Insurgent Notes conference at CUNY Grad Center, Sunday (2.5.17)

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Re­post­ing here the ori­gin­al open call is­sued by In­sur­gent Notes back in Janu­ary, along with the up­dated agenda sched­ule they just re­leased. I’m plan­ning to at­tend, along with a bunch of oth­er people from all around the coun­try. Would be great to see any­one there; In­sur­gent Notes is one of the few present polit­ic­al projects that seems to me worth­while.

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We’re writ­ing to ask you to join us at a pub­lic meet­ing to dis­cuss the broad top­ic of “Build­ing a Rad­ic­al Left in the Age of Trump.” The meet­ing will be held at the CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter in New York City on­ Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017. We’ll con­firm a date as soon as our in­quir­ies re­gard­ing a pos­sible site are answered.

We are call­ing this meet­ing be­cause, along with many oth­ers, we real­ize that we are en­ter­ing a time of great un­cer­tain­ties and great dangers — dangers that res­ult from what the gov­ern­ment does here and abroad and dangers that res­ult from the emer­gence of a vari­ety of new right-wing pop­u­list and na­tion­al­ist forces that can only be un­der­stood as pre­fas­cist or fas­cist. At the same time, we in­sist that the great ma­jor­ity of Trump sup­port­ers can­not and should not be tarred with such a brush. In­deed, as we wrote in our most re­cent ed­it­or­i­al, “There are people in the Hil­lary camp who are our en­emies, and there are people in the Trump camp who are our po­ten­tial al­lies.” Many people at­trac­ted to the Trump cam­paign, al­tern­at­ively, could be at­trac­ted to a con­sist­ent vis­ion of an al­tern­at­ive to cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, which up till now has not ex­is­ted. They will not, however, be at­trac­ted to a de­fense of the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs — no mat­ter how dressed up in no­tions of un­der­stand­ing, tol­er­ance and op­por­tun­ity.

We are con­vinced that the only way out of the ter­rible mess that this coun­try and the world are in is the de­vel­op­ment of a mass rad­ic­al move­ment — a move­ment that will chal­lenge the fun­da­ment­al bases and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety with a pro­gram for the rad­ic­al re­con­struc­tion of this so­ci­ety un­der the dir­ect demo­crat­ic con­trol of the im­mense ma­jor­ity of the people. Such a move­ment can­not re­strict it­self to par­ti­cip­a­tion in elect­or­al cam­paigns of any kind. We need to be clear — we do not be­lieve that such a move­ment can be built upon the legacies and tra­di­tions of lib­er­al­ism, pro­gressiv­ism, so­cial demo­cracy, or Sta­lin­ism-Trot­sky­ism-Mao­ism.

Over the course of the last six years, In­sur­gent Notes has pub­lished four­teen is­sues of its on­line journ­al. For the most part, we at­trac­ted mod­est levels of at­ten­tion and sup­port. Re­cently, we be­lieve in re­sponse to art­icles and ed­it­or­i­als fo­cused on the elec­tion and its out­come, we have seen a dra­mat­ic up­swing in the num­ber of vis­its to our web­site, the num­ber of com­ments pos­ted and the num­ber of new sub­scribers.

We feel com­pelled to seize upon that mo­mentum to find out how we might con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of the move­ment that we so des­per­ately need. We re­cog­nize that such a move­ment will be the res­ult of the com­ing to­geth­er of in­di­vidu­als with dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ences and polit­ic­al con­vic­tions. To­wards that end, we also be­lieve that we need to come up with new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion that can al­low for the defin­i­tion of fun­da­ment­al agree­ments, provide space for on­go­ing pro­duct­ive con­ver­sa­tions and en­able us to act in con­cert as events un­fold.

Let’s briefly de­scribe what our pre­lim­in­ary ideas are for the meet­ing:

  • The meet­ing would take up the bet­ter part of a day — per­haps from 11 am to 5 pm.
  • We hope to in­clude pan­el dis­cus­sions on at least the fol­low­ing ma­jor top­ics:
    • The world’s crises and the elec­tion
    • Class and race: is there any­thing new to say?
    • An anticap­it­al­ist vis­ion
    • Cre­at­ing a new lan­guage of hope and re­volt
    • Nam­ing and fight­ing male su­prem­acy
    • Ima­gin­ing new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion.
  • We also hope to in­clude op­por­tun­it­ies for people to get to know each oth­er and to act­ively en­gage in con­ver­sa­tions about the most press­ing of the is­sues.
  • We’re go­ing to work hard be­fore and dur­ing the meet­ing to in­sure that present­a­tions and com­ments go far bey­ond the mere re­state­ment of pri­or con­vic­tions or the re-ar­guing of old de­bates.
  • We’d like to en­ter­tain sug­ges­tions for next steps after the meet­ing.
  • We’re hop­ing to spon­sor an in­form­al so­cial event at the end of the day.

Please feel free to cir­cu­late this mes­sage to people who you think might be in­ter­ested. We’ll be post­ing de­tails about the meet­ing on this web­site.

If you have any ques­tions, please write to us.

In hope­ful solid­ar­ity,
The ed­it­ors

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This com­ing Sunday join In­sur­gent Notes for a day-long series of dis­cus­sions around the Trump pres­id­ency and the way for­ward for the re­volu­tion­ary left. Here is the day’s pro­gram:

Agenda for In­sur­gent Notes pub­lic meet­ing

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Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017
CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter
365 Fifth Av­en­ue/Room 5409

10:00 AM – 11:00 AM Cof­fee/re­gis­tra­tion/in­tro­duc­tions
11:00 AM – 11:30 AM Get­ting star­ted — Wel­come and re­view of agenda
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Mak­ing sense of the elect­or­al cam­paigns and their res­ults: A con­ver­sa­tion between Claire Ca­hen, Loren Gold­ner, and Arya Za­hedi
12:30 PM – 1:15 PM Anti-fas­cism and the alt-Right: A present­a­tion by Mat­thew Ly­ons of Three-Way Fight
1:15 PM – 1:45 PM Lunch & in­form­al con­ver­sa­tions
1:45 PM – 2:30 PM For wo­men’s lib­er­a­tion in an age of re­ac­tion: A con­ver­sa­tion Zhana Kur­ti and Wilson Sher­win
2:30 PM – 3:15 PM Against white­ness again: A con­ver­sa­tion between Amiri Barks­dale, Shemon Salam, and Jar­rod Sha­na­han
3:15 PM – 3:45 PM Brief re­ports on or­gan­iz­ing projects
3:45 PM – 4:30 PM Open dis­cus­sion — Re­ac­tions to the meet­ing/un­answered ques­tions
4:30 PM – 5:00 PM Wrap­ping up — Pos­sible next steps
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM So­cial gath­er­ing

Please note:

  1. At least half of the time in all ses­sions will be re­served for par­ti­cipant dis­cus­sion.
  2. Lunch will be catered; we’d like to ask par­ti­cipants not to leave the build­ing dur­ing lunch.
  3. The Gradu­ate Cen­ter is wheel­chair ac­cess­ible.
  4. We will have a video con­nec­tion — via Google Hangout — to en­able re­mote par­ti­cip­a­tion. There will be an easy sign-in by way of a web link. In­ter­ested in­di­vidu­als should send a mes­sage to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com by Janu­ary 31, 2017 to re­quest the link.
  5. Con­tri­bu­tions will be so­li­cited to cov­er meet­ing costs.
  6. A pic­ture ID is re­quired for ad­mis­sion to the Gradu­ate Cen­ter.
  7. Preregis­tra­tion — we strongly en­cour­age preregis­tra­tion. Send an email mes­sage with name, best email ad­dress and cell phone num­ber to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com. Prefer­ably by Janu­ary 31, 2017.
  8. We hope to have au­dio, and pos­sibly video, re­cord­ings of the present­a­tions and dis­cus­sions.
  9. If you have any dif­fi­culties get­ting to the meet­ing, please send an email to the ed­it­ors’ ad­dress on Feb­ru­ary 7th to ob­tain as­sist­ance.

Margaret Bourke-White in the USSR, 1931

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Margaret Bourke-White was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my personal favorites. Early in her career she was granted access to the rooftop of the Chrysler Building, where another photojournalist captured her image atop one of the metallic eagles jutting out the side. This iconic photographic can be seen below, along with some other early photos she took of various buildings.

Bourke-White On The Chrysler Building

Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904. She became interested in photography while studying at Cornell University. After studying under Clarence White at Columbia University, she opened a studio in Cleveland where she specialized in architectural photography. In 1929 Bourke-White was recruited as staff photographer for Fortune, and made several trips to the Soviet Union. Eyes on Russia, a firsthand account of her experiences in the USSR, was published in 1931.

Her impressions of the USSR in the early 1930s were varied, but generally positive. “When Fortune was in its infancy during the thirties, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia,” Bourke-White later recalled. She dubbed the Soviet Union “the land of the day after tomorrow.” The title was ironic, apparently. For not only did this indicate the country’s futuristic bent; it also hinted at deeply-rooted confusion:

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Le Corbusier, the famous modern architect, likewise noted this experiment in reformatting the work week in his postscript “Moscow Atmosphere” in Precisions (1930). But the title also suggested communism’s headlong dive into the future. Making her way through the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bourke-White also stumbled across Stalin’s closest relations. She photographed the communist leader’s mother, great-aunt, and several others. A few decades later, she recorded a few snippets about their meeting. Aside from Stalin’s family and relatives, Bourke-White also photographed a number of other eminent personages in the Soviet Union: Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, Hugh Cooper, etc. Ten years later she would portray Stalin himself. In addition to these figures, however, she also took many portraits of ordinary people from everyday life in the USSR.

Deeply influenced by her experience of the Great Depression, she became increasingly interested in politics, joining Life in 1936.  Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on its first front cover. In 1937 Bourke-White worked with the best-selling novelist Erskine Caldwell on the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The book was later criticized for supposed “left-wing bias,” upsetting whites in the deep South with its passionate attack on Jim Crow. Bourke-White was a member of the American Artists’ Congress. The group supported state-funding of the arts, fought discrimination against African American artists, and supported artists fighting against fascism in Europe. She also subscribed to the Daily Worker and was a member of several Communist Party front organizations.

Margaret Bourke-White, 92 canvas

Bourke-White married Caldwell in 1939. They were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German Army invaded in 1941. When Bourke-White and Caldwell returned to the United States in 1942, they collaborated to produce another attack on social inequality, Say Is This the USA? During the Second World War, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the US Air Force. Having survived a torpedo attack en route to North Africa, she was with United States troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war Bourke-White continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting Gandhi’s non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. She also captured a grisly photo of a South Korean soldier smiling after decapitating of North Korean communist guerilla. During the Korean Civil War, the US backed the South Korean army and even directly supported it with marines.

The FBI had been collecting information on Bourke-White’s political activities since the 1930s and in the 1950s became a target for Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee. However, a statement reaffirming her belief in democracy and her opposition to dictatorship of the left or of the right, enabled her to avoid being cross-examined by the committee. In 1952 Bourke-White was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unable to take photographs, she spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Margaret Bourke-White died at Darien, Connecticut, in 1971.

Below is posted an excerpt from her autobiography that goes over her first round of visits to Russia in the early 1930s.

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Land of the day after tomorrow

Margaret Bourke-White
Portrait of Myself
September 1963

 

In the early thirties, when Fortune was in its infancy, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia. No foreign photographers had been allowed across Russian borders to take a direct look at what was going on under the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Foreign engineering consultants — mostly Americans — came and went with comparative freedom. But for the professional photographer from the outside world, it was a closed country. Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.

With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me. Peasants who had been taken from the plow and put on the punch press — how did they manage this jump of centuries? Although my approach was nontechnical, I had been in factories enough to appreciate that industry has a history-machines are developed and men grow along with them. Here was a unique opportunity to see a country in transition between a medieval past and an industrialized future.

No one could have known less about Russia politically than I knew — or cared less. To me, politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine. It was only much later that I discovered that politics could be an absorbing subject, with a profound effect on human destiny.

The person most helpful in giving me background on Russia was Cleveland’s live-wire city manager, Dan Morgan. From him I got some conception of the tremendous range of heavy industry being built with the technical assistance of American firms. There was virtually a little Cleveland within Soviet borders. Warner & Swasey and Foote-Burt were tooling up Stalingrad. Two of Cleveland’s leading construction companies, McKee and Austin, built some of the biggest installations in the Soviet Union — from steel mills in Siberia to oil refineries on the Black Sea. Detroit, too, was prominently represented by Ford; Schenectady by General Electric. Ford’s industrial architect, Albert Kahn, was laying out the entire group of factory buildings for Stalingrad, now Volgograd. The Newport News Shipbuilding Company was furnishing what were then the world’s largest hydroturbines for Dnieprostroi, and the huge Dnieper Dam was erected under the experienced direction of Col. Hugh L. Cooper, builder of America’s Muscle Shoals.

These great American builders and their staffs of engineers and planners were not, of course, dangerous Reds, or even fellow travelers. They were not working for ideological or propaganda purposes, but strictly for business reasons or — as the Marxists might have said — “the profit motive.” The role played by American industrialists in building up the Soviet giant cannot be overestimated.

Margaret Bourke-White, American engineer Col. Hugh Cooper, the chief conslultant for the construction of Russia's Dnieper Dam, holdling pipe as he poses before the dam's spillway (1931)

The idea of running photographs of the sprouting industries of the USSR intrigued Fortune’s editors, but they had grave doubts whether I could get anything done. They were sending me to Germany to take pictures of industry, and I decided to push on from there. I had applied for a Russian visa six months earlier at Intourist, the Soviet travel agency in New York. In Berlin, I was puzzled when I discovered my visa was not waiting for me, because the Intourist official had been so enthusiastic about my industrial photographs. “Your pictures will be your passport,” he kept repeating.

Not only was there no visa at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, but the officials there had never heard of my grand plan to chronicle Soviet industry, or of me either. I opened up the ever-present portfolio of my industrial work and was told again my pictures would be my passport. The Embassy officials dismissed me courteously with instructions to return the day after tomorrow. I returned the day after tomorrow and continued to do so for five and a half weeks.

I woke up before dawn one morning and restlessly started walking from the Hotel Adlon past the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden. As I passed under the window of the Soviet Embassy, I heard a whistle over my head. I looked up, and there, at the window, stood the Soviet consul. He was waving a piece of paper. It was the telegram granting my visa. I bought a cheap trunk and filled it with canned food. I had been warned that if I traveled off the beaten path, I would find near famine conditions. That night I left for Moscow.

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Even getting to one of these evaporating appointments was a feat. Taxis were rare and apt to break down on the way. Next choice was a droshky, a carriage so worn it seemed a breath would blow it to pieces. You were at the mercy of the bearded driver who might dump you out halfway to your destination if he thought his horse was tired. The next possibility was to get on a streetcar if you could get the conductor to stop when it was literally dripping with human beings.

I remember a day when my interpreter and I squeezed into one of these bursting streetcars. The conductor held out her hand for our fare: “Ten kopecks.”
……“We do not have change,” said my interpreter. “But here’s a ruble.”
……“But I cannot take the ruble. I cannot take tips. It’s against the law.”
……“What shall we do? We have no kopecks.”
……“Get off the car.” The conductor stopped the car in the middle of the crowded street, and in true Russian fashion, the passengers discussed our dilemma.

While the debate raged, streetcars halted, traffic slowed to a standstill. Finally, the passengers rose unanimously to our support. We could stay on the car. We could keep our ruble. The car started and the blocked traffic rolled into motion again.

With all the absurdities, there was a quality about the people I can only call exasperating charm. On my visits to the various commissars, I was always received hospitably. Inevitably, I was told two things: one was to return the day after tomorrow; the other was that my pictures would be my passport. Yet I was fortunate in having something as tangible as my pictures of American steel mills, factories and refineries to show what I wanted to do photographically in the Soviet Union. I began getting very limited permission to take pictures in and around Moscow. On alternate days, I did what little work I could, and on the Days After Tomorrow, I visited the Commissariats of Heavy Industry and Railroads, pressing for a big tour with proper authority to travel and take pictures. During these visits, scores of admiring Russians crowded in to examine minutely my pictures of American factories, while I slipped in reminders that there were many beautiful pictures to be taken in Soviet factories. I had come for only a few weeks, and already half of my time had trickled uselessly away.

“Yes,” the officials would say. “The Amerikanka is right. The great Lenin said, ‘Time is our most precious possession’.” I don’t know whether it was the counsel of the deceased Lenin that took effect or my persistence, but finally the Day After Tomorrow really came, and I set out to tour the industrial centers with a highly competent young girl interpreter, my trunk of food, my bulky camera cases, a sheaf of permits and, most important, that portfolio of photographs that indeed was to be my passport. The pictures soon became dog-eared and battered, but they opened many doors.

Everywhere I traveled, I heard about the Amerikanskoe tempo. It was the watchword of the hour, the ultimate in praise. In Stalingrad, particularly where the factories were modeled after Ford in Detroit, the workers adored the conveyor belt as a symbol of the Amerikanskoe tempo. The workers who gathered in crowds made suggestions, smoked cigarettes, eulogized the conveyor, broke into oratory at the very sight of it, did everything but run it.

At Dnieprostroi, during the first month, half of the locomotive cranes were busy picking up the other half that had broken down on the job. The workmen were like children playing with new toys. In the power installations, they acted as though throwing on a new generator was like turning on an electric fan. The endless meetings to decide whether or not to use a new tool exasperated the American technicians; tools were hard to get. The tractor was the object of special reverence, but still the tractor operators ran them up and down the fields like racing cars until they broke down.

Machine worship was everywhere; it permeated even the classic Russian ballet. Little girls with gear wheels in gold or silver painted on their chests danced Machine Dances. The people were worshiping at new shrines with the fervor of religious zealots. It was as though they needed to replace their religion — which was being taken away from them step by step. They looked on the coming of the machine as their Savior; it was the instrument of their deliverance.

Continue reading

The missing category of totality

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Feminist Fightback
, an activist collective based in the UK, published an article several months back which asks: “Is intersectionality just another form of identity politics?” Recently the piece was featured on the LibCom website, receiving renewed attention through broader circulation. The authors critically examine two of the better pieces to emerge from the Vampires’ Castle debacle a couple years ago, both of which have been reposted on this blog. Eve Mitchell’s Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality and Michael Rectenwald’s theoretical reflections responded to the ire of those who felt intersectional analysis offered a much-needed corrective to Marxism’s obsessive focus on class — i.e., its supposed “class reductionism.” Some prominent Marxist bloggers had already begun to reorient their politics around what Richard Seymour called “the point of intersection.”

While the authors from Feminist Fightback right to point out that the concept of “intersectionality” started out as a critique of various forms of identity politics operating in isolation from one another, it is not as if Mitchell or Rectenwald overlooked this fact. Mitchell explicitly acknowledges that “[i]ntersectionality theorists correctly identified and critiqued [the narrowness of] identity politics.” But she immediately adds that “while intersectionality theory seems to overcome the limitations of identity politics, it falls short,” diagnosing it as a form of bourgeois ideology. Rectenwald likewise recognizes that intersectionality originated as part of a polemic against identity politics, but concurs with Mitchell that the former shares many weaknesses with the latter:

[O]perating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship.

Perhaps the Feminist Fightback members who wrote this article felt that Mitchell and Rectenwald did not take intersectionality’s challenge to identity politics seriously enough. Still, it cannot be said that either was simply unaware that intersectionality first arose in opposition to earlier movements based on identity. Moreover, it is unclear whether intersectional politics is ever able to fully escape the horizon of identity politics. Instead, it simply ends up multiplying or overlaying various identities to in order to form a more comprehensive perspective. This perspective alone, claim its adherents, is adequate to the unevenness and complexity of contemporary reality. What they fail to grasp, however, is that identity is precisely the problem. Marxism aims at the abolition of class, race, and gender, and the forms of group identity associated with them. Feminist Fightback insists that the analysis of intersecting axes of oppression emphasized structural rather than individual aspects of identity-formation, especially in its earliest iterations. “Early proponents of intersectionality clearly stated that this theory was about how oppressions were inextricably intertwined at a structural level,” they write.

How exactly are these structures articulated, though? In my view, what is missing from all these political perspectives based on group identification is a concept of the social totality, as well as an historical pivot from which to critique and transform it. Totality here refers to a unified whole comprised of “conceptually distinct but interrelated parts,” as Marx put it in Capital, a singular process divisible into objective and subjective moments: “the objective conditions of labor (the means of production) and its subjective conditions, purposively active capacity for labor.” Revolutionary criticism must take into account “the total labor process as such, with the totality of its objective and subjective interactions” [Capital, pg. 981]. Georg Lukács expanded on this line of thought, stressing that “only the dialectical conception of totality enables us to understand reality as a social process. For only this conception dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and allows us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary” [History and Class Consciousness, pg. 13].

A standpoint is required from which to view this totality, however, in order to see how structures or configurations of race or gender “interpenetrate” and “overlap.” Without such a standpoint, and a unitary approach by which to arrive at it, the historically transient character of race and gender is lost. Race and gender appear frozen, like class, as permanent features of all social organization throughout time. Once again, I would suggest that the standpoint of the proletariat alone allows us to glimpse this socially dynamic, if historically static, totality of relations under capitalism. In this, I follow the arguments of Lukács nearly a century ago. Elsewhere I have elaborated why this is the case, refusing to subsume gender and race under the rubric of class while nevertheless still upholding Marx’s contention that the proletariat is uniquely positioned within the system of productive relations to overturn the existing social order.

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

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.”

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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

Marxism and class, gender, and race: Rethinking the trilogy

Martha Gimenez
Race, Gender, Class
Vol. 8, № 2 (2001)

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Photo: 
Young Uzbek woman from Tashkent holding up her Komsomol membership card, 1927.

Dr. Martha E. Gimenez is an Argentinian Marxist-feminist theorist and retired Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Studies Program. She studied Law and sociology at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, receiving her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on Marxist Feminist Theory, the political economy of population, U.S. politics of racial/ethnic construction, and problems of democratization in the global economy. Gimenez is the founding editor of PSN — the Progressive Sociologists Network, PPN — the Progressive Population Network, and together with Chrys Ingraham and Rosemary Hennessy, founded MATFEM — Materialist Feminism, and together with Malgosia Askanas and Carrol Cox, moderates M-Fem — Marxist-feminism. In her work, Martha E. Gimenez has sought to use Marx’s methodology and theoretical framework for understanding the oppression of women under the capitalist mode of production. Her work aims to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Marx and Marxist theory for feminist theorizing and feminist politics.
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Introduction

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A taken for granted feature of most social science publications today, especially those about inequality, is the ritual critique of Marx and Marxism in the process of introducing theoretical alternatives intended to remedy its alleged “failures.” This practice became popular in early feminist literature: Marx and Marxists were criticized for not developing an in-depth analysis of the oppression of women, their “economism,” “class reductionism,” and “sex blind” categories of analysis. Soon after it became common place to assert that Marxism was also at fault for neglecting race, demography, ethnicity, the environment and practically everything that mattered to the “new social movements” in the West. As the movements died, scholarship informed by those political concerns flourished; the energy that might have been spent in the public arena found expression in academic programs (e.g., women’s studies, racial/ethnic studies) and efforts to increase “diversity” in the curriculum and the population of educational institutions.

Publication of the journal Race, Sex, & Class (changed afterwards to Race, Gender, & Class), in 1993, signaled the convergence of those political and intellectual interests into a new social science perspective that soon acquired enormous visibility, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journal articles and books with race, gender and class in their titles. This perspective, put forth primarily but not exclusively by social scientists of color, emerged as a reaction to feminist theories which neglected racial/ethnic and class differences among women, theories of racial/ethnic inequality which neglected sexism among men of color and, predictably, as a corrective to Marxism’s alleged shortcomings. For example, Jean Belkhir, editor and founder of Race, Sex, & Class, prefaces an article on this topic as follows: “The ‘failure’ of Marxism to develop adequate tools and a comprehensive theory of ethnicity, gender, and class issues is undisputable” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). The list of putative “failures” could be as long as we wanted it to be but what would that prove, beyond the fact that Marx’s and Engels’ political and theoretical priorities differed from those of contemporary social scientists? Less biased, albeit debatable, is the conclusion that Marxism, although offering “crucial and unparalleled insights” into the operation of capitalism, “needs to develop the analytical tools to investigate the study of racism, sexism and classism” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). To refer to class as “classism” is, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, “a deeply misleading formulation” (Eagleton, 1996: 57; see also Kandal, 1995: 143) because class is not simply another ideology legitimating oppression; it denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. Nevertheless, it is the case that neither Marx nor Engels devoted the intensity of effort to the investigation of gender and race (and other issues) that would have satisfied today’s critics. It is (and any literature review would support this point) far easier to emphasize their “sins” of omission and — in light of current political sensibilities — commission, than it is to use their theoretical and methodological contributions to theorize and investigate those aspects of capitalist social formations that today concern us. Notable exceptions are Berberoglu (1994), who has examined the underlying class forces leading to gender and racial divisions in the U.S. working class, linking gender and racial oppression to capital accumulation, and Kandal (1995), who has forcefully argued for the need to avoid the racialization and feminization of social conflicts while minimizing or overlooking the significance of class.

In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.
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Race, gender, and class as part of a social science perspective

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Long before the popularization of the race, gender, & class (RGC) perspective, I suspect that most Marxist sociologists teaching social stratification were already adept practitioners. For many years, for example, the Section on Marxist sociology of the American Sociological Association included in its annual program a session on Class, Gender, and Race. I certainly called my students’ attention, in twenty nine years of teaching social stratification and other subjects in which inequality matters, to the fact that everybody’s lives are affected by class, gender, and race/ethnic structures (in addition to age and other sources of inequality). We are, in Marx’s terms, “an ensemble of social relations” (Marx, 1994: 100, emphasis added), and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations. I also routinely called students’ attention to the problems inherent in the widespread practice of assuming the existence of common interests, ideologies, politics, and experiences based on gender, race, and ethnicity because class location, and socioeconomic status differences within classes, divide those population aggregates into classes and strata with contradictory and conflicting interests. In turn, aggregates sharing the same class location, or similar socioeconomic characteristics within a class, are themselves divided by gender, race, and ethnicity so that it is problematic to assume that they might spontaneously coalesce into class or status self-conscious, organized groups. This is why, in the late sixties and early 1970s, I was critical of feminist theories which ignored class, racial and ethnic divisions among women and men, and theories of patriarchy that ignored how most men under capitalism are relatively powerless (Gimenez, 1975). Later on, I published a critical assessment of the “feminization of poverty” thesis because it was not sensitive to the effects of class, socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic divisions among men and women; it neglected the connections between the poverty of women and the poverty of men and overlooked the significance of this thesis as a powerful indicator of the immiseration of the lower strata within the U.S. working class (Gimenez, 1990).

I am aware, however, that most sociologists do not take Marxism seriously and that theorists of gender and racial oppression have been, on the whole, hostile to Marxism’s alleged reductionisms. More importantly, this is a country where class is not part of the common sense understanding of the world and remains conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of politicians and most mass media pundits. Continue reading

“…the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” — Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

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Stuart Hall, the British Marxist and cultural theorist, died today. He was the author of numerous articles on Marxism, cultural identity, Thatcherism, and the politics of difference. Below is posted an extract of his brief 1989 article on “New Ethnicities,” in which he discusses “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject.” This was, as my friend Dakota Brown pointed out, a provocation that has largely gone unanswered since it was first announced (indeed, largely unanswered by Hall himself). While I don’t share Hall’s predilection for Gramscian notions of “hegemony” and the “war of maneuver,” having long since been assimilated into the mainstream of cultural politics, he at least recognized the potential danger of such concepts leading to “a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism.” Moreover, Hall discusses the often problematic encounter between “black politics” and postmodernism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. All these have been discussed recently on this blog, and so I’m here republishing this excerpt.

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[The politics of representation] is a complex issue. First, it is the effect of a theoretical encounter between black cultural politics and the discourses of a Eurocentric, largely white, critical cultural theory which in recent years, has focused so much analysis of the politics of representation. This is always an extremely difficult, if not dangerous encounter. (I think particularly of black people encountering the discourses of poststructuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and feminism). Secondly, it marks what I can only call “the end of innocence,” or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject. Here again, the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that “race” or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.

We should put this as plainly as possible. Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily “right-on” by virtue of the fact that they deal with black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that “you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same.” This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity. It entails the movement in black politics, from what Gramsci called the “war of maneuver” to the “war of position” — the struggle around positionalities. But the difficulty of conceptualizing such a politics (and the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism) does not absolve us of the task of developing such a politics.

Postmodern origins of intersectionality

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In a three-part series of posts, I’ll try to sketch the conceptual genealogy of intersectionality as a mode of postmodern discourse, politically not far removed from the “politics of difference” or “politics of recognition” characteristic of this period (1980s-2000s). At the same time, I’ll be relating it to concurrent historical transformations taking place within leftist politics. Though social, economic, and political transformations might not straightforwardly determine transformations in other spheres, on a one-to-one basis at least, I nevertheless consider it decisive in the reconfiguration of other ideologies around it. Postmodernism itself is (was?) more or less a symptom of the failure of Marxism to overcome the capitalist social formation in the twentieth century. So “intersectionality,” which I consider to be a botched or bowdlerized attempt to articulate a postmodern political practice — this never having been Crenshaw’s intent, incidentally, since for her it was meant for juridical use — would itself be a further vulgarization of theoretical postmodernism. A subsequent post will attempt to formulate a more rigorous political critique of the concept, thus properly situated, drawing upon the critical social theory of Adolph Reed, the Marxist feminism of Eve Mitchell, and the literary criticism of Elif Batuman, as well as other authors who’ve recently written on the subject (Maya Gonzalez of Endnotes, for example). Then after that, in a third post I’ll try to outline the only standpoint from which to grasp the complexities of race, gender, class, and so on without falling into reductionism on the one hand or nebulous, tangled confusions like “intersectionality”: namely, the totality of social relations. Without further ado then, let’s proceed.

Liubov Popova, Lineare Composition (1919)

Liubov Popova, Lineare Composition (1919)

The “cultural turn” following the death of the Left

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The concept of “intersectionality” as a mode of analysis first emerged and was popularized during the late 1980s and early 1990s, up through the end of the millennium. In other words, at a moment where the Left, and the struggle against capitalism in general, was in abeyance. (Yes, “the Left is dead,” as the saying goes, and has been for some time. But sometimes it’s even deader than usual). With the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the consolidation of Dengism in China after the 1989 suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, even the grim alternative of “actually-existing socialism” no longer seemed available. Economic neoliberalism was the order of the day. Liberal-bourgeois democracy was heralded by neocons like Francis Fukuyama as the inevitable “end of history,” having at last defeated its great rival in communism.

At the same time, there wasn’t much life in the traditional sectarian Marxist parties or leftist intellectual groupings. Many of the professors and students radicalized after 1956 and 1968 had already capitulated to Eurocommunism by the 1980s — such as Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantall Mouffe, to name just a few. Some succumbed to even more reactionary ideologies — Roger Garaudy went from the PCF to Catholicism to fundamentalist Islam within the space of a few decades; Bernard-Henri Lévy gave himself over to various forms of liberal opportunism; Lucio Colletti became a supporter of Berlusconi in Italy. The “new social movements” that arose during the 1960s and 1970s — civil rights and black nationalism, second-wave feminism, and gay pride — all but collapsed during the 1980s and 1990s, moving into the very institutions they’d once critiqued. Participants in these movements tended to become either full-time activists or tenured professors. A new status quo solidified around them. With this, what had been living in the New Left was institutionalized and doubled back upon itself. Critical race theory attempted to theoretically formalize the practices developed in struggles for racial equality over the previous two decades. Second-wave feminism slowly gave way to the newer brand of third-wave feminism. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered reexaminations of sexuality and gender norms drifted toward what would become known as queer theory (thus LGBTQ, and not just LGBT). One common thread between these new fields of academic study was a shared shift in emphasis away from the social toward the cultural. Whereas the “new social movements” had prioritized social and economic matters such as equality, increased opportunity for employment, and comparable pay-scales, their scholarly counterparts were preoccupied with cultural and linguistic representations of women, minorities, and different sexual orientations in popular media. They followed the so-called “cultural turn,” moving from base to superstructure in terms of overall focus. Continue reading

Richard Seymour: Flipping a coin

Christo Coetzee, “Janus”

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Corey Ansel blogs at The Chair-Leg of Truth — the title of which I still don’t understand, admittedly. He is also a former member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, having resigned shortly after I did back in May. Our reasons for leaving were largely the same; obstinacy and authoritarianism from the top, combined with outrageous and extremely irresponsible rhetoric both toward other groups and its own members. Ansel is by temperament more inclined toward the contemporary Spartacist League, the only group I see as really representative of Trotskyism once was (back when the Fourth International was still somewhat relevant), at least more so than I am. My own intellectual predisposition is toward critical theory and historical Bolshevism up to the period of the Left Opposition, though somewhat beyond.

This isn’t the first time Corey has taken aim at Seymour, however. Back during the SWP rape coverup scandal, he wrote an article which I republished here called “The Fools on the Hill.” Not long thereafter I published a brief response, perhaps too cleverly titled “No ‘True’ Trots, Man,” where I took issue with his quest for an “authentic” Trotskyist (or even Marxist) movement against which to contrast the phony organizations of today. In my view, such  quest is vain. Stylistically, Ansel comes closer to the Sparts, who themselves seek to mimic Trotsky’s own rather bombastic prose. If you’d like, you can read back to those articles or just continue to the piece below. James Heartfield has also just published a follow-up, “Further Adventures in ‘Intersectionality’,” which I’ll be reposting shortly.

Corey Ansel
The Chair-Leg of
Truth (1.29.14)

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Those working in comics or film certainly couldn’t construct a better Two Face character — you know, from Batman — than Richard Seymour. In recent months, the poster child of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) opposition has been testing his luck with the forces of political chance. Formerly coming out of the corner of the British Cliffites, the self-described author decidedly changed his tune during the second period intermission. Those of us who have been long-time observers of the political zig-zags in the reformist camp weren’t surprised to see Seymour duck the punches of his former mentors in the SWP while he abandoned ship on the organization he had religiously defended up and to that point without any peep of protest. While the notion that the SWP magically became a bureaucratically warped organization seemingly overnight due to the mishandling of rape allegations within the organization might seem outlandish, it was no laughing matter to those who would go on to form the International Socialist Network (ISN), from which Seymour and his cohorts have now resigned. Making a career out of aligning with identity politics and “intersectionality,” Seymour seemed to have hoped that the coin would continue to fall heads’ side up. And it had, until now.

This time, fate had his number. A recent debacle took place on the Facebook page of a leader of the ISN. The instrument that had reaped so many rewards for these latter-day rebels proved to bury those who lacked prowess in handling the fairytale that is online politics. Ideologically, Facebook allows pseudo-Marxists and all of their hanger-ons to perpetuate allegedly open arguments that are actually structured to their benefit, flowered with all the language of “safe spaces” that have become so popular these days at the expense of any real political integrity. Whereas those attending political meetings that tend to be breeding grounds for interventions from the Spartacist League could traditionally only sing a tune with their fingers in their ears, now the “unfriend” button has become the fundamental object and means of criticism. This supplements the discussions on left unity that have become so rampant in the United Kingdom, with an organization titled by the same name and precious talks between fragmented opportunist organizations like Workers Power, which are actually just farces in the making. Just like sects across the globe seek to latch on to the movement and broad struggles of the day, so have these latter-day reformists jumped the wagon regarding talks of unity on the left, seeking to intersperse their generic brand of orthodoxy which will inevitably lead to more crying, but certainly not political clarity.

Building upon this house of cards, Workers Power and their phony League for the Fifth International (L5I) have all but begged Seymour’s ISN and the broad umbrella Anti-Capitalist Initiative to lend credibility to their tiny, irrelevant sect. However, in an article titled “Revolutionary Unity Must be Built on Firm Foundations,” the ostensible Trotskyists of the L5I utterly fail to question the social basis of women’s oppression, let alone discuss the shortcomings of bourgeois feminism and pressure politics. Instead, liquidationism is the slogan of the day. Whereas intersectionality becomes the clarion call of the ISN’s cohorts, Workers Power sings a tune of watering down political differences. For Marxists, phony unity is not the means of advancing the class struggle and the battle against oppression, but instead political clarity is paramount. No amount of veneer can hide this fact from both groups, including Workers Power that is quite fond of using the language of Marxism in asking questions about the revolutionary party, program and the socialist transformation of society. However, this veil is exposed as ripped and torn when it becomes apparent that the L5I has no interest of making a critique of the reformist political history of the SWP or the ISN, but instead seeks to accommodate to their capitulationist sloganeering. They wouldn’t dare raise a peep to offend those they need so desperately to continue treading the path of phony unity on the left amongst utterly different political projects, visions and structures for a post-capitalist society. Continue reading

The modernism of Charlotte Perriand

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Charlotte Perriand is one of those rare figures from history (not just architectural history) about whom it is possible to say immediately and without reservation was a genius. By age 23, she had already designed the chaise longue for which she would become famous and established herself as a prominent collaborator alongside one of the most notoriously demanding architects of the age: Le Corbusier. What follows are a number of images — photos, sketches, drawings — of her work along with a brief reflection by the historian Mary McLeod on Perriand and the broader discourse of feminist historiography in architecture as a whole.

I include McLeod’s essay not because it offers a standard feminist reading of architecture in general or Perriand in particular. Quite simply, it doesn’t. Besides, I never found accounts such as Flora Samuel’s Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist all that convincing, whatever her intentions might have been. Though McLeod remains committed to feminism in the context of architecture, she raises a number of issues that complicate simplistic approaches such as Beatriz Colomina’s which seek to “rescue” the neglected contributions of women in architecture and design from historical obscurity. Moreover, she challenges the “strategic essentialism” of poststructuralist accounts of gender, which tend to accept men’s self-identification with rationality, industry, and functionality and counterpose emotionality, domesticity, and formality as feminine alternatives. On the contrary, rather than cede these flattering associations to masculinity, McLeod demonstrates that Perriand was every bit as formalistically spare and ergonomically attuned as her male counterparts.
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La femme au Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, article de Gaston Derys, 1926

“La femme au Salon des Artistes Décorateurs,” by Gaston Derys (1926)

Perriand: Reflections of feminism and modern
………..…architecture

Mary McLeod
Harvard Design
Magazine
(2004)

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In the United States today, feminist architecture history — like feminism in general — has nearly disappeared. The flood of publications during the early 1990s (Sexuality and Space, The Sex of Architecture, Architecture and Feminism) has by now ground to a halt; few schools continue to offer classes on “gender and architecture”; and scholars in their twenties or thirties tend to find other subjects — sustainability, digitalization, and globalization — more compelling. In addition to the larger social and political forces that seem to militate against feminist scholarship these days, its very success over the past three decades may have contributed to its decline. Names of once-forgotten women have been resurrected, the reputations of architecture’s male heroes have been taken down a notch or two, and blatant examples of sexual inequity and discrimination in the profession have been exposed, if not resolved. However, most feminist architecture historians and critics would reject any assessment of their project as complete, or its viability as dependent upon academic fashion. Although this lull is undoubtedly considered a setback, one positive byproduct may be that it offers a period of relative calm, removed from the heated polemics of an earlier period, to reflect on feminist historical writing and to reexamine its methods and premises.

Recently, I had just such an opportunity as the editor and one of the authors of a book on the French designer Charlotte Perriand.(1) Perriand is often grouped together with Eileen Gray and Lilly Reich as one of the unsung “heroes” of the European Modern Movement, whose design accomplishments have been eclipsed by those of the acknowledged giants: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Aside from the three tubular-steel chairs that she designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret as a member of their firm, Perriand’s work was little known, even though her career spanned three-quarters of a century and extended to locales as diverse as Brazil, Congo, England, France, Japan, French New Guinea, Switzerland, and Vietnam. My initial interest in undertaking this book was sparked by a desire to redress this “wrong” and to make certain that her innovative designs would be removed from the shadow of Le Corbusier’s towering presence. However, the frequently collaborative nature of her work — like that of Reich, Ray Eames, and Alison Smithson — has made it more difficult to assess her contributions. In addition, like many successful women architects of her generation, Perriand did not wish to perceive herself first and foremost as a woman designer; nor did she particularly identify with the feminist movement in France, thus complicating efforts to cast her as a “role model” for contemporary women practitioners. Her career necessitated a more complex reading of the ways that gender intersected with Modern architecture than I had originally envisioned and raised several issues about the assumptions underlying many feminist readings of that architecture.

The first of these is the tendency to see women architects as victims, whose talent and vital contributions have been suppressed by their male collaborators or associates. This interpretation had a certain strategic value in the 1970s and 1980s, alerting architects to the shortcomings of the “Modern masters” and bringing the issue of gender discrimination to the fore. No doubt there were disturbing inequities in the profession, as is clearly evident in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted, dismissive response to Perriand — “We don’t embroider cushions in my atelier” — when she first asked him for a job there. However, Perriand’s deep admiration for Le Corbusier, her insistence that being a woman did not interfere with her career, and her pleasure in seeing her work as part of a collaborative process all suggest that this characterization of women designers as victims, at least in Perriand’s case, has been overstated.

Here, a personal anecdote might be relevant. When I interviewed Perriand in 1997 and mentioned the photograph of her reclining on the chaise lounge with her head turned away from the camera, she responded angrily to a question about Beatriz Colomina’s reading of the image as representing Le Corbusier’s denial of her authorship and creative vision.(2) Perriand told me that she herself had set up the shot, that Pierre Jeanneret took the photo, and that Le Corbusier played no role in its conception and in fact was not there at the time. She insisted that it was her choice to turn her head in order to emphasize the chaise rather than its occupant, and that it was also her choice to use that image in her photomontage of the model apartment that she designed with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret for the 1929 Salon d’Automne apartment building. Continue reading