Reaching Beyond: An Interview with Jeffery VanderMeer

Interview conducted by C. Derick Varn, Steven Michelkow, and Marcel Inhoff. Originally published here.

Jeffrey VanderMeer is an American writer, editor, teacher, and publisher. He is is a three-time winner, thirteen-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award, has won the BSFA Award, and has been a finalist for the Hugo Award. He is best known for his contributions to the New Weird as both a writer and editor, and his stories about the city of Ambergris, in books like City of Saints and Madmen. He is also the author of the 2014 series called The Southern Reach Trilogy, which has recently attained some critical acclaim.  He has lectured at MIT and the Library of Congress and helps run the Shared Worlds teen SF/Fantasy writing camp out of Wofford College. He often works with his wife Ann on editing projects, such as the Weird anthology, which is referenced throughout this interview.

I have read more than one reviewer compare your recent Southern Reach to J.G.Ballard’s work. How much influence do you feel 1970s New Wave science fiction writers had on your work in general?

Any time you write something that seems a dystopia involving desolation and nature, then you’re going to get a comparison to 1970s environmental fiction, and in part that’ll lead to the New Wave. Mostly, I studied Ballard for the way he achieves certain effects: compressing or expanding time and space in your mind as you read, for example. That said, I am influenced by the New Wave because they were interested in experimentation in subject matter and in form. They had a rigorous intellectual quality to their work, and they didn’t engage in escapism. All of that is worth taking in as a writer, and enticing to me as a reader. When you think of the commodification of SF/Fantasy, you then think about the last great movement that rejected all of that, and that’s the New Wave. That said, I push back against some of the jaded cynicism and pessimism of some New Wave fiction, because it can be as corrosive to writing something unique or interesting as being too optimistic.

When I read the anthology you edited with Ann entitled The Weird, I noticed that many of the fin-de-siècle and early 20th writers that you see as having a relationship to “Weird” fiction are also writers seem to also have a strong influence on New Wave Science Fiction writers? What literary trends in the early 20th century do you see as influencing both “genres?”


I’m not sure I do. The sub-categorization of category SF/F is so absolute that very little that can influence gets through in established genre imprints. When it does it’s in genres like space opera, which can be delivery systems for very strange things and interesting mutations. Otherwise, it’s less literary trend than individual writers being influenced. Nothing like the nexus or hub that was New Wave fiction.

What do make of the theory that “New Wave Science Fiction” reflected the legitimization of Science Fiction as a literary genre? It has been noted that classic science fiction was often written by people we less of a literary background and more education in the sciences. Do you think this is overstated?


Some like Ballard got uplifted out of SF entirely due to the New Wave, so I don’t think it’s overstated. Iconic writers came out of that movement or moment and they were probably the most compromising of writers associated with a modern literary movement in SF/F.

You included several writers who were explicitly identified as “New Wave” science fiction writers in the The Weird anthology such as Octavia Butler and M. John Harrison. Do you see weird fiction coming form similar social and aesthetic pressures as “New Wave” science fiction?

The first “wave” of New Weird, definitely. It couldn’t help but be given that New Wave authors were embedded in New Weird. It was a strange kind of multi-generational thing with the main reason for a term accreting other than New Wave Part 2 the fact that the newer authors also had their own other concerns that didn’t match up quite the same way. For my part, I was reading a lot of French and English Decadent writers and getting into Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, along with writers like Angela Carter, who had made Surrealism more linear, and Vladimir Nabokov who was very formal about his approach to structure. The Decadent thing is important because it was one wellspring for M. John Harrison’s Viriconium., but a lot of writers who wound up near New Weird also came there from the Decadents first, and Harrison second. The main thing is that New Weird was an attempt on the one hand to reclaim epic fantasy from Tolkien with Peake as the new literary godfather and on the other hand an attempt to revive the New Wave ideal of taking literary influence from both the mainstream and genre, while not being afraid to be experimental at times. I sometimes think that the conduit or intermediary for this was the work of Clive Barker in the short story form and on the film side David Cronenberg. Of course, as with most things this is a reconstruction, a fiction, that is from my point of view only. New Weird is the monster we were all ordered to describe after being led into a dark room, blindfolded, and then given five minutes to interrogate before being led away again. Some of us never even got to shake its hand.

Looking back on it, New Wave science fiction was very openly political. Do you consider the current crop of weird writers to have political underpinnings? If so, how are they similar or different to the New Wave politics?


There’s a certain stylized element of the Decadent underpinnings of New Weird that exerts a pressure to apply the political as window-dressing, if you want to generalize. Because of elements like absurdity and exaggeration, which don’t give a shit about the openly political if they can get somewhere in service of a Greater Joke, if that makes sense. So they might be political along the path to that, but this kind of impulse so totally distrusts ideologies and institutions. The default setting is: the individual must navigate a maze of institutional b.s. and ideological viruses to get to solitary solutions and decisions that at least allow the individual to try to subvert what amounts to a hegemony. So, just speaking for me, the political comes out most overtly through environmental issues, and everything else is absurdism, even as I believe very strongly in individual imaginations and that there is good in people. I don’t think Marxism or Communism are any better than Capitalism—these are all fundamentalist religions based on rigid ideas of what human beings are and can be, even if Capitalism seems kinder at times. Is that position different from New Wave politics? I’d argue that with the exception of a handful, the main movers-and-shakers in New Wave, the core, were in the United Kingdom, and so they had a very specific stance based on opposition to or agreement with the folks in power over there. But also a strong pro-feminist stance, if I recall correctly. Certainly, Moorcock did and does. I don’t know if this answers your question. I can say I don’t think writers have to have political underpinnings. To some extent everything is politics, yes, but when we say that we’re really saying “don’t be lazy in your writing,” which applies to many things.

Do you see academia have an influence on the development of genre? You and many younger genre writers teach literature or, at least, MFA at universities. Does this change new writers? Is there a certain “work-shopped” style to new writers that reflects larger trends? Does the economic situation of the current publishing environment play a role in any of this?

I don’t teach literature. I do teach writing workshops, usually along with my wife. I think the biggest trend we’ve seen, and this relates to your prior question, in the slushpile reading for anthologies and elsewhere, is a tendency to want to apply newly acquired 101 thoughts about racism and diversity in ways that are clunky and obvious. The other is a simple inversion: white people bad, non-white people good. While this means someone is thinking about representation, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the quality of the story, and you could argue in some cases comes down to fetishizing the Other. Simple binaries are simple binaries. People are more complex than that. I imagine since we’re only about six to ten years into a cycle with so many more international and non-white writers entering the field that this is a natural consequence of adjustment. It is a transitional period, with all that implies.

In terms of a work-shopped style, we really don’t believe in workshops as an ongoing thing. We believe taking one or two is of help to students in general at the beginning of their careers. But we really find bizarre the idea of perpetually going from workshop to workshop rather than eventually taking the training wheels off—although obviously some writers find it works for them. I think the danger mostly comes from staying in workshops too long. As for the economic situation, most people have no real idea of what that is. Traditional publishers aren’t going away, and the self-published e-book option allows for the possibility of revenue that way, too. I don’t think it’s any worse being a writer now than 10 years ago. In fact, it’s probably better than when my first books came out. What is true is that core genre has gotten more commercial, even in the way the covers look now.

Why do you think New Wave science fiction writers were so popular with theorists of post-modernity? Is there a criticism of Modernist literature baked into New Wave science fiction, or do you think this is more of an advertising gimmick?

It’s quite simple: There’s a fair amount of postmodern technique baked into New Wave science fiction. So there’s “stuff” you can pull out and look at, or at least postmodern theorists can look at New Wave fiction and see something the outlines of which they think they recognize. But you do have to understand: I come by my literary theory from the point of view of a fiction writer, and in a kind of amateur-study way. I didn’t study it in college really. So I’m not really the person to ask.

What are the current trends in Science fiction that excite you which see as genuinely new, or, at least, specific to the contemporary writing?

If “CliFi” or “Eco-Fabulism,” both terms I’m not fond of for reasons I can’t put a finger on, become ever more popular without becoming too commodified, we may see environmental SF as interesting or more interesting than what was being produced in the 1960s and 1970s. And by interesting, I mean the philosophical underpinnings aren’t the usual, traditional thing. I do think that in the laboratory of fiction we can begin to imagine a relationship to our natural world and with our fellow animals that isn’t covered by the existing paradigm. And it’s partially fueled by the answer to a single question: What benefit do human beings bring to the biosphere? Since the answer is “no benefit at all” right now, that’s a starting point for interesting fiction at least. Given reduction of carbon emissions is just patching a bankrupt philosophy, we need to find other ways of being on this planet, and we’re not going to find them in Google glass and our other pathetic and bizarrely primitive and destructive tech.

Out of all the rules, suggestions, and guidelines for aspiring imaginative fiction writers you lay out in Wonderbook, what is the one you break most often when creating your own fiction?

Sadly, I have been known to consult Wonderbook while working on a story or novel…I really can’t say, because I don’t know which Wonderbook you’re talking about—the one that subverts its own advice with disruption dragons or the one that is composed of guest essays or the main text or the diagrams. It’s a great question, but one that would take a lot more brain cells to answer than I have access to right now.

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On Bad Faith and melancholia: amor fati and mauvaise foi

“We can understand the emotion that if one looks for a meaning. The emotion is a disruption, it is driving, driving under the worst possible deal with a stressful situation, it is somehow not adapted mismatch. The crisis of tears of the candidate (or candidate) harassed by a relentless examiner is welcome to end an unsustainable situation, we do not talk of U.S. GDP or the death of Louis XVI to somebody one which is collapsed on the table, shaken by sobs. It remains the examiner executioner to store questions and get his Kleenex. Unless too, unable to handle the situation, no one pulls a tantrum! And when the stakes are even worse when, for example’I see coming toward me a wild beast, my legs give way under me, my heart beats more slowly, I faded, I fall, I faint.´”-Jean-Paul Sartre

 

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One of the things that “left” melancholia reminds me of is Christian or Jewish Gnostic melancholia, and both seem to be rooted in an abstracted form of “depression.” To say this is sort of obvious, but this melancholia is not the same as “depression.” To say this is a secularized form of social and apocalyptic angst would be a cliched, yet melancholia often stems from looking at the “totality of production” seeing how it is produced and becoming overwhelmed by its seeming completeness. Add to that some depression, and the entire world can become something one is against.

Yet, this “I know what I am against, but I am for nothing” is not mere nihilism. It is an abnegation of aesthetic value. It is the removal of qualia. Furthermore, it can lead to a particularly severe type of bad faith. I realize that Sartre has fallen out of favor, and for many particularly smart reasons, but his conceptions of bad faith help me understand what is going on.

In absence of realizing that one has freedom to enact what one is, and then in lacking knowing what one is for, one enacts a set of moralities to appease the emotional lack of autonomy.  One adopts the set of values prearranged, often without realizing it.  The secular world remains its religious traces even after it has abandoned the religious epistemology and metaphysics that made such a view appear to be coherent.  This often gets naturalized, and while some of the sentiments are “evolutionary”–many seem much more rooted in a particular milieu.

Our radical freedom is not the freedom to be beyond ourselves: our self conditioned by our biological world, our class structure, our labor, our environment.   We are a host of things we control and don’t control, existing within a complex of modes of production and social relationships, and still limited by natural incidents of our birth.  As Marx’s noted in Gothakritik, we are not all created equal in our physical being, so such talk is merely formal–if not outright dishonest.  The freedom is the freedom to choose and change our relationships and modes of production:  we are changed by our labor and environment, we are even produced by it, but we have the radical freedom to change that.

This means that melancholia can lead to particular forms of bad faith–not just nihilism as is often presumed.  In this, a dose of Nietzsche and a dash of Althusser is actually helpful more than Sartre, we must self-overcome as is interpolated upon us.   It is not that we are dealing with an unmediated being–there is no human individual without the contrast of the social body which both defines the individual and can prompt the individual to take agency against. In other words, we have freedom to figure out what can be in the limits of what we are.  Instead of imposing identities and outside moral codes upon us to as if we could be something beyond what we are.

This does means, however, being aware of the sources on one’s identity and working to separate that from ideological commitments, goals, pleasures–i.e. values.  This means striving to belong to a community that shares many of those goals, and praising what is good.   In pure negativity, it is actually easy for tactic assumptions of the culture to impose things on us, and for that we must take individual responsibility.

More notes on “leftism” and the depressive:

Today, in response to this my post on the article, in a group, I got this response:

(Name retracted) “Depression has plagued me many times in my life. Not the idle depression that is confused with sadness, not the manic depression of bipolar in which one’s neuro-chemistry plays a particularly cruel joke of the alternating between no color and entirely too much. No, the clarity of negativity–the negation that enables to me see without too much cynicism–if I am honest, comes from being functionally depressive. In that way, I am the cliche of both the poet and the leftist–different in being driven my analytic thinking but the same in that my emotional understanding comes out of the chairoscuro I am describing. I have been told I have a gift for mapping pain, and also wanting to aid in ending pain. This gift is the one upside to lacking enough sarotin or whatever mild brain dysfunction has meant that I feel emotions differently. Sometimes in a such a way that “I” don’t see the “me” in my own life.”

and I stopped right there.

(Me)  Why is that?

(Name Retracted) me me me me me my life is so interesting and uniqueism. Couldn’t even stick around to see an argument unfold it was too gross. like i have this special kind of mild depression im so different.

I didn’t respond to this well–it was in a “Leftist” forum where people may have wanted to engage on the bottom part, and the part about depression was both focused in on and missed.   The mixture resentiment and daftness that I see among of graduate students on the “Left” often amazes me.  I do not know the background of my interlocutor, but most are upper middle class.  The point of the paragraph that was mocked was in contrast the next paragraph said individual found “too gross” to read:

Yet, the reason why I couldn’t work on my primer today is not “my depression.” As many things in neurochemistry mixed with people of the same class, environment, and emotional resonances, my family–both immediate and not–tends to be depressive.   My intelligence helps me out in this and the fact that I have been lucky.  I have traveled the world: I have a support group, comrades, my partner, my poetry.   While I can’t go into specifics and I won’t name him, one of my brothers has suffered from a much more acute form of depression.  He is currently in a coma.  I do not live anywhere near my family–not even in the same country, and I have tried to understand my own emotions as to where he is at and how he got there.

The focus on me is intellectual. My depression is not mild or special, and my life does not feel interesting to myself. Objectively, however, I know this is wrong. Objectively, I know that I have had a privileged life, but the gray haze that has nearly led my brother to a cold hospital bed in our home town, my brother did not have that.  I can barely make myself get up some mornings when things are good–it’s not special, it’s not unique. I don’t feel special or unique either. It makes me able to see some things clearly, but it takes the color away and the motivation away, and all that left is banal motions.   Objectively, I know this is ungrateful.  I have to overcompensate and talk about me.  It’s too gross.

I have dealt with ultra-leftists, maoists, primitivists, and whatnot for years.   Many of the ultra-leftists, to be frank, have some kind disconnection. Some kind of keen alienation beyond what most people have; even if that alienation is the life-choice of being a graduate student in history.  Self-proclaimed leftists tend to abstract, and while that does not automatically remove decency in most, in some it is an excuse put making personal points ahead of reading what is being said or being fair.  That is not true of all ultra-leftists. It fact it is not true of most, but when it is true, it is often glaringly so.

So no, I am not special.  I am trying to what could be a crushing and crippling condition into something useful for myself and for others.  I realize I have the resources to do that.  For reasons of economics, shit luck, and health, my brother has not of those options.  He has ended up somewhere particularly hellish.  It would take a lack the moral compass to not at some level realize the difference that means and will mean–even if I don’t feel anything special about any of that at all.  IF a self-appointed defender of the proletariat finds that too “gross” to deal with–so gross that they can’t write in fully formed sentences–that’s a lot about where all this concern about subsumption has taken them.  Despite all the edge and the venom, it ends in politics that mean as much as “Liking” a statement “against depression” on a facebook wall.

It is unhealthy to dwell in this.  Little has grown from that branch of history and history is its manifest judge.

 

The color out of mind: On depression, on “leftist” meloncholia, and on the difference

1. The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

“As a fact, we cannot give suffering precedence in either our individual or collective lives. We have to get on with things, and those who give precedence to suffering will be left behind. They fetter us with their sniveling. We have someplace to go and must believe we can get there, wherever that may be. And to conceive that there is a ‘brotherhood of suffering between everything alive’ would disable us from getting anywhere. We are preoccupied with the good life, and step by step are working toward a better life. What we do, as a conscious species, is set markers for ourselves. Once we reach one marker, we advance to the next — as if we were playing a board game we think will never end, despite the fact that it will, like it or not. And if you are too conscious of not liking it, then you may conceive of yourself as a biological paradox that cannot live with its consciousness and cannot live without it.”
― Thomas Ligott,The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

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I sat down to write a primer on value theory, and I couldn’t.  The haze of listlessness set in. While I have always found the intersection of economics and values to the crux of so much of the ephermal structure of the larger world, it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment.  Depression and tragedy are like a book of chiaroscuro, the edges of reality are clearer and have more distinction, but it’s qualia–it’s particular hue and value–are washed out and gone. The sepia tone life makes judgement easier, and if we are honest, more accurate until we too forget what color was and in the forgetting everything starts to blur.

Negativity is necessary.  It is a gift, and in bleakest moments one can see that it is knife to cut all away lies and bullshit, but one can hack too hard and too deep.  Depressives do this.  To continue the metaphor:  the clarity of the negative, of its constrast, when undisciplined by illness and its haze, it is easy to cut not only lies away but truths.   For the chiaroscuro of the sepia and gray to wash out into a haze where one does not know where and for what one is cutting.

Depression has plagued me many times in my life.  Not the idle depression that is confused with sadness, not the manic depression of bipolar in which one’s neuro-chemistry plays a particularly cruel joke of the alternating between no color and entirely too much.  No, the clarity of negativity–the negation that enables to me see without too much cynicism–if I am honest, comes from being functionally depressive.  In that way, I am the cliche of both the poet and the leftist–different in being driven my analytic thinking but the same in that my emotional understanding comes out of the chairoscuro I am describing. I have been told I have a gift for mapping pain, and also wanting to aid in ending pain.  This gift is the one upside to lacking enough sarotin or whatever mild brain dysfunction has meant that I feel emotions differently.  Sometimes in a such a way that “I” don’t see the “me” in my own life.

Yet, the reason why I couldn’t work on my primer today is not “my depression.” As many things in neurochemistry mixed with people of the same class, enviroment, and emotional ressonances, my family–both immediate and not–tends to be depressive.   My intelligence helps me out in this and the fact that I have been lucky.  I have traveled the world: I have a support group, comrades, my partner, my poetry.   While I can’t go into specifics and I won’t name him, one of my brothers has suffered from a much more accute form of depression.  He is currently in a coma.  I do not live anywhere near my family–not even in the same country, and I have tried to understand my own emotions as to where he is at and how he got there.

What is interesting is that I tried to pantomine the anger most people feel about these things–I am not angry and couldn’t muster it.  I have mapped some of the same passages as he has, and I know how little control one must feel.  If there is anything to hold anyone accountable for, it is not depression.  It is the way depression can lead the solipsism.  That listless feeling when that depression isn’t turned towards something which isn’t itself, and falls into its own greying internal wastes.

That this will manifest in subtle and not subtle self-violence and general violence is unsurprisng. Violence underpins much of our lives as does negotiating its sublimation.  It is clear this is the violence of stasis, the fact that if we as living beings are naturally motion the sheer weight of stopping can do harm.  

In that sense, the night is dark and full of terrors, as the G.R.R. Martin cliche goes.  We can spin those pains into something, we can act to redeem them in strenght and discipline, but that does not mean they are not there. For the depressive or bipolar, this is doubly true, our view is rooted in a chemistry that can seem crushing in a way that makes this oppressive and can seem apocalyptic.  One can feel as if one is watching history weight down on them.  We often find solace in work in the hope that work changes us–it sets our class, our ability, our route memory, our muscle memory.

It is ironic that I who advocate for the abolition of certain kinds of labor know that labor is a solace and a way to being.  My alienation from that labor may pain me, but the labor is enough to keep me moving, and like the old myth about the shark, if I a move, I continue to breathe and I know the haze will lift.

II. The Angel of History

“Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.” – Walter Benjamin

09duerermelencolianew2It is beyond this space and in abstraction where the infamous “left” meloncholia sets in.  While in the individual it may well be a neuro-chemical phenoma, it is structural and have to avoid in the communal sense.   The same heightened awareness of edges emerges, but also with the impulse that the pain was somehow redeemable… avoidable.  One moves from the paralysis described by Allie Brosh to the mind-numbing committed imploding on itself on sees in Benjamin himself as well as Guy Debord.

What is this left meloncholia and has is it different from the overwhelming sepia of the depressive. Benjamin Noys may have defined its parameters in the terms of the ultra-left already. The subsumption of daily life in terms of capital and in terms of the state both horizantally and vertically leaves one with little but unhappy-making thoughts.  While someone like Louis Proyect may say something incredibly vapid like, “My Rx for combating melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie.  “ The real conditions are harder and as things are subsumed into the larger system of capital production, it has harder to know what an actual small victory would be.  Noy’s essay, while given to theoretical verbage, does admit to frame this:

There is, in this dialectics of mourning and melancholy (which are not distinguished along the lines Freud had made famous ), a politics that works on and with the feelings of detachment and disgust with the ‘empty world’. Benjamin notes that: ‘Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.’ Now, knowledge is prioritised over the worldly and action (what we could call the ‘Hamlet-complex’), but this self-absorbed and disabused stance transforms contemplation into the act of ‘embrace’ and the promised of redemption. We could recall here Benjamin and Adorno’s later reflections on the transit through the ‘dead’ or hostile bourgeois ‘object-world’, as the site of intervention and resistance. The melancholic moves away, detaches themselves from the world, in the usual clichés of distancing and abandonment, but is also in the world, immersed in the destructive element of dead objects and creaturely life.

So this mirrors the depressive in that in turning in from itself, it also turns against the “object-world” and thus the social world.  While strategically or tactically this may be useful for insight, to be engaged in this meloncholia for too long is a politics of awares that leads to nihilism, but also mirroring depression, if not control, it is ultimately completely destructive.

So avoiding leftist meloncholia is key, but its not subtle victories that avoids it. It understand one’s relationship to the social world.  Optistism of the will is to continue working towards something, towards a context, but a context that is more than likely tragic in the main. The difference between this and the depressive is that one is the result of kind of living and thus altered, and the other a condition of being which can be adjusted to and in adjusting there is the chance of alternation.

In darkness, light: Identity and its limits

“The greatest problem in coming from an oppressed group is the power the oppressor has over your group. The second greatest problem is the power your group has over you.” – Shelby Steele

“The man who works recognizes his own product in the world that has actually been transformed by his work. He recognizes himself in it, he sees his own human reality in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself” – Alexandre Kojeve
“Mystification does not only affect capitalist society but also affects the theory of capitalism. Marxist theory elevated to the rank of proletarian consciousness is a new form of consciousness: repressive consciousness. We will describe some of its characteristics, leaving aside the problem of determining whether or not all forms of consciousness throughout history are repressive.” – Jacques Cammette
“To say with Marx that ‘the petit bourgeois cannot transcend the limits of his mind’ (others would have said the limits of his understanding) is to say that his thought has the same limits as his condition, that his condition in a sense doubly limits him, by the material limits which it sets to his practice and the limits it sets to his thought and therefore his practice, and which make him accept, and even love, these limits.” – Pierre Bourdieu
“Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field etc., but the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language”- Karl Marx

We start with five quotes from five very different men with very different politics, although I am sympathetic to all these men but the first. Still, a truth is a truth no matter its source. The human exists as an individual, in tension with both their social worlds and the changes of their environments, yet the limits of that perspective can be easily to fall into, easy to love as if the limit becomes the identity. Thinks of a tale of monkeys, three monkeys are in a cage, one monkey climbs to grab the banana above him, and another monkey beats him. The third monkey beats the climbing monkey as well. We take the first monkey who started the beating out, and put in a new monkey, and climbing monkey beats the new monkey who did the same thing.
This is an illustration of both the production of social tension and the way these reinforce. Between the monkeys there is not yet class society, but eventually if the scarcity of the bananas becomes frustrating it may become so. The issue becomes what forces drive the beating, and if the monkey who knows why he beat the first climbing monkey leaves, only he knows how the social inertia starts.

Society is a feedback loop such as this. The oppressed can become the oppressor from sheer inertia–and from feeling besieged whether real or imagined. Eventually this banana beating can become abstracted and ritualized, decontextualized, and maintained as a means of production of the social relationships between the engaged monkeys. So goes society: the enemy of an oppressed person IS the oppressor first. But then is also the oppressed which will justify all sorts of twists and turns sometimes to continue elements of the oppression itself because it has been writ into their identity. Yet, we know from both Hegel and Marx that it is the precise moment when they have nothing to lose but their identity that they can break free and overcome both.

This is why simple ideological or identity centered notions of “Inter-sectionality” do not go far enough: they do not recognize that while an individual IS a social being, they are shaped in both opposition to that alienation and also in conformity to it. One cannot see from the perspective of an other, but at some level the “other” is not just the ethnic-other or even the class other, it is anyone who does not acknowledge the limits we feel. Since who we are is always in tension with what we produce: we know, not just from our social class, but also from our discussions of “work” first, the status around professions, etc. What we create changes us, but this is social context. Always in dialectical tension and always in dialogue.

I admit to writing this from a dark place although I probably don’t sound. I have had a family tragedy, although as of yet not a fatal one, involving a brother back in the States. I will leave it at that, and in that moment I thought about my family and my organic community, and how the later changes by both where I live and what I do. My class relations are expressed in this as is my place within the totality of the global systems of capital, geo-politics, and even biologic human history. To transcendent that takes a requirement that our consciousness of it is a limit and if we learn to love that limit, instead of changing the world and social relations, we just reaffirm the status quo.

And this is why I never completely accept a totally communitarian or collectivist ideology–which I don’t think Marx is actually guilty of–but this is why I also think liberal and libertarian individualism is hopelessly naive about what it means to be a social being in the context of labor and production. This is also why “divisions” within a class are about consumption AND identity, but the division between classes is about production. Still if we ignore the martial conditions that produced our identities as they emerge too from social history and material reality, we will do almost nothing to change them. We learn to love our limits–as individuals and as a cultures and classes–we are them.

Another note on tragedy: This one not in the context of spheres of production. Discernment is knowing when your friend is challenging you to make you stronger or when your “friend” is attacking you make you weaker for their benefit. I suppose even though this is close to a reactionary sentiment, I understand the “help the bird learn to fly, and if it can’t, help it fall faster” (implication, so it doesn’t struggle and maybe drag others down). So knowing who is helping you learn to fly, or maybe even trying to help you not struggle unproductively is a very different thing from being betrayed. One of the sadness things I have seen in the depressed is that they often lose this discernment, and thus cannot help but be alienated. I have shed a tear or two about this a lot recently.
Which brings me to a question that I ask in earnest: Why is the “left” (gods, I wish I had a better term for these collection of ideologies and praxis) so bad at grasping with dealing with organic community? I don’t mean in a class collaboration sort of way. I mean in a real–let’s deal with our neighbors even of the same class sort of way. What is going on there? I even see this in myself. I am given to outbursts and immediately thinking–I must discipline my emotional response because this is not how you treat neighbors much less comrades and even less friends. Does this not relate to the hostility and infinite denouncements and splitting? I have always thought “left unity” was a silly idea–I still do–but it is because criticism of the “fly or help fall” variety is necessary and sometimes that requires distance. It does not require sabotage, self-abnegation, and other sorts of foolishness. Is that because these ideas have been divorced from organic community? Is it because leftists (and even left-liberals) are proportionally slightly more given to depression and loss of the above discernment?

I don’t know but the events of the last two years make wonder if there is something about this identity consciousness “as a leftist” which is corrosive as if it becomes divorced from the social and productive realities of immediate lives.

Some upcoming stuff

I have been asked to do “primers and reading lists” on value theory and criticism of social democracy.  I will do soon.  I will try to read widely and give info on things that I am critical or even just ambivalent about for the sake for education.

I also re-designed former people.

 

 

Some Notes on Readings, in particular in regards to Lenin’s Imperialism

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Reading Paul Mattick Jr. Or Sr. is always enlightening:  accusations of the ultra-left for a moment.

Lately, I have been doing a lot of reading on Strauss/Kojeve and on Engels as well as my day-job work on education and educational affordances (and critiques of educational reform from a historical and analytical perspective).

Today, however, I have read like nine essays on Lenin’s Imperialism–both pro and con–for a podcast discussion with Douglas Lain. As well as developments and counter-developments on the topic:  for example, Bazan and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” and Paul Mattick’s critique of it.   There is actually a lot to deal with this and a lot of defenses and critiques on Lenin’s Imperialism are based on bad writings of text or readings that don’t know the textual history (for example, the original title was “Imperialism, The latest stage [or form] of Capitalism” not “Imperialism, the Highest stage of capitalism” which actually makes a big difference on the implications of the text).

Oddly the best on this kind of contextualization about what both Marx and Lenin did and did not mean was Mattick Jr. and, conversely, his dark Trotskyist lord,  Stallinicos… I mean… Alex Callinicos.  You can watch a fairly good speech on the subject here.  The only problem I had with Callinicos dealing with it is he just dismisses labor aristocracy, which is not an idea unique to Lenin but is formative, but under-developed, in Engel’s and did not significantly depart from Marx, in my opinion.

But IS (Tony Cliff-inspired Trotskyist) traditions do reject labor aristocracy as a deviations of Engels and Kautsky from Marx.  Charlie Post has a more developed critique that is his own, but is definitely more or less the one of the given opinions in IS circles.

Conversely, Labor aristocracy is essential to a lot of M-L-M and Third-Worldists.  Monthly Review has put particular emphasis on this. And it is the lynch-pin of third-worldist and even some non-third-worldist Maoist explanations for politics of the working class in the US.  I admit I find some of this convincing, particularly after reading Zak Cope and Bromma, but some of Charlie Posts points do complicate this for me:  does labor aristocracy require two separate rates of profit and account?   The transfer in state and monopoly capital–in a traditional commodity sense such things that require state patents and so forth–is explainable as a mechanism, but the tendency of profits to fall makes this a very temporal point: it would not be maintainable beyond certain points in a downturn or crisis of capital.  So military-keynesian policy and other state works as well as protected sectors would be labor aristocratic without two systems, so Post’s statement would seem like a over-claim, but that also makes positions like the early ones taken by groups like the LLCO also a little harder to parse because it would not apply to all the “first world” equally (something that Bromma does explain particularly well).  (Note: I have noted that the LLCO’s documents have gotten more much more nuanced in argument as the last few years).

Is Post wrong? And if Post is right on some of the claims, does that mean Lenin was totally off on this?  I don’t know.   J. Moufawad-Paul does take down a lot of the vulgar objections strongly, but there are some points about Kapital that Post raises that Moufawad-Paul doesn’t attack.  Regardless, you can see how much of a theoretical problem this can be EVEN if one contextaulizes the content.

This brings us to other criticisms of Lenin’s Imperialism:  Keith Joseph’s Questioning Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism.

I find some of Joseph’s arguments interesting particularly on monopoly capital after WWII; however, a lot of his critique is based on the idea that Lenin was proposing a two-stage theory of capitalism, which monopoly capital being the “final” stage.   Like I said above, this is deduced from a bad translation of the title and from imposing Lin Baio’s “first and third world” distinctions on Lenin, which were used in 1950s-1970s, Marxist-Leninist and anti-revisionist politics, but are actually reading things unto the text that I didn’t find there entirely.  There are some interesting points in this.

Readers may note that I have not actually given a lot of my opinions on this. I will be discussing this with Douglas Lain and there I will talk about my own ideas, but this is give contextualization for the debate/discussion.

Here’s more readings on the topic that I have looked at and found interesting but were not necessarily mentioned above:

The Primary Debates (Kautsky/Lenin):

Lenin-office-1918
Ultra-imperialism by Karl Kautsky
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Lenin
Imperialism and the Split in Socialism by Lenin

The Various Responses in the 20th and 21th Century (a VERY incomplete list)big_gun:

On the History of Imperialism Theory

Neo-Colonialism,the Last Stage of imperialism by Kwame Nkrumah

Towards the actual conjuncture of imperialist competition by GegenStandpunkt 2-14, translated by Ruthless Criticism
A topical but false classic “Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”

Lenin on Imperialismby Leon Trotsky
Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decayby Leon Trotsky
Lenin, Kautsky and “ultra-imperialism”
Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation
Is China an Imperialist Nation
The Weapons of Theory: A Maoist-Third Worldist Reader
The Marxist Theory of Imperialism and its Criticsby E. Germain
Ultra-Imperialism: A Debate
Kautsky on Ultra-Imperialism  by Martin Thomas

Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey