Archive for the 'Communism' Category

Yearning for Space

It was my pleasure and an honor to have been interviewed by James Romberger for the Hooded Utilitarian. I already wrote that his work was very important to me in my formative years. Getting the chance to publish his new work and getting to know him has been a blast! Here’s a little excerpt where we splice Jack Kirby with J.G. Ballard:

James: I just read another interview with you that Kent Worcester did, where you cited a specific Jack Kirby image from his 2001 comic, a panel of a man walking up to a building that is just a huge wall of windows—it freaked me out because that is one of my favorites of Kirby’s and it is part of a passage that I had actually thought of mentioning to you! The Earth Jack depicts is so polluted and crowded, a world where pure air can only be breathed out of bottles that one must purchase as we do water, an existence so dehumanized that the protagonist feels he must join the space program, to escape in order to realize any sort of life for himself.

Jack Kirby, from "Norton of New York, 2040 A.D.", 2001 #5, Marvel Comics, 1977

Jack Kirby, from “Norton of New York, 2040 A.D.”, 2001 #5, Marvel Comics, 1977

Your work gives me a similar feeling, as if you are dealing with expressing what it is like to live in a world that has gone beyond the point of no return, but with no escape possible, as if all we can do is construct semblances of sanity for ourselves, that work within the insane structures that we must fit into.

Tom: I love that Kirby image! I believe that was from 2001 #5? I agree with what you’re saying here. One of my favorite J.G. Ballard stories is “Billenium” about an overcrowded world where everyone basically lives on top of everyone else. The protagonists in that story find a hidden room and all that new space is an almost unimaginable luxury. They proceed to share the new space with some friends and family until it fills up and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the world. We need to find these spaces (whether real or imagined) and inhabit them; to create germs of possible and impossible new worlds… hopefully better ones. There’s a danger in that. Things could get worse… but sometimes not doing anything at all, is worst of all. One thing I hesitate doing in my stories is to destroy the world. If “Billenium” was an Italo Calvino story, that room could be a germ of a new city; an invisible city growing in the midst of the old one… and eventually it would grow to replace it. I think we need a better imagination, one that goes beyond wishing for the apocalypse.

Of course the interview was primarily about Beta Testing the Apocalypse. Here’s a little exchange on the index of the book (yes, I love talking about the index!):

James: I’ve never seen an index that alphabetically listed every sound effect in a comic before. And Ballard’s entry leads to a highway sign in a panel for “Ballard Golf Heaven”, and I liked how the table of contents is figured on a greater timeline, but isn’t much help in locating the stories. Such details play with the new climate in comics where we should try to accommodate future scholarship, by ensuring that page numbers are included, etc.—-you certainly left a lot of room for examining this thing through different “lenses”….we’ve come a long way!

Tom: Ha! Well, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do with comics. Indices, notes, and glossaries are some of my favorite things in books and I didn’t want my book to be left out! This all comes out of lots of conversations I’ve had with cartoonists and writers over the last few years. In the end I wanted the index to be another story in the book. One that comments and explicates the other stories. Some entries are in there for fun. Like the sound effects, or cars. Others alert the reader to concepts or phrases that have been quoted, mutated or just plain stolen. One thing that is often left out of comics criticism are the images. They are often examined in terms of plot or composition, but rarely do writers get into the complex visual references that often show up in comics. One of my favorites pieces of writing on comics is a Ken Parille piece on Clowes’ David Boring that excavated the connections to Hitchcock’sVertigo among many other things. I hope in some future edition, the book can be published with an index. Other cartoonists have played with this kind of material. Kevin Huizenga comes to mind with fake indices & glossaries. In fact I was just working with Kevin (& Dan Zettwoch) on the index to their next book, Amazing Facts & Beyond. It’s amazing and goes way beyond my index! In fact they called it the beyondex! Maybe we can start a trend! Index wars!

Check out the rest of the interview here. Check out James’ Post York, and the new edition of 7 Miles a Second. Beta Testing the Apocalypse is available here.

Totalitarian Pop

I pilfered these from Graham Harman‘s blog. Graham is right, this is one of the best songs to emerge from an evil dictatorship.

I love both versions, but this second one opens up a Soviet sized nostalgia zone in my head… even though I’ve never heard this song before. All the notes this songs hits are familiar and mysterious at the same time.

If anyone is interested, I wrote about my my favorite Soviet song here.

Le Corbusier

le corbusier by tom kaczynski

Le Corbusier visits the USSR in 1928.

Inside the Social Media Coal Mines

Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov

We’re breaking all kinds of productivity records here at Trans Atlantis (and over at Uncivilized Books). For example blogging is up since last week by over 100%! This inspired us to draw this quick portrait of a young Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov, the patron saint of industrial productivity. I won’t recap the history of the man here (or any disputes about his records), suffice it to say that he was very productive (or so it was claimed), he was a genuine hero to many and he inspired the Stakhanovite movement.

Was there ever an American version of a supremely productive worker, mythical or otherwise? The closest I can think is John Henry who outraced a steam hammer… but he died in his victory. And really, his story is a tragedy signifying the end of human prowess in the face ‘the machine’. Stakhanov worked with machines & his comrades and achieved unheard of levels of productivity. But I can’t think of a single western worker hero. They are generally depicted as part of faceless masses (say in Metropolis) or bumbling fools (Chaplin’s Modern Times).

Is there a hero for post-industrial office workers? I can’t think of one. Office workers – though often depicted with more personality than industrial workers – are mostly shown as petty & damaged bureaucrats (The Office) doing mostly nothing in the strict hierarchical pyramid-like corporate system. It seems the only genuine American heroes are ‘titans of industry’ and their rags to riches tales of relentless ambition. Is there anything heroic in doing your daily job in America? Or is that for suckers? Am I missing something obvious?

This is also invites comparisons of industrial work with post-industrial work. Is social media todays coal mine?

Communism Undead

karl marx undead

My post on capitalism sparked a few comments from my friend Francis, and eventually a fuller response on his blog. If you’re interested, take a look there first, then come back here for my (hopefully not too rambling) response below.
The first thing that struck me about Francis’ post was how much it resembled… The Communist Manifesto(!), especially the first part. Here’s Francis:

“[ ... ] my tenuous theory might go something like this: In the U.S., we’re slowly taking every other sort of prejudice and replacing it with one based on money. For example, I remember reading (in The Nation, I think), that the Sears Roebuck catalog gave a generation of black working class families the ability to buy household goods that they couldn’t buy in the local department store.”

This is precisely what Karl Marx likes about capitalism! The first half of the Communist Manifesto is essentially Marx’s love letter to the Bourgeois and the destructive/creative dynamics of capitalism. The Manifesto isn’t very long and is worth a read. Here are just a couple of quotes related to the conversation:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom, Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

[ ... ]

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Marx is pretty impressed by capitalist dynamics! Of course, Marx saw capitalism as a transitional phase that would culminate in communism. Communism has been interpreted by many different people to mean a lot of different things. Anything from Stalinist dictatorship to Bakunin’s anarchist collectivism. But, they’re all linked by Marx’s awe of the capitalist sublime, and it’s potential to release – through it’s contradictions – the enormous creative energies of the masses.

But, the Capitalist destruction of all old hierarchies and prejudices doesn’t solve them. It merely exchanges them, as Francis himself says, for ones based on money. Racism may become less acceptable socially, but not so economically. Many minority groups (and women) still earn a fraction of white male salaries. A comment to Francis’ post added that capitalism has been compatible with racism in the past. Slavery is only the most obvious example. Take a look at contemporary Dubai. It’s frequently cited as a model of capitalist development, and yet it employs a huge emigrant underclass not allowed to integrate into the indigenous culture. This doesn’t even get at the vast global pro(to)letariat (mostly non-white) that lives in cities of slums.

But, I don’t want to get sidetracked into identity politics. In my original post I wanted to point out that part of the problem in solving many of these issues is in the way we talk about them. For example Francis says: “Sure, I can complain about how Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard and make okay money.” That simple phrase “I can still work hard and make okay money” contains so much hidden history behind it. It assumes that capitalism makes it possible to for us to “work hard and make okay money”, where in fact it was the struggle of socialists and communists that created those conditions. Historically “working hard and making ok money” wasn’t always possible under capitalism. Working hard (for far more than 8 hours a day) guaranteed basic subsistence at best. It was only after a long (and often violent) struggle that the right to “make ok money” was wrested from capitalists. Social Security, Minimum Wage, Universal Health Care, etc., these are all socialist and communist ideas. We generally accept the premise of capitalist meritocracy under the guise of ‘equal opportunity’. But in ‘actually existing capitalism’ it was only the creation of (socialist) Public Schools and Universities that really began to level the playing field for large portions of the population… and Public Schools have been under a capitalist siege for decades now. And, as Paris Hilton demonstrates, we still have a ways to go. So next time lets say “Sure, I can complain how the capitalist scion Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard, and thanks to the long international communist struggle, make okay money.” ;)

In addition to the socialist institutions I mention above, capitalism also absorbed concepts like ‘democracy’ and ‘markets’. These concepts all blur together now. We can’t conceive of a democracy without capitalism (Chile). Markets have existed before capitalism and will exist after capitalism. Capitalism has been naturalized to the point of becoming the language of economics itself! This conceptual over-stuffing resulted in the disappearance of the very word ‘capitalism’ (over the last 30 years). This is the point I was trying to make in my original post. I think this naturalization of capitalism makes it more difficult to introduce new ideas (or even interesting old ideas) that have never been tried. The reappearance of the word in the midst of the current economic meltdown, is a reminder that capitalism IS a system, a concept, an idea, a choice; it’s debatable!

Is it possible to have a market based economy without private property? Is it possible to democritize private capital? I don’t know. Is it possible to have democracy under capitalism? Headlines like these: “Lobbyists Line Up to Torpedo [Obama's] Speech Proposals” make me think that maybe the answer is no. This kind of thing always amuses me. Capitalists are asking for a bailout with one hand, and with the other they scuttle the proposals of a DEMOCRATICALLY elected figure. How is there always enough money to overturn the collective will of the people, but never any for better wages, benefits, etc.? They can’t have it both ways!
Now, I’m not convinced that communism is the way to go. I grew up in ‘communist’ Poland, and it’s not something I’d like to repeat (though I do have nostalgic fondness for that period – more on nostalgia soon). But the Marxist critique of capitalism is valid (though maybe it’s too successful) and should not be discarded, especially not during this crisis. So how do you turn a critique into an alternative? I don’t know, but that’s why I’m interested in utopian ideas. They contain kernels of something else, an alternative… Zizek said that the death of communism may have been the best thing to happen to communism. As long as capitalism exists it will be forever haunted by the specter of communism. It’s undead revenants will keep rising up to haunt the (privatized) houses of capitalism.

communist zombies

The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind

This song has been in my head all day. I finally decided to find it online. Here it is:

It’s called ‘Солнечный круг’ (Solar Cycle). It’s better known to many as ‘Пусть всегда будет солнце!’ (May There Always Be Sunshine). It’s an anti-war song. If you grew up in Eastern Europe (or at least around Eastern European emigrants) you most likely have this song seared into your head. I posted the lyrics in English below the fold.

It’s probably been over 20 years since I heard this song… well, outside of my head that is… Hearing it again is like being hit with a ton of nostalgic bricks. But what really struck me were the visuals of the videos. The second one especially has all the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. And, yet… they are so… well… American. Besides some minor differences in clothing, and the like, the whole thing wouldn’t have been out of place in the US… at least in that timeless-Norman-Rockwell-eternally-50′s-LIFE-Magazine-innocent-Leave-It-To-Beaver U S of A that still grips the popular (and political) imagination.

I’m often struck by an uncanny sense of déjà vu whenever I watch American politics unfold on TV. The discourse is carefully circumscribed by what can or cannot be said in public about the economy, socialism, Islam, Israel, etc. The 2008 campaign was only the most recent example of that. As much as I like and support Obama, I’m still bothered by the slick visuals his campaign saturated the airwaves with. For all the soaring rhetoric (and yes rhetoric matters) and ‘straight talk’, everything is still directed at saving Capitalism (with a hefty dose of socialism if need be… but shhhh). Socialist Realism is the term used for art which furthered the goals of socialism and communism. Until the Soviet collapse, it was the officially approved style of art for decades. How long does Capitalist Realism have?
Obama Logo

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