Sunday, February 26, 2012

Notes on the early parts of Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy

After my recent post on technology and the classless society, Aaron Bady mentioned that he'd been reading Timothy Mitchell's latest book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, and that it addresses just the sorts of questions I was attempting to raise.

I'm reading it now, and it looks to be an excellent contribution to the discussion. Right away, early in the introduction, we read this:
The leading industrialized countries are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, traveling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. These ways of life are not sustainable, and they now face the twin crises that will end them [i.e., the exhaustion of fossil fuels themselves, and global warming/climate change].
On these twin crises, it does often feel as though, as Philip Goodchild puts it, "that little else is worth thinking about", even as "[t]he public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion", neither doing much thinking nor taking effective action. There are exceptions, of course; there always are. But a major part of the problem is who it is that is in position to take action, who constitutes that "public".

Anyway, I've as yet read only the introduction and chapter one in Carbon Democracy, but I want to jot down some thoughts that have occurred to me so far.

1. The very word democracy, as employed by Mitchell, throws me right away. I usually bristle when someone refers to the United States, or Britain, or France, or Israel, as "democracies". For me, this is because I define democracy a certain way, as a situation in which ordinary people have non-trivial say over important decisions affecting their actual lives. It is my contention that most people understand democracy similarly. So, I decided that Mitchell's use of the word democracy, at first, to refer to political entities of the West meant that I would need to adjust my reading against his usage. Happily, it turns out that Mitchell is not oblivious of this problem:
The term 'democracy' can have two kinds of meaning. It can refer to ways of making effective claims for a more just and egalitarian common world. Or it can refer to a mode of governing populations that employs popular consent as a means of limiting claims for greater equality and justice by dividing up the common world. Such limits are formed by acknowledging certain areas as matters of public concern subject to popular decision while establishing other fields to be administered under alternative methods of control. For example. governmental practice can demarcate a private sphere governed by rules of property, a natural world governed by laws of nature, or markets governed by principles of economics. Democratic struggles become a battle over the distribution of issues, attempting to establish as matters of public concern questions that others claim as private (such as the level of wages paid by employers), as belonging to nature (such as the exhaustion of natural resources or the composition of gases in the atmosphere), or as ruled by laws of the market (such as financial speculation). In the mid-twentieth century, this 'logic of distribution' began to designate a large new field of government whose rules set limits to alternative political claims: the field that became known as 'the economy'.
OK. This is very good. My definition of democracy is closer to the first one given above (I think his is too weak). The second definition is apparently the primary sense used in the book. Though I suspect it's the tension between the two that is carried through. In any event, this resolves some of my conflict.

2. This tension, or the difference between definitions of what democracy entails, leads to one of the points Mitchell makes early in his introduction, about American "experts on democracy" taking an abstract "idea" of democracy, and seeking to impose it on other countries, whether it be Iraq or wherever. Obviously, it seems to me, the extent to which Iraqis, or Afghans, or anyone else, yearns for a more democratic politics, this means that they want to have a say in their own lives; whereas, Western bureaucrats, and American experts in particular, simply want to drop institutions from the sky (after the bombs, naturally), institutions which are democratic only in terms of Mitchell's second definition. The last thing they want is for ordinary Iraqis to have any real say in their political-economic life (after all, they are trying to control the flow of oil). The same was true in the first place in those Western countries that currently have apparently democratic institutions:
The advocates of representative government had seen it not as a step towards democracy but as an oligarchic alternative to it, in which the power of government was reserved to those whose ownership of property (the control of land, but also of women, servants and slaves) gave them power over the point of passage for the revenues on which government depended, and qualified them to be concerned with public matters. […] In many cases, moreover, the rise of a centralized fiscal-military state in which representation justified the exercise of power coincided with the weakening of other, dispersed forms of participation and self-government that were sometimes more accountable to their constituents, such as the elected corporate bodies in England that governed universities, towns, companies and societies.
That is, the institutions would seek to isolate important decisions from popular influence or control. It occurs to me that, where once this was understood by advocates for representative government, it too often no longer is. Western planners do not now understand this distinction, nor do many white, educated liberals (or conservatives, certainly). To them, and all to often us, these institutions simply are democracy. To this extent, I can't help but think of such American-style experts as both evil and stupid. Graham Greene's "Quiet American" comes to mind. They don't have good intentions, but they both imagine they do and don't understand why they are perceived not to.

3. Mitchell also writes:
Since the new machinery of control operated partly by governing flows of oil, and the Middle East was becoming the main source of the world's oil, organizing the region under imperial control became important for the possibility of democracy as a mode of government in the West.
Another way of putting another generally unthinkable thought: our even very limited sense of democracy in the West, along with our modern way of life, is itself dependent on oppression abroad.

4. In chapter one, Mitchell writes this:
The rise of democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness. The autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. The detour would be misleading, for it would imply that there was some shortage in earlier periods or other places of people demanding a less precarious life.

What was missing was not consciousness, not a repertoire of demands, but an effective way of forcing the powerful to listen to those demands. The flow and concentration of energy made it possible to connect the demands of miners to those of others, and to give their arguments a technical force that could not easily be ignored. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but on the contrary because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.
I'm happy to see the remarks on consciousness. I've always been troubled by the idea that modernity brought political consciousness to light, as if people haven't always been capable of hating authority and resisting it, in whatever small ways were available. Alas, technical capability is another thing entirely.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Notes on Black Power Mixtape

I watched Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 this week. These are just a few passing notes. This is a documentary assembled from recently discovered footage that had been taken in the United States by Swedish film crews, with commentary in 2010 from such figures as musicians Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, John Forté, and Questlove, poet Sonia Sanchez, Bobby Seale and Harry Belafonte, and professor Robin Kelley.

I found the film fascinating, and ultimately, inevitably, sad. The focus is, first, on the activities of the Black Panthers, and such famous figures such as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis (Davis also provides some present-day commentary). I'm rather abashed to have to admit that I previously had almost zero knowledge of either Carmichael or Davis, though the latter I had only recently decided to begin reading. I mean, I knew a little about them, of course, but not as much as I should have. The movie overall is riveting, but the footage of Carmichael and Davis especially so. An interview with Davis, from prison, is simply stunning in its force and clarity (the topic: violence). They were so beautiful.

We also see some footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the period before his assassination; the uprisings after it. Brief appearances by Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver. The Attica uprising and the subsequent attack on the prisoners (with a very interesting interview with William Kunstler, the radical lawyer: "Well, I guess I'm a white, middle class citizen of this country, and I had all of the stereotypes about prisoners that any person in my capacity has. I had to learn the hard way that they were decent, honorable men. Much more decent and much more honorable than that went in there to shoot them."). Forté's remarks here, and especially later, after the interview with Davis, on her short 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, are particularly compelling (Forté spent some time in prison on a drug charge, and has since been active in the prison reform movement).

In the later years, we see the ways drugs flooded American cities, and politics, focus, power, recedes. In light of the scenes that came before, it is difficult to believe anything other than that this was absolutely intentional. (I've always wondered: as if there's any chance huge quantities of illegal drugs could make into the United States without some powerful governmental entity making it happen.) There'd been a clip earlier in the film, in which someone, I forget who, says something like "they can't jail all of us". Then you see the drugs, and the dissipation, and it comes to you with an astonishing clarity, though you already knew it, that this is in fact what they intended. They will jail you, or they will fuck you up. Whatever the case, you will not win.

Given this, it's weird and off-putting that the film presents us with an odd note towards the end of the film. It comes after all of the explanations for and justifications of violence, after Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, and after the more militant words from Talib Kweli and Questlove, after the assassinations and drugs and hints of the dawn of the prison industrial complex, after the clarity gives way to fogginess, after Black Power gives way to Louis Farrakhan. We hear a voice-over from the record producer, Kenny Gamble, who's not previously been heard from, but who talks of the tremendous ride of the black man (sic) in American history, and contrary to everything we've seen in the film up to that point, seems to extol the virtues of non-violence, and the constitution, and law, and black people using these to become part of "one of the greatest countries that's ever been, the United States of America". Astonishing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"The mid-Neolithic: perhaps that's when it all went wrong"

Like many people, I read Spurious (the blog) for years, before Lars Iyer came out with Spurious (the novel), and now its follow-up, Dogma. I have wondered how non-readers of the blog experience the books, but for me there's a strange, not unpleasant, sense of deja vu. I think I prefer the experience of the books; I used to get overwhelmed by the blog. Of course, I was easily overwhelmed by all my blog reading, wasn't I? Didn't I fall so far behind, that the prospect of catching up was first implausible, then laughable? Weren't there, in fact, well over a thousand un-read blog posts, from well over a hundred blogs, sitting there waiting my attention when Bloglines announced it was closing shop? Did I bother with RSS feeds after that? I did not. I did not take to Google Reader. Oh, I started it up, added several of the old standbys, with no doubt the best of intentions, but never used it. Aren't there likely by now tens of thousands of items in my reader? I'd never be able to clean it up!

Yes, blog-reading quickly became overwhelming. But Spurious was even more so. Frankly, few of the blogs I liked best posted daily entries, so I didn't have trouble keeping up with my favorites. Spurious was the main exception (yes, there were, and are, others). Oh, the new posts came fast and furious! I didn't know what to do with them! It didn't help that Lars wrote long, interesting essays about figures like Blanchot who I wanted to know more about, writers I was just beginning to approach, but those entries, the ones that I wanted to puzzle over and understand, were quickly eclipsed by others, many just as worthy. Then came the W. entries, and I completely lost touch. Didn't I blog about this already? I did:
Will they be long ones? Will I have time to read them? If not, will I remember to get back to them? I don't want to click, afraid to lose them. I could check the actual blog, but no. Too easy; contrary to normal practise. I leave them for a while. Another day goes by, another new one. More. I see there are now eleven new Spurious posts.
So I wrote almost exactly three years ago (yes, I did just quote myself). In fact, fuck eleven, there'd be easily 45, 50, 60 unread Spurious posts sitting there, mocking me, mocking not only my slow reading, my ability to keep up, but mocking my slow writing. And, again, are they all W. posts? Am I in the mood for the W. posts? How can he write so much so quickly? Haven't some of these appeared already? (Didn't he make a practice of re-posting?) Where are the essays? (I demand essays! I want Blanchot! Kafka! Gene Wolfe!!) Why all the W. posts? Of course, when I'd finally take the chance, he was ready for this, as if on cue (I'd offer you a link for this, but I don't think it matters by now):
Reading Scholem makes me melancholy, I tell W. on the phone. He knows everything! He's an expert on all matters! That's because [he] studied for 40 years and then wrote, says W. How many years did you study? Are you studying now? But you're writing, aren't you? You're writing constantly.
I laughed! I did. I even, literally, laughed out loud. True! I wrote how I didn't always get the W. posts, how I'd often skim them, looking for the other longer ones. But when I took the time to actually read them, I found them very funny indeed. In truth, I found that they read much better in big gulps, ten or twenty entries at time, more. Which is only fitting, now that we have these novels.

It's always a fairly random decision, which book to read next. I picked up Dogma, looked it over. I'd liked Spurious (the novel), liked it quite a bit, but wasn't sure I was quite up for revisiting our 21st century Laurel & Hardy of the Apocalypse, Mercier & Camier of the End Times. So I flipped through it and saw this passage:
The Humility of Pain: now there's an album title, W. says. Jandek has seen things, experienced things, of which we can have no understanding, he says. He is a man of despair, of complete despair. But he is a man of God, too. Doesn't Jandek always gather his musicians for a moment of prayer before going on stage? 'Lord give us strength . . . Lord protect us'. We're not capable of God, W. Says.
Ah, yes! Lars' Jandek obsession! We wrote about this before, didn't we? Yes, yes we did. I never did follow up on that blog post (which was anyway really about Bill Callahan), by listening to any more Jandek. I still have just the one cd, which I listened to but once, maybe twice; I don't even know where it is. I, somehow, did not expect to see Jandek in these pages. But why? Why shouldn't Jandek be here? Why shouldn't it all be here?

So, with that passage, my decision was made: Dogma it is. Soon enough, the boys were in Nashville, on the lecture trip to America. I remember these, too. I hadn't had time for them, on the blog, had I? (Or had I? I remember both: having time, not having time; being bored, not being bored. It depended, I suppose, on when they appeared. As I said, entries were often re-posted.) The trip seemed to last weeks on the blog, though, didn't it? But it's only a few pages in Dogma. Lars and W. are overwhelmed by the vastness of America, its stupidity, its suburbs. It defeats them. But aren't they always defeated?: "Hasn't he always lived in this way, wandering around America with a moron?"

It's all too easy to invoke, as I already have, Laurel & Hardy and Mercier & Camier, Vladimir & Estragon, but the comparisons come easily with good reason: W. and Lars are examplars of the friendship of cruelty (the cruelty of friendship); the books are incredibly funny. Lars bears the brunt of the abuse, but then he's also the narrator: who's the more cruel? (And is Lars' flat the most unpleasant flat in literary history? The creeping, living damp of Spurious is joined in Dogma by an unholy swarm of rats.) Dogma is, if anything, both funnier and deeper than Spurious. Laughter in the face of despair. A sense of having come too late, much too late, the singular problem of Modernism. Intellectuals with no redeeming project; or projects, but no sense of urgency; or urgency, but no sense of the appropriate. A ridiculous sense that they themselves are a danger to society:
We should shoot ourselves, W. says. [...] and there would be a great rejoicing. But that's just it, isn't it: there would be no rejoicing. No one would see, no one would know what the world had been delivered from.

How is it that we've escaped detection?, W. wonders. How is it we've got away with what we have? It would restore faith in the world if we were hunted down and shot. At the last moment, the gun held to our temples, we would laugh in gladness because we would know that justice had been done. It would all make sense! The world would be restored!

That we're still alive, W. says, is a sign of the nearness of the end.
Coming too late is one thing. But were they possibly too stupid to notice the contribution they might have made, even so?:
Perhaps we've already had our idea, our great chance, W. says, as we climb up the hill towards the church. Perhaps it's already occurred to us, and we've forgotten it: what a terrible thought! Worse still, perhaps it was something we exchanged in conversation, something that passed between us and was immediately lost amidst the general inanity.
All kinds of serious topics (philosophical, literary, historical, economic) are touched on, with passing wit and apparent intelligence, before being made ridiculous. The problems are not ridiculous (they are all too, devastatingly, real), but what can be done? W.'s project is capitalism and religion (I recognize my own project in his: but what do I do with it? what can I do with it?); he riffs on the disaster of agriculture (italics his: words are liberally italicized in Dogma; Thomas Bernhard would be pleased, but not just for this). Have I not been reading about this very thing, that agriculture itself was the bad turn? (Don't I find it a ridiculously compelling argument? After all, what can even be done with the knowledge?) Where did W. learn about this? Playing Civilization 4, naturally: "The mid-Neolithic: perhaps that's when it all went wrong, W. muses." Now that's a fall, isn't it? But what a fall!

W. and Lars start an intellectual movement, of sorts, inspired in part by the Dogme 95 film movement, which included Lars von Trier. Original as ever, they call it Dogma. There are numerous rules, as these things go. It has its successes, such as they are:
Our third Dogma presentation was perhaps our pinnacle. Did we weep? Very nearly. Did we tear our shirts? It was close. Did we speak with the greatest seriousness we could muster—with world-historical seriousness? Of course! And did we take questions for one another like a relay team, passing the baton effortlessly to and fro? Without doubt!

W. spoke of nuns; I, of monks. He spoke about dogs; I, about children. We thought the very stones would weep. We thought the sky itself would rain down in tears. W. invents a new Dogma rule: always speak of nuns, and dogs.

In our fourth Dogma presentation, we spoke of love, the greatest topic of all, says W. But there can be no love in the modern world, W. says, there can be no such thing as love. I spoke of my years with the monks, of divine love and mundane love. I spoke of agape and eros. And then W. spoke of philein: the greatest kind of love, he said.

We were like a tag team, we agreed afterwards. Like two wrestlers succeeding each other in the ring. We should always use Greek terms in our presentations, W. says. That should be another Dogma rule: always use Greeks terms that you barely understand.
One of the rules of Dogma is that Dogma is personal: "Always give examples from your own experience. No: the presentation in its entirety should begin and end with an account of your own experience. Of turning points! Trials! Of great struggles and humiliations!" In this sense, this review, indeed this entire blog, amounts to a Dogma presentation. So be it. In any case, Dogma is a fucking funny book; you should read it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Notes on feminism and reproductive power

In part addressing my recent entry on technology and the classless society, Peter Frase (previously unknown to me) has written a post called "The Dialectic of Technology" (which also appears at the Jacobin site, here). Frase writes from a very Marxist perspective, which is helpful. I find much to disagree with, but it's useful to find such a perspective so clearly laid out. He begins by invoking Shulamith Firestone, author of the feminist classic, The Dialectic of Sex. I'm going to use this post to riff on the Firestone reference (which is really only in the first paragraph); I hope to have time to write about the rest of Frase's thoughtful post at another time.

Firestone first came to my attention via Nina Power, through both her blogging (from which she seems to have retired and deleted most of the archives) and her book, One Dimensional Woman. Readers will recall that I wrote about Power's book just over two years ago, including Power's use of Firestone. I don't intend to repeat what I said in that post about Firestone. I will say that Power's use of Firestone did not make me inclined to read Firestone's book. The ideas about biology and technology as presented by Power strike me, still, as altogether unappealing and, oddly, retrograde. I do, however, now plan to read The Dialectic of Sex, primarily because of what Adrienne Rich says about Firestone in her classic, Of Woman Born. In her chapter "Alienated Labor", amidst a discussion of "natural childbirth", Rich writes this:
Shulamith Firestone, as an early theorist of the contemporary women's movement, was understandably skeptical of "natural" childbirth as part of a reactionary counterculture having little to do with the liberation of women as a whole.

Firestone sees childbearing, however, as purely and simply the victimizing experience it has often been under patriarchy. "Pregnancy is barbaric," she declares; "Childbirth hurts." She discards biological motherhood from this shallow and unexamined point of view, without taking full account of what the experience of biological pregnancy and birth might be in a wholly different political and emotional context. Her attitudes toward pregnancy ("the husband's guilty waning of sexual desire; the woman's tears in front of the mirror at eight months") are male-derived. Finally, Firestone is so eager to move on to technology that she fails to explore the relationship between maternity and sensuality, pain and female alienation.

Ideally, of course, women would choose not only whether, when, and where to bear children, and the circumstances of labor, but also between biological and artificial reproduction. Ideally, the process of creating another life would be freely and intelligently undertaken, much as a woman might prepare herself physically and mentally for a trip across country by jeep, or an archeological "dig"; or might choose to do something else altogether. But I do not think we can project any such idea onto the future—and hope to realize it—without examining the shadow-images we carry out of the magical thinking of Eve's curse and the social victimization of women-as-mothers. To do so is to deny aspects of ourselves which will rise up sooner later to claim recognition. (pp. 174-175)
This still wouldn't be getting me any closer to reading Firestone, except that earlier in the book, Rich had allowed that Firestone has, with respect to advances in birth-related technology, "observed that the possibilities are terrifying if we envision the choice of human types, gender, and capacities being controlled by patriarchy." This, and Rich's claim that Firestone's work includes, among other things, "powerful analysis of the nature and extent of patriarchy", have moved me closer to wanting to read her for myself.

Anyway, it's the stuff I don't like that is relevant here. Frase calls The Dialectic of Sex one of his favorite Marxist-feminist writings because of two things it does "exceptionally well":
The first is to extend Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize. The second is to see modern technology as an indispensable element of women’s liberation, going so far as to argue that “Until a certain level of evolution had been reached and technology had achieved its present sophistication, to question fundamental biological conditions was insanity.”
It should be clear that I think it's bonkers to "see modern technology as an indispensable element of women's liberation". This is in part because I see "modern technology" as inseparable from the society that produced it, and I have seen how the "advances" in modern birth-related technology have eroded both the choices available to women and the health of babies and children, our reliance on medical doctors and technology eroding the very ability for women to make informed decisions. Women are all too often pushed into interventions that are convenient for their doctors, and lucrative for insurance companies, rather than in the mother's or child's best interests. The decisions available to women and families are unavoidably "controlled by patriarchy". Introducing further and further interventions, and even removing birth from women altogether into the realm of machines and other advanced technologies is, first, not good for the well-being of children (so often an afterthought in the radical imagination, when it is, of course, the most important subject there is), and, second, not going to do anything to effect the liberation of women. What I see as indispensable to women's liberation is the retaking of reproductive power by women, organizing society around that power, that labor, rather than around production.

In another article at Jacobin (the back page article here), Frase writes about "working time and feminism", correctly focusing on time and unpaid labor, in the reproductive arena, paying much-needed attention to the problem of men being willing (or, rather, unwilling) to do a larger share of unpaid, reproductive labor (noting that, in countries which offer substantial family leave for male and female employees, males are considerably less likely to take the time off). Interestingly, in a separate post at his blog, Frase admits that he wished he'd spent more time discussing the nuclear family in that article, and by excerpting a paragraph from an LRB essay by Jenny Turner, ends up quoting some of the same Toni Morrison (again, by way of Nina Power) lines that I do in my review of One Dimensional Woman (note, also, that in this post, I take issue with Power's version of the Marxist assumption that "entering the workforce" was somehow "liberating" for the mass of women; here I'm grateful for bell hooks and other feminists of color who have continually reminded us that black women, and poor women, always worked outside the home, along with their unpaid work inside the home: it only came to be seen as liberating when middle/upper middle class white women did so). Morrison says, "Two parents can't raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child." The thing about capitalism is not only are we alienated from our labor, we are alienated from each other. Community is difficult to build or sustain, so the prospects of a community raising a child is daunting. As Morrison says, the nuclear family "isolates people into little units—people need a larger unit." And they need time to attend to those things that matter most, which are reproductive in nature. Without time, without larger units, one or two people are forced to try to do everything themselves and to make compromises in the areas of food, health, shelter, compromises which we ought to be working towards making unnecessary, or even unthinkable.

Let me return to Frase's praise of The Dialectic of Sex. He says that Firestone "extend[s] Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize". I find this interesting, because I've long felt that the feminist critique of Marxism, taking the critique of capitalism to its logical conclusions, is not only utterly necessary, but foundational. But my key figures are feminists such as Maria Mies and Sylvia Federici, authors of, respectively, Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour and Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. I wish I had written here more systematically about these books, since they couldn't be more important. I had intended to blog Mies' book, chapter-by-chapter, but failed to do so; the best I did was to offer a brief excerpt (here; that excerpt I had intended to in part comment on the discussion that resulted from my review of One Dimensional Woman) and to use part of her argument in my review of Roberto Bolaño's novel, 2666 (here). In Federici's case, I still intend to transcribe my notes from the Federici-led workshop I attended last Spring, and I did fairly effectively deploy her arguments from Caliban and the Witch in my review of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? (here, see also a follow-up to that review here, also heavily relying on Federici's book; incidentally, I think the points raised in that Josipovici review are essential to this conversation, though all too often they are isolated from it). Anyway, Mies follows the logic to the very end and concludes that subsistence should be our focus (indeed, most of her subsequent work has been on "the subsistence perspective"). It's frankly difficult to argue with her. Federici, among many other things, brings our attention to the many powers women had in the pre-capitalist world, powers which were systematically stripped in the development of capitalism, and which had to be so stripped, in order for capitalism to unfold. Though I now fully intend to read The Dialectic of Sex, I believe Marxists, indeed all of us, would be much better off pursuing the arguments of Mies and Federici and the like, rather than in engaging in fantasies of technological liberation.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quotations on Hidden Labor

Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992, the excellent anthology of essays produced by the Midnight Notes Collective (which includes such figures as Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, and George Caffentzis) was one of my earliest engagements with a Marxian analysis of how capitalism functions. It was before I'd read Capital, before Maria Mies, before Federici herself; the only David Harvey I'd yet read was A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  One of the key points the collection brought home to me was labor and its connection to the energy we use (this might have seemed obvious from the subtitle, but there you go) and how so much of it is hidden from us, and the relationship between that labor and enclosures, and war. Here is the opening paragraph from the introduction:
The largest and swiftest mass layoff in decades. Five million workers uprooted, deported, murdered or otherwise severed from their means of subsistence as a result of the Gulf War. Yemeni gardeners, Palestinian teachers, Sudanese truckers, Pakistani welders, Sri Lankan houseworkers, Egyptian agricultural laborers, and Filipino waiters were all caught in the tidal rushes unleashed by the militarization and subsequent engagement of armed forces in the Gulf. These workers were, and are, indispensable to the Mideast oil industry. Brought to the region from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and working under conditions of indentured servitude and outright slavery, it is their labor that makes possible the extraction, refining and distribution of one of the world's most precious substances.
Reading this, and the essays following, I was confronted for the first time with the huge numbers of workers necessary, working under the most brutal conditions, to produce the oil we take for granted, and which is required to make our system function. Several of the essays in the collection explore the phenomenon of nuclear power and why it's so attractive to capital. For one thing, it shifts the emphasis on labor towards technical know-how, specialization, security. Fewer opportunities for workers to shut things down, as was more possible in coal mining, for example (many of the essays deal with the wildcat strikes of the late-1960s/early 1970s, which were just another signal to capital that the old post-WWII deal with labor was no longer cutting it).

On a similar theme, hidden labor, but looking back to the emergence capitalism, here is a passage from The Many-Headed Hydra, written by Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker:
For the African, European, and American hewers of wood and drawers of water in the early seventeenth century, work was both a curse and a punishment. These workers were necessary to the growth of capitalism, as they did the work that could or would not be done by artisans in workshops, manufactories, or guilds. Hewers and drawers performed the fundamental labors of expropriation that have usually been taken for granted by historians. Expropriation itself, for example, is treated as a given: the field is there before the plowing starts; the city is there before the laborer begins the working day. Likewise for long-distance trade: the port is there before the ship sets sail from it; the plantation is there before the slave cultivates its land. The commodities of commerce seem to transport themselves. Finally, reproduction is assumed to be the transhistorical function of the family. The result is that the hewers of wood and drawers of water have been invisible, anonymous, and forgotten, even though they transformed the face of the Earth by building the structure of "civilization".
Who did the actual work of enclosing? Who built the ports? Notice, too, the reference to reproduction, and we're pointed, again, always, to feminism, in particular when it focuses on unpaid labor, and how unpaid labor is essential to capitalism (which then opens onto the topic of slavery, and its role in capitalism).

On technology and the classless society

Marx’s argument amounts to this: any project to deliver a classless society, with wealth distributed according to need, must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself. It can’t be based on schemes originating in the heads of philanthropic bosses or philosophers. And you can’t return to the past.
This passage, I am told via Nick Srnicek's tumblr (by way of Mark Fisher's Twitter feed), comes from Paul Mason's book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012; they appear to have been pushing this book rather hard). I find the formulation helpful, because it allows me to directly address something that's been nagging at me for a while now, making me feel alienated from most currents of the Left. I have no idea what Mason actually discusses in his book on this point, but it was excerpted as if it stands alone, and it is close enough to other leftist formulations that I feel justified in taking it as it is. Anyway, whenever I read something like this, I want to shout: The classless society of the future cannot "be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself"!

I see this as a massive problem, yet when I do want to shout, I instead hold back, not wanting to get into an internet battle I don't often have the patience for. Feeling insufficiently read up on this or that theoretical model, or otherwise under-informed, or wary of being accused of nostalgia, of Luddism, of Romanticism, or something like that. That said, here are just a few (very) preliminary points that occur to me:

1. Too often technology is taken for granted, in the sense that advances are taken as the natural order of things. This is fitting, I suppose, in that capitalism itself is experienced as simply the way things are and must be, as the air we breathe, as natural. I don't think that's the problem here, but it's common enough, even among leftists.

2. Just in general, theoretically, it seems to me that a classless society implies a situation in which the state no longer exists, and a situation in which, by definition, class inequalities, along with massively hierarchical institutions, also no longer exist. In which case, precisely how could such a society be based on the most advanced organizational forms created by capitalism? Or, perhaps the problem is, what is meant by "advanced"? Is "advanced" a value judgment? (If so, how is that judgment made, and by whom?) Otherwise, I fail to see how the massively hierarchical corporation, or government agency, or the like, can possibly be the model for, or basis of, a classless society of the future.

3. Politically, not enough attention is paid to the circumstances through which our advanced technology is produced and maintained. Questions need to be asked concerning the source of the energy needed to develop, produce, and maintain today's advanced technology. Who does that work? Would a classless society transfer, by force, the energy needed to fuel such a process? Or, how would a classless society justify the continuation of such transfers? How would it justify the kind of labor needed to make it happen? (Is the internet possible without cheap oil?)

4. Practically speaking, it seems obvious to me that our current ecological situation all but screams out that we need to come to terms with the idea that our advanced technology will not be available forever. While we have them, we should feel no compunction about using the various advanced tools currently at our disposal, but it seems to me we should not expect those tools to always be available.

5. Notice how the question is framed (and almost always seems to be framed): either you believe the classless society should be based on the most advanced technological and organization forms created by capitalism, or you're guilty of utopian dreaming ("schemes originating in the heads of philanthropic bosses or philosophers") or of romanticizing this or that pre-capitalist past. Often it's explicitly framed like this: either you're resolutely modern, or you're a dangerous dreamer who romanticizes the past. I maintain that this binary is unhelpful. The past has a lot to teach us, and we've forgotten much.

Ok, that's enough for now; more to come.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"the fruit of insomnia and migraine"

It is silly to seek a basic law, even sillier to find it. Some mean-spirited little man decides that the whole course of humanity can be explained in terms of insidiously revolving signs of the zodiac or as the struggle between an empty and a stuffed belly; he hires a punctilious Philistine to act as Clio's clerk, and begins a wholesale trade in epochs and masses; and then woe to the private individuum, with his two poor u's, hallooing hopelessly amid the dense growth of economic causes. Luckily no such laws exist: a toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection. Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance, and all in vain were the efforts of that crabbed bourgeois in Victorian checkered trousers, author of Das Kapital, the fruit of insomnia and migraine.
As I've noted previously, Nabokov often took great pains to ensure that readers would not read any ideas into his work, or any messages or political statements of any kind. On the other hand, he never missed a chance to take a potshot, as in the above passage, taken from his decidedly minor (and short) Russian novel, The Eye. The passage is a fairly typical Nabokovian aside, both in its content and its irrelevance. Its complete irrelevance to the fiction surrounding it signals to the reader an actual opinion, bordering on an idea, possibly even, heaven forbid, a political idea held by the author. As usual, when it comes to extra-literary matters, Nabokov had little idea what he was talking about. (And though I enjoy and admire much of Nabokov's fiction, I'm inclined to think his influence, at least on literary criticism, is rather pernicious.)

As fun as it is to make jokes at Nabokov's expense regarding his special pleading and other nonsense (and it is fun), I'd intended to use this passage to lead into a post about Marx and misreadings and his popular reputation. Nabokov is, alas, far from the only person to not understand the first thing about Marx, or to mistakenly believe he was a proponent of some kind of "economic determinism". In the event, I couldn't quite get going on it. Perhaps another time. But, since we're here, let's look at another quote from Nabokov:
Rowdies are never revolutionaries, they are always reactionary. It is among the young that the greatest conformists and Philistines are found, e.g., the hippies with their group beards and group protests. Demonstrators at American universities care as little about education as football fans who smash up subway stations in England care about soccer. All belong to the same family of goofy hoodlums--with a sprinkling of clever rogues among them.
This bit of silliness, we are told by Patrick Kurp, comes from the interview Nabokov gave Philip Oakes in The Sunday Times, in June 1969, which was later collected in Strong Opinions, which I have noted elsewhere, is surely one of Nabokov's worst books. Kurp, another writer whose literary sense I have great respect for, and who often makes similar claims to avoiding politics, unpleasantly saw fit to post this the day police evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park in New York.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Re-revisiting the Big Dalkey Get

Three years on, and given my stated plans to read what I have and to get rid of excess books, it seems time to take another look at my enormous Dalkey Archive purchase. When this blog was but a month old, I posted a list of the 55 Dalkey Archive books I'd acquired a couple years previously when a friend and I took advantage of their big sale (100 books for $500, with five thrown in for free; my friend let me take the extra five). At the time of the original post, I'd read 23 of the 55 books. In 2009, I updated the list, by which point I'd read 31, but also discarded four. As of today, I have read 35, and several are likely to be discarded (read and unread alike). It should be noted that, at $4.55/book, I made out very well on the sale, even if I never read any of the remaining books.

Here, again, is the list, with those I've read in bold and the discards crossed out:

1. Chapel Road, Louis Paul Boon
2. Rigadoon, Céline
3. Some Instructions to my Wife, Stanley Crawford
4. Storytown, Susan Daitch
5. Island People, Coleman Dowell
6. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
7. Phosphor in Dreamland, Rikki Ducornet
8. Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Stanley Elkin
9. George Mills, Stanley Elkin
10. The Rabbi of Lud, Stanley Elkin
11. Van Gogh's Room at Arles, Stanley Elkin
12. Mrs. Ted Bliss, Stanley Elkin
13. Foreign Parts, Janice Galloway
14. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, William H. Gass
15. Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
16. Blindness, Henry Green
17. Concluding, Henry Green
18. Nothing, Henry Green
19. Doting, Henry Green
20. Fire the Bastards!, Jack Green
21. The Questionnaire, Jirí Grusa
22. Flotsam & Jetsasm, Aidan Higgins
23. Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
24. Time Must Have a Stop, Aldous Huxley
25. A Minor Apocalypse, Tadeusz Konwicki
26. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus
27. Reader's Block, David Markson
28. AVA, Carole Maso
29. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Carole Maso
30. Cigarettes, Harry Mathews
31. Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews
32. 20 Lines a Day, Harry Mathews
33. The Human Country, Harry Mathews
34. The Case of the Perservering Maltese, Harry Mathews
35. Women and Men, Joseph McElroy
36. Impossible Object, Nicholas Mosley
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Odile, Raymond Queneau
39. Collected Novellas, vol. 1, Arno Schmidt
40. Nobodaddy's Children, Arno Schmidt
41. Two Novels, Arno Schmidt
42. Is this what other women feel, too?, Jill Akers Seese
43. The Sky Changes, Gilbert Sorrentino
44. Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things, Gilbert Sorrentino
45. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
46. Pack of Lies, Gilbert Sorrentino
47. Blue Pastoral, Gilbert Sorrentino
48. Under the Shadow, Gilbert Sorrentino
49. Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino
50. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
51. Annihilation, Piotr Szewc
52. Monstrous Possibility, Curtis White
53. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. one, Marguerite Young
54. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. two, Marguerite Young
55. Marguerite Young, Our Darling, Miriam Fuchs, ed.

Ok, by now I've read 35 of these books. With the four already discarded (unread), that now leaves 16 books. Of those remaining 16, six are in storage (the Arno Schmidt books, the Sorrentino books, The Making of Americans) and so don't really affect my immediate need to downsize (though I kind of wish they were on hand). Of the four books I read since the last update, three were novels (both Coleman Dowells, of which Too Much Flesh and Jabez was easily my favorite, and Nicholas Mosley's The Hesperides Tree), and the other was Curtis White's book-length essay on post-modernism and politics, Monstrous Possibility. I especially appreciated White taking Fredric Jameson to task for his account of "post-modern" literature ("It is simply inadequate and intellectually irresponsible to account for contemporary fiction with a twenty-year-old label ('fabulation') and one novel from E.L. Doctorow."), as well as his criticisms of the American left and its abandonment of culture (gets in a couple good, not undeserved, gibes at the Albert/Chomsky wing).

I don't have much to add about the prospects of reading the ones still as yet unread, beyond what I wrote about them in the last update, other than to say that recent passes at both the Goytisolo and the Gass have been much like previous attempts. The Goytisolo strikes me as vague and showily literary; the Gass still seems overly cute and not as much fun as he seems to think it is. I love William H. Gass, but his prose style can be a bit much at times (if you're not in the right mood, it can be excruciating), and in cases where he is explicitly playing with the size and shape of the words themselves, my mind drifts. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is so short that I'll probably hold on to it, just to keep it with the rest of his books, even if I never quite warm to the game. There is, however, a solid chance that I get rid of Goytisolo's Quarantine, since the writer otherwise means nothing to me (I've read only his The Marx Family Saga, and was somewhat underwhelmed by the experience). I do still intend to read at least some of the sections of Joseph McElroy's enormous Women and Men, but I fear that it, too, will ultimately not be long for my library. Marguerite Young's even more enormous Miss MacIntosh, My Darling sits quietly there, awaiting my clear-headed, clear-eyed attention, which I hope to have to give it before too long. I know of almost no one who has read this book, incidentally, but did just recently notice that Umbagollah, the blogger at Pykk, is currently in the middle of it, so that will be interesting to monitor.

Of the 35 books I've already read, a few may well hit the discard pile. I'm thinking the Susan Daitch (I much preferred her novel, L.C.), the Rikki Ducornet (along with her other books; I enjoyed them, but they aren't essential to me; may re-read her novel The Stain), Mosley's The Hesperides Tree, which was ok, but nowhere near as good as Impossible Object (or, indeed, Hopeful Monsters). I'm undecided on Chapel Road, Island People (though I'm definitely keeping Dowell's Too Much Flesh and Jabez), and The Questionnaire. Some Instructions to My Wife.... is a goner.

I noted in the earlier update that my attitude towards Dalkey has shifted somewhat over the years, but that they nevertheless remain an exemplary publisher. This remains the case, of course, even if I'm not quite as into the so-called post-modern fiction they often champion. Still, they continue to publish plenty that I'd like to read, especially as they've greatly expanded their catalog of translated titles.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed"

In the midst of deciding I was going to be reading a lot of fiction, we took a family trip to the library. Browsing the general fiction display stacks while Aimée looked for some children's books about the Chinese New Year, I managed to find a few books of interest to me (the display stacks at the library are packed with all kinds of commercial crap and Booker-style "literary" fiction; I'm impressed they have anything at all in those stacks that I want to read: most of the good stuff, when the library has it at all, needs to be retrieved by a librarian), including John Williams' much-blogged-about novel, Stoner. I read the novel soon thereafter.

I'd been reading about Stoner for years; since it was reissued in 2006 by NYRB (originally published in 1965), it seems to have been able to consistently find new readers, many of whom have blogged about it. Everyone says much the same thing: the prose is of remarkable clarity, it is old fashioned, yet beautiful, even perfect. I can confirm that these things are true. It is at times enormously sad, yet not finally a sad or depressing novel.

This is the novel's opening paragraph:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
I've mentioned more than once that recently fiction has often felt like an imposition. I'd open a novel, or begin a short story, and the opening paragraphs filled me with some despair. The very idea of having to learn about characters and settings and to begin following some kind of plot seemed profoundly boring to me. And yet, this feeling had often come over me, for years, when I attempted to read more conventional fiction. If a novel, written in the third person, began with a reference to a year, and specifics about a place, my eyes would glaze over. And yet here, I wanted to read on beyond this paragraph, felt pulled into the next paragraph and the next. Perhaps it was Stoner's death being introduced in the second sentence, and the whole arc being circumscribed at the outset: there will be no adventures or out-sized experiences for this character. The life is small, the events in it matter little to the wide world. This isn't unusual for a novel either, though, so why do I care this time? I read on, and I have to admit that the apparent smoothness of the prose carried me forward, more or less unperturbed. What's the difference?

Perhaps it's the quiet. Stoner is a quiet book about a small life, a man who is quietly heroic in his way. He'd entered college, at his father's suggestion, to study agriculture, expecting to graduate and return home with knowledge useful for his family's farm. But he never does return home, stray visits aside, staying at the university his entire adult life. Along the way he is married, has a daughter, an affair, various conflicts at the university, dies. Such material sounds utterly conventional and unpromising. It is in fact riveting. And the prose, in its precision, and in the manner in which Williams handles the ups and downs of Stoner's life, allows for some quiet contemplation of concerns that are very similar to my own. Here, for example, is a passage from later in that first chapter:
"But don't you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Sloane said softly.

"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"

"It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
This passage spoke to me; would that I'd had someone able to so directly tell me such a thing about myself. Though perhaps it simply took me too long to find that which I love. William Stoner's fallen in love with literature. He writes a dissertation, which he later expands into a book:
His expectations for his first book had been both cautious and modest, and they had been appropriate; one reviewer had called it "pedestrian" and another had called it "a competent survey." At first he had been very proud of the book; he had held it in his hands and caressed its plain wrapper and turned its pages. It seemed delicate and alive, like a child. He had reread it in print, mildly surprised that it was neither better nor worse than he had thought it would be. After a while he tired of seeing it; but he never thought of it, and his authorship, without a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed.
But that's it, for his own writing. Fortunate to not be subject to today's mindless publish-or-perish nonsense, he publishes nothing else. He does later get an idea for another, probably better book, and begins working towards writing it, but, frustratingly, events in his life conspire to prevent him from actually doing so, and before long it no longer seems essential that he bother. The quiet equanimity with which Stoner accepts his situation, and his responsibility for it, is one of the sad pleasures of this novel. His life could have been different, overall happier; he knows it, but it is his own, and that's enough.