What is the United States of America?

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

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Front Album Cover of Corrupted’s 1995 Nadie

1.

Beginning one of his many books, 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes a preface. In the book I have in mind this is followed by another and that by yet another. This book of Kierkegaard’s is a book of them. A book of beginnings of books.

i live in san francisco.

I read. I write. I listen to Corrupted and the Melvins.

My aesthetic is the literary and the λόγος, and the zeitgeist of the longue durée–the auld lang syne. This aesthetic is the love of Des Esseintes and jewel-encrusted, murdered tortoises. Like Bernardo Soares, all I want to possess is the sensation of these words.

It’s their image—material and substantial like those scents and colors of the house of Huysmans’s protagonist—that might well be read in trace here.

I want to use them.

As Audre Lorde had said, at Harvard, “In what way do I contribute to the subjugation of any part of those who I call my people?”

As a dead white man once wrote yet another white man to have said about a clearly not altogether completely different question, that is the question, and I aim to see admonishment for infelicities.

As Grace Kyungwon Hong recently wrote, for dehumanizing disavowals.

For that Banana Republic, where all roads lead to a Rome of the worst in us all. If, in the end, there will be things leftover to use, far be it from me to discover them so. I am here to problematize the problematic. I leave it to my work elsewhere to come up with ‘positive projects’.

As Warsan Shire said, we can’t make homes out of human beings. Someone should’ve already told us that.

These city lights ever the countercultural moment, I live in the bay view, beneath the avenues built during the fin de siècle of San Francisco’s golden age. Outlying these avenues, I read the books of my intellectual heritage, the west, like an appalling manifest destruction. There’s no science in such catastrophic images. There is horror and subjugation. There are lies and murders.

We’d come to California to kill and conquer—as to the New World, to the Old World—to take. In philosophy, while not at the frontlines, this is no different. Its decadence has already revealed that structures of power are structures of thought—structures of theory, belief, and conviction.

Genocidal structures of no quarter.


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Jacques-Louis David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates (partial)

2.

I am a philosopher. My name is Aenesidemus, for this venture into being terse. I come to be known as someone who had come to be known as a philosopher and I will be forgotten much as they have been—with the little of their work there is it’s enough to note they were a skeptic and be done with it—and there, too, is affinity. The skepsis of the Greeks slew those philosophers for their ways—wrote their treatises about ways to give up their own theories let alone having to listen to the exhortations of the preponderant and domineering acolytes of others.

fuck right the fuck off.

To repurpose something profound published last year by Sara Ahmed—with an eye to recompense by discussing her perceptive and critical thoughts later this year, as a first debt as columnist, I think: “An affinity of hammers.”

To meet hammers. In the end, as Toril Moi wrote, even feminism’s aim is to abolish itself.

To fix this fucking shit and have been fucking done with it.

As Toni Cade Bambara wrote, “The job of the writer is to make revolution irresistible.”

Sublime and profound ideas.

I work to consider myself the consummate professional, in such regard. I believe no less than Dr. Cornel West tweeted just this last Valentine’s Day: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

I’m an actor of the university industrial complex, as I’ve heard and rather appreciate it called. I might talk the talk with the somewhat ‘best’ of them, I think, yes—I cited the references.

Power reflecting power. And, yes. Plato. It’s called a conversation. One is a part of it, and yet still it’s a thing, yes. Absurd, I know.

This column is bifurcated as a dialogue, and, so, reflects the writer’s interest in logic and the ideas of contradiction and dissent. The dialectic is pedagogical, heaving from critic-as-student to critic-as-teacher and back—helical.

In this rhetorical quality, it reflects my interests in learning and academia. I speak to learning and to teaching as Heidrun Friese spoke to the hotel and the guest, so to speak. Inasmuch as the set eye to phenomenology, existentialism, and the literary—as it is with Aristotle, the proliferation of ways of knowing goes hand-in-hand with that of the same of being.

As the laundry list, I discuss love, art, truth, justice, certainty, insanity, sovereignty, and elements of ethical persuasion. I explore literature and culture.


Digital StillCamera

Lagoa Henriques’ 1988 Fernando Pessoa statue

3.

“we’ve been devastated by the severest and deadliest drought in history — that of our profound awareness of the futility of all effort and the vanity of all plans.”

That is how Fernando Pessoa began The Education of the Stoic, which comes to us as fragments. History later found the manuscript in an old trunk. Pessoa was dead.

Seventy years earlier in 1851, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote down bleak notes on the “worthlessness and vanity” of existence, unless we strive in vain after distraction despite an abject condition, after transient impermanence, and spent the last thirty years of his life in quiet futility, alone in his house with small dogs. Pessoa drank himself to death. This drought they write of is quite the devastator.

Pessoa was an early 20th-century Portuguese poet and writer who wrote prolifically and haphazardly, and created no less than 60 distinct pseudonyms. Soares was one of them. Pessoa was an artist. He engaged in automatic writing, founded art movements, published in magazines, and held a respected position in Lisbon’s intellectual scene.

Pessoa lived a craft. Ophelia Queiroz, the love of his life, was several times greeted by the fictitious poet Álvaro de Campos instead of Pessoa during their fleeting courtship. He called his pseudonyms heteronyms, and they were identities for most of which he created whole biographies and histories.

They were ideal representatives of intimate and reflective writings.

Last year at a conference in the port city of Porto, off the coast of the continent and country of my maternal heritage, I’d discussed Pessoa’s work. At a philosophy conference, I explained the work of a writer. I described a desire to expand the philosophical canon to writers and minds that didn’t write treatises like Hume or critiques like Kant, yet exemplify those last shrieking lessons of what scholars like Wittgenstein and Feyerabend set down.

That there’s an entire world out there. That it means something, and always has and it’s all nothing new. Our ivory institution has simply ignored it, towering above like some autistic savant.

I aim to be a philosophical skeptic, as columnist. Like Aenesidemus, I will work to extrapolate on what the 20th-century thinks it found out: that finding things out is an open-ended conversation.

I am influenced, and aim to comment on all these past and westphalian goings-on. I make no secret that the relation between the west and the world today is of marked concern, as I aim to illuminate elements of pervasive and problematic ethical and political circumstances that find as their genesis the antagonisms and parasitisms of that relation.

To repurpose the name of an old skeptic from a ‘school’ contending language vicious, my thoughts will be set on the thought of conceptual and epistemic revolution.


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Screenshot of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 La Grande Bellezza (partial)

4.

I have ideas for the coming months, though everything flows. I’ll explore Carroll and Foucault on the mad, Kant and Wittgenstein on the conversant, and Ahmed and Spivak on the political. Boris’ Amplifier Worship and Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza might feature. I’ve also got hold of a study of the lives and loves of women poets and writers of the Caribbean, by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Cixous will inevitably show up in places. Los.

The involvement of the writer in culture is organic, and a part of how everything flows. If the past is gone, it is only here as the present. As you and I are. Culture is the multifarious and interpolated existence of myriad and idiosyncratic individuals—whether Deleuze lasts for days, or speculative realism dies the sudden, tragic death of the left behind, or Lorde points to the serious and deficient want of the righting of wrongs.

I want the righting of wrongs. I want the right rules. I want love and honor, not hate or fear.

Some contemporary views note that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is leading to his Politics, yet the Philosopher—Aristotle’s medieval sobriquet—was not under the odd impression that the most important goal in Greek life—in the lives of those with which he lived—was to be politicians. To think of it as such, is to neglect historicization. The Lyceum is not San Francisco State University.

Aristotle’s point, I think, if we’re bent to give it conceptual space to breathe, is at its most charitable along the lines we heard—from consciousness-raising group to art installation, from demonstration to deliberation—during the women’s rights movement and the modern revitalization of feminism.

If eudaimonia is anything today, it is that the personal is political.

This column is personal, in such a sense. Quite like Pessoa, that I am pseudonymous does nothing to sway this. This column is Aenesidemus as the terse columnist and critic. I’m already responsible for a series of dramatic and musical compositions—tragedies and songs. A columnist, however, is something to add. There’s a sense of relevance.

there’s things to discuss.

I’m under the impression there are a staggering number of wrongs to be addressed, if not redressed, about the world. There is structural, hierarchical, and hegemonic oppression. There is something to be said.

Culture is essential—as lesson and plan. The mantra for this column is that lives are always in the balance. The personal is political. Lives are always in the balance.

We philosophers of the west love our conceptual clarity, so emphasizing that finality, of necessity, there, modally, is characteristic. Emphasizing the lives is what’s overlooked.


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The Winged Nike marble statue c. 200-190 BCE

5.

lives are always in the balance.

Pessoa wrote The Education of the Stoic using a pseudonym he called The Baron of Teive.

The Baron is pure reason embodied in text and character. Due to that drought, Pessoa has the Baron writing us a suicide note.

The preeminent rationalist finding no guide for living because, the Baron writes, the first function of life is action: a wholly intellectual life is an existential contradiction.

To think is to create an interpretation of the universe, he writes, that is a mere hallucination.

There is a metaphor that illustrates what he means in a marble statue sculpted in Hellenistic Greece at the beginning of the century after Zeno began holding his school at the Stoa, and often identified as the most famous piece of the period.

One of its names is The Winged Nike. It’s a fantastical representation of the Greek deity Nike, the goddess of victory. The winged immortal stands tall and forthright, often appraised as forcing her way forward against a strong sea breeze to signal triumph.

This statue is a striking analogue because of this perceived posture and intent, which is reminiscent of the pride the Baron feels in his conquering of that Caesar of Reality by suicide, but also because the statue no longer has its head or arms.

The Baron writes of the simple egoism of the Greeks, their Protagorean man as measure of world, and that modern culture is imbued with a tragic complex of Schopenhauerian temperament.

The statue of victory today is without a head or arms.

Modern reason achieves victory over itself by its own act destroying itself, headless and senseless.

Inorganic and empty, Pessoa’s Baron commits suicide because reason describes only the reasoner.

The world is for the unreasonable and the inhumane. Reality is for the mad.

i am mad.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.

I’m going to do something about it.


July’s Accompaniments

1. Corrupted’s 1995 Esclavo off EP Nadie
2. Joyce Manor’s 2010 Five Beer Plan off EP Constant Headache
3. Dæphne’s 2015 Sharpness Is the Game I Play off EP Full Circle
4. The Melvins’ 1991 Boris off LP Bullhead
5. From Monument to Masses’ 2003 Comrades and Friends off LP The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Simple Steps

 

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The Ring Shout and the African Presence in America

In African American and or Black American culture the African and or ancestral presence is both visible and invisible. The ways to name what is Black/African American is in music and the infamous cuisine that has come to be called soul food. Yet, the production of highly consumed products of African labor and the descendants is more American than apple pie. For example, no one realizes the blue that appears in the denim that Americans wear so regularly, the corn they consume, the peanuts, soy, rice, the domestic tools, or the music that is deemed American can thank African labor. Those things are often highlighted during Black History month when America pays lip service to the numerous contributions that African/Black Americans have made to the consumption and wealth of the country. However, the spiritual and religious contributions are often absorbed in the Black church or the way in which funerals are called “home going services.” The ring shout is a spiritual practice that has roots in the Gullah/Geechee culture of the coastal region of the Carolinas and Georgia and is seen in various places of Black culture. It is largely visible during Church services but the actual ring shout as it has been since the first ships were brought to North America and resides in the coastal region of Southeast America.

The Gullah and Geechee people that inhabit the coastal islands of Georgia as well as, North and South Carolina are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people that were forced to inhabit these regions during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These island people worked the rice plantations, dyed garments with Indigo through techniques that the Africans brought from Yorubaland. These dying techniques are seen in the sacred dying practices known as Adinkra[i] in present day Ghana and Adire (the sacred dye practices of the Yoruba) with the largest concentration residing in present day Nigeria. The art of Adire which are associated with the Yoruba deity known as Osun/Oshun (O shoon)[ii]. The Gullah and Geechee people are also known for their basket weaving techniques that use the sweet grass of the coast.[iii] However, despite having drumming and drums outlawed from the Anglo/English Colonies of North America the rhythm and spirit of the culture did not die.[iv]

Instead, the Africans and their descendants had to find new ways to keep the rhythms alive. Therefore, stomping, clapping, and oral sounds were ways that the enslaved Africans could keep their musical, oral, and ancestral traditions alive while subversively appearing to acquiesce to their subjugated position. Yet, during and after slavery those who were the descendants of the enslaved and the newly emancipated were forced to assimilate to an unachievable standard of whiteness and respectability. Many who were enslaved and later emancipated were illiterate and therefore the culture was retained through oral history. Consequently, many who were enslaved were sold repeatedly and died with their history. Others as a form of survival often denied or erased their enslaved and African ancestry. While some in an act of defiance retained the oral lore and history that their ancestors retained despite the dehumanizing project of chattel slavery. Places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Louisiana are places where people can retain a large bulk of their African past. The Gullah and Geechee people are also a part of this body of historical retention.

The ring shout is the earth based ancestral practice that the enslaved performed in order to connect with spirit, remind themselves that they too were fully human and are spiritual beings, and to pay homage to their ancestors. Unfortunately, if It wasn’t for the work of the McIntosh County shouters,[v] Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust[vi],” Haile Gerima’s film, “Sankofa,” Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men and Their Eyes were Watching God or Luiseh Teish’s Jambalaya. African/Black Americans would not know that they have an African/Indigenous influence that does not align with Christianity.

The ring shout is a dance and song ritual that is performed in a circle that rotates counter clockwise. There is a lead singer that performs a call and response style of singing the participants respond as the lead calls out songs and rhythms are performed while the dancers rotate in a circle. There is a rhythm keeper who bangs a large wooden staff on a plank of wood which replicates the drums that were removed. Singers stomp and clap as the ring shout continues. The counter clockwise rotation replicates the ways in which Candomblé priests in Brazil[vii] perform during rituals, the Vodun of Haiti/Benin[viii], as well as priests of the Ifa/Orisa tradition in Yorubaland and Cuba.[ix]

Recently, cultural historian Rashida Bumbray has made it her mission to retain the oral, spiritual, and ancestral lore of the Ring shout[x]. Rashida Bumbray[xi], is a New York based performance artist that has studied extensively the Gullah/ Geechee people of the costal South east and the intricacies of the Ring Shout. Her installation “Run Mary Run,” was performed in Weeksville which is a former town located in Brooklyn that was the place where freemen and women of African descent lived after they were emancipated from slavery. Weeksville was discovered in the 1960s when a black historian that had a pilot’s license flew above Brooklyn and found the location. Since the re-discovery/reclamation of Weeksville[xii] there are cultural activities that commemorate the freed people that inhabited the town. Weeksville, unlike Seneca Village,[xiii] it remained intact because unlike Seneca Village it wasn’t turned into a park or paved over. Instead, it was never incorporated into the Brooklyn grid.

In addition to her installation “Run Mary Run,” hip-hop recording artist Common utilized Bumbray’s installation for his video “Black America Again,” which she (Bumbray) performs a solo in the beginning and then she and her troupe perform a ring shout[xiv].

Like many Black/African Americans I was taught and forced to ingest that we were enslaved, Lincoln freed us, Rosa Parks gave up her seat and now we are citizens. The human stain that became the ways in which blackness is quantified in this country is why many are forced to imagine their legacies before and during the Holocaust of the Trans-Oceanic Slave Trade. Nor could one imagine that we have a spiritual and cultural legacy that surpasses the ships crossing the Atlantic into North, Central, and South America or the various Oceans during the Global European expansion that brought Africans across the Pacific and Indian ocean during the same time-period. I use the term Trans-Oceanic because although I am focusing on American and the Trans-Atlantic my job is to also reveal/recover that the slave trade was not just the Atlantic but involved all the sailable bodies of water.

Instead, cultural anthropologists such as Bumbray and the breadth/celebrity of artists like Common people of African descent are reminded that we too have an ancestral/cultural legacy that began before our arrival on the shores of the Americas.

[i]http://carolventura.com/Adinkra.htm

[ii] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-25919537

http://www.enca.com/nigerian-artist-revives-ancient-art-tie-and-dye-cloth-making

[iii]

http://libguides.ccga.edu/c.php?g=282583&p=1882631

http://www.saveur.com/gullah-basket-weaving-charleston

[iv]

https://thisisafrica.me/lifestyle/drums-allowed-afro-rhythmic-mutations-america/

[v] http://www.geecheegullahringshouters.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxPU5517u8c

[vi] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104057/

[vii] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/09/16/216890587/brazilian-believers-of-hidden-religion-step-out-of-shadows

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCaXwCEYlLw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMwG6T0izKQ

[viii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy7q_m4sKqI

[ix] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38PReem1wE

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOJj_MNIBUg&list=PLlXj2wgxw0-8SXIE6eYnZFeoO4FxpEFZh

[xi] http://rashidabumbray.com/

[xii] http://www.weeksvillesociety.org/

[xiii] https://timeline.com/black-village-destroyed-central-park-6356723113fa

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMNyCNdgayE&t=1043s

 

 

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Braving the Days: What a Culture. What a Conundrum.

Photo Credit: Breck Brunson

I don’t want to do anything right now. I was born into a culture of the work-a-holic, the indentured servant, the slave with no wages, the wage slave and more currently, the hustler. You want to eat in America?  You want to go to the beach, and eat avocados and play sold out shows, you have to push your body to the brink. It’s not like that everywhere. Mexico invented the pastime of the siesta and Jews don’t work on the Sabbath. People need to rest.

And I don’t have to buy in to any pressure, now that I’ve worked almost half my life. I can take half days on Fridays and pull all-nighters to pick up with my deadlines if I want to sleep in, but I paid a price: my teens and 20s. While kids were partying, I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell books on tapes, reading, studying, traveling and developing.

I couldn’t get by like other kids who went to art school and worked 10 hours a week. I wasn’t privileged and worked to compensate.

A Grade A hustler, I am.

But you know, after 13 years, I’ve learned that it all means nothing unless you have a relationship with the world as an environment, as an independent entity. I take long walks and look up at the moon, and lately, I’ve been taking afternoons off the hike and go the beach (it takes effort to do this on the East Coast) – but not in a privileged way, on the contrary, it is all still for survival.

Not only does America push you to the brink at work, but at the same time it forces you to be “nice”, easy to get along with and compromising, while you win, succeed and standout. If you’re not likable, doors close. If you’re too confident, you’re a threat, if you aren’t attractive, you’ll “never get far.”

What a culture. What a conundrum.

I won’t buy in…because I’ve already paid. My mother asked me after I was published in the Village Voice what will I do if I hit my bucket list goals early in life. I told her, I’d go swimming for a few years……

Stage fright

Depression

Exhaustion

Lost Years

Lost Time

Learning How to Love

Eating What Sustains

Vitamins for Health

Garlic for the Heart

Moisturizers to Stay Young

Pedicures to Heal the Effects of Miles

Flat Shoes for the Knees

Reading Glasses for the Aging Vision

Light Makeup to Cover Dark Little Circles

Dinner Parties to Figure Things Out

Responses to Questions Because It’s What I Do

I still have a long way to go.

 

 

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Ideology in Politics

wes-bishop-painting
Painting by Wes Bishop.

 

On November 8, 2016 the United States did the unthinkable. On that day the US political system elected as the next president a billionaire real-estate mogul, and former reality TV star, whose major television claim-to-fame was a series dedicated to firing “disappointing” workers.

How did this happen?

No doubt this very question will preoccupy political historians for the remainder of time the US is a subject of study. Countless interpretations, analytical lenses, and pieces have already emerged crediting, or blaming, certain aspects of politics, economics, and culture for the rise of Trump.

Not all of these interpretations are of equal worth, however.

One explanation, particularly popular with moderate to liberal thinkers, is the idea that Trump’s rise can be credited to a “Post-Truth” culture. Yet, this interpretation, besides being false and ahistorical, does nothing to actually explain the rise of Trump, and in many ways obscures the real problems of our current political situation.

“Post-Truth” is a concept in political culture that describes a supposed lack of interest in facts and policies, and instead relies on emotional thought to inform political positions. Debate surrounds the “true” meaning of the term and its exact origins, but many attribute the term to the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In a 1992 essay for The Nation, Tesich decried the state of American political culture by arguing that the country had given up on finding out what was true, and was instead content with accepting false narratives that conveniently fit within preconceived notions. Tracing a line of development from Watergate to the Iran-Contra Scandal, Tesich wrote—

We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.

The allusion Tesich made was not hard to understand. In George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, readers were shown a world where government officials worked hard to rearrange reality daily. Yet, instead of doing it willingly, people had to be prodded, and then threatened by the state to rewrite what they knew to be the truth so that they were not challenging governmental power.

As Orwell writes in one scene—

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Orwell explained further by calling this mind washing “doublethink.”

“Doublethink,” he explained, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

In this way, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance strength.

In this way, Donald Trump is both sadistic billionaire boss, firing people for entertainment, as well as a champion of the working class. He is the defender of American Christian values, as well as a rich playboy who doesn’t play by the rules of polite society. He is a man who can stand in front of the world, brag that he has enough power to walk out onto the street, shoot someone in cold blood and get away with it, and still be described as caring about democracy, truth, and making a nation-state great (again).

This disconnect, this ability of his supporters and media outlets to jump wildly between diametrically opposed positions, makes it seem as if Tesich was correct. We are living in a post truth blighted hellscape. A barren place where facts are bombed out shells of buildings. Something appeared to live here at one time, we think, but no more. All that is left is a crumbling sense of the familiar.

As appealing as this argument is, it is a dangerous analytical lens to take for several different reasons.

First, it feeds into a false idea that Trump won the majority of Americans. In other words, by saying that Trump’s parade of lies won the day by convincing people to commit a societal mass lobotomy, we are giving the false impression that most American voters chose him.

That is simply not the case. Less than 25% of the electorate chose Trump. Also, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received close to 3 million more votes than Mr. Trump.

Democracy did not give us President-elect Trump. An outdated electoral system from early American history did. We need to remember this and repeat it often, because “the people” are going to be increasingly blamed for whatever nightmare awaits us post January 20th.

So, if we are going to blame the rise of Trump on anything, and we accept these basic facts, then we cannot blame his ascendancy on a failure of the masses ability to think.

Yet, to be fair, there was a significant number of people who did vote for Trump, and that number is telling in and of itself. So why? Why did so many people vote for Trump? And more specifically, why do so many people continue to vote based on seemingly irrational criteria like homophobia, climate change denial, and blatant racism?

By now the charges are well known. False consciousness! Obviously, that is it. There are “real” factors in politics, like economics, and then there are the “false” ones, like culture, religion, and social identities. Furthermore, the great intelligentsia of the internet says, if we just jettisoned this identity and post truth nonsense, and focused on “the basics” then we would be alright. After all, these wishy-washy feelings driving politics today just divides people.

This line of reasoning continues by arguing that for a left/liberal alliance to move forward we need to jettison this focus on identity, subjective opinion, and instead focus on the “facts” of our material existence.

Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, has recently argued as much in a New York Times piece saying, “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life…When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — ‘diversity issues.’”

Lilla received no shortage of criticism for his arguments, and rightfully so. This disparaging of identity politics speaks to a larger issue the American progressive movement, and liberalism in general contain. The idea that politics focusing on “economics” (that is the shape of social democratic programs and the level of benefits worker’s receive from capital) automatically leads to a total liberation of people is bunk.

Again, we can see this in actual historical analysis. Despite a post- World War II boom in the US economy, that did in fact grow a “middle class,” the US did not see an automatic expansion of liberties for marginalized people. That is why there was a Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, Gay Liberation, and Black Power. These would be today decried by economic progressives as useless “identity politics.” And that is the great lie that many “economic focused” liberals don’t want people to realize. Identity politics, at least those practiced by the left, are the continuation of civil rights, and it is often these movements that have made the most headway in the past decades in liberating people from various oppressive systems.

“But wait!” Critics could charge. “Why this collapsing of criticism of identity politics and post truth thought? Surely, there is a difference between acknowledging the need of continued civil rights movements and denouncing outright reactionary propaganda?”

To this question the answer is simple: no. The connection between decrying identity politics and the criticism of post truth politics is much closer than we naturally assume.

At the heart of the criticism of post truth politics is the idea that there is a singular reality which we must all agree upon, and that deviation from that singular truth produces demagogue monsters. Only when we have a singular sphere of communicative exchange, a wholly integrated and standardized public sphere, will democracy work. Or so the denouncers of “post truth” argue. As such, any view which radically challenges the way in which we see the world, in which we question the way political knowledge is gained, is suspect.

Avenues of communication that feed into this fracturing of the public sphere are therefore not just distracting, but are in fact dangerous to democracy.

Granted, there is a difference between a diverse media landscape, and just outright lies propagated to purposefully mislead people. But that is hardly new. Several of the pamphleteers in the Colonial Period, Yellow Journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, networks like FOX all traded in purposefully manipulating information for political purposes. In other words, there is no “post truth” period to American politics because there was never a time when emotions, lies, and propaganda did not factor heavily into popular ideas.

This realization directly challenges communication and media scholars like Neil Postman who argued in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that a decline in the public sphere happened at the time of mass media’s rise. Postman’s reasoning was that TV was an inherently irrational mode of communication due to its reliance on entertainment. “Americans no longer talk to each other,” Postman wrote, “they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

Printed word Postman argued contained an almost inalienable nature that forced people to be rational. However, this argument completely breaks down when we realize the internet, in large part, relies heavily on print.

Therefore, the argument contained against the internet in “post truth” outlooks is strikingly similar to that found in Postman and other critics of television. Democracy is impossible, they tell us, because we have created a technology that appeals to human emotion, instead of human intellect.

All of this, Postman, Post Truth, etc. is exactly what it purports to be against— baseless arguments that are poorly researched, sloppily reasoned, and reluctant to study politics as a historic process of human endeavor.

The primary issue with the post truth thesis is the belief politics is primarily an arena where truth is generated, that is it is a sphere of exchange where mass agreement is reached. This is typical in liberal thought, because it completely ignores the way in which ideology informs political action.

Politics is less about truth, and is much more a reflection of ideology. It is not so much an arena for agreement, and is instead a venue where ideals are expressed and action to change society taken.

Therefore, when Trump and his surrogates argue that “millions of people voted illegally” they are less concerned about the actual validity of that claim, and are instead expressing a political ideology of voter suppression. Instead of debating the validity of this issue, treating it as a position worthy of respect, we should instead oppose it outright. In much the same way that the Nazi Party of Germany argued that Jewish people secretly controlled the world economy, and had orchestrated Germany’s defeat, this outlook was unconcerned with “truth” and was instead a rallying point for a particular political ideal, namely a nation-state based on ethnic nationalism.

But that begs the question— Couldn’t a simple engagement, strong and continued, with these ideologies defeat them?

This is the plea of liberalism. It is based on a belief that a certain form of rationality is universal, and that through debate and education any person’s mind can be changed. But this outlook, in fact the very promise of modern American liberalism, is flawed. Instead of taking fascism, racism, and authoritarianism as serious challenges to democratic society, liberalism in the American state hopes to bury it via a complex system of checks and balances, and in civil society change it through an assimilation process that debates and modifies it.

But the only way this is possible is if we assume the ideologies of fascism and racism are not serious positions, but just confused potential liberals. The fascists just need patience, and eventually they will be convinced.

This is political arrogance, and it assumes democracy exists in a perpetual state that will never, can never, be overturned.

Trump is dangerous. His political movement, his allies, and those who enable him are a threat to not only present diversity, but the very future of free people. Democracy, as a way of life which embraces diversity, cannot tolerate ideologies that see diversity as perversions. Frustrated and decentralized by liberal democratic republics, like the one in the US, eventually fall prey to these forces through sheer chance. We saw this with Trump in 2016.

Whether or not this is merely a temporary setback to the left in America, or is the harbinger for a longer more repressive period remains to be seen. Yet, what can be said with certainty is that only through treating fascism of the “Alt-Right,” and the racism of Trump as an ideology which challenges democracy will we be able have any chance for success.

It is time we acknowledge this fractured nature of political ideology, and in doing so consciously choose ideologies that are dedicated to human liberation, instead of social oppression.

 

 

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