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Text as Folk Art: Black Flags and Windmills

The Anvil
February 19, 2012

We could create change and resist the destruction that they wrought on the world. I felt joy and hope in all the possibilities we could continue to create, rebelling against their hallowed message that we should give up and give in.

I had to climb the hillside to see what was on the other side.

Once I did, I saw the giants everywhere. I continued onward with curiosity and courage. I saw others doing the same and many of us walked together in mutual support (42).

From Rousseau’s infamous noble savage to a fascination with tourism, western capitalist society has found many ways to both maintain and exploit the image of some people as Other. One of the more pernicious flavors of this is to see some people as more authentic, more in touch with their humanity and their experience. This increased authenticity can be attributed because they have suffered more, or because they are not seen as fitting into the model of the Normal Person ™ (who is supposed to be some combination of [sub]urban, white, middle class, straight, certified sane, etc). A particular kind of interest in folk art is part of this alienation.

In Europe, psychiatric collections, mediumistic art work, and paintings by autodidacts such as Alfred Wallis (1885-1942) and Henri "le Douanier" Rousseau (1844-1910) were held aloft by modernists, along with colonial plunder from Africa and the Americas as salvation from industrialization’s increasing ravages (Gale 1999:16 and 17). Across the Atlantic, a similar fascination with "naive" expression was taking place. Championing the romanticized notion of a fast-fading authenticity inherent in Anglicized American heritage, certain collectors, scholars, gallerists, and museum professionals turned their attentions to folk traditions.

The definition for folk art is quite contested: how is it distinct from crafts (or is it)? What is its relationship to fine art and schools of art and art schools? Must it be completely untouched by the art market, or can folk pieces be in dialog with fine art pieces? Can fine artists do folk art? Should folk art be an umbrella term that includes naïve art, art brut1, tribal art, tramp art, self-taught art, etc, or is it a thing distinct from any of those? And so on.

For our purposes, wikipedia gives a reasonable entry:

Folk art

a) encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic
b) expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. It encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media and

c) is practiced by people who have traditionally learned skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, though they may also be formally educated

As with all attempts to define a group as outside of capitalist, western, urban values or experience, this can be read optimistically (the definers are dissatisfied with the status quo and are reaching for something, trying to understand the world in different ways), or pessimistically (the definers are attempting to integrate all difference into the status quo, to flatten differences even while they trumpet how “different” they are).2 More to the point, the members of the given group are both inside themselves and outside themselves at the same time. The Situationists were brilliant in their analysis of the Spectacle as something that divorces people from our own experience, an alienation that we are all subject to, but that members of Otherized groups are subject to differently. Vine Deloria’s article “Anthropologists and Other Friends” is intense and paradigm-shattering in its depiction of the relationship between anthropologists and the people-being-defined, negating (among other things) the idea that any of us can be untouched by the society that envelopes us.

Organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts rightfully define folk art as art coming out of a specifically identifiable tradition. Folk art is “learned at the knee” and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions, like Hopi Native Americans making Kachina dolls, sailors making macramé, and the Amish making hex signs. From the website for the American Visionary Art Museum Hopi-Native-Americans-making-Kachina-dolls (et al) are not just involved in a deeply spiritual and practical effort that their people have done for generations, they are also operating as Authentic Others within a capitalist model. These two ways of existing are diametrically opposed – are even mutually exclusive—and yet this paradox is embodied in these Hopi (et al), and to varying degrees in all of us.

Our truck sped along the highway, our thoughts in a tumult. Few cars moved our way, apart from the occasional military vehicle. In the other direction, the roadway was overflowing with evacuees. They began to look like refugees from another place (45).

In Black Flags and Windmills (BF&W), scott crow—the best known (or at least the most interviewed) of the founding members of Common Ground Collective (CGC)—explains how he grew up and in to a world view that promotes a certain way of looking at race, class, disenfranchisement, responsibility, and privilege. BF&W is a reflection of that world view—one that has been called variously anti-racist, anti-colonialist, leftist—with many of its strengths and weaknesses.

While the group had many contributors and co-creators, it is fair to say that CGC (now a non-profit called Common Ground Relief) was initiated by a local ex Black Panther, a local woman, and an anarchist, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was traumatized; entire neighborhoods had been emptied—sometimes through force; the government was demonstrably more interested in controlling the behavior of those who were left, than it was in meeting their needs. CGC, like many other efforts that seek to serve people’s needs without government or NGO mediation, has been lauded by some as an example of direct action, and criticized by some as a charity. In fact it was probably both, depending on when and on which people or subset of people one focuses on. Scott crow makes clear that there was an ongoing negotiation between working with people who were not anarchists, not used to dealing with anarchist horizontal process and mostly probably not interested in learning to deal with it, and the anarchists who made up most or sometimes all of the volunteers who were coming in from outside the area. Differences that were not made any less challenging by the different racial, economic, and cultural compositions of the two groups.

Naïve art:

The main characteristic of naïve art is a rejection, or strained relationship to, the formal qualities of painting, especially the three rules of perspective (as defined by painters of the Renaissance):

The rules of perspective are

    1.    decrease of the size of objects proportionally at distance,
    2.    enfeeblement of colors with distance,
    3.    decrease of the precision of details with distance.

The lack of these characteristics leads to an equal accuracy brought to details, including those of the background, which would be shaded off in fine art paintings.

BF&W is an exercise in folk and naïve art, because it is less a cohesive story (or even set of stories) than a record of part of a conversation. The book does not abide by any of the rules normal for books on any of the themes that it includes. It is more than a memoir of CGC (it includes some of scott crow’s childhood) but less than an autobiography—crow mostly discusses his childhood, political development, and part of his life during the existence of CGC. It includes a history lesson but only for a few disconnected and very specific pieces of history, without a larger context (primarily the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas). It is a political text by an anarchist who seems to have been most inspired by non-anarchists. It is a manual for disaster relief without much step by step information to duplicate specific success(es). It is an adventure story about fighting cops, vigilantes, snitches, and entitlement, as well as surviving the environment, without a clear ending. People who already know a bit about CGC might read this book for more information on Brandon Darby, who was a significant part of the story for scott crow, and who gained notoriety first from to his self aggrandizement, and later when he came out as an informant to the FBI. However, where scott crow discusses Darby, it has more to do with crow’s process of coming to terms with the fullness of Darby’s perfidity, than it does with an analysis or accounting of Darby’s behavior.

More fundamentally, the text does not follow a single line at any point. All of the threads are woven together in the way that spoken conversations sometimes flow, but that seem quite random on paper. Because there are so many threads that all seem to get equivalent attention, it’s hard to know which is foreground and what background.

This conversational style, in which bits from all the various themes are mixed together–biographical fragments with stories about the Spanish Civil War and crow’s alliances with ex-Black Panthers (a description that is featured heavily throughout the book), etc–is so pronounced that it makes the book seem like something new, perhaps a book that is for people who don’t read, who don’t like or want to be limited by the patterns or habits in more traditional books.

So Folk as a description operates here in two ways. First is that of “a set of practices learned by watching other people,” in the sense that crow learned his activism by watching and listening to ex-Black Panthers, and from them received a particular take on identity, society, and liberation that he faithfully represents here, even when it is in conflict with much of anarchist thought. In a chapter called Of Anarchists, Panthers, and Zapatistas, crow explains his own eventual embrace of the label anarchist (after rejecting it initially because of his distaste for punk anarchists in his youth), when he decided “it was time to shock the political system.” For some it will be odd that in this chapter the examples of actual action that he uses are two groups that have no anarchist affiliation at all.

It is not hard to find criticism of the authoritarian practices of many within the Black Panther Party; one example is this quotation from Paul Glavin’s friendly review of Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (edited by Kathleen Cleaver—who wrote the preface to BG&W—and George Katsiaficas).

The authoritarian, top-down structure of the Panthers, combined with their reliance on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, is objectionable from an anti-authoritarian perspective. The Panthers saw themselves as a vanguard Marxist-Leninist style Party with hierarchical ranks and they were influenced by Mao. For example, Michael L. Clemons and Charles E. Jones’s essay, “Global Solidarity,” points out that fifty percent of BPP political education classes were devoted to Mao’s Little Red Book. Key members were given State titles, such as Minister of Information and Minister of Defense.

In this collection, Mumia argues it is hard to generalize about the BPP because it had many offices and a diverse membership reflecting regional and cultural differences. Yet by the 1970s the BPP did become increasingly authoritarian and centralized (

And the Zapatistas, as exciting as they have been for people looking to create mass movements, are themselves not even anti-state.

The EZLN has not hidden their agenda. Their aims are clear already in the declaration of war that they issued at the time of the 1994 uprising, and not only are those aims not anarchist; they are not even revolutionary. In this declaration, nationalist language reinforced the implications of the army’s name. Stating: “We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation”, they go on to call upon the constitutional right of the people to “alter or modify their form of government.” They speak repeatedly of the “right to freely and democratically elect political representatives” and “administrative authorities”. And the goals for which they struggle are “work, land, housing , food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.” In other words nothing concrete that could not be provided by capitalism. Nothing in any later statement from this prolific organization has changed this fundamentally reformist program. Instead the EZLN calls for dialogue and negotiation, declaring their willingness to accept signs of good faith from the Mexican government.


crow’s book exemplifies a conundrum for a particular kind of anti-racist activist, which is the question of how much one constrains their ideas to fit into models that have been approved by people of color. When one is an activist, as crow decidedly is, the models of the panthers and the zapatistas are too practical and successful (within limits) to be denied. But if anarchy is something more than a set of tactics, then one must admit that anarchy is impractical. It is not practical to have a beautiful vision of the potential in all of us, a potential that demands the overthrow of so much that so many take for granted or in fact demand. This dilemma continues to be acted out in many people’s political activities and organizations, and the scott crow book is (among other things) a story of the balancing that he was trying to do between its horns. "Anarchism means not waiting for the other to do something. It means knowing what the right thing to do is, recognizing we have the power to do it, then doing it" (73).

But Folk can also apply to the way that a work is understood to be outside of institutions; counter to what is considered learned or erudite; easy for the Common Folk to understand.

When the point of a work is to replicate cultural norms that are not scholastic or outside of a particular form-of-life, to be—for example—accessible to a group of people who are not used to reading, then the conversational flow and familiar language will be a comfort and an encouragement. These might be the people who take the story of Don Quixote’s windmills as an expression of hope and a refusal to concede, rather than as a sign of an old man’s delusion.

Reading this book brought up for me questions of habit and form, formality and structure.

Arguably, scott crow took the format—papers bound together with glue and a cover—and made it his own. A practice that egoists, among others, might be able to appreciate.

1. aka outsider or visionary art—i.e. art by people who are considered insane or far outside of social convention)
2. Of course both pessimistic and optimistic views are true simultaneously.

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Rudy Rucker's Surfing the Gnarl on BoingBoing

by Cory Doctorow
February 16, 2012

Surfing the Gnarl is the latest volume in PM Press's wonderful Outspoken Authors series: a collection of slim, handsome chapbooks curated by Terry Bisson that combine essays, stories and interviews (I've previously written here about the Kim Stanley Robinson volume, as well as my own).

This one is devoted to one of the world's happiest and most mutated happy mutants, Rudy Rucker, the prolific mathematician, computer scientist and psychedelic transreal science fiction writer. Rucker's addition to the series is a very worthy one, with two very weird, characteristically ruckerian stories. The first, "The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club," is a quintessentially transreal story, a kind of shaggy dog piece that outweirds itself with every successive sentence, playing what Rucker calls a "science fiction power-chord" in the guise of an alien invasion tale. The second story, "Rapture in Space," is a drugged out sex story about the slackers who use a robo-caller-driven Ponzi scheme to finance the world's first orbital pornography video, and it, too, is a perfect capsule of what makes Rucker Rucker.

In between these stories is an essay, Surfing the Gnarl, which posits a theory of literature that ties approaches to fiction in with the mathematics of complexity and randomness, and is an illuminating piece of literary critical thinking. As with the other volumes in the series, this one concludes with an interview between Terry Bisson and Rucker, in which Rucker is his charmingly oblique and uncompromising self on subjects from the history of cyberpunk to the nature of the universe.

I really like the Outspoken Authors series—these skinny little books seem to distill the essence of each of their subjects into perfect capsules.

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Reflections on Germany's Red Army Faction

by Stefan Christoff
February 16, 2012

"The most in-depth political history of the Red Army Faction ever made available in English"

As euro zone economic turbulence continues, German political manoeuvring at the EU now faces unprecedented scrutiny.

Over the past year German politicians, specifically Chancellor Angela Merkel, have emerged in the international media as prominent symbols of a highly contested EU economic austerity agenda.

Conservative policies that move to cut funds to public institutions are a focus of great debate across the EU, from the halls of power in Brussels and Berlin, to the mass street protests in Athens and Madrid.

Recent German government statistics report positive numbers on rising employment in 2012, while contesting critiques point to jobs gained only in part-time and low-wage sectors, not in long-term equitable employment.

Lost in current news on Germany is a deeply contested national history, rooted in lands divided by war and profoundly shaped by social struggles, a complex political history often sidelined in contemporary reporting.

Reading news reports on Germany over recent weeks in Montreal, often quick fix articles in the Globe and Mail, has been complemented by a heavy book The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History, Volume 1: Projectiles For the People. Nearly 700 pages in length, the book is a collaboration between PM Press in Oakland and Kersplebedeb Press in Montreal. The book points to key moments in the popular history of Germany over the past century, while piecing together an incredible picture of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the armed left-wing guerrilla group.

Described as "the most in-depth political history of the Red Army Faction ever made available in English," the book is an incredibly detailed effort to convey post-war Germany history from a progressive lens, placing translations of pamphlets and communiques by RAF in a proper context.

Critically the book outlines political realities of Germany in the 1950s, detailing the strongly conservative reality of Western Germany and the neo-imperial role that U.S. political interests played during the Cold War.

For example, the book details major popular opposition in Western Germany to U.S.-backed rearmament efforts in the early 1950s, sparking "the first large protest movement in the new Federal Republic." These protests sparked violence by German state security forces and resulted in the death of a young anti-rearmament protester who was killed by police.

Importantly, the book also notes a lack of national focus, awareness or accountability for government and corporate officials involved in the Nazi regime, many incorporated into the conservative, U.S.-backed, West German government. In a way, texts in The Red Army Faction point to a national amnesia at a popular level and convenient disregard for accountability at a government level with regard to Nazi war crimes.

The injustices of their nation's past inspired young German activists in the 1950s and 1960s who called for accountability and redress from those who helped construct and sustain Nazi Germany. These were key issues in the political context that led major left, non-governmental movements to flourish in western Germany, especially in Berlin, throughout the late 1960s.

Details on years of political pressure and state violence in West Germany against leftist popular protest and grassroots organizing, outlined in The Red Army Faction are also key to reconstructing the contested history that led to the emergence of RAF.

For example, the book also highlights a major protest in 1967 against a visit by the Shah of Iran to Germany, where protesters "wore paper masks in the likeness of the Shah . . . so the police couldn't recognize us . . . they only saw the faces of the one they were protecting." The demonstration was organized to protest the German-backed dictatorship in Iran that ended in dozens of arrests, major injuries and a young protester shot in the head by a plainclothes police officer with a contested history.

In the book this moment is outlined as key to the emergence of a more militant German left, a police killing that gathered between 100,000 and 200,000 participants at mass anti-police brutality protests.

The book paints a political narrative, that features original texts and translated documents, providing a clear context to the emergence of the RAF.

Police violence and state repression against an above ground and growing German left in the 1960s is illustrated in The Red Army Faction as key to understanding the wider context that led some left activists to go underground.

"For the first time ever in English, this volume presents all of the manifestos and communiqués issued by the RAF between 1970 and 1977, from Andreas Baader's prison break, through the 1972 May Offensive and the 1975 hostage-taking in Stockholm, to the desperate, and tragic, events of the "German Autumn" of 1977," describes the co-publisher PM Press.

"The RAF's three main manifestos—The Urban Guerilla Concept, Serve the People, and Black September —are included, as are important interviews with Spiegel and le Monde Diplomatique, and a number of communiqués and court statements explaining their actions."

More importantly, the book strays away from superficial, individual-driven narratives on the RAF, a refreshing read to follow-up from Hollywood-like portrayals like those in the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex, which fails to provide the detailed context and authentic documentation outlined in this book.

In reading the details surrounding politics in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically on the vibrant and complex left movements in that era, it is striking to consider many of the social-democratic reforms introduced in Germany decades later. These were in many ways a response to the social and political critiques by activists toward conservative politics and economic injustice that shaped post-war Germany in the 1950s.

In ways the book fails to address, questions on the decision by RAF to take human lives for a larger political struggle are critical to consider. However, The Red Army Faction challenges common, unspoken conceptions on the existing monopoly on violence that state security and military forces maintain and deploy often without accountability.

Certainly the book is an important reference for anyone interested in European left history and is critical for anyone grappling to understand the context of contemporary German politics. - Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, community activist and musician who contributes to Stefan is @Spirodon

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Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow in a Center for a Stateless Society

by Kevin Carson
Center for a Stateless Society
February 13, 2012

I’ll start by saying I found this a very engaging read.  I learned a lot of interesting new things about people whose thought I had already encountered, like Morris, Huxley and Orwell, and developed a strong appreciation for those—like Wilde—with whom I was less familiar.

I confess I found the pacifists—precisely those for whom Goodway has the strongest affinity—and the thinkers whose primary influence was in the world of letters, less interesting.  For example, I barely skimmed through the chapters on John Cowper Powys—a damning admission in a reviewer, I know.  But these are reflections more on me than on the inherent value of the subject matter, or of Goodway’s presentation of it.

All this being said, I’m somewhat puzzled by the scope of the book—in particular, as to why it begins in the late Victorian period with William Morris and his contemporaries.

Goodway argues that the “first indigenous anarchist groups” in Britain only dated from the 1880s. But he devotes a major share of the book to figures like Morris, Orwell, and E.P. Thompson, whom he himself categorized as libertarian socialists or libertarian communists: i.e., “meaning that they exhibited some or even many anarchist characteristics without signing up for the whole anarchist programme.”  So at the very least, I think it would have benefited from a long background chapter on the roots of left-libertarian thought in Great Britain, from Paine and Godwin to Thomas Hodgskin. Hodgskin, whose economic analysis closely prefigured in many ways that of the American individualist anarchists, was at least as anarchist-ish as (say) William Morris, who despite a brand of libertarian socialism indistinguishable in practice from Kropotkin’s never abandoned his strenuous denials of being an anarchist.

Goodway tips his hat to the idea that anarchism in Britain had native antecedents, but as a practical matter he treats it as some largely sui generis, encapsulated lump that came to a head like a cyst around 1880. In fact classical anarchism, classical socialism and classical liberalism all shared common—and frequently intertwining—post-Enlightenment roots. Despite his pro forma acknowledgement to the contrary, you’d get the impression that British anarchism sprang from the brow of Zeus.

One omission—G.D.H. Cole—can hardly be blamed on Goodway. PM Press vetoed his proposal to add a chapter on the primary theorist of Guild Socialism to the original 2006 edition.

Having stated these criticisms, I repeat I found the book a pleasure to read overall. Regardless of any quibbles over his choice of scope, my hat is off to Goodway for his masterful handling of an immense volume of primary source materials, and his ability to convert musty archives and University collections of faded letters into a lively narrative.

Now for a few specifics.  I enjoyed Goodway’s presentation of contemporary reactions to William Morris by the anarchist community—most of whom saw News from Nowhere, as I did, as one of the few future utopias one would actually want to live in (Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time comes close to rivaling it, aside from the decanting of babies and the linguistic reengineering; so does LeGuin’s Anarres, aside from the priggishness). Unlike, say, Bellamy’s Looking Backward—in which daily life strikes me as a lot like taking medicine—Morris’s green and pleasant land manages to seem more appealing than Coketown.  Kropotkin, especially, found it attractive—hardly surprising, from another thinker who took the Free Towns of the late Middle Ages as a model for libertarian socialism.

I confess my previous, and rather superficial, take on Oscar Wilde was heavily influenced by his stereotyped image of frivolity and facile wit. But the ideas expressed in his private letters, and in such seminal works as “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” evidence a powerful, focused and mature intellect.  The latter essay is not only only a manifesto of social and cultural freedom, but an incisive critique of the basic principle of authority.

Goodway doesn’t do much to reconcile the conflicted image of Orwell as a libertarian socialist who hated socialists (and most everybody else, one is sometimes tempted to think), but he fleshes it out with a wealth of interesting detail. I’d read little in the way of biographical material on Eric Blair, aside from his first person account in Homage to Catalonia of his experiences fighting in the (vaguely, kinda sorta Trotskyite) POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War.

His direct experience of the Madrid Stalinists consolidating power in 1937, and of a Civil War lost because they saw the anarchists as a worse enemy than Franco, I found especially moving. The Spanish Revolution was betrayed in the same way the Russian Revolution had been betrayed by the Stalinists, with Soviet trainers busily organizing Spain’s own NKVD and the Communist Party packing the prisons to overflowing with dissidents; the war was lost in no small part because the Madrid regime systematically deprived the CNT and other libertarian socialist militias of ammunition and victuals.  No small portion of Orwell’s personal disgust came out later in his respective portrayals of the ordinary animals and the Pigs of Animal Farm.

I was already vaguely aware of Huxley’s anarchistic sensibilities, from his quip in an afterword to Brave New World on a third alternative whose “economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative.” Thanks to Goodway, I now know a lot more about that aspect of his thought.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on E.P. Thompson, with whom I was familiar mainly as the Marxist scholar who wrote the monumental The Making of the English Working Class and the essay “Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” I’d repeatedly seen Thompson dismissed by right-wingers as a crude Stalinist.  Not only was not that the case—he left the CPGB over Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary, and likely would have left earlier if not for his devotion to the late brother under whose influence he joined the Party in the first place—but (as I should have guessed from his sympathetic treatment of working class institutions in Making of the English Working Class) he was a gifted and nuanced libertarian socialist thinker.

Goodway’s chapter on Thompson is especially valuable for its treatment of the influence of the Ranters and Muggletons and other antinomians of the English Revolution, by way of William Blake (another figure who would have been ideal for a background chapter, by the way), on Thompson’s thought. Here we’re getting into Christopher Hill country—also hospitable terrain for anyone who enjoyed Ken MacLeod’s Engines of Light series.

It’s fitting that the book concludes with a chapter on Colin Ward. The very title of the book evokes imagery of Ward.  Rather than a dry Cliff Notes paragraph on all the covers, I’ll just say Goodway’s is a tribute worthy of someone who was—along with James Scott and Elinor Ostrom—the most legitimate heir of Kropotkin. Like Kropotkin, Ward was a communist anarchist—and like Kropotkin, someone for whom that or any other label was wholly inadequate. As Kropotkin did with the High Medieval towns, Ward took the English building societies, sick benefit societies, libertarian schools, and what can only be called “favelas” in neighborhoods like Pittsea and Laindon, as models for a self-organized society based on mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, and conviviality—a society of ingenuity and experimentation, little platoons, and all sorts of free nooks and crannies beyond the imagining of central planners in ministry buildings or corporate headquarters.

Ward, like Kropotkin, was too big to be encompassed by any hypenated “anarcho-” label, and belongs to the common heritage not only of communist anarchists but of individualists, mutualists, municipalists and every other damned kind of -ist under the sun who desires a world fit for human beings to live in. For all of us who long for “a season of rest,” a day when “this earth divided we will make whole,” when “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” Kropotkin and Ward are patron saints. In his account of a man I already revered, Goodway has given me new reasons for reverence.

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The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow in San Francisco Book Review

by Wendy Iraheta
San Francisco Book Review
January 04, 2012

Featuring Terry Bisson’s candid interview with Doctorow about plotting a story and how the website Boing Boing is better than a writer’s notebook, his “Creativity vs. Copyright” talk on digital rights management at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2010, and the title novella, this collection offers readers an essential introduction to Doctorow’s work. Jimmy Yensid is a transhuman adolescent engineered to age at an unusually slow pace. Forced to leave his father and hometown of Detroit after a full scale attack by the monstrous creatures called wumpuses, Jimmy goes east and joins a community of wireheads.

In a scant one hundred pages, Doctorow infuses our imagination with engaging characters, a tightly woven narrative, and carefully woven themes of isolation, family, and genetic engineering into Jimmy’s journey through the American wasteland. Doctorow eloquently marks the differences between change and progress as one of Jimmy’s preoccupations. When comparing his immortality to his father’s Jimmy says, “With me, it was all about the germ plasm . . . a native of the transhuman condition. And no one knew what that meant, really. Including me.” Doctorow’s prose is precise and perceptive. His vision of the future, although gritty, is an entertaining and thought provoking reflection of our present.

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TVA Baby on Rain Taxi

by Jade Bové
Rain Taxi
Winter 2011/2012

Terry Bisson’s latest collection of short stories, TVA Baby, presents thirteen science fiction tales that focus on voyeurism and violence—and sometimes both.

The title story starts the collection with a dose of hyper violence that unfolds with dark humor. The main character, a southerner whose Yankee father came to the south to work for Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, is never named but refers to himself as “TVA Baby.” And he’s got some issues: the story starts out on a plane where TVA Baby punches a guy in the face, driving the bone into the brain and killing him. “You hardly ever see blood on a commercial flight,” he exclaims. When he takes a hostage he misinterprets her fearful stuttering for an actual speech impediment and relates to us the lesson he learned in the Boy Scouts about kids who stutter: “cruelty isn’t a merit badge.” The story progresses with increased violence, and ends with a dramatic shoot-out at a Wal-Mart with “Darth Vader types” (a SWAT team) and a hurried conversation with Ellen Degeneres through a television screen about what to do next.

The voyeurism theme is common throughout the collection, but most prevalent in the story “Private Eye.” In a not too distant future, people are implanted with video cameras in their eyes that stream to pay-per-view websites; the story is told in first person but because of the streaming aspect, the reader becomes a subscribing voyeur to the romantic relationship that develops between the two main characters. Bisson also toys with point of view in “Pirates of the Somali Coast,” an epistolary tale told by a ten-year-old boy via e-mails to his mom and his best friend. An innocent, the boy never fully comprehends the ultra-violence that the pirates are committing; he is overjoyed when he gets to keep a murdered child’s Game-boy but finds disappointment when he discovers “the batteries are all ready dead, just my luck.”

The strongest story here is “Charlie’s Angels,” a stylish piece of noir fiction. Jack Villon is a supernatural investigator hired by a chain-smoking Edith Prang, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Antiquities. His job is to find out who is mysteriously killing people by pinching off their heads, and also where a giant statue keeps disappearing to. The mystery intensifies when clues begin pointing to the statue itself as the culprit, and a mysterious voice starts talking to Villon via cell phone asking him to “Kill me . . . please . . .” Villon’s cynicism toward his job is summed up nicely when he is told about the legend of the giant statue: He reveals he “never figured out why people want to believe in the supernatural. It’s as if they find the existence of the irrational somehow reassuring.”

Here and throughout the book, Bisson maintains a lighthearted tone amidst the darker atmosphere very well, and his playful incorporation of real-world humdrum amidst the science-fiction mayhem offers a lens on contemporary society. Watch your heads!

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An Ode to the Movement: Truths Among Us Brings it Back Home

TruthBy Sasha
Earth First! Newswire
February 2012

Derrick Jensen can be a very enigmatic author. He is at one point talking about preserving nature by destroying civilization, and then in a blink of an eye he will be engaging you on the subject of violence against women or civil war in Guatemala. This is because, for Jensen, the apotheosis of abuse is civilization. We will finally be able to heal from our trauma and abusive behavior when we dismantle the idea of civilization and live in peace with one another. In his books, Jensen is constantly referring to his friends—his socialist friend, his feminist friend, his indigenous activist friend—who are reminding him to remain humble and informing his thoughts all the time. But who are these friends, and how can we figure out where their independent thoughts intersect with Jensen's?

That is where Truths Among Us, just released through a joint effort of his own publishing company, Flashpoint Press, and PM Press, comes into play. Interviewing a diverse array of activists, scientists, and theorists, Jensen strikes to what is personal in all of our experiences with abuse, and finds the healing kernel of love in an intimate relationship with one another, mediated by nature. Civilization, here, is the abusive intervention in natural relationships; it is—via capital, commercialism, colonialism, etc—what pits us against one another through shame, competition, or outright victimization.

In today's heated terrain of ideological polarization and alienation, Truths Among Us comes as a breath of fresh air. What strikes the reader at first are the names on the front cover. Jensen interviews sociologist Stanley Aaronowitz, feminist Jane Caputi, activist Luis Rodriguez, and a careful selection of other important thinkers. Throughout the book, Jensen's own voice is subsumed within a broader discourse about science, activism, biodiversity, and social issues. Aaronowitz's marxian socialism illuminates a surprising link with Jensen's autonomous, primitivist views on the basis of a critique of technological civilization and contemporary science. Here, the alienated stance of scientism is challenged by appealing to the traditions of the philosophy of science, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and a host of other thinkers whose thoughts have been sacrificed at the alter of “method”.

In place of science as it exists in today's highly professionalized and corporatized world, Jensen seeks out Marc Ian Barasch, the former editor of The New Age Journal, for some actionable medical knowledge. Barasch pulls on ideas of the collective unconscious hashed out across the world, from Carl Jung to Hasidic tradition to Buddhism. Presenting an interesting case for curing cancer through a personal quest of self-healing, Barasch explains that by listening to his dreams and following his desires he was able to win his battle with the scourge of modern civilization.

Accompanying self-healing, Jensen makes special inquiries into bioremediation with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Through the activities of fungi and mycelial mats, ecosystems are able to regenerate to a mind boggling extent, Stamets declares. Pursuing this knowledge base might be the key to restoring devastated ecosystems and returning to wild nature. Another interview with activist John Keeble exposes that the connection between bioremediation of Super Fund sites and other biohazard locations might have a lot to do with a sociological turn away from white supremacy and corporate control. Corporations “rob the world of its subjectivity,” says Keeble, “They are culturally sanctified, supported, and protected in their role of turning the living—forests, oceans, mountains, rivers, human lives—into the dead: money” while hate groups “serve that same function of objectifying. Their entire self-definition is based on this objectification.”

To get a closer understanding of the problems of hate and objectification, Jensen turns to influential professor and critic of patriarchy, Jane Caputi. In this interview, Jensen's personality shines through; he draws on his own experience and strikes to the core of our collective trauma as well as the need for recovery. What Caputi shows us is that oppression is afflicted within before it is afflicted without; in rape for instance, what the perpetrator is “afraid of—perhaps even more profoundly than getting a dose of their own violence—is the feminine within themselves, the chaos represented by the wilderness.” Hence, the connection between the assault against nature and the assault against particular groups grows more keen, and is elucidated further by Jensen's discussion with Luis Rodriguez.

A best-selling author whose autobiographical work, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Life in L.A., describes life as a gang member in South Central LA. Rodriguez discusses the need for place amongst inner city youth whom economic structures have abandoned. “[Gangs] are products of the industrial age,” declares Rodriguez, who also touches on the subject of the collective unconscious. “[W]e all have an ancestral pool of knowledge and experience that we've somehow forgotten about... in their bones these kids are indigenous people.” Raised on a reservation in New Mexico and trained as a Tzutujil Mayan shaman in Guatemala, Martín Prechtel also provides Jensen with an important connection to the indigenous: “We are all still human beings. Some of us have buried our humanity deep inside, or medicated or anesthetized it, but every person alive today, tribal or modern, primal or domesticated, has a soul that is original, natural, and, about all, indigenous in one way or another.” In contrast to the notion of indigeneity, love, and appreciation, professor Richard Drinnon provides a sweeping analysis of the connections between modernity, industrialism, and racism, asking the question, “Where can an attempted dominion over nature and self lead but to the eradication of feelings in any kind of fully human way?” The answer comes through Jensen's interview with trauma expert Judith Herman: “If you're part of a predatory and militaristic culture, then to behave in a predatory and exploitative way is not deviant, per se.”

To fit this many observations in a single work while pulling so many voices into a bricolage of diverse and complimentary discourse is a momentous achievement by Jensen, and it is sorely needed today. Which brings me to the next interesting aspect of Truths Among Us: many of the interviews took place before 9/11 and the Green Scare, bringing together a number of voices in an interesting time capsule; a point when “the movement” had the ability to articulate particular demands with far more discursive freedom. One can see in the history of Jensen's writings a complicated tension between the right-wing anarchist-primitivist tradition and left wing socialist thought. Jensen's own writing, which culminated in the monumental, prophetic lamentations of, Endgame, has always played along a tight-wire of resistance, moving between prison advocacy to animal welfare sympathies to feminism and post-colonial theory, while maintaining what one might call an autonomous political position. While the anarchist right has chided him for endorsing a liberal mindset, much of the liberal left has disassociated itself from Jensen's antipathy for reforms.

When in 2010 Jensen released Deep Green Resistance with controversial anti-vegan primitivist Lierre Keith and green anarchist Aric McBay, he was criticized heavily from the left, including the claim that DGR as partially responsible for fueling a cultish right-wing tendency within primitivism that has attacked at various times vegetarianism, antiracism, feminism, and queer activism and is part of a broader “backlash” against normative social justice activism and the idea of reform in general. The release of these interviews dating back to the late nineties is a relief from the infighting and disruption that has plagued activists in recent years. Of course there was infighting before September 11, but there is no doubt that it has become aggravated by the intensity of state repression.
The glance back at the wonderful things that activists have done and said in solidarity with a global movement against oppression and pathological abuse serves as an inspirational (if not nostalgic) reminder of the relationships of solidarity that Jensen has helped to protect over the past two decades, and a motivation to embrace different people, different ideas, and different walks of life. It is a rewarding book, well worth the read, and is, ironically, perhaps a better reference point for Jensen's thought than any other of his works that I have read.

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Robin Hood: People's Outlaw excerpted in YES!

For hundreds of years, he’s fought tax injustice, tyranny, and the seizure of the commons. Why we still need him today.

by Paul Buhle
and excerpt on YES!
February 15, 2012

“Man has an insatiable longing for justice. In his soul he rebels against a social order which denies it to him and whatever the world he lives in, he accuses either that social order or the entire material universe of injustice . . . And in addition he carries within himself the wish to have what he cannot have—if only in the form of a fairy tale.” 
—Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (1981)

In the late 1950s, a handful of peaceniks protested mandatory ROTC on a major U.S. university campus by carrying signs and wearing green buttons. Back when The Adventures of Robin Hood was a giant hit on television, most everybody knew that green was Robin Hood’s color and that Robin could not side with the king’s soldiers or future soldiers of any empire. Five decades later, the lead protagonist of a cult favorite American cable show, Leverage, announces at the beginning of each episode: “The rich and the powerful take what they want; we steal it back for you.”

A team of Robin Hoods faces off against a motley crew of capitalist clowns and banker jokers.

The game highlighted the possibilities of the Robin Hood tax as way of raising money for climate funds.

It’s a fitting motto for heroes of the twenty-first century. Admittedly, resistance to injustice has not as yet returned to the level of the apprentices and craftsmen in Edinburgh, Scotland, who in 1561 chose to come together “efter the auld wikid maner of Robene Hude”: they elected a leader as “Lord of Inobedience” and stormed past the magistrates, through the city gates, up to Castle Hill where they displayed their unwillingness to accept current work-and-wage conditions. But as a global society, we are clearly still thinking about the need for Robin Hood.

After all, we live in something rapidly approaching a Robin Hood era. The rich and powerful now command almost every corner of the planet and, in order to maintain their control, threaten to despoil every natural resource to the point of exhaustion. Meanwhile, billions of people are impoverished below levels of decency maintained during centuries of subsistence living. In this historical moment, the organized forces of egalitarian resistance and even their ideologies seem to be reduced to near nonexistence, or turned against themselves in the name of supreme individualism. Robin’s Greenwood, the global forest, is disappearing chunks at a time. Yet resistance to authority, of one kind or another, continues, and, given worsening conditions, is likely to increase.

Robin Hood lives on as a figure of tomorrow, rather than just yesterday, in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and Occupied sites worldwide. Today's Occupy Movement, in the U.S. and abroad, lifts up Robin's banner intuitively, reclaiming common space; but also literally, as folks dress in Robin Hood outfits and caps to demonstrate their sense of continuity for a better life.

A Taiwanese poster for the latest big-screen (and hardly subversive) adaptation of the Robin Hood story, directed by Ridley Scott, demonstrates the legend's ongoing global—and commercial—appeal.

No other medieval European saga has had the staying power of Robin Hood; no other is wrapped up simultaneously in class conflict (or something very much like class conflict), the rights of citizenship, and defense of ecological systems against devastation.

No wonder, then, that theater and poetry seized the subject early on, and that modern communications, from 19th-century penny newspapers and “yellow back” cheap novels, to modern-day comic books and assorted media have all had their Robin Hood characters. No wonder that the early Robin films set records for lavish production and box-office records for audience response. No wonder that television productions of Robin have pressed issues of civil liberties and that many of the later films, if distinctly mediocre, nevertheless seem to refresh the subject, offering a source of summer holiday distraction that never quite disguises darker themes within.

The Enclosure of the Commons: Circa Norman Conquest of 1066

John Ball was no mythic figure, but a real leader of a major social rebellion, assassinated as the rebellion was crushed in 1381. Little is known about Ball otherwise: Like many an agitator, he was a lay preacher with working men and women as his street audience.

Ball was once thought to be the author of the totemic English poem of the time, "Piers Plowman." The authorship was otherwise, but the kinship is striking. Piers Plowman’s complaint and demands, naturally placed in theological terms during that time, nevertheless spoke to very real contemporary
 developments. These included a failed (but hugely expensive) Crusade; the creation of the historic 1215 agreement between king and aristocracy known as the Magna Carta; the rise of religious dissent and in particular the spiritual rebels known as the Lollards; not to mention famine and plague, among other cataclysmic events of the time.

Behind these multiple crises, before the resulting disruption and attempted revolution of 1381, lay centuries of European village life, more specifically the creation of a sustainable ecosystem in which the village had collectively survived invasions, diseases, and all manner of earlier threats. Peter Linebaugh references Marc Bloch’s description of “grey, gnarled, lowbrowed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long-armed, deformed, hunchbacked, misshapen oakmen.” The ancient oaks, Linebaugh says, were not the growth of “wildwood,” dating back to the conditions formed by the Ice Age, but the consequence of a planned and cultivated wooded pasture.

This was a reality, but also a metaphor. The wooded pasture was nurtured by the villagers within a common—that is, an area commonly held—with practices like woodsmanship, so that the same stretches of land remained in use for their wood value and for the grazing of domestic animals. Ash and elm trees, capable of growing up from stumps, could be cut and used for rakes, scythes, and firewood, while trees like apple and cherry, arising out of root systems as “suckers,” grew rapidly out of reach of the livestock to provide other resources. Wooded commons were often owned by the local lord or merchant, but used by all. If the owner commanded the soil and exacted a percentage of crops, grazing rights nevertheless usually remained with commoners, and the trees belonged to neither. Thus, as the cattle grazed, towns were physically organized through the extensive use of wood in cottages, churches, and for the making of bowls, tables, stools, and wheels.

The Norman Conquest in 1066, a couple of centuries before Robin’s supposed time, did much to throw these old rules of the forest into chaos. Changes brought new laws, new populations (including French and Jewish), and even new animals for game including certain kinds of deer not earlier seen in these lands. The forest, as Linebaugh says, was now as much a legal as a physical presence.

Other elements of change likewise pressing upon villagers further complicated the picture. As Marxist scholar Rodney Hilton explained in his classic, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381, serfdom expanded as the centers of power grew stronger and more successfully exploited the advancing sources of wealth, even as large numbers of “free tenants” remained protected to some degree against the seizure of all surplus through government and lordly dues and payments of one kind and another. In many cases, farmers closer to markets were growing more prosperous, but they were also the very farmers with dues-collectors closer at hand.

For centuries ahead, the collective resistance across Europe, but perhaps especially in England, coincided with the sense of better days somewhere in the past, and this real and mythic memory continued to give ballast to class resentments and radical hopes alike.

In all this, the forest was a unique status symbol and a domain of kingship, both symbolic and actual. Royalty needed wood for all the familiar reasons of building and sustaining a palace life, as well as supporting the lives of merchants and nobility in league with the king. For holidays, they demanded sumptuous banquet food, including all manner of forest animal life, as well as fish that swam in the forest’s rivers, and deer that were forbidden to be trapped, killed, and eaten by anyone else. Pickpockets, abundant at public events (including hangings), were more likely to be shown mercy
than deer poachers, even with the animals in evident abundance.

Cash was also necessary, in part to meet the authorities’ demands upon the villages and forests to make possible the latest forms of military escalation and associated expenses for the king’s army. Royalty itself sold off forest privileges in order to pay the cost of mounted knights with or without
armor.  Not surprisingly, then, one main demand in the Magna Carta was to take back the forests, or at least limit their expropriation by the powerful.

The Magna Carta to the Ballads: 1215-1500

The Magna Carta was hardly written by common people, and it hardly ended oppression and exploitation. Like the later arrival of Protestantism, it often contributed to new conditions for heightened exploitation. But struggles against royalty and the established church offered symbols of popular resistance and occasional victory, symbols also used in the Robin Hood narratives. These helped make it seem possible to fight back, in small and mainly local ways; they made it seem possible, sometimes, to win back ancient rights that were in the process of being lost.

Thus it happened that the main ingredients of the Robin story became established in ballads, sung and written roughly between 1400 and 1500, with a handful of basic narratives starring the now familiar characters. From the beginning, their defense of villagers along with deer hunting, archery contests, cunning disguises, daring rescues, and crypto-romances were full of social and ecological implications, and always rich in symbolism.

Robin Hood, the saga, emerged in England at a time of bitter social conflict and was reshaped continually by the modernizing forces of order and production. The medieval barons who ordered playlets performed by singers and actors would not, of course, wish Robin to be a social bandit—a romantic bandit certainly, but not one with a social cause. Nor would most of the playwrights have wished to pursue such themes.

The Robin Hood ballads could not, however, have been created without the rebellious legends with their anti-establishment emphasis casually reinforced in musical entertainments as carnival-like games, and without the presence of the very real social unrest sometimes taking place alongside
these presumably innocent activities.

Robin in Chapbooks: Eighteenth Century Onward

From the 18th century onward, readers began to encounter Robin in cheap anthologies. These “chapbooks,” or crudely printed little volumes, could run as long as eighty pages, but more often were twenty-four pages long and included illustrations especially profuse in somewhat more pricey editions.

But who bought them? Because broadsides, and then chapbooks, sold more briskly in towns and cities than rural zones, their audience was likely to be the urban lower classes, perhaps recent migrants from the countryside seeking jobs and, for many, freedom from the old bonds of rural life.

Sometimes, they would have been men and women driven from the villages by the ongoing enclosures. These readers in particular wanted entertainment but they also nurtured the legacy of rebellion, and probably their own sense of nostalgia for the beauty and quiet of the rural scene.

Ritson's Robin Takes On "Titled Ruffian and Sainted Idiots": 1795-1815

The pure glory of Robin spilled out into the work of Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, now extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw: To Which are Affixed Historical Anecdotes of His Life, published first in 1795. Ritson himself was a literary rebel, a wild enthusiast for the French Revolution (and unlike some of England’s leading poets, never willing afterward to repudiate its legacies), and a bitter critic of the Roman Church as well as its English counterpart. Ritson was above all a collector and an early archivist, and a highly intelligent one at that.

Ritson established Robin’s qualities through an almost psychological study of the available folkish documents: “Just, generous, benevolent, faithful and believed or revered by his followers or adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.” Ritson also argued for the historical existence of a nonfiction Robin Hood, an Earl of Huntingdon who “in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people” against all the efforts of “titled ruffian and sainted idiots, to suppress” his true story. This was quite a claim, and not one easily heard in an England where defeat of the French and anxiety about “revolution” became predominant sentiments. After 1815, as economic crisis merged with imperial crisis, Ritson’s Robin Hood emerged as the accepted classic version, along with folkloric inclusion of Robin stories in the Childe Ballads collected and published during the last two decades of the 19th century.

Quaker Robin Hits the United States: 1883

Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire (1883) was a genuine innovation, albeit in form more than content. Robin material had only begun to appear in the United States at this time, and Pyle had a growing reputation for his illustrated children’s books. It has been suggested that the author’s native rural Delaware bore a resemblance to Sherwood Forest, and his Quakerism contained a dissenting sensibility (not, however, much of a pacifist limitation).

Williams Morris’s fascination with Pyle’s Merry Adventures makes good sense because it was close to Morris’s own spirit, and in line with the heavy praise that Pyle’s book received in the literary circles of 1880s London. One can almost feel the Morrisian medievalism, romantic poetry and all, in Pyle’s prose: "Five score or more good stout yeomen joined themselves to him, and chose him to be their leader and chief. Then they vowed that even as they themselves had been despoiled they would despoil their oppressors, whether baron, abbot, knight, or squire, and that from each they would take that which had been wrung from the poor by unjust taxes, or land rents, or in wrongful fines . . . to many a poor family, they came to praise Robin and his merry men, and to tell many tales of him and of his doings in Sherwood Forest, for they felt him to be one of themselves."

Pyle wanted to send his young readers into a place that only their imagination could carry them. No small part of this was Pyle’s sense of nature lore: In the “merry morn” of the forest, where “all the birds were singing blithely among the leaves,” Robin finds adventure, and the natural setting is never far from sight. It is also, or can be seen to be, all part of the grand saga of England, Robin a necessary outlaw but a friend to the Good King Richard, defender of the proper throne. This was schoolboy stuff, as Pyle himself might have calculated, but schoolboy stuff of a superior sort. The book has been in and out of print, mostly in print, for every generation after its writing.

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood gives Maid Marian a dagger in Robin Hood.

Big-Screen Robin, the Romantic Lead: 1922

Robin Hood as cinematic hero took the field at least twice in the 1910s, but in full force with Douglas Fairbanks in 1922. The Fairbanks version, true to the tale of the nobleman assisting the oppressed, but also pledging himself to King Richard, was also important in at least one other narrative respect: romance. Filmmakers had already grasped the significance of the female lead, especially for the sake of women in the movie audience. In this version, Marian is determinedly virginal and panic-stricken at her worse-than-death potential loss. Everything about Marian depends upon Robin: no innovation here. But there is more to be said, if only because of the film’s continuing cinematic importance. Robin Hood became and still remains a Hollywood phenomenon as the social rebel beloved of the ticket-buying masses.

Bandido: Robin as Freedom Fighter: 1936

"Joaquin, the Mountain Robber" (ca. 1848). Artist's portrayal of Joaquin Murieta. Original at the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), one of the most spectacular anti-racist films of a film era in which these were rare and mostly limited to sympathetic treatment of individual Indians. A highly fictionalized biography of Joaquin Murieta, the famed social bandit who took to the hills to fight the invading Anglo land-grabbers, finds the “yankees” looting and robbing the poor Mexicans in mid-19th-century California. His encampment, a center of merriment, dancing, and singing, as well as military training for a guerilla army, was the best update of the Sherwood Forest guerillas in modern cinema to the time. He first aims to rob the rich Mexicans who have treated his own family so badly, and then learns that they, too, have been expropriated. A daughter of that class takes up arms with him as a lover and co-fighter, but as the guerillas plan to escape to Mexico and safety, they are gunned down to the last member by ruthless, murdering Anglo creeps.

Robin Under the Fascist Shadow: 1938

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), costarring a heart-rending Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, amplified a wealth-redistributionist Robin Hood generally absent from the Fairbanks version. Leading man Errol Flynn, reputed to be an early 1930s pro-Fascist (but always more interested in chasing women and boozing), was soon to become the anti-Fascist screen hero several times over. Before the end of his life (at 50), Flynn pronounced himself, on prime-time television, to be a drinking buddy of Fidel Castro’s.

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Meanwhile, playing Maid Marian, de Havilland was perfection. The noblewoman, at first resentful and politically conservative, is won from her aristocratic beliefs by Robin’s showing her the misery wrought by the Norman occupiers. She follows her heart and her political growth step by step into romance and partisanship. Very much her own person, this Maid Marian is on her way toward a crypto-feminism of self-assertion.

What else had made this iconic version a huge and lasting hit? Apart from Robin and Marian, there is the notable camaraderie of the Merry Men, but also notable is the stark evil of the authorities. The Sheriff of Nottingham, as played by Basil Rathbone, means to wipe out all opposition. He is a Fascist, whatever he happens to call himself. As darkness swept over contemporary Europe, it was easy to identify those like him in charge of the threat to decency, and their connections with the powerful ruling groups of various nations.

Blacklisted: Robin at (Cold) War: 1955-1959

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955–59) was created and shot in Britain, likely the only place that it could have been done. Its producer was American Hannah Weinstein, a former theatrical lawyer (and organizer of major events for the doomed Henry Wallace/Progressive Party campaign of 1948) who saw the writing on the wall and, like many of the victims of the Hollywood blacklist, made up her mind to create a career abroad. In Britain as in France, the blacklistees were welcomed as heroes, notwithstanding the British government’s slavish acceptance of U.S. foreign policies and military and intelligence operations across the planet.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" aired on Britain's ITV channel, a BBC competitor, and eventually attracted 32 million viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Weinstein easily made contact with blacklisted screenwriters living in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. The most important, by a long stretch, was Ring Lardner, Jr., who, until the witch hunt, had been regarded as one of the film colony’s brightest young talent (as well as Katharine Hepburn’s personal favorite). Lardner, Jr., and his longtime film collaborator Ian McLellan Hunter were set to work with young script editor Albert Ruben in London, devising a system—prompted by blacklistees’ inability to obtain passports—by which he traded story ideas and scripts across the Atlantic. This resulted in some of the best, wittiest, and most political writing on television in an era of live drama and other experimentation rarely seen again until film and cable competition drove networks onward to risks political and sexual alike.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" set the small screen afire. It quickly attracted 32 million viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. It also drew upon the knowledge and insight of historical scholars—in this case British scholars—offering examples of the use of existing laws in the High Medieval Ages to protect commoners against the worst abuses that aristocrats sought to hand out. With the careful oversight of Ruben, it made for consistently clever, sometime hilarious viewing: The dialogue was snappy and socially conscious (especially from Maid Marian) and the bad guys were bad enough but also capable, now and then, of doing the right thing, as when a forest fire or a psychopathic baron brought the foes together in common cause. More often, Robin and his Men, joined by Marian, typically protected an old woman accused of being a witch (i.e., the ongoing witch hunt in the United States); conducted a secret mission to France and joined hands with the French Underground (shades of anti-Nazi activities); provided aid to Friar Tuck, who was being a people’s priest in resisting pope and sheriff; or frustrated the tax-man or the hangman, for the nth time in the series.

It was also an unforgettable slap in the face of the repressive 1950s. More, it represented the struggle to get beyond them. Together, these shows offered history as a way of learning, and as mass culture created with a skimpy budget afterwards unimaginable.

Robin Today: Occupy the Meme

The struggle for common space and decision-making—whether rural, metropolitan, or global—can be traced back, in one part of the world, to the changes forced upon royalty in the Magna Carta. They can carry us forward to our opposition against privatization of formerly public goods and space toward a society of a different—and more sustainable—kind. Many millions of farms, urban neighborhoods, and software programs can be or in many cases are already being operated on some basis of sharing. The editors of An Architektur dub this process of struggle for position “commoning.” Thus commoning is the opposite of the imperial mode, right down to the struggle against dams being constructed on rivers in or outside forests all around the world.

If the “primitive accumulation” (Marx’s own phrase) of capitalism was effected through enclosures—the privatization of previously common lands for the purpose of successful wool production a couple of centuries after Robin’s appearance—then he and the Merry Men (not forgetting Maid Marian) had been seeking to nip the process in the bud. Marx erred, writing in the middle of the 19th century, not by failing to see the utter misery introduced to move primitive accumulation forward, but by not seeing that primitive accumulation as a permanent process.

With so little of the planet not yet completely exploited, the process nevertheless accelerates. We need Robin more than ever.

We need Robin because rebellion against deteriorating conditions is inevitable. Without clear-headed Robins, however—without hundreds of thousands or millions of them seeing clearly—the impulse to rebel will surely be lost in internecine struggle and crime, organized and unorganized, the mirror of class society at its destructive extreme. We need them more now than ever before. No existing political model, Marxist, Social Democratic, Leninist, anarchist, or other is suitable for what lies ahead.

Paul Buhle adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from his book Robin Hood: People's Outlaw and Forest Hero (PM Press, 2011). Paul is the founder-editor of the new left journal Radical America and edits radical comic art books in Wisconsin.

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Care Work and the Power of Women: An Interview with Selma James

by Julie McIntyre
Viewpoint Magazine
March 19, 2012

In their 1972 pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa presented an original and influential analysis of “unwaged work.” This concept, which identified the care work that women do in the home as an essential element of the reproduction of capitalism, opened the door to powerful new forms of struggle among working class women and men.

James founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign, based on the demand that women should be paid for their round-the-clock care work, since it reproduces labor-power day after day.

This was not an attempt to subject women to the same exploitation as male workers. In 1970s Italy, the Wages for Housework movement was connected to Lotta Feminista, a group that sought to challenge male-centered forms of workers’ struggle. Silvia Federici argued, in a 1974 essay reprinted in the recent issue of The Commoner on care work, that the feminist struggle for a wage had to be understood in terms of “its significance in demystifying and subverting the role to which women have been confined in capitalist society.” Introducing a reprint of James and Dalla Costa’s pamphlet in 1975, the Padua Wages for Housework Committee explained, “If our wageless work is the basis of our powerlessness in relation both to men and to capital, as this book, and our daily experience, confirm, then wages for that work, which alone will make it possible for us to reject that work, must be our lever of power.”

Recently James has coordinated the International Women Count Network and the Global Women’s Strike. Several weeks ago, she kicked off a tour to promote her new book with PM Press, Sex, Race and ClassThe Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011.

At Occupy Philadelphia’s Dissecting Capitalism series, James gave a talk on “Women, Capitalism, and the State,” and later appeared at a special women-led International Women’s Day general assembly. Between her engagements, I spoke with her about the relevance of Wages for Housework today, her current involvement in U.S. and UK welfare campaigns, and the challenges facing care workers.

I wanted to start with The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community and the central ideas around that, because they might not be completely familiar to people who are reading this publication from other perspectives. As I understand it, one of the central ideas in that publication is that women’s work is fundamental to the reproduction of capital, and that women’s struggles are not secondary to labor politics.

In fact, that women’s struggles are labor politics, but they’re unwaged labor politics. And they’re not less important or more important but integral to the entire picture. There is waged work in the society, and there is unwaged work in the society, and they’re both absolutely crucial to the accumulation of capital and to its destruction.

Thank you. You put it much more eloquently than I could. So with that as the foundation, and the fact that this publication came out in ’71-’72 . . .


’72. I’m wondering if you could explain, with changes in women’s struggles and changes in labor, how that applies today, particularly for younger people who are new to these ideas or coming into this without having been alive at that time.

Some things are different. The first thing that’s different from 1972 is that we have a much more international view of unwaged work. There’s not a lot in Power of Women on the unwaged work on the land. And it’s much more directed at women in industrial countries. The housework of women in industrial countries. Whereas most of the housework in the world, and most of the caring work in the world, and obviously, most of the agricultural work in the world that’s unwaged, as well as waged, is in the non-industrial world.

And we understood that not long after. There are hints of that in Power of Women, because I had lived in the Third World and been involved in struggles in the Third World. But it was hard enough to make the case for unwaged work with women in industrial countries because a lot of feminism was not interested in that. They thought that, and said that, housework . . . you could more or less eliminate it. Do just a little something every day, which is at best absurd, at worst sexist. So that was a big change.

The other big change is that women went out to work in much greater numbers, for a number of reasons. Because we didn’t think we could get wages for housework. And we thought the important thing was to get the money to have the independence. And because, after the Seventies, there was an enormous attack on women having any money from the state. And single mothers were thrown off benefits. In this country it was absolutely horrendous by the '80s. But increasingly, it’s happened everywhere, where women are driven out to work, irrespective of what happens to their children. Their children are nobody. Their children are irrelevant. The important thing is that the state not give anything, and that the women give more. That’s a big change.

What is not a change, is that women do the housework. And that the housewife is hidden behind her wage. That is, the fact that she goes home every day to see that her child has clean socks for the morning, and that her oldest son has his sports gear, and that her mother has somebody to look in on her, because she just lost her husband.

I mean, all of that enormous caring work has not gone away at all—except, and to the degree that it has gone away, to that degree, we’re not distraught that [women] don’t know what’s happening to their children, they don’t know what’s happening to their parents, their elderly parents.

The relationships on which the whole society rests are in wreck condition, are in disastrous condition because women are going out to work. It’s not just a few minutes a day. It’s taking care of the relationships that are the foundation of our lives. That’s what women do. And when we can’t do that, when most of us can’t do that, we are either furious, resentful, or we begin to be uncaring ourselves. And that has happened to some women.

It’s happened to all of us to some degree. That we don’t want to know about how the people that we would ordinarily have been taking care of, how they’re suffering. We don’t want to know. We can’t cope with the knowledge of the mess that people we love are in, as a result of the fact that we have no time to take care of them. I think there are really a lot of women in that situation. They call it the Sandwich Generation. They call it whatever they like. Any nice little name they give it, it’s definitely the suffering of the carer as well as those that they care for, obviously, which is why the carer is suffering.

Now something else has happened which I was not aware of until I read an article very recently by a woman called Allison Wolfe, who seems to be from Britain, who says that a major change among women, has been that the elite of women—and there is now much more of an elite, as a result of feminism—has resulted in a class divide among women as it has never been seen before. In fact, I was reading that article again this morning, and I can give you one or two quotes, like: ”The revolution has taken place at the top. A majority of trainee barristers and almost two thirds of medical students are now female (up from 29 per cent in the early 1960s), and the majority of doctors will be women by 2012 on current trends.”

As a result of that, [Wolfe suggests that] the wage hierarchy based on gender does not apply to them. Hmm. It applies to us more than before, okay?

So that, she says, I want to just find another quote that I was kind of mind-blown by. She says: ”Academic experts on the female labour market occupy very different points on the political spectrum, but they agree on the polarisation of women’s experiences. The feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting and feeding into a revolution in women’s lives, spoke the language of sisterhood—the assumption that there was a shared female experience that cut across class, ethnic and generational lines. The reality was that at that very moment, sisterhood was dying.”

Sisterhood was dying because most of us were not gaining pay equity. Most of us were deeply suffering from sexism, and the ones who were the leading feminists were not.

In fact, every once in a while, they got very angry and said, “It hasn’t all disappeared.” And they would mention something that they are still affected by, still attacked by, which they thought they would no longer be affected by. In other words, it’s a shock to find out that they’re still suffering as women when they thought, once you got the job, once you got the prestige, once you got the position, once you got equality, all that [would be] left behind.

Now I mentioned this to an audience last night, and I said, “I’m not absolutely certain she’s right.” But I think there’s a lot to be said, and the figures do prove that she is right in terms of the wage gaps in the boardroom are not what they are on the shop floor. I mean there isn’t even a shop floor anymore. You know, in the call center or in general, nursing as opposed to doctors and all the rest.

So that’s a change. Those are the things that have changed. We have changed; we are more international. But the situation for women has changed. More of us are doing the double day, and there is a change in the class, the extent of the class split in feminism . . . That’s a very big answer.

I was at your talk last night, so, informed by that and by things I’ve tried to read up on, I was hoping that you could talk about particular struggles or sites of struggle that you’re involved in today or that you think are important and linked to that original understanding of unwaged work. Particularly the work around welfare that you had mentioned last night, if you could comment a little more on that.

We’re just getting a petition together. That’s what Phoebe [Jones] and I were working on with women on the West Coast because [Congresswoman] Gwen Moore has put forward the Rise Out of Poverty Act. And a number of us, that is, the Global Women’s Strike, the Welfare Warriors in Wisconsin, who have fought welfare reform every minute. You see, I’m just familiarizing myself with this. I knew the Act had come up at a meeting, which we have often on Skype, between the US and the UK and Guyana, in particular, and sometimes with Ireland. We can’t do it with Peru or India because the language barriers are too great. But this is the core of the strike. Those are the country cores. They’re the countries that are part of the core.

And it’s something that we absolutely must pursue. Michael Moore has done us a great service in his film where he deals with the fact that this little boy who was unguarded while his mother was at work, working for workfare, had killed another child. Did you see that movie?

Yes, yes. A while ago.

Well, I was deeply affected by that. And I have been a single mother, raising a child, by myself. His father was there and ready to take him for one or two nights a week. I have no complaints about the father, but the situation is unbearable. You are, every minute, worrying about what’s happening to your kid. And you don’t want to ruin his life because that will ruin your life, among other effects. And yet, when we said “wages for housework,” there were feminists who didn’t take that seriously, and that is not very nice.

Anyway, we think it’s really important. In 1977, some of us in the US went to the conference in Houston. US President Carter had organized that. He was different. He was a white southern anti-racist; that’s what made him different on everything. And we said, with the welfare rights movement, the welfare rights movement was still vigorous, that women receiving income transfer payments—that’s welfare but in legalese or something—should have the dignity of having that payment called a wage, not welfare. And we said, “right on.”

There’s a photograph in the book of that conference where Margaret Prescott and Johnnie Tillmon and—I can’t remember the name of the other woman who was so great from the welfare rights movements—celebrating this decision, which transcended the divisions between the North women and the South and between the Left women and the Right. There were white southern women who joined with these black women to say that welfare should be called a wage, because of course, most women on welfare at that time were white farm workers. But the movement was spearheaded by black city women. So we’ve always been involved in the defense of welfare and tried to prevent welfare reform, as Mr. Clinton and his lady feminist wife socked it to us.

Now there’s a possibility of, again, getting welfare without workfare, and we’re gonna fight like hell for it. And we’re also fighting the same battle in the UK.

So, I had mentioned, I’m a teacher. I work in a non-unionized context, and I think in the UK, from what I understand, the same sort of tendency towards privatizing public education is happening.

Yes, it’s terrible.

Perceiving of schooling as intricately connected with the family in the reproduction of capitalism, I was thinking a lot about how, since these things are already connected, teachers and educators might ally in these struggles. Because there’s all of this rhetoric about putting children first, which is, you know, not happening in the home, and not happening in the school . . .


But it seems to be driving force for privatization. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about linking these educators’ struggles.

My sister had been a teacher, but she’s no longer with us. In the UK, from Margaret Thatcher, 1979, equating to Ronald Reagan, 1980—the best of friends, they were—they attacked teachers as a way of attacking education, and the unions did not defend teachers as educators. They defended teachers as workers. But they did not defend teachers as carers.

My son was educated in that system in the UK, and from when he was little, he used to love to go to school. This was not my experience in this country, but the teachers were—many, not all, but many of the teachers—were dedicated to the kids, fought for the kids, supported the kids. If they were studying a play, they would work out which of the kids were interested and take them to the play at the West End to see Olivier or whoever else. They were interested in education. It was a vocation, and, the union narrowed the demand to where you were just doing a job and how much money am I getting.

When one of the women at our center in London complained that police were in the school, and she wanted police out of the school where her children were going, her two daughters, the teachers didn’t agree with her because they said, “They can keep order.” And we thought, “You mean a teacher can’t keep order? What kind of a teacher is it who cannot keep even the attention of the kids?” What are they doing in that classroom, you know, that these kids are undisciplined, raucous, and feel that there is no difference between the repression they may find in the society generally and what’s going on in this classroom, that they need the policing of the kids? So, I feel that the unions have not helped to maintain the dignity and the mission—not a word I use often because I’m an atheist—and the mission of the teacher as a civilizing influence, as an enhancement of the lives of the children.

I think that something similar has happened with nurses—and nurses are fighting to take care of patients, you know. They’re not only fighting that they’re overworked and underpaid. They’re fighting so that they can take the proper care of the patients. You know, one of the nurses was complaining to me that his boss on the ward says that, “You spend too much time with the patients. If you have to go bandage a leg, just bandage a leg, but then you sit and talk with them, and that’s no good!”

So, I think there’s a real crisis—this is in general—between us carers and those who exploit us. On the one hand, we want to care. But on the other hand, we don’t want that wish to care to be used against us as workers. And we have always to decide, as carers, as teachers, as nurses, as mothers, as neighbors, we have to decide how to defend our caring but not allow ourselves to be exploited because we have this “weakness,” and in fact, this vulnerability is the right word. We have to say, “You have to pay us to do the right thing.” And we don’t take the little bit that [either] we want to do the right thing, or we want to take the money. We want both. That’s really crucial, and it took a lot of years, I think, to be absolutely clear, to be able to say that in that succinct way because it’s very hard to figure out, if you are a carer, if your work is the health and well-being of other people, how to be dedicated to it but not exploited, not allow yourself to be exploited by it.

I think that that is what the teachers should be saying and doing. They should be spelling it out. They should be telling the parents, “If you want me to teach, fight for my wages, and fight for my time. Fight for the facilities, and fight for the children to have instruments to play in band and things like that, on school time, with school money.” You know, we want to give these children an education that really fits them to have a happy life, not fits them to be a repressed individual at the service of the state.

In the new anthology—there’s only one anthology, of course it’s new because there wasn’t any before—I edited a speech that I was asked to make by President Aristide in Haiti, to the students, because my husband was a great historian and an historian of Haiti. He thought, “Well, let’s take a chance on you.” And I said there was a distinction, a crucial distinction that kids have to make—kids, but teachers should help them—between rising out of poverty and destroying poverty. Do you use education to get out of it, or do you use education for all of us to get out of it? That’s also something that the teachers haven’t made clear. They’ve entered into the competition—I must be jet lagged because a lot of these words I can’t remember, and I did, I was alright in England, so it must be jet lag—entered into the competition which schools invited children to be part of. And teachers should be saying, “Yes, I want you to know this. This will be useful to you. You’d like to learn this. Yes, you might want to know this, and this is the way that everybody can move. You know, you have to pass exams, but the fewer exams, the better. The more education the better.”

And I think this is something that that new movement, which Occupy really signals and personifies, really has to address. The teachers within it have to address that. What do you think of that?

I think particularly, this tension between wanting to care, feeling that your work has meaning and knowing that it’s still work, is really difficult. I want to provide children with these wonderful, eye-opening experiences and support but at the same time, resist the exploitation that that work can involve. It’s a major tension that I, personally, feel.

You have to speak about it as that. It’s terribly important that you spell it out, and you say exactly how it is, and how some people do one thing, and some people do another, and that you want to do both.


You know, I think it’s very important to say that and to say that loud and clear in every single quarter, in every single place where this question would be suitable to be raised.

It can be hard to say, particularly in contexts where, you know, there’s no union, there’s no protection. But it’s essential, I agree.

It is. But when you’re organizing for a union, that’s the basis on which you want to organize for it. Because if you organize on the narrow stuff, you’ll never get to the wider stuff, you know. Even if it takes you longer get the union, when you get it, it will be for the right reasons.

I had an International Women’s Day conversation with all of my students today. I teach high school English.

How old are they?

They’re tenth graders.

Tenth is what?

15, 16.


Yeah. And I told them a little bit about what I was doing this afternoon, and what I did last night, and tried to give them a little background information. I asked if they had any questions for you based on the little they knew.


So one committed and interested student had a question. I was wondering if I could ask you . . .
Certainly, you can.

She was wondering: “What keeps you motivated in continuing the campaign?” I talked a little bit about Wages for Housework, and so I think that’s the campaign she was talking about. I explained that you had been around through a lot of struggles for a lot of time, and she was like, “Wow! Why is she still doing it?”

What keeps me motivated is that I want to enjoy my life, and the closest I can get to full enjoyment is to attack my enemies. And I find that, if I do it honestly and with others in a collective way, I have a good chance to know what’s happening in my own life. So my own life is not mystified, so I don’t believe the lies they tell me about what I think and what I feel or should feel and should think. That I really begin to see other members of the human race in the round rather than with the nonsense that all of us spew out from time to time when we don’t know what better to say. And that’s what really keeps me motivated. I have a very high opinion of my own life, and therefore, I want to use it in a way that is elevating to me but also to all those who are down here with us. I don’t know if I’ve said that very clearly, but you know, it’s something that I want for myself. To be part of this struggle is to be learning, all the time. And that’s more fun than anything I know, I mean, like anything. To learn what’s really going on is such a major thrill that it’s what really keeps me motivated.

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Missing Out On the Grotesque: The Primal Screamer on Parallax

Isaac Dwyer dissects the downfalls (and merits) of Nick Blinko's novel, The Primal Screamer
by Isaac Dwyer
February 8, 2012

Rearing his avant-garde head from a sea of psychological torture and anarchy, Nick Blinko, of the eighties British punk band Rudimentary Peni, has constructed a semi-autobiographical tale accompanied by his own bizarrely intriguing pen drawings.  In The Primal Screamer, the story follows the transformation of Nat Snoxell from a quiet yet tormented soul into a still tormented, still suicidal but at least almost-famous punk-rock star that manages to survive the adolescent merry-go-round. Told through Nat’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rodney H. Dweller’s journal, the story’s plot is delightfully rich and the images and events described in Dweller’s journal entries intriguing and fanatical. However, a majority of the actual prose of the book lacks the macabre poetics that the plot sets up the reader to expect.

The book begins with a telling of Nat’s first visit to Dweller’s office, where he ends up after a nearly successful suicide. The reader is intrigued by the mere shock value of the situation, and continues to read the descriptions of the various lengths Nat has gone to, including using the jaw bone of a dead animal to slash his veins. Searching to rattle his readers, Blinko goes on to write that, “Nat had hacked away at his wrists but, he claimed, become too bored with the murderous task to finish the job. Lacking this passion, he had returned home, where his mother found him when she got back from her part-time work.” Who wouldn’t keep reading about someone who finds suicide as boring as watching paint dry?

After the initial fascination, however, the reader’s interest begins to wane—as much of the rest of the book is written in a detached first-person that makes the reader flatly disinterested.

While the plot that the narrator describes appears to be interesting, the format handicaps the reader’s ability to truly enjoy the bizarre images being described. Instead of constructing prose that incites the reader to feel the intensity of the imagism, the writing relies instead upon goofily bolding any word that Blinko hopes will make it sound important: “Nat’s fantasy fear here was that an evil nun lurked menacingly behind a tree, waiting for him. We found no such thing, so Nat pointed out that the towering trees had faces in their branches.”

While having a tree populated by nun faces is cool, weighing it down with bolded text and detached prose makes it lamer than a donkey with laminitis. To its credit, however, the book nearly makes up for it all with the final journal entry, which describes a torturous dream of Dweller’s: “A grotesque with a hollowed out head and titanic green fungus sprouting vigorously, visibly growing where the brains should have been, was shuffling among us. Creatures of predatory inclinations snapped at the morbid growths; indeed, all and sundry soon partook of the pickings.”

Perhaps if Blinko were to write a novel of surrealist nightmares, it’d be worth picking up before bed for a little roller-coaster ride through hell. As for The Primal Screamer, nick a copy from a friend to read the last six pages and look at the pretty drawings of malformed fetuses, leichenwagens, and distorted heads being strangled by ribcages.

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