Tag Archives: violence

June Jordan’s March Song

Syria has been breaking my heart open, Palestine, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the present springing from a bloodied history of colonialism, intervention and horror. Today we are left with dead children. Numbed children. Cities flattened. Homes lost. Loves lost. Everything lost. People fleeing, suffering without succor. The racist idiocy in all of this of French police forcing women to strip themselves of veils and burkinis (fierce blogs out today here and here). I don’t write much about current happenings, other people are doing that much better than I could. The horror of a world at war, whole populations uprooted and struggling with violent death and loss, sits inside me though. Along with helplessness. Marching, signing petitions, emails, contributions…not enough. Recognizing that all of our struggles connect? Not enough either, but we must not forget it and we must wrestle with what that means. June Jordan did this with an integrity and a reach that humbles me. There is a wonderful blog here from Therese Saliba on June Jordan and her solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in essays and verse.

There is this poem from Living Room, 1985, a book dedicated to the children of Atlanta and Lebanon.

March Song

Snow knuckles melted to pearls
of black water
Face like a landslide of stars
in the dark.

Icicles plunging to waken the grave
Tree berries purple and bitten
by birds

Curves of horizon squeeze
on the sky
Telephone wires glide
down the moon

Outlines of space later
pieces of land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand

Asleep on a pillow the two
of us whisper we know
about apples and hot bread
and honey

Hunting for safety
and eager for peace
We follow the leaders who chew up
the land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand

I’m standing in place
I’m holding your hand
and pieces of children
on patches of sand (362-363)

Living room, room to live. This is from ‘Moving Towards Home’

I was born a Black woman
and now
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?

It is time to make our way home. (400)

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More poetry…

Hilton Als — White Girls

13239419Hilton Als… damn, White Girls was splendid and queer and pummeled me with pain and experience I can never know because of who I am. Though I am hell of well read, our daily-lived references of poets and words moved past each other almost never touching. Just like our preoccupations. Our ways of being in the world, especially the ways we are with others in the world…I have never ever been a we in the way he describes. I hated Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, and he loved her. I finally understood a little better how I feel about Michael Jackson. Things like that…well, they cracked me open a little more, the kind of gift you don’t even know to ask for, could never demand if you did know because you can feel the cost to its author. The kind of gift you are always grateful for. Even though it hurt just a little to read. At the same time, somehow, I can see why these words, many of them at least, would appeal to the readers of The New Yorker. They were the ones that pushed me further outside maybe, made me feel a bit of voyeur staring in at that cocktail party I never had the credentials to enter. Though maybe too they give me a little more appreciation for that literary streamlining of all that is ‘worthy’, swimming against the tide of my south west/west-coast poor white girl bias against anything held up to me as the place to find Culture with a capital C.

Maybe. It’s just another world, isn’t it, one among so many all scrambled up within us and outside of us. We tend to give ones like this a little more power though, I think. I resent that. But it’s nice to find something like this there though.

Just a few quotes — though the power of this book lies in nothing that can be quoted, just to warn you. That goes way beyond some insights into writers or society…

O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that Hod judges by actions, but virtually all her white woman characters judge by appearances. O’Conner greatly adired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers’ relationship to the Master…What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are the women who wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created? (121)

I don’t know what I love more, the vision of evil or O’Connor’s quote about Faulkner.  More on evil in the eyes of white people

Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stones. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes–fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.

And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be here talking to you right now at all: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and, with it, my mind. (135)

Damn.

I loved too the piece on Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little.

The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the coloured immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. (156)

But is it?

More on difference in thinking about Eminem, and his mother…

That Mathers should be open to a musical culture not his own is interesting. For some artists–white as well as black–there is the sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily. (173)

The other within the other within the other…so much difference we shall never come to the bottom of it, never control it. Should not want to. Yet seems like this desire to contain and control, and the violence that arises from it,  is one of the dynamics that is best at breaking us. Too often it kills us dead.

One last note, a smile and a surprise that Baudelaire should have succeeded in liberating someone…André Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue.

Talley’s immersion in French gave him a model to identity with: Baudelaire, on who work he wrote his master’s thesis, at Brown University in the early seventies. And it was while he was at Brown, liberated by the Baudelairean image of the flâneur, that Talley began to exercise fully his penchant for extravagant personal dress. (197)

I really don’t like Baudelaire, and kind of hate this canon of white men flâneuring about the city because they can, but I am trying to be less judgmental because all of us need different things, and this is helping.

It ends with a sprawling, heartbreaking exploration of the world of Richard Pryor that kept me from sleeping. I have another small note, to find and read Henry Duman’s ‘Ark of Bones’, poet murdered in Harlem’s train station.

This of course, does not even touch what this book meant to me as I read it, but I don’t really know how to do that. Except that it highlights to me again that some cannot choose whether or not people stare with hate and fear at their difference. But us straight white girls? We can often choose. How important, then, that we join our own differences with those of others and face down the hatred together, come what may.

[Als, Hilton (2013) White Girls. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.]

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June Jordan — Who See Me

June JordanA few excerpts from ‘Who See Me’, an early poem of June Jordan’s, written for a book of portraits in 1969. Heartbreaking in its capture of confronting hate in the eyes others when you momentarily cease to be invisible — or only partially invisible. Confronting the violence of this seeing/not-seeing, this hate that comes from nothing you’ve said or done.

A white stare splits the air
by blindness on the subway
in department stores
The Elevator
(that unswerving ride
where man the brother
by his side)

A white stare splits obliterates
the nerve-wrung wrist from work
the breaking ankle or
the turning glory
of a spine

Is that how we looks to you
a partial nothing clearly real?

 

No doubt
the jail is white where I am born
but black will bail me out

**

We have lived as careful
as a church and prayer
in public

 

that white terrain
impossible for black America to thrive
that hostile soil to mazelike toil
backbreaking people into pain

we grew by work by waiting
to be seen
black face black body and black mind
beyond obliterating
homicide of daily insult daily death
the pistol slur the throbbing redneck war
with breath

Septima Clark: Ready From Within

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.

Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:

However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…

I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)

These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.

I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.

This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:

But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.

…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)

She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.

Highlander Years

She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:

Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)

Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.
Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.

I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.

An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.

Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.

This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find...
This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find…

Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:

‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)

They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:

But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)

Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?

There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.

Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.

That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.

SCLC years

So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.

Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.

Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.

Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)

More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.

‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)

White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:

“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)

I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.

Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:

I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)

I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.

I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)

Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.

This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.

For more on education and struggle…

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Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song

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Israel Joshua Singer, Podgórze Ghetto, Płaszów Camp

Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.

All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.

The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:

At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…

Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.

Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.

Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.

Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.

They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.

This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.

In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.

His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.

What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.

More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.

He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just  a sample:

A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.

By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.

There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:

Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.

As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.

As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.

The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.

More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:

The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.

This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).

When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”

The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.

“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.

On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.

Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts.  Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:

Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.

Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.

Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.

You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness  and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:

Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.

It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.

“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.

While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.

We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.

Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.

This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.

Podgórze

A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.

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We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:

Ghet Krakow 2

Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:

Podgórze

Podgórze

A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:

Ghetto

From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric  mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

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We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:

Podgórze

It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.

Podgórze

This is what sat here once:

PlaszowCampWe wandered back through Podgórze, and into Kazimierz, the older Jewish neighbourhood sitting just south of Wawel castle.

This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.

Kazimierz & Podgórze

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Rob Nixon: Slow Violence

Rob Nixon Slow ViolenceI love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:

…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)

Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:

it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)

This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:

how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)

…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)

It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through

the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)

He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)

On the nature of slow violence

I love this quotation from Edward Said:

“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)

and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it

addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)

Not that it is anything but complementary. In both

For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)

It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)

However:

structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)

Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.

Slow violence of landscape and maps:

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)

This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.

More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)

There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.

Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)

I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)

Slow violence of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)

There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)

Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)

capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)

And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…

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Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…

Nixon writes:

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)

A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):

  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
  • Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
  • Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
  • Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
  • Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
  • Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
  • Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
  • Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History

There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.

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Stone, Flowers and Violence: Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle… Authority and conquest built in stone. Material embodiment and defense of a way of life and thought. Ruling centre of a community. Many of the remaining old Norman castles here in the UK stand stark and grim and square — imposition of French feudal aristocracy on earlier versions. They are squat and violent and empty of all but petty dead ambition achieved through bloody force. Dirleton castle, however, has notes of true grace overlying this — I wonder what it grew into and just how it related to the surrounding communities.

The prison and ‘pit’ for lower-class prisoners are probably the best indications, yet castles remain overlaid with a touch of gothic romance despite my best intentions, and I keep visiting them in a forever unfulfilled desire to explore Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Still, had I been alive at the time, I have a feeling I would have been all for burning them down as a peasant with ambitions for a better life and the ability to read.

There is also a lovely garden here, which contains the longest herbaceous border in the world. A rare Scottish sunny day showed it at its best.

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

In looking this up I was troubled that the crown has re-established a barony of (Fulwood and ) Dirleton — overlaying my images of picturesque ruins of violent stone with a very different, modern kind of violence and power. It ties together efforts to rebuild a monarchy in Brazil to Israel’s devastating invasion of Lebanon (‘Peace for Galilee War?) to hotel management in South Africa to Florida notary public-ship to Mozambique, and my only reaction continues to be, if you will excuse me, what. the fuck. Because Le Carre did not, apparently, invent this. An abbreviated version of the the bio from the barony’s website:

Camilo Agasim-Pereira of Fulwood & Dirleton, The Baron of Fulwood & Dirleton The Feudal Lord of Dirleton, Lord of the Manors of Colemere, Fulwood, Gresley, Repton, Morpeth Castle and of the Hundred of Gresley and Repton, was born in Brazil, and educated in Brazil, USA and Israel.

He served in the Israel Defense Forces, IDF Between 1981 to 1983, was discharged with Honours and mention in dispatches, was mentioned in dispatch for valour and was an active reservist between 1983 to 2003. He was awarded a medal for operations in Lebanon, during the “Peace for the Galilee War”. After Military Service, he served as an assistant community envoy and spokesman in the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia. Late on he was also a member of the Israel Police and Security Forces.

He has a Degree in Hotel Management, his last position as Hotelier, was Operation Manager at The Sun City Complex in S. Africa one of the largest and most luxury hotel resort in the world…

Since 1993 The Baron of Fulwood & Dirleton, holds an appointment from the Governor of Florida as Notary Public at-large for the State of Florida…

From 1993 to 2000 he was acting Hon. Consul of Mozambique in United States, the appointment was made permanent from 2000 and was recognized as a permanent appointment by the USA State Dept. in 2001 and server until 2006.

There is a charitable trust associated with the position, has as a mission

The promotion of Monarchy as the most stable form of government and the understanding and exchange of ideas among people of all races and creed. The Barony of Fulwood Trust host a website dedicated to the restoration of the Brazilian Monarchy at: www.correioimperial.com and www.monarquia.com.

Is this for real I asked myself. The armorial register and Burke’s Peerage supports its reality, though not a hint of what he might have done for Scotland to gain a barony. I have some ideas.

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Paulo Freire on Violence

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis is, I think, the third or fourth time I have read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I found it difficult the first time but so worthwhile. I find it much less difficult these days, after having plunged myself into the depths of theory where few can write worth a damn, but it is more rich and full of wisdom than most things I have read. This first post focuses on just a very tiny piece of it — capitalism’s relationships of violence.

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of violence, the various ways it is inflicted on personal and structural levels, and the various ways it must be resisted. I have just finish Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which I will also be blogging slowly. I rather like starting things here, though, because like Freire I think it is worth grounding theory in the broader idea that the point of it all is for every human being to have the space and ability to realise themselves and the fullness of their humanity. He writes:

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons … is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. (44)

I love both insights — that this is a fact, but one that we can change. Given the relationship of oppression, it cannot be the oppressors who shift it as their way of life and thought is founded on oppression and the violence this requires, it must be shifted through a struggle by the oppressed to regain humanity:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. (44)

I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, but what he means is that it is the oppressed who can fully understand the nature of exploitation and violence and through struggle work to create a world without these relations. I don’t mind that everyone will benefit from such a thing.

To return to violence, he establishes clearly the direction in which it flows:

Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something objective whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation. (55)

Yet as you can see over and over again through history and into the present discourses around people of colour and the poor, there is a projection of violence onto the oppressed:

For the oppressors, however, it is always the oppressed (whom they obviously never call “the oppressed” but — depending on whether they are fellow countrymen or not –“those people” or “the blind and envious masses” or “savages” or “natives” or “subversives”) who are disaffected, who are “violent,” “barbaric,” “wicked,” or “ferocious” when they react to the violence of the oppressors. (56)

In my research I found this over and over again as well — and you can hear it up and down the US at the moment in reaction to #blacklivesmatter just as you heard in relation to the civil rights movement:

For the oppressors, exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence. (57)

What they refuse to recognise is how their position is rooted in a violent historical process that continues to inflict violence:

Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it — oppressors and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in this situation, and both bear the marks of oppression. Analysis of existential situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence — initiated by those with power. This violence, as a process, is perpetuated from generation to generation of oppressors, who become its heirs and are shaped in its climate. This climate creates in the oppressor a strongly possessive consciousness — possessive of the world and of men and women. Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself — could not even exist. Fromm said of this consciousness that without such possession, “it would lose contact with the world.” The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.

In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more — always more — even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the “haves.” (58)

Here Freire signposts how this is driven by capitalist desire for profit and control, the ways it is patriarchal and bound up in multiple oppressions — you can extrapolate how this desire for control and domination of nature have brought us to where we are today.

It also results in their own suffocation, along with a great blindness, rationalising ideologies, a blaming of the victim, fear — all things far too prevalent now as then:

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks.” If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched.

It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And the more the oppressors control the oppressed the more they change them into apparently inanimate “things.” This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to “in-animate” everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (59)

I want to think more about the connections between control, possession and the reduction of people to the in-animate, to things. But this relation of violence is a key one I think, to be explored further.

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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.]