The Earl Brothers: An Appreciation

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

When Monroe started playing the music that became known as bluegrass, of course, there was in fact a whole lot of innovation going on. In 1945, Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, consisted of Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and the man usually recognized as the first bluegrass banjo player, Earl Scruggs. The sound that band created became retrospectively known, probably some time in the 1950s, as “bluegrass music.” Bluegrass incorporated elements of jazz, blues, pop, and even, according to Monroe, Schottisch (a slower variant of Polka) in a repertoire consisting of old mountain ballads, covers of then-contemporary Country songs, and lots of original songs about home, mother, death and lost love.

In fact, about the only conservative thing about early bluegrass was the lyrics; almost every single song expressed some kind of nostalgia, probably because when Monroe started writing them he was an urban factory worker lamenting the loss of his rural mountain home life. The music was fast and exciting, due at least partly to its birth in the city; the conservatism of the lyrics, far from contradicting the freshness of the music, also conveyed the mood of city life, albeit indirectly through a melancholy reflection on another life that was lost. Bluegrass music is about the experience of being uprooted, cast out, left, and lost; in that sense, the lyrics and the often frenetic tempos are of a piece. Bluegrass is not the music of slow-talking, slow-moving and slow-thinking hayseeds, a stereotype Monroe resisted by insisting that his bands wear well-pressed suits. No overalls were seen on bluegrass album covers until the 1960s, when the stereotype began to sell, and even then they were rare.


In light of all this, it may seem that, as many have pointed out, Monroe was a hypocrite in insisting that bluegrass be kept pure, and I suppose, in some way, he was. But he was also right, at least if the aesthetic history of bluegrass is any indication. The electric guitar was mostly a mistake, the piano isn’t worth mentioning, and drums, mostly, do not work. But it’s not just the instrumentation that resists tinkering—bluegrass has proven the bane of many a songwriter, and for that matter many an adapter of other people’s songs, who has tried to put his (mostly “his”) own stamp on the genre. In the 65-year history of bluegrass, after the first few bands put their twist on Monroe’s sound and helped develop it into a genre, most innovative approaches to bluegrass have somewhat diluted the feel of the music, which is often to swallow for someone enraptured by the original blast of the ‘40s and ‘50s.


And that is because, whether this has been good or bad for the subsequent life of the genre, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, Mac Martin, Jim and Jesse, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers and others considered bluegrass’ first generation made music that was, in fact, perfect. Traditional bluegrass music is soulful, exciting, and intensely moving, and allows for far more variety in mood, tempo, and tone than most people not steeped in the genre seem to realize. But when something is perfect it can often lose something when it’s tinkered with. This is not to say that later bluegrass artists didn’t put their own stamp on the genre, but they mostly did so by maintaining a certain recognizable fidelity to the energy, mood, and tropes that had already been established by the first generation. Larry Sparks sings with more blues inflections than most first generation artists, and his lead guitar playing doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dave Evans writes songs influenced by soul music and ‘70s rock and roll, songs that don’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dan Paisley’s vocals madly swoop, dive, and hover around a melody in a way that doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass, or in any other style of music, for that matter. The Vern Williams Band and Red Allen both made bluegrass that was so hardcore that it almost went beyond anything done by the first generation. These artists were indeed innovative, but in the manner of variations on an established theme.


To further complicate matters, the outside influences that do make their way into bluegrass often make a pretty bad fit. The worst aesthetic postures of post-1960s mainstream country, a pretty (and increasingly) dismal scene in its own right, seem to continually seep into bluegrass, with largely unpleasant effects. While bluegrass rarely notices rock and roll music that was made after the 1950s, when it does, the results are dismaying (Dave Evans being an interesting exception, which makes it all the more amusing that I once heard him jokingly apologize for playing a rock and roll song at a bluegrass festival before singing “Johnny B. Goode”). And the influence of hippies on the genre has in many ways been unfortunate, since for some reason bluegrass is to this day considered hippie music by many casual fans (and also by haters). “Jamgrass” at its most musically adventurous is often music made by musicians for other musicians, and at worst sloppy nonsense; concision has always been one of the cardinal virtues of a traditional bluegrass solo (to the point where the musicians often split the already short breaks), and those who color outside the lines often seem to lose in impact what they gain in expressive range.


It all seems obvious now, though. In order to revivify the genre and produce strikingly original yet viscerally affecting bluegrass music, all it takes is to be more innovative and more conservative than the competition. If this seems obvious, it is because the Earl Brothers came along in 2004 and did what nobody since the Stanley Brothers had been able to do: play music that is unmistakably a milestone in its inimitable singularity and freshness, but at the same time largely circumscribed by conventions not of their own making.


When my roommate handed me the first album by the Earl Brothers some time in 2004, I was quite skeptical about what I was about to hear. First of all, the album is called Whiskey, Women & Death, which sounds more like hipster alt-country than the title of a proper bluegrass album. And indeed the album is not a proper bluegrass album, which, as I’ve explained above, is often not a good sign.


The Earl Brothers sound like nothing else, but they are, unmistakably, a bluegrass band. That the music they are playing is bluegrass is evident from the first notes of the banjo on the opening number on WW&D, a slow and dirty roll that is unmistakably bluegrass banjo, even though it does not sound like any other bluegrass banjo. Robert Earl Davis (who has no brothers in the band, and presumably his real brothers don’t have the same middle name, but anyway) plays an archtop banjo, just as Ralph Stanley does. But his banjo doesn’t sound like Ralph’s does. Most archtop players, Ralph included, tighten the drum head on their banjo almost to the breaking point, producing a distinctly bright tone that is in marked contrast to the darker sound of the adherents of the style of Earl Scruggs, the other, first, and by far most influential progenitor of bluegrass banjo. Davis keeps the head of his banjo loose, which produces a dark but concentrated tone that is instantly recognizable. His style on the instrument is very basic, almost primitive, which is a fair description of the Earl Brothers’ sound in general. And for anyone familiar with the band’s music, after only a few notes it is impossible to think that you’re listening to any other banjo player.


After the banjo intro, the vocals come in, and they are also highly distinctive. In a high, raspy voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan, John McKelvy sings:


Turned up the radio so I could clear my head


Pulled into a corner store, picked up a bottle of red


Lost it all in ’94…


I been sittin’ here drinking, gonna drink a little more


It’s not that bluegrass songs don’t talk about drinking, but the attitude here is all wrong for bluegrass. If the drinking songs the Earl Brothers write often disguise themselves as cautionary tales, it’s never quite believable for some reason; even when the song is called “Don’t Drink From A Whiskey Bottle,” the music is more likely to make you want to drink, if you have a taste for the stuff.


Unlike most bluegrass music, which is usually a highly concentrated dose of energy even on the slow songs, the Earl Brothers sound is slinky and trancelike. Although the banjo and mandolin are recognizably lead instruments playing in the bluegrass idiom, there’s nothing on an Earl Brothers album that I would feel comfortable calling a solo. On “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking” the mandolin slides in on top of the banjo at the end of each break, playing basically the same thing every time through, creating a texture and a mood rather than expressing musical variations on a theme. This approach allows the Earl Brothers to employ the highly effective device of inserting a musical break between the verse and chorus of many of their songs. Whereas a full-blown solo would break the mood of the song, an Earl Brothers break heightens the tension that runs through most of their songs and creates an atmosphere that increases the impact of the chorus when it comes in.


In some ways this makes the music sound more like what is sometimes rather vaguely called “old-time” than bluegrass. A player or singer never asserts his ego; as unique as the playing and singing is, like the lyrics, it all seems to come from a certain distance. The band doesn’t relate thoughts, emotions and experiences to the listener so much as it brings the listener into a world that is at once very familiar and strikingly original. In fact, the Earl Brothers’ remarkable originality doesn’t consist in presenting something entirely new, but in making the old new through recombination and reinterpretation. The lyrics owe a lot to tradition, although at times it isn’t the bluegrass tradition that is invoked so much as the blues and mountain folk traditions. As I’ve said, the Earl Brothers aren’t the first bluegrass band to sing about drinking, but they don’t sing about it the way a bluegrass band generally does. Floating verses are imported from old songs, hackneyed bluegrass lyrics are pasted in, and familiar musical idioms are employed, but all in a way that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.


The second song on Whiskey, Women and Death is an instrumental, and like all Earl Brothers instrumentals the intent seems to be to present the sound and feel of the band more than to express any new musical ideas. What is so astounding about the originality of the band is that they never sound like they’re trying to be original; they are never afraid to recycle ideas, both other people’s and their own. “Mountain Rumpus” does manage to raise a bit of a rumpus, although the band sounds hypnotic even on their (relatively) fast songs. A reworking of the traditional “Cluck Ol’ Hen” follows, and it’s the only non-original the band has ever recorded, although even this is rearranged and lyrically supplemented to such an extent that the band probably could have claimed a songwriting credit. The banjo oozes out a slow and repetitive mantra and the bass swoops in at the beginning of each bar, creating a dark and chilling feel that sets off the absurd, non sequitor lyrics:


My old hen, she cackles a lot


She cackles when it’s cold, she cackles when it’s hot


McKelvy could be singing about the end of the world, and the effect would scarcely be more creepy.


McKelvy’s “Broken Motor,” the only song on the album besides “Cluck Ol’ Hen” for which Davis doesn’t receive a writing credit, introduces a brighter feel, and probably would have made a perfect album opener if there were anywhere else to put “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking.” “Broken Motor” is also the best song on the album to this point; it’s one of those songs that is simple and catchy without being cloying. The lyrics to the chorus are almost moronically simple, and sit flat and lifeless on the page:


In the morning and late in the night


Everything’ll be all right, everything’ll be all right


As sung, however, the chorus is an irresistible climax, and this is a typical characteristic of the band’s lyrics—nobody is going to anthologize them in a volume of poetry, but more often than not they come off just exactly right for the song.


On the next song, Robert Earl Davis’ lead vocals sneak onto the album, five songs in. Although his voice is less immediately striking than McKelvy’s, his singing is just as unique and memorable. Whereas McKelvy’s piercing voice rides on top of the music, Davis’ baritone whine settles right down in with the band, just as insistent and trancelike as the music, and just as mesmerizing. And like Davis’ voice, “Good Thing Gone Wrong” eases in and eases out, not announcing itself loudly but rather saying a few simple things exactly as they should be said. It’s such an unassuming song, in fact, that it takes a few listens to sink in, not because there’s so much to it, but because there is so little. “Good Thing Gone Wrong” sounds like an attempt to write a song that does not do one single thing it doesn’t need to do, either musically or lyrically. As a songwriter, Robert Earl Davis never says more then he needs to, and he never comes up with a new lyric or a new lick when an old one will do. It’s a dangerous way to make music, because the risk is always there that the songs will become tiresome or redundant, but remarkably, after four albums they haven’t yet.


Each song on the album, to this point, seems to reveal a little more of what the Earl Brothers can do than the last, while at the same time maintaining a certain stylistic univocity. It’s as if they are all parts of the same machine, viewed one at a time. The next song, “Bender,” exploits the trance-like side of the band to its fullest, with a circular, winding structure and a repeated mandolin and banjo tandem inserted each time between the verse and the chorus.


Play me a song, cool and tender


Strum on that old Fender


Pour me a drink, boys


Let’s all have us a bender.


A ” Fender” in a bluegrass song? Monroe banished them long ago, but here one shows up in the lyrics, if not in the flesh. Very strange.


“Bender” is the most unique song on the album; unlike most other Earl Brothers songs, it presents something both original and not immediately recognizable. It’s hard to say what the musical antecedents of “Bender” are, beyond the way the instruments are picked; it comes out of the blue, while at the same time fitting in with the rest of the material comfortably. But the real strength of the Earl Brothers is to play music that is constructed out of familiar idioms and yet sounds cohesive and original, and if “Bender” is the most interesting song on the album, it’s probably the least likeable. Davis, who took his time getting in front of the microphone, sings half of the remaining songs, and with repeated listenings, the material on the tail end of the album proves to be the strongest. In listening to WW&D a second or third time, Davis’ songs begin to stand out as the foundation of the Earl Brothers’ sound, providing a sort of anchor that also makes McKelvy’s songs sound better, although this becomes apparent only gradually because of the way the album is programmed.


Many of the lyrics on the album are an odd blend of the old and the outlandish, or anyway, outlandish for bluegrass. On “Bad Road of Regret,” the opening lines are a floating verse that has appeared, in similar or identical form, in a constellation of closely-related, similar, or identical songs under titles like “I’ve Always Been a Rambler,” “The Girl I Left Behind,” “My Parents Treated Me Tenderly,” and a myriad other names:


I’ve always been a rambler, my life has been quite hard


I’ve always chased the women, drank whiskey, and played cards


It’s not hard to imagine Ralph Stanley, Mac Martin, or Ron Thomason singing these lines—or at least it shouldn’t be hard, because all of them have. But it’s downright impossible to picture any of them singing the chorus:


Get out your razor
blades, get out your guns


Come on boys let’s have a little fun


Running fast and playing hard


Where’ll you be when they deal your card


It’s not that bluegrassers don’t sing about toting guns and razors—they do, sometimes, although most often when they’re covering the older, less sentimental mountain songs, the sort of material that provides the opening lines of “Bad Road of Regret.” But they don’t sound so pleased about it.


More typical is the note of warning sounded in “Don’t Drink From a Whiskey Bottle”:


Come on, boys, gather ‘round if whiskey rules your life


Stay out of bars and old pool halls, marry you a wife


“Come on, boys” is a recognizable “come all ye”-type folk beginning, kind of like ancient poets invoking the muse. With words like these, the audience is drawn in and made to understand they are about to hear a cautionary tale; often the invocation is gendered, so that we know we’re about to be warned about the other gender (and it goes either way) in the old songs, but here it’s whiskey that we’re going to be warned about. And “marry you a wife” is likewise a typical admonition; you’re supposed to live the other way; it’s too late for me, but maybe not for you. But “Don’t Drink” is not likely to send anyone scurrying to the altar, or to Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter. It’s the form of a cautionary song that we’re supposed to appreciate here; the song rings some old changes in a new way and its recognizability, rather than its sincerity, is what makes it so effective .


On the other hand, this shouldn’t imply that the Earl Brothers sound particularly self-conscious or insincere. Like the best material by the Ramones, an Earl Brothers song is as much a comment on the style of music it invokes as an iteration of that style. And also like the Ramones,this isn’t so much an artifice as a perfectly realized statement of the way the artist thinks music should sound. If the comparison with the Ramones seems to be out of the blue, it is perhaps worth noting that the Earl Brothers list two influences on their Myspace page: the Stanley Brothers and the Ramones. The first-named requires little comment. But while the Earl Brothers sound nothing like the Ramones, their approach to music is in many ways similar; each of these bands, at times, takes a genre and breaks it down into modular units, discards the unnecessary or extravagant material, rearranges what’s left, and produces a distilled version of the music that manages, in being less than its antecedents, to also be somewhat more. Indeed, the Earl Brothers’ blend of conservatism and innovation is arguably a fair description of punk in general, and the Ramones in particular.


Whiskey, Women and Death is not less than an astonishing album, and deserves to be heard more widely, but it’s hard to say who the wider audience would be. The Earl Brothers occupy a small niche in a genre, and a subculture, that they’re not really made for; they have little historical heft because they don’t really fit into any recognizable history, which saps their music of some of the impact it might otherwise have. It’s hard to imagine anyone not steeped in bluegrass fully understanding them, but it’s also hard to imagine any great plurality of bluegrass fans fully appreciating them, either. For one thing, even though bluegrass music is part of a larger musical tradition that includes rural folk music and what is today usually called old-time, bluegrass listeners often neglect old-time music, and old-time fans and musicians are often downright hostile to bluegrass. For another thing, as we’ve seen, the Earl Brothers’ sound, lyrics and attitude are rather dissonant with their genre.


Indeed, the Earl Brothers did finally come to the attention of Bluegrass Unlimited in 2008, only to have their third album, Moonshine, panned by a reviewer who did not merely dislike the album, but was clearly annoyed by it:


The first sharp notes of the banjo indicate an inflexible approach to a highly nuanced music. That they don’t get it is obvious in the lack of depth in the vocals. Lyrics such as Billy was found by the side of the road/He wasn’t looking too good/Legs all bent from a bad accident/No one to call him there [sic] own or I was a rounder/That’s all I’ll ever be/You know that I will be lucky if I make 23… fill the songs that sound like something you’ve heard before, but upon close listening are nothing like what you may have heard before. Parodies? No. Rip-offs? Maybe. They plagiarize older songs and themes in deadpan vocals that catch the sound without the soul of old-time mountain singing. "Hell On The Highway" is a direct lift of Ralph Stanley’s "Kitten And The Cat" down to lyric cadence and banjo break.


The specific claim about “Hell on the Highway” should probably be addressed; it’s simply inaccurate. The banjo break on “Kitten and the Cat” repeats over a I-IV-V sequence, whereas “Hell on the Highway” goes I-V-I, although the chords of the chorus (but not the verse) are the same. And while the melody is similar, the lyric cadence is in fact quite different. But more importantly, the feel of the song is completely different; while Davis does break out his most Stanley-esque forward roll—indeed, the song is one of the most straightahead bluegrass numbers the Earls have recorded—in a genre where 90% of the chord changes are a variant of I-IV-V, a slightly different feel can equal a world of difference. The chorus doesmention a cat, though.


But bluegrass musicians have never been shy about recycling their own, and other people’s, chord changes, melodies, and even lyrics. The Earl Brothers are certainly no exception; “Whiskey Bound” from the first album is musically identical to the Stanleys’ “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” and Davis even recycles “Hell on the Highway” with different lyrics and one different chord in the chorus on the Earls’ next album. And the reviewer even seems to recognize that the Earl Brothers are working in a broader tradition than bluegrass. In light of that, it’s astounding that he invokes old-time mountain singing and plagiarism in the same review; it imposes a modern standard of authorship on a tradition that has long thrived on borrowing, repetition, and thematic reiteration.


In fact, there is something impersonal about Davis’ lyrics and delivery that should not be mistaken for lack of soul. In the best folk tradition, when Davis sings there is a distance between the singer and the song that invokes universality rather than detachment. It’s not that you get the sense that he doesn’t feel what he’s singing; rather, he feels it no more and no less than you do, and you feel it. The lyrics themselves often function in same way. Consider “Heartbreak Game,” the second song on Moonshine:


I know I can’t win


Hurting again


Troubles inside


Our love has died


I know that I drank


Whiskey and wine


Can’t remember your name


We’ve lost it this time


Hurting so blue


Thinking about you


Can’t remember your name


It’s a heartbreak game


Thinking of you


I’m hurting inside


Lonely and blue


I know we both tried


Time has moved on


Don’t feel the same


Say our goodbyes


It’s a heartbreak game


On the face of it, these aren’t so much lyrics as a string of clichés. But the song exploits the power of cliché; it could even be said that it’s a song about the power of cliché.


The song is, in fact, about a game, as the title suggests, although not in the sense of anything trivial or frivolous. A game has rules, and a standard, prearranged set of actions that get set into motion according to a recognizable pattern. But that doesn’t mean that those who play the game don’t stake their happiness and their peace of mind on it. The song is about recognizable feelings and intentions that everyone can identify. Even the quirkiness of the plot—he recalls a lot of drinking, but not the name of the woman—serves to create a distance between the song and the singer that reduces the distance between the song and the listener; features that identify the song as being about the personal experiences of one Robert Earl Davis are downplayed, and as a result the lyrics round themselves into a whole that encompasses an entire sphere of experience.


After 2006’s Troubles to Blame, the Earls’ weirdest, and relatively weakest, album (emphasis on relatively—you should still buy it immediately), John McKelvy left the band and Davis took over as sole (pretty much) lead singer. The ensuing album, Moonshine, was the most bluegrassy album to date, and the changes seemed to leave the Earls in fine shape. McKelvy’s tenor vocals were as central to the Earl Brothers as his leads, but his replacement, Danny Morris, managed to recreate his distinctive harmonies, and the overall feel of the band changed little. But there were subtle changes, aside from the change in personnel; the music became a bit less sinuous and more driving, while retaining the elements of trance music that made the first two albums so hypnotic.


One new element on Moonshine does stand out, however; the last track, a one-chord drone with lyrics called “Life of Trouble,” features a fiddle player. This didn’t fail to escape the notice of Bluegrass Unlimited’s reviewer, who weighed in with the following: “The last cut is a clear lift of ‘Wild Bill Jones’ for ‘regional color’ one might guess. There is fiddle added to this track that is technically correct, but it’s not what mountain fiddling is all about.” This time, the specific claim is even more off-base than the last; “Life of Trouble” sounds nothing like any version of “Wild Bill Jones” I’ve ever heard, which makes it not so clear that it’s a lift.


More importantly, however, what the reviewer fails to appreciate, but no Earl Brothers fan could miss, is that the fiddle fits in perfectly with the band’s sound. It brings out a shuffle that was always there, and seems to have always suggested a fiddle, although it had never been felt as a lack. Indeed, years before Moonshine was recorded I heard members of the band express skepticism about adding a fiddle to the mix, but after three albums, it was time for the Earl Brothers to tinker with the sound. So for the next album, they brought fiddler Tom Lucas on board and became, at least on paper, a classic bluegrass five-piece.


I will doubtless be accused of hyperbole, but nevertheless I will insist that the resulting album, 2010’s The Earl Brothers, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not least, but also not solely, due to Tom Lucas’ fiddling. He has a bluesy scrape and shuffle reminiscent of the greatest bluegrass fiddler of them all, Curly Ray Cline, although with more of an old-time feel, including slightly inaccurate intonation that helps give this album a much rawer sound than the previous three. Lucas is the perfect fiddler for the Earl Brothers; he helps make The Earl Brothers even more of a classically bluegrass album than Moonshine, but, not being a typical bluegrass fiddler, simultaneously takes the band in a more old-time direction.


The Earl Brothers, as our Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer will perhaps notice, certainly do not get bluegrass right on this album; instead, they do something even better. If many of Davis’ earlier songs present mountain folk themes—complete with floating verses, well-worn tropes, and repetitive droning on the instruments—through a bluegrass lens, The Earl Brothers sets bluegrass itself back into the tradition, taking bluegrass lyrics and melodies as the building blocks and creating a more monolithic, impersonal, and epic musical statement that feels like its actually older than the original material it reframes. On their previous albums, the Earls were playing bluegrass while looking back through it at the sources from which it sprang (and at some it tried to overlook); this time, they turn squarely and face bluegrass, sweeping it up and taking it back into the mythical past, seemingly forgetting that the genre’s inception was as recent as 1945. Mother, the old home place, and even Jesus make their appearance on The Earl Brothers, not as particularly pressing concerns so much as inevitable touchstones that contribute to a brilliant meditation on the genre that has always been the Earl Brothers’ home, however uncomfortable a fit it may be.


The initial blast of off-key fiddle and banjo that kicks off the album is all wrong; it sounds more like a parking lot jam than a polished bluegrass performance. And the choice of opening number is just as odd and seemingly off the cuff; a ¾ time variation on the most hackneyed bluegrass theme imaginable, leaving mother back home in the mountains to go wander the wide wicked world. Musically and lyrically, there is absolutely nothing new going on in “Going Back Home”; I even had to check the label for the title before typing it, it’s so generic.


The song is reminiscent of so many bluegrass songs that it would be impossible to think of them all; for both melody and lyrics, “Mother’s Not Dead” immediately springs to mind:

Well I left my old home way back in the mountains
For mother and father had both passed away
We followed our mother up to the graveyard
For mother was called to heaven that day

Or another classic three-quarter time lament, “The Fields Have Turned Brown”:

I left my old home to ramble this country
No thoughts of the day when I would return
Now as I go home, to find no one waiting
The price I have paid to live and to learn
Son, don’t go astray” was what they both told me
Remember that love for God can be found”
But now they’re both gone this letter just told me
For years they’ve been dead, the fields have turned brown

To a melody that is similar to both of these songs, and to many others, Robert Earl Davis sings:

Many years have gone by since I left my old home place
I have no one left that remembers my name
I left my old home way back in Virginia
I left my dear mother, I left her to roam
Now I can’t go back to my home in the mountains
She’s no longer there I’m left all alone
I said my goodbyes when I left my dear mother
I never came back, I left my good home
I’m going back to my home in the mountains
Some little place that I can call home
They’re calling me back where mother is resting
If I can get back I’ll never more roam

The lyrics are a rearrangement of familiar themes, and they even begin to rearrange themselves after a while, as though Davis thinks that they are so good that adding new elements would just upset the balance.


Here, contradictions are no problem: I can’t go back, but I’m going back if I can get back, I’m going to go back home so I can call it home–whatever. Repetition is no problem. Cliché is no problem. In fact, there is no problem, because the song, like all good bluegrass, is perfect. A waltz-time mother song does not usually kick off an album; generally a crunchy 4/4 number or a barnburner is placed first for impact. But this song, whatever the hell it’s called—”I Miss My Home”? “My Old Home”? “Cabin Home On the Hill in the Pines”?—has plenty of impact. It serves as a manifesto for the album, a manifesto that basically just says “this is the Earl Brothers with a fiddle player, and we’re ready to play bluegrass!” Musically, the song is a raw, bleeding slice of bluegrass; if it’s not entirely traditional in its execution, I will say, at the risk of sounding hokey, that it is entirely hardcore. And for that reason, it’s the perfect opening number.


If the lineup is now fully in line with bluegrass protocol, the Earls are too primitivist to exploit it to the fullest; as if they’re embarrassed at the extravagance of a five-piece, often only three or four instruments can be heard on any given song. Davis kicks off “Cold and Lonesome” and takes the first break; the fiddle finally gets to have its say, but Larry Hughes’ mandolin stays in the background, even though there was an open slot for a break. But in the Earl Brothers, nobody takes a break unless they have a reason to. The mandolin would have sounded fine, of course, but the band plays it close to the vest.


So it is that “Won’t Be Around Anymore” features a guitar, bass, and banjo, and the fiddle and mandolin are absent. Davis does so little with his banjo breaks that it’s almost like he didn’t trust the other players to keep it reined in. The song has a bouncy melody that seems to cry out for melodic breaks to hammer the point home. Instead, Davis’ kickoff is droning and non-melodic. In fact, he ignores the melody almost entirely, not because he’s embellishing so much, but because he’s doing so little, just playing through the changes. It’s almost like the song is played as it was written; it’s possible to imagine that Davis sketched out the chords before hitting on the vocal melody, which is somewhat like an upbeat, major-chord rendition of “Little Sadie” with stiff, straight eighths. With melodic picking and some mandolin breaks, the song would have burst off the album with a catchy, bouncing leap; instead, as spare as the arrangement is, it envelops the song in a trance-mad undertow.


The banjo kicks off with a chiming, slightly retarded insistence, then repeats itself before the vocals unexpectedly come in as a variation on the understated theme established in the intro. When Morris tops Davis on the chorus, his tenor is so keening and mournful that it seems to corroborate the restrained argument of the arrangement; nobody should feel too happy about this song, it seems to say, certainly not happy enough to want to hear a mandolin break. After the chorus, Davis’ banjo repeats the exact same line as the intro, and then another verse and chorus, then the same banjo break again, another verse and chorus, and the same banjo break twice again—six times through in all with the same banjo line, the only small variation coming with the increased presence of the bass notes on the guitar that begin to rumble up from below the last time or two through the chords.


The lyrics are typically unconcerned about making a consistent point; like the banjo, they are more about a setting than a meaningful series of propositions:


Hard women and whiskey now I don’t regret


Remember the day that we first met


I don’t mind all the trouble I’m in


Let’s go out and do it again


If I had my life to live over again


Wouldn’t go back to that wild place of sin


Might stick around if you left this town


Won’t be around anymore


Let’s do it again, and I wish I could start my life over so I didn’t have to do it again, but I have no regrets, and so on. But expressions of regret are never entirely believable with the Earl Brothers; it’s not that the singer doesn’t regret it, it’s just that he doesn’t regret regretting it. Regret, pain, and hardship are not to be regretted, nor are they to be celebrated; they are to be sung about so we can all feel the range of suffering that comes with wicked pleasures, and if the thoughts are inconsistent, they are too common not to be true; if the words are too common to be consistent, they are too true to be trite.


As minimalist as the music is, it’s also amazingly rich. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that the Earl Brothers are more to be admired than enjoyed; in fact, they are one of the most riveting bands bluegrass has ever known. Even when the ideas themselves are spare, the effect is a paring away of potential distractions to leave what is most engaging about the music to come through with clarity and power. “When the Loving’s All Over,” like “Don’t Bring Trouble Home” on Whiskey, Women and Death, pushes itself so far toward the minimum ingredients of a bluegrass song that it reaches the commonplace and comes out the other side. A very typical bluegrass structure, in ¾ time, supports a melody that simply states what the chords are doing below, moving with the kicks to the IV and V, but otherwise staying put. When the chorus comes and the expected tenor vocal fails to materialize, the song suddenly gains depth from the omission; the payoff line, “Say our goodbyes, we’re drifting away,” having escaped being swamped by a harmony vocal, gathers the song together and releases it, transfigured, toward the verse. Any deviation from the song’s simplicity would only have reduced it.


Another standout track is “Thinking of You.” Like the first Earl Brothers song with a fiddle, Moonshine’s “Life of Trouble,” “Thinking of You” is basically a vocal number written over a fiddle groove. But whereas on “Life of Trouble” the lyrics almost felt like an excuse for spending three minutes with the shuffling fiddle, here music and vocals come together perfectly; when the tenor vocal belatedly swoops in on the final line of the chorus, and then the fiddle swells up into the break, the sheer perfection of the thing can’t help but make you smile.


If after three albums the Earl Brothers’ style seemed to be closing in a bit, The Earl Brothers sounds like it has opened up a range of future possibilities for the band. For one thing, they could make a far more conventional album and not sound like they’re getting tired; bluegrassier arrangements with a little more room for the mandolin may not be necessary, but they wouldn’t hurt anything either. Not least, that is because Larry Hughes makes use of his opportunities here to make you wonder what more he has to say on his instrument now that the band is not merely playing bluegrass, but actually thinking about it, too. His tremolo introduction to “Walk in the Light” is a case in point; Hughes brings to mind Curley Lambert’s work with the Stanley Brothers on songs like “Angel Band” and “Hills of Roan County,” and I can’t recall thinking that about a mandolin player before. But this is just another example of how bluegrass-literate the album is, so to speak; any reviewer who again accuses the Earl Brothers of trying to play like the Stanley Brothers and failing would not be listening to the album closely enough.


In fact, there seems to be very little room between what the Earl Brothers want to do and what they can do. That’s not because they can do anything; you should buy a Bela Fleck album if that’s what you want, I suppose. It’s just that the Earl Brothers want to, and can, do the right things, even as they themselves, with every album, are setting the standard for what the right things, for them, are. Their music manages to be as good as the best bluegrass because, like the best bluegrass, it achieves a kind of perfection. Even where their limits show—Davis’ weird swoop into a falsetto on “Troubles,” the repetitiveness of the instrumental breaks, Lucas’ intonation—the effect fits the music; the Earl Brothers are a perfect illustration of the oft-repeated point that one’s limitations define one’s style.


To return to the Bluegrass Unlimited review of Moonshine, a reader sent a letter to the editor defending the Earl Brothers which stated, in part: “The Earl Brothers are certainly not the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium, but neither are they musicians ‘who don’t get it.’” My point, however, is precisely that the Earl Brothers are the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium. Like the Stanley Brothers, they are the state of the art of a genre that they did not create, but that they are helping to define. But unlike the Stanley Brothers, the prospects for the Earl Brothers getting widespread recognition, even within the bluegrass genre, are slim; in the end, they may not have any influence or historical significance in bluegrass or acoustic music in general, and their albums may be out of print and impossible to find in ten years’ time. Only someone with a deep knowledge and appreciation of bluegrass music is likely to understand the Earl Brothers’ music, and that is already a small pool of potential fans. And bluegrass afficianadoes have not been flocking to the band. Their music, as engaging, soulful, and thought-provoking as it is, nevertheless, due to the circumstantial quirks of history and genre, is strangely obscure. But it will always be a rare treasure for those who know how to find it.

Working Our Chasms

The 1984 book Pleasure and Danger (edited by Carol Vance) starts with the premise that women have continued their vitriolic divide around sexwork, pornography, and other things sex-related because there is a basic disagreement about how we see sex itself—either as primarily pleasurable or as primarily dangerous.

The two articles here reviewed, “The Limitations of Anti-Sexism” (Sissy Doutsiou, We are an Image from the Future), and “Thinking through Perpetrator Accountability” (unnamed, Rolling Thunder #8), encourage an extension of this premise beyond the topic of sex, to people’s perspectives on life in general.

The 1984 book Pleasure and Danger (edited by Carol Vance) starts with the premise that women have continued their vitriolic divide around sexwork, pornography, and other things sex-related because there is a basic disagreement about how we see sex itself—either as primarily pleasurable or as primarily dangerous.

The two articles here reviewed, “The Limitations of Anti-Sexism” (Sissy Doutsiou, We are an Image from the Future), and “Thinking through Perpetrator Accountability” (unnamed, Rolling Thunder #8), encourage an extension of this premise beyond the topic of sex, to people’s perspectives on life in general.



Doutsiou fairly represents the pleasure angle. She positions herself in expansiveness—culturally/internationally, socially, and philosophically. Her discussion about sexism and anti-sexism is in the context of anarchist activity in Greece in December 2008—a time of expanding anarchist action, relevance, and awareness—as well as her experience in various European anarchist circles. To make her points she draws on Judith Butler, Françoise Denevert, Guy Debord, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. And her argument is for sexiness, for sensuality, for contrast, and for people celebrating their own particularities.

We choose to free ourselves from normality to become the most extreme of beings. We want to break through identities established by society, by tradition, and even by anarchist spaces. .

She names anti-sexism as a specific kind of reaction to sexism, one that ends up reifying sexism itself, much in the way that Alfonso argues “Why APOC is a White-Supremacist Organization“, or how sociologist Joshua Gamson (who she quotes) posits that queer identity is necessary for queer liberation /and/ perpetuates the binary that predicates queer oppression. And her primary critiques of anti-sexism have to do with the limitations that they rely on:

Language shapes us, composes us, and forms us. Language is based not on words per se but on the use of this word and the meaning of it at a specific time and place. However, the anti-sexist hysteria [ouch!] with language, with both creating new words and not using certain words, only makes those feel guilty who express themselves using words in a colloquial manner. […] The meaning of a sentence cannot be captured solely by the definitions of the words that constitute the sentence. Those purporting to be anti-sexist only end up as jailors of semantics and detectives of the prohibited colloquial expressions.

As in the quotation above, this article acknowledges the raw components that anti-sexists work from (language, cultural events, etc) but challenges what anti-sexists make from those ingredients.

Doutsiou contrasts the simple support of the spectacle (those people who are content to take on the gender characteristics that are most simple and proscribed — sex kitten for women, macho man for men), with the anti-sexist specatacle that is the knee-jerk reaction to sexism (“women who express their aggression towards men in order to show tha they are not subjugated… men who avoid an honest aggressive dialogue with women because they must behave gently… even anarchist men and women who locate erroneous behaviors and explain them as sexist…”).

Nameless RT author, on the other hand, is, predictably, firmly in the danger, constraint camp.

Although she starts out with some room to manuever, both in acknowledging her own specific experiences and in her rejection of the idea of a single model for response to abuse, or a single definition of consent, the overall article is still very much invested in the paradigm of fragility and danger.

For example, perpetrators should disclose their transgressions, but they have to do it properly, having gotten permission and carefully examined their motivations. Abuse dyads are neatly categorized into perpetrator and survivor. Support groups for perpetrators and survivors should exist, but must have all kinds of skills and know what they’re doing or they will fuck up the situation even worse. There is even containment in the fact that the piece only addresses situations where there is clearly a /bad guy/, since it bypasses the messy character of the most common experience (at least in the @ scene), which is that it’s hardly ever clearcut or simple to figure out what’s going on. Readers (and writers) of essays about abuse must beware the tendency to take the clearest and worst case scenarios as indicative of every abuse event. By far the most common scenario in my experience is that the milieu is put in the position of figuring out what happened, and negotiating questions of complicated agency, rather than simply dealing with someone who obviously fucked up and another person who was merely the recipient of that fuck up.

The survivor/victim shift is a good example of the language policing that Doutsiou refers to. The anti-sexist rationale of changing the label from victim to survivor is to shift the way that we look at those who are abused—to remember that survivors are capable, that they have strengths, that going through a hard time doesn’t mean that they are forever weak, to celebrate the skills of people who have gotten through (or are getting through) difficulties. But given that the model that the culture works from goes far deeper than a simple word change can address, the most common result of this is to merely have people agree to a jargon change without actually changing the existing attitude towards the perpetrated-upon. If people were to take seriously the name “survivor” then surely expectations would be different. If people thought of abuse survivors as people who swam through a flood, or lived through a snow storm, or beat off a mugging, then surely that strength would be celebrated, rather than the currently more common eggshell-walking and whim-catering.

Furthermore, it is easy to read into this piece a tacit assumption of males as perpetrators and females as recipients. For example in the disclosure section, nameless complains about being put upon by perpetrators who want her help (as a female-bodied person), and refers to “so many men” who “consistently seek support solely from the women in their lives.”

If that is where the author’s experience lies, then it would have been better to be clear about that, instead of muddying the waters by using the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. It is true that the experience of women as perpetrated upon and men as perpetrators is by far the most common, especially given that people who talk about this stuff have usually been trained by or otherwise influenced by NGOs—shelters, hotlines, etc. (As anarchists we must see the limitations of theories about power and practices that come from non-profits and mainstream feminists, who will use—or at least not challenge—women-as-victim ideology if it means that their agenda is advanced.) But it is also true that examples of non-het abuse (or, for that matter, het relationships in which the woman is abusive to the man) have a lot to show us about our assumptions of power and agency (not to mention increasing our availability to help people who are in non-het relationships).

In cases where there is same sex abuse, without the socially-provided markers of who is supposed to be the survivor/victim and who is supposed to be the perpetrator, there is a lot more confusion about who is to blame, who has the most agency in the situation. “Lesbian Battering: an examination” (Barabara Hart, Naming the Violence: speaking out about lesbain battering) defines the difference between abuse and simple violence as being the imposition of control, and relates the confusion that lesbians in abusive relationships feel about who is abused and who abuser (especially if they have both been physically violent to each other).

For many, the batterer has instigated and reinforced this blaming of the victim—this reversal of reality. Sometimes the batterer will threaten to report acts of violence by the battered lesbian to the police, pointing out that if the battered lesbian has acted violently to such an extent that she could be criminally liable, then she surely is not battered and has engaged in mutual violence. Sometimes the batterer points out that the battered lesbian has hit her in public, so that no one will believe that she is tyrannized in private.

In the same article is a footnote describing the confusion of battered lesbians about whether they were battered or batterer, as well as stories about battering lesbians feeling less in control than the women they batter. (This piece certainly perpetuates the clear divide between perpetrator and victim, by sliding right over the problem of what “in control” actually means, or the possibility that it could possibly shift within a relationship.) The confusion felt by the women in the relationships, much less by people paying attention from the outside, helps us to remember that agency has a million ways to express itself, a realization that is easier to forget when people more easily fit into cultural stereotypes.

But the beauty of the pleasure/danger premise is that these perspectives don’t cancel each other out. We all want pleasure, and we all deal with danger. Surely as anarchists, it is our goal to create and enjoy the world in ways that are currently impossible. But the focus of the people who emphasize danger is something that can be useful, when it is not allowed to overwhelm us or them. The challenge is to find how to express the awareness of danger in ways that add to our understanding, that help us feel pleasure, rather than shutting us down and tieing us to definitions of ourselves that we reject. We do all have different strengths, surely we can figure out how to use them in tandem, rather than either fighting each other or creating false unities.

Strike the Iron While it is Hot: A Review of “The Anvil”


“I should have said why I thought the Anvil was a ‘good direction to go’. I think many of us are at the stage where it is easier to talk about the thing we are really talking about (the transformation of human relations) when we talk about something else […] it has become easier to infer or extrapolate from objects and experiences than to theorise […] as you say, theory really does feel very uncomfortable now” (over_the_water_to_charlie, anti-politics.net).


“I should have said why I thought the Anvil was a ‘good direction to go’. I think many of us are at the stage where it is easier to talk about the thing we are really talking about (the transformation of human relations) when we talk about something else […] it has become easier to infer or extrapolate from objects and experiences than to theorise […] as you say, theory really does feel very uncomfortable now” (over_the_water_to_charlie, anti-politics.net).



The anvil confronts us from the extimacy of possibility and provides us with four surfaces with which to produce the tools of our trade: (1) the face, (2) the horn, (3) the step and (4) the hardy/pritchel holes. The production of four subjects which occurs on the inside, from the outside, in this shared space we call a home. The anvil as habitus, constituting the very essence of the radical subject today, suturing the symbolic system of radicalism. Four micro-tools from the master, each productive of a variant of subjectivity expressed through an epistemological schema. The answer which has only to be elaborated reveals the omnipresence of the system outlined here – the question relates only to the relationship I have to my own dogma rather than the dogma with which one relates; how could it be that I speak of anything but anarchist theory, when, anarchism has been my stumbling block for so many years? Look here, for you, but for others, they will find possibilities in other metaphors and dogmas. The answer is to begin where one stands; one must first be ready to give birth to a dancing star before one can actually dance like a star.

This is the meaning of engagement. Foolish to entertain the thought of championing subjects of “the” or “a” movement (the former rely on strategic revolutionary ends without means and the latter rely on tactical reformational means without ends – but where are those without means and without ends?)—this is the hegemonic pair passed to us from Gramsci—but this is the barrier that anti-political anarchists are up against. That one does not feel obliged to join the hegemonic movements of the past which are graft onto the present does not imply a lack of engagement. But neither does it imply detachment from the world of direct action. The basic requirement of engagement today is direct action, and this is action which occurs first in thought and then proceeds by extension to the production of difference in the existing structure: through meditative direct action I transgress the boundaries of structure, I emerge out of structure. Transgression requires that I be engaged to my own dogma according to the relationship I put myself into with it, direct action at the level of being, it requires, first, a consciousness of becoming, and then, of course, I can dance like a star. It is therefore the strategists (revolutionaries) and tacticians (micro-politicians), both of whom will be forgotten in the years to come, that suffer from a lack of engagement, they have failed to perform the most foundational of radical actions upon which all subsequent radical gestures naturally rely.

Is not freedom from structure the most foolish of propositions? There is only freedom in structure as that which transcends, transgresses, naturally, by necessity, through the excess of base matter. The battle against the State is nothing more than the particular battle against structure; are we that shortsighted? Today’s radical subject must pass through her rejection of the world of structure as it currently exists through and beyond the crucial phase of tension where she experiences hopelessness, rejection, and disillusionment. She must define herself by her ability to handle this hopelessness. This is the sadness we experience when we read the work of Max Stirner (what was not supposed to be his concern?) and Guy Debord (everything has become representation?), and is this not the reason for despair in the work of Frankfurt School Marxists – a longing to retain the subject as the locus of revolutionary consciousness in the face of a libidinal late capitalist economy? Engagement, whose meaning can only be contemplated, much less understood, implies a third stage of sacrifice to any number of structural metaphors. The tensions of our times are defined by a relationship to the tensions of all times (our tension is the human condition) but through engagement we concern ourselves finally with our own condition and give word to it through the structure of the enemy: is not language as worthy a sacrifice as any?

One can imagine an anvil at war with itself; the phallic horn is at first seduced by the hardy and pritchel cunts but is immediately blunted by the smooth surface of the face, while the step cuts the face of some shine in order to rebuild the horn once again. Upon which surface does the empty subject construct her own subjective structure? The cunt, separated twice from the cock, is ever mediated by the smooth sexual linguistic relationship – Marxists concern themselves with matters of the face, anarchists with matters of the horn. The economy of language has always been just a step away from the domain of the master (if one wanted to produce another anvil using only this anvil as a toolkit, one would begin by setting the unformed product upon the face, cutting it with the step, and bending it into shape with the horn). The question then becomes, if I am at war with myself, who is in me more than I am – who is breaking at the foundation of my own subjective structure? The answer at first appears paradoxical, for it is the hardy and pritchel cunts that are the foundation of the structure, remaining there, on the smooth face, as a token – the holes in fact surround the entire structure. Deleuze was correct, in fact, we should never trust a smooth space. Neither should we trust the facticity of the sexual relationship: the cunt and cock are always separated by the smooth surface. What have we to trust but the pritchel and hardy holes?

As anarchists we speak as if out of four mouths—layered, like a matryoshka doll set—the subject of the holes speaks through the smooth face of language which only the step can bring back to the master. It is this layering, this paradoxicality, that provides for engagement today. It most certainly is not distance from one’s dogma but rather a reconfiguration of the relationship one already has to one’s dogma. I prefer the Anvil because I enjoy the relationships I have with the people involved, it is not the movement of a mark but the mark of a movement and my anvil is too heavy, so much a burden, that it chains me to this place. And where might your anvil be? I dare not say, the anarchy within me is more than the anarchist subjectivity forced upon me and the only authority I know is my own!

She who works herself out purely on the surface of the face thinks like a tactician. She rides the smooth flows of the capitalist libidinal economy and believes that the insurrectionary perspective implies an interrogation of every structure – but she limits herself to every other structure, rather than structure itself. In other words, whatever action, platform, or problem that arises “hot-topic” deserves a response, each in its turn. Such subjects are hysterical, they proclaim as their object the holes but they, in fact, desire the horn. Through their refusal to process themselves on the holes they have selected as their object the horn. This subject “gets off” on the sexual relationship, on matters of economy, exchange, and language itself (have you read Politics is not a Banana?). The subject of the face wishes not to remove the horn but to push the horn where it is lacking, through the cut in the step, and to keep climbing back and forth – endlessly, she may say, I am a radical … endlessly. She will soon enough wither away, climbing herself to death up and down the step while the horn sits on its side without eyes to see or care.

“The Anvil is a place to temper tools for digging and cutting our way out,” it is a place, like any other, from which to mount an attack. It is not enough to rest our subjectivity upon the holes, we must occupy this place within our habitus, we must walk through the holes onto the smooth plane and speak through the hysterical language of our enemies: the revolutionaries and tacticians. Our desire is to produce subjects capable of occupying the holes and speaking through the smoothness of language. Our contest is against friendship, and our friendships are built on contestation. We have no longer to be-come, or to speak of beginnings, because we already came and we know how much more painful that has been. Without means and without ends, we return to animality as best we can. Silently.

The Anvil is not a good direction to go, it is the direction we are already facing. My Anvil is structurally proportionate to yours, and by judging my own I hence judge yours. What the Anvil provides is a shared habitus: unfortunately, it is where folks go to forge reviews in the service of an author, an image, a television show, a movie or piece of music; or is it in the service of a dogma thought through the promotion of various cultural forms? But is it not also, and primarily, a place where people go to forge new structures of the self — striking the iron while it is hot?

PM: Bolo Bolo

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

I particularly enjoyed the footnotes and the statements concerning the (at the time) pertinent critique of externalisation and armed struggle,’let’s not forget, we are parts of the machine, it is us’, ‘we’re never facing an enemy, we are the enemy’ and ‘when the struggle can be put on the level involving the police or the military, we’re about to lose. Or if we do win, it’s our police or military that will have won, not us.’

During an extended footnote on the number 500 as the basic unit of human social organisation, which culminates in a discussion of those authoritarian traits which are always generated within proposed ‘designed’ communities, i.e. communities which come into existence in accordance with decision, PM’s most telling sentence precipitates thus:

‘I am frightened of Bolo Bolo.’

Fear, yes, the author is spooked at the point where he senses that what he proposes might magically come to be. If we are not frightened by the proposals we make, if we do not consider how what we propose might be even worse than what we have now, then we have not performed the basic tasks that are necessary for making any proposal. It is necessary to grasp how our unspoken reservations appear at the same moment, and contradict, our planned interventions. It is necessary because this describes precisely the fullness of the object.

Blankly stated: our intentional interventions produce unintended consequences, for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves in situations which we did not foresee, and yet, still we are responsible for them, we created them – what are we going to do about it? It is not feasible, in the real world, for outcomes to follow our plans and so we should be ready to adapt or resign. True, this is a rudimentary strategy, and yet, how many radical groups have honestly adopted it?

What we do escapes us. We cannot maintain a hold over the multiplying and elaborate sequalae of a deliberate intervention and yet almost every radical structure does attempt to contain or liquidate such complexity. In the end, realistically, it is only possible to intervene again in the new changed circumstances as a new force. But even when we know this, it is difficult to factor such precognition into our original theory, which anway, tends to map the past, rehearsing strategies from the last war, rather than anticipate the future. Maybe Bolo Bolo is not about the future at all, but rather describes the autonomous milieu of the early ’80’s, which even as it was being described was passing from its most viable stage and thus becoming an image of what could be.

It is for this reason of external relativisation that truth-orientated structures withdraw into a state of internal vigilance and sect dynamics – for such structures, whilst there is an acceptance that the message, the context, the relation changes the group’s truth cannot be revised. In the face of external relativisation, if not outright negation, the temptation is always to uncover that motive force which was only ever barely concealed in the first place, namely the justification of holding true to an identified tradition which is assailed from the outside.

One is most true-hearted, the motive for continuing the struggle states, where one holds to ‘invariance’ under circumstances of perpetual mutation; external falsification is thus taken as final proof for holding out. The logical outcome of this tendency is the fetishism of tradition for its own sake, an allegiance to the image of allegiance. Strangely, this loyalism tends to initiate a process of ossification and mineralisation which supplants, with pure objective form, that internality which once had been worth defending. The upholders of tradition and defenders of the thin true vein, have still not learnt that the Red Death is always and already inside.

The impact of planning on relationships i.e. the entirety of the ‘revolutionary’ project, is very little examined by that milieu. It seems to me that one’s own appropriate response to one’s own modest proposal should always be an intuitive, conditional, fright – ‘don’t lock me in here with this monster.’

We should always be careful to arrange within our ideas a back door, so as to change our mind when confronted with the unexpected results of that which we have advocated. The project is not to establish a line of truth which must be realised so much as a field of worst/best case scenarios, or a conceivable array of tolerable possibilities, arrived at from basic propositions. However, it is precisely this immediate self-revision which is absent within the ultraleft – which must always possess the truth, and which always externalises faults. There is so little readiness to be surprised, which is surprising within a milieu that so highly values the lived and spontaneous.

The following problem remains, and but for the one sentence quoted above it goes unaddressed in Bolo Bolo, how is it possible to theorise and express uncertainty in projects directed towards the truth?

FD

Networks, Colonization, and the Construction of Knowledge

a review of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s The Will of the Many and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies

Both Marianne Maeckelbergh and Linda Tuhiwai Smith are social scientists, but both identify first and foremost as members of communities in struggle: the alterglobalization movement, in the first case, and the Maori, in the second.

Maeckelbergh is an incisive thinker and concise writer, and in her debut book she handily tackles the premise that the prefigurative networks used for information-sharing and decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement constitute an effective challenge to the exclusion and authoritarianism of representative democracy. I approached her book with trepidation, wondering how an ethnography of our struggle could possibly help us more than it helps the state agencies tasked with dissecting and controlling us. Somehow, she pulls it off. The result is not a blueprint of “the movement of movements” but a theoretical deepening of our understanding of networks that can only deepen our appreciation for the ability of what we are doing right now to confront and replace the current regime.

a review of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s The Will of the Many and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies

Both Marianne Maeckelbergh and Linda Tuhiwai Smith are social scientists, but both identify first and foremost as members of communities in struggle: the alterglobalization movement, in the first case, and the Maori, in the second.

Maeckelbergh is an incisive thinker and concise writer, and in her debut book she handily tackles the premise that the prefigurative networks used for information-sharing and decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement constitute an effective challenge to the exclusion and authoritarianism of representative democracy. I approached her book with trepidation, wondering how an ethnography of our struggle could possibly help us more than it helps the state agencies tasked with dissecting and controlling us. Somehow, she pulls it off. The result is not a blueprint of “the movement of movements” but a theoretical deepening of our understanding of networks that can only deepen our appreciation for the ability of what we are doing right now to confront and replace the current regime.

Tuhiwai Smith brings a persistent, thorough criticism to bear against the Western production of knowledge and the colonial role of scientific research in indigenous communities. As a researcher, she subsequently explores how different understandings of knowledge and approaches to research can be made to benefit indigenous communities, and how non-indigenous researchers could engage in research in indigenous communities responsibly. I found the book valuable for its anticolonial analysis of science and knowledge, and for the thoughts it can provoke regarding research, for anarchists who may never be researchers, but whose theories often refer to human geographies and ethnographical accounts of indigenous societies.

Academics for the Struggle

Precisely because scientific institutions and scientists themselves are a vital force in directing and advancing capitalism, while certain individual scientists have made crucial contributions to revolutionary struggles, it is useful to review these two books simultaneously. Each author, writing as a social scientist and as a member of a community in struggle, challenges academic norms in subtle but significant ways.

What Tuhiwai Smith offers is intuition and reflection. While scientists of all types thrive on criticism, the process of criticism remains very much within their control and is formulated by others of their kind using in-group rules. Tuhiwai Smith frequently mentions, and puts great weight in the fact, that Maori or indigenous peoples more generally feel suspicion or outright contempt for the prying activities of scientists on their lands and in their communities. She makes this statement not on the basis of statistical data, but as a Maori. In other words the scientific community is called to acknowledge how it is viewed through the eyes of a group it has consistently dealt with as an Other-to-be-studied, and to take responsibility for what it has done collectively to deserve this view. The collective feeling of rejection toward the scientific community is not legitimated or dismissed through comparison to objective data or a postmodern atomization and analysis of the forces that shaped this view; rather, an autonomous body of knowledge is allowed to exist alongside the Western methodologies of knowledge and to be granted validity.

Maeckelbergh offers humility, portraying alterglobalisation movement actors as intelligent, as producers of their own analysis, as a collectivity from whom other people can learn rather than an Other upon whom we impose our own analysis. Even while she teases out the intelligence of networks or describes patterns and norms within the movement in brilliant and original ways, she always does so in the spirit of sharing what alterglobalisation networks have created themselves. In other words, she subtly reveals that it is the activity of people, and not the scientific production of specialized institutions, that is responsible for the creation of knowledge. In both cases, these authors introduce what I would call anarchist values regarding communication, analysis, and criticism into their work. Tuhiwai Smith explicitly shapes her criticisms along the lines of what she identifies as indigenous values lacking in the Western scientific tradition; in my view these indigenous values have much in common with, and much to offer to, anarchist desires for a horizontally organized, decentralized or communal world free of state, capitalism, and patriarchy.

The result of the efforts evident in these two books could well be the liberation of necessary theoretical work from the colonial baggage that has long corrupted it.

Divergent Epistemologies

One of the most enlightening aspects of each book was their framework for understanding the creation of knowledge. Tuhiwai Smith analyzes the capitalistic production of knowledge in Western society, arguing that the accumulation of knowledge-as-resource during the process of colonialism was in fact the motor for the development of Western science. The religion of the colonizers, although a deterritorialized spirituality, was inadequate for the globalization of the 16th century and onwards because it had no way for assimilating the histories and biologies of the rest of the world. The agrarian, temperate climate economics and regionalistic 5000 year history of the Bible could do no better than write off the rest of the world as the habitat of the devil, failing to provide the needed level of nuance and technical instructions for colonizing and governing diverse peoples and bioregions. Science thus arose primarily as a system for alienating knowledge into information, classifying it, making it separable from its context, transferrable, mechanical, repeatable.

In other words, colonization, the process of encounter with and domination of the Other, is central to the history of the development of the West, yet curiously, it is peripheral in the accounts of both elites and radicals in the colonizing countries.

Tuhiwai Smith goes into more detail explaining how Western ethnographic accounts of colonized peoples had less to do with their lived realities than with the Western need to justify their own self-image and history through the invention of a convenient Other who confirmed preexisting assumptions.

Maeckelbergh talks about the creation and sharing of knowledge in the alterglobalisation movement, and the M.O. she describes seems to mirror what Tuhiwai Smith identifies as indigenous ways of viewing knowledge. Namely, that knowledge is not property, rather it is collectively created through relations, in the connections and communication between different people or different nodes in global networks, with greater, more diverse participation and communication leading to better quality of knowledge, better decision-making, and in turn a stronger network. And far from being absolute, knowledge is context-specific, and often contradictory; it cannot and should not be homogenized or routinized.

The Western Individual

Tuhiwai succinctly restates perennial indigenous criticisms of the colonizers imposing categories of individuality, personhood, economy, governance, and land ownership that simply could not apply to indgenous worldviews. Maeckelbergh expands recent theoretical work (from the last few decades) on the individual, delving into the very best part of Western science and philosophy, which is the point at which it succeeds in deconstructing core Western values. Every time one of these sacred cows is imploded, I’m pleased to find it does so in a way that seems to confirm a premise of anarchist thought or revolutionary indigenous views as articulated by Zapatismo or Magonismo.

The case of the individual is no different. Western philosophies have long considered the individual as something reproducible or homogenous, alienable, mechanical, and even internally divisible (as in the dualist traditions). Maeckelbergh, in order to show the intelligence of horizontal networks, modifies complexity theory, which arose in the physical and life sciences to explain how an incredible complexity could arise spontaneously in chaotic systems (think the ordering of molecules, beehives). To make this theory applicable to social movements in a non-deterministic way, she combines it with a view of agency not as residing in an alienable individual but in relationships, in communication between diverse individuals. The result is that the individual is still an empowered agent, is not subsumed and lost within some greater, abstract community, but neither is the individual separable from her context, displaceable, transferrable between the cubicle, prison cell, and private home with demarcated, universal rights than inhere in her person, her body, and no further. Rather, the individual exists in and through her relations with the world and other individuals.

For anarchists and other people in struggle, the implications of this challenge to the categories of the dominant system are unending; although Maeckelbergh does not state most of these implications, they especially become apparent in the context of the alterglobalisation movement’s challenge to democracy. The constraining liberal discourse of rights disappears immediately, as soon as we are our relationships. Fighting against the pollution of the local aquifer is an act of self-defense. Criminality or social harm becomes a problem of the community, not a problem of law enforcement, without reducing the criminal to a mechanical victim of social circumstances. Knowledge is common property. Centralization can no longer masquerade as a practicality or necessary inconvenience or anything other than a violent imposition.

These are values that many anarchists have always held, as have, it seems to me, indigenous nations fighting colonialism, though as an outsider I can’t say that in any objective way. However, neither Maeckelbergh nor Tuhiwai Smith pretend to offer anything new (even though on a number of counts they do, and brilliantly); rather they present us with the knowledge our own communities have created, in an articulate fashion that confirms the best of our practices and experiences, renews confidence in our analysis, and helps us to understand, express, and expand that analysis. Many anarchists and other activists continue to limit their struggles by placing them in the confining, maladaptive parlance of liberal democracy, which is after all the system that dominates us. With our own theories so eloquently and solidly given back to us, we can leave the rhetoric of individual rights and legality in the dumpster of history, and then, better yet, set it on fire and wheel it into the street to block the dominant flows of knowledge and ideology.

Prefiguration and Cultural Survival

It is this character of militancy that I found most lacking in both books, which is especially problematic since passivity has long been one of the key weaknesses to academic efforts for social change. Curiously, Maeckelbergh phrases the combative networks of the movement as an attempt to reformulate, rather than abolish, democracy. Even though she demolishes the theoretical underpinnings of democracy, she keeps the term itself in a positive light, which is especially strange considering that the title she chose for her book is a reference to a Zapatista quote about how foreigners applied a eurocentric word, “democracy,” to something they had always been doing. I don’t want to renew any form of political correctness in the anarchist tradition and add to the list of words we are not allowed to say, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about anarchy as a better form of democracy when trying to win over well meaning reformists, but why preserve that one key link to the dominant system in a book that otherwise consistently undermines or challenges dominant values? To make it easier to communicate? To whom? Evidently not to the rebels of Chiapas whose phrase came to give title to the book.

Both of these books are marked by a minimization of struggle that to me seems to reflect that pernicious habit of academia, which seeks to breed itself into even the most sincere and intelligent enemies of oppression, to seek compromise with the dominant system.

Tuhiwai Smith mentions violent struggles against colonialism in the past, but similar battles don’t appear in her portrait of the current realities of indigenous communities. I can’t say whether counterattack against the dominant system is currently an important part of the Maori struggle, but it most definitely is of other indigenous struggles which she references. How can one write about the dangers posed by research and researchers to indigenous communities without stressing the centrality of state counterinsurgency programs which employ social scientists? Unless one doesn’t want to give the idea that the 500-year-long war of cultural survival is by no means metaphorical in many indigenous nations… Granted, it is a much more complex topic, how responsible researchers should conduct their work in a war zone, but it seems irresponsible to downplay or ignore the topic entirely, given the role geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists have played in recent years to aid the repression in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Chile, and elsewhere.

Maeckelbergh focuses on consensus in order to give useful ethnographic boundaries to her study of prefiguration in the alterglobalisation movement. Prefiguration sounds awful nice when it is written about in an eloquent book, but it is precisely the practice of “movement actors” to pick fights with the system, to be disruptive, to encourage illegality and support prisoners, as part of their prefigurative strategy, that gives vital meaning to the global mobilizations and consensus meetings. I find this oversight typical of the academic particularization or atomization needed to accomplish the pacification that is an important part of colonization and repression.

Nonetheless, it is an error of omission. Maeckelbergh is by no means a pacifist, and Tuhiwai Smith does not seem to be; they are not advancing the pacification process that employs so many other academics, simply failing to address what is in many people’s minds a key component of anarchist prefiguration or indigenous cultural survival. It is easy enough for the reader to benefit from their writing, which on the whole is very good, and to plug in the missing emphasis on struggle, on fighting back, in order to improve our strategies and deepen our practice.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People (Zed Books, 1999)

Marianne Maeckelbergh, The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of the Democracy (Pluto Press, 2009).

Quijote Against the World

“it’s not like it used to be… nobody cares about change… it don’t matter…” – My First Soul, by Auld Lang Syne

Published during the Spanish Golden Age in two parts (1605/1615) The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha[1] by Cervantes has become one of the most famous books in the world and is considered by many to be one of the most respected fiction pieces of all time. The story relates an epic adventure taken on by two main characters, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Quijote goes off adventuring, lead completely by his horse Rocinante, who goes where ever it wants, leading Quijote and eventually Panza to fight injustice, reclaim the world, battle everything that is “bad”, and (for Quijote) win the love of his life [Dulcelina]. The entire book, originally written in Spanish is quite lengthy and full of misadventures depicting the frequent failures (perhaps great success?) during the early 1600’s, Spain. There are many English language translations, but perhaps one of the best (that I recommend) is by Edith Grossman, published in 2003. There are also, some abbreviated versions of the story, with the editors choice of parts – so this may be more advantageous for the time strapped or for those wanting to get a feel for the book. Setting up for a complete and in-depth review, would be quite the research project due to the books length and complexity – this is a greatly abbreviated review of the book, and by no means are all things touched on. There have been many reviews before this one, and maybe many more after. The overall purpose of this review is to briefly compare and contrast the ideas and attitudes of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza surrounding their thoughts upon essential materials vs. that of spirit.

“it’s not like it used to be… nobody cares about change… it don’t matter…” – My First Soul, by Auld Lang Syne

Published during the Spanish Golden Age in two parts (1605/1615) The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha[1] by Cervantes has become one of the most famous books in the world and is considered by many to be one of the most respected fiction pieces of all time. The story relates an epic adventure taken on by two main characters, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Quijote goes off adventuring, lead completely by his horse Rocinante, who goes where ever it wants, leading Quijote and eventually Panza to fight injustice, reclaim the world, battle everything that is “bad”, and (for Quijote) win the love of his life [Dulcelina]. The entire book, originally written in Spanish is quite lengthy and full of misadventures depicting the frequent failures (perhaps great success?) during the early 1600’s, Spain. There are many English language translations, but perhaps one of the best (that I recommend) is by Edith Grossman, published in 2003. There are also, some abbreviated versions of the story, with the editors choice of parts – so this may be more advantageous for the time strapped or for those wanting to get a feel for the book. Setting up for a complete and in-depth review, would be quite the research project due to the books length and complexity – this is a greatly abbreviated review of the book, and by no means are all things touched on. There have been many reviews before this one, and maybe many more after. The overall purpose of this review is to briefly compare and contrast the ideas and attitudes of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza surrounding their thoughts upon essential materials vs. that of spirit.



First, I’d like to define a few things. The essential key materials are thought of as water, food, and rest – which lack thereof results in a deprived state and eventually death, they are the things you really can’t live without. Obviously on the other hand, you have non-essential material goods such as gold, silver, clocks, games/toys, ect. That aren’t truly necessary for survival. As for the spirit, one can consider it to mean belief in something, even if that something is nothing. Some more clear examples are things of the supernatural sort, like the belief in god, or even bits and pieces of ideas – like the existence of heaven and hell, ghosts, majik, and other oddities/occult. It is important to note and define these ideas because Quijote and Sancho each display varying characteristics and perspectives throughout the novel on these topics.

So, the story goes: Don Quijote begins reading books about the adventures of various 14th/15th century knights-errant and their “heroic” deeds. Quijote, who is an older man, begins to spend all his time reading, and literally cares for nothing else, other than those old tales about “saving the world” and “falling in love.” Food, water, and rest seem of little importance to him, and eventually his reading habits drastically change his life. He begins to sell his land and other property, in order to buy more books to read. After sometime, Quijote emerges from the obscurity of his house believing – that in fact, he is a knight-errant, and his mission is to save the world and win the love of his life. Imagine someone sneaking out of their residence, after weeks of reading, hiding away, and building the most absurd self-styled armor a la knights-errant, to confront the world with, kind of sounds like some funny friends you may know. Yet, in the beginning of the end, Quijote gallops, or more like meanders out of town unseen and hidden, with his most unlike battle ready horse – Rocinante[2], not to be seen in town until his uneventful, yet dramatic return sometime later. He has no clue where he is headed, as he just lets Rocinante blaze the trail of his life.

And so it begins…

”The reason of the unreason that afflicts my reason, in such a manner weakens my reason that I, with reason, lament of your beauty.” (from Don Quijote)

Don Quijote wants to create a more moral world, a model of the human effort, one many may think of as a form of utopia. He has a very pastoral view of life and society, a living anachronism against the encroaching modernity of Spain. In many ways Quijote is confronting the more modern economic approaches and technology that was happening in Spain at the time, and suggesting something more simple (yet crazy). For example, look at Quijote’s so-called insanity. How did this happen?The invention of the printing press, which allowed him to buy and read all those books about knights-errant, seems to be the main source of his insanity. It was also this easier and wider distribution of print that ensured Cervantes, the author of Quijote, made little to no monetary gains by writing the book during his life. “Pirated” copies would turn up throughout the region, with even the second half of Quijote being written by another author. Which, in turn prompted Cervantes to actually write the second half of the book some years later, because supposedly he was very angry with this authors take on a sequel to his original work. It should be noted, that Cervantes actually created a fictional Moorish author/chronicler for Don Quijote named Cide Hamete Benengeli. And in many ways killed Quijote in the end, so no one else could ever write about his adventures again.

In making the author Moorish, it seems Cervantes reinforces the stereotype of the time, that anything a Moor does is probably not true. Therefore, making criticism of the book impossible, since it has already been refuted as utter lies. Clever in a sense, but more so it seems to begin to show some of Cervantes negative attitudes that were reinforced by society at the time [and continue to be]. Cervantes lived his life, one failure after another – first as a solider being injured, then as a prisoner, and later as an “unsuccessful” writer who seems to have lead a rather difficult life. The book reflects these reoccurring themes of failure surrounding Don Quijote (maybe Cervantes?) as he fights the battle that can never really be won, because it isn’t real. It is sad, but it is also an unfortunate reality that many of us know all-to-well. Like the saying goes, “la vida es dura” (life is hard).

If we examine the idealism behind Quijote or what some have called Quijotismo (the movement of Quijote) it could be said that in many ways it is an idealism without respect for or sense of being practical. It is an ideal that doesn’t consider consequences or the irrationality of one’s actions. Quijotismo is most of all, a romantic idea or a utopia that is unattainable by the non-romantic sane, one can only truly realize it, if you refuse to identify between reality and imagination. At the heart, this ideal is created by the love Quijote feels towards Dulcelina, his dream lover. The love and companionship of Dulcelina is more important than food, water, and rest – something that perhaps dear readers are familiar with. Quijote refuses to realize that his love is imaginary, and that his love is perhaps not even interested in him. It is like he will never give up, trying to make the world a better place, yet deep down inside, what he just really wants is some love. Perhaps, Cervantes is again reflecting on some of his own life experiences.

In the final chapters of the book Quijote returns to his home and with that some sense of what some may call sanity. In this way, Quijote becomes like his side-kick Sancho Panza, or the Sanchification of Quijote. Because while Quijote is for many, the raving madman throughout the book, Sancho always seems to act along much more practical lines. It is like Panza is the stable foundation for Quijote’s rocking-and-rolling all night long party house, that will probably collapse when the dancing begins, or maybe end up puking in the toilet the next morning. On the other side of things, Sancho Panza starts to become like Quijote, or the quijotification of Sancho; in this way, the two characters feed off each other and become one another. Once home, Quijote writes his will and gives all his belongings to his family, and while he originally promised Sancho an island that he could govern in the beginning of the story, he now wants to give him an entire kingdom. Unfortunately for Sancho, Quijote doesn’t really have anything to offer him, other than gratitude – not even a salary for his services. Just some (bad) advice maybe, and the memories to last a lifetime.

While, it seems this whole time, perhaps all Sancho really wanted, other than protecting Quijote from danger, was his island in the sun. It is not even clear if Panza knows exactly what an island is, other than some form of payment. In a high contrast to Quijote, Sancho represents everything that is some-what rational and thought out (or what many call being normal). Food, water, and rest are the most important things in life, along with knowing that you’re going to be well-off tomorrow, the next day, and so on.

Even the infamous Bill “NOT BORED” Brown has wrote an essay on the subject Sancho Panza’s priceless coinages which I will steal a quote from here (that is from an English translation of the book) regarding how Quijote recommends paying off Sancho:

“I think you’re absolutely right, Sancho my friend […] I can tell you, for myself, that if you’d wanted to be paid for those lashes which will disenchant Dulcinea, I’d have long since, and very gladly, have given you the money […] Just consider, Sancho, what you might want, and then do the whipping and pay yourself, because you are guardian of my money […] Add up what money you have of mine, and then put a price on each lash.”

Quijote and Panza are two very different characters, yet at the same time they are similar in the fact that they both can create some pretty wild dreams and become one another. They each have a great effect on one another, like any friend may have on your daily experience, and while at first Quijote seems to be the only one struggling against everything modern – soon his friend joins him, although it is already too late for Quijote. He has already returned to the miserable grind of reality and material goods and will soon die.

Cinema

Among the many movies made about the book, Orson Welles’s Don Quixote is one of the more intriguing ones to take a look at, one that truly deserves an entirely separate review in order to touch upon everything. For the purpose of this review though, I will only focus on one aspect of the film. In Rolling Thunder: An Anarchist Journal of Dangerous Living #6 (fall-2008), the following page appears:

As you can see, there is the classic windmill imagery evoked by Don Quijote, however what is important to take note of is the text. Here is the text quoted from the image[sic]:

“The Most Beautiful Six Minutes in the History of Cinema”

Sancho Panza enters the cinema of a provincial town. He is looking for Don Quixote and finds him sitting apart, staring at the screen. The auditorium is almost full, the upper circle–a kind of gallery–is packed with screaming children. After a few futile attempts to reach Don Quixote, Sancho sits down in the stalls, next to a little girl (Dulcinea?) who offers him a lollipop. The show has begun, it is a costume movie, armed knights traverse the screen, suddenly a woman appears who is in danger. Don Quixote jumps up, draws his sword out of the scabbard, makes a spring at the screen and his blows begin to tear the fabric. The woman and the knights can still be seen, but the black rupture, made by Don Quixote’s sword, is getting wider, it inexorably destroys the images. In the end there is nothing left of the screen, one can only see the wooden structure it was attached to. The audience is leaving the hall in disgust, but the children in the upper circle do not stop screaming encouragements at Don Quixote. Only the little girl in the stalls looks at him reprovingly.

What shall we do with our fantasies? Love them, believe them–to the point where we have to deface, to destroy them (that is perhaps the meaning of the films of Orson Welles). But when they prove in the end to be empty and unfulfilled, when they show the void from which they were made, then it is time to pay the price for their truth, to understand that Dulcinea–whom we saved–cannot love us.

– Giorgio Agamben, Profanations

Leaving the actual text aside for a moment, concentrate on the author, Giorgio Agamben of the above quote for a moment. If one were to see the text in the Rolling Thunder journal (image above), you will see that the quote is attributed to the authors Brener and Schurz. To my knowledge, the truth is that the editor’s of Rolling Thunder were duped into believing the quote was from Brener and Schurz. Perhaps, as the thinking may have went, if they knew it was really from Giorgio Agamben it may have not been published[3]. Not to get too far off topic here, but it is interesting to note that it appears at least to some extent, that another joke may have been played in return here (although, pure speculation). Recently, a new Politics Is Not a Banana #3 was released, however many have come to doubt that this new issue was actually created by the original folks involved in the journal, leading some to point fingers at the Rolling Thunder journal (CrimethInc.) folks. Whoever is it, or whatever the purpose – the humor and funnies are certainly appreciated!

Moving back to the actual context of the quote, the lovely titled “Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of Cinema” regards a clip of the unfinished Orson Welles’s movie that was left out of early versions, but was included eventually later on in some versions. Overall, this cinema experience of Don Quijote is quite intriguing, especially when considered with the movie as a whole. In many ways, it is understand to be like the post-modern movie version of Quijote, instead of attacking ancient 16th century technology and society, he is battling 1940ish motorized scooters and movie screens. One interesting thing from the movie is some footage of a religious procession, framed along and sliced with footage of the Klu Klux Klan, which Don Quijote goes to attack. Overall, it is definitely worth checking, especially if you’ve enjoyed the book.

So What!!!?

Who knows, maybe this book may be of little importance to you. At times throughout it, I find it to be rather “fluffy” sprinkled with blossoming flowers that never end. Like, ever try reading some old Shakespeare alongside José Martí with some bananas thrown in. However, I do find some gems that are really good within the book for me. Perhaps, most intriguing – to playfully read the adventures against everything that life as we know it has become, to see through our imaginations, rather than with our misleading desires for the most trivial things in life. As someone wrote recently, the greatest thing of all is saving the world! A lot of the time, I find myself taking in and fully enjoying those moments of non-thought and thinking, where it has been shown that our brain is actually most active and full of energy. Don Quijote in a lot of ways, is the definition of tragic hero – even though I may disagree with what he actually fought against for the most part, (the Moors) and alongside (Christianity). Blame can be placed on Cervantes here, maybe not so much Quijote, after all he is just a character. Cervantes wasn’t exactly the most upstanding character, but still a tragic-hero in himself. It can be all be too confusing, seeing Quijote for nothing other than love, and against everything that might actually make sense – then applying some sort of reasoning to it. Quijote was certainly a radical in his time, just what kind of radical is up in the air…

Footnotes:

[1] please note that I decided to remain with “Quijote” instead of “Quixote” throughout the rest of the text, mostly because I prefer to leave names and locations in the original language / untraslated. Title originally in Spanish: Aventuras del ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha

[2]

Dialogue between Babieca and Rocinante A Sonnet
B: Why is it, Rocinante, that you’re so thin?
R: Too little food, and far too much hard labor
B: But what about your feed, your oats and hay?
R: My master doesn’t leave a bite for me.
B: Well, Senor, your lack of breeding shows because your ass’s tongue insults your master
R: He’s the ass, from the cradle to the grave. Do you want proof? See what he does for love.
B: Is it foolish love?
R: It’s not too smart.
B: You’re a philospher
R: I just don’t eat enough
B: And do you complain of the squire?
R: Not enough. How can I complain despite my aches and pains if master and squire, or is it majordomo, are nothing but skin and bone, like Rocinante?

[3] “The editor of Rolling Thunder has expressed his disdain for the works of the author of the aforementioned essay, however, when the essay was sent to him under the name of a more palatable writer, it was prominently reprinted in the magazine.” — from Life is Definitely Elsewhere-A Response to “Say You Want an Insurrection” [a Crimethinc. text] [ http://www.anarchistnews.org/?q=node/10435 ]