Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Poet's Prescience.

When the reformist government of Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia was stamped out by a Soviet intervention, in August of 1968, it was the death knell for hopes of a democratic socialist alternative to the grey reality of the Eastern Bloc. It was a definitive moment for some, and only a reaffirmation of old divisions for others. The Stalinists would label it (without irony) the liberation of Czechoslovakia, while Trotskyists damned it as further evidence of the degenerated condition of the legacy of October 1917. It had only reaffirmed for many what had been so obvious years before. Heaven was no longer the only fortified structure from whence the military strikes against socialism would be launched. Fifteen years since the death of Stalin and the achievements of de-Stalinization were there for all to see. Across the border from the events in Prague in tranquil Austria WH Auden sat and watched, he decided to put pen to paper:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among it's desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

In these few words the English poet had succeeded in capturing the state of the Soviet experiment, at the time, and its ultimate trajectory in 1989. The years of Brezhnev's real socialism had just begun and the withering of the state apparatus had yet to come. In the institutionalisation of Lenin's works Stalin had codified Leninism into a party-state doctrine. It amounted to nothing less than the ossification of the pragmatism which had given Lenin his edge. Of course, the same went for Karl Marx. No alternative interpretations of the prophet and his disciples could be tolerated, or even acknowledged. Not only was dissent from the party-line not to be accepted, the line had to be immune to autocritique from within and critique from without. The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels became doctrines preserved in formaldehyde for the people to behold in awe.  In the end there was only hot-air to fill the balloon and it was easily deflated.

It was amidst the factional infighting of the 1920s that Stalin consolidated his position with the promise of building socialism in one country. The various factions agreed that the Russian Revolution could not survive in isolation and had to export itself in order to overcome the conditions of scarcity in a devastated country. The disagreement was primarily over a matter of priorities, Trotsky favoured a much more rapid approach and had gone as far as trying to spread the revolution by bayonet much earlier. In these terms Russia was the first of a series of revolutions to be achieved in order for capitalism to be overcome throughout the world. It was impossible for a socialist society to be achieved under backward conditions of a war ravaged state ensnared by imperial powers. Wily Stalin was well aware that the gains of 1917 would always be vulnerable to a Western crusade. That was no doubt a major reason for the pact with Hitler.

The consolidation of the regime through the New Economic Policy - which Lenin described as state-capitalism - was a material necessity. It was also an opportunity for Stalin to pack the bureaucracy with his cronies and then to eliminate all potential rivals. He did so by first appropriating the allies of the NEP such as Bukharin to marginalise its opponents. Stalin then moved to overturn the NEP and institute the agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialisation of the economy. His former allies would soon find themselves on the shelf. It was all of this that the project of socialism in one country was justificatory. The claim that the class conflict becomes more acute after the Revolution became the pretext for political repression. This was a strategic measures to offset any pushes for liberalisation given the transitional nature of socialism and the necessity for the state to wither away in the end. The end of the transition would mean the end of the party-state apparatus.

When Stalin died Khrushchev moved to gradually open up Soviet society, going as far as to release political prisoners and permit some degree of artistic freedom. He denounced Stalin, famously, in a speech to Soviet delegates, provoking riots in Georgia as well as an uprising in Poland and a full-blown revolution in Hungary. The Russians were quick to stamp out the currents of independence. Khrushchev would later claim that the Soviet Union had established itself as a model socialist society, the aim was then to build communism by the early 1980s. Of course, the irony is that by that time the Soviet political economy had entered a process of terminal decline and its military ensnared in a hopeless war in Afghanistan. Brezhnev had seized power from Khrushchev in 1964 and the brief opening was closed and by the early 1970s the Party was claiming that Soviet society had entered a developed stage of socialism, but the conservatives were capable to stress stability and not undermine their power by talking about an imminent transition to communism.

Notice how alien all of this sounds to us nowadays. Communism is meant to signify the endless procession of soldiers marching in sync and the red flags fluttering over head. Communism was meant to be an Orwellian super-state, the essence of Big Brother realised. You know the scenario: the state tells you what time to get up in the morning, what to wear and just how many abortions to carry out. It comes across as counterintuitive to point out that the Communist Party was called as such to denote the ultimate egalitarian aim of policy. It was never achieved, and we can dispute the extent to which socialism was actually established as well. No one in the so-called people's democracies of Eastern Europe would have described their conditions as communist. This is the context of Prague '68 and the dream of socialism with a human face.

The truth of Auden's words came into full view a decade or more after his death. The passing of the swollen Brezhnev era left open the floor for Gorbachev, glastnost and perestroika. The delivery was ultimately far shorter on substance than in the rhetoric of reform and the worst possible transition. The countries formerly encased by the Iron Curtain were left to the mercy of market forces (in other words, anarchy by another name). Dislocation was inevitable as Gorbachev did not act on his reformist rhetoric in the Eastern bloc, but actually abandoned the countries to the chaos coming their way. After the collapse came the full brunt of capitalism. This was matched by a retreat from the orthodox of historical materialism as Gorbachev embraced a humanistic and ethical conception of socialism. The teleological element of Marxism-Leninism fell away and in the end proletarian internationalism was succeeded by a commitment to 'all-human values'.

The end of history was on its way. Where the ogre had once stuttered and stammered he now lost all coherence in his babbling. There was nothing left to be heard or said, not even drivel. One by one the Communist states of Eastern Europe fell, and then came the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With it Gorbachev was ousted and Russia was left in the fat fingers of a drunkard surrounded by a gang of radical free-marketeers. No one should be surprised by the sort of people who took over Russia after the collapse of the Soviet system. Both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and most of the oligarchs, came out of the party-state apparatus. Consequently, Gorbachev is not a hero to ordinary people in his own country. And for good reason, the new Russia is not his brainchild but its afterbirth.

You Got More With Gore.

There is a lot one could say about Gore Vidal so naturally Nicholas Wrathal found himself spoilt with access to rolls of archive footage. That was on top of the footage Wrathal accumulated of the late author over several years. There would’ve been plenty of substance for United States of Amnesia even without the interviews conducted. By this time, Gore Vidal was in what he described as the ‘bright spring of my senility’ though even as an octogenarian he was still confident that there was no problem that could not be solved if people would only listen to him. All in all Wrathal seeks to strike a balance between the personal and the political. Of course, the personal is political but in the case of some the character and private life follow through into politics and chime together in unison.

It would be impossible to cover one and not the other. The film opens with Gore at the grave of his partner – a grave he now shares, as he knew he would then – speaking with some solemnity and distinctive witticism. Vidal was not one to give away too much on private matters, certainly not the five decades he spent with Howard Auster. The word ‘love’ was conspicuously absent in his vocabulary, instead he described his relationship with Auster as a business arrangement and even as platonic. As he himself put it “I can understand companionship. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon, but I cannot understand the love affair.” And yet we find a very different Gore Vidal penned love letters to Anaïs Nin in his early twenties. “You are quite necessary to me as you know” he wrote before offering marriage and a new life together. This was not a subject included in the film.

In a way this is appropriate as it would go too far in one direction and serve to over-humanise the subject. We are what we pretend to be, as Vidal’s friend Kurt Vonnegut once remarked. This astute observation captured the extent to which the performative fictions we undertake are constitutive of our reality. It’s not just that it was the work he produced and the ideas he kept as a reservoir are what drew people to him. It was that the show he put on – as we all do – was more who he was than the vulnerable and desperate letters of a nascent writer in the 40s. It was more becoming when Gore remarked “I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside.” It was this Gore who was on show in the public feuds with William F Buckley, Jr., Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

The love letters to Anaïs Nin were written around the same time as The City and the Pillar (1948) which shocked readers in its depiction of homosexuality not only as a kind of sexual conduct but as a form of love as well. It was a love affair between two all-American boys, no deviants or fairies to be found. It provoked quite a storm and Gore found himself effectively blacklisted by The New York Times. He would write for television and theatre to make money as he was effectively ostracised by the literary establishment. In his own words Wrathal wanted to look at the US in the last half of the 20th Century through the eyes of Gore Vidal – a viewpoint often neglected. Rightly then Wrathal includes not just the way in which Vidal contributed to the changing perceptions of homosexuality, but the celebratory inventions he devoted to ‘triumphant women’ in books like Myra Breckenridge (1968) as the prospects of sexual liberation flourished.

Gore Vidal had become a litterateur by this point and was thoroughly embroiled in the American political discourse, especially when it resembled nothing more than a bloodsport. Under the slogan ‘You’ll Get More With Gore’ he ran for office in 1960 and won more votes than any other Democrat in decades. Shocked further left by the Kennedy administration and its depredations in Cuba and Vietnam he became involved in the People’s Party in an effort to break the duopoly. The Party had called for a maximum wage and maintained a tough stance on the Vietnam War. He would later reflect that this made sense given that the last potentially revolutionary moment in the US was in the 1930s. In the end Gore threw his weight behind the McGovern campaign – probably the last liberal progressive campaign to be waged – and once the McGovernites were vanquished Vidal later ran against Jerry Brown in California to challenge the Reagan era as it was ushered in.

The way he had refused to concede any ground to the thuggish anti-Communism of the Cold War was admirable to put it mildly. With this in mind Wrathal arranged for Gore Vidal to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and take a boat ride in Venice. The film charts Vidal’s opposition to Vietnam through to his historical fiction and the controversial view he takes of Roosevelt’s entry into WW2. To the accusations of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ on such matters Wrathal lets Gore speak for himself. It is in these clips that the journalist he once considered his ‘dauphin’ appears on screen to contribute. Wracked with cancer Christopher Hitchens gives his viewpoint and we are shown the last meeting between the two of them where Gore shows some reluctance to engage. By then the late Hitchens had broken with his former comrades on the invasion of Iraq and Vidal was among those who denounced him. Not surprisingly we find the passing of Hitchens was much more mourned by the liberal intelligentsia than Gore. The reason is obvious: the Hitch had conceded in principle where Vidal remained stern. Vidal saw the American Republic in ruin, or approaching it at least, its institutions crumbling and an economy heavily militarised. It was a system to be criticised and even condemned, but not defended in such dark times.
This article was originally written for Red Monthly.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mendieta and Misogyny.

An Earth-Body Dynamic.

Looking at the work of Ana Mendieta the cogs in my mind wound back four years to Lars von Trier's Antichrist. The reasons for this I will expand upon soon enough. The body of work she amassed could be taken for sanguineous and morbid if her recreation of rape scenes are misunderstood. The shock value of these pieces is appropriate as they were made in response to the rape of her fellow students. It was certainly the right time and place for a female artist to be engaging with the prevalence of sexual violence. The decline of an array of social conventions regarding the place of women in society was at its beginning in the early 1970s. It is often forgotten that what is described as the Feminist movement came about in the wake of 60s cultural revolution in reaction to its ambiguity on the question of women's liberation. So it was a ripe subject for exploration in art.

The depictions of femininity in Mendieta's work are particularly interesting in this regard. It reminds one of Antichrist where we are told nature is Satan's church, the locus of misogyny being found in suggestions of an absent autonomy: women as subjects of various natural forces outside of their own control. In ancient religion we find this is most overt in the aversion to female genitalia and the rituals imposed around the menstrual cycle. All of which feeds into the controls set on sexual conduct. This is not just the case in the monotheist tradition, it is even true of Eastern religion where, for example, we find the Buddha was born out of his mother's side. It then makes sense that Mendieta's work links together the Catholic and pre-Christian pagan traditions of Latin America with a certain conception of femininity. Not coincidentally Mendieta produced art on sexual violence as she was moving in this direction.

Death seemed to feature heavily as a theme, whether in the form of natural decay and peformative destruction in the burning of trees and killing chickens. Mendieta would later move away from performance art, which she disliked for its immediacy; and she was further exploring her Cuban heritage. Ochún (1981) was named after a water goddess in Santería - an Afro-Cuban religious movement based on a blend of folk Catholicism with Yoruba customs - who also the goddess of love, intimacy and beauty. According to Wikipedia, Ochún is said to be generous, beneficent and kind as well as capable of incredible chaos in the few occasions where she loses her temper. The extent to which she romanticised the syncretic cultural heritage of Cuba may be more of a matter of speculation at this point. Such a romanticisation may run as far as embracing this model of femininity. It would be easy to attribute this to her deracination as a Cuban-American.

Unfortunately, we will never know how her work would have developed if she had not died in 1985. Even with all of this in mind, Mendieta's work could be interpreted as a genealogy of misogynist themes. After all an earthly conception of femininity parallels what is to be taken from the traditional organic view of the family and a woman's position in said social unit. In Mother Jungle we find a portrayal of womanhood synthesised with nature comes across as much darker. The imposing dark figure with its jagged features and womb on display seems charged with angst; but this is an almost genderless depiction at the same time (aside from the emphasis on the womb). As Rachel Spence has noted, Ana Mendieta resisted attempts by American feminists to reduce her work to goddess worship. In a way the body of work she produced was far more ambiguous.

Spence notes that Mendieta claimed her work held to a particular culture and time. So it might be taken as a representation of womanhood in terms relative to a certain culture. The art made in a natural environment, carved out of rock and wood may seem to be a more warm-hearted a view of nature. Around this time Mendieta was becoming much more conscious in terms of a two-front struggle in feminism against racism and capitalism. She did describe her work as pre-industrial and situates herself in line with Neolithic paintings. If she had lived she may have become involved in the anti-globalisation movement, which shares this nostalgia for the pre-industrial past. In her work she situates humankind in relation to nature, life and death; and she condemned Robert Smithson for his brutalisation of nature in his invasive land art. Where this trajectory leaves women is another matter.