Fragments Written While Unemployed

How to explain the nothing feeling
of early morning drive to school?

Still dark in the sky
the boy takes a stand on Hawking’s particle (the elder)
and how all black holes are doomed to evaporate.

The other one — the younger — silent throughout
the arrival . . .

Sweet hugs and waves goodbye.

***

Old Argos
dying on a heap of dung
your nose once aflame for prey

Odysseus has returned at last
from twenty years away

***

Allen took a trip down South
hoping for shamans/ god-death visions
—the expansion of his mind

But found instead . . . an anteater
nosing the wall, its enclosure
—Santiago Zoo

***

two woodpeckers and a hawk
six turtles lazing in the sun

tacos and tap water from the market we passed along the way

I see transparent minnows
swimming against the current
and a lost pencil — ( how here? ) —
babbling down the rocks . . .

minnows don’t care
woodpeckers and hawk don’t care
turtles at rest in the sun

the elder and the younger off for more
tacos down Copperfield trail —

***

cold morning/ central Texas
snow now melting
a likelihood of summer
by end of day

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives

Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, Austin, TX, June 7, 2020

Two weeks to the day since police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an African American man, in the streets of Minneapolis, and after massive nation-wide protests, rioting, hideously aggressive police tactics, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than twenty states, protests against police brutality and in defense of Black lives continue across America and around the world. Here in Austin, Texas, protesters have been in the streets since late May, targeting the Capitol building, the Austin Police Department HQ, and the highly-trafficked Interstate Highway 35, which cuts directly through the center of the city. There has been violence, most notably by police who have critically injured several people,1 yet there has also been a tremendous display of nonviolent outrage against the over-policing of Black communities and the white supremacy that justifies this system.

The largest protest occurred Sunday afternoon, when the Austin Justice Coalition held a nonviolent march from Huston-Tillotson University, Austin’s only HBCU, to the Austin State Capitol, which is currently occupied by the Texas Army National Guard. Billed as the Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, this Black centered yet multiracial event drew thousands to the streets to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of systemic racism, especially as it operates in the criminal justice system. I was humbled to march with them, and I came away from the protest deeply moved by what I saw and heard there.

The first thing I should note is that the sheer size of the protest was astonishing. It is difficult to estimate how many people were in attendance, but on two occasions I climbed up small embankments along the side of the road, and I was unable to see the end of the crowd as it stretched both before and behind me. I know crowd sizes can be deceiving when so many people are gathered in such close proximity, and being in the middle of a mass of people makes estimating its size all the more difficult, but my impression was that many thousands were in the streets. After so many days of protests, a crowd of this size is impressive and suggests that this movement has real staying power. I was also encouraged by the demographic makeup of the protest. There were a large number of African American Austinites in attendance, and they took the lead in speaking and marching to the Capitol (as was appropriate), but the crowd was very diverse, both in terms of race/ethnicity and age. It was heartening to see such a diverse cross section of the Austin community come together to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of racist police practices.

I should also note that the crowd’s mood was both solemn and positive, odd as that mix may seem. The solemnity came from listening to members of the African American community speak about the pain of living in a racist society, but also from hearing them call on white people to do the hard work of dismantling racism within their own hearts, as well as within the larger culture. It was also difficult to listen to Brenda Ramos, mother of Mike Ramos, who was Black and Latinx, speak about her unarmed son being shot to death by the Austin police.2 Yet despite these heavier moments, people seemed energized and positive—sharing water and snacks, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, playing drums and chanting together—and there was a palpable sense of solidarity as we marched to the Capitol.

But what touched me most deeply about the day’s events were the comments delivered by Chas Moore, founder of Austin Justice Coalition, at Huston-Tillotson University before the march officially began. He spoke directly to Black people, affirming their value and reminding them that they are not the problem. But he also spoke directly to white people such as myself, challenging us to look deep within our hearts and ask: What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve racial justice in America? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we are the ones who have built and maintained a system of white supremacy that is designed to benefit us while causing so much harm to our neighbors? Do we have the courage to fight from within ourselves and our communities to dismantle this system, even if that means relinquishing power? These are challenging questions that penetrate directly to the root of the problem, questions that carry with them the clear moral imperative to act against racial injustice.  

Moore is right when he says that marching for racial justice means very little if we are unwilling to first transform ourselves and then fight for practical measures that will lead to true equality. Better than marching is demanding just redistributive measures, even if those measures come at your own expense. Better than chanting slogans is supporting affordable housing, even if doing so depresses your own property value. Better than posting a black square to Instagram is sending your children to public schools, even if you have the means to pay tuition at a fancy private school. (And perhaps those of us with PhDs who are struggling with the current academic job market should be getting certified to teach in the public schools rather than looking to private academies as an alternative to colleges and universities.) I wish I felt more confident that a majority of white Americans have the courage and love of justice to do these things–and much, much more–but listening to Moore call for such courage was deeply stirring nonetheless.

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

“says he’s isolated & wants to destroy the world of Injustice”

Poets Nicanor Parra, Miguel Grinberg, and Allen Ginsberg, with Casa de las Américas director María Rosa Almendra (Cuba, 1965)

I finished reading the “Cuba” section of Allen Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals this morning, which is one of the most interesting first-person accounts of life during the Cold War I have ever encountered. The whole thing reads like an intellectual spy thriller, complete with nuclear tensions, a Marxist-Leninist police state, undercover informants, illicit sex, and a queer literary underground. I can hardly believe that Ginsberg (or the Ginsberg estate) never published his account of mid-1960s Cuba as a stand-alone book — a hybrid travel narrative / nonfiction novel. It is an extraordinary document.

One of the things I found most compelling about this section of Ginsberg’s journals is how it captures his interactions with significant historical figures, including the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría, and the African American civil rights icon Robert F. Williams, among others. Ginsberg had briefly stayed as a guest in Parra’s home in 1960 when he attended a poetry conference in Chili, and both poets were happy to reunite in Cuba, where they were serving as guest judges for a poetry contest run by Casa de las Américas. It was through this important cultural organization that Ginsberg came to meet Santamaría (its founder) and Williams.

I have had an interest in Williams for some time. I’ve read a good deal of his writing, including Negroes with Guns, which he published while in Cuba, and I wrote a short paper about his use of epideictic rhetoric in The Crusader, the scruffy newsletter he edited from Monroe, N.C., and then from exile in Cuba and China, which I presented at the 2016 meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, Texas. Every now and then I see Williams’s name mentioned in relation to the Civil Right Movement, but almost never in relation to American Literature (the notable exception being Amiri Baraka’s autobiography, which praises Williams’s heroism), so when I saw him mentioned in Ginsberg’s journals, I was both surprised and excited.

Ginsberg first mentions Williams in his entry from January 31, 1965, where he writes:

Found note from Robert Williams & called he said he’d be at hotel this evening, we talk,—I remember story of Leroi Jones, him confronting the U S Consul Havana with a pistol demanding protection for his family threatened in (Monroe?—)—and by phone consul calling U S A & getting protection. Also had seen biographical account of his Cuban antiwhite antiyankee propaganda in NY Times, which painted fair tho smug picture of his ideas but completely left out ignored  or eluded his early terror-suffering experiments in his home town which drove him to total & rational distrust of local & Federal authority in that area, to take up arms to protect himself & his group from white anarchy—” (65).

These lines were written sometime in the early morning hours. Later that day, Ginsberg met Williams in the lobby of his hotel, where they had a face-to-face conversation. Ginsberg’s account of their meeting is brief:

Left & ate & met Robert Williams in the Hotel Lobby—Conversation on couch with him, he’s insane, I think, says he’s isolated & wants to destroy world of Injustice even if it means starting over a la Chinois with radioactive universe. But he was open to my white shit & we argued & made date late for later. I told him about Marc & Leroi activities plays in NY—he seemed impressed by Marijuana Legislation Campaign” (67).

I’m not sure if Ginsberg and Williams met again before Ginsberg was expelled from the country, but they did have at least one additional conversation by telephone. Ginsberg reports:

Robt Williams on phone said heard Cuban radio talking how friendly and happy Famous Beatnik Poet is with friendly Cuban citizens literary scene. Castrated propaganda not news” (88).

Ginsberg was not, in fact, happy in Cuba, largely because he was repeatedly censored and his movements and interactions with younger Cuban poets were closely monitored by the police. The local poets with whom Ginsberg associated experienced much more intense forms of harassment, including arrest and detainment. Ginsberg was eventually deported for reasons that were not initially made explicit, though his journals strongly suggest that it was due to his outspoken positions on marijuana and homosexuality. (The Cuban newspaper eventually reported that he had been expelled for distributing marijuana, which is patently untrue.) Williams wasn’t long for Cuba either. He too felt unduly constrained by Cuba, and within a year of his meeting Ginsberg, he had relocated to China, where he bore witnessed to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He would eventually repatriate to the United States.

I don’t believe that Ginsberg and Williams ever met again. A basic Google search doesn’t turn up anything useful, and Williams is not mentioned in Michael Schumacher’s Ginsberg biography, Dharma Lion, though to be fair, Schumacher’s account largely neglects Ginsberg’s African American friends, including Amiri Baraka and Bob Kaufman, which is a shame. It is likely that Ginsberg’s brief meeting with Williams in early 1965 was the lone encounter between these two Americans, and the account in Ginsberg’s journals may very well be the only surviving evidence of the meeting. And that’s okay, I suppose. It is enough for me to know that Ginsberg and Williams met to exchanged ideas… and a bit of friendly gossip too.

Sources:

Baraka, Imamu Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997.

Ginsberg, Allen. Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965. Edited by Michael Schumacher. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Williams, Robert F. Negroes with Guns. 1962. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2013

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

“But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me.”

Reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a depressing experience, even under the best of circumstances. But read under quarantine, with healthcare and economic systems in collapse and hundreds of thousands of deaths expected by summer, the novel assumes a degree of realism that feels positively oppressive.1 Perhaps this feeling is rooted in a desire to interpret COVID-19 through Defoe’s text, with similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the bubonic plague seeming to appear at every narrative turn. I suppose one can’t help but project a little. But issues of projection or confirmation bias aside, there are real similarities between what Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year and what we are currently experiencing, and it seems to me that these similarities offer valuable lessons not only about how contagion spreads, but also about how to navigate the social fissures that appear at times of public health and economic crisis.

That A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and focused on the Great Plague of 1665, should map so precisely onto the coronavirus pandemic is a grim reminder that humanity remains bound by perennial failings of character, both individual and social. The fundamental meanness with which Defoe’s Londoners manage the plague is not incommensurate with some elements of the global response to COVID-19.2 This meanness is expressed most pointedly in the “shutting up of houses,” i.e., the strict quarantining of the sick, together with their families, in their homes. This policy not only violated the rights of the sick, but it also forced large numbers of healthy people to remain cloistered with their contagious housemates, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that they too would contract the plague. At the same time, Defoe describes the widespread refusal of the sick to remain in their homes, even when they knew that breaking quarantine was likely to further spread the disease throughout the city. He even goes so far as to voice the suspicion that those with the plague willfully infected their neighbors, writing, “the People broke out, whether by Force or by Strategem, even almost as often as they pleas’d: And . . . those that did thus break out, were generally People infected, who in their Desperation, running about from one Place to another, valued not who they injur’d, and which perhaps, as I have said, might give Birth to Report, that it was natural to the infected People to desire to infect others.”3 Though ultimately dismissed as rumor, this account nonetheless suggests that a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility, along with a disturbing disregard for the lives of one’s neighbors, accompanied the plague.4

The spectre of people intentionally infecting their neighbors is one of several sensationalist ideas developed in A Journal of the Plague Year, but the bulk of the novel focuses on the many mundane ways that people failed to contain the spread of the plague. One example comes when the novel’s narrator, H.F., follows a grieving husband who has become distraught after witnessing a group of “Buryers” unceremoniously dump the bodies of his deceased wife and children into a mass grave.5 Traumatized by this grizzly sight, the man retreats to a local tavern, which is owned by family friends to whom he turns for solace. Although the tavern runs a clear public health risk by continuing to operate, H.F. expresses sympathy toward its owners, stating that they are “civil” and “mannerly” people, and that they did not operate their tavern “so very publickly as formerly” (56). However, within the tavern is a group of patrons who are not so mannerly, a “dreadful Set of Fellows” who are undeterred by the panic that has gripped the city. These men “behaved with all the Revelling and roaring extravagances, as is usual for such People to do at other Times.” They drink late into the night and mock those who “call upon God to have Mercy upon them, as many would do at those Times in their ordinary passing along the Streets” (56). Not surprisingly, the men soon contract the plague and die a painful death, taking with them an unknown number of people they may have infected along the way.

H.F. openly rebukes these plague-time revelers for their atheism, which he sees as at least partially responsible for their ultimate demise, thus leading to a verbal confrontation that Defoe uses to introduce the regrettable argument that the plague is the “Hand of God” sent to punish a wicked people (57). We have heard enough such claims in our own time to render H.F. himself a suitable representative of the perennial failings of character I mentioned earlier.6 However, despite his religious bigotry, H.F. clearly recognizes the irresponsible behavior that is taking place in the tavern—both on the part of the tavern’s patrons and its keepers. While his contempt for the “dreadful Set of Fellows” is explicit, it is also “with Regret” that he mentions the owners of the tavern who have insisted on keeping their establishment open, even as the dead carts were wheeled by their doors each evening (56). Reading this section of the novel, it is tempting to draw a direct parallel to similarly irresponsible incidents that have made their way into the media over the past month or so. For example, are Defoe’s revelers really so different from the many spring breakers who defied urgent coronavirus warnings in order to travel to popular party destinations in Florida and Mexico? According to one New York Times report, approximately seventy students from the University of Texas traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break on March 14, despite the fact that the university cancelled classes on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns. As of April 1, forty-four of those students had tested positive for COVID-19.7 Those students are now back in Austin, my hometown, where the number of positive cases have increased dramatically from three to nearly eight hundred since spring break.8

Scenarios such as these obviously occur within the realm of the social, but they are, at a more fundamental level, driven by the irrational decisions of individuals who feel emboldened by a mix of arrogance and self-centered denialism to defy even the most urgent, well-founded public health warnings. Those who go partying during a pandemic (or a plague) are exercising willful ignorance, not acting according to a clear sense of socioeconomic necessity, or even according to a clear sense of class privilege. While the willfully ignorant are in the minority in A Journal of the Plague Year, as I would argue they are now as well, both the novel and our contemporary moment are filled with clear examples of social failings and fissures. In other words, it is at the level of the social, and not the individual, that Defoe assigns the most blame for the spread of the plague, and it is at the level of the social that we too should turn our attention when considering the causes and potentially catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the remarkable qualities of A Journal of the Plague Year is the amount of attention the narrative pays to matters of economic and social stratification. Because Defoe uses H.F.’s restless wanderings to document where and how the plague spread through London, he is compelled to address in detail how the particular social inequalities that existed in seventeenth-century England contributed to the disproportionate infection and impoverishment of certain classes of people over others. For example, he makes clear that the moneyed class, to which H.F. belongs, has largely abandoned London for the countryside, estimating that as many as 200,000 people fled the city during the plague.9 And those property owners who chose to remain in the city depended on servants to run errands, do the shopping, procure medicine, etc. in order to spare themselves from the dangers they were sure to encounter when walking the streets. Or so went the logic. The fact is that this practice did little to mitigate the risk of infection. Defoe writes that the plague “generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants . . . who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged” (63). What is clear throughout the novel is that the servant class was expected to risk direct and regular exposure to the plague in order to satisfy the needs of their employers. This class-based practice not only subjected the most vulnerable to disproportionate risk of infection, but it also—in an ironic feedback loop—carried the plague directly into the homes of the privileged classes.

There is a marked ambivalence in the way Defoe represents these class tensions. For example, he clearly pities the poor and laboring classes, recognizing that they are the most vulnerable to infectious disease precisely because they lack the material resources to remain in quarantine. He explains that “that the Poor cou’d not lay up Provisions, and there was a necessity, that they must go to Market to buy,” and that this necessity “brought abundance of unsound People to the Markets, and a great many that went thither Sound, brought Death Home with them” (67). Similarly, he notes that the laboring classes continued to work during the plague with “a Sort of Brutal Courage.” Driven by necessity, they “ran into any Business, which they could get Employment in, tho’ it was the most hazardous,” and it was due to this necessity that “the Plague was chiefly among the Poor” (75). That people should be driven by such necessity is repeatedly condemned in the novel. Indeed, one of Defoe’s goals in writing A Journal of the Plague Year was to educate his readers about how to more efficiently contain the spread of future plagues, and he repeatedly suggests that public assistance to the poor is one way to mitigate the spread of epidemics.10

Yet at the same time, Defoe expresses contempt for the poor, repeatedly asserting that the desperation of the lower classes threatened to devolve into pillage and rioting. The fear of mob action becomes something of a recurring motif as the narrative progresses, and it ultimately strips away any pretension of authentic sympathy for the poor. Defoe goes so far as to suggest that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London, as higher rates of survival among the poor “would certainly have been an unsufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them; and they would in Time have been even driven to the Necessity of plundering either the City it self, or the Country adjacent to have subsisted themselves” (81-82). So while Defoe understands full well that the lower classes are most vulnerable to the plague, and while he uses his novel to encourage both governmental and philanthropic aid to the poor, his ultimate social calculus is clear: better the poor should die than public resources be strained to their limits. The role of class in this calculus couldn’t be clearer.

Defoe’s ambivalence toward the poor and laboring classes is not surprising considering that both he and his narrator belong to the propertied class.11 We learn early in the novel that H.F. is a “Sadler” who operates a thriving business exporting goods to the American colonies.12 He commands a fair deal of capital and is anxious about how to secure his possessions during the plague. At the outset of the novel, he says, “I was a single man ’tis true, but I had a Family of Servants, who I kept at my Business, had a House, Shop, and Ware-houses fill’d with Goods; and in short, to leave them all as things in such a Case must be left, that is to say, without any Overseer or Person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the Loss not only of my Trade, but of my Goods, and indeed of all I had in the World” (11-12). The way he characterizes his servants is revealing here. He introduces them as a proxy “Family” that substitutes for his being unmarried, yet they are also listed among his other property as “Goods” that cannot be left without a proper “Overseer.”13 He clearly feels a sense of responsibility toward his servants, but this feeling of responsibility is embedded within a larger context that ranks the servant class among the possessions of the propertied class.

The stark class divisions represented in the novel may be depressing, but they are also useful in terms of understanding the social fissures that appear during times of crisis. One of the great services A Journal of the Plague Year performs for contemporary readers, especially during a time of global pandemic, is that it lays bare the reality of how class antagonisms structure how public health crises are thought about and managed. Class antagonisms manifest themselves in many different ways throughout the narrative, but their most extreme expression comes with H.F.’s assertion that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London. While he attempts to qualify his relief as a righteous concern for the common good, the fact is that he places the lives of the poor within a contest between life and property, with property taking priority. This is ideology pure and simple, and it illustrates how easily a social situation that subjects the most vulnerable to the most severe suffering can be justified as a necessary evil.

At the same time, A Journal of the Plague Year dramatizes many acts of resistance against the ruling class. This is not because Defoe endorses such resistance, but rather because he has no choice but to represent these acts as a matter of verisimilitude. If he is to craft a novel that accurately represents the Great Plague of 1665, he must account for the fact that the poor and laboring classes carried within themselves the potential to revolt against a system that ranked them among goods and property. An excellent example of this impulse comes early in the novel, when H.F.’s plan to escape London for the countryside is stymied by the preemptive flight of his most favored servant. No sooner does H.F. decide to travel from the city on foot, with a single servant to aid him on his journey, then his plans are subverted: “But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me; and being frightened at the Encrease of the Distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other Measures, and left me” (13). The result is that H.F. is left to look after himself, while his servant is liberated from the responsibility of putting his own life in jeopardy to ensure the health and safety of his employer. That the servant took “other Measures” thus becomes a point of departure from which readers can imagine a host of similar measures that the poor and laboring classes can take to liberate themselves from a system of social subordinating that always extracts the highest cost from those who have the least.

We never learn what became of this servant. He simply vanishes from the text. This disappearance can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may reasonably conclude that the servant, like so many other poor Londoners, struggled mightily—and perhaps even died—during the plague. However, one may just as reasonably conclude that the servant successfully escaped the mortal danger that he most surely would have encountered if he had remained in H.F.’s employment. While Defoe spends a fair deal of time late in the novel illustrating the challenges that those who fled the city encountered, and while he makes the case that most people who fled the city ended up returning to their homes a short time later, he also details a series of successful strategies for surviving the plague while in exile. Indeed, the most detailed anecdote in the novel focuses on the successful escape from the city of three working-class men—a baker, a sail maker, and a joiner—who survive their ordeal through a mix of practical skills and wit. They also survive because they exhibit a strong sense of solidarity with other working-class people they meet during their travels.14 Considered in this context, the story of the escaped servant takes on a utopian dimension, especially when we consider that the servant never returns. His escape, though left to the reader’s imagination, is permanent.

These stories suggest that the poor and laboring classes can fend for themselves, that they can survive free from the domination of capital, and that they are sensitive to the fissures that appear during moments of public crisis—fissures that present avenues of liberation that remain obscured under ordinary circumstances. This is not to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic represents a class victory. It doesn’t. The fact is that people are suffering and dying, and those who carry the greatest burden of suffering are the least advantaged among us.15 However, times of social crisis do tend to expose the tensions and contradictions that are all too often obscured by the routines of everyday life, and we would do well to learn from the coronavirus pandemic in order to build a better future. Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during this pandemic has helped me perceive some of these contradictions and opportunities more precisely than I otherwise may have. One of my takeaways after reading the novel comes from the relatively minor detail of the subversive servant. Perhaps there is something to be learned from his recognition that the plague presents a unique opportunity to reject subordination. Perhaps all of us can pursue “other Measures,” and not only in this time of crisis, but in everyday life as well.

***

FINIS


© 2020 Micah Robbins

Fragments Written While Unemployed

Game day. Cool. Blues sky.
A headline in the New York Times

“For better or worse, Trump will get his favorite things on Super Bowl Sunday”

***

Christmas on Earth 1963

when music was good
people fucked in full
body pain & top hats

***

At home with the boy yesterday
the elder
sick

Such comfort — under the blanket
cartoons on the television

a parent close at hand

***

Dirty dishes and drums roll
through brass & keys

Books lie waiting . . .

Faucet dripping thoughts
of sunflowers and California markets — decades gone

“Hopelessly hoping hopefully”

***

House of the Lord
in stone-clad storefront

flecked skin of industry
bleeding bacterial
growth of unified floor plans

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Good Morning, Sunshine, It’s Minority Rule! (DNI Edition)

February 20, 2020

***

FINIS


(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins

Misanthropic Humanism and the Politics of Comic Futility

Kurt Vonnegut owes a good measure of his popularity, both as novelist and public intellectual, to his gift for treating the most depressing aspects of postmodern American life with cheerful contempt. His steadfast good humor renders dissident fictions palatable for mainstream audiences, while also appealing to those more politically active readers who are convinced the core values animating contemporary American life must be revised if, as the most idealistic generation in recent memory warned, we are not to be “the last generation in the experiment with living” (Hayden). He is, in this regard, one of postwar America’s most politically savvy literary voices, a novelist perhaps uniquely suited to posit radical ideas within mainstream discourse. It is important to note, however, that while Vonnegut lends his voice to a number of “isms” well outside the bounds of popular American politics (socialism, pacifism, and atheism come immediately to mind), he does so while remaining conspicuously skeptical of political activism as a force for positive and lasting social change. He thus performs the paradoxical task of inculcating a progressive moralism that condemns the most troubling aspects of postmodern American life—most notably the twin forces of consumer capitalism and militarization—while at the same time insisting on the inability of progressive politics to set straight what he sees as having gone so obviously awry. At the core of his critique is a “Do-Nothing ethos,” a sort of hip resignation that suggests an inevitable descent into evermore cruel and calloused ways of being (Weisenburger 176). This ethos finds its most memorable expression in his famously fatalistic phrase, “So it goes,” which he utters like a mantra throughout Slaughterhouse-Five (1969); or, to put it differently, as he does in his less popular novel Bluebeard (1987), humankind is “doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive” (Slaughterhouse-Five 2; Bluebeard 91). It is around this fatalism that his oeuvre’s core contradiction develops. While Vonnegut’s novels may speak passionately against manifold forms of violence and oppression, they ultimately succumb to a playful nihilism that, though rich in irony and black humor, offers little by way of imagining a future beyond the sequence of traumas and disasters that characterizes our historical moment.

Irony and black humor are, to be sure, means of making the intolerable seem tolerable, as gallows humor surely attests, and in the hands of more radical satirists such as William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker, to name just a few of Vonnegut’s contemporaries, they become discursive weapons against the violent, exploitative mentalities that continue to structure our world into the twenty-first century. But with Vonnegut, the gallows carry the day. This is not to deny that Vonnegut’s satire does much to shame prevailing sociopolitical mores. It does. It also raises a powerful alarm that something has gone horribly wrong in the world. But in the end, Vonnegut’s fiction eschews imagining acts of meaningful resistance—symbolic or actual. His work is, in this regard a surrender, for even his most politically effective novels advance an image of humanity as powerless to enact positive social change in the face of overwhelming biological and historical forces. In his well-known 1973 interview with Playboy magazine, Vonnegut goes so far as to explicitly position the political novelist as part of a biological process that functions independently of the writer’s strategic intentions, an explanation that illustrates the fatalistic paradox at the core of his politics. In response to a question regarding his motives for writing, he says, “My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with the dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change” [my emphasis]. Vonnegut imagines writers as “evolutionary cells” in the “social organism,” biologically determined agents that simultaneously introduce new ideas into society and function as a central “means of responding symbolically to life.” Yet immediately after articulating his progressive political commitments, Vonnegut turns notably pessimistic, stating, “I don’t think we’re in control of what we do,” before proceeding (in characteristically self-depreciatory fashion) to dismiss his theory of the writer as a force for evolutionary social change as “horseshit” (Vonnegut 76-77). He thus undermines, in a moment of what I read as impromptu candor, one of the foundational premises of political activism: that people can join in solidarity and organize around conscious acts of will to fashion a better future.

Robert T. Tally, Jr. takes up Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics in his ambitious study, Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011). Ranging over Vonnegut’s nearly fifty-year career, and offering commentary on all fourteen of his novels, Tally develops a theory of Vonnegut as a leading iconographer of postmodern American society. This is not to say that Vonnegut is a leading postmodernist per se —Tally suggests the label “postmodern” doesn’t quite fit—but rather that he is a writer with deep-seated modernist sensibilities whose work attempts to capture a comprehensive vision of America at the height of its power. In ranging over Vonnegut’s novels, Tally touches on some crucial theoretical and generic concerns, both of which I’ll discuss in due course, but what stands out most impressively when considering Vonnegut’s effort to construct a thoroughgoing postmodern iconography is the way in which his modernist political sensibility—rooted in utopian ideals of social wholeness and moral intelligibility—gives way to the overwhelming uncertainty and fragmentation of the postmodern age. His iconography may aim for the “comprehensiveness and unity assayed by the most wide-eyed utopians of the early modernist period,” as Tally argues early in his study, “yet Vonnegut’s world remains more fragmentary and unfixed than the elegiac modernists imagined. Hence, Vonnegut makes a botch of things” (xxi). By tracking Vonnegut’s career-long attempt to negotiate the tensions between modernity and postmodernity, Tally offers a compelling literary-critical portrait of a significant (though largely neglected) American novelist grappling with the contradictions and crises of postwar American life, a portrait that helps clarify the paradoxical core of Vonnegut’s fatalistic political ethos.

Tally argues that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a fundamentally modernist project in that it seeks through symbolic means to contain a cultural moment come unhinged through rapid technological development and the values associated with mass consumerism and unchecked militarization. In response to the pervasive fragmentation of American society, Vonnegut constructs an iconography intended to identify the roots of postmodern social disintegration and thus, by extension, illuminate traces of a prelapsarian integrated whole or idealized unity. We see in this effort what Tally regards as Vonnegut’s “thoroughgoing, elegiac modernism,” a perspective that leads him to revisit key modernist concerns, including “the effects of industrialization and technology, the breakup of traditional (so-called organic) communities, the relations between historical and psychological structures, between social totality and personal experience” (6-7). Yet because he does so within a postmodern framework, his efforts at identifying clearly defined social problems that fit within stable narrative structures are ultimately stymied by the very slippages and lack of coherence that his fiction attempts to contain. The result of this tension is a body of work that fails to effectively imagine utopian solutions precisely because it runs repeatedly into the limitations of a cultural-historical moment that denies utopian thinking as such. As Tally rightly notes, “the politics of postmodernism—by denying both an Edenic past to return to and a utopian future just over the horizon—often appears doomed to fall back into an apolitical position.” As a result of this denial, and surrounded everywhere by a breakdown in signification and its attendant political frustrations, Vonnegut’s “political forces have been driven deeply into an unconscious. A writer who desperately wants to support causes championed by a populist left, Vonnegut cannot help his general despondence over the impossibility of a genuinely political movement achieving success” (10). So while Vonnegut’s modernist sensibility may lead him to desire stable political solutions, he ultimately succumbs to a postmodern framework that all but forecloses on the utopian, redemptive promise that energizes the various “isms” I mentioned above. He thus becomes what Tally calls “a reluctant postmodernist” (7).

Although Tally makes the political dimensions of Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography clear, he tends away from situating Vonnegut within the rich and varied political discourses that shaped Cold War American society and its aftermath. He opts instead to engage literary-critical debates to argue for the significance of Vonnegut’s contribution to the development of American literature, even going so far as to suggest that Vonnegut is as good a candidate as any for having achieved some proximity to the ever-elusive “great American novel.” Indeed, Tally makes an extended claim that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a noble yet failed attempt—a near miss, really—at achieving precisely such a deed. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the book struggles to bear out Tally’s claim that Vonnegut’s iconography attempts the comprehensiveness associated with a project such as “the great American novel” precisely because it avoids a substantive engagement with specific sociopolitical developments in the decades following the end of the Second World War. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is not a work of American studies, nor does it take advantage of sociohistorical methodologies that may, in the hands of some future scholar, help place Vonnegut’s work in relation to actual politics of world-historical significance—the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, Nixon’s ouster and the rise of Reagan, the fall of Communism, etc. On the other hand, Tally’s emphasis on literary-critical debates allows him to construct an impressive survey of Vonnegut’s work, and he makes important strides toward understanding the extent of Vonnegut’s engagement with theoretical concerns developed by some of the twentieth century’s most important continental philosophers. Figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodore Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari loom large in his study, and while their presence at times softens what could be a sharper focus on the particularities of Cold War American society, they allow Tally to make a case for Vonnegut as something more than a popular novelist. The truth is that Vonnegut is not taken very seriously within the academy, and by showing how his novels are shaped by and/or fit in relation to key theoretical insights, Tally makes a strong argument for Vonnegut’s place within a lineage of great American novelists running from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon.

Yet even when Tally focuses on continental philosophy to make literary-critical claims about Vonnegut’s work, and particularly when he does so in relation to how Vonnegut negotiates the tension between modernist and postmodernist narrative techniques, he still manages to present important insights vis-à-vis Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics. For example, in his chapter on Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Tally draws extensively on Nietzsche’s theory of the “eternal return”—the idea that a finite universe exists in infinite time and space and thus must recur ad infinitum—as a key to understanding the novel’s “Tralfamadorian style.” Named after the bizarre alien life forms that abduct the book’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and display him in a sort of zoo/natural history museum on their home planet Tralfamador, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian style is rooted in a cosmological concept that, much like Nietzsche’s eternal return, asserts “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). Tralfamadorians experience such simultaneity literally, seeing all time arrayed before them as if it were a mountain chain over which their consciousnesses may range at will. Billy also experiences something approaching this simultaneity after coming “unstuck in time,” and his subsequent and varied shifts between the past, present, and future allow Vonnegut to dispose of linear storytelling and engage in altogether more experimental narrative techniques (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 29). Armed with Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return, Tally argues that these techniques, though relying on apparent narrative instability and its associated fragmentation of experience, are actually evidence of Vonnegut’s attempt to achieve a more rigorous realism than that which more conventional narrative forms allow. If reality is determined by an eternal recurrence, as Nietzsche asserts, and all moments in time exist simultaneously, than it only makes sense that Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative structure move beyond representing the world as if “one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). The novel’s fragmented narrative form thus becomes an exercise in constructing a cosmological unity, with past, present, and future held simultaneously in view and nothing left to slip away beyond our reach. For Tally, this is wholly “characteristic of Vonnegut’s modernism: the need for experimental narrative techniques (such as stream-of-consciousness, collage, time-warps) to do justice to what is really real, something that the older modes of realism were seemingly unable to accomplish. This marks Vonnegut’s wholly modernist view of reality” (78).

Though questions regarding Vonnegut’s narrative techniques may seem to be of limited literary-critical interest, Tally shows how they prove reflective of Vonnegut’s “Tralfamadorian ethics,” an ethics infused with Nietzschean amor fati, or “love of fate,” and one that Tally argues is peculiarly “suited to Vonnegut’s modernist approach to the postmodern condition” (71). Billy’s disillusionment with time as linear phenomenon not only affects the novel’s narrative structure, but it also leads him to accept that which he has no power to change, namely the pervasive reality of death. Billy articulates this acceptance in a letter he writes to the editors of his local newspaper, an example Tally highlights as evidence of his peculiar ethics: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). The specific context of Billy’s struggle with death is the trauma he experiences after witnessing the American firebombing of Dresden, an event that Vonnegut also witnessed during his military service in World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians perished during the attack, and Billy’s postwar experiences—including the experience of seeing his son deploy to fight in Vietnam, a detail that provides the immediate political context of this self-professed anti-war novel—are haunted by his memories of the Dresden dead. Slaughterhouse-Five is, to a significant degree, an attempt to grapple with a world in which even those forces that seem most committed to liberty and justice engage in indiscriminate acts of mass murder. Nietzsche’s eternal return, a theory meant to liberate human psychology from the anxiety and resentment bound up in the wish to both alter the past and change an inevitable future, provides Tally with the theoretical means to figure the fatalism expressed in the phrase “So it goes” as the “appropriate response to death, as well as an affirmation of life” (75). It also allows him to synthesize Vonnegut’s style and ethics in such a way as to illuminate the paradox at the core of Vonnegut’s seemingly progressive politics, namely the belief that the world is as it is because it cannot be otherwise.

In what is his most significant contribution to our understanding of Vonnegut’s work, Tally proposes the term “misanthropic humanism” to describe Vonnegut’s cheerful fatalism. Misanthropic humanism is a useful term because it explains how a body of work can seem committed to a radical project for progressive sociopolitical change, while simultaneously holding forth a constant reminder that cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and death are inevitabilities that strike at all in the end. There can be no question that Vonnegut cared deeply about the fate of humanity; his best novels expose the sometimes subtle pathologies that produce unparalleled suffering in the contemporary world, and they do so in such a way as to stir lasting sympathies in his audience. But the humanity Vonnegut cared so deeply about is, in his view, a species with self-destructive tendencies written into its very biology. The notion that human beings function as cells in a social organism, and biologically have to be a certain way, as Vonnegut insists they must in his Playboy interview, underwrites his misanthropic humanism and infuses his fiction with the humor of those destined for the gallows without hope of escape. Indeed, there is no hope for escape precisely because we are human. Tally argues that Vonnegut’s work “shows how human beings themselves are the greatest, indeed perhaps the only, impediment to human freedom and happiness,” and that this circumstance cannot be otherwise because our most debilitating qualities emerge from the inevitable inner-failing of human nature itself (23). Tally has a keen eye for how Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism manifests itself through nearly every one of his novels, and though his study cannot ultimately resolve the contradiction of a progressive politics that denies the possibility of progress (this is Vonnegut’s failure, not Tally’s), it goes a long way toward clarifying some of the more paradoxical aspects of Vonnegut’s politics.

Vonnegut stresses a pointed view of humanity as innately self-destructive throughout his oeuvre, beginning with his 1952 debut novel Player Piano, and extending into the late stages of his long career (his 1985 novel Galápagos is a good example). Indeed, in ranging over each of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, Tally reveals the far-reaching ways in which Vonnegut’s work not only highlights humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, but also suggests that human beings lack basic free will. For example, he draws on Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, to illustrate how his fiction “blurs the lines between man and machine, showing not just how humans are being replaced by machines or how machines have dehumanized American society (the ostensible themes of Player Piano), but that humans are themselves machines” (21; my emphasis). Set in a dystopian America in which an automated economy has deprived most people of meaningful work, Player Piano expresses the pervasive sense of corporate, middle-class angst captured most famously by Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955). However, Vonnegut’s debut differs from most other 1950s novels of its sort by imagining a revolutionary movement that acts to restore power and dignity to a people dispossessed by a technocratic economic-political system. In this regard, Vonnegut’s fiction anticipates sociologist Theodore Roszak’s important study of the New Left’s opposition to technocratic values in his book The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). Yet unlike those New Left activists motivated by the belief that a better world is possible, Vonnegut has his revolution fail at the very moment of its success. Immediately after Vonnegut’s dissident neo-Luddite zealots smash all the machines, they begin testing their technical know-how by first explaining and then repairing the technology they have just destroyed, thus taking the first step toward reestablishing the technocratic regime that had dispossessed them in the first place. It’s as if they can’t help but undermine their own liberation. In other words, the revolution fails not because it runs up against an implacable, dehumanizing system, but rather because such failure is written into human nature itself.

Vonnegut’s work suggests that such failures are more than political; they are an innate part of human biology, which is hardwired for self-destructive behavior. This belief is what allows Vonnegut to care so deeply about humanity while simultaneously holding it squarely responsible for all of the world’s troubles. Tally makes this point clear when he writes, “Vonnegut sees most people as fundamentally flawed, petty, avaricious, and prone to acts of almost incredible cruelty. Yet, for all that, Vonnegut also cannot abandon humanity; he marvels at man’s folly, noting sadly or just curiously man’s absurd perseverance, as in the bittersweet image of the triumphant Luddites who, at the end of Player Piano, proudly put back together the very machines they had broken. In Galápagos, Vonnegut takes further pity on people, arguing that it was never their fault that they were silly, arrogant, and cruel. It was all due to their grotesquely oversized brains” (131). Absurd as this may sound, Vonnegut’s late novel Galápagos does indeed blame the evolutionary accident that led to our current brain size for everything from predatory economics and war to suicidal thoughts. In fact, the narrative fantasizes a world in which humans, through a dangerous mix of nuclear radiation and natural selection, evolve out of their debilitating brain size and into simpler brains incapable of advanced logical and/or moral reasoning. Only after humanity evolves into a species of seal-like creatures does the world achieve a sense of equilibrium. The joke is more-or-less transparent: we humans, with our advanced cognitive processes and opposable thumbs, our integrated economies and technologized wars, are a far baser lot than the simple-minded creatures splashing along the shores of the Galápagos islands. Better to be an animal than a human being when humans have done so much to degrade the world. But behind Vonnegut’s joke is a pathetic fatalism that holds forth biological evolution as the only feasible solution to the very real problems facing our world. According to this view, humanity will only be relieved of the destruction it visits upon itself and its environment when it ceases to be comprised of humans. A posthuman condition—or as Tally would have it, “a new humanism without the human”—thus becomes the only way to overcome the compelling, though ultimately frustrating misanthropy that infuses Vonnegut’s important body of work (132).

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it’” (159).

Note:

This review essay was originally published in b2o, the online community of the boundary 2 editorial collective. It can be accessed at the following link: https://www.boundary2.org/2016/01/misanthropic-humanism-the-politics-of-comic-futility-robert-t-tally-jr-s-kurt-vonnegut-and-the-american-novel/.

Sources:

Hayden, Tom et al. “Port Huron Statement.” H-Net, http://www.h-net.org/~hst306/documents/huron.html. Accessed 19 Aug. 2015.

Tally, Robert T. Jr. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. Continuum, 2011.

Vonnegut, Kurt, interviewed by David Standish. “Playboy Interview.” Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen, U P of Mississippi, 1988, 76-110.

Weisenburger, Steven. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980. University of Georgia Press, 1995.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

Singularity and Multitude in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The fraught relationship between global capitalism and cultural identity looms large in the work of contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. His novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for example, tells the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton University on scholarship before going to work for Underwood Samson, a high-powered asset valuation firm in New York City. But when the United States responds to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center with a series of military invasions that throw the global power structure into high relief, Changez must confront the tensions within his personal identity as a transnational global subject. He soon recognizes that he “lacked a stable core,” and he confesses that he could no longer tell if he belonged “in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither” (Hamid, Reluctant Fundamentalist, 168). As the narrative progresses, Changez grows a beard, resigns his post at Underwood Samson, and returns to Pakistan, where he helps organize a series of large scale protests against American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. What makes Changez’s transformation from pro-American market fundamentalist to anti-American political activist so compelling is that he exists both inside and outside the logic of global capitalism. By embodying both sides of the contemporary conflict between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, his consciousness troubles any clear distinction between “us” and “them”—a key mentality and core contradiction within neoliberal globalization. Like much of Hamid’s work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks us to consider the limits of this mentality and to question the extent to which a distinction between inside and outside—or the global and the local—is possible at this point in history.

Hamid complicates this question in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Unlike Changez, who views the world through both Pakistani and American eyes, the unnamed protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia never leaves Pakistan. His journey is from an impoverished village in the Pakistani hinterlands to the developmental boom of contemporary Lahore. Hamid’s shift in emphasis from transnational to regional subject would seem to eschew the idea that globalization strips everyone of a “stable core.” Indeed, there is no reason to read Hamid’s unnamed protagonist as anything other than authentically Pakistani. Not only does he never experience the nostalgic longing for cultural authenticity that is evident in Changez’s split identity, but he is also repeatedly reminded that he does not belong to a global elite with the privileged mobility to exist in more than one place at a time, and this despite the fact that he earns a modest fortune bottling untreated tap water. One example of such a reminder is when he meets his childhood sweetheart (referred to throughout the novel as “the pretty girl,” who has since gone on to become an internationally recognized model) at the most exclusive hotel in the city. Having recently been damaged by a truck bomb, the hotel, which Hamid describes as an “outpost of a leading international chain, a bridge with lofty, illuminated blue signage to the outside world,” has made a concerted effort to “push the city away” and establish itself as “an island” unto itself (Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich, 104). The intense security surrounding the hotel marks a stark contrast between the transnational elite and the local residents of Lahore, a contrast that manifests itself in seething traffic jams and “looks of resignation, frustration, and not infrequently anger.” It is from this “snarled horde” that the unnamed protagonist attempts to “detach” himself and enter the transnational “citadel,” but his effort is interrupted by armed guards who summarily turn him away precisely because his identity is bound within the confines of the very city that hosts this corporate resort (Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich, 104). It is only when “the pretty girl,” who can move in and out of Lahore at will, vouches for him that he is permitted to enter into a space that is marked as the exclusive domain of well-heeled cosmopolitanism.

Yet Hamid never allows us, as readers, no matter where we are from or what our socioeconomic circumstances may be, to escape from a fundamental—and sometimes uncomfortable—identification with his novel’s hero. He accomplishes this by narrating How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, from beginning to end, in the second person. The protagonist’s experience being turned away at gunpoint from a hotel restaurant is your experience being turned away at gunpoint, thus opening within the novel a deterritorialization of identity that puts readers into close proximity with a radical otherness. For example, Hamid collapses the points of identification and differentiation between his unnamed hero and his readers when, in the novel’s opening pages, he writes:

This book is a self-help book. It’s objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things. (How to Get Filthy Rich 4)

Hamid’s ideal reader has, of course, seen all of these things, which is precisely why he needs to mention them, for without some basis of identification readers may close themselves off from the radical difference embodied by an impoverished and diseased child from an isolated rural village. At the same time, the narrative, focused as it is on how globalization comes to bear on local contexts, needs to maintain the integrity of its hero’s cultural identity, which is why it bears stating that “you” have not seen such luxuries (even though you have). In other words, even as Hamid creates points of identification between his readers and his story’s huddling child, the text reminds us that this protagonist is no Changez; on the contrary, this character is sealed off from the centers of global capital and fixed in a position of distant otherness, and yet he is shot through with the same forces that fix all of us within globalization’s mechanisms. This unrelenting collapse of the difference between his novel’s diverse global readership and its unique central character allows Hamid to develop a critique of identification and difference that may help us begin to understand how we, as singular individuals, exist within a global network, and how our shared position within this network unites us as a multitude of global subjectivities.

One reason Hamid needs to take such care to balance identification and difference in the first place has to do with the precarious systems used to disseminate difference throughout the world—the novel being one such system—and how those systems threaten to break down under the pressure of a radical influx of otherness. In his book The Deliverance of Others, David Palumbo-Liu argues that too much otherness can overwhelm those on the receiving end of delivery systems, thus leading to a further entrenchment of difference and, ultimately, alienation. He even goes so far as to make the seemingly paradoxical suggestion that increased exposure to otherness makes knowledge of difference all the more difficult to achieve. For example, he argues that “if by ‘globalization’ we mean a newly extensive and intensive connectedness between remote and disconnected peoples,” then we in the humanities and social sciences must address the implications of having lost “the luxury of focusing only on discrete and separate objects, phenomena, and behaviors, since these are now mingling and cross-referencing each other in unprecedented and sometimes discrepant manners.” This leads, in turn, to an ironic juncture where “knowledge of others appears to have become only more problematic in an age when the distance between others is continually shrinking” (Palumbo-Liu 30). One of the great virtues of literature is that it opens up possibilities for experiencing otherness through the exchange of our shared imaginations, and one may reasonably assert that literature is a vehicle for self-transcendence precisely because it brings complex, emotive representations of otherness close to readers. Yet even when the powers of the imagination are at work, there are deep challenges to our accessing an honest knowledge of intersubjective difference. Palumbo-Liu relates these challenges to

a number of imperatives: for example, how to displace (or at least “bracket”) oneself enough to allow for the imagining of an other that endows that other with his or her (or its) own sphere of action and choice, without mandating that the other has to act as we do? And yet how to make a bridge between their discrete acts and our realm of understanding . . . if we do not retain (as if we could truly give it up) our own particular sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable? (54)

What complicates these challenges even further is that any attempt to imagine the lives of others must include a reckoning with the external forces that impact those lives, and how those forces apply unevenly to individual subjects depending upon their positions within the global order. In other words, identification with otherness must expand upon “wider considerations of historical, political, ethical and social (rather than simply intersubjective) life” (Palumbo-Liu 73). When the degree of difference delivered through a literary text overwhelms its readers’ “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” the work’s potential to transform its readership into something more than what it was when it first encountered the text is threatened.

It seems to me that Hamid’s use of the second person throughout How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is his attempt to answer the sorts of imperatives that Palumbo-Liu identifies as a challenge to reading literature in a global age, for the second person point-of-view is uniquely suited to integrate readers into the narrative vehicle. In his short essay “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Hamid places his interest in the second person point-of-view within a literacy narrative that begins with role-playing games and Choose Your Own Adventure stories, both of which empower the reader/participant to determine the contours of the story, and ends with Albert Camus’s The Fall, a book that takes the form of a dramatic monologue, including frequent references to a reading/listening “you.” Hamid’s first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, borrow from The Fall insofar as they too take the form of dramatic monologues with frequent appeals to “you.” Addressing his motive for structuring these novels as dramatic monologues, Hamid explains that he wanted to show “how feelings already present inside a reader—fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty—could color a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on” (“Enduring Love” 78). This sentiment relates to Palumbo-Liu’s observation that readers can’t help but retain their own “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” and that these feelings pose an obstacle to our ability to “bracket” ourselves enough to successfully imagine the lives of others (54). Yet it is worth considering the extent to which dramatic monologues do more to cultivate active self-consciousness in readers than they do to develop a productive consciousness of difference. It is only when we come to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia that we see Hamid fully commit to the second person point-of-view as a means of propelling his readers out of their own and into someone else’s experience. So whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist was designed to be “a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics,” How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—with its unremitting “you” that fixes the reader within the subject position of the narrative’s central character, a narrative approach that Hamid calls “a kind of . . . self-transcendence”—becomes an explicit exercise in encouraging readers to recognize that we are more than singularities to be reflected back by a mirror (Hamid, “Enduring Love,” 79). We are part of a global process of identification and difference that both separates us and binds us together.

Theories of how globalization affects and/or produces intersubjective identification and difference tend to privilege the local as the site of heterogeneity, while disparaging the global as the site of coercive homogenization. But this view fails to consider the extent to which contemporary globalism subsumes the local into a systemic process that has as one of its key mechanisms the ongoing production of both identification and difference. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have usefully argued, what is needed now is a focus on “the production of locality, that is, the social machines that create and recreate the identities and differences that are understood as the local.” They similarly press for a more nuanced view of globalization, which they insist “should not be understood in terms of cultural, political, or economic homogenization. Globalization, like localization, should be understood instead as a regime of the production of identity and difference, or really of homogenization and heterogenization” (Hardt and Negri 45). In other words, the production of identity and difference are not mutually exclusive, and it is thus a mistake to think that some people are swept up in a process of homogenization, while others experience heterogenization. On the contrary, the dual move toward identification and difference can occur within a single subjectivity. Consider a key passage from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:

As you and your family dismount [the bus that has brought you from your village to Lahore], you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential. (pp. 14-15)

What we have here is a narrative description that confounds a clean split between homogenization and heterogenization, and all the more so considering that it locates the split in “you”—a term that in this case signifies a closed singularity and a multitude of subjectivities. The language Hamid uses to describe his protagonist’s transformation from natural-born member of an expansive yet clearly localized clan into an atomized member of a deterritorialized global multitude forces a reconsideration of the heterogeneous/local vs. homogeneous/global conceptual divide. It is hardly clear that being part of a tightly-knit clan promotes authentic difference, and especially not among the clan members themselves. It seems to me that the rush to promote the local over and against the global sometimes fails to measure the extent to which localization is productive of communal identities that very well may be experienced as stifling and burdensome to those born into them. Hamid’s “you,” on the contrary, is individualized, and thus rendered diverse, to a degree hardly imaginable under any conventional definition of family or clan or community. And yet this hyper individuation is part of an explosive “proliferation” of singularity that cuts across the world’s increasingly mobile human population and gives way to a new form of intersubjective identification, a proliferation that matches, if not exceeds, the world’s “shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans.”

The takeaway here is that homogeneity and heterogeneity are undergoing a collapse in much the same way that Hamid collapses our collective “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable” into his protagonist’s individual sensibility and geographically-bound set of experiences. Under the expanding regime of global capitalism, the inside/outside dichotomy has given way to an “explosive transformation” that renders this distinction increasingly irrelevant, and Hamid’s novels, beginning with The Reluctant Fundamentalist and accelerating through How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, do much to not only represent, but also to interrogate this transformation. I agree with Hardt and Negri when they insist that it is inaccurate “to claim that we can (re)establish local identities that are in some sense outside and protected against the global flows of capital” and the biopolitical regime that ensures its advancement (45). Or, as they claim somewhat more forcefully: “we should be done once and for all with the search for an outside, a standpoint that imagines a purity for our politics [and, I would add, our cultural identities]. It is better both theoretically and practically to enter the terrain of Empire and confront its homogenizing and heterogenizing flows in all their complexity, grounding our analysis in the global multitude” (46). At stake in this argument is the recognition that globalization is more than “a machine of biopolitical command”; it is also the “plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities of globalization that have learned to sail on this enormous sea” (Hardt and Negri 60). But without the recognition that we, as individual subjectivities, constitute a larger multitude that circulates within the global system and represents the only feasible point of resistance to existing power systems, we will never be able to reconfigure globalization in our own image.

To return to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and to conclude, Hamid recognizes that the state, and the state’s inseparability from the global financial powers, shapes the contours of our being. And yet he also suggests that our shared experience within the explosive pull of globalization’s orbit can serve as a catalyst for our recognizing how this pull continues to transform our consciousness and our relationship to each other. He writes, “If there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, . . . then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. States tug at us. States bend us. And, tirelessly, states seem to determine our orbits” (How to Get Filthy Rich 139). And yet, for all of the tension that globalization creates between this economic/political regime and our respective cultural and/or individual identities, Hamid is clear that the orbits we find ourselves circulating within pass through each other. And so, as How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia‘s unnamed narrator, who is also “you,” lies on his deathbed at novel’s end, Hamid leaves us with these pertinent lines: “You have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you” (222). This sentiment expresses the hope of the multitude: that the free circulation of difference is foundational to an expansive collectivity that cuts across the global terrain, a collectivity that has at its center a desire for liberation from all that seeks to arbitrarily bind and/or divide. We are inseparable. A multitude of singularities.

Note:

I presented this paper at the 3rd International Conference on Language, Linguistics, Literature, and Translation, “Connecting the Dots in a Glocalized World,” which was hosted by Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman from 3-5 November 2016. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.

Sources:

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Penguin, 2007.

—. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Riverhead, 2013.

—. “Enduring Love of the Second Person.” Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London. Penguin, 2014.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard UP, 2000.

Palumbo-Liu, David. The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age. Duke UP, 2012.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights icon Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s facilities, particularly the public swimming pool and schools; to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view; to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories; and to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching” (qtd. in Rucker 20).1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed its constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post, but they did so only after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his advocacy of armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town notorious for its bigotry and racist violence.

Williams welcomed the Freedom Riders as friends and allies, and they collaboratively organized a campaign of peaceful protests against Monroe’s segregationist policies.2 However, the protests attracted large numbers of Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists from throughout North Carolina and beyond, and–as Williams had predicted would happen–the peaceful demonstrations soon devolved into mob violence. It was during the ensuing melee that Bruce and Mabel Stegall, a white couple who had traveled from out-of-town to join the racist counter-demonstrations, drove their car into Williams’s segregated neighborhood, where they were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens, armed and ready to repel anyone associated with the day’s white-supremacist violence. What happened next is both confusing and disputed, but most historians agree that Williams offered the couple safe haven within his home, but that he would not assist them in escaping his neighborhood. His position was simple: he didn’t want them to be harmed, but he insisted that since they had found their own way into trouble, it was their responsibility to find their own way out of it. When the Stegall’s were able to leave Williams’s neighborhood in peace some hours later, the Monroe police charged Williams with their kidnapping.3 Unaware of the charges but fearing that he may be lynched as the town’s leading black activist, Williams fled North Carolina to stay with friends in New York.4 He thus becoming an unwitting fugitive from justice, a federal crime that landed him with an FBI arrest warrant.5 Convinced that he would never receive a fair trial in the United States, Williams fled first to Canada, and then to Cuba, where he was granted asylum by the Castro regime. It was as a consequence of these dramatic events that The Crusader found itself with a new base of operations and a new source of moral and material support, namely Cuba’s revolutionary society. Williams continued to publish The Crusader in exile from Havana, with a distribution of 40,000 copies per month, until he finally left Cuba for Maoist China in 1965 (Tyson 290).

Robert F. Williams examining his FBI wanted poster

These events provide an important context for The Crusader‘s transnational perspective. Williams’s newsletter is remarkable not only for its unflinching advocacy of armed self-defense at a time when Gandhian nonviolence dominated the American Civil Rights Movement, but also for its insistence that the black freedom struggle within the United States was part of the revolutionary anti-imperialist movements that swept so many nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1950s and 60s. It is true, of course, that the American Civil Rights Movement developed a militant revolutionary wing in the late 1960s, and that this faction was very much in sympathy with the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, as well as the many anti-imperialist struggles exemplified by the colonialist/imperialist wars in Vietnam. The Black Panther Party is a case in point. But the Black Panthers did not publish the first issue of their iconic newspaper, The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, until 1967, well after Williams had begun to distribute The Crusader from exile in Cuba and China. Writing in his biography of Williams, Timothy B. Tyson argues that The Crusader “defies the conventional narrative of the black freedom movement that begins with civil rights and ends with Black Power. In fact, virtually all of the elements that we have come to associate with the Black Power movement that gained national attention after 1965–anticolonial internationalism, black pride, economic nationalism, cultural politics, and armed self-defense–resonated in these pages as early as 1959″ (196). Indeed, Williams himself recognized The Crusader‘s novelty, especially in terms of its commitment to internationalizing the American Civil Rights Movement, a point he makes clear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “Through The Crusader, we became the first civil rights group to advocate a policy stressing Afro-American unity with the struggling liberation forces of Latin America, Asia and Africa. We steadfastly maintained, in the face of vigorous opposition from white liberals and the black bourgeoisie, that our struggle for black liberation in imperialist America was part and parcel of the international struggle” (qtd. in Tyson 196). And yet, despite its transnational perspective, The Crusader never abandoned its commitment to the African American freedom struggle in general, and to the plight of Monroe’s African American community in particular. Herein lies one of the newsletter’s special qualities: it was at once local and global, concerned with achieving justice in Monroe as well as with the liberation of oppressed people everywhere.

Williams forged this relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the transnational, anti-imperialist revolutions of the 1950s and 60s by articulating a set of shared values between these seemingly disparate movements. Indeed, the pages of The Crusader are replete with appeals to solidarity between the African American people and those of the revolutionary postcolonial societies. For a representative example, we may look to how Williams represents Maoist China:

The Chinese people support all peoples who struggle for justice and liberation. They whole-heartedly support Afroamericans who struggle against Jim Crow and racial oppression in the so-called free world of the racist USA. In the factories, in the store windows, on billboards, in recreation centers and conspicuous places throughout the land, huge posters proclaim the Chinese people’s support for oppressed Afroamericans. Even the small children of China express great admiration and sympathy for their oppressed black brothers of the barbaric and racist USA. They are very saddened when they hear of the terrifying plight of our people in America. (“China” 7)

The emotional appeal in this passage is obvious, but what is perhaps less obvious–and altogether more interesting–is the way in which Williams represents revolutionary China as a positive antithesis to the Jim Crow south. Whereas Williams came of age in a town that displayed “whites only” signs in its store windows and other conspicuous places, a town that exercised racist hiring practices in its factories and segregation in its recreation centers, he represents Maoist China as a society that has effectively transformed these sites of racial oppression into beacons of justice and liberation. The message is clear: the African American people have friends among the world’s struggling masses. This point is made explicit in the illustration of the “Non-Anglo-Saxon World” condemning “U.S. Racism” that Williams included on the title page of the February 1964 issue of The Crusader. The illustration depicts a diminished and isolated African American figure struggling to find his place among the giants of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Williams directly appeals to his fellow African Americans to do more to forge bonds with revolutionary China when, just after the sentences quoted above, he writes, “We are extremely fortunate to have such honest, sincere, and militant people as our allies. We must do more to create a greater bond between our peoples” (“China” 7). Williams used The Crusader to create the conditions for such a bond within the minds of his readers, and in so doing he helped transform the consciousness of a generation of activists that would come to see itself as the revolutionary vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle within the United States.

“You a Majority Charlie?” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, p. 1.

The way in which Williams presented revolutionary anti-imperialism as the positive antithesis to the Jim Crow South is an example of how epideictic rhetoric, or the rhetoric of praise and blame, contributed to the development of a transnational consciousness within the American Civil Rights Movement. By engaging in a sustained and vituperative condemnation of American racism, and by unapologetically praising those aspects of the revolutionary societies in Cuba and China that he knew many African American people supported (e.g., social equality, economic justice, anti-racism, etc.), Williams articulated a clearly-defined value system that could serve as a point of solidarity between the African American community and the postcolonial communist states. In his recent overview of the pedagogical uses of praise and blame, Peter Wayne Moe situates the epideictic in relation to the shared values that animate a strong sense of community. For example, he defines the epideictic as “the rhetoric of showing forth, or display, of demonstration, of making known, of shining. And what the epideictic shows forth is the shared values of a community. These are the values the epideictic upholds, the foundation from which the rhetor can praise and blame” (426). In other words, one can only praise and blame effectively if those within the rhetorical situation share the values that render one thing praiseworthy and another worthy of condemnation. It is in the act of organizing these shared values–in articulating them into focus–that the epideictic has the potential to shape the contours of a particular community. Summarizing the work of Michael Carter, Moe states that “the epideictic can generate particular knowledge within a community, create a sense of that community, define that community, and establish a ‘paradigm’ for being within that community” (437). It seems to me that this is precisely what Williams accomplished in the pages of The Crusader. He drew on the shared values of an oppressed community within the United States and placed them alongside the values of a transnational liberation struggle, thus redefining that community in terms that were altogether more radical than anything offered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), or the NAACP.

Williams’s use of epideictic rhetoric is evident from The Crusader‘s inaugural issue, but the epideictic becomes more effective as Williams develops a first-hand knowledge Cuban and Chinese communism, in part because they offered Williams something praiseworthy with which to throw America’s failures into high relief. Consider, for example, how he contrasts race relations in the United States and Cuba:

The U.S. is angry because of the example that Cuba is setting for all Latin America. She is also angry at the example in race relations that Cuba is setting just 90 miles from the racist USA. There are no racial barriers in Cuba. The U.S. says that oppressed colored people must be patient and wait generations for the attitude of bigots to change. Cuba has proven this to be a lie. Cuba has changed the attitude of racists almost overnight. Those who can’t take the change go to Miami to join the other racist scum of the USA. (“Cuba” 4; my emphasis)

Here, as in so many of his editorials, Williams condemns the United States as a center of deception and hatred in the world, while he praises Cuba for having effectively purged racism from its shores. The image on the cover of the April 1962 issue of the newsletter illustrates the point. Titled “Cuba: Territorio Libre de América,” the drawing depicts the Williams family being protected from American bigotry by armed Cuban revolutionaries. In the foregrounds stands Fidel Castro, one hand signaling that the racists should come no further, while the other cradles a dove of peace. Williams is clearly presenting Cuba as a land of peace and freedom, but also as a society that will defend the lives of its black citizens and allies. Indeed, in the editorial that accompanies this image, Williams writes, “A few years ago no black man could have dared expect a nation in this hemisphere to extend a friendly and protective hand to him after he had aroused the brutal caveman instincts of white racists determined to make a vicious example of an Afro-American fighter for human rights” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). Cuba thus shines forth in the pages of The Crusader as an examplar of truth and justice, and Williams uses this shining to impress upon his readers that solidarity between the African American people and anti-imperialist societies such as Cuba “is where the heart of our victory lies” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). This shift in perspective away from a regional movement for civil rights and toward a transnational revolution in social relations is made possible by the epideictic positioning of the revolutionary communist societies over and against the United States.

“Stop! No Racists Allowed Here!” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, p. 1.

The way that Williams uses the epideictic to lambaste the United States while upholding Cuba and China as models to which the African American community should aspire needs to be placed within a Cold War context. It’s important to remember that Cold War America depended upon the idea that the United States represented a safe-haven from tyranny, and that the promise of America was irreducibly attached to the ideal of freedom and justice for all. When the horrifying realities of racism in places like Monroe found their way into the international press, the United States found itself in an embarrassing situation that compromised the moral authority it attempted to wield against the world’s communist nations.6 But The Crusader can’t properly be thought of as an international publication. Throughout its history, it was aimed squarely at an African American readership, and the praise and blame it showed forth was not intended to embarrass the United States in the eyes of the world, but rather to reorient the perspectives of its readers. By using epideictic rhetoric to expose the hypocrisy of a nation that announced itself as the lone defender of freedom in the world while subjecting its minority populations to systematic racism and violent bigotry, Williams invited his audience to reconsider the accomplishments of the communist world–especially in terms of racial equality–and to re-imagine themselves in light of that particular knowledge. That he was doing this before anything like a Black Power movement had taken shape in organizations such as the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is a testament to Williams’s influence within the American movement for racial justice, but it is also a testament to the power of the epideictic to articulate and give shape to new forms of solidarity and community.

I presented a version of this paper at the Conference on College Composition and Communication annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri on 16 March 2018. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.

Notes:

1. Two cases in particular motivated Williams’s controversial remarks. One involved a white man who physically assaulted an African American housekeeper who disturbed his sleep when she knocked on his hotel-room door. The other involved a white man who raped his African American neighbor. In both cases, all-white juries acquitted the men on all charges.

2. Williams agreed to participate in the demonstrations, but he refused to sign the Freedom Riders’ pledge of non-violence. His position remained consistent throughout his life: if attacked, he would fight back.

3. Monroe’s pro-segregationist police became aware of the Stegall’s presence in the Williams home when Williams allowed Bruce Stegall to speak with the town’s police chief A. A. Mauney during negotiations over the release of a group of injured protestors who were being held without access to medical treatment. Mauney claimed that Williams proposed a prisoner-swap–the Stegalls in exchange for the injured protesters–which is how he justified the kidnapping charges.

4. Williams was concerned about the large Klan presence in Monroe, but he also feared police chief Mauney, who had claimed earlier that day that he would see Williams “hanging in the Court House Square” by nightfall (Tyson 280).

5. The FBI had had Williams under surveillance since his teenage years, and their interest in his activities became all the more intense when he began to visit Cuba with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the late 1950s. The trumped-up kidnapping charges were no doubt a convenient excuse to apprehend someone they considered to be a dangerous political dissident.

6. Williams was instrumental in bringing one such embarrassing injustice to international attention. In 1958, two African American children–9-year old James Hanover Thompson and 7-year old David Simpson–were arrested after one of their white female neighbors told her mother that she had kissed Simpson on the cheek while playing a game earlier in the day. The girl’s parents went to the police with the story, and Thompson and Simpson were accused of attempted rape and sentenced to reform school until they reached the age of 21. As president of the Monroe NAACP, Williams helped rally international attention to Thompson and Simpson’s plight, and international newspapers were soon carrying front-page coverage of what came to be known as “The Kissing Case.” President Eisenhower consequently pressured North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges to pardon the boys.

Sources:

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 433-457.

Rucker, Walter. “Crusader In Exile: Robert F. Williams and the International Struggle for Black Freedom in America.” The Black Scholar, vol. 36, no. 2-3, 2006, pp. 19-34.

Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Williams, Robert F. “Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, pp. 1-3.

—. “Cuba No Fallara.” The Crusader, vol. 4, no. 1, 1962, pp. 3-5.

—. “China: A New Hope of Oppressed Humanity.” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, pp. 6-7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

 

Your Subjects May Be More Adaptable Than You Realize

I’ve always thought William S. Burroughs’s novels would make brilliant illustrated texts, but illustrators have largely overlooked his work. The one notable exception is Malcolm McNeill, a British artist who collaborated with Burroughs in the early 1970s on a project called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. They published excerpts of their collaboration in the first four issues of the underground comix periodical Cyclops. They also planned a book-length graphic narrative tentatively titled Ah Pook Is Here, though they never completed the project, or at least not in the form initially intended. Burroughs published the stand-alone text with Viking in 1979, and it wasn’t until Fantagraphics Books published Observed While Falling and  The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here, both in 2012, that the illustrations were made available to readers.

Yet scattered gems remain throughout the archive. For example, I recently came across this image by artist Paul Mavrides, co-creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. It accompanies an excerpt of Burroughs’s unpublished novella The Revised Boyscout Manual in the 1982 issue of RE/Search, which was dedicated to the work of Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and the punk band Throbbing Gristle. Burroughs originally conceived of The Revised Boyscout Manual as a part of his novel The Wild Boys, but he eventually decided to revise it into a stand-alone narrative. It’s not as aggressively bizarre as many of his other fictions, but it’s still an interesting, highly political work that provides an important context for his other fictions of the period.

Paul Mavrides, Untitled Illustration

I like Mavrides’s illustration. The appalling hybrid human/insect face framed by anemone-like tentacles captures something of Burroughs’s interest in the human as biological organism, an animal species prone to viruses and caught in the flux of evolution. It is appropriately uncanny and leaves me wishing Mavrides had illustrated more of Burroughs’s work. Unfortunately, this is the only example I’m aware of, though I’m hopeful there are similar works I haven’t yet discovered.

If you know of any other illustrations of Burroughs’s writing, whether by Mavrides or anyone else, please share in the comments thread. Potential leads will be much appreciated.

Note:

The title of the post is taken from William S. Burroughs, “From The Revised Boyscout Manual,” RE/Search, vol. 4/5, 1982, p. 8.

Image:

Mavrides, Paul. Untitled Illustration. RE/Search, vol. 4/5,  1982, p. 7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins