Reflections for a Handful of Activists
"It’s not everyday that we are needed. Not indeed that we are personally needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not."
– Vladimir’s exalted tirade from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
"red-rag and pink-flag
blackshirt and brown
strut-mince and stink-brag
have all come to town
some like it shot
and some like it hung
and some like it in the twot
nine months young"
– e e cummings
"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant"
– Emily Dickinson
This is dedicated to Sylvie’s brother "Skee" (who let me use his room during the holidays)…AND all of those who sent me supportive missives around JC’s Waylaid Day.
I first met Alan Watts at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais shortly after he had taken part in the infamous "Houseboat Summit" of ’67 with Howl Ginsberg, LSD Leary and Mountains and Rivers Without End Gary Snyder. It was at the bed of Redwood Creek, just about where the Dipsea Trail crosses it that he told me what he thought of political activism; in retrospect, I was taken aback that I never got around to asking anything about my heroes. And about his special brand of fakery that I loved…or about all their personal demons.
Nevertheless, on this so-called Savior’s Birthday Party it’s time to share what he said with you. There may have to be a Part II to this, as I’m finessing family obligations and struggling with the stench of dead pig wafting through my isolated room (with a window) at the (Sierras) in-laws….while straining to create a Watershed Piece. (1)
Three years before the Tofflers’ Future Shock anticipated some of the key changes that would characterize our society, including personal computers, the Internet, widespread psycho-pharmacological treatment, same-sex marriages and parents, niche-marketing, a vastly enlarged services sector, and decades-longer life spans enabled by revolutionary medical and biotechnology advances…Alan laid out what our stressed-out society could look forward to vis-a-vis our fighting for change.
Small change…what we’re involved in. And shortsighted in the way we’re going about it.
The Civil Disobedience that was all the rage at the time was his primary focus. He said we could probably only count on it being cyclical. He saw it as being part of an ebb and flow, a Yin/Yang within very defined limits.
Confrontations of the sort festooned across the front pages of sixties’ publications –their impact– would subside, he said…once a given point was made in the future. Large numbers of "mild protesters" –the majority– would take over…making sure that they wouldn’t be bad boys and girls causing any serious problems for The Powers. Why? For the simple fact that everyone would be sooooooo inundated with stimuli, soooooo overwhelmed with keeping basic things together…that they wouldn’t have the time/wherewithal to follow through.
I was reminded of the Watts encounter the other day when I came across Barbara Epstein’s "The Politics of Prefigurative Community: The Non-Violent Direct Action Movement," (2) which underscores the fragility of civil disobedience, the consensus process and non-hierarchical style of organization as (intended) builders of community solidarity/accomplishment.
Barbara’s critique of the direct action movement is "based on the assumption that it would be better if more continuous identity and political presence could be achieved." (3A) Like Watts, she cites "cycles," and points out that the common coming together (only to dissipate) makes for Reinventing The Wheel Syndrome; avoiding bureaucratic entrenchment is a minor benefit which accrues from the rising and falling of organizations, surviving affinity groups contracting in terms of impact….in spite of lessons learned.
That’s a quick hit respecting Old Paradigms of thought/action. For what’s new on the horizon, for what might work within The Shock of Our Future That’s Here…I direct you to the remnants of the Electrohippies who pulled off the "Virtual Sit-In at the WTO" (Seattle, ’99).
Just as that prototypical adult in The Graduate whispered "plastics" in the ear of Dustin Hoffman’s character to indicate what the future beckoned/promised, I am tiptoeing on eggshells to send the message that "hacking" holds much promise. Ricardo Dominguez (who has done highly laudable work with the Zapatistas), co-founder of Electronic Disturbance Theater and co-creator of the webjamming FloodNet, is someone to plug into your Search for starters. Critical Art Ensemble and Electronic Civil Disobedience might also yield something positive. (3B)
Why all the vague leads? For those with some imagination I offer the following from page 37 of Roya Hakakian’s Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught In Revolutionary Iran (speaking about being Iranian under Jimmy Carter’s Shah): "To escape its ominous attention, every citizen hid what was on his mind and learned to talk in such a way that his true thoughts would not be obvious. Speaking in metaphors and resorting to poetry were old national traits. But SAVAK gave Iranians yet another reason to aspire to the vague. Conversations did not convey clarity. They became endless games of creating allusions." Italics mine. (3C)
And don’t forget what Foucault said about "it must be dead if talked about." None of us must be about…what we’re talkin’ about.
Someone ought to share that with An Online Editor Who Shall Remain Nameless For The Moment…who lambasted me recently, charging me with "wobbling" in a recent Counterpunch piece . She took the rhetorical device that centered the article too literally, and…succumbing to the energies and facts-of-activist-life that Watts anticipated…overlooked clear indications that no one could possibly be more against the actions of our troops than me (as per my labeling them dead-in-the-water "stormtroopers," and calling for no tears on their behalf). She was even moving so fast that she lambasted me for using The Powers’ Orwellian word "insurgents" when I had clearly referred to the Iraqis as "so-called insurgents." All caught up with having caught me with my pants down in the wrong column of my "Seventh Column" piece…with (unobservant) anal retentive analysis.
Now here’s the punchline that I hope all activists will find highly instructive: When I pointed out her indiscretions (documenting everything in detail)…the private back and forth came to a screeching halt! She had no time for "such dialogue." I wouldn’t be underscoring this if it weren’t typical of encounters I’ve had throughout this year. When push comes to shove activists, apparently, cannot find the heartbeats to put up with in-depth discussion, let alone adjustment. There is absolutely no temporal allowance possible for moving laterally, slowing down for necessary consideration. In fact, if you review the previous paragraph…you’ll be reminded that even editors sometimes don’t have a pace that allows requisite careful reading.
Certainly there’s no time to nurture a soul such as mine. (4) To open presents lovingly.
We push on at such a pace…having to absorb too much…all over the place…meeting false deadlines…putting all our eggs into the basket that says…if only we can get enough info out there, take in sufficient data, etc. we’ll make advances.
No. That’s the Status Quo. Impotento.
If only activists could ask themselves exactly WHY certain subjects have to appear ad infinitum on x number of websites, why redundancy is taking place at such a pace…why it’s all so necessary.
If they could they’d be off to a good start. ‘Cause the fact is that none of us are really about getting such and such done by a certain date. As important as our individual earthly concerns are, as much urgency as mundane matters call for…ultimately we are not here to be successful on those counts, are we?
I submit that there is another realm in which we operate primarily. And it has –in the final analysis– zero to do with accomplishment and everything to do with something that cannot be verbalized, something that has to do with us all being headed for a deathbed of sorts. I’d use At-One-Ment here, but I don’t want to confuse my meaning with anything associated with Christian Theology…particularly on this Grand Commercial Day.
Adrift amidst wrapping that won’t be recycled, the childlike horror heaves: "Is that all I get?".
In the Dada manifesto of 1919, Tristan Tzara says, "The new artist protests, he no longer paints; he creates directly…life and art make One." When I cite that quotation these days, too many readers jump on me defending isolated artists, secure in their Personas and personal realms, raking in the riches…while Iraq and too many other places are hacked to death. Make your case, I say, and leave me alone to ignore your selfishness…shortsightedness.
Because no matter how others cut the mustard, some of us will move toward doing what the prehistoric cave painters did; they put no labels on their art, no frames around their creativity…separating imagination and inspiration from their living quarters. Right there up against the wall…where I live and breathe…where my limbs often lie in the dark is…that vision of the organism not separable from its environment!* All my life…an organic whole.
*So eloquently laid out by Watts in his The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are.
As I was typing, my mom-in-law (for want of a better expression!) burst into my little hovel…not to tear me away…and back to the festivities…but to hand me advice that Clarissa Pinkola (Women Who Run With Wolves) Estes recently gave to an activist: "We know that it doesn’t take ‘everyone on earth’ to bring Justice and Peace, but only a small determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale."
A handful. Like what John Brown had.
I do have reservations about Estes’ work, but there’s no arguing with her "One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times."
I might add that another powerful thing we can all do is to force ourselves to slow down…set priorities…taking on less…and acknowledging that the stress which messes with us all is something we can rise above.
Our salvation –if such a term is appropriate for us all– lies not with our spouse, our children, our writing, our projects, confronting the so-called enemy…or with any of the neatly defined entities we’ve all labored with…forever.
On the one hand, we can work with William Gibson’s metaphor of cyberspace being a mass hallucination…acting as Panther Moderns…developing other hallucinations within that realm as has been suggested as early as the mid-90s in publications such as The Electronic Disturbance and Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas. Terrorize the U.S. terrorists…so that they loosen their grip, show their hand.
However, we must not lose sight of the importance of human bonding/the obligations we have to one another, especially as colleagues. Those who write to me will all vouch for the civil way (if I may say so) in which I respond to each missive, the fullness with which I try to address their concerns…friend and foe alike. That derives from something that dwells Beyond Activism…and which should be celebrated…if anything is celebrated at this time of year.
I mix it up on the street as much as anyone from, say, Reclaim the Streets…even though too much of that stuff will take too many of us out of the loop…prematurely.
Yet my pleas to readers are far more thought out than any two-bit (redundant) dinner party vision of despair…over what’s wrong with this world, these U.S. abominations. And couched, for good reason, in language from Cloudland. (5)
I come close to closing with my inspiration from Alain Badiou (about going away from humanity):
"In truth, like Rimbaud Beckett thinks that one never leaves. He recognizes absolutely the temptation of leaving humanity, the temptation of failing both language and saying to the point of disgust. To leave existence once and for all, to return to being. But Beckett corrrects and ultimately rejects this possibility." (6)
On this, Beckett says: "Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all." (7)
Being radical now…to make a difference…we must not merely change brands of toothpastes. Rather, we must go from brushing to not brushing. Something like that.
Meaning…perhaps we’re going to have to consider saying goodbye to Xmas. The Christmas that envelopes us all with the wrong, warped Wattage. The Grand Snowjob.
RICHARD OXMAN, above, has presented a truncated version of a chapter from his upcoming book Nine-Step Pogrom for Activists. He reluctantly invites one and all to help him locate a proper publisher and/or agent…for taking part in what he considers to be a contribution to our ecocide. Perhaps there’s another way. He’s reachable at email@example.com.
(1) Just want to make sure that the family knows I love them, and enjoyed being together in spite of my kvetching.
(2) See Epstein essay (particularly p. 345) in Stephen Duncombe, ed., Cultural Resistance Reader (New York: Verso, 2003).
(3A) Ibid., p. 346.
(3B) Ricardo speaks of not being able to be "more effective than an annoying mosquito" at one point. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate how annoying, say, a yellowjacket might be…stinging in a certain place…at a certain time. I take issue with Dominguez…to the extent that I read him correctly…respecting issues of anonymity and legality, but those are niceties that we can all thrash through once we’ve done our homework. One area in which he is spot on target can be found in the following: "…as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital! Nothing of value to the power elite can be found on the streets, nor does this class need control of the streets to efficiently run and maintain state institutions." Sources for the above are available upon request.
(3C) New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.
(4) Such would be way too much of a luxury, wouldn’t it? More important things on the agenda such as amassing huge numbers in soft solidarity? Bonding one-on-one can be put on the backburner? I don’t think so; it just burns up and out there…neglected.
(5) It’s a great word, and I urge one and all to look it up in a solid dictionary.
(6) Alberto Toscano & Nina Power, eds., On Beckett: Alain Badiou (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003), pp. 91-92.
(7) Worstward Ho (Calder Publishers, 1983), p. 8.