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Category Archives: Zeitgeist Movement
Posted: October 27, 2019 at 3:45 pm
It dawned ominously, the day of the great Greta climate strike in Vancouver. Rain and wind pummeled the lower mainland while emergency sirens echoed across the city. Even the crows were nowhere to be seen, presumably riding out the storm in their Burnaby roosts, not willing to make their ritual morning migration across Metro Vancouver.
But by the time Canadas young climate hawks took to the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery in mid-morning, the sun was beaming down and the wind seemed only to sharpen the short, moving testimonials delivered by each young plaintiff in a newly-launched court case of kids suing the federal government for putting their lives at risk.
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The opening statements were a last-minute addition to Sustainabiliteens planned events for the day. A day in which the global phenomenon of #grrlpowered climate strikers was going to get public assistance and support from Indigenous leaders and Canadas Establishment Greens. The adults had arrived and would lend their long experience in movement organizing to give the kids an added boost.
And, in many ways, Vancouvers intersectional, intergenerational climate strike was a great success. The David Suzuki Foundation, in particular, distinguished itself. Under the new leadership of Stephen Cornish, the foundation allocated real resources towards rearguard support for the youth, in whatever way the kids deemed most useful.
Others played useful roles as well. Greenpeace provided wizened, battle-hardened logistical expertise. The new Extinction Rebels served up volunteers of all ages as parade marshals for the day.
Most visibly, First Nations leaders turned out in great numbers, anointing the strikers with songs, blessing them with moral standing and sharing the teachings of elders passed down through timeless Indigenous generations.
But, as an organizing moment designed to swell ranks and propel momentum, the day was a mixed success. Impressive numbers turned out to see Greta in person. Vancouver Police Department estimated the crowd as large as 15,000 strong. It felt like the numbers peaked even higher, so perhaps a quarter of the Fridays for the Future march that blew away all expectations four weeks earlier.
The crowd was buzzing with school-aged teens, beaming moms escorting younger kids, bemused dads shouldering tots and others of all ages, brimming with excitement, radiating relief to no longer feel alone and crazy to finally feel sane in a world that has, seemingly forever, appeared deaf to the warnings of scientists and blind to obvious calamity.
But the pre-march remarks would take a strange, tone-deaf turn. An interminable list of adults took to the microphones, dominating the first act of the youth climate strike. Many were the usual suspects from previous decades of dour climate demos. Environmental elders held forth about the old days. Veteran activists castigated the teens and toddlers for their institutionalized, systemic racism at the march one month earlier. Speakers ranted about respect while demonstrating none, either in tone, or for the organizers, or their audience.
The speakers were a marked contrast to the buoyant pair of emcees. Two engaging local teens who repeatedly thanked everyone for coming out, obviously thrilled by the size of the gathering. But, the crowd grew increasingly restless with long-winded lectures about well, various important issues, as the event slipped further and further off schedule. It was, by the end, more than a five-hour long affair (without a Porta Potty in sight), purportedly organized to grow a movement of kids and activate their parents and grandparents.
One woman, clearly feeling browbeaten, leaving long before the march could begin, was muttering about never in her life having had to weather so much narcissism in a movement.
It was all perfectly understandable. First Nations activists have for so long been denied platform or voice to address brutal grievances. Movement elders have struggled for much less long, mostly ignored and dreaming of just such an uprising, one worthy of humanitys eleventh hour.
But the long-time activists are not helping this movement to flourish if their contribution is to suck oxygen from the spirit of youth. There is so much promise in the current zeitgeist. I marched with a friend who described fascinating research about the power of movements that harness bookend generations: when the girls and the grannies, the kids and the seniors, converge those of us in the middle dont stand a chance. That pincer may yet pierce the complacency and inaction of leaders who still dither and delay while our planet burns. We should give it every chance of success.
Thankfully, Act One of the climate strike finally did come to a close. The march began. Vibrancy returned. Teens fanned out through the marching masses leading call and response. Kids waved handmade signs full of creative irony, blunt assessments, and not a little raunch.
Weaving its way through the downtown core, the enormous crowd palpably affected shoppers, intrigued citizens and quizzical tourists. The bike cops couldnt help but grin as drivers in stranded cars and blocked intersections surrendered to the moment, cheering and honking in support of Vancouvers Sustainabiliteens and the thousands of Canadians who had rallied to the school strikers conch calls.
Upon returning to the central square hours late, the momentum faltered worryingly again for awhile. Another procession of adult artists and speakers took to the mikes. Scattered chants of Greta, Greta began to intrude. Frantic moms broke away, racing for the mall bathrooms at Pacific Centre, towing anguished kids clutching at their bladders.
But the undeniability of this amazing global youth phenomenon broke through in the end. The Tsleil-Watuths impressive Will George, who has emerged from the Trans Mountain pipeline Watch House as a powerful voice of terse clarity, handed off to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
It had been hard to make out what previous speakers were saying across the restless masses but the Grand Chiefs curious intonations and compellingly humble statesmanship quieted the crowd.
He began speaking about his 40 years leading rallies in that same square. The Grand Chief proved, as he has so often, to be both wise and canny as well as a very compassionate leader. He struck exactly the right tone, leading the crowd for just the briefest of moments into reminiscence before launching towards the future: But I have never seen such a crowd gathered here before!
And, finally, it was time. The Indigenous leaders draped a ceremonial blanket on the shoulders of tiny Greta. And she, hesitantly, took the microphone.
You will have seen her speeches before. And probably the one she gave in Vancouver on Friday. It was her trademark combination of awkward oratory, earnest statistics and searing truth. If the adults really loved us, is still haunting me. Greta was a class act, acknowledging the stolen lands and leadership of First Nations and endearing herself to Vancouver by quoting repeatedly from the speech Severn Suzuki delivered to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, then just 12 years old herself.
On the way home, I noticed the crows were back. The windstorm was still gusting and great murders of them were dancing the sky a glorious maelstrom of corvid ecstasy.
Along Broadway, I ran into a friend, still in rubber boots and wrapped in raingear. She was crestfallen thinking that Greta hadnt spoken at the rally. She had come early, was inspired by the lawsuit kids, listened to all the pre-march speechifying, chanted herself hoarse through downtown and, at some point, long after returning to the square, she figured that Greta just wouldnt be speaking that day, for some unadvertised reason. Tired out, she had headed home.
She perked up considerably as I described Gretas talk. And she said shed probably be willing to come back again. But, next time, cant we just let the kids get on with it? she asked.
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Posted: at 3:45 pm
It began as these things often do on Twitter. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a picture Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong on Oct. 4. What started as a pro-democracy tweet by an executive most NBA fans couldnt pick out of a lineup quickly turned into a firestorm at the intersection of sports and politics. In doing so, the fans have provided the current generation of superstars a battleground for protest in which theres real cash at stake and the ramifications will affect all future political speech coming from the sports world.
Activism is nothing new in sports, but the current generation of superstars have avenues to express themselves that were inaccessible to those before them. But that trend has been coupled with a rapid monetization of players public personas. There is no better example of this than LeBron Jamess recent attempt to trademark Taco Tuesday. Combined with the NBAs rise globally, it was only a matter of time before politics and finance came into conflict.
Which brings us back, of course, to Daryl Morey. Within days, the Rockets joined Winnie the Pooh and Tiananmen Square among the casualties of the Great Firewall of China; China Central Television and Tencent Holdings Limited stopped airing Rockets games, and the Chinese government asked the NBA to fire Morey. When the league refused, every Chinese sponsor terminated their deals, and the TV ban extended to all games. While that ban has now ended, the Rockets remain off the air.
As for the NBA ecosystem, the responses have been mixed. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and star player Stephen Curry gave noncommittal statements, despite being on the forefront of the leagues political zeitgeist. Rockets star James Harden even apologized for Moreys comments. But the most inexplicable comments came from the greatest current NBA player, James, who criticized Morey as uneducated on the issue and for being selfish by risking league interests.
It might be too far to call players hypocritical, as some have, for being vehemently anti-Trump James famously called the president U bum in a 2017 tweet and yet remaining silent about China. After all, one can sense players discomfort when asked about a foreign protest movement theyre likely uninformed about. But it delegitimizes future NBA activism most of it being positive if players submit to such a clear attack on the league.
As for James, Fox Newss Laura Ingraham was wrong to say he should just shut up and dribble last February. But that wouldve been preferable to Jamess comments, who condemned Morey, while those in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and across China face draconian human rights violations daily speak louder than LeBron ever could.
Its futile to ask billion-dollar corporations to worry about anything other than their bottom lines, even the NBA. But the players face a responsibility today that they will often face again, and appeasement can only defer it. Maybe its unfair to make this comparison, but since James was willing to monetize shut up and dribble into a documentary of that name about the history of sports activism, its one hes welcomed. Muhammad Ali gave up the prime of his career to protest the draft. Colin Kaepernick lost his career protesting police brutality. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the 1968 Olympics for protesting racial injustice. To James, it seems Space Jam 2 was more important. But to the rest of the league, we can only ask: What are you willing to lose?
Posted: at 3:45 pm
Mike Watt occupies his own niche in the space and time continuum of punk rock. He seems to belong everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously. Although he graduated high school in 1976 and fervently took the alternative path out of stadium rock clichs by honing jazz-spiel punk escapades in Minutemen, his work ever since has been quite an immersive tangle of styles, legacies, and inputs.
That is why each of his gigs, including White Oak on October 24 with the Missingmen, is tantamount to a one-off experience. One never knows what might be unleashed. The table is set. The pot stirred. And what erupts is likely to be mesmerizing and off-kilter, like a blend of the unknown. He might unveil a Roky Erickson cover while convening and careening through his latest output or pull out a momentous Minutemen flashback.
Watt's music often nods to endless syncretism and unstable hybridity alchemy in the sonic shape of free jazz, hard-cut funk, flexing punk, wonky experimentalism, and bursts of trad rock. He also offers a spiritualized special combo of vigor and craft too, forWatt is unafraid to tether his performances to a higher state of mind.
It all began when Watt was a youth. Music was a way to keep him and guitarist-singer D. Boon out of trouble, behind doors, safe from fights in working class San Pedro, CA neighborhoods in the port town.
My pop was an enlisted man. I grew up in Navy housing where we were taught we were all sailors' sons. I found it trippy how civilians organized how they lived. You know how you think the whole is world is how you're growing up ... I didn't know any officers' kids, so we were kind of segregated that way, attests Watt.
Yet, that same music eventually opened the doors to punk rock and clubs that were ... trouble spots.
D. Boon's ma had us make a band to do that, stay in his bedroom after school. We were 12, recalls Watt. When we joined the movement, we were 19, different situation. There was scary stuff in Hollywood in the later 1970s, but yeah, there were and are still in my Pedro time. I would not blame the movement for that, though. The movement helped us discover music could be used for expression.
The first gig Watt witnessed was T. Rex, yet one of his biggest influences became James Jamerson, who helped anchor the Motown sound, as well as visionary jazz pioneer John Coltrane. As such, Watts own musical melting pot has cohered around a blend of black and white musical legacies.
John Coltrane said he thought musicians were looking for some kind of truth, and I like that. James Jamerson's bass always aided and abetted the tune, while he still had his own identity, and I also like that. My life is full of mixing stuff, I'm into it. You're right.
Those expressions became explosive. His career seems to segue fluidly between markers on the musical highway. Early on, Minutemen proved immensely influential, maverick, and tireless in their pursuit of making tunes that mattered both to discerning critics and open-armed fans galore.
Band members seemed as if they punched the clock like regular Joes and wore their flannel influences, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, with determination. However, they also produced a bewildering array of tiny torpedoes musical haiku of the punk variety: brisk, poetic, condensed, and high-charged songs that still feel inventive and inchoate, from propulsive hard-fast Fanatics to the slithering snare drum background of Anchor to the rusted-edge crunch of Cut.
They performed the improbable Dr. Frankenstein too by marrying the likes of first-wave English art-punk minimalists Wire with the bombastic glare of Van Halen. Literally, they morphed the stadium rockin enormity of Aint Talking Bout Love into a minute and half thirty second gut punch that resonated and rioted, like a murky, roughhewn dot dash Morse code signal of garage rock attitude and homespun anarchic tendencies.
After the death of singer and guitarist D. Boon, Watt weaved through projects like Dos, with Kira Roessler of Black Flag fame, in which they both played bass, but he found even a louder footing in fIREHOSE. At first, they seemed akin to a lite version of Minutemen, plumbing through tunes that were smart, poetic, and dizzyingly syncopated, which set them apart from much college rock mumbling doldrums.
fIREHOSE adopted most of Minutemens limber musicality, though dropped some of the searing politics. Though, during the first Gulf War, they unveiled Wires Mannequin. The original, cut in 1977, served as a critique of empty-minded, energy void, bone-thin beauty models but was recast by fIREHOSE as a protest of the slaughter underway. So, when the line Youre a disgrace catapulted through the room, it was like a chant against the powers-that-be that treat human bodies as no more than mannequins in war zones.
fIREHOSE cemented themselves in the alternative rock zeitgeist, alongside Dinosaur Jr. and Meat Puppets, making albums brimming with guitar tours-de-force, like Flyin the Flannel, yet they still left room for idiosyncratic indie pop, like the Do-It-Yourself musings of Daniel Johnston, whose "Walking the Cow they warmly embraced.
And after fIREHOSE said goodbye, Watt's musical footprint was fecund. His solo albums have been complex, condensed arrays of music probing as evocative and conceptual as they are spirited and singular. They include the musical Rubiks Cube known as Ball Hog or Tugboat?, featuring armfuls of different artistslike Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl;the profoundmusical overview of his father, Contemplating the Engine Room;his own near-death journey evoked on The Secondmans Middle Stand; and the Minutemen-esque Hyphenated-Man.
Yet, he also joined the Stooges, one of the most beloved proto-punk groups ever to unleash blood-curdling yelps, savage guitar wallops, and Detroit-greased beats. With Iggy Pop at the helm, and Mike Watt replacing Dave Alexander (who died in the mid-1970s), the reformed outfit felt limber and sinewy, as if age had only honed their chops. Unfortunately, since then, death has made a maximum impact on the original line-up, leaving Iggy, who began his musical journey as a drummer, as the lone force.
Yeah, Iggy is the bow of the boat, and I miss the Asheton brothers and Steve Mackay very much. James Williamson was very nice to me and so was the Stooges' helper men. It was a righteous classroom to learn as much as I could from, and I think of those cats all the time. I like the way Iggy charges hard and at the same time is always thinking about stuff. I think Iggy being a drummer has a lot to do with what he is, yeah. I think anyone doing drums can benefit from it, I really do. Damn, I wish I could work the drums ... I think I would be a better bassman.
To me, Minutemen felt as if they linked to Beat Generation poets like Bob Kaufman and Allen Ginsberg, writers that could feel both surreal and absurd, electrifying and enlightened. So, when Watt began working with Charles Plymell, publisher of groundbreaking Zap Comix artist Robert Crumb and renown underground writer of his own work Apocalypse Rose, on performances on material such as Was Poe Afraid, they seemed to share some sensibilities about language and rhythm.
I love Charley and saw him in his Cherry Valley, New York town even konked in his pad. I'm doing an opera with Petra Haden using his "Planet Chernobyl" as the libretto, tells Watt. I used a lot of what I learned in Mr. Joyce's Ulysses for my first opera Contemplating the Engine Room and also from listening to Raymond Pettibon [artist first associated with self-published zines and Black Flag art] talk to me. I like his rhythm and way of putting things together. I was very inspired to learn John Coltrane was influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King's speaking for his "Alabama" tune. I think you're right: the arts and expression overlap in many trippy ways.
More currently, Watt has been featured on the new album Wall of Flowers by Mike Baggetta, which is very tender and spare at times, yet also rooted in free jazz too, especially on tunes like I Am Not a Data Point. Though instrumental, the theme of the work seems to be: music cannot not be reduced to 1s and 0s.
Meaning, music is one of the best ways to resist the digital age, to reclaim the human.
It's his album, and he wrote the tunes, Watt describes the release. As far as what I think about what you suggest: yes, I agree music ain't maybe the best when you try and reduce it to ones and zeroes. Technology threatening us? In the old days, you could use a knife to cut up a banana into bite-sized pieces or use it to stab your partner. Same dilemma with other human inventions, it appears to me."
Look at the way people are driving on the roads these days, a nightmare ... I saw it getting really bad about two and a half years ago, on my last U.S. tour.
So, as the roads grow more bewildering, hectic, and disorderly, Watt will continue to be restless, both behind the wheel as well as on his musical path. While many rockers settle for a sense of redux and repeat, playing the oldies and crowd pleasers to a slew of people holding up their shiny phones, Watt prepares for another leg of his obsessive journey that you would be wise to witness.
Mike Watt & the Missingmen is scheduled for October 24 at 8 p.m. at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. For information, visit http://www.whiteoakmusichall.com. All ages. $18 advance $20 day of, plus fees.
Posted: at 3:45 pm
Death anniversaries provide us an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of many great historical personalities, but rarely do we find a figure so recently passed yet so quickly forgotten as John Taylor Gatto.
Gatto was born in 1935 in the working-class Western Pennsylvania town of Monongahela. He passed away on October 25, 2018, in his adopted home of New York City. In his nearly 30 years of classroom teaching, Gatto witnessed first hand some of the most radical experiments in mass schooling that the world has ever seen. After being named New York City Teacher of the Year consecutively in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, Gatto rejected what he called the school religion punishing the nation and left his formal profession of teaching in search of a job where he didnt have to hurt kids to make a living.
From that day in 1991 until his death one year ago, Gatto wrote and spoke about his experiences in U.S. public schools in an effort not just to critique a system which he saw as beyond reform, but also to envision what education could look like in a truly free and just society. While Gatto gained a readership among certain sections of the homeschooling and alternative education movements, his piercing criticism of U.S. schooling and its link to the crisis of Western civilization deserves a much wider audience.
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Traditional education can be seen as sculptural in nature, individual destiny is written somewhere within the human being, awaiting dross to be removed before a true image shines forth. Schooling, on the other hand, seeks a way to make mind and character blank, so others may chisel the destiny thereon, Gatto, The Underground History of American Education
Much of Gattos writing is focused on the basic yet often overlooked distinction between schooling and education. At the heart of his work is the simple yet radical suggestion that mass schooling, a 19th-century European import to the U.S., is not the modern manifestation of the ancient concept of education but, rather, its diametric opposite.
In his magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education, Gatto traces the material roots of mass schooling back to the economic and ideological demands of a burgeoning industrial capitalism in Europe. Against the narrative of mass schooling as a noble attempt to educate the starving, backward masses, he exposes its true motive as a glorified daycare system for the children of parents newly coerced into wage labor.
With the destruction of the commons in Europe, self-sustaining production systems and their accompanying home-based education practices were obliterated in the quest for profits derived from the labor of a new industrial proletariat. Children who used to learn practical skills by working alongside their families and communities were forced into monotonous factory work with the advent of the industrial revolution. After child labor laws were introduced in the 19th century and extended in the 20th, the state had to find something to do with these unoccupied working-class children.
The answer was mass schooling. In 1839, Prussia became the first country on the European continent to enact a national child labor law. It is no coincidence that this North German state subsequently became the most important country in the development of modern schooling. Often described as an army with a country, Prussia took the logic of the regimented factory shop floor and military training camp and applied it to the development of a national school system.
This army with a country demanded malleable subjects rather than educated citizens, and it was for the production of the former that a new national school system was created. One of the most important pedagogues in the development of the Prussian system, Heinrich Pestalozzi, touted his approach as one that would mold the poor to accept all the exertions and efforts peculiar to their class. As Gatto put it, Pestalozzi offered them love in place of ambition. By employing psychological means in the training of the young, class warfare might be avoided.
If modern schooling was born in the militaristic milieu of early 19th-century Prussia, it came of age in the rigid class system of England and reached maturity in the colonizing adventures of the British Empire. One need to look no further than Friedrich Engelss 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, to understand the impact of the industrial revolution on Englands poor, whose living conditions dropped precipitously at the same time as mass schooling was being introduced in the country.
However, the English ruling class could not indefinitely exploit its workers on the basis of material coercion and physical force alone. In addition to building its factory system on the backs of slave labor in the Americas and the looting of resources in its Asian colonies, the British Empire used its vast dominion abroad to refine its psychological management of the young at home.
Gatto provides the example of wealthy Scottish Anglican chaplain, Andrew Bell, who lived in India in the late 18th century, where he took a keen interest in the caste system as a model for the modern English school. Bell admired what he saw as a rigid social hierarchy in Hindu village schools characterized by intellectual and religious instruction for a tiny minority at the top and caste-appropriate technical training for everyone else.
Bell devised the Madras System of Education based on his experiences in India. This system was subsequently deployed in Scotland in Bells own Madras College secondary school in St. Andrews, and later in England and the U.S. under a similar system known as Lancaster schooling based loosely on the ideas of English Quaker Joseph Lancaster.
The Madras and Lancaster systems, also known as the monitorial system, were characterized by large classrooms with students seated in rows overseen by a single schoolteacher. The teacher did not in fact teach, but, rather, served as a bystander and inspector who would form a hierarchy among the students and then let the so-called brighter ones teach the rest. It was the stratification of the new industrial system applied to the young.
By the 1830s, schools based on the Prussian and Lancaster models stretched from New York to Texas, with significant admirers such as Calvin Ellis Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowes husband, who advocated for the adoption of a Prussian-style national education system in the United States.
The backdrop of my teaching debut was a predicament without any possible solution, a deadly brew compounded from twelve hundred black teenagers penned inside a gloomy brick pile for six hours a day, with a white guard staff misnamed faculty manning the light towers and machine-gun posts. This faculty was charged with dribbling out something called curriculum to inmates, a gruel so thin [that this school] might rather have been a home for the feeble-minded than a place of education. Gatto, The Underground History of American Education
The story of the U.S.s adoption of a European mass schooling system designed to foster a rigid class system while at the same time sublimating class warfare is a pivotal development in Gattos history of American schooling.
That mainstream abolitionists like the Stowes were early advocates of European mass schooling in the U.S. is telling. James Baldwin wrote in 1949 that Harriet Beecher Stowes novel, Uncle Toms Cabin, has, at its core, a self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality which is the mark of dishonesty and the inability to feel. Stowe opposed slavery, but, as Baldwin put it, could only do so by robbing the Black man of his humanity. Only then could she mold him into the proper subject: docile, uneducated and forbearing.
As educator and writer Jerry Farber wrote in 1969, these qualities encouraged in the Black slave are nearly identical to those fostered in students in 20th-century American schools. Indeed, by understanding Calvin Ellis Stowes passion for the Prussian forced schooling system alongside his wifes portrayal of Black people in Uncle Toms Cabin, we can see a direct link: a schooling system that would control what students would learn was necessary to manage and mold potentially revolutionary Black youth after the abolition of slavery.
It is this connection between schooling and white supremacy which Gatto understood. He taught for years in working-class Black schools in Harlem, and observed that black kids had caught on to the fact that their school was a liars world, a jobs project for seedy white folk.
Instead of modifying the curriculum for these students in order to prepare them for their presumed subordinate social role, Gatto challenged the scientific religion of schooling which believes [Black people] to be genetically challenged and presented a rigorous education focused on strong reading skills and critical discussion of fundamental questions in history, philosophy and literature.
By refusing to lower expectations for Black youth in school and eventually rejecting the racist school system altogether in favor of autonomous institutions such as Marva Collinss groundbreaking Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, Gatto provided a concrete example of what an educational program for the abolition of whiteness might look like.
A rapidly growing homeschooling movement is reviving a long tradition of family and community-based education, particularly among Black Americans who have been historically barred from or discriminated against in the school system.
The net effect of holding children in confinement for twelve years without honor paid to the spirit is a compelling demonstration that the State considers the Western spiritual tradition dangerous, subversive. And of course it is. School is about creating loyalty to certain goals and habits, a vision of life, support for a class structure, an intricate system of human relationships cleverly designed to manufacture the continuous low level of discontent upon which mass production and finance rely. Gatto, The Underground History of American Education
Gattos challenge to modern schooling and white supremacy is made possible by his critique of scientism, or the ideology of science and the scientific method as the one way to truth. Just as racism crafted for itself a scientific justification, so did forced schooling make its case in scientific terms. By stripping these systems of their ideological basis through a critique of science itself, Gattos work opens up new ways to think about education, freedom and genius.
The cult of scientific schooling in the U.S. reached its apex around the beginning of the 20th century, when technocrats sought to apply the principles of Taylorism, or scientific management, to the public school classroom. Sociologist Edward A. Ross captured the turn of the centurys zeitgeist in his 1901 book, aptly titled Social Control, writing that, Plans are underway to replace community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media. The State shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School. People are only little plastic lumps of human dough. In other words, the student not only can, but should, be kneaded into the proper shape, and there is no better institution to complete this task than the school.
Gatto critiques what he calls empty child theory, or the idea that children lack human nature or individual spirit and can, thus, be molded to the needs of modern society. In this conception of the human, each individual is but a stand-in for a particular social category to be experimented on in the name of technological efficiency and scientific progress. As Gatto puts it, scientism has no built-in moral brakes to restrain it other than legal jeopardy.
Just as the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck was ruled legal by the Supreme Court in 1927, the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords threw their money behind radical experiments in the transformation of human nature in the first half of the 20th century. If the adult body was a legitimate subject for scientific experimentation, the childs mind was even more appropriate: experiments on a developing psyche in school might even render bodily intervention in adulthood superfluous.
Twentieth-century scientific schooling is best described as the social experiment of inculcating into children what Gatto calls the seven lessons of school teaching. These lessons of mass forced schooling merit lengthy quotation:
It confuses the students. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials, this programming is similar to the television; it fills almost all the free time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.
It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.
It makes them indifferent.
It makes them emotionally dependent.
It makes them intellectually dependent.
It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).
It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.
Or, as Rockefellers General Education Board summed up in a 1906 document on scientific schooling:
In our dreams people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. The task we set before ourselves is very simple. We will organize children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.
Such a sentiment is a natural byproduct of a scientistic worldview which rejects the spiritual aspect of the human. Gatto points out that this aspect can be repressed, but never destroyed. Those who cannot handle the dehumanization of the school system any longer often simply drop out, prepared to face the brutality of a labor market that is at least honest about its intentions to teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way. Others quit early with great success, as the lives of high school drop-outs Thomas Edison, Thelonious Monk, Mark Twain, Aretha Franklin and many others demonstrate.
Each individuals special genius cannot be accounted for by science, though scientific schooling has done an excellent job of leading students to believe that they do not have one. For Gatto, it is the sacred narrative of modernity, of which mass schooling is an essential (if often unquestioned) component, that has become a substitute for the message of the Nazarene. Indeed, the idea of a conflict between secular schooling and religious education is a false one: Modern schooling is a religion, and has merely supplanted the Church as the primary institution of education.
Gatto points out the irony that it was the churches, particularly those of the Anglican and Quaker variety, which laid the foundation for their own decline by encouraging the expansion of mass forced schooling. They failed to see and still fail to see that the logic of modern schooling is at odds not only with the revolutionary spirit of the Gospels, but also in contradiction with the teachings of all the worlds great spiritual traditions.
These traditions consistently affirm that the human is much more than a little plastic lump of dough, something, to return to Baldwins essay, resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. It is in this indefinable and unpredictable nature of the human being that genius resides. As Gatto writes in his 2010 book, Weapons of Mass Instruction:
Ive concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we havent yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
The U.S. school system like the capitalist system that made it necessary has outworn any use it may have had in the past. It has reduced the human to a number, to a social category, to mere physical matter to be toyed with at the whims and fancies of experts. To challenge the assumptions of modern schooling is to remember and reaffirm the spiritual strivings of the human being.
John Taylor Gatto encouraged us to draw on both tradition and imagination as we work to envision education for a world in which freedom and justice are placed above technology and efficiency. With increasingly shrill calls for universal preschool leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Gattos history and analysis of the true motives of U.S. schooling could not be more relevant. Though he is no longer with us today, we would be remiss to neglect his insights a year after his death.
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Size Matters: A Conversation on Storefront for Art and Architecture’s History with Founder Kyong Park – Archinect
Posted: at 3:45 pm
Arlene Schloss reading to a crowd as a part of Performance A-Z, 1982. Image courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.
For art and architectural venues, growth is a commonly accepted measure of success. As the story usually goes, an upstart museum or gallery begins life small and then, with enough reputation and investment capital, gets a larger and larger space; with expansion and higher ticket sales comes the ability to support ever-larger shows that reach a broader public. But for New York CitysStorefront for Art and Architecture, however, a small, irregularly-shaped 868-square-foot space provides a physical constraint that has long been a key part of its ability to showcase relevant, vital exhibitions.
In an extended interview with Kyong Park, Storefront founder and director between 1982 and 1998, we take a look at the origins of The Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Located just north of Manhattans Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods, Storefront is a small, wedge-shaped exhibition space located across the street from a wedge-shaped park. Since its beginnings, it has always been a storefront with street frontage at ground level. With this key distinction embedded in the name itself, Storefronts mission has been kept consistent and has allowed it to represent an international and local community with a curatorial reach much larger the gallerys modest size. Like retail storefronts in the e-commerce age, which serve both to display products and physically represent the massive behind-the-scenes machinations that power global consumption patterns, Storefront is better seen as a physical manifestation of a much larger dispersed community of architects and artists both in New York and the world more generally. For a scene with no real local place to convene outside of school events and public lectures, Storefront represents an independent living room for the community to come and hang out in real life, in one place. Today when discourse increasingly is carried out online and via decentralized platforms, the existence of such a dedicated exhibition space is even more crucial for concentrated acts of community intervention and response.
The history of Storefront stretches back almost 40 years to 1982, when it was founded by Kyong Park at 51 Prince Street, across the street from where the McNally Jackson bookstore is today. Organized with artists Arlene Schloss and R. L. Seltman, its introduction to the community included 26 consecutive evening performances every day from local artists as part of a show called Performance A-Z. Artist Shirin Neshat joined in 1983 as co-director, contributing to many exhibitions throughout the next ten years (catch her massive exhibition at the Broad in Los Angeles, I Will Greet the Sun Again from October 2019 to February 2020.)
The early years in the 1980s saw many solo exhibitions of then-rising, now-famous architects and artists such as Neil Denari, James Wines SITE, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Lebbeus Woods, and Dan Graham. But the exhibits that really gave Storefront its identity were the community-focused exhibitions which addressed problems currently in the zeitgeist, such as anexpos on homelessness, ashow on queer space, apublic housing exhibitthat doubled as a movement to save Adam Purples Garden of Eden on the Lower East Side from demolition.
These early efforts also showcased proposals of Eric Owen Moss, Alison Smithson, Morphosis, Zvi Hecker, Lebbeus Woods, Neil Denari, and Diller + Scofidio. This focus carries through the more recent era. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, for example, Storefront organized a series of events, including a public call for ideas to meet and discuss how to move forward following the Great Recession of 2008 and the resulting global realization that capitalism is inherently unable to create a better world.
Today theyre often hosting panel discussions, tours, book launches, talks, original exhibitions, events, and more. To see a full schedule of upcoming events, make sure to check theirwebsitefor more information. Since Park's tenure, Storefront has been led by a number of leading architectural curators and thinkers, namely Sarah Herda, Joseph Grima, and most recently Eva Franch i Gilabert. Jos Esparza Chong Cuyis the current direct of Storefront, sinceEva Franch left to lead the AA in 2018.
I first visited Storefront for Art and Architecture for the first time in 2014. At the time, Marc Fornes / THEVERYMANY and Jana Winderen had an installation in the gallery called Situation Room. It was a perfect introduction to what I feel Storefront promotes spatially, because from the outside you could see pink Fornes metaballs poking out of the open facade panels and upon entering it became an experiential exploration of the neon pink form and ambient soundscapes surrounding you. As sensually striking as it was, it lacked the political and contextual discourse that some of the early shows had such as Homelessness at Home in 1985 or Adams House in Paradise in 1984. Despite this, it did demonstrate to me the power of an exhibition space that refuses to be a typical blank white box- something thats been consistent at Storefront even before the current home was renovated by Steven Holl and Vito Acconci in 1993. I wondered if being a foil to the ubiquitous empty white space was how it was conceived from the beginning, and if you could talk about the origins of Storefront and the types of shows you wanted to put on that you felt were absent from the art and architecture discourse at the time.
Well, you know, it was 1982, almost 40 years ago. The world changes a lot in half a century. Performance A-Z was actually organized by my partner, Robert L. Seltman, an artist who I started Storefront with. It was really he who actually conceived of it and organized the performances. I knew some other people in the show myself, but it was his brainchild.
The reason why I want to mention that it was a different time is because I think that may have just as much to do with the making of Storefront as anything that I have done.
New York at that time was really coming out of rock bottom. Almost all American cities underwent economic decline and depopulation. New York was not immune to it. It almost went bankrupt in 1974. Really nobody wanted to be there unless they had to. Its a bit of an exaggeration, but It was also a place where people would escape to from other places, drawing eccentric people that didn't really fit anywhere in the country.
I say country because at that time New York was really national. It didn't draw many people from outside of the US as it does now. It was a reversal of Kurt Russells Escape From New York, where instead of escaping from a maximum security prison, people who needed a fresh start or to leave their home town would move to New York. It was a kind of collection of chaos and anarchy. There were all these vacant storefronts on the lower part of Manhattan that were comparable to loft spaces today because they were large spaces that artists could turn into a studio.
The first Storefront opened at 51 Prince Street. It was about 350 square feet. I paid 250 dollars a month for it back then and by the early to mid-2000s, a while after we had moved to the current spot on Kenmare, it was already up to five or six thousand dollars a month being rented to a Tibetan boutique store. A lot of artists moved into these spaces, obviously living there illegally, and some of them started turning them into shops and self-run galleries here and there; in Little Italy there were several of them.
There was a sense of community there, and so, with some friends like Robert L. Seltman and Arlene Schloss, we decided to introduce the gallery to the city through a series of 26 performances by different artists. Certainly, at that time, neither myself nor the people in this community paid any mind to becoming wealthy and famous as many do today. It was more about making art, being part of our community, having a place to meet. It was a social-cultural space as much as, you know, an aesthetic-cultural space.
After surviving for two years, we became a legitimate 501(c)(3) and then started getting money from New York State Council of the Arts. Soon, people beyond our local area south of 14th Street started to pay attention and it became more serious: with a broader audience, Storefront became more legitimate and started to build a more solid, successful programming history.
It started very naturally from the socioeconomic conditions of New York City at the time and more than anything else I must say that I had no idea about what I would do when I came to New York at the end of the summer of 79. I had no intention to open a gallery. It wasn't something that I had in mind explicitly to do, so I credit the city itself, the community, and the culture as the true founders of Storefront.
What was the architecture scene like this around the time? Rem Koolhaass Delirious New York came out in 1977, describing New York in the '70s as an anarchic, unscripted place without any prescriptive theory. This might have been true to a visitor, but the reality is that people had been there for a long time producing culture, imagining futures, writing about the city, etc.
Well, I didn't really hang out with architects; I hung around with artists. At the beginning of Storefront, architecture in New York was very provincial. Not even national-provincial, just New York City, by itself.
At the time, people basically made theoretical stuff: paper architecture, drawing architecture, imaginary architecture, mainly headed by the New York Five: John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Richard Meier. They ran the show and some of them had institutions- Hejduk led Cooper Union, Eisenman at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and so on. Their work was highly recognized throughout the country and probably beyond, but its prevalence showed that there was not a lot of work for young people, so for those like me, there was more of a drift toward art.
I wanted to hear about your conception of the first shows like the Gowanus Canal and Adams House in Paradise. I was wondering how the early curation direction was conceived and if it was a part of any 10-20 year plan for Storefront.
I have always had a very political radical interest. The shows you mentioned were projects that I initiated from Storefront. I have to give a great deal of credit to Glenn Weiss for Adam's House in Paradise. He was spearheading that project as well as Homeless at Home. Also, he was quite involved in that as well and other projects like DMZ, Project Atlas, Before Whitney, and After Tilted Arc. For these, we set up the concept and then invited people to propose an alternative critical discourse about re-examining status quos or current conditions. We wanted to attack the mainstream.
The solo exhibitions by artists and architects were to promote the cross-disciplinary relationship between art and architecture. We constructed a community where artists found interest in architecture and architects found interested in art. This has always been a reflection of myself, actually. I think that kind of crossover really was the key ingredient to pulling together a community that was unique and very committed.
[Eventually], The solo exhibitions switched from artists to architects, with almost half of them not from New York, or the United States, really. I think that Storefront had an interesting dialogue between something small and something large. We were quite small but we had large ambitions. We recognized that we didn't have to be big in order to do big thingsI remember some newspaper articles saying "Small Storefront Puts Museums to Shame" or something like thatWe challenged that notion of scale, almost ridiculing some of the big institutions for being very small-minded. I like this antagonistic role that I play.
Thats interesting to see that a stance on growth was always integral to how you saw Storefront. As you know, many institutions are built on a model of expansion where you acquire more work, see an increase in foot traffic and subsequently in ticket sales, which in turn then allows larger exhibitions, and so on. Infinite growth.
Thats the modern/American culture. The growth-forever model was criticized in the 70s by the Club of Rome reports which suggested in its place a more sustainable economic model rather than an annual growth in GDP. That idea of growth you speak of is a very modern, American belief where you build, grow, buy assets, and become a multinational conglomerate, continuing to buy more subsidiary companies and so on.
Did you pay attention to the Oslo Architecture Triennale this year?
No, I dont follow architecture very much.
The curation was about degrowth, promoting alternate models that push back against the idea that the continuous growth intrinsic to capitalism is a good thing, and that eternal growth is natural. The curators said the same thing, that GDP is a really poor measure of progress because it only measures a few myopic statistics.
[GDP is] a political tool just as much as an economic indicator. There are a lot of challenges regarding the legitimacy/accuracy of GDP as a statistical measurement, just as much as there are around SAT or the No Child Left Behind policies. Its not surprising to hear that about the Oslo Triennale. Architects have been enjoying one of the greatest building booms in the history of human civilization, nobodys really complaining about it. That may be coming to an end sooner than we think because we simply cant make billionaires anymore. Its not sustainable.
Storefronts existence all this time, to me, represents a challenge to the dogma around growth. It has always been small and has successfully stayed small; I wanted to hear how this was maintained. Did you havea plan for expansion once it moved?
No. I know we didn't have any plans except for the annual goals to go out and to get funding for the next year. During my time, I kept it small. Financially, its now much more substantial than it was during my time. Since I left, it became much more organized with a lot more funding. I dont know what the annual budget now is, but mine was, at its largest, maybe $250,000 a year. There was really no ambition to make it into a museum of any type or to make it larger. I felt that we were doing well enough and within our means. Maybe they could expand today but things are much more expensive now.
Just down the street is the New Museum, which moved to its SANAA building in the mid-2000s and is now slated to have an addition designed by OMA New York. For a while now, it has been oriented towards growth, accepting large donations, and building up an increasing collection. Its workers just unionized to increase previously unlivable wages that had driven up turnover. Since it was founded not too long before Storefront, just down the street on Bowery, it makes me wonder if you ever tracked yourself in relation to its continuous expansion and acquisitions.
Small is good. I didnt really pay much attention to the New Museum. It was already quite big in my time. It was a space in the corner of Broadway and Houston which was not a small space.
Its not just about size, its about the ambition of people in relation to power. The ultimate aim for people with fame is power, thats why people go to New York. Just as much as the growth-forever economic model, people are driven by fame and fortune which makes a nice recipe for bigness.
There was a great article in The Guardian that came out earlier this year by their architecture critic Oliver Wainwright about the state of real estate investment and speculation in NYC embodied in the super-tall pencil skyscrapers.
I mean they gotta put money somewhere right. Cash in the bank doesnt do as well, as Thomas Piketty told us in Capital in the 21st Century. I think they just dont have enough places to put the money. Their price tag is not because of the market or the construction costs or fees. Theyre inflated in order to put money away.
I heard someone say once that the art market is one of the last safe spaces for money laundering.
I would turn and go the opposite direction, it was one of the first money laundering tools and has proven to be a very dependable one historically.
Thats my concern once architecture reaches a certain scale. It is inevitably tied in obligation to foreign investments. And in growth, more generally, comes a concession to those forces that require more capital to reinvest, more financial obligation if you dont want to stay small. You stepped down from directing Storefront in 1997 and went to Detroit. Could you talk about why you decided to leave?
That was a year or so after Giuliani became the mayor and when the city started to become what it is today: gentrified, Americanized. In the early 1990s, things started to change and chain stores moved in. I remember the first one was Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Before this, like I was saying before, New York was a bunch of misfits that didnt belong anywhere else. And then with gentrification you started to get outside Americans coming in to find jobs. Gentrification really used art and culture as an appetizer to convince people to come back to the city, after white flight and suburbanization in the 1950s. I really didnt want to be a part of that. I started Storefront as an independent voice but now the city was beginning to use its presence as part of its political economy; we were only useful to them for the economic and political purposes that attracted outside investment to reterritorialize the inner city. I didnt like it. So in the mid-1990s, I started to go to Detroit because I was doing projects like Detroit is Everywhere and working with Cranbrook Academy of Art. I started meeting very interesting people, totally disconnected from society, extreme urban pioneers. They were off the grid, not just infrastructure, but socially and culturally. They were just on their own. I got very interested in their work and I felt that maybe I could be more useful in Detroit than I would be in New York. Even though I had started Storefront, I had come to realize that as independent as it could be, it could no longer be as experimental as it once was. I saw in Detroit a place to be experimental again.
I think that explains the reason why I started, what I did, and why I left. I think the problem is larger now than I ever imagined. Its the whole world. The way I think about the future is not very optimistic. I think were about to enter a historical moment where our comfort, our expectations, and ideas no longer matter because we are not trying to determine our future anymore. History is the ultimate determinant and we cant do anything about it, its become more of a destiny.
In the face of all this, what do you think the role of small scale art curation would be? Can we only react?
I think we have to start small again, to challenge big agendas, big companies, big institutions, including politicians. We have to find small groups of people that create challenges to authority.
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Posted: October 16, 2019 at 5:25 pm
Its been two years since #MeToo became part of the zeitgeist. There have been many stories, personal and in the media, that have motivated the public to confront workplace dynamics between men and women, consent, and the nature of sex itself. While these often-devastating narratives from survivors can inspire us into action or paralyze our senses, there is still much more work to be done.
Founder Tarana Burke remains determined to progress the movement. She speaks at colleges and universities across the country and is preparing the next generation of survivors to do the transformational work of healing.
Although Burke started the Me Too movement in 2006 to address rampant sexual violence, her advocacy work began when she part of youth leadership camps and sister circles as a teen; by her early twenties, she was leading her own. In her words, these healing circles were a place to celebrate your joy and triumph with other people who recognized that these stages are hard to reach. The catharsis comes not only from sharing ones story of abuse, she said, but also what survival can look like after the trauma.
Over the years, shes learned how to assess or reassess what healing looks like and the dangers of conversations that posit abusers at extreme polarities. There are different levels of severity when it comes to harm done, she says, and therefore we have to be mindful, sensitive, and adjust our judgment accordingly.
Burke talked to Vox over the phone about her humble beginnings, Me Toos prominence and pitfalls, 2020 politics, and more. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I remember reading a profile of you in The Cut a year ago and you were talking about the archetypal story of an abuser. And I have talked about this with friends and others: It feels like when theres a man who is outed as an abuser that they are immediately compared to Weinstein. Theyre not as bad as Weinstein as if, you know, because of that we can breathe a little easier. What is the danger of this framing of an archetypal story of Harvey Weinstein, for example, as the most monstrous abuser there ever was?
Im grateful you asked this question because this is super dangerous, right? So Ill give you an example. When the controversy happened around Joe Biden and it came up about him making Lucy Flores uncomfortable, she never called him a predator. She never even used the word MeToo. She talked about the situation and described how uncomfortable and powerless it made her. I felt it was important to support her and her coming out and her ability to say that.
But the backlash I got was that I was making a big deal out of it and Bidens a good guy Hes no Harvey Weinstein. My response to that was, first of all, I dont dislike Joe Biden. I appreciate some of the things that hes done over time to support womens causes like sexual assault on college campuses and the Violence Against Women Act. Outside of Anita Hill, I think hes been a quintessential good guy around these issues, right? My argument about that archetype is that if we go from zero to Harvey Weinstein if someone like Joe Biden, who is by all intents and purposes a good guy if I cant tell the guy who talks about sexual harassment, the statistics on sexual violence, and who fights for womens rights, that Im uncomfortable with his behavior, how am I supposed to fight a Harvey Weinstein? You dont have to be a Harvey Weinstein in order to make someone uncomfortable and wield your power in ways that make one feel powerless.
That archetype is dangerous because it creates this dynamic of a boogeyman that sexual violence is created by a bad guy or a bad apple and that the everyday average Joe who makes you feel uncomfortable is above reproach. These polarizing dynamics dont create the space for someone to be like, Listen, I know that you mean well but I dont like when you touch me like that.
You also mentioned that you never wanted the Me Too conversation to be a take-down. I thought that that was surprising because I feel like, with me, being a millennial and someone whos on the internet an awful lot, when someone is outed as an alleged abuser, the next thing is to want to take this person down. Im afraid to even ask what restorative justice looks like.
This, again, is about the hyper-polars, right? Sexual violence happens on a spectrum everything from someone making you uncomfortable to an environment is unworkable or unlivable to actual physical violence because that is the truth, then accountability has to happen on a spectrum. We have a long way to go before we have a clear-cut, straightforward response to what restorative justice looks like, but we wont ever get there if we declare that every time someone gets called out for their actions its a witch hunt. And, we also wont get there if the standard is regardless of what they do, we get rid of them.
In your TED Talk, you talked about how sexual violence often happens when people believe that bodily autonomy is not a basic human right. I thought about that in the context of black girls and women we have a legacy in this country and abroad where it wasnt a basic human right for us. And so I think that there are many of us who are still grappling with that and that trauma should never be normalized. Meanwhile, in the media, so much of Me Too is tied to white women. What do you think is missing?
Im going to take my time with this. On the one hand, I think that the lack of representation of black women and women of color or any marginalized group in the media since Me Too has gone viral has been clear and gross. Its been very difficult to have our stories told. But nothing about that surprises me. This is the reality that black women and girls have been living with our whole lives. Its a dual argument. We have to be vigilant that we are represented in these conversations and stories in mainstream media, whatever that looks like.
But I also dont want us to get caught up in white folks validating our pain in their media. Like, for example, there was a huge push for us to talk about R. Kelly, and rightfully so. But some of those same folks who yell and scream about R. Kelly are still going to call black girls fast and ignore issues in our community. We cannot sacrifice the work that has to be done in our community to stop sexual violence for the sake of some representation so that white folks can be like, You know what? Black people also suffer from this. They know. Theyve never prioritized our trauma unless it was to their benefit. And so while we have to make sure that we keep that chorus going with, Dont forget about us, we have to also make sure in tandem that we are being just as serious about the work that has to happen in our communities.
You said youre going to start doing your healing circles again in 2020. Are there any components that youre going to tinker with or add, given Me Too and its prominence?
Thats what were actually working through now. What does it look like to scale up something thats so deeply personal? Were working with a team of professional therapists and social workers and folks who do this. My main concern is being able to vet the people who come to the training to make sure that they are not causing any harm or retraumatizing people. When I was doing healing circles in the community, I was leading them myself. But now, obviously, I cant do that around the country.
I also look at our healing circles as recruitment ground where survivors can move into our survivor leadership training. Another part of their healing can be doing the work of fighting against sexual violence. Those two things are tied together in our programming. Thats not necessarily new, but its certainly a bigger part of how were approaching the work now.
Besides the healing circles, what else do you have on your plate?
One of the things that were building is a digital platform. In 2020, well debut that. Since Ive been doing the work, its been a goal of mine to create a space where all different kinds of survivors can find themselves. By that, I mean race, ethnicity, and religion, but also by whatever stage of healing that youre in. A lot of whats offered in public service to survivors is for immediate health crisis intervention. We want to help survivors wherever they are in their healing journey.
But we also want to push people into action. Part of the work of the digital platform is a tool to be active in the movement. Were also excited about the election. Were waiting on a candidate to tackle what has been one of the largest news stories in the last decade. Nineteen million people tweeted about Me Too in the first year after it went viral.
We are looking at something that in any other field would be classified as a public health crisis and yet we havent had a question even asked in any of the debates about this topic. We are interested in where sexual violence falls in the spectrum of things that candidates are prioritizing.
Morgan Jerkins is the senior editor at ZORA and the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America.
Miranda Barnes is a Caribbean American photographer. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally posted here:
Posted: at 5:25 pm
When Charlotte Wood finished writing her furious tour de force, The Natural Way of Things, she declared that for her sanity she would next write a lighter, funnier novel. And so she has in a way. What could possibly be disturbing in a comedy about a group of ageing female friends?
For readers who discovered Wood through The Natural Way of Things, her new novel, The Weekend, may surprise. Those who relished the brilliant dystopia about a disparate group of young women imprisoned in the Australian desert to protect their sexual abusers might expect another diatribe against misogyny. Those who shied away from the bleak fable will wonder if they can open their eyes. Both, if they put aside preconceptions, will enjoy this playful and moving feminist fairytale.
The Natural Way of Things brought Wood sensational success: an Australian bestseller, published internationally, winner of the 2016 Stella prize, a Prime Ministers Literary award, Indie Book of the Year, and shortlistings for the Miles Franklin award, among others.
The novel was both sharply contemporary and timeless in its portrayal of women under duress. Wood perfectly captured the zeitgeist, anticipating not only the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwoods 1985 novel, The Handmaids Tale, but the entire #MeToo movement.
Many writers stall at the challenge of how to proceed from such acclaim. Wood has wisely not tried to outdo her own shock tactics. The Weekend, her sixth novel, returns to the qualities that had already built an admiring readership for her earlier books while being a more domesticated sister to its wild predecessor.
Families, in a broad sense, have always driven her tightly focused dramas. The dynamics of The Children and Animal People, a loosely linked pair of novels about sibling tensions, evolved into the unwilling sisterhood of The Natural Way of Things and the fractured friendships of The Weekend.
The Weekend is more Big Chill than Handmaids Tale, with a dash of Big Little Lies and an echo of Atwoods The Robber Bride. Wood uses the classic theatrical set-up of a house party to concentrate tension in a tight space. If she were Agatha Christie this would lead to murder, but her characters emotional blow-ups are closer to those in David Williamsons Dons Party or Rachel Wards recent film Palm Beach (co-written with Joanna Murray-Smith).
Woods plot brings together three women, longtime friends in their 70s, for three days over Christmas at the beach house owned by a fourth woman who has died. They are there not to celebrate but to empty the house for sale. Along with the junk they unearth old conflicts and a big secret. The women begin to question why they were ever friends.
There is Jude, a former restaurateur, the martyr and the boss, who cooks fabulous meals and wonders why the others cant arrive on time. Shes hanging out for her traditional week in the house with her wealthy lover after the women leave.
There is Wendy, a fading feminist academic, who impossibly but surely looks like Patrick White as she ages, missing her dead husband, alienated from her adult children, devoted to her ancient dog.
And theres Adele, an out-of-work actress with a great body (for your age) and no money, just evicted from her girlfriends home.
The beach house perches on the steep block like a stage, high on its poles, its murky olive weatherboards blurring into the surrounding bush and the pale sky. The women enter one by one via an inclinator, a rusting platform that will later deliver the inevitable disruptors of the weekend in operatic style.
Sylvie, the late owner of the house, is an abstract presence. Her belongings reveal less about her (and her absent partner, Gail) than about the women sorting them. Jude methodically cleans the kitchen while Wendy tosses everything into garbage bags and Adele procrastinates among piles of clothes and records.
The true fourth member of the ensemble is Wendys labradoodle. Demented and deaf, Finn spends the weekend pacing, peeing and threatening Judes cast-off white sofa.
Animals are central to Woods work, as a mirror and a moral test for humans. Here the likeness is explicit: Finns ailments confront the women, whose aching joints and straining hearts blink warnings of mortality. Impatient Jude insists it would be kinder to euthanise him, but she also sees Sylvie in his blank face. There are lessons in his simple creatureliness.
Wood, a mere youngster in her 50s, researched the biology of old age during a fellowship at the University of Sydney and nimbly inhabits these bodies and minds. Symbols are everywhere, from the hose that reminds Jude of her colonoscopy to Sylvies copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which Wendy tosses out as very old hat.
Food also plays a visceral part in the relationships, as usual in Woods fiction as well as her essay collection, Love and Hunger. Every morsel is significant, from the predictable stock cubes and anchovies, tins of lentils in Sylvies pantry, to Judes carefully roasted chicken, and the Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup that Wendy drops into each champagne glass like a blood clot.
Tension builds through an accumulation of intimate details. The Weekend is perhaps a more serious comedy than Wood originally intended because she cant help seeing vulnerability and injustice.
Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising. I know what sourdough bread is, Jude tells a waitress who tries to explain, resting her hands on her knees as you might do when speaking to a pre-schooler. Later, in an allusion dense with meaning, Jude will pick up a mans plate like a waitress, like a handmaid.
Woods disarming lightness of tone also teases the womens many foibles, dancing between empathic close-up and wry distance. This creates some hilarious scenes, such as Adeles elated dawn walk:
She was all body, and at the same time she possessed no body at all.
Except, resting here at last on the low stone wall, her strong heart pulsing, panting here beside the slopping water, she very much needed to wee.
Adeles encounter minutes later with theatre director Joe Gillespie and terrier Coco, the companions of a rival actress, is painfully funny and launches the novels stormy climactic scenes. Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.
Baby boomers and others will recognise themselves in one or more of these believable characters, whom Wood deftly distinguishes without turning them into caricatures.
Theres a feast of ideas for friends and book clubs to discuss. The Weekend is a novel about decluttering and real estate, about the geometry of friendship, about sexual politics, and about how we change, survive and ultimately die. Wood has captured the zeitgeist again, with a mature ease that entertains even as it nudges our prejudices.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is out now through Allen & Unwin
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‘Succession’ Composer Nicholas Britell On the Show’s Hypnotic Theme, Working With Pusha-T, and "L to the O-G" – Complex
Posted: at 5:25 pm
With the timeline still ablaze over this past Sunday's jaw-dropping season finale it's official: Succession is no longer just a show, it isThat Show. (It's even crossed the Unfounded Conspiracy Theory threshold). Of course, for most of us, it's been That Showsince last year. But it's great to see the world slowly but surely beginning to catch up, as the show's popularity crests and itcrosses over into becoming HBO's next hit. A key step in advancingthat master plan came last week, when none other than Pusha fucking T jumped on the show's already hard-hittingtheme music for an offiicial rap remix.
For a series to connect with the zeitgeist it has to have the whole package, and Succession's hypnotic main theme is arguably just as indelible as its performances and plot twists. Beyond just appearing in the opening credits, the theme recurs as a non-diegetic compliment to the narrative in essentially every episode, and for multiple moods at that. Sometimes it's a triumphant backdrop to a successful power play, sometimes it's a sorrowful soundtrack when a power play doesn't go as planned. Either way, it's woven into the show's DNAso much so that composer Nicholas Britell technically scored the series' first Emmy for it earlier this year.
Britell's been scoring our favorite pop culture moments for awhile nowhe's the genius behind the beautiful music that compliments Barry Jenkins' two opuses, Moonlight and If Beale St Could Talk.With fans starting to lobby for Succession as having one of television's all-time great themes already, and the Best Rapper Alive hopping on his Emmy-winning composition, it's safe to say Nicholas is having a moment. And he's just getting started. A self-professed hip-hop head, Britell has a background in experimenting with rap production long before linking up with Pushin fact, we have him in part to thank for the genius of Kendall Roy's "L to the O-G" rap. Who's to say where it might go from here, but we had to check in. Complex caught up with Britell, currently in London, on Facetime Audio ahead of the SuccessionSeason 2 finale, to geek out on the theme's popularity, working with Push, Kendall's "9PM in Dundee" moment, and more.
Congrats on winning the Emmy. It feels rightthat that was the show's first Emmy.I appreciate it, well, you know, it's been an amazing experience working on the show and the whole creative team has just been so supportive and I think every department has really just worked so closely with all the others. So it's been just a fantastic kind of creative collaboration on everything.
One of my favorite things about it isobviously there's a whole soundtracks worth of different compositions for different characters and momentsbutI love the way that the main theme is, like, woven into the showitself and the narrative.Exactly. Well, and it's interesting because every projectwhen I start you never exactly know how you're going to go with it. Like, how you're going to approach it, and you start experimenting with things. And with this one, as I worked on it, it just felt like there was something almost kind of maniacal about the way that everything would keep coming back. And always kind of evolve and be, you knowit's always a little different.And in Season 2 it's been fun toexplore taking it into some left turns as well, where it goes into something very different, then starts to come back again. So it's definitely a part of the framework that I work with to think about 'where does the music go' and'when do we bring in some of those chords?'
Someone tweeted that the Succession theme is an all-timer, because when you hear it on the show, you know someone's about to get like screwed over or score some huge win or something.It's amazing. Oh man. Well, and it's so interesting too because it's now taken on this life of its own with like all these memes, and you know, the KermitTheFrog and I mean there's just all these kinds of places in which the music winds up that I never ever would have anticipated.
There's something almost kind of maniacal about [it]
Why do you think it's resonating so much? We're in an era where there aren't even really that many credit songs to begin with anymore.It's a good question. First, all credit goes to the show itself, which I think operates in this really fascinating kind of in-between zone of tonality where on the one hand the show is quite serious. It's dealing with these real issues of concentrations of wealth and power amongst smaller and smaller groups of people and the effects of that and what is that world.
But then, on the other hand, it's completely absurd at times and embraces this high,comedic, ridiculousness.But it does both of those things at the same time. The show itself has this wavelength that it's hitting that I think is very unique. And maybe the music, I think in some ways, is trying to do something similar where,if you just look at the music, it's quite serious and it's got this pretty hard beat in there and it's got these 808s, and it's got a huge string orchestra and everything. But then at the same time it's got thisbizarrely out of tune piano, and these sleigh bells and things. Sonically there's something almost like curious about itin a way. And for me too, most of the music that I've released over the past five years isclearly orchestralor more clearly in one sort of a zone. And I think the fact that this is actually this very kind of dark classical music, but in the guiseofa hip-hop beat, may enable it to live in more universes than some of my other music.
Andeven with all the memes, I think an official rap remix is kind of like the last thing anyone expected.So from the early days of Season 1when people started recognizing the theme, I started getting people reaching out to me, just tweeting or sending me messages saying, "Hey, when is someone going to rap on this?" And at first I was like, "Oh, that's awesome.Totally cool. Thank you."
But then over time it actually continued, and actually increased until people were like, "When is there going to bea rap version of this track?" And so, I'm very careful with it. If we were going to do it, we really wanted to do it right. And so I said to myself, if we could have our dream come true, who would I love to work with and collaborate on this?And the only choice honestly was Pusha-T. There wasn't even a number two. Or we're not doing it. And through a friend of mine, Tommy Alter, who helped organize all this, I connected with Push and his manager Shiv, and it turned out they were big fans of the show and Push loved the music and right away it actually felt like there was this real opportunity to make it happen.
So honestly it'sa dream come true because it's one of those things where you imagine 'what would be the total,lights-out, we-did-it' version of this? And then Push, he was into it. Andhe was so collaborative with the whole process. I sent himthe instrumental and he went in the studio and put some verses together.And then as soon as I got those back, I realized that I reallywanted the theme to also have its ownnew take for this. So I had this idea of, well, what if I actually sample my own theme into this remix?So that's what I did. I actually sampled the theme and took stems and actually made the beat even harder. I gave it extra hi-hat, gave an extra sub and 808. And actually created some new textures within it while also sampling the string, sampling the piano, bringing all that back in. And as I did that, then I sent that back to Push and then he did more verses. Itwas really this awesome back and forth,iterative collaboration.
That's fire. So were you a fan of his already?Oh my God. Pusha-T? Absolutely. I mean, you know, I turned 13 in 1993 soit wasa good year to be a hip-hop fan early on and I've loved hip-hop since I was a kid. So the opportunity to work with Pusha-T, as one of my hip-hop heroes. And, also I think that the best rappers are really virtuosos, you know? They're virtuosos like a concert violinist on the highest levels of virtuoso and I think there are certain rappers who have that kind of other level of artistry. And for me that's Push.
Yeah, when you guys announced, you mentioned that you had a hip-hop background and I was overjoyed to learn that you, essentially, areSquiggle, the man who "cooked up a beat" for Kendall.Yeah, that is true. That is true. I was in a hip-hop band in collegeit was an instrumental hip-hop band with two rappers. We performed around the Northeast, we were called The Witness Protection Program. And basically I spent most of my time in college, literally most of my waking hours, making beats. It was during that time that I really started writing music every day, actually.
I was a concert pianist when I was young, but it was actually hip-hop that got me into this daily rhythm of writing music all the time and getting a chance to perform it. And so what was interesting was when I found out about episode 8with Kendall rapping, they were like, "Oh, I think we need this to be kind of cringe-worthy, but we also need it to be really well done."
So,again, the show had to be right in between the two tonalities and we were trying to imagine, what was the type of beat that Kendall would want someone to make for him for this scene. And I think there was a bit of a thought of like maybe he would want the type of beat that was his favorite thingfrom when he was back in college or something? So we were thinking maybe early 2000s, late '90s, and I said to the producers, Jesse Armstrong and the team,"Actually, you know, I have like beats from then that I was making at that time," and one of the beats I made years ago for that [became]this, it was kind of like a reinterpretation of a Bach C minor prelude that I did. And I put a beat under it and redid the track andturned it into a hip-hop track. I sent it over to JesseandJeremy Strong, and they just loved it.
Did you help Jeremy get his flow down?Let's just say I worked very closely with Jeremy. He really knocked it out of the park. I mean, he did such a great job and he really practiced it. And we justspent a lot of time both in pre-production andon set thinking about how it would sound and then even in post with a great music editor, Todd Kasow, who helped kind of like weave the mix together in the right way so that it felt really full for the scene. So a lot of work went into that L to the O-G.
With that and nowthe Pushthing, the next logical question then is when are we going to see you producing for rappers actually?You know, I'm actually working on some stuff right now, between us, and I'm starting to put some stuff together and I have some ideas. So it's been something.Music and film and televisionmusic's always been a passion of mine, but as a deep longterm dream, being able to collaborate with incredible rappers is something that I've thought about since I was a kid. So yeah, there's some stuff in the works.
I mean the Succession theme is already hard enough as it was. I can definitely see you giving Push an original beat that hits just as hard.Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely, amen. I would love more of that to happen. And, again, you know, just all respect to Push for coming onto this and for just being such an incredible collaborative on it because without him this wouldn't have been possible.
Nice. So Season 3 has already been greenlit. Are you looking forward to adding any kind of new compositions?It's a good question. For Season 2, I definitely wanted to make sure that the original elements were still present, but that they were an evolution. And one of the first things I said to Jesseabout Season 2 was,"I'm sort of imagining this is like the second movement of a symphony where it's still the same symphony but it's kind of taking you to a different little bit of a different place." So Season 3, I think, yeah, maybe that becomes the third movement of some sort of a symphony whereI don't know anything about season three, so I don't know where I'll go with it, but I definitely feel that I want to keep the DNA of the music, but evolve itsomewhere.
Dope. The show was big last summer when it debuted, but it feels like itincreases in popularity with each passing week this year. What do you think it is about the show, just in a broad sense, that's resonating so deeply?I definitely feel that as well. I think it's connecting in a way to the zeitgeist right now. I think, on a serious level,it raises these big questions that I think are part of the world today that we're facing. These questions of wealth and power inequality in the world and sort of who is in charge of a lot of our lives moment to moment.
But at the same time, I think it's the tone of the show, just every single episode that I feel it goes even further into embracing this sort ofhigh art comedy that it's doing. And again, that's credit to the writers who aredoing such an amazing job.It's something about this like a combination of tones that, with everything going on in the world today, I thinkresonates with that somehow.
Do you have anyupcoming film stuff?I just finished the score forThe King starring Timothee Chalamet, that's premiering on Netflix on November 1st and going intoselect theaters. And I'm alsoworking right now with Barry Jenkins on his Underground Railroad limited series that he's doing with Amazon.I don't know when that's coming out, but I'm in the process with that now, too.
Speaking of Barry, since you're a hip-hop guy, I have to make sureyou know that the Beale Street soundtrack waschopped and slopped by OG Ron C.Ohhhhh yes. Absolutely.Those chopped remixes are incredible. They did it and we talked to them about it forMoonlight as well. There's that Purple Moonlight album, but I'm just... It's such an honor to have them do those remixes and since the time of working on Moonlight, I've become more and more like Barry, where whenever I hear any piece of music I want to chop and screw it, so. I would say, probably like 50% of music I listento isme going in andslowing it down and being like, oh, that sounds pretty nice.
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Posted: at 5:25 pm
Director Todd Phillips has called Joker, his grimy reinterpretation of Batmans iconic nemesis, a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film. Thats a pretty accurate description. Joker is a comic book story channeling the narratives and aesthetics of several critically acclaimed real movies particularly Martin Scorseses 1982 film The King of Comedy and David Finchers 1999 film Fight Club.
Like Joker, King of Comedy and Fight Club are about men who violently rebel against a society they feel has cheated them. Joker builds directly on The King of Comedys plot and setting, in which a struggling comedian becomes obsessed with a famous talk show host in 1980s New York City. It also draws on Finchers famously sickly cinematic style, and like Fight Club, its protagonist unwittingly inspires an anarchic countercultural movement.
But while Joker borrows a lot from these films, the comparison ultimately feels hollow. That isnt because Joker is bad. Its just a deeply introspective project paying homage to some of cinemas most effective cultural snapshots and it isnt designed to carry that weight.
Spoilers follow for Fight Club, King of Comedy, and Joker.
King of Comedy and Fight Club both capture a particular American zeitgeist: the former is about celebrity worship in the 1980s, while the latter is about the backlash against consumerism in the 1990s. Both feature protagonists who are preoccupied with that cultural moment. King of Comedys Rupert Pupkin wants to be a star comedian who hangs out with celebrities. Fight Clubs unnamed narrator rattles off mass-market brand names and muses about corporations colonizing the galaxy.
Theyre also films about relationships. King of Comedy is driven by a mutual antagonism between Pupkin, TV comedian Jerry Langford, and a terrifyingly intense fellow stalker named Masha. Fight Club is a struggle between the narrator and his anarchic foil Tyler Durden; its also full of vignettes about emotional support groups and meetings of the eponymous Fight Club. The characters are alienated and violent, but at the end of the day, they live in a society.
Joker, meanwhile, is an uncomfortably effective portrait of an isolated man whose very existence unsettles people. His journal contains the occasional vague observation about society, but his desires are modest and insular. At one point in King of Comedy, Pupkin fantasizes about being so rich and famous that Langford begs to hand over his TV show. Joker mirrors this scene with its own Langford surrogate, but Arthur Fleck (the Joker) just wants the guy to be his supportive father figure.
In his real life, though, Fleck fails spectacularly at connecting with anyone at all. Some viewers have speculated that most of Jokers events are just Arthurs hallucinatory delusions after a mental health crisis, and thats an understandable reaction because the film is set in a dream-logic universe that basically exists to torment Fleck. (Yes, his standup routine is bad, but is it really devote a national TV segment to mocking it bad?) Long, mostly silent scenes are spent showcasing Joaquin Phoenixs strangely graceful creepiness, while his conversations are short, awkward, and sometimes imaginary. His most intense screen partner is just himself in a mirror.
All this makes our window into Jokers world necessarily narrow, and the film relies a lot on simple aesthetic shorthand to heighten its sense of fear and claustrophobia. It evokes an old, dangerous New York that was immortalized in countless 70s and 80s films. Flecks first murders mirror the 1984 vigilante subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz. Clown-masked populist protestors raise the specter of hacktivist group Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But these are all broad, symbolic renderings of real events. After all, this isnt New York; its Gotham City.
Fight Club and King of Comedy poke at the highly specific oddities of their time. Joker sketches scenes from the great slow-moving tragedies of the last 50 years: stark economic inequality, the dismantling of social services, the marginalization of mentally ill people, and the injustices of low-wage employment. (Also, if youre a New Yorker: rats.) Its a 2019 movie set in a pastiche of the 1980s, but it isnt really about either of those decades at least, not specifically.
Some reviewers have criticized this decision as a cop-out, especially because Joker strips out the fraught, complicated racial tensions that permeated the real 1980s New York. Thats a fair assessment, and director Todd Phillips hasnt done the film any favors by touting its gritty realism. But Jokers vagueness can also seem timeless. Its a melodramatic, darkly compelling persecution fantasy. As my colleague Tasha Robinson writes, it plays not just to its most put-upon, angry, repressed viewers, but to the entire audiences darkest hearts.
Despite the widely expressed fears that Joker will inspire angry men to violence, its not even particularly a film about masculinity. Fight Club is about being part of a generation of men raised by women. King of Comedy contrasts Pupkin with his female counterpart: Masha wants to sleep with Langford, and Pupkin wants to be him. Joker does feature a fantasy romantic relationship between Fleck and a female neighbor. Its a tiny thread of the narrative, though, and shes one of the few people who isnt treated as a source of rage. Many critics have interpreted Flecks entire breakdown as aggrieved male entitlement, but you can just as easily frame it as a universal human response to abuse because theres a long history of using white male characters as unmarked, neutral human beings.
Joker could be aiming for a detailed statement about politics and fame and masculinity, and just failing to deliver. It feels more like a movie in conflict with itself paying homage to films built around cultural systems while putting a close-up lens on a single person falling apart.
Thats an intriguing tension, but it doesnt hold. The last act tries to bring together commentary and character study: after descending into desperate violence, Fleck appears on TV and delivers a manifesto about class and society writ large, then he suddenly finds hes the inspirational hero of a clown-based violent protest movement. Instead of seeming like a moment of catharsis or character development, though, it feels like a forced attempt to make the film feel contemporary. When Fight Club and King of Comedys characters spell out their philosophies about society or politics, its a natural extension of their narrative arc. Flecks speech, with its complaints about how everybody just yells and screams at each other and nobodys civil anymore, just seems cribbed from political think pieces.
Phillips definition of real movie seems like a very specific type of movie: the kind that brutally dissects and examines its own social milieu. Thats a goal Fight Club and King of Comedy both share, even as they approach the idea in extremely different ways. But with Joker, Phillips spends more time looking inward at Arthur than outward at the world hes trying to analyze and find wanting. Hes more interested in portraying his protagonist as a victim of the world than in taking a larger look at what that world has become. He sees the strengths of the movies hes emulating, and he takes plot points and images from them. He just cant commit to their greatest areas of strength.
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Posted: at 5:25 pm
Jedediah Purdys 2015 book After Nature is about what we talk about when we talk about nature. Breaking the concept aparthistorically, legally, philosophically, even aestheticallyPurdy makes us see that theres nothing natural about nature, that the world is what humanity has made it. But if After Nature was a profound work of intellectual history, it could be hard to know what to do with it, how to live in nature in the present. Which might be the paradox of the Anthropocene in a nutshell: The more human-made nature becomes, the less power it feels like we have to control our creation. One of Purdys most important takeaways is that nature has too often been a place to run to. But the Anthropocene gives us nowhere to hide.1Ad Policy
Purdys new book, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, is shorter, more pointed, and unapologetically polemical. Its about how to live together once weve accepted that there is nothing more natural than living in society with other human beings, in a world in which politics and ecology have come to be one and the same. Its a book to read now and to think from. Its a call to action.2
Purdy is currently a law professor at Columbia University. He was born in a house without electricity or running water, the son of back-to-the-landers who followed a dream of self-sufficiency and independence to Calhoun County, West Virginia. Since his first (and briefly notorious) book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, hes drilled deeper into the dreams and idealism that have made American nature what it is, but the through lines are always the same: What can we learn from the past that has made us who we are, and how can we make ourselves something better in the future?3
Along with discussing Wendell Berry, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, homesteading and the border, I finally got a chance to ask Purdy the questions that really matter: Is Seinfeld bad? And what does Game of Thrones have to tell us about climate change?4
This interview has been edited and condensed.5
Aaron Bady: So what happened after After Nature?7
Jedediah Purdy: When I was writing After Nature, I wondered if there was a version of environmental politics somewhere in the past that got it right and was ripe for recovery, but I didnt really answer the question. But when I started thinking about worker-led industrial health programs, New Deal landscape engineering, and the ecological community-defense impulses of radical miners unions, I came back to what Im calling the Long Environmental Justice Movement. Weve been Anthropocene for a long time, and more self-consciously and constructively than I was able to show in After Nature.8
AB: You dont use the word Anthropocene that much in This Land Is Our Land.9
JP: You could say it was a ladder I threw away for this book, though I needed to climb it first. It crystallizes the idea that the world is deeply made by human activity, that the line between humanity and nature is unstable. But its academic and abstract. You have to make it much more concrete.10
AB: Have the politics of the last four years helped make it more concrete?11
JP: Absolutely. The Trump administration has given a new turn to the politicization of the landscape by siding with right-wing public-lands activists in the West and by making fossil fuel extractionand particularly coalinto elements of his nationalism. Trumpism rolls coal. But efforts like the Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, and the Sanders and Warren campaigns more generally have done a lot to make concrete the idea of a truly democratic political economy. Ecology is political economythats a key lesson of the Anthropocene. Im not just talking about democracy as a procedural idea or an abstract commitment to equality. It has a definite political economy: strong social provision, an economic shift to caretaking, repair, and renewal. Commonwealth is my attempt to name an economy where one persons living doesnt degrade other people or wear down the land. Its the ideal that work should help the world to go on, not exhaust it, and its the thought of holding the economy to the standard of that ideal.12The Nation Interview
In a way, This Land goes back to the themes of a short and much more hortatory book that I wrote a long time ago, For Common Things. That book was motivated by a phrase from Wendell Berry about wanting his life to be a thing decent in possibility. But to realize that nice-sounding goal requires a very intense excavation of the harms that youre implicated in simply by virtue of living in the ways you do. It requires basic relearning. And its something you cant do alone, that people cant do just in their heads.13
AB: Youll pardon me if I recall that For Common Things was your Seinfeld is bad book.14
JP: Yeah, and now Im living on 112th Street in Manhattan. On the corner is Toms Diner, the diner in the Seinfeld intro. This is how the zeitgeist deals with its critics: It smothers them in irony.15
AB: I suppose there are worse ways to paraphrase Seinfeld than the harms that were implicated in simply by virtue of living in the ways we do.16
JP: I know you were kidding about Seinfeld, but the argument of that book has turned out to hold. I wish it hadnt. I hate when people say thatits the most obnoxious humblebragbut its true. Part of how we got to this place is the indifference to real political stakes that passed for sophistication in the 1990s. It set us up for the failure of 9/11: Bush and the neocons hijacking politics through an obsession with security, the bipartisan embrace of the War on Terror, ambient Islamophobia and the construction of the surveillance state. The terror attacks were a test, and the country failed.17
We were already decades into treating politics as a kind of entertainment, a kind of likability contest, a kind of joke. So we didnt marshal the seriousness to think about the countrys place in the world, the crimes and dangers of war, the hazards of bigotry and self-righteousness. Instead of reckoning with any of that, Bush welded sentimental and aggressive nationalism onto the check out and go shopping mood of the time and repurposed the state for spying and war. That put nearly a decades delay on the US doing anything about climate change. And Trump! Trump isnt possible without security at the center of US politics, without Islamophobia and xenophobia everywhere, without the crude nationalism of chanting USA!, which we should remember was Bushs move.18
The Obama campaign tried to change the rules, but there was no institutional power or infrastructure to press him to do anything radical in his presidency. Hes often criticized for the corporate and centrist character of his response to the financial crisis and his general policy attitudeand fair enough. But where were the rewards for anything more radical? Where were the policy outlines, even? His presidencys limits were also a function of the political landscape, of the limits of transformative rhetoric with no transformative vision. The sentiment was for a renewing unity, but there was no struggle over political and social visions.19
Politics: not optional. Treating it as optional: dangerous. That was the argument, and it still is. And since then, weve had the much more confrontational and ideologically developed Sanders and Warren campaigns, the Movement for Black Lives, the Democratic Socialists of America, AOC, all the less famous officials and activists whove also come into action in the last few years, and calls to divest from fossil fuels and abolish the industry.20Current Issue
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AB: Thats well and good, but youre avoiding the question: Is Seinfeld bad?21
JP: We dont have to agree. The turkey sandwich at Toms Diner is OK. The Greek salad, however, is not.22
But the real point is that the world we humans have built traps us into continuing to destroy the larger living world. When I was writing After Nature, I dont think I understood how much were a species of our infrastructure. After all, how many of us could survive without the 4,000 tons of built environment and transformed habitat that belong to each of us? The agricultural soil and roads and buildings and things like that? That global average4,000 tonshomogenizes vast and vastly consequential differences. But our human powersof sheltering, feeding, communicating, connecting, creating, moving, and workingtake place through vast built systems that put a very specific ecological price on everything we do. That infrastructure has become the external body of humanity, and its an exoskeleton with a very precise destructive logic, one that isnt really optional for any of us.23
AB: Im particularly interested to hear you say that, given the back-to-the-land movement you grew up with in West Virginia. People in this country have been trying to go back to the land since forever in that distinctly antisocial way that connects homesteaders to preppers, but I see your work as trying to think about a way for a social (even socialist) way back to the land.24
JP: Ive been thinking about the homesteading question recently, because Ive been working my way through Wendell Berrys essays. His writing has mattered to me for a long time, and it influenced how my parents thought about what they were trying to do: living on a small farm in a very poor place, being part of the community, trying to take responsibility for a small, tractable portion of the world. In For Common Things I wanted that experience to stand for an ethic. And some of the environmentalists I worked with in the early 1990s were taking responsibility for interdependence. They were people who had chosen places and were doggedly working for them for the rest of their lives. But in hindsight, a lot of people were running away from interdependence. Living in the country was stylish. When I look at the family albums, the style is really greateven in the hayfield, even while working horses, even without Instagram filters. By the time I was old enough to process status, it wasnt cool anymore, and people like my family really were living on the marginsnot much money, a mix of OK jobs and not-great jobs, people going to jail for growing weed, everything. It wasnt romantic. People who had family money moved on before I understood the difference between us and them. It turns out a lot of people had family money.25
In the end, Berry taught me that the test of an approach is how seriously it takes interdependence. Ecology is one language for doing that. Politics is another.26Related Article
AB: In the book, you describe some of the ways interdependence becomes poisonous: Land is perennially the thing we share that holds us apart, for example, or the way war has taken the place of older collectivities that have been destroyed in the process of creating enemies.27
JP: The continuity between Bushs and Trumps America is deep. And I guess all Global North nationalisms have been connected with imperialism in one way or another, but American nationalism is distinctive: Asserting the defense of the homeland is particularistic and at the same time a claim to universal jurisdiction. Homeland is a boundary in some ways (locking out the people that dont matter), but its also the right to wield the sword (or the drone) over everyone else.28
Our survival makes us complicit in what we destroy and what eventually destroys us, but the boundaries of that us is always shifting. Thats why the pivot is a political we that can turn around and reshape the system itself, the economic order and infrastructure. Politics has to start with the fact that we are one anothers problems, potentially one anothers enemies, and to make ways to become one anothers collaborators, helpers, and friends.29
Thoreau has been one of my touchstones for decades, because he saw political membership as a moral and legal version of infrastructure: a problem you cant get out of. And he was extraordinary on how political sensibility interacts with the natural world: days when you cant see the horizon and also cant think, like in the November and December after Trumps election. The memory of my country spoils my walk, he says, but he doesnt just mean his recreation is soured. He means he can hardly stand to be, knowing what hes part of.30
AB: Is the nation a sufficient framework for building the commonwealth youre describing? I cant think about the nation and not hear borders and the violence theyve come to synonymize.31
JP: People make their own history, but they dont get to choose the conditions in which they make it. The national state is the unchosen condition.32
The basic question in this book is: Democracy or capitalism? Capitalism as it now works is committed to indefinite growth, always-expanding horizons of extraction, dealing out the world to the highest bidder. Following that logic, a lot of fertile land is held by investors planning for food scarcity, while the wealthy are buying land in places they think will be safe from climate change. This economic system not only intensifies the crisis, it guarantees that its effects will fall unequally on the poor and already vulnerable. This is especially true in the Global South, but the class structure in countries like India and China is such that Global South is more of a historical term than a present one. Vast differences among the rich, poor, and middle class cross-cut the world, and most countries have their North and their Souththe United States certainly does, as we saw in New Orleans during Katrina and as I describe in the book writing about Detroit and West Virginia. Only political power can change the shape and trajectory of an economy in an intentional way. At this moment of ecological crisis, that means deciding what will count as value in the economy. It means asking, as Kate Aronoff puts it, who will get to live in the 21st century?33
But at least for now, the levers of political power are institutional and exist in states. For now, that means the national state is the necessary site of political transformation. Of course, the nation doesnt have a special moral claim or anything like that. And the tragedy is that our crises are on a global scale. Nations have built a global capitalism that now imposes its own logic and power on nations themselves. Expanding economic life beyond the scale of political rule insulates capitalist logic from political control.34
But to make the tragedy generative, we have to work where the political platforms exist. The work, then, is to build an internationalism on national platforms; transnational solidarity, coordination, and mobilization are essential. But the power of demonstrations, Blockadia-style protests, self-organizing resistanceit all pales beside the power of the state. To be effective, all these mobilizations and claims have to be translated into uses of state power.35
AB: What happens to our land on the border?36
JP: Everyone should read Greg Grandins book, The End of the Myth, on how the border and the frontier have undercut the possibility of a commonwealth politics throughout US history, pushing expansionism and ethno-nationalism as the answer to every political crisis. For more than a century, the US-Mexico border has divided labor in North America, keeping Mexican workers in low-wage roles while giving capital access to them in the maquiladoras or as extremely vulnerable labor that was not incorporated into any social contract, like agriculture and domestic work.37
At a minimum, the politics of this border should be resistance to terrorizing people who have crossed it and solidarity with them. I also think a commonwealth politics demands truly universal voting by everyone who has to live within a set of economic rules. In conversations recently with friends and collaboratorsAziz Rana, the great legal scholar, and Isaac Villegas, a minister and activist in DurhamIve been feeling more and more strongly that one thing the left should be pushing for is residency voting. If youre here, you should have a part in setting the rules. Otherwise, citizenship is just a caste status, which is exactly what Trump and Trumpism want it to be.38
AB: OK, now heres the big question: Was the Night King in Game of Thrones a metaphor for climate change?39
JP: If hehe?was, then Arya was a Silicon Valley hack, algae-driven fuel or carbon-eating bacteria with no ecological side effects, that dissolved all the political lessons the existential threat seemed to bring. What a disappointment. The Night King was interesting because his threat looked like it would dissolve the petty divisions and force new terms of unity. But then, poof, he was gone, and it was back to business as usual: laughing at the commoners, squabbling over lands, deferring to sententious speeches from Tyrion. The scene where Sam says, What about democracy? and everyone laughs turned my stomach.40
Watching these monarchical fantasies, I think the democratic viewer tends to treat the politics of the fantasy world in a displaced, critical waysay, Cersei as a bleak feminist reflection on the kinds of power women can hold in a misogynist order. But that laughing-at-Sam scene literalized monarchys values. If we think of them as people, then these people are just assholes, like almost all lords throughout history. I guess Im slow on the uptake; I hoped democratic radicalism would arise in the showthe Brotherhood Without Banners, the egalitarian community of farmers where the Hound washed up, the Wildlings, or the commoners generally. In the end, they were just dragon fodder.41
The Night King might show us the limits of climate crisis as a spur to politics. Fighting to live isnt politics; politics is about how to live together. Staving off the White Walker apocalypse didnt bring any insight into what to do with life, particularly political life with other people. And the climate crisis cant bring unity: It calls into question our present structures of division, which throws us back on the work of constructing a political we. So maybe the Night King was a terrible metaphor for climate change, but by failing narratively, he was a very good metonym for the limits of climate politics without a much fullerand more fraughtpicture of what were fighting for and on what grounds.42
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