Creative Destruction – an exegesis of “Wrecking Ball”

The first thing you should notice on watching Miley Cyrus’ new video “Wrecking Ball” isn’t the “sexual” imagery deployed; the testicular wrecking ball she swings from naked, the sledge hammer she fellates–these images are worthy of a middling Maxim Magazine photo spread and are familiar enough. wrecking ballWhat immediately struck me is how the song is constructed, which is to say the form and melody are strikingly similar to Goyte’s wildly popular single “Someone That I Used to Know”.

Both songs noodle around in D minor (!) in a similar groove for two verses which recite a past romance. In Miley’s case “We clawed, we chained…A love no one could deny”, but “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…I will always want you” — In Gotye’s song things are a tad darker: “you said you felt so happy you could die…Told myself that you were right for me/ But felt so lonely in your company”.  And eventually: “Well you said that we would still be friends/ But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over.” Both of these videos start out with the subject reciting these past romances in painful close up, both singers’ eyes are welling up with tears emotionally. Goyte yearns pessimistically, but the strange bathos of Miley’s  “I will always want you” has that wonderful twang of American Hypocrisy (you don’t believe it) and bizarrely/boldly embraces a non-feminist naive honesty, eschewing a more familiar contemporary refrain of independence, transcendence and narcissism.

Gotye1-480x321Now to the sing-along choruses which contain eerily similar money notes, namely Bb!-A-A! sung in the same rhythm (Dotted quarter, eighth, half note; “Long, short Looong!”): Miley’s “Wreck-ing ball!!” /”Break your Walls!”, or Gotye’s “Cut me off”, “Need your love” or “Stoop so low”. Now Miley’s song puts this melody on top of an F major chord, which is a modulation from the minor world of the verse. This is a “pop” move which adds a more slow-head-banging-rock-on feel where as Gotye keeps the chorus in D minor, always avoiding a melodramatic shift to the relative (F) major. Gotye’s song even stretches towards objectivity when the woman he has been criticizing for cutting him off and treating him like a stranger in the emotional choruses is given a verse to explain her side of the story. No such control, anger or drama with Miley’s refrain:

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me

What a wreck. But here we also have a lyric that perhaps limn’s capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction.” Her love, her desire, the creative urge to found a new basis, a new relationship is initiated through a destructive need, a need to break walls in order that a new foundation can get laid. The dialectical contradiction is emphasized with ludic eroticism as the swinging, destructive wrecking ball she straddles and fondles is both smashing through her small grey concrete chamber, creating rubble and ruins while also evoking a gonadal fecundity.

The sledgehammer which Cyrus tickles with her tongue isn’t too far away from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song whose video begins with an ambiguous image that looks like an out-of-focus snapshot of snowflakes falling in darkness–When the frame is unfrozen the snowflakes flurry and we can make out instead hundreds of spermatozoa swarming about an ovary. sledgehammer 3Next, a close up of two sperms tadpoleing about, then images of fluids flowing, semen, blood, a montage of Deleuzian desire that culminates with closeups on Gabriel’s eye-machines, his lip-machines, his ear-machines until the singing begins which is delivered in a stop-motion style that only reinforces the bodily *mechanics* the song is hymning and interrogating.

The sexual content of Sledgehammer is graphically, if scientifically introduced in the introduction, but the genius of the video is how the rest of the images sturdily avoid aping the metaphoric eroticism of the lyrics:

You could have a steam train/ If you’d just lay down your tracks… You could have a big dipper/ Going up and down, all around the bends/ You could have a bumper car, bumping… Open up your fruit cakes/ Where the fruit is as sweet as can be

Instead his artistically playful images literalize and thus neuter the libidinous lyrics. In a sledgehammerclaymation sequence the sledgehammer strikes Gabriel’s malleable (clay) face and human limbs appear in the gashes and in a later sequence on a stage, a dancing sledgehammer strikes the boards and an egg appears, soon there is a chicken, then two dancing chickens, you get the idea. Sledgehammers do what sledgehammers do: they (ironically) create.

Wrecking Ball is no Sledgehammer. But Cyrus’ skill is to borrow again and again in a culture of borrowing and sampling and trading and wrecking and rebuilding and stealing and commodifying. Miley Cyrus has been critiqued a great deal recently for appropriating the twerk from black culture and using it as a publicity stunt. While basically agreeing with this critique I have also disagreed with the way the argument has been framed and the historical depth at stake.  It should be obvious that we are talking about a sophisticated marketing machine that cleverly borrows artistic techniques from motley sources, many of which are *just* under the radar, mostly forgotten, provocative,  or historically rooted, but perhaps not yet properly commoditized in mass culture. Gotye’s video has been viewed a ridiculous 428 million times as of today, but it is the unexpected pain of the melodic line which is mostly responsible for the song’s success. It is a melody that is unafraid and thus hits the listener with a kind of shock; the anger he feels and the tone which he would express verbally in an argument finds its match in a musical moment. Wrecking Ball’s melody echoes this pain but with all the subtlety of a fleshy fashion shoot set during the Blitzkrieg. Sex and death return into each other over and over as the mediated sphere like a bulldozer churns up the perpetual landfill that is our culture.

The final shots of Sledgehammer show a room onto which is projected the original image of the argent dots on a sable field, which now evoke stars in a dark sky. sledgehammer endingThe universe, cold and infinite is tied to the sperm and their frenzied struggle, now frozen in time. Gabriel, having fallen asleep in his chair, is now only a dark figure with these bright star-sperm shining out from his body. He rises from a chair, opens a door and salutes the milky galaxy with both arms. The final image shows this cosmic demiurge hammering with his arm in a mechanic rhythmic movement, the music fades.

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Miss Cegenation

By the end of Ayesha Siddiqi’s article “Can the White Girl Twerk” (which is of course about Miley Cyrus’ recent adopting of a new hyper-sexualized, “black” persona) we are forced to choose between two options:

…Miley earns both praise and scorn. If Miley’s new look is acceptable, it requires a tolerance for undermining black women. If it is unacceptable, it means demanding an identity, sweet and unsexed, dictated by the anxieties of white patriarchy.

So we can either praise a young woman who was the previous embodiment of the Disney “white girl” tween princess and who shatters all this past personal history by shaking her booty up near the crotch of a mediocre male singer and earning the opprobrium of every media commentator alive–khajuraho2but in praising her bold moves we also erase the history of black women who have been historically oppressed and whose history Miley Cyrus usurps and appropriates for her own nefarious money-making schemes–That is one option. Option two is to scorn her, “slut shame” her for this act of appropriation, or just criticize her blatant opportunism and how it utilizes a “black identity” to accomplish its goals, but in so doing we also reinforce the repressive ideology that she has just “escaped”– What a conundrum, how are “we” supposed to react to this contradictory binary?

Unfortunately, it is only in this final paragraph that Siddiqi approaches something close to a love and theftdialectical appreciation of how cultural forms hybridize and are stolen, steal each other, are remixed, repainted, parodied, paraded, pirated, censored, erased by one hegemonic cultural sphere and its orbiting, subservient moons. I think back to my days with Ancient Greek and that middle voice, neither active nor passive, but simultaneously active and passive, verb as dialectic. This is an old dance and when we are specifically talking about American “white” culture and its interactions with “black” culture and how this affected “pop” culture, or all culture, or the birth of genres, a moralistic tale of one-sided theft will not do. It’s been a while since I’ve read Eric Lott’s “Love and Theft” in which he tries to untangle this history, American music, its roots in minstrelsy and how some of the first famous minstrels were black performers who themselves would cork their faces in imitation of the popular white black-faced minstrel singers, but his argument essentially complicates and twists around any simplistic notion of one-sided cultural appropriation.

The fact that the history of these two worlds colliding to create American music contains so much *theft*, (slavery being the ultimate act of thievery) nevertheless should not obscure the *love* that is probably at the root of the cross-fertilization, the desire to learn new musical forms, to encounter new sounds, new rhythms. Perhaps that sounds a tad naive, but it is true. There is more to music than how it eventually reflects a slave-culture’s moral decay. Stephen Foster’s melodies and often-racist lyrics end up accomplishing more than a heroic and nefarious rear-guard action for slavery’s stubborn retreat. What is his music and what does it mean that we know Stephen Foster’s name and not the names of the countless and nameless subalterns who created the blues and other strange new art form hybrids that would change the course of world art? These are knotty questions, but to answer them in such a way that trivializes the 19th century and contemporary artists wrestling with their creative forces in the midst of a racist culture is to do a misunderstand the contradictions of history and the role of the critic.

Unfortunately Siddiqi, from what I can glean from this article, sees the world in a much more Manichean way– There is a surfeit of evil when it comes to racial history in the United States, but written in a certain way it colors her narrative into tarnishing the efforts and genius of African-American artists who have taken the risks to perform and thrive in American culture. Reading Siddiqi’s essay and the dilemma she poses at the end it would almost seem that having defined the shadow of the White Capitalist superego that subsumes all of our interactions it would be better that black and white never interact. duke ellingtonShe poisons the well of whiteness in a way that all black artists engaging in “western” arts would become traitors to their race and writes almost moralistically at the “white” artist’s engagement with “black” culture. I cringe thinking what Siddiqi would think of the Duke Ellington orchestra performing at the white-only Cotton Club. Duke’s father was a kind of “house negro” in Washington D.C.; was Duke Ellington an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race? Should he have given up the Cotton Club gig where he and other black musicians played “Jungle” music on European instruments in front of an ogling and titillated white audience? How should we write about these cultural exchanges? The history of these awkward meetings and courtships of course goes further back into the repressed enigma of minstrelsy and forward into the present with Miley Cyrus and her hip-hop collaborators.

For all of its sophistication and theoretical fluency, this essay has the obsessive’s fear of borders and boundaries being crossed and violated, and the paranoiac’s twisting of problems into persecutions:

 For all its black performers, the rap industry has been run by the white establishment and caters to the white consumer. The commercial success of gangsta rap wouldn’t be possible without North America’s largest demographic buying in. The commercial demand for sexually aggressive and violent rap is appreciably shaped by white teens in the suburbs looking to live out their fantasies via imagined black bodies. And in guiding the market, white consumers dictate the available imagery of blackness.

In the context of this limited representation, black people are cornered into owning all the stereotypes white consumers afford them, particularly when these consumers allegedly “act black.” Black girls who don’t twerk are made invisible because white consumers decide not only what blackness is but also what they want out of it.

beastie boysIt’s thinking like this that also serves to disenfranchise and delegitimize almost any black artist who has ever worked in America. There is just very little room in this rhetoric for a black artist to be creative, i.e., to actually be an artist, to play with the stereotypes, to remake them, subvert them, be radical and new. Does Lester Young’s sax sound like white power? Working in a racist culture, performing for a white audience in this limited vision takes away the black artist’s generative force–Not to mention the white artist’s potential creativity as well. The Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Eminem have 4 of the top 10 best-selling rap albums of all time. But whose fault is that?

“White people clamoring to up their cred by appropriating nonwhite culture do so hoping to be rewarded for choices that are falsely seen as inherent in people of color. It’s this savvy that Miley wants us to be convinced of.”

Um, no. There is more to a rich history of artistic cross-fertilization than vain desires to “up one’s cred”. This is a cynical view that may or may not be appropriate with respect to Miley Cyrus, but does an injustice to almost all American artistic output, “white” or “black”.

Siddiqi attempts to, but never really unpacks the contradiction that there can be a hegemonic “white” culture and a “white girl” ideal that “serves as the normative gender performance, the femininity from which all femininity deviates, through which all women of color are otherized”, but that transgressing this boundary allows the performer to “reap massive profits by straddling an insider-outsider status.” But teasing this problem apart requires a dialectical subtlety in tune with desire, historical acculturation and contradiction.

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Fertility Fiction

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. –Moby Dick, Chapter 45.

My wife gave birth to our son back in June which has made the past few months joyful, stressful, and busy, and tired and sleepy, and happy and grumpy–We run the gamut of dwarfish emotions, even “Doc” if by that we mean doctors, doctor’s bills and the health care system in the USA–It was difficult to read and write with my working happening simultaneously to this overwhelming life event– I found the time to flip through a few comic books, but nothing really dense or complex. Gone are those summers of wading through Marx and this or that volume of Capital word after word after word.

in the house - bellI did read a book review in the Washington Post back in June, however, about a new novel titled In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. It was a rave from what I remember, so I set about trying to find this book and read it. What excited me about the book was a world the reviewer described in which a husband and wife are trying to have a child, but continue to fail– The wife miscarries several times and gradually the couple and narrative descend into primal epic archetypes and things get weird– “Okay”, I thought to myself. This could be a fine way for my mind to grapple with the “major life issues” of fertility and family that I have been undergoing this summer.

There is a primal place in our brains that lies dormant perhaps until we have a child in front of us that is our own, or even a child that is yours to care for–Something like a nurturing instinct must be hard-wired in our brains–and these parental muscles have been there waiting for the moment when they can finally flex their sinews and go about the holding and nurturing and nursing and mothering– But what is particularly shocking is how hidden these muscles perhaps were and how quickly they grow strong, like an appendage that you didn’t know you had: “Where did this tail come from? I have never seen it, but now at this moment it is so useful, so needed; it was always a part of me?”

Perhaps this is true, although many profess a strong dislike of children and procreation and the Oedipal family structure altogether. It’s really a kind of dividing line in urban biopolitics, whether one chooses to procreate and what sort of lifestyle and political ramifications that will precipitate from this “traditional” decision. Perhaps I make my case too strongly that there is a sort of innate nurturing muscle, but what is the baby’s cry but grating and annoying? And precisely that, programmed as a precisely human anguish that calls on our instinct to stop it– Stop the baby from crying. “Just calm the child” as the song goes in Into the Woods. This is the negation-as-incantation of the mothering instinct, the cry which rakes across our ear drums and finds a hidden wormhole through our brain to a most sensitive secret place. “Do something!”– the negation is negated. A baby’s cry, or the special pathway through our mind through which only it fits, a hidden keyhole that is only found when that particularly angular and jagged key enters and twists and twists, unlatches a lock that has lain dormant, lightly rusted shut for decades. This is a now-opened part of my brain, I think it might be in the lower right side, below and behind my ear somewhat–

The other negation of the mothering instinct is of course the inability to have children when one wants them, which is the source of the plot of the novel in question. This is a sort of pain that wounds deeply and perhaps requires the sort of archetypal (Jungian?) artistic response this novel provides. Man. Woman. House. Dirt. Lake. Woods. Bear. Ghost. Black. Squid. As I read this book I kept on seeing an animated version of the story painted before my eyes. Watership-DownWashed out colors, a sad animated film drawn somewhere between the style of the animated Watership Down and some contemporary depressed indie animator. Or maybe what I was seeing was the video game version? We are definitely not in the “real” world in this novel, although that “real world” is referred to several times as a distant capital with large buildings. The couple, husband and wife chose to not live there and instead live In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. This world has the ahistorical feel of your average video game in which the hero will encounter a limited set of creatures in a limited set of landscapes– The landscape in the background is not detailed or even alive, similar to those static video game backdrops that your character runs against as he encounters various different obstacles or enemies. (I’m talking video games from the 1980s and early 1990s– I’m  aware that video games have approached a near-cinematic level of detail .)

The author sticks to this palate with such tenacity that I found the novel difficult to read at times. Instead it was easier to dream up what “real” life scenario impelled him to write this novel in the first place? There is so much pain and so much raw feeling and so much hurt that cannot describe itself but only act–Only “sing”, or “dig” or trap, or bury–a world of action. One is lead to not only attempt to decipher the characters’ inner worlds as expressed in different motor activities and their interaction with the limited built environment, but also attempt to decipher the trauma the author has experienced in the narrative that he weaves. Clearly this is a novel about the inability of a married man and women to have a child and the psychological nightmare this pain engenders. If there is a part of our brain and body that is hard-wired to mother and care for a child, the awareness and desire to live this ability coupled with an inability to create the child will create an acute and unnameable depression. The strength of this book is that this is probably the only way this pain and personal biological history could be told– In the thick smoke of trauma time and language intersect–a direct narration of the event, let me tell you my story, this also folds back on time and the pain and blackness return, language fails and words even taste like death or the fear of the closeness of death.

There are many techniques to attempt to dramatize the impossible trauma. My personal evolution over the past decade has led me further and further away from narratives that transcendentalize history and the material human community. Am I just “into” realism? Have I read too much Balzac? How boring is that? I thought that realist art forms were played out and that only the avant-garde theater artists could save us? Have I read too much Marx? Am I a fetishist for the base over the superstructure? All your base are belong to us? Why can’t I simply accept this fable as a modern fairy tale, allow the variables to play out in my mind on their own terms without constantly trying to find a real-world referent or secret decoder ring that will allow each of these archetypal humans or animals or hybrids to find a workable definition beyond the tautological? Perhaps I am too close to the subject matter at hand to have read this novel with a relaxed mind. I’m sure Matt Bell would have a good explanation as he seems to be a smart enough writer, but I can’t believe that this is a moment for fantasy unrooted from history– The point of the man and woman going to the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods is precisely to find that ahistorical landscape. This is purposeful, to create a programmed and coded ahistorical deracinated topos on which two procreating individuals can meditate on fertility and its negation. Although this world and its primal encounters is what the trauma feels like, we have lost any referent or pathway back to our own human history and its vicissitudes.

Fertility is not a constant, but a historically conditioned variable. Reliable birth control is a very very recent historical phenomenon whose impact on human interaction, sexuality, capitalism is still being tested and discovered. Fertility drugs have also changed the landscape of 21st century procreation, increasing the number of fraternal twins and triplets, not to mention allowing women to give birth at an older age. There is also the wonderful world of same-sex couples, lesbians having children, gay men adopting or finding a surrogate mother to give birth to their children. All of these mostly contemporary problems also are attached to historical conundrums and social forms that are in constant flux. Meteor-Shower-Wallpapers-5We are far far away from a world in which each sex is as fixed as a constellation. The stars are falling and melting, like the moon that crashes down “bursting into some innumerable flock of missiles” in this novel.

I crave the historicity of Moby Dick — Melville knew that as he was approaching fundamental historical questions and almost-archetypal forms that his narrative required a contemporary material reality like none other. A good third of that novel is almost scientific, tying us to the lived world and the lived knowledge of this world. In this way Melville avoids “a hideous and intolerable allegory”. Essentializing, mythifying and uprooting characters from a concrete historical experience smooths over our distinctive wrinkles and fingerprints, wishes away the gravity of writing in a historical moment and sucks the air out of art.

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Denmark’s a Prison

An interesting article “Drama for Cannibals” over at The New Inquiry by Malcolm Harris muses on the contemporary practice of presenting/studying/creating Shakespeare plays in prisons in the US. hamletThe piece argues against Shakespeare’s supposedly solitary vision of human experience as this only reinforces the capitalist ideology of the oppressor state, its prisons and the multitude of solitary confinements that are both idealized as a general form of human endeavor and a widespread punishment as well– Shakespeare’s ostensible dramatization and elaboration of the jail that is the individual human conscience is opposed to literary forms that would foreground a subjective commonality and dramatize humans laboring in concert much like the seamen of Moby Dick. But is this really a true rendering of Shakespeare’s theatrical vision? And what role exactly does art play in exhorting the subjugated to realize previously invisible common bonds where before only a chaotic state of nature was apparent?

Performances and theater at prisons lends an aura of reality and potential for “truth” that is rare in the cultural sphere– Think of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” or the 1957 performance of “Waiting for Godot” at San Quentin which famously saw the supposedly esoteric modernist riddle of a play overwhelm and intellectually stimulate an audience of 1400 inmates. Harris doesn’t really dwell on this aspect of carceral edutainment, but an audience of convicts can become a sort of litmus test for artistic authenticity as well. The gritty masculine authenticity of Cash and the sere, macabre poetic drama of Beckett are validated by auditors who have already tasted the real and who would (in theory) not tolerate spurious and misleading artifice. It’s difficult to find mention of contemporary prison performances of recent artistic work, or major singers or bands (Godot was first staged in 1953, only four years before its staging at San Quentin) . Metallica played Folsom and shot a music video there in 2003, but the very fact that they used the location that Cash made famous weakens its potential power, moving it closer to a post-modern “do-over”. Metallica at a SuperMax in Texas would have been much more provocative, say, but would they be allowed? And can one even imagine a play written in the past 10 years being presented to a rapt audience in a prison?


I’m unsure of how performances at prisons are produced but my modest guess is that at the very least the number of artists requesting to perform has steadily declined over the years as the revolutionary and counter-cultural energy has also declined over the past 50 years. It would be interesting to know if rappers are interested in performing in prisons and if they have asked whether they have been denied or not. My immediate guess would be that rappers would be denied for racist “safety” reasons but I could also guess that rappers (many of whom have served time) would have no interest in such a performance. Who wants to go back to prison?

The prevailing tactic  is to downplay the fundamental role of prisons in contemporary society, the hypocritical laws that send most inmates there and thus ignore this  immoral travesty at the heart of the “free” world. Harris quotes a New Yorker article that quotes Charles Dickens on his 1842 voyage to America. Dickens was horrified by the Philadelphia prison he visited and the solitary silent punishments it individually and scientifically meted out:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body […] therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. “

The course Foucault charts of the historical implementation of a supposedly more “humane” method of punishment has never fooled more perspicacious minds, but it has been mostly successful in mollifying the population by hiding the process and turning down the volume. It is difficult to be roused by something that has been “reformed” and almost completely removed from public view. When it does choose to focus on the penal system the denotative lattice of the media for the most part does an adequate job of sensationalizing criminality (The Wire) or emphasizing innocence (Prison Break, Shawshank Redemption, The Exonerated)  as opposed to focusing on the racist and arbitrary laws and their enforcement which lead to a systemic horrorshow. [I haven’t seen OZ, aka “the most brutal show on television”, perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule?] As the number of prisons and prisoners grows its reflection in the mediated sphere we inhabit takes up less and less space.

These speculations lead us to the question of what exactly does a prison performance entail and Harris’ essay rightly picks apart the host of prison reform projects and artistic services that barely escape the sinister ideology of uplift, moral correction (corporeal discipline, psychological annihilation) that prison “reformers” have been focusing on since the Enlightenment. Prison performances thus have a hard time escaping from the prison industrial complex as a whole. Harris writes:

If the carceral system is the country’s fundamental fact, then its fundamental logic is that of cuffs, bars, and guns. No readings or performances are going to change that, but they can change the way we see it from the outside. Without a story about 2,266,800 bad choices, America is just a country that keeps its underclasses in cages.

Under this telling the famous performance of Waiting for Godot then maybe would be less a validation of that difficult play’s inner truth and more a sentimental validation that the convict audience was actually “human” because it could appreciate High Modernist Art. pinocchioHarris’ essay is excellent at unpacking the insidious ways the humanistic apparatus is marshaled in a fundamentally condescending direction. Here is some culture for you. It reflects the immutable values we hold to be self evident. When you learn to love it we will know you are a true human. Or a True Boy– This is the Pinocchio vision of society in which a host of disobeying, lying, delinquent puppets have to learn to listen to their Jiminy Crickets and forswear their pasts by acting “brave, truthful and unselfish” before they can be turned into a true human being.

Harris’ essay, however, conflates the often duplicitous prison-reform apparatus with the texts that are assigned. In this case his target is Shakespeare whose supposedly monolithic and obvious politics reveals his work to be an idea candidate for reinforcing an inhumane corporeal warehouse system:

Shakespeare’s drama for cannibals lends a sense of noble inevitability to a prison system that’s not only historically and globally specific, but exceptional. It’s fitting theatre for a society that eats its own.

The cannibal reference is Brecht’s. It’s from 1928 when Brecht, deep in his theoretical confrontation with Marxism expounded on Shakespearean tragic heroes. Here is Brecht as quoted in the article:

Shakespeare pushes the great individuals out of their human relationships (family, state) out onto the heath, into complete isolation, where he must pretend to be great in his decline …

lear_1799310cHow does Shakespeare’s project relate to the rise of the atomized economic actor? The Neoliberal subject? The social contract between monads? Does it trumpet the historical arrival of this theoretical subject? So many books have been written on this that one might as well cite Margot Heinemann in her essay “How Brecht Read Shakespeare” in  Political Shakespeare:

Not only do the ideas change over time, but even at the same period Brecht will emphasize one side of a contradiction in one piece and a different side in another, according to the point being argued over.

She later cites Brecht:

‘The audience should see not simply people who do their own deed . . . but human beings, but shifting raw material, unformed, undefined, that can surprise them. […] There are certain laws that apply to class. They apply to the individual only in so far as he coincides with his class, i.e. not absolutely; for the concept of class is only arrived at by ignoring particular features of the individual. You’re not representing principles but human beings’ (Messignkauf Diaries, p. 80).

The friction between the group and the individual is recurrent, but emphasis on this dynamic hardly has to necessarily betray any potential class cohesiveness or brotherhood. Endless contemporary political formations and fractures only reinforce the fact that failures to address theoretically the group/individual dynamic imperil the revolutionary project. Brecht was reading Shakespeare his whole life, hardly throwing him in the rubbish heap like a Shaw or Tolstoy and one quote of his hardly proves that Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus reinforces a bourgeois subject cleverly unmoored from historical specificity and singularly devoted to “inventing the human”. Harris instead writes:

This dramatic arc doesn’t belong to humanity writ large. It belongs to a particular personality, born of very particular circumstances, and is generalized to whole populations because it’s convenient for an enriched few. When we talk about ideology and propaganda, we should suspect our contemporary media, but also our cultural touchstones. No one has a consciousness more archetypically false than a prisoner who believes he’s free.

This is a problematic argument as it pertains to Shakespeare and there are several ways to approach it. The first chapter of Lawrence Levine’s classic Highbrow/Lowbrow subtitled “Shakespeare in America” tells the story of a playwright whose works the lower classes of the nascent nation were intimately familiar with. Levine’s well-researched argument is that Shakespeare once was the popular poet, the working man’s writer of antebellum America. 263- 872b, digital composite of 4 imagesOnly with the explosion of the urban population and growth of industrial capitalism does Shakespeare’s position in American society upend. The quotidien bard for the urban artisans and frontier riverboatmen ends up “archaic and inaccessible” as the bifurcation of American culture into “highbrow” and “lowbrow” take place. So not only is Shakespeare an elusive figure who nevertheless is a “particular personality, born of very particular circumstances” his association with the “enriched few” also a process that is historically particular and contingent.

A prisoner who loses himself in Shakespearean roles and claims that “I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be,” is naively encountering art, seemingly unaware of the dialectical contradiction of theatrical mimesis, that “escapism” is also “real”. Denying the fundamental tension between representation and reality is the fault of the teacher and student. It surely isn’t Shakespeare’s fault; Hamlet’s meta-drama “The Mousetrap” argues effectively enough as to the magic of the mimetic dilemma. But Harris writes:

At the heart of both the Shakespearean tragedy and the story the American justice system tells about itself is a bad choice. Prisoners, it’s nice to think, are people who have made mistakes and are facing the consequences.

A statement that doesn’t adequately describe Shakespearean drama or tragedy at all– Tragedy’s function or engine is one that at its very heart calls into question why a bad choice might be a good choice, or vice versa. It’s a questioning of categories with terrible consequences– Morality slip in from time to time, but good tragedy digs to the root of our assumptions of what good and bad ultimately stand for. Usually the terrible consequences are created not by “bad choices”, but by societal conditions unable to withstand aleatory human contradictions. Antigone reveals an individual bound to familial rites against a paranoid city-state at war; Ajax cannot abide a hierarchy that fails to reward the most deserving soldier; Philoctetes is the victim of a hypocritical army that demands his participation in a conflict that he was previously banned from joining. Hamlet doesn’t make a bad decision per se, but is driven to madness in a world that is nothing but lies. Lear is driven out to the wild weather of the heath, but only after his “good” daughter herself makes a “bad (good)” decision that drives him to make a “bad(good)” decision that leads us to learn more truth but that exposes the ruthlessness and bare greed that underlay peaceful transfers of power; Othello makes a bad decision, but not alone. More examples only would provide more hues to this palate of the “Great” tragedies of the Western “cannon”. But Harris instead writes:

There is genius in every prison because there is genius wherever people, never alone, make a world for themselves. In the Shakespeare-in-prison stories, the inmates, like Richard III, are eaten “with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end,” but always eaten, and always alone. The Bard’s tragedies are solitary confinement for the mind. America would rather teach its prisoners that man is most human in isolation than learn from them that the opposite is true.

Except that the opposite of this is true–First, on a purely biopolitical level, the theatrical enterprise is a communal one. Different human beings must come together to learn their lines so that they can represent a character with other actors and create a story as an ensemble. hamlet - the playersA world is created, a world of contradiction necessarily as I wrote above because theater and all art creation depend on the strange cohabitation of fantasy and truth. This is also meta-dramatically elaborated on a theoretical level in Hamlet with the arrival of the players–Shakespeare is obsessed with folding his arguments back to the process, the dramatic process, its limitations, the material problems of community and individuality. The creation of art, in the end becomes a powerful truth process that ironically contrasts with the bizarre humanity of the players who decide to “put on a show” (Another meta-drama occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play which perhaps critiques and attempts to deepen the naive dramaturgy of an earlier effort that concentrates on young lovers at odds with their parents: Romeo and Juliet.) So at a biopolitical level the theater is a communal effort that despite its frictions and “dramas” is also a truth process.

Although there isn’t enough time to really develop a serious play-by-play argument here, I would simply argue that The Bard’s tragedies are not solitary confinement for the mind. The most extreme case perhaps makes the point– Take the most isolated Shakespearean hero, Hamlet– He is privileged with a knowledge that leads him to believe that everyone around him is lying. All other characters are mostly corrupt and crazy save his devoted friend Horatio–And yet his anxiety over revenge, action, his mental anguish and solitary musings are still contextual and relational–fortinbrasOne of the interesting flourishes of this play is Hamlet’s foil, or double, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras who is busy invading Poland: “a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name./ To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.” Hamlet makes his decision and steels his nerves by looking at history unfolding around him, the process of armies fighting and many soldiers dying over nothing. This is hardly isolation or a meditation on an ersatz “human nature”, but a soliloquy of a human caught in a deceitful community who uses an historical specificity to help him take a step towards action:

Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

How can I stand by fretting over my own just potential act of revenge when the world is bent on mutual annihilation over contrived pretexts? Hamlet’s act of revenge concerns his family and the state, which are already intertwined and he is pushed into potential action by observing and analyzing history, which is marching around him, and which will quickly invade and subsume his own inward-looking and degenerate castle and country.

This is one example, hastily described, which perhaps makes a poor case that a Shakespearean hero is more than an exercise of solitary-confinement and is instead a truth-seeking machine whose main concern is the world, the contemporary historical processes in development and the relationship of the psyche to the social forms that inhibit or accelerate this truth-machine in its quest.

Harold Bloom and other may prefer to intone on the “invention of the human” and rip characters from their context to create a variety of archetypes of the human condition, but it hardly make his analysis correct. Marshaling this “humane” Shakespeare as a salve to heal the wounds of childish prisoners is a symptom of the liberal humanitarian bereft of a structural analysis– uss-hunchback-crewTrue his art is not one that depicts the communal craft of men toiling together in concert harpooning whales, working with their hands, inhabiting a utopian space of hope where the modern subject can commingle with the ante-mosaic cosmic man. But at the risk of being reductive, the drama as a literary and performative form has never really focused on the community, or communal life in a positive revolutionary way (or am I wrong?). Society and community in drama and especially in tragedy is something with which the self comes into terrible and unresolvable conflict. And dramatizing these conflicts of self vs. society was the paramount concern of the Attic Greeks who clearly have nothing to do with capitalism and much to do with revolution, “democracy” (yes many slaves in Athens, yes no women citizens, I know), killing tyrants, to a radical degree for 500 BC, serving as a model and warning to many subsequent attempts at equality through the ages–The brutal and impossible quandaries of Athenian drama and the birth of this form coincide with the revolutionary political opening of the 5th century BCE and its trials and tribulations to such an extent that it tempts me to claim that drama and tragedy have a special relationship to revolution and the questions it asks.

What is revolution but a truth-process that intensifies discontented masses into a cohesive vector which is able to shatter previous power relationships and replace them with new forms of political (that is polis,  *urban* or *proximity*) organization– athenian revolution - oberIt would seem that the process of revolution is one of many historical incidences of the self subjugated to the whole in the interest of the event or movement, but unlike the Army which asks for a similar subjectivization, the revolutionary process also asks the utopian questions that allow the subject to dream, to stretch his or her mind, to call into question the existing arrangements and theorize about how to make the new now and the now new. Revolution, while a primarily communal process, will also always necessarily be a process of subjectivization in which the previous categories of self-knowledge are broken and remade in the mind.

Tragedy is the artistic form that best captures these inevitable disjunctures that will occur amidst the dust of the rebellion. The slippage between the one and the many. Asking these questions I believe deepens revolutionary praxis, taking extreme cases in order to test the theory and question the inevitable crushing of psyches under a historical juggernaut. The revolution Shakespeare was living under was the painful birth of capitalist land relations under a violent and bloody upheaval in the countryside; his work however is filled with contradictions and questions moreso than any proselytizing for a new kind of man. It is not the art that urges comrades to fight and die in concert, but to what degree is art in that vein superior or efficacious in terms of raising the consciousness of prisoners?

The prisoner in the United States today has been caught up in and caught by a hypocritical, racist and psychotically punitive society. The system is rigged, the powerful are liars, deceivers and cheats. Even friends and comrades can be paid mercenaries of a state intent on your destruction, or at least your confusion. There is a time for rebellion, but there is also a time for a serious dissection of the often tenuous bonds that ask the self to cohere to its collectivities– everyone who has struggled with social movements and the theory of movement praxis is painfully aware of these slippages. Tragedy is the distillation of this negation to a necessarily painful degree.

As harsh and bleak the border between the prison and free society is, there is nevertheless a gradual blurring of the line as neighborhoods, demonstrations and…everything is more and more heavily policed. The panopticon is not just a 19th century surveillance technique but now a synecdoche for society. Successful strategies for the withering away of the prison-state will recognize the seepage of the prison and police deeper into the boring necessities of contemporary self-reproduction. The lines are drawn both by the prison fence but also across it and from it outwards and outwards and reflected and reflected. and Shakespeare’s dark and difficult tragedies

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me

it is a prison.

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Richard Foreman’s “Old Fashioned Prostitutes” at the Public Theater

oldfashioned_50pAround this time last year I was busy writing my thoughts on a lot of the theater I was attending here in New York City. A post, 21st Century Capitalism on Stage at the Public Theater was an exploration of two shows there that directly confronted the human dimension of this economic crisis in interesting ways. One of them was the now-notorious one-man show by Mike Daisy about his trip to China to visit the Apple factories there (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”) ; the other was Ethan Lipton’s wry and absurd jazzy song cycle about his being laid off from a survival job titled “No Place to Go.”

This spring finds me attending a show at the Public again, but a show by the avant-garde theatrical experimenter Richard Foreman. Foreman is by now a legend in this area of post-dramatic theater and it is a treat to see an artist born in 1937 and who lived through and pushed forward that whole 1960s experimental era get his slot at a quality theater in NYC to present his latest bizarre creation. In an era obsessed with youth and the next big thing, it is nice that the Public has reached out to a few of these figures (Sondheim, born in 1930, got his troubled musical “Wise Guys” mounted there a few years back. No one else in NYC wanted to produce it. I saw the show in D.C. back in 2002 when it was still called “Bounce.” The musical has had four titles. As they say: If you don’t know what your title is, you don’t know what your show is about. But Sondheim is a genius and geniuses should be given a stage and actors and a budget to present their failures to us. Or at least that’s how it should be.)

deeptranceI have only seen one other Richard Foreman show, “DEEP TRANCE BEHAVIOR IN POTATOLAND” back in 2008. What struck me most of all about that show was how claustrophobic the set was; how the set was constructed, close in to the audience in a space (the Theater at St. Marks) that I have seen so many times completely open and empty; how the actors were allowed no freedom at all, every move and gesture and even facial position and emotion seemed choreographed (as opposed to watching an actor “be real” or really “become” her character in an identificatory way; how the male actors played characters who were like vampires and how the female actors were very feminine; how loud his sound design was at times; how the film at the end had images shot in Japan?; and perhaps most of all (this is the key thing I remember) is that in the hour of the play’s duration I became quite aware of the physicality of my own body, my own weight. How I was sitting, how my legs were crossed, these became conscious as the post-dramatic nature of the “show” took me away from that affective head space I usually find myself when viewing art. Time did not fly by, it sank. Time sank down into my body, time became material and uncomfortable.

And the last time I had felt such a feeling was sitting in church, in a hard pew with a soft cushion that attempted to ameliorate the hardness of the seat. I wouldn’t call this boredom necessarily. Boredom is an emotion engendered more from a deeper unexpressed anxiety that in contemporary society time is money–The monetization of time and the greater and greater monetization of every aspect of our private experience has widened to a totalitarian extent and created the conditions where something like “boredom” can be felt. Thus the wonder Westerners and other citizens of capitalist megalopolises feel when they encounter societies that still have a whiff of that “old” world where wages were not earned by giving one’s time, but by giving the fruits of one’s labor, or one’s whole person in the case of slavery. Even in so-called “developing” societies where capital still has a long way to go in its primary process of uprooting millions of peasants from their land the psychological regime in place is closer to a world where “boredom” is impossible. One should also think how the risk of boredom is so great in countries such as the USA that an absurd fraction of our economy, workers and time is spent in different ways to create and consume the enchanting puzzles of the culture and entertainment and media industry. Or the other side of the coin of boredom is synthetic entertainment. And to be clear: A world without boredom, such as a feudal society, a slavery society or primitive society is not “better” but one in which the mediating emotions are unnecessary– As the wage relation becomes general and experience itself becomes quantified and monetized the emotions also find themselves internalized. The genius of the wage form and the mystery of how surplus value is extracted (As Marx spent his whole career analyzing, researching and theorizing) is that the previous labor forms of giving a share of the fruits of one’s labor to the lord, or emperor or tax collector (or “giving” one’s whole self in the case of slavery) make the collection of surplus value explicit and spectacular; with the generalization of the wage form, the collection of surplus value is mystified, hidden and the old anger and fury against one’s lord or emperor, say, is now internalized against one self– “I need a new job”, “I agreed to work this crappy job for this crappy pay”, “I need to work harder and get a promotion.”

stock, Church pews and red carpet aisleBack to the church– The Protestant church and the internalization process of the personal God is of key importance in the study of the development of markets and the emergence of capitalism and the wage form. But I would say boredom is not what I felt at church when I sat there most Sundays of my youth. It was more an awareness of myself, my body and the incoherence of my thoughts. If the converse of boredom is entertainment and the church services I attended were certainly not entertainment then boredom was not what I felt. Perhaps I could call it “awareness” with a healthy dose of impatience. The explosion of Yoga in contemporary USA (and perhaps worldwide?) as an “exercise” phenomena probably has something to do with fitness, but much more to do with this religious head space that eschews “entertainment”, which leads us towards the body.

Where did that Protestant religious head space that is so closely tied to the emergence of capitalism go? And what exactly is its relationship to capital? Is it really the Weberian cliché of the “Protestant Work Ethic” that is almost synonymous with the “spirit”of capitalism. What if the Protestant head space is instead a sort of sanity check against the oncoming poison gas of capital that is on the verge of annihilating our time, subdividing it into nanoseconds of billable moments, annihilating our space? A question for a different post or different time – – But there can be no doubt that in the era of “Enjoy!” and the totalitarian grip “entertainment” has over our lives that the religious headspace has fallen off and many churches even see their services as forms of entertainment– What has been lost is that mental sphere of “awareness” with a healthy dose of annoyance, annoyance because it is simply not possible to wage a battle against entertainment with non-dramatic forms without annoying a good percentage of your entertainment-drunk audience.

soft-watch-at-the-moment-of-first-explosion-226064Think of your time– Your work and how your work shapes your time. That is your work and your work is intimately connected to your money and your self-reproduction. This is one headspace of the wage, or the salary. Then think about your non-work time. This will be eating, sleeping, communicating, sex and entertainment. Eating and sleeping time are twinned with our work time because it is our money which allows us to eat and our sleeping which allows us to restore our headspace so that we can work. It is “entertainment” time where there is a gap, a gap that can be filled by contemporary “boredom”, but more likely it will become an oversaturated, mediated zone where our sexual phantasies or revolutionary dreaming play out and intersect and fuse and forge and spill over into the other zones. This is not the religious space. The religious space confronts itself partially as the negation of the entertainment space–and under a commiditized temporality this negation takes on a dangerously negative aspect because if it seriously presents itself as anti-entertainment then this would lead us to question its content, which must be political. So as I wrote religion becomes entertainment in many instances, but also “devotional” forms of entertainment like yoga and “exercise” also find a more widespread acceptance.

So what if theater itself were to lead in this direction? It already has in many ways and many forms. I don’t think Richard Foreman is interested in anything “religious” and I haven’t read enough of his journals online to really know what his overarching concerns are. I’m also not really aware of what his explicit theoretical approach is. But to experience one of his plays is to be taken into a new headspace that will be unfamiliar to most contemporary audiences. I have avoided speaking of the content of this play, “Old-Fashioned Prostitutes”, but I can only say that watching the work is like swimming around the mind of an older man and watching the ego, id and superego duke it out against a dyad of desirable coquettes: The main character “Samuel” speaks in a vague southern accent with the grammar of an ego struggling with memories interrupted by a judgmental, superegoish recorded voice harshly interjecting its opinion: “OKAY”. All the while an impish ID scrambles across the stage like a character from MAD Magazine, holding a mirror to deflect the gaze back onto the viewer– Then the prostitutes lean seductively on poles and talk in gnomic utterances and slowly grow more and more confrontational. Both “Samuel” and the prostitute “Suzie” have “best friends”, narcissistic doubles that fill out the action, heighten the chaos, and shuffle the variety of character combinations while lights blink then glow and fade, sound crashes, walls move upstage and quickly close, doors slam, and characters drop boxes off the front of the stage, a sort of ritualized menstruation.

There is poetry and it is evocative, but we are in another man’s mind and only so much signal can come from so much noise. There is no history here except a personal internal history– “Old-fashioned” gives us an idea that there is a sort of literary nostalgia at play, but beyond that… It is much easier to write of plays that confront a historical situation such as the two I wrote about last year and linked to above, but a play such as this (even if unconsciously) tells us something about our contemporaneity, our time, the material passing of time and specifically what that passing of time feels like, or can feel like, or did feel like.

old fashioned 2

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Bangladesh at a Precipice – A tale of two massacres

I attended a talk last Thursday night at CUNY Graduate Center that focused on the Shahbag Movement in Bangladesh, which was a quasi-spontaneous movement of individuals who descended on the Shahbag neighborhood a few months ago in Dhaka in protest after an International Crimes Tribunal there failed to declare a death sentence on war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah (who received a life sentence instead). This tribunal and the movement that created it (and pressures it) revolves around the prosecution of a few key figures who have escaped punishment for the more generalized, widespread violence and genocide at the time of Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971– The recent collapse of a textile factory in Dhaka that has killed at least 501, 600 (which will most likely rise) is one of the worst manufacturing disasters in human history and will also see the trials of a few key figures who will be found guilty while the more generalized, widespread violence of capitalistic competition and cost-cutting will escape prosecution. These two events, while concerned with scenarios separated by decades and distanced by the different foci of nationalism/genocide vs. international finance/proletarianization still allow us to focus on this unique area of the world where a confluence of currents shows the crisis of bourgeois/market capitalist democracy.


Bangladesh of course was not always “Bangladesh”– Because of its predominately Muslim population it was made a part of Pakistan (called “East Pakistan”) at the time of Indian independence and partition in the late 1940s. This drawing of borders and creation of two new countries (India and Pakistan) of course led to many massacres as the exact position of each country’s new boundary line left many groups on the wrong side of the fence as unprotected minorities. Millions of Hindus in what was now Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) fled their homelands as refugees into India, and many Muslims fled violence in India and emigrated as well. Communal violence was rampant and many massacres and atrocities were committed by both sides.

Fast forward to 1971 when Bengalis in East Pakistan fought for independence from Pakistan after the 1970 election result (which was won by the Bengali nationalist party Awami League) was not honored by the Military leadership in Pakistan. Bengalis, who already speak a different language from the Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and were chafing under the yoke their distant ruler took up arms against the Pakistani army which quickly became murderous, targeting intellectuals and instituting a policy of mass-rape. This terrorizing of a civilian population coincided with months of organized and spontaneous guerrilla warfare against the Pakistani army by Bengali irregulars and militias. But when the Indian army (provoked into fighting by Pakistan preemptively bombing an Indian airbase) joined the struggle, the combined Indian-Bengali forces had the Pakistani army on its knees within two weeks. 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, most (or all?) of which escaped punishment (even for heinous crimes) under complicated prisoner exchanges to ensure the safe return of Bengalis residing in (West) Pakistan. The context for this 2013 International Crimes Tribunal is thus atrocities committed in 1971 not by members of the Pakistani army (who received a blanket amnesty), but the “fifth column” of Bengalis who supported the Pakistanis and helped commit massacres during the war.

bangladesh 1971

These Razakar collaborators for the most part escaped trial through similar amnesty or prisoner-exchange schemes after the war with the result that over the decades the Bengali traitors to the independence movement have slowly found their way back into power. Because the British split their colony along religious lines with Pakistan becoming an Islamic state and India Hindu, the Bengali Razakars (which means “volunteer” in Urdu) in Bangladesh who fought with or guided the Pakistani Army mostly had the ideological commitment to preserving Pakistan and East Pakistan as one country for all Muslim believers. The Islamic political parties and formations such as Jamaat-e-Islami are thus at the center of the controversy as the demands of the Shahbag protestors modulated into demands that this Islamic party be banned once again and forbidden from politics.

The contemporary political terrain is complex and adding to the complexity is that (as one speaker put it) 80% of all Bengalis alive today were born after the 1971 conflict. It is a very young country and yet the salient political questions hinge on historical questions that occurred before a large majority of the citizens were born. One of the speakers Nazmul Sultan had previously published an article on Radical Notes titled “Situating the Shahbag Movement: Re-founding the National?” which raises the national question in the context of Shahbag:

Instead of simply seeking to resolve the lingering question of history, this movement is arguably accomplishing something more than that: it is re-founding what we earlier termed the national. The national, of course, never left Bangladeshis.  Since the Jamaatis [members of Jamaat-e-Islami] have held state-power and have some public support, they often claim to be equally naturalised and the term Razakar no longer exists. While the members of Jamaat may win seats in national election and get one or two ministerial posts, the symbolic form of the term Razakar remains an outsider. This thus does not make the symbolic form of the Razakar integral to “the national”. The Jamaatis’ argument is something like this: their political opponents construe them as outsider or Razakar, while they do not actually fit the term. By arguing so, they speak in the terms of the very language that seeks to banish them from the ground of the countable (or the legitimate). The empty place of Razakar, the constitutive other, remains intact even when the signified Razakars come to share state power. The Razakars are those who can neither be absolutely excluded from the national (for the national needs the other to demarcate itself), nor can they be counted as an inclusive category of the national.

By mobilising the demand for excluding the Razakars from the legitimate space of politics, the Shahbag movement is not only seeking to resolve a historical question, but also performing the re-foundation of the national – i.e. it is tantamount to a call for re-asserting the absolute that is the national. The desire to negate that which denies the self-evident reality of the national accomplishes more than provisionally clarifying the unfinished assertion of the foundation. Without this recurrent negation of the other – that is the Razakar   the national cannot lay a positive foundation for itself. This negation, in other words, is a positive negation. The re-foundation is neither a return nor a plain continuation of the foundation. This is a renewal that seeks to re-assert the foundation, but the renewal takes place at a distinct point of conjuncture, and thus open to political prospects and pitfalls that often overflow the logical form of the idealised foundation.

This renewal of the national also is an evtentualization of politics that attempts to short-circuit the moribund processes of the current liberal market democracy that has so spectacularly failed to protect its citizens. Throughout the 1990s groups calling for a trial against these Razakars were prosecuted as enemies of the state for digging up long-buried ghosts. Calling for a tribunal of war criminals was simply not an acceptable position to take and those agitating for the trials were thought to be anti-Islamic, or even Indian spies trying to destabilize Bangladesh. But when the thoroughly capitalist (but roughly “liberal”) Awami League party found itself out of power for almost a decade, it decided to listen to popular demands and made the trial of the war criminals a part of the platform for the 2008 elections, which they won decisively. This is not the first time a bourgeois party which smiles left but walks right attempts to energize its base through electoral promises which it is nearly structurally incapable of fulfilling. But a promise is a promise and 40 years after the atrocities were committed the trials are taking place. In the case of this current tribunal there are rumors of backroom deals between the Awami League and its rivals the BNP that swayed the judges from delivering the death penalty. The Shahbag movement is thus that attempt to circumvent the bourgeois political machines and their commitment to cementing their own power and profit.

The owner of the factory that has massacred so many workers Mohammed Sohel Rana, paints an interesting portrait of interconnections between politics and business in Bangladesh. As this NPR article quotes, you couldn’t find a better example of how capital operates in the realm of contemporary electoral politics:

While Rana is currently a leader of the youth group of the ruling Awami League, he has also worked for that party’s archrival, the Bangladesh National Party.

“He doesn’t belong to any particular political party,” said Ashrafuddin Khan Imu, an Awami League leader and longtime Rana rival. “Whatever party is in power, he is there.”

But blaming a “corrupt” political process for this manufacturing catastrophe is a cynical ploy better left to magazines such as the Economist which from a safe distance have been busy ridiculing the Bengali government and regulatory agencies for their carelessness while watching the clothing retailers profits grow and grow. But Bangladesh is also a country where the prominent labor organizer Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered in April 2012. Although a gruesome death, it is this sort of violent intimidation and repression that creates the conditions in which wages can be as low as they are. The Gap, Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M are all dependent on a labor environment that actively works to crush worker organization and brutally repress their leaders. The rule of bourgeois political parties is a rule by massacre.

In early 2010, the country’s popular prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, expressed sympathy for garment factory workers. But after the government agreed to raise minimum wages to 3,000 taka, she said that her government would not tolerate any more protests.

Soon after, the police arrested Mr. Islam, along with more than a dozen other workers and activists. Mr. Islam and several of his associates were charged with instigating riots — accusations that he and the others denied. Criminal cases against him and two other senior labor leaders, Kalpona Akhter and Babul Akter, are pending.


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Article on Jacobin Magazine

My blog thoughts have usually extended (devolved) into magazine-length articles anyway, so I decided to send my thoughts on Les Miserables (both the musical, the film(s), the book) and Victor Hugo to Jacobin Magazine and now it is HERE. An essay that attempts to bridge the gap between (musical) theater and politics, a recurring theme here. 


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