Text as Folk Art: a book for non-readers

We could create change and resist the destruction that they wrought on the world. I felt joy and hope in all the possibilities we could continue to create, rebelling against their hallowed message that we should give up and give in.

I had to climb the hillside to see what was on the other side. Once I did, I saw the giants everywhere. I continued onward with curiosity and courage. I saw others doing the same and many of us walked together in mutual support. p 42

From Rousseau’s infamous noble savage to a fascination with tourism, western capitalist society has found many ways to both maintain and exploit the image of some people as Other. One of the more pernicious flavors of this is to see some people as more authentic, more in touch with their humanity and their experience. This increased authenticity can be attributed because they have suffered more, or because they are not seen as fitting into the model of the Normal Person ™ (who is supposed to be some combination of [sub]urban, white, middle class, straight, certified sane, etc). A particular kind of interest in folk art is part of this alienation.

In Europe, psychiatric collections, mediumistic art work, and paintings by autodidacts such as Alfred Wallis (1885-1942) and Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau (1844-1910) were held aloft by modernists, along with colonial plunder from Africa and the Americas as salvation from industrialization’s increasing ravages (Gale 1999:16 and 17). Across the Atlantic, a similar fascination with ‘naive’ expression was taking place. Championing the romanticized notion of a fast-fading authenticity inherent in Anglicized American heritage, certain collectors, scholars, gallerists, and museum professionals turned their attentions to folk traditions. Marcus Davies

The definition for folk art is quite contested: how is it distinct from crafts (or is it)? What is its relationship to fine art and schools of art and art schools? Must it be completely untouched by the art market, or can folk pieces be in dialog with fine art pieces? Can fine artists do folk art? Should folk art be an umbrella term that includes naïve art, art brut1, tribal art, tramp art, self-taught art, etc, or is it a thing distinct from any of those? And so on.

For our purposes, wikipedia gives a reasonable entry:

Folk art

a) encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic

b) expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. It encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media…

c) is practiced by people who have traditionally learned skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, though they may also be formally educated

As with all attempts to define a group as outside of capitalist, western, urban values or experience, this can be read optimistically (the definers are dissatisfied with the status quo and are reaching for something, trying to understand the world in different ways), or pessimistically (the definers are attempting to integrate all difference into the status quo, to flatten differences even while they trumpet how “different” they are).2 More to the point, the members of the given group are both inside themselves and outside themselves at the same time. The Situationists were brilliant in their analysis of the Spectacle as something that divorces people from our own experience, an alienation that we are all subject to, but that members of Otherized groups are subject to differently. Vine Deloria’s article “Anthropologists and Other Friends” is intense and paradigm-shattering in its depiction of the relationship between anthropologists and the people-being-defined, negating (among other things) the idea that any of us can be untouched by the society that envelopes us.

Organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts rightfully define folk art as art coming out of a specifically identifiable tradition. Folk art is “learned at the knee” and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions, like Hopi Native Americans making Kachina dolls, sailors making macramé, and the Amish making hex signs. From the website for the American Visionary Art Museum

Hopi-Native-Americans-making-Kachina-dolls (et al) are not just involved in a deeply spiritual and practical effort that their people have done for generations, they are also operating as Authentic Others within a capitalist model. These two ways of existing are diametrically opposed – are even mutually exclusive – and yet this paradox is embodied in these Hopi (et al), and to varying degrees in all of us.

Our truck sped along the highway, our thoughts in a tumult. Few cars moved our way, apart from the occasional military vehicle. In the other direction, the roadway was overflowing with evacuees. They began to look like refugees from another place. p 45

In Black Flags and Windmills (BF&W), scott crow – the best known (or at least the most interviewed) of the founding members of Common Ground Collective (CGC) – explains how he grew up and in to a world view that promotes a certain way of looking at race, class, disenfranchisement, responsibility, and privilege. BF&W is a reflection of that world view – one that has been called variously anti-racist, anti-colonialist, leftist – with many of its strengths and weaknesses.

While the group had many contributors and co-creators, it is fair to say that CGC (now a non-profit called Common Ground Relief) was initiated by a local ex Black Panther, a local woman, and an anarchist, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was traumatized; entire neighborhoods had been emptied – sometimes through force; the government was demonstrably more interested in controlling the behavior of those who were left, than it was in meeting their needs. CGC, like many other efforts that seek to serve people’s needs without government or NGO mediation, has been lauded by some as an example of direct action, and criticized by some as a charity. In fact it was probably both, depending on when and on which people or subset of people one focuses on. Scott crow makes clear that there was an ongoing negotiation between working with people who were not anarchists, not used to dealing with anarchist horizontal process and mostly probably not interested in learning to deal with it, and the anarchists who made up most or sometimes all of the volunteers who were coming in from outside the area. Differences that were not made any less challenging by the different racial, economic, and cultural compositions of the two groups.

Naïve art:

The main characteristic of naïve art is a rejection, or strained relationship to, the formal qualities of painting, especially the three rules of perspective (as defined by painters of the Renaissance):

The rules of perspective are

  1. decrease of the size of objects proportionally at distance,
  2. enfeeblement of colors with distance,
  3. decrease of the precision of details with distance.

The lack of these characteristics leads to an equal accuracy brought to details, including those of the background, which would be shaded off in fine art paintings.

 

BF&W is an exercise in folk and naïve art, because it is less a cohesive story (or even set of stories) than a record of part of a conversation. The book does not abide by any of the rules normal for books on any of the themes that it includes. It is more than a memoir of CGC (it includes some of scott crow’s childhood) but less than an autobiography – crow mostly discusses his childhood, political development, and part of his life during the existence of CGC. It includes a history lesson but only for a few disconnected and very specific pieces of history, without a larger context (primarily the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas). It is a political text by an anarchist who seems to have been most inspired by non-anarchists. It is a manual for disaster relief without much step by step information to duplicate specific success(es). It is an adventure story about fighting cops, vigilantes, snitches, and entitlement, as well as surviving the environment, without a clear ending. People who already know a bit about CGC might read this book for more information on Brandon Darby, who was a significant part of the story for scott crow, and who gained notoriety first from to his self aggrandizement, and later when he came out as an informant to the FBI. However, where scott crow discusses Darby, it has more to do with crow’s process of coming to terms with the fullness of Darby’s perfidity, than it does with an analysis or accounting of Darby’s behavior.

More fundamentally, the text does not follow a single line at any point. All of the threads are woven together in the way that spoken conversations sometimes flow, but that seem quite random on paper. Because there are so many threads that all seem to get equivalent attention, it’s hard to know which is foreground and what background.

This conversational style, in which bits from all the various themes are mixed together–biographical fragments with stories about the Spanish Civil War and crow’s alliances with ex-Black Panthers (a description that is featured heavily throughout the book), etc–is so pronounced that it makes the book seem like something new, perhaps a book that is for people who don’t read, who don’t like or want to be limited by the patterns or habits in more traditional books.

So Folk as a description operates here in two ways. First is that of “a set of practices learned by watching other people,” in the sense that crow learned his activism by watching and listening to ex-Black Panthers, and from them received a particular take on identity, society, and liberation that he faithfully represents here, even when it is in conflict with much of anarchist thought. In a chapter called Of Anarchists, Panthers, and Zapatistas, crow explains his own eventual embrace of the label anarchist (after rejecting it initially because of his distaste for punk anarchists in his youth), when he decided “it was time to shock the political system.” For some it will be odd that in this chapter the examples of actual action that he uses are two groups that have no anarchist affiliation at all.

It is not hard to find criticism of the authoritarian practices of many within the Black Panther Party; one example is this quotation from Paul Glavin’s friendly review of Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (edited by Kathleen Cleaver – who wrote the preface to BG&W – and George Katsiaficas).

The authoritarian, top-down structure of the Panthers, combined with their reliance on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, is objectionable from an anti-authoritarian perspective. The Panthers saw themselves as a vanguard Marxist-Leninist style Party with hierarchical ranks and they were influenced by Mao. For example, Michael L. Clemons and Charles E. Jones’s essay, “Global Solidarity,” points out that fifty percent of BPP political education classes were devoted to Mao’s Little Red Book. Key members were given State titles, such as Minister of Information and Minister of Defense.

In this collection, Mumia argues it is hard to generalize about the BPP because it had many offices and a diverse membership reflecting regional and cultural differences. Yet by the 1970s the BPP did become increasingly authoritarian and centralized. … http://www.newformulation.org/1pantherinsurgency.htm

And the Zapatistas, as exciting as they have been for people looking to create mass movements, are themselves not even anti-state.

The EZLN has not hidden their agenda. Their aims are clear already in the declaration of war that they issued at the time of the 1994 uprising, and not only are those aims not anarchist; they are not even revolutionary. In this declaration, nationalist language reinforced the implications of the army’s name. Stating: “We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation”, they go on to call upon the constitutional right of the people to “alter or modify their form of government”. They speak repeatedly of the “right to freely and democratically elect political representatives” and “administrative authorities”. And the goals for which they struggle are “work, land, housing , food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace”. In other words nothing concrete that could not be provided by capitalism. Nothing in any later statement from this prolific organization has changed this fundamentally reformist program. Instead the EZLN calls for dialogue and negotiation, declaring their willingness to accept signs of good faith from the Mexican government.

From THE EZLN IS NOT ANARCHIST

crow’s book exemplifies a conundrum for a particular kind of anti-racist activist, which is the question of how much one constrains their ideas to fit into models that have been approved by people of color. When one is an activist, as crow decidedly is, the models of the panthers and the zapatistas are too practical and successful (within limits) to be denied. But if anarchy is something more than a set of tactics, then one must admit that anarchy is impractical. It is not practical to have a beautiful vision of the potential in all of us, a potential that demands the overthrow of so much that so many take for granted or in fact demand. This dilemma continues to be acted out in many people’s political activities and organizations, and the scott crow book is (among other things) a story of the balancing that he was trying to do between its horns.

Anarchism means not waiting for the other to do something. It means knowing what the right thing to do is, recognizing we have the power to do it, then doing it. p73

But Folk can also apply to the way that a work is understood to be outside of institutions; counter to what is considered learned or erudite; easy for the Common Folk to understand. When the point of a work is to replicate cultural norms that are not scholastic or outside of a particular form-of-life, to be – for example – accessible to a group of people who are not used to reading, then the conversational flow and familiar language will be a comfort and an encouragement. These might be the people who take the story of Don Quixote’s windmills as an expression of hope and a refusal to concede, rather than as a sign of an old man’s delusion.

Reading this book brought up for me questions of habit and form, formality and structure. Arguably, scott crow took the format – papers bound together with glue and a cover – and made it his own. A practice that egoists, among others, might be able to appreciate.

  1. aka outsider or visionary art – ie art by people who are considered insane or far outside of social convention)
  2. Of course both pessimistic and optimistic views are true simultaneously.

I’m Very Happy for You, and I’ma Let You “Runaway,” but…

reflections on Kanye West, fame, marketing, and modern racism

This world is full of niche markets, of areas both physical and social that exist alongside each other, with little to no overlap. People go their whole lives in their own trajectory (or trajectories), never knowing, much less reflecting on, that a very different experience is being had by someone even just next door. There are a few things, like school or work, that can cross at least some of those barriers and there is fame. Fame of the rampant type that is lived by a Lady Gaga or a Kanye West can remind outsiders that there is something going on over there.

Some people will not need an introduction to West. For those who have not being paying that kind of attention, West is famous for a number of things: initially as a producer for a hip-hop record label and various big name hip-hop, soul, and pop artists, then for his own multi-award-winning albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808 & Heartbreak). In those circles he is known to be outspoken (some would say tantrum-throwing) about not being given his proper due. But even for people who have never heard any of his music, unless one pays no attention to the media at all, West will be familiar as the charity television commentator during the Katrina hurricane (2005), who ended his commentary (since the cameras cut away from him immediately) by stating baldly, “[then president] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”* And again in 2009, for interrupting an acceptance speech at a music video award ceremony, when he went onstage to say that someone else should have won (creating the internet meme “i’m very happy for you and i’ma let you finish, but…”).

West’s fame is leavened by wide-spread acceptance that while he can rap and produce, he cannot sing, and this film is an indication that he cannot act. But perhaps those lacks give him more of an every-man feel, which adds to his popularity rather than detracts from it. Especially when we consider the livin’-large schtick that many different people seem to be compelled by. His anecdotes of his Good Life (chillin’ with big names in big places) remind me of nothing so much as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” television show of the 80s and 90s, that seemed to get its popularity from its audience’s lack of imagination of what to do with a lot of money.

West’s newest album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—an album notorious before it even came out (for having its original cover banned for obscenity). “Runaway” is one song on that album (one that has been touted as his response to his actions at the award ceremony, since it speaks to being a douche and an asshole; only some of the many names he was called afterwards). “Runaway” is also a 35 minute film that includes multiple songs from the album. West says that clips from Runaway will be used as music videos for the songs in question, and that he’d love to see the entire film on the big screen in movie theaters. Not surprising for West, who is infamous for linking his own significance with cultural icons of all genres, the filmmakers claim an impressive pedigree for this film—which West describes as being based on his professional life and on his dreams—including inspiration by Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, painters Picasso and Matisse, directors Fellini and Kubrick, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The multiplicity of “Runaway” (that is, the fact that it is many music videos in one) fits both its stated purpose, which was to address West’s internal processes—recovering still from his mother’s death and from a traumatic car crash, and the drama of the video award grandstandingand a utilitarian one, since creating a multi-purpose video for almost all of the songs on the album is both unusual (useful for marketing), and probably cheaper than doing something remarkable for all of the songs separately. This combination of internal process and marketing savvy seems like a tagline for West, whose protestations of child-like honesty and up-front sincerity do not negate the attention-grabbing aspect of his actions. That is, he can both say “I took that stand that way because I really felt it in my heart” and reap the rewards of getting his name in front of his audience again. As we all know, marketing doesn’t recognize a difference between negative and positive attention.

The different segments of the video don’t hang together particularly well, despite the main story line (which comes and goes) about a woman-shaped phoenix who crashes into West’s car. He rescues her, teaches her to dance, falls in love with her, takes her to dinner with a bunch of strangers, and loses her to her destiny. This is hugely reminiscent of the plotline of The Fifth Element, or any other film with an innocent beautiful woman/alien who doesn’t or can’t talk much and (therefore?) is completely compelling to the male lead who falls in love with her forthwith. (This has been known to happen occasionally with genders reversed too, as in the 1970s television series Man from Atlantis.*)

The viewer knows that West falls in love with her because that is what has to happen, and plus he says so in the interview later, but his incredibly stone-faced non-acting makes one wonder what exactly is going on, as West looks on while his alien gambols with deer and lambs or drinks from an upside down teacup. The sense of emotional engagement (or lack thereof) is not helped by the fact that West’s lack of expression frequently doesn’t just look non-committal, but sad or, frequently, disapproving.

Luckily, calling something “dreamlike” covers a multitude of issues.

Other components of the video that make multiple and/or significant appearances are people in red hoods (he says the hoods represent social control over imagination); a child with a torch (the torch is supposed to represent individuality and inspiration); a huge puppet-head of Michael Jackson carried by a parade amid fireworks; deer and sheep; a dance sequence by light-skinned ballet dancers dressed in black, performing for an estranged party of dark-skinned diners dressed in white…

When asked about the dining/dance scene, which is the clip for the song “Runaway”, West laughes and says that it has nothing to do with race, that is about color as a design element, and that it was the idea of the art director for the film (a white woman). While racial iconography is present (the hoods reference the KKK, the all black diners are served, and entertained, by white women), it is only enough to allude to something bigger, not enough to be a stand for anything, or to make any kind of coherent statement. The film therefore approaches the topic of race or racism tangentially at most, which is perhaps the most useful way (for a pop star anyway) in a world in which racial conversations are so loaded.

While obviously Michael Jackson is a household name in a way that West has not attained, there are some evocative similarities. Both are/were moneyed, creative, very popular, and multi-talented. Both focused on visuals (although in different ways), and both had/have some thing going on with childhood. West talks about his own “child-like creativity, purity and honesty”*, and wears kid’s jewelry; Jackson’s attraction to, and preoccupation with, children being infamous. (As a perhaps only curious aside, Tracy Jordan, the character from 30 Rock, a popular comedian, is also child-like in his non sequitors and random comments, even perhaps in his benign selfishness.) Is there something about being a popular Black man in the u.s. that is made easier if seen through the lens of childhood? Or is it that the u.s. is more likely to find more acceptable popular Black men who speak through childhood metaphors? (Black male extremely popular cultural figures tend to be either dangerous—Tupac in music, O.J. Simpson in sports, just two examples off the top of my head—or clowny, like will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Prince in his own way, etc.)

How do West’s protestations of child-like sincerity relate (for white people, anyway) to the civil war-era stereotype of black people as child-like and incompetent, refuting the modern stereotypes of black people as aggressive and dangerous? Is West’s persona negotiating a line between take-no-bullshit (for some audiences) and simplicity (for other audiences), and if so, how much is walking that line what allows him to be so popular?

To some, West’s notorious linking of himself with cultural megastars is merely him being explicit about what is normally a tacit practice of big achievers. To others it is the latest example of a hiphop practice, where stars talk themselves up (vs white people, who are supposed to speak of themselves in a protestant, under-stated, arguably hypocritical way). To still others it is him demonstrating narcissism, or megalomania. And of course there is nothing to keep it from being all of the above.

West is not a sophisticated thinker, but that doesn’t mean that his works, including his own persona, are simple or shallow. He is both a visual and a sonic artist, and his pieces encourage other people to find meanings that he wouldn’t.

*from the lyrics of Power, by West.

Notes on Modern Monsters: from Anarchists to Zombies

A friend of mine recently had surgery, and in one of those thoughtful moves that never seem to occur to me, one of his co-workers lent him a bag of easy-reading books for his hospital stay. While I was visiting him I found him asleep, and started the nearest book that seemed good (the one he was in the middle of, of course), World War Z, by Max Brooks.

Zombies have been showing up more and more in pop culture – from video games (Plants vs Zombies and Left 4 Dead are only two of the more popular out of many many examples), books (WWZ, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), activities (zombie walks), to of course movies.

A friend of mine recently had surgery, and in one of those thoughtful moves that never seem to occur to me, one of his co-workers lent him a bag of easy-reading books for his hospital stay. While I was visiting him I found him asleep, and started the nearest book that seemed good (the one he was in the middle of, of course), World War Z, by Max Brooks.

Zombies have been showing up more and more in pop culture – from video games (Plants vs Zombies and Left 4 Dead are only two of the more popular out of many many examples), books (WWZ, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), activities (zombie walks), to of course movies.



WWZ is a post-apocalyptic fiction-documentary of the world wide war against zombies, which happens in the near future. The book is composed of interviews of people from around the world who have played different roles in the conflict—some significant, others not. The interviews take place after the war has been more-or-less won: although there are still zombies around, their numbers are decimated, working tactics and strategies against them have been discovered and disseminated, and people are no longer in denial that zombies exist.

What is a zombie? In this novel it is marginally explained as people with a medical condition, a condition that spreads like a disease. It is a marginal explanation because zombie-ness is only treated as a disease in how it spreads, not in how it starts or how a solution is found: there are no heroic scientist doctors racing for a cure. Other zombie scenarios have been conceived as a result of extraterrestrials (the Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), of human manipulation (the Stepford Wives, Night of the Living Dead, the Return of the Living Dead), of the supernatural (White Zombie, Zeder), and of disease (28 Days Later, I am Legend, Braindead). Sometimes the cause is unexplained, as in this book where it is vaguely attributed to a bite that someone receives from an invisible source while swimming.

Of course the concept originally comes from the Voudun tradition, in which a corpse is reanimated to carry out a wizard’s commands. The corpse has no capacity to be creative, and this lack of creativity or intelligence is the zombie characteristic that has remained most consistent over time. Intelligence is why the Borg (Star Trek, Next Generation) would not be considered zombies, although there are other similarities. (The Borg seems like more of a corporation or state gone berserk, using all of the mental capacity of each of the components for a goal that the components would not choose individually.)

But zombies are also driven: a zombie isn’t a zombie unless it is on its way somewhere, desperately and unthinkingly in search of food. They have a single focus and let nothing deter them (which of course is also their weakness, since they will continue in their path even as they are being dismembered or burned to obliteration).

And being en mass is the third most significant characteristic of zombies. One zombie alone hardly counts as a zombie at all. That sense of being besieged, completely overwhelmed by numbers of mindless ravening hordes is a major component of the horror that zombies represent.

So here we have a big unwieldy group that is driven by some unpleasant or mysterious urge, to which normal emergency responses don’t apply (they’re already dead), that cannot be reasoned with, that smells bad, is ugly (they will be in various stages of decomposition, after all), wants what you cannot comfortably part with, and is clothed in dirty ragged clothing that’s inappropriate for the situation. I couldn’t think of a more obvious analogy for fears about immigration and/or class revolt.

In WWZ, Brooks is clearly using zombies as a metaphor for crisis, for acknowledging and critiquing how individuals and especially power systems deal with emergencies, and the interesting thing is how open the metaphor is. It doesn’t matter which kind of emergency the zombies are an analogy for: the fantasy component allows the reader to insert whatever fear-inducing element that they want to substitute.

Among those who speak monsters, zombies are always compared to vampires, as opposite poles of despair and poverty vs glamour and royalty. Today’s vampires in particular (like Bela Lugosi’s version) are suave, smart, powerful: mini Satans, each of them. (This is very different from the ugliness of Nosferatu in the expressionist German version of Stoker’s Dracula.) These days vampires offer upper class sophisticated seduction: the temptations (and dangers) of the city. As in the Buffy-verse, they are more about being an outcast elite than being scary. Zombies, on the other hand, are about the unwashed masses.

This makes the fairly popular cultural phenomenon of zombie walks disturbing. Zombie walks are public social events with participants dressed and made up as rotting corpses, charged with acting like zombies, and sometimes acting out feeding on people and the consequent creation of new zombies. Frequently these parades are pub crawls. If part of the horror of zombies is the immiseration of everyday life, in which people go unthinkingly through routines over which they have no control, no influence, driven entirely by habit and bodily urges, among millions who are all in the same situation, then there is something perverse about (insufficiently) detourning this state.

Zombies might be of slightly more significance for people in computer geek culture, a scene that is notorious for feeling beseiged by people who they care about and even yearn for, but who are too stupid to understand or appreciate them. This sense of being the normal ones surrounded by the less-than-normal, is a very different take on elitism than that of the vampire crowd.

If zombies are about some kind of elitism, some fear of being surrounded and swallowed by a horde that is mindless and amorphous (yet atomized—unlike The Blob, for example), then it becomes a way to talk about one of the principle contradictions of anarchist practice/thought, which is the conflict between the goals of autonomy and revolution.

To the extent that anarchists believe in autonomy, believe in people’s capacity to create their own lives, to determine their own goals, etc, and that we don’t have the answers for other people, then to that extent we are in conflict with the kind of dramatic world wide change that we want to experience/create.

If we trust people, then we have to accept that most don’t want revolution, most don’t want dramatic change, most don’t want what we want, at least not enough to do much about it.

If we don’t trust people’s capacity to understand themselves or at least run their own lives to the best of their ability, then we have gone a fair way to becoming just like every other vanguard group ever, thinking that we do have the answers, and that we are more perceptive and intelligent than others and so should be running things.

People with politics (not by any means just anarchists) have found a dozen ways to work around this question, from saying that people are rebelling just not politically, to saying that people would rebel if they had any hope, to ignoring the question and just charging ahead with good egoistic principles… but the question is still there. What does it mean for anarchists to push change on people who don’t want it?

I come back to my favorite question ever. What kind of monster will you be?

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.

The Witcher

The Witcher (2007) is a single-player role playing game (rpg) for the pc, created by CD Projekt from Polish short stories and novels written by Andrzej Sapkowski.

If you are one of those people who have somehow avoided being bitten by this particular computer game bug, here we are to poke at you. We’ll start out with intro info that will at least explain my take on some tropes.

The Witcher (2007) is a single-player role playing game (rpg) for the pc, created by CD Projekt from Polish short stories and novels written by Andrzej Sapkowski.

If you are one of those people who have somehow avoided being bitten by this particular computer game bug, here we are to poke at you. We’ll start out with intro info that will at least explain my take on some tropes.



Computer Role Playing Games (crpgs) are games in which you play a character (or a team of characters) that progresses through levels of a story, periodically gaining a series of skills and abilities (“leveling up” is when the character has gained enough experience points to assign skill points in the field of your choice). Within the parameters allowed by the game, you get to choose what your character is good at, and how your character interacts with other characters. You take on a role as different from or similar to your real life persona as you like (and as the game provides for). A good crpg includes enough variation in the story telling that playing as different characters means a notable difference in playing the game. If you are a noble-born thief, sneaky and cocky, you would expect a different story line than if you are a lowborn cleric, or an elven warrior, because people would realistically expect different things from you and you would be a different person. (Yes, I used the word “realistically” in the same sentence as “elven warrior”; this is only one of the many perqs of being a science fiction reader and game player.) Frequently this difference is mostly in how the fight mechanics work. Does the game have fights that work for a sword-wielding barbarian–close in and physically strong but susceptible to magic, as well as a wispy elven archer–excellent reflexes and usually smarter, but not as strong, as well as the frail mage–smart and will powery, but physically weak? (And yes, as should be obvious from these examples, most rpgs exist firmly in the realm of tolkienesque mythology, with orcs, dwarves, elves, demons, etc, as well as religious hierarchy. For example clerics are stereotypically healers and magic users.) But in the best games, the difference is also in how you can solve problems – when faced with a recalcitrant body guard, do you steal the key, persuade, threaten, sneak in the window, bribe, or kill? The writing of most games allows for a single distinct fork: one path of good, and the other of naughty, with subtleties in dialogue depending on whether you’re rude good (for example) or polite naughty.

One of the interesting things about playing games in general and these games in particular is what they tell you about yourself. A friend of mine, for example, ruefully admits that it took her years to figure out that she always chooses the skills that go with a thief (sneaky, smart, reflexy, persuasive) but always fights like a warrior–going straight in, using swords, no running, no traps or poisons. (She denies that this has anything to do with her real life.) To the bewilderment of her friends, another person has been known to play the same game multiple times, cheating outrageously through the fights (after the first time). She explains that she is trying to follow all of the dialogue and relationship options to see where they lead. This really highlights crpgs as interactive fiction*, and the similarities between crpgs and books, like stephenson’s cryptonomicon series, like vonnegut’s works (like our lives): each quality crpg has multiple books contained within. If the character or the world or the situation or the humor is compelling enough, then it’s worth the time to follow all the options.

Philosophically, role playing games are all about ambiguity: we can be and are many different people. In real life we are usually not encouraged to explore or even acknowledge the variables that we incorporate. We want to save people, but also to kick their asses for needing to be saved, and then maybe to make fun of them for relying on random saviors. We want to be heroes and to be left alone, to be lauded and to have no expectations put on us. Rpgs allow us to do these things that are normally considered mutually exclusive.

In the context of crpgs, moral ambiguity in particular is the term used to discuss three distinct (but connected) things: a) you’re allowed to make decisions that are seen as bad in real life (kill or abandon the desperate witch); b) you can make that kind of decision and it doesn’t impede the game (you kill the witch and you continue to have as many options to play the game—even if they’re different options—as you would if you’d chosen not to), and c) the level of moral complexity in the choices you’re presented with (the witch needs to be saved from corrupt villagers, but she is also a blackmailer).

This last example was taken from The Witcher, and is a perfect example of one of the main ways this game shines. The story is full of choices that are not easily distill-able to good and evil. You make the choice you do for reasons that are about your own values, which encourages you to think about what your own values are, in a world that is enough like our own to be useful, and enough not like our own to be fun.

In The Witcher you are Geralt–white-haired, un-sleeping, soft-spoken, potion-dependent–part of a small, elite but failing, group of monster-killing mutants. You get drunk, fight in bars, have cheap (or sometimes meaningful) sex, protect princesses and prostitutes, and try to recover your memory, to rediscover who you are. And as a being who exists somewhere between human and not-, at some point you have to choose a side, either with knights or with outcasts. (I haven’t yet played an ally of the knights. I keep trying but I just haven’t been able to force myself. I’m a bad rpg-er. )

Here are my problems with the game: occasionally dreadful voice acting; clunky sex scene handling; oddly disconnected cut scenes (Hello? There’s a troop charging you! Walls are collapsing! Monsters are threatening! Why so languid?), and my own preference not to have to play as a guy, much less as a guy who has to choose between two women.

But this is more than made up for by the richness of the world (building on multiple short stories and novels by the author), the depth of the decisions, the consequences you deal with, and by the fighting, which is just twitchy enough to keep you engaged without having to micromanage, realistic enough to make my martial arts friend happy, and pretty to watch.

Games are getting more sophisticated and cynical — the anti-hero is alive and well — but this polish import offers (along with its somewhat unfamiliar mythology) a dark weariness that u.s. games just don’t have. It’s not as simple as the sense that the only choices you have are bad ones – the geneforge series does that more brutally (and is too depressing for me to play anymore) – nor is it that you can choose to be bitter and rageful – since most rpgs offer threads with those components. Perhaps it’s the nuanced choices combined with the music and design (the loading shot is a beautifully bleak landscape with two small dark birds flying by), but the nihilism (for lack of a better word) of this game is very appealing to those of us who, like Geralt, keep acting in the world without expectation that our behavior will have any major effect.

p.s. Throughout this I have used “in real life” as a way to distinguish our characters from the lives that we live where other people can see them. But (as even that description concedes) this is a false dichotomy. Much in the way that we are alive through our imaginations, games are not false. They are differently real. This different realness is increasing in our lives, and it serves us to think about it, to incorporate it into our understanding more quickly than we seem to be doing. (An internet community is not the same as a meatspace one, how are they different? What does safe space mean in a world of anonymity? How does this world of a cyber imagination reflect and differ from the worlds of, for example, religious, spiritual, and/or drug-aided imagination?) But these are questions for a later time: they will be revisited.

*(IF is usually used to refer to games that have no significant graphics, games in which your interaction with the game is through reading and typing text.)