Walter Benjamin, Diabolical Hater

November 28, 2012

Walter Benjamin going in on the dissident bourgeois poet Erich Kastner:

The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption, is characteristic of this literature.

But it doesn’t stop there. Benjamin deigns to quote himself (“a perceptive critic”), from “Left Wing Melancholy,” to sum up:

These extreme left-wing intellectuals have nothing to do with the worker’s movement. Rather they exist as the mirror image of that fringe of bourgeois decadence which tried to assimilate itself to feudal strata and admired the Empire in the person of the reserve lieutenant. … Their function, seen from a political point of view, is to form not a Party, but a clique, seen from a literary point of view, not a school but a fad, from an economic point of view not to become producers but agents. Agents or hacks, who make a great show of their poverty and congratulate themselves on the yawning void. It would be impossible to carve a more comfortable position out of an uncomfortable situation.

Instead, Benjamin wanted art that would, by revealing its techniques, destroy the (class) divide between reader and writer. It was praxis, not merely aestheticization of politics (Benjamin would have even stronger words for such a tendency in a later essay). In Benjamin’s estimation, Kastner’s stuff, for all its radical trappings, was still bent on enhancing the author’s prestige in the eyes of his own circle and in the eyes of those he was criticizing.

The poetry of Fredric Jameson

April 13, 2012

Copying and pasting passages from a PDF produced some interesting line-breaks… These are from “Periodizing the ’60s” (which has some interesting ideas on the proliferation of small affinity groups in that period, via Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason):

The  final  ambiguity  with  which  we  leave  this
is  the
the  60s,  often
imagined  as  a period
in  which
capital  and  first world  power
are  in retreat  all  over  the  globe,  can
just  as
easily  be
conceptualized  as  a
in  which
is  in  full  dynamic  and  innovative  expansion,
equipped  with  a whole  armature  of  fresh  production  techniques  and  new
“means  of  production.”


However  para-
doxical  a  “materialist” philosophy  may  be  in  this  respect,  a “materialist
theory of
language” will clearly
transform the very
function and operation
of  “theory,”
since it opens  up a dynamic
in which  it is no
longer ideas, but
rather texts, material texts, which
struggle with  one  another. Theory  so
defined, (and it will have become  clear that the term now  greatly
what used to be called philosophy  and its
specialized content) conceives  of
its vocation,  not as the discovery  of truth and the repudiation of error, but
rather as a
struggle about purely linguistic formulations, as the attempt
formulate verbal propositions (material language)
in such  a way
are unable to
imply unwanted  or
ideological  consequences.


late capitalism
in general (and the 60s  in particular)
constitute  a process
in which  the last
internal and external zones
of  precapitalism-the
last vestiges  of  noncommodified  or traditional space
within and outside the advanced world-
are  now  ultimately penetrated and
colonized  in their turn. Late capitalism can therefore be  described  as the
moment  in  which  the  last  vestiges  of  Nature  which  survived  on  into
classical capitalism are at
length eliminated: namely
the third world and the

You Might Stop the Party But You Can’t Stop the Future

December 12, 2011

The acid house explosion provided an inspirational moment for the London underground, participants in which were taking squats and throwing parties amid the sensorial atmosphere enhanced by new technologies, music, and drugs. Under a novel soundtrack and mindscape, these were adventurous times in which a bizarre range of disused government and industrial buildings were occupied. Circus Normal held several huge events in 1990 in a bus garage in Camberwell reputed to be endowed with the largest single-space roof in Europe. Circus Lunatek broke into and occupied a NatWest bank in New Cross and a Barclays in Brockley, South London, in 1991. They would even occupy a police station garage in Elephant & Castle, South London, with Jiba, Vox Populi, and Bedlam sound systems in 1992, and admitted themselves to a ballet school in Kent with Bedlam and others in 1993.

-Graham St John, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures

While the Occupy movement excavates its history of successful political actions, as Julie McIntyre points out we should also incorporate into this narrative the “libidinal disruptions” and cultural productions that characterize interventions into militarized space. The golden age of rave is over (many claimed it was over by the Nineties), but squat raves persist, while sloughing off some of the more carnivalesque trappings of old. Whereas the early squat ravers’ militancy was mostly semiotic, in the language of their flyers and track titles, a generation growing up under the militarized police forces of neoliberalism often take things a step or two further. Attendants at this 2010 squat rave successfully repulsed attacks by riot police.

The soundtrack is stripped of any new ageism of early rave, just caustic beats with the repeated refrain of “fuck the police.” As we all know, this slogan was popularized by N.W.A., whose own militant aesthetic arose from the then-extraordinary military-style repression that characterized the LAPD’s pursuit of the “War on Drugs.” An earlier L.A. rap song on this topic, Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” from 1985, had a more bemused tone than NWA, but served as a nationwide warning call to ghettos across the U.S.: “New York, it’s coming. Detroit, it’s coming. L.A., it’s coming – no, it’s here!” over the diesel churn of LAPD’s military hardware.

Another song of similarly striking prescience is IDC’s “This Is Not A Riot” from 2009, which begins with a clip from “V for Vendetta,” which, through the use of its imagery by the hacker collective Anonymous, has become associated with the #Occupy movement. The track samples another police military device, the Long-Range Acoustical Weapon (LRAD) used at the protests in Pittsburgh of that year’s G20, and more recently during the raids on occupations in Boston and New York. It splices this with protester chants of “Disobey your orders.” These were directed at the cops breaking up the protest, but their decontextualization in the song destabilizes the command: it is now free-floating injunction to refuse. The shrill chirping of the LRAD melds into the oscillations of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer which characterized acid house. The music had anticipated militant sonics and had been preparing us.

At the front lines of squat raving, Spiral Tribe faced enormous police repression. In 1992, when riot police amassed outside their party space — an abandoned UniChem warehouse in London — ravers barricaded themselves inside. The police broke through the wall, not with a battering ram, but with a JCB Digger. A witness recounts a scene that echoes contemporary Oakland, Manhattan, Boston:

At this point, there were about 750 people in the building – all trying to escape the vicious onslaught from the police. A panic started as people tried to crush through one small exit. Instead of alleviating the crush, the police pushed up hard behind everyone, hitting out and forcing everyone face down to the ground. Some people were singled out and given further severe beatings. The police then started on the equipment that had been lent or donated destroying it needlessly.

The local hospital reported up to 700 casualties amongst the party goers with one policeman injured. 5 arrests were made – for assaults on police officers and for breach of the peace. No charges were made against Spiral Tribe.

One of those casualties was a teenager who was thrown off the roof by officers, breaking both his arms and legs. As arrestees were marched past the police, a man with an American accent boasted that in the States, his squad would have emptied the building in twenty minutes. Police forces were colluding on an international scale in cracking down on rave. A Spiral Tribe communique pondered, “Why should a ‘civilized nation’ wish violence upon its youngest citizens for listening to a stigmatized beat? The question baffles most police constables and ravers alike. No-one can see what the problem is. Unless of course for reasons known only to themselves, the archaic powers that be feel the stability of their regime threatened by the strange music and dancing.” Their apparent bafflement comes from analysis that has just missed the mark: it wasn’t the music that mattered to the powers-that-be, and it wasn’t the dancing, not exactly. What’s becoming clear in 2011 is that what really threatens the archaic powers that be, what invites police violence out of all proportion, is engaging in collective social practices independent of state and market, rejecting capitalist commerce and openly mocking property rights. May we continue this proud, global, collective tradition. As Detroit’s Underground Resistance puts it — illegally, using MLK’s copyrighted enunciations for a decidedly non-nonviolent purposes — “Now is the time.”


Media Studies vs. Marxism

November 8, 2011

…it is important to point out that however materialistic [Walter Benjamin’s] approach to history may seem, nothing is farther from Marxism than the stress on invention and technique as the primary cause of historical change. Indeed, it seems to me that such theories (of the kind which regard the steam engine as the cause of the Industrial Revolution, and which have recently have been rehearsed yet again, in streamlined modernistic form, in the works of Marshall McLuhan) function as a substitute for Marxist historiography in the way they offer a feeling of concreteness comparable to economic subject matter, at the same time that they dispense with any consideration of the human factors of classes and of the social organization of production.

–Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (1971)

McLuhan-esque media studies as a bad kind of historical materialism, one that precisely leaves out class struggle (in other words, real human beings) as the motor of history. Wish social media boosters and Twitter revolutionaries thought about this, but their bromides go down so well! Until they don’t:

The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters [i.e. workers] are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, future-of-news ideas would be a good place to start:

• Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.

• Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.

• Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.

• Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.

• Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.

• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too.

Bad historical materialism: great for crooks, too.

Lefebvre is a raver

September 20, 2011

Any revolutionary ‘project’ today, whether utopian or realistic, must, if it is to avoid hopeless banality, make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda.

-Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1973)

Lacan on Fucking and Killing the Poor

August 9, 2011

The episode of Saint Martin and the cloak is one of those paradigmatic parables of charity. Martin, coming across a naked beggar, cuts his own cloak in two to clothe the man.

Here’s Lacan’s interpretation, from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis:

Saint Martin shares his cloak, and a great deal is made of it. Yet it is after all a simple question of training; material is by its very nature made to be disposed of — it belongs to the other as much as it belongs to me. We are no doubt touching a primitive requirement in the need to be satisfied there, for the beggar is naked. But perhaps over and above that need to be clothed, he was begging for something else, namely, that Saint Martin either kill him or fuck him.

Ethics indeed! Of course, Lacan admits, the beggar does have basic needs to be satisfied. But “perhaps” — this word does a lot of work — what the beggar really needs — no, wants — is for the benefactor to, well, it’s (uncharacteristically) pretty clear from what Lacan wrote.

Let me pre-empt any Lacan acolytes out there, who are always ready to jump to their master’s defense. Lacan is drawing a distinction between philanthropy and love, love being for Lacan a violent rupture that at bottom is the desire “to kill him or fuck him.” So he’s saying that if Saint Martin truly loved the beggar as his neighbor, he wouldn’t give him his coat, he would ram his dick down the poor man’s throat. That’s love. None of this pussy-ass charity when you have the guts to stare into the void of the Real! Of course, Lacan was a bit of a trickster, so he could be playing up his language, dropping an f-bomb to make his genteel-but-prurient audience titter while he makes an opaque joke about love. You can go through any number of interpretive backflips to justify what Lacan says; this suppleness, this studied indeterminacy of his work is no doubt one reason why Lacan is so attractive to people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about words and trying to outsmart one another.

But let’s pause with the image Lacan has given us. He wants his audience, bourgeois in an older sense, like Lacan himself, to imagine a hand grasping for help, the epitome of abjection begging for a simple need to be met, as secretly wishing for the superior owner of property to exploit, hurt, use, and dispose of him. The poor want to be used by the rich, and the rich in turn love the poor by exploiting them. This is not even saying that the poor deserve their abjection, as is so common in the West today. This is saying they desire it.

And this is one reason why I can’t understand why any left-leaning person would waste their time with this crap.

Decriminalization of Rape

July 23, 2011

However, by the end of the 15th Century, a counter-revolution [against peasant political advances made after the Black Death] was already under way at every level of social and political life. First, efforts were made by the political authorities to co-opt the youngest and most rebellious male workers, by means of a vicious sexual politics that gave them access to free sex, and turned class antagonism into an antagonism against proletarian women. As Jacques Rossiaud has shown in Medieval Prostitution, in France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class.

–Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch


Chicos Plásticos

July 19, 2011

As we sat on the porch and talked, a teenage boy wearing plastic pants and a plastic jacket walked past the house — a neighbor from down the andén. Such plastic clothes were considered very fashionable among Managua’s teenagers at the time; a whole terminology had sprung up around them: chicos plásticos (plastic boys), whose plasticity resonated with Ciudad Plástica (Plastic City), their favorite haunt. A modernistic, sprawling, mall-like complex at the south end of Managua, Ciudad Plástica sported a range of diversions: boutiques, restaurants, discotheques, and a bowling alley. “Look at that. Plástico, puro plástico,” Flora remarked as the youth walked past us. “Boys are out fighting and dying in the mountains today, and all some of these kids want to do is wear plastic and go to discotheques. What a disgrace.”

–Roger N. Lancaster, Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua (1992)

Adieu to the Funky Flea Market

May 28, 2011

This is the last weekend for the Funky (Fresh) Flea Market in its current location, the Florida Market, and today I made my last visit. The Florida Market, just a few minutes from my house, quickly became one of my favorite parts of DC when I moved here, a bewildering example of “multiculturalism from below” that brought together the DC area’s less wealthy immigrants to haggle over halal meat, overripe produce, cheap Obama merch, and designer knockoffs. Outside the crumbling DC Farmer’s Market building, men in makeshift kiosks blast go-go on amps that sound like they were blown twenty years ago, slinging go-go CDs, sneakers, and contraband cigarettes.

The Funky Flea Market supplemented this heady mixture with all sorts of amateur commerce, mostly of the “roving garage sale” type of dingy electronics equipment, old clothes, and DVDs of second-rate comedies. But you could also buy kompa CDs while listening to a debate over the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, check out hats emblazoned with the Eye of Horus in rhinestones, watch negotiations over tools conducted by people who don’t speak the same language, and pick up cut-rate cleaning supplies. Lately the food options at the market had ballooned: in addition to the half-smoke cart and the Cambodian soups and barbeque in the farmer’s market building, you could get actual lengua tacos (real Mexican food is a rarity in the District; more common are inferior Salvadorean facsimiles), homemade Jamaican curries, sweet bean pies sold by the Nation of Islam, and, inexplicably, Uighur food — greasy succulent kabobs and samsas, a kind of empanada stuffed with potatoes, all cooked on an electric grill.

Like any good flea market, there are records: the usual assortment of decaying Kool and the Gang LPs you’ve never heard of, and of course the occasional gem. Once I named my own price for some UK rave records from a Mexican guy selling mostly drills. Once I encountered a table full of books that must have once belonged to a hapless grad student: I picked up each volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Derrida’s Of Grammatology for a dollar a pop (I left the Pynchon). Today I bought some records from one of the shrewdest vendors, who inevitably stakes out the southwest corner of the lot. He speaks at least four languages of hustle, but prides himself on his customer service: he offered me a small stool to sit on while a pawed through boxes of records. His assortment today was mostly rap 12-inches from 2003-2008 in excellent condition; I almost pulled Young Gunz’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” but I think I have that record somewhere. I did enlarge my collection of Lil Joe compilations of Miami bass music — the story of how a Jewish tax attorney from Long Island became the major purveyor of 2 Live Crew tracks is one that could only come from the music biz. I got three today: Pimps, Playaz, and Hustlaz, Booty Summer Party, and Dirty South Booty Freaknik, a “NON STOP CONTINUOUS GHETTO STYLE DJ’S PARTY MIX.” Highlights: Freak Nasty’s “Da Dip,” MC Shy D’s “Rapp Will Never Die,” and electro classics from Ade and Gigolo Tony.

The Funky Flea Market is more than a place for business, it’s a place for performance. Fortunes are not made here, but an average worker can realize the American Dream of being his own boss and presiding over his storefront, if only for a weekend, and maybe getting a little spending money for the evening. Customers hunt for bargains and audiences, opportunities to display their knowledge of tools they can’t afford, boast of a legendary deal they made or offer advice on how to strap a sofa on top of a conversion van. It’s a social space: you can’t buy something without having a conversation. I did an ethnographic project on the market, visited regularly, talked, and vended one day. I woke at 5 AM, paid my $30 for a space, and heard dozens of stories and fantasies spurred on by the attractive guitar I was selling. Today, proprietor and MC, Mr. Omowale, paid respects to Gil Scott-Heron over the loudspeaker. “He was an artist and social activist, and he faced struggles, just like we all do at some point,” he intoned, before putting on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” The Funky Flea Market is about community as much as commerce.

This community is mostly black and brown, mostly poor and working class, with a large proportion of immigrants, a community in a city whose space for such people is dwindling. The sandwiched between the ersatz bohemia of H Street and the ravenous condo/office space bubble of NoMa (where they pay nonthreatening black people to greet yuppie neophytes when they exit the Metro), the neighborhood has changed from one that catered to the down-and-out to one that caters to the upwardly mobile, the newly propertied, the college-educated and gainfully employed. Something happens to people when they buy overpriced row houses — suddenly everything about a place becomes quantified, transmogrified from the opaqueness of everyday social life into the subtle calibrations of property values. Poor people, working people, or, to use the appropriate parlance, those who struggle or hustle, are unwelcome. Every violent crime, every syringe in an alley, every Central American day laborer passed out in front of a loading dock, threatens an investment. The sheltered suburbanite’s irrational racist and classist fears for safety become the rational profit-maximizing actions of the petty bourgeoisie with a mortgage. They hate the Flea Market, and the Florida Market in general, and they lie and speculate about it — it’s full of criminals, the merchandise is stolen, the people sell drugs — even as the more courageous will venture down for a local-blog-approved taco.

And they’ve won, as they so often do in DC. Condos again. Full of the transient upper middle class, faces whiter, younger, richer than the faces that populate the market now. Do condo buildings furnish memories, community, stories, urban sociality? Let’s leave that rhetorical for the moment. For now, we know the flea market’s space will be an empty parking lot, the Uighur food and computer parts will be sold on U Street, whose special flavor of gentrification seems more inclusive of black DC (though who’s to say?). Here on H Street, the gentrifiers smile and do what they’re supposed to in order to pretend like they aren’t constantly thinking about how to expunge what’s here so they can turn a tidy profit when they flip their houses in the next decade to the next generation of overpaid bureaucrats. This is the American city, where “improving the neighborhood” means getting rid of the people to fix up the housing stock.

I feel betrayed. But of course, without ownership I have no right to any of this. I just live here.

the industrial relations of higher education

April 24, 2011

Lazy. Shiftless. Ignorant. Prone to distraction by petty amusements. Entitled. Immature. Perpetually absent. Wanting for a strong hand of discipline and a solid heap of work in order to instill a proper work ethic.

The views of a 19th-Century factory owner of his employees, or the views of a 21st-Century college instructor of her students? Impossible to tell really!