Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

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As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

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Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.

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!

G.A. Hoston: Japanese Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan

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Marxism is a powerful analytical tool due to its ability to extract the universal significance of historical processes that necessarily occur in particular places and times. Strong internal tension between the particular and the universal presents both incredible barriers and opportunities for revolutionaries and scholars to push social research and political action forward to new heights. Marxists from all over the world have grappled with the unique challenges of their own regional and national contexts, and Germaine Hoston’s book is a case study in how a generation (or two) of Marxists engaged in a sustained debate over how Marxism could contribute to revolutionary action and the production of new knowledge. And the fierce theoretical/historical struggle between the Kōza-ha and Rōnō-ha groups fostered the development of intensive research into Japanese history and, in the process, altered and stretched the boundaries of Marxism as a body of thought at the time.

Hoston’s book is an intellectual history of sorts, a narrative about the inception of indigenous Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and early struggles to define what Japanese Marxist politics and theory would look like. As mentioned, major participants in the debate typically lined up into two factions: the Kōza-ha (lecture school) and the Rōnō-ha (worker-farmer school). These debates were shaped by a number of factors, political as well as academic. For one, the emergence of Marxist political organizing in Japan owed much to the successes of the Russian Revolution and the Leninist advances in Marxist thinking on imperialism and revolutionary strategy. More directly, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) emerged––twice, since the first attempt collapsed after a short time––under the wing of the Soviet-dominated Comintern. Because of this international situation, the relative immaturity of Japanese Marxism, and the paucity of historical materialist studies of Japanese history, as well as for institutional reasons, the Comintern theses on Asia, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), and revolutionary strategy in Japan carried considerable weight, and in many ways defined the line split in the debate.

Factors internal to Japan also had weighty bearing on the debate. Japan in the 1920s and early 30s was experiencing what has been commonly referred to as Taishō Democracy, where bourgeois political parties were more prominent than in the preceding Meiji period and universal male suffrage was put into effect (1925). An air of relative relaxation prevailed in universities, permitting the open nature of the debate over the Marxist terrain until the 30s saw Japanese militarism ascend to a more dominant role as the country entered open war with China, most of Southeast Asia and, eventually, the United States. Japan’s entry into the capitalist world also varied considerably from the English model Marx used as the basis for his theorizing, meaning that scholars’ positions in the debate often sprung from how they reconciled Japan’s unique circumstances (late entry into the capitalism, imperialist voraciousness combined with a stagnant agricultural sector, status as an “Asiatic” society) with the universality of Marxist theory.

The Kōza-ha, on one side, endorsed and vigorously defended the Comintern position. In brief, they argued that advancing to socialism in Japan required a two-stage process. First, the socialist movement had to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly in the countryside and in the realm of political liberties. Only once that phase was complete could a proletarian revolution be carried out. Their reasons for supporting the Comintern line were the obvious deficiencies of even “Taishō Democracy” and the persistence of what they saw as feudal landlordism in the countryside. The emperor system also factored into their arguments, which varied and often proved innovative despite their commitment to a preexisting line.

Rōnō-ha, on the other hand, endorsed the view that the bourgeois revolution in Japan had been completed by the Meiji state and that a broad-based open socialist party could complete the revolution in a single step. They often appealed to Nikholai Bukharin’s ideas about advanced capitalist societies and noted the power of state-monopoly capital (the zaibatsu combines) and the instantiation of universal male suffrage in 1925. They acknowledged feudal remnants that persisted––the emperor and certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship in the countryside––but argued these were irrelevant anachronisms and that the feudal Tokugawa landlord class had been forcibly integrated into a bloc with the dominant bourgeoisie through the crash industrialization of the country during the Meiji era.

Hoston’s documentation of their debates is fairly exhaustive, covering a number of theorists on both sides as well as certain rogue ideas that often sparked soul-searching among all Marxists in Japan. The example of Takahashi Kamekichi is particularly fascinating. Although Takahashi pioneered disciplined historical materialist study in Japan, his theory of “petty imperialism,” which argued that Japanese expansionism did not constitute imperialism in the Leninist sense and that vigorous colonization of Asia was indispensable for Japanese socialism, obviously prefigured Japanese imperial arguments about the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the Great Pacific War. His use of Marxist theory and techniques for quasi-fascist ends––he went so far as to say that the left should seize an ultra-nationalist position to avoid ceding it to the far right!–– provoked a storm of critique and research from the more left-wing Marxists in Japan.

What I especially enjoy about Hoston’s thematic approach, where she takes individual facets of the debate like that of the agrarian question in a single chapter, is that it highlights the specific achievements of Japanese Marxists in particular areas. This is especially evident in the chapter on debates over the nature of the Japanese state. She notes that the conditions of the debate and the Japanese historical moment encouraged the creation of remarkably advanced theory that was, in many respects, only matched by European studies of the late 60s and 70s. She includes detailed descriptions of the theories each scholar advanced, and in many cases does not hold back from indicating what the stronger and weaker theories were on each side of the debate. Her own insights make the book’s examinations of these theories not only academically interesting but more useful to readers interested in doing their own theory.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s overall tenor demonstrates the rather powerless position of the Marxist left in Japan for most of its existence. Despite Marxism’s quick entrenchment into Japanese academia, the broad left parties, including the JCP, have been quick to use their theoretical position to justify legalism and gradualism. Although the debates on the topics of the Japanese state and the agrarian question were lively, they have often been confined to the classroom and library. This takes its most direct form in the ideas of Uno Kozo, who openly advocated the separation of economic theorizing from political action. Of course, this scission between academic brilliance and a fairly impoverished real movement is not unfamiliar in many parts of the world, particularly the First World, but Hoston’s book exposes the tragic split between the brilliant efforts of both factions to create a truly native Japanese Marxism and the state of revolutionary action in that country, then and now.

What’s important, however, is that many of these challenges were seen, at least latently, in the arguments of the debaters in the 20s and 30s, especially in the pessimistic outlooks of the Kōza-ha theorists. Hoston’s history is relatively straightforward and light on context, but as a historical analysis of intellectual trends in Japanese Marxism it serves a useful purpose. It impresses upon all of us the critical necessity to take the examples of the past and subject our own contexts to rigorous analysis while––at the same time––developing and deepening our political activity.

William Hinton: Fanshen (Part 1)

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Few books could hope to share the dramatic background and meticulous field research of Fanshen. Published in 1966, thirteen years after Hinton, on returning from serving the people in China, ran headlong into the Red Scare, losing all of his notes to customs officials. After a short time, he found himself blacklisted from working in the United States, forcing him to earn a living as a farmer on land he inherited from his mother. Regardless, he managed to retrieve his documents and, from those detailed scratchings, produced a book that is indispensable to anyone trying to understand the background, methods, and successes of the early Chinese Revolution.

What reason did Uncle Sam have for treating Hinton with such trepidation and roughness? Fanshen is not a complete account of his doings in post-WWII China, but it does lay out a compelling rap sheet. While working as an English teacher in a Communist-controlled Liberated Area in Northern China, Hinton volunteered to travel to a nearby village to participate and learn from the land reform process overturning the long-established feudal order in the Chinese countryside. The village’s name was Long Bow

The necessity of land redistribution in the Chinese rural zones is a remote topic to people who live in the long-industrialized West. Accustomed to meeting their needs through cash payments and used to thinking of farms as dull filler on road trips rather than the backbone my entire culture, I was grateful for the visceral descriptions of pre-Revolutionary peasant life in the opening chapters of Fanshen. In essence, peasant life under the rule of feudal landlords was as far from primitivist paradise as one could imagine. In its long cycles, the rural life of the poor was static, bound closely to climates, weather, and entrenched social helplessness. What mostly defined peasant life in the day-to-day, however, was complete insecurity, where tragedy was the scar tissue of each and every waking moment. Hinton’s vivid writing injects flesh and blood into these harrowing stories:

“The following are only a few incidents culled at random from the life stories of peasants with whom I talked:

  • There were three famine years in a row. The whole family went out to beg for things to eat. In Chichang City conditions were very bad.Many mothers threw their newborn children into the river…We had to sell our eldest daughter…
  • During the famine we ate leaves…I went out to the hills to get leaves and there were people fighting each other over the leaves on the trees. My little sister starved to death. My brother’s wife couldn’t bear the hunger and ran away and never came back. My cousin was forced to become a landlord’s concubine.”

Fanshen (2008), 42-43.

Even in just this book, there are horror stories that far exceed the ones I cited. As the author later argues, the worst part about this life, worse than the bloodsucking landlords who routinely put peasants into intractable debt, was the hopelessness of change. Every person in the rural areas who owned no land and had to labour on behalf of others rather than for themselves and their community was a half-person, someone whose real potential and intelligence were smothered in mud and wasteful toil. And all to serve the appetites of a social system that was rapidly decaying and spiralling into chaos. This was the central issue of land reform: how to unleash the immense power of this mass of humanity and the land on which they lived and concentrate it into a mass movement for revolution. This truly was a struggle for life and death, politics at its sharpest and most brutal.

The Communist Party of China (CPC from now on) outlined a policy roughly encapsulated by the slogan “Land to the Tillers.” Landlords and wealthier peasants, who lived off of rents the exploited labour of their fellow human beings, would be expropriated. The seized land and property would be distributed to all of the landless and land-poor peasants in the villages until they could become self-sufficient. Hinton’s book enters after the initial assault on feudal land ownership was already well in progress. For eight months, he lived in the village of Long Bow, labouring during the day and attending day and night political meetings. In unwavering and compelling prose, which makes the book a surprisingly quick read for a 600-page tome, he describes the painful process of political awakening and the redress of wrongs in Long Bow. A central part of that process was the internal reform of the Communists attempting to lead the charge for a new China, and their own psychological and political awakenings.

The next post will describe that process in more detail, and attempt to sum up the true virtues of Fanshen: its unblinking and protracted analysis of the political process of revolution at the lowest and most practical level, and the messiness of implementing grand policies of revolution in a tiny village. It’s an instructive book for anyone interested in Chinese history or the dynamics of any agrarian revolution––and to a lesser extent revolution in general.

Something in the Caucasian Air: Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Poetry

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From a cursory examination of Mayakovsky’s biography, it seems fitting to situate him in three spheres: futurist poetry and Russian modernism, Russian communist politics, and the Caucasus region. These were his artistic, political, and geographical sources of nourishment. While the first two are well-documented, it seems to go too often unremarked at how turbulent the early twentieth century was in the Caucasus region. A zone spanning Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, the three great empires of Western Eurasia at the time, it has proved remarkably impervious to my historical investigations. Home to the Baku oilfields teeming with Iranian guest workers, Armenia without a state, Stalin and, of course, Mayakovsky’s birthplace, it is a staging ground for some of the most consequential events of the early 1900s.

His poetry, even in English translation, is almost unbearably lucid. Like many of the great revolutionary writers of the time––Lenin and Stalin included––he uses straightforward language in an effort to corrode illusions and communicate with directness. His works brim with biting rhetorical questions, imperatives, and striking details. “You,” an early poem from 1915, is emblematic of his often accusatory tone:

You, wallowing through orgy after orgy,

owning a bathroom and warm, snug toilet!

How dare you read about awards of St. Georgi

from newspaper columns with your blinkers oily?

Do you realise, multitudinous nonentities

thinking how better to fill your gob,

that perhaps just now Petrov the lieutenant

had both his legs ripped off by a bomb?

Imagine if he, brought along for slaughter,

suddenly saw, with his blood out-draining,

you, with your mouths still dribbling soda-water

and vodka, lasciviously crooning Severyanin!

To give up my life for the likes of you,

lovers of woman-flesh, dinners and cars?

I’d rather go and serve pineapple juice

to the whores in Moscow’s bars.

Internalizing the revolutionary struggles of the time into his language, he produced some stirring calls to arms. Convinced of the crucial role of art in revolutionizing the new Soviet Republic, he expressed his frustration with the formalistic direction art had retreated towards in even its most radical manifestations:

To you,

fig-leaf-camouflaged mystics,

foreheads dug over with furrows sublime,

futuristic, imagistic, acmeistic, stuck tight in your cobwebs of rhyme.

To you, 

who abandoned smooth haircuts for matted,

slick shoes for bast clogs a-la-russki,

proletcultists

sewing your patches

on the faded frock-coat of Alexander Pushkin.

Excerpt from “Order No. 2 to the Army of Arts,” 1921.

While one could characterize modernism as a whole as a series of avant-gardes looking to surpass their forebears’ in formal invention and aesthetic ruptures, culminating in movements like minimalism in the 1950s and 60s, it rarely sank deep roots in political projects. And given that until the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s there was no more profound political revolution than the Russian, it makes sense that Mayakovsky’s poetry founded its advocacy for new forms on revolutionary enthusiasm. His militant overtures were not, because political, less relevant to the art to which he dedicated his life. On the contrary, his poetry posited a deep and indissoluble connection between the health of poetry and the health of the new society the people had inaugurated. It was not the common people, mired in the dirt and oil of the revolution, who lagged behind. It was the reclusive artists, “picturing the future as an opportune academic salary for every nitwit.” The arts was a revolutionary weapon, and like the country had to be purged of error in order to serve the people.

My only exposure to Mayakovsky before reading a collection of his poetry was in a Russian literature class that framed him as a propagandist for the party, a futurist who had sacrificed all of his integrity for the sake of political favour. Besides the fact that he satirized Soviet society rather ruthlessly––indeed, it got him into hot water with the state later on––this dismissive caricature of this man’s art does a disservice to the power of political art. If Mayakovsky was a propagandist, he was a masterfully artful one, someone who embraced rather than shirked the responsibility of the artist to the people. This is not to sanctify him; he would have sneered at hagiography. Rather, I merely find reading his poetry a liberating exercise, giving expression to some of my more boundless enthusiasms. He was just one of many great communist poets of the last century, a voice that somehow matched the rhythms of revolution echoing wherever the tyrannies of capitalist rule could be endured no longer.

I look forward to hopefully finding some copies of his satirical plays. Until then, stay red, my friends.

Snowpiercer

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I need to put it on record that I reject the phrase “income inequality” as one of the most bloodless euphemisms for the immiseration of the working class you can find. Like the word “middle class” it skates over the core issues of how capitalist social relations enrich a small minority at the expense of the great majority. It’s also a phrase that has enjoyed an awkward stint in the spotlight lately, with bestselling books, documentary and fiction films, and almost incessant news coverage since it became clear that “economic recovery” is never relevant concept to the vast majority. Even comparatively well-off First World workers have experienced only dim prospects, and the state of proletarian politics in the United States, despite all of this publicity, has remained dire.

Snowpiercer can’t be pigeonholed as a populist thriller, since it is luckily much more eccentric than didactic. Loosely adapting a French graphic novel, writer-director Bong Joon Ho guides us through the cars of a perpetual motion train containing all of Earth’s remaining population. Everyone outside froze to death after a misguided geo-engineering project goes awry, leaving most of the people who survived in the grip of a social Darwinist ruling class who are unafraid of using drastic measures to keep the train’s population in check. At the time of the film, there had already been several failed revolutions aimed at evening the score. Now, a new crew of agitators led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) make another attempt. Almost all of the film takes place in the metallic confines of the train, and the narrative progresses in a linear fashion from what is essentially the ghetto caboose to the opulent front cars. Formally, the film is largely effective, mixing visual styles and a variety of camera techniques that, while eclectic and sometimes disorienting, keep the film comprehensible and compelling on a surface level. For the first half or so, as the filmmakers illuminate the passengers’ suffering and their early encounters with the fascist thugs sent to pacify or exterminate them, Snowpiercer shows flashes of brilliance. Over time, however, its ability to surprise or even entertain diminishes, to the point where I had lost all interest in the final minutes. By that time, the film I had started watching two hours earlier was no longer running and another, far more banal, work had taken its place. Suffice to say that it changes from a story about an entire society to a story about one man’s revenge against another man, and the scope of the story progressively narrow, losing sight of its original stakes until the ending moves in several incompatible directions, muddying what should be clear as crystal.

Early scenes do a magnificent job of elucidating the fascist nature of the train. Exploiters at the front of the train live in a constant state of crisis; their resources are limited and, while they cannot exterminate the back passengers, they need to keep them in check. A charismatic leader named Wilford (Ed Harris) forms the literal and formal head of the train, and though he lives in a palatial front car, he imagines himself equally burdened by his responsibilities. Far from some cynical profiteer, he now imagines himself as the savior of humanity, who, like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, happens to be in the train business. His mental labor is all that appears in his accounting; without him, there would be nothing left but snow and ice. When Tilda Swinton’s Mason, a kind of liaison between the front and back cars, appears early in the film, every word from her mouth is blatant mystification. Everything about the train appears divine to the people at the front, all flowing from the Gnostic mind at the front. Of course, the concrete fact of the train’s brutality is glaringly apparent to the less fortunate passengers. I would argue that Mason and Wilford are true believers, convinced in mind and body that they are the upholders of a righteous order in which all have their proper place. And though the perpetual motion engine at the front of the train is a marvel of engineering, Wilford and Mason––and the rest of the privileged passengers––treat it as a mystical artifact, an uncreated deity with its own consciousness. To an extent, the revolutionaries also fixate on the engine, but only in a far more pragmatic way, as the final goal they need to capture. This reading is complicated by the end of the film, which (literally) ruptures the entire story, but it holds strong for most of the running time.

Snowpiercer spends much of its time showing the audience how Wilford and the Engine’s fetish cult is transmitted and reinforced, including a wild, absurd scene in a schoolroom. Under the guidance of the chipper teacher (Alison Pill), the children watch propaganda videos, sing jingoistic songs, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into their studies. They’re not too recognizable as schoolchildren, and bear more resemblance to what 1950s educational films thought children should be like, but it’s an unnerving, insightful scene nonetheless.

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At first, I hesitated to classify the train’s social relations in a strictly Marxist fashion, since the back passengers were not producing surplus value or profits for the front cars. However, this could not have been more mistaken, based on a reductive and misplaced notion of what surplus value could mean. In particular, I overlooked the fact that the front cars seemed to have a routine “draft” in place, taking children from their mothers to keep the system going. In that way, the people of the back, especially the women, reproduced the system quite literally, providing an expendable surplus that had to be managed but ultimately served the decadence of the front. The film even has a mother named Tanya (Octavia Spencer) who plays a major role in the fighting, though the manner in which she dies irks me to no end. She dies as a sacrifice so that our white savior and protagonist can advance, and unfortunately the film largely focuses on his own personal struggle to the detriment of the people he fights with, to the point of showing them as helpless victims once the end of the journey approaches.

Despite the film’s endorsement of revolutionary violence, it has a terribly loose grasp of combat strategy and tactics. Because the film ultimately focuses on Chris Evans’ character and one or two other major players, it loses interest in the revolutionary war fairly quickly. This dulls the drama and, more importantly, makes the characters of Snowpiercer look like bumblers. They ignore obvious traps, make no precautions to protect gains they’ve already made, and send almost no forces forward to the front for no discernible reason other than dramatic convenience. Bong Joon Ho and company would rather take us on a photogenic tour of the front cars than show the inevitable bloodbath that would ensue. It certainly makes the people more believable as helpless victims, but exposes them as cut-rate revolutionaries. Paired with a late-film plot twist torn straight from The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect scene, it almost obliterated my political enthusiasm for the movie.

All the same, it would not do to dismiss Snowpiercer out of hand. It’s rare enough to see films with even this rudimentary consciousness at work, particularly in a commercial setting, and its opening scenes are truly excellent in formal and political terms. Alternately ridiculous and sublime, clunky and tight-wound, it’s a decidedly mixed work that remains largely enjoyable, especially compared to pseudo-progressive schlock like The Wolf of Wall Street. For future reference, I am planning on doing critical surgery on that debacle within the next year, so keep watch.

Bioshock Infinite’s Bleeding-Heart Liberalism

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Every form of production, artistic or otherwise, is a struggle with the material, dealing with its internal contradictions and applying force to resolve them in a satisfactory way. It’s often more delicate than that blunt description might suggest, but perhaps that’s only an appearance, the result of a successful war against human and material limitations. Bioshock Infinite, however, leaves contradictions to fester and eat away at its integrity. This is even more curious because the fatal problem––namely, the dissonance between narrative and interactive mechanics––is extremely common in games. What’s more, the problem is not that the game and the story are about different things. Both tackle issues of violence, greed, human misery, capitalist exploitation, etc. Unfortunately, the two sides go about exploring those things in irreconcilable ways. To properly explore this game, we’ll need to briefly look at the game’s press reception, a couple of more critical looks at the game, and finally try to come to the root of why the conversation has worked itself out in the way it has.

First, I’m taking a representative review from the mainstream gaming press. Edge Online awarded the game a 9 out of 10 and lavishes praise on the game throughout. The review opens with this positive appraisal:

“BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game…where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky.”

[emphasis mine]

What’s curious about this passage is that, in its headlong rush to praise, it ends up stumbling right into the game’s core problem. Edge notices the “collision”––if it didn’t, its author’s powers of observation would be much in doubt––but argues that the game is able to synthesize its disparate elements. After enticing the reader with such a promising overture, the author is obliged to provide details. One catches the eye:

“…Columbia is alive, its civilian populace a constant presence throughout the game as the city teeters on the brink of war. As well as providing chances for the shooting to cease, these moments let you interact with Columbia’s people…”

We’ll be seeing another author make the exact opposite claim later. For now, let’s briefly discuss the accuracy of this detail. Most of your non-violent interactions with the Columbian populace come either at a carnival at the beginning of the game or in brief moments later on. Unlike in Dishonored, a game I’ve covered extensively here, you can’t speak to townspeople. All of your chats with the populace here are scripted, sometimes with a binary choice presented, none of which end up mattering much. For the vast majority of the game, Columbia is a shooting gallery. In rather egalitarian fashion, nearly all of them exist to become corpses and replenish your money and ammunition. Moving on.

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When we click through to the second page of the review, we see this curious paragraph, which is worth reading in its entirety:

That said, there are times when all these incidental character details can bump up against Irrational’s more overt attempts to make a useful AI companion. At unpredictable moments, she’ll toss coins she’s scavenged at DeWitt, her canned call for your attention puncturing the quietness of a scene. Her role as the pair’s lockbreaker, meanwhile, can sometimes pick at the illusion of her autonomy, since she instantaneously and cheerfully responds to DeWitt’s beck and call. This responsiveness makes far more sense on the battlefield, where she can pull aid (cover, mechanised allies or guns) through tears at the press of a button, and where the urgency of her unpredictably tossing potions, health and ammo your way never strikes a discordant tone.

Only two paragraphs after the started to justify the big black “9” at the end of the text, they start to wander. Elizabeth’s agency as a character is eroded. Her scripted moments and quiet moments alone clash with her strange omnipotence over locks. In other words, she acts one way in the (scripted) narrative and another in the story the game tells moment to moment through player action. In the former she’s an active presence, a moral compass, and something of a terrifying power in her own right. In the latter she is a tool, sweeping corridors for loose change and ammunition to feed the protagonists’ prodigious appetites. The review has one more unreservedly positive paragraph before focusing once more on problems, noting that enemies are too “damage absorbent,” that the story “unravels” near the end, abandoning its setting for its own flights of sci-fi fancy. After a canned “but the game is ambitious and beautiful and so all is forgiven” conclusion, the review ends on that puzzling little number. Another contradiction for a game that seems to generate them.

Leigh Alexander gave the game a thorough critique over at Kotaku, making essentially the same point I am with a different method. Additionally, she comes to a strikingly different conclusion than I have. She writes:

“This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.”

Though I would argue that Alexander’s piece is also far too clever for its own good, it identifies the contradiction that tears Bioshock Infinite to pieces. Though she errs in her explanation by largely refusing to make one––only passingly noting that it might have resulted from a stressful and protracted production period––she can see clear as day that the game’s drudgery and lightweight treatment of violence pillages whatever gravitas its script might have had. While it doesn’t merit a lengthy treatment here, the Foldable Human has also discussed Infinite as an example of games that treat violence as part of their narratives rather than just vomiting it in front of the player uncritically. It almost solely deals with the scripted narrative, and in particular with the narrow story of the protagonist himself, so it is, strictly speaking, accurate. On the other hand, the defining feature of infinite as we have seen and as others have noted, is its inability to digest all the blood it’s spewing up, its failure to actually understand and incorporate violence into a coherent story. As we’ve said, there is a script and a game and rarely do the twain ever meet.

What is needed is a new, thoroughly materialist, critique of the game. This will be necessarily short, more of a collection of notes toward a broader investigation into games as a medium and how they reproduce capitalist, in particular liberal, ideology. With that in mind, let’s take what we’ve gathered so far and carry it a few steps further.

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Magic pants and cakes in safety deposit boxes are only two of the surreal absurdities in the game.

Bioshock Infinite’s dissonant approach to violence not only compromises its scripted statements on “violence” in the abstract but also hopelessly confuses its stance on concrete oppressions and capitalist exploitation. Its horrific failure to deal with the issue of race largely stems from its narrow-minded vision and its insistence on some fanciful idea of “balance” that minimizes the destructive effects of oppression and vilifies the just violence of the oppressed. In the game, the revolutionary Vox Populi, led by charismatic black leader Daisy Fitzroy, begin to overthrow the racist, capitalist nightmare of Columbia but are immediately vilified for using violent means to do so. Liberalism fundamentally mistakes reactionary and revolutionary violence as equal in weight. After all, in a nation of free individuals, to kill is to violate the rights of another in the cruelest way. Yet the liberal notion of “freedom” is only so much mist. It vaporizes the moment you expose it to the sunlight. I suspect that people only noticed the egregious condemnation of revolutionary violence in this game because it is hamfisted and handled so quickly that it quickly ceases to matter. Labour strikes, revolutions, pogroms, public humiliations, back room police torture––it all solves to the same thing in Bioshock Infinite. 

By the time the game ends, the game no longer cares about Columbia or its people. It cares about Booker, the protagonist. It cares about Elizabeth in all of her many alternate forms. It cares about maybe one or two other characters. But, as the wise reviewer at Edge noted, it no longer cares about its own setting. Even the script, so lauded for its high aspirations even among skeptical critics, loses all of its weight the moment you start slaughtering black and Irish revolutionaries like so much cannon fodder. Supernatural events begin piling on top of each other; ghosts appear with little warning; the ending folds in on itself so many times we forget that its plot is actively erasing the lives of all those slum-dwellers and wage slaves the game spent so much time lovingly showing us. Loosed from its social bearings, the game reduces its setting to window dressing. And by removing its protagonists from meaningful history and shoving them into a sci-fi house of mirrors, it turns them into ideas or things. Everything is the same as everything else. Nothing matters. It’s solipsistic and weirdly mindless and deeply, deeply liberal. Humanism of this kind, that fetishizes the individual “journey” and makes the player’s avatar, an objectively horrific human being, a sainted martyr by the end fo the game, spits in the eyes of anyone working for progress in the world. Its contradictions finally drown the game, its political and moral incoherence far too dense for the game to keep afloat.

This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!
This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!

Considering the commercial compromises that probably introduced many of these toxic tensions into the production process––after all, the game needed to justify its enormous budget––it’s only too appropriate to cite Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism. The game offers the player only the redemption “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows” (Amin 14). It is a document struggling to be radical but finding itself incapable of doing so because its message––even that “higher” script––serves the ruling class alone. What’s painful is that Bioshock Infinite is actually quotidian, even minor. It is what capitalism looks like, depicted in all its cynical glory. A formerly critical modernity curdled into mysticism, liberation for the bourgeoisie crushing the vast majority of humanity. What sets it apart is its conspicuous messiness, the openness with which it shows its wounds. But this is a game. With all its blood and guts shed without much comment, it cannot hope to compare to imperialist capitalism in the flesh. That’s no comforting note to end on, but by identifying such contradictions in media, we can hopefully find them in our real world and struggle to overcome them. I will let Frantz Fanon have the last word:

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.

The Wretched of the Earth: Conclusion

What Is Revolutionary About Utena?

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Revolutionary Girl Utena provokes far more questions than it answers, and that has led to the creation of an entire sub-sub-community based around it. It tends to attract a much more intellectual set than your average animated show, and for good reason. Unfortunately, though the show has a number of merits–and I would count myself enthusiastic about the show overall–its use of the word “revolution” initially distracted me from what is going on in the narrative.

Unlike Les Misérables, Utena is not about a political or economic or historical revolution. Its revolution is almost synonymous with adolescence, which means it’s appropriate that the film’s title is either Adolescence of Utena or, in some English editions, just Revolutionary Girl Utena, since the character of the revolution in the show is subjective and developmental rather than a decisive and disruptive transition between different political orders. Even the manipulative Lucifer figure, Ohtori, retains his outward power at the end, and the implications of the show’s ending are confined to a few privileged members of an elite academy. This is why I understand “revolution” in the show to mean a transition to a higher stage of maturity, involving disillusionment with former idols (the Prince and Princess figures), leaving the “womb” of the home (in this case represented by Anthy breaking out of the coffin-shaped academy and her literal coffin), and loads of diffuse sexual tension that occasionally hardens into something acute.

A writer under the name Etrangere contributed an essay on the connections between Utena and politics, and concludes with this paragraph:

Yet Utena succeeds, not as a Prince, but as a Revolutionary, by inspiring Anthy to step up herself out of her subservient role as the Rose Bride and save herself. Thus, together they destroy the archetype of the Prince and the Princess and are on their way to create a new, more equal ideal as friends and soulmates. Their example also manages to help all the Duelists break from their fixation on their idealized memories and move on toward smashing their own coffins. This is the Revolution in [Utena].

I think that this is basically accurate, making the revolution here more Freudian than Marxist. Ultimately, the entire show is a gigantic session of psychoanalysis, interrogating the show’s characters, prodding and questioning their motives and unmasking deep repressed drives. Memories are conjured and shown to be constructs, mere wishes that have been fixed by the characters’ inability to mature. Utena’s sword vanquishes the stifling present and cuts the chains connecting people to an imagined past. At the end of the show, we see history beginning, as Utena’s sacrifice has destroyed the endless cycle of repetition that was held in place by the figures of the Prince and Princess, these eternal roles that people try to fit until they finally crumble of their own accord. These roles are like eggs–a metaphor employed by the ruling authorities of the school throughout the show–protective barriers that must be temporary. If the chick cannot transcend the egg, that fixed location and gestating stage, it will die.

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Seductive and glorious, the Prince is still nothing but a betrayer.

It’s unfortunate that the show has no more useful political content, and more generally it is dispiriting that most anime makes no attempt to engage with contemporary Japanese capitalism in a substantial way. I do think, though, that a narrative showing a character, Anthy, actually overcoming oppression and entering into a new and more real life is nothing short of inspiring. We are not merely dazzled with a menagerie of illusions and brilliant imagery and left gasping, wondering what is real and what is not. By the end, we see that there is a real core to the show, that underneath all the symbolism and sleight of hand there are real lives at stake, that are being oppressed by real forces of oppression. It’s all quite weighty in comparison to most anime, and though I was initially disappointed by the narrative’ s refusal to travel outside of its safe protective sphere and engage with history at large, and while this is by no means a revolutionary show by Marxist standards, it shows that people can transcend fixed categories and identities and gives us hope for the destruction of everything that holds humanity back. Honestly, that’s more than ninety-nine out of a hundred shows gives us, and it looks absolutely fabulous while doing it.

Before leaving,  I think it’s best to leave my readers in the hands of Maoist-turned-Platonic-Communist Alain Badiou, who wrote this in his In Praise of Love:

The process of love isn’t always peaceful. It can bring violent argument, genuine anguish and separations we may or may not overcome. We should recognize that it is one of the most painful experiences in the subjective life of an individual! That is why some people promote their “comprehensive insurance”propa­ganda. I have already mentioned that people die because of love. There are murders and suicides prompted by love. In fact, at its own level, love is not necessarily any more peaceful than revolu­tionary politics. A truth is not something that is constructed in a garden of roses. Never! Love has its own agenda of contradictions and violence. But the difference is that in politics we really have to engage with our enemies, whereas in love it is all about dramas, immanent, internal dramas that don’t really define any enemies, though they do sometimes place the drive for identity into conflict with difference. Dramas in love are the sharpest experience of the conflict between identity and difference (61-62).

I think, in Utena’s case, truth very much is something constructed in a bed of roses.