Attempts: Some thoughts on identity and politics

I find confronted with the actual mask-like nature of most people’s political posturing, people start to avoid the question: people who are inclined to dislike you, dislike you more, and people who are inclined to like you think you are asshole but its better just to not response. I used to wonder why. I know why. It is not that you are questioning their politics. People actually can accept that. Politics is by nature deliberative when it is not about violence. Those are the two most common modes, after all, a state is the normalization and regulation of both modes of deliberation and modes of violence. It’s most basic functions: how do you make decisions, and how do you violently deal with those decisions. That isn’t what the silence is about. It is that you are calling into question a performative aspect of the self. You are denying people an identity. Look at most politics. They are not remotely coherent: values conflict, virtues conflict, virtue signaling one thing is done at the expense of another that actually is in the same mode of ethics or economics. No, when you expose someone’s political theology/ideology, you are ripping off their clothes while also showing them the water they swim in. They didn’t realize they were in the water and now they have nothing to protect their skin.

To give an example: A friend tells you that x-injustice that effects a specific minority community made by specific people is caused by x-demographic privilege.  You say, fine, that is structural racism, but how is structural racism caused by privilege?  How is saying that it this is privilege of x-demographic ignores that while all of x-demographic group may get tangential benefits, they don’t get all the benefit equally.  However, even given this blaming of an entirety of x which seems to get very specific people an out is legitimate, you can’t explain the structural oppression but pointing out its results.  X is caused by privilege which is the result of X.  The tautological nature of that is hiding something as much as it is pointing something out.   This is both why I have always find privilege talk to be not helpful or, often, serves to protect the powerful.  However, this talk does reify an identity.   Conversely, complaining about people pointing out is reifying a different identity.    It is unfair to say that people don’t care about “justice”–they do.  What they don’t want to do is actually question what justice is, or more importantly, who they are.

In race and gender, this is fascinating.  The move to stay that these identities are socially normative more than biological, but yet we must reinforce them even in the pretense of breaking down the oppression that has buttressed them.  It’s obviously a precarious and somewhat contradictory position. It’s easy for opponents of “social justice” or the “the left” or “liberals” to make fun of, but the making fun of it actually is premised on the same game but going back to the innateness of the positions too.   Instead of society, it is turned to biology or “human nature.”  Often, however, with no proof either of what that is. Both end up being motte and bailey tactics.   Why do them?

For most people politics is their social being when they have little connection to less ideological modes of community.  Instead of a place or a tribe being who you are–this ideology gives you justice.  It is important to remember, most community is actually attempt to symbolize kinship relations–kinship, more than family the way most of thing of it, being what does drive most primate traps and humans ability to abstract that into more abstract ideas seems unique to us–and stabilize our means of life.  It is abstraction of the two most practical and social ideas around us: how we eat, who we have sex with, and who has our genes.  This is the reproduction of social life.  This is the basis of our identities in societies where these things are obvious.  The motte and bailey tactics of identity politics and counter-identity politics are  based on the same impulse but skewed, and largely hidden from us.  We don’t want to believe our virtues are that simple. Indeed, they actually aren’t that simple, but this still is the basic driver of who we think we are.

This is not just true in “identity politics” either.  That is actually an unfair, but commonly made, assertion. When people say “pragmatist” they either mean, I don’t know, or they mean, I already feel that know but don’t want to argue for it. The pragmatic of course just can assume position because of it’s value to you. It just won’t openly adjudicate between values. As such, when used this way, it is either circular–this is good because it is good–or it is avoiding the question of premises in the first place.  Not-knowing is actually a hard place to be. It is alienating. It is a transitional identity-state.  So saying a position comes form ignorance or incompleteness is harder than saying it comes from pragmatism. The pragmatist has a community of other pragmatists.  It can be tribe.  Uncertainty can’t.



To A Few of My Mentors: Martin Lammon and Susan Atefat

Rarely do I write about what used to be my primary passion: poetry.  I write poetry. I sometimes review poetry books, but I do not write about poetry as such so much. Furthermore, I have never really written about the four or five writers who I worked with closely who truly influenced my writing–as a craft and philosophically.

The reason why this is so particularly interesting is that I have very little immediately in common with either Susan or Marty.  I spent hours debating with them on which poets to read, arguing about if I read too much philosophy, and if my poetry was too obscure. Before Susan and one of her two sons died in 2004 in a tragic car wreck on Jordan, I would spend hours on a chair in her office discussing my tendency to overuse “o” sounds in poems, the tendency I had for homeric adjectives, and my often deliberately jarring syntax.

Susan Atefat-Peckham, as I knew her, was the first professor I was truly close with, and Martin Lammon was the first that I truly butted up against productively.  Lammon found me–rightly I may add–testy and over-ambitious, pushing others hard and often over-committing myself to projects.  My poetry–at that time largely influenced by Nicanor Parra, Charles Olsen, and Erza Pound–was often at odds with Marty’s more deep image poetry influenced by Robert Bly and Donald Hall.   Much has been said about both them in the years since but both profoundly changed me.

When Susan died I had just been married for a half-year, before she had left to Jordan, I had met with her and her husband Joel to celebrate my own marriage. Two years later, a new professor, Allen Gee, at the MFA program I was in handed me a few of Susan’s books that were left in his office and were unclaimed by her family, and a checkbook that had fallen out my pocket into her chair. I watched the scrawl of Susan’s notes on the Merchant of Venice, and almost cried.  I started working out some poems about death in my twenties, about Rumi which Susan used to encourage me to read, and about trael.  I finished a collection, Sometimes, Grey Bodies, but sat on it until finally sending it to publishers for consideration last year.  It was far too personal: not just about Susan’s death, but a girlfriend’s still birth, the beginning and hints of the end of my first marriage, and times being briefly homeless as a late teen and watching man slowly die of AIDS in Atlanta.  It was a dark book, but it was brought about by an very kind person.

Alice Friman told me the poems got a bit overwhelming and traumatically-themed: “the end is a bloody mess” and it was, almost literally.  It suffered from my fear of writing about myself. I occulted my personality artistically, and let the words where about wrestling with the inability to express this trauma.  I hated and resented “therapy writing” and yet I was doing it without being aware.  When I sat down to start working on the book again, I opened a copy of Susan’s book and found her inscription to be: “Do not be afraid to live a life vulnerably, and you will have a life of poetry.”

It was from the first month we met when I was an undergraduate.  I started to revise Sometimes, Grey Bodies with that in mind. Letting the tension from my want to pull myself out of my poetry and my tension to express something in me that was deeply hurt. Not to heal it, or even to get attention for it, but to turn it into something else.   It took eight years of revisions for me to finally accept the book I wrote.

Marty’s influence was different: he introduced to many poets.  Through him I had college cafeteria lunches with Charles Simic and Christian Wiman, had conversations with Natasha Trethewey, exchanged a few words with Billy Collins, and met Andrei Codrescu pissing in a urinal in New Orleans.  I was in my early 20s, and in many ways, barely knew what these people who embarked on a writing life did. Marty was a man who found talent, and pressed it.  He pressed me to control my syntax, and to play against my love of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Michael Palmer, writing poems about Wittgenstein and sex, and to control my line.

When I had a major crisis in my family, Marty helped me out. He found the right reader of my thesis in the poet and pianist Oni Buchanan, and he put up with my fiscal problems as my health and marriage started turning in my late 20s. While I have spoken to professors from those years since I left the US, I have not had a chance to talk to Marty. To express my gratitude, and to tell him I am still in for the long haul despite years of ranting about obscure politics and being a teaching mercenary.  He has a book coming out–his first in a long time.  You should read it.

When writing this, I realize it has become hard for me to express what this did for me. Susan-Atefat pushed me into being self-honest, Marty into honing my craft. Without Marty, most of the people I was effected by would not have been in my life.  The third poet who taught probably affected me the most, but my thanks to Laura Newbern is its own essay.

Reading this I am struck by how un-lyrical I am writing about these two individuals, who probably shaped me way more than I did them. I suspect that they found me strange, demanding, but worth encouraging and cultivating. On days when I think I should quit teaching, or stop writing poems, which honestly, has popped in my head more than once: Marty and Susan not so quiet voices in my head.

Review: Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep by Seo-Young Cha (Harvard U. Press, 2011)

In another life, I worked at Korean University and was studying/writing on the works of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in as close detail as I could, and I went to a conference on narratology to speak on Cha. While I was there, I expressed interest in critical narrative theory as applied to poetry, science fiction, and comic books. Someone suggested this book because it spoke to both Cha, Korean cultural studies, and an expanded view of works of science fiction. Now, Cha’s Dictee is not science fiction by any conventional standard, but Chu includes it because of its metaphorical richness and speculative social commentary. Chu’s focus on science fiction as both a lyric and narrative mode of interrogating the social space fascinated me and not only led me to abandoning my arguments about Cha scholarship, which often was somewhat sloppily used in semi-nationalistic readings of Korean identity in the American. In short, this book’s argument about Cha was highly disruptive to my thinking, and even changed my poetic approach to my creative work.

In the last few weeks, I have been re-reading this book in addition to reading some more popular “scholarship” on comics. While do not necessarily agree with the hyper-broad definition Chu assigns “science fiction” (which is largely divorced from the sciences in Chu’s view, an argument that seems to only really be viable after the 1960s), her expansion of the role of science fiction as using metaphor as lyric imaginary is incredibly insightful. Chu’s primary assertion that the metaphorical and strange deliberately conflates and collapses the wall between the literal and figurative in most science fiction offers a very fruitful way to approach a lot of pop culture, but particularly New Wave Science Fiction and Slipstream fiction.

To say that “Chu explores the globalized world, cyberspace, war trauma, the Korean concept of han, and the rights of robots” as the press release around the book announces is actually somewhat of an understatement. Han, for example, doesn’t quite translate into English but can felt in Korean cinema’s obsession with vague past guilt and revenge as well as haunting itself with its own cultural memory. This does lend many Korean films a very “speculative” quality that does collapse the narrative/lyric distinction. Chu gives the fictional interrogations of science fiction more than a speculative turn: they do refer to reality for Chu, but tries to voice alienation and estrangement from the very reality it is trying to represent. It also does more blatant philosophical work, but Chu does convince me that poetics of M. John Harrison or J.G. Ballard or the speculative paranoia of Philip K. Dick or the ethnical explorations of Ursula K. LeQuin do belong in nearly same category as Cha or Kathy Acker or any other explorers of self-estrangement in more “literary” or “counter-cultural” work.

One of the most fascinating and important assertions of this book though is that allegory is the least “science fictional” element to most science fiction. In fact, it is where the collapsing of figurative and literal does not work as well and shifts into the purely figurative. This would mean that much “dystopia” and “utopia” as literature do not actually play in the realm of science fiction explicitly. This is most clearly stated in her chapter five on rights of robots, where she makes clear that the memetic element of science fiction is vital even to the genre’s ethical experimentations.

This is an under-read book outside of a very specific subset of literary studies where it has had some real pull. Chu is a first-rate scholar and does reverse expected reading and interpretative strategies often, but she does it without bogging one down in a lot of technical literary jargon and requires only minimal prior engagement with the theoretical apparatuses that inform her work. Meaning that while this book is related to the academic monograph, it does not read like one. One does not have to be a scholar to approach Chu’s argument. All one need to be is a serious reader.

Review: The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker (Sequart 2014)

Rarely do I get to say that something is insightful while also in bad need of an editor and much of which is superfluous. Cody Walker is probably one of the best close readers of Grant Morrison’s comics and what he has done here is a 250+ apologia and analysis of Morrison’s run on Batman. Furthermore, Morrison’s run was long, dense, meta-textual, controversial, and–while I doubt Walker would see it this way–uneven, so this would be an interesting undertaking. Walker is a teacher, and it shows in both the virtues and flaws of The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh. The explorations and explications of theme are, while not exactly scholarly or critical in an academic sense, insightful and show evidence of deep (and scholarly) engagement with material of Morrison and of treating popular culture as literature.

So here’s the problem: this book suffers from this teacherly trait in a way that undermines a lot of its readability. There are far, far too many summaries of every issue and arc Grant Morrison ever touched on Batman, and little discussion of how this really related to other Batman writers and other works by Grant Morrison. While Walker’s exegesis is strong, the pages upon pages of summaries are unnecessary for those who would be interested enough to read a defense of Morrison, but give too much away for those unfamiliar with the work. This kind of explication with intensive summary is often a teaching tool in a literature class–where one cannot assume everyone has read the work–but an editor should have cut at least fifty pages of this out. Walker’s style is reading and personable, but the summaries slow this way, way down.

Furthermore, comparing the differences in say Morrison’s work on Animal Man–which has the same deconstructive tendencies with Morrison would later take issue with his bete noir, fellow chaos magician Alan Moore–and his later Batman work would be really illuminating. It would also be interesting to compare Frank Miller’s or Jeph Loeb’s Batman to Morrison’s reconstructive work explicitly. Normally, I think it is unfair to critique an author for writing a different book than what one wants, but in this case, it really would help. Walker’s brief discussions the contrast between Moore and Morrison is insightful and so I know Walker could do this.

Lastly, while this is an excellent apologia for later Morrison’s deconstruction of capitalism around comics and his attempt to re-introduce archetype, camp, and de-humanizing artifice into comics from a philosophical point of view, Walker isn’t critical of where this doesn’t work unless the fault isn’t with Morrison. Walker’s discussion about how the conflicts between marketing, the New 52, and Batman, Inc, really undercut some of Morrison’s better writing at the end of his last run on Batman is actually one of the best part of the books, but one often feels like Walker is reading Morrison a bit too “occultly” to justify seeming incoherence and searching for hints to make things fit better than they do. Even good apologias need to be critical of their subject matter sometimes.

Ultimately, this makes for an very uneven read itself (perhaps this is ironic given Morrison’s Batman run). Devotees of either Batman or Morrison will skim a lot of this book because the summaries aren’t necessary to them, and the neophyte will be utterly lost. This is a shame because, like I have said, Walker is a strong reader with a penetrating mind and a good eye for detail as well as a pleasant and enjoyable writer. I suggest this book only with those caveats strongly in mind.

The Discrete Charms of the Political Managerial Class: Another Rant

We have officially become the election cycle and the spectacle of North American’s non-parliamentary, English speaking democracy has begun. For me this is a time of both extreme bemusement and unending frustration, but at least I watch from a seat abroad.   For there is a populist anxiety a blaze in the states, and you can smell its rancid leak through most of the media-saturated world.  In many ways, my “resting asshole face” will be on nearly flashing constantly in the general direction of pundits with there normal panoply of selection, confirmation bias, bold assertion mistaken for argument, and ideological tell spinning.  The various chatrooms and forums will be filled with screams of “cuck” met with screams of “problematic” as the various ideological hacks of Western world–for even British newspapers seem to make hey misleading the public about American politics now–as I slowly think that the reactionary Nicolás Gómez Dávila and the ultra-leftist Amadeo Bordiga were both right about one thing:  the immaturity of anything with the pretense to call itself democracy.

Indeed, you think nations would find a cheaper way to out the worse amongst us. This morning I slept through the “exciting” Iowa Caucuses because I am far closer to Greenwich mean time than any American has a right to be. I woke up to cries of Ted Cruz winning the Iowa caucus being a sign of… I don’t know what.  You mean the evangelical pandering candidate won the state whose primary organization method favors local on the grassroots people-moving?  No, you don’t say, churches are great at that as you might have noticed.  That might explain why Huckabee and Santorum won the last two caucuses. You know, the two people that if Richard Dawkins stopped senilely complaining about feminists he would see as public enemies number 1 and 2 in the US.

What is abnormal about that is how normal it is.

So the Republican base continues its ideological civil war but past trends of history are past trends. Or, as Bruce Carlson would say, my history can beat up your politics. (Except when it can’t). Nate Silver and co have moved from hard nosed polling towards over favoring priors in ways that have made them slow to predict things. Nicholas Nassim Taleb gets the last laugh most of the time, but on this, it was completely predictable. That said, Silver is right here:

The actual results in Iowa weren’t that far off from our forecasts there, however, since our model correctly had Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio projected to overperform the polls and Donald Trump projected to underperform his, along with a close margin on the Democratic side.

The more unpredictable development is the civil war between “It’s My Turn” and “Larry Sanders Doesn’t Seem to Understand What Socialism Actually Means.”  The polls are head-to-head, and already that are accusations of Clinton vote rigging.  Well, if some of her operatives are caucus-rigging, they really don’t cheat well given the votes may as well be decided by a coin toss.  Still, it is important to remember that Sanders, even in Obama years, would have been seen as a candidate like Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel just an election cycle ago, and traditionally only got the percentage currently afforded to somewhat O’Malley or Jim Webb.  While I tend to feel about Hilary Clinton the way Doug Henwood does (and I feel about Bill the way Hitchens did), I predict some hardcore Bernbot interference.

I also predict more lawsuits about Ted Cruz not being “natural born.” That commie.

What we are seeing though is punditry around disillusionment of American democracy. Until the 1990s disillusionment, on national campaigns, investment in masochistic rite of voting remains high.  People will celebrate this even though this election also indicates that people are fed-up, they are fed-up with being fed-up, and gosh darnit, they are going to… totally take it some more.  Let’s give it the old college try.  We can always try again when our hopes are dashed on the rocks of hope.

Yet, there really is a great chaos under heaven, let’s see who wastes it.  In Democracy, don’t get sad, get machiavellian. If you don’t, don’t cry when you get more of the same Bourgeois-bootlicking managerial class twiddle. At least let it be either from people who write well or understand statistics if we are doomed to that fate.