

This reposting should not be seen as some sort of final dig at Temple shortly after she died. Indeed, it’s more of commentary on the whole Hollywood industry of the child star, which has claimed so many over the years. And in fact, Shirley Temple is one of the very few who did successfully transition into adult life without completely losing it (an all-too-familiar story for child actors who the studios chew up and spit back out).

Many thanks to Angela Nagle for bringing this to my attention, in any case. She writes:

Graham Greene on Shirley Temple’s pedo-y fans and promoters, for which he got in a lot of trouble and had to emigrate. Although I dislike how Greene’s cynical view here has become standard today, his bloody minded writing style is perfection. You can imagine how scandalous this must have been in 1937.

Enjoy.

Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl

Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl

Wee Willie Winkie

Graham Greene
Night and Day
Oct. 28, 1937

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The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece — real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a [Marlene] Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep. Continue reading

Robert Mallet-Stevens and Fernand Léger, modernist set designs for L’Inhumaine (1924)

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Some remarks by Italian architecture critics on the architectural significance of the movie.

The elegant and refined works of Mallet-Stevens, beginning with the De Noailles villa of 1923 in Hyères, were yet another product of an intimate converse with the Cubist vanguard that nonetheless kept its eye on the latest modes and fashions, as in the house on Rue Balzac in Ville d’Avray (1926) or the apartment block of the next year on the street in Paris named for the architect himself. In the sophisticated world of the avant-garde, Mallet-Stevens moved at his eclectic ease: his villa for the Vicomte de Noailles was used as the setting for Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Chateau du Dé. Already in 1923-24, Mallet-Stevens had collaborated with Léger, Chareau, and Alberto Cavalcanti on a film by Marcel L’Herbier, L’Inhumaine, in which the house of the leading character is one of the finest examples of that scenographic and eclectic synthesis of Cubist, Neo-Plasticist, and Art Deco details of which Mallet-Stevens’ architecture is compounded. (Pg. 233)

— Manfredo Tafuri
& Frencesco Dal Co
Modern Architecture

The human being as inventor and as machine was even transferred to the stage in ballets such as Parade (1917), Alexander Exeter’s L’homme Sandwich (1922), and the Triadische Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer and plays an obvious role in the rhythmic sequencing and montage used as compositional techniques in films such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine. Photography and the cinema are in fact the two new and popular mechanical figurative arts. If photography offers an alternative to the pictorial representation of nature, cinema provides art with new materials in a new harmony of space and time in movement and a new simultaneity. These were themes that Walter Benjamin was to treat in the 1930s. (Pg. 20)

— Vittorio Gregotti
The Architecture of
Means and Ends

And now for an article by Mallet-Stevens.
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Architecture and Geometry (1924)

Robert Mallet-Stevens

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Architecture is an art which is basically geometrical. The cube is the basis of architecture because the right angle is necessary. In practice, walls are generally vertical, floors are horizontal, columns, pillars and posts are vertical, terraces and the ground are horizontal, stone blocks are parallelepipeds, windows and doors are rectangular, the steps of a staircase consist of vertical and horizontal planes and the corners of rooms are nearly always right angles. We need right angles.

A house, a palace, is composed of a set of cubes. At all stages in the history of art the house has been cubical. Each country, each century, each fashion has made its impression on the cube, with sculptures, moldings, pediments, capitals, ornamental foliage, scrolls — so many decorative details which are often of no use to the structure but which give the charm of the play of light and shade. Building in stone, in fact, only allowed a block to be made, composed of various elements, to which the decoration was related as if glued on. Continue reading

Ideas instigator

“Intersectionality” as
a marketing strategy

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Picking up where I left off:

Even the faintest hint that someone thinks Flavia Dzodan looks white is intolerable to the image she’s cultivated on the internet, both to herself as well as to others. Flavia is, after all, the self-appointed spokeswoman of “women of color” (often abbreviated “WoC”) everywhere. WoC are apparently just one homogeneous, undifferentiated bloc, as it turns out. I bet you didn’t know that. Hence Dzodan’s constant use of the first-person plural in all her articles, the so-called “imperial we.” Personally, this title always struck me as a misnomer, since it implies that one’s “color” is decisive. At least in Flavia’s case, the color is pretty run-of-the-mill whitebread — if not lily-white, as these particular photos suggest. Maybe they’re misleading, not truly representative. It doesn’t really matter, except insofar as it bears upon her brand. Though these things seem to be separable at first glance, closer inspection reveals that “the person behind the brand” is part of the brand itself.

Indeed, the concept of “branding” is a useful way to understand her whole persona. Since rising to prominence back in 2011 with her mini-manifesto, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Flavia has built a following of likeminded supporters promoting “intersectionality” while demoting “white feminism.” Yeah, it’s a one-trick pony. But it’s become so routine by this point that even novices can learn it with relative ease. Dzodan’s slogan proved so contagious that even certified squares such as Richard Seymour started using it. Much of her success over the last few years has owed to this ability to make herself all but ubiquitous, with many of her memes regarding “white feminist tears,” “silencing voices,” and “erasure” going viral within no time. This is Flavia’s great hidden talent, the secret behind her pseudo-celebrity. And it would be disingenuous to deny her that. Without it, she would be nothing. No one would have even heard of her.

Flavia describes herself unironically on her professional website as an “ideas instigator.” Besides politics and media analysis, of course, Dzodan is primarily interested in business development. As most know by now, I am skeptical of the “radical” claims of multiculturalism and intersectionality. Despite frequent appeals to some vague idea of communism, I consider the politics that result from these thought-figures to be little more than social justice liberalism. Several weeks ago, then, I made the offhand remark that most of the “radical” proponents of intersectionality today will probably end up as marketing specialists — cultural diversity consultants for ad agencies — within a few more years. Here, as with most things when it comes to this crowd, Flavia is way ahead of the curve. Long before anyone else got around to it, she began incorporating intersectionality into her schemes for messaging in media. Quite far from being incompatible with the interests of capitalism, however, she rightly points out that this is just smart business practice:

  • I believe that social principles of inclusion, diversity, fairness, equality, and respect are the foundation upon which we should build both our for and non profit organizations.
  • I believe that inclusion and awareness matter in communications because, a message that is sent out without taking all parties into consideration is an ineffective one.

This is in keeping with the argument I made several posts back regarding the new gender options on Facebook. Users might well feel liberated by the increased array of possible choices, but the real payoff as far as companies buying adspace are concerned is the finer gradience of information that’s available. All of which is to say that diversity and inclusiveness is entirely compatible with bourgeois society. Maybe Coca-Cola got in touch with Flavia for their Superbowl ad? Continue reading

Identity and narcissism

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So it would seem that Flavia Dzodan — an Amsterdam-based marketing consultant — denounced me last night. All this as part of a highly-public (online) breakdown of staggering proportions. Not just me, of course. Quite a few others were likewise singled out for abuse in Dzodan’s hate-filled tirade, endearingly titled “I hate you all media vultures.” Most of those she called out were well-known feminists: Louise Pennington, Laurie Penny, Michelle Goldberg, Becca Reilly-Cooper, Glosswitch, Helen Lewis, Meghan Murphy, Julie Bindel, and Gia Milinovich. Everyone else who belongs to our “ilk,” as well. This is something I’m particularly proud of, incidentally, long having wanted to be included in an ilk. In a roughly thousand word blogpost, dripping with invective, she accuses everyone of profiting at her expense. We’re “media whores,” according to Dzodan, “the top of a vat of turds floating in our own media shit.” By contrast, she and her supporters are “the bootstraps we pull in the hopes of rising to the top,” since we’ve allegedly co-opted her language, ideas, and freedom.

Clearly, we should all stop what we’re doing immediately and start cutting her royalty checks. Nevermind that Reilly-Cooper isn’t even a journalist, without any media connections to speak of. Still more puzzling are some of Dzodan’s other accusations, bizarre ad hominem attacks and baseless condemnations. Lewis is supposed to have driven one of her gay coworkers to commit suicide. Apparently I’m a supporter of NAMBLA. Who knew? This she cleverly deduces from my former membership in Platypus, or at least what she can tell by reading Richard Seymour’s open letter. Platypus doesn’t really endorse anything, to the best of my knowledge. Its president, Chris Cutrone, said back in 2009 that the Spartacist League’s stance on NAMBLA is one of their better positions (which actually says more about the Sparts than anything else). His opinion doesn’t necessarily represent that of Platypus as an organization, nor that of its individual members. Obviously, it’s even less likely to reflect the opinion of an ex-member such as myself. Either way, though it’s ridiculous that I should even have to disclaim this, allow me to make clear that I have never supported, let alone “promoted,” NAMBLA. If you’d be so good as point out even a single instance where I’ve said anything of the sort, it would be a big help.

My true crime, it should be noted, has nothing to do with any of this. What originally set her off was just a casual remark about a picture someone sent me of Flavia after I said the impression I got from her website photo was that she was “white.” Didn’t mean anything by it. Seemed reasonable to me considering her last name sounded Serbo-Croatian — something Slavic from the Balkan peninsula. Anyway, the photo I received afterward only confirmed my initial impression. One doesn’t have to invoke the old distinction between phenotype and genotype, which is often spurious, in passing such a judgment. If someone asks you to give a physical description of someone, apart from the person’s height and weight, hair or eye color, skin complexion is usually a logical next step. People usually tell me I look white, not that I really give a shit one way or the other. Going from the picture above, I have to say that if I saw her on the street I’d probably just assume she’s white. That doesn’t mean she is white, or that she identifies as white. Just means that she looked white to me. Unfortunately for everyone involved, merely stating my opinion resulted in her throwing an epic tantrum across the Twitterverse. Reilly-Cooper later noted, correctly, that Flavia’s whole reaction was almost “textbook narcissistic rage.”

11034_227113484574_5195069_n

Flavia with a cat

(Julie Burchill, a feminist and communist daughter who was rightly criticized for her 2003 support of war in Iraq, was nevertheless correct to point this out last week in her breathless polemic against intersectionality in the British magazine Spectator titled “Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege.” Although some of it comes across as a bit too personal for my taste, borne of a deep-seated bitterness at what feminism has become, Burchill ought to be commended for deathless lines like “every thought is an ism, every person an ist in the insania of intersectionality.” She acerbically observed: “Intersectionality, like identity politics before it, is pure narcissism.” Christopher Lasch may have been right all along. In his classic study of The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch decried “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness” and the degenerated political forms that typically attend it:

The degeneration of politics into spectacle has…made it more difficult than ever to organize a political opposition. When the images of power overshadow the reality, those without power find themselves fighting phantoms. Particularly in a society where power likes to present itself in the guise of benevolence — where government seldom resorts to the naked use of force — it is hard to identify the oppressor, let alone to personify him, or to sustain a burning sense of grievance in the masses. In the sixties, the New Left attempted to overcome this seeming insubstantiality of the establishment by resorting to politics of confrontation…The attempt to dramatize official repression, however, imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance — a mirror-image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.

Today’s networked political theater finds a different stage, not in the streets but in the depthless realm of cyberspace. It would be too neat an inversion to take very seriously, but the temptation is there all the same: Could Frantz Fanon’s disquisition on Black Skin, White Masks have finally turned back on itself, so that an emancipatory politics subjectivity can only be articulated from the standpoint of the most oppressed? Perhaps a kind of “white skin, black masks” approach to radicalization? This insight would hardly be limited to Flavia Dzodan, extending to many white radicals for whom the only authentic form of struggle is that of “the Other.” Mike Ely of the Kasama Project comes to mind as the sort of archetypal whiteboy who likes to call other whiteboys “crackers,” in some vain throwback to 1960s black nationalism. Standpoint epistemology, though less popular in politics today, lives on in privilege theory and intersectionality.)

Dzodan is so attached to this sense of identity that she seeks to reinforce it by other means. She lists her various qualia at every turn. Over and above what she does (vocationally a writer and a media maker) and what she believes (ideologically a feminist of the intersectional persuasion), she places a great deal of stress on who she is (biographically a Latina, sudaca, and immigrant). Continue reading

To remember a future long silenced by history

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review 27
September 2010
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Book review:

Renewing Black Intellectual History
Adolph Reed Jr. & Kenneth W. Warren, eds.
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)

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In a 2005 commencement address, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.”[1] At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy — “by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary” — and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.

Zinn’s historical reasoning has a history of its own. Beginning in the early moments of decolonization, insurgent black nationalists attempted to rewrite history in the service of race pride. Think of Cheikh Anta Diop’s demonstration that the ancient Egyptians were really black Africans. Though such appeals proved too essentialist for the post-structuralist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, historians who still hoped to preserve the therapeutic value of history continued to assert the cultural legacy of the black diaspora. This legacy was forged over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of oppression. And black resistance, it was claimed, dates to about the same period. In the absence of any actual politics, historical research became a substitute satisfaction. By revealing the racism implicit in, say, Orson Welles’s 1935 “Voodoo Macbeth,” the historian seems to win a political victory against racism.

In their edited collection, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren mount a challenge to the political pretensions of black studies. Now, bemoaning the excesses of identity politics is not new; in fact, it has paid for many a conservative’s third swimming pool. But Reed and Warren’s critique is meant to come from the Left, to show how the unexamined assumptions of black history mystify the present and block the development of critical politics.

One major assumption is that racism poses a persistent and persisting problem in American history. To make the point, historians, literary critics, and pundits often use W.E.B Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. In a recent article, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond details racial disparities in education, and asks whether America will be ready to “roll up its sleeves to at last solve the problem of the color line.”[2] Reed’s capstone essay “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now” shows how such contemporary appropriations not only misunderstand the context of Du Bois’s remark, but also obscure the recognition of real social problems.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon originally from the George Matthew Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service, August 16, 1919.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon from George Matthew
Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service. (August 16, 1919).

Du Bois’s formulation was not exactly a clarion call for the black revolution; in fact, as Reed demonstrates, it came at the most conservative moment in his career. When Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he was not alone in prophesying the primacy of race in current affairs: In the academy, scientific racism had reached its zenith, and in popular political discourse, the imagination of a racial “Struggle for Existence” shaped foreign and domestic policy. Balking at the notion of innate inferiority, Du Bois had a softer view of racial inheritance than most, but he shared the race-centric view of his moment. An admirer of Bismark, he advocated for social reforms to squelch racial and class tensions, and divert blacks from more radical politics. Du Bois would reevaluate his perspective, of course, over his long lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in the years before his death in 1963, he later questioned his own formulation of the “color line” as the problem of his century.[3] Continue reading

Ivan Kudriashev’s interplanetary-dynamic abstractions (1917-1928)

Cosmism and
communism
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Click images
to enlarge
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Biographical notes

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Born
Kaluga, 1896; died Moscow, 1972.

From 1913 to 1917 Kudriashev attended the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and from 1918 to 1919 studied with Kazimir Malevich at the SVOMAS [Free State Art Studios]; there he met Ivan Kliun, Antoine Pevsner, and Naum Gabo. From 1918 on, under the influence of the ideas of the space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (conveyed to Kudriashev by his father, a carpenter who made rockets and other devices for Tsiolkovskii), he turned to the problems of cosmic abstract painting, as filtered through Suprematism. After the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary seizure of power in October 1917, Kudriashev worked for about a year on propaganda designs for automobiles to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution.

Ivan Kudriashev, photographer unknown (1940s)

In 1919, he was sent to Orenburg to establish the SVOMAS. That same year Kudriashev participated in the city’s inaugural State Exhibition, showing sketches for the mural of the First Soviet Theater along with other abstract works. Over the next year he worked on the interior to the Summer Red Army Theater and organized a branch of the UNOVIS group in Orenburg.

Kudriashev arrived in Smolensk in 1921, while serving as the supervisor of a train for the evacuation of starving children. There he met Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski, two Polish followers of Malevich. Later on Kudriashev returned to Moscow, and from late 1921 onward worked as a designer. In 1922 he sent work to the “Erste russische Kunstausstellung” (First Russian Art Exhibition) at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin. Between 1925 to 1928 his abstract works were displayed at the first, second, and fourth OST exhibitions.

After 1928, Kudriashev stopped exhibiting in the Soviet Union.

Early works.

Planets

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Ivan Kudriashev is one of the lesser-known painters of the Soviet avant-garde. Not for lack of talent, however. Brilliant, brooding, and celestially driven, Kudriashev was often given to interstellar flights of the imagination. He dreamed of nighttime passages between the Earth and other planets. This of course reflected the gravitational pull of Tsiolkovskii’s cosmism, which always held extraterrestrial ambitions.

Many of his darker paintings from the 1920s convey this sense of cosmic loneliness — that of a solitary mind launched and set adrift in a cold vessel, wandering through the black expanse of space. Kudriashev’s career was brief, but blazed a path fed by rocket-fuel. Continue reading

Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber
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Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)
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Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.
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Opening remarks

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Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement. Continue reading