Monday, January 31, 2011

Revolution, People, Revolution

A new blog to keep an eye on: "The people want to bring down the regime", which is a collection of "comments, contributions and visual media from the Egyptian uprising." Especially interesting is the post of graffiti (which, now that I think of it, is like the original twitter) from the uprising with translations. Here's one example:

Revolution, people, revolution
The Western media has been trying hard to spin this around the themes of caution and concern about the fate of the Egyptian people, as if they have much of a stake beyond echoing Western political self-interest. It's really about curbing the spirit of discontent that extends much farther than Egypt-- about, as Rancière would say, the hatred of democracy and egalitarian mass movements. A local example from The people want to bring down the regime:
As soon as I arrived I realised why state media has ramped up the looting and pillaging rumours which on Saturday prompted protestors to leave Tahrir Square; it is a desperate effort to break spirits and get them out. People are not frightened of tear gas or bullets any more; the old tactics no longer work because they have discovered the strength of numbers, and of camaraderie.
How, in this regard, is the Western media any different?

(Hat tip to Progressive Geographies).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The North African and Middle Eastern Revolutions: Which Side are You On?

Today CNN published an article titled "Egypt protests draw mixed reaction in region." The wrong reaction is only coming from sources or supporters of African and Middle Eastern dictatorships. What happened in Tunisia, what is happening in Yemen, Jordan,Algeria, and Egypt (more to come?) is straightforward: people are calling for basic human rights they have long been denied. Most of these dictatorships have been and are heavily supported by the US government and other nations. If a person or group does not unequivocally support these revolutions, the Egyptian one in particular,then that person or group sides with slaughter, torture, and all forms of oppression. Here is what the article shows:
Saudi Arabia "strongly condemns" the protest, it said. Mubarak assured the Saudi king "that the situation is stable" and that the protests "are merely attempts of groups who do not want stability and security for the people of Egypt, but rather they seek to achieve strange and suspicious objectives..."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Mubarak and "affirmed his solidarity with Egypt and and his commitment to its security and stability," according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa...

Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, told Israel's Channel 10 that he recently spoke with Mubarak, who told him that "this is not Beirut and not Tunis" and suggested that Egyptian authorities had prepared the army in advance...Ben Eliezer is known to be the Israeli politician with the best personal relationship with Mubarak...
What is the US position? Vice President Joe Biden said on PBS News Hour, "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator."

The most horrid comments come from John Bolton on Fox News!!! Then watch Gibbs mumble his garbage about Obama's position. By the way, unlike what Bolton said, Islamists have played a very small roll in all this.

I want to encourage all supporters of freedom to mobilize and demonstrate, call politicians, or whatever, to side with the Arabs against despotism. Lets be on the right side of history!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Anon...was often a woman"

In the recent issue of Yale Alumni Magazine (at which point I need to acknowledge that my friend Jane, for all I know, had found this first), Fred R. Shapiro writes that behind the quote of many a man there is a woman. Taking his cue from Virgina Woolf, who wrote "I would venture to guess that Anon/who wrote so many poems without signing them/was often a woman," Shapiro notes that:
Virginia Woolf wrote those words about the entire realm of literary creation, not about that special subset of it called "quotations"—the minting of concise snippets so eloquent or insightful as to be memorable. But those of us who dig deeply for the earliest sources of well-known lines discover, time and again, that here, too, Woolf was right: Anonymous was a woman. Many of the great quotesmiths have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.
Although he leaves aside the contexts that could explain why this happens (and I suppose that I wouldn't be satisfied with his answer if he did discuss them), Shapiro's article presents numerous cases in which quotations attributed to Voltaire, Hemingway, Churchill, and Yogi Berra, amongst others, can be traced to women. Take, for example, the Voltaire case:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The French philosopher Voltaire is widely credited for what may be the most celebrated quotation about freedom of speech. Bartlett's lists it under his name, calling it a paraphrase from his letter to a M. le Riche, February 6, 1770—but that attribution was based on a misreading. The quote does not appear in Voltaire's letter to François-Louis-Henri Leriche of that date, nor anywhere else in Voltaire's works. The real writer was Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868–1919), English author of The Friends of Voltaire, a book she published in 1906 under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre. The illustrious line is Hall's own characterization of Voltaire's attitude. Discussing a book by one of his friends, she explains that even though he had thought the work rather light, he rose to its defense when it was censored.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tunisia's Freedoms

"Freedom," as Matthew Arnold observed, "is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere." With protesters now demanding the ouster of the interim government, and today, the breaching security barriers to march on to government buildings, our Western intelligentsia is beginning to feel ambivalent (and that's putting it nicely!) about where--to extend the metaphor--these horses are going. Let's just look at some recent 'voice of record' NYT op-eds. Robert D. Kaplan (anti-democratic ideologue author of The Coming Anarchy) is already telling us that we ought to be careful what we wish for:
Another thing to keep in mind: in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.
And Roger Cohen, wants those people out of the streets where things are getting shaken up, and into the polls where only a few ballots might get roughed up (and note how shamelessly he slips a bit of racism in there):
So I’d bear with Ghannouchi so long as his government works for rapid presidential and then legislative elections. [...] That’s right: chaos cannot prepare a credible vote. This is a nation where the most significant legal opposition group, the Progressive Democratic Party, boasts 1,000 members. Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of its executive committee, said, “We are walking on eggs:” the interior minister has blood on his hands, the defense minister once did sweet deals for the former first lady, the P.D.P. underplayed its hand in joining the government with a single minister — for regional economic development. Should the party now push for more?Through an open window a shout came up accusing the P.D.P. of selling out. “That’s good — free speech!” said a party member. There are going to have to be painful trade-offs if Tunisia is to demonstrate — finally — that nothing in the Arab genome [WTF?!] means one dictator must follow another.
Today I spent some time reading Richard Seymor's takes (there are multiple posts) at Lenin's Tomb, and he's quite clear about why Western pundits prefer that the masses only admire freedom rather than ride it somewhere, why we should be wary of the narrative that our media are slowly spinning:
the class character of the revolt is coming more clearly to the fore. The New York Times reports that the character of the protests has been changing, as middle class layers have accepted the new situation and celebrated a 'new freedom', while those still protesting are "more working class". But this is also a blow to imperialism, in the sense that it will prove difficult to impose a regime that simply cleaves to the solutions of the IMF and EU.

This is precisely one of the reasons why the working class protesters want the RCD  [Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique] out. Which is not to say that the IMF and EU will lose their leverage over Tunisia. Nor is it likely in the immediate term that Tunisia would withdraw from its treaty commitments to Africom, and thus from its role in the wider structure of US imperial control in the African continent. But if, as seems increasingly possible, the revolt spreads and takes down some other pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan or Algeria, then Obama has problems.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Revolution In Tunisia

The January, 22 Sydney Morning Herold published an article that pinpoints the implications of the revolution in Tunisia. I will post some excerpts:
Only fools talk with certainty of what might happen next. But with all the caveats that follow, last week's revolt in a postage-stamp nation on the southern shores of the Mediterranean has to be seen as a ''maybe'' turning-point for a region in which greedy old men and their extended families are practised at stealing the power and wealth of their people; and for the most part, getting away with it as the rest of the world averts its gaze...
Restless, jobless and ambitious, these young people are increasingly angry because of a tactical mistake by their dictatorial leaders - they educated them, not knowing that they would graduate in an era in which the internet and social media might be weapons of choice for would-be revolutionaries.
If revolt can happen in a backwater like Tunisia then theoretically at least, it can happen anywhere. With food riots in Algeria; anger at price jumps in Jordan; the collapse of government in Lebanon; stepped-up repression in Iran and the farce of democracy and human rights as they are practised by corrupt leaders across the region, Tunisians rarely came into the frame as likely revolutionaries...
The Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy is eloquent on this: "Not once in my 43 years have I thought that I'd see an Arab leader toppled by his people. It is nothing short of poetic justice that it was neither Islamists nor invasion-in-the-name-of-democracy that sent the waters rushing on to Ben Ali's ship but, rather, the youth of his country."
Her point is this: unlike the crushing humiliation for Arabs in the ousting of Saddam Hussein by the American-led invasion of Iraq, the home-driven demise of Ben Ali in Tunisia is something that Arabs might emulate with pride...
Could this be the start of the year, or perhaps the decade of the Arab people? There's a giddiness in the air. But because of what the people of Tunisia have already achieved, the editor of Egypt's Al-Distoor newspaper, Taalat Rumaiah, cannot be dismissed entirely when he tells The Guardian: "We can expect things to replicate in Egypt - it's possible that two or three other Arab regimes could fall this year because of popular uprisings."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

M-L-M Mayhem Reviews

A few months ago, Matt McLennan must have felt that I need more Maoism in my life, because he recommended that I spend some time reading over M-L-M Mayhem (here). In December, JMP (the main contributor) wrote a series of posts on what he argues are unjustly neglected titles in revolutionary history and theory, and his choices piqued my interest. Rather than let them disappear behind the holiday fog (which for me means writing a paper on Rancière and Marx), a few links:

First: J. Sakai's Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. Taking on previous reviews of the the book, JMP writes:
So when Sakai argues that the white working class of North America constitutes, within the confines of settler society, a labour aristocracy, a valid counter-argument is not to snidely point at, as if Sakai was historically ignorant, that there is no such thing as a labour aristocracy because these white settlers were actually poor, exploited, and callously used by the colonizing aristocracy and bourgeoisie.  Sakai already accepts that this was the case but is tired of the colonial ideology that asks the colonizer to recognize that the settler working class is also exploited.  Following Fanon and every anticolonial theorist, Sakai wants to examine the ideology that permits the settler working class to occupy an oppressing position.  He wants to answer the question asked by Amin and others: why did this white-working class as a class fail to generally become a class for-itself, what were the terms of its composition in America (it arrived as predatory, Sakai argues with a significant amount of historical data), and what were the historical and materialist reasons for its structural development? [... ] Settlers is attempting to map the development of the ideology Sakai calls "settlerism", the material conditions behind its emergence, and its ramifications for class struggle.
Second, Butch Lee and Red Rover's Night-Vision: Illuminating War & Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain. Of the the relations between class, race, and gender,
Lee and Rover grasp the intersection in two sentences: "In class society what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, or the Holy.  What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag."
 Finally, after criticizing some of the academic modes of reading Fanon (à la Homi Bhabha),  JMP writes of James Yaki Sayles's Meditations on Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth:
Understanding the context of oppression, the problem of organization, the need to organize and struggle against the current system of oppression, and how to build a better society: these are Yaki Sayles' interests in his study of Wretched––again, the same interests possessed by Fanon when he wrote the book in the first place.  Thus, Yaki Sayles places Fanon in dialogue with other revolutionary thinkers, unearths the radical dialectical materialism beneath his thought, indicates the connection to Mao Zedong's analysis of contradictions, and emphasizes the need for "a comprehensive campaign to change people, society, and the world."

Monday, January 17, 2011

David Sedaris, "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary"

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Animal fables are generally awesome on account of how grown up and gruesome and darkly humourous they can be. One might even say that animal fables are "fucking metal" at the best of times. Cf also Vikram Seth's "Beastly Tales", and raise your hammers high.

Humourist David Sedaris has recently thrown his contribution to the genre into the ring, and it does not disappoint. I'll be honest that I expected "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" to be more benignly funny than it turned out to be; In retrospect I feel bad about giving it to my betrothed as a Christmas gift, since it's kind of like having given her a case of the shudders. A good many of the stories are downright grotesque and extremely violent.

The reason I wholeheartedly endorse this book is that throughout it Sedaris hilariously skewers modern culture and attitudes, more specifically those of the US. The animals who populate his stories are for all intents and purposes human beings; more specifically they're people adopting attitudes and ways of being that are instantly familiar. For example, the judicious, narrow-minded chicken and the new age, positive thinking lab rat are just two sides of the American prosperity gospel coin: though one echoes Tea Party provincialism and the other yoga-lite young professionalism, both testify to the attitude that anyone suffering misfortune must have deserved it in some way. Both are cruelly shown how much their attitudes are really worth.

Dark humour and irony aside, I should also emphasize that there are moments in the book that are just plain beautiful. The title story is a case in point. Sedaris is a versatile and economical writer who continues to deliver.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg

I know that I'm not the only one who was wondering when somebody would get around to publishing a complete edition of Rosa Luxemburg's work (in English translation). And by 'somebody,' I suppose I meant Verso:
The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg will make her entire body of work available for the first time. It will contain all of her books, pamphlets, essays, articles, letters and manuscripts, many of which have never before appeared in English. It will also include writings of hers that have only recently been discovered. All of her previously published work in English will be newly translated from German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish originals. The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg will be published in fourteen volumes, each with comprehensive annotations and introductions.
The first available volume is her Letters, which will be available in March.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. Would Support the War on Terror?

Last night my good friend and editor of The Notes Taken sent me a link to the Department of Defense web page. The article link he sent headlines with "King Might Understand Today’s Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says." Here is the introduction:
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war? Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, posed that question at today’s Pentagon commemoration of King’s legacy. In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings. “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.
This has to be one of the most outrageous attempts at co-opting Martin Luther King Jr. to date. Fortunately most of the speech MLK gave is available to listen to on Youtube and the manuscript of his words written online. Here is one portion of the speech:
It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on." I call on Washington today. I call on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God."
Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideology speaks for itself.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk

The first book that I read this year is Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Given that music criticism is a mixed bag, it's hard not to appreciate a well-acclaimed historian taking on the biography of a  complex man so often portrayed as simple, naive, and childlike. Kelley's aim is to dispel precisely that story, first found in William Gottlieb's profile published in Down Beat in September 1947 and popularized through the efforts of Lorraine Lion's press release that accompanied his first record from Blue Note.

Kelley shows how Monk was repeatedly frustrated by this myth, which would re-emerge at difficult moments in his career, especially when he was looking for a consistent gig or seeking the re-establishment of his cabaret card. But Kelley goes beyond that, showing definitively that Monk was, in fact, a busy and worldly man, concerned about keeping family and friends afloat, and conscious of how the struggle of black jazz musicians was so often a microcosm of the larger civil rights struggle. While he's not as bombastic as Frank Kofsky (but he did write the Introduction to the latest edition of Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism), Kelley alerts us to the signposts of this struggle along the way, from local riots in Monk's neighborhood in Harlem to irruption of the mass movements fighting the Jim Crow south.

However, I'm sure you're wondering by now about Thelonious Sphere Monk himself. He was a busy guy; even with long stretches without a stable job, he managed to keep playing all the time. Other reviewers have complained  with some merit about the way Kelley details tour after tour, show after show, but there is a purpose to the prose: to show just how hard working Monk was-- because, of course, jazz is above all about the music. He never forgets, though, that Monk was also a family man, and eventually (and tragically) a man who was overcome by mental and physical ailments (which he discusses without romanticizing). Kelley  says that the book took fourteen years to write, and the effort paid off. Thelonious Monk is a definitive and illuminating look at a musician so often portrayed as a mystery.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer: "Sermon to the Princes"

(Verso, 2010)

In this installment of Verso's "Revolutions" series, Italian author collective Wu Ming introduces a selection of writings by radical reformation figure Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer was a prototypical communist who lead a disastrous peasant war in the Holy Roman Empire in 1525 before being caught, tortured and brutally executed. His theology was radical in that it located the heart of revelation not in scripture, but in the personal relationship of the abjected spirit to God. Muntzer is probably most famous for Lefties for being the subject of Engels's classic study "The Peasant War in Germany" - where, it should be noted, Engels rides roughshod over the theological aspects of Muntzer's movement and paints him as a crafty political figure using religious rhetoric to push his agenda forward. Certainly there is much politicking to be found in his writings - Cf the scathing attacks on Luther - but reading him I'm not convinced that the theological and political elements can be so easily separated.

In their introduction Wu Ming touch upon what I believe is the main point of interest in the survival of the Muntzer story: specifically, his mythologization by the Left. I would have liked a more in-depth discussion of how venerating his spectacular defeat is symptomatic of a more general and highly regrettable Leftist trend, specifically wallowing in images of martyrdom (one aspect of what a friend of mine has termed "riot porn"). Nonetheless, Wu Ming do a good job of situating the Muntzer myth with reference to Genoa in 2001, and this lends itself to the kind of discussion I'm referring to.

Ultimately this book makes for good reading on a variety of levels, political, historical and theological being the most obvious. But even if all you get out of it is the experience of a religious figure publically calling his doctrinal opponents "donkey cunts" and "scrotums" and so on, this is in my opinion no small joy.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Muslims and Terrorism

The Algerian resistance once justified attacking French colonialist civilians as a tactical response to the French occupational forces superior military advantages. In the French film "Battle of Algiers" a discussion between a caught Algerian resistance fighter and French journalist goes as follows:
Journalist: "M. Ben M'Hidi, don't you think it's a bit cowardly to use women's baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?"
Ben M'Hidi: "And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets."
These acts of terror were articulated juxtaposed to the French occupation's show of force (French military terrorism).

Recently Muslim extremists have been attacking Christian communities in lands such as Egypt and Nigeria. The Egyptian Coptic Christians predate the expansion of Islam and are a minority living within Islamic majority Egypt. The suicide bombings against this old community have not the slightest justification even based on the Algerian model. Algerians were natives fighting foreign invaders, in Egypt this attack is simply a hate crime of a grotesque magnitude. Other countries where this is happening can also be cited. These Muslim terrorists are inspiring Islamophobia throughout the world. It should be kept in mind that there are many Muslims who condemn these acts of violence. This clip is just one example.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The New Year

What have we got in the way of resolutions? I'm a minimalist, so I've only got two. First, I will submit at least one book review for publication this year in an academic journal. When I counted up our reviews from last year, I realized just how many I had written for The Notes Taken. What's one more this year? Second, I will complete, with the Hegel reading group, The Phenomenology of Spirit by the end of April.

Otherwise, it seems like everything else is a list of deadlines, some self-imposed. At the moment my time is scheduled around the paper I'm working on about Marx and Rancière. I've been writing about Rancière for the past few days, and have to start on Marx's Capital (Vol. 1) on Wednesday to stay on track. Although this makes it sound like a chore, I have to say that I've been having a lot of fun writing this paper. In a way, it has been very useful for self-clarification regarding problems like 'what do I talk about when I say "capital?"' 'what can Harvey's concept of 'accumulation by dispossession' contribute to this discussion?' and 'how does Rancière contribute to thinking struggles against capital?' 

Quick look back at last year also revealed that my spare time is being spent as it was last year: reading about, and listening to, jazz, although this year I'm reading Robin D.G. Kelley's Theolonious Monk, whereas last year, I was reading reviews about it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year: 1980's Soviet Commercials

It is now 2011. I thought it would be great to reflect on how much has changed in the world during the past several decades. This post of 1980's Soviet Commercials might seem to be random, but I think they are quite apropos. In the 1980s who could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union or the global advances in technology to be made? Nothing is permanent and nothing can be predictable in a precise way. As I observe the military might of the US, the destructive momentum of large scale capitalism, environmental dangers, the so-called war on terror,the rise of global war and insurgencies along with all that is still beautiful and good, I'm reminded that everything is finite.