Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

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.

I lost six months of my life, can you help me find them?

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Goya–Incendio de un hospital (~1808)

Losing time is not quite what I expected it to be. In hindsight I should have thought it through better, should have realized to truly lose something I have to remember that I lost it. But time, time presents itself as uniquely precious. Time, whatever it is, structures the very meaning of words, the order of words, the phasing in and out of consciousness and dreams. Nevertheless, it turns out that losing six months of time is not so different from losing a pair of headphones, or the memory of your own phone number, or a line of verse.

It’s astonishing that I can remember the last six months because it is also utterly lost. Likewise for much of the year before that. I can see sunrises and hear conversations and feel the dread of nightmares I know I had during those times, but it might as well be sand sculpture. Un-grasp-able.

Even more frustratingly, I understand why I lost all this time. A misdiagnosed mental illness, a pill for depression that turned me into a marionette, a disastrous five-month labour strike at my university–they all chain together link on link. But again, unlike the vividness of many of my other recent memories predating this misty span of time, these memories are all cobwebs, fog, and stasis. I know I had those times, and I can even see them, but finding them is beyond me. I’m not even sure of what the difference between seeing those memories and finding them is, except that in the former I’m just a third-party observer, stern and spiritual as the Law.

Historical work demands a skillfulness in braiding strands of time into a discernible shape. It’s a learned craft, one that I take great pride in maintaining and advancing. Nevertheless, when it comes to my own life, none of the old trade secrets are any help. I’ve looked at the records, written and otherwise, delved for evidence, applied the necessary theoretical approaches. And? And?

Unfortunately, the result of any personal history that is still in the thick of it–distinct from an autobiography or biography that reflects back on a thing already done–the result is not a tidy paper but a human body. And bodies, whatever I might claim at dinner parties, are not part of my training. So it’s no wonder that, as I’m sifting through historical information, composing essays and chipper correspondence, I misplace a few of my bodies. That wouldn’t be such a problem except–well–once you’ve lost a few of your own bodies, once that trace of physical continuity doesn’t make sense anymore, and your personality seems to be a flitting free agent, and your legs seize up for no physical reason, it’s hard to get any perspective on the body that’s here, now, and soon.

When traumas snatch time from us–I believe time is rarely lost by accident–our work becomes like a historian’s. At some point I will probably shift my shoulders and realize that all that time I thought was missing was instead dead and pressing down on my shoulders, the remnants of all the bodies I left behind while my brain and the troubled lands were torturing me senseless.

I wish my writing could be returning on a happier note, but when I look back on the months since I last published here in November I see only a series of catastrophes. I want, so desperately, to use my writing to slow down, to find some of the fragments that are still distinguishable. I’m not hopeful. Here’s to a new me, and to finding the time I lost.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Flourishing in an Impure World

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“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”

–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.

Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation  into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.

And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.

On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.

Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.

And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.

To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*

Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.

Out Like a Lamb: Day 14: Let’s Talk Chaos

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OK, what does a trans person in academia like? Well, if you were to ask that question about me, I would reply with something resembling this post. It’s time to lay back and discuss some of my most cherished personal interests. In particular, I’ll be focusing on a couple of intellectual topics that are both interconnected and drive a lot of the scholarship I do both for school and for pleasure. Neither of them is directly related to my trans experience, but they both inform how I see myself, my body, and my place in the wider world.

1: Chaos and Complexity

This has been a preoccupation of mine for a few years now, though I am just starting to get a decent grasp of what theories of chaos and complexity mean for historical studies. This is mostly because I had not read as deeply in environmental history and the mathematical and scientific basis for complexity as I have now. In a nutshell, the reason I am interested in chaos (ways of describing very sensitive, non-linear systems) and complexity (mostly around the issues of predictability and what exceeds human control is because they are useful concepts for linking my sense of an unruly or unpredictable body to a larger set of relationships.

I find this especially pertinent since we are living in an age that is beyond purity. Our bodies are collectives formed not just of human bits but also of synthetic chemicals, organic agents, micro-organisms, and other products of a permeable and open body. Our skin, as it turns out, is not a good separator, but rather a bridge that, while it does filter out certain kinds of environmental detritus, also links us with the wider world, especially where chemicals are concerned. Learning how to think about humanity’s place within energy systems, air and water circulation, and other structures that we have built but have become an imposition or alienated from us like pollution is a vital task. We have to learn to cope with our own fundamental impurity and integration into our surroundings, as well as with fellow human beings and other forms of life. The politics of purity, exemplified by border security, policing, Christian morality, and racial logic, have bared their fangs, and defeating them requires a robust sense of how to live with and thrive with impurity.

Complexity and unpredictability are also an important aspect to this. Advancements in scientific studies of complexity and chaos, as well as biological and social applications of these concepts, have led to a greater understanding of just how much human beings could control even in an ideal scenario. Attempts to reshape the natural environment, or centralized attempts to reorganize human society and its relationship to nature, are often reckless and ill-considered. Even with perfect information, however, the sensitivity and chaotic nature of open systems makes planning every outcome impossible. Even acknowledging the value of large-scale social organization in some cases, as well as some forms of centralized coordination, our interventions require careful consideration and a more pronounced emphasis on flexibility and decentralized social power.

2: Oceans!

Environmental history is overall pretty great. It contributes some of the most vital perspectives within the entire discipline. Despite its many advances, however, most of its thinking has been dedicated to terrestrial landscapes. Since my heart yearns for the sea, I have taken on the challenge of studying the ocean, which is a challenging task for a variety of reasons. With some numerous but isolated exceptions, most human beings do not make permanent dwellings on the ocean. Though there are examples of oceanic nomads in history (golden age pirates being the most well-known in my circles) oceans are typically seen as transit points rather than places where events or large-scale processes unfold. Or else, as in a lot of spatial theory, the oceans and seas are treated as social or cultural metaphors. One or the other.

Oceans are, however, the site of both extensive resource extraction and scientific investigation as well as warfare. Though I haven’t read too deeply in oceanography or more humanistic oceanic studies, I think these bodies of salt water remain some of the least studied despite how vital they have been throughout recorded history. Not just as transit, but as sites of sacred fear or reverence, war, flight, and technological development. In other words, oceans are screaming at us to pay attention, but relatively few of us do. Rather than resent this fact, we’ll see what I can do about rectifying that.

OK, time for the next three posts! Getting into the home stretch:

March 25: Here I’ll be musing on about some issues related to how trans and queer people relate to each other as well as the concept of relationship anarchy. Serious issues, but full of potential hope for the future.

March 26: City mouse here talks about my affinity for cities and my struggles when I lived in a more rural area.

March 27: Left-wing politics have been a cornerstone of how I live my life for the last several years, so it’s about time I gave them their due with a journal entry.

Soviet Daughter and the Potential of Graphic Histories

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Very briefly, I want to write about Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter in the context of a growing body of graphic histories. Professional and aspiring historians can learn much from such accounts, especially in how we might be able to use artistic reconstructions and visuals to supplement more traditional historical forms of presentation like photographs, prose, and charts and graphs.

Soviet Daughter is a graphic novel telling two not-exactly-parallel stories. First, there is Lola, who died leaving a memoir to her descendants. Born in 1910 in Ukraine, Lola lived in the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century, and her sections of the book are mostly concerned with her struggle to survive and the various jobs, political activities, and love affairs she had during her life. The other, much smaller, part of the book concerns Julia Alekseyeva herself and her own struggles with Jewish identity, politics, and other more contemporary problems.

Because of this dual nature, although Soviet Daughter is widely reviewed as a memoir or autobiography, this characterization only sticks to Julia’s part of the book. These frame and contextualize the other parts of the story, and are key to the overall strategy of Soviet Daughter, but they can also serve to obscure the fact that the majority of the book is a graphic history that uses many of the narrative techniques and research methods of conventional histories.

Alekseyeva’s aims are obviously different from that of the academic or journalistic historian, being a more literary attempt to grapple with the meaning of a particular person in her own life, but even in this intimate context her work functions as a history. It is assembled from the author’s analysis of and selection from a primary source (Lola’s memoir), and narrates this history in a narrative sequence that’s meant to convey a particular truth about the people and events contained in it. Now, it’s true that Alekseyeva uses exact quotations from the memoir to narrate the story, but the substance of the story is incomplete without the drawings and visuals, which are every bit as interpretive and synthetic as a professional historian’s account.

Now, most historians don’t convey their analyses and findings in a primarily visual medium. That is not to say, however, that historians do not use visual means to convey information. Most of the time, however, these visual artifacts are photographs that are contemporary to the time and place being studied or charts and graphs that convey quantitative information or simplify complex systems and theoretical arguments. What I think Soviet Daughter and other graphic histories––either more journalistic like those of Joe Sacco or personal like Persepolis––challenge us to do as historians is consider the value of visual reconstructions and what role they can play in our work. By visual reconstruction I mean commissioned or self-produced visual representations of our arguments and narratives. We can keep our professional standards, footnotes, and so on, and ensure that readers are well-informed of the reenacting quality of these visuals, but they might be able to capture particularly difficult and ambiguous aspects of our histories that are not so amenable to prose explanations or more traditional graphic methods, especially when photographs might be inaccessible.

We as historians embrace and use prose because of its capacity for precision and the relative ease with which we can critique and utilize information conveyed through prose. That said, prose is not the best means of communicating either every idea or to every person. Not every human being learns best or can even easily understand highly abstract prose, and a history constructed through serial art but subjected to rigorous review might be a way to reach new people and to provoke new kinds of thinking about history, especially its visual and spatial aspects.

Someday, we might have an entire group of people who work as historical illustrators, working with authors and students to create well-researched and evocative images that can convey new understandings of history. At first, such works might seem like provocations, but we have to understand and utilize the full range of communications methods in history or else our marriage to prose might prevent us from fully exploring certain topics. And graphic history/memoirs like Alekseyeva’s show us that it can be done, though it might be for us to prove whether such a form is financially and professionally viable.

At the very least, it is worth considering as one of the many tangential possibilities available to historical scholars today and in the future.

Book Review: Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain

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(Disclaimer: I am colleagues with the author [one discipline removed] in the academy and know him. We also both have a tenuous academic career, though I am perhaps still more recklessly hopeful. While I’m here in the parentheses, I want to say that I think the author’s acknowledgements and dedications are some of the best-written and most sincere I’ve read, which shows the integrity of their author. Love to all of you in the movements!)

Continuity and Rupture serves a very specific purpose. The book is neither history nor theory because, as the author indicates, it incorporates history and body of theory into its basic premise. We’ll discuss what that history is as we go through the review, but the body of theory––which it calls Maoism-qua-Maoism or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM for the sake of my carpal tunnel)––should be explained first. In order to explain what Maoism means for the unaware or misinformed audience, the author has to show where it came from as well as what direction it is metaphorically travelling.

For Moufawad-Paul, MLM emerged as a coherent body of theory in the documents of the Communist Party of Peru––Shining Path (PCP) in the late 1980s. Over the next few years, the story goes, the party’s theory coalesced on an international level within the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Maoism preexisted this historical and theoretical sequence as a term, the author argues, but in the 1970s it largely functioned as a synonym for a party or an individual’s alignment with China as opposed to the Soviet Union. This pro-China attitude often corresponded with an anti-revisionist orientation. Though revisionism is a slippery term that communists graft onto any number of perceived or real errors, here revisionism indicates parties that professed Marxism while abjuring revolution and arguing for a peaceful and gradual path to socialism through elections.

As anti-revisionists, groups like the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party in the US, La Gauche Prolétarienne in France, and revolutionary organizations from Turkey to The Philippines, arrayed themselves behind Mao’s criticism’s of the post-1956 Soviet Union and, by extension, parties that still maintained connections with Moscow. So the revisionist rogue’s gallery included a majority of the older, established capital-c Communist parties. But, Moufawad-Paul argues, simple support for China did not mean that they had transcended the limitations of Marxism-Leninism (ML), and in fact were ML orthodoxy incarnate. In fact, the author notes, the parties disintegrated precisely because their adherence to ML rendered them incapable of grappling with various social movements that had emerged in the 60s (movements in which the creators of these anti-revisionist parties had usually participated in some form). The typical example is the RU/RCP’s homophobic line, which relegated gay members to what has been dubbed the “Red Closet.”

Maoism, in order to be a relevant improvement on ML, had to resolve the contradictions of traditional ML. Moufawad-Paul’s fundamental argument is that it has done so without jettisoning the important insights of its anti-revisionist predecessors. Within its rupture from traditional ML, it preserved the continuity. In fact, he goes so far to propose that its rupture was not just simultaneously contiguous with its tradition but in fact necessary to the preservation of the entire Marxist theoretical edifice. MLM puts its ancestors to death in order to keep them alive, we could say.

Fundamental to the flow of Moufawad-Paul’s argument is the notion that Marxist theory constitutes a scientific, rather than merely ideological, tradition. Therefore when he appeals to the work of someone like Thomas Kuhn and his ideas about paradigm shifts in science, he is not being analogical but rather quite literal in ascribing to Marxism the same evolutionary process as physics, chemistry, and the like. Not that he thinks Marxism is a natural science or that it has any authority over such areas (he mocks those who do argue Marxism’s hegemony over all of science). Rather, like Louis Althusser, he sees Marxism as a form of knowledge and practice that can pose and answer questions scientifically, constantly negating its own theories even as it preserves core principles and “methods.” Thus, just as physics got its atom from Democritus but endowed it with a fresh and empirically useful meaning, Maoists took a word that had one meaning and transformed it. Words and concepts, in other words, are not identical.

Whether or not one supports the idea that politics can be scientific, the analogy with paradigm shifts in science is an illuminating device. We can see, throughout Continuity and Rupture, the ways in which Maoists deploy old Marxist concepts like class in a different way than Leninists, and how these differences are relevant enough to separate the two fairly strongly despite their shared embrace of the vanguard as a useful organizing concept. The author also dispels some misconceptions about Leninism and its ties to historical periodization in a way that I found very satisfying. The idea, for example, that Leninism is “the Marxism of the era of imperialism,” petrifies Marxism as long as imperialism exists. Linking the development of Marxism to the vicissitudes of capitalist evolution rather than the actual practice of communists seems foolhardy and self-negating as well as historically dubious since, as Moufawad-Paul observes, imperialism hardly waited for Lenin’s say-so to come into being.

In sum, the book does what it says on the cover: convinces me that Maoism came into being in the late 1980s and has created a novel set of theories and practices that have made some headway in challenging capitalism in parts of the world. I already shared this understanding with the author, but I think it makes a convincing case even to the relatively uninformed. Those who are hostile to Maoism in all forms would also benefit from this book because it offers a coherent explanation for what it is.

That’s not all a book like this has to do, of course. I’ve spent the first half of this review talking about the book in terms of its argumentative structure and commentary. However, the real question Moufawad-Paul has to answer, especially to the vast majority of people who are not Maoists, is why it matters. After all, if Maoism is irrelevant to the reader, an explanation of what it does and how it talks and where it was born is nothing but an abstract exercise. Almost like a taxonomy for mythical creatures: elaborate and fascinating, but of no immediate value except to nerdy enthusiasts like me.

After all, as the author admits, Maoism has no claim to hegemony either over the broader left or within Marxism more narrowly. In India, The Philippines, Peru, and Nepal it achieved/still is achieving some level of organizational success, and in the latter case was upheld by the party controlling essentially the entire country outside of the capital region. However, Nepal’s revolution has splintered and dissolved, seemingly held in perpetual stasis. The Peruvian Maoists capitulated after the capture of the leader they venerated, Gonzalo. In India, the party is under immense strain as a result of state repression. In The Philippines, the people’s war has been protracted indeed, though it seems the most stable of the movements at this time. This is not to speak of Maoist movements in the West, which are nascent or at best have achieved the status of marginal forces in certain cities. A reasonable and honest radical might rightly, I believe, still approach Maoism with skepticism.

Still, Moufawad-Paul declares, Maoism’s emphasis on putting communism into action, on bridging the here and now and the communist future, puts it on firm ground. And I think it’s at least undeniable that the old communist parties are moribund, especially in North America, and that Maoist movements are often militant bright spots, along with certain anarchists, in many urban settings here in North America. We might say that Maoists are making some of the most valuable and worthwhile mistakes of any leftist tendency today. So I would keep an eye on Maoist movements as the global situation tenses and we see a resurgence––how powerful we cannot reckon––of old reactionary and fascist tendencies. The margins are often the most fertile breeding ground for successful ideas, and I think Continuity and Rupture makes some of Maoism’s best ideas legible to those who might scoff at party documents. And that’s a valuable contribution indeed.

 

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

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Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.