Monday, June 21, 2010

Response to Rebecca Wolff of Fence Magazine

So Rebecca Wolf, editor of Fence Magazine, wrote a criticism of the 95 Cent Skool that boiled down to, "they're taking too absolute a position with their poetic sensibilities. I wish they'd added "to us" onto the end of "any poetry which subtracts itself from such [social] engagements is no longer of interest" in their mission statement. I don't want anyone telling me a) how to write poetry and b) how to be socially effective. Furthermore, radicalized social poetics will never change the system." Read the post if you have the time and emotional energy.

Of course, what she said would infuriate the choir here, but more importantly, the language of her critical argument betrayed a lot about her own social (and generational!) position. I posted this response to her criticism on the Fence blog, located here:


This is an apt description of the generation Rebecca described herself as part of:

"We are careerists -- clinging to our conviction that we can change the world not by forceful ideas but by the mere force of our own often-coddled personalities, even if the ideas and passions that once animated our humanity have been buried under pages of resumes and cover letters."

Rebecca: Perhaps your social and generational realities/experiences (which you described very beautifully by the way, thank you for that) are ill-equipped for dealing with the problems the world faces today. Furthermore, perhaps the 95 Cent Skool is popular among young people like me not because we're being "bullied" or "intimidated", but because we've seen how your generation's moderation, careerism, and emphasis on "um, creative freedom," (i.e. not taking an absolute aesthetic position) has remained not only useless, but disheartening /to us/, when faced with the rising tide of Suck in the U.S.A. In addition, perhaps said social realities make you mock the possibilities of the Skool; you criticize the "super-strong drive for some kind of unified, community-based, activated practice for your own writing and for the writing of those you want to be surrounded by," simply because its strength denies the opposite drive. Well yeah, of course it denies the opposite drive; it would be tepid, unfelt and insincere if it didn't. This isn't about F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence as the ability to hold conflicting notions in one's head at once; it's about what we actually want from the contemporary society in which we live. We want to live our lives in a way that satisfies us as writers and as human beings who share a social poetics, day-to-day in the moment.

As writers, we are more willing to be a part of something greater than ourselves that takes a strong, firm stance against social oppression than those who came before us. Even if it means our writing isn't filled with "creative genius" and "personal inspiration." We're willing to put everything about ourselves on the line for that stance, even if nothing changes because of it. From whence does this passion arise: We know to our guts that we don't exist in a vacuum. There is no choice but to hold a social poetics. It's not even about making a change; hell, we know better than you seem to know that the 95 Cent Skool is not going to change anything in the system. It's not going to clean up the oil in the Gulf. It's not going to get our tax dollars back from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and the rest of those crooks. It's not going to keep Latinos in Arizona from being racially profiled and harassed. It's not going to magically make capitalists care about human beings over profits, and it's not going to magically make politicians care about their constituents over lobbyist contributions.

The difference between you and us is that we have much less faith that we can have any sort of positive impact by "establishing direct mental contact with [our] government." Writers much more talented, creative and educated than us have been ignored, undermined, placated or transformed by the people in power for decades with no real change; what chance do we have of getting through? As far as we're concerned the system can collapse upon itself without our creative input, as it seems on track to do. We'll still produce and offer our criticism and engagement through our work, but we can't devote our professional satisfaction to the possibility that someone in power will listen. We have to find that satisfaction in a different way.

The 95 Cent Skool isn't about social change in the broad sense of marches and letter-writing campaigns; it's about satisfying our souls' need to exist apart from a failing system and apart from people whose actions or inactions support the system that's failed our sense of justice for our entire lives. If Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover were to add "to us" to the mission statement, it would deny the full-bodied fervor we feel for how the system, implicitly supported by any aesthetic that doesn't explicitly take it on, has failed not just us but the entire world. It's about social change in the sense of creating the sort of (micro)society we want to live in, as writers and as human beings, to study and learn what we love.

I'd be willing to maintain an exclusionary aesthetic for the Skool in order to accomplish the above-described souls' need. Walls keeping people out also protect the hearts of those they enclose. Those who disagree can form their own group and end declarative statements with "to us" all they want.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Your Take on the Reading?

The British Library (socialist? capitalist? what's your take on copyright libraries?, with apologies to Le Tigre) had all three books, and last week I whiled away a few afternoons reading them and making incomprehensible notes, but one I kept coming back to was: boys on my left side, boys on my right side, boys in the middle, and you're not here.

There are small loans from the girl zone in each book:

  • Jason Read briefly mentions gender and the significance of domestic labour for arguments of use value, and some Marxist feminist writing on that topic from the 1970s
  • Joel Kovel asserts that the hierarchisation of the sex/gender binary is the foundational moment for both human inequality, and exclusionary thinking that divides ecology into humans and the "environment," while dismissing eco-feminism as flawed by a) goddess-worship and b) in-fighting (hello, the 1970s called, and they want their stereotypes back)
  • Paul Avrich, er, mentions Emma Goldman. And some female teachers, without ever exploring whether the anarchist school movement addressed the socialisation of gender in education (from the description of some of the womanising, supported-by-girlfriend teachers, not so much) -- despite the presence of Goldman and some connections to the group of leftist and feminist magazines and writer-activists charted by Nancy Berke in Women Poets on the Left.
Of course, I'm being a little flippant: all three books speak to important impulses, theories and flows that come together with various feminism(s) towards building community and overthrowing capitalism. I'm also particularly grateful for Jason Read's citation which (re)turned me to Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community, which I read and have been quoting to friends with a worrying fervour.

But I'm also not being flippant. All three books are written by white American male academics, and it seems to me that one urgent principle of social justice is a diversity of voices, not for its own sake, but because justice is best effected by listening broadly and learning widely from people who have something worth saying grounded in their particular and contrastive experience.

So these are some of the books I will be (re)reading as I travel west to California, with all the histories that that journey carries for me as a European, as an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi, as a film lover, as a teenage Beat, as a queer, as a radical, as an invader, as a polluter, as a dreamer. There's only one book of poetry (Deborah Miranda's, rooted in Esselen and Chumash ecologies) mentioned, but the list is haunted by others -- perhaps not materialising because it feels over-determined/over-determining/over-shadowing to suggest poetries. Or even poetics.

Please, please add your own: the reading of your journey, of your plans. Of your dreams, because this workshop (once you get over reading about the horrors of capital and feeling like you can't go on, you must go on, you can't go on) is -- *has* to be -- radically, pragmatically utopian. I'd love to read more books about Californias: Chumash, Chicana, Chinese, migrant worker, suburban, mythological, economic, as guerrilla garden, as caliphate...

I'd also love recommendations for films to see that might link into and light up a radical poetics -- on the California front, I love (love? hard word for a complicatedly beautiful film) The Exiles; likewise Killer of Sheep. Is there a Bay Area equivalent of Los Angeles Plays Itself? A Canyon Cinema round-up? Or a remake/retake/reup of the feminist radical anti-capitalist politics of Lizzie Borden's awesome Born in Flames? Or as downright gorgeous as Jenn Reeves' 16mm eco-film-poem When It Was Blue?

Links are to publishers rather than Amazon where possible; if books are out of print, I link to a review. Please support independent publishers and booksellers. And libraries.

For traveling:

For crossing the border:

For arriving:
Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home
Deborah A. Miranda, The Zen of La Llorona

For (dis)orientation:

For observing:

For building community:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Synopsis by Marlon MacAllister

This text originally appeared on Marlon MacAllister's blog Another Unprofessional Title.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thesis: Capitalism is Destroying the World; Ecosocialism Will Save It

Yadda, yadda.

I'm not attending the 95 Cent Skool, an experimental writing seminar in Oakland in July, but I've been reading their book list anyway. One of the books is titled "The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?" by Joel Kovel, detailing the dangers of a capitalist mindset. He makes so many interesting definitions and connections that I can't help but provide a synopsis/review of the book and my thoughts.

Mainly, the thesis is that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological, mostly due to the nature of capital.

This requires answering a bunch of questions. Notably:

What is the nature of capital?

We relate to objects through our sense of value. Objects have three forms of value: intrinsic value, defined by our appreciation for and receptivity to the object by itself; use value, defined by what we use the object to do; and exchange value, defined by what we can get through an exchange of the object. While intrinsic and use values are qualitative, exchange value is always quantitative.

Capital is any object for which the exchange value is primary. For instance: money is the ultimate form of capital. It isn't particularly beautiful, we can't use the physical paper or bank balance for much, but it has a lot of exchange value in the sense that we can exchange it for everything else. Notably, capital only has value in the moment of exchange. Capital only has value when you give it away, and then you need more.

What is capitalism?

Capitalism is any system in which human labor is a form of capital. This occurs because the means for production (everything that makes labor possible) are all privately owned. Labor, by definition, is a) owned by each individual human being, and b) used to create value, whether in the form of laying bricks, writing a song, or teaching children. In a capitalist society, laborers give away their labor for a wage, because they own neither the means for creating value for themselves nor the full value that results from their labor. Their labor only nets them the paycheck that the private owners of the means for production choose to give.

To extrapolate, capitalism is any system in which capital organizes all elements of production, from labor to raw materials to all else. Exchange value (money) begins the production process and exchange value (profit) is the end goal.

What defines "ecological?"

Ecology, strictly defined, is a discipline devoted to the study of the relationships between members of a natural system, both living and non-living. As Kovel uses it, natural systems can be anything from a rain forest to a city block to a set of cubicles to the human mind. According to Kovel, ecology also the study of the overall health of a natural system, as a system is comprised of relationships. Ecological morality emphasizes the health of relationships as they pertain to the whole of the system. Healthy relationship, he states, "is any mutual signalling that preserves both connection and individuality."

Why is capitalism inherently anti-ecological?

Kovel asserts that whenever capital organizes production, two things happen. 1) Capital tends to degrade the conditions of its own production and 2) Capital must expand without end in order to exist. By definition, capital only exists at the moment of giving it away, hence it must be constantly renewed, constantly expanding into new markets.

Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological because when these two things happen, they tear apart relationships within ecologies, which operate under fundamentally different rules. 1) requires splitting the ecology into commodities in order to siphon the exchangeable parts from the non-exchangeable parts, while 2) creates so much waste and removes so much of an ecology that it can't restore itself. The whole is ruined by over-focus on certain parts. This can be applied to natural ecologies as well as social or internal human ecologies. Corporate burnout happens by your thirties.

This is a problem, because we can't escape from nature - we're a part of it, and if we don't learn how to treat our lives and our planet ecologically, we're going to sink along with it.

What is an ecological alternative to private ownership of means for and ends of production?

A word that I'm somewhat dubious about: "Usufruct." In a usufructary relationship, all means for production, including machines, living quarters, and the natural world, are for your use and fruitful enjoyment. It's not an "ownership" relationship, however, because ownership is predicated upon capital and exchange value, whereas as usufructs, the means for production are an intrinsic part of the community. They can't be uprooted or sold and so are treated with reverence in an ecosocialist society.

Ownership is predicated on the potential for liquidation and moving on, moving away. In a capitalist way of life, argues Kovel, "nothing is ever really owned, since everything can be exchanged, taken away, and abstracted. This stimulates the thirst for possessions that rages under capitalist rule...and [is] the subjective dynamic of the ecological crisis."

Why are we writers required to read this?

What does it mean to be a productive writer, and what does it mean to hold private ownership of our produced writing, versus taking a usufructary, ecosocialist relationship with it, potentially in the company of other writers, always in the context of shared social struggle? What does that writing look like?

I would argue that to write is to be inherently anti-capitalist, because you're not transforming your labor power into capital. There is no wage, no exchange value for the act of writing. So what does it say about the sort of world you want to occupy if you simply can't help but read; if you simply can't help but write? These are just my own initial thoughts...other readers have to have more!

Ultimately, this book is a blueprint for someone's ideal world. Joel Kovel isn't a writer, really, in the sense of fascination with language itself. Maybe he is, I don't know. But primarily through this book, he's a historian and he's a sociologist and he's a dreamer and he puts forth a beautiful image but there's a difference, because right here, right now, we're writers. Our job is to bring our hearts critically to bear on our language.

So if you read this and like me, you fall all over yourself with desire, the question becomes: what does the writing look like that arises and arrives from its dreaming? Where does it come from and where does it go? And further, once the verbal heart is sated: what forms, methods, and contents for writing does Kovel's blueprint point you toward in the aftermath?

These aren't just academic questions. If this is the 95 Cent Skool, and we are committed to the assumption that "the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle," then how you relate to the social struggle between anti-ecological capitalism and ecosocialism described in this book is of crucial importance to your poetics. How does it enter into your poetic life, process or conclusion? Consider, and discuss.

Friday, June 11, 2010

One Book Hunted Down

joel kovel the enemy of nature Pictures, Images and Photos

Hello Skooler,

I made it to Left Hand Books and chatted up the young people who volunteer there. Met these two incredible people who, as it turns out, were not really caffeinated: they were just teens. Amazing. I have never seen such energy. Not entirely true, but I guess it has been a while since I had seen that much enthusiasm and zest came from a human naturally, not from a human on drugs.

Ready for the hilarious part? There actually IS a guy who works at Left Hand Books who apparently does not know how to stop a one-way conversation (well, soliloquy) about Marx. At least this once, that guy exists. Anyhow, his name is X and I found out what day he works. I will sneak in and pretend to be looking for another book (as I have ordered a second book from the list). Hopefully he will seize the opportunity to talk about Marx once more and I will try to maintain eye contact and take notes.

Well, must return to the reading now.



PS. I found Joel Kovel's book there after looking in at least 5 other stores. Gotta love Left Hand Book Collective! Visit them:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The List

Have you gotten the books, yet? Which ones? What do you think about it?

- Read, Jason. The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present. SUNY Press, 2006.

You can read about Jason here: He's quite published; it's impressive.

- Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: the End of Capitalism or the End of the World. Zed Books, 2007 (2nd edition).

Joel Kovel has an extensive site. This is his bio:

- Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States.AK Press, 2005.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find a site besides this one: It has a great bio for Paul.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My love of Marx?

We all got the email about the books and the recommended reading to prepare for discussion this summer. I must admit that I am intimidated by the reading. You see, although Marx is a cool guy, I haven't read much of his work.

I know, you're probably getting embarrassed for me right now. Imagine how I feel. Before you write me a lecture on to the importance of his theories, you should know that I have tried to remedy my ignorance--without success. Obviously it's important stuff and it is evident that we will be discussing capitalism at the seminar. I understand.

Let me try to explain the situation. A strange thing happens when I start to read Marx. I will sit down with the text, plenty of time and optimism. At first, the reading seems normal. The words I come across register in my mind, as usual. They are not foreign, they make sense. Sure, but very soon, about a page and half into it, I enter this weird zone where the ideas and concepts pile up inside my brain, filling my head with dizziness and I loose all sense of what the hell it is I'm reading. It's like the bermuda triangle of philosophy. Now that I think about it, I have noticed a similar phenomenon when I read Joyce.

I really wish it wasn't the case but Ulysses and Das Kapital are my kryptonite! I fear the reading might require that I re-visit my old nemesis. Marx has a lot of foes but in this case it's not a result of his critique, I promise. I haven't read the guy enough to disagree with him. Alright, the excitement about tackling the reading for the Summer is tempered by me feeling a bit out of my league. I only hope the volunteer at Left Hand Books is still the guy that can go on for hours about our friend Chalie Marx. Yes, I have nicknamed Karl. I'm hoping it will endear him to me and that this will make reading his work more exciting.

Friday, June 4, 2010