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Sensation in Locus (July)

By Paul Witcover  
July 2011

Nick Mamatas’s new novel Sensation is a dark satire featuring a cool SFnal premise that is actually just a metaphor for the way things really are, if only we weren’t, by and large, too dumb to see it. But luckily we’ve got Mamatas to point it all out for us, which he does with scathing – if sometimes obvious – wit and gleefully misanthropic snark. The book is as grimly antic as anything by Vonnegut, yet more bitter, and as paranoiac as anything by Dick, though less hopeful. That’s Mamatas for you: he makes Vonnegut look warm and fuzzy, and Dick look like a cockeyed optimist.

The novel is set in 2020 – the year of perfect hindsight – but that’s just a conceit; the actual content of the novel places the action squarely in the present or very near future. It ranges from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Jersey City to Ohio, and from reality as we know it, or thought we knew it, to an ersatz version of that reality, which is even more mundane, though entirely artificial, called the Simulacrum.

Mamatas builds off the fascinating if creepy behavior of a subspecies of wasp, Hymenoepimecis sp., which – this part is all true – preys upon a particular species of spider, Plesiometa argyra. The wasp lays eggs in the spider’s abdomen, after which the larvae hatch out and excrete a chemical that turns the spider into what amounts to a zombie slave whose sole purpose in what little life remains to it is to spin a skewed web that happens to be perfectly suited to sheltering the pupating wasp. Once the web is complete, the larvae eat the spider build a cocoon, go night-night, and finally hatch out ready to carry the majestic cycle forward. This has been going on for millions of years.

In that time – and this part is not true, at least so far as I know – natural selection has gifted or cursed the spiders with a kind of collective consciousness or hive mind; unfortunately, they have not developed a corresponding immunity to the stings of the wasps. Basically, the spiders are smart enough to know they are fucked but not smart enough to do anything about it. Perhaps nothing, short of wasp genocide, could be done. In any case, the spiders’ total vulnerability to the wasps makes that all but impossible.
However, in the desperate struggle against the wasps – who are entirely creatures of instinct – the spiders have fastened onto, in some cases quite literally, the only other intelligent species to evolve on Earth: that is, Homo sapiens. Us.

This is all very up front, by the way. No spoilers involved. Mamatas quickly clues us in to what is going on, or at least the general outlines of it: he keeps a few surprises up his sleeve. But since the novel, as we soon learn, is narrated by a spider – or, rather, by the group consciousness of the spiders, an arachnid ‘‘we’’ – this secret history needs to be communicated early on.

While it’s the nameless narrator who supplies the information about the war between the wasps and the spiders – it’s actually more of an endless culling, with the spiders able to fend off genocide only by dint of sheer numbers – what prompts the story (and Mamatas never really makes clear why the spiders are telling this particular story, or to whom) is a random encounter between a wasp and a young woman, one Julia Ott Hernandez, who, rummaging through a box of blankets stored in the Queens basement of her mother-in-law, is stung by one of a colony of wasps resident there for seven generations, since the box was shipped northward from Central America, ground zero for Hymenoepimecis sp.

Now, these wasps have stung humans before, throughout history, with some pretty notable results, as the neurochemicals released by the subcutaneously inserted larvae turn their human hosts into mad geniuses of sublime art or monstrous criminality. The wasps, recall, are devoid of reason; humans do not act in their service, as their spider victims do, and thus the effect of a wasp sting on a human being is not part of a greater design: the afflicted humans do not go out and build better nests for Hymenoepimecis sp. No, instead their brains are short-circuited in interesting, amusing, and/or horrifying ways, leading to corresponding behaviors. Mamatas does not get into the science of this, and even as a plot device it’s basically an unredeemed McGuffin, though an inspired one.

The spiders, in addition to developing a hive intelligence, have learned to infiltrate human society – or, as they call it, the ‘‘anthroposphere’’ – via ‘‘men of indeterminate ethnicity,’’ artificial bodies spun of ‘‘tubiliform silk’’ that host colonies of spiders and mimic human appearance and behavior so precisely that they are even able to get it on with human females, though no progeny results. Further, they have developed an ersatz anthroposphere of their own – the aforementioned Simulacrum.

‘‘The Simulacrum,’’ explains our helpful narrator, ‘‘is not just a precise copy of the world, it is overlaid on your world, like the other half of a chessboard a particular pawn may never cross.’’ This intriguing conceit, reminiscent of Miéville’s The City & the City, is never fully explored or explained. Mamatas doesn’t lack cool SFnal ideas, but he seldom fleshes them out satisfactorily. One reason is that he doesn’t care to: Sensation isn’t a traditional SF novel in which such inventions require a more robust explanation; instead, he’s using them as metaphors pure and simple, and in that sense he’s not really writing SF at all. He’s writing a satire about the present that mimics a near-future SF novel about as well as the spiders’ ‘‘men of indeterminate ethnicity’’ mimic human males. I would go so far as to say that he’s offering up, along the way, a very harsh critique of SF as it is generally practiced and conceived, and yet also a defense of its possibilities, even though he doesn’t explore those possibilities himself – another reason the novel is, despite its intelligence, energy, and humor, a frustrating read.

The wasp that stings Julia is no ordinary specimen of Hymenoepimecis sp. High levels of radon in her mother-in-law’s basement have, over seven wasp generations, induced a powerful new kick to the neurochemicals released by the larvae. The chemical excretions of the mutated larvae give Julia ‘‘peculiar urges’’ and ‘‘innovative new ideas about life, society, and her role in it.’’ In short, they turn her into a smart-assed but dangerous anarchist, or, as she puts it, a ‘‘horrid murderess and merry prankster.’’ In addition, she gains unusual charisma, giving her the ability to infect other human beings not with the larvae themselves, or the neurochemicals they excrete, but with echoes of the bizarre or antisocial ideas brewed by those neurochemicals in Julia’s rewired brain. She becomes a vector for violent, unpredictable memes.

An act of politically inspired graffiti by Julia, a shout-out to a beloved geek band, triggers a sequence of unlikely events that snowballs into murder and a full-fledged underground revolutionary movement that, for a brief time, will threaten to disrupt Western civilization and, more importantly, at least as far as our narrator is concerned, remove an essential buffer protecting the spiders from the wasps... and setting back for generations or perhaps even more a longstanding plan of the spiders.

Mamatas is playing around with the idea of human civilization and culture being a kind of memetic virus, something expressed through human beings but not necessarily originating in them, at least not consciously. The business of the wasps and the spiders isn’t meant seriously, even in the context of the novel, though the questions about human nature, free will, and so on that it gives rise to are, but Mamatas isn’t really interested in answering those questions.

Instead, he uses this toolkit of SFnal tropes – genetic mutations, conspiracy theories, Internet meltdowns, alternate realities, alien intelligences, etc. – to present modern-day American civilization in a distinctly unflattering light. He then proceeds, via the actions of his main and secondary characters, to skewer this degraded civilization and its discontented, without, as is a satirist’s prerogative, offering any alternatives. But his social targets are so obvious, deserving, and frequently attacked by others that it comes across as jumping on an already overcrowded bandwagon. As for his characters, they are, as I mentioned, hard to like. Julia is a vicious nut job with delusions of revolutionary political agency. Her estranged husband, Raymond, is a bland nebbish. Alysse and Davan, two Brooklyn hipsters opposed to the gentrification of the Atlantic Yards project, are shallow hypocrites in whom irony passes for self-awareness. Liz, a graduate student in psychology who becomes Raymond’s lover, is a cold, vain, intellectually castrating termagant. It is very difficult to care about what happens to any of these unpleasant fish in their barrel, and more than once as Mamatas blasted away at them, scoring hits from point-blank range, I thought of Groucho Marx’s line from A Night at the Opera: ‘‘Hey, you big bully. What’s the idea of hitting that little bully?’’  

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What Men Have to Do

By Jeremy Adam Smith
New York Times
July 6th, 2011

Updated July 6, 2011, 06:04 PM

Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of The Daddy Shift, co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood and a founder of the blog Daddy Dialectic.

Greater gender equality in school and on the job has led to greater equality in housework and childrearing. Today in America, fathers now spend more time with their children and on housework than at any time since researchers started collecting comparable data. I call it “the daddy shift”—the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses a capacity of caregiving.

Fathers need to encourage each other to take advantage of leave policies and participate in family life.

Rising inequality and economic instability has meant that families can’t afford specialists anymore. And so they’re moving from a family model that stresses efficiency to one that tries to build resilience in the face of economic shocks. In the ideal resilient family, both women and men are capable of working for pay and working at home.

But families often fall short of this ideal, partially because of lingering structural and interpersonal sexism, and partially because men lack support for their new caregiving roles at both home and work. Studies consistently show that 80 percent to 90 percent of mothers still expect fathers to serve as primary breadwinners (and very few will consider supporting a stay-at-home dad). At work, only 7 percent of American men have access to paid parental leave, among other structural limitations.

How can the daddy shift continue? The to-do list is long. It includes an education campaign to help men of all social classes understand what workplace and public policies can help them be the fathers they want to be—and legal campaigns that will defend their jobs against backward attitudes at work. Men whose mindsets are still shaped by the sole-breadwinner ideal need explicit permission and encouragement from both their female partners and their bosses to take advantage of leave policies and participate in family life.

We also need to shift the language we use to discuss work-family issues in a more inclusive direction, so that it includes fathers as well as mothers. That language should stress resilience and meaning to men instead of the language of equality that has mobilized women. In the end, it's up to guys to tell the stories of our lives and speak up for what we want. No one will do it for us.

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Soccer vs. The State in Freedom

By Christophe Huette
Freedom 72, no. 8
April 23rd, 2011

"I enjoy making revolution! I enjoy going to football!" (Antonio Negri).

The relationship between the "Beautiful Idea" and the "Beautiful Game" is a complex, frustrating and fraught one, but at its intersections are where some of the most interesting dialogues in the anarchist movement are located.

Football and anarchism developed roughly in historical tandem, with the Workers movement formalising around the same time as the British Football Association (FA) was founded in October 1863. By 1871 we have more or less the modern game with the regulations established (no hands in the outfield, no shin kicking), but they are relatively simple and few, leaving loads of room for creative innovation. This is what makes football "beautiful" and unpredictable, and there have been many attempts to stifle that over the years, with the low score rate leaving plenty of scope for sensational surprise outcomes and luck. Football is the sport like no other, where the underdog can flourish.

And here we see possible comparisons with anarchism: "The ball has no attribute of power. The passer does not own the ball; he possesses the ball in the sense of Proudhon. The passer remains the master of the act. As in libertarian society, he is free to do what he wants. However, he cannot exist alone, he cannot progress alone, and he cannot survive alone. Here is where the principle of mutual aid comes into play, as explained by Peter Kropotkin" (Wally Rosell from Albert Camus, the Anarchists and Football).

Not that the anarchist movement embraced the game of two halves with universal love and affection, as this rant from Germany in the 1920s shows: "May God punish England! Not for nationalistic reasons, but because the English people invented football! Football is a counterrevolutionary phenomenon. Proletarians between the age of eighteen and twenty-five, i.e., exactly those who have the strength to break their chains, have no time for the revolution because they play soccer" (Free Workers Union Germany).

But of course we also see the viral rise of capitalism, which wasted no time in taming the game. So whilst the working classes tended to play and embrace the game, it tended to be administered and financed by capitalist industry. (The toffs tended towards rugby, which was non-professional and a suitable recreation for those whose purpose was to administer the empire.) Standardised measuring, bookkeeping and the strict invigilation of time have been cited as examples of the influence of the emergent bourgeois-capitalist culture. But "[w]e don't want to consume football, we want football to be ours! It was ours before capitalism took it away!" (Danilo Cajazeira, founding member of Autonomos FC).

Kuhn's wonderful, accessible and necessary book develops football's beginnings through the tribalism, sexism (women's football was banned by the FA from 1921 to 1971) and bigotry that qualified the game during much of the 20th century. But the bulk of the book concerns the radical responses to this. Full of radical debate and loads of interviews and source material, Soccer vs. the State is fucking good!

"Football has proven time and time again that it contains a magic, immensely powerful element, not unlike the stuff that religions are made of".

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Soccer vs. The State in Offside

By Jesper Högström
#3, 2011, p. 134-135
(Translated from Swedish; excerpts)

Gabriel Kuhn, an Austrian author living in Stockholm, is a convinced anarchist and has played in his country's second league; he is the right man to tackle the problem [of football and left-wing politics]. In order to fully appreciate the book, one certainly has to share his premise that both socialism and football are good things, but even for those who disagree, it is a worthwhile read. [...]

One has to be a cynic not to be touched by many of the heart-warming stories in the book. Sometimes football does indeed stand for freedom, equality, and togetherness. For example, when the Algerian professionals refused to play for France in the 1958 World Cup or when the Dutchman John Blankenstein makes himself even more vulnerable as a referee by openly speaking about his homosexuality.
Football cannot be captured in political definitions. Both the sport and "socialism" have too many limitations. But I do agree with Kuhn that football can be a perfect environment "to experience the combination of individual freedom and social responsibility". Personally, I also happily follow his directives for socialist football: "consideration and modesty", no cheating, and respect both for opponents and referees (who should be treated as "comrades"). Alright, good soul of football, now you have your own classic. Ironic, though, that it is a publisher from the U.S., the home of rigorously commercialized sports, that created this forum for alternative football culture. Hardly any of the contested issues in the world's most popular game is missing, not nationalism, chauvinism, or the permeating commercialization. What we are handed is a broad picture of football's political relevance.

In four chapters we can find an international range of authors (including Gerd Dembowski, well-known to a German audience) that examines everything from the myth of the working-class origins of the sport to pressing contemporary issues to examples of a truly alternative football culture - a culture lived by the English football ambassadors of the Easton Cowboys (and Cowgirls) who receive a worthy portrait in Soccer vs. the State. Yes, there are some recycled texts and themes in here too - we do know enough about the FC United of Manchester, Volker Ippig, and Cristiano Lucarelli at this point - but Soccer vs. the State reaches so far beyond the limits of mainstream left-wing football discourse that its purchase is no less than a must - at least for those who want to see further than the limits of the contaminated professional business. In addition, it is an important wake-up call for all who think that football should not be blended with politics.

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Football and Politics in 11Freunde

By Mathias Ehlers

April 2011

Alright, good soul of football, now you have your own classic. Ironic, though, that it is a publisher from the U.S., the home of rigorously commercialized sports, that created this forum for alternative football culture. Hardly any of the contested issues in the world's most popular game is missing, not nationalism, chauvinism, or the permeating commercialization. What we are handed is a broad picture of football's political relevance.

In four chapters we can find an international range of authors (including Gerd Dembowski, well-known to a German audience) that examines everything from the myth of the working-class origins of the sport to pressing contemporary issues to examples of a truly alternative football culture - a culture lived by the English football ambassadors of the Easton Cowboys (and Cowgirls) who receive a worthy portrait in Soccer vs. the State. Yes, there are some recycled texts and themes in here too—we do know enough about the FC United of Manchester, Volker Ippig, and Cristiano Lucarelli at this point—but Soccer vs. the State reaches so far beyond the limits of mainstream left-wing football discourse that its purchase is no less than a must—at least for those who want to see further than the limits of the contaminated professional business. In addition, it is an important wake-up call for all who think that football should not be blended with politics.

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Soccer vs. The State Book Launch: Freedom

Freedom: Anarchist News and Views
April 23, 2011

Freedom is very pleased to present anarchist, writer and ex-footballer Gabriel Kuhn for the launch of his new book Soccer Vs. The State. Join the author in a presentation followed by a discussion and of course a few beers…

Sunday 8th May
Freedom Bookshop
Angel Alley
84b Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7QX

Phone: 020 7247 9249

Where the beautiful game meets the Beautiful Idea!

Soccer has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. Professionalism and commercialization dominate its global image. Yet the game retains a rebellious side, maybe more so than any other sport co-opted by money makers and corrupt politicians. From its roots in working-class England to political protests by players and fans, and a current radical soccer underground, the notion of football as the “people’s game” has been kept alive by numerous individuals, teams, and communities.

This book not only traces this history, but also reflects on common criticisms: soccer ferments nationalism, serves right-wing powers, fosters competitiveness. Acknowledging these concerns, alternative perspectives on the game are explored, down to practical examples of egalitarian DIY soccer!

Soccer vs. the State serves both as an orientation for the politically conscious football supporter and as an inspiration for those who try to pursue the love of the game away from television sets and big stadiums, bringing it to back alleys and muddy pastures.

“There is no sport that reflects the place where sports and politics collide quite like soccer. Athlete-activist Gabriel Kuhn has captured that by going to a place where other sports writers fear to tread. Here is the book that will tell you how soccer explains the world while offering means to improve it.”
—Dave Zirin, author Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

“In an era when football appears captured by the forces of money and power,
straitjacketed by the needs of corporations and international bureaucracies, Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs. The State is a wonderous reminder of all the times and ways and places where football has slipped its chains and offers what it always promised: new solidarities and identities, a site of resistance, a celebration of spontaneity and play”.
- David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer

“Gabriel Kuhn has written the program notes for the most important match of all, The Peoples Game vs. Modern Football”.
- Mark Perryman, co-founder of Philosophy Football

About the Author:
Gabriel Kuhn was born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1972. He was deeply immersed in soccer culture as a teenager, and became one of the country’s youngest semi-professional players. Tired of both the demands and the politics, he abandoned his career for studies, travels, and activism, but still joins pick-up games whenever he gets the chance.

Gabriel has published widely on underground culture and politics, and founded the DIY publishing outfit Alpine Anarchist Productions in 2000. Previous publications with PM Press include Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy (author, 2010), Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics (editor, 2010), and Gustav Landauer: Revolution and Other Writings (editor/translator, 2010).

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Caged Heat

by Jedidiah_Ayres
Ransom Notes: Barnes & Noble Blog

Morgan is the central character of Sin Soracco's Low Bite (the most memorable ensemble cast I've read since last year's Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff). She works in the prison law library where she's incarcerated for breaking and entering. Her job is to help other cons explore their legal position, but mostly she brews dangerous jailhouse moonshine and finds other distracting ways to pass the time, including participating in a plot to embezzle funds from another inmate's murdered husband.
That's more or less the plot. But plot-schmlot. It's more a collection of anecdotes converging on repeating themes than a straight narrative, but it is such a great collection of low-rent, high-drama characters struggling to hold on to or create a small patch of dignity in an otherwise utterly oppressed and debased atmosphere that I'd have been happy to keep reading another hundred pages without a central story line. These are women pushed to the brink of human experience and rendered with such obvious affection (yet nothing is precious) - they're impossible not to get behind.
The dialogue alone drips with the effortless, affectationless authenticity of someone in the know, (Soracco does know of what she speaks), and it's a true pleasure to listen. In the interview with the former convict and inmate that is included in the re-issue of her novel, Soracco recalls conversations with editors and publishers and their questions about where the ideas for her characters came from, "These are bits and pieces of my friends. Even the villains."
They've got to be.
And, not that I don't enjoy a good exploitation flick or book, and not that my pulpy bases don't need covering often and generously, (in fact I'm chomping at the bit for Anthony Neil Smith's third Billy Laffitte book - yes, it's in the works), but I do need a good dose of the real thing now and then. And when was the last time I got a straight forward dose of women's prison?
Which is not to say it's humorless. Far from it. The humor and the horror go hand in hand here and the faster the reader and inmate understand that, the better their chance of survival and sanity. It's angry and fierce, but you'd better believe it's not humorless. The scams and angles played are as dumb, doomed, effective, brilliant and entertaining as any.
Combine the flavors of Jim Nisbet, Barry Gifford and Edward Bunker all you like, but Soracco's is a unique voice and one I'm going to listen for from here on out. Low Bite has also stoked my anticipation of Notes From the American Gulag from Prison Stories author Seth Ferranti.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.

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Sober Living for the Revolution in Interface

by John L. Murphy
Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements
Volume 3(1): 266-291 (May 2011)
Ian MacKaye of Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat sang in 1981’s “Straight Edge”: “Never want to use a crutch/ I’ve got the straight edge.” This assertion turned an admonition: abstaining from not only intoxicants but from harmful sex and a non-vegan diet that fuelled a capitalist dependence upon a destructive system.

Anarchist-activist Gabriel Kuhn’s anthology gathers sXe (I will employ this shorthand for “straight edge”) international contributors from bands, scenes, and labels. He interviews participants, includes manifestoes, and compiles an introduction situating this movement emerging from 1980s hardcore punk. 

Five sections comprise this collection. This review will follow Kuhn’s presentation of these chapters. 

Kuhn notes his decision to expand sXe coverage beyond white, male, American contexts which dominate conventional media. Radicals tend to dismiss the movement as dogmatic, exclusive, and privileged. Kuhn emphasizes the “politically conscious” challenges within sXe, defining radical as those who actively pursue social change for free and egalitarian communities, and who “maintain a clear distance to politically ambiguous ideologies” (p.14). These include “religious groups or belief systems.” He omits sXe members from Christian, Hare Krishna, or Islamic communities, although a few contributors allude to these outside Kuhn’s self-imposed frame. The total absence of Buddhist contexts disappoints, given American advocates and authors “hardcore Zen” Brad Warner and “dharma punx” Noah Levine have earned prominence among dharma-practitioners who grew up alongside sXe. However, Kuhn acknowledges his focus aims at politics, not sobriety or culture.

Ian MacKaye logically begins the interviews. He tells how his lyrics to “Out of Step” set the scene: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t fuck, at least I can fucking think,” were not directives,  but “anti-obsession,” while they were followed by “But at least I can fucking think” (pp.34-35). That is, the choice remains for the punk to think through the ramifications of this pledge. The second line’s subtlety may have been lost on many, yet MacKaye’s example remains a guiding force through his inspired, “all access” approach to overcome barriers of age, income, and expenses for concerts with his band Fugazi and through Dischord Records. He defends a “free space” for unconventional ideas as a “constant, ever-flowing river” that persists as a river channels its energy endlessly (p.24). 

MacKaye’s distrust of dangerous sex matches his disdain for alcohol and drug abuse. These encourage selfishness, blurring awareness of the present moment.

They also diminish willpower, break down defences, and weaken potential for positive change. But, as a movement, sXe contained its own dogmatic danger.

MacKaye analyzes how movements falter by creating a “higher calling” which mimics the pursuit of power and the imposition of violence upon dissenters.

These “triggers” ignite nationalism and persecution; as more of a “Minor Threat” they foment prejudice between punks. This intolerance within sXe sparked a backlash from the hardcore scene, as violence among supporters and deniers led to sensationalist treatment from political activists and the mainstream media.  Articulating sXe as “straight” for MacKaye builds a basis for a life, not a lifestyle.

The straight line equals common equality. Food, water, air remain, with sex as the imperative for survival. Converting these needs with wants, advertising sells out the communal, organic solidarity formed by sXe, with its slogan “Live as you desire the world to be!” (p.43) Such idealism compels others to follow MacKaye.

Liner notes to the Swedish band Refused’s 1998 album The Shape of Punk to Come remind the listener: “It’s never been safe to live in a world that teaches us to respect property and disregard human life” (p.66). ManLiftingBanner, a Dutch communist band, presents here the clearest allegiance to a standard political philosophy. Many contributors cite them as a major influence. Frederico Freitas of Brazil’s Point of No Return agrees with Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén: the European and Third World traditions of resistance impel many sXe supporters outside America to connect with established progressive forces. While the U.S. by WWII lost its radical mass, Freitas and Lyxzén by their thoughtful if idealized manifestoes hearken back to a proletariat integrating contemporary working-class and communally organized opposition struggles. 

This evolution offers a counter-reaction to three earlier sXe stages. The 1980s individually-centered reaction which Minor Threat jumpstarted, the “wolfpack” street crews of Boston and New York City, and the VeganStraightEdge 1990s trend all, for Freitas, lack militancy. Bruno “Break” Teixiera from Portugal’s New Winds seeks a similarly leftist link to class-based politics now, while Robert Matusiak from Poland’s Refused Records contrasts the Russian and German tendencies among a sXe minority reverting to race-based extremism with a community situated in co-operative enterprises and non-profit employment. This internal shift for the committed activist has led to charges by radicals and punks of sXe elitism. Jonathan Pollack’s pro-Palestinian direct action involvement in Against the wall ensures him, as an Israeli, a prominent position of opposition. 

As a political idea, the Straight Edge of ebullient refusal to the decadence of our times is not that of an ascetic anchorite in the badlands of western civilization or of religious purity. The need to extract oneself from society, so prevalent in Straight Edge, is fuelled by the desire to see and live in a different reality; a desire that can’t subsist in the clubs, cafés and drug culture of mainstream society. Both my Straight Edge and my activism are strongly rooted in this passion, and neither is dependent on whether we will reach this different reality or not (p.112). 

As this anthology progresses, interviewees and contributors seek to stand apart from the commodification which, as punk became marketed as fashion, weakened its oppositional stance. Pollock muses how “the farther you get from cleancut looks and fancy clothes,” the more interesting the movement becomes. That is, sXe itself may represent conformity amidst punk’s supposedly purer (non-)conformists, so the move away from puritanical commitment may signal the imminent realization of values which transcend music or style: to transform. 

Catalyst Records’ Kurt Schroeder speaks from another confrontational stance, the vegan aspiration. He admits many adherents come from America’s middle class.

This context may weaken vegan sXe acceptance by European or Latin American radical fellow-travellers drawn to socialist or leftist aspects. Yet, all two dozen contributors appear to thrive on vegan diets and radical ideologies. This skews the political message in Kuhn’s edition to the already converted. However, this affirmation of connections between sXe and radicalism provides an encouraging collection for those seeking exactly this compendium. 

While Refused and Point of No Return in their extensive liner notes produced manifestoes in all but name reprinted earlier in this anthology, a separate section matches three lengthy pamphlets with their authors, who reflect years later upon the impact of their messages. Under the aegis of Alpine Anarchist Productions, XsraquelX repels conservative punk reactions to veganism with DIY ethics grounded in personal choice rather than ideological duty. By its exclusivity, xSe risked reduction into a “fascist mentality” constrained by moral codes which refused any deviation. She argues for an “antifa[scist]” decision of absention as “an actual and symbolic mode of promoting a life of responsibility and shunning dependency” on capitalism (p.158). Feminism, minority and animal rights, and environmentalism accompany “like-minded social action” for Antifa sXe communities. 

For the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective, an “intoxication culture” looms as the class enemy. Yet, Kuhn wisely prefaces this entry with the collective’s explanation that it originally had added a “hypertrophied appendix,” which was “a sort of sendup of primitivist historical revisionism, though based on kernels of truth.”

They left it out of this reprinting “for fear it could be taken too seriously outside its original context”(p.164). A sense of humor too often lurks far outside this edition.

While many entries remain worthy for their unstintingly committed determination, the moral tone at such an elevated register, over hundreds of pages of similar-sounding justifications, may weary the less ardent.

Therefore, “Wasted Indeed: Anarchy and Alcohol” manages to convince more than its stolid comrades by its lightly self-deprecating narrative. “Like the tourism of the worker, drink is a pressure valve that releases tension while maintaining the system that creates it” (p.166). Pithier and wittier than previous entries, this statement argues for abstinence as a fulfilling, truly engaged response to life’s possibilities. “No war but the class war—no cocktail but the molotov cocktail! Let us brew nothing but trouble!” It does so as a slight caricature of leftist sobriety, to highlight its self-righteous dangers of insecurity (“they cannot rest until everyone in the world sees that world exactly as they do”). It concludes amidst gentle satire with sincere encouragement, “as a reminder for all who choose to concern themselves that another world is possible” (pp.170-71).

Nick Riotfag’s queer advocacy gains in-depth coverage; he narrates the difficulty of creating safe spaces for non-drinkers within environmental gatherings, co-op meetings, and anarchist settings. He supports “Take the straight out of straight edge” campaigns, as gays confront homophobes and reactionary punk enclaves.

Similarly, Jenni Ramme from Poland’s Emancypunx sets herself apart from mainstream feminists who work within capitalist and corporate settings. She rejects integration. She seeks utopian space beyond the state or the conventional network of the firm, the market, the press, or the broadcast.  

Mainstream media will never see underground culture as anything but new, fresh meat to make profits. They are part of a capitalist and consumerist culture of blood-sucking zombies. They take without giving anything back. This is not a base to build radical movements on (p.226). 

While Andy Hurley now drums for Fall Out Boy, a successful American “emo” band adopted by the mainstream, he retains his credibility with anarcho-primitivist advocacy influenced by Kevin Tucker’s “feral edge” post-civilized and John Zerzan’s anti-leftist, pro-wilderness perspectives (Marshall 2010). Hurley rejects leftist participation in politics and power. Kuhn gently prods Hurley, the most mainstream of those included by his current band’s allegiance, but the most radical by his drift away from communal solidarity in the pursuit of self-reliance.

This interview sidles towards thoughtful, if admittedly incomplete, explanations of Hurley’s responses to a set of complicated compromises. For all its open-endedness, this concludes this section with a relevant portrayal of how an activist works towards his own truth.

Global networking within the social margins, prominent in this cross-cultural sub-cultural anthology, flows through Argentinian-Israeli Swedish resident Santiago Gomez’ punk and anarchist-vegan efforts. His footnoted, lively essay interprets sXe as “intuitive resistance.” He moves from Melville and Turgenev to Tolstoy and Lenin within the context of hardcore; he cites Zapatista liberated zones which have banished alcohol—without appearing pedantic. His ironic sense shows as he quotes Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (the scene when followers pick up and immediately imitate, and then debate, the accidental discarding of Brian’s single shoe, or is it a sandal?) to illustrate how Minor Threat’s two lines from their lyric for “Out of Step” became adopted as a creed. 

Tellingly, Gomez segues into a reminder of how the “X” on the back of the hand used as a signifier of sXe started not out of a devotion to sobriety, but a nightclub’s stamp that the patron was simply too young to legally drink. He sketches out a nuanced position, that sXe has faltered by its anti-intoxicant and animal rights definition while neglecting the larger struggle against all capitalist exploitation.  Gomez does not retreat from his own ideological agreement with abstinence, but he reminds his audience that the imperative fight against oppression endures.

Three veteran activists end this collection with their own rallying cries. Mark Andersen brings the entries back to their Washington D.C. origins with his own account of inner-city community organizing at Positive Force House. He champions collectives as a logical foundation for incremental change. He rejects superior attitudes formed by snobbish sXe members, and sets out revolutionary progress as coming from not only the process—“profoundly aided by the clarity and health that drug-free, meat-free lifestyles can bring,” but the victory. This triumph waits, Andersen wraps up this volume, by reaching out beyond sXe. 

This anthology does preach to the choir. Those outside the sXe community will find no explanation of how the music sounds compared to hardcore (a “crust” punk’s recollections comprise a bit of variety, albeit marginal), even if sXe lyrics urge a nobler practice. Kuhn gathers those with whom he agrees; the book’s main intention is to reinforce leftist and radical ties to sXe. Within these parameters, the collection succeeds, for what will likely remain a small, but committed audience seeking social and political change by principled transformation of their own appetites and desires and by communal solidarity.


Levine, Noah. Dharma Punx: A Memoir. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004).
Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).
Murphy, John L. “’Sex, sin, and Zen’: 25 years hardcore as
punk bassist, sexual seeker, and Zen student.”  PopMatters.
warner/ (accessed 2.5.2011) 
Murphy, John L.  “Noah Levine’s ‘The heart of the revolution.’” New
York Journal of Books
revolution (accessed 2.5.2011)
Warner, Brad. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth about
. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003).
About the reviewer

John L. Murphy coordinates the Humanities sequence at DeVry University's
Long Beach, California campus. He earned a Ph.D. from UCLA in British and Irish
literature. His research interests include religious, literary, and musical currents
in cultures of resistance and reinvention. He can be contacted at jmurphy2 AT

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Sober Living for the Revolution in Peace News

by Sareena Rai
Peace News
Page 22, June 2011

At first I thought that Sober Living for the Revolution was about historical, successful "sober" anarchist collectives and how they organized. The first part of the title misled me. Then I read the rest of the title, which went on as "Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics." Second thoughts: "Oh no! Interviews with a bunch of straight-edgers!" To be honest, being into hardcore punk, I never got into the whole straight edge scene in the same way that Ian Mackaye didn't (whose song the whole thing started from), because it always seemed like a macho, merchandised religious cult.

Thankfully, most of the people interviewed have distanced themselves from that particular self-righteous, conservative strand of being sober in the music/activism world and often stray from the straight edge question altogether, confessing that activism is more important than this personal issue—to the point where even Kuhn has to get his questions back to his title and say "Since this is a book about Straight Edge, we have to start talking about that..."

Nick Riotfag is the most coherent in the book and writes an excellent critique on how often social action groups can totally ignore the feelings of sober folks, and offers practical suggestions for safe organization. His was the only piece that came close to causing me to say to my partner: "See, you should quit drinking."

There is a strong theme that suggests less substance abuse equals less oppression, however one womyn states: "Some, like me, long ago stopped going to typical straightedge gigs since they had nothing to offer that one couldn't get from a violent mugging by an anti-abortionist."

Clearly, you can take the alcohol out of the man, but you can't take out "man," period.

Roughly 65 percent are male, hetero voices (the back photo is also misleading), however the need for more sober, all-age, non-sexist spaces in the scene is highlighted and this issue needs support! We need a queer, third world revival. Hey ho, let's go!

By Sareena, the boring punk womyn who doesn't get drunk.

P.S. For anyone who wants to use this book to tell their nearest and dearest: "See, you should quit drinking," or smoking, or whatever, this isn't the book to do so. That's going to take a revolution.

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Anarchy for Everyone on the PowellsBooks

by Chris Faatz

May 28th, 2011

Lots of anarchist writing is pretty thin going. The constant reiteration of the same mantra-like assertions, the same insights, and the same proposed solutions, all confined to a given community, a holding tank of acceptable ideas, with the whole dedicated to knocking down straw men of the polemicist's construction. Unceasingly. It gets old fast.

Imagine, then, how excited I was to find a book of essays that addresses subjects outside the narrow confines of accepted anarchist orthodoxy, a book that further investigates the work of major writers from a distinctly libertarian perspective and holds forth from an unfailingly utopian point of view on broad issues germane to the past 40 years, such as nuclear disarmament and the role of freedom of thought in a free society. Such a book is Nicolas Walter's Damned Fools in Utopia: And Other Writings on Anarchism and War Resistance.

Walter was a mainstay of the British anarchist movement for most of his life, and these beautifully crafted essays and reflections cover the years from about 1960 to 2000, when he died. The core of this book embraces the early years of his engagement and loosely focuses on the British movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Its radical wing, the Committee of 100 (of which Bertrand Russell was a member), garners special attention, with its decentralist and libertarian thrust.

The Committee's purpose was to sponsor acts of mass civil disobedience. What, though, did they stand for? Walter writes (in 1962):

Our end is familiar now. Most people who support the Committee of 100 also support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, because the two wings of the unilateralist movement have no quarrel about ends, and in general we accept the decisions of CND annual conferences. We want Britain to ban the Bomb and leave NATO, to disengage from the Cold War and adopt positive neutralism, to reject colonialism abroad and racialism at home. Many of us go further than this. Because of our sympathy with friends in America we favor American as well as British unilateralism, and because of our left-wing political affiliations we favor radical or revolutionary solutions to the problems of our society.

This is a radical formulation designed to speak to a much broader audience than does a sectarian political polemic. It offers up a vision and a hope to motivate broad swathes of people and does so without putting one group or set of ideas forward as the one true path to freedom. How refreshing!

The mainstay of the book is the title essay, a history of war resistance and of radical and unequivocal pacifism and nonviolence in the face of the war-making state. It's a wonderful essay, full of stories, anecdotes, and quotes—from and about sources as diverse as Alex Comfort, George Fox, and Henry David Thoreau—and is divided into such sections as anti-militarism, conscientious objection, and satyagraha ("soul force," as developed by Mohandas Gandhi).

The gist of this essay—indeed, the gist of the whole collection—is that the only way to remain truly human in an age of mass conformity and brutal violence is to take a stand on the side of conscience, to refuse to be complicit in the brazen, insane, and ultimately dehumanizing thrust of the modern warfare state and its tendency to wriggle its tentacles into all spheres of our lives. There is an alternative, asserts Walter; there is another way of living and being that embraces our mutual humanness and raises high the banner of unqualified solidarity in confronting the agents of fear, oppression, and hatred in a world gone mad.

The sheer number of essays on literary, political, and publishing figures, both well- and unknown, makes this volume all the more compelling. A long essay on Orwell is here, examining him in connection with his relationship with the anarchist movement. Dorothy Day's here, too, the great Catholic anarchist of inner city New York, and her life of "poverty, chastity, and disobedience." Also represented are Herbert Read and author Allan Sillitoe (who Walter loved). Some of the most interesting pieces are those addressing the more bizarre and fringe activists in the British anarchist movement, such as Guy Aldred and C. W. Daniel. The Greek-French post-Marxist and libertarian socialist theorist Cornelius Castoriadis makes an appearance, as does Bertrand Russell and even Lady Di.

There's plenty here to feed the hunger of even the most committed student of sectarian minutiae, though I want to make it perfectly clear that Walter does not write primarily for that audience. His essays are brilliant and scintillating because they're crafted with skill and beauty and because they're sympathetic to the human reality that lies behind even the most bizarre, outre, or strange.

Interestingly enough, Walter was also a long-time habitue of the British Freethought and Humanist movements. I, personally, think it's a shame that there's virtually nothing in this collection that relates to his labors at those tasks, although the book does include a remarkably thoughtful short essay on "Anarchism and Religion."

Damned Fools in Utopia
is full of grand ideas and formulations. In the end, though, it's a book of vision, an assertion that another world is possible. Walter was pessimistic as to the probability of that world's coming about; he was, however, insistent on its necessity, on the obligation of its iteration. Damned fools in utopia: may we all have the courage to stand up and proclaim ourselves such.

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