Slavery, Violence and Capital

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We write today to urge careful consideration of Edward E. Baptist’s recently published The Half Has Never Been Told, above all in the context of recent racial violence in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Through careful analysis of family plantation records, Baptist demonstrates the centrality of slavery within the booming expansion of the American economy during the 19th century:   “In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation. The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”

Baptist offers a concise summary of his research in an excellent interview in Kirkus, excerpted below for DP readers.

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After publishing an obvious and misleading hatchet job of a review, The Economist magazine issued a rare apology:

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Alas, even the apology skews understanding of Baptist’s powerful historical argument, namely that slavery was an immensely profitable and dynamic structural feature of American economic expansion, establishing patterns of dependency, violence and abuse that persist into the present; not Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit nor the expansion of freedom in pursuit of our manifest destiny, but rather the vast fortunes extracted by way of the “whipping machine” of slave labor and racial subjection.

That violent legacy remains deeply embedded within the American brand.

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After the White Noise

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Reactions to the release of the long-awaited Torture Report (or at least its executive summary) are extensively documented elsewhere. Having spent countless hours over the past three years investigating various dimensions within the lengthy and extensive history of American torture, we offer a few remarks:

1. Much of the discussion appears to accept a false premiss that the torture techniques documented in the report constitute some sort of historical aberration resulting from the panic and chaos of 9/11. This is very definitely not the case. Alfred McCoy has researched the deeper (and darker) history in meticulous detail, most recently in Torture and Impunity.

Beyond the actions of the CIA, many of these techniques (such as stress positions and sexual humiliation) have been widely used throughout American history against Native Americans,  slaves, incarcerated prisoners and political dissidents. Further, our history of torture certainly does not end with the human species; indeed, many of the techniques described in the report derive from behavioral experiments conducted on dogs and other animals.

2. The discussion has also assumed a tone that suggests that torture in the United States has been eradicated through the waving of some magic Presidential wand. This is, alas, another self-serving delusion. As Rebecca Gordon so brilliantly recounts in her recent book Mainstreaming Torture, such practices have become so widespread one might conclude they have become part of our “national DNA”.

As  Gordon points out on her own blog:

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3. We also take note of the constant refrain, from the oval office and elsewhere, that while those who implemented this brutal regime of torture may have made mistakes under desperate circumstances, they are nonetheless to be honored as patriots. Such claims are false and deceptive. The only patriots in this wretched story are those few who courageously refused to participate in these illegal and abhorrent practices.

Returning to Rebecca Gordon, in her essay for TomDispatch:

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Finally, a poem has just been brought to our attention, as published on the Guardian website from Iraq veteran Brian Turner:

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Nothingness

A correspondent has alerted us to a “performance” by the celebrity-artist (?) Marina Abramovic. At first we thought that the press release and “show” must be some sort of hoax, as it embodies such a blathering surfeit of philosophical gibberish. Surely this must all be some sort of sly spoof on the Art World, right? Alas, the artist appears to be offering her “energy generator” in all earnestness:

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PREPARATIONS FOR A FORCED INTROSPECTION

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EVIDENCE FOR AN ART OF NOTHINGNESS

Leaving aside her complete lack of understanding of what she refers to as “Tibetan teachings of oneness”, Ms. Abramovic appears either ignorant of or indifferent to the actual history of sensory deprivation as deployed within the present “no touch” torture regime of interrogation and incarceration. We have explored these histories in more detail elsewhere. A concise summary from the peerless historian of our distinctly American brand of torture, Alfred McCoy, follows below:

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THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE

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A DISTINCTLY AMERICAN ART FORM?

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Returning to Ms. Abramovic in light of this history, and its ongoing expression in the present, we need only quote from her own press release:

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Shatter the Hologram

A faithful DP correspondent encouraged us to bend an ear towards a distinctive American writer whose bravely contrarian voice, though widely known abroad, remained marginalized in the US during his lifetime: Joe Bageant.

Among Bageant’s last writings, notes for a series of lectures delivered during 2009 offer a critique of human arrogance resonant with the writings of deep ecologists such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess, yet with a feisty polemical edge that also brings Edward Abbey into the mix.

We excerpt a few of the final paragraphs for DP, with images from the studio of Morgan Bulkeley, whose entire body of work represents both a revolt against manufactured reality, and a celebration of our deep connectedness with all living things.

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Imperial Decay

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HEART OF THE REPUBLIC: A POST-MORTEM ANALYSIS

Deep into a remarkable eight-part conversation between Chris Hedges and political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, one exchange in particular caught our ears:

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This past weekend, while visiting St. John’s College in Annapolis, we had occasion to re-read a passage from Thucydides that well expresses how the dynamics of an expansionist empire inevitably corrupt political virtues within the “homeland”. In the so-called Melian Dialogue (which is actually more of an ultimatum), the expansionist Athenians – sailing through year sixteen of the Peloponnesian War – waste ” no flue words” in articulating the reduction of politics to the cynical measurement of outcomes.

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Then comes the chilling endgame for expansionist logic, in which any notion of mutually beneficial neutrality is cast as mischievous, for what message would that convey to subjected populations elsewhere in the empire?

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Returning to Chris Hedges in genuine dialogue with Professor Wolin:

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Divide and conquer enemies abroad (as in Iraq); divide and conquer potential dissent at home (as with Occupy).  While this double-edged sword may achieve desired outcomes for a while, the disappearance of virtue from all political equations eventually exacts a heavy price. Without moral authority, such power becomes increasingly difficult to project.

Brute force requires endless expenditure, with rapidly diminishing returns. Once friendship (and true citizenship) is perceived as intrinsically “mischievous”, everyone becomes a potential enemy of the state, at home or abroad; it is only a matter of time before the state collapses into the resulting abyss of violence and paranoia. As Thucydides notes, regarding the fate of the Melians, having stubbornly asserted their will to autonomy:

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As for the beautiful dream of Athens, the end came within a decade of the Melian slaughter.

HEALTHY TREES AT ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE

HEALTHY TREES AT ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE


The Wisdom of Wabi-Sabi

As an antidote to the gut-wrenching toxicity of American elections and to the delusions of human omnipotence in relation to nature, we have been re-reading Leonard Koren’s essay, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. We excerpt the section on Spiritual Values, with images borrowed from Rosamund Purcell’s unflinching inspection of bibliophagia and other expressions of printed pages in the process of being recycled by other species, Bookworm.

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Art Against Erasure

FACES THAT WILL NOT BE ERASED

A WHEEL OF REMEMBRANCE

On September 26, 2014, a bus full of student teachers from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa, while en route to the city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero, came under vicious attack from local police acting on direct orders from the mayor, known for his close ties to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. Six students were killed, and 43 disappeared.

In one of the endless cruel twists that contort history in the Americas, the students had been on the way to the state capital to petition for funding that would permit a delegation from the school to attend the annual commemoration of the Oct. 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre, when government security forces opened fire on student protesters, killing hundreds.

Disappearance represents one of the most extreme forms of violence in the state of exception. Protestors are not just violently suppressed; they are removed from history, transformed into nonentities — erased. In the absence of protest, the wider public then  becomes complicit in a culture of ongoing cleansing, as the dirt of resistance is scrubbed clean from the immaculate narrative of the despotic (or merely criminal) polity.

Yet in this case, the brutal disappearance of the 43 students failed to secure the required silence and intimidation; the mayor and his wife have been forced into hiding, with dozens of local police and other officials arrested as accomplices to murder and other crimes.

Throughout Mexico, many artists have contributed to an online project assuring that the faces of the disappeared are not forgotten. In each gesture of resistance, the caption reads “I (the artist’s name) want to know where (the student’s name) is.”  Below, we relay five of these powerful acts of creative resistance:

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The search for the missing students continues, as does the struggle for justice in southern Mexico.


Power and Violence

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Revolted by the ongoing carnival of death and chaos staged in the name of slaying the devil, we have been meditating upon Hannah Arendt’s ever-lucid analysis of the relationship between power and violence:

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Along a similar pathway of thought, we urge consideration of a recent op-ed by Brad Evans, the founder of the exemplary histories of violence project.

The image below, like the one above, is by Michaël Borremans, whose astonishing work we have only recently discovered, on recommendation from a Belgian correspondent.

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More from Evans:

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Those who wish to slay the devil need to contemplate the appalling image that resides inside their own mirror.

We look forward to reading Evans’ latest book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, co-authored with Julian Reid. For now, we close with one final image from Borremans, with affirmation for the true, integral power of his art.

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An Old Chaos of the Sun

Upon our return from an invigorating visit to the bravely contrarian St. John’s College in Santa Fe,  we submit for DP consideration an assemblage of convivialities in search of a churning potentiality: Blake’s notice to the Nobodaddy; an excerpt from the fecund theopoetics of Catherine Keller; the last lines from Wallace Stevens’ endlessly revealing Sunday Morning, and two evening landscapes from Georgia O’Keeffe.

 

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Wheels of Birds

Every now and again, a book pushes through the muck of contemporary publishing and takes flight. So it is with The Gorgeous Nothings, a book that liberates the exquisite, intricate and at times unbearably painful envelope-writings of Emily Dickinson from the shadowlands of academic specialists. As lovers of ED since early days, we knew the envelope fragments existed, and we even knew a few lines from them; intuitively, perhaps, we even sensed their importance and autonomy as literary objects, clogged only with music. Yet oh my, how we welcome their precise documentation and decipherment here.

Both editors of this magnificent and essential book – Jen Bervin and Marta Werner – are to be commended for the richly adventurous poetic, visual and literary journey they have prepared for readers. We were particularly taken by the essay contributed by Werner, whose writing perfectly embodies the rare qualities that are present in the strange texts themselves. Werner unfolds her thoughts with the sort of bravely speculative and gracious erudition that we do not often associate with our times; and it is this free, unbound spirit that allows her to unseal the mysterious intimacies of the envelopes, joining them in flight. Below, we excerpt (with permission) her final section, with a focus on the envelope-writing identified in the archive as A 821:

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