August, 2010 Archives
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
Most of my associates have not been following this project over the summer. I have been excited about taking on the intensity of writing (and reading) every week but have done it largely alone. The web site hasn’t been that active. Comments on my blog have been nearly non-existent. Even the weekly study group at the center of my social life is reading this book without me (as my job has interfered with my ability to be with the group). I have even avoided, by and large, reading the contributions by Artnoose and others out of concern of repeating points, losing focus, or being responsive rather than proactive in sharing my thoughts. I approached this 10 (12) week project much as I approached the book itself, alone.
People who live their lives in close proximity to books, through books, against and for books, are often alone, lonely people. You can often tell us by our improper pronunciation of terms we have only ever read, our vocabulary that includes more words than the average 15,000 and uses colloquial terms as readily as modern. We also exhibit the alarming characteristic of having deep relationships with the books we read. Often closer than with people, even when we have access to them. This trait can be seen in embryonic form in the near cos-play of young readers of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings novels where the richness of the books universe exceeds the suburban cultural poverty of most of its readers. In adult form I work with a woman whose job title is security guard but who in fact spends every day embedded in books–barely interested enough in the affairs of man to lift her head to look at the bank of screens in front of her.
As it turns out I have to fight to not join her in a better world right now.
This novel was part of my process of expelling myself from the gravitational force of fantasy. This was not because I identified so closely with the characters. This reading has really cured me of identification (as I expand on in my comments on letter 7) with the characters, but because the ideas within the novel pushed me out of pages of books. Life is not in there but out here. I still have great love for books and even position them at the center of my affairs but they comprise the set of simple machines from which to build rather than the artifice themselves.
This book, Letters of Insurgents, it turns out, knocked down the piles of books that would have otherwise been the only way that you and I were able to communicate.
The social circles that radicals live in, and I speak largely of post-AIDS crisis radicals in North America (PACR) (which are the only ones I really know), have a tortured relationship with sex, sexuality, sexual relationships, etc. One of the many ways in which Letters of Insurgents serves as a bottle in the ocean from one side of a divide to another is regarding its discussion of sex–particularly taboo sex. Letters of Insurgents‘s entire arena of interest, regarding sex, seems orthogonal to the experience of most everyone I know.
On glancing at the other posts on the book (most of which are written by women) I notice a lot of attention has been given to this topic and this theme in the book. Completely related to the first point I make regarding sexuality in radical circles is the impossibility of me even getting into this issue. I am torn between wanting to speak to it (the topic), against it (the taboo of male participation in the discussion), about my own experiences, and to speak in such a way as to guard myself. Rich material indeed. Let’s at least explore why I view PACR as having a tortured relationship with sex.
I am in the first (and only) wave of children of the free love movement. My parents loved (and had sex) wildly. In point of fact this was the principle way they attempted to break with normal (normative) society . My childhood was around sex. Humans having it near me. Breaking up because of it. Having medical procedures as a result of it. Sex, sex, sex filled their shallow lives with the belief that they were tearing down old values and actually doing something which they weren’t doing at all.
Couple this with the cultural values of Native America. I am not going to dwell long here but it is worth mentioning that modesty has a high value in Native culture and that my time in the Seventies were filled with complications resulting from a modest culture abutting one that prioritized a kind of freedom that was neither free nor modest.
Again, I want to dance along my personal time line so as to speak to the taboos of the book (so forgive me for a break that might feel like a disconnect). Here is a block of lyrics from a band from the Eighties that talked about sex in a way that was compelling to me then… and now.
Oh, but don’t mention love
I’d hate the pain of the strain all over again
A rush and a push and the land that
We stand on is ours
The Smiths – A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours
Perhaps I am straining credibility but the connection seems apparent to me that there is a connection, not a causal, or direct connection, but a connection to a certain kind of industrialized libidinal activity and industrial conflict. Industrial conflict is the utter interconnection between tools and people, in the parlance of this book, in other words, it is how civilization happens. Back to the novel.
I don’t actually find the specific crisis of child sexuality to be a compelling theme in the novel. I believe that many kinds of situations could bring up the explosion that Yarostan inflicts upon his family and that forbidden sex makes the issue titillating but not compelling. I think the same, or similar, pressure was put on Jasna in the final chapter to far greater effect. The question of crisis, what brings iton, how each of us will deal with it when it comes, is exceedingly important. The book demonstrates, through several examples, a point that I find disconcerting in our broader culture and have yet to find my way around. In times of crisis between people who you know, people you have face-to-face relationships with, the most likely outcome is fracture, pain, and cleavage. Because, in North America, political life is so short (between the age of 18 and 25 and then never again) there is very little experience with the constellation of feelings around crisis. Instead life’s crisis is only considered part of family life and that cultural responses are the only ones experimented with.
To put this point another way, when you live in a culture that valorizes effectiveness it is not a surprise that people see taboos as nothing but distracting wastes of time that should be handled violently, sex as for procreation (especially after the AIDS crisis), and winning as far more important than how one wins.
On the one hand Mirna and Yara’s setup of Yarostan exposes his hang ups and lack of ability to handle a crisis appropriately, on the other their setup of Titus and Jasna determined the future of their relationship and demonstrated that impacting another person’s life is much easier than one would believe. The force that it takes to push others around and stand on their land is easier than we may believe and can often be confused for something we would do as an act of love or passion.
One of the few points of constructive criticism that I receive time and time again is that I expose interesting ideas in a lot of my writing but never follow them up. I make half my point and leave the rest to die on the vine. This is by design, and perhaps may never change. I am sensitive to an increasing problem in modern discourse that I feel like I have been guilty of but want to try to parse a little bit here. The problem with much of modern discourse is that people don’t actually want to say something that they can be held accountable to later. For anarchists there are obvious problems where one day you may argue for class struggle as the only way in which society can be transformed and then later decide that working with small groups is the only way to be effective in social transformation. By making the simple, strong point earlier you limit your future ability to sound like you know what you are talking about. It makes more sense to bifurcate and hedge, imply and infer, rather than to state smaller points emphatically and accept that former positions are wrong.
To take a more recent example, in the prior section of this little piece of writing it could be read into what I am saying that a certain approach to fucking is tantamount to, or at the very least the antecedent, to genocide. This isn’t the kind of thing I would actually say with much conviction but isn’t an unfriendly turn of my phrase. Just one I wouldn’t use. As a result of not saying things in such a clear, provocative way I am accused of being unclear. This may be the case but is also not the case. Alongside the thread in which I placed connecting sex and booted feet on other peoples land is one about the futility of winning when it fractures a person’s life, the utility of sex as procreation in the shadow of taboo, and several others. When you speak in clear declarative statements you make simple points clearly and dishonor others. As a writer I want to speak to all of these things and not just the crassest of my own points (as firmly as I may believe them).
This confluence between simplicity and coherence can be stacked on the kindling of the irrelevance of radicals in North America. We seem neither visionary nor clear enough to win. Our strategy isn’t possible enough to get behind or impossible enough to embrace anyway. We make a kind of sense but only if one chooses to separate themselves from everything they know, every value that shapes their understanding of the world, every friendship they made till now. There are no surprises in the people who pass right through these crazy ideas and dreams.
And yet we still have them and for those of us stubborn enough to stand still, enjoy the time we have with shooting stars.
Letters of Insurgents is not a book about winners. The victories that occur are quiet victories that make a different kind of sense to those of us who have made the cognitive break from straight society. I imagine others can get a lot of things out of the book but it is a book targeted straight at the heart of a loser like me. I will never be able to put my ideas about how to live into practice in anything other than the most fleeting of moments and spaces. I will never turn back the tanks, hang the bureaucrats, destroy the interstates, erase the bombs and guns of states, or live in a real community that is free from property and violence. Letters of Insurgents made a convincing argument that this was the case and made just as convincing of an argument that I needed to pull my head out of my books and try anyway.
I have been humbled to be a part of this project and to have at least a few other people interested in my thoughts on this book and its impact on me. Hopefully you will share something you love with me next time.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
This chapter featured a few strong minor characters. Three archetypal characters dominate letter 9 and as archetypes I have known, or been, each of them. Here are a few of our stories.
Daman – The perfect student-teacher turned ideological director.
He apparently decided that the only meaningful human activity was the total destruction of the capitalist class in all its manifestations, in the colonies as well as the ghettos. That attitude coincided perfectly with our tendency’s political program…
Perhaps this is a sign of my generation but I have known at least a dozen people who approximate the Daman of this story. I’d like to believe the characteristics were less prevalent in another time but the combination of this period of political ineffectiveness (especially from a radical perspective), the existential confusion people have between sub-culture and reality, and the popularity of certain sets of ideas (Postmodernism, the Situationists, Identity Politics) has made this type all-too-common. Take a boy whose first steps into the world are buttressed with liberal doses of books and now the Internet, who comes from enough privilege to not have to doubt their secondary education, and who is brave enough to be in the club when the fights break out but has no reason to fight themselves and fuck, maybe I’m being too conservative by saying I’ve met a dozen Daman’s. I’ve met hundreds.
But I have stopped becoming close to them. Not because they always disappoint. I am no longer such a purist that I require a lack of disappointment to be friends with someone. I am just less interested in mentoring them. I am happy to meet Daman once he has established himself, but I will not be part of creating another one. They just exhaust me now and odds are about equal that they go one way or another.
The Daman I was closest to just faded out of my life. I guess he got caught on the other side of a burning bridge of mine. I heard later he went from being awkward and pudgy to being quite a looker and a bit of a Lothario. Went to grad school. Swam around in precarious gigs for a couple years and then fell off of peoples radar. I guess he never found a Luisa to make him complete.
Alec – dope dealer who died in battle
During his last weeks here he’d spend hours pacing. He was like a caged animal. He said all he wanted was to help make a revolution, with his gun in his hand, and not to talk about it or read about it or support it at rallies or demonstrations. He apparently met people with similar views, and he started going off to political meetings. One day he simply failed to return. I made no attempt to find him; we were free individuals.
I am including a eulogy I wrote for the Alec in my life
We never had a habit of writing letters. I know I was just as much to blame for that since I am just as capable of putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, as you are. Or were. I write you this last letter to remind the both of us where we were when you left, and to understand why you went without me.
When I first entered your social circle I was only 15. You already had a group of ‘rebels’ who you hung out with, but you all were my first. In hindsight it was amazing what a happy group of people it was given the times in our life, and the shit from which we were emerging, but so it was. Most every trope from the coming-of-age movie we all spectacularly see our lives as being were represented in that group. There was the brooding future Nazi who drove us all around. The more generous than you could imagine fat guy was there. There was the troublemaker (that was you, of course), the good kids who didn’t belong with us, the quiet nerdy guy who exposed us to the culture we were entering and the boys who were cuter than wise (that was most of us). I guess I wasn’t as definable at that time in my life, as I was just figuring out where I stood. But, as you know, I had lots of secrets and was pretty good at keeping them to myself.
Other people’s secrets… That was another story.
The experiences that we had are some of the most memorable of that time in my life for me, but your social group became only a part of my social life. You all lived, seemingly, a bit too far away from me, and once the scene had settled into a fixed location I was focused on being there, so that I wouldn’t miss anything. It’s so much easier and more difficult for kids in our town today. Every time I go back I crack up at how much better dressed the ‘rebellious’ kids are. Maybe its just because there is more money, more Internet, more retail, but it also seems like a veneer covering an essential vapidity in what being a misfit is all about today.
We would have had a blast making fun of them, if we were only the right age for it today.
There is a prime thing I take from our relationship that I have never found again. We were both good natured and totally spiteful. It kind of makes me think of sarcasm as being a lost art or something, and it is, but fuck if I don’t have to pad about everything I say nowadays with caveats and apologies just so all the well adjusted people around me don’t get their fucking pants in a bind. Whatever. We each had our own styles of the put down too. That was always a blast. You tended to go for the direct insult tempered with an escape hatch if the victim wanted to take it. You were more directly confrontational than I was. My insults always seemed innocuous, but spoke more deeply to the inadequacies of the target. Usually people missed what I was trying to say until a bit later, but I gave less room for escape. As I am sure you remember, I am much better at that now. That is the one partnership that we had that I will never replace, we were the best tag-team humiliators I have ever met.
But your trajectory through our teens ended up being a bit lower of an arc than mine. I guess that says something about potential, since you have always been seen as having more, but you were always more fully committed to fittering it away. Our one major split came when you started to get more and more involved in drugs and, like with everything else you engage in, you started to gain a reputation for being the biggest bad-ass of drug taking. Great achievement in hindsight, eh? Anyway we were at a part at the Domicile and you had done some ungodly amount of coke and was being very dramatic about it all. I’ll speak to your man drama later, but you were in full effect that night. You pulled out some box-cutter blade and slashed the hell out of your arm. I think it was motivated by removing the tattoo on your arm…
I’ll always remember that first tattoo. In the end you had it covered and ended up with a bit more of a stylish ‘back alley crew’ montage of tattoo’s but your first one, which you got on your 16th birthday and came over to my place right after, was totally fucking ridiculous. Obviously you were entranced by the flash on the biker shop’s wall so you must have picked a #47 or some such, since it was a skull and kind of tough or whatever, but what you ended up getting was what looked like a skull eating spaghetti. It was fucking hysterical, you were the first one of us to make the jump to permanent ink and it was the silliest thing we had ever seen. I even recall, for the first couple of months, you ripping the sleeves off of all your t-shirts to make sure that everyone saw the damn thing on your arm only stopping when you couldn’t stand us all making so much fun of you.
…so you cut your arm in a highly public attempt to cut the stupid tattoo off of your arm. Of course you cut too deep. Of course you could only manage one cut out of the 4-5 that you would need. But you cut pretty fucking deep into your arm, enough so that the bleeding would not stop, which didn’t stop you from staggering around the place like a drunken sailor spraying blood and your issues all over the place, not accepting help from anyone, not settling down (as you were obviously high as a kite and in quite a bit of pain), forcing the confrontation to either stop your shit or we were calling an ambulance.
I didn’t really hang out with you for years after that phase. I moved away, you spent some time in jail, and we both choose our paths.
When we saw each other again it was as if no time had passed. Our partnership was intact with the added bonus that we both had thick enough skins to included each other in our sights. We had much to account for it seems as we each went on and on about the others promiscuity and lack of seriousness but we each needed to hear it. We both had not been criticized half as much as we should have been by loving people. It was too easy to get defensive when the only barbs thrown your was are by the incompetent, the hateful and the people passing through.
But there still was distance. I lived over here, you stayed there, and we were all-to-human. You filled your life with martial arts and your uncritical admirers I with our (priorly) shared counter-culture and then radical politics. This meant that every time we would spend time together we would shake things up, knock the dust off of each others wit and sharpen our tongues, but without presence we stopped growing together. I think we both grudgingly accepted this.
What I cannot accept, and only see now that it is too late, is how much you needed the only thing I was unquestioningly better at than you. You needed a critical friend who wasn’t afraid of you, worshiped you, or wasn’t sleeping with you. At some point something changed, and I would have seen it, but I was there only en absentia, and too much time passed. One time I visited and your life was stumbling along, partial and in the shadow of your potential but not entirely awry. The next time I came you were gone. By your own hand and in your uniquely dramatic style.
What we all expected when you were a teenager you only accomplished 15 years later, surprising us with your patience but not your rashness. You always had to tell your stories of whoa, you had to make sure of your legacy. I remember one time when you had gotten into a fight, was it with metal heads?, you had been beaten pretty badly. They had broken your nose at the very least, which was no amazing feat as you had a formidable proboscis, but the blood was everywhere. You were wearing a white t-shirt covered in it, and it was only after hours of prodding, and a considerable amount of female attention that you cleaned yourself up and allowed the center of attention to move off of you.
This I cede to you lovingly. You were at your best when you were at the center. You weren’t the clown, like I am, you weren’t arrogant about it, but your brilliant potential was enough to make everyone smile. You weren’t an affectionate friend, but I never doubted your loyalty to us. You didn’t become all that would have wished for you, and I imagine you knew this, but you were still twice the person of almost anyone else I have ever met. Our friendship, and my understanding, goes with you to where you have gone.
This circle is closed.
Ted – The Western ideal: Scientist, human, friend
“This is Ted, the printer,”
I am not going to use this as opportunity to talk about my utter revulsion at the Western man. He is a doomed creature that I can’t summon up enough energy to despise today. I have already given him too much time. I am trying to move on.
In that spirit I have gained a respect for the competence of Ted. In our time of social, organizational, structural ineptitude Ted can do something. Call it printing, programming, fixing bikes or cars we have so far to go that just having skills, a skill, is something. If only Ted didn’t get chased out of every group, meeting, or social circle for not being Daman or Alec we might turn something into something real.
This circle is closed and we are on the outside of it.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
This time around I am not going to start with the first part of my notes (which I do chronologically) and end with the final notes but reverse my order. As a result of going A->Z I’ve probably given a lot more attention to Yarostan’s letters rather than Sophia’s.
Around the time I was learning from Letters of Insurgents I was reading a lot of other things. For around an 8 month period when I was absorbing the book I was reading about a book every day. I was working in a graveyard job and living my van in Ann Arbor. I was using this as an opportunity to raid bookstores in the area, the U of M library in general, and, in particular, the Labadie collection. This was my chance to hold on the original set of SI Journal and to really dig deep into the material that has shaped my life since. I’ll probably never have another intellectual period in my life as intense as this. The problem with absorbing material in an isolated vacuum (which is what I was in at that time) is that some things you get right, some things you get wrong. I enjoyed the incredible volume of material I was consuming. Later I learned that the mixture of science fiction, post-structural classics, and everything available in English from “the milieu” would garner me a decade of being called incoherent, dense, and postmodernist.
“Because I was a schizophrenic already then!” Sabina exclaims. “Or maybe that was when my schizophrenia began. I applauded because Jan had thrown a wrench into Luisa’s and Zabran’s machinery, and also because what he said made a lot of sense to me, and still does. I even understood some of the implications of what he said. During the days that followed he told me that as a boy he had lived among streams, forests and fields and had loved to explore their secrets; ever since he’d become a worker he’d been reduced to an appendage of a machine.
– Sophia 8
I am fascinated by mental illness. I’ve been around pleny of people who self-identified as having some sort of mental illness and several of my teenage friends were medicated. It’s always been a set of problems I’ve watched from a far. Even when I was digging the deepest into my own abuse history and personal suffering the way in which it manifested itself always looked like the typical self-hobbling and lack of direction that most teenagers suffer from. It did not look like Aragorn! == crazy. I didn’t quite understand how other people, people who I felt I was a lot like and who I understood pretty well experienced their pain in such different ways than me.
Reading Foucault was a lot of help. I get the idea that mental illness is socially constructed like the other invisibile tyrants of daily life. The idea that illness exists in a context1 makes sense to me and represents the kind of problematic2 that I can imagine enjoying in a time when there are no bills to pay, a world collapsing, and unchecked authoritarians running amok. I consider this analysis as useful as the other lever ideologies like Marxism, Anarchism, et al. True but not a great deal of help in helping me come to terms with survival, self possession and an action plan.
Here “Anti-Oedipus” was instrumental. I like Delueze as an author outside of this text but the exploration that this book does around schizophrenia helped me a great deal in thinking about life in misery. The pressures of life are real. They press upon us. There are no real ways to relieve this pressure, only ways to cope with it. For me I put all the things in my life that press upon me and I put them into boxes. I establish a great deal of time coming up with rules around each box. I keep tools separate from people. Work away from projects that have meaning to me. I am a functioning schizophrenic, but it is not an illness, it is survival by other means.
There was never any reason to repress anything I was doing. I’ve never been free. Free human beings can’t be repressed; they have to be destroyed.
The harshest criticism of this book is of me and those around me. We have devoted ourselves to a mythology. To revolution. To destroying all the things that destroy us. To a life long pursuit of knowledge and context and meaning. In this struggle we have not become free human beings. Or perhaps we have been free and have been destroyed. In our shattered state we have to feel our way along. We understand complexity and it hasn’t saved us. It has made us observers of life and inept at free action. The falsehood of the theory vs action critique isn’t that action (or theory) is better but that neither are sufficient.
I don’t agree with your friend Clesec’s suggestion that nothing at all changes when the workers themselves take charge of the existing production apparatus. But I do agree that such an act does not create a new form of human activity, since what is appropriated is precisely the old activity, the existing world. And this existing world is not a field for the realization of projects, but a negation of the very possibility of projects. It is not this activity, even if appropriated and managed by us, that we’re glimpsing on the horizon because it is at the very center of our present lives. It is what surrounds us now, what we inherited. It wasn’t projected by us but by the history of capital.
1. The context of social pressure to be normal, Western medicines biases, and the social scene around the identity of mental illness.
2. I can’t stand the word problematic. The problematic of problematic is pretty fucking problematic.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
I find the back and forth about who really loved who or who loved an apparition instead of the person tiresome. The flatness of Perlman’s character development is apparent here and I don’t love Letters of Insurgents because the characters are plausible. I love Letters of Insurgents because of the way that the ideas are validated by the characters and situations in the book. I don’t think a more skilled novelist would have made Letters of Insurgents a better book. They would have made a different book with different emphasis, different political bias (of course), and different themes. They would have made a better story but it would have had flattened the sophisticated political problems that I, and most of my peers, have experienced. This lack of character development isn’t the biggest problem I have with the book.
The concern I have with the presentation of Letters of Insurgents is that it is entirely played straight. It loses touch with what I consider to be the first rule of politics. Have a sense of humor about everything you do, especially a desire to change the world. Perhaps this first principle outs me as either an anarchist or a counter revolutionary but fuck it. Political people (by any definition) who take themselves seriously are at the heart of the misery of the 20th century. They are the keepers of the flame of our future misery and should be confronted, with merriment and absurdity, at every turn.
Why do I draw such a linkage between humor and radical politics? Perhaps I see people at their best as imaginative creatures. As passionate about their projectuality as the people they love. I imagine, to the extent to which they aren’t just walking carcasses, that people have the capacity to be creators, destroyers, builders, and story tellers. Time without property or rule would be filled with stories and projects on the scale of people. No more pyramids build for the vanity of pharaohs. Imagination is generative. It is not consumed through use nor finite. Unlike the scarcity of economic thinking, social engineering, and urban planning, imagination is affirmative. Ribaldry, Irony, Sarcasm, Play would join their natural allies Story, Modeling, and Song as the flavors of daily life. Every day a feast!
I’ll restate the question and answer. Radical politics is the expressed desire, and possible plan, to transform society at its root. To tear down the fundamental characteristics of a social body and rebuild them again with an entirely different set of fundamentals. To take such an absurd idea seriously, as something that should be considered beyond a polite dinner conversation, takes a certain kind of personality. I call this person a dreamer but perhaps fanatic, fool, and monster can be just as accurate descriptions. To want such a dramatic thing, to devote one’s life to such a thing, requires a kind of extremism regardless of the exact term we use to describe it. To maintain such extremism one must create the internal mechanisms by which their (human) needs can still be met while their (political) desires are not met (or even approached). This often, perhaps usually, creates humorless creatures. You see them at protests against the horrors of this world wearing faces of intense sadness. They are fighting the good fight, on the long march, but are sickly, unhappy, tortured creatures. I apologize for standing in such judgment of this kind of honest approach but I can’t favor one form of self-torture over another. Politics as obligation, to observe horror, to protest ineffectively, to state the obvious loudly, isn’t qualitatively different to me than a life of suburban consumerism, daily commutes to soulless workplaces, and nuclear family mediocrity. All of these choices are the honest survivals mechanisms by possibly good people who aren’t sparks. They are not igniters, of passion, of change, or of bridges.
But the sadness of humorless people is not the reason for the necessity of a sense of humor in radicals. Humor isn’t a central characteristic of the humane project of social transformation because it is warm and cuddly but because it is impossible. Radical social change is absolutely and entirely impossible. The reason why this is so is a laundry list a mile long and a league wide. Embarking on such an endeavor is more than enough to demonstrate insanity (in the Einsteinian sense of the term) and the only way to survive insanity is to laugh at it. Laugh at the conditions you are in, laugh at the feeble attempts we are capable of making against them, laugh at our hubris for doing them anyway, laugh at ourselves for believing that a life without compromise is the life worth living.
This laughter does not ring out in the pages on dancing, or in any of the explication of occupations or factory takeovers. It should, because as any participant in any of those things knows, the joy of a strike or an orgy is expressed in laughter or not at all.