Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ag plé Durrell san Asilomar

Go iontach, thosaigh mé an mí Iúil ag caith mo seaicéad. Go nádurtha, mbeadh seo go hionduil anseo agus ansin i nÉireann. Ach, ní bhíonn sé i gCalifoirnea Thuas anseo.

Ina theannta sin, chuaigh mé agus Léna go hAsilomar in aice leis an cathair na Sleibh ar an Rí i gCalifoirnea Lárnach. Tá ionad cruinne ag imeall An Tuaisceart ann, go fírinne. Fhán muid ina óstan ar feadh an seachtaine leis fiche duine a plé "The Alexandria Quartet" le Lawrence Durrell

Is deacair a labhairt go raibh fuar beag orm roinnt uaireanta ansiud. Is maith liom an aimsir éagsúla ann. Shiúil Léna agus mé ar an claddagh, nuair a bhí ceo, agus nuair a bhí té.

Ith muid leis mic leinn eile i gCarmel dhá uair agus mé leis Léna amháin i Coill Chúin fós. Is maith liom gach trí bhéile (agus fíon, gan amhras, ar bealach Clos Pepe). Bhí mé comhra agam leis an lucht cliste, freisin.

Is dóigh liom ádh a dul go bhfuil siad imithe agus iad go obair leo. Tá mac leinne mo mhac níos sine ar an hOllscoil Mhac Eoin na Tailte Dearg anois; grádaithe Léna sísean féin. Ní chuaigh mé ansin, ach mhúin mé ansin ag an Ollscoil...b'fhéidir, féadfaidh mé aríst an lá amháin.

Discussing Durrell in Asilomar.

Wonderfully, I started the month of July wearing my jacket. Naturally, this may be normal now and then in Ireland. But, it's not in Southern California here.

Furthermore, Layne and I went to Asilomar near the city of Monterey in Central California. The exact location's on the edge of the North, certainly. We stayed in a lodging a week with twenty others to discuss "The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell.

It's hard to say that I was a little cold sometimes up there. I liked the different weather there. Layne and I walked on the seashore, when there was fog, and when there was warmth. 

We ate with other students in Carmel twice and I with Layne alone in Pacific Grove as well. I liked all three meals (and wine, by way of Clos Pepe). I had conversation with a smart set, too.

I feel lucky to have gone and joined them. My older son is a student at Johnston Center at the University of Redlands; Layne graduated from there herself. I did not go there, but I taught at the University there; perhaps I may again one day.(Photo/ Grianghraf: an tra na h/the beach at Asilomar)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Donal McLaughlin's "Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories": Review

Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them."  He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character, who in "Somewhere Down the Line" lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, given "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart", Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around the O'Donnell's home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo, but fewer in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained abuse uncovered sexually at home by a cruel father and in the parish at the hands of a cunning priest, a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his eighteenth year, 1979, his studies in Germany and German remind him of sinister echoes. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the mass rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner again reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around now, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendents abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.
(6-12-14 to PopMatters; Amazon US 7-28-14)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Arno Camenisch's "The Alp": Book Review

Four characters, identified only by their occupations, spend the Swiss summer working, drinking, brooding, and sleeping. Around them, as things fall apart, tourist gawk, soldiers train, and what passes for progress looms. That sums up this very short novel, a series of vignettes translated from Swiss-German and the lesser known language of Rhaeto-Romanic, itself an amalgamation of ancient bits of pre-Roman contact tongues, as well as what thousands of years have created where Teutonic and Italian varieties meet, where the Alps isolate a few to carry on today.

These few, in Arno Camenisch's spare telling, create their own hierarchy. Beckett might have conjured up such a quartet, and the Irish-born, Scots-raised translator Donal McLaughlin conveys the low-key happenings in suitably stringent, spare, sour prose. Neither Camenisch nor McLaughlin appear to pander to crowd pleasing, and they favor a detached if exacting take on this setting.

This combination of detail and distance creates a hermetic feel within stoic scenes. People, others with proper names, come and go, but these tend to remain rather sketchy, glimpsed rather than known more deeply. This stance reflects the attitude of the four main characters, who must remain at the foot of Sez Ner, the original title of this novella. Translating this into a more generic Alp, McLaughlin may have lost the specificity a Swiss reader would bring to this place, but he keeps its resonance for a wider audience, likely far less familiar with humdrum reality than the romance this setting suggests.

Among the anonymous or symbolic protagonists, the dairyman, who guards his cheese wheels like "ingots" in his home, in a bottom drawer, dominates. The farmhand takes refuge in a book which appeals to Catholic sentiment, welcoming manners towards visitors, and local pride. The swineherd makes an excursion to a Stone Man cairn but his motive and his action there remain mysterious. The cowherd puts him, like a Beckett figure, with a lot of bother, and calls his hapless dog "the dope".

What saves this from tedium or insignificance, over about seventy-five pages, is the manner Camenisch chooses to relate the everyday lives these men lead. Rather than chapters, the book divides into paragraphs. No breaks or editorial framework are given, so the reader plunges into the situation as it is. As McLaughlin renders the Swiss-German and I assume from the italicized fragments untranslated the Surselva dialect of Romansh itself, in all its half-understood orthographic and linguistic novelty for English-speaking readers, the impact is muted, yet sustained, by the tone.

Many paragraphs could bloom into their own tales, but they are cut off or reduced to essentials. A cinematic precision stages what we are allowed to see. For instance, here is a paragraph in full:

"With their high-gloss leaflets in their hands, the day-trippers are standing around the cheese kettle, beside the tourist guide from tourist information, who is holding a red flag with a white cross. The dairyman, with a dripping skimmer in his right hand, welcomes them and explains things. The cameras flash and the guide nods as if he knows all this already and a lot more besides. The flock of guests, bunched close together, marvel at the demonstration, not realizing that outside, beneath the steamed-up windows, their rucksacks are being ransacked by the herders."

It's a hard luck life, and the road which cuts down the firs by its construction, the golf course mooted for a slope, the giant phone which although it does not work well, signals change: these markers point ahead from this novel's vague setting. It could be anytime in the past fifty years, in such remoteness.

What endures, Camenisch suggests rather than emphasizes, are the harsh lessons people in these realms have learned to their gain or loss. "Morality is a frost, says Luis. And frost arrives early here, and stops late. The first frost burns any green shoots/ It clears the hillside. What remains has always been there. You can depend on frost." The ambiguity of that final line sums up this 2009 novella well, the first in a alpine trilogy to be released in McLaughlin's translations by Dalkey Archive Press.
(Amazon US 5-30-14; 6-5-14 to PopMatters)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mariusz Szczygiel's "Gottland": Book Review

Hailed as the first “cubistic” history of anywhere, this award-winning Polish compendium presents Mariusz Szczygiel’s 2006 attempt to make sense of his nation’s neighbor, the Czech lands that comprised, for most of the last century, half of Czechoslovakia. Cubist, for it refuses one perspective, or one steady perch from where to depict the angles of a land under pressure. Translated into ten languages, here is its English debut through Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ lively rendering. Snappy, moving, inquisitive, and ethical, this examination of how the Czech lands coped under fascism and especially communism, and capitalism before and after those totalitarian regimes, confronts Czech complicity.

Certainly, Szczygiel knows how his foray by way of visits, archives, and interviews reflects back on his own homeland. As an ethnic cousin, he hears resonances, and he relates attitudes Poles have foisted on what they have seen as a more feckless, or less responsible, Slavic nation bordering their own. He impressively manages, however, to make this content accessible beyond this region, so that a wider audience may learn from his diligence. Assembling in-depth profiles, which wind and turn on themselves as if fables, and interspersing wry vignettes, these vivid reports compel one’s attention.

He begins with the Baťashoe empire, which destroyed the traditional way of shoemaking by making it piecemeal work, combining Fordism with Orwellian surveillance and shrewd taskmasters to spur compliance among thousands of workers. When a village cobbler, made destitute by mass production, packed up his tools and shop and sent his final pair of shoes to Tomáš Baťa, Baťa put it on display to demonstrate the backward start from which his enterprise had moved forward. That cobbler himself committed suicide after that final shipment.

How this relentless enterprise fared under the Nazis spins off into subsequent chapters, for capitulation, chosen by most Czechs in order to survive, remains the leitmotif from which Szczygiel composes his intricately arranged scenes.

For example, amid dozens of densely detailed yet briskly told pages, suddenly we meet Ivana Zelníčkov. Born to a Baťa worker in this factory town in 1949, freshly renamed after the first Communist prime minister as “Gottwaldov”, the “American press will call her ‘the spiritual heiress of the genius of capitalism from Zlín who injected an Anglo-Saxon mentality into a Slav body”. Whatever that means. Szczygiel, in typical form, sprinkles such attributions from his journalistic predecessors throughout his chronicle. Sometimes he elaborates on them, sometimes he saunters on.

This sly structure keeps the reader off-guard. In the “liberation” of Gottwald as experienced by young Ivana and her schoolmates, the number of books destroyed was 27 million— about seven times the number of her comrades killed. The enthusiasm with which Czechs embraced their 1948 takeover, when their native Party numbered 40 percent before it wedged in and drove out the non-Communist coalition, surprised those devoted to Moscow. They begged their former rivals to vote against some Party measures, for show, but many who gave in to the new system gave in all the way. At least outwardly.

Such ambiguity sinks into this entire study. Radio Prague played not the Czechoslovakian anthem but that of the Soviet Union at the end of its broadcast. Rivalry continued, however, in more sinister ways. Eager to direct attention away from the iconic Castle to a new Prague icon, across the Vltava River, orders came for a 150-foot granite statue of Stalin, to celebrate his birthday. Szczygiel documents its slow erection, the delays engineered by reluctant architects, and the fate of its designer, sculptor Otokar Švec. His tragic predicament stands for many who had to survive under Stalinism, and the previous as well as later dictatorships. Above all, secrecy compelled intimates to turn inward, to hush.

Censorship sunk in oddly, for “there was no list of names that couldn’t be written or mentioned aloud” as one informant tells the author. How did people know there was a ban? “Everyone had to sense intuitively whose name couldn’t be mentioned.” Indirection dominates. Not only “truth” and “lie” but “I think” in Věra Chytilová’s New Wave films, and a scene in which a man cries “I’m trapped”: all met with elimination from discussion. Szczygiel notes how often the “impersonal” emerges “when people have to talk”—about Communism and their decisions under it to keep working, to keep living.

Szczygiel opines: “As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.” Fifty years after Stalin was toppled from his riverside summit, “Prague’s monument to Stalin does exist.” People still cannot shake their fear that independence cannot endure. As I type this, I think of the assurances now that NATO will shore up nations along the same borders that two decades ago were hailed as harbingers of “the end of history”, as they watch Ukraine and Crimea.

Those who spoke out, as Szczygiel investigates, faced their own fears. Most of the “cultural elite” surrendered to do the bidding of “socialism”, but “a microscopic minority” protested the post-1968 Prague Spring fate of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe, and these dissenters congregated as “pretenders and castaways from Charter 77” according to the loyal press. While Václav Havel (who appears along with his uncle now and then, in the background) is well-known, the hardships of film writer Jan Procházka and other intellectuals merit their own dramatization.

After “normalization” dominated post-1968, about a tenth of all Czechs were removed from their jobs. Many had to work in menial and even degrading occupations for which they were grossly overqualified or for which they lacked any skills. While this did admittedly advance class consciousness as the Communists cynically promoted, it made a mockery of artists who claimed, by following orders as it were, that they were in ignorance of what this compelled among the creative class. Szczygiel knows well the parallels in Poland, so he affords fairly the chance for all who made whatever decision they chose to (or had no choice but to choose) in the twisted Czech party logic to justify their own actions, given the lack of alternatives beyond imprisonment, exile, or no income.

Singer Marta Kubišová was one who, after 1968, found herself in internal exile. Separated from her successful partners in the Golden Kids Václav Neckář and Helena Vondráčková, whom she told to go on with their careers, she symbolizes the similarly silenced sufferers who endured the regime’s heavy hand. The state archives erased her songs; she could not sing in public for 20 years. When she does so again, after a long estrangement, she does so on stage, hesitantly and awkwardly, reunited with her two partners.

Journalist Eda Kriseová found herself on a list of banned writers prevented from publishing. Working as a librarian but prevented from talking to others, she sought refuge by visiting mental patients to tell them stories. For her, that was “the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity.” Tracing verbal evasion back to Kafka, Szczygiel dutifully tracks down Kafka’s niece near his birthplace in Prague’s Old Town. Szczygiel explains how the nonce word “kafkárna” suitably “describes something everyone knows about, but which they also know nothing can be done about”, as typifying cagey Czechs.

Speaking of words, what about the title of this book? Evidently “Mostly True Stories” has sparked unease from certain Czech critics after its original publication. In the appendix to the new English translation, Szczygiel addresses the reaction to his choices of characters to exemplify Czech evasion and subversion. He emphasizes dissidents such as Kubišová, who faced rejection. He gives equal time to collaborators and compromisers, such as the perennial prizewinning singer and libertine Karol Gott, judged the equal to both “Presley and Pavorotti”.  To explain the adulation given Gott by the pro-Soviet regime as well as the post-1989 nation, Szczygiel applies the national stereotype. The Good Soldier Švejk “is the philosopher of cunning acquiescence. And at the same time, the archetype of adaptation.”

Havel and that tiny cadre of opponents to the regime resisted, but most, like Gott, went along, gained plaudits, and grew if not as successful, than at least safe. The alternatives, Szczygiel shows, could be dire.

Author Lenka Reinerová, placed in solitary confinement for 15 months, could not even visit the prison yard. When asked why she was incarcerated, “she invariably heard: ‘You know better than anyone.’” Years later, needing a certificate to prove her arrest, she was told: “Maybe you just imagined it all, comrade.”

Given this situation, Gottland suggests that it seemed wiser for most to bow to safer, secular idols such as Gott, who “is sacred in a desacralized reality” in what Szczygiel terms “the world’s most atheistic country”. I suspected this factoid’s veracity. (Checking, the Czech Republic ranks in 2014 number six; perhaps since the original edition in 2006 or since the Republic’s partition with Slovakia a few citizens reverted back to invisible gods.) Still, such hero worship fits Szczygiel’s set-up. Karol Gott, ever revered, keeps playing the “role of Mein Gott”. His popularity endures.

Within today’s capitalist Czech Republic, how does resistance to such idolatry play out? A young alter-globalization protester decides to emulate the end of Jan Palach. He was chosen by lot to volunteer to set himself on fire at Charles University, near the banks of the Vltava. Palach called horrific attention in January 1969 to the pain of “normalization”. He lingered in agony for 72 hours in the hospital before dying. True to our manner of social protest in a networked generation, Zdenék Adamec posted a message as “The Action Called Torch 2003”. Four yards from the place where Palach immolated himself, so did this second student, at the age of 19, that March.

Nobody called for help. He lived for more than 30 minutes, having first swallowed corrosive acid as had his predecessor to stop from screaming. As Szczygiel refers to Adamec as “Torch Number Two” (his website translates in Czech to “torch”; see his farewell message in Czech at this website and translated here), the site of this second young man’s self-destruction was confused by tourists taking pictures and paying tribute to what they thought of as Jan Palach’s memorial plaque, where “messages appear saying: ‘Zdenék, you’re right!’” Four days later, these flowers and candles were moved out of sight temporarily to allow the site to be filmed for a Canadian biopic about Hitler.

This edition’s new afterword reveals that another Václav, President Kraus, wrote the forward for the perpetually priapic, still award-winning, Gott’s autobiography. One senses Szczygiel’s frustration that the new leaders and the old rascals continue to toast each other’s success. After the poignancy and despair of the Adamec chapter, Szczygiel adds the final word to this translation, if in typically less somber fashion.

Some Czechs thought titling this after Karol G. was unfair. “I started to explain at public events that Gottland could also be understood as God’s land, which is best typified by a quotation from the Czech poet Vladimír Holan: ‘I don’t know who does the Gods’ laundry/ I do know it’s we who drink the dirty water.’” He adds in characteristically sly style: “Strangely, I’ve noticed that this explanation reassures people who object to the title.” As he prefers Holan’s verse as this book’s motto, so I conclude this review by citing it as an appropriate coda to the English version of this spirited and provocative report from half of what was Czechoslovakia. (PopMatters 5-9-14 and Amazon US 7-24-14, both in edited form.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

David Graeber's "The Democracy Project": Book Review

Having found myself intrigued by this anthropologist-activist who was among the first, as he narrates here, to generate the "We are the 99%" slogan and Occupy Wall Street movement, I followed my reading of his dense but not dull academic study of Debt: The First 5000 Years (reviewed by me in April 2014) with his more casual 2013 narrative of OWS, its origins, impacts, and relevance within grassroots, participatory direct action as the genuine democratic exercise of rights. He insists that the lack of a platform or agenda spoke to the Occupy strengths, by its refusal to play into party politics, rather than as a left-wing balance to the Tea Party's anti-government (but less rarely anti-business, at least after the GOP co-opted it, an issue that merits attention more than the aside here, but it may not be that germane in Graeber's view given his anti-corporate as well as anarchist focus). I agree here, even if my friends and media disagree.  Graeber reminds readers that bipartisan "status-quo" presidents no matter their claims for "change" continue to prop up what's broken.

As I've opined often among my pro-Democratic Party friends and family, Graeber raises a critique few leftists promote; they capitulate to the lesser of two evils or "they won't let Obama win" retorts. He castigates the handling of the 2008 crisis with a new president who exhibited "perversely heroic efforts to respond to an historic catastrophe by keeping everything more or less exactly as it was." (95) This can be confirmed by Timothy Geithner's subsequent defense while he promoted his own book in Spring 2014; and by Matt Taibbi's concurrent exposure Eric Holder's role as he kept kid gloves on as he handled "legal justice" for those victimized by Wall Street's banking powers in '08. George Packer finds in his narrative history another pattern of how the law was used to suppress the common folks, buried by robo-signings and instant judgements from judges, not those in charge.

This fits well with these two recent accounts I've studied which address the mess we're in these decades post-Reagan, and all who've succeeded him: George Packer's "The Unwinding" about a disintegration of American stability under the corporate-political oligarchy, and Matt Taibbi's "The Divide" about the refusal of Obama's administration to pursue justice against Wall Street bankers while doggedly beating down and hounding the poor and weak among us who cannot counter the power of the law and order forces, paid by the government which enables these same banks to launder drug money, profit off debtors, expand prisons, and sustain an increasingly unequal economy.

Graeber shows close-up at OWS a common complaint: the "U.S. media increasingly serves less to convince Americans to buy into the terms of the existing political system than to convince them that everyone does." (109) This is a bit too compressed, but his point is that--take Ralph Nader's campaign--that the media portrays such candidates and platforms as is only the 2.7% who voted for him favor them. The media refuse to offer such alternative advocates the opportunity to speak out, and consigns them to the realm of fringe or freakish figures who don't merit the gravitas afforded the Democrats and to a lesser or greater extent depending on the channel chosen, the GOP. Therefore, a false choice perpetuates, and dismissal of spontaneous uprisings that may present a challenge to the parties who persist in representing the 1% more than the rest of us continues. Those who take to the streets or camp out near City Hall or big banks get ridiculed as dangerous bums or deluded rich kids.

While I remain cautious about his claim that over half of all British female students engaged in sex work to pay off tuition and that nearly a third went to prostitution, and his factoid that 280,000 American women with college debt signed up for sugar daddies needs more than one HuffPo citation to sway me, I agree that student debt (I heard recently costs have gone up 1200% since 1978) and the wider indentured status this incurs among many of us cripples us. For degrees are now the ticket into many professions, and that entry fee rises as banks profit off the money they lend to students and their families, continuing to deepen the hold that loans and interest have over many Americans now. Coupled with his own studies and the pressing need for reform or a debt jubilee (as his previous book naturally called for), this does seem a logical stance to take as the issue most needing redress by us.

The trouble is, "corporate lobbying" as he relabels it by its reality as "bribery" stymies progress. Each Congress member needs to raise, he says, $10,000/week from the time he or she is in office to prepare for the next election. Contrary to our national myth that we can separate the system from its overthrow as if we are revolutionaries anew, Graeber contends the economic and political control is so linked now that it cannot be reformed by representatives, complicit in the status quo. He shows how the appeals of the indebted smack of peasants begging for their land and relief from burdens, such is what Americans have been reduced to. As to "white working-class populism," he correctly chides this for its anti-intellectualism, and Graeber to his credit takes a moment to consider the lasting appeal of it for so many. Within its determination to call for liberty, there's "an indignation at being cut off from the means of doing good," within a society bent in equating our life's range with only the satisfaction of our self-interest. (124) People want to achieve for themselves and conduct their own decisions, and not expect the State to cater to all of their needs. A sensitive issue; a commendable insight. This is explored idiosyncratically in James C. Scott's 2013 "Two Cheers for Anarchism."

Midway, Graeber tackles liberal mockery of OWS. He confides that the left as they dominate media tend to project their guilty conscience by their coverage.  "Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they share the ideas of radical movements--democracy, egalitarianism, freedom--but they've also managed to convince themselves that these ideals are ultimately unattainable. For that reason, they see anyone determined to bring about a world based on these principles as a kind of moral threat." (150) He reminds us that what John Adams feared as "the horrors of democracy" as if anarchy (often a negative term from Plato on) does not negate "core democratic principles," but takes them "to their logical conclusions." (154)  In a truly eye-opening chapter "The Mob Begin to Think and to Reason," he shows Gouverneur Morris, gentry of NYC, witnessing at planning for the Constitutional Congress "butchers and bakers" arguing the merits of the Gracchi or Polybius (a sign of how far we've fallen from a classical education for the masses?).

He cautions those who'd toss bombs or instigate violence, and he shows as in the chapter "How Change Happens" not only the way direct action and affinity groups and peaceful assemblies reach consensus, but he notes in passing the dangers of coercion. The Iraqi Sadrists attempted to form a mass working-class base for self-governance, but the zones they opened with the wedge of "free clinics for pregnant and nursing mothers" took on, as they required security, the social apparatus and then political platforms supporting charismatic leaders turned cultural voices in formal institutions.

This book as with "Debt" skips about although it stays animated with Graeber's confident presence. In a few places the style stumbled and careful editing might have smoothed out a couple of rough spots in the prose. I liked the glances at humor as in the Occu-pie pizza, "99 percent cheese, 1 percent pig" provided those at OWS early on. Books on anarchism sometimes need a lighter touch, after all.  And as with other studies, I needed to see how workplace strategies might evolve to prefigure change, in an increasingly unstable and detached electronic and dispersed environment where freer standards may contend against online surveillance, weak wages, globalization, and reductive profit.

He touches on this, however, in "Breaking the Spell" as he glances at the "productivist bargain" that assumes work is a moral good rather than an economic position. He shows if in passing how labor discipline can make one worse, not better, if it does not become virtuous to allow us to help others. Why not make mothers, teachers, caregivers the "primordial form of work" rather than models of production lines, wheat fields, or iron foundries? Mutual creation and a shift, as he admits Occupy might formulate a key demand, to "change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be" is a small step, if one meriting a book and movement of its own. (289)  He tells us how the weight of bureaucracy grew, under capitalism and communism, and how the latter term underlies what society, our circle of friends, our family runs on: amicability, cooperation, practical assistance.

I wish the book, after its vignettes as early on he and a handful of activists met at the Irish Hunger Memorial and then Zuccotti Park to jumpstart OWS, had covered more of the blow-by-blow on the street examples of how consensus might or might not have worked, and how across the world (not only in this perhaps understandably Manhattan-centered p-o-v from one who is based now in London academia after his departure from Yale) people met to for better or worse try to coordinate progress. I saw at the L.A. encampment examples of both, and Graeber appears to gloss over a lot of the mess. It's a mixture: a study of democracy historically and at OWS, and part personal testimony. But this makes it uneven in pacing and scope; it's valuable behind-the-scenes, yet you want to peer in deeper.

In closing, Graeber teaches a different civics lesson. "No government has ever given a new freedom to those it governs of its own accord." (239) Grassroots turn tough. Laws may need to be broken. (Amazon US 6-20-14)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James C. Scott's "Two Cheers for Anarchism": Book Review

As some comprehensive reviews [at Amazon US, where this appeared 6-13-14] summing up and citing key passages have preceded my entry, may I add a few comments? As a Yale professor of politics with a Marxist background, James C. Scott's decision to adapt the anarchist "squint" to view the world a bit differently is commendable. He eschews his previous books, meticulously plotted on sixteen-foot rolls of paper as he puts it, and he integrates fragments which offer digressions and tangents for him to elaborate. This technique reminds me of an engaging lecturer, and shows what his anthropology students at Yale must be lucky enough to witness. He likes to wander off, and then mosey back.

Of course, the fact that an Ivy League, tenured faculty member is discussing what has a suspect reputation by the name alone, and which in E.F. Forster's "Two Cheers for Democracy" tradition recalls less than wholehearted praise, remains crucial. One, this as Scott tells early on is not a narrative of the big thinkers or various theories. It tries to take the aspects of the spontaneous, the unrecorded, the uncredited, the subversive and to argue how these drive key changes in social progress more than the top-down, state-imposed, mass-directed programs. Yet, as with civil rights and desegregation, Scott reminds us how state pressure and policy force might need a State to force moral progress and establish human rights: a provocative insight for anarchists to consider. And, apart from the "official story" often passed on, past and present, many agitate for change, clog up the system as it grinds them down, poach, hide, goldbrick, and evade the time-management and efficiency-expert regimentation. How people organize even without a leader to thwart this repeats.

Two, why there's no mention in a 2012 book of Occupy or the protests in Egypt made me wonder. Maybe the manuscript was in press already, but the timing of this I aver is meant to capitalize on the protests which for some of us forced viewers to take sides, to get involved, to challenge the Tweedledee-Tweedledum bipartisan oligarchy. I cannot figure out why either this book was not delayed so as to address Occupy and similar anti-globalization actions recently, or why Scott left out such relevant case studies. The impact and success or not of these uprisings certainly fits his thesis.

However, his engaging account of Germany and "anarchist calisthenics" so as to break small laws which do not make any sense adhering to so as to be ready to break bigger ones when needed, his red light analogy, his distinction of how we locate ourselves locally by "vernacular order" as a non-official one (will this naming of paths and landmarks by native quirks and lore survive Google Maps and GPS?), and his poignant look at a nursing home's terrified patients who cannot resist the system illustrate well his insistence that autonomy, independence, and decision-making need to be left in the hands and heads and hearts of the individuals and the communities. Teachers, as he demonstrates, suffer particularly in standardized curricula and test-taking compliance. Students atrophy, and the impact carries into the dismissal among leftists of the petty bourgeoisie who after all stand up in history now and then for small-scale innovation, ways of making a living apart from regimens, and self-control of their means of production. The persistence of this dream of a farm, restaurant, or small business among many of us if we broke free of the corporate or institutional demands, Scott observes, proves the endurance of this will to do it ourselves, apart from state or boss.

I would welcome much more on the practical aspects as we see them in the workplace and in our lives as the work-play leisure-duty boundaries dissolve and as this dissolution, we are told by many millennials, is the ideal for our future. How anarchism and games and the lack of structure effect this, how small start-ups innovate but then sell out to giant firms, how the students, teachers and parents find their efforts quantified as learning turns into endless metrics, and how this pressure exerts itself on workers told they have no secure occupation and must always be on call, always reinvent: Scott might at least have provided suggestions for us who are burdened rather than liberated. If he walks among us as a guide, even in an anarchist book, he needs to offer some encouraging, clear directions.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Noam Chomsky: "Chomsky on Anarchism": Book Review

As Barry Pateman, Emma Goldman archivist, notes in introducing these eleven pieces (red cover above, AK Press; mostly interviews and lectures) from 1969-2004, while some repetition occurs, this 2005 anthology offers a sustained explanation by Noam Chomsky of the philosophy and practice of anarchism. He reminds us he's a fellow traveler, for anarcho-syndicalism and left-libertarian attitudes overlap along the continuum, with libertarian communist, anti-statist, and even cooperation (as in voting on crucial referenda, supporting alternative candidates, and local policies) with the state. Pateman in his own interview explores this and shows how some advancement in Chomsky's view of the state in order to contain dangerous tendencies against progressive activism might be justified for the future advance of leader-free or consensual practices of liberty.  He's a pragmatic as well as intellectual thinker, and many of the less formal interviews in the latter pages, with Irish activist Kevin Doyle, scholar Ziga Vodovnik (I reviewed his "Living Spirit of Revolt"), and Pateman capture for me a more avuncular, warmer presence than the scholarship  accumulated in some lectures.

However, these are valuable. They show the trajectory of the liberal elite's capitulation to the political and corporate interests in power. Whether allied to push policy in Vietnam, approve as Gabriel Jackson's book did the clampdown on Spanish and Catalan anarchists by Stalinists during that civil war, or prop up the US military in Central America and the Middle East, this is consistent. Chomsky shows the consistent defense of US power against the spontaneous and the insurrectionary forces that seek freedom. This may not be surprising, but he looks at how intellectuals and advisors from academia as liberals choose to deny liberty.

He examines Rousseau's 1775 Discourse Against Inequality, Jeffersonian fears of big government, federalism, and the need articulated in language for freedom. This gets a bit academic, as one may expect, but the shorter chapters lighten the tone. Here, he finally addresses workplace issues. It's a bit dated in parts as it seems the auto factory floor remains the metaphor, tellingly, for an earlier US era we are now watching in the rear mirror more than through the windshield. Yet, in entries closer to now, you get some sense of how globalization's balance sheet pits American workers against or alongside Third World workers. More on this and contemporary impacts, as the workforce diminishes and as work itself changes boundaries, is still an underexamined aspect of many anarchist discussions in print. Chomsky, at least, tries to speak in terms understandable by everyday folks. 

Handling questions from audiences, discussing the key struggle against "red bureaucracy" as Bukharin fought for anti-authoritarian social revolution rather than a top-down cadre acting on supposed behalf of the workers and peasants, and admonishing those who place too much faith in leaders, Chomsky remains relevant in these talks, even if they needed an index (Amazon US 6-12-14)

The next book, from 2013 ("A" cover in colors; New Press), overlaps a lot. A spirited introduction by Nathan Schneider (see my reviews of his fine 2013 Occupy study "Thank You Anarchy" and in longer form at New Clear Vision) places this in context of events that in Schneider's view widened anarchism's range so many curious or hostile were confronted for a time with its presence downtown. As his book had advised, Schneider here suggests churches as examples of successful mutual aid independent of the state, and how the left might overcome its tendency to reject such models as part of a "functional resistance movement." He reaches out to the libertarian capitalists who briefly tried to find common ground with OWS activists and anarchists, and he encourages the "anarcho-curious" who found that movement intriguing to contemplate more efforts to expand their impact. Chomsky himself sums anarchism up: "people have the right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom, then you've got to justify them." (33) He wants no more wage slavery, but work as willed.

As Schneider notes (and many of Chomsky's critics on the left, who find this inconsistent), Chomsky pragmatically or strategically accepts working within the system so as to prevent right-wing restrictions or for public safety (he uses an example of a rabid raccoon resisting humane traps so he and his neighbors agreed to call authorities to deal with it after local attempts had failed), "because by doing so you can help move to a situation where you can then challenge these structures." (41)

As for the contents, 3/5 are repeated entries from "Chomsky On Anarchism" (AK Press, 2005; none of the articles appearing there are credited as such in the acknowledgements although other reprints and their original sources are cited.) "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (1969) reveals how elites and think-tanks support US foreign policy in Vietnam by "the new mandarins"; "Language and Freedom" (1970) uses linguistics and politics to examine Rousseau, Descartes, and Humboldt. "Notes on Anarchism" (1970/3) is a revision of an introduction to Daniel Guerin's anthology of anarchism.

The new inclusions appear to be a 2002 excerpt from "Understanding Power" and a 2002 interview with Harry Kreisler from his book Political Awakenings (2010). These, as many of the AK Press entries, often repeat themselves, but it makes for a briefer book than its predecessor, probably published to take understandable advantage of the post-OWS interest in Chomsky and these topics. (Amazon US 6-26-14)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Slán a fhághail dó Rover

Fhilleadh Léna agus mé abhaile ar an Ceathru Iúil. Fhán ár dtrí madraí ann: Taffy, Opie, agus Rover. Ith siad lacha ó bialann Sínis ar chéile. 

D'imigh Léna agus mé go Sliabh ar an Rí ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Ach, cheap muid anois go raibh ag fanacht linn Rover a thabhairt ar ais. An lá seo chugainn, ní iarr Rover a ith nó a ól ar chor ar bith. 

Bhí fhíos againn go raibh an uair ansin. Ghloigh Léna trédlia a tháinig go dtí ar theach. Thug sí drugaí dó. 

Thít Rover ina chodladh go mall. Labhraimuid leis go bog. D'inis muid faoi neamh h-aghaidh madrái leis crustaí na pizza go leor.

Shuigh muid leis Rover ar feadh tamaill. D'fheach sé suas ar an crann tangerine. Chonaic Rover an speir gorm samraidh uair dheireanach.

Wishing goodbye to Rover.

Layne and I returned home on the Fourth of July. Three dogs waited there: Taffy, Opie, and Rover. They ate duck from a Chinese restaurant. 

Layne and I had left for Monterey during the week past. But, we think now that Rover was waiting for us to come back again. The following day, Rover did not want to eat or drink at all anymore.

We knew that it was time then. Layne called a veterinarian who came to the house. She gave drugs to him. 

Rover fell into a sleep slowly. We talked to him softly. We told him of a heaven for dogs with pizza crusts galore. 

We sat with Rover awhile. He looked up at the tangerine tree. Rover saw the blue summer sky a last time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ruth Kinna's "Anarchism: A Beginner's Guide": Book Review

Rather than provide a chronological narrative introducing great anarchist thinkers and then current concerns (as Colin Ward's "Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction" or the not short at all "Demanding the Impossible" history of the idea and the movement by Peter Marshall; both reviewed by me), this British lecturer and editor of Anarchist Studies addresses a readership which may already have some familiarity with these thinkers, and involvement in contemporary social and progressive issues. Ruth Kinna's beginner's guide appears geared for a political studies seminar, but a reading group or curious inquirer might benefit as well from its range. Each chapter is not only footnoted thoroughly but enriched by a bibliography and a list of websites. The informative contents are neither too jargon-filled nor too slogan-stuffed. (It must be noted that "IWW" stands for not "International" but "Industrial" Workers of the World, a regrettable if understandable lapse. But we learn who designed the symbolizing Proudhon's "anarchy is the mother of order": Anselme Bellegarrigue ca. 1850.) Kinna keeps enough distance from the rivalries, competing theories, and hard-headed activists from many factions. Still, she asks questions, and prods readers to do likewise.

Chapter one takes on the contested definition of anarchy and the negative connotations dogging it. She addresses its past uses, its key exponents, the various forms the concept takes, and a quick history. Then, its critique of the State (not the same as society, and perhaps as government, a tricky distinction for some to parse and debate, as are power and authority as accepted or not) follows. "Natural" authority and "social" power precede her consideration of liberty. As she cites one thinker, liberty is granted, while one is born free. I found chapter three valuable for its investigation into competing arguments whether a natural, pre-industrial community of anarchists existed or survives today, and whether some older notions that anarchism imitates or returns to such a condition are upheld by anthropological evidence today. (Oddly, no mention of David Graeber appears here.)

Utopian experiments, including an aside to a New Zealand novel (one aspect of Kinna's study is that it looks a bit at Maori and Australian responses to anarchism, which get ignored in many European or British-centered studies) that smacks of the hippie era, find mention, as do the heavily analyzed (by others) experiments attempted in Spain and Ukraine during the past century. Primitivism gains throughout these sections extended attention, and Kinna shows in helpful charts how its precepts align or differ from the classic 19 and early-20c thinkers as well as some competitors from communitarians and anarcho-capitalists. The graphic summation of the range of responses by anarchists-with-adjectives helps greatly to illustrate their various positions.

The last part looks at tactics, who takes charge, whether a platform, a union, a collective, or individuals take charge. The difficult questions of success given the scope of resistance vs. the crackdowns imposed, and the adjustments of earlier decades' models of factory workers or ruralists in terms of those in cubicles, in odd jobs or none, squatters, and the like get some mention. I'd have liked more on how workers in the electronic era and the age of dispersed work and downsizing and global competition might fare in relation to the sentiment that a general strike can bring down the system once and for all. Also, while Kinna shows how state socialism and Marxist models diverge from anarchism, and the dangers of compromise, she might have taken more time to address those who advocate or at least accept some cooperation with the political system to advance some change, in light of those who reject any such collaboration as unacceptable. In light of present protests and the indifference many have shown towards anti-globalization campaigns and actions, how to get anarchism taken seriously appears still a topic needing more reflection and more guidance. However, her closing portions, as to tactics, seem to hint pacifism may not suffice. (Amazon US 6-12-14)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ziga Vodovnik's "A Living Spirit of Revolt": Book Review

How can anarchism get beyond marginalized impacts, finicky theorists, and squabbling activists? A Slovenian political scientist, Žiga Vodovnik, offers suggestions forward. This concise survey occupies a space, if pre-Occupy (despite a 2013 copyright for the English translation this offers no updates but the late Howard Zinn, who died in 2010, provides an encouraging introduction), where an overview of anarchism's philosophies and history segues into a a connection to not only Continental and British thinkers, but its overlooked, attenuated American Transcendental roots. 

For, Vodovnik argues that--given this idea itself did not fully emerge until the late 19th century--the counterculture of the 1960s revived it looking back not to Godwin, Bakunin, or Benjamin Tucker so much as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. They ally in their attitude against "foolish consistency" for an approach allowing contradictions to advance equality (as does socialism) along with freedom (as does liberalism). Vodovnik supports a flexible nature for anarchism. He grounds it in the "absence of a leader or ruler" as its meaning, and its anti-authoritarian ethos rather than one that avoids any authority. This key distinction aligns with Dave Neal's "small-a" methodology rather than a "capital-A" ideology insisting on no overarching plan. As many motivators cited here agree, the spark lies in the "infrapolitics" where "seemingly non-political" or hidden forces seek to undermine unjustly imposed and unfairly distributed power structures, where the majority lack viable options to pursue opportunities to enrich self-fulfillment.

Vodovnik sides with an anti-statist and civil disobedience charged resistance. Hakim Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zones" (TAZ) offer one model where a "tendency for actualization of theory" meets the personal space opened, if for a while, for a "liberated zone" and "political laboratory" that allows real progress "outside the boundaries of commodification or spectacle." This encouragingly commonsensical attitude links anarchists by name with many more who enter part or all of its many fluid channels, while flowing into, as historian Peter Marshall sees it, a common river.

David Graeber's post-ideology of Direct Action is here linked to Oaxaca in 2005 and Seattle in 1999, but while this book unfortunately was not updated for Occupy Wall Street and the anti-austerity EU or Tahrir Square protests recently, that anthropologist's aspiration "to reinvent daily life as a whole" remains relevant. Zinn's pragmatic revolutionary reform that pushes progress within systems as well as undermining unjust control may be more realistic, Vodovnik suggests. Instead of street theater or fervent factionalism, fitting this stereotyped strategy into its many vibrant and changing forms appears more practical. There's some slow spots given this is written by a professor, one wonders how pop culture applies to foster anarchism, the absence of recent events is odd, and more clarification of how the "young Marx" offered a more liberating version of labor as self-identity
could have helped a non-specialist. But, despite a few clunky parts via translation, this is welcome.

In closing, this handy guide stands in the space between brief pamphlets or Colin Ward's Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction in Oxford UP's series and Marshall's magisterial Demanding the Impossible. PM Press published many of the inquiring texts quoted here, and adding Žiga Vodovnik's compact treatment will guide the reader to many more books, and even better, piers from which to leap into an arguably the last remaining viable revolutionary current, this free river of human longing.
(Amazon US 5-3-14; 5-4-14 at Slugger O'Toole)