Tag Archives: feminism

Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.

 

Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee
http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0007/G-0007.html

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Beginning Postcolonialism: John McLeod

Beginning PostcolonialismBeginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.

Postcolonial Basics

I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:

the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)

Without a hyphen?

referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)

Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:

is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)

Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:

…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)

Said, orientalism and literary studies

There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:

explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)

What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:

Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)

This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of  how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:

  1. re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)

  2. examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)

  3. A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)

This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…

I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)

Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:

Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.

McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):

Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)

More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:

‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)

‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’

third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)

Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:

‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)

Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:

  • Orientalism constructs binary oppositions

  • Orientalism is a Western fantasy

  • Orientalism is institutional

  • Orientalism is literary and creative

  • Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating

  • There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism

Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.

But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:

colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)

So of course there is room here to maneuver.

Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)

All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.

I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that.  The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:

Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)

What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing

how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)

Nationalism and nationalist discourses

There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the  discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:

“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)

The there is Balibar writing about the way that

nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)

Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where

nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)

With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:

nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)

Gender

I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:

a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)

This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…

So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)

I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…

As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)

Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:

Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)

I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:

involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).

I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.

Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference

I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…

In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)

This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:

The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)

Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:

Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).

This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.

[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]

*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227

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Patricia Hill Collins: Academia, Education and Speaking to Power

Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.

For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)

More that rings so true:

Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)

This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:

As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)

That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)

In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.

We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:

My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)

So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.

Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)

Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:

A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)

Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:

How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)

At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :

help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:

  1. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

  2. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?

  3. does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)

I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:

In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)

This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:

The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)

But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:

I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)

I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:

There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)

The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:

In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)

We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.

These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.

Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)

That means:

…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)

That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.

Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)

and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes

Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)

But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:

Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)

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Stars Falling is out today

Stars fallingA new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.

I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.

So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’

I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.

This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.

I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.

I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.

I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.

I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.

Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.

Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.

Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.

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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:

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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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Vandana Shiva: Biopiracy

3354758Vandana Shiva is amazing — I only recently read her for the first time and had my giant activist-writer crush, but Biopiracy might have been even better. Another three of her books were sitting on the shelves here, happy days, so I picked this one up.

Colonialism and capitalism vs life with insights into all three. I loved it, and am finding it very useful in thinking about how we arrived where we are now and just what we are up against as well as where hope lies.

I’m going to be a little sneaky and start with the summation and quotes from the conclusion as an overview. Shiva is arguing that there have been three waves of globalization – the 1st through the initial colonization by European powers, the 2nd through the imposition of the ‘Western idea of ‘development’ during the postcolonial era over the past five decades, and the 3rd  unleashed approximately 5 years ago through ‘free trade’ and the commodification of life itself. Biopiracy. She argues that

… each time a global order has tried to wipe out diversity and impose homogeneity, disorder and disintegration have been induced, not removed. (105)

This process of continuing destruction and disorder is, in many ways, all rooted in that first wave of colonisation, that initial period of destruction and violence that continues on through our present. This is one of the key transformations I think, and this environmentalist and feminist lens such an interesting angle to look at the issue from:

‘Resource’ originally implied life…regeneration…With the rise of industrialism and colonialism a shift in meaning took place. ‘Natural resources’ became inputs for industrial commodity production and colonial trade. Nature was transformed into dead and manipulable matter. Its capacity to renew and grow had been denied. The violence against nature, and the disruption of its delicate interconnections, was a necessary part of denying its self-organizing capacity. And this violence against nature, in turn, translated into violence in society.

Anything not fully managed or controlled by European men was seen as a threat. This included nature, non-Western societies, and women. What was self-organized was considered wild, out of control, and uncivilized. When self-organization is perceived as chaos, it creates a context to impose a coercive and violent order for the betterment and improvement of the ‘other’, whose intrinsic order is then disrupted and destroyed.

This is such a key insight on the intrinsic connection between violence and capitalism, the ways that violence against nature is mirrored by and indivisible from violence against society. The nature of this violence has changed, but has the same roots and is manifested through all three waves.

I don’t quite know why I am so fascinated by its beginnings, but so I am. So are many others, luckily, and the intro really gets into it–   ‘Piracy Through patents: The Second Coming of Columbus’:

Columbus set a precedent when he treated the license to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of European men. The land titles issued by the pope through European kings and queens were the first patents. The colonizer’s freedom was built on the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. this violent takeover was rendered ‘natural’ by defining the colonized people as nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.

John Locke’s treatise on property effectually legitimized this same process of theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly articulated capitalism’s freedom to build as the freedom to steel: property is created by removing resources from nature and mixing them with labour. This ‘labour’ is not physical, but labour in its ‘spiritual’ form, as manifested in the control of capital. According to Locke, only those who own capital have the natural right to own natural resources, a right that supersedes the common rights of others with prior claims. Capital is thus defined as a source of freedom that, at the same time, denies freedom to the land, forests, rivers, and biodiversity that capital claims as its own, and to others whose rights are based on their labour. (8-9)

This is well on point too:

It seems that the Western powers are still driven by the colonizing impulse: to discover, conquer, own, and possess everything, every society, every culture. The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the ‘genetic codes’ of life forms from microbes and plants to animals, including humans. (9)

On to biopiracy:

At the heart of Columbus’s discovery was the treatment of piracy as a natural right of the colonizer, necessary for the deliverance of the colonized… Biopiracy is the Columbian ‘discovery’ 500 years after Columbus. Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been colonized, eroded, and polluted. capital now has to look for new colonies to invade and exploit for its further accumulation. These new colonies are, in my view, interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants and animals. Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to the ultimate colonization of life itself–of the future of evolution as well as the future of non-Western traditions of relating to and knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve. It is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity. (11)

There is so much in here specific to law and policy — lots about the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT), the Uruguay round in 1994 that set up the requirement of signing on to TRIPS, or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that brought patenting into international trade agreements. I have focused more on the broader ideas and philosophies, though I love that this a book to incite and facilitate meaningful struggle to change these terrifying and unjust world systems.

She starts with a very interesting look at the nature of creativity.

1: Knowledge, Creativity and Intellectual Property Rights

What is creativity? This is at the heart of the current debates about patents on life. Patents on life enclose the creativity inherent in living systems that reproduce and multiply in self-organized freedom. They enclose the interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants, and animals. They also enclose the free spaces of intellectual creativity by transforming publicly generated knowledge into private property. Intellectual property rights on life forms are supposed to reward and stimulate creativity. their impact is actually the opposite–to stifle the creativity intrinsic to life forms and the social production of knowledge. (13)

She examines three different kinds of creativity:

1. The creativity inherent in living organisms that allows them to evolve, recreate and regenerate themselves.
2. The creativity of indigenous communities that have developed knowledge systems to conserve and utilize the rich biological diversity of our planet
3. The creativity of modern scientists in university of corporate laboratories who find ways to use living organisms to generate profits. (14)

Only the third kind of creativity is acknowledged under Intellectual Property Rights systems as defined under GATT, the biodiversity convention, or the lovely U.S. Trade Act which includes the Special 301 clause – this is, she argues ‘a prescription for a monoculture of language’ (15)

All of this marks the ongoing shift from common rights to private rights, as well as a world where knowledge is recognized only when it generates profits, rather than when it meets social needs. Central to this is the idea that people will only innovate if they can profit from their innovation through a system of patent protection. This is so ludicrous yet so ubiquitous.

It is clear why such a lethal combination of ideas leads to the destruction cultural commons and skews research away from areas that are key in terms of importance and or social need, to focus on profit-generating studies.

This is an enclosure of the intellectual commons, and I am loving the idea of commons broadened in this way.

2: Can Life Be Made? Can Life be Owned? Redefining Biodiversity

This describes how the patenting of genes and new strains created in laboratories have been redefined as ‘biotechnological invention’ so that they can be made proprietary. The corporate argument for the right to patent such things is that they are new, ‘invented’ by human beings. For tehse same genes present in food that people are attempting to refrain from eating or demanidning that they be identified, corporate arguments are that they are perfectly natural and therefore harmless.

Again to the subject of violence:

Patenting living organisms encourages two forms of violence. First, life forms are treated as if they are mere machines, thus denying their self-organizing capacity. Second, by allowing the patenting of future generations of plants and animals, the self-reproducing capacity of living organisms is denied. (29)

I also found this look at reductionist biology quite interesting, and a critique that is interesting to think through around other issues of diversity in relation to other kinds of  positivism in the social sciences.

Reductionism biology is multifaceted. At the species level, this reductionism puts value on only one species—humans—and generates an instrumental value for all others. It therefore displaces and pushes to extinction all species whose instrumental value to humans is small or non-existent. Monocultures of species and biodiversity erosion are the inevitable consequences of reductionist thought in biology, especially when applied to forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. We call this first-order reductionism.

Reductionist biology is increasingly characterized by a second-order reductionism—genetic reductionism—the reduction of all behaviour of biological organisms, including humans, to genes. Second-order reductionism amplifies the ecological risks of first-order reductionism, while introducing new issues, like the patenting of life forms. (30)

Epistemologically, it leads to a machine view of the world and its rich diversity of life forms. It makes us forget that living organisms organize themselves. It robs us of our capacity for the reverence of life—and without that capacity, protection of the diverse species on the planet is impossible. (35)

Living systems are self-organized, complex, diverse, characterized by self-healing and repair. They are resilient (one of the latest buzzwords) and adaptable, all those things being praised by the new thinking around networks and connectivity being written about by Fritjof Capra, Nabeel Hamdi, permaculturists, transitionists, and slime mould enthusiasts among others.

The freedom for diverse species and ecosystems to self-organize is the basis of ecology. Ecological stability derives from the ability of species and ecosystems to adapt, evolve and respond. (36)

Seems like it makes sense that we do our best to think this way all the time. I like how this is as true of a smallholding such as the one I am working on now, as it is for the East End community I was in before I came here. Instead we have the likes of Monsanto with their weed killers, and scary chemical escalations. There is plenty in this chapter about such things, if you needed more ammunition for your Monsanto-driven fury.

3. The Seed and the Earth

Regeneration lies at the heart of life: it has been the central principle guiding sustainable societies. Without regeneration, there can be no sustainability. Modern industrial society, however, has no time for thinking about regeneration, and therefore no space for living regeneratively. Its devaluation of the processes of regeneration are the causes of both the ecological crisis and the crisis of sustainability. (47)

Only capitalism and the placing of profit above all things, including life itself, would strive to erase the capacity to regenerate, because that is just insane. Yet Monsanto and others have been working at it for years. This is, of course, connected to power, and Shive argues it is rooted long ago when the facilitating ideas of production and value emerged.

The continuity between regeneration in human and nonhuman nature that was the basis of all ancient worldviews was broken by patriarchy. People were separated from nature, and the creativity involved in processes of regeneration was denied. Creativity became the monopoly of men, who were considered to be engaged in production; women were engaged in mere reproduction or recreation…looked upon as non-productive. (47)

Thus we enter the third phase of globalization and biopiracy, as organisms become the new colonies. While the colonisation of land became possible through new technologies of guns etc,

‘Biotechnology as the handmaiden of capital in the post-industrial era, makes it possible to colonize and control that which is autonomous, free, and self-regenerative. ‘

‘While ancient patriarchy used the symbol of the active seed and the passive earth, capitalist patriarchy, through the new biotechnologies, reconstitutes the seed as passive, and locates activity and creativity in the engineering mind. (49)

‘From Terra Mater to Terra Nullius‘ — a subheading that ties all of this back to the land, back to the redefinitions of words to justify conquest and murder over centuries:

All sustainable cultures, in their diversity, have viewed the earth as terra mater. The patriarchal construct of the passivity of earth and the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius served two purposes: it denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants, and it negated the regenerative capacity and life processes of the earth. (50)

Colonialism redefined indigenous peoples as part of natural flora and fauna, while the Green Revolution served as a second colonisation of earth defined as terra nullius through an erasing of the existence and importance of the ecological diversity of soil. It needed massive and expensive inputs for profit to take place.

The commodified seed is ecologically incomplete and ruptured at two levels: First, it does not reproduce itself, whereas by definition seed is a regenerative resource…Second, it does not produce by itself: it needs the help of other purchased inputs… (54)

A perfect pairing to maximise profit. Thus the patenting of seeds.

Another definition I quite love, and hope to think through more are these conceptions of ideological boundaries defined and contested:

The transformation of value into disvalue, labour into nonlabour, knowledge into non-knowledge, is achieved by two very powerful constructs: the production boundary and the creation boundary.

The production boundary is a political construct that excludes regenerative, renewable production cycles from the domain of production…When economies are confined to the marketplace, self-sufficiency in the economic domain is seen as economic deficiency. The devaluation of women’s work, and of work done in subsistence economies in the Third World, is the natural outcome of a production boundary constructed by capitalist patriarchy.

The creation boundary does to knowledge what the production boundary does to work: it excludes the creative contributions of women as well as Third World peasants and tribespeople, and vies them as being engaged in unthinking, repetitive, biological processes. (65)

Here the importance of rebuilding connections, where salvation lies:

The source of patriarchal power over women and nature lies in separation and fragmentation…Understanding and sensing connections and relationships is the ecological imperative.
The main contribution of the ecology movement has been the awareness that there is no separation between mind and body, human and nature. Nature consists of the relationships and connections that provide the very conditions for our life and health. This politics of connection and regeneration…(66)

4. Biodiversity and People’s Knowledge

The cradle of Biodiversity is the tropics, yet it is even now being destroyed through destruction of habitat and homogenization of crops and culture. Once a commons, all of it is now being enclosed as local knowledge is displaced and devalued in favour of specialized scientific knowledge, and gift economies around seeds replaced with patents. There is lots here about ‘Bioprospecting’, and how it is given ‘legitimacy’ by the WTO or world bank through corporations paying off indigenous peoples for the knowledge they share only to find they are then refused access to it. Really it is all biopiracy.

We need to recover our biodiversity commons.

5. Tripping Over Life

This focuses on the TRIPs agreement in GATT (get the chapter title now?), and how it: allows for the monopolization of life; promotes monocultures so destructive to biodiversity; requires more and more chemical inputs and thus causes more pollution as well as new forms of pollution through GMOs and resistant weeds and pests;  undermines any ethic of conservation trough instrumentalisation of people and other species. It also alienates rights of people to the land they live on as produce sold elsewhere, cuts their connections and sense of stewardship.

You want ammunition to win the argument that all these acronyms are evil? You will find it all here.

6. Making Peace with Life

A final paragraph on violence and monoculture — this fascinated me perhaps more than anything else, as I have worked so much researching segregation and white obsessions with purity and homogeneity that they have defended with such everyday grassroots violence. These are so clearly associated one with the other, and there is so much more here I think to be investigated.

Homogenization and monocultures introduce violence at many levels. Monocultures are always associated with political violence—the use of coercion, control, and centralization. Without centralized control and coercive force, this world filled with the richness of diversity cannot be transformed into homogenous structures, and the monocultures cannot be maintained….

Monocultures are also associated with ecological violence—a declaration of war against nature’s diverse species. This violence not only pushes species toward extinction, but controls and maintains monocultures the,selves. Monocultures are non-sustainable and vulnerable to ecological breakdown. Uniformity implies that a disturbance to one part of a system is translated into a disturbance to other parts Instead of being contained, ecological destabilization tends to be amplified. (103-104)

This book is wonderful, and I am looking forward to reading more. Like Making Peace With the Earth, this was quite short, packed full of information, equally rich in theoretical insights as well as devastating factual information.

Always, she tries to point a pathway to a better future, and this is never tacked on at the end.

[Shiva, Vandana (1998) Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.]

 

The Beginnings of the Fantastic Four

Fantastic FourI am enjoying working my way through these early comics. Funnily enough, I rather disliked the Fantastic Four as characters unlike the Hulk, who was tortured, an outsider, stuck living a dual life and managing two identities, both of which were feared and disrespected I think, in different ways. Bruce Banner the scientist viewed as tricky and effeminate by the general, the Hulk viewed as overly animal and brutal and terrifyingly strong.

The Fantastic Four fit right in with American society — so obviously I don’t really get them. They’re loved by the public — with some ups and downs of course, or where would be the drama? But mostly ups. The Thing has some of the existential angst of the Hulk (and there’s an interesting angle on race here, and how these two play into stereotypes about ‘the other’, especially Black men, you can read more on Mark’s post about the new Fantastic Four film) but here the Thing seems marginalized in his rather boring stupidity and crankiness and obsession with a few street thugs, while the Invisible Girl is out buying Dior dresses and the Flame is kissing girls in the latest model of Ford. Stretchy dude is just tinkering away with things that can destroy the whole world, and making occasional appearances which send red-blooded American women swooning.

But there’s a hell of a lot of urban and architectural geekery to be found here. I mean, only the second issue in, you get  a secret headquarters! Complete with cut-away diagram! It even has a giant map room (3rd March, 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)! I particularly love the note to save it for future reference…as the complexities of future stories might drive you back to the Gormenghastian reaches of this skyscraper…

Fantastic Four

Or maybe not. That’s the comic I would have written I guess. By the 5th of July (still Lee and Kirby, always Lee and Kirby fabulous tag-team that they are) the Fantastic Four have had to expand — they still have the missiles, but the living quarters are better explained, there’s a gym and a trophy room/weapons collection. Ammo room. Of course. It’s a pretty fascinating glimpse of what any super-rich superhero might want their building, along with some pretty awesome exposition explaining how the entrance is protected by a special elevator. This is probably all in response to questions from eager fans designing their own secret headquarters in their head and wondering how the plumbing works, and I rather love it.

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

The fantasticar  (this is from 12th March 1963) gets similar kinds of explanation and exposition. It’s kind of sweet, especially as the early version totally did look like a flying bathtub.

Fantastic Four

 

 

Then there is this one time (6th Sept, 1962 Lee & Kirby) the whole skyscraper is picked up, fabulous adventures are had, and then returned safe and sound. So actually, scratch that about them giving any thought to the plumbing.

This is probably my single favourite frame — already, planning nerds of mine,  we see the unnatural yet taken-for-granted logics of a downtown that empties out late at night, except for a handful of people subject to hallucinations. Not explicitly caused by drink or drugs (though I think that may be taken for granted, they just can’t say it out loud in something targeted at kids), but of ‘the anxieties that plague our nuclear society.’ Damn. I think I’m right there, that anxieties of nuclear war are seen as less harmful to America’s kids than alcholism and LSD, but I could be wrong.

Fantastic Four

But wait. It gets crazier. There’s that episode where the Fantastic Four lose their money, can’t pay their rent, and so out they go. Evicted! This leaves their incredible super base with its missiles and laboratories FOR RENT. To the highest bidder. I couldn’t imagine a better argument for rent control in all of literature. Thank god it was just Sub-Mariner behind it all, back from when he was just kind of evil.

Fantastic FourI would also rather enjoy writing the spin-off series, Fantastic Four on skid row.

Then, too, which I appreciate as a writer, there’s that crazy moment when the creators themselves pierce the veil and emerge as characters. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, but them it never is, is it. Not even when it’s Italo Calvino.

Fantastic Four

There’s a lot of interaction between writer, artist and fans — these are as much celebrity mags as comics it feels like (apologies to all of you who will hate me forever for saying that). But there are separate sections responding to questions about the Fantastic Four’s lives and their lifestyle and how they deal with fame and stress.

Sadly this opened up the opportunity to show just how lame female superheroes were drawn — and how fans called those responsible out on it not by demanding stronger women, but by suggesting they just fade away into the background. In this episode Sue breaks down after receiving a bunch of hate mail about how she sucks (11th Feb, 1963). Who knew trolls were roaming the universe in this way before the internet?

Fantastic Four

 

Yes, you say! Set the record straight! But what is the best they can think of? Abraham Lincoln’s mother. It is by being mothers that women contribute most. But wait, you say, Sue isn’t even married, much less a mother! True, so we’ll relate that time or two where she didn’t have to be rescued, but actually used her powers for something useful.

Fantastic Four

A huge thank you to all the ladies of the 1960s (and those before and those after), who complained and raised their voices and fought this bullshit so we could be awesome outside our roles as mothers and wives, by actually doing all those things we are awesome at, and so kick ass women superheroes like…like…yeah, comics still aren’t so good at that. Tank Girl, Hopey and Luba and the other awesome ladies from Los Bros Hernandez Love and Rockets. Those are a few I know and love.

This damn collection ends like this:

Fantastic Four

God, what would those guys do if Sue didn’t clean, in silence so as not to disturb them? I can’t believe the fans are complaining.

I don’t want to end on quite that note though. So I’ll give you one of the things I really love — Jack Kirby’s imagining of an ancient city on the moon (13th April, 1963). Pretty cool and one of the reasons to love comics, but maybe not this one quite so much.

Fantastic Four

Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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