Something better than the nation?

Blair Taylor
Platypus Review
July 14th, 2014
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Book Review:

Rob Ogman, Against the Nation:
Anti-National Politics in Germany
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(Porsgrunn, Norway: NCP, 2013).
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In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.

The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.

The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.

Contesting nationalism:
“Never again Deutschland!” and
“something better than the nation”

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These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something better than the nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.

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Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.

While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”

By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, Against the Nation is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas and Konkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base. Continue reading

Against Richard Seymour

Daniel Harvey
Weekly Worker
June 12, 2014
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Richard Seymour

Against austerity: How we can fix the crisis they made?
Pluto Press, 2014, pp198, £11.50

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Some readers are going to need to have their memories jogged. There was this bloke who used to hang around the left a while ago called Richard Seymour, who cuts a lonely political figure now. Having left the Socialist Workers Party, he then left the International Socialist Network he had helped set up because he made a comment about race and sexual bondage that was considered non-PC. Then even a group as boring as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century rejected his membership application out of sheer prudishness.

Now he has written up some thoughts about where we have been going wrong in his book, Against Austerity, which some commentators have been absolutely raving about. Alan Sears from Canada calls it a “crucial reference point for the left,” an “unflinching and insightful analysis of the current situation in which the radical left finds itself.”[1] Mark Perryman sees the book as continuing “the important line of thinking” of the late Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea in the Kilburn Manifesto.[2] Louis Proyect over on Counterpunch says: “At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr Hyde.”[3]

It seems like high praise from some quarters for a book that must have the dullest title the leftwing publisher, Pluto Press, could have chosen. A bit like a headline in The Socialist. So what is the author’s main line of reasoning? Well, after five to six years of the great recession that began in 2008, Seymour has noticed that the left has not advanced very far.

He is disappointed, and we can see why if we look back at his oeuvre from before his split with the SWP. Back then, as James Heartfield has pointed out on Sp!ked, he had higher expectations.[4] He was heaping praise on the “wave of radical leaderships” in the unions in 2006[5] — he said on his blog: “The picket lines are out, and more than a million workers will not be crossing them today. I had a sneaking suspicion that the atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent would be evoked.”[6]

It is worth quoting the feelings that were stirred in comrade Seymour in 2011 by the March 26 march called by the TUC. I remember us all trudging to Hyde Park to listen to Ed Miliband, but for Seymour this was a profoundly transformative moment:

It was something that I haven’t really seen en masse before. It was something that some people had written off. They said was a bit old hat, doomed to a slow, dwindling death, if it even really existed. It was the working class. Not the working class in the shitty, nostalgic, culturally regressive sense that people invoke, not the deus ex machina mobilised to berate black people and gays for being too assertive of their legitimate rights. It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight. If you’re a socialist in one of those workplaces on Monday morning, you should have an easier job arguing for militant strike action now, because people now know what they could not be sure of before: that we are many, and they are few.[7]

Yes! So what happened? Where did it all go wrong? I think it is safe to say that the fact he left the SWP had something to do with it. Not being in that perpetually optimistic echo chamber has had something of a come-down effect for him. In any case, the fact that comrade Seymour has started to use his own eyes again is great news for the rest of us. That means he is now looking at austerity in a whole new light. It is a class project, he says, which is just the latest part in a decades-long strategy by our political elites. He has been reading Foucault, and he has now decided that austerity is a project to redesign western capitalism at a cellular level. But it will take a generation to rebuild the left to a point where it can have any real clout again. Continue reading

By analogy with capitalism itself

Spencer Leonard
Marx & Philosophy
January 1, 2013
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Jairus Banaji Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. 408pp., $28 / £20 pb ISBN 9781608461431

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Prosecuting a sustained critique of Stalinism as conceptual “formalism” or “metaphysics,” Jairus Banaji’s writings merit a place among the more substantial works to issue out of the terminal phase of the left’s decline in the 1970s. However, as the recently published Theory as History testifies, resisting the intellectual disintegration of our post-leftist moment proves well-nigh impossible even when the attempt maintains a high level of conceptual rigor. Indeed, that rigor itself can serve as a means of fending off recognition of present circumstances. Whereas others have retreated into academic Marxology, activist tailism, or sectarian sub-culturalism, Banaji’s refuge is the retooling of Marxism as a historical sociology. Historical materialism is presented in Theory as an approach to the study of history that promises greater explanatory power than do the existing alternatives. As Banaji writes in his Introduction,

The essays published in this collection span a period of just over thirty years and set out first to map a general conception of modes of production as historical characterizations of whole epochs, in other words, to restore a sense of historical complexity to them, and then to illustrate/explore some of that complexity in detailed studies based as far as possible on primary source material. 1

For Banaji Marxism makes for a more rigorous, more systematic approach to the past, including the remote, precapitalist past. But if this is true it is not because Marxism has a specific method or superior sociological insight, but simply that Marxism was the last form of bourgeois thought. But as a work chiefly preoccupied with reconceiving pre-capitalist modes of production, the book rejects its own true interest as a record of a decades-long and partial attempt to resist Marxism’s demise. Consequently, Banaji threatens to diminish his own most interesting essays from the 1970s, whether by exclusion or by shoehorning them into the largely alien preoccupations of more recent work.

When Banaji began to write, he and his generation faced the collapse of both the Old Left and of the ’60s New Left’s initial response to it. An echo of his early ambitions as a Trotskyist in the 1970s remains faintly audible in the hopes he expresses for the project of the book. As he writes,

The renewal of historical materialism and of theory more generally will…require a transformation of attitudes in the first instance, a vigorous iconoclasm that can prise Marxists away from their obsessions with orthodoxy, so that a left that was never attached to Stalinism…can finally break with the residues of…conservatism. (xiii)

Banaji sought in the 1970s to renew the New Left project, the attempt was explicitly to bring the legacies of Marx and Lenin (and also of Trotsky) to bear upon a palpably inadequate left politics. Though emerging largely out of Naxalite tendencies with which Banaji has little sympathy, the Subalternists share with him a similar moment and a similar orientation toward a New Left canon — Althusser, Colletti, Gramsci, Sartre, etc. But it was Banaji’s Trostkyism that prompted him to try to develop tools to gauge the scale of the historical defeats and political regression that his generation inherited. His concerns were, therefore, deeply historical even when he was not writing as a historian. In this sense the historical aspect of Banaji’s critique of the semi-feudal thesis was of greater significance than its immediate programmatic implications (implying as it did, for instance, a critique of both the Naxalites and the CPI(M) on both the general “revolutionary situation” and the strategy that flowed from that estimation). It is unsurprising, then, that what one reviewer terms Banaji’s “breakthrough … for Marxist theory” in the Mode of Production Debate was conceived both more and less modestly at the time by Banaji himself. He thought he was recovering the original positions of Marx and Lenin. This is what falls away in the more recent essays with which the 1970s essays are here combined. Continue reading

The failure of Reason: Adorno and the non-identical

Haseeb Ahmed
Platypus Review
October 2009
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Book Review:

D. Claussen. Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008

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For years Theodor Adorno’s theoretical work has suffered from either neglect or semi-hostile “interpretation.” It is therefore refreshing to see Detlev Claussen, who studied under Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 1966 to 1971, take a more sympathetic approach to the study of Adorno’s philosophy and intellectual life. In Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, Claussen attempts to track the historical and biographical factors that influenced Adorno’s critical theory and, in doing so, strives to carefully reconstruct both the changing context and the abiding problematic that Adorno was attempting to grasp in and through his work.

The late 1960s witnessed an upsurge of student activism that culminated in massive strikes and demonstrations worldwide beginning in 1968 and extending into 1969, the year of Adorno’s death. Though they had learned much from him, the student New Left in this period strongly counter-identified against their teacher, Adorno, who typified for them the old and impotent Left they sought to supersede. Following the lead of Herbert Marcuse, who said just after Adorno’s death that “there is no one who can represent Adorno or speak for him,” Claussen does not engage in a critique of Adorno’s students and contemporaries on behalf of his former teacher, but attempts instead to allow Adorno to speak for himself by drawing from a huge array of intimate correspondence, diary entries, and assorted works, many of them previously unpublished. Claussen makes the point straight away that Adorno’s criticism of the New Left and the parting of ways between Adorno and Marcuse over the latter’s support for it was not exceptional but consistent with Adorno’s lifelong history of remaining true to the Left by criticizing it. Claussen notes that Adorno’s lectures around this time attempted to clarify how “the new is the longing for the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from” (327). It is for this reason that there must be an unrelenting differentiation between “representation for the purposes of agitation and practical reality” (336), something that the students failed to realize as the situation in 1968 escalated, and to which both Adorno and the student movement ultimately fell victim.

The young Theodor Adorno with his 'two mothers' in the garden pavilion

For Claussen, Adorno’s childhood growing up in a Jewish bourgeois household in Frankfurt is crucial for understanding him, and Claussen returns to it throughout the book. Adorno is portrayed as the last generation to know the “broken promises of happiness” of the long Bourgeois era, which, at “the end of the nineteenth century denie[d] tradition by inventing it” (52), specifically through the cultivation of individual interests. For Adorno this meant chiefly musical pursuits. Claussen contrasts the relationship that Adorno and his family had to their Jewish origins with that of his colleague Leo Lowenthal and mentor Siegfried Kracauer. While Kracauer and Lowenthal would describe themselves as “hybrids,” unable to reconcile tradition and secularized life, Adorno appeared to be relatively untouched by this dilemma. However, this tension between the lived Jewish experience and enlightened liberalism was not entirely arbitrary since, on Claussen’s reading of Adorno, bourgeois ideology found its necessary conclusion with the rise of National Socialism. Claussen makes the point that this attitude towards “bourgeois” culture and society conditioned Adorno’s work throughout his life; after his return to Germany in 1953 Adorno wrote, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more of a threat than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy” (335).

Before the Nazis took power, Adorno studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, the radical modernist composer, during which time Adorno had to reconcile his growing interests in philosophy and sociology with the pursuit of music. Claussen tracks how this tension remained constant and informed his work throughout his life. Adorno was repeatedly “forced to insist that social categories could not simply be applied to musical material from the outside but had to be generated from the material itself” (113). In this way, issues of technique in musical production could be potentially critical of the social situation that produced it, albeit never in a direct, unmediated way. The failure to recognize this capacity in art left it to the mere pathological function of “veiling” social reality. Furthermore, Claussen points out that the project of the institute was to query the character of a culture whose task “is to conceal the regression into barbarism” without having recourse to the tradition of Marxist categories that functioned also as signals for Stalinist and McCarthyite suppression (202). Claussen notes that, even today, much of the critique of Adorno internalizes the apparent contradistinction between theory and practice, by which Adorno is made to appear as a failed musician turned theorist. Claussen then goes on to quote Adorno as saying, “because of biographical destiny and assuredly also because of certain psychological mechanisms I have not achieved nearly as much as a composer as I believe I could have achieved” (133). But this was not merely a lament on Adorno’s part. Rather, it is the attempt to register the damage inflicted on individual life by a form of social organization that is not adequate to itself.

Theodor_W_fmt 1928

Beyond Adorno’s childhood and musical upbringing, Claussen illuminates the personal and professional difficulties that constantly confronted the intellectuals, grouped around Max Horkheimer, known as the Frankfurt School. Of Adorno’s exile in the United States during World War II, Claussen reports that Adorno found himself isolated and “out of the firing line” (the title of an essay he wrote), along with other Jewish intellectuals, as the systematic murder of Jews in Europe remained distant, if ever-present. 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

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

Book review: Architecture between spectacle and use (2011)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein
(edited by Ross Wolfe)
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Berrin Chatzi Chousein contacted me about a week ago inquiring if I’d be interested in publishing her review of Architecture between Spectacle and Use, edited by Anthony Vidler, on The Charnel-House. Glancing over it just superficially, I could immediately tell it pertained to the blog’s focus and broader statement of intent. Though it was a bit rough in parts, I edited it down into its present form, appearing here for the first time.

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Architecture between Spectacle and Use
, a collection edited by Anthony Vidler,[1] focuses on the concepts of “spectacle” and “use” as they appear in many recent international projects and designs. It evaluates their role by situating within a broader historical context, moving on from there to consider current examples. As its title suggests, the book’s essays examine the condition of contemporary architecture in terms of factors such as “usage” and “display.” The book advances a comprehensive criticism of prevalent architectural tendencies today, going over specific examples and approaching them from different angles. In so doing, it focuses on the various contexts in which spectacle and use relate. This review primarily assesses the relationship between spectacle and use and different approaches appraised within different contents and submits a certain role of criticism about the theme of the book.

In the introduction, Vidler starts the discussion by evaluating Hal Foster’s critique of the “spectacular” Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. Foster clarifies by indicating that “spectacle is an image accumulated to the point where it becomes capital,”[2] Vidler continues by citing Hal Foster’s position on contemporary architecture. He makes three general comments on Foster’s critical framework. First, he draws a comparison between Frank Loyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. He adds that although Wright’s Manhattan Guggenheim has a formal logic based on programmatic considerations, Gehry’s museum mostly serves as a tourist attraction.[3] Secondly, Vidler mentions not only Foster’s criticisms of the “Bilbao effect” associated with Gehry, but also his criticisms of other master architects like Rem Koolhaas. Vidler’s third major point regards the way Foster approaches architecture in terms of expression. This leads Foster to characterize it in vague, underspecified terms such as “the sublime,” “the baroque,” etc.[4] The most important thing for Vidler about Foster’s critique is its emphasis on the way in which images directly serve the market economy and the limits this imposes on architects in design process, especially given their responsibility to the public.

Though Vidler explicitly criticizes some of the terms Foster uses to conduct his analysis, he implicitly reaffirms Foster’s centrality to the discussion. He accepts that architectural images are designed according to the demands of consumer society. But at the same time, he also explores some of the incidental benefits that accrue to contemporary architecture even if it has become “identical” to this society of consumption. Vidler begins by quoting the Situationist critic Guy Debord:

The problem of architecture is not to be seen from outside, nor to live inside. It is in the dialectical relationship interior and exterior, at the scale of urbanism (houses-streets) and at the scale of the house (interior-exterior).[5]

Working from this passage, Vidler explores some of the relationships that exist for Debord between an architectural “image” and its public “context.” Continue reading

Persecutedness euphemized as “difference”

Elif Batuman, from “Get
a real degree” (9.23.2010)
London Review of Books
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The law of “find your voice” and “write what you know” [in creative writing programs] originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, “Being an Expert on Your Culture,” and #116, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.” Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.

The situation is summed up in [Mark] McGurl’s construct of the “World Pluribus of Letters” (a play on the critic Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters”):

While the citizen of the Republic of Letters disaffiliates from the nation in order to affiliate with art, the citizen of the World Pluribus of Letters disaffiliates from…the super-nation, in order to reaffiliate with a utopian sub-nation, whether that be African or Asian or Mexican or…Native American…The expression of formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous populations, these subnational cultural interventions…forge symbolic links to an international literary space which is not, however, the space of universal literary values but a pluralized…space of decolonized global cultural difference.

The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of “universal literary value” with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemized as “difference.” It seems strange to me that McGurl, who sees the situation so clearly, seems not to view it as a problem. Perhaps his status as a White Person prevents him from objecting to the ideals of the Pluribus. But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.

This really is the message that some young people take from the [creative writing] program, as we learn in a quotation from the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, 1984):

Until Iowa I had never felt my home, family and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about. I took for granted…the strange speech of my neighbors, the extraordinary lives of my family and relatives which was nothing like the family in Father Knows Best…What could I write about that my classmates, cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids, could not? …What did I know that they didn’t? …What did I know except third-floor flats…that’s precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands throwing rocks through windows…anything as far from the poetic as possible.

There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material. It isn’t even a huge problem that poor people have been a “poetic” subject since at least Romanticism. But I was deeply depressed to learn from McGurl that Cisneros here is making “canny use of an operational paradox involved in…the ‘wound culture’ of the contemporary US: a paradoxically enabling disablement.” Continue reading

Art and politics in class society

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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket. Chicago, IL: 2013)

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The following review was originally published by the CUNY Grad Center’s journal The Advocate. It is available in print and online, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to pick up a copy.

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Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class has clearly struck a chord with contemporary artistic communities, critics and practitioners alike. Not all have responded the same way, however. While most applaud the admirable clarity of its arguments and readily acknowledge Davis’ gifts as a writer, some have lamented the book’s “rather bleak” tone and the seeming despondency of its conclusions. One review went so far as to accuse Davis of drawing “lazy caricatures” of his opponents, panning Art and Class as “crudely reductive” and given to “smug, self-righteous dismissals.” Yet others have welcomed its challenge to the conventional image of artists as born radicals, and praise Davis’ sober reassessment of the lofty political ambitions often claimed for their work.

Despite a few cautious endorsements from figures like Molly Crabapple and William Powhida, the book’s reception among actual producers of art has likewise been mixed. At a recent talk held at Housing Works in downtown Manhattan, Davis invited to the stage a group of practicing artists with whom he’d been in close dialogue while writing Art and Class. The discussion that followed was polite enough, touching on some of the book’s central themes, but there were moments in which the panelists could be seen practically squirming with discomfort at the language Davis used to characterize their vocation. Even though they’d all read it before, and were thus familiar with the text’s provocations, it was as if the wound was still fresh.

So what is it about Davis’ thesis that makes it such a bitter pill to swallow? Part of it is semantic. Though the sociological framework he employs throughout his investigation into art under capitalism is generally sound, Davis encounters terminological difficulties as soon as he tries to conceptualize class. How does one talk about a mode of creative activity that doesn’t neatly fit the division of society into workers and capitalists? What accounts for this peculiar survival of quasi-artisanal forms of labor within such a rarefied commercial sphere as today’s art market? Art and Class approaches these questions from an avowedly Marxist angle. But this presents problems of another sort. For although classical Marxism had at its disposal an arsenal of readymade categories with which to comprehend the position of the artist, Davis finds terms like “petit-bourgeois” (probably the most fitting designation for artists at one time) irretrievably démodé. Looking for a more accessible word that might replace it, he arrives at “middle-class.” Davis emphatically asserts that “the contemporary artist is the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.”1

This nomenclature is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the confusing cluster of connotations that already surrounds notions of “middle-class.” Class is commonly (mis)understood as a purely quantitative relation, a function of “pay scale” or “income bracket.” As Davis points out, this distorts the more precise definition offered by Marxist theory, which sees class as a specific relationship to the means of production — namely of ownership or non-ownership, combined with some owners’ ability to hire others to operate them. Beyond such bland technicalities, however, Davis anticipates a more basic objection artists might raise to his analysis. “The issue of class has moral overtones,” he recognizes.2 Artists, who tend to sympathize with vaguely leftist political ideas and issues of social justice, bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow “middle-class.”

Gustav Klutsis, Multilingual propaganda machine (1923)

Once one gets past this initial allergic response, and accepts the meaning assigned to “middle-class,” the rest of the book’s contentions about art in class society fall into place. Davis is hardly indifferent to artists’ plight, either. Quite the opposite: the narrative he unfolds in Art and Class has profound implications for the way artists orient their politics. “The upshot is that artists’ middle-class position is not merely a limit on their relation to larger social struggle but also on their ability to organize to transform their own conditions,” Davis writes. He goes over some of the efforts to orchestrate artists’ strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually none of which could be considered a success. “From whom would the artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike?” the book asks, quoting Carl Andre. “Alas, from no one but themselves.”3 By contrast, the closer artists get to wage-labor — those instances where they actually constitute a paid workforce, as with studio animators or industrial designers — the more effectively they can unionize and leverage demands. 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