‘Letters of Insurgents’ Category Archives
by aragorn in Ardent, Letters of Insurgents
I am looking forward to Spring. Many projects are coming to fruition and I am finally reclaiming some of my time. My burnout is officially over and what cured it was the humans.
Here is what is coming up
We are finally working on a new book “Enemies of Society” and the second edition of “Till the Clocks Stop”. Little Black Cart is taking a couple week tour through the southwest in late April. We will go through Phoenix, Austin, Houston, St. Louis, and Milwaukee for sure. If you would like LBC to stop in your town (on the way from one of these towns to another) drop us a line. I will be spending the next three months in Europe. If you have any contacts there that you think I should meet… please let me know.
Also by April we should have another issue of The Anvil out. Issue #2 will include an insert of some of the material from the Insurgent Summer reading group. Hopefully this will engage more readers in one of my favorite books, Letters of Insurgents. Allegedly we will also have a series of new pamphlets that attempt a new approach to “introductions to” anarchism. Not sure that is going to happen though.
The truth is that I am still not working effectively. This albatross around my neck is filling my head with static and heat. Everyday I stumble around, through the mediocrity of the grind, and if I’m lucky, if nothing particularly stressful comes up, I get an hour or two of good project time at night. At least I’m getting that much and for that I thank the holiday season.
Tons of people came around, we talked about things I like to talk about, we laughed about things I like to laugh about and for a little while I felt normal. I was excited about writing and thinking and what I am doing with my time. Working through burnout by the social.
In addition to a review I am working on of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” I am working on an article on hosting software on corporate servers, the 101 series, and I updated The Anarchist Library with some of my older reviews and editorials from AJODA. I look foward to writing longer stuff later in the year but feel fairly good about what happened last year. I’ll probably put up a draft of the SAAS article here in the next week or so.
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.
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.
by aragorn in Letters of Insurgents
This week’s submission is going to be a little short. I think I need to pace myself (I still have eight weeks after this one) but there are so many themes from this week’s reading that I’must dig into, including a rich quote from Sophia about memory exercises, the concept that political people have “the good life”, a famous paraphrased quotation, and the generosity of poor people. I hope to touch on them in later weeks. This week I’ll keep my focus limited to how loaded perceptions are.
In many ways, during the time it stood, the Berlin Wall, the great wall dividing the West from the Soviet regime, helped clarify life in America. We were clearly separate from them and we had a clear symbol, with armed guards and not-so-symbolic bullets helping make the distinction crystal clear. The story of Letters of Insurgents is amplified by the existence of this wall during its authorship and the real divide between the authors. Today such divides don’t seem to exist and equivalent letters would read like muffled calls out of the postmodern malaise of this time or perhaps as Romeo and Juliet type stories set around Israel, Tijuana, North and South Korea or the Taiwan Strait.
Our barriers are local at best and no longer encompass our entire existential existence… but of course they do. We are trapped by symbolic distinctions as shallow as red state versus blue state, cosmopolitan versus real (as in “real American”), etc. We suffer quietly in a kind of “unreality” where the ties that should bind us together as individuals and united groups are entirely in the hands of politicians, financial interests, and biased story tellers (aka the media). Once we had the people we worked with, the people we lived near, or the people who looked like us to organize, strategize and agitate with. Today we barely are able to figure out where we, as individual active agents, begin and end, physically, metaphysically, intellectually, etc.
This set of letters is powerful not because of the meanness of Yarostan or the defensiveness of Sophia. I don’t actually consider Yarostan to have been that mean (or Sophia that defensive). This is a set of letters about memory, interpretation, and priorities. This is the heart of the book and it is a very difficult read. Perhaps Sophia was correct in describing Yarostan’s letter as cruel but by a definition that is not common.
But this is the world. We observe the attacks made upon our bodies, and describe the shadows that attend disruptive phenomena but there is no critique as such to be made, no protest could be adequate to the continued diminution of personal life in the face of the perpetual throbbing of commodity spread. Power will do what it will, there is little (if we are consistent in our analysis) that we can do to oppose it.
Cruelty, here, is the forcing oneself to frontally face the mirror of the consequences of our actions. To deeply understand the horror around our desire for everything good. One person’s gossip is another person’s dossier. One person’s romantic tryst is another’s life long love affair. Interpretation isn’t merely an exercise in explicating the difference between you and me but of the harsh consequences of people being completely different. It is not an exercise is equivalent truths between thoughtful, caring people but on a stage that is not controlled by us or our friends. Furthermore, this distinction exists within the context of the greatest project of all, of opposing the world of cops and salesmen and real people get chewed up. They get ground to bits.
For the sake of grounding my interpretation in the text itself I’ll pull out one major example: the questions about actors and stages.
Yet surely somewhere in your consciousness fragments of another experience must survive. An “outside force” did in fact define your project and make your decisions. It was none other than the politicians who three years earlier had helped clear away one army in order to make room for another. You and I merely recited the lines of a script, moved under the control of a puppeteer. Even the emotions we expressed were predesigned. You apparently liked your costume and make-up so well that you’ve continued to wear them after the play ended. The play was a show of the politicians’ power “among the workers”:, the plot dealt with the “workers’ struggle” against the politicians’ enemies; the climax came when the workers ousted Zagad from the factory. At that point, behind the scenes, politicians ousted Zagad’s friends from government offices; anyone unfriendly to the politicians was automatically Zagad’s friend. The union apparatus acted as puppeteer. Union politicians initiated the strikes, prepared the spontaneous demonstrations and lectured about the solidarity, power and determination of the working class. It was our role to confirm our solidarity by reciting our scripts, to demonstrate our power by gesturing and to show our determination by making faces. The play was educational: its main purpose was to instruct the audience about their lines, gestures and feelings. The feeling you still express today: the illusion of autonomy, the illusion that we were defining our own projects and making our own decisions, was precisely the illusion the play was designed to communicate.
-Yarostan (letter 2)
While this particular play may not be common in 21st century America I believe most contemporary readers can understand what is going on here. Whether it is the machinations around putting together a school play or an insurrection there are usually forces in motion with very different goals (and often goals that aren’t even clear to the forces themselves at the time). This is especially true when they use the same rhetorical conventions. If experience, both personal and historical, tells us anything it is that it is the people who actually believe the words of the chants or the the mission statement of the group who end up being manipulated and “represented” by those whose participation has entirely different motivations. On the one hand we require facility with a certain kind of vocabulary that is distinctive to our project because we believe that the language around our project contains a kind of power, on the other hand facility with jargon does not magically align interests or predict future action. Politics is greater than belief and a thousand heart wrenching poems stating otherwise is only evidence.
You describe my activity with you as a puppet show. Your description corresponds neither to the events I experienced at the time nor to events I experienced later. I’m not misreading your letter. I think I understand perfectly well what you’re saying. We thought we were acting freely while in fact we were being manipulated. Therefore we were puppets. Since we’re not in fact puppets but people, we must have turned ourselves into puppets. Therefore we manipulated ourselves…
Your analysis reduces a two-dimensional picture to a single dimension, it reduces two sides to one. The protesting students were on one side, the politicians and all other officials were on the other. The fact that the university officials accepted the student politicians as the spokesmen of protesting students doesn’t mean that any of the protesting students accepted them as their spokesmen. It merely means that officials recognized and embraced other officials and momentarily disregarded their club’s age requirements. By omitting the second side you lose sight of the relation between the two sides. You leave out what we used to call the struggle between the ruling class and the repressed class, the class struggle. The fact that the rulers recruit their agents from among the repressed doesn’t mean that the repressed are the agents of their own repression.
-Sophia (letter 2)
It seems evident to me that both writers are correct and are making different points. Sophia’s argument here is that the power of autonomy and independent creative action (aka the class struggle) is the important part of the story, perhaps of life itself. If the choice is between the politician and their backers or the protester and their friends, Sophia’s choice is clear. In her analysis Yarostan is making group identification entirely negative. If one member of the working class is willing to act the role of the politician then are the working class dupes of the politician?
Yarostan argument is that the specifics, or the intentions of the actors, aren’t particularly important to the reality of the 20 years he spent in prison, or the not-positive impact they had on the situation that they were in control of, not to speak of the world outside of their factory or their relationships.
This distinction, between the fatalist and the optimist point of view, is the political heart of the story and echoes throughout the rest of the book. The way in which each of the writers bounce back and forth in subsequent letters still resonates with me as I age and am hampered from my natural hopefulness by the experience of the failure of the vast majority of my projects with living people.