Letter of Insurgents: The Great Lesson III

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.

-Sophia (3)

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.

-Yarostan (2)

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.

Letters of Insurgents: The Great Lesson II

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.

Nihilist Communism: Cruelty or the Inclusion of the Distributive Sphere

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[1] 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.