Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Italy: Clark Kent screws up again

Does this news report seem familiar? It should do, if you're a Kiwi and a lefty like me. Italy's Refoundation Communist Party is being torn apart by the same issue that destroyed New Zealand's Alliance Party in 2001 - the war in Afghanistan.

Like the Alliance, the PRC is a coalition of social democrats and anti-capitalists led by a charismatic politician far to the right of his grassroots supporters. After entering a government dedicated to defending the interests of Italian capitalism and to strengthening of the European Union and NATO, the PRC has been faced with a choice between giving up the perks of power, on the one hand, and voting for the deployment of more Italian troops to Afghanistan and the expansion of a US military base in Italy, on the other. No prizes for guessing which option the party leadership has taken. After a massive protest against the base expansion last week, one PRC senator broke with party discipline and voted against the centre-left coalition government, prompting Prime Minister Prodi's resignation and all sorts of threats from the PRC leadership.

Along with the Respect Party in England and the Scottish Socialist Party, the PRC has sometimes been held up as an example of the 'parties of a new type' which supposedly offer a way forward for Kiwi socialists looking to (re)build a left alternative to Labour. Revolutionary socialists have played a key role in building Respect, the SSP, and the PRC, but most of them have avoided promoting revolutionary politics inside the new parties. Fearing that calls for the abolition of capitalism and arguments for the superiority of socialism would frighten away potential members, they have been focused almost exclusively on campaigning around 'bread and butter' issues like better wages and housing and more money for services like health and education. The 'parties of a new type' have focused on contesting elections, and given potential voters the impression that the route to change can come through parliament rather than through revolution on the streets and in the workplace.

The revolutionaries in 'parties of a new type' sometimes talk amongst themselves about a 'Clark Kent strategy'. While the party is gathering support, and the climate of public opinion is unsympathetic to socialism, these cunning folk will present themselves as nothing more than nice respectable social democrats. When the time is ripe, they will rip off this disguise and reveal themselves as revolutionary 'super-(wo)men' dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.

Kiwi lefties with long memories will know that the New Labour Party founded here in 1989 was an example of a 'party of the new type'. Some of its most influential members were 'Clark Kent' Marxists. The Greens and - in the 1970s and '80s - the Labour Party have also attracted their share of Clark Kents. Like their counterparts in today's PRC, these undercover revolutionaries often decided to make their disguise permanent. One-time radicals like Matt Robson, Keith Locke, Sue Bradford, Marian Hobbs, and Metiria Turei have all become respectable MPs happy to serve the interests of New Zealand capital and US imperialism (Robson and Hobbs backed the invasion of Afghanistan; Locke and Turei are vocal defenders of the neo-colonial occupations that are killing East Timorese and Solomon Islanders and defending Australian and American investments).

Some critics of the 'parties of a new type' make the mistake of promoting an isolationist strategy for the anti-capitalist left as an alternative. They say that no pro-capitalist party should ever be supported in any way, and that even trade unions have to be viewed with suspicion, because of their close links with organisations like the Labour Party.

But there's a middle way between the extremes of selling out, on the one hand, and isolationism, on the other. Anti-capitalists have to accept that the vast majority of the people we want to win over have a belief in some sort of reformist, social democratic politics, which they see as, at the very least, a 'lesser evil' compared to the savage neo-liberal economics and craven pro-US foreign policies promoted by the parties of the right.

Workers in Italy voted a centre-left government into power because they hated and feared Berlusconi; workers in New Zealand have continued to vote Labour because they fear the damage the likes of Don Brash and Bill English could do. The Alliance would have been destroyed by its supporters if it had left National in power in 1999; the PRC would have disintegrated if it had refused to use its MPs to dispose of Berlusconi's government last year.

But there is no reason why either the Alliance or the PRC should have had to go into a government in which they were doomed to be an impotent minority. The Alliance could have pledged to support Labour on votes of confidence and supply, and thus get rid of the hated Nats, and yet refuse to enter Clark's Cabinet. Instead of trying to extract one or two favours in Beehive backrooms, the party could have campaigned on the streets and in worksites to try to pressure the government into adopting more progressive policies. The party might have lost some support in the short-term by refusing to join the Clark government in 1999, but it would have gained support in the long-term, as disillusionment with Clark kicked in amongst core Labour supporters.

Outside of government, the Alliance could have played a role in opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of Bush's worldwide 'War of Terror', instead of becoming one of the casualties of this war. The Alliance could have become a vehicle for the massive movement against Labour's racist seabed and foreshore legislation in 2004, and it could have become a powerful advocate for a Kiwi trade union movement which is becoming stronger and more militant after the nadir of the 1990s.

What stopped the Alliance making the right choice and keeping its MPs' bums off Cabinet seats? By 1999, the argument against participation in a Labour government did not stand any chance of winning mass support in the Alliance. In the decade since the foundation of New Labour, the 'Clark Kents' in the party had done a very good job of avoiding debate on the pros and cons of support for capitalist governments, and on the possibilities and limitations of a strategy of reforming capitalism through parliament.

Groups and individuals who argued that tinkering with capitalism around a Cabinet table was no good, and that the overthrow of the whole system was necessary, were purged at the beginning of the nineties, and the tens of thousands of members who flocked to the Alliance in the middle of the decade were assured that a government with Jim Anderton in it could solve all their problems. The Clark Kents who acted as enforcers for Anderton liked to ridicule members who openly argued for socialism and revolution as 'loony leftists' whose policies could only lead the party to electoral disaster and a marginal place in New Zealand politics. It was the Clark Kents, though, who led the Alliance into government with Labour and oversaw its demise as a serious electoral force.

The lesson of the demise of the Alliance, and of the coming demise of the PRC, is that anti-capitalist organisations must make it a point of principle never to sit around the Cabinet tables of capitalist governments. Activists involved in attempts to resusitate the Alliance, or to build a new party around the Workers Charter newspaper, must make sure this lesson is remembered.

Footnote: if anybody wants to know why the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan should be opposed by the left, they could do worse than check out this new post by Jeff Sparrow over at the leftwrites blog.

Discussing the 'underclass'

I'm a very inactive member of the Waitemata Unite! branch, but I was asked to pass along this advertisement for what looks like a very tasty event. If you're a bit behind the pack on the 'underclass' debate, check out John Minto's excellent riposte to right-wing opportunism here.

A Working Class Forum for Employed, Unemployed and Beneficiaries



Speakers: including Jill Ovens from the Service and Food Workers Union; Dave Bedggood; John Minto; and members of Unite! Union

Music, Discussion, Refreshments

Organised by Unite!Waitemata Branch

email: unitewaitemata@yahoo.com.au


Monday, February 26, 2007

More praise for error

Here's Richard 'two stage' Taylor:

Error is unavoidable in any process. There are various mathematical and physical proofs showing that error in measurement or in any quantifiable process is impossible to avoid.

A simple example is an attempt to measure the area of a circle. That is Area = pi x diameter. But pi is a transcendental number, so no exact measurement of a circle is possible. In the real world, engineers ultimately refer to 'probablity density functions' - this means that in all cases they are talking probablities, not certainties.

For most things of course there is (or can be) such a high degree of accuracy that error is greatly reduced, but it cannot be eliminated. This is a reality of the nature of the physical world. We would still be unicellular organisms without error.

And here's Trotsky:

The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality 'A' is not equal to 'A'. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens—they are quite different from each other.

But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar—a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true—all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves.

A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself 'at any given moment'. Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this 'axiom', it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word 'moment'? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that 'moment' to inevitable changes. Or is the 'moment' a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom 'A' is equal to 'A' signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.

At first glance it could seem that these 'subtleties' are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom 'A' is equal to 'A' appears on one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom of 'A' is equal to 'A' with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in 'A' are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we consider the buying power of the dollar in the same way.

But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology...

Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers' state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which 'A' ceases to be 'A', a workers' state ceases to be a workers' state.

The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say 'a succulence' which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers' state in general, but a given workers' state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc.

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Free noise Marxism

Here's that rare thing, folks, a post from Muzzlehatch. He had to get me to paste the thing up here because his blogger membership has lapsed. Fill the comments boxes with demands that the man step further out of the shadows of retirement!

Comparing itself to ‘non-profit’ enterprises in the New Zealand music scene like Corpus Hermeticum and the early Flying Nun, The National Grid is a new magazine published by a bunch of arty Aucklanders who want ‘a space to speculate, critically enquire, research and explore graphic design issues within a New Zealand context.’ Maps pointed the zine out to me whilst we were trying to flog copies of brief at a local bookshop, and seeing as how it had an interview with one of the most intriguing figures in NZ's music/arts scene, free noise guru Bruce Russell, I bought it (let's face it: Maps wasn't about to buy it).

This second issue of the zine includes an overview of album stickers used on early Flying Nun records from the likes of The Tall Dwarfs, The Double Happys, Sneaky Feelings, and The Clean, and discusses in depth the DIY punk ethic that formed the basis for the music explosion that centred around Dunedin in the early 80’s.

There is a lengthy article about a new satellite town that is planned for North Canterbury. An artificially manufactured, self-contained settlement, complete with man-made lake, where leisure-orientated residents spend their time playing tennis and water-skiing (who thought it would happen here?), Pegasus Town is financed by National MP Bob 'my left testicle' Clarkson.

After a shortish piece by a local graphic artist who salvaged all the old team signs from the now-desolate rugby league stadium Carlaw Park and studied the synchronic/diachronic meanings of them, and a long interview with Russell, the zine finishes with the great man's essay 'Practical Materialism: Lesson Two; Thinking My Head to the Sky'. Here's an excerpt from Russell's musically slanted take on dialectical materialism:

Karl Marx had several very good ideas, all of which almost without exception have been willfully misunderstood and misappropriated since his death. His basic conception of a true materialist philosophy is one of these. Leaving aside the obfuscations of Engels (an untrustworthy guide to philosophy at the best of times), as well as those of his even less worthy successors, and one is left with a remarkably simple conception. Practical Materialism, as we may denote this ‘purely Marxian’ idea, conceives of an interaction between a fundamental material reality (qua Object) and sentient human actors possessing free will (qua Subject).

The peculiar genius of Marx lay in positing the locus of this interaction outside any imaginary philosophical construct of field of theoretical endeavour, instead he posited the ground of interaction as being work. In this way the subjective ‘thesis’ acts upon the objective ‘anti-thesis’ to produce an integrated ‘synthesis’ which represents a higher stage in the Hegelian dialectical triad. This organic union of theory and practice, posited on a ground of everyday life, he termed praxis.

.....Music is a remarkably pure artistic example of the total interdependence of theory and practice, because music (properly conceived) is not ‘about’ anything other than Time, the ultimate ground of all reality. Music is about the time it occupies, and the way we perceive that time, and situate ourselves in it. In a schematic way we may summarise it thusly:

({Music = Time} = {Time = Music})

More than that, as an artist, my concern is also with the process of making music, which unfolds within time. Further, as a theory-addict (self-conscious subject), I cannot help but think about the meaning of making music from the point of view of praxis. As soon as I began making my own music (as opposed to reproducing learnt routines in lessons), I became aware of the significance of improvisation as self-willed play. There is no intentional thinking about what one might do as an artist without doing, and no doing without thinking. Thus realtime improvisation becomes philosophically more fruitful than composition imagined as a separate activitiy. In the same way, the opposite is true, merely playing without conceiving of the activity in a mindful way is equally barren.

The trick is to unite the two in a ‘practical’ way, this to my way of thinking is analogous to ‘thinking your head to the sky’. Making music is an activitiy that is head-directed but body-realised, and the ‘trick’ is to make both ends of the equation hold up. This is something that cannot be made up (in the theoretical realm), it can only be worked out (in the realm of praxis).

Here's the place to go you want to read more, or look at handsome graphics, or even buy The National Grid .

Friday, February 23, 2007

In praise of error

This document has been inserted in the copies of brief #34 I've been mailing out this week:


1) ‘I would like to create a work that comes complete with missing parts’ - Samuel Beckett
2) ‘The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings’ - Heraclitus
3) ‘I didn’t study the proof copy because I wanted to go to the pub and watch Ross Taylor bat’ - Scott Hamilton

* ‘Bill’s Telescope’ (pgs 173-177) is a review of Bill Direen’s New Sea Land, which was published by Titus Books in 2006.
* ‘From First to Fourth Gear: Bill Direen’s Song of the Brakeman’ (pgs 178-181) was a talk given at the launch organised for said novel by Titus Books in the winter of 2006. Olwyn Stewart is mentioned in the talk because she was about to read a passage from the novel.
* The interruptions of ‘Rescuing the Typewriter’ (pgs 182-185) by variations of the phrase ‘_ather patronizingly’ must be considered the spontaneous interventions of a disaffected keyboard in the discourse of brief #34.

Ross Taylor is to blame for the perpetuation of all of these errors in your copy of brief #33, and for the failure to italicise book titles in all three above-mentioned texts. Please address all complaints to Black Caps management at info@nzcricket.org.nz
Alas, one can find errors in the errata sheet. A hiccup with the photocopiers meant that poor old Bill Direen's books still lack italicised titles, and I didn't really mean to blame Ross Taylor for the errors in brief #33 , which was at the printers this time last year.

Error seems to be inevitable, even in errata sheets. When Jack Ross was using the brief books imprint to publish a fine collection of Kendrick Smithyman's translations of Italian poems a couple of years ago, he too resorted to an errata sheet, only to commit new errors there.

Perhaps a little humility is called for in these matters? Alan Loney, the founding editor of brief back in the mid-90s, wrote a sequence of poems about the death of his father which ended with these lines:

he sd, he's sad, all sorts of
things about the house were
yet undone, he was too sick
to do them, that he had un-
finished business here. I told
him of a story a friend related
to me, of Navajo rug-makers
who include one false stitch in
an otherwise perfect pattern to
remind them it's not they who
are the gods. He sank back into
the bed a little, & sd, Is that so,
yeah, that's what I needed

Sometimes error seems not so much inevitable but advisable. brief #34 includes a one-page memoir of the World War Two years which Brett Cross rescued from the effects of his grandfather. 'Where did all those years go?' is the product of an old, confused man unused to putting pen to paper, and not surprisingly is filled with spelling mistakes and uncertain grammar. I chose to retain the errors, not because Ross Taylor was batting, but because I thought they said something about the story that contained them. 'Where did all those years go?' has a strange, dreamlike quality, as the walls between different registers of speech and different types of experience are brought down by that mixture of nostalgia and amnesia which seems to come with old age:

Florence was close just one hurdle to cross, then a sprint through ditches , and loosing the track. We where stranded until daylight, in a handy cellar. Bunkered down for the night. we heard the screaming of mortar bombs, and suddenly shrapnel was every where! I broke my arm, as well as sustaining serious cuts in the attack, and one of my companions was fatally wounded.

There followed a long stay in hospital in Bali. I was there for five months - along wait to return to combat.

A game of football- a half back short, so on I go. A quick pass, two passes on a sidestep, some away. The centre, Johnny Smith was a lithe panther, a joy to watch and a name to appear in the future!

There is one error in 'Where did all those years go?' which I find particularly moving:

the war had finished. How lucky we considered ourself to be!

Footnote: I find I've made yet another error by putting a picture of a Hopi rather than a Navajo rug at the top of this post.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On the level

It had to happen: a representative of the Flat Earth Society, which takes the Bible literally and regards the Moon landings and all other expeditions into space as part of a grand conspiracy of lies, has washed up on this blog (see the comments here). When he's done giving the 9/11 conspiracy theorists what they deserve, maybe George Monbiot can set his sites on winning $5,000 from the estate of Wilbur Voliva. Given the defence of the flat earth thesis mounted by Voliva's successor Charles Johnson, whose wife came from that cricketing minnow Australia, Kiwis might have a role to play in bolstering Monbiot's arguments:

"Marjory has always known that the earth is flat, too," says Charles Johnson. "As far as she knew, everybody in Australia knew it. She was rather shocked when she arrived here and found people speaking of Australia as being 'down under.' It really offended her. She would get in quite heated arguments with people who seemed to accuse her of coming from down under the world." Ultimately, Marjory Johnson swore in an affidavit that she had never hung by her feet in Australia.
After last night's game of cricket, though, I am inclined to coin a new conspiracy theory. Surely someone is rigging these things?

Monday, February 19, 2007

brief goes to war

A mere ten months after its conception, the 188 page 'War' issue of brief is on its way out into the world. The front and back covers of brief #34 feature Ellen Portch's extraordinary portraits of George Bush jr and Saddam Hussein. The butcher of Baghdad and the Texan bomber were two of the unsavoury politicians featured in a disturbing and much-discussed exhibition Ellen mounted at the University of Auckland's Old Government House last year.

Issue #34 kicks off with a sadly prophetic leaflet distributed by the Direct Anti-War Action group at Whenuapai Air Base in 2003, then devotes thirty pages to Leicester Kyle, the retired Anglican vicar, botanist, environmental campaigner, and poet who died of cancer last July. Jack Ross remembers Leicester as a close personal friend and keen contributor to enterprises like brief; I survey the extraordinary body of writing the good vicar produced in his short writing life; Richard Taylor recalls Leicester the scientist; fellow anti-mining activist Pete Lusk reveals the impact Leicester made on the West Coast, after moving there at the end of nineties, and marvels at the old boy's ability to read all the way through Engels' Anti-Duhring. Together with three previously unpublished Leicester Kyle poems and the contents page for issue #34, these tributes have been posted on the Titus Books website.

The anti-war theme is picked up by veteran trade unionist and rest home rocker Don Franks, who reproduces and ridicules Vincent O'Sullivan's sententious state-commissioned tribute to New Zealand's 'Unknown Soldier'. Bill Direen echoes some of Don's arguments in his short essay 'Rights of the Unknown Writer', which reveals that the Governor General of New Zealand used one of the texts of the 'Marxist sympathiser and utopian anti-imperialist' John Mulgan at the 2004 ceremony to open the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Wellington. Perhaps remembering the long essay on Mulgan that Dave Bedggood contributed to the previous issue of brief, Bill points out the absurdity of the Queen's representative in New Zealand appropriating the work of an ardent anti-monarchist. Olivia Macassey's 'Pick Up Sticks', which was first published on the Poets Against War website, offers a similarly sceptical view of the assumptions behind formal and less formal commemorations of war by Kiwis:

They say
you exchanged blood for blood and mud
for the glum mud of the Waikato, and stilled
your tongue beside the waters.
Now heedless youths drink beer in the Turkish sun,
watch it gild their skin, and believe
that false old alchemy.

In two e mails composed on September the 11th, 2001, New York poet Charles Bernstein registers the impact of the event that has come to signify the beginning of the 'War on Terror':

all of a sudden tonight the smell of burning plastic pervades our apartment, making eyes smart. is it something in the building? no, a neighbour explains, that's the smell coming from downtown.

Writing from Christchurch, Sugu Pillay offers an equally personal response in her poem 'Nine Eleven and Me'. The atrocities of 9/11 triggered an extraordinary debate on the US-based international 'Buffalo Poetics' e list, as avant-garde guru and long-time left-wing activist Ron Silliman shocked many of his admirers by urging support for a retaliatory war in the Middle East. brief #34 reproduces Silliman's argument for the invasion of Afghanistan, as well as Barrett Watten's powerful reply. We also give space to 'War=Language', a text Watten read at a protest against the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In their different ways, Richard von Sturmer, Kendrick Smithyman, Kathy Dudding and Brett Cross all offer the sort of historical context that Silliman's warmongering so sadly lacked. Von Sturmer's poem-sequence 'Old Ez' examines Ezra Pound's tragicomic support for fascism during the Second World War; Dudding and Cross present documents from family members who lived through World Wars; and three pieces pinched from the posthumous Collected Poems of Smithyman take us back even further, to the British army's war of conquest against the Waikato Kingdom in 1863 and '64. My poem 'Private Gurney' explores the madness of a great war poet in a less historically responsible manner.

The centrepiece of brief #34 is 'San Toni', a previously-unpublished short story by Greville Texidor, an anarchist refugee from the war against fascism in Spain who spent most of the 1940s as an unhappy resident of Auckland's North Shore.
'San Toni', which is grounded in Texidor's wartime experiences, has been excavated from Texidor's papers and given a long and insightful introduction by Evelyn Hulse.
A short quote should make it clear that Texidor's story is of literary as well as historical interest:

The river or the ridge? Time yet to decide. No decision to make. For either way it ended in the village. To see and not to be seen? In the village where every face is known. Where every name is known. His own name had been in the mouth of the village in the glorious days of thirty-six.
Sweating he descended steadily by rocks hot in the sun, seeing out the corner of his eye the pale peak. He had climbed it once. It was green and inviting and there was a pocket of snow near the summit. He wanted to see what made it stay all summer. It blazed like a beacon. From any point near the village you looked up and it caught the eye. But when he got there it was only a dirty patch, no larger than a woman's petticoat.

Issue #34 also features a number of writers who do not touch directly on the subject of war. In a sprawling prose poem called '/cities.33' Michael Arnold continues his visionary exploration of modern China; Hamish Dewe, another exile in Beijing, offers a more jaundiced and pithier take on life in the world's next superpower. Writing from the University of Malawi, classicist and wanderlust Ted Jenner mixes translations from the fragments of Archilochus with memories of life on two very different continents. At the back of the issue I've managed to cram in reviews of work by Bill Direen and Will-Joy Christie that were shamelessly cribbed from the blog. (Apologies in advance for the sloppy failure to re-italicise book titles, after the pieces were copied and pasted from the net: I was keen to get to the pub and watch Ross Taylor bat.)

With issue #34 out of the way, I'm handing the reins of brief over to Brett Cross, who has already established a reputation as an editor through his work with Titus Books. Brett promises better promotion, speedier publication, and more music. If you're after a copy of issue #34 or a subscription for the next three issues, then you can e mail him at: graull@snap.net.nz

Copernicus unmasked

And you thought it was just global warming and the theory of evolution that were under siege from the enlightened politicians of the good ol' US of A? Ben Bridges, a Georgia State Representative, has fired a round at Darwin, reloaded, and taken a pop at that Jewish commie heretic Copernicus. A letter recently circulated under Bridges' name argues that the view that the earth orbits the sun is, like Darwinism, the product of a two thousand year old conspiracy:

"Indisputable evidence — long hidden but now available to everyone — demonstrates conclusively that so-called ‘secular evolution science’ is the Big-Bang 15-billion-year alternate ‘creation scenario’ of the Pharisee Religion,” reads the letter that went out under Bridges' name. “This scenario is derived concept-for-concept from Rabbinic writings in the mystic ‘holy book’ Kabbala dating back at least two millennia.”

Barnes' memo pointed fellow state legislators to the information at fixedearth.com which rails against “a mystic, anti-Christ ‘holy book’ of the Pharisee Sect of Judaism” and claims that “the earth is not rotating … nor is it going around the sun.” They've even caught on to the "centuries-old conspiracy" on the part of Jewish physicists to destroy Christianity.

Bridges doesn't appear to have written the letter, but he's not prepared to disagree with it:

Asked if he agreed with the Kaballah evolution conspiracy theory and the earth's lack of motion, he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “I agree with it more than I would the Big Bang Theory or the Darwin Theory. I am convinced that rather than risk teaching a lie why teach anything?”

Aren't you pleased that Bridges' party is fighting wars for secularism in the Middle East?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A room full of thistles

There was a character in (I think, it was a long time ago) Crime and Punishment who worried that it might not be worth becoming a good and pious man and ascending to heaven after death: what if, after all that hard work and self-abnegation, heaven turned out to be nothing but a room filled with cobwebs?

Motukaraka Island lies like a dream off the southeast coast of Auckland, oblivious to the steady ugly sprawl of concrete and mortar mortgagee suburbs with pastoral names like Botany Downs. The island is flat and ringed with big pohutakawa trees, so that its interior can't be seen from the coast. I'd always imagined a heaven of long wavy grass, tall native trees dotted around strategically for shade, and the odd gas-fired barbecue.

Alas, after a long lowtide walk across hot shells and slippery mudflats, Motukaraka was found to consist of head-high, leering, purple-eyed thistles and impenetrable shrubs. Bring your own machete, and leave a trail of crumbs.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dialectics, South Auckland style

Dialectical sentences

Paul Hill of The Rotten Elements has posted a defence of the 'dialectical' prose style Adorno learned from Karl Kraus, along with a sentence which exemplifies this style. Frankly, the sentence reminds me of the bowling of legendary Black Cap Chris Harris, who has just missed out on selection for what would have been his fifth World Cup. Harris, who must be pushing forty by now, was decribed by one commentator as 'bowling so slowly that he passed his own delivery in his follow-through'.

Here are my nominations for best dialectical sentence:

The straw that broke the camel's back
(source: pop. proverb, supposedly relating to Richard Taylor's 'accident' on the jungle gym at Panmure Park)

I don't wanna get stoned, I don't wanna not get stoned
(source: Evan Dando)

Show me all the mysteries of the world, and get me home in time for tea
(source: George Harrison)

One does not step into the same river once
(source: Cratylus)

Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling
(source: TE Hulme)

The downpour outside: the ladybirds in the museums
(source: Arthur Cravan)

Heraclitus was only talking about rivers,
or about when a shallow creek running over stone
begins to think that it’s a river.
(Source: Kendrick Smithyman)

Put your own nominations in the comments box.

For the best introduction to dialectics in English or any other known language, go here. Trotsky is also worth reading:

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Out of retirement

Karl Marx came off the bench, or out of retirement, to contribute to this debate in a comments box at Dave Osler's blog. Do the old man's references to the 1857 Indian 'Mutiny' - really the first Indian War of Independence - against British imperialism make him part of the terrorist-loving left? Oh well...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Looking east

This is the view I've had for the last four days. Skyler and I are housesitting on a property that sits on, or rather falls down, one of the ridges that run off the city side of the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland.

In The Ideal Society and its Enemies, his revisionist history of New Zealand, Miles Fairburn argues that Kiwis have historically been fixated on winning a 'competency' - that is, a perceived independence from the rest of society, expressed in the form of a block of land. Even when the dream of a nation of cow cocky yeomen on twenty acre blocks carved out of the bush faded, and New Zealand became one of the most urbanised societies in the world, the desire for a 'competency' remained. Fairburn argues that the first Labour government's state housing programme only became a roaring success in the 1930s because the houses were set on quarter acre blocks, where vege gardens - mini-farms where the urbanised Kiwi male could take his shirt off, dig his spade in and maintain his rugged masculine independence - could be established. Today the 'lifestyle block' is increasingly popular, and the fringes of West and South Auckland are full of five and ten acre 'farms' stocked with one two horses or cows.

The competency of Skyler's friends includes a piece of flat ridgetop land just large enough for a house, garage, and dog kennel, and ten very steep acres acres where native bush is rebuilding itself over the ruins of a radiata pine plantation. The gorse has been brought under control, manuka and kanuka - small, hardy, fast-growing trees that are the vanguard of the native forest - have moved in, and a few fern trees and nikau palms are establishing a skyline.

It's pushing thirty degrees, the cicadas are tuning up, and I'm about to take the dog for a walk into a trackless corner of the property where the trunks of massive pine trees - harvested but never trucked out - are supposed to be piled. If I don't come back...

Footnote: I said 'estate' instead of 'competency' in the first version of this post. My apologies to comrade Fairburn...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ranting about Adorno

The Yorkshire Ranter has dipped his oar into the debate about Adorno and left politics. I can't find a way of linking to his post directly, so I've reproduced it here. If you're wondering who this Adorno fella was and why people get so het up about him, there's a five minute introduction here, and big page of links to online material here. There's even a link to a scholarly essay on Theodor Adorno and Heavy Metal...

The Ranter writes:

Following an unexpected referral to this blog, I came to this discussion of Theodor Adorno. Well, that takes me back. I remember having reams of him stuffed down my neck at Vienna University in the winter of 2001, which I didn't like in the least. I certainly didn't like the cult of personality some people surrounded him with, (I remember one painfully well-brought up student punk who went around with "Glückliche Sklaven sind die Feinde der erbitterteren Freiheit" scrawled on his tastefully ripped shirt) and I didn't think much of his books.

So I'm immensely amused by this tale of how he reacted to the student movement of 1968, when a group of his students at the Institut für Sozialforschung decided to occupy the place. Specifically, he called the cops, like any good Ordinarius faced with a buncha dirty hippies. Scheißkritische Theoretiker!, (Shitty critical theorists!) howled the leader of a demo as the riot squad dragged him away past Adorno's office.

Wonderfully, having insisted on pressing charges against the advice of Jürgen Habermas, ever the most reasonable of the Frankfurt Schoolies, Adorno didn't bother to give evidence against the guy because it would have interrupted his summer holidays. I can't help imagining him - trudging up an alp? in lederhosen? sunning himself on the white beaches of Sylt? - surrounded by the Daimler-Benz executives and senior civil servants he excoriated as bearers of faschistische Kontinuität, whilst the case he insisted on bringing against the student he set the cops on collapsed for want of his testimony.

It's always interesting to watch somebody confronted with their own utopia, and Adorno's ferocious assaults on authority could really only be read by a 60s German student as a savage critique of the old-fashioned professoriat's authoritarianism and pomposity. He even made use of this trope in his own work - I think it's Erziehung zur Mündigkeit in which he boasts that when he returned from exile, there were still students at Frankfurt who clicked their heels when they spoke to an academic, and now look at them! That was written some years after his experience on the receiving end of his own principles, so clearly he re-evaluated somewhat, or at least he recovered his composure.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The case for Adorno

Reproduced below is a comment that a member of The Rotten Elements group left under my first post on Adorno.

I was bemused by the reaction to that post from some of the rotters, because I didn't consider that my piece was even addressing, let alone writing off, Adorno's thought as a whole. I was only discussing his late essay 'On Resignation' and the political context surrounding it. I consider that the arguments of 'On Resignation' were bad ones, especially amidst the turmoil, euphoria, and occasional openings for revolutionary change in late '60s Europe, and I think that Adorno's treatment of his radical students during that period was pretty shabby.

(At the same time, I think the way that some radical students dealt with Adorno was problematic - I noted how easily their apparently anti-academic stunts were assimilated by a rightward-shifting intelligentsia in the late '70s and '80s. Perry Anderson tells the story well.)

I don't see how any consideration of Adorno's career and work can avoid grappling with the mistakes he made in the late '60s and the repudiation of left-wing politics that is part and parcel of 'On Resignation'.

But to say this is not to say that all of Adorno's work is ipso facto worthless. If we were to use that sort of reductionist logic we'd have to write off everything Lukacs wrote because of his complicity with Hungarian Stalinism, or dismiss The Revolution Betrayed on the grounds that its author once advocated the militarisation of labour, or shun the profound insights of Marx's late writing on the Russian peasant commune because of the nasty footnote he inserted in (and later excised from) Capital to celebrate the ongoing destruction of Russian peasant life by foreign capital. I tried to make it clear in my second post on Adorno that I think we have to relate the politics and political behaviour of a writer to that writer's work, without dissolving one into the other.

Phew. Now that's out of the way, here's an argument for Adorno:

Fuck me Maps, this is awful.

Without Adorno, the rotten elements would not exist. Look at our December 'second coming of the rotten elements', the guy in the swimsuit. Who's that then? Yep you guessed, the 20th century's most radical of interlocutor of 'the object'. Objectfied. Yes we make a monkey out of him but we make monkeys out of everyone.

To me personally, the man's a saint. I'll tell you why. 2001 and I'm being drowned in a relentless tide of Socialist Alliance activism, where everything's joined up, all the same. A world where you couldn't express a difference; a contradiction. Where the circulation of activism is fed not by money by an exchange of enthusiasms and 'things done'. This is the end of thinking.

And the CPGB were doing the same. They had there own universal equivalent=democracy. Do the SA stuff and talk about 'democracy'. I am a democrat but this is democracy depleted and bereft of any foundation.

Imagine my delight to find a book that debunked this methodology of bad totalities hastened along by bad activism and bad ideology. They were 'mad', not me. That allowed me to unpick the formal logic of the left and actually understand Marx's project away from some uninteresting rubbish about crisis theory. That book was Negative Dialectics and the writer was Adorno.

Effectively, you are lining yourself up with 'activity' without thought. Activity can only be effective if it contains its own critique. Thus, Adorno is right, you should never realise 'activity' or objectify it. It should always be on the point of collapse, of being dragged back into introspection, resignation maybe. Otherwise it just becomes a 'thing' that you do, that takes on its own life and cannot be liberatory in any sense. it becomes another bad totality that we all have to fit into (for example, British demos, even the million-strong have been a lifeless doze recently; they are an object, a routine, completely reified).

Without Adorno we're fucked, I'm telling you…

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Beyond the Treaty

Commenting in the aftermath of this week's controversies over the Maori flag, Maia at the popular Capitalism bad; tree pretty blog has linked to a Communist Workers Group leaflet which I posted on this blog last February. Maia agrees with the leaflet's argument that the Treaty was an essentially fraduluent document, designed to facilitate the theft of Maori land, but she adds a caveat:

The CWG seem to be implying that this must mean that Maori should not organise around treaty grievances. I don't think that follows - I think powerless people can claim their rights under the current legal system, even if they're are entitled to much more. But even if I did agree in principle, the most basic right to self-determination is the right to determine your struggle. It is not up to me, the CWG, or any other Pakeha to direct the Maori movement for self-determination.

I don't think the CWG would disagree with anything Maia says in her post. I certainly wouldn't. We certainly should be on the side of Maori campaigners when they take on the discrimination and try to reverse the legacy of colonialism, regardless of the languages and symbols these campaigners use. We must also respect the right of Maori to organise amongst themselves and make their own decisions about the precise form that tino rangatiratanga takes.

I remember arguing with a couple of holier than thou self-proclaimed Marxists a few years back about the occupation of land at Ngawha slated for a new prison. The 'Marxists', who happened to be postgrad students at a flash university, said that they couldn't support the occupation, because some of its spokespeople had talked about 'backward' ideas like the existence of a taniwha under the proposed prison site.

To me this sort of attitude is no better than run of the mill right-wing bigotry. How are indigenous people living in poor rural areas without access to the fancy libraries and internet servers uni-educated Marxists take for granted supposed to understand the world? Do they have to quote from Das Kapital before we support them?

There's a division amongst Marxists over what attitude to take toward indigenous peoples fighting to save wholly or partly pre-capitalist societies from 'development' at the hands of imperialism. There are those who, usually under the influence of Stalinism or some sort of Fabianism, look back to the first section of The Communist Manifesto, where the young Marx praises capitalism as a liberatory force dragging societies out of feudal bondage, and give the thumbs up to the multinational companies clearing Amazonian rain forest or putting small farmers in India out of business with copyrighted seeds.

There are others who remember that the world has changed since 1848, and that even Marx radically reformed his attitudes toward pre-capitalist societies after he took the time to study the Iroquois Federation and (especially) the Russian peasant commune in the last decade of his life. In his late writing on Russia, some of which was deliberately suppressed by the leadership of the terminally imperiocentric Second International, Marx argued that pre-capitalist social forms like the peasant commune did not have to be destroyed by imperialism in the name of 'progress'; instead, they could become the basis for a new, socialist society.

The tradition that I belong to argues that, far from simply collapsing in the face of the 'superior' social system brought by the British, Maori fused elements of capitalism with elements of their own traditional society to create a new 'Polynesian mode of production'. In places like the Waikato Kingdom and (later, on a smaller scale) Parihaka, Maori established a thriving market gardening economy that combined collective ownership of land and collective labour with capitalist laws and deamnd and supply. The Waikato war was begun by Pakeha colonists frustrated by the success of the Polynesian mode of production. They were sick of sitting in Auckland shelling out for the food that Maori were producing in huge quantities with their cultivations and flour mills.

Elements of the Polynesian mode of production still survive - think of the collective nature of much Maori land ownership, which drives both Pakeha bankers and iwicorp capitalists wild - and the memory of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka still inspires both Maori and Pakeha lefties. Owen Gager has written about the Polynesian mode of production here, in a small book whose powerful arguments are marred by some pointless sectariana which today looks old-fashioned. I've written a little bit about Parihka and its predecessors here, and I've described the role the French theorist Louis Althusser played in helping Kiwi Marxists escape the legacy of Stalinism and develop a real analysis of Maori history here.

The CWG and others in the tradition I've been describing believe that if Maori are to reverse the legacy of colonialism by winning back stolen lands and reclaiming their old economic power they have to make alliances with ordinary Kiwis of other races. We think that, whatever their race and culture, working class Kiwis have an interest in wresting control of their country's resources and economy from the American imperialists and the caste of local capitalists who control these resources and run our economy for the benefit of international capital.

What does this mean in practice? On the seabed and foreshore hikoi the CWG and a number of other socialist groups and individuals distributed leaflets and made speeches calling for Maori and non-Maori working class supporters to occupy the foreshore, using the Bastion Point occupation as a model. We wanted to see the resources of the seabed and foreshore paced under the control of ordinary Kiwis, and used for the benefit of ordinary Kiwis, rather than confiscated by the state and leased to multinational companies for ironsand mining or luxury resorts.

Most Maori are only likely to come to the view that class-based politics are part of the solution to their problems if they see socialists bringing working class Pakeha along to events like the seabed and foreshore hikoi and the Ngawha occupation. That's why the CWG and other groups and individuals with the same views tried hard to build support in the big trade unions for the hikoi.

We didn't succeed in getting large numbers of Pakeha trade unionists to join the hikoi, but examples like the Bastion Point struggle show that working class Pakeha can come to the side of Maori. In 1937 the Marxist poet RAK Mason pulled workers off building sites around Auckland and got them down to Okahu Bay, at the bottom of Bastion Point, where they erected palisades around an 'illegal' Ngati Whatua village threatened with destruction by the government.

The village at Okahu Bay would not be demolished until 1953, after the power of the militant trade unions had been broken by the Holland government's imposition of a police state. In the 1970s, when Ngati Whatua began to organise to win back Bastion Point, they soon found widespread trade union support. When the Muldoon government brought in the army to demolish the protest village Nagti Whatua had built on Bastion Point tens of thousands of workers of all races walked off the job around Auckland in a wildcat strike. Muldoon had to use soldiers to dismantle the village because no construction worker in Auckland would touch Bastion Point. Socialist and trade union support had a lot to do with the eventual victory of Ngati Whatua in the late '80s.

Of course, battles like the one at Bastion Point were conducted on a relatively small scale. To find large-scale examples of the fusion of socialism and the fight for indigenous rights we have to look overseas. I believe that the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela offers some good examples of the way that the struggle against imperialism and for workers' interests can be combined with the struggle for the interests of indigenous peoples. (Not that the process is without its difficulties, of course. We cannot afford to follow any foreign model slavishly.)

Adorno in a condom

A few years ago an industrious agent provocateur put a statuette of the Virgin Mary inside a condom and exhibited it at Te Papa National Gallery in Wellington. Predictably, a bunch of right-wing Catholics were soon protesting outside the gallery, demanding that the exhibit be withdrawn, or better still publically destroyed. These sensitive souls hadn't seen the artwork, let alone objected to it on aesthetic grounds - they were simply repelled by the idea of dear old Mary being juxtaposed with something as loathsomely modern and secular as a condom. The purity of the idol had to be preserved.

It's not only Catholics who resent the mistreatment of their idols. Back at Drury Primary School I nearly got beaten up by the standard two bully when I refused to recant certain solemn truths I had learned from Return of the Jedi. When the bully saw the film a couple of weeks later he had to concede that, yes, Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker's father, and find another excuse to pick on me. It's tough being a witness to The Truth.

Now two sensitive flowers over at The Rotten Elements blog have taken umbrage at my clumsy attempts to suggest that Theodor Adorno might have ended up being a little, you know, right-wing. Neither Vivian Bolus * nor Zak Bickerstaff mentions the Adorno essay I discussed to make my case; their interest is not in discussing the ebb and flow of the great man's political opinions, but in constructing a cordon sanitaire around his Masterpieces. The very notion that the sonorous abstractions of Minima Moralia and The Dialectic of Enlightenment might be juxtaposed with anything as coarse as the elderly Adorno's support for Israel during the Six Day War or his use of the cops to deal with student indiscipline strikes Viv and Zak as unforgivably 'Stalinoid'. Putting Teddy next to politics is as sacreligious as suffocating dear old Mary in that nasty condom. The purity of the idol must be preserved.

I went back and had a look at a bit of Adorno's late writing yesterday: I hadn't read 'On Resignation' for years, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the posts which regularly grace the blogs of Norm Geras and certain other ex-Marxists who have passed through apathy and resignation to an occasionally grumpy acceptance of the status quo of capitalism and pax Americana. A comparison can also be made to the 'MacSpaunday' generation of disillusioned lefty poets whom EP Thompson brilliantly diagnosed in his essay 'Outside the Whale'. If you give up entirely on trying to connect your revolutionary theory to an unfriendly reality, and postpone the advent of socialism until some distant future, then you face a choice between a) apathy and b) support for the status quo as the best show currently in town. Like the MacSpaundays and today's breed of Eustonite keyboard warriors, Adorno seems to have passed with a minimum of fuss from a) to b).

Teddy Adorno never went as far as his old mate Max Horkheimer, who hailed the US war in Vietnam as a necessary exercise in the containment of Eastern barbarism, but he did labour under a very favourable opinion of American and Israeli foreign policy in his final years. He thought that Germans ought to support NATO out of gratitude for what the US had done in World War Two, and he supported Israel in the war of 1967 using arguments that would do the Henry Jackson Society proud today. Vivian Bolus got all cranky when I mentioned the name Harry Cleaver in my original post on Adorno, but Cleaver was right to think that it's a strange sort of revolutionary theorist who calls the cops to drag away his students when they do something he disagrees with. The unpleasant turn in Adorno's politics doesn't automatically invalidate his thinking - it may even be irrelevant to his best ideas - but it does at least have to be taken seriously.

But Zak and Viv don't really want to discuss anything as prosaic as Adorno's politics; they want to put an anathema on attempts to link politics to the ineffable worlds of Theory and the Arts. Those who ignore this anathema are simply Stalinists who want to reduce all writing to the statement of facts. Haven't we heard this argument before? Alas, comrades, I still have the same vulgarly Stalinist views I expressed then:

Many of the commenters on this blog have a tendency to try to wall 'art' off from 'life', by insisting that an artist's political opinions and behaviour, and the political context in which their work is received and used, should not interfere with judgements of their work. I can understand that this desire to wall off art and politics might be prompted by a distaste for the conception of art as propaganda, and for simplistic political readings of complex works of art like, say, Eliot's poems.

The trouble is that if we treat art as basically autonomous from politics we actually accept the schema of the reductionists who want all art to be propaganda. Whether they are Stalinists or right-wing philistines and moralists, they typically divide art into 'self-indulgent' stuff, ie 'weird' or 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' stuff they can't easily reduce to a simple political message, and 'good' or 'conscious' or 'wholesome' stuff, ie simplistic propaganda. They dismiss the supposedly self-indulgent stuff as basically a bourgeois/decadent bohemian luxury with little relevance to the lives of ordinary people in the real world. If we celebrate, say, the poems of Eliot as autonomous works of art unaffected by the life and politics of their author then we are in danger of accepting that Eliot has nothing to say about anything but poetry - we are in danger of saying that reading him is an escape from things like politics into a different world, the world of Literature.

I think that the extremes of art as propaganda and art as escape are both dead ends. What we need to do is relate art to the real world it springs from, without reducing it to a simple reflection of or commentary upon that world.And I don't think my comments here have been too reductionist - if I were only interested in judging people's art by the standards of their politics, then I'd be lumping Eliot in with Tolkien as a bad writer, not defending him as a genius.

*As an aside, Vivian, what makes you to think Adorno would dig The Rotten Elements, let alone Velimir Khlebnikov and Arthur Cravan? He would detest you, in the same way he detested that freewheeling, pop culture referencing chaotic 'Negro' jazz. Trotsky in his Mexico period would be a better bet, if you want a famous dead Marxist patron.

Newsflash: Debonair corporate shark in temper tantrum!

Read the background here.

From: C___ W___
Sent: Thursday, 8 February 2007 6:13 p.m.
To: Palmer, John - Chairman; Fyfe, Rob
Subject: Stop the cuts and outsourcing at Air NZ

The intention to outsource and contract out over 1,800 jobs at Air New Zealand to try and destroy unions there are the tactics of corporate bullies. Workers' livelihoods will be destroyed while highly paid corporate managers will be left to manage third party contracts with foreign companies whose employees will be paid far less. These companies will make their profits by effectively taking the pay of the existing workers, and distributing it to their wealthy foreign private shareholders. We demand that you halt these plans and respect the union rights of your employees.

C____ W_____

New Zealand

Dear C_____,

I am not aware of ever having met you and am not sure on what basis you are personally attacking me and labelling me a bully - an allegation I take seriously, particularly when published in an email.

Your email demonstrates a lack of understanding of the issues we are grappling with at Air New Zealand and it is identical to emails I have received from a number of other parties and is obviously therefore a form email. That you have not even had sufficient interest to add some original content to your email reflects little credibility on your demands which incidentally do nothing to advance the case of our
employees or the issues we are grappling with.

Yours sincerely . . . Rob Fyfe

Friday, February 09, 2007

The face in the barracks wall

This photo shows the last surviving piece of the old city walls of Auckland wriggling across the University of Auckland campus and cutting the general library off from the commerce department. The Albert Barracks Wall was built by British soldiers between 1846 and 1850, as a defence against possible Maori attack in the aftermath of the 'Northern War' of 1845-46. The attack never came, and the twenty-odd acres of barracks enclosed by the octagonal fortification are now given over to office blocks, parkland, and snotty-nosed undergraduates.

The remaining section of the wall covers no more than fifty metres, and was long ago colonised by several species of weed. More curiously, a gargoyle seems to have grown from the ancient stones:

Does anybody want to own up?

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Today, the idea of storing sound recordings on the internet seems positively old-fashioned. The development of pooter technology and the success of youtube and similar sites means that we expect to see as well as hear musical performances, news clips, and even speeches and poetry readings when we going looking for them online. Unless you're an ageing hippy wanting to access that collection of Grateful Dead concert recordings, the vast audio storehouse at the internetarchive.org site must seem a little anachronistic. And, let's be honest, even in the days before youtube and its ilk we probably would have struggled to find a use for crackly recordings of Bill Clinton's golf tips.

None of this should be news, of course: it's around fifty years since the new-fangled medium of TV trounced radio to become the number one vehicle for entertainment and news in Western countries. The eye is the most powerful of our senses, and sound with pictures will always be more accessible and popular than sound alone. Why, then, have I spent half an hour a day for the last month furiously downloading sound-only recordings from internetarchive.org? Maybe I'm just perverse, but I think that sound-only recordings have something unique and mysterious about them. Because we can't see the visual corollary of what we're hearing, we have to become collaborators, conjuring images out of our imaginations.

I'm particularly interested by the hundreds of field recordings which have been posted to the internetarchive site. After a click of the mouse and a quick download one can listen to the sound of rain on a tin roof in Ulan Bator, or a taxi honking its horn in New York, or small talk in a bar in Sydney. What motivates the people who make and circulate these recordings? Are they on some dogged and quixotic mission to document the world around them? Is there some unexplained significance to the seemingly random content of most of what they post?

Over the past year or so, Grant Finlay has submitted scores of field recordings made around New Zealand to the internetarchive.org site. Finlay's subject matter varies from the waves on lonely beaches to torrential West Coast rain to the sounds of suburban Auckland. Finlay's techniques are almost childlike in their simplicity: he will leave a tape rolling in his drive before taking his morning run, then listen back to it when he returns, or carry a dichtaphone with him while he walks some forest trail. If there is artifice in his recordings, it comes from the frame he gives them - that is, from the locations in time and space where he chooses to start and stop the tape rolling.

If Finlay's recordings have a precursor, it might be the school of 'long shot' film-making pioneered in Britain and then New Zealand by Darcy Lange. Lange was a socialist with a long history of involvement in the union movement, and he made extremely simple films that recorded snatches of the lives of workers and their communities. Lange made one of his best-known films by leaving a camera in a forest clearing and letting it record, in a single soundless black and white shot that lasted something like ten minutes, the chainsawing of a native pine. In this simple way Lange managed both to celebrate the work of a logging team in the New Zealand backblocks and to mutely protest the destruction of a small piece of his adopted country's natural heritage.

Because they exist only in sound, Finlay's recordings are more challenging than 'long shot' films. By depriving us of all visual information, Finlay makes locations like suburban Auckland or a deserted beach seem both achingly familiar and strange and distant. Listening to his recordings is like playing blind man's bluff: we reach out for something we know is there, but cannot quite locate.

Unlike Lange's films, Finlay's recordings lack an obvious agenda. Perhaps they ask us simply to listen to what is around with more care than usual. By listening more carefully, we may discover new aspects in what seemed familiar. My favourite Finlay recording was made on Waharau Ridge Track in the Hunua Ranges south of Auckland.

I've walked Waharau Ridge Track many times, but it has never sounded quite like Finlay's recording. I remember the voices of other hikers, the occasional chiming of a tui in the branches above me, and the burbling of Waharau Stream, as it flowed down through stands of regenerated native bush into the bright blue waters of the Firth of Thames. Finlay's recording, though, is largely given over to the voices of insects, and cicadas in particular. Finlay reminds us that, at this time of the year at least, it is the shrill, harsh, yet subtly varied sound of cicadas, and not a burbling stream or picturesque native bird, which provides the undersong of the New Zealand bush.

Listening to Finlay's recording of the Waharau Ridge Track, I was reminded of a WS Merwin poem 'To the Insects', which begins with the lines:

we have ignored you
destroyed you
millions upon millions of times
with chemicals with fire with indifference

Merwin sees insects as a reminder of a pre-human natural order and, depressed by our inability to exercise responsible guardianship over the environment, he imagines insects continuing to exist after we have disappeared from the earth:

leaving you the dawn
in its antiquity

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Not quite Che

Let's face it: nobody is ever going to print a T shirt with the image of Theodor Adorno on it. And with their dense page-long paragraphs soaked in philosophical verbiage, Adorno's texts are almost dour as his looks. If you're looking to make Marxism sexy, you'd be better advised to cast an eye on the visages and orations of Che Guevara or Hugo Chavez. Theodor has been getting a very hard time on The Rotten Elements blog these past few days, so I thought I'd get on the bandwagon and post this little essay, written years ago from some obscure necessity. I like to read biographies and volumes of Complete Works backwards - it gets the disappointment out of the way - so I don't hesitate to recommend 'On Resignation' as a first port of call for those wanting to journey around the Adorno canon.

Theodor Adorno, ‘On Resignation’. Translated by Henry W. Pickford, published in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998.

About the time that he wrote ‘On Resignation’, Theodor Adorno’s long career as a lecturer at Frankfurt University was ended abruptly by an incident which has become iconic. Several bare-breasted female members of the Socialist Students’ Union, or SDS, rushed the lectern from which the patriach of negative dialectics was discoursing and proceeded to ‘assault’ him with ‘carresses’. Humiliated and angry, Adorno left the stage to the SDS militants, who promptly announced that his "sexist" philosophy was "dead". A mere three months later Adorno himself would be dead, the victim of a timely heart attack.

The ‘assault’ of 1969 was only the most dramatic of a series of expressions of hostility to Adorno which issued from a new generation of German students determined to bring their sometimes peculiar notions of class struggle into the Academy. That ‘On Resignation’ is written to these students is made clear in its opening sentences:

We older representatives of what the name "Frankfurt School" has come to designate have recently and eagerly been accused of resignation. We had indeed developed elements of a critical theory of society, the accusation runs, but we were not ready to draw the practical conclusions from it.

In this, one of his very last essays, Adorno determinedly but somewhat gloomily counterposes, to the ‘pseudo-activism’ of his tormentors, a sort of quietistic ‘thinking’ which alone constitutes an effective response to the barbarities of modern life:

The utopian moment in thinking is stronger the less it – this too a form of relapse – objectifies itself into a utopia and hence sabotages realisation.

It is interesting, reading this essay, to note the changes in the texture of Adorno’s prose, changes which were presumably forced by the pressure of rebellious students. Nowhere in ‘On Resignation’ does the reader meet the winding sentences and page-long paragraphs associated with the Frankfurt School’s most famous writer. Instead, shorter, crisper, sentences marked more by bitterness than irony carry Adorno’s argument that true resignation may be found more surely in action than in ‘thought’:

The impatience with theory which manifests itself in its [anarchism’s] return does not advance thought beyond itself. By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it.

Despite its simplification, Adorno’s discourse remains a formidable one, stocked, as usual, with lighthanded allusions to remote regions of multiple German and European intellectual traditions. The poignance of ‘On Resignation’ comes from its one-sidedness: Adorno’s is plea to an opponent who is no longer listening, who indeed arguably lacks the ability ever to understand the langage of a man who was formed, intellectually, in the faraway era of Weimar Germany.

Adorno’s estrangement from his students symbolises the estrangement of the ideas of the Frankfurt School from the reality they would generalise. In his book Reading Capital Politically Harry Cleaver fingered the unrest that broke out in many parts of the world in the 1960s as a refutation of the "gloomy" tenets of the Frankfurt School; reading ‘Resignation’, we can, I would argue, see that refutation in motion.

It might be argued that Adorno’s isolation from young ‘pseudo-activists’ contrasts rather sharply with the alleged status of another Frankfurt School figure, Herbert Marcuse, as a guru of the New Left. Marcuse, however, was less at home with the likes of the SDS than might be imagined. His lectures were, in fact, disrupted along with Adorno’s: on one occasion, for instance, a student accompanied some of his most ‘familiar’ (and, presumably, most objectionable) phrases on a recorder. When he gave a one-off lecture to the Berlin University in the famous month of May 1968, Marcuse was heckled by students who accused of being too concerned with theory and not active enough in supporting practically the revolutionary actions sweeping Europe.

In the late sixties, as the New Left took what might be termed its ‘Maoist turn’, Marcuse’s talk of the sanctity of beauty and the revolutionary potential of art must have seemed, to many of his erstwhile fans now enthusiastic about ‘socialist realism’ and ‘revolutionary romanticism’, to be little more than petty bourgeois indulgence. Alienated from the remnants of the revolutionary movement, Marcuse would, in his last and best book, express himself in language which recalls ‘On Resignation’:

Marxist literary criticism often displays scorn for "inwardness", for the dissection of the soul in bourgeois literature…But this attitude is not too remote from the scorn of the capitalists for the unprofitable dimension of life.

Eleven years after Adorno’s last lecture, Martin Jay, the pre-eminent historian of the Frankfurt School and confidante of Adorno, faced his own ‘assault’ from the floor. Literary critic Michael Ryan kept his clothes on, but nevertheless issued a provocative challenge to a paper Jay was reading to an academic conference on intellectual history. Ryan, a devotee of Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism, attacked the presumptions about ‘rationality’ that allegedly underlaid Jay’s work, suggesting that:

If a third-world feminist attacked his rational assumptions and the institutional rationality of the conference, using non-academic obscenity, she would have appeared irrational in relation to his universal reason...

Ryan’s long-winded challenge, which fittingly was cut short by Jay, both recalls and contrasts with the attack that ended Adorno’s career. In both cases, an intricate, meticulous discourse (and, beyond that, a whole tradition of discourse) was being undercut by a gesture of contempt, a refusal to engage. This gesture is as old as thought itself: it was made, famously, by Diogenes, the ancient Cynic who, upon hearing about Zeno’s then-new Paradox of Motion, climbed out of his barrel and began to run, shouting ‘I refute it thus’.

The post-structuralist challenge can be contrasted as well as compared to the SDS students’ challenge to Adorno: we can focus, in particular, on the way that a gesture of contempt and non-engagement was transferred, in the space of eleven short years, from a radical political milieu alienated from the Academy to the heart of the Academy. We must talk of a transfer, not an extension, because the elaborate gestures of post-structuralists were, in 1980, far removed from the political context that once gave them a certain power. Jay perhaps recognises this fact when, in his belated reply to Ryan, he calls his antagonist a "soi-disant spokesperson for third-world women’. Adorno would no doubt be grimly amused, if he could contemplate the eventual destination of the gesture that ended his career.

Vengeance - or justice?

Yesterday three things of import happened:

1) I posted an inaccurate (because remembered) version of Mike Johnson's translation of the Li He poem known in English as 'incarceration'.

2) My bedroom window was smashed (my flatmates blame the wind and my inability to lock anything when I leave the house - but I've been around the block too many times to fall for that one).

3) The Black Caps tumbled to yet another wholly unnecessary loss in a one day international.

Now, it may be a stretch to posit a causal connection between 1) and 3), but could 1) and 2) plausibly be related? Did I offend some partisan of Chinese culture and the poetry of the late T'ang dynasty with my mutilation of Mike Johnson's rendering of Li He's lines?

In an effort to expiate my guilt and avoid any future interaction with the local glazier I've reproduced the true and authentic (Johnson) version of 'incarceration', which was kindly supplied by a commenter with the splendid name of Zillah. I'd like to point out, too, that Johnson is apparently as innocent of the Chinese tongue as myself, and relied on pre-existent translations and cribs when he was writing The Vertical Harp. (This probably has a good deal to do with the success of many poems in the book - most of the best translators have been unable to read what they are importing into a new language. Ezra Pound, for instance, almost single-handedly brought Chinese verse into English at the beginning of the twentieth century, despite or because of a profound ignorance of the Chinese language.)


the moat, blood red,
reflects a palace in spectacular decay

wind-seducing leaves
mirror the gestures of palace-girls

how many spring darlings seen
from behind drawn curtains
hair whitening to dust?

ten thousand years of pale days
locked away

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mike's sixtieth

Last Friday night saw a big party across the Rangitoto Channel, as Waiheke Island poet laurete Mike Johnson combined his sixtieth birthday party with the launch of The Vertical Harp, a volume of translations from the work of the eighth century Chinese poet Li He. Johnson was introduced to the 'Chinese Baudelaire' by Gu Cheng, a poet who lived out the last years of his own tragic life on Waiheke Island.
Titus Books has presented Johnson's translations on generously-sized pages, and juxtaposed them with reproductions of classical Chinese calligraphy. Here's a poem that caught my eye:
the moat, blood-red, reflects a ruin
in spectacular decay
leaves that seduce the wind
are like the court girls who dance here
the hair of one of them turned white
behind drawn curtains
ten thousand pale days
locked away
As the evening wore on a succession of musical acts took the stage at Palm Beach Hall, much to the delight of an audience that had come from as far afield as Great Barrier Island:

Those hippy traditions die hard. Unfortunately, grossly excessive comsumption of Miami wine cooler prevented Jack Ross from delivering the speech he had rehearsed on his blog under the deathless title 'I like Mike'. On the last boat home a band of crack Titus Books writers stormed the top deck, which had been labelled off-limits by kill-joy Fullers ferry officials worried about an incoming gale. Here are a couple of cellphone shots from the deck: