I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
Mickey Z. is a veteran activist and author of several punchy books about politics, revolution, environmentalism and life in New York City, including Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, 50 American Revolutions That You're Not Supposed to Know, Darker Shade of Green and Personal Trainer Diaries: Making the Affluent Sweat Since the 1980s Vertical Club. He's been covering the Occupy Wall Street movement at Fair Share of the Common Heritage as well as his own blog. After several failed attempts to run into Mickey at Zuccotti Park (he and I never seemed to be there at the same time, and there's kind of a big crowd), I gave up and invited him to converse with me online about the protest movement, where it's going, what hazards it faces, and how it has inspired us both.
Levi: Mickey, I know you've participated in a lot of protests and actions in your life. These are always difficult, high-intensity, high-danger events, and they often run into conflict or trouble. Yet Occupy Wall Street seems to be growing at a steady rate, and remains peaceful, focused, well organized and internally harmonious after more than a month in the tents and on the streets. Are we getting better at running protests? It seems that way to me.
Mickey: I'd disagree with your characterization that OWS has "remained peaceful." It is surrounded by armed enemies - filming everything and everyone and willing to strike without warning. Thus, I'd clarify, protests don't just "run into conflict or trouble." They run into State repression.
That said, I do feel that OWS has learned from so many false starts and, as a result, the occupants don't view this as a finite protest, per se. They are cultivating an alternate model of human culture and it's fascinating to witness how quickly skeptics are won over once they take time to visit the site and interact.
It's a strange and delightful fact that the Occupy movement which began last month on Wall Street was not born on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Rather, the idea emerged from a dusty print-based medium that almost nobody cares about anymore (or so we thought), a format that dates back to the days of Husker Du and Pagan Kennedy. Occupy Wall Street was born in a zine.
Adbusters was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1989 by Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-born filmmaker outraged by the insidious and deceptively "warm" television commercials the timber industry was running in the Pacific Northwest to cover its destruction of vast areas of forest. Adbusters began using humor and parody to highlight and combat corporate and consumerist groupthink, and over the past two decades has staged many events and campaigns: TV commercials that mock other commercials, "open source" sneakers resembling existing sneaker brands, a "Buy Nothing Day" to combat holiday shopping mania, fake tickets to place on the windshields of SUVs. The zine became a staple of bookstore magazine shelves in the 1990s, sharing space with other worthy indie publications like Bitch, Giant Robot, Bust, Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, Craphound and Factsheet Five.
Like many other media jammers such as Julian Assange, Kalle Lasn is stronger on vision than on charisma, and likes to keep a low public profile. He occasionally appears on TV, and wrote a book, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, in 1999. Unlike other media organizations with less political conviction, Adbusters appears to be truly opposed to mainstream success, and has resisted the temptaion to dilute its message in search of greater popularity. But the organization's intrinsic hostility to media respectability has sometimes left curious newcomers confused about its program, and has given its opponents an easy opportunity to dismiss the (clearly honest) organization as extremist, Marxist, sympathetic to foreign influences.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts -- Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One -- but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper's Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country's honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.
This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I've been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled "Pacifism's Coma" and "The Trauma Theory".
But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It's a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I'm sure it's not) and that's why I'm so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.
(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)
Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?
Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?
Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?
Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?
Meno: Both, I should say.
Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?
Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?
Meno: Of course.
Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?
Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.
Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?
Meno: No, that I can't really believe.
Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?
Meno: For them I suppose that is true.
Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?
Meno: They must.
Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?
Meno: That too they must believe.
Socrates: And unfortunate?
Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?
Meno: I suppose not.
Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?
Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.
Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.
Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno
Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, hike into Horseshoe Canyon and view ancient rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, in what is called The Great Gallery. Like many who visit the site I was inspired with a sense of awe and wonder. The title of a painting by Gauguin popped into my mind. It’s one of his Tahitian oils: Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
In Notes from the Edge Times, Daniel Pinchbeck is on the trail of those same questions. The son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and writer Joyce Johnson, Pinchbeck grew up in New York and became a journalist. His previous books, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, gained him a reputation and following.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
Yeah, just like Oprah Winfrey, I totally fell for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Sure, the massive media hype is a turnoff, but what does that have to do with the quality of the novel itself? Freedom, it turns out, earns the praise.
I've written a review for another publication, but I also want to write about the novel on my own blog, so I thought I'd mention four other excellent novels that Freedom called to mind for me, each representing a different aspect of Franzen's big novel. If Freedom stimulated your mind (as it did mine) and left you eager for more, here are four related paths you may want to follow.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
The cerulean warbler in Freedom, the sandhill crane in The Echo Maker, Richard Powers' epic novel about a young man with a brain injury in Nebraska. Both books contrast the tawdry lives of humans with the idyllic innocence of nature (and both books frankly lecture their readers on ecology, and manage to toss metaphors for the Iraq War into the mix too).
Powers is a more intellectual and philosophical writer than Franzen, and he's also nowhere near as funny (in fact, I'm not sure if Richard Powers is ever funny). But neither writer is afraid to show his vast ambition, or to write with purpose and force; both The Echo Maker and Freedom are heavy bricks designed to break open your skull and get you to think harder. Oh, also The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006, and Freedom is going to win it in 2010.