Category Archives: culture

What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.

 

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Cities in Conflict

With the ongoing uprisings in Cairo and other cities in the Arab world, the role of cities as crucibles for social egypttransformation and conflict is clearer than ever. Urban dwellers across the globe are more intent than ever on claiming what the great French theorist Henri Lefebvre called the right to the city.

In tandem with such democratizing current, however, today’s megacities are also sites for various forms of escalating inequality and violence. From urban warfare among drug cartels in cities such as Medellin, to increasing interpersonal violence against women, to the many forms of imperial destruction visited on far too many cities around the world today, cities are sites for a variety of key conflicts today.

This sgunemester I’m teaching a seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center that focuses on urban culture in the global South. The topic of conflict features prominently on the syllabus, a copy of which can be found here: ENGL 86600 syllabus.

Fortuitously, the OpenDemocracy project has just started an essay series on the topic of Cities in Conflict. The site describes the brief of the series in the following terms:

The Cities in Conflict series seeks to examine the manner in which cities are conceptualised, planned or contested as sites of conflict, security or resistance. With increasing public awareness of cities’ role in hosting globally significant conflicts and social upheaval, whether in Cairo, Athens or Mumbai, the series will look to examine the city as a key terrain of conflict and a politics of spatial securitization. In particular the series will scale down mainstream media security discourse to the urban/local level – examining the everyday, covert ruminations of urban conflict.

Contributors to the series include some of today’s foremost analysts of urban conflict.  Well worth checking out!

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Staten Island Noir

The first short story I’ve ever written is forthcoming in Akashic Books’ fantastic noir series. I just got this copy of the cover; the book comes out in early November.

Each volume in Akashic’s series is based in a different city around the world. The publisher has been particularly attentive to cities in the global South, with titles like Kingston Noir, Delhi Noir, and (forthcoming) Lagos Noir featuring prominently in their catalog.

The series features and is edited by local writers, so it plays an important role in bringing collections of authors to the attention of audiences in the North who might otherwise remain below the radar.

I intend to explore the rubric of noir in future scholarly work. In what ways, I want to ask, are crime and policing responses to the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism that have forced literally millions of people off the land and into sprawling mega-cities in postcolonial nations? How adequate is the discourse of noir to reflecting critically on the impasses of neoliberal globalization? What gets left out of crime lit, and what crimes cannot be solved be even the most hard-boiled sleuth?

I hope my scholarly work on these kinds of questions will be productive. For now, though, I can say that I had great fun writing “Teenage Wasteland.” This story, set, of course, on Staten Island, explores the politics of toxic garbage disposal in the Fresh Kills dump during the late 1970s. The protagonist is a young Italian-American woman who gets diverted from her career as a fledgling punk rocker in her favorite stomping ground – CBGBs – by a rash of toxin-induced illnesses in her home neighborhood on Staten Island.

I definitely feel that there is more ground to explore here. Both in terms of garbage politics in NYC and in terms of the protagonist I created. I have ambitions to send her to Love Canal and to Italy. After all, the story is set during the anni di piombo (the years of lead), when the Italian government colluded with the mafia, NATO, and the CIA to shift Italian politics to the right by staging a series of bombings which were blamed on anarchist groups and on the Left in general. Lots to explore… Stay tuned.

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Publication

I finally handed my manuscript off to the publishers about a week ago. What a relief!

I got this potential cover image back almost immediately.

The proofs are due back in September, and the book has already been advertised for publication in Routledge’s 2013 catalog.

Although I don’t have full control of the graphic design, it’s exciting to see the project moving closer to publication.

I also don’t have full control of the title: would have liked to call it A Radical History of Twentieth-Century British Literature, but maybe A Concise History is just as good – that way it springs the radicalism on unsuspecting members of the general public.

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May Day Reborn!

The Occupy Movement has revived May Day. For far too many years, this holiday, which was of course also a solidarity-building occasion, has been ignored by the US labor movement. Ironic, given the fact that May Day actually began in the US.

Here’s a bit of the history behind May Day. In 1884, militant unions in the US declared that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work beginning on May 1, 1886. When workers went on strike at a factory in Chicago on May 3, 1886, police fired into the peacefully assembled crowd, killing four and wounding many others. The workers movement called for a mass rally the next day in Haymarket Square to protest this brutality. The rally proceeded peacefully until the end when 180 police officers entered the square and ordered the crowd to disperse. At that point, someone threw a bomb, killing one police officer and wounding 70 others. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.

Following the Haymarket Affair, eight of the city’s most active unionists were charged with conspiracy to commit murder even though only one was actually present at the meeting. All eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. Commemoration of this day and the outrages against justice that followed quickly became an key element of the international struggle for worker’s rights.

In 1904, the International Socialist Congress called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”

Why was May Day not celebrated in the US? In a demonstration of the complicit nature of segments of the US labor movement, the Knights of Labor (a racially exclusionary organization) caved in to the demand of President Grover Cleveland that the Haymarket Massacre would not be commemorated on May Day. So we now have a state-sanctioned and relatively toothless Labor Day in early September.

Yesterday Occupy revived the suppressed tradition of May Day on a joyous celebration of solidarity and outrage. The day started out for me with brilliant talks offered in Madison Square Park by folks like David Harvey, Frances Fox Piven, Andrew Ross, Drucilla Cornell. The Free University provided a great space to listen to debates about a series of key issues, from the right to the city, to student loans and debt, to the history of the labor movement.

From the Free University we marched down to Union Square, where more speakers and music were on offer. The entire park gradually got jam packed with people. This was a great opportunity to hang out with friends and make connections with activists from a variety of different organizations and walks of life. It was also a moment to revel in the carnivalesque spirit of the Occupy movement. Here are some photos that I think conjure up a sense of the celebratory atmosphere in Union Square:

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Unfortunately, all was not wine and roses. The police refused to allow us to march out of Union Square. As this image makes clear, they set up steel cattle pens in order to box marchers in, and then arbitrarily blocked off exist from these pens when it was time to march. Most of the demonstrators around me, seasoned protesters all, told me that this was in order to demonstrate the police’s power over us rather than to preserve our safety during the march. In fact, once they eventually let us out of the cattle pens, instead of allowing us to march directly down Broadway, where the march had been permitted, the police instead directed us down W. 17th street to 6th Avenue, so that we had to walk through the middle of traffic. This was obviously not a safe situation. Police officers then lined the street and tried to force us onto the sidewalk, despite the fact that our march was permitted. Tempers quickly frayed, and it looked like things were not going to go well. A friend of mine was violently pushed into a pile of garbage on a sidewalk by a group of police when he challenged their attempt to force us onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, we eventually got back to Broadway and the rest of the march proceeded in a jubilant spirit.

Not surprisingly, mainstream media coverage latched onto the scuffles and arrests that resulted from the police kettling strategies rather than focusing on the joyous and constructive spirit of the rest of the day. This article in the New York Times is typical of such a jaundiced approach. Luckily, though, there are other sources of information and reflection about the events of yesterday, including this excellent coverage on Democracy Now, which highlights the international dimensions of the protests.

It was an undeniably great day for radical activism and for the movement for global justice. That said, this May Day was more of a celebration of our collective and potential powers than a real General Strike (which is what many Occupy activists had called for). Much work remains to be done before the dispersed powers of the movement can be collected into a force capable of doing real damage to capital, let alone giving birth to a new world.

But although such skeptical assessments are perhaps necessary, they should not overwhelm the joy of the day. I’ll close therefore close this post with some video clips that capture the ridiculously creative energies unleashed by the movement. First of all, here’s a bit of fancy footwork and wonderful brass music from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra:

And here, to remind us of the history of Union Square and to challenge the Christian evangelical movement on its own terrain, is the Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir:

Last of all, here, once again, is the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, performing the uproarious Smash the Banks Polka:

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Back to the Big Apple

Italy was really great, but it’s so good to be back in NYC!

Today I walked through Union Square, which is filled with tables distributing information for Occupy May Day. There’s a very exciting series of events planned, as well as an immense amount of wonderful cultural production. The radicalism of the various booklets I picked up was so inspiring, with articles about the ecological crisis, resistance to foreclosure, the international military industrial complex, etc.

Here are some posters generated by the Occupy movement to publicize the events on May Day:

After spending time talking to Occupy activists, I went down into the subway. There I came across an amazing band called Underground Horns busking for money.

How inspiring to find so much vibrant popular culture on the streets.  Okay, the US is an extremely reaction country on a general political level, but cities like New York are filled with such redemptive popular energy.

Here’s a clip of Underground Horns’ performance:

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