Blue Tulips 1: A Short Story

Hello! I’m trying out something I haven’t done on this blog for a long time: a short, multi-part story. This one will be four parts all about this length or shorter.

Strange. No breeze blew across the narrow, pebbled shoreline of the laundry room, and the shallow water reflected Blue’s face better than the most sterling mirror. Mists of rain fell from the ceiling, straight down as she removed her slippers and stepped onto the flooded tile. Warm water rippled around her bare feet, which felt near to slipping on the still-cool tile beneath. She set the laundry basket afloat on the surface, keeping it near by tucking it between her legs. Thankfully, the dryer hadn’t flooded this time. Spring weather was so unpredictable in the house that it was difficult to plan chores around its fickle comings and goings. With her many long house dresses securely floated back to the beach in the hallway, she turned toward the round window, taking in the raw daylight rushing in. She spread her palm out on the window. The shadow her hand cast in the room wobbled in the rippling pool. She let her hand fall to her side, and waded out of the room.

She shut the door as the mists began to stir into storm-rains.

A field of tulips sprouts in the field seen through the window. After settling for a long winter, the horizon unsettled itself, transformed by the tall green wave pushing its way up from underground.

Blue, the Steward of Tulip House

Every day of her sixteen years tending Tulip House, Blue had kept a journal. By now the journal took up its own, waist-tall bookcase in the centre of the meadowlibrary. Perhaps, though, it was more of a book-chest than a bookcase, as it had to be sealed during wet and snowy seasons. In extreme cases, Blue even had to bury it under a yard of earth in the winter, letting her journal hibernate through the polar freeze before it could emerge, like a bear or a flower, from its hole, and stuffed with yet more notebooks upon notebooks.

Their history of Tulip House bent and looped in on itself, rushing in spiraling cycles, coiling up into terse winter entries chronicling days of lying in bed, fevered dreams, pooling in sloppy ink-pools of delirium or hastily-recorded joy. It was a history from, for, and of Blue, the steward of Tulip House. She was not a natural child of the house, and she could remember her life before she woke up inside it after a night of reveling and hard drinking. Her only recollection was that she had stumbled into a grove of pines that grew almost parallel to the ground, as if bent over by a gigantic explosion or leaning to look more closely at the ground. In a thunderous moment the house had been born from the Earth with its tender already sleeping in her rainbow bed of thornless roses and snapdragons.

***

Once the day’s chores were done, Blue checked the laundry room again. There were still some loads of delicates she wanted to clean so she could step into spring on the right foot. Last year, there had been a surprise coldsnap and the laundry room had first flash-flooded from the snowmelt and then frozen solid, leaving her to strategically re-wear her clothes until mid-May, when the laundry room finally melted enough to pry the door open.

At the moment, the door was still shut to keep the water from overflowing into the adjacent hallway, and a queer swimming moonlight peered out from the crack in the door at the bottom. Perhaps the floods had gone down. But even with the fierce sunlight of a vigorous spring shining on it all day, that seemed unlikelky. Blue pulled the too-long sleeve of her nightgown down to reveal her hand and felt underneath the door with gentle fingers. She pulled her fingers up to her eyes and saw they were wet, dripping tiny serene puddles onto the floor. No luck.

Ten years ago, she had tried to fix the flooding by simply letting the laundry room deluge out. It covered most of the hallway in soapy water, since the detergent had gotten churned up in it, and by the next week the entire hallway was choked with juvenile pine trees that Blue could not bring herself to uproot for many months. She did not need that kind of anxiety. Best to leave things as they are.

Suddenly, however, there was a worldshaking thud against the door, and Blue jumped back so hard she hit her elbows against the opposite hallway wall behind her. She sucked air through her teeth and let herself slide down the wall to the ground so she was sitting up against it. Her nightgown rode up as she did so.

Another massive thud. The door began to creak. Was this some kind of apocalyptic capital-F Flood thundering down from the heavens? She watched as the door began to bend, stressing and stretching on its hinges. Tension grew second by second. Blue breathed in heavily, scrambling out of the way of the door. It was going. Going. Bursting. Time stretched. Stilled.

And in a moment the tension, the knot of time, and the door all gave. Blue felt the water fill the hallway so quickly she had no time to escape into the main back corridor or the furnace room. She could not breathe, opening her eyes under the water to see solid blocks of darkness rushing towards her, helpless as she was against the current.

In the next part, Blue is no longer alone…

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

Cultural Work and the Human Body: The Sad Death of Kazunori Mizuno

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On March 19th, about two months ago, noted anime series director and animator Kazunori Mizuno died of overwork and chronic sleep deprivation. He took a nap and never woke up. While inhuman hours are common in all creative industries, it’s worth reflecting on what “inhuman” really means in this context. There is an environmental and biological aspect to this tragedy, one that intersects with the social and monetary pressures that drive professionals to accept these working conditions and even normalize them. At this point, unpaid overtime and other forms of anti-body (and blatantly anti-worker) labour practices are the status quo, entrenched over decades of repetition and reinforcement.

Let’s look at another example of a situation where workers were passionate about their work despite its detrimental effects on their health and general wellbeing–the asbestos mine in Asbestos, Québec. As recalled in Jessica Van Horssen’s excellent recent book on the subject, workers’ livelihoods there depended on a single industry for decades, which created a toxic and parasitic bond between workers and the company. Workers, even long after the substance they risked life and limb to get out of the ground was shown to be a risk not just to their health but to those who consumed it as well, often clung to the belief that the company and the substance were not as bad as they were portrayed. It didn’t help that the mining company, and later the Québec government, obscured evidence of the precise cancer risk for even limited long-term exposure to the fibrous mineral.

In both cases there are unusual rates of mortality–with young animators committing suicide or dying of overwork in the anime industry and an entire town afflicted by the very air they breathe and the work they do in the asbestos industry. In both cases there is an anti-body labour practice and certain material and ideological motivations for people to stay in these toxic positions. Even when workers in Asbestos mobilized and struck against the company in the 1950s, their essential dependence on the company as workers and their vulnerability as human bodies did not change. They were well-paid, but it was hazard pay. In the case of anime workers, wages are usually below minimum wage and below the poverty line.

Capitalism as a system, regardless of what is being produced, equivocates all labour as homogeneous and evaluates output in terms of financial return–an abstract indicator completely separate from the quality of the product and the workers’ health–which leads to this kind of destruction. In many ways, we as workers are stuck on the other side of the coin. For those of us who want to pursue jobs in a creative industry or in mining, we will be subjected to hierarchical, profit-driven workplaces where we are replaceable and valued only insofar as we produce more than we are paid.

To make matters more complicated still, in creative fields workers are often trapped between their material needs and the sense that they are not workers but creators who (yes) have more autonomy over their output than auto workers or miners–at least in some cases. Artists often aspire to produce great work, and are encouraged to think that demanding better wages and benefits is ill-befitting artists. Those who work in anime are often passionate fans and want to be doing what they are doing. They are taking the opportunities that the marketplace presents them, and as we can see, even those who are very successful can be driven to excesses where their bodies simply give out.

Only an end to capitalism and its inhumane, purely quantitative evaluation of productivity can ultimately ensure that we all live full and productive lives. I do think, however, that videos and articles like the ones I’ve linked to are important in simply recognizing the problem and honouring the lives of those who have been killed (murdered) by these violent labour practices. Whatever we think of Mizuno’s work, we have to recognize that his was a life early and unjustly taken, and we need to contemplate and create a better world.

The Ecological Side of Magic: The Gathering

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Most games impose resource limits on you. Whether that be a certain number of turns, a window of time, a source of energy, or something more mysterious. Magic: The Gathering, however, probably has my favourite resource system in all of gaming, both in terms of its mechanical implications and its environmental flavour. Magic, as anyone who plays will know, casts the player in the role of a powerful wizard who taps into the land itself for mana, which allows spells to be cast, creatures to be commanded, etc. Because the game uses landscapes and seascapes themselves as resources, Magic can be a rich vein of speculation and fantasizing about our relationship to our surroundings. The very act of playing can be seen as a struggle with environmental opportunities and limitations as much as it is a human battle of wits.

To elaborate a bit further, I’ll do a quick explanation of how lands both enable and limit how players can play in Magic. There are five land cards: plains, islands, swamps, mountains, and forests. Each land is tapped, or used, for mana of a corresponding colour: white, blue, black, red, and green. Lands are cards in the player’s deck alongside the spell cards that do desirable things for you or bad things for your opponent. If you don’t have a forest, you can’t use a green spell, you need swamps to cast black spells, and so on and so on. A Magic player is, in most circumstances, entirely without power without these land cards in play. Building a deck and playing the game, therefore, involves a great deal of thinking about what lands to use, which cards to use with those lands, and how to balance the power of using many lands with the problem of potentially not drawing the lands you need.

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Mana, and the environment, are not always there for the player in Magic. In a similar card game, Hearthstone, the player gets one mana per turn until they reach ten, with mana represented by crystals. To take out some of the guesswork of drawing cards and making the game smoother, Hearthstone made it so mana is always there. Money is a good representation of this: crystals are icy blue, artificial, steady. Lands, however tranquil they might appear, are much more volatile. They require effort to tame and can be destroyed or disrupted. Losing a game might come down to not drawing an adequate number of lands, or drawing too many. Though this causes a lot of understandable frustration, I think that the mana system, drawing on often chaotic lands as mana sources, is better both for building decks and, more importantly, as a way of communicating a material relationship with resources.

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Seen in an ecological light, Magic is about exploring worlds and systems. Individuals and civilizations are present, and highly important–this is not a game about untouched wilderness, even for green–but they are nothing without their environment. Every land, every colour has a distinct character of its own, and expresses a different philosophy and ethos. Some game strategies even revolve entirely around lands, my personal favourite being a combo deck built around two cards called Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Scapeshift.

In essence, the entire deck is built around finding a Valakut, a fiery volcano, and using Scapeshift to put many, many Mountain cards on the battlefield in order to rain fiery death on your opponent. Though there are creatures and more stereotypical spells in the deck, the vast majority of it is not built around individual beings but rather directly using the power of the world.

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The Aetherborn are a race in Magic that are born from fuel refinement processes and live very short lives in an industrial paradise.

As an environmental historian, Magic: The Gathering is full of thematic threads and ideological fragments that relate to our ecology. Devastation, rampant growth, evolution, and the flow of seasons all exist within the world of the game, waiting to be tapped. Magic deserves closer study as a representation of environments and ecological systems, not to mention a potential way of creating stories both within the cards themselves and in the interaction between players that have fascinating implications. Magic is by far my favourite game to play, and this richness of detail and nuance in dealing with the environment is one of the main reasons why.Image-1.ashx.png

Out Like a Lamb: Day 15: Relationships and Lurv

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Human beings affiliate with each other for a variety of reasons, from building houses to playing sports. But when we talk about “relationships” we are usually talking about people who affiliate with each other for mutual pleasure, intimacy, and conversation. Sex, of course, is a focus of many of these relationships. Another subset of relationships get defined as “romantic,” which is a vague term I admit I don’t quite understand. For the purposes of this short post, though, “romantic” will refer to a relationship that is particularly intense, though it should not be located apart from friendship.

My personal approach to relationships and sexual affinity can be named as a practice of “relationship anarchy.” Though this is a somewhat broad and nettlesome word, it accurately describes the kinds of attitudes and practices I want to take in any given relationship as well as series of collective values that I want to see actualized on a general level. In other words, it’s a personal set of concerns and ethics while also being, I think, a loose norm towards which we should work in society as a whole. In any case, let’s see what this so-called “relationship anarchy” implies. (Keeping in mind that this is my own interpretation of a set of ideas that already existed)

At its most basic level, relationship anarchy recognizes that, while our time and space might be limited as people (and this will connect what I’m saying to broader social goals around the built environment and economic/ecological systems), our capacity to give and receive love is not. To me, it has a close cousin in the term “free love,” though the latter term has been somewhat compromised by notions of generalized promiscuity—even if that was not its original intent. Romantic and sexual love should be organized by mutual agreements and personal preference, with relationships being structures made to serve people rather than vice/versa. And every relationship is a structure that needs to be custom-built because every person at every time is a unique being. So relationship anarchy includes, depends on, an openness to change and flexibility, which makes it a challenge to implement in times where people have to work for a wage in order to survive. Our friendships and interactions with people often suffer because of worries over money and other basic subsistence concerns, complicated by the fact that we’re raised to see relationships as institutionalized, exclusive, and regulated by state bodies.

So here we have a set of basic principles: relationships are experimental, open to the future, value each member’s welfare rather than the relationship as such, and are negotiated from norms each person can assent to rather than abstractly imposed ones. I don’t say that relationship anarchy implies an absence of norms because the principles behind it are themselves norms, albeit ones that permit a more flexible idea of how people can interact with each other within a relationship of x people and those who are outside that x.

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Now we can move onto how the current, capitalist urban environment (since that’s the one I’m most familiar with) infringes on our ability to carry out these ethics. For example, say one of my partners came with me to a new city to work, while another partner met me later on and lives in a different part of the city. Even if we decide that it might be in our best interests to move into a shared space or to reduce the distance between us, rental markets and discriminatory practices put that kind of movement out of reach for many people. Lack of access to adequate food resources, time spent on commuting or in jobs that make us anxious, and the constant imposition of a built environment meant to facilitate life for people in heteronormative, monogamous consumer units (marriages, cohabitation, etc.) make realizing these ideas difficult. This is not to mention the difficulties incurred by people who fall in love or form relationships across national borders or who create relationships that are socially dangerous. I’ve attracted unfriendly stares and experienced a great deal of nervous tension when walking outside with a partner, for instance, and other people, especially those who are economically marginalized and racialized, experience far, far more heinous acts of violence.

The reality is that, although relationship anarchy could be considered by itself as an abstract blueprint for how to navigate personal affinities, its general realization depends on a social and political revolution as well as an overhaul of how economic goods are produced and distributed. Realizing this connection and working for it while also practicing good relationship ethics is vital because it will help those ethics from collapsing into a harsh moralization weaponized against anyone who doesn’t accept your standards. In the end, people’s flourishing is more important than any once conception or practice of loving and living together. None of us are complete units as individuals—to be complete is to be part of a healthy and freely chosen community, which starts at the most intimate level. But when you take a larger look, these principles lead to nothing less than the abolition of the current society and the construction of a better one.

Next three posts will be:

March 27: Politics and me. Basically about how I’ve grown through and into revolutionary politics and the kinds of projects I’d like to work on.

March 28: Femme-fatale, as I like to call it. Basically talking about what femme aesthetics and self-naming has to do with me, and why it matters on a broader scale (or doesn’t, wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise).

March 29: Third, I’ll be talking about body image issues and the ways I try to dress and trim my hair to look the way I want. How is this conditioned by coercion? We’ll find out!

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Paul Burkett: Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

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Paul Burkett wants to show that Karl Marx is not an anti-ecological figure. Marx and Nature is an interpretation of Marx and Engels’ own work on the subjects of class struggle, nature, and communism, functioning as an exploration of the ecological possibilities contained in Marx as well as an apologetic defence. As a starting gesture, I will say that this book will only be worthwhile to you if you are already invested in this debate and have some working knowledge of both Marx’s more significant texts and, maybe, some of the criticisms that have been levelled by ecologists against Marx’s communist ideas. If you are a Green activist or leftist who is just interested in the historical question of how well Red and Green approaches to politics have mixed since the nineteenth century, this will not satisfy your curiosity. Rather, it is an almost purely textual and abstract consideration of the problem.

Before moving into more detail, we should consider just how valuable a purely abstract consideration of Marx’s relationship to ecology might be to us. By treating Marx’s ideas as more or less self-contained and present in our own time, Burkett opens up possibilities for his investigation but also closes some off. As he does in this book, he can try to prove that Marx’s theories are not, in themselves, anti-ecological. By pushing the concrete history of 20th century Marxism to one side, he can try to reclaim an ecological dimension of Marx that remains uncultivated or ignored. On the other hand, he forbids himself the opportunity to examine why anti-ecological tendencies flourished among those claiming fidelity to Marxism for so long. He can point to pro-ecological possibilities in Marx, but cannot definitively establish why, in reality, those possibilities lay fallow and tendencies from the early 20th century to present-day “luxury communists” and accelerationists could grow while upholding many of the same basic tenets of Marx’s thought. So the value of the book’s high level of abstraction is that it can answer theoretical questions more precisely and show, perhaps, how Marx can contribute to present-day ecological struggles while relegating anti-ecological Marxisms and Marxists to a shadowy dimension beyond the text.

With that established, we only need to put down a few more points about the book to show how it both succeeds and fails to fulfill its initial promise:

1. Burkett is able to articulate why Marx is not an unalloyed anti-ecological thinker. He does this in a sensible way: recalling that, for Marx, both nonhuman natural processes and human labour are part of the same class of natural forces. Decisively refuting the idea of a pure nature, he notes how both Earth’s resources and human bodies become the playthings of capital, little sandboxes that can be reshaped or dug out to its heart’s content. Likewise, he successfully argues that Marx’s vision of the full development of human life under communism is not a consumerist fantasy. Rather, it contains a live possibility for the rational socialization of natural resources. Burkett’s Marxism is one that is not blindly industrialist or dismissive of traditional or indigenous knowledge systems and governing practices.

2. In later chapters, drawing not just on Marx but also on thinkers like Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, David Harvey, and André Gorz, Burkett shows how workers’ struggles cannot and should not remain in the realm of wage negotiations. They must press for the establishment of a more rational and democratic management of society, including socialized nature. Class struggle can, he argues, be articulated broadly to mean the advancement of all workers’ interests as a whole, including their interest in preserving nature.

3. Yet, I would argue, Burkett’s book can only prove that Marx is not anti-ecological to the bones. He cannot prove that Marx, brought into the realm of Green politics, is necessarily pro-ecological.  This would be a foolish argument since many if not most appropriations of Marx have been anti-ecological or at least ignorant of core environmental problems. A politicized or governing working class––the associated producers, as Marx names them––is not necessarily pro-ecological, and would, as Burkett wisely notes, require a shift into political values that concord with the flourishing of all living and nonliving processes. So although Burkett can give Red a place at the Green table, he does not prove that Red is always Green, and certainly not that Green must always be Red to be effective. Put another way, it remains for other books to try to make the argument that Marx and the entire tradition of thought he initiated is essential to a Green movement or a Green society. Perhaps, at this stage of history, that argument is impossible to make and requires a drastic shift in our current political situation to judge properly.

Revolution and ecological politics are not necessarily friendly to each other. We know this from hard-won experience. However, Burkett’s book, despite its limitations, is certainly valuable within a certain niche. It is, if nothing else, an intelligent and timely intervention within the study of Marx and how useful this nineteenth century might be to a time fraught with signs that life on Earth cannot continue to flourish much longer under the reigning capitalist system.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

Hundred Thousand Names cover

“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.