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Iron and Chromium: Five Novels by Norman Spinrad in the Los Angeles Review of Books


Iron and Chromium: Five Novels by Norman Spinrad
by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Los Angeles Review of Books
March 10th, 2014

NORMAN SPINRAD'S WORK has, over the last fifty years, elicited responses that range from “depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive” (Donald Wollheim) to “delightfully bonkers” (Thomas M. Disch) and “extraordinary” (Ursula Le Guin). Perhaps my favorite characterization of Spinrad is by Isaac Asimov, who, in somewhat of an understatement, observed that he “constantly displays the courage to be different.” I’d like to illustrate this career-defining search for innovation by examining five of Spinrad’s key novels, ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s, all newly available courtesy of ReAnimus Press.


Revisiting Spinrad’s work, I was struck by his chameleonic shifts of voice, style, and pacing. Consider, for example, the following two passages:

Oh, you so right, baby! So here I am, dragging my dick along First Avenue, right back in the whole dumb scene I kissed good-bye six years ago. Sara, you stoned when I get there, I’m gonna beat the piss out of you, so help me.

 - Bug Jack Barron

Against the will of self-esteem’s desire, I could not fail to acknowledge that the true chasm between us lay both below and beyond the moral realm of ethical esthetics. Indeed, her ruthless dedication to her one true grail, proceeding as it did from a single absolute axiom to an entirely unwavering pursuit of this axiomatic higher good, might be said to be at least formally superior to my chaotic involutions.

 - The Void Captain’s Tale

I was also surprised to learn that Spinrad, who is often reductively labeled a “New Wave” writer because of his association with Michael Moorcock, New Worlds magazine, and other writers like Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany and Pamela Zoline, got his start by publishing three stories in John Campbell’s Astounding (renamed Analog by the time Spinrad appeared in its pages). Those three pieces, gathered with other early notable work in the collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970), reveal a solid grasp of relativistic space travel and other rigors of “hard SF” that one doesn’t normally see associated with Spinrad. They also highlight thematic preoccupations that reappear often throughout his fiction: displacement and alienation, which for example lead Ben Ezra to muse that life aboard a starship is “fit only for Gypsies and Jews” (“Outward Bound”), and questions of ethical responsibility, ontology and solipsism (“Sometimes I forget that I’m crazy, and then I become crazier. A neat paradox, no?” asks Miklos in “The Last of the Romany”) .

Given Spinrad’s wide spectrum of literary approaches and broad philosophical concerns, the question becomes: how do we evaluate the work in any meaningfully unified way, rather than as isolated or discontinuous experiments in form? I would suggest that perhaps the most apt criteria we can use are Spinrad’s own ideas about what science fiction (SF) is and does. But even here, we must tread carefully. Spinrad has granted many interviews throughout his fifty years in SF, and he’s also written extensively as a critic and reviewer. His theoretical ideas about SF, therefore, are often as complex — and embattled — as his fiction. Rather than an exhaustive analysis of all these positions, I’d like instead to focus on a fundamental notion to which he has returned several times. When asked about his writing process in a 1978 interview for CONTACT: SF A Critical Journal of Speculative Fiction, Spinrad began his response by saying: “The idea, I guess, to me, the essence of science fiction is the psychological interaction between consciousness and the environment.” In one of his “On Book” columns for Asimov’s Science Fiction, Spinrad returned to this formulation in 2005, albeit in far less tentative terms: “... all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround — physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything — with the lives and consciousness of the characters. If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period.” Do Spinrad’s novels, then, succeed according to this view of SF?

The Men in the Jungle (1967), Spinrad’s third novel, offers us a tale of egomania masquerading as blood-drenched revolution gone horribly awry. Bart Fraden, Sophia O’Hara, and General Willem Vanderling flee the crumbling Belt Free State and program their ship’s computer with certain measures of “revolutionary potential — dictatorial government, economic setup, rigid class lines with high social tension, and about a hundred others” to locate a planet that will be ripe for takeover. The power hierarchy on their eventual destination of choice, Sangre, turns out to be nightmarish beyond their wildest imaginings: the ruling Brotherhood of Pain breeds various classes of humans for the purposes of law enforcement and torture (Killers), food (Meatanimals) and reproduction (women). The Animal slaves in turn oppress the native insectoid culture by keeping the “bug Brains” that control the worker insects docile through permanent inebriation. The three Earth protagonists attempt to instigate a revolution by shocking the lowest Animals out of their genetically and environmentally-enforced stupor through a combination of ultra-potent, highly addictive drugs, demonstrations of guerrilla warfare tactics, and vague anti-totalitarian ideals.

The chronicle that follows is unrelentingly gory, with countless severed limbs and decapitations, infants being roasted and eaten for pleasure, scorched-earth massacres, and all-around Killer/Animal/Bortherhood carnage. Add to this the frenzied yelling of “KILL KILL KILL!”, a mantra repeated with bludgeoning regularity. If this sounds upsetting, it is. The novel’s physical violence reaches orgiastic, histrionic proportions, mirrored by the psychological disintegration of the three main characters who, needless to say, succumb to their own conflicts. And yet, despite the slaughter, the novel confronts us with a fascinating planetary ecosystem and embeds its horrors in a binary-based philosophical system that not only perversely justifies pain but makes it necessary for someone else’s pleasure. Then, too, the book’s Vietnam-inspired political musings are rendered with gusto and depth, as when, about two-thirds of the way through, Braden lays out in detail the four stages of a classic revolution.

Anchoring the plot is Braden’s ongoing appeasement of his own conscience through increasingly tortured justifications for his heinous, ultimately opportunistic deeds. Despite some of the novel’s creaky, hyperbolic prose, and its dated reliance on coining new words, like “lasecannon,” “computopilot,” “synthmarble,” or “snipguns,” by bashing old ones together, its savage deconstruction of political hypocrisies, and its almost gleefully obsessive commitment to working out every last consequence of its SFnal premises, still pack a contemporary punch. The characters’ consciousness is in dialogue with the fictional environment, and technology acts as a devastating projecting conduit for their morally-compromised psyches. The bloodshed due to Braden and his two cronies, seen this way, is not a heavy-handed warning against the perils of technology as much as the crystallization that said technology manifests our own inner demons, and that, simply said, bad can always get worse.

More widely controversial because of its raw sexuality and numerous expletives, Spinrad’s next novel, Bug Jack Barron (1969), placed him center-stage for some readers while relegating him to the sidelines for others. I will not attempt here to summarize the novel’s labyrinthine plot involving cryogenics, television, and politics, but will simply note with amusement that it is perhaps the only SF novel whose Wikipedia summary concludes with “The two [Jack Barron and Sara Westerfeld] celebrate by having oral sex.” David Pringle selected Bug Jack Barron as one of his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, and commented that though its plot is “very conventional” (an assessment shared by SF historian and editor Mike Ashley), its “surface,” meaning its “media landscape” setting and “breathless slangy” style, are really what matter, and are mostly very effective. Academic Roger Luckhurst describes the novel’s style as a “stream of consciousness ... designed to capture the shock and disjunction of televisual images.” In a way, Spinrad’s technique here anticipates later mainstream attempts to capture our modern experience of fragmentation via media, as for example in novels by Don DeLillo or in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Nevertheless, the novel’s central activities remain political: scheming, counter-scheming, corruption, the manipulation of public perception. Purportedly because of its obscene content, the large British retailer W. H. Smith pulled it from its stock by the time the third issue of its serialization in New Worlds, March 1968, appeared. Mike Ashley has speculated that such a decision may have had more to do with other content in that same issue, such as Langdon Jones’ “The Eye of the Lens” stories. One of several faults that Joanna Russ found with the book was that it was “romantic” and “youthfully bouncy”; Pringle, too, warns us that it is “occasionally sentimental.” Of the five novels in question, I think that time has perhaps been least kind to this one: reality has in many ways mirrored or even superseded Spinrad’s socio-cultural extrapolations (for example, the legalization of cannabis, at least in some States), weakening its SF vein. Nevertheless, one can see how it broke new ground at the time.

Spinrad’s next, highly polemical novel, The Iron Dream (1972), exists in more of an extrapolative bubble, and is therefore largely immune to subsequent developments in both the SF field and reality at large. In SF criticism pertaining to time travel stories the phrase “jonbar point” is sometimes used to refer a “crucial forking-place in Time ... most works of Alternate History develop their changed future from a single explicit or implied jonbar point” (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction online). The Iron Dream relies on such a jonbar point, namely Hitler’s emigration to the United States in 1919, followed by his career as a pulp SF illustrator and writer. Spinrad’s interest, however, doesn’t lie in the particularities of this alternate time-stream, but rather with the nature of commercial SF itself, and how easily it can subvert and subsume resonant symbols into a kind of fascistic sword-and-sorcery hero-quest mythos. To explore these ideas Spinrad presents us with his faux-Hitler’s novel Lords of the Swastika, which comprises The Iron Dream’s main text.

Purportedly written by a hack writer, Lords of the Swastika stays true to its propagandistic vision and showers us with page after page of jingoistic, eugenics-obsessed purple prose and phallus-centric power fantasies. The story is episodic and of escalating grandiosity. We are told of the rise to power of “genetic true man” Feric Jaggar, who becomes head of the Human Renaissance Party, triumphs in a series of character-testing perils at the hands of the leather-clad, motorcycle vagrants Black Avengers (a transposition of Hell’s Angels) and thereby discovers he is the rightful heir to the glorious weapon Great Truncheon of Held. Wielding its mighty steel and cutting down all who oppose him while “riding the juggernaut of destiny,” Jaggar becomes the Supreme Commander of Held, a role that allows him to establish Classification Camps to strictly test for hereditary purity and enact the ultimate eradication of the genetically impure Zind. Like The Men in the Jungle, this novel contains its share of gore and carnage, but here it is described unabashedly, even lovingly, as would befit Hitler’s fictional alter ego. The novel is followed by an “Afterword to the Second Edition” by the fictional Homer Whipple that peals back the narrative’s trashy curtains to reveal its core of highly sexualized racism.

What to make of all this? Certainly the audacity of the novel’s premise, and the care with which Spinrad executes it, are to be applauded. But for me the reading experience was a tense and tiring affair. On the one hand, Spinrad is tempting us to enjoy the story on a gut level by pushing precisely those mythological buttons that so often evoke a sense of wonder and suspend our disbelief. On the other hand, I kept reminding myself that any seduction by or even transitory alliance to Jaggar’s ideals and mode of conduct would be morally repugnant. I therefore found myself remaining at arm’s length throughout, approaching Jaggar’s progressively self-aggrandizing hero rites by way of Hitler’s overblown, redundant prose with chilly, intellectual detachment. Ursula Le Guin, in a 1973 Science Fiction Studies review that praised the novel’s high stakes while questioning whether more wouldn’t have been gained by a shorter text, zoomed in on this “staggeringly bold act of forced, extreme distancing” that Spinrad has achieved. Thomas M. Disch, in a memorable turn of phrase, recommended The Iron Dream as a consideration of the “fascist lurking beneath the smooth chromium surface of a good deal of sf.”

R. D. Mullen, on the other hand, wrote in a 1978 capsule review that The Iron Dream “ceases to be funny after the first few pages, and therefore becomes identical with what it is parodying.” I think he’s missing the point, in that Spinrad’s main purpose doesn’t appear to be humorous per se. Sean Kitching, in a recent retrospective on Spinrad published at The Quietus, analyzes The Iron Dream on three levels: satire, the author’s self-explication of Nazism, and in terms of Anti-Oedipus symbolism. I see the novel’s satirical edge, conveyed through what Adam Roberts has described as its “fortissimo pastiche,” as a tool, not an ends: Spinrad wants us to introspect, not just point and laugh. For me part of Spinrad’s purpose here must be hermeneutical: The Iron Dream is an attempt to understand and interpret storytelling mythologies — in particular, SF tropes — by turning them back on themselves. The reason these proto-fascist elements exist in our fiction, Spinrad seems to be reminding us, is that, like it or not, we put them there, and confronting that tell us something important about who we are.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, in his book The World Hitler Never Made, provides a close reading of The Iron Dream over the course of six pages, and reminds us that the novel was, de facto, banned in West Germany from 1982 to 1990. Critic Edward James updates the terms of our interpretation by describing the novel as a dissection of “the inherently anti-democratic tendencies of the super-hero,” thereby tracing a continuity between Spinrad’s text and graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Michael Dirda, in a 2008 review of Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, picks up on a reference to Spinrad in Bolano’s book, and mentions Robert E. Howard and Robert A. Heinlein as two of Spinrad’s targets. The novel’s enduring impact and importance are without question, as is perhaps the inherent difficulty of enjoying it emotionally.

We now jump forward about a decade, to The Void Captain’s Tale (1983), a first-person account of the forbidden, alternately destructive and redemptive relationship between a male Captain and the female Pilot whose “psychesomic” orgasms quite literally power the ship’s “Star Drive,” as is customary during the story’s Second Starfaring Age. I note that this is a first-person novel because Spinrad uses our immersion in the Captain’s consciousness to great world-building effect; since the Captain thinks and writes in a “sprach” that combines English with Spanish, French, German and Japanese, our experience of his world is filtered by the same language as his is. By using an invented argot, then, Spinrad requires of us that we step beyond our everyday linguistic landscape so we can get closer to the novel’s native world. Our lack of familiarity with their expressions and phrases mimics the sort of cognitive estrangement we would experience if we were suddenly dropped into the middle of the Captain’s culture. In this way, by making his fictional Universe less instantly graspable, Spinrad makes it more credible.

The device is a risky one — applied clumsily, we might end up myopically focused on the cuteness of certain turns of phrase at the expense of other narrative elements —, but I think Spinrad handles it with skill. Gerald Jonas wrote in The New York Times that, “as with all artifice, The Void Captain’s Tale depends on the cooperation of the audience for its effects.” Quite so. I find something freeing and exuberant about The Void Captain’s Tale opening pages, in which our introduction to an interstellar culture is directly contained in that culture’s use of words. A clear example of this is Captain Genro Kane Gupta’s indulgence in the custom of “pedigree and freenom” tale-telling, which not only furnishes us with necessary biographical information about our protagonist, but also clues us in to the idea of “freenoms” and instantly tells us something about the values of the Captain’s culture (the crew of his ship, the Dragon Zephyr, prize telling stories).  Soon after this bit of background material, the Captain has his first encounter with Pilot Dominique Alia Wu and, for the next five pages, we switch to her first-person narration, before returning to his for the rest of the novel. Again, this is a bold technical move; by heightening our empathy for Dominique, we are beginning to follow the same illicit path that Genro is following when he gives human dimension and character specificity to his Pilot, who, social protocols dictate, should remain anonymous to him.

If Spinrad is wise to the effects he’s using, so is Genro wise to the tradition of doomed relationship he’s engaging in. At one point, he even asks Dominique if she is the equivalent of a femme fatale. He anticipates the tragic dimension of his chronicle by advancing the novel’s entire plot, with its unresolved ending, in four short paragraphs on page two. It’s not about what happens, we realize at that moment, but how it happens. Genro wants us to understand the innermost workings of his psyche, and in so doing “touch the spirit.” The more we delve into his perceptions and subjective experiences, the better we can appreciate the depth and uncommon self-awareness with which Spinrad has molded him. By the novel’s end, it is impossible to pass judgment on his actions, though they undeniably cause him and his crew great distress. And yet I wouldn’t want the reader to think the entire novel is nothing but a plodding apologia written in a made-up language by a navel-gazing Captain. On the contrary, because Genro’s world is one almost exclusively dedicated to art, eroticism and philosophy, the novel becomes a fascinating excursion into otherworldly customs, theories of perception and belief, and rituals of kinship. Thomas M. Disch saw this work as a high point in Spinrad’s post-Iron Dream career: “The Void Captain’s Tale represents a new synthesis of Spinrad’s main strengths. The earnestness of the metasexual theorizer is qualified by the irony and livened by the playfulness that characterizes The Iron Dream and his best short fiction.”

We should perhaps spend a few more moments on the novel’s engagement with sex. As mentioned earlier, the Pilot’s orgasm, one of such intensity it physically consumes the Pilot and reduces her life expectancy to an average of ten years, is an integral component of the Ship’s technology; without it there would be no Jump and hence no FTL travel. In addition to this, we’re presented with a rich panoply of recreational sex, which functions both as social lubricant and status indicator. Gerald Jonas wrote that Spinrad was “one of a handful of science fiction writers who regularly consider the impact of new technology on the arts,” and in this novel sex is that art. It acts as a distraction from the Void (the theme of travelers between the stars having to cope with boredom is one of Spinrad’s oldest, appearing as far back as his second published story, “Subjectivity,” in 1964). But if sex is an evasion here, it is also a rich form of communication, a reaching inward towards communion. Gone are all the four-letter words and staccato thought-bursts of Bug Jack Barron; here the descriptions are comprised of long, winding sentences replete with “tantric dyadic asanas,” “kundalinic energies,” “erect lingams,” and so on. In this novel Spinrad’s previous deliberate vulgarity has been replaced with sophistication, crassness giving way to a refinement of social intercourse that necessitates pages of the Captain’s description to do it justice. Problematic, though, as some reviewers have noted, is the exclusive focus on heterosexuality; not because we demand political diversity from fiction, but because the kind of classicism that Spinrad otherwise evokes suggests a less restrictive, more open-minded approach to his subject matter, easily attuned, say, to ancient Greek sexual practices. The sustained effect of Spinrad’s invented argot and the baroqueness of his culture border on the delirious, at times tipping over into philosophical-sounding smut and smutty-sounding philosophy. Indeed, the words “esthetics,” “phenomenological,” and “transcend” occur with dizzying regularity. Baird Searles, reviewing the novel in Asimov’s, complained about the repetitiveness of certain words: “I personally came close to feeling that I would throw the book across the room the next time I hit the word ‘thespic’ no matter how appropriate it was to most of the circumstances it described.” In spite of this, he concluded, by gently mocking Spinrad’s style, that the novel is “a frissonic, libidinal tour de force.”

So why, I think it’s legitimate to ask, does Spinrad place such emphasis on sex? One might infer that Spinrad is simply reminding us of the notion of spaceship as phallic symbol. Michael Levy, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, implies as much when he says that the novel “uses Freudian psychology, explicit sexual content, and witty prose to reexamine many of the basic tropes of sf.” But I’d like to focus on the orgasm-as-star-drive conceit. In the novel’s specific setup, it is the Captain, always male, who invariably enters the command to “Jump!”, and thus imposes his masculine will on the Pilot, who is always female. In a very real sense, then, he controls the femininity at the ship’s core. Is this a stand-in for rape? That reading seems at odds with the novel’s elegant tone and discursive asides. As if that weren’t enough, the Captain himself wonders about the rape analogy (!), and discusses it with Dominique, who assures him (and us) that neither of them are truly in control.

I’d like to posit an explanation different from the rape scenario. As Elisabeth Lloyd argues in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution (2006), none of the twenty or so long-standing theories that attempt to explain the female orgasm as an adaptive, survival-enhancing trait stand up to thorough scrutiny. Instead, Lloyd proposes an accidental “byproduct” account of the female orgasm in terms of a response to the evolutionarily-driven evolution of the male orgasm. In a way this explanation mirrors that for the existence of male nipples — which confer no obvious survival advantage to males — as a byproduct of female nipples. With this in mind, I’d suggest that Spinrad’s female orgasm is both a statement of what was, before Lloyd’s extensive research, a bit of a conundrum, and the author’s uniquely SF-nal response to it. The Pilot’s orgasm fulfills the function of unknowability, and serves as a kind of transcendence by proxy. It is the Captain’s obsessive wish to understand and experience it for himself that lead him to ruin.

One of the two protagonists of the last novel we’re going to discuss, the near-future Deus X (1992), begins at precisely the opposite side of Captain Genro Kane Gupta: Father Pierre de Leone, nearing the end of his life, only desires to be left alone. The Void Captain is willing to sacrifice himself and everyone else in order to resolve a metaphysical unknown: what will happen with the Ship “blind Jumps”? Will it escape ordinary reality? The great unknown in Father Pierre de Leone’s fictional universe is this: what happens to a human soul when the person’s consciousness is replicated in the vast, non-corporeal cyber-land known as the Big Board? Is the “meatware successor entity” soul-less, or has the soul perhaps been cast into an electronic version of hell? Father Pierre’s faith leads him to believe it’s the former, and he therefore has no wish to investigate the matter. But he becomes a peon in the Church’s ploy to regain its popularity, in a time of crisis and ubiquitous consciousness replication, by providing definitive, empirically-based answers to questions over which it claims authority. Father Pierre therefore ends up in much the same place as the Void Captain. The novel’s other protagonist is Marley Philippe, a black boat captain with a penchant for spliffs and hacking, who’s hired to locate Father Pierre in the Big Board after the theologian has been downloaded into it and kidnapped by mysterious virtual entities claiming to belong to “the Vortex.”

The short novel is told in alternating first-person chapters (in a neat typographical layout, roman numerals are used for Father Pierre’s sections and ordinary numbers for Marley’s). As with The Void Captain’s Tale, the first-person allows for quick immersion. The pacing is brisk, and accelerates frantically during the final pages. Despite the occasional point-of-view observation that strains credulity (as when Marley recalls a “pop cult” from the late twentieth century called “Cyberpunk”), each of the character’s voices is distinct and enjoyable, if at times close to stereotype. Whereas in his earlier works Spinrad conveyed internal anguish in characters whose external settings were often decadently abundant, the present novel’s setting during the Earth’s lean “last days” lends an atmosphere of quiet beauty and reflection, and gives Marley a modicum of peace, or perhaps resignation. Once again, the plot, as writer Gordon Sellar points out in a blog post http://www.gordsellar.com/2011/09/23/deus-x-by-norman-spinrad/, “isn’t really where the book’s charm lies,” but rather “in the way the story is told.” For me part of the book’s unique spell is also derived from the metaphysical questions it poses: its playfulness regarding reverse Turing tests, ontological regressions, and so on. More importantly, I appreciate its overt inclusion of a Catholic viewpoint, rare in mainstream SF. Father Pierre de Leone’s outspokenness and strong views remind me a little of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958).

Deus X, which sees the future Catholic Church led by a woman Pope, adroitly balances opposing forces: faith and atheism, principles and pragmatism, self-repression and self-expression. But in the end, as Gabriel McKee concludes in The Gospel According to Science Fiction, the book is “optimistic about the possibilities of AI and consciousness-modeling, proposing that a machine-copied mind can be as fully real as an organic, human one,” a similar position to the one backed by Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan.

Despite what I feel is a pat ending, I find the economy of prose and the richness of ideas amply rewarding, and this is without a doubt one of my favorite Spinrad stories. Gerald Jonas’ comment that “the author has got hold of a powerful metaphor for transcendence that he intends to push to the limit — with thought-provoking results” seems a fair assessment. Other critics, particularly within the field, have expressed less enthusiasm. Gary K. Wolfe, for example, notes that while “Spinrad has set up a genuinely provocative situation, I’m not sure he’s done himself a favor by trying to resolve it in such a conveniently SF-nal manner.” I would argue the exact opposite, that anything but a SF-nal resolution (albeit one less “easy” than the one Spinrad presents) would be cheating. John Clute’s main concern is with the way Spinrad depicts the Church: “It is very difficult to swallow a Christian Church relevantly concerned with the kind of issue at stake here; and it is impossible to imagine one so internally transfigured by humility and good sense that its representatives could begin to admit to Spinrad’s whole litany of sins.” I don’t think the latter directly hinges on the former, and Spinrad’s case for declining membership as a motivating political force suffices within the spare world he’s created. Returning to Spinrad’s ideas about what constitutes SF, here is a clear instance indeed of minds being entirely contingent upon the technological medium with which they’re interacting or, in this case, in which they’re residing. Deus X, viewed this way, is arguably the most purely SF-nal of Spinrad’s novels.

A brief concluding thought on accolades. As the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction summarizes, Spinrad “won the Prix Utopia in 2003, a life achievement award given by the Utopiales International Festival in Nantes, France; he won no significant awards in America or the UK.” While it’s true that his work has never reached the critical thresholds of popularity or fellow peer support needed to earn these awards, we should remember that he has been nominated for six Hugo awards and six Nebula awards across categories that include dramatic presentation, novel, novella, novelette and nonfiction book. Perhaps my favorite of Spinrad’s short stories is “Carcinoma Angels,” which first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, and which tells the story of Harrison Wintergreen, a prodigy who can seemingly accomplish anything he sets out to, except taking pleasure in his own accomplishments — with tragic results. That story is a compelling reminder to enjoy what we do have while it lasts. Spinrad’s body of fiction, which I’ve only sampled, contains much work whose raison d’etre at first blush appears to be purely confrontational. His non-fiction, which could be the subject of its own essay, can be just as incendiary and intellectually unruly. And he has a tendency to repeat certain phrases — “molecule and charge,” for example, in The Void Captain’s Tale, or “bits and bytes” in Deus X — to a desensitizing degree. Despite this, and the fact that his experiments have not always succeeded as art, commerce, or either, he has nonetheless continued to experiment time and again. That should be regarded as its own accomplishment.

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Punk Rock: An Oral History on ScannerZine

ScannerZine
February 27th, 2014

It takes a brave man. In fact, it takes a very fucking brave man to attempt what John Robb has done here and, furthermore, it takes a very sussed man to have done it as well as this. You see, this is an oral history about the original wave of Punk Rock in the UK. A million books have already eulogised, dramatised, dogmatised and decried the era with varying degrees of quality. Obviously Jon Savage's England's Dreaming has been the go-to book, along with Paul Marko's book about The Roxy and Alex Ogg's encyclopedic No More Heroes filling in vital gaps. So, does Robb's book cut the flares outta the pseudo 'rock journalism' and give us the real deal?

I have to say I think it does. Robb has interviewed over 110 personalities who were there at the time in a myriad of capacities. We have 'the performers' including Penny Rimbaud, John Lydon, Siouxsie, Knox, TV Smith and more. Then there are those who made their impact in different ways be it journalists, photographers, film makers and promoters right through to fans who were there at the time and tell it from an audience perspective. Each offers facts, gossip and, most importantly, a genuine sense of energy; no matter how the individual was involved or what they have gone onto become (Mick Hucknall included), each talks with an undiluted fervour that matched the music of the day. Yes there are contradictions and less than charitable comments but these observations are taken 30 years on from what was the last and most exciting music revolution the UK witnessed - it was also a time of bad drugs, cheap booze and rampant egos so if there were no disputes or hypocrisy something would be wrong. Thankfully, Robb has left the contradictions in place but edited the answers into a readable and energised manner.

As is the norm, the first chapters of the book document what came before, and directly influenced Punk and those involved. Here, we go back to 1959 with likes of Rimbaud and Hugh Cornwall. It's interesting to read a lot of the original wave's influences - Charlie Harper's first album was by Cliff Richard and a passion for Status Quo featured in many people's collections! Glam Rock follows and then it's onto the familiar 1975 tales of King's Road, PISTOLS, LONDON SS etc - but even these well worn stories are presented with an energy that few have matched.

As said, this is very much a document of 70s UK Punk. The 1980 - 84, the dawning of the Anarcho scene, is summarised in one chapter which includes the early Goth movement, Oi! and more. As a summary of what Punk became in the 80s, it's adequate but in many ways deserves an equally energetic and in-depth book. A foreword by Henry Rollins and a few pics fill the book out.

As oral histories go, this is one of the most readable; given its era, even more so. And yes, it does hold its own against the standards set by Please Kill Me and Gimme Something Better. That alone should be a glowing reference, but after reading many of the 'million' books mentioned in the first paragraph, this stands alone as the pick the bunch. If you only ever read two books about the original UK Punk movement, make it this FIRST, England's Dreaming second.

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Flowers in gun barrels

By Juan L. Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
February 22nd, 2014

“Suddenly, there they were,” Corazon Aquino marveled. A People Power uprising uprooted the 14-year-old Marcos dictatorship, avoiding bloodshed. She became Asia’s first ever woman president.

It was not always so.

The 28th anniversary of the Edsa Revolution, this week and next, recalls that those who backed the dictatorship then were powerful: the “Rolex 12” generals, a stamp-pad elections commission, cronies ranging from Eduardo Cojuangco to San Juan Mayor Joseph Estrada. Add the bejeweled “Blue Ladies.”

As People Power crowds massed in Manila, Cebu, Iloilo and Zamboanga, Filipino communists huddled in safe houses, paralyzed by ideological arthritis. The Ilocos region looked away. The revolution left these strange bedfellows stranded.

Clad in fatigues, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. harangued partisans from a Malacañang porch. Less than 24 hours later, he was trundled into Hawaiian exile. Now 57, he sneers at Edsa as the “five percent revolution.” Can he buy, off the rack, the 2016 election with unrecovered Marcos loot?

Edsa’s flower-in-the-gun-barrel model is refracted from Mahatma Gandhi’s march to protest the salt tax in 1930. It sparked Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” of 1988, Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolt” and Ukraine’s “Rose Uprising,” among others.

Did the Arab Spring, which started with uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, fail? Three years on, not one country has become a stable democracy. Syria is wracked by civil war. Egypt’s elected president is behind bars.

“The region’s cohesive force is Islam, which—it is argued—cannot abide democracy,” the Economist wrote. The obituary is premature. It ignores “the long winter before… Most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.”

Unlike Southeast Asians, Arabs can boast no philosopher-king who willingly nurtures democracy as the economy flourishes. “Instead, the dictator’s brothers and the first lady’s cousins cream the best businesses.”

The Arab Spring is better described as an awakening. “The real revolution is not so much in the street as in the mind.” Internet and thirst for education cannot coexist with old deadening dictatorships. “The journey may take decades. But it is welcome.”

Rites of remembrance are about “a fine line we tread to honor a difficult past,” Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote. These exercises “are about the moral costs of both forgetting and remembering … injustice to lives lost or forever changed by brutal rulers…. Does remembering with undiminished intensity, over time, make us curators of our ancestors’ grievances? Can we honor the past without being trapped in it?”

As a martial law refugee, we worked at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Twice a day, Italian information officer Franca Steinmann copied us with AP, Reuters, etc. dispatches on Edsa’s gathering storm. Anxious Filipino staff members pored through them.

“When that SOB scrams, you need not come down. I’ll bring up the prints to you.” When Chinook helicopters lifted the Marcoses and cronies from Malacañang, ahead of the Edsa crowds, Franca was on leave. But Lola Camacho of Spain was immediately on the phone: “The Marcoses tucked tail, sir. I’m coming up with the wires now.”

Philippine Council of Agriculture chair Ramon Valmayor fidgeted in his visitor’s chair. Edsa 1 caught him in the midst of an official trip. “Relax, Mon. You can fly to Madrid now,” I said. “The Marcoses beat it.”

There are over 2,000 employees of 80 nationalities who work in FAO headquarters along the Aventino. That day, they swamped Filipino staff members with congratulations. Were the congratulations premature?

Leaf through this year’s publication of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings. This two-volume work is by George Katsiaficas, a PhD from the University of California who now works out of Boston. It details histories of uprisings, over five decades, in these Asian nations: the Philippines, Burma (Myanmar), Tibet, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand and India.

Katsiaficas reexamines Samuel Huntington’s projection of a “Third Wave” of democratization and tracks the impact on uprisings in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. His work documents “the power of popular rebellions to change the conversation.”

“The Edsa Uprising showed an entrenched dictatorship can be toppled by nonviolence,” he notes. “It became a new tactic in the arsenal of people movements.”

That resurfaced in the 19-day June 1987 people’s revolt in South Korea, copied later by Taiwan. Thai students, who earlier occupied Thammasat University to defy the military junta, inspired Greek students to revolt against the Papadopoulos dictatorship. They took over Athens Polytechnic.

East European movements learned from the example set by Chinese workers and students brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square. In 1998, Indonesian students called their campaign “People Power” and overthrew the decaying three-decade-old Suharto regime.

Coup attempt after coup attempt here reveals the importance of the military. Through its conduct, the Philippine military—unlike its counterparts in Burma and Thailand—refrained from using overwhelming force against citizens to impose its views.

These Asian case studies show that “ordinary people, acting together in the best interest of society, embody a reasonability and intelligence far greater than elites which rule nation states and giant corporations.”

“People Power in the Philippines failed to transform underlying economic structures in society,” Katsiaficas wrote. “[But] it inspired movements around the world. That may well be its most lasting contribution.”

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)
 

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Black History Month message of hope from famed former Black Panther Robert Hillary King


Former Black Panther Robert Hillary King spent 32 years, 29 of them in solitary confinement, in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for a crime he did not commit (Photo courtesy Fade to Black / Fondu au Noir )

by Richard Burnett 
The Montreal Gazette
February 19th, 2014

Montreal Black History Month’s Fade to Black film series is screening director Ron Harpelle’s critically-acclaimed documentary film Hard Time about Robert Hillary King, former member of the Black Panther Party who spent 32 years – 29 of them in solitary confinement – in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for a crime he did not commit. King was released in February 2001 and has been campaigning against abuses in the U.S. criminal justice system ever since.

King will be in Montreal for a public Q&A session following the  Feb 21 screening of Hard Time at the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

King, now 71, took some time this week to answer a few questions from POP TART.

POP TART: What kind of lessons / hope does your life story offer young black males who cannot escape the grind of poverty and racism?

RHK: My advice to those young folks would be to look at my story and take from that. I was arrested and thrown in prison, “biggomized” by the system, so to speak. I took that as encouragement, didn’t take it as being something should deter me from seeking [justice]. As an African-American, I also had to take a stand. I was at the bottom and had to scream the loudest just to people could hear me.

POP TART: Are you  more compassionate or angrier person today?

RHK: The anger propels me. It doesn’t deter me from doing what I have to do. I’m angry over what the system did to me, but it’s not an anger to the point of bitterness. I’m angry enough to do something about it.

POP TART: Lots of Americans white and black looked to Obama as a symbol of change in America. In your eyes, is the new boss the same as the old boss?

RHK: Many people, black and white, understand the system [in America] is constructed on flaws. People expect change from Obama and are still in his corner, but the changes Obama tried to make but have been impeded in many ways. He’s a black man in a White House, he’s not the typical boss. He’s different. I’ve seen Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Reagan and the rest.  Obama is a people’s president, more for the people than the corporations.

POP TART:  Do you feel you  were cheated?

RHK: At this time victorious. I feel victorious, not a victim. The system played a part in my victimization but victimization is also a state of mind. So I never saw myself as a victim. Never saw myself as flawed. People [also] ask me if I can forgive. Why do I have to be the one to forgive? If anyone should talk about forgiveness, it’s the system itself. I was cheated out of a long span of life for a crime I didn’t commit, but the time I spent [in prison] wasn’t wasted because I learned the system, I learned how to deal with it on a much broader scale.

Director Ron Harpelle’s documentary film Hard Time (English with French subtitles) will screen at Maxwell Cummings Auditorium in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1379 Sherbrooke W) on Feb 21 at 7 pm, followed by a public Q&A session with Robert Hillary King, as part of Montreal’s Black History Month Fade to Black series. Admission: $20.

Click here for more event info, here for Robert Hilary King’s official website, and here for complete Montreal Black History Month listings.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Robert Hillary King’s 2008 autobiography From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of a Black Panther won a PASS Award from the U.S. National Council on Crime and Delinquency
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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MAROON UNCHAINED: A People’s Victory!

For immediate release:
February 21, 2014

The international movement to free political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz from solitary confinement has achieved an historic victory: on Thursday, February 20, 2014, Maroon stepped into general population for the first time in 22 years.  There is no doubt; this is a PEOPLE’S VICTORY!

The coordinated efforts of Scientific Soul Sessions (SSS) and the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz – particularly those organized groups in NYC, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia – showed the true power of the people. When SSS (a multigenerational collective of revolutionaries prefiguring a new society and working directly with the lessons laid out by Maroon) sparked this international movement three years ago, Maroon’s name was hardly known beyond a small circle of dedicated prisoner rights activists. Over the past years – on the political, artistic, and cultural fronts – we have seen the founding of the Campaign, the funding and initial coordination of Maroon’s Legal Team, the publication of Maroon’s collected essays, and the organization of countless events and soul sessions across the US.

These achievements are only the beginning. By answering the calls to action, we created a tidal wave of momentum that must be maintained until it is unstoppable. The power of the people proved to be a far greater force than the system, which would have been happy to see Maroon die without ever again feeling the embrace of his loved ones. 

In a matter of weeks, Maroon went from a feces infested dungeon inside the criminally insane Restricted Housing Unit at SCI Graterford with nothing – not even a blanket – to General Population because of the people’s vigilance, voice, and committed support to fight this injustice and stop the torture of Russell Maroon Shoatz.

This proves our strength to make the seemingly impossible possible. It proves that the pressure to free Maroon from solitary was greater than the state ever anticipated. The next step must be to demand Freedom Now for Russell Maroon Shoatz. We won’t allow less than complete freedom from incarceration for this freedom fighter and inspiring leader. Let us celebrate this victory by demanding FULL freedom for Russell Maroon Shoatz!  We must stand firm and be prepared for our next steps and calls to action. Thank you to all for your committed and generous support; our future work together must be stronger still!

Buy Maroon the Implacable now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Matt Meyer's Author Page now




Left of the Dial: A Scanner Zine Review

Scanner Zine
January 14th, 2014

Compendiums of interviews, when put together by the person who conducted the interview, can often be hit or miss. Uniform questions can litter the interviews with equally uniform answers while other questions can be a bit too obsessive and frequently self-obsessive. Those who continually put out interviews that are interesting, witty, incisive and respectful are rare; thankfully David Ensminger is one such interviewer.

This book features 22 interviews with a myriad of Punk Rockers, most of which have been published elsewhere, be it in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll or Artcore, or in Ensminger's own magazine, Left Of The Dial, that ran for eight issues between 2000 and 2005.

The interviews are split into two parts. The first, entitled 'Tales From The Zero Hour' look at those who championed Punk at the start, so you get the likes of an exceptionally excellent interview with Peter Case (NERVES/ PLIMSOULS) along with a funny (wot else?) Captain Sensible chat, DILS, ZEROS, Charlie Harper (OK but a bit dull compared with the rest in the book) and an insightful piece about San Francisco's Deaf Club venue.

The second part of the book, 'Hardcore Sound And Fury' takes all the USHC legends and opens them up to Ensminger's encyclopedic knowledge of Punk Rock folklore. We get Jello Biafra (not one of the better interviews but still a great read), Ian MacKaye, Vic Bondi, Dave Dictor, Gary Floyd, Shawn Stern, Jack Grisham, Keith Morris - a veritable who's who of USHC in fact. Unexpected highlights came in the form of Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records, Mike Palm of AGENT ORANGE and U-Ron Bondage of REALLY RED that challenges the Peter Case interview as the book's highlight. Oddly, an interview with STRIKE ANYWHERE ends the book and while it's a fascinating read from a clever and sincere man (that's the vocalist, Thomas Barrnett), it just seems a little bit out of step with the rest of the book.

What makes these interviews that much more entertaining is Ensminger's questions that probe history and placement rather than recording techniques. He also has, as stated, not only a massive knowledge of Punk Rock as a movement that transcends music, but also politics and how Punk evolved within political time frames and was even possibly sub-consciously influenced by the political era. That's not to say he doesn't ask the direct questions - I imagine Captain Sensible was thrilled to be asked about 'Music For Pleasure' while Ian MacKaye might be equally tired of questions about TEEN IDLES.

Along with the text, Ensminger has culled a number of flyers and rare photos taken by himself or Houston based photographer, Ben Desoto.

Riveting, intelligent reading which has a sincerity about it many music 'journalists' fail to achieve as they've never actually lived it in the way Ensminger has. Even if some of the bands are of little interest to you, you can be guaranteed that, somehow, Ensminger will extract some unknown historical fact or a blunt, frank and damning political (or socio-political) polemic. If the mark of quality of a book of this nature is what there is to be learnt, I can honestly say I discovered something from each and every interview.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to David Ensminger's Author Page




Left of the Dial: A Razorcake Review

by Jimmy Alvarado
Razorcake
Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Ensminger is no stranger to punk rock-he's been around the scene since at least the mid-'80s, was a member of Texas Biscuit Bombs, was the driving force behind Left of the Dial magazine, and has penned a book or two highlighting different aspects of the subculture. This time 'round, he strives to shed some light on punk's underlying ethos "from the bottom up, directly from the participants, the pursuers of dreams, the folk of punk, the informants, the living actors," as he explains in his introductory essay.

This translates to a collection twenty-one interviews that stretch back into the non-NY/U.K.-centric part of punk's veritable "big bang," what followed in its wake, how its excesses were stripped down and honed into a direct assault weapon against the status quo and, indirectly, how that weapon has dulled over time and what's been lost with the massive infusion of corporate sponsorship and money into the punk scene. In addition to the usual go-to punk talking heads-the names MacKaye, Morris, Biafra, Sensible, Watt, Grisham, and Dictor are likely recognizable to those with a slightly more than passing interest in punk-Ensminger also has the wisdom to query folks one doesn't run into quite as often these days about punk's impact on them: Gary Floyd, Fred "Freak" Smith, U-Ron Bondage, Peter Case, and Greg Turner, among many others.

While there is much history packed into these interviews, including a nice oral history of legendary San Francisco venue the Deaf Club, it is less a history lesson in the strictest sense than an attempt to document the threads of punk's ideological framework, its common core motivations, and its unspoken philosophies. Ensminger's effectiveness in doing so is dependent on the reader's level of attention-the passing reader will find interesting, engaging, and lively discussions about how this motley group of individuals live(d) and where they are coming from as artists. Buried inside the discussions, however, are glimpses of the DIY ethic wielded by these and other outsiders to subvert and directly challenge a world that continues to value homogeny and disdains anyone or anything that dares not to fit in. Scholars and historians will find it of great use in adding some depth and perspective to their efforts. Newer punks looking to cut through nearly two decades of corporate-spoon-fed misinformation and bullshit and wishing to reconnect with what made punk such a threat in the first place will find much here indispensible.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to David Ensminger's Author Page




Catastrophism — The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth: A Review

by Catherine Friedrich
Irish Left Review
January 28th, 2014

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf
Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

Catastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions.

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south.

Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

 

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Baghdad's 'Street of the Booksellers' honoured at Manchester's John Rylands library


by Ellie Violet Bramley
The Guardian UK
January 21st, 2014


Hundreds of writers and artists prepare tributes to Iraq's historic books hub, Al-Mutanabbi Street, hit by car bomb in 2007
Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here – gallery

Iraqi Peace Song
'The scroll form made sense' … Iraqi Peace Song 2011, by Laurie Alpert. The text is by Al-Mutanabbi. Photograph: Mosaic Rooms | Al Mutanabbi Stre

It's said that when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, the river Tigris ran red one day with the blood of those killed, and black the next with the ink of their books. On 5 March 2007, many of Baghdad's books once again found themselves the victims of war when a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street, the city's historic literary district – home of booksellers, printers, and cafes, such as the famous Shabandar cafe, where Iraqi writers and intellectuals have been gathering for centuries.

On reading about the incident in the New York Times the next morning, Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco-based poet and bookseller, felt an immediate connection: "I knew that if I was an Iraqi that's exactly where my store would be, among the other bookshops … As a poet that would be my cultural community." With the bomb, Beausoleil felt that the "tremendous pressure from the government and the media to see people as the other" was punctured; the distance collapsed.

Beausoleil felt compelled to take action to let "people in the west know that we share this commonality with Al-Mutanabbi Street". In his mind, the response had to be not only vocal but ongoing: "you have to continue to show up and make people think about what is happening and how that relates to their own lives". So began the Al-Mutanabbi Street project.

It started with a call to letterpress printers to create broadsides – a large sheet of paper printed on one side only, traditionally a poster. Beausoleil felt that letterpress artists were most apt for a first, "tactile, personal response" – "they're the people who have historically reacted to national tragedy or aspirations for a more just society by putting a broadside up on the side of a building or tree". A few years on, the project has gathered a collection of broadsides, 133 of which have been digitised by the Florida Atlantic University Libraries to be donated to the National Library and Archive of Iraq. The original target was 130, a number chosen to symbolise the 100 people wounded and the 30 killed that day.

Since then, different shoots to the project have sprung up. There's an anthology of written responses to the bombing, from Iraqi, American and other international poets and writers. Called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, it was co-edited by Deema Shehabi, a Palestinian-American poet, and includes contributors ranging from the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack while covering the Syrian conflict, to Yassin Alsalman, an Iraqi-Canadian journalist and hip-hop MC, AKA The Narcicyst, and Beausoleil himself.

There's also been a call to book artists (practitioners who realise their works of art in the form of a book, in the tradition of William Blake) to create books that encapsulate both "'memory and future', exactly what was lost that day", in An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street – "both a lament and a commemoration of the singular power of words". Artists' books in this inventory use the printers, writers, booksellers and readers of the street as a touchstone and show the "the commonality of Al-Mutanabbi Street with any street, anywhere that holds a bookstore or cultural institution".

A selection of these artist's books and the broadsides is currently on display at London's Mosaic Rooms, and on 22 January there will be a panel event at which two contributing artists, Catherine Cartwright and Mona Kriegler, along with guest speaker Dr Safaa Sangour Al-Salih, will discuss the project's significance, and the process of responding to and creating artwork for such a venture.

Cartwright is a British artist who got involved with the project as a result of her interest in "human rights issues and how artists can work in a way that promotes, in its widest sense, political or social change". She sees the project as being about raising awareness and solidarity: "We can get swamped by stories of things that are happening around the world … it's about showing people who are suffering in Iraq that they're not forgotten."

Kriegler, an academic whose expertise is in art and politics in Iraq, felt that in order to "write about art I needed to go through the process of making art". For her, an important question is how we define solidarity. Her project, she says, "is a project for the Iraqi people about their street, about their pain and suffering, which I haven't experienced – this is something I find difficult, how do you position yourself?"

In the work she currently has on display at the Mosaic Rooms as part of the Threads of Light/Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here exhibition, she looks at the idea of pain and brokenness – "something everyone can relate to, it is not down to a place – pain doesn't have an identity". Her work transfers the idea of pain and brokenness on to the human body, and then back on to a map of Baghdad ("a wounded body") and Al-Mutanabbi Street ("a scar").

The scar from Baghdad's explosion is not a one-off: history is punctuated by attacks on the written word and the communities around them. Of course, it is rarely only books that are harmed in such attacks. One video response to the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project, I Dare You, by artist Stephanie Sauerpart, embeds this Iraqi example in a long list of dates and places when books were burned or otherwise destroyed.

One need only look to very recent history to find examples, such as the bombing of the Sarajevo library on 25 August 1992, destroying around three million books, and, more recently, the attack on a library in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, motivated by sectarian tensions, in which around two-thirds of an 80,000 strong library was lost.

For Cartwright, however, there's a benefit in focusing on 5 March, 2007 – that day, that street, and that bombing – in order to keep the project's vision clear as it evolves to include the work of many people, all working autonomously. But, it's also important to think that as much as Al-Mutanabbi is "a physical place, it's also a symbolic place that can be anywhere".


Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Beau Beausoleil's Author Page




Baghdad's 'Street of the Booksellers' is reborn in Manchester


by Martin Wainwright
The Northerner Blog

March 5th, 2013

John Rylands Library plays host to tributes from artists and writers to al-Mutanabbi Street, where freedom of expression was targeted by bombers five years ago

Six years ago a bomb blew free speech to smithereens in the Street of Booksellers in Baghdad, an institution whose roots ran right back to the House of Wisdom in the 9th century Caliphate where the learning of the classical world was preserved and enhanced.

The explosion killed 26 people and wounded over 100 but stood out particularly from the general misery of Iraq at the time as a vengeful and deliberate assault on a place of learning and debate which had survived repression and dictatorship for centuries.

The bombing of Mutanabi book market in Baghdad, 2007
A man stands amid rubble just after a suicide car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, a deliberate attack on free speech whose organisers have not yet been traced. Photograph: Khalid Mohammed/AP

A survivor told a Washington poetry festival in 2010 how he lay wounded in the storeroom of the bookshop where he worked and staring up through a hole blown in the roof at "thousands of small gray ashes—pieces of paper, books, newspapers—floating down from the sky." Those ashes did not, however, die. They proved to be embers which have made the street more famous outside Iraq than ever before.

Although the actual buildings, reopened by Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki five years ago, now contain many toy stores and fewer bookshops, a parallel and much larger version has been created internationally in the minds and work of writers and artists. The winding lane's actual name of al-Mutanabbi Street honours a tenth century poet whose pen was silenced by an enemy insulted in one of his verses; the bomb, whose perpetrators remain unknown, was a similar attempt at censorship which free spirits resolved to challenge.

Their work has been co-ordinated by a group called the al-Mutanabbi Coalition which was prompted in the immediate aftermath of the attack by a poet and bookseller in San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, whose network of contacts responded with zest. Gatherings, debates and memorials both written and artistic followed, and now the biggest collection of them has gone on show in the UK, which is a centre for a singularly appropriate tribute: the Artist's Book.

 

Reading room, The John Rylands Library The main reading room at the John Rylands Library, the gift of the Cuban widow of Manchester's first millionaire.
Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
 

Approaching 150 of these fill exhibition cases in Manchester's John Rylands library and more are arriving there every day. The collection, entitled An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street – Building with Books, moves on to San Francisco and New York later this year and thence to Switzerland, Canada, Egypt and eventually the Iraq National Library in Baghdad. But the John Rylands is an approriate starting place.

Built to enshrine free thinking and public access with the money of a Liberal cotton merchant by his Cuban widow, it co-operated enthusiastically with the Coalition's first initiative, a set of 130 international 'broadsides' which responded to the bomb in the vigorous tradition of 16th century Tudor pamphleteers. Encouraging these, Beausoleil drew unconsciously on a metaphor which the poet Muttanabi also used. He spoke of writers 'biting into the page' in defiance and anger. Muttanabi warned in his day: 'If you see the teeth of a lion, do not imagine that they are smiling at you.'

A John Rylands series of events around the broadsides in 2011 included a talk entitled Any Street, Anywhere by Sarah Bodman, the UK curator of the current exhibition and senior research fellow for Artists' Books at the University of West England in Bristol. Sorting through the exquisite little tributes, which use ash, blank pages, excerpts from the classics and scribbled messages, she calls them: "A resounding echo, a compassion for our fellow community of writers, artists, printers, booksellers, browsers and passers-by on al-Mutanabbi Street."

al-Mutanabbi Street One of the delicate 'artist's books' which are a testament to the world's determination to protect free speech

The tributes include much anger but also a gentleness which is equally powerful, for example in a correspondence which is fictional but based on the reality of the street during some of modern Iraq's worst times. The Welsh book artist Noelle Griffiths submitted Beloved Bashir, in which an ageing Baghdadi woman posts requests to her bookseller such as: "Please bring me a copy of the magazine Vogue. I want to remember what it feels like to be attractive."

Bodman says that the glory of the street was not only its rare reputation for free political debate but the availability of the sort of huge hotch-potch of publications which have made a similar name for places such as Greenwich Market or Charing Cross Road. The Iraqi writer Lutfia Alduleimi, whose first book was published by al-Jahiz printers on the street, echoes this. She says:

Who among us had not been enticed by the magical stacks of books on the pavement and in carts, or walked awestruck, browsing titles and sniffing the scent of the pages? Who could forget the pleasure of buying new books in the 1970s, or banned or xeroxed books in the nineties during the period of sanctions?

Others went to buy pencils, children's exercise books or comics, or just to have tea of coffee in one of the many cafes whose lineage was almost as old as the booksellers'.

The exhibition is at Manchester until 29 July, with free admission, and at the Newcastle Lit and Phil library in August, and will repay repeat visits because books keep being added. Bodman says:

One set of books will go to the national library in Baghdad within the next few years but we have no idea when the international tour by the others will finish. Probably never. Because this attack, part of a long history of attacking the printed word, was an attack on us all.

You can see Christopher Thomond's picture gallery on the exhibition for the Guardian Northerner here.

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