July, 2010 Archives
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
A review is in order.
I read Letters of Insurgents as a great work on how to do criticism: a humane story about two sharp people cutting each other to size in appropriate, if harsh and perhaps mean-at-times, ways. This criticism ranges far beyond the tome of Letters of Insurgents or the dynamics between two writers on either side of the Berlin Wall. Each of us is confronted with a great isolation in modern society that we are unable to speak to or from due to lack of tools, models, or closeness to others. The critical model provided by Letters of Insurgents has been personally influential in its demonstration of each of these elements. In the first few weeks the focus was on criticism (by which I also mean closeness). Now we are discussing the tools and models by which we could break down the colossus of the existing order.
Y6 begins with a firm rejection against S5′s expression of love.
I’m embarrassed by your declarations of your love for me. I can’t honestly tell you that I feel or ever felt a similar emotion toward you. I failed to make this clear to you at the very beginning of our correspondence, at a time when I was nothing more to you than a one-time friend you hadn’t seen in twenty years, a stranger to whom you hadn’t yet bared the secrets of your life…
By vomiting up the repressed experiences of your life, as you so vividly put it, you set off a similar process in me, in Jasna and in Mirna, not only by your example but even more by what you brought up. We didn’t respond to your letter with our minds but with our stomachs, with everything that’s inside us.
If you will forgive me a generous sidebar I appreciate Sophia far more in this discussion than Yarostan. This isn’t merely because I am a romantic at heart or battle the same gendered demons as Yarostan. It is because Sophia’s expression of love, even a cheap American love, is generative. It is a sign-of-life when circumstances can be terrorfying. The impulse to take the terror of existence in a reactionary direction has become the standard operating procedure for most people, which is a great tragedy. Instead, and I’ll follow Bataille here, I believe that there is an incredible abundance of energy. Life energy. Love energy. The energy to act in ways that have yet be circumscribed by the pedants and legistators of reality.
Under present conditions, everything conspires to obscure the basic movement that tends to restore wealth to its function, to gift-giving, to squandering without reciprocation. On the one hand, mechanized warfare, producing its ravages, characterizes this movement as something alien, hostile to human will. On the other hand, the raising of the standard of living is in now way represented as a requirement of luxury.
-”The Accursed Share” Georges Bataille Zone Books p 38
The process of love & vomit, expressed here, leaves both participants better for it. We don’t have a finite amount of love that once spent is used up, leaving us dessicated and passionless. Similarly there aren’t enough ways to express our disdain and disgust with… well just about everything. Both are true. Neither are enough. Nothing is enough. The rich tapestry that should be woven with acquaintences, partners, friends, and lovers has been unravelled by Abrahamic moralism and romance shaped by Victoria and Industrialism. Whats left is barely worth vomiting OR having love on.
Althougth the point is simple in this essay from Peter Gelderloos, it is salient. “Capitalism is based on cognitive dissonance, on trained self-betrayal.” This is an echo of Society of the Spectacle the sign post directing the traffic of modern radicals from historical re-enactment to something akin to a new start. But Peter’s point can also be seen in today’s headlines about failed (and never attempted) strikes, slowdowns, and even in the way that information has become a substitute for meaningful conflict (which is not to say that wikileaks isn’t fighting the good fight but that a headline is a tragic distraction from issues closer to base need). Hell, keeping to the insanity of just today’s headlines, it appears that even our own self-monitoring will soon be outsourced as paying the military wing is becoming too expensive.
“That’s all that counts in my philosophy. The strikes are only the first step; if they don’t lead to what you’re describing, they’re nothing. In a strike we only announce that we’ve had enough of this repression of life, this non-life; we express our refusal to continue being chained to machines and cowed by police. But it’s obviously not enough to announce that we’re coming to life; we have to do what we’ve announced, we have to find the nerve to live, to dance on the tomb of the repressive apparatus.”
These repulsive headlines make sense when it’s become so easy to become crushed by the apparatus of poverty and prison. When the few who step out of line (again the recent headlines around the Oscar Grant verdict protests come to mind) are vilified as some sort of paramilitary agent of chaos when all “we” want is a “community response” led by politicians and other agents of order. None of this has changed since the writing of Letters of Insurgents when Detroit was still in shock (from which it has never recovered) from the riots of 1967. The neighborhood at the center of counter-cultural life for Letters of Insurgents (and the office of Fifth Estate for many years) was the Cass Corridor which was literally chopped in half by the insertion of freeway 10 after the riots, arguably to sever the counter-cultural area from the major housing projects on the west side of the freeway. What is true in Detroit is true in Oakland.
Mirna tells a story about her relationship with the devil that is likely to resonate with most readers. The part of the story that I enjoy is the richness of the mythological framework. It is a classic one (devils playing a leading role in most monotheistic religions), that is in high contrast to the needs of industrialized society and that continues to resonate far beyond its expiration date. We still sing of devils, dress as devils and, at least in the west, have a pretty clear understanding of what the devil is capable of and interested in.
“My whole life’s meaning is built out of such coincidences!” Mirna snaps, and then proceeds to silence me definitively. “Marbles experience coincidences, Yarostan. People experience meanings. Don’t you know the difference? I knew what I had done, and so did the boy. He was terrified; death itself couldn’t have frightened him more than I did. He avoided me as if I carried the plague. Not because of what I’d done to him in the clearing but because of what we had both done to his father. If he were here now I’d make you ask him! His fear made me afraid, afraid of myself, afraid of that devil’s sword my mother had already seen in my hand.
We suffer for not having other rich mythological frameworks like this one. We suffer for having belief systems that only range the desert between Darwin, Marx, Smith, and Jesus. I would rather hear talk of 9/11 conspiracy than the glory of the light of jesus or the truth of evolution. I fear the lack of new religions more than I fear the belief in things that aren’t true. Truth is not at issue regardless of protests to the contrary. Money isn’t real and yet we are ruled by it. Government isn’t real and yet we march in line to its calls. The devil is as real as all of that and I am entirely sympathetic to Mirna’s relationship to it. It is the relationship that we develop to these ideas that provide them form, and spectacular reality still trumps the world of pixies, hobbits, and dancing robots with laser beams.
the primitivist and the theorist
S5 includes some of the most common caricatures in radical circles. They are humorous but slow-moving targets.
Watch where you step; he doesn’t use the bathroom if he can avoid it; Civilization destroys Nature’s cycles and all that. But he’s afraid he’ll get lost if he leaves the path. I walked him up and down the path the first time we visited him, when I realized he hadn’t left the house since we’d taken him to paradise.”
The hermit sitting on a rock was unrecognizable to me. He was as “abandoned” as the forest surrounding the lake. Hair hung down to his chest, his face was covered by a filthy beard. As we approached him, my heart pounded and my brain incessantly repeated one and the same question: am I responsible for this?
At first I found him altogether incomprehensible; he uses expressions like “desublimation of eros” and “supersession of alienated being” as if they were part of everyday language. Gradually I realized he was merely expressing my own goals with a language he’d borrowed from a newer radical literature than the one I had read. I shouldn’t say “my own goals” so matter-of-factly, since that makes me seem terribly wise while it makes him seem unoriginal. He does express several things that are new to me. For example, he doesn’t only talk about putting an end to coercion, to external, physical repression, but also to internal coercion, self-repression, the repression of one’s own desires. Yet his behavior conflicts with everything he says about desires; he’s a perfectly proper, completely serious young man; I actually doubt that he’s ever personally experienced the desires he describes at such great length. Once I asked him if he ever thought of sex. He answered, “Obviously; erotic play will occupy a central place in the disalienated gemeinschaft.”
As entertaining as these sweeping-generalizations-made-personal are they do point towards a strong ambivalence by Perlman towards models and modeling behavior in any way other than with hostility. Whether it is a lover, believer, politician, scientist, or ideologue the lesson from Letters of Insurgents continues to be a thousand “No!’s” for every yes. A great lesson but one that demonstrates the break between a kind of possibility envisioned by Letters of Insurgents and what most of us experience as possible in our daily lives.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
This is the first chapter of the book that I have re-read in the book itself. Times have changed for me and now I spend 80% of my waking hours in front of a screen and so it is just more convenient for me to read the wonderful version of the text that we put together at The Anarchist Library (I helped do the OCR work for this text using the scans that the Insurgent Summer people provided me). Reading the book makes a big difference: I am so much more likely to skim when I read on the screen and I just enjoy reading lengthy material much less. I still love the feel of paper on my eyes and when I read for pleasure it will be with paper.
Either way, though, my instincts in sharing my reading with the book is the same, which is a little surprising to me. While reading on the screen, I grab chunks of text to blockquote on the themes in a letter; when I read the book I use little post-it notes and written notes to develop the themes I want to cover. In both cases I am dealing with the fact that I don’t have enough time, hours in the day, hours to work on this, to put together my full thinking on the topics at hand when I actually have them. Instead I am recreating my reading thoughts during my writing time. They are fragmented by function… but I have spent so much time on this particular text it might not be as severe as it would be normally.
If I get the time (at the end) I am also going to try to finish, housekeeping style, a couple of the remaining themes I wanted to talk about in letters 2. Actually the themes of the good life (of a politician) and generosity will probably be woven into this set of thematic discussions pretty easily since Yarostan develops this pretty clearly here.
Y5 (that is Yarostan letter 5) is a strong argument against the institution of work. It is a criticism of the role of the knowledge worker in particular, and predates a body of work around these topics while maintaining a human touch around the topic. Bob Black (in)famously wrote an essay (which was also a presentation as provocation) called “The Abolition of Work”. While the author (and other people with a certain kind of fixation) might take the article as a literal argument against work, its real power is in asking orthogonal questions about the nature of labor and the project of Marxists who valorize labor itself, beyond any recognition of the (cough) use-value of the product of labor. The pro-work ideology is to assume work first of all–before the product of the work, before the worker, and before the impact (environmental, social, psychological, etc) of that work. And the reactions to the Abolition of Work gave this thesis more energy than it probably should have had.
Bob Black (like the post-left anarchist milieu he represents in many people’s eyes) took ideas that had been floating around in certain European anti-state communist circles and synthesized them into a kind of popular (as in easier-to-digest) form for the American audience. While recent post-left theory has been a bit of a Return-to-Stirner the idea of post-left anarchism has drawn heavily on the themes of the Situationists, Councilists, and even Bordigists. This idea of of opposing the institution of Work has roots in the critique of Marx’s project of universalizing humans as workers.
But Y5 isn’t concerned with making the critical argument as much as sussing out, as in talking through, the difficult question of how do we live (where living means being a rent-paying, commodity-purchasing, alienated consumer) while having issue with the consequences of what living means.
The tenacity with which you pursued your struggle, even in the face of certain repression, is something you share with Jan, not with people we both consider opportunists. Your recent confrontation with the administrative psychologist at your college, your exposures of militarism during your university years, your disruption of the war expert’s class, are clearly not opportunistic acts, and you make it perfectly clear to me that you couldn’t have derived any privileges from engaging in those acts. You’re right when you accuse me of failing to distinguish your commitment from the commitments of those around you. I did accuse you of being a carrier of the repressive fuctions of the university and the press and I recognize that this accusation was unfair. I did identify your engagements with engagements that are as unacceptable to you as they are to me. I think I did this because the contexts in which you’ve chosen to struggle are contexts in which I had thought genuine rebellion impossible. In my world the political militant, the journalist and the academician do not and cannot help establish a human community because their very existence presupposes the absence of community.
– Yarostan 5
There are two lines here that I think are worth following through, and they aren’t as clear as an argument between Y5 and S4. One line is that ideological jobs, ones that require you to “believe in” something (rather than just punching in, following orders, and punching out) are somehow impossible places for a human community. The other is the hard question about identity and work. If where we work, the kind of work we do, our qualitative ability to do that work is at all connected to our ability to organize ourselves as a fighting force against the existing regime… then we are going to have to believe in our work, whether it is as a knowledge worker or as an industrial proletariat.
Both of these lines lead me, as someone who has been influenced by the anti-work ideas presented earlier, to understand that personal happiness and a strategy toward general liberation have problematized Marxist categories and libertarian desires. Instead of Either/or we are now faced with Neither/nor.
But of course Yarostan is wrong. It is possible to develop something that subjectively feels like a human community just about anywhere. He makes the case that it is possible in prison, S4 makes the case that it is possible in the knowledge factory, a dozen Russian novelists (and a thousand stories about the Holocaust) make the case that moments of horrible repression and terror are also moments of great human kindness and community. But obviously this fragmentation, the very partialness of the kind of community that is possible in these places is what Yarostan is lamenting. It is what all radicals lament as they struggle for another way of living. How can a people (us!) who have never been free find our way toward freedom? How can those of us who have never been a part of a human community form one?
The strategic question remains important. The classic Marxist equation here is that the sociological group that has any characteristics of a rival to the military, entrenched bureaucracy, and political & financial elites are working people. Working people have more similarity with each other than with the other groups, we have the power to dictate terms in a society that requires them, and we have the potential to be self-aware (as a class) in a way that these other groups already are. Plus, numerically and categorically, working people dwarf all of these other groups combined.
Study after study has shown the power of working people, as expressed by unions and formal organization, has been on a deep decline for more than a generation. Whatever victories were won by workers organization in the West has collapsed. Apparent to any liberation, worker organization outside the west collapsed from within and lies in ruins today. If the rhetoric is to be believed, the kind of work represented by unions by what is called the proletarians is in steep decline (because obviously China doesn’t exist), which makes impossible the General Strike kind of social change that the Left relies on.
When Fredy was writing Letters of Insurgents and contrasting the East’s and West’s view of work, as ideology and vehicle for social change, it is no surprise that he would develop a storyline around corruption and nepotism.
There is still a mythology about the Communist regimes that they are (and were) rife with the kind of corruption based on (familial & social) relationships that deeply rankle the competitive meritocratic American psyche. This is a myth about competing ideologies where the West is vigorous and self-correcting because every generation and every individual must prove their mettle as opposed to the lazy bureaucratic groupthink of the Communist regime. We are the beneficiaries of Ayn Rand without being assholes and they are a cross between Squealer and Napolean from Animal Farm.
Vera’s remedy follows from her own diagnosis: the system has to be cured. How? “We must find … We must create … We stand … Let us…” “We” of course means Vera Krena together with her audience, Vera together with the working population. And how will “we” cure the system “together”? Obviously the same way “we” have always done anything “together.” We the workers will do our share by remaining at our posts in the factories, while Vera will do her share by remaining at her posts in the offices of the academic and ideological establishments. In other words, we will cure the system “together” by continuing to reproduce it.
– Yarostan 5
When confronted with radical statements like “wage slavery must be abolished” or “we must smash capitalism” it is very easy to consider the speaker shallow or impossibly naive. Generally when people are inspired by rhetoric along these lines, it is before they have realized the multi-dimensionality of our repression–especially as it graphs to the ways in which we repress ourself. But the abandonment of the “high concept” of naming a complex enemy and working against it also tends to tame one’s conflictual perspective all together. If our enemy is intractable it is, perhaps, better to abandon conflicts that can be stated as simply as “us and them”…
But the struggle against this is actually very simple (if abstract). It just means ending your participation in its reproduction. A system that cannot reproduce itself dies from lack of interest in a generation or so.
Obviously such a simplistic statement is just moving the abstraction from destroying or abolishing to reproducing but I think there are specific ways that we can talk about the reproduction of the ideological apparatus that includes certain kinds of career choices, pastimes, political activities, and hobbies. I disagree with many radicals who would argue that “the best” way not to reproduce the system is to entirely drop out of it. I understand the impulse and I think it benefits individuals to try “dropping out” but I believe it is, ultimately, limiting because it speaks to the impulse of scarcity and constraint (specifically self-scarcity and self-constraint) which as expressions of Christian moralism have a historical dialectical waveform. Ascetics are seen, in this culture, as either compromised OR as intolerable (or both).
I think that reproduction can be discussed (if not measured) to the extent to which it increases ideological shifts (for instance toward participation in the Information (aka Global) Economy rather than one of human scale) toward hierarchical power. Reproduction exists in participation in the political, military, and policing apparatus (although clearly there are levels). Education, Finance, social work, and participation in NGOs reproduce this system. Most everything else, from electricians, service workers, and what’s left of the industrial working class do not.
I am reticent to give such specific examples, by the way, even as they are so clearly parallel to Yarostan’s. While I have been influenced by this book to a great extent, even to the extent of how I chose my own career, I recognize the great privilege of making such a choice. I did not read this book after having devoted ten years of my life towards getting an advanced degree that I could only apply to a “reproduction job”. While I have judgment of the set of choices one makes to put themselves in that position I am entirely sympathetic to how one would find oneself in that situation. I read this book before it was too late. I was ready for the message of what I’ll call engagement AND disengagement and against reproduction. In my own way (that ended up being a lonelier way than I anticipated) I made my choice and suffer the consequences.
This is a great time (temporally and in the book) to muse a little bit about the proper way (form and practice) to revolt…
Where was Luisa when revolutionaries like Manuel were swept out of the way? Was she alongside the aspiring foreman Alberts, helping to sweep people like Ron, myself, Manuel and Jan out of the way? She virtually admitted this when she said that “such people” were a greater threat to the revolution than the militarists. I’d really like to know where Luisa stood during this purge of saboteurs. I’ve long ago become suspicious of her interpretations; your letters have made me wonder about her activity as well.
– Y5 (p 311)
On the west coast we recently had visitors from Greece. Greece has lately become a bit of a magic word on the lips of anarchists, one spoken as a place and as an incredible series of actions over the past 2-5-10 years. Greece proves that anarchists have some traction somewhere and that certain kinds of passion are expressed somewhere. The visit was great and all but there wasn’t enough of a sharing of how the theoretical and activity development could happen in Greece when it so clearly has not happened in the rest of the West. Let’s save that for another time.
One topic that the Greeks did cover fairly well was their insistence on using certain terminology to describe their activity that varies from ours or what we would call the standard way such activity should be described. Specifically they call their efforts against the system (State & Capitalism) as struggle rather than as resistance. This distinction is important as a way to place their (our) activity as proactive and willful rather than the action of resentiment or reaction. There is a kind of conservatism that you see often with Leftists that argues that whatever “they” do is bad and we should be against it (trite example: we should resist the G20) rather than that our struggle for freedom includes particular attention toward the cabal of global leaders and their machinations.
The past few months and events in Toronto and Oakland have brought the issue/question of what is the proper way to revolt back into vogue. The mainstream attention on anarchists has been hot since May (when there were actions across the US) and the environment has not been conducive to the kind of self-reflection that is long since needed since ’99 (aka Seattle WTO). I am not going to speak at great length about my own thoughts here other than to say that I relate far more to the forces of smashy smashy than I do to the responsible movement builders who sound like they come right off the pages of this book as they wave their fingers in the face of “such people” while telling them how to revolt properly. This said, my friends would be better served applying their energy toward struggle rather than toward resistance against institutions that feed off of their energy. We are giving them far more by resisting them than we are gaining from the experience.
Onto Sophia 5
This is one of my least favorite of Sophia’s letters. There is a certain amount of a situational comedy element that just doesn’t speak to me. I understand being confused and making dumb decisions under stress and that being somewhat comedic but over seventy pages of Sophia’s schizophrenic behavior, and erratic thinking about it, was just disturbing. I never enjoyed watching “Three’s Company” either.
In between the confusion and drama was a peek at a couple of the Garage characters that reminded me of people I have known.
He’s one of the few people I’ve met who knew the difference between things and people and never confused the two. He can do anything that’s ever been done with a tool, but he’ll never touch a weapon, and he’ll never confuse the two. He doesn’t step on a worm if he sees it in time, and he looks sadly at a dead fly. You’re afraid of him? Sophia, believe me, the world will end before Ted attacks you. I can’t imagine his wanting to kill you or me.”
There were two important people in my life who were similar to Ted. One of them knew the difference between people and things and preferred things. The other chose people but it didn’t matter as the people in his life weren’t enough to save him.
This particular characteristic is rather common in men, in particular in the technocrats I am surrounded by. Warm, broken (hearted) men who have more skills dealing with things than people and have grown to prefer them.
My experience with these men, and my friends before, don’t give me hope in the power of individuals to overcome their gender training, the fractured social conditions that shape them, or their own good intentions overcoming survival decisions. Instead I’ve grown to appreciate the partialness, the wave form of social time together as being as likely to amplify as to flatten. The open question of when disappointment will come rather than if. I guess this is a story of cynicism but I don’t mean it to be; it’s one of the calibrations necessary to be in reality rather than Hope-instan.
“There’s nothing to understand, Sophia, and nothing to fit into. It’s your life to do with as you will. There’s no structure. Nothing is banned. Everything is allowed. No holds are barred.”
This is that hope laid bare. I have always desired this kind of freedom. This lack of restraint, freedom to action, and to love. If Sophia 5 shows us anything it is that when confronted with even the possibility of this, our this-world-socialized brains don’t know what to do. We freak out. We behave inappropriately and erratically. This is true. Sophia 5 is a true letter. I feel like I’ve seen it a hundred times.
I’m not sure I have much more to say about Sophia 5 but there are a couple more quotes in here that are worth remarking on…
“Then tell me one more thing. What do you know about that commune some students got going?” I ask.
“Nothing much,” he says. “Some wild new `cultural radicals’ have got it into their heads that they can make a revolution without the working class, inside a university building.”
“Thanks again, Daman,” I say, climbing out of his car.
“But none of my students are involved in that,” he adds, boasting.
“Because they’re the working class,” I shout.
He shouts back, “That’s right, they’re the working class. Goodbye, Sophie.
This section is particularly funny coming hot on the heels of the activity in California in the past ten monthes. If you are interested in finding out more you could do worse than checking out a little newspaper I helped publish…
One last quote that I’ll leave with that, even with the layers of self-deceit embedded in it, still reads like a powerful personal indictment.
“I’m discovering it with them, Sophie. I’m discovering what it means to be in a society but not of it, what it means to be insulted, excluded, maltreated and injured. I’m discovering what it means to be a stray dog with human characteristics. And I’m discovering that everything I’ve learned is as useless to them as it is to me. These are people who are becoming themselves, Sophie, on their own. It’s a process in which neither you nor I can help them, a process to which we cannot contribute, a process we can only harm. They can only help themselves and each other; they cannot be helped from outside. I’m not here in order to guide, to help, to contribute, or to interfere or meddle in any way. There’s no room here for those who are able to give but not to receive. I’m only here to learn.”
“You don’t know me, Hugh,” I said. “That’s all I want.”
“You, Sophie,” he said, “you don’t know who you are or what you want. I’ve known you to be sincere – once, perhaps twice. Always quick-witted, at times even brilliant. Brave, even heroic. A rare companion. But please believe me when I tell you I don’t need you, Sophie. My new friends don’t need you. What you carry inside you, what surrounds you, whether you intend it or not, is all the rot we’ve started to shed.”
I turned away from him and walked to the bus stop. I didn’t shout, nor tremble, nor cry. But my heart was broken.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
Loss and authenticity
We are past the intensely critical part of the novel and are now moving onto the great descriptive portion. Letter four is about a carton factory, a university occupation and all of the characters in Yarostan & Sophia’s life. It is about the specific nature of peoples behavior and how the consequences ripple out over time and into lives.
I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, the person you knew. My commitment to slogans, words, programs, abstractions on signs, was a commitment to death. Twenty years ago I was the victim of a mystification. I began with vague yearnings for free activity; I began with a longing for freely chosen projects carried out within a community that made the projects possible and appreciated them.
As you get older and you gain experience and, if you do it right, long term relationships with sets of people who continue to have meaning to you even as it changes. Be they rivals, people you detest, or care about. If I were to develop a time line of the last 20 years of my life since my serious involvement in radical politics it would read something like this (in order): activist, the restaurant years, the traveling years, the confused years, the house, the magazine, and today. The amazing thing, because I have stuck around, is that I still have people from each of these periods still involved in my life. Different periods are filled with more people in a certain category than others and it’s not like I am friends with most these people but they are still in my life.
I can imagine in 10 years writing a letter to an activist friend from twenty years past that sounds as much like aliens looking for a rosetta stone as these first few letters and then finding it.
I didn’t identify with Marc, Vera or Adrian and I obviously didn’t identify with Claude. If I identified with anyone in Jasna’s or your narrative it was with Jasna herself and, much as you hate my saying it. with you. I identified with you, Yarostan, not because my life was anything like yours but because I wish it had been, particularly right now. I’m genuinely overjoyed that you’re finding in your present life everything I sought but never found throughout my life: a real and significant project with people who are alive and want to be. I came close to that kind of activity only once and you’ve just about convinced me that I wasn’t close to it even then.
– Sophia (4)
This desire for authenticity is something that feels like something many radicals (current and former) leave behind during their search for self. Most of the normal people I encounter in my day to day don’t share anything even close to this kind of attitude. This sense of loss in the world that we live in. Perhaps deeply spiritual people… and some radicals.
But I want you to know that from the bottom of my heart I hope you and your friends are now creating the community I sought in every environment down to the underworld, the community I tried to invent in my novel because I never found it in my life.
– Sophia (4)
This letter to a friend would be about a human community that we passed through but had no way to make permanent. Our moment together, like the carton factory occupation, was partial, temporary, and on some level empty. Empty because we did not have to tools then, and have found a way to make due since, to make the kind of community we desired. It’s hard to describe the number of ways that this great loss has impacted us. Making even a letter like this one impossible.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
I am writing about this book again after years of absence, because of how formative the book was in my thinking about criticism (and specifically criticism as a form of communication and engagement with written material). The relationships in this story are still the model I use when considering what I mean and what I desire, when I engage in criticism with someone or some project. Criticism is the infinite pool that feeds me and the engagement I would like to have with my peers. But what I understand criticism to be, informed by this book, is very different than the way the term is used by others or practiced in the world.
Before I discovered a critical anarchist perspective (more on this terminology later) I was probably (cough) called a smart ass. Regardless of the situation, I would often question premise and presenter, which usually was at my expense. since I was not the student creating an optimal teaching experience for the teacher and alert students alike. I sat squarely in the middle, in a haze of my distaste for the mix of social interactions, control, and knowledge-without-context. I was not smart enough to have found my own way out of this mix and did not have a guide (until much later) to demonstrate how the pieces of institutional life worked together in creating an environment that priveleged certain kinds of attention and ability.
I did have humor, sharpened at the kitchen table, with which I was able to pop the balloon of pomposity and skewer the situations of ennui. It wasn’t enough to be considered truly funny (what do I look like, a clown?) or to have a lasting impact, but I had enough abundance that aligned suppressive forces were not able to exhaust it. This instinctual critical outlook hasn’t exactly served me well from either a social or logistical perspective. It has cost me many friends and has made my work life… challenging.
The relationships in Letters of Insurgents still work for me as examples of the kinds of critical relationships I would have liked to have had with my peers, but that moment is gone. We are all moving too fast and our own ability to have relationships is curtailed by our desire to avoid… ourselves? drama? patience? inhumanity? ambivalence? We have these kinds of closenesses in quiet spare moments between the maelstrom of schedules and pressure.
I wanted to get into a couple of the themes I missed from the last chapter that still have me thinking. I begin my reading of chapter 3 by way of review.
Memory, Precision, & Accuracy
I’m not. after all, competing in a memory contest, nor writing a history, nor am I engaged in scholarly research into my past… By eliminating this standard you’re left with nothing but the world as it is. If you deprive yourself of the ability to see what people can be and what life can be you’ll only be able to see what they are and you’ll conclude that’s all they can be.
– Sophia (2)
On re-reading this I am not concerned with the disingenousness of the statement but with the way that it demonstrates that we, individually, value our recollections (as data) differently than we value our interpretation of them. This statement is particularly striking in a letter that is, for all intents and purposes, a correction to Yarostan’s fierce criticism of Sophia and the project that they had together. Yarostan is talking about interpretations of an incontrovertable piece of information (very simple facts as a matter of fact). “We lost and our project has been shown wanting.”
In my social circles I am apt to making flippant comments like “there are two kinds of people, copy editors and the rest of us.” This is in reference to a kind of one part personality and one part vocational approach that some of my closest friends make towards information. The precision of the comma placement, the font choice, the punniness of a turn of phrase becomes the all consuming topic of conversation, for which there is no recourse but to wait out the quibbling and sorting out of details before a conversation can move on. The sorting out of the exact date of Franco’s crossing of a certain latitudinal axis far more important than the entire military context that this crossing occured within. The tree is actually more important, or more of a topic of fascination and compulsion, than one thousand forests.
This relates to Sophia’s letter in that she is actually exactly engaging herself in a memory contest. She is trying to win a sense of victory over her own understanding of the events that took place many year ago. Her perception is blocking her memory.
No, I’m no longer angry. I’m frustrated. For twenty years I longed to tell you about myself, if not in letters then in a novel which was addressed to you even if it never reached you. I wanted to tell you about my life because I thought I’d lived up to what you might have wanted me to be. I looked at myself through what I took to be your eyes and I wasn’t ashamed. I was in fact somewhat proud of myself. Not altogether. I hadn’t taken part in the overthrow of the ruling system. But I hadn’t succumbed to it either.
I believe that many, if not most, of my copy editor friends suffer this particular frustration. On the one hand they have a precise understanding of the number of gravel stones they have passed to get from there to here but on the other aren’t quite sure how the path ended up being such a treacherous journey in the first place. The gravel had no impact on the elevation changes of the journey. (you will be amused that my favorite local copy editor made a note here… kiss my ass)
Perhaps this is a story about the Western conception of time. That story goes somthing like: time is a linear progression of thens to nows, past through present to future. We, as residents of this flow, start at a point and end up a little further down the way. In the greater scheme of things our journey is but a blip but it can be mapped on the greater plain of social life.
A different story is that there is only one time. Now. We live in the now and the memories or hopes that connect us to the past or future are tenuous and are related to where we are now and not what we were at another time. Two people’s very different interpretations of similar events is easier to understand when the relationship they have to former events is understood to have been to different “nows” entirely.
Perhaps the physical properties of light can provide some insight into this metaphor (which is largely what time is). Light is comprised of charecteristics of both a wave (like an ocean wave) and a particle (like a bullet moving much much faster). This dual property is why light can have both a speed and be visible to the eye. Why light can literally push on an object (see solar sails) and be amplified with refraction. Lived experience has something of a dual property where facts stream by at a pace akin to infinity and are related to us to the extent to which we can pull units of them (quantum) out into a comprehendible form . The amount and type of evaluation we perform to choose our quanta with which to measure and calculate our “us-ness” has to be mostly random and only partially willful. But perhaps this speaks to my own lack of valorization of the individual.
I have written about nihilism other places. 1, 2 I can be described as someone who is friendly to hopelessness and unfriendly to much of modern idealistic thought (whether in politics or philosophy). I use nihilism as a blanket term to describe these inclinations but only as tempered through the, dare I say ethical, lens of an anarchist pedegogical approach.
Many of the themes I consider important along these lines are covered by Yarostan, especially in letter 2, and they begin with this.
When the strikes and demonstrations ended, when most workers realized the carnival was over and returned to work, our group continued to perform its show. We were still printing posters, glueing “Factories to Workers” on recently cleaned walls, shouting about the workers’ commonwealth. At that point we became dangerous, because at that point people like us elsewhere saw that at least some had meant what they said and that the performance of a play had not, been the only possibility. If others didn’t realize this, at least the authorities thought they did.” Only at that point did we begin to “act on our own,” but we weren’t aware of this. We were so carried away by our performance that we failed to see that the curtain had fallen and the carnival had ended.
Which so clearly echoes one of my favorite definitions of nihilism by Vasily Vasilievich Rozanov that they should be considered together.
The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round…No more coats and no more home.
The story of the kind of revolution considered in Letters of Insurgents (a shadow puppet play still being performed today, with its echoes of the French Revolution and the idea of a complete change of the political terrain by a willful social body) is over. It is a gorgeous story that we should remember–perhaps doing annual reenactments–but the seamlessness of the existing order is unassailable. This isn’t to say it is infinite or forever but it is outside of the capacities of any sociological category to overcome. The existing order, to the extent that it exists, sees danger coming a mile away.
Moreover, to the extent that resistance to the existing order has shown itself to be successful in the short term, it is usually at a great cost. For most of us the cost is greater than, or as great as, the cost of the status quo. This makes the desire for total transformation at odds with an honest self assessment of what will be brought about by particular actions in the here-and-now.
I am falling further behind but I want to get this up and clearly I am barely done with my thoughts on chapter 2. In a few days I’ll update again and plan on then being caught up by chapter 5.