Category Archives: Violence

Two Poems by Derek Walcott (colonialism, cities, words of fire…)

A City’s Death by Fire

After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)

Origins

VII

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.

Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)

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Patricia Hill Collins: The Ethos of Violence

I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…

Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.

Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)

Because this society was founded on oppression,  violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet

Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.

Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:

the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).

But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.

Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)

The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:

Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)

To look into each of these three definitions:

The power to define violence

First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)

She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.

Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)

The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech

The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.

The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.

Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.

I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.

Violence as routine

Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)

This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects  who  is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…

Death in St John’s Co-Cathedral

Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.

Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-CathedralThese are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.

This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:

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The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:

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The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.

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The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- Caravaggio

Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.

st-jerome

The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:

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Erich Fromm: Evil in the Heart of Man

8860483Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.

I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.

From the preface:

I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)

I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?

That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.

II: Forms of Violence

Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.

playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)

reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)

frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.

revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense  (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)

On to the violence in service of death….

compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …

how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:

One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)

Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.

To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)

This is also present in all of us:

Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence  because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)

Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…

Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)

This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.

But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:

The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)

One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?

There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)

III – Individual and Social Narcissism

Fromm writes:

One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)

Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues

binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)

All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.

Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)

It’s dangers:

The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)

In a different form:

The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …

An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)

Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:

They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death.  (66)

It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas

Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality.  (166)

It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:

In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.

Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)

Side note in parentheses here

(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)

God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.

The rest…

There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)

I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]

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Caravaggio in Rome: Violence, Art, Dirty Feet

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneAndrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.

It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.

A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:

Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.

Ottavia Leoni, 'Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio' Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana © Photo Scala, Florence
Ottavia Leoni, ‘Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio’ Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana
© Photo Scala, Florence

He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:

Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.

This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.

As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.

Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that  ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:

Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…

Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.

After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts,  apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.

One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)

Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches —  like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.

More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:

We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.

Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.

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A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:

Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.

Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes

The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.

Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.

michelangelo_caravaggio_51_martha_and_mary_magdaleneHere she is again as St Catharine  of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.

michelangelo_caravaggio_060There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.

Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.

This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):

1280px-caravaggio_-_la_vocazione_di_san_matteoAnother one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)

8064-the-crucifixion-of-saint-peter-caravaggioGraham-Dixon writes that:

The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.

The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:

In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.

Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.

When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.

It was very different from the rising countercurrent of

a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.

Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).

Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:

They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.

It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.

Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.

600px-caravaggio_matthewandtheangel_bymikeyangelsWWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.

The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:

san-matteo-e-langelo-1

His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).

incredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.

It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate

That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):

By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.

Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.

On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.

The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of  series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:

The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.

That, actually, was just funny.

More on the particularities of the papal state.

Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.

Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:

There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can  be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …

Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:

Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.

They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.

It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints. Caravaggio madonna of loretto

This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.

Graham-Dixon writes:

No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.

Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:

…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.

Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.

And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:

I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.

He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.

It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.

Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.

Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.

He didn’t.

This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:

…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.

A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.

sword-dagger-caravaggio

And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.

Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:

300px-caravaggio_-_la_flagellazione_di_cristoPictures such as the Seven Acts and The Flagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.

But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.

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Fabulous Nicholas Brothers

fabulous-nicholas-brothersLast night at Bristol’s Watershed we went to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers:

Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York, presents a unique compilation tribute to the greatest dancers of the 20th century the Nicholas Brothers, featuring a collage of rarely seen home movies, photographs and film clips.

It was — the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers were — amazing. I perhaps use that adjective too much, my enthusiasms lace my writing with ‘I loved’ and ‘brilliant’ and other such encomiums so that perhaps they lose some meaning. But little I have ever experienced compares to the feeling of pure joy that dance can grant, particularly as embodied by Fayard and Harold Lloyd Nicholas. Before Bruce Goldstein began, they started with this clip, ‘Lucky Number’ (1936):

Throughout their career, in addition to the jaw-dropping virtuosity of their movements, there is a joy in dance and in dancing with each other that is a gift to watch. It fills you up as you watch it, together with awe that such things might be done.

I will also note that this format, of talk interspersed with clips, from someone as knowledgeable and personable as Bruce Goldstein who knew the brothers personally, was awesome. He had loads of footage from the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ own home videos including some of their unique film of the Cotton Club performances, which rendered it incredible.  You are sorry you missed it.

Anyway. You take all of this, the very best and the most beautiful of talent, and you set it in Jim Crow America. This ensures the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers are billed most of their lives as a ‘specialty act’ (though usually at the top of the bill). I think for all I have read, watched, wrestled with, this exposed an entirely new view of how damaging Jim Crow was. How crazy it was.

Absolutely batshit crazy.

There’s Pie Pie Blackbird. Crazy. Immense talent to be found singing and dancing about the master’s ‘blackbird pie’.

As a reference to master sleeping with his slaves, it hardly seems veiled at all. And so it is that here, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 debut get called little pickinninies.

Wonderful without reservations is their appearance in the 1935 All Coloured Vaudeville Movie — and look at that city background, this is really an urban art after all, not one tied to the plantation south, but to Harlem, to Chicago, to the places that beckoned towards freedom and equality (though still have yet to grant it). Fayard is performing in his characteristic three piece suit — he wore it at almost all times (there’s home footage of him wearing it at the tennis courts, on the beach), a fashion statement against the indignities and disrespect of Jim Crow, and I love him for it:

Yet so many of these clips make me feel Jim Crow viscerally. After a rather saccharine display of white doo-wop and the (rather good don’t you know) Glen Miller band, there is the joy and virtuosity of the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers and the equally fabulous Dorothy Dandridge (who married Harold, how did I not know?). Carefully orchestrated so the whole section is separate from the white musicians, able to be cut entirely for Southern audiences — a prime reason the Nicholas Brothers would always perform self-contained ‘numbers’ rather than roles.

I found this separateness physically painful to watch, which sat strangely beside the absolute joy of the performance itself. But more bewildering were these two clips, the first the 1934 ‘Minstrel Man’ from Kid Millions

Apart from it being cool that Lucille Ball is in this, I sat wondering in what insane ideological space the whole of America was in to make such a musical number possible, such plunging necklines and singing about loving a minstrel man when Black men were being lynched in the South for even looking the wrong way at a white woman.

Their number from Tin Pan Alley (1940) is even crazier:

I couldn’t stop thinking about Emmet Till through the whole of this damn number. What the actual fuck. Never in a million years could I have imagined such a thing in 1940. In struggling to make sense of it, I think a partial answer is that the category of youth allowed Harold Nicholas to be non-threatening enough for ‘Minstrel Man’, and the category of ‘performing slave’ to be non-threatening enough for Tin Pan Alley (and the absence of sexual innuendo or physical contact). And yet. It doesn’t really explain it to my satisfaction.

Nothing does. Think of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939: Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. The two performances together somehow make white power and violence even more terrifying in ways I am unable to understand. Perhaps it is the impossibility of reconciling these two things that is the most terrifying, how do you fight what is impossible to understand?

World War II would start to move change along again, Fayard would be drafted into the Jim Crow Army’s laundry brigade.

The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelley, was the first film where Black and white dancers interacted together, as something like equals (where Gene Kelley, who is a superb dancer, is struggling to keep up in fact).

Still the brothers’ speaking roles were cut from the final film, they remained listed as a specialty act.

Bruce Goldstein writes of all those they influenced:

The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Gene Kelly, who teamed up with them in The Pirate; Bob Fosse and Gregory Hines, whose first acts were modelled on them; ballet legends George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; Michael Jackson, who once had Fayard as a dance coach; and Fred Astaire, who named their Stormy Weather ‘staircase’ number the greatest of all musical sequences.

Yet watching this talk I was struck by how much better all of those dancers and all of their performances could have been in a world without racism, where the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers could have found a rightful respect and a rightful place in musicals and movies. The leading roles they deserved. The space to further develop their art. Instead they moved to Paris. After four years Fayard moved home, because home is home, you know? No one should have to leave home to feel like a human being. No one should have to choose between performing with his brother or being treated like a human being. Harold had to, chose the second for a time. Remained in Paris. Ended up coming home to be with his brother.

Here they are reunited at the Hollywood Palace in 1965. Fayard is 51.

How wonderful they are. How angry I remain at this larger context and history.

Finally to end, and to end on the wonderful just as the talk did, the most wonderful routine of all (of all!) from Stormy Weather, which we are lucky enough to have tickets to see on the big screen on Sunday!

I am going to learn to tap dance. I will not be good, but perhaps I might come to express some of my joy with my feet in such a way…

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Power and Powerlessness: John Gaventa on Appalachia

John Gaventa Power and PowerlessnessI loved John Gaventa’s book on power. I read it a good while ago, but it came to me as I read more and more about social movement analysis that it would be good to look at it again — and the more I love it. Because it does not start from the question of why do people organise and challenge power, but from the question of why they don’t do it more often.

This is a study about quiescence and rebellion in a situation of glaring inequality. Why, in a social relationship involving the domination of a non-élite by an élite, does challenge to that domination not occur? What is there in certain situations of social deprivation that prevents issues from arising, grievances from being voiced, or interests from being recognized? Why, in an oppressed community where one might intuitively expect upheaval, does one instead find, or appear to find, quiescence? Under what conditions and against what obstacles does rebellion begin to emerge? (3)

That, I think, is the right question. Not surprising, I suppose, from someone who was the director of the Highlander Center after Myles Horton. Gaventa names some of the theories that help explain this before replacing them with something much better:

…the sociological literature of industrial societies offers an array of explanations for its roots: embourgeoisement, hegemony, no real inequality, low rank on a socio-economic status scale, cultural deficiencies of the deprived, or simply the innate apathy of the human race…Rather than deal with these directly, this study will explore another explanation: in situations of inequality, the political response of the deprived group or class may be seen as a function of power relationships, such that power serves for the development and maintenance of the quiescence of the non-élite. The emergence of rebellion, as a corollary, may be understood as the process by which the relationships are altered.   (4)

It looks to the question: what is that nature of power? Bases its analysis not on Foucault, but on Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View, and the way this debate on power has expanded C. Wright Mills.

Lukes (& Gaventa) on Power

Lukes argues that power consists of three dimensions. Gaventa summarises as do I — given that Lukes is still on my stack of books unread:

One-Dimensional Approach: the pluralists, like Robert Dahl and Nelson Polsby. Quoting Dahl:

My intuitive idea of power is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do.’*

This definition is focused on behaviour, on doing, on participating.

It makes the following assumptions

  1. grievances are assumed to be recognized and acted upon
  2. participation is assumed to occur within decision-making arenas, which are open to any organized group (5)
  3. because of the openness of this system, leaders may be studied, not as élites, but as representative spokesmen for a mass

Gaventa describes the consequences:

Political silence, or inaction, would have to be taken to reflect ‘consensus’, despite the extent of the deprivation… To make plausible inaction among those for whom the status quo is not comfortable, other explanations are provided…because the study of non-participation in this approach is sequestered by definition from the study of power, the explanations must generally be placed within the circumstance or culture of the non-participants themselves. (7)

We know the list: apathy, political inefficacy, cynicism or alienation…amoral familism (I think I knew that was on the list).

Gaventa asks:

What is there inherent in low income, education or status, or in rural or traditional cultures that itself explains quiescence? If these are sufficient components of explanation, how are variations in behaviour amongst such groups to be explained? (8)

Groups do sometimes rise up, fight back. Something else must be going, so we move to the two-dimensional approach, introduced by Schattschneider, further developed by Bachrach and Baratz (again, none of whom I have read).

… power’s ‘second face’, by which power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether. (9)

Thus, power’s second dimension and

The study of politics must focus ‘both on who gets what, when and how and who gets left out and how’** (9)

Here’s another good explanatory quote from Michael Parenti ‘Power and Pluralism: A View form the Bottom’ Journal of Politics 32 (1970)

‘One of the most important aspects of power is not to prevail in a struggle but to pre-determine the agenda of struggle…

But still, this is not sufficient to explain the patterns in resistence and acquiescence that we see. Lukes brings in the three-dimensional approach, here he is quoted by Gaventa:

A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.

A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants.

Gaventa continues, his own commentary puctuated by quotes from Lukes again:

the analysis of power must avoid the individualistic, behavioural confines of the one- and to some extent the two-dimensional approaches. It must allow ‘for consideration of the many ways in which the potential issues are kept out of politics, whether through the operation of social forces and institutional practices or through individuals’ decisions…the three-dimensional view … offers the prospect of a serious sociological and not merely personalized explanation of how political systems prevent demands from becoming political issues or even from being made.

this allows considerations of social forces and historical patterns involved in hegemony per Gramsci, and Ralph Milliband’s work on the engineering of consent (in The State in Capitalist Society which I maybe should read).

No dimension cancels out the others, they work in combination and each level represents a mechanism of power:

1st — ‘who prevails in bargaining over the resolution of key issues…political resources–votes, jobs, influence–that can be brought by political actors to the bargaining game…(14)

2nd — same as above, and in addition a ‘mobilization of bias’. Continues to quote Bachrach and Baratz

A set of predominant values, beliefs, rituals, and institutional procedures (‘rules of the game’) that operate systematically and consistently to the benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others. (1970, p, 43)

Some of the forms of non-decision making: force, threat of sanctions, invocations of norms and precedents, manipulation of symbols (like ‘communist’ and ‘troublemaker’), establishing of new barriers. These are easily identifiable, others exist that are not so observable, like institutional inaction, or B deciding not to make a demand of A for fear of anticipated reactions.

3rd — least developed and understood

Their identification, one suspects, involves specifying the means through which power influences, shapes or determines conceptions of the necessities, possibilities, and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict.

could include

‘study of social myths, language and symbols’, ‘study of communication of information’, ‘focus upon the means by which social legitimations are developed around the dominant, and instilled as beliefs or roles in the dominated’, ‘locating the power processes behind the social construction of meaning and patterns that serve to get B to act and believe…’ (15)

Thus we have direct and observable forms: control of information, mass media, processes of socialization. Indirect: psychological adaptations to the state of being without power, adaptive responses to continual defeat, extensive fatalism, self-deprecation, undue apathy. Greater susceptibility to internalization of values and beliefs.

This understanding develops from Freire — people are unable to engage actively with others, denied ability to reflect upon actions or act upon them. Gaventa quotes Gramsci:

…it can reach the point where the contradiction of conscience will not permit any decision, any choice, and produce a state of moral and political passivity. (Gramsci 1957, p 67)

Gaventa argues

the dimensions of power, each with its sundry mechanisms, must be seen as a interrelated in the totality of their impact. (20)

Thus all of these dimensions of power insulate A from challenge from B, but — and Gaventa looks always to how these injustices can be overcome, which is again why I think this is so useful:

as the barriers are overcome, so, too, do A’s options for control lessen. And, just as the dimensions of power are accumulative and re-enforcing for the maintenance of quiescence, so, too, does the emergence of challenge in one area of a power relationship weaken the power of the total to withstand further challenges by more than the loss of a single component. (24)

Methodology for studying power

Gaventa writes:

rather than assuming the inaction or inertia to be ‘natural’ in the mass and activism as the phenomena to be explained (as is done in the pluralist methodology), this approach initially assumes that remedial action upon inequalities by those affected would occur were it not for power relationships. (26)

How do you see it? Understand the mechanisms by which repressive power relationships are operating? This

… requires going outside the decision-making arenas and carrying on extensive, time-consuming research in the community in question. (27)

Thus it is necessary to:

1 — look at the historical development of an apparent ‘consensus’, whether this has actually been a choice, or shaped by power relationships

2 — look at processes of communication, ideologies and actions

3 — to posit or participate in ideas or actions which speculate about or attempt to develop challenges — response will shower if power relations operating (27).

Like Stuart Hall, Gaventa has a poor opinion of the idea of ‘false consciousness:

The unfortunate term ‘false consciousness’ must be avoided, for it is analytically confusing. Consciousness refers to a state, as in a state of being, and thus can only be falsified through negation of the state itself. If consciousness exists, it is real to its holders, and thus to the power situation. To discount it as ‘false’ may be to discount too simply the complexities or realities of the situation…To argue that existing consciousness cannot be ‘false’ is not to argue the same for consensus. (29)

To illustrate both this understanding of power and this method of its study, Gaventa then goes on to destroy any possible belief that the ‘acquiescence’ of coal miners in the Appalachians is due to their own lack of intelligence, culture or because they are happy and smiling in their work.

First he details the precise ways the American Association first came to own 80,000 acres of land in the Cumberland Gap — and the way this first key encounter of people losing their lands through essentially a combination of brute force and fraud had been internalized as their own fault. He outlines the power this company came to hold over its tenants and local power structures. He oulines the ideology developed to support this power:

  • the notion of ‘a common purpose’ in mining and development
  • the idea that benefits were attainable by all through hard work
  • the idea that the new structures represented progress, civilization
  • rewriting the old ways of mountaineer, which were shaped by their relationship to nature and their harmony with it, to be seen as man’s role as a conqueror

Where there had been a solidarity of family and farm there was now an industrial solidarity…Although life had involved work before, it had not been so gloried — nor bought as a mass product. Where there had been a sense of contentment, there was a progress that transformed. Where there had been a struggle to obtain a harmony with nature, this civilization would dominate nature and free the creating capacities of man. However, for the study of power it is not enough to say that this was a different ideology; one must look at the processes or mechanisms through which it was instilled. (62)

Gaventa sees this as a complex process of colonialism, one  occurred driven by the initial mining boom in Middlesboro in at least 4 observable ways:

  1. A distortion of information: the industrial order was introduced to the mountaineers’ society by conspicuous consumption, with an exaggerated demonstration of its benefits (63) Made into a resort, attracted the wealthy. —
  2. The exaggerated attractiveness of the industrial order, on the one hand, carried with it the degradation of the culture and society of the mountaineers, on the other. (65) Similar to process of racialism in colonization process. Glorification of the one culture and degradation of the other could combine with the ideology of openness and hard work to help ensure a ‘choice’ by the mountaineers to pursue the new values. (66)
  3. More direct appropriation of local culture — replacement of old names in places of cultural development with new names from foreign cultures, while places of work and mines retained old labels. ‘By the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena…the development of a counterhegemony was made less likely…(67)
  4. connected to socializing influences of government, church and school controlled by the Company.

Gaventa notes an increase of violence, but horizontal against each other (refers back to Freire who also describes this). Compares to other similar regions, shows that:

the ‘consensus’ of the miners in Yellow Creek was inherent neither in their conditions nor in their nature, but grew from the effective wielding of power–in all its dimensions–by the new ‘instruments’ of civilization. (75)

Gaventa continues through the historical formation that elads us to the present. After the initial boom and destruction of previous ways of life and though came the rise of unionisation, the violence of its destruction, and the maintenance of power relationships into the present (of the book’s writing of course). He gives several case studies.

Throughout the book Gaventa focused on the articulation of structure and culture (though articulation is not a word he uses, and comes of course from Stuart Hall, but this is exactly the relationship Hall is trying to examine as well). He looks at how local politics is entirely within the control of the power structure. He returns to the various approaches to power and how they illuminate current conditions, showing the interrelated nature of these forms of exercising power.

He ends with an account of a current (1980) struggle, a campaign that began organizing around garbage collection, then started to move towards land reform given that the land was not owned by those who lived or worked there, but by people living far away. Those in struggle found that this was the crux of the problem. You want to see power relations in action, you try such a challenge. Gaventa describes the repression they faced: twenty-bullets through a community worker’s home, office of health and development group burned down, alternative school also destroyed by fire (214). People branded as communists, ignored by local government and agencies.

A later campaign against the multinational company owning the land couldn’t even discover where ownership actually resided, much less how to make them accountable.

I loved the dark humour of this:

Although the power of decision and non-decisions may allow the powerholder to remain beyond protest, the powerlessness of the protestors does not protect them from repercussions from their actions. (249)

Also this:

The fact that the discontent is so often overlooked says less about the Valley than it does about the methodological biases found in the dominant approach in American to the study of power (252-53)

A historical approach is needed to  reveal

the shaping of patterns and routines which underlie the power relationships of the present … just as a ‘view from below’ allowed a unique perspective of ‘power’s hidden faces’ (253)

He continues:

Only as these multiple aspects of powerlessness are overcome may the conflict that emerges in power’s first dimension be said to be amongst relatively competing groups, upon clearly conceived interests, in an open arena.

Rebellion, to be successful, must both confront power and overcome the accumulated effects of powerlessness. (258)

To end on a high note with hope for the future:

While the notion of universal democracy in America may consequently be a myth, it is not an impotent one. As long as the belief in ‘openness’ can be sustained, the phenomenon of power may continue to be separated from the understanding of non-participation. And as long as the roots of quiescence can continue to be blamed upon the victims of power, then democracy of the few will continue to be legitimated by a prevailing belief in the apathy or ignorance of the many. (260)

 

*’The Concept of Power’ in Bell, Edwards, Harrison Wagner (eds) (1969) Political Power: A Reader in Theory and Research’ p 80

**Bachrach and Baratz (1962) and (1970)

[Gaventa, John. (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.]

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Red Summer: Lynchings in 1919

10805364This was a liberal, journalistic account of one of the most horrifying years in U.S. history. It didn’t feel wholly situated in a much longer history of racism, white mobs, black struggle, anti-lynching struggle, neither in the history that came before or what has come since. But it gives a solidly documented introduction to a year too much forgotten.

Because look at what a year it was, even as whites were celebrating the end of the ‘war to end all wars’:

redsummermapHere is an awesome quote from Du Bois on the possibility that Blacks once saw for this year, for the end of WWI:

“By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” “Returning Soldiers, Crisis May 1919

Another from black war veteran, Paul Filton, to a Brooklyn newspaper, exposing the intricacies of race and racial hierarchies:

‘We are not ‘wards’ of this nation, as are the Indians. We are component parts of this body politic. We have helped  to gain the Victory for Democracy and we must share the fruits. (50)

But the year didn’t work out the way people hoped, neither for the African American freedom struggle nor any other radical struggle for meaningful change. Why did I not know (or not remember?) that attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s house was actually bombed in June of 1919? FDR was living across the street. Carlo Valdinoci, the Italian anarchist bomber, was blown to pieces with it.

I suppose this helps explain, then, why Palmer should get together with the ‘ambitious young bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover’ to stamp out radicalism.

Palmer and his agents came to believe blacks were susceptible to Communists and anarchists because of their subservient status, so they set out to prove that revolutionaries were recruiting blacks. Palmer defined radicalism broadly, and would include the legitimate political efforts of black activists. (56)

There’s President Woodrow Wilson — I had forgotten what a racist bastard that man was. A good quote from him: “Black American soldiers were being treated as equals by the French, and it has gone to their heads.” (56)

An interesting aside from the book — that this was not just happening in the US, and that there were also riots in London, Liverpool, Cardiff in 1919:

As many as 2,000 ex-soldiers and ex-sailors armed with guns, razors, sticks, and stones paraded in the streets, smashing windows and attacking blacks and Arabs. Two blacks died. By month’s end, Cardiff officials ‘raptariated’ more than 150 blacks to colonies. (74)

But on to the long list of U.S.-grown horror. Starting with the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi.

Lynchers cut off Hartfield’s fingers. They let him dangle from a branch, then they shot him. They burned the corpse. The extrajudicial killing took place promptly at 5 p.m., as was publicized in advance in publications from New Orleans to New York. (68)

This shit was publicized.

In Bisbee, so close to home — Black Buffalo soldiers arrived to march in the 4th of July parade, they were there to guard border from Pancho Villa — and inroads from the Mexican revolution. Yet the night of 3rd of July  ended in battle through Brewery Gulch, 4 black soldiers killed, 2 beaten, dozens in custody.

Above all, however, given the numbers of returning soldiers from WWI, more and more blacks were set to fight back. In Washington D.C., white mobs inspired the gathering of many armed black men. From a letter from Neval Thomas to Archibald Grimké:

There were at least 2000 Negroes, many with pistols showing, declaring their purpose to die for their race, and defy the white move, which was announced as coming to colored sections. (105)

In Knoxville:

Blacks set up a rough perimeter at the entrance to their area, just northwest of downtown. They shot out streetlights and overturned a gravel truck to strengthen their defensive position. (177)

More curious:

The violence–complete with drunken whites destroying a county jail, ransacking the sheriff’s home, and looting downtown businesses–exploded southerners’ smug view that they only lynched guilty individuals, whereas northerners attacked blacks solely because of their skin color. (181)

Did they really hold that smug view? They must have held some kind of view justifying such violence.

In Elaine in Phillips County, turns out no one knows how many killed. White authorities claimed 24, James Weldon Johnson, head of NAACP between 200 and 400. White Arkansas journalist L. Sharpe Dunaway claimed 856.

It all started with Blacks organizing themselves to get better prices for their cotton. A quasi-secret dues joint stock society started up called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Robert Hill, returned vet from WWI helped start one up in Phillips County. One of their meetings was shot up by whites. Yet as whites rampaged and murdered Black people, this is the telegram sent by governor Charles Hillman Brough:

RACE RIOT AT ELAINE PHILLIPS COUNTY THIS STATE FOUR WHITE SAID TO BE KILLED NEGROES SAID TO BE MASSING FOR ATTACK REQUEST COMMANDING GENERAL CAMP PIKE BE AUTHORIZED TO SEND SUCH UNITED STATES TROOPS AS MAY BE NECESSARY. (219)

Another map, showing the best guesses for lynchings in this area from the New York Times:

lunch

A whole lot of lynchings. Hundreds of them in 1919.

This is a quote from a circular ‘to the Negroes of Phillips County’ from the white ‘Committee of Seven’ set up to control the situation:

STOP TALKING
STAY AT HOME
GO TO WORK
DON’T WORRY (224)

At the end of all this? A grand jury indicted 122 blacks ‘on charges relating to the ‘insurrection’, 73 of them with murder.’ (226)

No whites.

Something else I didn’t know about the report Palmer and Hoover cooked up to justify the raids, more money for the department, and Palmer’s potential run for president on the democratic ticket. It was 186 pages long, the first 101 on foreign radicals (this is when Emma Goldman and everyone else was deported after all), but the remaining pages were all devoted to a ‘collection of quotations from black publications about resisting white violence.’ (240)

I am going to have to read that.

This perhaps helps explain why the NAACP played along with red baiting to such a large extent. At their convention against lynching they tried to use ‘spectres of subversives’ to their advantage, warning that without justice blacks would turn to the IWW or communists. (79)

Interesting also that even then, Southern delegates were the ones most determined to fight for the right to the ballot — foreshadowing the SCLC and SNCC’s citizenship work, and emphasising to me at least, that this was never a top-down or purely strategic kind of campaign.

In Bogalusa a bit of good — unionizing the lumber yards, whites still had blacks set up their own separate union when they were brought in to break the white union. But they did manage to work together, and white union members defended black union members against a mob, giving up their lives. I can see why McWhirter ended on this, as a bit of a high note after such a catalogue of death. Most of the stories aren’t even in this blog, it is battering.

But in the end, what this really doesn’t manage to deal with, is why, how. Liberals always fall short on that. I stared at the pictures found together in a familiar insert in the middle of the book and was reminded of Hilton Als being asked to write a piece on lynching. Thinking about the fear in the eyes of whites when he came near, but really, it is whites who should engender fear. So much reading, research, and this violence seeps in. I am afraid of white people, though I am one. At least these men would have killed me for my beliefs, not just for the colour of my skin. I stare at them and do not understand…but surely this is where the fear in their own eyes comes from.

tumblr_kx1lrckgXn1qz503po1_1280To me there is no good came out of 1919 but for a new kind of pride that survived it, though it came along with wariness, and was often silent. Reading books like Charles Cobb’s about the conversations and debates between nonviolence and violence, you still get a strong sense of this pride that continued on between WWI and WWII, and the way it revived. The way this became a foundation for renewed struggle.

Yet the ability of people to stand up for themselves with this memory not even a generation back… my admiration is ever stronger.

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Danielle McGuire — Black Women, Rape and Resistance

Danielle McGuire - At the Dark End of the StreetI love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:

The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long  struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)

I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.

My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.

Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:

Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)

Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:

Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)

Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951.  There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.

But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:

he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)

In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.

Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.

They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women  to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.

Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.

I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:

As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)

But look at this picture

African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)
African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)

A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:

When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)

Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.

Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:

fa6faa517d38a9dfd1e0fbb2f5d41e30

They all knew this boycott had changed things.

Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)

Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.

There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.

1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.

Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.

In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)

Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:

That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)

Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they

knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)

She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.

On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.

Such vileness.

McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)

All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)

There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but  the FBI’s role. (225)

Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.

McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it

‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)

And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:

The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)

[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]

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