Thursday, January 26, 2023

Grace Lee Boggs's Next American Revolution

In 2011, I wrote of review of Grace Lee Boggs's book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, for the current events blog Deliberately Considered, published by my New School dissertation advisor Jeffrey Goldfarb. The blog is no longer active, having morphed into the New School e-pub Public Seminar, which Jeff also founded. I have been teaching a class at University of Michigan titled "The Egalitarian Metropolis," which uses Detroit as a case study as part of an urban humanities project. As one might imagine, Grace is an important thinker whose work is relevant to our discussions. The book was published before the 2013 Detroit bankruptcy and the city's subsequent recuperation under the reinvigorated forces of capital. But I wanted to reproduce my review, with a couple of minor corrections, for the record. (Click here to read the original post on Deliberately Considered.) I also reproduce a video of Grace in conversation with world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, which took place in 2010 at the US Social Forum in Detroit.

Grace Lee Boggs has taken part in just about every progressive movement in modern America – civil rights, labor organizing, women’s rights, global justice, and more. At 95 and now often confined to a wheel chair, the Detroit-based activist and visionary shows no signs of slowing down, at least intellectually. Her new book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century sets out her ideas for making real that other world the slogans tell us is possible. Indeed, based on her experience as recounted in her book, that world is already happening and in some of the most seemingly unlikely of places.

Along with C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs was a founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a theoretical perspective within the American left that in the 1940s identified the Soviet Union under Stalin as constituting an example of state capitalism, i.e., a system in which the state functions in essence like a gigantic corporation, therefore keeping conventional capitalist relations of production and labor alienation intact. (By contrast, the then prevailing Trotskyite view labeled it a “bureaucratic collective,” a new form of political economic organization that while not purely capitalist was not strictly speaking socialist either.) The Johnson-Forest Tendency is also identified with the emergence of Marxist humanism, which takes its inspiration from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, several essays of which Boggs, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, was among the first to translate into English. Today the bottom-up orientation of the Johnsonite view lives on most closely in autonomism. And indeed, autonomist leading light Antonio Negri’s co-author Michael Hardt blurbed the book’s dust jacket as did Robin D. G. Kelly and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Boggs, the daughter of early twentieth-century Chinese immigrants, begins by setting out the problem and the opportunity for those of us living in the end times, that is, in the wake of the Apocalypse of the modern capitalist world-system that was the 2008 economic meltdown. And there are arguably few better places in the Western world from which to view the devastation than postindustrial Detroit. Yet, Boggs argues, “the D,” as it is known especially to the young folk now that the “motor” of the Motor City has run out of gas, isn’t a site of despair but of hope.

From the abandoned zones of modernity new forms of life have sprung up: urban farming in the shadows of factory ruins, a system of solidarity economics where big box retailers fear to tread, and grassroots arts movements that stress community participation and the development of a new image ecology in place of the ideological emptiness of solipsistic modernist aesthetics. All of this activity is informed by what Ezio Manzini of the international consortium Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) calls “cosmopolitan localism.”

“Living in the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order, we in Detroit are faced with a stark choice of how to devote ourselves to struggle,” Boggs writes. Rather than remediate a deteriorating system, Boggs sets out ideas for starting anew. In addition to local supply chains of food and other goods and services, a radical rethinking of education is in order. The system currently in place is obsolete, she asserts, having been designed to train young people to become willing cogs in a social, economic, and political machine that no longer functions. Taking a cue from one of her philosophical influences, John Dewey, Boggs proposes an experience-based pedagogy based on the civil rights movement model of Freedom Schools, put into practice in the form of Detroit Summer, which holds workshops and other participatory educational programs.

Traditional social movement theorists, not to mention cynics, may view all of this as marginal at best. And yet what Boggs is talking about is essentially a new form of post-party politics. Given the current state of the union, it’s an idea well worth considering.


Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein in conversation - 2010 from Moving Images on Vimeo.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Fuel for Thought: Climate Change as Class War

Photograph of evening in a valley settlement. The skyline in the hills beyond is lit up red from the fires.

The Orroral Valley Fire, Australia, January 2020 (Photo: Nick D, CC BY-SA 4.0)
I was asked by the Metro Detroit Democratic Socialists of America to review this book on climate change by Syracuse University geographer and Jacobin contributor Matt Huber for their publication Detroit Socialist where it first appeared. Below is a edited version of my review, which appeared in the New School journal Public Seminar. (Click here for the Detroit Socialist version and here for the one on Public Seminar.)
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A recent survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that 72 percent of Americans, believe that climate change is real with an almost equal number concerned that it will harm future generations. While the climate movement finally appears to be winning the war of ideas, it is still losing the battle for securing the planet. After a brief pause due to the global COVID-19 lockdown, carbon emissions are again on the rise, having reached record levels in 2021 according to the International Energy Agency.
Syracuse University geographer Matthew Huber traces the origins of the climate crisis and proposes a plan of action in his new book Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso, 2022). Huber, a frequent contributor to Jacobin and other journals, argues that climate change is first and foremost a class issue that pits the interests of capitalists over everyone and everything else, sacrificing the planetary future in the process. He proposes to mobilize the working class not just in resistance but as the most viable agent of change.

Huber offers a class-based analysis of the ecology, and the ownership of the material means of production, from resource extraction to the centrality of carbon-based fuels in the global industrial complex whose productivity has been progressively leveraged over the past 150 years by electrification. He criticizes what he sees as the underlying assumptions of current environmentalism to set up an agenda for a broadly based working-class approach to meet the challenges of a warming planet.

That capitalism is the primary driver of climate change has been largely acknowledged in recent times among academics and policymakers, as well as some elements of the popular media. Understanding the relationship between capitalism and the climate is thus the first step toward constructing what Huber terms a “proletarian ecology.”

Climate change, or more accurately planetary warming, is inextricably tied to the development of modern capitalism, which has consumed more and more energy to expand its industrial base and pursue greater profit. This is particularly true since the mid-twentieth century in what is termed “The Great Acceleration,” whereby the deleterious effects of capitalist-based growth have become increasingly evident across the planetary environment. The increased emissions from industrial production are at the root of emissions in all other sectors of the capitalist economy—transportation, construction, commercial, residential, etc.—as they depend on industrial products for their capacity to function. Electricity is the primary power source for industrial production, and the US Energy Information Administration estimates that some 60 percent of all electricity is generated from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and coal.

Control of this production system is in very few private hands, which Huber, following London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair, identifies as “the transnational capitalist class.” Huber devotes Part I of Climate Change as Class War to several of these bad actors and the ways in which the material conditions of the climate are all too often obscured. It is well researched and provides concrete detail to what ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, and McKenzie Wark, following Karl Marx in volumes I and III of Capital, term the “metabolic rift,” the disconnect between the environment and human, and in particular more radically capitalist, interventions that have interrupted its natural cycles.

Recognizing that the climate crisis has its material foundations in the capitalist system of production, Huber asserts that tackling the problem requires changing how production is organized. That necessitates a struggle for power against the transnational capitalist class who are reaping the rewards of environmental degradation at collective expense. So far, efforts toward that end have met with limited success.

A major impediment, in Huber’s estimation, is the terrain upon which the struggle is being contested. The climate dispute is currently the purview of a professional class of intellectuals, technocrats, and other knowledge workers—the credentialed beneficiaries of postwar meritocracy—who rely on scientific knowledge, technological intervention, and “smart” policy recommendations to carry the day. Among this class, in Huber’s reading, there is the assumption that things will necessarily change for the better if only the “objective, scientific facts” could be properly communicated and accepted and remediating tactics put into place.

The pitfall of that strategy was succinctly summed up by Upton Sinclair more than 100 years ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Even more so, when the ability to accumulate immense wealth and power depends on blatantly ignoring facts and getting others to do the same. Communicating climate statistics or attempting to address so-called market failures through mechanisms such as carbon taxes will have only modest, and many would argue insufficient, effects so long as there are substantial financial gains to be made.

Another obstacle is what Huber terms the “carbon guilt” also associated with the professional class. On the one hand, there is the “anxiety of affluence,” the deeply rooted Puritanical reproach of consumer excess in American culture, and on the other the virtue-signaling of what is termed “the ecology of austerity,” the imperative to subsist on less, as summed up in the phrase: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” This latter directive is particularly insidious in the way its emphasis on individual responsibility and restraint dovetails with neoliberalism, which emerged as part of the capitalist attack on workers and the welfare state coming out of the 1960s and into the present.

Furthermore, austerity ecology has little resonance among much of the working class, which during the past half-century has seen their share of the wealth from increased productivity stagnate and even erode while the social safety net has simultaneously been pulled out from under them. From that perspective, it can be argued that it is unreasonable to expect those who are living paycheck to paycheck, many of whom are only one major medical expense or household repair bill away from financial crisis, to voluntarily live lower on the food chain if that is even possible.

The remedy Huber prescribes is to mobilize workers with an appeal to material interests that expands upon the purely economic to embrace a broader ecological framework. This stems from Huber’s conception of the working class as those who are alienated not just from the means of industrial production but from the very natural conditions of life itself. This comes straight out of Marx’s notion of estranged labor as articulated in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.” (Emphasis original.) Nature is what capitalism, at its most fundamental level, alienates the worker from and the foundation of Huber’s conception of the proletarian ecology, which includes anyone and everyone who derives their means of survival from their dependence on market forces.

As part of moving forward, it is important not to cast workers as the victims of some zero-sum game, as much of the climate debate, especially from the right, has heretofore done in the false dichotomy of jobs vs. the environment. In this regard, Huber holds up the Green New Deal as a model of how to address the twin objectives of inequality and climate action. He notes that the Green New Deal rejects austerity as a condition of repairing the environment, but instead sets out an agenda for a just transition to a sustainable future through a combination of economic, technological, and social initiatives that would ultimately benefit workers of all stripes.

In setting out his action plan, Huber takes a cue from longtime labor writer Kim Moody, who in On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Haymarket, 2017) identifies the supply chain as a potential chokepoint where workers may organize to disrupt the flow of goods, and thereby profits, as part of a rank-and-file tactic to win their demands and foster solidarity. Huber’s scheme is to move the disruption upstream to where the capacity to produce originates: the electricity grid.

In addition to being the source of much of capitalism’s ability to produce, the electric power industry is fairly well unionized when compared to other sectors of the economy, including renewable energy. It is also already subject in many parts of the country to public oversight when not publicly owned outright. It can thus serve as the cornerstone of a longer-term strategy to socialize and decarbonize the rest of the economy. If a move toward socialization can be achieved in this crucial sector, Huber surmises the potential for working-class power to expand as victories accrue and spread to other sectors.

Huber’s analysis of the links between capitalism and the climate crisis is compelling; he also offers an incisive argument as to the conundrums of current climate politics. However, there are questions that can be raised as to the efficacy of his proposed solution. First is the prospect of mobilizing electric power industry workers against their own union leadership, which like others in the age of diminished union power have sought to maintain relationships with owners in what some would say is a misguided attempt to forestall givebacks and other concessions. Then there is the single-sector strategy, which is liable to be nipped in the bud under what will no doubt be intense opposition from owners, investors, the government, and other powers of the transnational capitalist class. One may also question the prospects of expanding solidarity into the broader working population, which has largely rejected unionization over the past 50 years. (Though there are rumblings of that possibly changing, especially among younger workers, with the recent upsurge in organizing in the “meds and eds,” retail service, and supply chain sectors.)

Beyond what appear to be the unlikely prospects of it ever coming to fruition, one may also look askance with respect to the Green New Deal, as currently conceived, as a model for moving toward a truly just and sustainable future. Most obviously, the Green New Deal is aspirational, setting out a laundry list of desired outcomes without much in the way of concrete details as to how they might be achieved. It is also a capitalist solution to the climate crisis, essentially a neo-Keynesian program that proposes to muster government-led investment in green technologies and social-welfare programs to carry out its agenda within the confines of the market system. Its gesture toward the original New Deal of the 1930s might also be seen as flawed as there is much to suggest that it was the ramping up of production (and the attendant waste) in conducting the Second World War that ultimately “saved” capitalism not New Deal economics, which stumbled in 1937-38.

Climate Change as Class War does offer fuel for thought if only to clarify the irreconcilable conflict between our collective future and capitalism’s scorched-earth drive. Huber is essentially correct that the climate crisis is for all intents and purposes a class war, that of the transnational national capitalist class against the rest of us. There is no doubt that little will change without radical action. And the stakes are high: There is more than a world to win; there is a planet to lose.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Yaris Varoufakis's Novel "Another Now" Presages and Contests Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse

This review of Yaris Varoufakis's speculative novel Another Now was published by PopMatters on November 8, 2021.

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Almost immediately upon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement on October 28 that his company was adopting the new identity Meta, Greek economist and political activist Yaris Varoufakis fired off a tweet, saying: “Hands off our mέta, our Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation, Mr Zuckerberg. You, and your minions wouldn't recognise civilisation even if it hit you with a bargepole.” In Another Now (Melville House, 2021), a work of speculative fiction that is his first novel, Varoufakis offers an alternative vision to what he brands Zuckerberg’s “Technofeudalist” nightmare.

Varoufakis is the author of the best-selling economic analyses Talking to my Daughter About the Economy: or How Capitalism Works -- and How It Fails (Bodley Head, 2017), a history of capitalism, and The Global Minotaur: America, Europe, and the Future of the Global Economy (Zed, 2011), an analysis of the economic system from the 1970s to 2008 crash within which the US occupies a central role, He is also author of Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (Random House, 2017), a memoir of his six-month crash-and-burn tenure as Greece’s Minister of Finance, attempting to resist the draconian terms being forced upon the country by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (collectively known as “The Troika”) in 2015 to resolve its public-debt crisis.

In addition to serving on mέta’s Advisory Board, Varoufakis is currently a member of the Hellenic Parliament representing greater Athens. He is also co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a pan-European progressive political movement, and Progressive International, an organization dedicated to uniting and mobilizing progressive activists and organizations around the world.

Another Now is a thought experiment disguised as a sci-fi narrative that ponders what a society might look like that balanced freedom and equality.

The narrator of the tale, Yango Varo, relates events that took place primarily from 2025-2035 as recorded in the diary of a woman who had recently succumbed to cancer. It concerns three friends, the diary’s author Iris, a radical contrarian living off a bequest from a hereditary peer; Eva, a former Lehman Brothers investment banker turned academic; and Costa, a computer engineer who made one fortune shorting high-tech stocks ahead of the dotcom bust in 2001 and another, even bigger fortune shorting financial services in the run-up to the mortgage-backed derivatives crash of 2008.

At his job, Costa's technological innovations were constantly being shelved by his employers in the interest of extending the life cycle—and revenue streams—of existing, less-effective technologies. Disaffected by this experience and enjoying the autonomy granted to him by his wealth, Costa sets out on a secret project to create a kind of Freedom Machine that would offer users the ability to experience an infinite horizon of pleasure, freedom not only from want but from every boundary one could imagine. The catch: the price of entering the blissful world of the Freedom Machine being that one could never leave it, a price he believed no one would be willing to pay. This refusal, Costa thinks, would be based on a recognition of the ultimate emptiness and futility of unending desire under capitalism.

To protect his project from being stolen by corporate hackers, henceforth known by its technical acronym HALPEVAM (Heuristic ALgorithmic Pleasure and Experiential VAlue Maximizer), Costa creates a security device that inadvertently opens a wormhole into an alternative reality, the “Other Now” of the book’s title. He begins communicating via batch-file messaging technology with someone in Other Now, who is in fact his Other Self, identified as Kosti. The messaging back and forth between Costa and Kosti, which soon brings in Iris and her Other Self Siris, and Eva and her Other Self Eve, provides an opportunity for Varoufakis to lay out how things might work in a world without capitalism, ideas he has put forth elsewhere outside the realm of fiction.

These include direct democracy applied to corporate governance in which each employee receives a single share of an organization’s stock and an equal vote in all decisions. Everyone also has a Personal Capital account from a central bank that has three buckets: an Accumulation fund based on their work income, a Legacy trust fund given by society to all at birth intended for retirement or extreme emergency, and a monthly Dividend from the state derived from a 5 percent tax levied on all gross corporate revenues. These policies emerged from the wreckage of the great disruptions set off by cadres of various techno-rebels in Other Now, which brought an end to capitalism in the wake of the 2008 crash and the point at which it diverged from the Our Now inhabited by Costa, Iris, and Eva, along with the rest of humanity.

The balance of the plot deals with the interactions between Costa, Iris, Eva, and their Others as they confront their existence—their aspirations and their discontents—in their divergent Nows. Other Now is not an unmitigated utopia, it turns out: corporations may have been democratized, capital markets and investment bankers may no longer exist, but patriarchy continues to hold sway. The shared prosperity of Other Now brings with it a renewed social conservatism. Shady characters continue to find ways to game the financial system even if their machinations are quickly uncovered and swiftly dealt with.

In the book’s final pages, the wormhole begins to deteriorate as corporate hackers are getting close to breaching HALPEVAM’s security device. Big Tech’s takeover of HALPEVAM would, of course, result in its total monetization, offering only short-term pleasures in pay-per-view until its customers are completely enmeshed in its experience, the very specter of the Technofeudalist nightmare Varoufakis abhors in Zuckerberg’s notion of the “metaverse.” What’s more, the ability of Our Now users to communicate with their counterparts (it goes without saying for a fee) would likely devastate Other Now, as well.

How the various characters respond to the impending doom is the denouement of Varoufakis’s narrative. In offering a glimpse of how things might be different, Another Now invites us to contemplate possibilities that are not without their challenges, but worth entertaining nonetheless.



Monday, October 25, 2021

Amy Taubin Interviews Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes's documentary The Velvet Underground screening at Outer Limits Lounge, 21 October 2021

The October 2021 issue of Artforum (which I wrote for in the late 80s/early 90s) has this interview with director Todd Haynes about his documentary on the Velvet Underground by Amy Taubin, critic and one of the early hangers on in the 1960s at Andy Warhol's Factory on Union Square. I loved the film and yes the centrality of Jonas Mekas, to whom the film is dedicated and who I got to meet at a party on the Upper West Side when I lived in New York, is right on. Mekas took Warhol to see a performance by La Monte Young, whose group, Dream Syndicate, at one point included John Cale, a founding member of VU. Young's trance music is said to have inspired Warhol's cinema verite, such as his famous 8-hour film of the Empire State Building. 

I saw Todd Haynes's movie at the Cinema Lamont screening outside in the yard behind the Outer Limits Lounge in Hamtramck, which seemed like an appropriate venue given the underground world the film attempts to capture. Some have criticized the omission of Doug Yule from the film, but I'm OK with it. As Haynes notes in the interview, he wasn't making the standard rock documentary but instead trying to capture the feeling of the avantgarde scene in New York at VU's inception. Yule wasn't part of that, having joined the group after Cale's departure.

Here's the official trailer:

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Fear Factor, Revisted: On the 20th Anniversary of September 11

This Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center that set off the 20-year war in Afghanistan (with a side trip to Iraq) from which the United States has theoretically been extricating itself. (Whether we will ever be totally out remains to be seen.) I was living in New York City on September 11 (Brooklyn actually, Carroll Gardens to be exact) while getting my MA in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. I wrote a first draft of this piece as part of a class I was taking with Christopher Hitchens, who soon after began using the term "Islamofascism" to stake out his position as a "left hawk," ultimately to advocate for regime change with the invasion of Iraq. (For my take on Hitchens, see my PopMatters review of his memoir, Hitch-22.) I updated the essay a couple of years later when Sherry Hendrick asked me for a contribution to Alley Culture AC News. It appeared in volume 6, number 2 in spring 2005 under the title "Fear Factor" and is reprinted below.

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World Trade Center as seen from Brooklyn on 9/11/2001 (Image: Michael Foran, Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0)

Before dinner on September 11, 2001, I walked from my apartment in Carroll Gardens to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Still dazed from that morning, I stood at the railing that overlooks the East River with hundreds of men, women, and children, watching the sunset on Manhattan.

It was nearing the end of a picture-perfect autumn day. The air was crisp, the sky a brilliant blue and nearly cloudless. There was nothing to suggest anything amiss but the hole in the New York City skyline where the Twin Towers once stood and from which an enormous stream of dark smoke now issued, billowing over the Brooklyn Bridge seemingly into infinity.

It was almost eight hours since the first tower collapsed; yet papers and other debris still fluttered down from above. A charred document settled beside me; I caught another in my hand moments later. Another came down behind me, and I turned to pick it up.

The first document was a foreign exchange letter between Citibank in New York and Bank of America in San Francisco, setting the currency rate in US dollars for a business deal going down in Australia. The second was a page from the balance sheet of an English automotive supplier, presented in pounds sterling as part of its Lloyd's of London proof of insurance certificate. I recognized these things as the mundane yet essential tools of empire, evidence of the global capitalist network within which New York City is a command center.

The third sheet gave me a chill. Through the scorched-brown tinge, I made out a webpage with information about an orthodontist practicing in New Jersey. Next to the doctor's name was jotted a note to look into whether it was the same person the note's author knew in high school.

Did whoever had written that note get out? I wondered. Did he or she have any idea what was happening at the time of the attack and in its immediate aftermath? What of the family and friends? What were they doing right now? Did they know anything more about the fate of this person whose perhaps last thoughts I held in my hand? In the flash of an instant, the day's global and personal implications crystallized.

Unease turned into dread over the next few days, not because I feared for my life; although, I did change subway cars one time when I noticed a gaunt olive-skinned man with a beard sitting across from me holding a backpack I could swear was ticking.

Rather, it was because the first order of business I heard Congress pick up when it reconvened wasn't to ask what the hell went wrong but to pass legislation protecting the airlines from lawsuits surely to result from lax security that let suicide pilots with box cutters get through undetected.

Even more unnerving was the President, who on TV vowed vengeance on our behalf while exhorting us to max out our credit cards as part of the newly declared War on Terror. But the War on Terror quickly turned into the Reign of Terror as compulsory nationalism replaced independent thought and the USA PATRIOT Act rendered notions like habeas corpus and due process quaint. As the first anniversary of September 11 drew close, Condoleeza Rice, then Nation Security Advisor, brought tidings of a fearsome new specter – Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud that could do more harm than 19 Jihadists with hijacked planes could ever dream of.

Through it all, the Homeland Security Advisory shifted between Yellow, a significant risk of terrorist attacks, and Orange, a high risk. We were encouraged to be ever vigilant, to take notice of and report any suspicious person, thing, or activity to the authorities.

In 1984, George Orwell writes about a country where perpetual war is used to foster hate and fear, allowing its authoritarian regime to control the domestic population. Is it paranoid to think that a collateral benefit of the Reign of Terror is to keep us in line while providing cover for tax cuts for the rich, giveaways to Big Business, and now perhaps a rollback of the New Deal to the days of the Robber Barons?

On November 3, 2004, I couldn't help noticing the pall that settled over Manhattan as people faced a reality more ominous than the one they awoke to on September 12, 2001 – where, in a strange land called Red State America, they so loved Big Brother they actually re-elected him.

Vince Carducci lives in exile on a small island off the coast of America.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

RIP Peter Williams

Peter Williams (1952-2021) Photo: Kathy F. Atkinson

On August 19, we lost one of the great Detroit painters, Peter Williams. He had been in and out of the hospital recently and this time he didn't make it.

I remember meeting Peter when first he came to Detroit. At the time he was doing abstract paintings, kind of in the manner of Sean Scully, and quite frankly I wasn't particularly interested in them. As time wore on and he became increasingly embedded in the city, his work took on a more soul-searching character. He began to question issues of identity, all the while slapping on the pigment with increasing mastery.

My intersection with Peter's work was heightened by a class I took in winter 2001 with cultural critics Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendall at the New School for Social Research in New York on representations of race and gender in American culture. One of the books we read was Constance Rourke's American Humor: A Study of the National Character, published in 1931. (It remains a classic and everyone interested in American folkways needs to read it.) In it, Rourke discusses the three archetypes of American humor: the Yankee peddler, the backswoodsman, and the minstrel. 

It was this last archetype that resonated with me in relation to Peter's work. It's important to note that Rourke's understanding of minstrelsy predates its appropriation by white culture particularly after the Civil War. Minstrelsy, in Rourke's view, was originally a subversion, a mechanism for enslaved Blacks to "put Massah on," much like the Cakewalk that made fun of white body carriage only to then be picked up by whites who weren't hip to the dis. I saw the reclamation and reversal of the white minstrel trope to be key to what Peter was up to and my suspicion was confirmed in conversations we had during a solo exhibition he happened to be having at Revolution Gallery. The result was the essay published in the November/December 2001 issue of New Art Examiner titled "Peter Williams's Black Humor." (I have uploaded a scan to Google Drive, which can be viewed here.) 

"Peter Williams's Black Humor" remains one of the best things I have ever written, though the beginning and ending were fucked up by bad edits in part because I was communicating from Brooklyn via fax with NAE literally as the smoke was still billowing over the East River in the wake of September 11. I was thrilled when the next year a reference to the article was contained in the catalog for the 2002 Whitney Biennial in which two of Peter's works appeared.

One of the saddest things about Peter's passing is that he was still on an upward swing. In 2020, he won an Artists' Legacy Foundation Award and more recently a Guggenheim. He also had simultaneous shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Trinosophes, and Paul Kotula Gallery. 

There was some comfort in knowing he was out there in the world, working away (he once claimed to be "hardest working artist in Detroit") and cutting through all the bullshit. I will miss him.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

New Woman Behind the Camera

I wrote a review of The New Woman Behind the Camera for PopMatters. The exhibition surveys the work of midcentury women photographers now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. International in scope, the show presents the work of 120 women from 20 countries.