Cairo Reflections 2.5: Attempting Normalcy Through Music

I am exhausted lately, although my job is going well and my writing poetry has hit a stride again after working through a piece of prose as art instead of polemic. Listening to music from the late 1990s and early Aughts, oddly, has helped me revisit some particular nostalgia debris and work out the various detritus.  Bands like Les Savvy Fav, Archers of Loaf, Red Red Meat, Jawbow, Burning Airlines, Ghost and Vodka, Califone: instead of a diet of sludge metal and jazz, I have been listening to the hardcore, post-punk, and post-hardcore bands of my teens and twenties.  Angular riffs, partially obscure lyrics, strange time signatures, overly bright treble, or in other cases, lyrics of distortion and reverb over blue rhythms. It reminds me that my first semi-professional writing was very sloppy album reviews for various scenes, including some of the first “e-zines” of the 1990s.

I must admit listening to this on the Nile seems anachronistic in the extreme, but trying to chase down particular artistic phantoms and psychological ghosts while my partner is away and the people who love me are, for the most part, on different parts of other continents, this has been a welcome diversion.

Lately, I have been spending me time with colleagues ranging in age from twenty-five to forty, some married, but almost none with children.  I have been drinking Egypt’s overly sweet desert wine and its thin beer in haze of shisha smoke from the local cafes or from friends’ hookahs, but only on the weekend and realizing the dangers of this being a lifestyle keeps me from supplementing being around the more intimate in my life with.  Still, it has been relaxing.  Conversations and games of Phase 10 or poker, talk of other people’s trips to Italy or Doha, the normal soap-box rants of former teachers in America and Canada.

The trickling of some sense of normalcy into the my life is welcome, and returning to jangling music of my youth has led to some intense memories of the 1990s and aughts and poems come out of my actual youthful indiscretion instead my approaching middle age pretense to it in a course of transition and tragedy.

Yet the tricks have limits:  My partner is fighting with insurance, who seem to do anything to avoid paying for a cancer, and battling cancer at the same time.  My rage, something I had more of as a young man, has come back.  This jangle and growl seems more appropriate to the heart of the situation.  I do push-ups more and more to get off excess energy. I write more poems.  I listened to bands like Fucked Up, Helmet, and Orange 9mm.  The harder truths here are that I am not going to get hard enough for this not to affect me.  Music is a barrier, a way to but indulge and safely file away the emotions.

Advertisements

This Blog Returns as well as podcasts… obviously

Dear Gentle Readers:

In the past two weeks, I have revived this otherwise defunct blog as my primary writing outlet. I may one day write for Zero Books blog as well, and I am certainly podcasting for them behind the membership wall.

Symptomatic Redness, the podcast I co-host, has been in the doldrums for a year or so.  My producer’s family and my own had run-ins with cancer but life is normalizing and production should return soon.

Former People should be returning from a five month hiatus on the blog and the literary magazine is returning to roughly bi-monthly updates.

I would also like to think Very Bad Wizards for linking to my write up of on Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Two lessons were learned from that, proof before publishing and attacking celebrities gets you a ton of hits even if your point is utterly missed.

Expect weekly to bi-weekly posts.

 

Revisiting “The Ruling Class”

the-ruling-class

My love semi-obscure British cinema from the 1970s is generally encapsulated by films like Ken Russell’s The Devils or Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The Ruling Class, a film directed by Peter Medak based on a play by Peter Barnes, is neither quite as transgressive as either movie but probably as oft misread as just something to shock.   Still, despite Peter O’Toole’s living performance, the flatness of the scenery, the theatricality of its staging, and the shift tonal oddity of parts of the movie, The Ruling Class may be the bleaker of the three films.

The premise is simple enough: a minor noble house in England has a equally minor succession crisis which results on the original Earl’s estranged son being foisted into the position of head of the family despite his paranoia schizophrenia.  Jack, or as he prefers to be called in the beginning, J.C.  views himself as a God of love and dresses in a late 60s white suit and wears dime-store Jesus make-up and hair.  After his uncle uses his delusions to get him to marry his Uncle’s own former mistress and produce an heir,  his psychiatrist, Dr. Herder, tries to cure him quickly, putting him into contact with the electric messiah, another paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be much more akin to the Yahweh of the Old Testament. The purpose to force “reality” into one of the patients minds since they can’t both be God, but J.C./Jack experiences the bolts and internalizes a different message.  Even the obsession with an electricity may be an illusion here given that Canaanites seemed to have viewed Yahweh originally as some kind of volcano or thunder God. Jack breaks with his view of himself as a God of love, and sees himself as different God.  This one mirroring what he sees as virtues of the ruling class itself, Jack imagines himself Jack the Ripper, and become a rousing success in the house of lords while offing or breaking the mind of his family members.

The allegory seems heavy-handed as a analogy of sociopathy of England’s elite, and it is, but there are small scenes and characters with large complications to that analogy.  The Butler  Tuck, Jack frames for his first murder, is a Bolshevik who himself is dancingly happy with Jack’s first kill declaring his happiness that another one of them is dead, but the Butler is also enabling a very reactionary force when doing so and legitimizing his own imprisonment later. He also is made well-off himself by a gift from his former employer, the late Earl, and thus while his resentment is real, his Bolshevik inclinations are both passive and hypocritical.  This, ironically, is happening while Jack’s uncle misreads him as “not just nuts but Bolshie” in his “God of Love” stage.

Indeed, Jack’s transformation is a flower-power Jesus to a lordly sociopath is often read as representing the ruling class’s sociopathy and their inclinations towards religious fanaticism.  This is probably all true, but the film has other points here as well. Jack’s earlier romanticism as J.C. was more liberally-inclined but portrayed not only as paranoid but a kin of paranoid that came from profound self-importance.  Jack’s flower-power love, despite its radicalism, is also a form of egoistical narcissism.  Indeed, while the working class “bolshie” is literally a house servant who accidentally encourages his employer to kill himself in a fit of auto-erotic asphyxiation in a tutu, it is strongly implied that his Marxism came later, partly because he seemed sincerely concerned when his employer died. The implications of that is interesting as well but I am not sure they are entirely intended by the film-makers or the author.  Both seem to have revolutionary world views only in so much that they don’t really matter or actually effect anything.

Another element of the film is the monologue of the 13th Earl, who, after telling a delusional but completely conventional speech about the glories of empire to the Society of St. George, hangs himself and gives a speech about being forced into law as opposed to being an artist.  His own ramblings and pretensions towards civility manifesting in exhausted self-hatred.  The similarities between the 13th and the 14th is that while both are eloquent and both play to the worse pretensions of empire, the 13th may have been more humane the entire time.

So while the obvious analogy about the ending of the 1960s and the affectations of the ruling class abound, it is smaller characters and their implications that actually make this a great story that hits deeper than just an normal indiction of privilege.  Barnes play seems to indicate that little has changed during the swinging 60s, and Victorian and Edwardian romps aside, most of what is left is ugliness of the entire Imperium.  Medak is a refugee from Hungry and while he may see the rot at the core of the ruling classes, he is also illustrating the rot at the core of them play-acting at liberalism and socialism.

It’s not that Jack the Ripper is Jack’s true form either: it’s the form England rewards him for. One of the more interesting implications of the society, Jack the ripper is Jack’s vision of the God people need and definitely what they respond to.   The two church women scandalized by the sexual implications of J.C./Jack asking them about love as rallied on my his song and dance (literally) about breaking people on the rack.  Jack sees all the lords as dead meat, and even seems to invert the originally feinted affection that Lady Grace felt.  Grace’s love for him growing more and more sincere as he normalizes, a love that literally kills her unceremoniously in one the most profoundly strangely toned ending sequences in cinema.

The defining trait of Jack is not his love or malice, but his sheer blankness and projection of self-importance.  It reflects a society that he sees–quite literally in paranoid visions in his House of Lords scene–as dead.  The movie is not without difficulties: O’Toole’s drinking during this film was legendary and seemed to lead to sporadic performances that had a vaudeville flare–generally to the film’s benefit, but the abrupt tonal shifts may be due to those performance as well.  Female characters do not have really developed motivations beyond witty banter and moving the plot. The theatrical nature of the shooting makes the film look like it is from an era much earlier than 1972. The pacing, particularly in the beginning, is languid.   That said, the dialogue and myriad of allegories for post-1968 politics left and right implied in the film make this one of my favorite movies.

 

 

This is why you should save drafts: or Cairo Reflections Two, the Lost Tapes

I was writing Cairo Reflections Two: Jaywalking with Nietzsche.  This contained pages and pages of digressions on archery, Cairo traffic, Eid Al-Adha, why I stopped hunting in my early 20s,  Nietzsche, and the death of the God.  My computer crashed and I lost all but a fragment.  I will share the fragments I had written in notes for it, although the original writing was about 4000 words longer than this:

Listening to Stephen West’s podcast, Philosophize This!, while I was dodging a white 1980s-model  Fiat Taxi,  I saw a sheep face being eaten by a couple of street dogs.  The sheep face was left over the Halal slaughter for Eid-al-adha and women carefully avoided it by walking in the road.  Three women in black polyester naqab carrying some items on their heads, and I wanted a diet Pepsi, chief among my vices, so I avoided it and head to the one souq that was nearby and open despite the holiday.  The way Cairo causes you to change risk calculation and to live in concern with different things is fascinating.   Most foreigners are turned off by the remains of the ritual slaughter of lamb sacrifices for Eid.

My ajahn, a Theravada Buddhist teacher who immigrated from Sri Lanka to Georgia I used to talk to in my early 20s, said this was a good a thing.  That killing the animal did more damage than just eating it. That the intention of killing had karmic and psychological effects, but I don’t know if I buy that. I quit eating as much the first time I field dressed a deer–the third white tail I ever killed–and after I did it, I didn’t not want to bow hunt anymore. Indeed, Egyptians eat a lot less meat than Americans–mostly pigeons, chicken, and sometimes beef but not as often–and their diet is mostly rice, fava beans, eggplants, pasta, bread, chopped salad, lentils and cheese.

Regardless, it always struck me that both attitudes, one that was okay with watching a ram bleed out, and one that just mindlessly eat a burger but was disgusted at the “barbarism” of a sheep face left for dogs could be equally careless.  Furthermore, both could fall into a secular “other worldism” that was not so much revolutionary or transformative as escapist.   This brings me back to West’s podcast on Nietzsche.

West focuses on the full context of the Nietzsche’s quote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

A serious reader will notice this is not just a statement of atheism. In fact, for the atheist, God isn’t dead, God never was. The transhistorical nature of that claim can’t be squared with Nietzsche’s point here. Secularization is the main metaphor and secularization is irreversible because the nature of the categories has changed.  God here is a social and psychological way of dealing with meaning, and as West puts it, that technology for reifying values seems to be more and more impossible beyond just the individual’s faith.

Even if one is a Christian or Muslim, one should take secularization seriously. Indeed, thinking in terms of the secular/religious instead of sacred/profane, indicates a shift in the social world view.  No matter if one believes in the ontological existence of God, the social being around that fact has changed, has been seemingly forever secularized as the spheres in which religious life is generally seen as most relevant seems to fade. So when Nietzsche declares “God is dead, and remains dead, and we have killed him.”  It is not nearly just atheism that is at stake. In is in no small insight that Nietzsche has found God dead in the market place when he speaks about this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Indeed, in the posits of “other worlds” that deny our own world, Nietzsche seems to have no problem putting both the capitalist and the socialist as flies in the festering wound on the corpse of God in society.

Now, Nietzsche was both profoundly anti-Christian, but his insights in the secularization of even the highly religious-professing society should not be lost on anyone.  Indeed, this is why Pope John-Paul the Second considered him a necessary figure to deal with for any serious faith.

What does Nietzsche had to do with Eid?  Why, other than arbitrary listening of a podcast does this seem relevant to me? Is that Nietzsche himself collapsed trying to stop the beating of a horse?  Is that in risk taking, I better myself?

The answer is that even a highly religious society like Egypt has tensions around secularization deeper than just lingering remains of Ottoman jurisprudence or Nasr’s pan-arab attempt undo Islamist identity. It is that even in this world, we are still seeing this as a clash between one world system and another, and in Egypt the problem seems more obvious and more deeply felt. It causes questions to bubble up that I don’t have an answer for…

(That is all I have of the original reflect and I don’t feel like recreating the rest of it from memory). 

Cairo Reflection 1: Levi/Levity

I have been unable to write what I want lately. Poems haven’t been coming as readily, polemics are more muddled, the long stalker of my dyslexia complicating my writing more than in the past. It is hard to explain why because, as a caveat, I am both a very private and very public man. In a way, I insist on a distinction between the public and private life that few since Hannah Arendt have encouraged, particularly in a time when artists’ and poets’ lives are considered largely the key to their work. In a time of confession and stand-point, of microblogging and self-polemic, I am both deeply attracted to and deeply disgusted by narcissism.

 

Poets who don’t merely naval gaze can become Stalins, Maos, and minor Eastern European nationalists though, and as such, the choice between emulating Anne Sexton or Ezra Pound becomes nearly a kind of posturing towards a lesser evil. The obvious answer is that one does not want to embody any of those traits.

Outside Cairo traffic bustles beyond my seventh-floor apartment on the edge of a mixed neighborhood in Maadi. This is Degla. It’s shaped like a D and is a mixture of Egyptian, Syrian, Chinese, Korean, British and American. The streets are anything but quiet, but it is largely safe outside of beggars from the local orphanage selling tissue paper or vendors selling flat bread, sweet potatoes or bananas. There is a seemingly ancient necropolis across the highway: an old Muslim cemetery with what appears to be sandstone houses, and beyond that a prison that we don’t take pictures of. Beyond that the rest of Cairo, some small stony mountains, and beyond the Nile in any direction seemingly infinite desert.

The regularity of my life is simple: the calls to prayer, the various honks of the busy street outside, the nearly ejaculatory rhythms of the occasionally verbal fight in the Masri Arabic ringing. Street cats and street dogs sorting through the trash before the locals pick it up and take it to Garbage city to be sorted. This is my life here. It is pleasant.

Comparatively to Seoul and District Federal in Mexico, two similar size cities I have stayed around my nomadic lifestyle, Cairo feels more sprawling, massive, and yet also more intimate. Neighborhoods feel like little villages. Locals who do not speak your language know you. Know your movements. Know when something is wrong. Other migrants and expatriates know you too, except that they often don’t approach you. The beggars too know your patterns

Sometimes as I walk home from getting groceries at a market—a grocery store or a souq—they will swarm. Saying “Mister” and then begging in Arabic. These are mostly orphans and old women. They touch me slightly as they beg, and generally accept a few pounds with thanks. Sometimes they want more and touch me until I give a stern hiss of “Khalas” (the “kh” sound rattling like a guttural and aspirated h)—meaning “it’s finished.” For new comers I am sure this intimacy is unnerving often. It seems a violation of our sense of bodily integrity, our space. Yet it reminds me of a vital pulse here. A way in which Americans and maybe even Europeans become skin starved. Not for sex, or even the touch of a lover, but just touch in general. It costs me a few Egyptian pounds a week, and the occasional harsh word in my broken Arabic.

This has been the rhythm of my days here. It also brings nostalgia on fast. Maadi is home to the Mexican consular residence and its Embassy, home to a large Korean community that seems tied to foreign development of Cairo, workers for Huawei and Samsung. I can get food that reminds me of Daejon, of Seoul, and of many of the important women of my life these past four years, including my partner.

This has been an element that has changed. It has rattled me. It has made it harder to write.

—-

I first started to write this scene in the several-decades-old couch of an expatriate friend. She is from Northern Mexico, and was my colleague there. Recently, I helped get her relocated to Cairo so she could have same contract as a “foreign hire” and having her around has been helpful. My partner worked with her, and now that my partner is not with me, she ties me back to that world. To the desert of Northern, Mexico, and the dry air that was not as dry as Cairo but felt much closer to the sun. Indeed, I had been stewing in a gentle melancholy and deciding, after sitting there reading the introduction to Raymond Rosenthal’s translation of Levi’s The Periodic Table, that I had to write something even if I couldn’t write what I wanted to right then—or right now. I did not have the levity for a poem. My sarcasm too bitter for satire. My mood being just slightly blacker than before.

This is not Cairo’s fault. The coming of the Eid holiday and the return of the school year had actually help lighten my mood, but it was half-used white crayon upon a background of jet black ink.

Indeed, since resuming my job at the American curriculum international school I currently work at in Cairo, I have been unable to finish a single poem even if I had published a few older ones. I had been separated from my partner for all but two weeks of four months, and I had spend the first three weeks back in Cairo wandering as if I was a hungry ghost. I spoke to local Egyptian friends, but my Arabic is minuscule. I can ask for a taxi or order food, say good morning or goodbye, and know key words for anger, hungry, or happiness. I call local friends habibi, and know when to hold hands or hug male friends in ways that generally make Americans uncomfortable. But I could not hold a conversation in Arabic, particularly a conversation about politics, or my new unwelcome friend, cancer. I couldn’t talk about the street cats I watched daily, or my two Siamese who ventured with my partner and I from Mexico. In this isolation, a lot of angst-heavy poems came quickly, then they stopped. So then I concerned myself with the strained grammar of quickly writing “Marxist” polemics aimed a grouplets and micro-sects of Marxists in my “home” country.

—-

Politics is both my passion and my anti-passion. There are a variety of reasons for this, but a key is that I have largely rejected the political spectrum of American liberalism—most American politics, even conservative politics, being some variety of liberal or another. The alpha and omega relationship to that set of American political thought had taken root, and I favor an older, and frankly more coherent but particular, Marxism that does not even parallel most of the Marxist thought today. Indeed, I rejected Woodrow Wilson for Amadeo Bordiga and a largely forgotten worldview of a Leninism that could have been, but wasn’t.

Perhaps this is why I watch so many Pasolini films, and argue with translations of Gramsci without little more than a cursory grasp of Italian deduced merely from a knowledge of Spanish and exposure to Latin.

In some ways, I am a child of broken languages, and past dreams.

My passion thus moves more from that of touching a lover to that of a passion play. Passio, to suffer. Pain. Lately, my long duree view of history and political thought seems more in place in a Cairo Cafe among a mixed form of professors than in memes and screeds that act as degenerated polemic.

I have been trying to formulate an opinion and argument about the disintegration of older communist and Marxist sectlets from the 1970s and 1990s, and the formation of new micro-parties and tendencies out of the ashes of #Occupy and the current fervor of #BLM. Trying to congeal the undifferentiated mass of #hashtag activism into something more in line with pre-1914 or Karl Kautsky. These parties see an opening made by Sanders and frustration with the Democrats to make a tactical electoral push to build a mass party. When I sit down to arguing with this with my knowledge of history, I come up with both sides of the ledger filled. To borrow a capitalism metaphor, the accounting makes it hard to pick sides. I have no clear argument on over-arching trends, infinitely weighting more and more historical esoterica or knowledge of demographics or the past failures of Marxist parties, or the naivety of hacktivism and hashtag-activism in the first instance. I have nothing more to say about this than “wait and see,” or “trust, but verify.”

It’s hard to make compelling blog-posts or polemics on that.

So I shall, after all there is an ocean and several North African deserts between myself and North American even if the currency exchange is felt world-wide. My “homeland” and I feel increasingly distant. It has been six years since I left the States, a marriage, and the overbearing humidity of Georgia.

—-

This brings me to the first lines of Levi’s “Aragon” chapter, in Rosenthal’s lyrically direct translation into English: “There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe.” What is inert? Why inert? Why the “so-called.”

My disillusionment with ups and downs of student visions of revolutionary politics being one well- known gas. It is documented on blogs, in podcasts, and my somewhat sporadic polemical battles. It is, however, only one such gas and not the most important one.

My partner has cancer, fairly advanced, and has returned to the states and her family to undergo treatment. She left several months ago. During the summer, my mother and I drove from just beneath the Appalachian mountains in my home region of central Georgia, dipping into a continents width of diners and truck stops, to drive to tip of the Rockies to see her. The great land mass of corn and soybean in the center to keep us company. Then I quietly got on a plane after a few weeks there, and flew to Cairo via Rome.

I spent a day in unexpected overlay in Rome, got a few meals, and some decent wine.

This has been hard for me to say, and because the such inert gases are hardly “inert.” I have had trouble speaking about this publicly. Sometimes coyly hiding the existence of the entire affair, and others blurting it out in vague details without any sense of situational awareness. Furthermore, our life together has always been in transit. Meeting the second year in Korea after a year of dating around, we immediately started traveling together. We had only been apart for a few weeks in four and half years prior since we met in a central train station in Seoul. I had slept beside her on a wooden cot in a hospital in Daejon, and she was with me when typhoid closed my bowels off in Mexico, sleeping next to me on a couch and helping nurses dress the surgery wound of around 30 staples.

She is fighting this without my help. So I am without her, and while there is still an “us,” an “ours,” and a “we,” this is a limbo that isn’t easy because her voice is her, and our two siamese cats sometimes seem to looking for her in my Cairo apartment. This this fainter world and the limbo it engenders devours my sense of protocol. The rhythms of Cairo, in all their chaos, and memory of women— romantic and not, mostly not—keep me focusing, almost ironically, on her because it reminds me why people are important. Why touch is important. Why silence’s sound is not entirely welcome.

 

Yet, my life is not all nostalgia nor all the thinking about women some kind of narcissistic misplacement of longing and loss. Until I was an adult, most of the closest friends were women, and even as an adult, even small interactions have been meaningful. Sharing poetry with a Professor of Italian I knew that I respected and wished I had known better, who later I corresponded with, she encouraging me to keep writing poetry at a point when I considered quitting. I never told her that or how important it was. I still see her on social media sometimes and that encouragement brings a smile.

I feel guilty going to cafes, keeping up with friends, going to Korean restaurants, drinking the local beer, living my life because I know she is at home battling the disease. I am not that there. I can’t. I maintain our insurance, and aid with my money, but I must work. I work an ocean away.

I see the green neon of mosque out my window. It reminds of the red neon crosses rising above Seoul. The tenements and the Mission district in my hometown of Macon. The broken “Jesus Saves” sign of my childhood, flickering like a bar add for some national beer brand. This is the conflation and collapse of highly complex memories.

—-

Narrow streets, broken concrete, and dust. Always dust. Naked light. I walk past those beggars again. I smile, give a few pounds, and watch a young couple walk. A young woman in a pink hijab pets a street cat and a local Chinese cook lays down some scraps for the cats. I fear that she might be poisoning them for a second, but she pets them as well and I feel slightly ashamed for my lack of charity.

I know my partner is improving, and so the bleakness dwindles a bit. I think about crying with a college friend who was one of few people I went to college with left in my hometown. I cried on her shoulder. I had barely cried in six years, and never in public. Even in my divorce and losing my job, I had only broken down once. She tolerated it, and even understood it. She had lost a family member close to her, and she welcomed me waltzing back to the States and temporally into her life with my problems, my fears, and my past. She asked if I started ranting about politics and arcane texts of Marx, would it be a sign I was better or worse.

—-

A dangerous habit of expatriates is that all kinds of illusions, ideologies, and gods can fill the longing for a culture, for a home. Perhaps that is why the extremists have almost more clout in a diaspora. In my diaspora of one, I remain the child of rootless cosmopolitans, but without the comfort of that singular identity. It is, however, a real privilege to see the world.

The physical universe seems obstinate, quarrelsome. As I remind myself my drama is both infinite and tiny. Like the number line between 1 and 2, there are infinitely more infinities between 1 and 100. As an Egyptian friend says to me “the flood comes,” and he also means that the crops come after. Wait and see. The gases may catch flame. You never know what will be burned away and what will burn bright. For Levi, a chemist as well as a poet, and for myself, a poet and nomad who puts food on the table by teaching, we both aim to make something about of the stubborn materials, the treacherous gases, and the random acceleration of our lives.

The flood always comes, so to speak.

So Cairo seems to drain me and give me life—the city of millions with a few dozen traffic lights. The more I see of it, the I see the teeming layers of cultures, Shiite and Sunni, Nubian, Greek, Muslim, French, British, Arab. The closeness and hospitality and the brashness and bargaining. It all comes into the view for moments and flits away. I feel like a foreign particle, bouncing around its corridors, colliding with beggars, Salafists, young novelists, tour guides, Copts, Muslim feminists, liberal idealists, Europeans on holiday near the Red Sea, the increasingly dwindling amount of tourists. The hodgepodge of a world that both wants to embrace modernity and is also, rightly, distrusting of that very same worldview.

I suppose I am equally ambivalent and so I feel the pull.

—-

The other day, I was invited by my Mexican friend to the Consular Residence of Mexico for dinner in honor of Día de la Independencia de Mexico with the Grito de Dolores recitation and imported Mexican food and spirit. I collided in thinking it was like the same celebration I had been to in Seoul, so I found myself standing between an Egyptian and a Dutch general, in a polo shirt and seersucker shorts. Listening to the ceremony of the Mexican community in slightly accented English as it was lingua franca as I struggled to keep up with my colleagues’ Spanish conversation.

The gases we find ourselves in are unexpected. I found myself speaking broken gringo Spanish in Egypt. Drinking mescal and dining on mole poblano as an honorary Mexicano. I have never felt more American. Even in my first weeks in Korea when very scrap of English drew my attention.

Travel changes you, but it isn’t vacations or sightseeing or braying at the poor for their inability to travel that does it. It’s the situations you find yourself wandering into, being forced into, and how that makes even your home alien.

I wanted to share the moment with so many different people. So many different friends. My partner. Former lovers. Friends. I wanted to show everyone how weird the world is when you open yourself up to the background noises and random occurrences, but it was that same randomness that kept me from being able to share it with them in the first place.

Levity is what I needed to write. In lieu of it, I wrote this to find my levity again. To find my gases. To keep going, because, if Levi is any indication, the lack of fuel to keep colliding can run out when you least expect it.

Guest Post: The Convergence of Left & Right by Emanuel Kumlien

Making sense of Brexit and reactionary values

As human beings, we constantly look for patterns. We are, as Heidegger put it, “thrown into the world” – a chaotic and seemingly unpredictable world that we do our best to try to understand in order to interact with it and the other beings therein in a smooth and gainly manner. At no time though does the world appear more chaotic than during political turmoil, and making sense of it – much less understanding the underlying conditions and patterns – is a daunting task indeed.

Therefore, in the light of Brexit and the disastrous fallout that ensued, I set out to do my best to try to understand the leave campaign, the leave voters and what values and beliefs informed their stance and position. Before long I found myself digging deep into the contemporary reactionary movements of the right, browsing through countless forum threads and listening to hours upon hours of reactionary YouTube “celebrities”, all of which were vocal supporters of “leave”. My armchair social science field study took me through everything from the Gamergate movement, through the darker corners of the “manosphere”, the blue-brown waters of the “alt-right” before finally culminating in reading blog posts and manifestos from fringe neoreactionary movements. Desperately, I tried weaving these threads together, trying to find a pattern between them. What were their common elements? What were their lowest common denominators? What, exactly, is it that ties these movements together?

I thought the answers to the latter questions would be simple and straight-forward. Clearly, we all know “the right” hates homosexuals, the working class and the poor, immigrants, public service television and “communists”. We all think we know the right and what they stand for. At least, that was my working hypothesis. I already knew these people, I thought. I just had to confirm my already strongly held beliefs.

Before long though, I found that reality has an awful habit of not being as black-and-white as we sometimes wish it to be. At first, these different movements seemed to have nothing in common, except for them linking to each other from time to time. What looked like one huge, brown blob turned out to be a vast complex of venn diagrams, some with serious disagreements with their (at least when viewed from the outside) ideological “neighbors”. I found myself in a strange, almost surreal sphere where Leninists quoted libertarian thinkers on white supremacy forums, anarcho-capitalists applauded monarchist feudalists, scientifically trained libertarians supported long-debunked conspiracy theories, and professors of ethnic studies ranted against “jewish media”.

In such a strange world of seeming self-contradiction, I found myself utterly lost. My usual conceptions of “left” and “right” seemed to break down at the starting line. None of the labels I was used to apply to social and political movements and ideologies seemed to be adequate to accommodate for the myriad of beliefs and positions I found within these loosely correlated movements. These people disagreed on absolute ideological and philosophical fundamentals, yet seemed to get along most of the time and certainly had large portions of their audience in common. It seemed baffling to me that the same YouTube show could feature guests claiming that critical theory studies was a form of government-mandated mind control, exacerbated by electromagnetic “frequency pollution” (no, I’m not joking. This person really thought that Frankfurt school thinkers are being transmitted directly into student’s brains via government-controlled antennas) while at the same time accusing “the left” for spreading conspiracy theories. It baffled me further that a significant subsection of the show’s viewers were objectivist libertarians, people who typically are college educated and usually, at least in my experience, very apt and erudite debunkers of conspiracy theories. As a previously active member of the skeptic/atheist movement, I often saw these skills in action first-hand. The libertarian trail led to further confusion. Soon I found classical free-market liberals supporting welfare states and closed borders, in direct and vocal contradiction to the ideas of Adam Smith, and self-proclaimed classical liberals signing petitions to shut down select university departments in the name of protecting “free speech”.

I was ready to give up. These movements didn’t seem to hold any significant beliefs in common. They disagreed vocally on everything from welfare to immigration, gender and epistemology. Ironically, the only thing most (though certainly not all) of them seemed to agree upon was something I thought most of the far-right opposed: the right for homosexual couples to marry. Even some of the neo-Nazis on the far-right forums seemed to be supportive of gay rights, albeit from a very different standpoint.

Yet, for all their differences, they directed traffic to each other and seemed to have a significant overlap. How could this be?

It wasn’t long until I, desperate for something to help me understand this phenomenon, dusted off my old textbook in social psychology. This turned out to be a step in the right direction. For while they didn’t share many concrete beliefs about policy in common, they did have a significant overlap in values and attitudes. This discovery, though, led me to a quite uncomfortable conclusion, albeit one that had lurked in the back of my mind for some time.

Before we get into the actual studies and scientific theories, I invite you to imagine a person who holds a set of general conceptions of the world that looks something like this:

  1. The state of the world is largely determined by politicians and large corporations.
  2. These constitute a part of a group of “elites” that influence the world according to their will and self-interest.
  3. The current politicians are largely corrupted by these “elites”, if not outright a part of their group and replacing them together with getting rid of the “elitist” influence would therefore solve most of our current political problems.
  4. Due to the actions of the politicians and the elites, the world is currently in a critical state verging on collapse.
  5. The ideas and ideologies of the “ruling elite” are unfairly and undemocratically passed down to the public through social institutions such as universities as well as popular culture to which the public is largely defenseless. There is therefore a top-down indoctrination going on, which must be combated at all times.
  6. This ideology is specifically constructed to silence and shame my particular identity and cultural affiliation. This makes me feel threatened, and strengthens my bond to others within my cultural sphere in solidarity.
  7. The social group to which I belong is powerful, beautiful, articulate, and a real threat to the elites. This is why the ruling ideology tries to suppress it, or – worse – to conquer it and use it for their own agenda.
  8. There is therefore an effort from those that side with the elites to infiltrate my social group, which is why we must build barriers between us and them.
  9. My group is further targeted by the elites through economic and material means, effectively disempowering us since they came to power.
  10. The “elites” do everything they can to keep their plans secret, which is why mainstream media cannot be trusted outright. Alternative media might be flawed, but at least they get “the truth” out to the people.
  11. Because of all of the above points, swift action against the elites is justified and necessary. We might disagree on the forms and methods, but it is ultimately a disagreement about practical matters, not of goals or ideology.

I have tried to do my best not to make a strawman out of these beliefs, but truth be told I haven’t perhaps made my best efforts to strongman them either. Perhaps they sound weaker the way I’ve presented them here than they really are, perhaps it’s the other way around. I also do not wish to imply that someone that agrees with a few of these points must necessarily believe all of them, or that one logically necessitates the other. My point is merely to reflect a commonly held view, one that I hope you recognize – to some extent at least – among op-eds, books, debate articles and other forms of political commentary. Perhaps you even agree with a few of these points, or all of them. I certainly think more than a few carry a grain of truth, even though I – as you might have guessed by this point – do not think of it as the whole picture.

Again, consider our hypothetical person that holds the aforementioned beliefs. Who are you thinking of? You might be thinking of a person on the left who identifies the elitist ideology as “neoliberalism” and who might sympathize with – say – the occupy movement. Perhaps you’re not thinking of anyone in particular, thinking that these beliefs are far too generalistic to apply to any one person or movement. Whatever the case, you wouldn’t be wrong. I have, however, summarized these points from the opinions of one very specific person.

That person is Sargon of Akkad, or Carl Benjamin as he’s known in the real world. A right-wing reactionary YouTube celebrity, long famous for being a vocal critic of feminism and most of everything coming out of the contemporary left. A self-proclaimed “classical liberal”, he was also a vocal supporter for Brexit and – considering the sheer number his fans and audience – perhaps someone who might have had enough of an impact to sway voters to the other side in a very close referendum where tiny margins meant all the difference. Somewhat paradoxically for someone claiming to be of the same school as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, he advocates harsh border controls, isolationism and protectionist tariffs to “protect the jobs at home” and “protect the British working class” from the influence of the “elites” and “neoliberalism”. He’s also on record supporting Donald Trump, mainly due to his opposition to anything resembling Islam.

I have to emphasize here that I do not wish to engage in any sort of guilt by association. Clearly there a lot of people on the contemporary mainstream left, if not the overwhelming majority, that see him as a political enemy. The point of my investigation, however, was to understand how and why a significant portion of the left came to support a campaign directly orchestrated and organized by the far-right. The fact that someone on the far-right agrees on many of the same points as large portions of the left provides a clue.

While they disagree on who the elites may be and what the content of their ideologies is, most seem to be in agreement on the aforementioned points. On the left (as well as portions of the right), we hear that neoliberalism is the ideology that’s been shoehorned into universities to indoctrinate the public. On the right, it is “social justice” and “postmodernism” that fits this bill. On the left, the group being dispossessed and fought by the elites is the middle and working class. On the right it is the white middle class. The groups being infiltrated and attacked from outside, requiring them to stick together and thereby excluding other groups from their meetings or cultural events might either be minorities if you’re on the left (cultural appropriation theory and safe spaces come to mind), whereas on the alt-right and reactionary forums it is rather the traditional family values and the position of the white middle class that’s under attack from “social justice warriors”. Indeed, the whole of GamerGate, a reactionary movement mainly based on the internet whose goal is to silence and oppress minorities online (especially women who dare to criticize mainstream “gamer” culture), can be read as a special case of cultural appropriation theory. These mainly white adolescent males feel that their culture is being attacked and infiltrated from the outside and that people who do not “belong” in their social sphere suddenly try to “take” their culture away from them. Therefore, they react accordingly. Women, minorities and people of color do not belong in gaming, according to them, and they have no business trying to change the cultural milieu that rightly “belong” to those who came first.

This is not to imply that both parties are equally bad, or that there is no way to claim that one side has more evidence and well-reasoned arguments on their side than the other. I think it is clearly the case that the proposition that white men are discriminated against in society due to their gender and race, as goes the narrative in the right-wing “Redpill” movement, is downright silly and goes against not only mountains of evidence to the contrary, but also common sense and the everyday experience of women and people of color. I also think that there are several good reasons for creating “safe spaces” on college campuses, provided they fill their original function – enabling people who suffer from PTSD to be able to flourish intellectually and exchange ideas without having to constantly struggle with people dismissing their condition or actively shaming them for their trauma. I also do not wish to imply that GamerGate is a mirror image of civil liberties movements trying to raise consciousness about how sacred symbols and clothing is disrespectfully used by people who are ignorant of the very cultures the try to assimilate. These are clearly different movements with clearly different goals. Trying to use the fact that both left and right agree on many common points to dismiss both is not only wrong in an intellectual and moral sense, but also builds a dangerous road towards crude relativism.

It would, however, be equally wrongheaded to ignore these common denominators because one side has more evidence and arguments on their side than the other. If a set of personal experiences, cultural affiliations, facts, and statistics is all that distinguishes a gender-exclusionary feminist from a member of the Redpill movement, it would be an easy task to make them switch sides by means of propaganda and cleverly manipulated statistics. If a switch from thinking that neoliberalism is the main ideological enemy to thinking that “social justice” and “political correctness” is the main culprit is all it takes for a certain subset of supporters of Bernie Sanders to suddenly lean towards Donald Trump, then we find ourselves in a very dangerous political situation, regardless of whether Sanders is the better candidate or not. It makes the left a very fragile movement and very prone to sudden political shifts.

Which, incidentally, is exactly what we see. Indeed, many supporters (as well as a well-known organizer) of the Occupy movement later turned to neoreactionary politics. It wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions to suggest that this explains a lot of the support for Brexit outside of the neoreactionary and paleoconservative camp. Indeed, a vocal part of the leftist Brexit movement made a point of saying that just because they vote in favor of neoreactionary politics does not mean that they support neoreactionaries. Just because they share a common enemy, they claimed, does not mean that they’re political allies in other respects. This may very well be true, but in distancing themselves from the right in this manner, they also tacitly admit that they share a common view on how the world is shaped and the mechanics by which it operates, since who the enemy is is directly determined by who, or what, holds the real power to shape society. Indeed, it also implies that their main disagreement with the reactionary right is about which social groups should be excluded from participating in British society, not whether exclusion or isolationism is the right approach to begin with. In doing so, they reveal a most unsettling tendency within the left to privilege political determinism over a more dialectical understanding of history and politics, as well as putting domestic trade-union protectionism before international solidarity.

Why, then, if both left and right seem to agree on these common elements, do we see an increase in these values currently? Many theories have historically been proposed, most notably Adorno’s theory of “authoritarian personality”. While commonly invoked among leftist debaters, it has been largely debunked and abandoned within the field of social psychology, or at least so we were told in the introductory course on social psychology at university. So instead of going for the usual sources, I tried to see if there was any good, solid behavioral and social science on the matter. I therefore digged into the enormous World Values Survey, a massive effort to empirically measure and theorize the values of different social groups across the globe.

What sets the World Values Survey apart from the common understanding of politics and political camps is that it starts without any concept of “left” and “right”. Instead, the researchers first collected a massive database of responses to questions like “When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants” and “Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person.” and only after they had the empirical data tried to use statistical models to see how best the different responses correlated with each other. It is the most serious attempt at a scientific understanding of values and how they shift over time to date. What they didn’t find, unsurprisingly enough, was a clear cut between “left” and “right”. Instead, they found that sets of values would best be categorized into Survival Values versus Self-expression Values, and Traditional Values versus Secular-Rational Values, all of which can be found within both left and right-wing politics.

Self-expression values are what you’d imagine – someone supporting not only the self-expression of oneself but also of others. They feel safe among others in other out-groups and are generally tolerant to immigration, LGBTQ-rights and so on. They’re also more prone to self-sacrifice and altruism. These values are opposed not to religious or conservative values per se, as the common suspicion goes, but to Survival Values. Survival Values emphasize the belief that a threat is looming over them, and that their in-group needs to be protected from that threat. It therefore strongly correlates with political opinions on economic and social security. It’s easy to see how survival values might see an increase during economically challenged times, as indeed they do according to WVS.

The results and findings of the survey are fascinating, and I wholeheartedly recommend looking through their summary of findings. What is interesting for the purposes of this analysis though is that we see a grounds for a dialectical materialist understanding of values and how they shift.

While WVS is careful to point out that the data in no way supports economic determinism, as – for instance – the support for gay marriage seems to be the result of conscious political campaigning and not the result of an increase in GDP, they also find that there are correlations between economic security and self-expression values, as seen in this graph:

graft.jpg

While certainly not deterministic and not quite linear, the difference between economically prosperous nations and developing nations is quite clear. 

Thus, when I wrote the list of values at the start of this essay, I made sure to make them correlate with survival values. Notice how all of them play on the threat of security and safety, and how they fit within a framework of political determinism. If you feel that your security is threatened when it previously had been quite satisfactory, it is a lot easier to attribute this sudden change to a political movement, a group of people or a certain strain of politics than it is to derive it from the inner contradictions of a mode of production. It is a lot easier to see neoliberalism as the source of all the ills of society than it is to see capital as the source of neoliberalism. It becomes easier to see the state and judicial apparatus as the base and the economy as the superstructure rather than the other way around. Thus, we turn on the enemy, protect our own in-group and stick it to the elites that brought us into this situation. Whether your enemy is neoliberalism, muslims, white men, bankers, migrant workers, corporate CEO’s or state bureaucrats (or all of the above), the solution is the same: isolate, separate, secure, survive. And the theory usually rings the same: if we could only go back to the way it used to be, things would be better (at least for me). Gone is solidarity, and in its place is put the fetish of the noble politician, the one who will set things right again.

Marx had a different idea. It’s a shame we don’t listen.

A Corpse-like Pose: A Very Brief Note On The Perils of Cultic Thinking on the Far Left

I am, in some vague sense, a Marxist–although I am not sure this corresponds to much meaningfully politically as the range of “Marxism” as a sub-set of “socialism” has been expanded by history to the point of signifying that one read the Manifesto once and maybe bought a socialist newspaper before they all went to blogs in the late aughts. Or one attended a socialist lecture in a university, an occupy sit-in five years ago, or heard about it a few times listening to KFPA.  Maybe you confused a Das Kapital study group with becoming a developed revolutionary cadre, or maybe you actually think Jacobin Magazine’s weird blend of post-Keynesians, Social Democracy, a few Maoists, and lots of complaining about liberals while more or less proposing liberal policies are appealing. Maybe you are an English or a cultural studies major. (I know I was. A dyslexic one too.)

The thing is the signifier of “Marxist” has let to a vaguer and vaguer criterion of identification while removal from any historically significant and consistent Marxist movement outside of marginal parties in developing countries and, if one is extremely creative and generous, Deng through Xi’s “new synthesis” of Marxism with its traditional Asiatic enemy, Confucianism, has rendered the believers of the various Marxisms more rigid.  Indeed, most talk of strategy is often confused with text proofing Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or, more recently due to the later twos historical failure, Bordiga,Debord, Adorno, or Kautsky.

A caveat:  I identify my patterns of thought as rooted in Marx, to a lesser degree Engels and early Lenin, and to even lesser but still significant degree Bordiga, Bukharin, Adorno, and, yes, even the renegade Kautsky. I, however, am also informed by later German idealism, Marx Weber, Aristotle, Buddhism, and historiographic thinking. For me, every writing that Marx put down on a napkin, every slight modification between the manifesto and Das Kapital is intellectually important, but not necessarily immediately relevant to political economy. Furthermore, often what I do fine relevant, are the categories of value theory and methods of class analysis that are both contingent to capitalism or even specific periods of capitalism, many of which make other Marxists uncomfortable. Indeed, Marxist historiography is more important to me than Marxist politics, and Marxist “politics” is more important than the Marxist academic paper generation machine.

Lately, I have been highly encouraged by groups like the Red Party, the Communist League, and even some of the post-Maoist groups who are really publishing but renewed study of old ideas but also discussion of how the situation has changed both economically and politically. So, in light of these positive developments, why do I worry about this change?

Well, functionally, since 1989, Marxism proper has either been a hyper-activist or an academic cult of academics and failed statesmen.  The ideas in Marxist circles popular on the current “radical left” (whatever that means) are often the ideas that don’t have origins in Marx, or even later Marxists, but come from a variety of epistemic and legal paradigms and tried to be reconciled with Marx, leading to incoherent miasmas of theoretical syntheses, weakening of categories, and universal acid to any analytic use of said categories. The response is often a call for deep renewal, to find an Orthodoxy that can sustain change.  This is natural, but almost as problematic.

The point here isn’t just play the game of accusing people of Marxianity. It may be true in some cases, but it’s not particularly illuminating. The problem with renewal or re-emergence politics in Marxism that one does NOT see in liberalism as much is the picking of a very select period, generally before world war 2, but definitely before 1968 or 1979, to go back to and find the Orthodox position. While being intellectually consistent is a noble goal here, the prime goal should be to be right and intellectual consistent… and also change the world. Which means one doesn’t just go back to the texts like they are religious tomes, one learns form them, one understands the methods, and then only applies those methods consistently on material and social relations.

So while I am actually somewhat optimistic about the new groups in the Marxist milieu, the challenge remained:  if it failed the first time, it will take more than just another college try to fix it.