Category Archives: Uncategorized
On a sense of place
Originally posted on Communiques of the Suburban Liberation Front:
A secular sermon
Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
This passage in the Gospel seems to me to speak against idolatry, but also against empire. For the Temple in Jerusalem was not just a place of worship in the modern sense, but a symbol of wealth and power. Some Biblical scholars characterize Jesus’ attacks on the Temple as sort of peaceful assault on the established order, trying to attack the center from the periphery of the wilderness; trying to lay bare its exploitative nature. As Biblical tropes go, God is found outside the city, in the wilderness. Jesus is crucified outside its walls. To encounter God, as the Chosen People did…
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Originally posted on Communiques of the Suburban Liberation Front:
As a parent of young children, I was eager to read and review Layla AbdelRahim’s book, Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education. However, as in all such reviews that I attempt to write, I will not do justice to the text. To get the unpleasantries out of the way first, I found the book itself somewhat disjointed, and its back-and-forth between personal field notes and summaries of academic texts is very awkward in my view. It is as if the book can’t decide whether it is a research paper or a personal memoir. Nevertheless, there are themes that I find thought-provoking and thus worthy of comment. In particular, I think the author’s point concerning how civilization doesn’t trust children is particularly poignant and, to be frank, guilt-inducing for the conventional parent. In a world where the relationship between things governs the relationship between people…
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On Blaise Pascal
The phenomenon of Jansenism has interested me on and off for about ten years now. There are many reasons for this. The most important of these is that I love a good loser. In contemporary Catholic / Christian thought, Jansenism is the big loser: its rigorism, antiquarianism, and apocalyptic opposition to the decadence of contemporary life are in diametrical opposition to modern thought as currently conceived. Even people who are accused of being too strict in terms of morality or religious practice are hardly Jansenists in the sense that Jansenists were. Our ideas of what these things are have moved so far towards the liberal side of the spectrum that even our conservatism is quite libertine when taken in context. More than likely, we are the first to absolve ourselves of any crimes or culpability for anything. What I have done has always been rational, what I want is always sensible, my moral compass is always right, etc.
The one thing you cannot question in contemporary discourse is: what I want. What I want is always legitimate, my desire is always infallible. My vision of the good and happy life is natural, it must be defended at all costs, and imposed on those poor misguided souls who disagree with it. That I think is part of the problem with our civilization as it exists. In order for things to function well, we must assume that the natural order of things tends towards justice and cooperation. Things are never that bad, never that hopeless, and contain a rational kernel that will lead us to a better and brighter tomorrow. This is just as much the psychological center of Marxism as it is Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” pastoral optimism. Perish the thought that things were never meant to work in the first place.
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I will be taking some time off of blogging here to focus on a poetry manuscript, and my other publishing projects. There are two other regular bloggers here and I will be back once my manuscript is finished. If it is irregular for a while, I apologize but we have not exactly been regular anyway.
An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism
I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.
In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.
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One of the iron laws that I have found out concerning being a parent is that children love the outdoors. Well, at least mine do. Any parent in an intemperate climate where it can get too hot or too cold knows well how much more difficult the day goes when the children are unable to be outside. “Cabin fever” often results in children bouncing off the walls, gratuitously antagonizing each other, and trying the parents’ wits in a seemingly endless test of wills. And they sleep badly. No matter how difficult it might be, one almost inevitably has to prepare the children to go outside, if only for a little while. Once outdoors, they tend to calm down, or unleash pent up energies in far more constructive ways.
I am rather sure that this very concrete reality in my current life has influenced the trajectory of the little intellectual life that I am now allotted. To be direct, my tendency to take the “anti-civ” critique more seriously than the average person may be due to my parenting of very young children. A lot of it has to do with guilt. I live a very, very white-bread middle class life in a U.S. suburb. On the other hand, I am beginning to realize that most of my inherent parental sense when it comes to discipline has to do with curbing my children’s wants and needs in order to conform to a society in which I believe very little. Sit still, comb your hair, don’t scream, don’t make a mess, don’t hit your sister… it is just one continuous monitoring against things that children naturally do in order to make them do the opposite.
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“Do not say ‘I will study when I have the time’, for perhaps you will never have time.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot
“Do not say something that cannot be understood, thinking it will be understood later.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot
I. Of Ornithorhynchidae and Astronomy, or Remembrance of Things (Very Recently) Past
For those of you who do not know, I have been an editor for the North Star in some capacity for ten months. When this project expanded and contracted like a supernova, Pham Binh and Ben Campbell asked me on to the editorial staff of the North Star for the first of four attempts at a redesign and relaunch. I was to play a quiet role, and was explicitly asked to bring more cultural and theoretical bend to the very practically-minded editors already on staff. As this was happening, my disillusionment with my association with Platypus Affiliated Society was growing stronger. I entered P.A.S. in the heat of Occupy Seoul and in the sphere of Occupy Wall Street. I shared its skepticism of the “left” as it was constituted–in fact. Disgust with the left had driven me fairly deeply right in my early 20s–I was linked to anti-war movement libertarian and paleo-conservative wing and had even been so foolish as to sign the Euston Manifesto as a “third-campist” against both the neo-conservatives war-mongers and those who thought that supporting regressed regimes was a kind of national liberation. I still standby that impulse; however, I was naive as to the motives of the other signatories–many of whom developed either quite reactionary politics or became neo-conservatives themselves.
Nonetheless, my frustration with P.A.S.’s highly idiosyncratic reading of Lenin, Trotsky, and Frankfurt school as a practicable politics as well as the highly doctrinaire attitude within the organization chaffed me. Ben Campbell had reacted to what he saw as the bad faith of P.A.S.–a interpretation with which I actually did not quite agree. We split from the org at the moment we tried to reform and balance the committee. At the same time, several other members did too, and a few were asked to leave. This got conflated with the leaking of some of the content from the P.A.S. message board and a call for a boycott of P.A.S. by Ben and several other leftists. I was torn…I do not generally support anything but extremely targeted boycotts for any reason, nor did I feel that P.A.S. had been dishonest to non-members about its mission. Indeed, I felt like the issue was one of flattery. People did not want to believe that P.A.S.’s mission to “host the conversation” to make the left “aware of its own deadness” was exactly what it sounded like. In retrospect, that mission seems like reification upon reification. Ben, Binh, Ismael Diablada, Stephen H. myself, and several new editors (including two female editors who did not stay on), Matthijs Krul, and Dario Cankovic set out to “host the conversation” in a more open and less theoretically rigid manner. Indeed, we all disagreed about key political issues: I was a third-campist on Syria against Binh’s support of the rebels, I disagreed with Dario C. on democracy and on secularism and Ben C. on the relationship between Marxism and science. The idea between Ben C. and I was that this was going to be just as plural internally as the conversation external to the site’s organization.
The North Star, however, was defined against Occupy’s failure on Binh’s end and P.A.S. mission statement on the other. The new editorial collective quickly set about trying to recruit feminist writers and writers of color, writers from different religious background, and writers from various tradition. This, frankly, was an unapologetic failure. Many complained about Ben’s apparent focus on P.A.S., which was not actually as focal as the internet impression would lead you to believe. Sadly Ben’s work redesigning the North Star was not shown to the public. There was also much rancor over Binh’s increasing support of NATO action in Syria, which was viewed as a apologetic for “imperialism.” Political tensions emerged between Binh and Ben as well as the rest editorial board all the while brewing a distrust of the political tradition the name of the magazine linked us too. Only Binh looked to the original Peter Camejo North Star project as a major inspiration. After a showing at Left Forum and a successful series of panels for the relaunch, Ben C. quit after a disagreement with Binh and from personal pressures that was not clear to me. The relaunch editorial staff was never put in place, so the five editor structure with various sub-editors–came into being. We established a relationship with the Philly Socialists, which was never formalized. Tensions over both feminism and Syria alienated the two female editors. The fact they were never credited for their work didn’t help matters either.
In addition, Binh seemed to have felt disappointed with the new staff whom he viewed as largely absentee after Ben C.’s leaving. He worked primarily with myself and on his own to put out the North Star, which also felt very much like his blog. Various authors with ties to a certain Louis Proyect’s Marxmail began to be in regular rotation, many of whom advocated a focus on class to the exclusion of all other forms of identity politics, a willingness to adopt and capitulate on certain GOP talking points because they were “working class concerns,” and an increased reliance on NATO for liberation. The editorial staff, even those still actively doing interviews and writing for Binh, was not always aware of what was being published and why. With Ben C.’s leaving most of the work done for the original relaunch was shuttled in the confusion. The North Star feel into a routine that even Binh was not entirely comfortable seeing happen.
Then Binh’s personal life attacked. Despite rumors to the contrary, Binh’s personal life had made it difficult for him to keep on doing what he was doing and he needed to take care of it. Out of respect for him, I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say it was serious. As a result of these events, Binh asked Pavel,a friend of mine who I brought on in the failed relaunch, and me to deal with some issues of audience expansion, minor web-site redesign, and fixing an increasingly kluged back-end of the site. Binh eventually would ask us to take the lead as co-managing editors, which evolved to “co-editor-and-chiefs.”
Pavel and I quickly set about to the relaunch and re-structuring of the site…again. This time our site redesign was much more limited. The true focus of our attetion was the re-organizing of the people that we had inherited from Ben C. days who had not left during the confusion. We Condensed the back-end of the site from a panel of five editors and ten contributing and associate editors to six devoted editors. The leadership of Philly Socialists left the advisory panel on the magazine quietly to focus on US politics, and increasingly by Ben and Binh’s own doing, the editorship of the site had moved from New York City to people living in South Korea/Mexico, the UK, and Canada. In fact, of the six currently existing editors, only two still lived in the US and only four had been born there. I also rewrote the mission statement to minimize the relationship to Peter Camejo and to emphasis the diverse nature of the project.
Soon after Binh’s departure, Proyect wrote his first denouncement of me: mostly having to to do with my past in P.A.S. It was clear from the writing that he knew none of the details of my involvement. He was also critical of some of the writing’s on this blog, particularly writings NOT initiated by me in the first place. Now there are plenty of things I’ve said and done you can attack me on, but Proyect didn’t even bother to touch them. Fiction is more entertaining than fact apparently. To make matters worse, we discovered that Proyect had bankrolled the beginning of the site, selected Binh to run it, and still viewed himself as having some controlling stake in both the name of the North Star and the legacy of Camejo. The majority of the editorial committee had known almost nothing about this until just before Binh was slated to leave, and we had definitely not been informed when Ben C. and Binh had first came up with the idea for the relaunch. Tensions mounted between Proyect and the site as a whole and some heavy-handed things were done on both sides. The editorial committee opinion was split. During this time, I formally abstained from most of the decisions involving Proyect since I was personally attacked. Nevertheless, the attacks continued: I was “over-theoretical,” too interested in politics, a secret neo-conservative, a Leninist, Pavel and I couped Binh, I didn’t put my opinions in public, etc. Most of this came from people who were functioning on misunderstandings based on Proyect’s hit piece, misinformation about the nature of Binh’s leaving which remained cryptic, and guessing as to who Pavel and the other editors were since many of us used a nom de plumes.
II. A Tale of Two Uniteds
Increasingly the North Star expanded into UK politics. Two editors were living there and British left seemed more active than the US left after the degeneration of Occupy. While all the editors discussed expanding into general North American and Latin American politics, the reader interest was not there. Despite many of Binh’s fans decrying the death of the site, the numbers of readers went up by 1/3 to 1/2 depending on the day and the Facebook likes increased 100%. To maintain this growth, we monitored the articles to which the readers responded. As Pavel, Dario, Matthijs, and myself largely wrote on issues larger or outside the US and moved the site away from Binh’s relationship on Syria, the readership changed. It responded to economic writings, writings on foreign politics, and theoretical issues. We had become a podcast syndication problem under Binh and Ben, but increasingly the readers did not view or listen to the podcasts.
Despite the growth during this time, I found that I was tired of having my character attacked on half-information. I made the decision to focus on my literary publishing, my relocation to Mexico, my partner, and both of our ill-health. I resigned as editor-n-chief giving the role totally to Pavel, but stayed on for content generation, and trying to get some of the authors who had said they were interested in turning in work to actually do so. Our first two months of good numbers started to slack with increasing interest in writing on Latin American or left history.
The readership was increasingly based in the UK and NYC, the editors felt that we needed to cater to that and subtly push new ideas and debates into that context, but our readership was returning to that of the Binh and Ben days of site. This ends the first three phases of the magazine and brings us up to last month.
III. Vampires, WASPs, and Bears… Oh my. .
After the numbers dropped down for a while, Pavel decided to contact some people who had committed to possibly writing something for the North Star. Finally, Mark Fisher, whom Pavel had been working with privately, delivered a piece. I read it and immediately took issue with its universalization of a particularly British notion of class – which renders class as a largely identity-based movement – as well as not advancing an understanding of the conditions that case overlap between race, gender, sexuality, and economic class. That said, I generally agreed with his critique of privilege and by proxy standpoint epistemology. Then came the slew of articles from people who had responded, seeming to largely pick up on the popularity of the piece. Critiques of the North Star editorial staff as largely male (true), largely white (more-or-less true), and straight (completely false–more than half the staff is queer-identified) emerged from twitter, and even within the editorial staff, rumblings about Mark Fisher as a semi-fascist tied to the “neo-reactionary” Nick Land began to be uttered.
After a week of this, and feeling like people were actively misreading what had been done, Pavel resigned earlier than he had originally planned. Two weeks later, I resigned from all responsibilities and cut all ties with the site after I felt like I was trying to say things that were either inchoate and hard to understand, In absence of a moment to make these ideas have some enacted clarity, I felt like the debate that would emerge would just calcify already existing tendencies in socialist politics.
IV. My Four Theses Nailed to Nothing, Or Talmudic Commentary in Dissent
The above history is honest as I remember it, but biased and chipped. While my resignation was not done out of any ill-will or strong ideological split, there are four major points where I feel unreconciled with the dominant ideological strains of the North Star. I think it will helpt to first state the mission of the North Star which Pavel and I primarily wrote:
A guidepost is not a program or a strategy: it is an orientation. We are oriented towards a politics that leads beyond what is understood as contemporary capitalism. Emerging out of various strains of activists and theoretical traditions—most of which are rooted in socialism or critiques of capitalism—we aim for a new politics. We believe that the traditional leninist, leftcom and anarchist notions of occupation and revolution may not be applicable (if they ever were). We also believe that tactics of reform and harm reduction as part of an electoral path towards socialism have not succeeded in combating the spread of the deleterious effects of global capitalism. We are guiding ourselves towards new understandings and strategies while looking at the socialist/communist past both in its glorious successes and dismal failures.
1. Democracy is a non-cognitive word
In both its earliest days and currently, the North Star has had a mild obsession with the idea of democracy despite the over-ripeness of the word. While many readers of North Star are of many different ideological stripes, the various trends do share a love of “democracy” albeit often only conceived of in the vaguest terms. Is it democracy of only working class? Of the people? Direct democracy? Councils? Economic Democracy? The focus on Democracy waxes and wanes – the waning particularly occurring during Pavel and my co-editorship. In general I find such talk to be literally meaningless. Marxian notions of democracy are very different from Republican or Parliamentary notions, and acknowledge that a state of emergency would have to temporarily place the working class in a state of exception in which democracy only applied to itself. That is not Leninism, but Marx as stated in both the Critique of the Gotha Program and Reflections on the War in France. One may critique this and distrust this as even I do, but the focus on democracy as a battle cry for socialism is weak tea politics and horribly confused. Orwell was right when in “Politics and the English Language” he declared the word to be all but meaningless. Furthermore, this is not in line with the mission of the North Star as redefining democracy is not discussed except as a vague tactic for mass involvement in socialist politics, or as a the goal of unifying “economic democracy” with “political democracy.” These words seem to say something, but I suspect they don’t.
2. In absence of a historical movement, all that can happen is ideological policing
The death nail in the coffin of socialist thought is its calcification into textual platitudes. David Graeber, a man who I otherwise completely disagree with, once stated that you can tell that Marxism has suffered since its ideological tendencies have moved through being named for revolutionaries, then heads-of-state, then obscure philosophy professors. The debates between the identity-political thinkers and the class-based thinkers will retrench into the basic status quo fights of the last forty years. The moments in which these ideas were forced beyond a impasse where in active movements of 1968, 1969, and perhaps for a flash the anti-globalization movement in 1998 and in Occupy however misguided each of these attempts ultimately were. In times when there is a return back to the parliamentary or activist norms, many more ideological litmus tests emerge. One can see the North Star’s comment section, even when heavily moderated, for how nasty this can become.
3. Dialogue between tendencies is not actually meaningful if no tendency is willing to change
In this case, the debates between factions of socialists or feminists or what have you will tend to lead to dogmatic accusation and counter-accusation with no getting beyond the impasse. The willingness to change often comes from action in the world, and so this seems like a very tired row to hoe. Furthermore, the focus on “the left” itself is myopic, and this had been the theme of every piece of non-interview writing I did for the North Star.
4. When you are not heard, you should do and not talk
Which brings me to “Occultation” which is the focusing on things I can do: My critiques on Pop the Left and on Disloyal are generally understood, but I do not feel like my criticism has been so well-understood on North Star. The editorial staff there, including those who are still on board, have been supportive and comradely, but in general, most of what I have said has been misunderstood. This is partly my fault, and partly a function of trying to something that pushes beyond the current conceptions of “left” and “right” in a way that requires some strong self-criticism. Increasingly, I find that writing about specifically theological and cultural problems as well as the arts gets my political points across better. Furthermore, I have decided that my free time should be spent on my active pursuits: the creation of my literary art, doing education work here in Mexico on literacy and ethics, volunteering for feminist education, and going back to helping victims of sexual and domestic violence. I also have to deal with my own diseases, quite literally, and do the study of history, poetry, and Jewish philosophy that I value. I wish the current editors well and think that they may have a bright future as a socialist publication, but I am leaving that behind until a time where the ideals I believe in are more clearly understood through both clearer articulation and frustration with limited options, not only of contemporary mainstream politics but with the options that view themselves as radical. To paraphrase both the Talmudic Rabbis and Wittgenstein: on what one cannot speak, one should silently enact.
Given that I am no longer taken to accepting religious explanations for anything, I have wondered sometimes why I give priority in my thought to the poor, the uneducated, the outcast, and the downtrodden. After all, if one is going to be a “true materialist”, would it not be better to give precedence to those who are thriving, materially speaking? This would be a good indication why being a materialist isn’t necessarily a good thing. But then you have to realize that you are dealing with a loaded term. To explain this better, perhaps it is better to go with an analogy.
Say you are tricked into going on a blind date. The other person you meet ends up being attractive, charming, a good conversationalist, and so on. However, there are little ticks, little hints in the conversation that lead you into thinking that there is more to this person than the façade is letting on. Perhaps you dig into the person’s history some more, maybe only through just “googling” that person’s name. What if the person ends up being a convicted rapist? What if the person ends up being abusive, a sociopath, or otherwise dysfunctional? What if you drive by that person’s house and you realize that she or he is a hoarder, or is already married, and so on and so forth? In other words, in ordinary life, we are taught not to let façades fool us. Just because a person might put their best foot forward in a controlled situation, this does not entail that this is all that there is to know about that person. Or one could even say that one does not know the truth concerning that person.
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Sometimes the nightly news writes the best poetry. In the following lines, describing the aftermath of an accident that took place on the 24 mile-long bridge that I take to work every day, a heartbreaking scene fit for Homer is described:
Moran, 18, said it was dark by the time she found out Monday that Rodriguez was the person who had driven his truck into Lake Pontchartrain – a story she said she’d heard about earlier in the news.
A friend called and told her. She thought he was making a sick joke.
Moran pointed to the rocks near the foot of the Causeway, saying she spent hours there Monday night, flashlight in hand, yelling “Miguel.”
Perhaps they are not as moving to me as when I first read them, but death has been much on my mind of late. Many people who are closest to me in terms of blood are in their last days, but I will not give details concerning this since I am trying to keep this essay as impersonal as possible. But the scene of someone trying to call out to a loved one, deep in a grave of brackish water, has been etched into my mind due to the nearness of death in my own personal relationships. Read the rest of this entry
At certain points, one will have the misfortune of encountering a book where the author thinks that an important historical subject is merely a backdrop for his own personal problems. Santiago Roncagliolo’s nonfiction work on the Sendero Luminoso insurgency, La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y el Sendero Luminoso is such a volume. While this book is informative on the level of telling the story of the origins of Abimael Guzman (who is more famously known by his nom de guerre, “Presidente Gonzalo”) and his Maoist political party, el Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path, the complete absence in the text of any theoretical and historical complexity means that the void is often filled with descriptions of how the actions of the Sendero Luminoso made the author “feel” as a petit-bourgeois adolescent and young adult coming of age in Peru. If anything, it is his silences and inadvertent personal slips that tell the real story of the corrupt neoliberal society that allowed the Shining Path to flourish around the highlands of Ayacucho, and ultimately threaten the Peruvian state itself. While I could not of course excuse the Sendero’s actions, and in spite of the author protests against not taking sides at many points in the text, I came away from the book somewhat sympathetic to at least the causes behind the Guzman’s Maoist fundamentalism. Though I admit, it is somewhat akin to sympathy for the devil.
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. The Sendero Luminoso are some bad, bad people. Its founder and ideological progenitor, Abimael Guzman, a former philosophy professor and lawyer from Arequipa, Peru, has the reputation in that country of Osama Bin Laden in this country, at least in the bourgeois media. All you have to do is look at videos such as the following one documenting his capture twenty years on. No translation is needed, I think:
There is reason to compare Guzman to Bin Laden, Pol Pot, and numerous other sociopaths in history. There is first and foremost the massacres of peasants that he ordered, including the brutal killings of 69 peasants, including women and children, in Lucanamarca in 1983. There are the bombs, the murder of leftist leaders, the alleged collaborations with drug cartels, etc. etc. Many of these crimes have been admitted by Guzman directly, and he has said that they were excesses in a state of war. When considering this subject then, one must always have these things in mind first.
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