More Jeff in Venice

April 22, 2009

This very brief adaptation of my much longer review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was just published on Bold Type.

Geoff Dyer’s work often grapples with two extremes: peak experience (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It) and total existential breakdown (Out of Sheer Rage). He and his characters — who are too easy to think of as Dyer himself — bounce around the globe in their explorations of the terrain between these two poles. At times they strike a balance, if only for a brief moment. Other times, they just keep moving, in search of better parties, more spectacular beaches, or more fulfilling relationships — as if they can outrun their demons.

Dyer brings this framework to his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a peculiar homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The book is actually two stories that are never explicitly connected, though plenty of details suggest the character in each is the same. Both are insecure, disillusioned British writers in their mid-40s who use their assignments as opportunities to reinvent themselves. One travels to Venice, ostensibly to review the flashy Biennale, but is really there for the parties; the other, while on assignment in Varanasi, India, (also known as Benares) loses himself in the swirling intensity of the holy city. The first meets a woman, does some coke, and ends up right where he started, just hungover and lonelier. The second undergoes a sort of spiritual rebirth and emerges seemingly blissful and content (though a little unhinged). Dyer does a characteristically masterful job of painting a magical picture of the two watery, dreamlike cities as a backdrop.

On the surface, this is a slight departure from the youthful romanticism of Dyer’s previous fiction. The travel and parties are still enjoyable, although this time, they’re competing with a nagging angst that rarely goes away. But at second glance, the old Dyer is still there, still waging a war against the tedium of modern life — he’s simply older, calmer, and less naïve. The two writers in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi are ultimately caricatures of two clichéd approaches to finding happiness, and the book ends so absurdly that it’s clear Dyer still finds humor in the drama of existence.

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The following was written by the RampART Collective, a group that maintains a social center in East London that was raided during the G20 summit a few weeks ago. It does a good job of framing police violence as systemic rather than based on the aberrant behavior of a few bad cops. It was originally posted on London Indymedia.

On the Thursday following the G20 protests, two squatted social centres in East London were raided by riot police, apparently looking for instigators of the attacks on the Royal Bank of Scotland. RampART Social Centre, which has existed for more than four years, and a newly opened Convergence Centre in Earl Street were both being used to house and feed protesters throughout the period of the G20 summit. In both cases, the police acted illegally but, other than a brief report in the Independent which referred to unwarranted violence, the raids remained largely unreported. In both buildings, people were subjected to physical violence and verbal abuse and those that were arrested were later ‘de-arrested’ for lack of any supporting evidence. Our only ‘crime’, it seems, is that we are political activists and squatters and thus deemed to be suitable targets. If only we had kept our heads down and stayed away from these kinds of activities, the logic goes, we would not deserve what we had coming.

It is right and proper that the events leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson should be the subject of a criminal investigation but the danger, as we see it, is that it will be seen as an isolated incident and will be dealt with simply by disciplining individual officers, only serving to further obscure the role of the police in perpetuating a climate of fear. Under the terms of the global surveillance state, citizenship has become an exercise in evading a charge of deviance. In fact, the proliferation of forms of deviance is the flip side of the supposed ‘lifestyle choices’ available under the terms of consumer citizenship. You can ‘choose’ to spend your money on home improvements, high fashion and high-tech gadgets and are applauded for making the ‘right’ choices. But if you choose to occupy an unused building for the purposes of providing space for political discussion, self-education and creative activities without the intrusion of CCTV cameras or access restrictions, and particularly if you refuse to levy a charge which situates these activities in terms of market forces, then you effectively become outlaw. And, if you choose to express your outrage at a system that produces inequalities and then condemns those that become unemployed and homeless, you become a target for repression. The differences between Tomlinson and the people who went to the Bank of England to demonstrate against the iniquitous excesses of neoliberal capitalism are marginal, despite attempts to distinguish between ‘innocent’ bystanders and ‘guilty’ protesters. Tomlinson was on his way home from work. The demonstrators were exercising their lawful right to protest. Both were exercising their right to the city as citizens of a supposed democracy.

When RampART social centre was raided on the Thursday, members of the volunteer collective were sitting down to a cup of coffee and biscuits. Other members were elsewhere in the building speaking to some guests who had come to stay for the duration of the protests. We were aware of the massing of officers outside the building but were used to the presence of a Forward Intelligence Team, the police paparazzi,who had been frequent visitors to Rampart Street in the weeks leading up to the G20, photographing and scrutinising anyone entering the building. And so, for us, it was business as usual.

At the Convergence Centre, the police seemed to be employing a new tactic whereby people being searched before entering the building had their mobile phones confiscated and were threatened with arrest unless they could ‘prove ownership’. Essentially, this amounted to an attempt to illegally secure personal details.

The raid itself was surreal. Or rather, it was hyperreal, in the sense that, as some of us commented later, it was like being on the wrong side of a ‘first person shooter’ video game. Some of us thought the men and women in balaclavas, padded uniforms, helmets and carrying riot shields were pointing toy guns at us. In fact, as we discovered later, they were tasers, which are designed to stun but are occasionally known to kill.

It’s tempting to say that the violence that we experienced was out of all proportion to the level of resistance which was, in fact, zero. But to even speak of proportionality is a mistake, because it implies that there is something in our actions that warrants a violent response. One member of the collective was punched in the face, another was pushed downstairs, saw someone have his head smashed against the wall and was met with looks of disbelief when he pleaded with officers to protect his glasses. One of the residents of the building was punched and kicked, narrowly avoided taser fire and was arrested in his pyjamas.

We would stress again that this happened to people who, like Ian Tomlinson, were simply exercising their most basic civil rights: to congregate peacefully with friends and to walk the streets unmolested. Some might think that we are opportunistically linking what happened to us with Tomlinson, and would want to make a clear distinction. After all, he was a regular bloke in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we were deliberately taking part in political activism. But to continue in this vein is lose all semblance of what it means to live with even a modicum of freedom and self-respect.

The press reported that four (and, in some reports, six) arrests had been made during the raids on RampART and the Convergence Space. Two known to us personally were held in police cells for up to ten hours, had their clothes confiscated and were sent home in Guantanamo Bay style boiler suits. News of arrests functions to assuage anxiety and to justify the cost of police operations that amount to little more than exercises in public relations. The public can rest assured that the dangerous anarchists have been infiltrated and detained and that ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ have been brought to book.

Comparisons have inevitably been made between Tomlinson’s death and the death of Blair Peach during an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in April, 1979, widely speculated to be as a result of assault by the police. Although Peach’s brother reached an out-of-court settlement with the Metropolitan Police in 1989, no officer was ever charged in connection with the death. Thirty years later, the same police force has been granted unprecedented powers in the name of ‘security’ and justified on the basis that London is under threat from elements in the population that threaten ‘our’ way of life. The result is the proliferation of deviant identities which function as a focus for collective anxiety and paranoia (‘terrorists’, ‘anarchists’, ‘squatters’, ‘foreign workers’ etc.).

Since the incidents on the 1st and 2nd of April, voices have been raised in condemnation of police actions, particularly the tactic of “kettling” which herds protesters like cattle and allows the police to punish those who attempt to escape. Back at RampART on the Wednesday evening we saw the resulting head injuries and beaten bodies If we are to avoid more deaths and injury, then we need to think seriously, not only about the powers granted to a police force that seems dangerously out of control but about the ideology that sanctions violence in the name of respectability. We need to think about what it means to be a citizen in 21st century global culture and about the treatment of those that effectively have their human rights revoked because they refuse, or are unable to conform to the dictates of consumer citizenship. We need, in short, to be aware that, as the global downturn deprives people of their homes and livelihoods, any one of us could end up on the wrong side of the divide that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Any one of us could become a scapegoat for the unfocused anger which results when people relinquish responsibility for their own lives and then find themselves deprived of their freedom and dignity. Places like RampART exist because some of us believe that we can reclaim our freedoms but only if we work together in a spirit of mutual respect and toleration.

A Perfect Beginning

March 30, 2009

In the phone interview several weeks ago the man told me training would be March 30 to April 3 but didn’t mention where. I assumed they’d call me closer to the start date with more details.

By last Saturday I’d still heard nothing, which made me think I actually didn’t have the job. I called the LA regional office and left a message. This morning at 9:00 AM a woman with a welcoming Mid-Western accent called me back. I think her name was Linda. She wasn’t sure which training site I was supposed to go to but said she’d look into it and get back to me.

Just before 11:00 my phone rang. This time it was a man, and he had a very different and difficult to understand accent. He told me I needed to be at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church by noon. It’s near 52nd and Western. When I said that was impossible he wasn’t pleased. The training had started at 8:00 that morning, he pointed out, so I should get there as soon as possible.

I walked home, took a shower, ate lunch, and rode six and a half miles to the church. After I locked up my bike I checked the time – 12:30, better than I’d expected – and saw the man had called me three times while I was riding. I called him back.

‘I’m sorry I was so hard on you,’ he said. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. ‘I made a mistake – I told you the wrong location. There are two people with your name. Your training is at the Hollywood Youth and Family Center.’ That’s six blocks from my house. I said it would take me a while to get there.

‘But there’s good news,’ he assured me. ‘Your training doesn’t start until tomorrow.’

Welcome to the US Census Bureau.

Places in Between

March 21, 2009

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A Family Affair

March 9, 2009

Everyday when the middle school across the street lets out, people line up on the sidewalk to sell snacks to the students. Whole families cluster on one corner, each offering something different. Mothers have little carts full of Doritos, Funyons, and Hot Cheetos (everybody’s favorite). Young daughters stand shyly behind coolers overflowing with Coke and Gatorade. At the end of the row fathers wrap hot dogs in bacon and grill them on portable griddles. All of it is on wheels.

As soon as the bell rings kids swarm them, a short stop on the way to the corner of 1st and Vermont where boys practice kick flips and girls chat excitedly. Some days a cop sits in his car across the street and eyes them all suspiciously. Everyone’s got a bag of chips or a drink in their hand, fingertips stained red by the Cheetos.

Half an hour later the students are gone and the sidewalks by the school empty. Colorful wrappers lay in the gutter. The families pack up their wares and wheel them away down the street, grills still sizzling, off to some other opportune corner.

Inside

March 7, 2009

On the street last night there were some people standing around in front of a newly opened art gallery. As we walked up a bald man with his head and face painted bright white appeared on a clown bike, pulling a trailer made out of a wheelchair. He went around in circles on the sidewalk and then rode away, looking over his shoulder like everyone was supposed to follow.

Around the corner he and another man in a blank face mask turned their trailers into a mini stage. One threw puzzle pieces at people. The other periodically took pictures. A small crowd gathered, a mixture of whoever was walking down Melrose at 10:30 on a Friday night. Cars slowed down to see what was going on. “We do not apologize for the delay,” a nasally voice said through a microphone once they were ready. “If you don’t like waiting, you should just go home now.”

The puppet show that followed was beautiful and nonsensical. Marionettes on unicycles, marionettes on stilts, marionettes flying kites, all with demented horror-movie clown faces. They sang songs about the Almighty Ogg and puppet therapy. It started nowhere and we left before it was over. We imagined they just kept going until there was no audience left.

You couldn’t see the show unless you were right in front of it–it was hidden, against a brick wall on a residential street. Half a block away people hung out and ate ice cream and drank beer and had no idea it was there. Five minutes later and we would have missed it too.

In Los Angeles it often feels like this: like something’s happening right around the corner but you can’t find it.

Tyranny

In 1971 Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, wrote an essay directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” The essay was meant to challenge the unquestioning adoption of “structurelessness” by groups who did not want to replicate the structures of society they were trying to escape and change. “Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion,” she wrote. “The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable.”

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness” accurately describes pretty much every collective I have been a part of. The language has changed since the 70s – now we say we’re “non-hierarchical” and that we operate by consensus. Yet consensus, as a tool for making decisions, is an ideal as much as a process. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a group in which all people honestly have an equal say and comparable degrees of empowerment. And rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge it. “The idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones,” Freeman says. “Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”

Because her essay was directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement, it doesn’t go into gender relations, nor does it talk about how race, class, and sexuality affect the formation of these informal structures. In my experience, all these social dynamics fuel the sort of power imbalances Freeman describes. Saying we make decisions by consensus does not make them disappear. Rather than just decide that we’ve moved beyond them it’s very necessary that we be careful, thoughtful, and intentional about how we handle them.

While it is not perfect, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” describes and makes suggestions for how to correct some of the problematic, hidden dynamics that are still around 35 years after it was written. It is a useful starting point for anyone who believes in the possibility of a truly anti-authoritarian approach to living, working, and doing.

Read the full text or download a pdf of a zine to print here (a much more pleasant read).

More articles can be found on Jo Freeman’s website.

Good Ol’ Days

February 23, 2009

Goat Hill

The best way I can describe moving to Los Angeles is to say it’s like moving to another country.

When people think of LA—like, say, Mexico—they think of extremes, of the plastic glamour of the Sunset Strip (or Cancun) and the gritty violence of South Central (or Ciudad Juarez). These are the places people who have never been here know about, the parts so over-represented in movies and music and TV. They come here on vacation, are careful to never go south of the 10, and spend all their time gawking at the beautiful people in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. From this small part of this massive, sprawling city—region, really—they have all their suspicions confirmed and go home thinking LA really is just like the movies.

It’s easy to forget about the rest of the city. Of course that’s nothing new—we’re always more aware of the extremes. “Middle America” is, by nature of being the “middle,” supposed to be unexceptional. But in Los Angeles, the rest of the city if a very far cry from Middle America.

On Halloween I went to see Very Be Careful, a local band that plays a type of Colombian folk music called vallenato. The show was at a nightclub called Guatelinda, the type of place you’ve passed a hundred times but never thought you’d have a reason to go to. Inside were low ceilings, mirrors on all the walls, flashing harsh lights, bartenders in bow ties. It was a lot like going out in Mexico or Central America. Everyone in the very mixed crowd knew how to dance. Everyone had a good time.

That night a friend and I figured out that the parts of LA that remind us of other countries are great. They’re exceptional. They’re the parts that are unique to Los Angeles, where people from all corners of the globe cross paths and invent new, hybrid cultures that just couldn’t exist most anywhere else (yet, at least). The parts that have to do with the US—as in US pop culture—are the bad parts. That’s where the ex-pats hang out. As long as you don’t go too far west you’re pretty safe from it. The boundary is debatable but it definitely exists. I try not to cross it.

The thing that’s really interesting is that these hybrid cultures have very little to do with white people. Being here has made me realize just how much I see through a lens of whiteness. I understood “diversity,” without thinking about it much, as a mixture of white people and people of color. A “segregated” neighborhood had people who aren’t white. When there were too many white people a neighborhood was “gentrified.” As if white people are the engines behind all urban processes, as if everything is defined relative to me.

Most of Los Angeles is not about me. It wasn’t made for me and it doesn’t care about me and that’s a pretty foreign feeling, to be honest. I sometimes have flashbacks to one of my first days studying abroad in Costa Rica, trudging home from class through the mud on the side of the road while cars blew by going way too fast, occasionally swerving onto the shoulder to pass each other. The smell of diesel fuel mingled with burning trash. People would stare at me but never say anything. I couldn’t talk to them yet. I was an outsider. Way outside.

When someone celebrates their birthday at the Thai restaurant down the street the Thai employees turn off the lights and sing along to a recording of “Cumpleaños Feliz” to their Latino customers. The taco truck around the corner has an LED sign that shows the menu in Spanish, English, and Korean. The first time I went there thought it was Korean food truck. Turns out those exist too. So does a Korean taco truck where that sells short-rib tacos and, soon, kimchi-sesame quesadillas. You can eat Pilipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Salvadoran, and Halal Chinese food within a block of my apartment, plus donuts and pizza. There’s talk of naming this corner of the neighborhood “Little Bangladesh.”

Like Mexico, or India, or anywhere you’re not used to, LA is pretty amazing to look at, to wander around and think about and talk about. Things happen that I can’t really imagine happening anywhere else, things that are difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t lived here, or at least been here. And just like when I’ve been a traveler in other countries, the difference between looking at a place and actually interacting with it is huge.

My friend Elliott Liu in NYC just finished a zine, Everybody Wants A New Old Left, that critiques two new socialist pamphlets currenlty circulating in the US  from a horizontalist, anti-authoritarian perspective. He makes clear that some of the fatal flaws that come from focusing on party politics and state power continue to plague socialist groups, though he also points out some of the positive changes they have undergone in response to critiques over the last century. While some of the long-standing conflicts with anti-authoritarians are still very present in these pamphlets, Elliott sees their inclusion of a more flexible and exploratory approach to movement building as at least a little promising. Download a printable version from the original post on his website here.

Everybody Wants A New Old Left

With the election of Obama and a widening economic crisis, it seems immense changes are sweeping national and global politics every week or so. Radicals, along with everybody else, are struggling to comprehend the nature of the changes around us, and the directions we can head in the future. The good news: pretty much everybody thinks the next few years are going to offer the greatest opportunity to remake our world in decades. The bad news: there are as many opinions about how to do it as there are letters in this paragraph.

Amid the flurry of forums, panel discussions, listserv back-and-forths and spirited bar talk animating lefty circles right now, socialist groups are putting forth proposals for new directions in the capital-L Left. Two notable proposals appeared recently in pamphlets distributed online and in bookstores. The first, Which Way Is Left, was produced by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a nationwide post-Maoist group formed in 1985. The second, Manifesto For A Left Turn, was put together by a collection of professors from the east coast including Stanley Aronowitz and Rick Wolff. Both pamphlets call for cohesion and organization-building in the U.S. left, and both fill me with mixed emotions. Read the rest of this entry »