Review of Down These Mean Streets

I bought Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas shortly after I’d just finished reading all of Junot Diaz’s books. I’d read in an interview with Diaz that Thomas’ book was a personal favorite of his, so I was curious. In the vein of numerous other first works by male authors, the novel is a memoir-based bildungsroman. Covering his early childhood until his mid-twenties, Thomas’ protagonist is himself and like so many other such tales set in New York heavily features drug use, criminal activities and racism.

I found the lyricism that some people have accredited to the writing to not be as prominent as suggested. Thomas certainly captures the Spanish Harlem patois of El Barrio, however there are few and far between extended passages of beautiful writing or musicality. Furthermore the third component of lyricism, profound insight into the human condition, is also an infrequent feature.

Given Thomas’ character as an adolescent – someone that abhors reading ad foregoes completing high school in order to deal drugs, robs people and uses intravenous and other drugs – this should come as no surprise. In the closing chapters, after much maturation, this finally happens. This is not to say that insight into the cause of internal conflict is not fully flushed out, but that Thomas’ does this via short scenes (sans lyrical introspection) that is neverthless engaging and at times heart-breaking to the empathetic reader.

The predominant internal conflict for Piri is reconciling himself to himself in the racist milieu of New York in the 1930’s. Piri’s family is of Puerto Rican extraction. His mother is white, his father black. His siblings are able to pass not only as puertorriqueño but as white. However Piri’s skin color, however, leads others to view him as black. This is something that Piri has trouble accepting, and this leads him to numb the pains of being born into such a caste, to fight those that would keep him there and to search for inner knowledge and confidence by an extended trip from New York to the Jim Crow South.

Much of the tales told by Thomas are picaresque in nature, the chapter ending on some comic high note, however those with Brew – his black friends – often end without such levity. Brew, black as black coffee, plays Piri’s guide to navigating the racial divide in America and his position is one of resigned, but still angry, acceptance. He sings Piri part of a song he learned as a child whose content is about accommodating oneself to oppression by white people, contrasting the genocidal behavior of the whites to the Native Americans for fighting for what traditionally was theirs to the merely exploitative behavior that blacks faced. A discussion between Piri, Brew another mixed race youth, though one with a more privileged background that is currently in college, leads to further troubling reflections on Piri’s racial identity.

After Piri’s returns his bad behavior catches up to him. After having become addicted to heroin and engaging in a number of armed robberies, he is caught and ends up imprisoned in Sing Sing. This is a pivotal period for Piri and the last arc of the books is his slow development into someone able to embody emotional intelligence and rely on the new insights he gained from prison study. He studies with the Nation of Islam, though later rejects ummah for the less exacting Christianity that he was raised on.

 

Review of Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow

Gerald Horne’s book Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is an incredible account primarily on the relationships between the two countries mentioned in the title along with Cuba’s former colonial master, Spain. Horne’s account is not, however, a mere institutional history but one that illustrates that key role which enslaved and emancipated African Americans had in structuring attitudes and actions of the colonial Cuban government, the slaveholding Republic to its North and the center of Empire across the ocean to the East.

A large concern of the United States was that of a “black military republic” in Cuba that was sponsored by Britain. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was deeply concerned that London would “offer independence to the creoles, on condition that they unite with the colored government” in this Negro Republic “under British protection… and that “A Venezuelan general residing in Jamaica was to “take the command of an invading army,” which was to be “seconded” by an insurrection of the slaves and free men of color,” and thus with “600,000 black in Cuba and 800,000 in her West India Islands London will then strike a death blow at the existence of slavery in the United States (73).

The Long History of Interaction Amongst Cubans and American Negroes

Due to its prime ports and location, networks of trade and information were created between a large number of the States in Havana. Louisian, Mississipi and Texas were the primary buyers, however while slave markets closed in the United States due to abolition, they flourished in Cuba. Shipping now primarily to Texas, which was still a territory, Cuba experienced a boom in trade.

While all this was going on, in the halls of the Congress the Southern legislature hooted and hollered for annexation. Reading the speeches, yellow news article clippings, letters, diaries all depict a primal lust to aim, shoot and pull Cuba under the yoke of American capital and American style property management and enforcement. After all, American investment had dramatically increased as many of the Americans reinvested capital that was previously in the south to Cuba.

Cubans Considered by White Racists to be Lesser Humans

The Cubans, and for that matter also the Spaniards, were considered by the Americans to be less than white. In the racialist literature of the day, subscribed to by any politician of importance, the occupation of the Spanish by the Moors made them “not fully white”. Quoting Horne:

“U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniard were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba.”(25).

The Spaniards subsequent intermarriage with the Negresses brought from the Ivory Coast increased the rationale for their being inferior.

A large number of expeditions – filibusters – went in in order to claim property and spoils. Former soldiers accustomed to the horrors of the Civil War re-enacted their old jobs. Like Hell on Wheels, but if when Bohannon first rolls up he just re-enslaves the black crew with the help of the white present – who he says now gets paid double. Richard Gott, perhaps no surprise, writes a wonderfully journalistic description of something akin to this in his history of Cuba. U.S. privateers were able to do this primarily as it occurred during a period of intensive rebellion in Cuba. Slaves, Freeman, and Mulattos united against the Spanish colonial administration. Over 160,000 people were killed in the ten years uprising. The atrocious and widespread slaughter literally split the country in two as domestic rebels acted as an insurgent and constituent force alongside the shores America. As can be imagined, what shape the constituent force to take was of prime significance to American politicians, which represented the interests that investors had made into Cuban railroads, sugar mills, land and labor.

Unlike what was said in the halls of power, the writings of Cuban newspapers were often written in part to target American Negroes and contained a message that didn’t sanctify property rights but one of community control. The content of these messages was often presented in a manner that would encourage readers towards a pan-African identity. By carrying tales of lynching and profiles of people such as Frederick Douglass as well as more daring stories such as that of “The Mutinous Sixth” – a deployment of African American Soldiers that were preparing to invade Cuba in Georgia that suffered casualties by American racists for refusing to submit to Jim Crow segregation. In 1886, the year slavery was effectively banned, the first cigar factory was built in Tampa, accompanied by the arrival of about a million workers from Cuba and other lands touched by Spain.” (159). Yet while slavery maybe have been made illegal in the United States, this did not prevent those that had profited from it from finding places where they were able to return to their high ROI practices. This put the US in the perilous position of, basically, fighting to impose a racial order on an island that was considered “colored”.

White Nationalists Afraid of a United Soviets of America

Horne’s book doesn’t go into the much detail as to the Soviet influence on either Castro’s or the Communists in Cuba – itself split along Trotskyist, longstanding anarchist, and nationalist lines. However he does point out how vastly inflated as a cause for fear this was by the members of the United States’ Havana Bureau. Whether this was because it gave informants cause to receive bribes from the U.S. government’s “liason and administration offices,” people that among others Cuban patriots would later call “vendepatriots,” is uncertain. What is clear from the record is that “Cubanidad” and distaste for Jim Crow style white supremacy was an organizing ideology against White Supremacy. Citizens of Cuba and the U.S. paid each other homage to the struggles going on there in a coordinated series of marches, demonstrations and exchanges between committed cadres of organizers.

Domestic sympathies towards the Cuban Communist party by America Negroes drove home the fear that Soviets would spread across the southern tip of the country and radical property struggles would again take place. This fear flamed by the KKK and others wasn’t entirely without cause, as the people involved in this cultural and intellectual exchange would soon have an outsized role within the civil rights movement in the United States.

Cubanidad as an Ideological Enemy to White Nationalism

Horne tells the story of Havana’s holding lucrative “black vs. white” boxing matches, a practice then forbidden in the United States. Havana allowed Paul Robeson to sing to “mixed race”, “mixed couple” crowds that were drunk on Bacardi family products. These, however, are shown to be showcase moments by the new economic and political leadership.

The reaction to the Jim Crowism that the US brought to the region was swift. It was so repugnant to the people that a domestic response force soon composed itself to eject such a social order. Most of the J26 movement – which I write about more on here – were also composed of Black Cuban nationalists. After black political organizations were banned, “the Communists came to play an increasingly conspicuous role on both sides of the strais, with those on the island going to far as broaching “the idea of an autonomous state in Oriente” (239). Domestic unrest lead to U.S. and Cuban elites embracing military rule via Batista, however his darkness made some in America suspect and uneasy. While first embraced by American blacks, subsequent secret police actions against poor, “colored”, Cubans that had mobilized against American investment and the enforcement of Jim Crow rules when Black American businessmen were visiting for conventions made him soon lose his lustre. Private party delegations between the countries increased to study each other’s answer to the “racial question” and increasingly the Cuban people – both the poor the suffered the most as well as the elite which more often dealt with resentment over American influence – came to view the US as prohibiting the social structures most appropriate to a post-colonial export economy. When Castro finally did come to power, one of the reasons he was so welcome by African-American was precisely because his policies were against such racialized oppression.

Review of The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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I first heard of The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee in the source note of an academic journal article by George Ciccariello-Maher called Brechtian Hip Hop. The note provided a plot overview and stated that this text, about a black spy trained by the U.S. comes to recruit a number of gang members in Chicago to begin and spread a domestic insurgency, was formerly mandatory reading for CIA operatives in the 1970s. Given the zeitgeist, a few years after The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder had published The Kerner Report, which delineated concerns over rioting and Communism, such a work being produced seems apropos. On first learning of such a narrative, which is a variant of Happy’s story in my book Unraveling, I was somewhat bummed – yet also pleased to be able to learn from such a narrative. A few clicks later it was being delivered to me. A few more and I learned that the book was also made into a movie, which after reading the book and having watched it is, for the most part, felicitous to the original.

Dan Freeman is the “spook” of the book –  a play on the words meaning black person and spy. We learn through conversations midway through the book that he was in a Chicago street gang, the Cobras, as a young man and that while in college he was an advocate for a variant of Black Nationalism. He sits by the door as following an opportunistic senator’s push to integrate the C.I.A., he is the only one that is able to pass the rigorous testing regimen and is put into a position of great visibility so that visiting Congressmen and Senators can see the token black person hired for a non-sanitation or food preparation related job.

During the several years Freeman works for the C.I.A., he is described as having a dual life. One where he is a “good negro” that does all work beyond expectations at his job in Washington D.C. and the other a “hipster negro” that only exists once he slips in tail in New York. This is themes of masks and the social construction of identity is one of the main themes of the book. Freeman is always “putting people on” in order to meet the expectations that white people have so as to obtain social or political acceptance.

Dan leaves Washington D.C. in order to take a job as a social worker. Counterbalancing his behavior in this role as an “Uncle Tom,” one wholly deferential to the existent structure of white supremacist, liberal power, he also begins to organizing the Cobra’s into a militant, revolutionary organization. The comments that come out of Greenlee’s liberal characters at the dinner parties and community outreach foundation meetings Freeman attends and the divide between what he thinks and says are quite amusing. Freeman states how he feels more comfortable than the whites as they are actually less racist than the black middle class – which he sees as constantly struggling to be “more white” in their values, attitudes and behaviors than white people.

This disdain for the black bourgeoisie/middle class is another recurring theme of the book. Freeman’s psychological criticisms are akin to those voiced by Harold Cruse, as well as a number of other non-integrationist traditions. According to Freeman’s worldview, the “social worker” is less a means of helping empower communities and more a means of helping vent frustration over the conditions of the political economy away from rioting and toward more passive, less private-property damaging outlets.

In Freeman’s initial planning stages for domestic insurgency he is reluctant to try to recruit any members of the the black middle class to his cause. Following the beginning of the widespread civil disorders, they are described as one of the most outspoken groups delegitimizing the violence due to the fact that they are losing their “token” jobs over it.

Dan Freeman’s struggle to convert his childhood friend Dawson to his cause, who he sees as a potential asset due to his color and high rank in the police department, shows the irreconcilability of their two positions. While Dan sees freedom as the ejection of white political power and economic control from black communities, Dawson accommodates to it and has no trouble playing the jailor.

The novel as a whole, thankfully, never gets caught up in long, didactic passages as a number of ideologically motivated texts are often want to do. The Cobras transition from street hoodlums to disciplined cadre members leading five man teams to attack and harass the armed guard lacks any sort of crypto-catechism in conversational form, a la Ayn Rand, and the interpersonal struggles of Dan Freeman keeps him from being a one-dimensional character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Call me a Millennial!: A Critique of The Fourth Turning by Neil Howe and William Strauss

For almost a week several outlets in my news feed had headlines highlighting “Steve Bannon’s book” for understanding the current American moment. Described as a seminal text in Bannon’s political philosophy and the foundation for his 2010 documentary, I was curious. I dug a little further and found out that one of the authors, Neil Howe, had been the person who coined the term Millennial. I’ve long heard and used the term Millennial and viewed it as a description of the generation of people born in the early eighties to the mid- nineties. Reading The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny made me realize how wrong I was about this and has brought me to the view that the widespread adoption of the term is highly problematic. So problematic, in fact, that I’m going to make a conscious effort not to use the word and attempt to raise awareness as to why it should not be be used.

When Glenn Beck Takes Something Seriously, That’s A Good Indication You Shouldn’t

Perhaps the quickest way to show how intellectually bankrupt the term is is to look at the level of excitement  Glenn Beck has when talking about The Fourth Turning. After viewing this clip, to me it seems that Beck does not just view their work as history, but as Revealed Truth!

Beck has multiple episodes devoted to detailing Howe and Strauss’ work that details as to the significance of the saecula – the average span of a human life – the archetypal cycles within them and the psycho-social impact of their interactions. I’ve not seen these videos, but I imagine it is a further delineation of the philosophy of history which opens the book.

The Historians Wear No Clothes

H&S begin with an intellectual history that highlights numerous people that have declaimed history to be generational and circular. Citing and updating Classical Greek ideas and terms, we soon learn that the four archetypes of American History – which all have their another iteration in other national borders – are Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist.

These archetypes emerge from periods of crisis, such as war or revolution, that changes the spirit of the people due to their experience. While the collective action problem inherent in the upheavals of massive social transformation is certain to impact people’s consciousness, the historic component of the dynamic which H&S describe is piecemeal, Metaphysical and Idealistic.

History Matters 

H&S, like many others, locate the origin of “linear history” in The Enlightenment, and associate it with modernity and the State. They continue to say that despite the works of a number of eminent thinkers having created the most “cogent body of generations writing ever,” (tellingly all non-Jacobins) that this mode of thought fell out of favor while the more directional form of historical consciousness became hegemonic (63).

They import this into their account of American history, which is quite unusual, but more so due to the the method that the bring to bear on their account.

Quite simply, in Howe and Strauss’ account of America, there are very few actual people accounted for. Though masses are named and given qualities, for the most part there is little attempt to connect the qualities of the Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist into the historic conditions of the saeculum they are describing. For the most part all that we’re treated to is analysis based on movies or well-known personages that “somehow define the ages”. What’s missing is any sort of genuine political economy.

No Race, No Class, No Immigration in Howe and Strauss’ America

In H&S’s account of American history, slavery’s inheritance on the personality of the body politic writ large is marginal. Other racial and ethnic tensions have also not played a significant role in the development of the American Identity. Instead, from Slavery through Reconstruction through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era, the same four archetypes are in conflict over the direction of the political order – and yet racial conflict is largely glossed over.

Based on this “prophetic account of history” you would also never suspect  that over 59 million people have immigrated to the United States since 1965 alone from places very different from those that first settled. Since Howe and Strauss’ opening intellectual salvo is to connect the First Turning to the end of the Glorious Revolution, it’s worth noting that many millions of other immigrants have arrived from non-Anglo countries, an unmentioned fact in H&S account.

Social struggles for women’s rights, unions and the various repressions at home and oppressions abroad justified by the “Cold War” are other dynamics that apparently play a negligible role in the development of American Identity.

Why this is so is never clearly stated, instead we are presented with conflicts stemming solely from generational conflict. That they would not entertain other theories about the cycles of conflict is surprising given that a number of other historians and political economists support the basic notion of cycles in history…

Only Weak Thinkers Avoid Attacking Their Convictions

The idea of cyclical waves existing in human history is not solely the domain of those historians such as Ortega Y Gasset. Given that much of the first writings of man are economic in nature, receipts and double entry book-keeping, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it’s in this domain – political economy – that a similar trend has been noticed.

Commodity prices like the ones above, for instance, have been shown via the work of Nikolai Kondratiev and others to follow a secular, recurring cycle of peaks, recessions and crashes. Given that American’s live within a capitalist mode of social relations to produce their means of subsistence, these “economic” indicators have huge anthropological and political effects, hence why it is so surprising that labor and economic exchange is barely mentioned in this account of America’s past. The structural constraints imposed on the working class have actual corporeality, eight hours daily in economic relations limited by varying degrees of political agency – unlike Howe and Strauss’s idealist account. New technologies and new relations of political power cause massive social disorder and economic dislocation, however these don’t play a factor in the creation of “generational identities” such as Millennials, Baby Boomers, etc.

Contending Schools of Thought: Materialism vs. Idealism 

That the authors of The Fourth Turning don’t quote any of these “cyclical” schools that have recognized cycles of life within societies that have political economies informed by capitalist property relations is perhaps unsurprisingly, for reasons that should already becoming clear.

This is because for Howe and Strauss, the current generations of Baby Boomers, The Silent Generation, Generation X, Millennial are trans-historic substantive categories that subsumes all America’s class, racial, sexual, sexual preference, and many other differences. According to their use of the term, those born within certain date border inherently, all have the same experience.

When Are You Getting To The Part about Millennials?

With all of this in mind it becomes easier to understand how problematic Howe and Strauss’s term Millennials and why their “prophecy” should be seen as bullshit and those that cite them as inspiration should be resisted.

For one, it literally emerges from the entire web of bullshit that I described above.

Secondly that prognostication isn’t so good. And by this I don’t mean Howe’s Book Millennial’s Rising: The Next Great Generation, about which one Amazon reviewer wrote the following: “The book was written BEFORE any of the predictions advanced could have happened and MISSED many of the things. I thought it was a real up-date and it was not.”

According to The Fourth Turning, Millennials are on track from which there is no escape to be a generation that sacrifices under the auspices for austerity. The way that we prepare is not as a class of people recognizing and acting upon their material interests, but to revert to tribalism. Return to classic virtues, expect for the collapse of public support mechanisms. Look to your family for support. Etc.

More than just focusing on increasing one’s self-reliance and forgetting about the “others”, “millennials” as a class ought to approach the crisis period by just  “going with it” and “prepare ourselves for it” – a message with some really weird echoes across history. Considering that most of the issues that “millennials” face all stem from historical capitalist relations, this is a big point to miss.

Wait, So Millennials Is A Crypto-Facist Term?! 

Indeed it is.

“The Fourth Turning” is a prophecy that a mythic, inner- conflictless country during a time of some outside conflict, generalized economic depression, massive natural catastrophe, or some other “panic” inducing behavior that prods changes in the normal acceptance of the status quo.

That said – I appreciated their prose. And found their brief remarks against Fukuyama to be insightful. Despite being risible epistemological sophistry, it was compelling! Furthermore, as someone that has training in the theory behind and therapeutic practice of Hellinger Constellations I found their writings on the inter-general interaction to be genuinely insightful and aligned with my own training in that field. Yet in the end the book is a rallying call for American Facism Lite™. The parts of American that it silences in its Prophecy is indeed the very foundation of Americanness. And it’s only through realizing this, that such cycles become less something that individuals must personally buttress themselves against or and instead something that we account for and address as a species-level.

Review of The World of Sex

I’ve read most of Henry Miller’s work but hadn’t heard of his composition entitled The World of Sex until recently reading The Selected Letters between him and Anais Nin. Impulsive Ariel, of course, jumped onto the internet, set my web browser to Amazon and two dayed it. Both delivery and in time spent reading it.

The World of Sex is an extended essay written at the time that Henry Miller’s work was being censored from publication, importation or sale of his work in the United States. He was becoming a cause célèbre in France, where he’d wrote much of his early work. However in puritanical America a number of graphic depictions of sex lead to suppression of his work. A number of copies made it into the US, making his book literally an underground phenomenon until his work was finally deemed not categorized by the legal definition of pornography, however this dynamic caused Miller much consternation and a cause for deep reflection on what sex can mean to the individual as well as the relationships between sex and art, sex and fiction, and sex and society.

As one would expect given his oeuvre, Miller tells the story of how he came to have a number of his views on sex and love through a recounting of his personal narrative. Describing his infatuations and frustrations from the vantage point of decades of distance, not to mention much internal and psychological research, provides the necessary detached frame that allows him to describe impact these impulses and urges being contained had on his – and indeed all peoples – development. Because of these constraints, be it social taboos or ideologies and religions which seek to shame the body, he comes to see these as invalid for they vastly limit our knowledge of others and ourselves.

Society takes much of the brunt of Miller’s animosity, it is an assemblage of conflicting messages that engenders neurosis is listened to. Real truth is the self, Miller believes and shows through his life and work. By rejecting those as a means for guiding oneself and allowing the internal direction one feels to fully take hold – be that in the pursuit of sexual conquests to gain self-knowledge or through living something other than the typical “get married, work hard, follow your dreams leads to failure” mantra then great things start to occur:

Our laws and customs relate to social life, our life in common, which is the lesser side of existence. Real life begins when we are alone, face to face with our unknown self. What happens when we come together is determined by our inner soliloquies. The crucial and truly pivotal events which mark our way are the fruits of silence and solitude. We attribute to chance meetings, refer to them as turning points in our life, but these encounters could never have occurred had we not made ourselves ready for them. If we possessed more awareness, these fortuitous encounters would yield still greater rewards. It is only at certain unpredictable times that we are attuned, fully expectant, and thus in a position to receive the favors of fortune. The man who is thoroughly awake knows that everything “happening” is packed with significance. He knows that not only is his own life being altered but that eventually the entire world must be affected.

Much of the many underlined passages that I have in Miller’s work relates to these moments of revelation – be it as it relates to friendship, lovers, the role of literature in society or something else. It saturates his fiction and here too, such insights appear. In one section on page 33, Miller describes a deep spiritual relationship to numerous authors that I’ve too suggested other people spend time with. Their stories, their vision, their analysis, their dynamic tension, their message, their… “X factor” was something that made it worth’s one attention to read them as well as it makes your inner vision that much more expansive.

A quote of Miller’s

There are comments Miller makes about the sexes that are open to being considered misogynistic. For instance while describing the archetypical psychological aspects of male-female sexual and romantic relationships he states the following:

“A man is usually plagued with all kinds of disturbing notions with regard to love, sex, politics, art, religion and so on. A man is always more muddled than a woman. He needs woman if for no other purpose than to be straightened out. Sometimes it takes nothing more than a good, clean, healthy fuck to do the trick.”

I’m not going to place what he says for the women here lest I seem to be endorsing it outright, but having had a lot of experience with women I think that there is some truth to it. Obviously it doesn’t apply to all, just as the above need not be the truth for all men, however I would largely agree with the above statement and feel that much of what he says is true even if not universally so. Miller, certainly, didn’t place himself fully within this mass, instead identifying himself with the “man of genius,” who through his work or by personal example, seems ever to be blazing the truth that each one is a law unto himself.

As someone versed in Miller’s work I found his reflections on his own writing to be particularly rewarding as it matched much of my memories of them. I’ve only recently begun to remind myself of him due to events in my life, but when I read this, his letters and passages like the below it all came back to me:

The Tropic of Capricorn represents the transition to a more knowing phase: from consciousness of self to consciousness of purpose. Henceforward what metamorphoses occur manifest even more through conduct than through the written word. The beginning of a conflict between the writer who is resolved to finish his task and the man who knows deep down that the desire to express oneself must never be limited to a single medium, to art, let us say, but to every phase of life. A battle, more or less conscious between Duty and Desire. That part of a man which belongs to the word seeking to do its duty; the part which belongs to God striving to fulfill the demands of destiny, which are unstable. The difficulty: to adapt to that desolate plane where only one’s powers will sustain one. From this point on the problem is to write retrospectively and act forwardly. To slip is to sink into an abyss from which there is no rescue possible. The struggle is on all fronts, and it is ceaseless and remorseless.

For fans of Miller as well as those that are interested in essay’s on sex, art, and social matters I highly recommend this book.

 

Review of Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

One section of Master’s Thesis research included legal analysis with politically chilling effects upon anti-lynching and leftist movements in The United States of America from Harper’s Ferry to the late 1960’s. The way in which the law laid force upon the bodies that broke with expected behavior and the means by which police facilitated “corrective” behavior for these violations differs drastically. And dialectically. To suppress suppress either labor, racial and leftist political struggles is to repress the three progressive aspects of society that have been driving emancipatory ideas and practiced encased in institutions. Because of this, of course I read Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill.

Hill’s history has a pleasantly journalistic feel to it. The main characters are of course detailed – the defendant – whomever she’s describing in that section – and the plaintiff – the State in the place that they were arrested – are both described and all their relationships therein. Who were those involved with the crime, what brought them to where they were right before they just were arrested, arraigned, transported, processed, jailed, for days, jailed, for months, jailed, for years, then brought to court, etc.etc.

It combines this description of their time and those around them with legal exegesis of the components of the case. This combined with local socio-political factors involved in such cases, such as the manner in which popular movements sought to impress their influence upon the courts, had a number of legal implications on social movements involved with race, class and/or labor struggles. While Sacco and Vanzetti are name dropped in the highly underrated, very funny movie War On Everyone with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Pena. Anyway…

 

The book is organized around several dramatic cases, starting with John Brown’s trial. From this heavily police involved form of repressive behavior the the narrative goes to where the law played a less involved roll. Lynching throughout the south in the United States was a true horror that kills thousands of African Americans. Police slowed their roll on the road towards justice and would often falsify or forge documentary information, not intervene while militant bigots exercised their force upon them and, well, all around oppressed them.

Racial, Labor and Leftist social justice warriors – a term that ought be associated with esteem – sought to impress their demands that the state more justly apply it’s purported universalism, an inherently conservative position. The other says the state is unjust and wants to replace it along democratic, centralist lines rather than plutocratic ones – the preconditions for the most active ire. Labor wants the state to join its side in demanding more benefits but are not connected to the Leftists either because of lack of class conscious or lack of practical use value in linkage, a serious consideration to make considering the effect that associating with Reds could have on your work life.

While John Brown clearly engaged in the behavior he was charged with, the obverse is true of the Haymarket Martyrs. Their case spawned a holiday celebrated nearly everywhere in the world except the USA – May Day. If you’re not familiar with the case, you should look it up. What I found interesting as though Hill does not spend much time on the material evidence, of which there is none, and instead writes about the majority-immigrant leftist responses. Of course every people has a culture, but that of Chicago – the Second City, was unlike many others due to the habitus brought over from the German revolutionaries. Gymnastic, parading, militant Anarchist culture practiced by Germans and a number of other stocks from across the shore shocked the sensibilities of the local bourgeoisie.

After an incident that was, essentially, the pretext for the public execution of the Opposition Leadership Anarchist newspapers fought not just to save members but leaders. Newspapers which shared workers stories about their conditions, pay, bosses and other things now started to include writing from those inside. Rather than becoming devotional, religious character associated with sublimity their writings subverted the abolitionist martyrs sharing stories and expressions of romantic, sexual love. Anarchist newspapers published the love letters of the Chicago anarchists and their wives and girlfriends, another practice that was taken up by most socialist defense campaigns.

Hill’s history ends with the equally tragic tale of the Black Panther’s Party. With an emphasis on the Party’s organized defense apparatus raised to support George Jackson, Hill shows a man imprisoned due to political caprice rather than justice. Like The Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti, his writings behind bars and public adoration of Assata were used as gristle to further help people find sympathy in their story. Having recently read their published letters and accounts – I get it!

All these and more arrests and trials forms responses with historically dependent forms of action. Organizations along class and/or racial/ethnic alliances were highly limited by place, history and the interests and powers of the state and local elite. In some cases the popular struggles were able to save the subject of their organization. Other’s no.

Hill’s history shows radicals creating interconnected networks of protest and resistance activity as well as volunteering time and donating money for massive fundraising undertakings that spanned the globe. Success in obtaining government guaranteed rights often depended on how loud and disruptive supporters could be to the normal functioning of government.

Mixed in is to this journalistic, documentary history are comments pulling together some of the themes evident in today’s world:

“Once admired as the heritage of manly individual freedom, Puritanism in the 1920s became associated with the Ku Klux Klan, along with fundamentalism, racism, capitalism, and prohibition.”

The heritage of many organizations racism persist in various ways. And yet to point this out is to become a public persona non grata. Example K:

Example on the opposite side? Trump the tee-totaller and Sacrosanct “States Rights” Sessions just did a 180 on over over a decade of federal drug enforcement policy.

These broader points build and intersperse Rebecca Hill’s account. Along with the legal proceedings, are a few interesting asides as well – such as The Red and the Black being George Jackson’s favorite novel.

Her conclusion does not lay out a platform upon which a group might be able to exercise their collective social power in order to achieve this, nor should she have to. The conditions by which that they would need to be changed would always depend upon the locals activities. What she does, however, is provide a powerful ethical imperative:

“The capacity to imagine a different world might begin with the ability to refuse to accept the characterizations of people who were willing to recklessly go against the rules of the society in which they live as wicked, misguided, wrong, foolish, or criminal. It is much harder to see the face of the “handsome sailor” on an imperfect human than it is to accept the underlying message of the modern-day nation-state that the only real heroes are the cops and soldiers who protect “us” from the rest of the world”

Review of October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

 

Based on a number of recommendations and awareness of his political bent, for quite some time I’ve been intending to read the science fiction writings of China Midvale. I’d yet, however, to get around to doing so when I saw that Verso Press was holding a contest to promote his new book  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. I submitted an entry and sure enough was one of the lucky winners of a free signed copy of this work of non-fiction.

Excepting events in America, the buildup to and aftermath of the Russian Revolution is probably my most read about world historical event. I’ve read books solely on the subject written by those that were present, such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as well as essays by Emma Goldman and Victor Serge and, of course, Lenin’s Essential Works. I’ve read a few left and right wing histories published after the 1990s as well. I share this to establish if not a specialization of knowledge on the issue, than at least an above average familiarity with the events one would expect on such a subject. Anyway, to the book…

As a whole October is a very different creature from most of the texts that I mentioned above. This, however, is not necessarily bad. Trotsky’s writing on this period is simply magisterial and Reed’s journalistic descriptions of the sundry meetings unrest are at times nail-biting. These men had clear agendas that were intimately tied to the events that they were describing. Mieville, it seems to me, is writing this as a means of popularizing knowledge about the events in Russia and trying to do so at a distance. Because of this, as well as what I believe is a desire to avoid getting caught up in the debates of that time through extended focus on particular persons/issues it lacks some of the same passion. And yet no matter what side of the political spectrum one is on, I feel that this could be appealing to even those that aren’t Reds. I expected some sort of propagandistic asides peppered throughout the book prior to reading it, but none were there.

I could see myself assigning this book for a history class as not only does he do such an even handed job, but also as there is a glossary of terms in the back that would assist those not versed with the terms of the revolution. After a very brief historical context, Mieville begins the Story of the Russian Revolution in February, following the first revolution. It closes eight months later, in October.

Instead of highlighting an identified-with hero (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,etc.), Mieville focuses on the sufferings of the soldiers being ground up by the Kaiser’s troops, the unrest of the peasants, the plight of the industrial workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the incompetence of the Kerensky government, the rifts between the socialist parties and within the armed services. In this Mieville does a great job and consistently uses the words of those he’s writing about. As a means for creating tension, however, this is not a great technique. Since the only real character development is that of the people of the city that once paid little heed to the Bolsheviks to then viewing them as representative of their political will – I found this somewhat disappointing as well. Not that the anecdotes aren’t fascinating or the style of writing isn’t good, however my familiarity with it all made me hope for something that this wasn’t. As such I’d say that this was more for those that were unfamiliar with the topic.

Review of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller

On the inside cover of the used copy of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953 is an inscription that has been covered over with black permanent marker. Dated December 1987, it reads

Dear Thom,
In some ways we will always be together.
Love,
S.

Those familiar with the life and works of Anais Nin and Henry Miller would no doubt not be surprised by such a sentimental dedication being written into its pages, and made an amusing start to my reading this 395 page edited selection of these two literary luminaries letters. I chose to read these letters, which range in length from 1/2 to 33 pages, following a reflection on a discussion.

As you can see from the below photo from my library…

#Truestory: I #binge #books #henrymiller #litlife

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I’ve a long history of affection for Miller’s autobiographical oevre. Now that I’ve read enough of Art and Artist by Otto Rank, a psychologist who actually plays an short but important role both as an inspirer to both and lover of Nin’s, to know the word I’d even go so far as to say that he was, in Rank’s terms, the artist after which I’d apprenticed myself.

Missing from the picture are the journals of Nin’s that I’ve read from the same period when she was first introduced to Miller. I’d first read two of her multi-volume journals while in Copenhagen, Denmark, occupying time as rain made the wide city unwelcoming. My host, a family friend, had just smoked some buds from Christiania, put on some chaotic but oddly calming jazz music while writing a paper on import tariffs effects on the fishing industry of the country and then suggested I occupy myself with what was on his shelf since he had no television. I perused it, picked up her, and began literary journey of my own as the recordings of her inner life were so compelling and the man about which she felt so ecstatic about so intriguing that after that bingereading I knew I had to have more.

In the letters collected here they are at first merely two people with deep passions to be recognized as literary artists. The share the writings that they’ve been working on – in Miller’s case Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn while in Nin’s it was her early childhood journals – and give each other reams upon reams of feedback, discuss art, and a variety of topics from the banal to the esoteric. A note in the introduction, in fact, points out that the roughly 400 page collection is but a partial fragment as a number of the notes – sometimes two or three a day – were lost and that a sizeable amount of material was excluded so as to make this collection a “best of”. Anyways. Though both were married, Miller and Nin soon became lovers after meeting. Nin also explores lesbianism with Miller’s wife, June. Anais’ husband, well he’s oblivious to it all. A banker, he leaves for a short period and this gives the two of them a few weeks together. The time that they share during this brief affair become grist for more and a growing, profound appreciation for each other. Since Miller is too poor to afford to keep a home with Nin as he’s unwilling to take on non-literary work he is not able to ever “set them up” as he so wishes. Amusingly enough in fact, Miler relies on Hugh for money to live, though not directly but by that which is given to him  by Nin. Here, for example, is one of the many delightful passages that Miller writes:

Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Every thing I do and say related back to that… I say this is like a wild dream – but it is this dream I want to realize.

It’s not just as human expressions of love and longing that makes the collection pleasurable. Alongside the star-crossed love narrative are the reflections of two genius writers that struggle to find markets for their works. My book is peppered with underlines to mark great turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. No surprise given that this was a period when both were each producing significant works. One of those significant works, in fact, I learned about for the first time while reading this book. The World of Sex is a Penguin Modern Classic that despite having read all of those books from New Dimensions and Grove Press that I’d never heard of.

Those familiar with Henry literary work will be pleased to find a number of the kaleidoscopic collisions of thoughts in the form of beautiful flourishes of phrase and insight characteristic of Miller at his creative height.

The latter third of the book the romance has ceased to be described. Following a series of events – which I describe in the close their letters and lives turn from lovers to an exemplar friendship. Such a friendship does not come easy, however. A number of letters contains long and heart-rending accusations and cold, but insightful recriminations flow back and forth. The romantic love subtext fades from their exchanges, but they still clearly love each other.

Henry’s final break with Nin comes over her haven taken on Rank as a lover. While there is no direct statement of this by Henry, the pattern of behavior that he follows for a while hints at his pain. Had he the courage to admit the source of his pain, to overcome it and thus not keep distant from her is an interesting exercise in “what if”. While they both found professional acclaim and a financial stability form their work – I can’t but help wonder – a la La La Land’s lovely and yet heart-rending ending – whether or not they would have found greater happiness had pride not prevented it.

 

Review of Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds


As part of my professional development as a Creative Director, despite my title of “Creative Strategist”, I decided to read a book by the Chief Creative and Brand Strategy Officers of Sapient Nitro, a very large brand and content marketing agency. Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds, written by Gaston Legoburu and Darren McColl could easily have been one of those shamelessly self-promotional type of works, which seeks to show in book form a number of client successes and merely hint at the type of research and creative work that goes into the marketing projects they manage. While they certainly do include a number of their success stories, this is done primarily to illustrate the developmental and publishing process related to “storyscaping”.

To put this new form of marketing action the books begins with a delineation of the power of human narrative going back to the time of man when we sat around fires and told each other stories to distract us from the fear of animals and tribes surrounding them. In reviewing the elements of short narratives I found myself recalling much of college elective course in Storytelling. This is actually a knowledge set that I’ve found myself consistently drawing on in my ideation for Fractl, which I find amusing as after I’d decided to take it a number of people said that this was something that’d I’d never use. Following this the authors provide an overview of the various ways that the internet has changed the development of effective business to consumer marketing communications. They point to a digital/traditional divide that exists in marketing and are even handed about it saying that while the latter still has its place, it’s due to the dominance of virtual worlds for mediating decision-making processes and the more number of contact points with customers that it’s something that companies neglect at huge potential risk to their bottom line.

The application of Joseph Campbell’s ethnographic and literary/mythic concepts related to the hero’s journey was, for me, surprising but also sensible as it’s appropriate for relate the product of a brand to the hero’s quest. It frames desire as, well, heroic self-development rather than personal satiation.

The recent Pepsi television ad that has been receiving much, deserved, flak for its social insensitivity is a great example of this. In the video while a heroic goal is met, the cessation of social strife stemming from systemic economic and racial marginalization and oppression, the cause for it – mutual enjoyment of Pepsi – is, well, stupid.

A more appropriate example of such heroic help is provided in the analysis of campaigns that SapientNitro did for a UK gambling company and a ski resort. For the gambling company they were able to apply UX principals to their app – there’s always a co-constitutive relationship between marketers and producers – such that they were able to provide an improved “excitement” level for bettors. For the ski resort they were able to consultancy that would lead to investment in digital photography equipment and smart chip technology so that guests were able to share their experience and thus encourage the most convincing form of marketing – word of mouth.

By “building worlds” the opportunity is created for people to connect with brands in immersive and cooperative ways. With the emotional responses to these “Experience Spaces” that lead to sharing as the goal, consumer research helps improve the response and helps to build brand identification and loyalty. At this point Legoburu and McColl outline relationship between the steps leading from brand strategy and product positioning to an organizing idea and experience space that leads to the “storyscape”. They’re clear to point out that this is not a linear path but a conceptual totality that adjust to the many variables which exist within consumer insights and their purchasing journey.

Part two of the book switches tracks to focusing on how it is that an organization’s purpose can be clarified, uncovered and applied in the office and in marketing to increase brand value. The purpose is something that Legoburu and McColl say is not found from talking with the president of the company but an internal assessment of their operation due to the fact that their can be an excessive focus on profits on the part of management such that they lose sight of what they are actually delivering. Lest this seem esoteric, let me provide an example given in the book. Whereas Hanna-Barbera’s leadership defined themselves as purveyors of cartoons, Walt Disney conceived of themselves as providing family entertainment. Because of this wider scope of their operations, Disney was able to rapidly diversify their productions into other profitable areas while Hanna-Barbera slowly stagnated.

The chapters Walk the Walk, Insight to Desire and In Their Shoes, all provide an outline for how a creative, marketing department can transform various forms of research and data points in order to better understand the typical consumer narrative. For someone like myself, who is familiar with Marxist and Freudian interpretations of social and commercial activity, the book reads like a bowdlerized Marcuse with aphoristic rather than baroque formulations. Lest there be some confusion on my evaluation of the book here, this is a compliment to the authors. The author’s discussions on marketing mix modeling, adaptive worlds, and their relationship to the epistemology of customers is, I dare say, incredibly insightful for determining how to influence behavior and maximize on opportunities. This is a great book that I marked up significantly and I definitely fore see myself revisiting in the near future.

Review of I Am That I Am: Uncovering the Truth of the Mind, Body and Spirit

To be honest I would not have purchased I Am That I Am: Uncovering the Truth of the Mind, Body and Spirit based on its cover or back matter. When something claims itself a #1 bestseller but it is clearly not I am suspicious, but not in a way that makes me want to investigate it. The back matter shows me that the author has a similar path as my father and other superlatives made me similarly wary. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a read on someone special’s suggestion and found myself greatly rewarded as a result.

One of the aspects of the book that I found engaging was the pleasant simplicity of the prose and concepts container therein. Dr. Michael’s descriptions of a wide variety of psychological states, the causes for their crises, analysis of components of the ego, etc. align with similar, more scholastic readings I’ve done. Yet it is presented in a way that engages the reader to be a participant in his excavations of human motivation and the Higher Self (not his term) moreso than mere exegesis of the history of those concepts in various schools of thought (a la Becker). There are multiple instances of hypnotic writing therein that are intended to get the reader to explore their own embodiment of love and fear-directed thinking and behavior (Michael’s terms).

By giving in to feelings of guilt or shame or having an ego that controls rather than a more conscientious form of mind-body-spirit co-management psychic disequilibrium starts to be create. During this period crisis can be relieved or, more often, deepened as the internal contradictions become intensified. But “What happens when the reality that you created becomes too much for you to bear?” Dr. Michael asks and responds with, “You sedate yourself with something stronger to completely alter and escape from your perception of reality.” This can take the form of self-stimming in many forms, addiction to television, gaming, books, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Freud designated this tendency pattern repetition. While Dr. Michael does not use this term specifically, he does point out that “The experiences that you did not learn from lead you to continuously repeat the same reality, resulting in guilt, pain and limitation.”

It’s this focus on limitation and examination on how the heart hardens and contracts through examples that sets this books apart from others. While I’ve been studying psychological development and various disciplines to achieve personal empowerment, I’ve often found the discussion either too metaphysical or too clinical. This makes sense as the purpose of the course readings and participatory, experiential based practicing of those materials in groups and one on one settings was to impart technical training. However, the reformulation of the material here is oriented more towards being a component of a spiritual practice.

Returning to power

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This is evident in the fact that each chapter ends with an overview and an affirmation. Besides the trace-inducing writing, there are also multiple points where you are encouraged to say aloud certain phrases. While I read this from cover to cover, this is also one of those books that you could simply look through the chapter list to find places to speak to certain areas in your life that are causing one to stray from Love and Truth, for it’s when one doesn’t operate from those perspectives but from Fear that profound internal and external problems begin to occur. By running from pain you lose the opportunity to learn from it and from that power is returned to the self. To quote my father, one must face, embrace and replace the survival messages that emerge from certain periods in our life that become no longer beneficial to our innermost needs.

In close I think it’s worth mentioning that after reading the book I engaged the counseling services of someone who’d studies with Dr. Michael. One of the components of the session was to repeat the affirmations with passion, in a similar manner that experiential psychologists would but with physicality included. This combined with other reformulations of previous traumatic experiences was a good reminder that living a happy life is often not nearly as complicated as our ego’s would like us to believe.

 

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