Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Reckoning

         This past year’s reckoning against powerful men in the United States whose alleged abuses have been reported on nearly every day by the corporate media has made me reflect on a performance by artist Marina Abramovic done in 1974. Filmed on camera, she stood in a room for six hours and allowed the audience to do anything they wanted to do to her body without resistance. It was a piece that left me shaken. As the hours progressed the artist endured humiliation, torture and even near death as individuals, mostly men, cut off her clothes, groped her and even made her point a loaded gun at her neck.

Of the experience Abramovic observed:

“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”

The performance piece was a powerful display of the lengths human beings, particularly men, will go to degrade, violate and even mutilate other human beings, particularly women, whom they view as powerless or inferior. This had nothing to do with a harmless, consensual fetishism, it was about the ruthless and merciless patriarchal power that pervades our culture. And I found it to have even broader implications. On some level it exposed a latent animus on a micro-scale that echoes how most women and children are treated day in, day out largely throughout the global south thanks to a system of exploitation imposed by the global north. But it also speaks to the way industrial capitalism has long treated the living earth which is often portrayed as a mother and as “not fighting back” against her assailants

The West’s relationship with nature and the “wilds” has always been problematic at best. It has long been viewed as something to be feared, then conquered, then subdued and exploited. Where its pagan progenitors generally celebrated the divine feminine of Gaia, patriarchal Christian Europe mostly denigrated it. Feminine sexuality, often conflated with nature, was also painted in a fiendish way giving rise to puritanical repression, persecution and witch trials. Those women who allegedly “communed” with nature were cast in a diabolical light and were subjected to the most heinous forms of torture and execution imaginable. Then, thanks to the greed of the feudalistic elite and the industrial revolution, capitalism took this animus toward nature and women to another level: commodification.

I believe it was at this point when humanity started on its modern path toward a nihilistic psychological severance from the natural world. This is demonstrable by the compartmentalization of the biosphere by government and business entities as simply another category or issue of discussion. After centuries of conditioning by the moneyed powerful this disconnect has so deeply corrupted the collective psyche of the global north that to call it out is viewed as preposterous to most and heresy to many. Yet it underpins every societal problem from mass shootings and drug addiction, to racism and misogyny, to political corruption, genocide and war. Indeed, the commodification of the planet by the ownership class is an existential threat, rapidly unwinding the entire lifeweb on which we rely.

Abramovic’s performance art in 1974 stands as a striking example of our pathological culture of detachment in that it shows us how ordinary human beings are capable of depravity and violence when they spurn meaningful connection with the “other.” It also demonstrates how misogyny and sexism work as functions of this pathological detachment. But it is perhaps best understood as a prophetic warning for our species. As we enter headlong into the Sixth Mass Extinction, with biomass imperiled and global insect, bird, tree, coral and marine populations in a literal free fall, we do not have the luxury of ignoring our role in this violence anymore. As long as this paradigm persists there will be no substantive change in time to matter to our species or others in any consequential manner. Like Abramovic, the earth herself continues to be molested and desecrated before our eyes by wealthy and powerful men. As a testament to the sickness of our age they commit most of their acts of violence, pillage and rape under full protection of the law. But their hubris and folly will not prevent her fighting back. And without a doubt, her reckoning will be like nothing any of us could ever imagine.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

*Writers note: I want to distinguish between the observations and impressions gleaned from Abramovic’s artistic performance “Rhythm 0” (1974) and its societal and ecological implications, and adult, consensual relationships and activities within the BDSM community. Equating the two is not in any way intended as I understand, value and appreciate the diversity and fluidity of human sexuality.

 

An interview with Marina Abramovic about“Rhythm 0” (1974):

On Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Capitalism

“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.” ~ Publius Terentius Afer, Roman playwright  (195/185 – c. 159 BC)
Recently, I’ve seen the topic of identity politics coming up in certain forums. Without a doubt this is commonly misunderstood concept that has been deliberately manipulated for political reasons. But the so-called “alt-right” (see far right, white supremacists) have seized on this confusion with a vengeance. Even some on the left have decried its influence because to them it serves as a distraction and undermines the importance of fighting classist exploitation under late stage capitalism. It should not come as a surprise that many of them are white, heterosexual men with Christian European ancestry who have never experienced oppression, systemic discrimination or state violence based on their skin pigment, gender, religious expression, sexual orientation, disability, language or ethnicity. As a white man myself I concede that this is indeed a luxury most of the planet does not enjoy.
          Human beings are not a mono-crop. We have personal and shared identities based on how we look, speak, act, who we love, how we worship (if we choose to worship) and from our experiences of being different from the dominant group in our society. And it is undeniable that many are mercilessly persecuted for those differences. While it is undoubtedly true that cynical political operatives of the American Democratic Party use identity to curry support and distract from the oppressive economic structure of capitalism, it does not make the reality of white supremacy, patriarchy or oppression based solely upon identity, any less true.
          Racism and sexism, for example, are existential realities faced by the vast majority of humans on the planet every single day. Women endure the most violence of any group and while it must be understood that there is no such thing as “race” in a biological sense, there is indeed such a thing as racism. And both forms of oppression work in similar ways, through violence, loss of status, and coercion or the threat of these things. These forms of oppression predate capitalism, but as a descendant of colonialism it makes them an easy fit for an economic model which places human beings (and other species for that matter) into categories of hierarchy and class for easy exploitation. So it is undeniable that since capitalism is the dominant economic and political global order it is also the primary engine for persecution, discrimination and even genocide against the oppressed in the world today.
           It should therefore go without saying that capitalism is at the root of the problem, but even given this truth or that identity is cynically manipulated by certain political parties, it does not make the reality of oppression based upon ones identity any less real or existentially threatening. I believe anarchists, radicals and socialists offer the best solution to these monstrous problems, but not if they dismiss, ridicule or deny the existence of identity within the human species or the brutal persecution people face because of them. Recognizing ones own privilege and extending solidarity to oppressed, marginalized or disenfranchised people is not a distraction from the struggle against capitalism. On the contrary. It offers us the best bridge toward societal transformation that no stale ideology could even dream of.
Kenn Orphan  2017
Title image is “Capitalism and Racism” by Paul Domenick.

100 Years Later, to Move Beyond Our Chains

This year is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution which brought about the USSR and as usual I’ve seen the same banal hit pieces and smug denunciations of Marxism bandied about on social media that I do every year around this time. “Communism failed, just look at the Soviet Union.”
          Of course nothing is said about the horror that Russia was for most of its people under Czarist dictatorship for three centuries. Or that after the Czar was jettisoned the new coalition had to cope with their legacy of crushing poverty, illiteracy and famine. Or that they had to deal with the onslaught of foreign invasions, embargoes, blockades by the far wealthier empires of Europe and the US, and lost over 20 million people thanks to Nazi barbarism. Or that despite all of this they managed to become a super power in just a matter of decades.
This kind of thing is unsurprising to many of us. After all, poor and obtuse analysis of historical movements are a dime a dozen, particularly in the US where the public discourse is tightly managed and capitalism has been elevated to religious status. But I’ve noticed something different of late. The arguments aren’t flying as much as they used to except in elitist circles.
          Maybe this is due to greater awareness of how capitalism ultimately always benefits the .01% to the detriment of the rest of us, and that now a mere handful of men own as much wealth as half of all humanity on earth. Maybe it is because more people are realizing their enslavement under a system of perpetual credit debt, student loans, healthcare costs and a brutalizing judicial and police state which is all too eager to crush dissent. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that the biosphere has been brought to the brink of destruction thanks to the rampant greed of corporations which commit ecocide with impunity.
Whatever the reason might be it is, nonetheless, refreshing. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” I would only add that sometimes the forces of history compel us to move and that we should be grateful when this happens in a manner that shows us both our power and agency at once.
          Soviet Russia was a long, painful experiment in socio-economic justice that was far from perfect. In fact many pages of this legacy were undeniably written with the cruel ink of totalitarianism, including a bloody counter-revolution that undid much of the progress made by the early soviets. But it gave us a glimpse into the potential of ordinary people to be agents of societal and civilisational change. If there is anything we can glean from this remembrance 100 years later is that when the oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised unite in solidarity against tyranny they are far more powerful than the powers that be would ever want them to realize.
Kenn Orphan  2017

(Title artwork for this essay isThe Bolshevik,” 1920, by Boris KustodievOil on canvas. 101 x 140.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The Scream of Canadian Colonialism

           The title of Kent Monkman’s painting, “The Scream,” is appropriate to the experiences of First Nations people across Canada who continue to suffer from ethnic cleansing, the erasure of cultural identity, and ecological and economic disenfranchisement. The painting depicts the forced removal and displacement of indigenous children from their homes by the Church with the assistance of the federal government. For decades First Nations children were abducted from their homes and placed in residential schools where they were compelled to reject their culture and language and suffered horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Monkman, who is of Irish and Cree ancestry, was able to capture this horror in living colour on canvas. He said of this and related works:
          “Canada’s 150 years old—what does that mean for the First People? When I thought about it, I thought it includes the worst period, because it goes all the way back to the signing of the treaties, the beginning of the reserve system, this legacy of incarceration, residential schools, sickness, the removal of children in the ’60s, missing and murdered women.”

            The tragic history of colonialism in Canada is, arguably, a vastly under studied and addressed atrocity. But its legacy endures to this day even under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has been slow to address abysmal access to clean drinking water, crushing poverty, suicide, substance abuse and violence against Aboriginal girls and women. His government has also greenlighted ecologically destructive pipeline projects over indigenous lands. Kent Monkman’s paintings implore us to shine a light of truth on this veiled history, understanding that if we do not do this the crime of colonialism will only continue.

Kenn Orphan  2017

For more information on Kent Monkman’s paintings please visit his web page:  http://www.kentmonkman.com/