Monday, August 30, 2010

another country: james baldwin's flight from america by claudia roth pierpont @ new yorker feb'09

Feeling more than usually restless, James Baldwin flew from New York to Paris in the late summer of 1961, and from there to Israel. Then, rather than proceed as he had planned to Africa—a part of the world he was not ready to confront—he decided to visit a friend in Istanbul. Baldwin’s arrival at his Turkish friend’s door, in the midst of a party, was, as the friend recalled, a great surprise: two rings of the bell, and there stood a small and bedraggled black man with a battered suitcase and enormous eyes. Engin Cezzar was a Turkish actor who had worked with Baldwin in New York, and he excitedly introduced “Jimmy Baldwin, of literary fame, the famous black American novelist” to the roomful of intellectuals and artists. Baldwin, in his element, eventually fell asleep in an actress’s lap.
It soon became clear that Baldwin was in terrible shape: exhausted, in poor health, worried that he was losing sight of his aims both as a writer and as a man. He desperately needed to be taken care of, Cezzar said; or, in the more dramatic terms that Baldwin used throughout his life, to be saved. His suitcase contained the manuscript of a long and ambitious novel that he had been working on for years, and that had already brought him to the brink of suicide. Of the many things that the wandering writer hoped to find—friends, rest, peace of mind—his single overwhelming need, his only real hope of salvation, was to finish the book.
Baldwin had been fleeing from place to place for much of his adult life. He was barely out of his teens when he left his Harlem home for Greenwich Village, in the early forties, and he had escaped altogether at twenty-four, in 1948, buying a one-way ticket to Paris, with no intention of coming back. His father was dead by then, and his mother had eight younger children whom it tortured him to be deserting; he didn’t have the courage to tell her he was going until the afternoon he left. There was, of course, no shortage of reasons for a young black man to leave the country in 1948. Devastation was all around: his contemporaries, out on Lenox Avenue, were steadily going to jail or else were on “the needle.” His father, a factory worker and a preacher—“he was righteous in the pulpit,” Baldwin said, “and a monster in the house”—had died insane, poisoned with racial bitterness. Baldwin had also sought refuge in the church, becoming a boy preacher when he was fourteen, but had soon realized that he was hiding from everything he wanted and feared he could never achieve. He began his first novel, about himself and his father, around the time he left the church, at seventeen. Within a few years, he was publishing regularly in magazines; book reviews, mostly, but finally an essay and even a short story. Still, who really believed that he could make it as a writer? In America?

The answer to both questions came from Richard Wright. Although Baldwin seemed a natural heir to the Harlem Renaissance—he was born right there, in 1924, and Countee Cullen was one of his schoolteachers—the bittersweet poetry of writers like Cullen and Langston Hughes held no appeal for him. It was Wright’s unabating fury that hit him hard. Reading “Native Son,” Wright’s novel about a Negro rapist and murderer, Baldwin was stunned to recognize the world that he saw around him. He knew those far from bittersweet tenements, he knew the rats inside the walls. Equally striking for a young writer, it would seem, was Wright’s success: “Native Son,” published in 1940, had been greeted as a revelation about the cruelties of a racist culture and its vicious human costs. In the swell of national self-congratulation over the fact that such a book could be published, it became a big best-seller. Wright was the most successful black author in history when Baldwin—twenty years old, hungry and scared—got himself invited to Wright’s Brooklyn home, where, over a generously proffered bottle of bourbon, he explained the novel that he was trying to write. Wright, sixteen years Baldwin’s senior, was more than sympathetic; he read Baldwin’s pages, found him a publisher, and got him a fellowship to give him time to write. Although the publisher ultimately turned the book down, Wright gave Baldwin the confidence to continue, and the wisdom to do it somewhere else.
Wright moved to Paris in 1947 and, the following year, greeted Baldwin at the café Les Deux Magots on the day that he arrived, introducing him to editors of a new publication, called Zero, who were eager for his contributions. Baldwin had forty dollars, spoke no French, and knew hardly anyone else. Wright helped him find a room, and while it is true that the two writers were not close friends—Baldwin later noted the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had never even visited the brutal American South where Wright was formed—one can appreciate Wright’s shock when Baldwin’s first article for Zero was an attack on “the protest novel,” and, in particular, on “Native Son.” The central problem with the book, as Baldwin saw it, was that Wright’s criminal hero was “defined by his hatred and his fear,” and represented not a man but a social category; as a literary figure, he was no better than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. And he was more dangerous, perpetuating the “monstrous legend” of the black killer which Wright had meant to destroy. Wright blew up at Baldwin when they ran into each other at the Brasserie Lipp, but Baldwin did not back down. His article, reprinted later that year in Partisan Review, marked the start of his reputation in New York. He went on to publish even harsher attacks—arguing that Wright’s work was gratuitously violent, that it ignored the traditions of Negro life, that Wright had become a spokesman rather than an artist—as he struggled to formulate everything that he wanted his own work to be.
Baldwin knew very well the hatred and fear that Wright described. Crucial to his development, he said, was the notion that he was a “bastard of the West,” without any natural claim to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres”: to all the things that, as a budding artist and a Western citizen, he treasured most. As a result, he was forced to admit, “I hated and feared white people,” which did not mean that he loved blacks: “On the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt.” He had been encouraged by white teachers, though, and was surrounded by white high-school friends, so that this cultural hatred seemed to remain a fairly abstract notion, and he had assumed that he would never feel his father’s rage. Then one day, not long out of school, he was turned away from a New Jersey diner and, in a kind of trance, deliberately entered a glittering, obviously whites-only restaurant, and sat down. This time, when the waitress refused to serve him, he pretended not to hear in order to draw her closer—“I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands”—and finally hurled a mug of water at her and ran, realizing only when he had come to himself that he had been ready to murder another human being. In some ways, “Native Son” may have hit too hard.
The terrifying experience in the restaurant—terrifying not because of the evil done to him but because of the evil he suddenly felt able to do—helped to give Baldwin his first real understanding of his father, who had grown up in the South, the son of a slave, and who had, like Wright, been witness to unnameable horrors before escaping to the mundane humiliations of the North. Baldwin knew by then that the man whom he called his father was actually his stepfather, having married his mother when James was two years old; but, if this seemed to explain the extra measure of harshness that had been meted out to him, the greater tragedy of the man’s embittered life and death remained. On the day of his funeral, in 1943, Baldwin recognized the need to fight this dreadful legacy, if he, too, were not to be consumed. More than a decade before the earliest stirrings of the civil-rights movement, the only way to conceive this fight was from within. “It now had been laid to my charge,” he wrote, “to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”
t takes a fire-breathing religion to blunt the hatred and despair in “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953), the autobiographical coming-of-age novel that Baldwin wrote and rewrote for a decade, centering on the battle for the soul of young John Grimes, on the occasion of his fourteenth birthday, in a shouting and swaying Harlem storefront church. For the boy, being saved is a way of winning the love of his preacher father—an impossible task. Still, part of the nobility of this remarkable book derives from Baldwin’s reluctance to stain religious faith with too much psychological knowingness. More of the nobility lies in its language, which is touched with the grandeur of the sermons that Baldwin had heard so often in his youth. Then, too, after arriving in Paris, he had become immersed in the works of Henry James and, reading Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” had strongly identified with its self-creating hero. “He would not be like his father or his father’s fathers,” John Grimes swears. “He would have another life.” Baldwin, led by these supreme authorial guides, to whom he felt a perfectly natural claim, set out to turn his shabby Harlem streets and churches into world-class literature. The book’s moral and linguistic victories are seamless. Although Baldwin’s people speak a simple and irregular “black” grammar, their loosely uttered “ain’t”s and “I reckon”s flow without strain into prose of Jamesian complexity, of Biblical richness, as he penetrates their minds.
Baldwin wrote about the strictures of Harlem piety while living the bohemian life in Paris, hanging out in cafés and jazz clubs and gay bars; after having affairs with both men and women in New York, he had slowly come to accept that his desires were exclusively for men. His often frantic social schedule was one reason that the writing of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” dragged on and on. It also began to seem as though he somehow used places up and had to move to others, at least temporarily, in order to write. In the winter of 1951, he had packed the unruly manuscript and gone to stay with his current lover in a small Swiss village, where he completed it in three months, listening to Bessie Smith records to get the native sounds back in his ears. Published two years later, the book was a critical success; Baldwin claimed to have missed out on the National Book Award only because Ralph Ellison had won for “Invisible Man” the year before, and two Negroes in a row was just too much.
But it was Wright whom he still took for the monster he had to slay—or, perhaps, as he sometimes worried, for his father—and the book of essays that Baldwin published in 1955, which included two that were vehemently anti-Wright, was titled, in direct challenge, “Notes of a Native Son.” It was not, by intent, a political book. In its first few pages, Baldwin explained that race was something he had to address in order to be free to write about other subjects: the writer’s only real task was “to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” The best of these essays are indeed closely personal, but invariably open to a political awareness that endows them with both order and weight. Baldwin’s greatest strength, in fact, is the way the personal and the political intertwine, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between these aspects of a life. The story of his father’s funeral is also the story of a riot that broke out in Harlem that day, in the summer of 1943, when a white policeman shot a black soldier and set off a rampage in which white businesses were looted and smashed. “For Harlem had needed something to smash,” Baldwin writes. If it had not been so late in the evening and the stores had not been closed, he warned, a lot more blood might have been shed.
In 1955, the injustice of the black experience was no longer news, and if Baldwin’s warning drew attention it was overshadowed by the gentler yet more startling statements that made his work unique. In this newly politicized context, there was a larger lesson to be drawn from the hard-won wisdom, offered from his father’s grave, that hatred “never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Addressing a predominantly white audience—many of these essays were originally published in white liberal magazines—he sounds a tone very much like sympathy. Living abroad, he explained, had made him realize how irrevocably he was an American; he confessed that he felt a closer kinship with the white Americans he saw in Paris than with the African blacks, whose culture and experiences he had never shared. The races’ mutual obsession, in America, and their long if hidden history of physical commingling had finally made them something like a family. For these reasons, Baldwin revoked the threat of violence with an astonishingly broad reassurance: American Negroes, he claimed, have no desire for vengeance. The relationship of blacks and whites is, after all, “a blood relationship, perhaps the most profound reality of the American experience,” and cannot be understood until we recognize how much it contains of “the force and anguish and terror of love.”
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, in December, 1955, Baldwin was absorbed with the publication of his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room”; he watched from Paris as the civil-rights movement got under way, that spring. His new book had a Paris setting, no black characters, and not a word about race. Even more boldly, it was about homosexual love—or, rather, about the inability of a privileged young American man to come to terms with his sexuality and ultimately to feel any love at all. Brief and intense, the novel is brilliant in its exploration of emotional cowardice but marred by a portentous tone that at times feels cheaply secondhand—more “Bonjour Tristesse” than Gide or Genet. Although Baldwin had been cautioned about the prospects of a book with such a controversial subject, it received good reviews and went into a second printing in six weeks. As a writer, he had won the freedom he desired, and the decision to live abroad seemed fully vindicated. By late 1956, however, the atmosphere in Paris was changing. The Algerian war had made it difficult to ignore France’s own racial problems, and newspaper headlines in the kiosks outside the cafés made it even harder to forget the troubles back home. And so the following summer Baldwin embarked on his most adventurous trip, to the land that some in Harlem still called the Old Country: the American South.
He was genuinely afraid. Looking down from the plane as it circled the red earth of Georgia, he could not help thinking that it “had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” It was September, 1957, and he was arriving just as the small number of black children who were entering all-white schools were being harassed by jeering mobs, spat upon, and threatened with much worse. In Charlotte, North Carolina, he interviewed one of these children—a proudly stoic straight-A student—and his mother. (“I wonder sometimes,” she says, “what makes white folks so mean.”) He also spoke with the principal of the boy’s new school, a white man who had dutifully escorted the boy past a blockade of students but announced that he did not believe in racial integration, because it was “contrary to everything he had ever seen or believed.” Baldwin, who is elsewhere stingingly eloquent about the effects of segregation, confronts this individual with the scope of his sympathies intact. Seeing him as the victim of a sorry heritage, he does not argue but instead commiserates, with a kind of higher moral cunning, about the difficulty of having to mistreat an innocent child. And at these words, Baldwin reports, “a veil fell, and I found myself staring at a man in anguish.”
This evidence of dawning white conscience, as it appeared to Baldwin, accorded with the optimistic faith that he found in Atlanta, where he met the twenty-eight-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., and heard him preach. Baldwin was struck by King’s description of bigotry as a disease most harmful to the bigots, and by his solution that, in Baldwin’s words, “these people could only be saved by love.” This idealistic notion, shared by the two preachers’ sons, was a basic tenet, and a basic strength, of the early civil-rights movement. Baldwin went on to visit Birmingham (“a doomed city”), Little Rock, Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Nashville; in 1960, he covered the sit-in movement in Tallahassee. His second volume of essays, “Nobody Knows My Name,” published in 1961, was welcomed by white readers as something of a guidebook to the uncharted racial landscape. Although Baldwin laid the so-called “Negro problem” squarely at white America’s door, viewing racism as a species of pathology, he nevertheless offered the consoling possibility of redemption through mutual love—no other writer would have described the historic relation of the races in America as “a wedding.” And he avowed an enduring belief in “the vitality of the so transgressed Western ideals.” The book was on the best-seller list for six months, and Baldwin was suddenly, as much as Richard Wright had ever been, a spokesman for his race.
The role was a great temptation and a greater danger. Given his ambitions, this was not the sort of success that he most wanted, and the previous few years had been plagued with disappointment at failing to achieve the successes he craved. A play he had adapted from “Giovanni’s Room,” for the Actors Studio, in New York, had yielded nothing except a friendship with the young Turkish actor, Engin Cezzar, whom Baldwin had chosen to play Giovanni; the play, which Baldwin hoped would go to Broadway, never made it past the workshop level. His new novel, “Another Country,” was hopelessly stalled; the characters, he said, refused to talk to him, and the “unpublishable” manuscript was ruining his life. He was drinking too much, getting hardly any sleep, and his love affairs had all gone sour. He wrote about having reached “the point at which many artists lose their minds, or commit suicide, or throw themselves into good works, or try to enter politics.” To fend off all these possibilities, it seems, he accepted a magazine assignment to travel to Israel and Africa, then, out of weariness and fear, took up Cezzar’s long-standing invitation, and found himself at the party in Istanbul. It was a wise move. In this distant city, no one wanted to interview him, no one was pressing him for social prophecy. He knew few people. He couldn’t speak the language. There was time to work. He stayed for two months, and he was at another party—Baldwin would always find another party—calmly writing at a kitchen counter covered with glasses and papers and hors d’oeuvres, when he put down the final words of “Another Country.” The book was dated, with a flourish, “Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961.”
t is an incongruous image, the black American writer in Istanbul, but Baldwin returned to the city many times during the next ten years, making it a second or third not-quite-home. In “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade” (Duke; $24.95), Magdalena J. Zaborowska, a professor of immigrant and African-American literature, sets out to explain not only the enduring attraction the city had for Baldwin but its importance for the rest of his career. For Zaborowska, “Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961” is not merely a literary sigh of relief and wonderment—Baldwin’s earlier books have no such endnote—but an affirmation of “the centrality of the city and date to the final shape of ‘Another Country’ ”; she insists on Istanbul as “a location and lens through which we should reassess his work today.” Divided between Europe and Asia, with a Muslim yet highly cosmopolitan population, Istanbul was unlike any place Baldwin had been before and, more to the point, unlike the places that had defined both the color of his skin and his sexuality as shameful problems. Whatever Turkey’s history of prejudice, divisions there did not have an automatic black/white racial cast. And, on the sexual front, Istanbul had long been so notorious that Zaborowska is on the defensive against Americans who snidely assume that Baldwin went there for the baths. In fact, during his first days in the city, he was nearly giddy at the sight of men in the street openly holding hands, and could not accept Cezzar’s explanation that this was a custom without sexual import. At the heart of the matter is the question of racial and sexual freedom—the city’s, the writer’s—and its effect on Baldwin’s ability to reflect and to experiment in ways that he had not been able to do elsewhere.
But was this freedom real? How much of it can be found in Baldwin’s work? Despite a tendency toward jargon—Academia is another country—Zaborowska is a charming companion as she follows Baldwin’s steps through Turkey, brimming with enthusiasm at the sights and at the warmth of her reception by his friends. The Polish-born professor, a blithe exemplar of the “transnational” tradition in which she places Baldwin, is too idealistic and far too honest—the tender air of Henry James’s Maisie hangs about her—to refrain from reporting her shock at some of those friends’ remarks. “Jimmy was not a typical ‘gay,’ ” one explains, “he was a real human being.” In the matter of race, she informs us that she is omitting “Cezzar’s use of the n-word, which he employed a couple of times but then abandoned, perhaps seeing my discomfort.” As she admits, her own evidence refutes the hypothesis that Baldwin’s Istanbul was untainted by the usual prejudice. And then there is the problem that Baldwin never wrote anything about Istanbul. Zaborowska labors to soften this hard fact through elaborate inferences and suggestions of symbolism, and by calling on various authorities for disquisitions on “the experience of place,” or “Cold War Orientalism.” (This is where the jargon really thickens.) But if she ultimately fails to make the case that Istanbul was anything for Baldwin but what he claimed—a refuge in which to write—she makes us feel how necessary such a refuge was as the sixties wore on.
“Another Country” turned out to be a best-seller in the most conventional sense. A sprawling book that brought together Baldwin’s concerns with race and sex, its daring themes—black rage, interracial sex, homosexuality, white guilt, urban malaise—make an imposing backdrop for characters who refuse to come to life. A black jazz musician who plummets into madness because of an affair with a white woman; a white bisexual saint who cures both men and women in his bed—the social agenda shines through these figures like light through glass. More than anything else, the book reveals Baldwin’s immense will and professionalism; like the contemporary best-sellers “Ship of Fools” and “The Group,” it suggests a delicate and fine-tuned talent pushed past its narrative limits in pursuit of the “big” work. Baldwin claimed to be going after the sound of jazz musicians in his prose, but aside from some lingo on the order of “Some cat turned her on, and then he split,” the language is stale compared with his earlier works—or compared with the burnished eloquence of his next book, which shook the American rafters when it was published, in early 1963.
“The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin’s most celebrated work, is a pair of essays, totalling little more than a hundred pages. Some of these pages were written in Istanbul, but more significant is the fact that Baldwin had finally gone to Africa. And, after years of worry that the Africans would look down on him, or, worse, that he would look down on them, he had been accepted and impressed. The book also reveals a renewed closeness with his family, whose support now counterbalanced both his public performances and his private loneliness. Eagerly making up for his desertion, Baldwin was a munificent son and brother and a doting uncle, glorying in the role of paterfamilias: his brother David was his closest friend and aide; his sister Gloria managed his money; he bought a large house in Manhattan, well outside Harlem, for his mother and the rest of the clan to share. To hear him tell it, this is what he had intended ever since he’d left. A new and protective pride is evident in the brief introductory “Letter to My Nephew,” in which he assures the boy, his brother Wilmer’s son James, that he descends from “some of the greatest poets since Homer,” and quotes the words of a Negro spiritual; and in the longer essay, “Down at the Cross,” when he portrays the black children who had faced down mobs as “the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.” Although Baldwin writes once again of his childhood, his father, and his church, his central subject is the Black Muslim movement then terrifying white America.
With the fire of the title blazing ever nearer, Baldwin praised the truthfulness of Malcolm X but rejected the separatism and violence of the Muslim movement. He offered pity rather than hatred—pity in order to avoid hatred—to the racists who, he firmly believed, despised in blacks the very things they feared in themselves. And, seeking dignity as much as freedom, he counselled black people to desist from doing to others as had been done to them. Most important, Baldwin once again promised a way out: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
When did he stop believing it? No matter how many months he hid away in Istanbul or Paris, the sixties were inescapably Baldwin’s American decade. In the spring of 1963, thanks to his most recent and entirely unconventional best-seller, he appeared on the cover of Time. Although he insisted that he was a writer and not a public spokesman, he had nonetheless undertaken a lecture tour of the South for CORE and soon held a meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy; in August, he took part in the March on Washington. It was with the bombing of a Birmingham church barely two weeks later, and the death of four schoolgirls, that he began to voice doubt about the efficacy of nonviolence. The murder of his friend Medgar Evers, and the dangers and humiliations involved in working on a voter-registration drive in Selma, brought a new toughness to his writing: a new willingness to deal in white stereotypes, and a new regard for hate. (“You’re going to make yourself sick with hatred,” someone warns a young man in Baldwin’s 1964 play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.” “No, I’m not,” he replies, “I’m going to make myself well.”) It is ironic that Baldwin was dismissed by the new radical activists and attacked by Eldridge Cleaver as this change was taking place: in an essay titled “Notes on a Native Son,” in 1966, Cleaver did to Baldwin something like what Baldwin had done to Richard Wright, attacking him as a sycophant to whites and a traitor to his people. The new macho militants derided Baldwin’s homosexuality, even referring to him as Martin Luther Queen. But the end point for Baldwin was the murder of King, in 1968; after that, he confessed, “something has altered in me, something has gone away.”
In the era of the Black Panthers, he was politically obsolete. By the early seventies, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggested an article about Baldwin for Time, he found the magazine no longer interested. Far worse for Baldwin, he was also seen as artistically exhausted. On this, Zaborowska disagrees. In championing the “Turkish decade,” she attempts to defend some of Baldwin’s later, nearly forgotten works. She is right to speak up for “No Name in the Street,” a deeply troubled but erratically brilliant book-length essay, published in 1972 and described by Baldwin as being about “the life and death of what we call the civil rights movement.” (And which, during these years, he preferred to call a “slave rebellion.”) Unable to believe anymore that he or anyone else could “reach the conscience of a nation,” he embraced the Panthers as folk heroes, while resignedly turning the other cheek to Cleaver, whom he mildly excused for confusing him with “all those faggots, punks, and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit.” As Baldwin knew, hatred unleashed is not easy to control, and here he demonstrates the dire results of giving up the fight.
“No Name in the Street” is a disorderly book, both chronologically and emotionally chaotic; Zaborowska sees its lack of structure as deliberately “experimental,” and she may be right. At its core, Baldwin details his long and fruitless attempt to get a falsely accused friend out of prison; he looks back at the Southern experiences that he had reported on so coolly years before, and exposes the agony that he had felt. At the same time, he wants us to know how far he has come: there is ample mention of the Cadillac limousine and the cook-chauffeur and the private pool; he assures us that the sufferings of the world make even the Beverly Hills Hotel, for him, “another circle of Hell.” And he is undoubtedly suffering. He does his best to denounce Western culture in the terms of the day, as a “mask for power,” and insists that to be rid of Texaco and Coca-Cola one should be prepared to jettison Balzac and Shakespeare. Then, as though he had finally gone too far, he adds, “later, of course, one may welcome them back,” a loss of nerve that he immediately feels he has to justify: “Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it and some of the people in it.” Struggling to finish the book, Baldwin left Istanbul behind in 1971—the city was now as overfilled with distractions as Paris or New York—and bought a house in the South of France. The book’s concluding dateline, a glaring mixture of restlessness and pride, reads “New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, London, Istanbul, St. Paul de Vence, 1967-1971.”
t is difficult for even the most fervent advocate to defend “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” an oddly depthless novel about a famous black actor, which, on its publication, in 1968, appeared to finish Baldwin as a novelist in the minds of everyone but Baldwin, whose ambitions seemed only to grow. His next two novels, largely about family love, are mixed achievements: “If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974), the brief and affecting story of an unjustly imprisoned Harlem youth, is told from the surprising perspective of his pregnant teen-age girlfriend (who only occasionally sounds like James Baldwin); “Just Above My Head” (1979), a multi-generational melodrama, contains one unforgettable segment, nearly four hundred pages in, about a trio of young black men travelling through the South. There were still signs of the exceptional gift. But the intensity, the coruscating language, the tight coherence of that first novel—where had they gone? The answers to this often asked question have varied: he had stayed away too long, and become detached from his essential subject; he had been corrupted by fame, and the booze didn’t help; or, maybe, he could only really write about himself. Baldwin’s biographer and close friend David Leeming suggested to Baldwin, in the mid-sixties, that “the anarchic aspect” of his daily existence was interfering with his work. But the most widely credited accusation is that his political commitments had deprived him of the necessary concentration, and cost him his creative life.
The case is presented by another of Baldwin’s biographers, James Campbell, who states that in 1963 Baldwin “exchanged art for politics, the patient scrutiny for the hasty judgment, le mot juste for le mot fort,” and that as a result he “died a little death.” But isn’t it as likely that Baldwin’s dedication to the movement, starting back in the late fifties, allowed him to accomplish as much as he did? That the hope it occasioned helped him to push back a lifetime’s hatred and despair and, no less than the retreat to Paris or Istanbul, made it possible for him to write at all? It is important to note that the flaws of the later books are evident in “Another Country,” and even in “Giovanni’s Room,” both completed before he had marched a step. As for the roads not taken, among black writers who had similar choices: Richard Wright did not return to the United States and continued writing novels, in France, until his death, in 1960, yet his later books have been dismissed as major disappointments; Ralph Ellison took no part in the civil-rights movement, yet did not publish another novel after “Invisible Man.” Every talent has its terms, and, while Baldwin was in no ordinary sense a political writer, something in him required that he rise above himself. “How, indeed, would I be able to keep on working,” he worried, “if I could never be released from the prison of my egocentricity?” As Baldwin noted about his childhood, it may be that the things that helped him and the things that hurt him cannot be divorced.
The final years were often bitter. Campbell recalls Baldwin, in 1984, reading aloud from an essay about Harlem that he’d written in the forties, crying out after every catalogued indignity, “Nothing has changed!” He was already in failing health, and tremendously overworked. He had begun to teach—the conviviality and uplift seem to have filled the place of politics—while keeping to his usual hectic schedule; he saw no need to cut back on alcohol or cigarettes. Baldwin was only sixty-three when he died, of cancer, in 1987, at his house in France. He was in the midst of several projects: a novel that would have been, in part, about Istanbul; a triple biography of “Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin”; and, of all things, introductions to paperback editions of two novels by Richard Wright. But Baldwin’s final book was “The Price of the Ticket,” a thick volume of his collected essays, summing up nearly forty years, in which his faith in human possibility burns like a candle in the historical dark. The concluding essay, about the myths of masculinity, offers a plea for the recognition that “each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.”
It is shocking to realize that as early as 1951, and based on no evidence whatever, Baldwin saw that our “fantastic racial history” might ultimately be for the good. “Out of what has been our greatest shame,” he wrote in an essay, “we may be able to create one day our greatest opportunity.” He would have been eighty-four had he lived to see Barack Obama elected President. It is an event that he might have imagined more easily in his youth than in his age, but an event to which he surely contributed, through his essays and novels, his teaching and preaching, the outsized faith and energy that he spent so freely in so many ways. During his wanderings, Baldwin warned a friend who had urged him to settle down that “the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” It was, of course, impossible to make such a place alone. But, by the grace of those who have kept on working, as he put it, “to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life,” we have at last the beginnings of a country to which James Baldwin could come home.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

look back: from frieze's feminism issue in 2007

Feminism: Three Views

From Mexico to Egypt, Senegal to Columbia - examining approaches to feminist art-making

Jennifer Doyle
Author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006). She lives in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and, with Raquel Guttierez, is curating ‘Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility’ for the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center’s Advocate Gallery.

It’s a gorgeous day in December as I walk through the Plaza de la Conchita in Mexico City with the novelist Sarah Miller, the artist Niña Yhared (1814), and her partner, journalist Jorge Luis Berdeja. We pause before La Malinche’s home to talk about this over-determined figure in Mexican history. She was Hernán Cortés’ translator, the mother of his child and, over the centuries, has evolved into an ambivalent allegory for indigenous Mexico: a woman – a slave or a queen – who collaborated and conspired, infiltrated and undermined, or was raped and victimized, depending on the story one wants to tell. The direction of our conversation mirrors our meandering tour of their neighbourhood, the four of us talking about art and life, about economic pressures and impossible loves. Our stories about crazy affairs that leap across borders of class and country, about rosy years when rent is cheap and anything feels possible, intertwine.

Yhared (1814) – the date marks the death of the Marquis de Sade and is part of her name – runs an alternative, lo-fi performance venue, Casa de la Niña, from her home in the Coyoacán. For three years, she has played host to dozens of artists and their fans. Her performance work is quixotic and bittersweet – she dresses up as a mermaid and frolics in city fountains, she wanders into all-male cantinas and coaxes men to wear lipstick and dance with her. She has won awards for her erotic poetry and for her strange and sexy female nudes. Her work belongs to a particular genre of feminist art – a strain that reconfigures denigrated forms of popular culture (in her case the telenovela, the ballad, the sentimental, the soft-core erotic). Angela Carter once described this approach as ‘putting new wine into old bottles, so that the old bottles will explode’. It is a strategy that conspires, that seduces its audience with the opening lines of stories we know all too well, only to lead us into new territory – to expose and strip us of our expectations.

Listening to her talk, I am high with that feeling you get from meeting a new friend. Even as we stumble over our words (me in my halting and awkward Spanish, she in an alternately elegant and elementary English), we hum with the pleasure of feeling understood. When Yhared (1814) talks about her work organizing Casa de la Niña, her vocabulary is not that of a curator, but of a host. Running Casa de la Niña is, for her, an extension of her hospitality, a radicalization of what it means to be a host, to keep house.

There is a difference between curating Feminism, and being a feminist curator, and I wonder if Yhared (1814)’s sensibility draws the line between the two. A museum might put on a big show about feminist art, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a feminist museum, just as a magazine might commission a series of feminist essays without becoming a feminist publication. One can make Feminism the object of one’s work (as a scholar for example), and still not be much of a feminist in the world. The feminist curator, scholar or artist attempts to create a productive context within which we encounter art – a space to which one feels not invited, but welcome, a space to which one needs no invitation, that expands our sense of what art can do, rather than organizes art into discrete categories whose boundaries authorized experts then debate.

I land upon these thoughts as I struggle with the difficulty of writing about Feminism, as a feminist. My overwhelming urge at the start was negative – to tell stories about the eternal forgetting of Feminism – to address my own instinctive suspicion of institutional gestures in Feminism’s direction. Suddenly, when large museums give physical space to feminist art, everybody wants to talk about this thing which has been so much a part of some of our lives since the 1960s, but which, in the bigger picture, huge numbers of people merely tolerate.

While I’m glad the impetus is there for people to want to hear from feminists like me, the honest truth is this: a museum proudly trumpeting itself as the first institution to commit itself to Feminism by way of an exhibition raises more suspicion than excitement. This is why, I think, the opening of ‘WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution’ has sparked more cross-programming in Los Angeles than anyone can remember relative to any past exhibition. There are a lot of people who don’t trust LA MOCA, however good its intentions might be, to get things right. This is aggravated by the museum’s publicity stressing that this is the first show of its kind – which it isn’t. It is certainly the largest, and it has its own shape, but ‘WACK!’ is hardly the first survey of the feminist art movement in its variety. Such claims – ‘it’s the first! it’s the best! it’s the biggest!’ – are, of course, integral to the press release as a form, but the demands of that form (the demands of the market) unfortunately replicates the history of the erasure of feminist work by sidestepping over the fact that ten years ago, in 1996, the Hammer Museum – also in Los Angeles – hosted a major exhibit of feminist art, curated by Amelia Jones, called ‘Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History’, the terrific catalogue for which is all too predictably out of print. Feminists, though, are used to this sort of thing.

The mixed feelings provoked by ‘WACK!’ are likely to be true of any major public event around the subject. The women’s movement in the US and the feminist art movement itself have an intertwined and fraught history of exclusion – of racism, classism, homophobia. From many perspectives, large-scale interest in the feminist art movement is made possible by the whiteness of the women’s movement, the whiteness of much feminist art and even the whiteness of much feminist art history. The Feminism that wends its way up the food chain is usually pretty washed out – middle-class ‘corporate’ Feminism, ivy league Feminism, the Feminism of Naomi Wolf – consciousness-raising as self-empowerment – and not the Feminism of, say, Audre Lorde – who called for a Feminism grounded in noticing who’s been invited to the table, and who hasn’t; a Feminism of intervention, interruption; a Feminism of conspiracy – a revolutionary Feminism that works in collaboration with diverse revolutionary projects.

Events about Feminism are not often where we find the most interesting expressions of Feminism. My favourite feminist curator is probably the film-programmer Shari Frilot. In 2001 and 2002, Frilot coaxed the notoriously mainstream Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Outfest, into hosting a parallel program of experimental film and video, capped off by an 18-hour durational performance art event. Frilot drafted Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis to curate the latter. ‘Platinum Oasis’, as it was called, married the wacky ethos of a happening to the lazy sensuality of a bathhouse. Badass punk goddesses Kembra Pfhaler and Ann Magnuson headlined. People like Frilot inhabit institutional structures like Trojan horses, sneaking small armies of rebels into the city walls in the hope that they might wreak good havoc from within. (Another warrior: Lia Gangitano at Participant Inc. in New York.) People like this work everywhere – out of their houses, in the back of bars, and even with high profile museums (see, for example, Lois Keidan, Daniel Brine and Adrian Heathfield’s work on live art in the UK). They work like guerilla warriors – their productions are usually highly focused, lo-fi and mobile.
These are the feminists who, once they get a foot in the door, are likely to force it open and then hold it open so that others get through. They want to pull that door off its hinges. And then tear down the house. Radical hospitality in action.

Gilane Tawadros
An independent curator and writer. She was the founding Director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) in London. Last year, she curated the Brighton Photo Biennial 2006 and co-curated Alien Nation (ICA, London). She is the author of several books including Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation (inIVA, 2004). She lives and works in London.

‘I am an artist first and Indian second.’ These were the words of a celebrated British artist, quoted by a national newspaper some years ago. Whether or not the artist was quoted accurately, the article set out to distinguish between those artists for whom personal identity was paramount and those who privileged their professional identity as artists over any considerations of race, nationality or gender. It highlighted the dilemma faced by artists who resist having their work viewed, written about and contextualized purely in terms of their ethnic, national or sexual identity (or, in some instances, all three). The Faustian pact seemed to be: either deny that your identity informs your work in any way, or let your work be categorized uniquely in terms of your identity. For women artists, and particularly for those from non-Western or culturally diverse backgrounds, the urge to ‘fix’ their practice and view it through one particular lens has meant that their work is sometimes seen as being specific rather than universal, political as opposed to poetic. In reality, very few artists (if any) can separate their artistic practice from their identity – by which I mean their experiences, perceptions and values. The idea that an individual’s identity can be unravelled into a number of separate strands that can then be organized into a hierarchy of sub-identities is far removed from actual experience. Does Damien Hirst wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and decide that he is first of all male, secondly white and thirdly an artist?

In conversation with a British art critic, the artist Doris Salcedo was invited to identify the essential Colombian characteristics of her works. How could her works be ascribed to specific events in Colombia that she had witnessed? Which specific experiences had inspired particular pieces? The artist, as eloquent and economic with her words as she is with her sculptures, shifted uncomfortably in her seat and politely refused to confine discussion of her work to a particular geographical location or national experience. Had her interlocutor not been a woman, one could easily imagine her being asked to describe the essential feminine qualities of her practice. In 1996 Salcedo was invited to make a new piece of work as part of the exhibition ‘The Visible and the Invisible’ in St Pancras’ Church, London, curated by Zoe Shearman and Tom Trevor.1 While Louise Bourgeois populated the belfry with disturbing, decapitated bodies suspended from the ceiling, Salcedo selected a number of unassuming small alcoves, in which she placed a variety of single, discarded shoes, each one isolated in its space and veiled behind a screen of animal skin, stretched across the opening and stitched roughly around the aperture. The starting-point for Salcedo’s disturbing yet poetic installation may have been the countless individuals ‘disappeared’ in Colombia’s unofficial civil war, but the work movingly invoked the difficult and painful experience of bereavement and loss – at once personal and unique yet also anonymous and everyday.

Just as it would be simplistic and facile to attribute masculine characteristics to the heavy, metal sculpture of Anthony Caro, so it would be superficial to describe the work of women artists purely in terms of their feminine qualities. Some artists have, however, invoked the realm of the feminine or the domestic only to subvert their traditional associations: Ghada Amer in her pornographic images drawn and stitched on canvas; Mona Hatoum with her sinister domestic utensils magnified to gigantic proportions, as in La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 21) (The Large Grinder Mouli-Julienne x 21, 2000), or wired with live electric current, as in Homebound (2000), buzzing and shimmering as the charge ripples through the assemblage of household furniture and objects.

Re-examining the everyday and familiar in order to challenge our conventional understanding of the world has been an integral feature of Hatoum’s artistic practice. The passage through time and space from one location to another is frequently a precarious and dangerous one, whether in Hatoum’s solo performance piece Roadworks (1985), in which the artist walks painfully slowly one step at a time, her Dr. Martens boots tied together with string that impedes her every step, or The Light at the End (1989), an installation in which the viewer enters a darkened space and gropes unaided towards a light source in the distance and then recoils when the light source turns out to be a source of heat and possible danger, or Map (1999), in which a map of the world is laid out on the floor of the gallery space, the contours of each continent and land mass constructed from transparent glass marbles that together make up an unstable and dangerous topography.

The works of Salcedo, Amer and Hatoum are fitting altarpieces for our secular world. They evoke the equivocal and precarious times in which we live, poised delicately between the specific and the universal, the political and the poetic. As the artist Anne Tallentire recently observed, it is increasingly difficult to contemplate art works that make grand, definitive statements in a shifting world where ‘questions about the specifics of history and the present are so problematized… almost unthinkable’.2 Instead, Tallentire’s recent works have focused on the ‘small gestures of everyday life’ evoked so poignantly in ‘Drift: Diagram VII’ (2005), a series of video works filmed in the early hours of the morning in the square mile of London’s financial district and capturing everyday but largely unseen actions or ‘performances’ within the City: a man painting the lines along the kerb of the pavement; a woman polishing a corporate meeting table; a window-cleaner suspended high above the street and moving across the glass face of a building; a piece of paper that blows into the frame of the camera and blows away again. As the artist observes: ‘Incorporated into these small gestures of everyday life are other questions which are to do with what it means to move from one side of a space to another at a particular time, in a particular way, in a particular place. And so the questions about place and about how we navigate our way through the world, and the ethical position that we take […] are really urgent.’3

N’Goné Fall
A Senegalese architect, independent curator and consultant in cultural engineering. She was the editorial director of the Paris-based contemporary African art magazine Revue Noire from 1994 to 2001. Fall lives between Paris and Dakar.

At the fourth Dakar Biennale in Senegal in 2000, Tunisian artist Fatma Charfi and South African artist Berni Searle respectively won the Prize of the President and the Revelation Prize. The fact that two female artists were being rewarded for the first time at the dawn of the third millennium was seen as a sign of progress. But when the Congolese artist Michèle Magema received the Prize of the President with her video installation Oyé Oyé (2002) at the Dakar Biennale four years later, it was clear that times had changed: female artists from Africa were no longer onlookers producing decorative art for the bourgeoisie, but were probing and challenging contemporary society with a wide range of media and viewpoints. By the conceptual and aesthetic charge of their works they are questioning the masculine dominance of the visual arts. The message is clear: the silent African housewife is a myth.

Zimbabwean Berry Bickle belongs to the generation of artists who emerged in the stirring days of the early 1990s, when theoretical discourses about post-colonialism, cross-cultural identities and globalization began to question the western artistic monopoly. In her installations, videos and photographs, Bickle dissects the memory of mobility and how it impacts upon societies. Because of natural disasters, destitution, conquests and wars, the world’s populations have become more mobile than ever, depositing their loves, hates, doubts, fantasies and fears around the globe. As a result, concepts and ideas, received and transferred technologies, socio-cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs are in a constant state of flux. Hybridism, a consequence of migration, is an ongoing process shaping cultures. Technological advances have increased physical and virtual displacement, leading to a radical shift in our perceptions of time and space, thus questioning the borders of territories, where we belong to and who we are. The question implicit in Bickle’s work is whether human beings are a community of nomad aliens, a gathering of small personal stories building history. From the United Kingdom to Mozambique via Zimbabwe and South Africa, Bickle draws on her cultural heritage to transform mobility into a multi-faceted concept interconnecting communities. In Cidadão (Citizens, 2002), for instance, four large panels consisting of 48 photographs of silhouettes and feet in movement evoke an infinitude of physical and mental journeys.

There is a land between alienation and salvation, a silent grey zone where disturbing ghosts hunt down people’s hope and faith. Welcome to a country where corpses do not putrefy under the sun but are devoured by hordes of starving dogs. Welcome to a region long forgotten by tourist guides, a place that pops out of the dark to cynically declare: civil war, dead, genocide, dead, displaced, dead, camp for exiles, dead. The work of Congolese artist Bill Kouelany explores the absurd story of a war without a beginning and without an end, a war where official figures for collateral damages have been so underestimated that it is impossible to account for the human loss. In her paintings and installations, she explores the ruins of an exhausted country where the impact of bullets and houses smashed by shells have turned the capital, Brazzaville, into a sinister theatre. However, although she does not see herself as an activist, Kouelany has decided not to leave the city in order to document the unspeakable atrocities she has witnessed. The artist’s untitled 2005 installation, which was shown at the 2006 Dakar Biennale, reconstitutes the remains of a charred house – a metaphor for a devastated country, a devastated body, a devastated mind. The bricks fall apart like tattered skin and are covered by words that spew out frustration and disarray, denouncing the dramatic impact of personal decisions on a nation; words declaring how individuals are trapped in an uncontrollable mass hysteria. Kouelany clings onto words to avoid sinking into madness. In this regard, she is following in the footsteps of the Congolese writer, Tchicaya U Tam’si, who deconstructed the French language in order to talk about a hallucinated world. From literature to visual arts, a recurring question remains unanswered: who will pay for the countless childhoods immolated in broad daylight? Nobody. But Kouelany’s work and words remain to tell the story.

How do individuals deal with decisions beyond their control that have unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences on their existence? We might not be able to transform the world, but we can attempt to stay away from an insane context. One can be a female artist in a so-called Muslim country without being seen as a victim hugging the walls or hiding behind a veil. In her work, Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy often employs a female body as a vehicle leading to an inner journey, a receptacle that keeps alive memories and dreams. She explores the essence of memory as a guide, a container keeping its own track of experiences of life. In her video animation Tomorrow you will be killed (2006), an image of a female face is gradually covered with notes, drawings (including walls, a mouse, a pig, a hanging) and red ink, to a background accompaniment of electronic music that sounds like a warning. Kenawy probes the territory of time; time as a space preceding, during and following an act of violence. She expresses the feeling of a physical and psychological violence without referring to a specific event, leaving the viewer with the discomfort of a danger hovering overhead. This universe exists as a suspended land in which time has its own rhythm, independent of any external pressure – an unavoidable and uncanny rite of passage.

In Africa, the current generation of female artists is redefining the rules and codes of gender balance by shifting from the margins to the centre of the art scene with art works that do not aim to necessarily please the viewer. Their capacity to subvert our expectations forces the art community at large to rethink the way it looks at art produced by African women. If Bickle, Kouelany and Kenawy do not describe themselves as feminists – a western concept – they are guided by the simple principles of faith, self-confidence and commitment.

1 ‘The Visible and the Invisible: Re-presenting the Body in Contemporary Art and Society’ was a large-scale contemporary art project comprising a series of satellite exhibitions, installations and events occurring simultaneously in sites across Euston in central London. It was curated by Zoe Shearman and Tom Trevor and produced by the Institute of International Visual Art (inIVA).
2 Interview with Anne Tallentire (unpublished),
July 2006.
3 Ibid.

Jennifer Doyle, Gilane Tawadros and N’Goné Fall

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Repay historic debt to Haiti: An open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy

By Derrick O'Keefe
August 16, 2010 -- -- A Bastille Day hoax on the French government helped to expose the long history of extortion, betrayal and structural injustice that left Haiti so impoverished and vulnerable to devastation by the earthquake that claimed over a quarter of a million lives earlier this year.
Yes Men-inspired activists calling themselves the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti (CRIME) pulled off a fake announcement indicating that France would finally pay its historic debt. France was forced to deny that it was doing any such thing and threatened legal action against the activists. The action brought media attention, reminding journalists and the public of the historical context behind Haiti's immiseration.
On August 16, Libération published an open letter from social activists, politicians and academics from around the world making the point that the demand for France to pay restitution to Haiti is "unassailable". I hope this letter will circulate widely, keeping this story in the news and raising awareness of the real causes of Haiti's plight.

An open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy
The French government has indicated that it is pursuing possible legal action against the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti (CRIME) over a Yes Men-inspired announcement last Bastille Day pledging that France would pay Haiti restitution.
We believe the ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty would be far better served if, instead of pouring public resources into the prosecution of these pranksters, France were to start paying Haiti back for the 90 million gold francs that were extorted following Haitian independence.
This “independence debt,” which is today valued at well over the 17 billion euros pledged in the fake announcement last July 14, illegitimately forced a people who had won their independence in a successful slave revolt, to pay again for their freedom. Imposed under threat of military invasion and the restoration of slavery by French King Charles X, to compensate former colonial slave-owners for lost “property” (including the slaves who had won their freedom and independence when they defeated Napoleon’s armies), this indemnity burdened generations of Haitians with an illegitimate debt, which they were still paying right up until 1947.
France is not the only country that owes a debt to Haiti. After 1947, Haiti incurred debt to commercial banks and international financial institutions under the Duvalier dictatorships, who stole billions from the public treasury. The basic needs and development aspirations of generations of Haitians were sacrificed to pay back these debts. Granting Haiti the status of Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) and canceling part of the current debt only begins to reverse the financial damage done by these recent debts. More recently, in 2000, Inter-American Development Bank loans of $150 million for basic infrastructure were illegally blocked by the US government as a means of political pressure. This also did measurable economic and human damage. Each of these institutions and governments should be responsible for the harm they did to Haiti's society and economy.
In 2003, when the Haitian government demanded repayment of the money France had extorted from Haiti, the French government responded by helping to overthrow that government. Today, the French government responds to the same demand by CRIME by threatening legal action. These are inappropriate responses to a demand that is morally, economically, and legally unassailable. In light of the urgent financial need in the country in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, we urge you to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.

Monday, August 16, 2010

comic art propaganda

Fredrik Stromberg’s Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History examines the manipulative power of a medium all too often dismissed as mere superficial entertainment.

From WWII-era Batman and Superman raising war bonds to girl-power oriented manga and rare, Christianity-heavy Archie strips, the book’s collected images feature ideology-charged visual narratives that show a different platform for the art form. Though featured comics vary in subject from racism and religion to sex and drugs, the range of underlying messages is far more nuanced — and absurd — than the obvious “us versus them” subtext.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sun Ra lectures at UC Berkeley


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

taze taze/ ulus baker'in tezi

Bu inceleme toplumsal bilimlerle belgesel filmcilik arasında mümkün bir birleşmenin boyutlarını tartışıyor. Bunun ön şartlarından birinin hâlihazırdaki “kanaatler sosyolojisinin” bir eleştirisi olması gerektiğine inanıyoruz. Bu yalnızca sıradan toplumsal araştırma pratiğine yönelik bir eleştiri değil, yorumcu-epistemolojik tarza ve toplumbilimsel yaklaşımların “metin” ve “kanaat” etrafındaki epistemolojik düğümlenişine yönelik bir eleştiridir. Spinoza’nın “duygular öğretisi” bu noktada bizim için merkezi bir öneme sahip: duygular sosyolojisi kendi başına bir epistemik alan olmaktan çok, adanmış olduğu alanda bir praksis oluşturmaya çabalamalı. Bu praksisi nihai olarak Dziga Vertov’un sine-göz ve sine-hakikat yaklaşımında,çağdaş video alanında ise Jean-Luc Godard’ın videoyu bir “düşünme cihazına”dönüştürmeyi amaçlayan yaklaşımlarında görüyoruz.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

tasi topragi altin



1980’lerde dünya ekonomisinde yaşanan neoliberal değişim ve buna paralel olarak hız kazanan küreselleşme süreci, bütün dünya kentlerinde köklü bir değişimi beraberinde getirdi. Finans merkezli bu yeni ekonomik yapılanmanın kentsel alanları bir sermaye üretim aracı olarak görmesi sonucu gelişmekte olan ülkelerin kentleri bu süreçten derinlemesine etkilenmekte. Köklü bir planlama geleneğinin zaten olmadığı İstanbul’da, neoliberalizmin insan yerine kentsel rantı ön plana çıkartan yaklaşımı maalesef yöneticilerimiz tarafından şuursuzca uygulandı, herkes bu yağmada kendine bir pay kapma peşine düştü ve sonuçta ortaya insan yaşamını tehdit eden sorunlar yumağıyla debelenen 15 milyonluk bir megakondu çıktı.
Özellikle son 10 yılda, Dünya Bankası’nın raporlarında öngördüğü gibi İstanbul’un kimliği sanayi kentinden finans ve hizmet kentine dönüşüyor ve İstanbul diğer dünya kentleri ile bir yarışa soyunuyor. Bu yarış yabancı sermayeyi çekme yarışı. “Yatırım için en karlı kent burası” diye pazarlanıyor İstanbul. Bu “çekicilik” bir yandan sermayenin önünü açmayı, kentsel mekanların inşaasında kamusal yararı gözeten hukuksal denetimleri ortadan kaldırmayı hedeflerken, aynı zamanda buna paralel olarak kentin kullanıcılarında da bir değişimi öngörmekte. Kentin inşaasında ve bir sanayi merkezi olmasında alın teri olan emekçi kesimin, tüketici odaklı yeni finans ve hizmet kentinde yerleri yok. Peki nedir bu insanlar için öngörülen?
İşte “kentsel dönüşüm” denen olgu da tam burada devreye giriyor. Yeni kanunlarla eskiden tasavvur bile edilemeyecek yetkilerle donatılan TOKİ ve belediyeler, özel yatırımcılarla işbirliği içinde kentsel toprağı bu yeni “vizyona” doğru dönüştürmeye çabalıyorlar. Arkalarında ellerini kavuşturan uluslararası sermaye, ellerinde paftalar, kafalarında metrekareler, kat emsalleri, mahalleleri yıkıyorlar, gökdelenler dikiyorlar, otoyollar yapıyorlar, alışveriş merkezleri açıyorlar. Peki kime hizmet ediyor bu yeni mekanlar?
İstanbul’da gelir dağılımındaki uçurum gitgide mekana da yansıyor, mekansal ayrışmadan besleniyor. Bir tarafta varsıllar kendilerini güvenlikli sitelere, rezidanslara, plazalara kapatırken, diğer yandan kentin çeperlerinde insan deposu olarak tasarlanmış TOKİ konutlarında yeni yoksulluk döngüleri insanları çaresizliğe umutsuzluğa sürüklüyor. Peki gelecek kuşaklara bırakılan bu toplumsal mirasın sorumlusu kim?
Her yapılan otoyolun giderek kendi trafiğini yarattığı bilimsel gerçeğini görmezden gelerek yapılan tünellere, kavşaklara, viyadüklere milyarlarca lira çarçur edilirken, İstanbul 2010’da hala tek hatlı, topu topu 8 duraklı bir metro “ağı” ile yetinmek zorunda kalıyor. Toplu ulaşıma ve raylı ve alternatif ulaşım sistemlerine yeteri kadar kaynak ayrılmadığından, insanlar saatlerce trafikte eziyet çekiyor, milyarlarca liralık “zaman” egzoz dumanında uçup gidiyor. Peki yöneticilerimiz çözüm için ne yapıyorlar? Evet bildiniz: daha çok yol!
15 milyonluk bu kentte her şey o kadar hızlı değişiyor ki, plan yapmak için kentin bir fotoğrafını çekmek dahi mümkün olmuyor. Planlar daha yapılırken eskiyor. Tam bir kronik plansızlık hali. Bütün bunlar olurken nüfus artmaya devam ediyor, ve kent gelişigüzel bir şekilde yayılıp batıda Tekirdağ’a doğuda Kocaeli’ne dayanıyor. Peki İstanbul’un gerçekten bir planı var mı?
1980’de ilk metropolitan ölçekli İstanbul planı yapıldı. Plan raporunda kentin coğrafyasının en fazla 5 milyon nüfusu kaldırabileceği yazıyor. O zaman nüfus 3.5 milyon. Bugün İstanbul’un nüfusu 15 milyon. 15 sene sonra 23 milyon olacak. Yani coğrafyasının kaldırabileceğinin neredeyse 5 katı. İstanbul bugün Bolu’dan su çekiyor, öteki taraftan bütün Trakya’nın suyunu çekiyor. Kuzey ormanları gözle görünür bir şekilde tahrip olurken, 3. köprü projesi İstanbul’un kalan orman ve su havzalarını tehdit ediyor. İki yakayı birleştiren köprüler, yarattıkları rant alanları ile kentlileri birbirinden koparıyor. Peki ya İstanbullular olarak biz bu yağmaya karşı ne yapıyoruz? Kentler toplumun aynası ise, İstanbul’a bakarak kendi toplumumuz için ne diyebiliriz? Gelecek nesillere nasıl bir İstanbul bırakacağız?
Ekolojik eşikler aşılmış. Ekonomik eşikler aşılmış. Nüfus eşikleri aşılmış. Sosyal ahenk bozulmuş. İşte neoliberal kentleşmenin fotoğrafı: Ekümenopolis.
Ekümenopolis İstanbul’a bütüncül bir yaklaşımı amaçlıyor, değişim kadar, değişimin altındaki dinamikleri de sorguluyor. Bizi yıkılmış gecekondu mahallelerinden gökdelenlerin tepelerine, Marmaray’ın derinliklerinden 3. köprünün güzergahına, gayrimenkul yatırımcılarından kentsel muhalefete, bu uçsuz bucaksız kentte uzun bir yolculuğa çıkartıyor. Uzmanlar, akademisyenler, yazarlar, mahalleliler, yatırımcılar, kentliler ile konuşacak, kente makro ölçekte bir bakışı grafiklerle izleyeceksiniz. Belki de yaşadığınız İstanbul’u yeniden keşfedeceksiniz ve umarız ki değişime seyirci kalmayacak, onu sorgulayacaksınız. Sonuçta demokrasi bunu gerektirir.



The neoliberal transformation that swept through the world economy during the 1980’s, and along with it the globalization process that picked up speed, brought with it a deep transformation in cities all over the world. For this new finance-centered economic structure, urban land became a tool for capital accumulation, which had deep effects on major cities of developing countries. In Istanbul, which already lacked a tradition of principled planning, the administrators of the city blindly adopted the neoliberal approach that put financial gain ahead of people’s needs; everyone fought to get a piece of the loot; and the result is a megashantytown of 15 million struggling with mesh of life-threatening problems.
Especially in the past 10 years, as the World Bank foresaw in its reports, Istanbul has been changing from an industrial city to a finance and service-centered city, competing with other world cities for investment. Making Istanbul attractive for investors requires not only the abolishment of legal controls that look out for the public good, but also a parallel transformation of the users of the city. This means that the working class who actually built the city as an industrial center no longer have a place in the new consumption-centered finance and service city. So what is planned for these people?
This is where the “urban renewal” projects come into play. Armed with new powers never before imagined, TOKI (State Housing Administration), together with the municipalities and private investors, are trying to reshape the urban landscape in this new vision. With international capital behind them, land plans in their hands, square meters and building coefficients in their minds, they are demolishing neighborhoods, and instead building skyscrapers, highways and shopping malls. But who do these new spaces serve?
The huge gap between the rich and the poor in Istanbul is reflected more and more in the urban landscape, and at the same time feeds on the spatial segregation. While the rich isolate themselves in gated communities, residences and plazas; new poverty cycles born in social housing communities on the prifery of the city designed as human depots continue to push millions to desperation and hopelessness. So who is responsible for this social legacy that we are leaving for future generations?
While billions of dollars are wasted on new road tunnels, junctions, and viaducts with a complete disregard for the scientific fact that all new roads eventually create their own traffic, Istanbul in 2010 has to contend with a single-line eight-station metro “system”. Due to insufficient budget allocations for mass public transportation, rail and other alternative transport systems, millions of people are tormented in traffic, and billions of dollars worth of time go out the exhaust pipe. What do our administrators do? You guessed right: more roads!
Everything changes so fast in this city of 15 million that it is impossible to even take a snap-shot for planning. Plans are outdated even as they are being made. A chronic case of planlessness. Meanwhile, the population keeps increasing and the city expands uncontrollably pushing up against Tekirdağ in the east and Kocaeli in the west. But does Istanbul really have a plan?
In 1980 the first plan for Istanbul on a metropolitan scale was produced. In that plan report, it is noted that the topography and the geographic nature of the city would only support a maximum population of 5 million. At the time, Istanbul had 3.5 million people living in it. Now we are 15 million, and in 15 years we will be 23 million. Almost 5 times the sustainable size. Today we bring water to Istanbul from as far away as Bolu, and suck-up the entire water in Thrace, destroying the natural environment there. The northern forest areas disappear at a rapid pace, and the project for a 3rd bridge over the Bosphorous is threatening the remaining forests and water reservoirs giving life to Istanbul. The bridges that connect the two continents are segregating our society through the urban land speculation that they trigger. So what are we, the people of Istanbul, doing against this pillage? If cities are a reflection of the society, what can we say about ourselves by looking at Istanbul? What kind of city are we leaving behind for future generations?
Ecological limits have been surpassed. Economic limits have been surpassed. Population limits have been surpassed. Social cohesion has been lost. Here is the picture of neoliberal urbanism: Ecumenopolis.
Ecumenopolis aims for a holistic approach to Istanbul, questioning not only the transformation, but the dynamics behind it as well. From demolished shantytowns to the tops of skyscrapers, from the depths of Marmaray to the alternative routes of the 3rd bridge, from real estate investors to urban opposition, the film will take us on a long journey in this city without limits. We will speak with experts, academics, writers, investors, city-dwellers, and community leaders; and we will take a look at the city on a macro level through animated maps and graphics. Perhaps you will rediscover the city that you live in and we hope that you will not sit back and watch this transformation but question it. In the end this is what democracy requires of us.