Monday, November 13, 2017

A Little Ditty 'Bout Joe & Rachel

It has been a long time since my hometown of Lewiston, Maine has had a bookstore, so when Quiet City Books opened a few years ago, I was extremely excited. Lewiston is one of those New England mill towns that has been rebuilding and redeveloping and still struggling for decades and the ability to support a bookstore would at least imply that some of that long process of transitioning from a factory economy into whatever comes next is beginning to take. (Lewiston also now has great craft beer. Maybe a “craft beer and local bookstores are the pioneer plants for a local economy” post should be in the works.)

It took me a couple of years, but I was finally able to get to Quiet City. It sells almost exclusively used books, though it also sells books by local authors on consignment. Wanting Lewiston to have a bookstore, I did some shopping there. I bought a book of poetry by a friend of mine, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, a mystery by Rex Stout (that I left in Maine for my mom), The House of Suns by Alistair Reynolds (because there is something fun about buying mass market sci fi at a used bookstore) and then a book I had never heard of by a someone I had never heard of but it was poetry and it was in translation. So, you know, by internet law I had to buy it.


It was Le Contre-Ciel by Rene Daumal. Daumal was a French poet roughly contemporary with the Surrealists who experimented with radical negation (including intense experimentation with drugs) as a kind of course through non-being into true being. Daumal also became a staunch critic of Breton and the Surrealists, seeing them as unwilling (or unable) to actually produce works drawn from experimentation with their principles, which makes him A-OK in my book. (Dada or GFTO.) It was also, as I discovered later, inscribed on the inside of the front cover.

Think, for a second, what it would mean to give a book of radical, experimental self-negation to your boyfriend, to say to him “You are my heart,” and to sign it “Love.” There are many reasons to give a book to someone you love and many messages you can convey. You can use a book to describe your feelings about them or your feelings about the relationship. You can reference a shared experience or memory. You can encapsulate your hopes. But you can also open yourself up and say to someone “This is important to me, this is a part of who I am, this is something you need to know in order to know me.” Sharing a part of yourself in this way puts you in a very vulnerable position. It is a risk even when you've been with someone for a while and no matter what the book is. A powerful, beautiful risk. And Rachel took it. Daumal died young, probably in part because of his experiments with drugs, and he wrote formally experimental poetry that sought to erase the self and the self of being to reach some grander truth in a new verdant void, and he didn't abide Breton's bullshit and Rachel wrote “You are my heart,” in it and gave it to Joe. She had to be telling him something important about her.

There are some other possibilities of course. Rachel and Joe could have talked about the book prior to the gifting. They could have talked about poetry. Maybe Joe was really into Breton and the Surrealists and Rachel wanted to show him what else was happening in and around that movement. Or perhaps he was really into Rimbaud or Genet and Rachel wanted to show him a lesser known French poet who also lived an extreme life. But do you inscribe “You are my heart,” when you are continuing a conversation about poetry? I supposes it's possible, but, most likely, to my schmaltzy book-heart, only after you've inscribed several other books with "You are my heart" in English and this had become something of a standard inscription from Rachel to Joe.

Regardless, this leads us to the next big question: How much of a piece of shit is Joe, right? Unless he's dead. If he's dead and the book was sold off as part of his estate then he's not a piece of shit. (Or, rather, this particular bit of his personal narrative doesn't prove he is a piece of shit.) Sure, they probably broke up, and maybe even the break up was Rachel's fault, and maybe he got rid of the book with everything else that reminded him of her as we sometimes must purge ourselves of the ephemera of painful relationships, but, I don't know. Something about the phrasing and the book itself suggests to me, at least, that Joe is, at best, a piece of shit who just didn't understand how beautiful and powerful this gift was and, at worst, a piece of shit who was intimidated that his girlfriend knew more obscure French poetry than he did and rather than using it as an opportunity to grow, he read a handful of pages, dismissed Daumal as derivative of the poets he assumes he introduced to Rachel, (Trust me, Joe, Rachel heard of Artaud and Cesaire, she just choose not to interrupt you.) and got rid of the book on the sly.

Of course, there is no way for me to know for sure what went down between Joe and Rachel, but they still left traces of their story on this book. Rachel imbued the book with her love and gave it to Joe and then something happened. If nothing else, we know Rachel loved this book. There is something about holding a book you know someone else loved. As much as we spend our time and attention on screens we are still bodies interacting with space and objects and those interactions leave traces. For all of the other advances made by the book as technology, its ability to retain and transmit these interactions will be the hardest (if it's possible at all) to replicate digitally. Gift inscriptions. Notes in the margins. Underlined passages. Receipts, postcards, pictures, notes used as bookmarks and left behind. The discoloration the oils from skin causes on the paper. Setting an old book down on its spine and seeing where it opens. And even if the traces don't provide anything close to a full story, they still tell you that someone else held this book before you did, they still ground you in a past, and connect you to other readers and other people in the future.

And not only that, but these traces are then scattered throughout the book world to be stumbled into randomly. And that randomness becomes part of the story. Maybe this connects to our time as hunter/gatherers when any good fortune was treated as a gift from the gods because it was the difference between life and death or maybe this doesn't have any psychological or rational explanation but there is something to seeing a book cover that “just grabs you,” and there is something about a song coming on the radio at the right moment and there is something about buying a book for some reason you don't quite remember and discovering it has information you need to know or tells a story you need to hear. We are storytelling animals and odds are pretty fucking good that not a single one of us is living a life that fits into the storytelling structures we prefer, but then there are these moments when it finally does feel like a narrator taking control and putting the right thing in front of you. These moments of connection can be motivation for the next chapter in your life.

A new chapter in the story of Joe and Rachel is now, "Josh randomly found the book in Quiet City and spent way too fucking long trying to figure out the shit that went down between Joe and Rachel." And just to add another level, the first poem in the book features short stanzas in verse followed by a kind of tangential exegesis in italicized prose, which (again randomly) speaks to one of my current poetic projects. At this point, it's too early in my reading of the book and in my work on this project to know what, if anything, is transferred from one to the other, but, through this book, at this moment, it feels like I fell through the floor but landed in the secret chamber like a hero in a story. And then some day, I'll die, and this book will go somewhere, with the inscription and, at the very least, the bookmark I've added to it and through this object the saga of Joe and Rachel will continue.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An Open Letter to Male Rugby Players

I remember heading down to a basement in one of the buildings just off campus, maybe still a little dehydrated from the game, definitely still a little sore from the game. We played drinking games and sang songs. The drinking games were played by all types and groups of college students, but the songs were just for us, secret songs known only to rugby players. (Maybe a few known only to St. Mike's ruggers.) The drinking games, the nicknames, the songs, the rituals; all of these are why the rugby team felt more like a community than a team, why rugby players form lifelong connections with their teammates. I've played a lot of different sports and for a lot of different teams and none of them forged the connection like the rugby team and a big part of that connection was the drinking, the rituals, the nicknames, and the songs.

Some of those songs depict sexual assault.

In isolation, no one could take those songs seriously. They are sung in a very specific context. The violence is ridiculous, even cartoonish, and most of it is designed to explicitly test the bounds of taste, to be vulgar for vulgarity's sake, to be something you would never, ever say in public, to be more like a secret handshake that declares membership in a club than anything else. But they are not sung in isolation.

They are sung in the world where a man can brag about sexual assault and still be elected President of the United States; a world where powerful men can abuse women for decades and face no consequences; a world in which, as #MeToo has shown (here and here), virtually every woman in America has faced some form of harassment and/or assault.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

Don't get me wrong. I know rugby songs seems like a pretty small part of the problem of misogyny, but, given that I'm speaking to a group of men some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial harassers, some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial assaulters, and some of us, (and again I have to say this) whether we know it or not, are Weinsteins, Cosbys, and Trumps. Furthermore, a lot of those songs are sung on college campuses where sexual assault is an epidemic. We all learned that behavior somewhere. Odds are, we probably learned it long before our first rugby match, but that doesn't absolve those later forces and behaviors and rituals that reinforce, support, and apologize for those crimes.

Because the permission to depict cartoonish sexual violence against women as meaningless and the permission to put your hands on your co-worker's shoulders and press down in a way that shows her how much stronger and how much bigger you are than she is come from the same place: the belief that women are not fully human.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

It has been fifteen years since I sang songs in a basement, so perhaps this has changed. Other circumstances have prevented me from playing rugby since then. Perhaps these songs are no longer sung. Perhaps, one by one, in team after team across the country, someone stepped forward, said something, started a conversation, had a meeting, and excised those songs from their repertoire. If that is the case, then it is time to step forward and lead, because we desperately need male leaders and male voices. Share your process with the school newspaper or the town newspaper. Put a statement on your website. Offer to meet with other teams to help them start their own conversations. Organize a league-wide training. Bring that training to other sports. Use our professional and social networks to steer other men away from harassment and assault. And—I know you had some great times with them, I know they were there in the rucks, in the goal line stands, walking you back to your dorm—don't let the men who abuse women leverage those networks for personal or professional gain. You don't have to hire them. You don't have to give their name to your boss. You don't have to connect them with your friend in the Chicago office. 

This also could have been a passive process. Perhaps you're on a team that never sang those songs. Perhaps they just fell out of fashion as things just kind of fall out of fashion. Make a statement anyway. Share how you don't miss them. Start a newsletter and send those other songs around. Confront the history. Be public and explicit. And then, if you think you've done all you can around this particular aspect of misogynist culture, find another one and work on that.

We talk a big fucking game about how rugby prepares us for life, how rugby prepares us to lead, how strong our community is. Time to back that talk up. Time to show the strength our community by leading other men. Time to collect our own.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

At the very least, if you still sing them, have a team meeting to talk about these songs. You'll probably find a few guys were just mouthing the words the whole time because the songs made them uncomfortable but they were afraid to say something. There's a chance that they were uncomfortable because they were sexually assaulted in their lives. Maybe that's why that one guy quit.

Whatever decision you come to, the conversation at the meeting is important. I mean, there's a difference between vulgarity and violence just like there's a difference between a dirty song and a sexist song and maybe you guys will be able to hash that out. Maybe you'll get to how big, strong men use their bodies in the world in ways that threaten and oppress women, often explicitly because we are not thinking about our size and strength.  (I mean, if you have the bodily control to keep your feet in the ruck, you can move in a way that doesn't crowd into the space of the women you work with.) Who knows where your conversation will go, but it has to happen.

I know it seems like a small change, a change so small as to almost be pointless. One aspect, of one part, of one sub-culture. How many men would this really impact? A few thousand? Maybe a few tens of thousands? Why bother, right? All big change is just a bunch of small changes stacked on top of each until some critical mass is reached. More importantly, big policy changes can only do so much. Misogyny is an aspect of our laws and our policies and how those laws and policies are applied, but it is also, perhaps in greater part, an aspect of those behaviors that laws and policies can't reach. You can't really pass a law about how close we stand to our coworkers in the break room, about how many times we can ask a woman on a date after she says “no,” about physical contact we can pretend was an accident, was friendly, was just joking around. Fixing it at the government level will only accomplish so much if we don't fix it at the personal level, at the water-cooler level, at the work party-level, at the rugby party in the basement level.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

The strength of the rugby community presents us with an opportunity to do the real work, to make a real difference. It is a strength to be honest with each other. A strength to be honest with ourselves. If you've already done this, a strength to take your good work public and lead other men. The strength to demonstrate a different kind of masculinity. The strength to show what "strength" and "toughness" and "masculinity" can be next.

And, I have to ask: if getting rid of a handful of stupid, silly songs no one is supposed to take seriously tears the community apart, how strong was that community to begin with?


What exactly does this cost you? There are other songs. Write new songs. Sing those instead.


As rugby players respond, I will update this post with corrections, stories, strategies, and whatever else moves the conversation forward.  

Biographic Note: For those who don't know me, I played for three and a half seasons at Saint Michael's College in Vermont during a time when (at least I think so) our program took some big steps forward in terms of quality of play. I was in the pack, starting out as a prop, then a flanker, and playing eight my senior year. Though I was forwards captain my senior year and felt I was a member of my team's community, I was also, slightly set apart. For example, I refused to participate in any hazing. If I didn't want to be in a boat race I wasn't. (Often I did.) If I didn't want to sing a song, I didn't. (Often I did.) My nickname was "The Prophet." I tried to play a few times after college, but I could never get the logistics to work out. The teams in the Boston area all practiced in places that were extremely difficult to get to and I ended up working second shift at my job meaning making practices would have been tough even if they were convenient to get to. I now work Saturdays and, as you all know, Saturday is rugby day. I'm sharing this because I want to be honest about how relatively thin my connection to rugby has become. I could be wrong about those songs. I want to be wrong about those songs. So, I invite responses and corrections. If we have excised that bit of misogyny from our culture, we should share how we did it. We should lead by example.

UPDATES:


RESOURCES: 
Other athletes are stepping up and taking leadership roles. For those of you who are more active players, check out Athletes for Impact.

Another friend of mine shared MAP on her timeline. They also run offer a free Coaching for Change online course.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Letters to Memory

You read as who you are now. Sure, you read with your accumulated knowledge of literature, with your awareness of the arc of human history, with your long term identity, but you also read with how you slept last night, how shitty your commute was, how great it was to catch up with a friend you haven't seen in awhile, whatever you ate, whatever you just saw on Twitter, whatever you feel right now. You read with your mind and your self, but you also read with your needs. And no matter when they were written or what they are about, it is amazing how often books sfill your today needs.

Letters to Memory was completed in 2015. It has nothing to do with Trump or our current political moment. It doesn't connect the racism that allowed Yamashita and her Japanese-American family to be imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII to the racism behind Trump's attempted Muslim bans, nor does it compare the story of her family packing up their homes and their lives at the start of WWII to the terrorist raids by ICE on human beings just trying to make a decent living today. It's not about the dangers of isolationism. It's not about how America so often rejects the exact forces that make it a unique place in the world. It's not about living in conflict with fascism.

And yet, Letters to Memory is about American racism, it is about one part of a community turning on another part, it is about how one navigates a system that has decided they are lesser human beings, and it is about the stories we tell about ourselves and our nation. I argue elsewhere that resistance is a life-style in the same way that being a reader is a lifestyle and when you bring those two together, you read to find the material of resistance. You read with what you need now.

In many ways, we are in this dumpster fire of situation, because of a narrative crisis. Part of the reason why Donald Trump garnered 63 million votes is because 63 million, mostly white people, mostly white men, have accepted without critique or question or thought a particular narrative of America, one in which a secure, well-paying job came from just playing by the rules, in which they receive respect without having to give respect, and in which their preferences are treated like policies. As the world slowly revealed the narrative to be a delusion propped and propagated by their powerful brethren they were utterly unprepared, incapable, and/or unwilling to write a new one for themselves. A white man at the end of a narrative arc that includes genocide, slavery, misogyny, imperialism, Jim Crow, and other forms of exploitation is a very different person than a white man at the end of a narrative arc that includes hard work, independence, and the pioneer spirit and frontier ethic. How could transitioning from the later to the former not hurt? And there was Donald Trump; a true believer only too happy to prostrate himself before dead gods and shout their fear into the only emotion their white dads let them feel: anger. There is a way to bring those two arcs together but most of us can't or won't do it. White men could not tell a new story of themselves in this world and so they chose to destroy the world.

The supreme irony of this narrative crisis is that, until very recently, white men were the only people allowed to have responsibility over their own narrative. Their heroes were enshrined as national heroes, the character traits they valued (and/or imagined) in themselves were considered the fundamental values of our society, the ideas they thought were most important were the ideas most celebrated and most taught in our education system. White men should have no problem helping redefine “America” for our new world because they were the ones who defined “America,” in the first place. On the other hand, this fundamental inability to create a narrative makes perfect sense, because they never believed in created narratives. To the white men writing it and the white men today believing it, “American History,” was not, “A narrative created by those in power to reflect and serve their interests,” but American History. No quotations marks. No questions. An objective entity of knowledge like the laws of thermodynamics.

Though she never says it in this way, when reading in our current environment, Letters to Memory is a call to a very personal, but still very powerful activism. “America” is a desperately imprecise concept and many people have extorted a lot of money and killed many others through how they have manipulated it. All of us, in one form or another and in varying potencies, carry those poisonous Americas within us. But “America,” is the shingling, not the house, it is the tent, not the people beneath it, the poster for the carnival, not the carnival. What Yamishita does in Letters to Memory is construct, on her own terms, the personal history usually obscured by the drapery of “America.” And what she has done, you can do. You might not have the archives that Yamashita has, but you must have something. There's a drawer in your parents' house. There's a chest in the attic. There's the local library. There's your own memory.

And what you can do, you can share. Listen, you and I both know the white men who are the problem aren't going to read Letters to Memory. Pretty much every aspect of why they are the problem can be extended into a reason why they aren't going to read Letters to Memory. But some of them might know you and might stumble into the idea of conversing with your history to build a new personal narrative by reading or conversing with you. Every honestly created new personal narrative creates language that other people can apply to their own lives, which could eventually spread to the men who are the problem. Or to men who are leaning either into the problem or away from the problem and just need the right push to be not part of the problem. And then, of course, there will be future generations of white men, and though they continue to diminish in terms of demographic power, the rise of the “alt-right,” shows we can't just assume the passage of time will guarantee more just white men. Or, as Yamashita herself says (emphasis in original):

I have asked myself why the family saved these letters. You might say that they were historians, that they knew the value of their stories, this proof of their thoughts and actions in unjust and difficult times. History is proffered to the future. This is what we did. Do not forget us. Please forgive us.

Listen, I don't know what's going to save us from descending into fascism. I have no fucking idea what I'm going to do if Congress doesn't flip in 2018. Honestly, once climate change really gets going (if it hasn't already) and we start experiencing actual material scarcity, I don't know if anything can save us from descending into some form of nationalist fascism. But I do know I love to read and write and I do know that Letters to Memory is a work of genius (like watching a Polaroid develop so slowly you start remembering lines of poetry while figures solidify), a groundbreaking exploration and example of how we can build a sense of self through interaction with our pasts and I do know that you should read it even if you're not intending to extract material for resistance from it. And I also know that, in the absence of certainty it is still better to try than to do nothing and there is always value in creating something even if that value is only felt when you are creating and even if the only person it changes in the process is you. If nothing else, when future generations ask if you fought, you'll have a receipt. Or,

You may wonder at the obvious, but I have had no normal definition for this project except an intuition that you would listen and be attentive and somehow understand.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Hotel and the Canon of Massive Postmodern Novels


When I create canons in my head (you all do that, too, right? Build hypothetical syllabi as a way to organize all the books that are special to you?) I have a category for the great Massive Postmodern Novels, that particular type of doorstops of stylistic experimentation, paranoia, bombastic imagery, and existential unease written in the late 20th and early 21st century. Given that you can draw a pretty straight line from some of my all-time favorite books (Don Quioxte, The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, A Gentleman, and, of course, my good friend and yours, Ulysses) to the Massive Postmodern Novel, and that I generally like a challenge in my reading, it makes sense that I would have an affinity for this sub-genre. And I doubt my personal canon is all that different from other fans of the genre. I think there would be broad agreement that, if we're working in trinities, the holy trinity of Massive Postmodern Novel would probably be something like Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Underworld. But, really, who needs trinities?

With re-issues of her books Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, & Tropic of Orange and a new book exploring her personal history including her family's internment during WWII, (which is stunning and brilliant. More on that in a Reading is Resistance post later) I think it is now time to elevate Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel to that pantheon of great massive postmodern novels. It has everything those other great novels have. Like Life: A User's Manual (which would probably be in my top five of massive post-modern novel), it uses a building, rather than a series of events or the arc of a character's life, as its center of gravity; like Gravity's Rainbow and Underworld, it uses its center of gravity to explore a rapidly changing society, and the political and cultural conflicts such change creates and/or is driven by; like Infinite Jest and much other postmodern literature, it experiments with the format and style of storytelling with sections formatted as comics, plays, film scripts, philosophy, textual representations of dance and jazz performances, and more. Finally, like nearly all of postmodernism, I Hotel also explores how meaning is made, directly concerning itself with not just telling a meaningful story, but exploring how stories become meaningful. And, as should be obvious by now, its massive. And it's brilliant.

I think there are a lot of reasons why postmodernism lent itself to these massive novels and exploring those reasons a bit will, I think, only heighten our sense of the importance of I Hotel.

Without conventions of plot and character, authors can explore just about anything; they can delve into ideas, they can play with images, they can follow digressions. They are allowed to fall into the black hole of human consciousness and root around for a while. (Sometimes is seems like about half of Gravity's Rainbow is just Pynchon seeing how far he can push an image.) That stylistic freedom also allowed writers to include experiments in form, style, and content in addition to the main plot of their book. To put this another way: a massive amount of exploration is possible when you are no longer beholden to move the plot or character development from point A to point B and some writers put as much of that exploration into single works as they could.

Furthermore, after WWII, artists found themselves, very suddenly, with an entirely different world than was known, experienced, and explored by even just the previous generation. 1927 and 1947 might well have been different planets (at least in the industrialized world) and the same for 1947 and 1987. The nuclear age. The age of mass communication, mass media, and mass entertainment. Electricity in nearly every American house. The shrinking of the globe through advances in transportation. Not only did writers find themselves with a freedom to explore longstanding universal aspects of the human condition in totally new ways, they also found themselves with entirely new human experiences to try and wrap their minds around and then present to the public. And, of course, the technology and economics of writing and publishing massive works changed. Especially in the postwar boom in the United States, publishers could afford to publish 900+ page books and many readers could afford to buy them.

One of those new conditions, at least for the authors of the books I mentioned in my trinity, was that, with the atom bomb and the Cold War, white dudes found themselves existentially vulnerable to distant powers fundamentally indifferent to their personhood.

In some ways, the massive post modern novel (as it has been generally discussed at least) is the story of white men discovering and processing the kind of vulnerability everyone else dealt with forever. This isn't “I might get killed in battle,” or the “I might be killed by the elements” that men have fetishized over the years, but the “I might be just minding my own business and have my life ended or destroyed,” kind of vulnerability that creates a persistent sense of dread that enshrouds nearly everyone else's lives. With the earlier conflicts, ma dudes felt an inherent element of agency in the risk that surrounded their stories and themselves. If they died in the wilderness, it was because they went into the wilderness and if they died in battle, it was because they went to war, and if they were assassinated by their government, it was because they were revolutionaries. Even the randomness of dying from disease you can at least partition into forces beyond humanity. But with the nuclear bomb, the Cold War, and the paranoia from the Red Scare forward, ma dudes found themselves in a world where another human could cause their meaningless death, where the mistake of another dude could kill them, where they had no agency whatsoever in the vulnerability that surrounded them. Person-driven impersonal death was something new to them. Essentially, they found themselves in an entirely new environment of personhood at the exact same moment when they were also free to write about that new environment without any stylistic or material limitations. There is a reason why DeLillo constantly returns to the image of Lenny Bruce screaming “We're all gonna die,” during his stand-up sets during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Underworld.

Narrative and economic freedom plus a slow-motion apocalypse following WWII and Ulysses plus a new world of technology is bound to produce a trend of doorstops.

Everyone experienced that radically changing world, not just the white people who had control and access to those changes but, those changes meant different things and felt differently to people outside the hegemony. (I mean, in terms of daily, personal, emotional experience, how different is the dread of being beaten to death because someone thought you looked at a white girl for too long from the dread of wondering if Russia would launch a nuclear attack?) For example, The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R looked a lot different to those living within the United States who did not benefit from those freedoms capitalism was supposed to enshrine. Despite the atrocities committed by the U.S.S.R and communist China, you can see why there would still be appeal to the idea of an international union of those oppressed by colonial and capitalist systems for those who were still essentially experiencing colonialism. WWII made a certain kind of democracy safe for a certain population of people (I might have to add “for a certain amount of time” but our descent into fascism isn't certain yet), but if you were not a beneficiary of kind of democracy or a member of that certain population, the conflict you faced was not between “communism and capitalism” or “communism and democracy” or even “fascism and democracy,” but, quite often, between “racist and colonial systems of power and your own life and the lives of those you love.” Perhaps this is one reason the massive postmodern novel tended to be written by white dudes: that mode of expression just fit their experiences in way that it did not necessarily fit the experiences of other people. (Makes me wonder what would come from an examination of the differences between Baldwin's essays and Wallace's essays.)

I Hotel hits every aspect of the massive post-modern novel; the massiveness (600+ pages but at a large trim size), the stylistic experimentation, the presence of the Cold War and its attendant paranoia, the interaction with new technology, the referencing and re-mixing of existing myths and works of literature, and even an exploration of that new Cold War vulnerability, but it hits all of those aspects from a different perspective than Pynchon, Wallace, and Delillo. It's also, just like these other three books, a lot funnier than you would expect and far more heartfelt than a lot of readers expect from postmodernism. There are love stories. There are family stories. And, just like the others, there are stories of regular people trying to figure their shit out in this crazy ass world.

But that different perspective makes I Hotel especially important as Yamashita writes from a long standing awareness of that environment of personhood. Which is also, probably why the politics of I Hotel, unlike the swirling diffuse explorations in Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Underworld, are direct and overt. I Hotel explores the Civil Rights movement directly from the Asian American perspective, depicting the intellectual exploration and activism of various Asian-Americans (a term she also explores) and their allies in San Francisco in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Where ma dudes approached politics obliquely or through strange lenses and situations, Yamashita interacted with it head on. Which, of course, is part of why I Hotel belongs in this canon. For as much, as the 20th century was defined, for certain populations, by new technology and Cold War paranoia, for many other people those currents were subplots in the story about the fight for Civil Rights. I Hotel is intellectual and stylistic free play with the other major story of the 20th century besides Cold War paranoia and technological advancement beyond the human spirit: the postwar fight for Civil Rights.

Finally, one of the defining techniques of postmodernism is significance through juxtaposition. Whether it is through painting a soup can, remixing a song, or creating a pastiche through references, part of what made and makes postmodernism important is it's ability to bring disparate images, ideas, and experiences together to reveal underlying similarities and create new meaning. In many ways, I Hotel's fundamental technique is juxtaposition. Not only does she put different styles next to each other, and different life experiences next to each other, she also frequently juxtaposes other materials with her original work. In one particularly effective passage, Yamashita frames the story of a young, revolutionary couple as the woman dies of cancer with passages from Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in the Philippines and excerpts from an interview with Imelda Marcos. Cancer as an easy metaphor is completely re-appropriated into something that speaks to the internal tension of scales of injustice, to be blessed and burdened with a body while being blessed and burdened with a revolution, to know you are just one person living one life while also knowing that everyone is just one person living one life. Through this Yamashita is able to question and confront some of the stereotypes of “revolutionaries” without apologizing for the consequences of devoting your life to “revolution,” whatever that is.

When done well, juxtaposition as a literary technique turns a work into a sort of apartment building. Through the coincidence of place, with every incident being a story in and of itself, apartment buildings juxtapose the lives of strangers, creating a space that speaks to the shared experience of being a human being. By making juxtaposition a central technique around a central image of itself, and by setting those juxtapositions within the Civil Rights and revolutionary movements of the late 20th century Yamashita creates one more powerful juxtaposition, a juxtaposition sorely lacking from the other books in my canon, that speaks to a much broader human experience than is represented in ma dudes' great works, and that, potentially, paints a different way forward, both in terms of society and in terms of whatever follows postmodernism: vulnerability and power. There is probably a way to describe I Hotel as the story of the fraught love affair between vulnerability and power.

Canons are strange things. For most of our history they have been weapons, tools to assert the dominance of a certain type of expression by a certain type of person and hide everything else from the public view. They have been soldiers for hegemony. But at the same time, there is value in sorting, organizing, and even classifying human creation. There are too many brilliant, worthwhile books for any one person to read them all, so we must create tools that help us choose what work of genius to read next. Canons can be tools for the moment of selection. Furthermore, though I think there is value in reading as diversely as possible as an individual, I think there is also value in widely shared books that can act as cultural touchstones, books that, when we meet new people, we can be fairly confident they've read or are at least aware so we have something of substance to talk about.

That our current canon is so skewed by white supremacy and misogyny does not mean there is no value in an “American canon” or, even better, “American canons,” but that we must continue the process of rebuilding our national, mainstream, literary culture to better reflect the diversity of identity, style, and expression actually produced by our culture. A lot of this work has already happened and continues to happen and we have already seen great changes in what is considered “American Literature.” But the work continues. I hope elevating Yamashita's I Hotel can be part of that work.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Thoughts on Antifa

There were a lot of antifa at the rally in Boston a couple of weekends ago. I saw them as I walked from the T station to the meeting place for the march to the Common, while walking through the march itself, and once we got to the Common and learned that the Nazis had left under police escort over an hour earlier. The debate around how those on the left (and, really, in the middle) should respond to the violence on the right and the inherent violence of white supremacy started long before Charlottesville. In it's current incarnation, it probably began with Richard Spencer getting punched and with the violent conflicts in Berkeley that started on February 1, 2017. But that debate was given a different significance and a different urgency when Nazis murdered Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville. Mentally preparing myself for what might happen if I met Nazis in Boston and seeing so many antifa in the crowd, galvanized my thinking about the debate. I haven't come to any ultimate moral clarity (if such a thing is possible) but I feel I at least have the issue organized a bit more in my own head and I hope that laying (some of) those organized thoughts out in a piece like this, will provide a base from which the conversation can continue in a way that doesn't weaken our collective resolve to fight Nazis. (More on that at the end.)

I also want to emphasize that these are just my thoughts, and though they come from some experience with activism and a life of political engagement, they are just my thoughts from my perspective. Furthermore, this isn't a broad consideration of antifa history, tactics, definitions, and goals. If you want a fuller explanation and exploration of antifa, pick up Mark Bray's excellent The Antifa Handbook at your local independent bookstore.

Antifa at Protests Makes Me Feel Safer
Whether it's a party or a protest, a large group of people in a relatively confined space has the potential for chaos and violence. Maybe it's someone in the crowd being a jerk, maybe it's a police officer overreacting, maybe it's an outside agitator being aggressive, but a peaceful protest can turn into a dangerous riot quickly. On our way to the rally, I was nervous because I expected a lot of marchers and counter-protesters would be relatively inexperienced, Maybe this was their first rally or their second rally after the Women's March or the Science Rally, or whatever. (For me, it had been well over a decade since I'd been to any protest or rally with the potential for conflict.) It is always great to welcome new people to activism, but there is a level of danger, when there are new people in, well, any activity. (I'm suddenly reminded of floor hockey in gym class.) With big crowds in volatile situations, sometimes inexperience can be just as dangerous as malice.

But antifa know what they're doing in crisis and confrontational moments in protests. They won't panic. They won't start running all over the place. They won't create a stampede. Knowing there would be a lot of people vastly more experienced with protests than I was, along with those who are newer, greatly reassured me.

Furthermore, had there been conflict, antifa would have born the brunt of it, allowing the rest of us to get away. Their tactics tend involve coordinated group movement and standing in place and they often attend rallies with the understanding or plan that they will get arrested at some point or at least engage on some level with either the Nazis or the police. This not only creates a physical barrier between elements of chaos and potential violence and those who are not prepared to engage with chaos and violence, it also creates an organizing principle. So, I knew that, if things got crazy and I no longer wanted to be engaged in whatever was happening, all I had to do was spot where the antifa were gathering and go away from them.

Whatever your ultimate decision about antifa and their tactics, they make protests and rallies safer for everyone else, even when they are not putting themselves between violent white supremacists and you. Furthermore, also remember that, whether you agree with their specific tactics or not, like those who sat at lunch counters during the Civil Rights movement and occupied factories during the Labor movement, antifa are choosing to risk their bodies so you don't have to.

Scale Matters
White Supremacy is a genocidal belief structure. Whether it is the overt genocide of the Holocaust or of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere or the reserved genocide of slavery in America (in which a white person always reserved the right to kill a black person even when he did not exercise that right), white supremacy believes in genocide. We forget that far less than a century ago, the KKK practiced ethnic cleansing through lynching and radical terrorism through violence and destruction. They hung people from trees. They beat them. They threatened them. They burned churches. They murdered allies who came down to help in the struggle for Civil Rights. Those extreme acts of violence are not a consequence of white supremacy, they are not an accident of white supremacy, they are not drawn from fanatical interpretations of white supremacy, they are not fringe white supremacy. They are white supremacy. In direct contrast, the violence of antifa, to date, has all been non-lethal and all been confined to direct conflicts with fascists who came to fight. Antifa have not gathered at Richard Spencer's house. They have not dragged David Duke through the streets. They have not burned down white supremacist churches. Do I really need to say that a street fight is different from a mob dragging a black man out of his house and lynching him?

Even the fake images and sensationalized reporting used to paint antifa as inherently violent essentially reveal the opposite when scale is considered. Take, for example, the images used after the Boston anti-white supremacy rally. One was of a man standing in formation holding a pole with a nail in it, an image actually from a protest in Dover, England. Another was of a young woman sitting down holding a sign that said “All My Heroes Kill Cops,” an image that is at least four years old. Or, to put this another way, after the images of a horde of torch-bearing (a clear reference to lynching) white supremacists attacking a small group of anti-racist protesters on the Friday night of Charlottesville, including hitting them with their torches, the violence of the radical left is supposedly proved by pictures of people just fucking standing there. Whatever the message of the images themselves, there is a difference in scale between hitting someone with a torch and just fucking standing there.

However, you feel about the violence around antifa, flattening the scale ultimately helps fascism by creating this false of idea of equal opposing forces. It allows you to say, “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to the KKK, but you could argue the Democrats have an ideological connection to antifa” as if that were in any way a balanced statement. I mean, let's try it this way: “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to Nazis, but Democrats have an ideological connection to people who fight Nazis.” Or, let's look at this issue using the current phrasing: Is it OK to punch a Nazi? When we reframe this question so scale is considered it becomes: Is it OK to cause brief physical discomfort with little (but not zero) risk of permanent harm to someone who believes they are allowed to kill Jews and people of color?

The Double-Standard
This flattening of scale contributes to the double-standard in our discourse that allows Republicans, conservatives, the radical right wing, and other reactionaries to get away with bad arguments and bad actions. Whenever anyone on the left goes too far (or anyone who can be convincingly associated with the left whether they're antifa, black bloc, or whatever) as seems to have happened in Berkeley more recently, it inherently threatens the entire legitimacy of whatever spectrum they can be associated with and yet somehow Republicans and Conservatives don't have to fear that same delegitimizing from Dylan Root, Cliven Bundy, or Richard Spencer. This double-standard is especially ironic given that there is a pretty straight line between small-government conservativism and Cliven Bundy's radical anti-government actions and between Nixon's Southern strategy and the overtly racist policies of the Reagan/Bush era and today's white supremacists and Neo-Nazis.

I think we can attribute part of this double-standard to the success of the myth of liberal bias. Because liberals and democrats have been inherently motivated to prove their lack of bias, they are much quicker to condemn and critique those on their side, whether those condemnations are warranted or not. For a recent example of the impact this drive has on policy look at deportations under Obama. In many ways, I'm sure he felt he had to “compensate” for the Dream Act so as not to appear, I don't know, too caring for the lives of the less fortunate or “too liberal,” so deportations increased dramatically during his administration. (Not that that changed Republican perceptions or arguments about him, but more on Republican argumentation later. Actually, more on Republican argumentation right now.)

I think the other part comes from the fact that much (if not all) of the right doesn't actually give a fuck about debate, dialog, argument, and consensus, and will say or do whatever it takes to achieve their policy goals. If they want to cut spending on the poor, they'll talk about being fiscally conservative. If they want to increase military spending, they'll talk about national security. If they want to cut taxes on the rich, they'll talk about simplifying the tax code. If they want to disenfranchise minority and other likely democratic voters, they'll talk about voter fraud. To put this another way, Republicans and conservatives only care about being in power and will make whatever argument they think will get them there, whereas Democrats and liberals have at least some commitment to a coherent worldview and are thus limited in what they can argue and assert by, you know, responding to the actual world. This raises an important question for those who argue that dialog and discourse are the only legitimate way to engage with contemporary white supremacy: what evidence do you have that the right, let alone the radical right, actually cares about dialog and discourse?

When you gang up on someone and kick them when they are down, that is assault, not self-defense, whether you're wearing all black or festooned in white supremacy symbols, but, again, when we compare violent acts against violent acts a difference in scale is obvious. In Charlottesville, four white men (some with sticks or poles) beat one black man in a police parking garage for minutes, badly bloodying him. In Berkeley most recently, we saw three-to-five men swinging their fists at one man on the ground and a much larger group, some with shields and maybe a few other weapons, pushing two Trump supporters (one of which might have used pepper spray first) out of the street and knocking them down, with one man (not the one with the pepper spray) getting kicked while he was down. From the best that I can tell from the reporting, neither resulted in any significant injury. And, unlike Charlottesville, they were aberrations during an otherwise peaceful protest (you know, according to the guy who filmed one of them) that was intentionally distorted by those on the right and sensationalized by the mainstream media because, well, that's what the mainstream media does. Both absolutely constitute assault, but assault on a different scale than was committed by the white supremacists. Furthermore, quoting from the Los Angeles Times:

“Police, and in some cases other counter-protesters, stepped in to halt the violence or escort the victims away from the area.“

Unlike in Charlottesville, both on Friday and on Saturday, other people, including those on the left, stepped in to stop the violence. Where were those “very fine people” people on the right in Charlottesville? (When antifa cross the line other antifa stop them. When fascists cross the line, antifa stop them.) But once again, the “antifa are just as bad” has gained new traction, because the left is held responsible for giving the right anything to distort, while the right is not held responsible for their distortions.

To put this another way, the liberal resistance must be perfect in all of its actions and any flaws or mistakes are seen as fundamental expressions of the failings of the ideology itself or reasons to undercut it from the middle, while the conservative, right wing resistance to President Obama was allowed to lynch him in effigy, lie about his birth certificate, and attribute all kinds of horrible flaws to him without any justification, shatter longstanding Senate norms, without delegitimizing conservative and Republican ideology. Antifa must be perfect in their ideas and actions in order to be legitimate, while Republicans can fuck up all the time, have Dylan Roots, Cliven Bundys, and Timothy McVeighs swimming around on their fringes and suffer no consequences in terms of the debate or policy whatsoever.

How Many More Traumatized Bodies Do You Need to See?
One the tenets of the nonviolent civil disobedience is that, the violent response of police to people walking on a bridge or sitting at a lunch counter reveals the violence inherent in the system to those who would not otherwise see it. Furthermore, the images of those traumatized bodies have an emotional impact on those who otherwise don't feel they have something at stake in the conflict. (Though, Sontag at least thinks it's a bit more complicated than that.) For the modern Civil Rights movement, I think there is clear evidence that those images of traumatized bodies helped shift mainstream public opinion in favor of civil rights and away from racist and segregationist polices. (Others might argue that the nonviolence would not have been effective on its own and that the various race riots and other violence or threats of violence played at the very least a supporting role, but I don't know nearly enough about the subject to comment.) Even more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement was greatly strengthened by the dissemination of images and videos of traumatized black bodies.

It is true, that images convey emotional impact, and it is true that our ability to quickly share images influences policy debates, but, at the same time, what would we have actually learned about violence, whose mind would have actually been changed, what more just policy could have come about if Cornell West got the shit beat out of him? How many more traumatized black bodies do we need to see to know that the KKK is bad? Do you have the right to demand other people take a beating to preserve our own sense of moral purity?

So Much More to be Said & Nothing More to Be Said
I've left a lot out of this post, even of my own thoughts. There is a ton of historic context around radical left wing activism, radical right wing terrorism, the codifying of racism in American policy, and the authoritarian tendencies in the Republican party. There are arguments around how we would perceive American white supremacists and fascists if they were foreigners, around the tension between protecting lives now while continuing to lay groundwork for more lasting progress, and around the nuance of particular weapons and particular physical acts. I also haven't spent any time on the idea that there is no antifa when there is no imminent threat of fascism and that the easiest way to get rid of antifa is to show up at counter-protests yourself and vote Democrat in the next few elections.

I honestly, despite all the above words, still don't know exactly what I believe the ultimate ethics are of antifa as a tactic. I think ganging up on someone and kicking them when they're down is wrong. (Pretty sure most antifa think that as well.) I also think, personally, as a white dude, if I'm in a situation in which a Nazi is attacking a person of color, I have a responsibility to intervene and in some way put my body between the Nazi and whoever he is attacking and what happens after that, I don't know. 

But despite all the nuance, despite all the disagreement, despite the different ethical frameworks, we all agree that every human life has value and that, though we need to continue to have these debates about the methods of the resistance, both as effective tactics and as moral acts, we cannot let those debates drive us apart. We cannot let our front be divided, we cannot let Nazis slip through the cracks back into open society, and we cannot let this president, his family, and the Republican party use white supremacy or anything else to turn this country towards fascism. And even if you believe all violence is wrong, even if you believe antifa are hurting the fight against white supremacy and fascism in America, even if those black masks and organized young people scare you, remember there is one absolute unquenstionable difference between antifa and Nazis. Nazis are Nazis, while antifa are people who fight Nazis. Remember what you call the people who fought Nazis the first time around?

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