The People of Paper

plascencia_people-of-paperSalvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper portrays the revolt of its characters (people, literally, of paper) against the author who has created them. The author, who himself takes on the character of an (almost) all-seeing “Saturn” is described as a “tyrant, commanding the story where he wants it to go. That is why they fight against him, why they hide under lead [which apparently protects the characters from his authorial gaze] and try to push him to the margins” (228). And yet at the point at which Saturn actually comes into view, he seems to be about as tyrannous as the Wizard of Oz after Toto opens up a curtain in the Emerald Palace to reveal merely a middle-aged “humbug” and “a very bad wizard.” In Plascencia’s novel it is a carnation-picker by the name of Smiley who “saw[s] through the layers of newspaper and glue” that protect Saturn’s house and comes across an author who is “no longer in control. [. . .] I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, [. . .] the linens and towels unfolded and dirty, books stacked in badly planned towers [. . .]. And paper, unbound and scattered everywhere” (103-4). Unlike the other characters, Smiley had been less keen to enlist in the war against his creator, wondering “Could he not be protecting us?” (95). Once exposed, however, it appears that the mighty Saturn can scarcely look after himself, let alone anyone else.

Yet the real disappointment in Smiley’s encounter with Saturn is the discovery that not only is he neither threatening nor protecting his characters; it seems he is unable even to keep track of them all. “Smiley?” he asks bewilderedly. And perceiving the dismay that this failure to recognize his own creation engenders, he goes on to explain that “there are many characters, plots, and devices, and in the jumble of things sometimes minor characters are forgotten, even by the author” (105). Saturn/Plascencia has been caught up in his own plot, which runs parallel to that of the carnation pickers, and involves a woman who has left him for another man, a woman to whom the novel is apparently dedicated (“To Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and who has her own concerns about what its author is writing: “You need to remember that I exist beyond the pages of this book. [. . .] Sal, if you love me, please leave me out of this story. Start this book over, without me” (138). Plascencia seems to be besieged on all sides: both by the characters that he has imagined, who live and die (and in at least one case are swiftly resurrected) as a function of this story that he has dreamed up; and also by other characters that are all too real, over whom he has no control, and against whom the best he can manage is rather petty revenge, for instance by scratching out the name of Liz’s new lover whenever it appears. Though he does indeed start the book over, as a new title page appears in the wake of Liz’s protests, with the dedication merely “Para mi papa, mama, y hermana” (143; this is after all a Chicano text that is also about border-crossings as well as being a parody of urban gang life), yet he tries to have it both ways, as the original dedication still stands. Liz is, and is not, the novel’s dedicatee. No wonder Saturn has trouble keeping tabs on everything.

Saturn’s problem is to some extent also the reader’s. There is a lot going on in this novel: many plots and sub-plots and indeed innumerable minor characters, including a Merced, a Little Merced, and a Merced de Papel, as well as carnation pickers, Burn Collectors, mechanics, mechanical tortoises, a Mexican wrestler, a beekeeper, a Cardinal, a curandero, a “Baby Nostradamus” whose thoughts are inscrutably hidden by blocks of ink, Rita Hayworth, and even another ex-girlfriend for Saturn/Plascencia. And ultimately perhaps we suffer the same fate as Saturn as he is depicted by his creation, Smiley: we find it hard to care too much about any of them. Least of all, Saturn himself, who comes off as at best a little pathetic, and at worst self-obsessed, spoiled, sexist, and vindictive. (“Cunt” is his one-word retort to Liz’s plea to leave her out of it [139].)

Of course, especially in a self-reflexive and metafictional text such as this one, Plascencia’s defence would be that his unlikeable self-portrait in the novel is indeed precisely that: a portrait, an unreliable representation, a performance, a mask whereby we come to see that “Plascencia” the author is as fictive a character as Smiley or Little Merced. We have no reason to believe that “Liz” actually exists (in any case, it is Plascencia who has come up with the lines he ascribes to her), and so no basis to credit the “sadness” that we are told “circulate[s] through Saturn, clogging capillaries and inflaming his lymph nodes” (242). The author is as much a creature of paper as any of his creations, and as such in fact has no capillaries or lymph nodes. But this recognition hardly prompts us to care any more. Indeed, quite the opposite. And however much the novel reminds us that paper can cut, and that people of paper can wound and affect us equally if not more than “real” people can, the fact that this book illustrates that point with descriptions of men whose tongues are lacerated thanks to cunnilingus with the origami woman Merced de Papel leaves me, at least, unmoved.

Down These Mean Streets II

thomas_mean-streets2The second half of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets is much less preoccupied with questions of identity than the first. It seems as though Thomas has accepted that his primary identity is the one bestowed on him by society, rather than family: he is black, even if he can occasionally “pass” as something else, as when (in Texas) he goes to a brothel with a Mexican friend and, by acting as though he only speaks Spanish, assures the establishment that he is foreign rather than African American. As he leaves, though, he switches to English and watches as the prostitute’s “smile fall[s] off and a look of horror fill[s] the empty space it left–‘I just want you to know,’” he tells her, “’that you got fucked by a nigger, by a black man!’” (189). If he is going to be penalized for his blackness, in other words, by this point he sees that it can also be wielded as a weapon.

Towards the end of the book, in an odd and somewhat underdeveloped passage, Thomas even seems to be taken by Black Nationalism: under the influence of a follower of Elijah Muhammed, he becomes a Muslim and takes on the name “Hussein Afmit Ben Hassen” (296). Neither the religion nor the name stick (for reasons that Thomas does not explain), but it is notable that he has little corresponding interest, even momentarily, in his Puerto Rican heritage or latinidad. Indeed, though he signs on to work on a ship that travels to the West Indies, it is not clear that he visits the island, or even that the thought to do so ever crosses his mind. “Puerto Rican” becomes simply a qualifier, albeit a necessary one, to “black”: when a plainclothes detective grabs him and calls him a “black bastard,” Thomas replies “If you don’t mind, I’m a Puerto Rican black bastard” (235). His blackness is no longer contested.

But the book’s fundamental concern continues to be the self. In some ways, this is unsurprising given the generic conventions of the memoir, whose point is largely to narrate the unfolding or discovery of what makes an individual what he or she is. But Piri is more concerned with “me” than most. Thomas tells us that “one thing still stood out clear; one things still made sense and counted–me. Nothing else but me” (95). And asked for “who do you love?” he seems hardly to hesitate before answering “Me” (259). He has many associates but relatively few friends; relationships become significant only when they are at an end, as with his friend Brew (who disappears), his mother (who dies), or his girlfriend Trina (who marries another man).

Ultimately Piri is not particularly interested in other people. Nor is he all that concerned with a broader notion of community or “people.” Sent to prison for robbery with violence, there is a point, when the inmates rise up against the guards, at which Thomas has to decide on his allegiances and belonging, and ends up split, arguing with his self: “These damn cons are my people . . . What do you mean, your people? Your people are outside the cells, home, in the streets” (281). In the end, though, it is more that he has no people.

Rejected for the most part by mainstream society, with the exception of the anomalous episode of Muslim conversion he is unable or unwilling to find any alternative sense of community. The book’s final scene is emblematic. Returning to Harlem and to the building he once lived in, he meets an old friend, Carlito, who at first does not recognize him. It turns out that Carlito is, like Piri had once been, a junkie. Hearing his mumbled but unconvincing promises that he will get clean, Thomas realizes that all this is simply part of his past, of his numerous yesterdays: “my whole world was yesterday. I ain’t got nothing but today and a whole lot of tomorrows” (330). Ignoring what Carlito is saying, Piri leaves him behind and “walked out into the street, past hurrying people and an unseen jukebox beating out a sad-assed bolero” (331). Any salvation here is going to be individual rather than collective. There is little if any sense of any common political project.

Even when Thomas bumps into a boy who reminds him uncannily of himself, or of his former self–“This kid shot a cop and got shot; I shot a cop and got shot. What’s happened to me is going to happen to him” (315)–he is hardly keen to communicate his own experience and learning, fobbing him off rather with a “Buenas noches” and the unconvincing and unlikely reassurance that “You’ll probably get a break, don’t worry about it” (315). Taken as a whole, however, the book gives the lie to this superficial prognosis. Piri himself catches very few breaks. And if he survives to tell the tale, it is hardly thanks to anyone else but to the fact that he has shown, over and over, that whatever the colour of his skin he has “heart.” And it is heart, a mixture of bravery and persistence, capacity to affect or be affected, that is untethered from any notion of identity or belonging, that is finally what counts. This is what leads to acceptance on the street, where “if you you ain’t got heart, you ain’t got nada” (47). You make your own luck, and you do so as an individual (because heart is what defines the individual), not as part of a group.

The Politics of Rage

politics_of_rage

Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Alt-Right Affect

milo_yiannopoulos

On Milo Yiannopoulos:

As anyone who watched him dance venomous circles around Channel 4’s Cathy Newman–or insinuate his way into Bill Maher’s affections through a shared disdain for trans women–might conclude, Yiannopoulos understands that political communication is less about rationality and deliberation than it is about rhetoric, identification and emotion. The weapons of reason alone are blunt against him.

[. . .]

His obsessions have remained similar: hatred of women, especially women in the public sphere; admiration for the powerful and contempt for the weak; vitriolic antipathy to the Left. These are not pretended beliefs, but permanent features of his position; they are the same obsessions chronicled in Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the fantasy lives of proto-fascist Freikorps men in 1930s Germany. (James Butler, “Milo’s Stumble”. London Review of Books [February 22, 2017])

Laughing Len

Leonard Cohen

The first time I heard of Leonard Cohen was when I was fifteen, back in 1985. Though strictly speaking, the first song I heard was neither written nor performed by him.

I had been sent to South London to stay with my uncle for a week or two, the summer after finishing my A-Levels. My uncle, however, had his own plans the night I arrived, and they clearly didn’t include me. So he gave me the addresses of a couple of his friends, whom he encouraged me to visit. Gamely, I set off to knock on the doors of these people I had never met, and who hadn’t a clue as to who I was. But I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed in, nobody even batting an eye at the apparition of this slightly lost young boy from up north who announced he was Andrew the hairdresser’s nephew.

I soon found myself installed in a cluttered living room, lined with couches. People came and went. I was no doubt offered a beer or two. The air was hazy with smoke. There had been some kind of party the night before, and the floor was haphazardly piled high with LPs–some in their sleeves, some not. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But rather than listening to the stereo, my host, Steve, was strumming his guitar. Older–my uncle’s age–bearded, somewhat grizzled, but with lively blue eyes, he seemed to emanate obscure knowledge like some sort of shaman. I asked him if he knew any songs about the Spanish Civil War. He played “The Partisan,” Cohen’s version of a song (in fact) originally about the French Resistance. It was more than close enough for me.

And Steve carried on playing Cohen songs: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Perhaps “Bird on a Wire.” It turned out that, in this company at least, some of these tunes were made for singing along: “So Long, Marianne,” for instance. Cohen would prove to be the soundtrack, the shared memory and experience, for a whole new world I was stepping into. For this was just the first of many such informal, impromptu gatherings over the next decade or so, as I returned to South London and eventually came to live nearby. Parties, gatherings before or after going to the pub, Sunday afternoons, weekday evenings. Almost always a guitar, almost always Leonard Cohen.

So for me, however much Cohen’s image and even many of his lyrics suggest solitude and isolation, missed encounters and regret (“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?”), my experience of his music has almost always been as part of a crowd. Even when I think of what is surely his most devastating song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what comes to mind is an extraordinary performance by my uncle himself at one of these late night get-togethers. More recently, I’ve joined such communal, cathartic sing-a-alongs here in British Columbia with people such as my friend Max and his family. Still, listening to Cohen takes me back to cluttered, crowded, smoky living rooms in South London, when it didn’t matter how badly you sang–it hardly seemed to matter to Leonard–but that you sang with (shared) feeling.

Cohen’s mantra was always that of the “beautiful loser.” His claim: that the damaged, the disfigured, the disappointed, the defeated also have a right to hope again, without ever denying their pain and hurt. That, even at the lowest points of life (Joan of Arc at the stake; Isaac on his sacrificial pyre), there is some solace to be found, some chance for redemption if not salvation. There might even perhaps be an opening on to an ecstasy that’s decidedly immanent, part of this world. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Moreover, Cohen’s view was that that it is only in these depths that true solidarity and empathy are to be found. Our tragedy is that we are all in fact losers, lost whether we know it yet or not. But this is also our triumph, so long as we remember to sing along when the time comes:

It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes:

“Please don’t pass me by,
Please don’t pass me by,
For I am blind, but you can see,
Yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
Oh please don’t pass me by.”

Cohen is gone now. He’d say that at best he was only ever passing through. But so are we all: “sometimes happy, sometimes blue.” The point in the meantime is to keep alive the spirit of hospitality that I associate with my first encounter with his songs. And to maintain the sense of commonality, the recognition that our fates are necessarily intertwined, too easily forgotten by those who happen not (right now) to find themselves in the gutter. No better way than to invite someone to sing with you. This is music for sharing.

“Then we’ll come from the shadows.”

Che

Che poster

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is far from being a conventional biopic. There is, for instance, little to no back-story: no sequences of a young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, for instance; no narrative of his politicization; no details of his home life, his wife and family. It’s not as though there is not space enough to flesh out these aspects of Che’s life: taken together, the two films that constitute Soderbergh’s epic make up four and a half hours of screen time. But they focus rigorously on two military campaigns: the (successful) Cuban revolution of 1956 to 1959; and the (disastrous) Bolivian campaign of 1966 to 1967, at the end of which Che was captured and summarily executed. Moreover, in telling the tale of these two episodes, though the spotlight is always on Che, there is hardly anything in the way of introspection or interior monologue. We almost always see our hero from without, and he is consistently aloof and distant. One of the most famous images of the twentieth-century remains resistant to the gaze. Or as the New York Times put it, “the film is [. . .] in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don’t just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action–what people do, as opposed to why they do it–is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.” This is, then, less the story of a life than the sketch of a man in movement, a body in motion amid the chaotic interactions, the complex struggles that (may) lead to widespread social change.

Yet even the depiction of these struggles is curtailed: the first film, which deals with Cuba, stops while Che is still (we are told) 186 miles short of Havana. The triumphant arrival in the capital is eliminated. This despite the fact that, shortly beforehand, we see Che respond to a fellow fighter who asks if, the revolution now won, he can go home to his family. “No,” Che replies. “We only won the war. The Revolution begins now.” As such, then, what the movie presents is not so much the revolution itself as the pre-requisites for revolution. Almost everything else is methodically stripped away, in favour of a strangely unemotional examination of the ways that a revolutionary movement either expands and increases its power and its resonance (in the Cuban case) or contracts and dissipates (in the Bolivian example). Che is the nucleus of these films, but in the sense that his own theory of insurrection understood the role of the guerrilla foco: that what matters is what accretes around it, its capacity to affect its surrounding milieu, rather than any essence that it may have of its own accord.

The second half of the movie (its second part: Che: Part Two or Guerrilla) is more meticulous in its commitment to this principle, and to presenting us its action consistently and solely “in the present tense” (as Roger Ebert observes). Here, the linear chronology of its source, Che’s Bolivian Diary, is respected, and what’s more there are relatively few cutaways to what is happening beyond the (ever-diminishing) sphere of action of Che’s own guerrilla band. The first half (Che: Part One or The Argentine) oscillates between the guerrilla campaign itself and two later brief episodes in Che’s life, both set in 1964 (and both shot in grainy black and white): a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and an interview in Havana with US journalist Lisa Howard. As such, this part of the film–again, perhaps in sympathy with its source, Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War–allows itself the luxury of, if not introspection, then at least a measure of retrospection. Even in Manhattan, though, Che remains very much the guerrilla commander. Not simply sartorially, in his beret and fatigues surrounded by men in suits and ties, but also in his relations both with his own entourage and with the US high society, UN dignitaries, or the crowds, whether hostile or supportive, that follow him wherever he goes. Throughout, he is unperturbed and unflappable, unhesitatingly direct, and at most ironically amused by the fuss he consistently occasions.

In short, Soderbergh’s film bucks Hollywood conventions most significantly in its determination to present affect shorn of emotion. This is a movie that refuses triumph (in part one) and tragedy (in part two) alike. We never particularly warm to Che, but nor does he inspire (say) fear or disgust. This is the portrait of an individual, but not of a subject with whom we might empathize or identity. Here, affect is always a matter of the correlation of forces, the concatenation and interaction of bodies in motion. Even in the climactic scene at the end of the second part, which gives us perhaps the only point-of-view shot in the entire four and a half hours, extraordinarily from the viewpoint of Che as he dies on the floor of a Bolivian shack, we feel, I think, that this is a thoroughly impersonal death. It’s as though it served to disprove Che’s (alleged) last words, his claim to transcend the individual body: “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” For in fact those bullets did indeed put an end to a Revolution. Which is not to say that another could not arise elsewhere, some other time, around some other nucleus or foco.

Interview in eldiario.es

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for eldiario.es: Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on eldiario.es, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.

The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

Circus Philosophicus

Philosophers, particularly Anglo-American ones, have a penchant for little stories designed as thought experiments to test or illustrate some hypothesis or another. I still remember from high school the tale of the fat boy stuck in the cave: a group of people go to the seaside and enter a cave system by the sea. At some point they realize that the tide is coming in and threatens to engulf them all. There’s only one small outlet up top, but it turns out that the first person to try to get out is too big for the opening, and he gets stuck. If things stay this way, he will live (his head is above the high tide mark), but everyone else in the group will drown. It so happens that they have a stick of dynamite. Hence their quandary: do they blow up the fat boy and save each other at his expense; or do they refuse to take his life, and sacrifice themselves instead. There are, for whatever reason, no other possible alternatives. The point of the fable was to illustrate the difference between deontological and utilitarian ethics. A utilitarian will light the fuse, based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A deontologist will believe that it’s always wrong to take another person’s life. (As I recall, the only person I talked to at the time who would refuse to blow up the fat boy was my grandmother; she said she’d prefer to wait for a possible act of God to rescue them all.)

There are many similar fables: of violinists with a shared circulatory system (in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument for abortion), of children drowning in a pond (in Peter Singer’s case for charity), and so on. But this is a long tradition, and not restricted to ethical dilemmas. Think, for instance, of Rousseau’s Emile, which is essentially a book-length philosophical parable. Or of Plato’s Republic with the “Ring of Gyges” and, most famously of all, the “Allegory of the Cave.” Indeed, Plato’s dialogues as a whole are in some ways as much literary as philosophical–certainly more literary than the tale of the fat boy, though in all these cases narrative and the imagination and invoked for the services of reason and argumentation. In fact, there are few thinkers, however rigorous, who do not find themselves indulging in some such artifice not only to embellish but also to undergird the tenets of their philosophical systems. Even Spinoza has, say, the man who “because he does not believe that he can by wholesome food sustain his body for ever, should wish to cram himself with poisons and deadly fare.” And Wittgenstein has his ladder, however much he urges it needs to be thrown away once his propositions are finally understood.

Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus

So when Graham Harman is said to be trying, in Circus Philosophicus, “to restore myth to its central place in the discipline” or to be resurrecting “the long-abandoned style of Platonic myth” (77), I’m not quite so convinced that myth has ever really gone away. Nor, on the other hand, is it obvious to me that what Harman offers in this short book are “myths” at all. Myths, after all, imply some kind of collective belief–and it is in the name of revealing the presuppositions of such beliefs that myth-making has rather gone out of fashion in theoretical circles, and understandably so. (Think only of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies as one of the founding texts of what we might call cultural studies, or one of the points at which French Theory and cultural studies most nearly intersect.) Harman’s myths are designed rather to explicate his own, rather particular, beliefs about the world around us. It is better then to see the six brief vignettes that he offers us simply as stories, parables intended to shed unfamiliar light on familiar topics. The fact that he resorts so unabashedly to literary forms to advance his agenda is neither novel nor all that exceptional. But it does allow us to evaluate these short texts as stories as much as for their philosophical content. Or to ponder the relation between form and content here.

What’s striking is a certain flatness or affectlessness, even when the matter narrated by Harman’s stories is otherwise full of drama or pathos. Take the way in which death is treated, for instance. This short book is surprisingly saturated by death, but at the same time remarkably free of mourning. Sometimes this is understandable enough: when, as in “The Bridge,” we are asked to imagine a series of pre-Socratic philosophers being thrown by devils one by one into a molten lake, it is clear that it is really ideas that are being dispensed with, not people. It is at best cartoon violence when, for instance, Pythagoras is dispatched: “The demons drag the geometer to the edge of the lake. They add a final insulting touch by scrawling numbers on his cloak, both integers and his hated irrationals, before pushing his soul into the void” (23). Still, here the philosophers’ demise is at least the point of the story. Elsewhere, death is a little more unexpected and inexplicable. “Offshore Drilling Rig,” for example, is a story that takes Harman and the novelist China Miéville to a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Their chaperones are (unbeknownst to them) killed in a helicopter accident, leaving Harman and Miéville to debate the nature of being as a hurricane passes through. The fate of the oilworkers, however, is here unlamented; if anything, the accident is the condition of possibility for the conversation it enables, though presumably it could have been enabled by means other than a ditched helicopter that kills off “a blunt but sensitive name of Jonas” (41), among others.

The oddest death is the one that Harman inflicts in “The Haunted Boat.” This story is in fact misnamed: it is less about a haunted boat than a haunting one, concerning as it does a ghost boat rumoured to plough the Sea of Japan. By means of a comparison between the actual ferry, which he takes between Hiroshima and Matsuyama, and the parallel one that haunts it, Harman illustrates his “fourfold” conception of objects in terms of time, space, essence, and eidos (62). But Harman’s ferry is haunted not only by its imagined double, but also by the ghost of the fellow traveller who first tells him the story of a mysterious second vehicle: “a pleasant native of Osaka, roughly [Harman’s] own age, who said that his name was Kenji” (54). Later, we are told in rather desultory manner that “Kenji is now dead (or so I read recently on his suspended Facebook page” (55). Again, however, no mourning or other affect ensues: Harman merely tells us that “reports of Kenji’s death have only heightened [his] interest in the [haunted/haunting] vessel” (55). In short, this is the strangest kind of ghost story, in that it seems almost oblivious to the question of life and death except in that death poses the practical problem (against the whole ghost story genre) of cutting off access to the living, of now precluding rather than enabling conversation.

The affectlessness of Harman’s stories is, moreover, frequently combined with notably mannered stylization. Consider the treatment of love or romantic relationships in “The Bridge,” which is framed as a conversation between Harman and his fiancée. But it is written in the voice of a rather repressed minor man of eighteenth-century letters: “My Olympia, this image may seem only obliquely related to our disagreement. But you know me well, and can guess the trend of my thinking” (17). This odd mannered and half-strangled voice is also presented as Harman’s elsewhere: in “Offshore Drilling Rig,” he tells Miéville “Your thoughts are known to me” (47), for instance, rather than the more obvious twentieth- or twenty-first-century idiom, “I know what you’re thinking.” And when we discover that Harman’s fiancée breaks off their engagement, though this is presented as an outcome of philosophical or even religious differences, one feels one’s sympathy tending towards a woman who would have otherwise to endure a man who describes his “jovial bonhomie and backslapping ways” leading to his being “lionized by jaded scions of the East” (13, 14). Frankly, he sounds insufferable.

Now, none of this need reflect on the philosophy itself. There are very few philosophical tales that can make much claim to literary value. Besides, there are perhaps some who enjoy these strange hybrids of travel writing with a dash of steampunk and a side of one of Jane Austen’s country parsons. And yet Harman seems to think that they should delight as well as instruct: with his first story’s concluding image of the cosmos as “a vast series of interlocking ferris wheels” he says “Let these trillions of wheels spin in your mind. Let them sink into your heart and enliven your mood” (12). Well, they may have that effect on some. But me, if I want my mood enlivened, I’ll look elsewhere than this stilted fictional universe, this dull circus whose equanimity towards death is symptom of an entrenched and pervasive absence of life.

History, Affect, Literature

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This is my brief contribution to a roundtable yesterday at the MLA in Chicago; the session was entitled Can Affective Criticism Read Material History in Literature? and featured also Eugenio Di Stefano, Rita Felski, Jonathan Flatley, Mathias Nilges, and Jen Phillis. A fairly lively discussion ensued after the presentations.

“History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson tells us. Does this mean, then, that hurt (or any other affect) can provide an index to history, a means of understanding history in terms of affect rather than (say) narrative? In the first instance, Jameson’s answer would seem to be negative, as History here is portrayed as stubborn constraint, as material bulwark that forecloses the changes or transformations that we would normally associate with the historical: “It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention” (The Political Unconscious 102). And yet if affect marks history’s limits in this way, we surely touch upon those limits to varying extents and in different ways depending upon the prevailing social, cultural, and economic conjuncture. We may be consistently butting heads with history, but we do so in diverse circumstances, and indeed the “we” that butts heads will change over time. To adapt Tolstoy’s dictum about happy and unhappy families: desires and praxes that history enables (for these, too, surely exist) may be alike in their happy (if contingent) ability to deny the realities of historical constraints; but desires and praxes that history blocks or reverses may each be unhappy in their own specific ways.

More generally, in any case it is not as though Jameson is propounding history as simply some stubborn, featureless Real. The constraints that it offers up change over time, both in the short term and the long. The kinds of desires and praxes that are blocked today may be enabled tomorrow (or next week, next year, next millennium) and vice versa. The limits of the desirable or actionable, just like the limits of the thinkable or the intelligible, themselves change: sometimes glacially, sometimes with surprising speed. Indeed, is this not the import of Michel Foucault’s histories of sexuality: to chart the changing cartographies of desire, or topographies of affect, from the Ancient Greeks to our own time. Particular times (and places) are the occasion for particular affective investments or cathexes or (as we are by now accustomed to recognizing) for specific traumas, specific instances of historical hurt that are contingent in form and even in nature. To put this yet another way, what Raymond Williams termed “structures of feeling” are historically embedded and therefore mutable even if they are not directly accessible to consciousness or discourse. Affective landscapes, and the panorama of potentially identifiable and indeed nameable affective states, vary over time. From moral panics to summers of love, ages of contentment to times of fear, there is a visceral history of affect that is also a history of the body or bodies and their various capacities to affect and be affected. Our sense of time itself is colored by the sensations and intensities, fleeting or otherwise, that structure life and mark off particular experiences as distinct and memorable. Meanwhile, on another, more mundane level, codified as habit, regular and regulated encounters between bodies (the morning walk, the daily commute, the hourly peek at Facebook, Friday night at the pub) also make up the routine and the everyday, our parallel sense of time as packaged chronology.

Literature (and culture more broadly) is part and parcel of this affective history, from the banal regularities to the periodic explosions of intensity. No wonder that the history of aesthetics is a history of feeling, of the feelings that culture provokes and celebrates as well as those that it manages, softens, and even denies. From Aristotelian conceptions of catharsis to Romantic pronouncements of poetry as modulated emotion (“recollected in tranquility”), and on to fears about the impact of televisual violence or the distractions of social media, it is hardly an innovation to claim that culture seizes our bodies and is seized by them, is absorbed through the skin. Literature reproduces the structures of feeling of a given age and also (perhaps scandalously) goes against them, to open up new forms of embodiment, new lines of flight. Reading is a habit, and a habituating activity, as well as being at times a means to break with our habits, to channel the desires that history (in Jameson’s sense) may ultimately refute or allow. Whoever said that reading was merely a matter of interpretation or signification? On the contrary, what is at stake whenever we pick up a book is the mobilization or demobilization of affects, the consolidation or invention of habits, and the emergence of individuals or multitudes.