There’s no home like freedom

The Girl Who Fell to EarthThe Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This memoir has a stranger-than-fiction appeal made all the more delectable by Al-Maria’s matter-of-fact, breezy delivery. She deploys language with a spring in its step and whimsy in its heart. The glossary alone made me feel I was drinking coffee and catching up with a friend I loved the space/sci-fi theme, which dissolved alienating boundaries between urban and traditional Beduin, Cairene and rural USian lifestyles, but left their quirks and contrasts intact. I felt Al-Maria’s relish and resentment in each setting, both longing for and recoiling from aspects of them all.

I was struck by Al-Maria’s observations of her Bedu grandmother’s lifestyle and the contrast between relaxed, communal, active and autonomous nomad living and the compressed, fractious, rigidly controlled and stultifying indoor life of the same people transferred to city apartments. I myself felt horribly trapped as she narrated her travails. I felt the weight, the intolerable weight of boredom, and the amused horror at garish, frilled and flounced ballgowns for the wedding, bought for the pleasure of self-adornment but also to display femme charms to potential mothers in law, since potential husbands are forbidden to see them. I would escape by any means necessary!

It amused me that Sophia’s father upset his mother in law by slaughtering a lamb in her honour, but in the very next scene she is buying meat in the supermarket with him, making no connection between the unacceptable death of the cute lamb she’d loved and admired before it was killed and the less fresh pieces of flesh in her shopping basket.

As well as cracklingly contemporary vernacular, all splice and spice, that makes me love some new writing, the easy flowing prose has texture, sonority, chiaroscuro. The book is filmic, flowing from one carefully realised, richly visual scene to the next. Al-Maria painted images that sank into my memory, drawing life force from her tale’s veracity.

The Cairene part of the story broke my heart, and the final section left me stranded, longing to know where Sophia would go now, what she would do, who would help her and love her. Yet she had gone, I felt, back into the pathless desert, where all directions are open and the gleam and glitter of the stars, silver and gold, adorn the future with magical light. Where next is the sweetest dilemma…

View all my reviews

Eat Rice Have Faith In Women

The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical TheoryThe Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently my adult English class were studying the topic of ‘nature’ which had a section on ‘animals’. One of the opinions on the page was something along the lines of ‘the world would be a healthier and happier place if everyone went vegetarian and it would be good for the environment too’. After giving time for students to discuss this and other ideas, I asked if they agreed with it and was answered by a chorus of heartfelt ‘no!’s. Why not, I wanted to hear, and the students vehemently insisted that eating meat was essential to survival and health. You have to eat meat they said, using the strongest form for expressing obligation available to them. Since I’ve mentioned that I’m a vegan before, my students were arguing against the evidence standing in front of them, and perhaps I should have demanded an explanation as to how I had somehow survived for the past 16 years during which I haven’t eaten meat, but I focussed on dismissing The Protein Myth, which has folks believing that essential amino acids are missing from vegetable foods, or that the amino acids in such foods are not the same as the ones we need to make proteins in our bodies. I wanted to squash the bad science quickly and move the class on to ethical arguments. I was unprepared for this wall of resistance and strength of conviction in the necessity of meat.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, since I had been reading Carol Adams’ book ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’, which addresses the mysterious difficulties of vegetarians to be heard over the dominance of ‘the texts of meat’. Since these are written into white culture we are heard as aggressive in our very refusal to partake. Plutarch is quoted suggesting vegetarians flip the question everyone asks us and invite the interlocutor to explain why they feel it’s alright to eat the dead flesh of animals, but this level of provocation usually backfires. One of the uses of spurious scientific arguments against vegetarianism is obviously to deflect the possibility of an ethical discussion; likewise the hypotheticals wise guys and gals love to bombard us with relating to desert islands and other unlikely situations. ‘What would you do if I put a gun to a cow’s head and threatened to pull the trigger if you refused to eat a burger?’ wondered a classmate of mine recently, surely begging the question ‘but… why would you do that?’

Anyway, while the terminology seemed a bit out of date to me, much of the analysis was valuable. The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, but Adams seeks to illuminate how deep the parallels run between the status and optics of women and of animals in white Euro-USian culture and society. I was actually most moved by the opening section in which she points out that women everywhere go without food, especially meat, to ensure that men eat well and eat meat. The discussion of rape though, made neither logical nor intuitive sense to me, and I lost the thread of the argument at times.

A key topic that does resonate for me is the development of meat consumption. Adams identifies four historical stages, the first being vegetarianism, followed by hunting, followed by subsistence farming, followed by industrialised agri-business. The Euro-USian world is obviously in ‘the fourth stage’, which is mostly pretty horrific. Adams considers meat-eating on the scale of this cultural group to be enmeshed with white supremacy and to some extent imposed with colonisation around the world. Listening to Radio 4′s Farming Today I regularly hear reports on British farmers seeking expanding markets in ‘BRIC’ countries where animalised and feminised protein (meat, dairy products and eggs in Adams’ terminology) are being consumed in increasing quantities. The analysis on the radio never gets beyond ‘they want it because they can afford it now’, continually reinforcing the food hierarchy with meat at the top. Little attention is paid to the health or environmental implications, or the farmers’ intention to create demand. Compassion for ‘livestock’ is obviously unmentionable.

While I appreciate Adams’ reflections on meat-eating as white supremacy, and agree with her critique of Pat Parker’s poem ‘To my Vegetarian Friend’, I feel the aspect of intersections between culture and racism and meat industries is underdeveloped. Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of many books that confronts me with the fact that Black slaves in the US were treated far worse even than animals raised for food who, as Adams points out, receive ‘the trappings of care’ from humans, I am reminded that white veg*ans like myself are regularly guilty of <a href="
” rel=”nofollow”>reinflicting, reinscribing or callously ignoring white supremacy and other aspects of kyriarchy. This week I read about <a href="
” rel=”nofollow”>vegans of colour protesting the antics of Thug Kitchen. The Sistah Vegan Project and other thoughtful, intersectional work should be required reading for vegan activists!

Still, Adams started the ball rolling taking veggies to task for misogyny, not that it’s over. Tweeting as my local Green Party branch on the topic of raising the number of women in parliament, I received a response from a white man: “why not focus on helping animals instead? #govegan” presumably, only male animals. Adams makes an intriguing connection between the fragmentation of animal bodies and of texts, specifically, the silencing of women’s texts and especially as ‘bearers of the vegetarian word’. It is important that Frankenstein, much analysed and admired, has been ignored as a vegetarian text, and also that so many attempts have been made to attribute it to Shelley’s husband, since it’s inconceivable that a woman can have written something so brilliant. I really enjoyed the literature analysis, and I will add veg*anism to the lenses I try to look through in my reading, as it seems to be all too rarely applied.

One of the questions addressed by Adams’ analysis is that of why women, and specifically some feminists, have been drawn to vegetarianism. Aside from the clear association of meat and masculinity, to what extent have women embraced plant based diets as a form of protest against patriarchal violence? Because feminism and vegetarianism both tend to be ridiculed and excluded from mainstream discourse, there is a need for loving excavation of vegetarian reflections in woman oriented texts, such as the work of Alice Walker.
She mentions an (Victorian?) article about teenage girls who refuse to eat meat, which treats the behaviour as an eating disorder (but, happily, recommends kindness and healthy alternatives, not coercion). This apparently common experience of the body rejecting meat, of meat becoming ineffably wrong was my own at the age of fourteen. Disgust is a strange emotion, and I still cannot say whether mine has its roots in my conscience. I can only say that as I have removed animal products from my diet, I have ceased to see them as food, and increasingly I can’t imagine how I ever ate them. I was led to vegetarianism by disgust, and ethical conviction followed; perhaps then, I act, and afterwards find my action good! Going vegan though, I was led by concern for hungry people and warming planet, and compassion for other animals, and disgust came after. It is not possible for me to separate them – when asked why I am vegan, I say ‘all the reasons’, so I knot that this journey out of eating animals is very personal and full of obstacles. I have to thank countless people for clearing my way, including Adams, but I also have to acknowledge many privileges that have enabled me, such as money, time, whiteness, education, and living in a place with an active and creative vegan community where veganism has some recognition.

I am publishing this review in celebration of the start of World Vegan Month and the 70th birthday of the Vegan Society! I invite all my readers to get involved in some delicious way – you definitely don’t have to be vegan to <3 vegan ice cream, for example ; )

View all my reviews

On the Spiritual Telegraph

The BalloonistThe Balloonist by MacDonald Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is always a rough edge in tech, where afficionados tinker with half-known science. Nowadays it might seem that physics frontiers are out of reach of amateur enthusiasts, and that you need a doughtnut-shaped tunnel many kilometres long buried under the middle of Europe and gigajoules of energy to find out anything new, but there are still unfashionable and expensive things to do, like scan the sky for approaching asteroids, that are, I believe still more or less in the hands of communities of uncoordinated volunteers. MacDonald Harris has captured the spirit of the optimistic era before WWI when many of the protagonists of STEM fields were ‘gentleman amateurs’ messing about with magnetic fields and Leden jars, and parties of explorers set out to plant their white male feet on the sketchy bits of the map.

The topic in focus, meticulously researched and painted in thrillingly evocative detail, is ballooning, but not with hot air and burners, but with hydrogen, The delicate matter of managing buoyancy is tortuously clear; I felt it in my belly, and finally in every poetically-sensitve nerve. We spend this novel in the delightfully bizarre psyche of a brilliant scientist-explorer, who, being Swedish and of an obssessive, exacting character, deploys English with unnerving and at times slightly unnatural precision. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the ‘spiritual telegraph’ he builds to ‘listen to’ weather at a distance using a ‘Bell receiver’, a crystal of galena and a coiled aerial, and the Schadenfreude he feels on inspecting a rival method of steering a balloon to his own delicate scheme of trailing guide ropes, and finding it impracticable. It is typical of the major (and the book’s style generally) that he dislikes the idea of the zeppellin (which was soon to make deadly contributions to the war) since its cigar shape made it phallic, in contrast to the favoured feminine contours of the balloon.

All this geeky detail, while one of the book’s chief pleasures, is co-passenger to the love story that steers the protagonist and his crew through his reveries on the way to the pole. While the major is amusingly resistant to and contemptuous of feminism, he responds to te question of whether a woman can perform some technology related action with the observation that only experts can tell female and male skeletons apart; he cannot locate the impulse towards supporting gender equality anywhere but in physical science. The major is out of his depth in Luisa’s feminine world, but that Harris is able to invest this world with such depths as well as limits that are in fierce contention; borders of gender, sexuality and empowerment, makes for a novel that expands internally, beyond the journey that is its ostensible subject, beyond the limits of its narrator’s vision. Luisa’s intellect is formidable and she seems physically and psychologically indomitable. Savant, person of colour, owning her desires and engineering their fulfilment, she wears the costs of independence, the scars and worse. Harris stays respectfully out of her head.

I would like to talk about vegetarian ideas in The Balloonist. The major describes one of his passengers, the bluff American journalist Waldemer as a lover of machines, and efficiency. Part of this ongoing characterisation consists of: “An animal to him is something to be looked at through a gun sight, something that falls down and turns into meat when the exquisite mechanism of the trigger is actuated”

This reflection is recorded at the start of the novel, when meat-eating is not taking place. However, later Waldemer kills animals for meat, for example a polar bear, and once again the major reflects on this creature as a living being in extraordinary language: “Did the bear ask to show us that he was red inside? He wanted only to be left alone with his wife and children. Did we debate with him like rational creatures whether his life was more important than our own?”

The killing is described in a completely unheroic way. The bear is shot at a distance and seen lying dead on the ice close to his family.

As well as offering me food for thought as a feminist, vegan and physics-fan, Harris offers me rich nourishment as a linguist from cover to cover in this work! Here’s a random sample

Pennsylvania is freckled with iron mills, but muriatic acid was expensive. I was forced to resort to my own pocketbook to buy another demijohn, which had to be brought out from Harrisburg in a wagon. In any case, the ascension was postponed until the next day, when everything in fact worked faultlessly and Waldemer and I soared for an hour over various neat farms divided into rectangles, landing finally in a rye field. Professor Eggert followed us in a shay drawn by an intelligent mare that had learned a good deal about the movements of balloons and was able to trace out their landing places with hardly any guidance from the reins.

Phillip Pullman is a fan, and Harris’ influence is detectable in the former’s work. If you like Pullman, I daresay you will like this. I’m rounding up from 4.5 stars.

Oh I forgot to mention how funny the book is! It’s hard to believe that Harris found room for such hilarity, but he had me chuckling helplessly on the bus over many of the major’s thoughts. A multi-layered masterpiece indeed!

View all my reviews


I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together we will be heard.

Some months ago Media Diversified’s editors described Malala Yousafzai as the bravest girl in the world. That accolade will always be pinned to her chest in my mind after reading this, in which I learned that the most courageous do not know they are brave.

Folks will read this, perhaps, to discover what made Malala; what familial context and historical moment was capable of producing her. Her account of her birth, her welcome into the world by her father, is in heartbreaking contrast to the reception of most girls who share her background. She was made to feel special, and she became someone with the self-confidence to stand up for her rights, to aspire to be a politician even in the shadow of the murder of her icon Benazir Bhutto, to title her story ‘I am’.

Nevertheless, what is extraordinary about Malala seems dwarfed by what is not. Her story is universal on the one hand, in that she is like young learning-lovers everywhere – bright school girls preoccupied with competing to come top of the class, falling out with besties and getting into mild mischief, and particular in the sense of local context; her life as a Pashtun in Swat and as a young Muslim. In many ways, Malala fits comfortably into the time and place of her birth. She loves her valley, described as the most beautiful place in the world, and is at home in her cultural and religious traditions, sharing her father’s convictions on the need to develop gender equality and rights.

The machinations of the Taliban and related groups, the Pakistani state and the USA are all discussed here with clarity; the book has apparently been written for maximum accessibility. I was grateful for the political background, but what I really loved, what emerged glittering, astonishing, bright as the sun, was the image of an ordinary life completely unfamiliar to me. I have no idea, I never hear, how Pashtun teenagers live, how teenagers everywhere beyond the walls of Euro-N America live, except rarely, selectively, through the tinted and shape-shifting lenses of literature.

There are a few disquieting moments here when Malala mentions the use of skin-lightening creams, which she and her friends have used uncritically. However, she is forthright about faults and mistakes – her tendency to get into jealous arguments, and a time when she stole from a friend, showing self-awareness and maturity.

Yesterday I heard that Malala had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. I saw her on TV, her sunny face smiling yet serious, framed by her bright hijab as she opened a Birmingham library (now, we in the UK are graced by her presence, though in her book she makes clear her wish and deeply felt longing to return), as she waved to cameras, the politician in training. I look at her with love, with an ache in my chest, the passion of a fan.

View all my reviews

Wet Petals

Faces in the Crowd Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arranged in short stream-of-consciousness style vignettes, this book is pretending not to be a novel, though what it is in disguise as is hard to pin down; is it a journal? A memoir? I am not very patient with plotless characterless fiction and I increasingly skimmed, but I did enjoy the presence of the toddler; his leavening questions and opinions.

What distinguishes the book from others and makes it contemporary is its close-to-the-boneness, its disturbingly risky-seeming self-referentiality. In this, it reminded me of Stevie Smith’s autobiographical not-really-novels, and it might also claim The Hour of the Star among its relations in terms of subject and tone. However, in contrast to Lispector’s, Luiselli’s narrator lives a literary texture, haunted by poets and poetry.

Luiselli made me feel my own emotional inadequacy at least; she made me feel that there was someone to feel for in the protagonist, even if I could not actually feel for her. The anecdote about the deleted lines of Ezra Pound’s heartfelt poem was my favourite thought. The faces in the crowd, the wet petals, the shadows of love and memory: here Lusielli manages literature’s magic trick, the resurrection of feeling.

View all my reviews

undivided subjects

Can the subaltern speak? : Postkolonialität und subalterne ArtikulationCan the subaltern speak? : Postkolonialität und subalterne Artikulation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here is a summary of the highlights of what I understood from the title essay, the only one I have read (taking 6 days). I have written this for aide memoire purposes and because I think through writing. In sharing it, obviously, I mean to entice you to read the essay, not to offer my inept interpretations as a substitute for it, but I have tried to make my ‘review’ as accessible as possible.

Spivak examines a conversation between Foucault and Deleuze (MF&GD), in which she says they ‘ignore the international division of labour, render ‘Asia’ transparent and reestablish the legal subject of socialised capital’ and treat ‘the workers struggle’ as a monolithic subject, linked to desire (to destroy power or which destroys power). They fail to explain relations between desire, power and subjectivity, and they are totally down on ideological critique, so they cannot articulate a theory of interests (as in holding a stake).

Spivak quotes Althusser on the ideological reproduction of social relations (submission to the ruling class, and the ability to manipulate ruling ideology are made for/in each generation) and notes that while Foucault had a go at shaking this up, he didn’t admit that a theory of ideology admits its own institutional production (as postcolonial academics, for example, do). In MF & GD’s talk desire, which always follows from interest, is opposed to ideology (seen as ‘being deceived’ or ‘false consciousness’) and desire implies an undivided subject, which becomes… Europe!

Intellectuals’ valorizations of oppressed subjects and their location of them ‘reality is what actually happens in a factory, in a school, in barracks, in a prison, in a police station’ serves to reinforce rather than undermine their own epistermic authority: they judge and mark ‘reality’ and the people who can reveal it. Spivak notes that ‘positivist empiricism [is the] foundation of capitalistic neocolonialism and so this use by the intellectual of ‘concrete experience’ can help to consolidate the international division of labour (the current mess). Intellectuals give us lists of subalterns who can speak, making themselves, representing those folks, transparent.

Spivak highlights the two distinct meanings of the word represent, working through a passage of Marx on class interest, to show that keeping them separate undermines the idea of an undivided subject, whether individual or collective, for whom interest and desire are one as Deleuze suggested. For Marx, class agency is not natural, not rooted in desire (its source is not the erotic in Audre Lorde’s sense), because the conditions it responds to (the economic conditions that form a class) are artificial (though they reflect interests – of the ruling class/ideology).

Here is an observation that I really like

‘the relationship between global capitalism (economic exploitation) and nation-state alliances (geopolitical domination) is so macrological that it cannot account for the micrological texture of power’

To do that, we need theories that examine the subjects micrologically working the interests that work the macrologic relation (reveal the details of how people/groups on the level of daily interactions structure the global situation). Such theories grasp both kinds of representation: they note how the world is staged in representation to make ‘heroes, paternal proxies, agents of power’ appear necessary

So, rather than do as Foucalt and Deleuze here and ‘reintroduce the individual subject through totalising concepts of power and desire’ by loudly refusing to speak for the subaltern, the intellectual should show that the subject can’t be undivided, and that their refusal to occupy the subject position is disingenuous because impossible (representation and re-presentation are not the same). Intellectuals should formulate theories of ideology that make their role in ideological reproduction visible. Spivak adds the irresponsible sleight of hand that reinstates the subject to Edward Said’s critique of Foucault – by mystifying power Foucault can ignore class, economics, the role of rebellion (just like (neo)colonial ideology). Said and Spivak emphasise the intellectual’s accountability.

Spivak reminds us that Foucault described the redefinition of sanity at the end of the European C18th and marked it as epistemic violence (Madness and Civilization right?) but she suggests that this is part of the same history of Europe that includes the epistemic violence in contructing the colonial subject as Other, noting the British codification of Hindu law and colonial education in India.

So, from the ‘First World’ and ‘under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital’ (the academy/institutionality/’Western’ intellectual status I think), Foucault and Deleuze declare that the oppressed, the illiterate peasant, tribal etc etc, given the chance (issues of representation & re-presentation) and on the way to solidarity, can know and speak their conditions. Spivak replies, on the other side of the international division of labour from the European intellectual (socialised capital) and from ‘inside and outside of the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?

This is a question that a particular group of intellectuals – the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group, who acknowledge Foucault’s influence – must ask. Spivak looks at Ranajit Guha, attempting to rewrite the history of the development of Indian national consciousness (because it had previously been written under (or by?) the colonised episteme, and is all about the leadership and importance and heroism of British elites and neocolonial all-India elites (I paraphrase flamboyantly)) and what looks like his strategic essentialism on behalf of ‘the people’ (subaltern) to locate them and their consciousness, and compares this to Marx (she finds ‘moments of productive bafflement’ in Marx about subjectivity and consciousness). At least the struggle to make the impossible possible remains in sight and the subject remains divided and heterogenous? I am at sea for a bit…

Woah then she says that the international division of labour depends on the urban proletariat of the comprador countries (Third World ruled by members of the international elite who have no responsibility to the population) not being trained in the ideology of consumerism, because that ideology leads to… political resistance. People who work in Third World sweatshops must not be able to buy the goods they make, or they would form coalitions and demand their rights.

To recap – one one side of the international division of labour is the intellectual, and then Guha’s buffer zone, the indigenous bourgeoisie and/or other dominant social groups (who may believe in coalition, who may be consumers, who may speak?) and on the other ‘those most separated from any possibility of an alliance among “women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients and homosexuals” [this is Foucault's list]… the females of the urban subproletariat’ who ‘cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation even if the absurdity of the nonrepresenting intellectual making space for her to speak is achieved’. Spivak then points out that there are people on or beyond the margins of the international division of labour (eg subsistence farmers) who are part of the ‘heterogenous Other’ that, in confronting, we would have to learn to see ourselves…

Foucault then, ignores the production of the West by the imperialist project. He reinstated the unacknowledged Subject of the West, presiding by disavowal, by pretending to vanish, and his admirers are fooled by the trick. It is absurd, and dangerous, for the First World intellectual to ‘masquerad[e] as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves’.

In contrast to everyone thinking good old Foucault is so politically right on, everyone hates Derrida, but, have a look at this bit of writing by Derrida on grammatology, which actually helps ‘the task of the First World subject of knowledge in our historical moment to resist and critique the ‘recognition’ of the Third World through ‘assimilation’, by marking and critiquing European ethnocentrism in the constitution of the Other (Spivak says this isn’t an apology for Derrida, helpfully, as I am always tempted to see lit crit as a horse race). Keep doing this: mark the positionality of the investigating subject

A little further on *glosses over more stuff I don’t really understand* Spivak mentions widow sacrifice in India:

The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’. White women – from the nineteenth British Missionary Registers to Mary Daly – have not produced an alternative understanding. Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: ‘The woman actually wanted to die.’ The two sentences go a long way to legitimise each other. One never encounters the women’s voice-consciousness. Such a testimony would not be ideology-transcendent or ‘fully’ subjective of course, but it would have constituted the ingredients for producing a countersentence

Imperialism paints itself as establishing a good society, and this picture includes woman as the object of protection from her own kind.

Spivak asks if, allowing that the abolition of sati is ‘a good thing’, an intervention in the poisonous dialectic of white saviours and nativist nostalgia both speaking for the subaltern woman is possible. There follows a look at Hindu scripture (Spivak marks her positionality as postcolonial woman, non-expert etc etc) and what can be salvaged of the history (overwritten by colonial episteme) of sati. She finds that ‘what the British see as poor victimised women going to the slaughter is in fact an ideological battleground’ (I think of Said here: Orientalist thought erases ideology) since its prevalance in Bengal (it was generally unusual, following the scriptural investigation Spivaks calls it an ‘exceptional signifier of her own desire) is linked to the fact that widows could inherit property (ie pressure from family members) to population control, to communal misogyny. Moreover, while some praise the courage and devotion of the self-immolating window, two incompatible ‘diagnoses’ of female free will are made.

The British had homogenized Hindu law under the imperialist episteme, and using this construct they consulted with learned Brahmans on the legality of suttee (as the British called it), often appearing to condone the practice, but when the law was written this history of collaboration was erased and the writing gives an impression of the noble Hindu triumphing over the bad Hindu and sati, which might be better read as a form of martyrdom, was positioned along with murder, infanticide, the lethal exposure of the very old, erasing ‘the dubious place of the free will of the sexed subject as female’, so, I conclude, we can no longer see and critique the agenda that paints self-immolation as free will, and as the path to release from the misfortune of having a female body in the cycle of rebirth, or the interests (patriarchy!) that lie behind such an agenda. We are left with (Said’s) ritual-obsessed, transfixed, unchangable, homogenous Orientals and White saviours.

This loss of the subaltern subject also happens even more forcefully in the case of widow celibacy (the word used for this is the word for the pre-sexual stage of life, so the implication is that the widow regresses to a pre-sexual state – there is another word for the virtuous post-sexual elective celibacy accessible to men), because it was ignored while sati was energetically debated.

In fact (I love this point), the word sati means good wife, and the word for widow immolation is ‘the burning of the sati‘ so the British made a grammatical error in their naming (like Columbus, she notes, with ‘American Indian’). And this error identifies self-immolation with good-wifeness, narrowing the ideological space to emphasise the heroism of the White man. Spivak looks at Edward Thompson’s list of literally translated names of burned widows – pure Orientalism. She then notes that Sati is a popular given name among Hindus, after the goddess Sati, the wifely manifestation of Durga, whose story is one of sacrifice for her husband. Between the two sentences ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’ and ‘The women really wanted to die’ then, there is no space from which the sexed subaltern can speak.

Spivak gives (with lots of cautions obviously) as example of the possibility of interventionist practice the case of a young woman, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, who killed herself (in 1926) because she had been entrusted with a task of political assassionation that she could not face, but waited until she was menstruating so that it would be clear that it was not a case of illicit pregnancy. Spivak’s reading makes this a subaltern re-writing of sati because Bhuvaneswari inscribes in her body its non-imprisonment within legitimate passion by a single male. Menstruating widows had to wait for the 4th day ritual cleansing before self-immolation. This unread text recovered by Spivak parallels the nativist rewriting of the social text of sati with the hegemonic Durga story that is ‘well documented and popularly remembered through the discourse of the male leaders of the independence movement [and thus, I venture, speak in the place of Foucault & Deleuze's 'people', the 'worker's struggle']. The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read’

And given that the subaltern cannot speak, ‘the female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish’

View all my reviews

rogue state

War Against The Panthers: A Study Of Repression In AmericaWar Against The Panthers: A Study Of Repression In America by Huey P. Newton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 stars for importance

In his introduction, Huey P Newton reminds us that the USA is founded on grand ideals of democracy which cannot be realised while ‘clevages’ of race and class structure society and the ruling class fears genuinely democratic institutions. The Founding Fathers’ idealism excluded African Americans, Native Americas and women, but the ideal of democracy is infectious, and struggle for inclusion inevitable. The order has been vigorously maintained through many means, more subtle after industrialisation & urbanisation, but always by the ultimate threat of violence. In the 60s, social control employed infiltration, misinformation and harassment, as detailed in this study. Newton asserts that such repression of certain groups restricts the freedoms of the entire society.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was singled out among many dissident groups for destruction by the state. US Attorney General John Mitchell stated that the Justice Department would “wipe out the Black Panther Party by the end of 1969 [that year]“. (They were referred to as a ‘Black extremist group’, which, considering their actual activities and ideas, suggests that valuing Black life is extremism.)

Newton provides some context:

Early C20th. In 1908, the Bureau of Investigation was created. Social control over dissidence was ruthlessly maintained, with police killing protesters, rounding up socialists and anarchists, bribing witnesses. Newton notes the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, apparently for being anarchists. There were deportations of radicals, raids, arrest of union organizers and activists. After the Palmer raids in 1919 every major city police department set up an Intelligence division. In 1936 the bureau became the FBI.

In 1938 Congress set up a Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda and in 1941 the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) made it a crime to teach the ‘duty, desirability or propriety’ of overthrowing the government by violence. Registration of radicals and the use of wire tapping (listening to phone calls) and mail covering (reading and copying people’s letters) became widespread. After WWII, the deportation of radicals and ‘undesirable’ ‘aliens’ increased. Communist Party leaders were convicted under the Smith Act. This was the era of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

The repression of Black USians protesting and organising for rights followed similar, often more violent lines to that of white American/European communists. Newton begins his recap of this by reminding us that

African slaves were first brought to America in 1616. These slaves and their descendants fiercely resisted their oppression, and for this resistance they have suffered beatings, torture, castration, lynching, and other forms of violence

Newton thus grounds Black resistance and US state suppression in an extensive, unbroken history starting from slavery.

The BPP was formed in 1966, originally with Black nationalist aims. Newton names their socialist ideology revolutionary intercommunalism, meant to be flexible and dynamic, and used as a pragmatic interpretive framework. The Party’s ideas changed over time. Its central strategy was building ‘survival’ community service programs, intended to directly assist and foster solidarity among the Black community. They urged self-defense against poor medical care, unemployment, slum housing, under-representation in politics and other oppressions, and they set up and organised decentralised co-operative local infrastructure to do this.

Another tactic was ‘police patrols’ – members listened in to police radio comms and rushed to the scene of arrests, book of law in hand, to inform citizens of their constitutional rights, carrying weapons as was their right under law. This ‘turned the imagery of the police against them’, exposing police lawlessness. The response was a bill to repeal the law that allowed citizens to carry and display weapons, which was passed, but a BPP protest delegation of armed black men created a striking image, photographs of which increased BPP popularity among young Black people as well as government hostility and White fear.

During WWII “[state] vigilance and caution grew into xenophobia and distrust of anyone who veered noticeably from the political mainstream” and this continued through the Cold War period. In 1968 the BPP was put on Nixon’s ‘White House Enemies List’

The FBI was… aware of and disturbed by the Panthers’ efforts to build community institutions. The one survival program that seemed most laudatory – providing free breakfasts to children – was pinpointed by J. Edgar Hoover as the ‘real long range threat to American society’

The bureau decided to use the cover of a crusade against criminals and terrorists for secret police operations to destroy political resistance; they would fight ‘crime’ instead of ideology. They searched for evidence that businesses contributing to the BPP in the bay area were being extorted, to no avail. They then tried to use narcotics law. In 1973 a well-funded and resourced Drug Enforcement Agency was created with the authority to request wire taps and no-knock warrants. Its former CIA staff were expert at planting phoney evidence and distributing misinformation.

In 1967 the FBI created COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program to ‘expose, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise the activities of the black nationalists’. 79% of COINTELPRO’s documented actions targetted the BPP; the program cost $100 million to US taxpayers. In 1976, for example, it allocated over $7 million to pay off informants and provocateurs. Many of its actions were intended to cause the death of BPP members, loss of membership and community support, draining of revenues and discrediting of Party programs and leaders.

Attempts to discredit (and confuse) Newton are documented: they are utterly insidious. Fake letters to individuals and newspapers accuse him of betrayal, while the FBI was of course able to pull strings to make such reports appear plausible. Newton was subjected to illegal telephone and microphone surveillance at his flat after his release from prison (when his conviction for manslaughter was overturned) on Hoover’s orders. The bureau then concocted and distributed a report that Newton was living in a plush penthouse and misusing Party funds – they even created a fake bank account in his name. Extensive harassment took place at his home.

Illinois BPP leader Fred Hampton whose chapter was highly active in delivering community health and welfare programs and pressuring negligent landlords to repair heating systems, and who was an energetic organiser fired with optimism and commitment, was targeted with the use of an informer and agent provocateur William O’Neal, who enabled Hampton’s bloody assassination by armed police.

A split between Eldridge Cleaver and Newton was engineered through misinformation. The bureau also sent misinformation to other Black activist groups, aiming to promote violence and conflict between them and the BPP, with mixed results.

The programs providing free hot breakfasts to children all over the USA was undermined by the FBI, who created a fake comic supposedly distributed at the breakfasts, showing police caricatured as pigs, with violent messages, and circulated it in the media and to businesses who were supporting the breakfast programs. The also plotted to halt distribution of the Party’s paper, which had a large circulation. They planned to use tax law, inducing tax authorities planned discriminatory activities based on political orientation of institutions. Newton’s private and the Party’s financial affairs were gone over meticulously, but the expensive investigation found no evidence for criminal charges

The FBI justified its actions, predictably, saying that it was protecting the American people. (Who is the American people? Do American children need to be protected from free breakfasts?) The tax authority was slightly more apologetic. The CIA, which had engaged in similar activities to the FBI, responded to revelations about its unlawful activities by destroying records and pressing for a charter to legitimize such activities in future.

The controls and apparatus necessary for the restriction of associational expression – investigations, files, informers, constant surveillance – are incompatible with a free society. [Such] [r]estriction is likely to become, in practice, an effort to suppress a whole social and political movement. History and experience warn us that such attempts are usually futile and merely tend to obscure the real grievances which society must, if it is to survive, face squarely and solve. – Thomas I Emerson

The Senate Select Committee which investigated to COINTELPRO scandal insisted on legal controls ‘to ensure that domestic intelligence activity does not itself undermine the democratic systems it is intended to protect’ but the subsequent long-running wrangles over intelligence reform produced bills that actually authorized COINTELPRO techniques and made no provision for citizens seeking redress.

I’m only too aware that my summary of the book reflects my own interests and limited understanding. I urgently recommend reading the study itself.

View all my reviews