Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Drag is about many things

'Drag is about many things . It is about clothes and sex. It subverts the dress codes that tell us what men and women should look like in our organised society. It creates tension and releases tension, confronts and appeases. It is about role playing and questions the meaning of both gender and sexual identity. It is about anarchy and defiance. It is about men's fear of women as much as men's love of women and it is about gay identity'
Drag: a history of female impersonation in the performing arts - Roger Baker, London, Cassell, 1994

(photo from New Orleans in the 1950s)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Badiou's Rebirth of History

Alain Badiou's latest book to be translated into English is 'The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings' (published by Verso Books, 2012).

Essentially it is a reflection on the popular movements that have erupted over the past couple of years, in particular those sometimes referred to as the 'Arab Spring'. For Badiou, this amounts to the start of nothing less than a rising up of what he terms 'the inexistent':

'Let us call…people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future, the inexistent of the world. We shall then say that a change of world is real when an inexistent of the world starts to exist in this same world with maximum intensity. This is exactly what people in the popular rallies in Egypt were saying and are still saying: we used not to exist, but now we exist, and we can determine the history of the country. This subjective fact is endowed with an extraordinary power. The inexistent has arisen. That is why we refer to uprising: people were lying down, submissive; they are getting up, picking themselves up, rising up. This rising is the rising of existence itself: the poor have not become rich; people who were unarmed are not now armed, and so forth. Basically, nothing has changed. What has occurred is restitution of the existence of the inexistent, conditional upon what I call an event'.

 The fact that these movements have coalesced around physical locations - most famously Tahrir Square in Cairo - is no coincidence. For Badiou, any radical idea has to be 'localized' to find meaningful expression, even if  it must ultimately move beyond the limits of the local: 'in times of historical riot the masses create sites of unity and presence. In such a site the massive event is exhibited, exists, in a universal address. A political event occurring everywhere is something that does not exist. The site is the thing whereby the Idea, still fluid, encounters popular genericity. A non-localized Idea is impotent; a site without an Idea is merely an immediate riot – a nihilistic spurt'.

Within these sites, Badiou identifies 'a movement communism' in action:  '"Communism" means here: the creation in common of the collective destiny. This 'common' has two particular features. Firstly, it is generic, representative in a site of humanity as a whole. In this site there is to be found every variety of person of whom a people is composed; every speech is listened to, every proposal examined, and every difficulty dealt with for what it is. Secondly, it overcomes all the major contradictions that the state claims it alone can manage, without ever transcending them: between intellectuals and manual workers, men and women, poor and rich, Muslim and Copts, people from the provinces and people from the capital, and so on. Thousands of new possibilities arise in connnection with these contradictions at every instant, to which the state - any state - is utterly blind. We see young female doctors from the provinces care for the wounded, sleeping among a circle of fierce young men... We see everyone talking to neighbours they do not know. We read a thousand placards where each person's life joins in the History of all, without any hiatus. The set of these situations, these inventions, constitutes movement communism. For two centuries now the sole political problem has been this: How are we to make the inventions of movement communism endure?'

The difficulty is that the 'Instensification' associated with such moments of 'movement communism' is inherently difficult to sustain for long periods: 'During a massive popular uprising, a general subjective intensification, a violent passion for the True occurs which Kant had already identified at the time of the French Revolution under the name of enthusiasm. This intensification is general because it is an intensification and radicalization of statements, taking of sides and forms of action as well as the creation of an intense time (people are in the breach all day long, night no longer exists, people do not feel tired even though they are washed-up, and so on). Intensification explains the rapid exhaustion of this kind of moment.. it explains why at the end there are only scant detachments in the squares on the strike and occupation pickets, on the barricades (but it is they who will be the vector of the organized moment should it arrive). This is because such a state of collective creative exaltation cannot become chronic. It certainly creates something eternal, in the form of an active correspondence, whose power is dictatorial, between the universality of the Idea and the singular detail of the site and circumstances. But it is not itself eternal. Nevertheless, this intensity is going to carry on unfolding long after the event that gave rise to it has itself faded. Even when a majority of people revert to ordinary existence, they leave behind them an Energy that is subsequently going to be seized on and organized'.

There's lots of food for thought here. I am sceptical of Badiou's wider historical political perspective, in particular his ongoing Maoist reverence for the Chinese cultural revolution as some kind of model of potential emancipation (instead of the brutal faction fight that I would regard it as). The ghost of leninism haunts his concern for the minority who must, in his view, carry forward the movement when the period of 'Contraction' follows the exhaustion of 'Intensification'.

I think he is right that in the heat of intense movements, social contradictions can be challenged and partly overcome, though I think it is important to recognise that they don't disappear overnight- witness the sexual assaults in Tahrir Square. My own observations of the Occupy movement is that class  (not to mention gender and race) privilege still asserts itself in who gets to speak, and that when movements contract it is not necessarily the most radical minority that remains - the 'Energy' Badiou rightly identifies can be seized on by aspiring politicians and wannabe movement professionals.

But I do think the dilemma of sustaining movements after an initial period of enthusiasm is a real one. Models of revolution or even of a future society which imagine life as a permanent festival of never-ending passionate creativity neglect the human needs to relax, sleep, look after children and animals, and sometimes do boring tasks because somebody's got to do them. While History is Made at Night has championed the politics of festivity, we also have to recognise that on its own it's not a sufficient basis for a human community. Everyone knows that sleepless nights of hedonism have to be balanced with recuperation to prevent burn out and breakdown, similarly in radical politics there has to be more than the search for the intense buzz of riots, uprisings, strikes and occupations. By their nature these cannot be permanent, and it can be demoralising to return to everyday life afterwards. But like a great party, something always remains to sustain and inspire us through the mundane but essential task of building and sustaining human relationships (including political and social movements) in difficult circumstances.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Parties Make Me Anxious - Paul Morley (1988)

In December 1988, Paul Morley wrote an article for Marxism Today magazine entitled 'Towing the Party Line':

'Parties make me anxious. Everything makes me anxious, because living means living anxiously, but the thought of a party, let alone the reality of a party, makes up for a certain, monstrous kind of apprehension akin to the feeling of knowing at exactly what time I am going to die. Just the thought of it makes me very concerned and disheartened. Dying I mean, not going to a party. I suppose I'll choose going to a party before death, but only just. Just the thought of it makes me very concerned and disheartened. Going to a party, I mean. I break out into a warm sticky sweat: I can see it now . . . it's party time . . . the door opens . . . I'm forced into the flow . . . Imust mix . . . people at the party laugh as if things were going better and better, as if they did not know that the abyss is there . .. they smile at one another, are nice and friendly and polite . . . they exchange kisses as if they adore each other. And yet they are well aware of what is waiting for them. They pretend not to know.

How brave they are, how patient they are, how ignorant they are, or perhaps how wise, or perhaps they have some secret, unconscious knowledge of things that I don't know, that I cannot succeed in knowing... Yes, life is a party, and  parties make me anxious. You start off all fresh and confident and hopeful thinking it can never be as bad as all that and I'll never be that unhappy again, and think of the new friends that you'll make, and you're pleasant to  friends and strangers, and you try talking to them for a bit, and you get bored, and you turn, as you must, to whatever drink you can find, and it will all end in tears, or  certain death, and then the hangover...

I remember pre-80s that the hipper parties would consist entirely of a soundtrack of deepest dub - the first dub is the deepest - and rarest reggae, drilling or raking the party to slow death. These days, the hipper parties resound with the sound of burning house and various, complex continental beats that you purchase in strange shops as if you were selecting exotic forms of cheese...

Why do we always have to talk to each other? Can't we just stare each other out and have another drink? Why is it so important to talk to people that you don't know? Just so that you can get to know them and then have
arguments and perhaps kill each other and be sentenced to a party life after death, where you are always suffering that moment when you walk into a party and everyone turns and looks at you . . . except they're not looking at you, they've just spotted somebody who once appeared on Jonathan Ross...

And now I find out that I've written the wrong column. I should have written a piece on political parties at Christmas. How on earth am I going to begin that article...? Political parties make me anxious'.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Malawi School Disco Riot

'Banning Disco nights cause Chayamba secondary school to close as students riot'
(6 November 2012, Zodiak Radio)

'Chayamba Secondary School in Malawi’s central region district of Kasungu has been closed indefinitely following violent protests by students on Friday night. Armed police officers have been patrolling school since the incident.Police have arrested 12 students in connection with property damage caused by the protests. The suspected ringleaders are likely to answer charges of causing malicious damage. Students were sent packing on Sunday morning.

The students staged violent protest after the administration announced that night disco parties were banned and that such events would be restricted to daytime.The administration claimed night disco was fueling bad behavior among students such as alcohol abuse and sex.The students have been ordered to sign a form committing themselves to pay for the cost of property damaged. The cost is yet to be established, but the school’s principal said it is in excess of millions of kwacha. Among those damaged were the administration block, girls’ hostels, dining hall, chair and computers.

Head teacher Dorothy Masudi said the school has been closed indefinitely: “As you can the state of the school learning cannot take place, it will be up to the ministry to say when we can resume classes”. The closure was ordered by the ministry of education, according to Thomas Mkandawire, an official of the Central East Education Division. Meanwhile, the administration of Rumphi Secondary School in the north is concerned at growing misconduct by students. Speaking in an interview with Zodiak, head teacher, Bentley Manda said the school has suspended nine male and female students who were found pairing in a play field during ‘odd hours.’

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

History is Made at Night Sampler 1.0 - a zine for the bookfair

The London Anarchist Bookfair was a couple of weeks ago (October 27th to be precise) and to turn up without some printed matter to disseminate is a bit like going to a party and not taking any drink with you. So I put together a short paper zine collecting together some articles from this site, including material on Malcolm X, radio in the Portuguese revolution 1974, London's Club UK in the 1990s, and a round up of free parties and police from this year.

You can download History is Made at Night Sampler 1.0 here (12 pages A5)

At the Bookfair I helped on the Datacide stall, shifting copies of the essential new issue (detailed here previously). Also on the stall we had a few copies of John Eden's Tweetah reggae zine.  You may recall the great reggae/dubstep/grime zine Woofah. A lot of material was written for a final issue that never actually came out for various reasons, so John Eden has put out some of it in the one-off (?) Tweetah. There's a great interview with DJ David Rodigan among other things (you can order a copy at Uncarved)

The Datacide stall was banished to a room of the bookfair off the main hall seemingly reserved for not-really-anarchists, an honorable category that also included Aufheben, Endnotes and, the Platypus Affiliated Society - all good and interesting folk, the latter a newish Marxist-Humanist current trying to explore 'possibilities for emancipatory struggle in the present' amidst what they see as the virtual extinction of the traditional left. Much of their activity seems to be the platypus debating with various dinosaurs of the American maoist and trotskyist left in an attempt to get them to evolve, a fruitless task. But there is some interesting critique and a clear influence of German radical thought from the Frankfurt School to 'Anti-National' currents.

Continuing the small furry animal German radical left influenced theme I also picked up a copy of Kittens the 'Journal of the Wine and Cheese Appreciation Society of Greater London', a London based group linked to the mainly German network 'Junge Linke: gegen Kapital und Nation'. Again, an attempt to think through what a radical analysis of the present would look like without simply regurgitating leftist orthodoxy. An attempt, no less,  'to criticise those conditions which ensure that wine and cheese are not available to everyone and to criticise everyone who justifies this'.

So my inner Marxist went away happy, but in the last couple of years there just hasn't been enough weird, counter-cultural  or plain unexpected stuff at the bookfair to satisfy my other side. It's been a while since I came across anything like Dreamflesh or Strange Attractor, or even that really cool Walter Benjamin book I picked up at a bargain price from the author at the bookfair ('Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem' by Eric Jacobson). Come on all you zinesters and pamphleteers, you've got 12 months to get your act together for next year.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dead by Dawn: partying on the 'kinetic-sensory-pharmacological-sonic frontiers'

Friday night's Praxis Records party on the MS Stubnitz in London docklands was great, may write a bit more about it, but for now here's something about the label's early history and more specifically the mid-1990s Dead by Dawn parties at the 121 squat centre in Brixon (as discussed at this site before). These extracts are from 'Bread and (Rock) Circuses: sites of sonic conflict in London' by Alexei Monroe, published in 'Imagined Londons' edited by Pamela K. Gilbert (SUNY Press, 2002).

'Gabber and associated variants (stormcore, nordcore, hartcore, speedcore) all represent not just aesthetic extremism but a frantic search for an un-colonised sonic space that will prove resistant to commodification and appropriation. All are based on the testing and surpassing of kinetic-sensory-pharmacological-sonic frontiers and a reaction against ideological, economic, and stylistic taboos. At the center of this stylistic mayhem lay the Dead by Dawn nights at the 121 and the associated micro-scene centered on the Praxis label and the Alien Underground and Datacide magazines - the most comprehensive documentation of both local events and the international networks of underground parties and producers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and beyond. The magazines are no less politicised than the information held at 121, reporting not just on the specific repression against illegal raves but on wider civil liberties issues and threats to freedom, discussing issues such as electronic surveillance, and the CIA's links to drug importation. Datacide in particular stresses solidarity against repression and has a loosely defined ideology based on communal values and the thought of Rosa Luxemburg and the Italian and German autonomist/squatter movements. Though not pessimistic and stressing the importance of cultural and political resistance, the tone of the reportage can be as apocalyptic as the sounds discussed on the extensive review pages. The works of Deleuze and Guattari, Hakim Bey, and others are a conspicuous presence, and the emphasis on theoretical activity and practical action stands in contrast to happy hardcore's pure escapism and distrust of complexity and innovation. The conceptual sophistication and political awareness of the writers, producers and those attending the events does not contradict so much as complement the music's emphasis on brutal sensuality that to the outsider seems nothing more than a soundtrack to the temporary obliteration of the self.

The 121 and the Dead by Dawn parties symbolize a twin process of stylistic and musical ghettoization, some of the most extreme sounds to have been heard in London playing to an audience of one or two hundred in an almost stereotypically bleak basement space. Though at one level it was indeed a ghetto space, anyone who attended an event at 121 will remember its unique atmosphere. In the small hours, for listeners slumped in armchairs on the ground floor surrounded by the blast of dystopic noise emerging from the basement space, the 121 could seem as hyperreal as anywhere, even without chemical enhancement. The incongruity of the location could actually feel the intensity, the awareness of being in a parallel space that was at least symbolically beyond the reach of daily commodification and oppression. The space served as a nexus of extreme sensory experience and had a unique atmposphere'.

Flyer from collection at Smash the Records