Ambiguities of the Work Ethic: Anime and the spirit of capitalism

I haven’t updated in a while, and while people are partying below my apartment and I can’t concentrate of studying, I might as well do it now.

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(the following text features some spoilers of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo and Bakuman)

I

I have a love-hate relationship with the Japanese work ethic. Don’t get me wrong. I know next to nothing about the reality of the Japanese working life, but as far as one can observe ideology in its purest in TV productions, the Japanese work ethic appears to be quite the extreme form of ideology. It is impossible not to be familiar with it if you’ve been watching anime, where it is repeated endlessly as the carrying thematic of the show. It doesn’t even seem to matter what genre we’re talking about. It’s everywhere. From sports anime to slice-of-life to even yaoi (the characters in Sekai-ichi Hatsukoi burn themselves up trying to meet deadlines in their shoujo manga editor office).

Why do I have a love-hate relationship to the propagating of hard work, discipline, dedication and self-improvement? Is this not opposed to the lazy consumerism so characteristic of our late capitalist societies? Better dedicate your life to your own benefit, self-improvement and success than to go with the drift and lead your life as an apathetic consumer. Better to choose your own life, work hard to achieve your goals and take responsibility for your actions, than to resign to a passive lifestyle, devoid of any initiative of your own. Is it not impossible to achieve happiness without putting some effort into it?

And why not? Take Karl Marx who, far from condemning labour as such as a form of alienation produced by capitalism, actually saw labour as a form of self-expression and freedom. It is only in capitalism and other historical forms of production where labour appears as alienated, as external labour forced on the working subject. The names of these forms of alienated labour are slave-labour, serf-labour and, most recently in capitalism, wage-labour. Curiously, Marx characterizes free labour as hard work in Grundrisse: “Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.”

Anyone who has seen anime such as Chihayafuru, Bakuman or even the slice-of-life comedy-drama Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo knows exactly what Marx’s sentence is about. In all of these shows the protagonists are fully dedicated to achieving their goals in whatever field they’re working. In Chihayafuru we have a high school girl, Chihaya, aiming to be the best karuta player in Japan (and the world, as the game is barely played competitively elsewhere). Although the series plays heavily with themes of team work and friendship, even hinting towards romance, it all comes down to karuta, to which everything about Chihaya’s life is subordinated. Even her personal relationships are somehow entangled in her pursuit to become to best karuta player in the world.

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Chihaya from Chihayafuru

In Bakuman the protagonists choose to purify their life of any content other than writing manga at the age of 14 in the hopes of one day achieving enough commercial success to have one of their manga turned into an anime. Ofcourse, as the show is a shonen series, the protagonist is awarded with a cute girl in the end should he finally achieve his goal. It would be wrong to say that all the bullshit about writing manga somehow worked as a plot device, a screen to cover the basic plot of producing a romantic couple in the end. On the contrary, halfway through the series the protagonist is actually forced to make a choice between writing manga and the girl – and he chooses the former.

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Mashiro from Bakuman

In Sakurasou we have a bunch of extraordinary high school students living in the same dorm. They are each young geniuses of their fields, such as painting, animation and programming. The protagonist, as usual, is depicted as a rather ordinary guy tossed in the middle of these peculiar characters. As the story unfolds our protagonist, observing his friends with both awe and envy, decides to put an end to the aimlessness of his life and dedicate his efforts to becoming a game developer. Curiously, the show features some controversial topics (controversial from the perspective of the value of individual efforts): what point is there in working hard when you just don’t have the same level of natural talent as others?

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The weirdos of the Sakurasou dorm of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo

What appears to be pure madness on the outside, is something totally other on the inside. What appears as self-abusive discipline and exhausting hard work is, from the point of view of the characters themselves, the freest form of self-expression. How else to interpret the occasional moments of euphoria Chihaya goes through in her most intense karuta matches? How else to understand the hilariously exaggerated cheers expressed by the characters of Bakuman when their manga chapters get high ratings? Only in Sakurasou are there excessive feelings of defeat, namely when the protag’s game idea gets rejected by the company he applied to and when the girl wanting to become a voice actress fails her audition. However, these issues get resolved in the end and the characters remain as dedicated to their goals as ever.

II

But don’t we actually reach a kind of self-criticism in Sakurasou when the protag gets the letter of rejection, proving to him that all his hard work has been in vain? To rub some salt into his wounds, the company sent a letter to one of his friends in the dorm, who helped him by drawing some pictures for his presentations, offering her work as an illustrator. The girl, a natural talent and genius painter, got noticed by a mere coincidence while the protagonist, in spite of all the work he had put into his game idea and presentations, got rejected. Does this not go against the ideal basis of the work ethic, that you can achieve everything if you just work hard enough? Isn’t it unfair that someone, who does not really even try, gets all the fame while you work your ass off without any prize?

This same theme was played in another peculiar anime series Hyouka. There’s a segment, or a side-plot, on a girl who draws manga and puts all her heart into her work. But, unlike in Bakuman where this dedication is rewarded, she only seems to be capable of producing mediocre works. Why is this a problem? Not only because she’s disappointed in herself but also because the author of her favorite doujinshi, which she describes as a masterpiece, was actually written on a whim by an amateur. How is it fair that she, who actually puts feeling and effort into her work, is of average capability while someone, who dosn’t seriously even care about manga, is capable of producing such a beautiful piece of work?

What this shows is that the work ethic, based on hard work and equal opportunities of success alone, actually rests on natural inequality between various levels of natural talent. Thus all the hard work put into achieving one’s goals become devalued and the feelings of despair, caused by failure, justified. The imposition of work ethic on individuals appears here as an oppressive command, an impossible demand, which puts an enormous mental strain on its subjects. However, far from being subversive of the ideology of work ethic, I think this possibility of failure serves the polar opposite end: failure is a part of the work ethic itself. The important thing is not to succeed but to try your best, to get back on in the wagon if you fall. This is how the feelings of despair after failure are usually resolved in anime. The characters go through a period of crushing defeat only to rise again stronger and even more dedicated to their goals, like a phoenix from the ashes.

Is this then liberating? It is demanded of you to choose your goals and work hard to achieve them but, on the other hand, it is also okay if you fail, for you can always try again, better and stronger. So where’s the problem? I claim the impossible demand imposed on the working subject is inscribed twice in the work ethic: you are not only demanded to set impossible goals for yourself, but also you’re not allowed to resign, to reject this command to work to exhaustion to achieve impossible goals, if you fail. Whether you keep working hard towards your goals with success or whether you fail, you are always guilty. It is precisely this demand never to resign, never to accept defeat, that puts the mental strain on the working subject.

The gesture proper here would be not to celebrate despair but to reject the demand itself. Renata Salecl provides the best formula to do this in her work on the ideology of choice. As she points out in this brilliant little animated lecture, the work ethic that celebrates individual achievement and responsibility is inscribed in the spirit of today’s capitalism. What this means is that the defeats experienced by working people are always experienced as caused by the individual him or herself, not as caused by external social forces outside the individual’s control. So, if you get fired you blame yourself, not the company that fired you. Another example comes from David Harvey who points out in one of his speeches that the people evicted from their homes during the mortgage crisis blamed themselves, not the speculative financial sector or the capitalist system actually responsible for the evictions.

III

And here we get back to Marx again. As we saw above, Marx celebrates hard work but only when it’s free labour as opposed to alienated labour. On the next page Marx lays down the conditions of free labour: “The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject, which appears in the production process not in a merely natural, spontaneous form, but as an activity regulating all the forces of nature.” What Marx is saying here is that, in order to be free, labour has to set its own conditions of work, to choose its own character etc., and not be merely externally forced on the working subject for purposes independent of him (as in slave-labour). This is the ideal of the anime above. Chihaya is not playing karuta in order to fulfill someone else’s desires or purely in order to make a living, she is doing it for her own sake, she’s the one who posited it for herself.

I will close with a critique of Bakuman, which is ofcourse not so much a critique of the series itself but the ideology of work ethic it propagates. As mentioned above, Marx characterizes wage-labour as a form of alienated (not free) labour. In capitalism, according to Marx, workers enter into wage-labour not to express their individuality freely but to earn a living, as they are forced to do. Alienation is then the violent separation of the unity of the worker and his work. The worker’s labour capacity is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold in the labour market, all of which has very little to do with the worker’s own wishes and desires or the content of the work. What we have in Bakuman is the impossible combination of the two: capitalism without alienation.

How is this achieved? Bakuman aims to combine the work ethic of free labour with the capitalist logic of private profits. On the one hand our protagonists are on their own personal journey to become professional mangaka, during the course of which their labour capacity is put to a serious test as they work literally to exhaustion. None of this matters, ofcourse, as it is merely a condition of their freedom. And do they not get what they wanted in the end when their manga finally gets turned into an anime? Subordinating almost everything in their lives to write a successfull manga finally proves worth it.

On the other hand the show obeys a purely commercial logic: the scene consists of a bunch of individuals working for a private company. Not only do they dedicate their lives to producing the best-selling product (literally – the most excitement we get from the show is from achieving high popularity ratings in consumer surveys), they also meet each other as equal competitors in the market, motivating each other in a friendly rival-like way, like loyal followers of Adam Smith. While these people happily work themselves to death in very precarious working conditions (their ratings could drop down any moment) the company reaps profits from their work.

In this fantastic utopian vision of the coexistence of capitalism and the work ethic of free labour there is no sight of the structural inequality existing in this kind of ruthless competition. Jodi Dean has crystallized the problem in her book The Communist Horizon. She describes how capitalism exploits our commons through competition:

Now, rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and increasing number of fields, people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay.

From the field of competitors “the one” emerges and he or she is the only one earning an income. The question is, ofcourse, what happens to the losers? And moreover, what the do with the problem that there will always be a vast number of these losers per each winner? Incredibly enough, there are some depictions of these losers in Bakuman. The protagonist’s uncle actually worked himself to death, literally, as the ratings of his manga dropped, but even this was somehow subsumed under the glories of hard work and dreams of success.

What’s the lesson of this all? If a society commanding you to succeed in your career, economic and social life, at the same time suspends your opportunities, perhaps it would only be rational for you to choose not to participate, to isolate yourself from the society, to turn into a social recluse? Or alternatively you could choose the route proposed by Salecl: instead of dedicating your hard work to reach an impossible goal, perhaps political resistance and social critique would be a better channel into which to pour your efforts?

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On value and price in Marx’s Grundrisse

I am currently reading Grundrisse, a manuscript compiled of 7 notebooks, where Marx lays down the outlines of his critique of political economy, i. e. Capital. It is simultaneously a tedious and stimulating read. Tedious, because of the sketchiness and incompleteness of the material. Stimulating, because sometimes you can actually follow Marx’s line of thought in its creative process.

In my previous post I made some comments on Kolakowski’s three-volume work on marxism. As I pointed out, he keeps shooting down marxists one after another. Although his criticisms tend to be more philosophical than economic, he does seem to side with those economists who have criticized Marx’s theory of value. The criticism goes as follows: according to Marx, commodities have an exchange-value, which is expressed in their price. However, as a rule, the price of a commodity does not match with its actual exchange-value, that is, it is either higher or lower than the actual exchange-value of the commodity. (The exchange-value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary amount of labour time it takes to produce the commodity) This seems intuitively easy to grasp: take, for example, that moment when you realize you’ve spent a lot of money on a commodity that you realize was not really worth it afterall. The price you paid did not correspond to the actual worth of the item.

However, the fact that exchange-value and price are thus separated leads to a curious problem: how is it possible for us to empirically measure exchange-value? If prices differ, by a rule, from the actual exchange-value it appears that it is impossible to get to exchange-value as such. Beside the problem of measurability it also seems that we don’t even need the postulate such a “metaphysical” entity as an exchange-value into a commodity. All we need to do is to study the fluctuation of prices and changes in supply and demand. Exchange-value, a theoretical postulate beyond the reach of empirical science, becomes completely redundant.

So what’s the relation between exchange-value and prices? Zizek makes some nice observations in his Living in the End Times. His discussion of the labour theory of value leads him, if I remember correctly (too lazy to walk 1½ meters to my bookshelf to check), to formulate exchange-value as nothing but the fluctuation of prices. Prices are not just some kind of labels, which fluctuate around the actual exchange-value of a commodity, as if it was some metaphysical property. Rather, the fluctuation of prices constitutes the exchange-value of a commodity. To borrow another one of Zizek’s examples, it’s like a search which generates its own object. Prices do indeed tend to gravitate towards the actual exchange-value of the commodity, they, as it were, “search” for it, except that the searched for object, exchange-value, is generated by the search itself. To repeat once again: exchange-value is nothing but the fluctuation of prices towards an “equilibrium”.

I was reminded of this today when I read the following passage from Grundrisse:

Price therefore is distinguished from value not only as the nominal from the real; not only by way of the denomination in gold and silver, but because the latter appears as the law of the motions which the former runs through. But the two are constantly different and never balance out, or balance only coincidentally and exceptionally. The price of a commodity constantly stands above or below the value of the commodity, and the value of the commodity itself exists only in this up-and-down movement of commodity prices.

So, exchange-value is not a metaphysical property of commodities but the “law of the motions” of prices; it exists only in the “up-and-down movement” of prices. That is, we don’t first have a metaphysical property of commodities called exchange-value, which is then represented by price tags, which either correspond to the actual exchange-value or don’t (in which case the commodity could be said to be over- or underpriced). No, if you take away the fluctuation of prices, you lose exchange-value itself.

Leszek Kolakowski: a critique of everything Marxist ever

After something like 1½ years I’ve finally finished reading this tome. “Reading” is an understatement though as the reading process consisted of underlining and re-readings of every chapter. The book, as the name already tells, is a comprehensive study of marxism from the historic origins of the philosophy of the dialectic to the philosophy of Marx and Engels themselves, from the writings of socialists before and after Marx to the era of “de-stalinization” triggered by the death of Stalin.

The book is not only a survey of marxist thinkers but also a critical engagement with them. Nobody is spared of criticism. The most fierce attacks are targeted towards orthodox marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, marxism-leninism, stalinism and the apologists of the official state philosophy of communist totalitarianism. Trotsky, the commonly celebrated dissident, receives very cold treatment from the author. Neither Marx nor Engels are spared either. Kolakowski does not treat stalinism as a distortion of marxism but as a legitimate offshoot of it. Nor, obviously, does he treat stalinism as a distortion of leninism. On the contrary, stalinism, according to Kolakowski, was merely the logical continuation of leninism. The book also concludes with a critical examination of maoism.

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As already said, Kolakowski treats stalinism as a continuation of leninism. It was already Lenin who formulated the basis of the official Soviet doctrine and the philosophical foundation of the communist party. I do not go into the question of dialectical materialism as formulated by Lenin and later Stalin. It is sufficient to say that the doctrine is intellectually very poor (Take, for example, the claim that the dialectic means that all phenomena are interrelated. As Kolakowski rightly points out, this is an obvious truism and provides no guide for actual analysis, the point of which is not to take into account all possible interrelations but to pick out the most important ones.) What’s interesting here is Lenin’s idea of the communist party.

Kolakowski argues as follows. According to Lenin, the communist party is representative of the proletariat and, therefore, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is directly embedded in party rule. The party represents the proletariat – and this is very important for Kolakowski’s critique – not by it being selected by or consisting of actual workers but by professing the marxist ideology. All sorts of paradoxical things follow from this assertion, the most obnoxious one being that even if all actual workers opposed the party it would still be representative of the proletariat due to its marxist outlook. Consequently, from the leninist point of view, it is impossible for the party to act against proletarian interests for example by exploiting workers. The party exerts the dictatorship of the proletariat and it would be a contradiction in terms to assert that the party is exploiting workers for it is impossible for proletarians to exploit themselves.

The repression of democratic liberties was also triggered by Lenin. As the success of the party, directly embodying the dictatorship of the proletariat, was grounded in the historical necessity of communism and as the ideal of social unity was achieved in the authoritarian rule of the party, there was clearly no question of allowing multiple political interests to compete for power. Freedom of speech was a bourgeois invention and, as such, was harmful to the communist project of the proletariat, i.e. the communist party. There was also no need for an independent legal institution to mediate between individual citizens and the state. As marxist analysis has shown, the law merely serves class interests, namely the bourgeoisie, and, accordingly, it is to be abolished when the communists take over. As for foreign relations, because war and conflict are, in the last resort, conflicts between two classes, it is obvious that the side representing the proletariat ought to be supported. Therefore, whatever the foreign policy of the Soviet Russia, it is always right because the Soviet Russia is a proletarian state.

Kolakowski makes some very interesting observations, echoing those of Zizek, about the functions of the marxist ideology in the Soviet Russia. It was clear from the very beginning that the doctrine could be molded to suit whatever interests the rulers might wish. Thus, in due time, the doctrine became to be devoid of any substantial content. Thus it could be used to legitimize any policy conducted by the authorities. But, as Kolakowski notes, this was well known among the citizens of the Soviet Russia. Nobody believed in the ideology but, paradoxically, everybody still rehearsed it ritualistically. Consequently the most dangerous dissidents for the party were not those who criticized marxism but those who took it seriously. If you really believed in the marxist doctrine you would soon become to realize the contradiction between the actual state of things and what the ideology is telling you. A state whose rule is legitimized by marxism is especially vulnerable to marxist ideological criticism as was later proved by the effectiveness of the “revisionist” critics in undermining the Soviet rule after Stalin’s death.

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But the horrors of stalinism are not only derived from Lenin but they also have a basis in Marx himself. I’ll quote Kolakowski himself:

It was possible to argue as follows: according to Marx, all social antagonisms were based on class conflicts. When private ownership of the means of the production was abolished, there would be no more classes and no social conflict except that due to lingering resistance of the possessing classes. Marx envisaged that there would be no ‘mediacy’ in socialist society: this meant, in practical terms, the abolition of the liberal bourgeois separation of powers and the unification of the legislature, executive, and judiciary. Marx also envisaged the disappearance of the ‘national principle’: so any tendency to cultivate national separateness and national culture must be a survival of capitalism. Marx had declared that the state and civil society would become identical. Since the existing civil society was a bourgeois one, the simplest way to interpret this was by the complete absorption of civil society into the new state, which was by definition a working-class state ruled by the party that professed Marxism, the proletarian ideology […] As, by definition, the proletariat’s aspirations were embodied in the proletarian state, those who failed in any way to conform to the new unity deserved destruction as survivals of bourgeois society.

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For if, as Engels taught, the freest society is that which has the most control over the conditions of its life, it is not a gross distortion of the theory to infer that society will be free in proportion as it is governed more despotically and subjected to more numerous regulations. Since, according to Marx, socialism deposes objective economic laws and enables men to control the conditions of their lives, it is easy to infer that a socialist society can do anything it likes-i.e. that the people’s will, or the will of the revolutionary party, can ignore economic laws and, by its own creative initiative, manipulate the elements of economic life in any way it pleases […] Under socialism economic failure can only be seen as due to the ill-will of the governed, which in turn must be an effect of resistance by the possessing classes.

The point of this analysis is not that marxism, by some logical or historical necessity, can only develop into communist totalitarianism of the Soviet style. Kolakowski’s point is that the vagueness of Marx and Engels themselves provide for many possible interpretations, of which stalinism is one. Therefore stalinism is not a distortion of marxist theory but it is logically consistent with it. Perhaps this should serve as a warning against abstract utopias or the principled refusal to even think about the “blueprint” of the future society after the abolishment of capitalism?

III

The philosophical crime that Kolakowski detects in marxism is the idea of the unity of theory and practice, best exemplified in the philosophy of György Lukács. Marxist theory is meant by Marx to be not only a description of the world but also an act of changing it. Thus understanding the world coincides with the act or will to change it. There is no difference between theory and practice in this way. It should be noted that this is not how the official state doctrine of the Soviet Russia thought about marxism. According to the “scientific socialism” of Marxism-Leninism marxism is an objective scientific theory of the capitalist society and the historical necessity of communism, which is to replace capitalism. The communist party is in possession of this objective scientific truth of marxism and merely rides the train of history headed towards the communist utopia.

The idea of the unity of theory and practice is supposed to put an end to the dilemma of kantian marxists of how obligation is to be derived from empirical facts. The problem of kantian marxists was the question of how the communist utopia should be ethically grounded. “Historical necessity” alone is not enough because it does not explain why we should desire communism. The genius of Marx and Lukács was to combine the objective historical process with the revolutionary will of the proletariat. How is this done? According to Lukács, “totality” is a key concept in marxist dialectical analysis. Particular facts do not interpret themselves, their meaning can only be understood in relation to the whole of which they are a part. The whole is not a static state of affairs but a dynamic and temporal process, which means that its particular elements are to interpreted in the light of not only the past and the present but also the future. The totality in question here is ofcourse the totality of capitalism. What Lukács is implying here is that social analysis proper should relate every particular phenomenon to the whole of capitalism.

Moreover, the dialectic is not a theoretical model to be applied to this or that phenomenon but an active constituent of the social reality to which it is applied as a method. To quote Kolakowski: “It is the expression of history ripening towards the final transformation, and is also the theoretical consciousness of the social agent, namely the proletariat, by which that transformation is to be brought about.” Marxism is therefore self-awareness of the proletariat in its practical struggle for communism. The proletariat is in a peculiar privileged epistemological position: only the proletariat, according to Lukács, is able to perceive the “whole” in particular facts or phenomena. Only the proletariat is able to comprehend capitalism as a whole and is thus able to transform the society as a whole by overthrowing capitalism and establishing communism.

Kolakowski has many problems with this philosophy of the unity of theory and practice. First, when Lukács is talking about the proletariat he is not talking about the actual mass of workers but the proletariat of marxist theory. Lukács even says that, as a rule, there must be a gap between the “theoretical” consciousness of the proletariat and the “actual” consciousness of the proletariat. The latter will never achieve the former, which means that there has to be a mediating force between the actual proletariat and the historical process towards communism. This mediating force is ofcourse the communist party, which embodies the true consciousness of the proletariat and leads the revolutionary struggle. Second, the epistemologically privileged status of the proletariat shields the party from any criticism. Due to the fact that the communist party, embodying the proletarian consciousness by professing the marxist ideology, is the only social agent capable of comprehending capitalism and the historical process as a whole, it follows that the party is always right. By definition, every critique of the party can only be distorted as it can only come from a non-proletarian source. Third, the theory leads into a vicious cycle:

[T]he totality cannot be deduced from any accumulation of facts or empirical arguments, and if the facts appear to be contrary to it, it is that they are wrong. This being so, it may be asked how we can possibly know the totality, or know that we know it. Lukács replies that we can know it by means of a correct dialectical ‘method’; but on investigation it proves that this method consists precisely in relating all phenomena to the whole, so that we must know the latter before we can start. The method, and the knowledge of the whole, presuppose each other; we are in a vicious circle, the only way out of which is to assert that the proletariat possessed the whole truth by virtue of its privileged historical position. But this is only an apparent escape, for how do we know that the proletariat is thus privileged? We know it from Marxist theory, which must be right because it alone comprehends the whole: so we are back in the vicious circle again.

This is a very interesting philosophical dilemma for which I obviously have no answer. In my view, our knowledge and our practical interests do indeed seem to coincide. That is to say, there is no way we can somehow step outside our own subjective perspectives and look at the world “objectively”. On the other hand, the theory of the unity of theory and practice does seem to lead to the problems above examined by Kolakowski apropos Lukács. Perhaps the right way to approach this problem is not to try to unite our knowledge of external objects and our own subjective perspective but to account for the existence of this gap as such? I refer once again to Zizek’s reading of Hegel: the problem is not how it could be possible for us, as subjects, to know objectively the world and things-in-themselves, to use kantian language. The problem is rather how is it possible for this gap to exist, within the same reality, in the first place. This might or might not lead to Lukácsian theory. I still have no clue.

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Overall, Kolakowski’s book is an essential reading for anyone who wants to consider him or herself a marxist. These are criticisms, which cannot be simple shrugged off but need to be engaged with seriously.

Cut the balls (of those in power)!

This entire post was made up as an excuse to post that awesome music video parody of Slavoj Zizek. Nonetheless, putting all that hilariousness aside, let’s look at the question Slavoj is proposing there.

For those of you who don’t know, the video refers to one of Slavoj’s dirty jokes, namely that about a peasant couple encountering a Mongol warrior on a country road in 15th century Russia. The Mongol warrior tells the farmer that he is gonna rape his wife but, since the road is dirty, he should hold his testicles so they won’t get dusty during the act. After the Mongol warrior leaves the farmer starts to jump with joy. “How can you be happy?”, asks the wife, “I was just brutally raped!” The farmer replies: “But I got him! His balls are full of dust!”

What has this to do with today’s leftist politics? Zizek suggests that today’s critical left all too often identifies with the position of the farmer: We think we’re doing something very subversive when we criticize “those in power” (capitalist/neoliberal politicians and governments, big companies and international organizations such as the IMF), but often our criticism amounts to that of dirtying their balls. The point, however, is to cut them off. And how does one do this act of castration? Zizek seems to be in the reformist camp but only in the sense that sometimes a well chosen “reformist” demand can effectively hit the core of the hegemonic ideological constellation. This is why Zizek has supported Obama’s healthcare reform. Although he recognizes it as a watered down failure, he notes that the notion of universal healthcare was able to shake the ideology of freedom of choice, which is so prevalent in the United States. In this way reformism can overlap with revolutionary aims.

One could also note how the neoliberal turn in politics was achieved through accumulating small changes over time. In the Finnish context, which I incidentally happen to be somewhat familiar with, the neoliberal turn took a decade or two. Raija Julkunen, a well known social and political scientist in Finland, has written a lot about the structural changes in the Finnish welfare regime. Contrary to the most “obvious” interpretation, that the neoliberal policies of austerity started during the recession of the early 90’s, Julkunen notes how the process of neoliberalization was already going on in the 80’s. This was an era of loosening regulation and internationalization of finance, new managerial techniques in the public sector and technocratic consensus. The recession in the 90’s merely accelerated the changes that were already taking place. Two decades afterwards we suddenly find ourselves in a regime of (especially long-term) unemployment, widening inequality and reduced welfare benefits. Ideological shifts also took place: the rationale of austerity, that reducing public spending through cuts and increased taxation (of people and not capital, of course) is the only realistic option, is suddenly an obvious truism. The point is that this structural change was made possible by a long process of small “reformist” changes here and there. As Julkunen puts it in her book “Suunnanmuutos”: “Radical change does not require radical procedures.”

Of course, one needs to extend the argument in a way that Julkunen does not. Her regime change describes the turn from the old-fashioned expansive welfare regime to that of the post-expansive austere welfare regime. It is a change from one capitalist regime to another. By reading her book one gets the impression that the neoliberal shift was in the last resort merely a question of political will. But one needs to refine this argument. Yes, in one sense, it is a question of political will but, in another sense, it is not. I turn now to Andrew Kliman who argues in his The Failure of Capitalist Production that neoliberalism was essentially a reaction to the economic changes in western capitalism. The rate of profit started falling from the mid 50’s leading to low capital accumulation, which in turn resulted in reduced corporate output, accumulation of debt and so on. The neoliberal turn was and is essentially an attempt to boost the rate of profit by slashing public spending and driving down wages (or, in other words, by austerity) among other mechanisms. As the economist Michael Roberts explains in one of his blog posts:

A policy of raising wages would reduce the share of profit in GDP; and a policy aimed at expanding government spending would be damaging to profits, just when capitalists are trying to ‘deleverage’ their ‘dead’ and unusable capital and reduce costs.

Sure, some capitalist sectors benefit from extra government spending through the procurement of government services and investment from the capitalist sector e.g. military weapons and equipment; roads, schools and hospitals etc. Mainstream economists often claim that government does not “produce anything”, it does not “create wealth”. What the mainstream really means is that government does not create new value (profit). It merely redistributes existing value, often against the interests of the capitalist sector as a whole. Government can thus be damaging to capitalist investment especially if taxes are diverted to welfare spending, workers pensions and public sector wages. And if government gets too large, it could even reverse the dominance of the capitalist mode of production.

So the Austerians see the need to keep government spending down, reduce the ‘size of the state’ and cut sovereign debt not as ends in themselves, but as part of the effort to revive profitability in the capitalist sector by cutting the costs of taxation and welfare. Indeed, from this light, the most important policies of austerity are not really the control of government spending but the accompanying ‘supply-side’ reforms that aim to ‘liberalise labour markets’ (cut jobs, public and private), reduce wages (public and private), lower pensions (public and private) – in other words, lower the cost of variable capital (labour) and drive up the rate of surplus value (profit to wages ratio). If the capitalist sector is also ‘deleveraging’ by destroying the value of its constant capital and financial debt (by liquidating it or paying it down), then both measures will raise profitability and set the scene for a new round of capitalist investment.

What we can conclude from this is that the turn to neoliberal politics and economic regimes was, from the perspective of capitalism, a logical and “necessary” step. It merely obeyed the logic of the system of capitalism with its inherent contradictions. Of course, one should add, neoliberalism did not solve the problems of capitalism. After decades or neoliberal reforms we are still facing crises, the current one going on for the 6th year already with no end in sight. I do not go into the Keynesian alternative here. I will only note that, as many Marxist economists have shown, it also fails to solve the contradictions of capital (see, for example, Guglielmo Carchedi’s article here).

So, in this sense, neoliberalism was not merely a question of political will. But let’s not lose hope just yet because, in another more radical and revolutionary sense, it was and is a matter of political will. In combating neoliberalism one should not lose from sight that neoliberalism is a feature of capitalism as such. There is no turning back to the golden era of social-democratic welfare states by re-introducing good old financial regulations and labor reforms for, under the profitability imperative under capitalism, these are impossible to achieve and/or maintain. To combat neoliberalism means to combat capitalism as a system. This is why we can’t hope to achieve radical changes by this or that reform but only by the overthrow of the whole system. I remain an old-fashioned Marxist and claim that every demand for reform needs to have the final goal of replacing the system of capitalism in sight. And here we get back to Zizek: the point is not to dirty the balls of capitalists (with social-democratic reforms) but to cut them off (with anti-capitalist radical politics).

Shingeki no Kyojin: On titans and exploitation

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Now that season 1 has ended it’s about time I should join the hype and make it clear that Shingeki no Kyojin (engl. “Attack on Titan”) is the best anime series since…ok, I don’t know what to compare it to. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anime, which would have kept me on the edge of my seat as much as SnK did. It’s a bit dragged on series with a slow-pacing but it works nicely to its advantage, building up tension and leaving us hanging on cliffs after every episode.

But, as everyone knows, intensity is not enough. Any stupid shonen can be addictive. In fact, I had a similar feeling when I watched Death Note some years ago. DN relies on the cat-and-mouse play of two protagonists, confronting us with plot twists around each corner and incredible maneuvers the protags pull off to get on each others’ backs. However, SnK has something that DN lacks: Whereas DN leaves the social implications of the death note rather unexplored, SnK doesn’t shy away from exploring psychological themes or even social commentary.

A summary of the plot is in order after which I’ll proceed with my review/analysis. I also note here that I have only followed the anime so I have no clue how the story is continued in the manga.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Several hundred years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, gigantic humanoids called Titans appeared. The world’s human population was devoured and the remaining population now lives in an area surrounded by three walls knows as Wall Maria, Wall Rose and Wall Sina (picture below). The walls, about 50 meters high, are tall enough to keep titans at bay. The walls’ origin remains a mystery (I didn’t even realize this until the teasers in the end of the first season…) In a materialist twist, the anime shows how religion emerges out of basic material needs, in this case the need of protection and safety: the walls are worshiped by religious “Wallists” who believe the walls have been given to the humanity by God and preach their sacredness.

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The society is run by a monarchy and protected by the military, which consists of three factions: The Stationary Guard patrols and maintains the walls keeping the titans out. The Military Police, made up of top-ranking soldiers, serve as guards of the king and maintain social order. Only the top performing trainees are allowed to enter the military police (and the safety of the inner wall). Finally, there are the Survey Corps. They are a scouting team, which explores areas outside the walls and investigates the titans, although with no success so far. Each trip to the world outside the walls costs the team human lives (dramatically depicted in the first episode when the survey corps return from a mission). All the military members use “3D maneuver gear” to fight titans and to move around effortlessly in the air.

Very little is known of titans although the series reveals information about them bit by bit. They act like giant zombies: they are non-intelligent and seem to live entirely for the purpose of eating humans. It is later revealed that they are actually unable to digest food so their eating habits bear no relation to survival. It’s as if they were “programmed” for the sole purpose of devouring human beings. Their height fluctuates from less than 5 meters to well over 10 meters. “The Colossal Titan” (more on it below), with its 60 meter height, is an exception. Their appearance, although misformed, looks like that of humans. They are also sexless. Some of them are called “aberrants” for their abnormal behavior (like running around aimlessly). They also have the ability of regeneration. Their only weak spot is the neck and slicing their necks is the only way to kill them.

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Mikasa hitting the neck of a titan

The story begins with the appearance of the Colossal Titan. After 100 years of peace, the Colossal Titan smashes the gate of Wall Maria, letting titans in. A lot of havoc follows as titans start eating the humans while the humans try to flee to the safety of the second wall. Our three main characters, Eren, his adopted sister Mikasa and friend Armin, only kids at the time, survive the invasion but with a cost: Eren and Mikasa watch their mother being eaten by a titan while Armin also loses his family. The hot-headed Eren declares revenge against all titans and decides to join the military and enter the survey corps. Mikasa swears to protect her brother and follows him. Armin decides to follow his friends although he is physically weak and doesn’t exactly have the highest self-esteem.

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The three main characters from left to right: Armin, Eren and Mikasa

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A rather gruesome scene: Eren’s mother gets eaten by a titan

The character development here is quite meaningless so I’m not going to devote a lot of space for describing it. Eren, proves again and again his courageousness and anger in facing the titans and learns to trust others little by little. Mikasa, although excelling in combat, seems to devote everything she has to protecting his brother throughout the first season. These two have an interesting past: before Mikasa was adopted to Eren’s family, her own family was attacked by random thugs. She saw her parents getting killed while she herself was kidnapped. She was rescued by the then 9-year-old Eren who somehow managed to stab the thugs to death while getting help from Mikasa. Eren’s courage and dedication has a flip side: he’s also a merciless murderer if he crosses the line. Armin always remains the poor one in combat but he excels in tactics and is the smartest of the group. In spite of his cowardice he does do some brave things throughout the series.

Some years after the first titan invasion, after Eren, Mikasa and Armin graduate from the trainee squad, the Colossal Titan appears again and smashes another gate. This time the evacuation of the human population is successful but the titans overpower the human military forces, many of whom are unable to even face the titans due to their fear. The battle drags on for 9 episodes although it never loses its momentum. We’re kept on the edge of our seats by major cliffhangers. First, Eren is eaten by a Titan, losing some of his limbs in the process. Armin is paralyzed by fear while Mikasa, having lost her reason to live, collapses in front of a titan.

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Eren attacks the Colossal Titan during the second invasion

But Eren is not dead. He reappears – as a titan. This is the first major twist of the show: there are humans, which are able to take the titan form and Eren is one of them. The ability is triggered by self-caused injury and a strong will directed towards a goal. The human body is connected to the titan in the titan’s neck, allowing the human to control the movements of the titan. This alone implies that the titans are not some alien race but rather almost like advanced technology wielded by humans. But the origin of titans is not yet revealed in season 1 so I can only speculate.

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Eren in his titan form

Eren’s ability surprises Eren himself and he never seems to be fully in control of his titan body. Instead he’s always on the edge of turning into a raging lunatic, devouring even his own allies. After some hassle the military puts Eren’s titan ability to use and, with the help of Eren’s titan strength, they manage to seal the gate of Wall Rose. But Eren, now presenting a potential threat to humanity, is imprisoned and put on trial. His defenders from the survey corps want to take advantage of his abilities while the prosecutors want him dead. He’s only saved by Levi, the leading soldier of the survey corps and the special operations squad, who pulls a rather nasty stunt of brutally beating Eren during the trial, proving that he has to ability to kill him should he turn against humans. Nothing much is revealed about Levi in the first season, except that he’s excellent in combat, cold and ruthless but loyal to his superiors and has a history in the underground. Eren both fears and idolizes him.

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The trial: Eren on the left and Levi on the right

The picture above is a screenshot from the trial after Levi has beaten up Eren. If you have google picture searched Shingeki no Kyojin you would know that it didn’t take long after the S&M-obsessed fujoshi fanbase turned them into this (Not that I mind. I can ship this!):

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“Punish me, o’ dear!”

The second half of the first season is mostly made up of the survey corps’ mission to capture what is know as “The Female Titan”, an intelligent titan who also seems to possess combat skills. The first mission is a failure. The show carefully makes us familiar with the members of the special operations squad only to have them brutally wiped out by the Female Titan (where are the plot shields when you need them?). It is later revealed, after Armin’s logical deductions, that the Female Titan is actually Annie, a girl who trained with Eren, Mikasa and Armin in the trainee squad. The season ends with a scene where Eren fights Annie, both in their titan forms, in the middle of the prestigious area surrounded by the innermost Wall Sina.

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Annie

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Annie in her titan form

A lot of mysteries are left unsolved. Where is Eren’s father? What are the mysterious flashbacks Eren is having? Who is Annie and what are her motives? What are the titans and what exactly is the origin of the Walls? And most importantly, what is in the basement of Eren’s family home, which his father had kept secret? Lots of material for season 2.

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The storyline feels simple enough: humanity unites to fight external alien intruders. But this simple summary is completely inadequate a perspective to the show. There is actually not only one struggle going on but three. The first is the obvious one between humans and titans. One can find traces of a common theme in catastrophe films, unity of mankind against a common threat. But, as the series itself explicitly makes it clear in a dialogue between Eren and commander Pixis, this is not enough. The struggle against an external threat can be exploited by those at the top of social hierarchy, but more on this below.

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Now to think of it, this anime is pretty damn gory…

The second struggle is the inner psychological struggle as the military troops try to retain their sanity while confronting the titans. One must applaud the series for how realistically it depicts fear on the battleground. Especially during the second invasion of the titans the troops are paralyzed by fear and sense of defeat. The show spends a lot of time presenting this and going through inner monologue of characters who try to overcome their fears. A particularly memorable scene was one in which a soldier committed suicide by shooting himself with a shotgun. What usually comes to the rescue is some spark of hope (such as Eren’s appearance as a titan) or the courage of the few who try to lead the rest on in the battle.

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Soldiers despairing

The third struggle is the social one, which is implicitly present throughout the whole series. The human society is ruled by a monarchy and the social geography seems to follow the order of the Walls: judging by the architecture and the clothing of the citizens, the innermost area (surrounded by Wall Sina) seems to be occupied by the upper class while the outer areas are left for commoners. The king himself is portrayed as a privileged idiot and the show is also unapologetic in showing corruption in the military police (they disregard their duties, operate in the black market etc.) Remember, only the top performing trainees are allowed to enter the military police, thus providing the utmost protection for the king even though the top skilled soldiers would be needed the most in survey corps (something also noted by Eren himself if I remember correctly). On the top of this there are the Wallists and the merchants, both of which are influential at the top of the social hierarchy (as is seen during Eren’s trial). Both also get cold treatment from the author of the story: the Wallists are depicted as fundamentalist lunatics while the greedy merchants only seem to be serving their own selfish interests.

So, even though humanity is facing a common threat in the form of titans, the human society is still socially stratified in a way that privileges others while exploiting others. The most obscene example of this appears already in episode 2. After Wall Maria was breached by titans people fled behind Wall Rose. But the refugees were not welcomed to the inner regions: due to food shortage 250,000 refugees were sent to a suicidal mission to retake Wall Maria. Whether the food shortage was real or just a matter of unequal distribution is unclear, although I’m willing to bet on the latter. In other words, the titans provided the ruling class a convenient way to get rid of this unwanted surplus population. The external threat was exploited in the social struggles within the human society itself.

The survey corps are situated in the intersection of all these three struggles. First, they are those who are most directly involved in the battle against titans due to their missions to outer areas. Consequently they also have to bear the heaviest psychological burdens. The survey corps are not corrupt like the military police but they are in a disadvantaged position in the military. On the one hand they represent hope for the human society, but on the other hand they’re seen as a useless waste of human lives and tax money due to their failed missions. It is precisely because of their spot in the middle of all these struggles that they hold the key place in the plot: they’re the ones trying to solve the mysteries surrounding the titans and, consequently, the psychological struggles provide space for character development. Paradoxically, their disadvantaged position in the military also privileges them in a way: due to their exclusion, they are not a part of the corrupt functioning of the social system (the nexus of monarchy/military police/merchants/Wallists), therefore they’re even a potential threat to it. This is quite obvious especially in the end of the first season when the survey corps plot the capturing of the Female Titan in secret from the monarchy (and are later accused of treason because of that).

So, now, the biggest question: what the hell are the titans? When I ask this I don’t only mean the specifics of their origin but also how we should read their “symbolic meaning”, as it were. As it is already made clear, it would be clueless to see them as a random external threat facing the humanity. We’ve already been given enough hints to suggest that the titans are somehow intertwined with human struggles. Like advanced technological weapons, they are able to be “wielded” by humans, and their existence doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose than destroying human beings. It would probably be too easy a solution, but I’m guessing that the titans were originally just advanced technology developed by humans themselves. But, of course, in a dystopian twist, the weapons turned against their wielders, resulting in almost the extinction of the entire human race. I could also see the series taking the Evangelion route, adopting some abstract supernatural elements to the story and leaving the mystery of the titans open for interpretation. The worst route for me would be the alien one, that the titans somehow emerged from the confrontation between the human race and aliens.

Whatever their specific origin is, all speculations on the symbolic meaning of the titans are possible. Do they simply embody the common fears of ordinary people? This is how Zizek reads the meaning of the shark in the film “Jaws”. The shark is simply a stand in for the multiple fears of ordinary people (fears of immigrants, lower classes, corrupted politicians, big exploitative companies etc.). The shark simplifies everything: we can trade the multiplicity of fears for one concrete fear alone. I am tempted to take my reading of the titans to another direction. I claim that the battle against the titans is a ultimately a false struggle, which covers up the real one: the social antagonism (or class struggle, if you will). Is this far-fetched? No, I think. The series itself seems to lean towards this interpretation. If it turns out, for example, that the titans originally emerged as human technology it is absolutely clear that the battle against titans originated from purely human conflicts. We will see.

Fight like a girl! (or, 4 examples of feminist negativity in music)

In my previous post I explored queer negativity in the industrial scene by presenting two examples, Pretty Addicted and Angelspit. Pretty Addicted’s anti-sociality and personal rage was contrasted with Angelspit’s turn to the political. Here I wanted to do something slightly different and, following Halberstam’s own examples, turn to feminist negativity proper. In contrast to the usual political correctness of liberal feminism, these songs do not take the compromising approach.

Misogyny in the industrial culture has not gone unrealized either by the fans of the genre or the artists of the scene. For instance, the misogynist thematics in Combichrist’s and Nachtmahr’s music videos and lyrics have sparked a bit of controversy. In 2012, during the Kinetik festival in Montreal, Ad·ver·sary’s Jairus Khan presented a video criticizing just the two above mentioned bands for their misogynist imagery. A lot of debate followed. In the aftermath Matt Pathogen interviewed some female artists of the scene, asking for their opinions and experiences regarding sexism in the industrial scene. A very common experience that the girls interviewed shared was being treated as a sexy prop on stage and consequently being judged by looks. The image of the female singer and male producer is also common, as Jennifer Parkin of Ayria describes:

“Sexism to me is the fact that I play a show, and someone in the audience goes up to my live keyboardist, or drummer to ask them about the music they’ve written. The response from my amazing live musicians (Mike, Eric, Joe, Jeff, and Kevin can back this up!) is, “No, ask her, it’s all her. I just play live, she wrote the songs.” The thought rarely occurs to some that a woman could write electronic music.”

In light of all this I don’t mind presenting a few feminist tracks from a scene that is incredibly male-dominated.

“Fight Like a Girl” by Emilie Autumn

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In spite of the fact that I was very disappointed with her latest album, I immediately fell in love with the title track, Fight Like a Girl (or FLAG in short). This feminist anthem might have Valerie Solanas written all over it with its militaristic tones but, nonetheless, I’m all for it. The lyrics are an angry and unashamed declaration of feminine power:

There is no such thing as justice
All the best that we can hope for is revenge
A hostile takeover
An absolute rebellion to the end
This is our battle cry
I’m giving you a head start
You’re going to need it
’Cause I fight like a girl
I’ll get my revenge on the world or a least 49% of the people in it
And if I end up with blood on my hands
well, I know that you’ll understand
’Cause I fight like a girl!

The music video, which you should also check out, does a good job visualizing the song. In line with Autumn’s victorian asylum aesthetics, the video goes back to the 19th century and depicts a particular kind of a freak show: female inmates of asylums being put on display for men. (Autumn has written another song of the same topic but in a much more humorous tone: Girls! Girls! Girls! Wait for the feminist twist in the end!) Of course, Emilie and her Bloody Crumpets rebel, kill some dudes in the process and are finally put back in their cells in the end. In spite of this hostility against men, in the end there’s a brief moment of male-female alliance.

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FLAG is only the most recent addition to Autumn’s archive of feminist songs. She has written a whole bunch of songs, which could be tagged feminist. The topics range from rape and child abuse to sexual objectification and marriage. All of these exemplify the anti-social negative stance with their anger and sarcasm.

“The Body” by Android Lust

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Shikhee’s lyrics are full of anger, resentment, frustration and despair, but occasionally she goes to obviously feminist waters. I decided to pick “The Body” for its remarkable stance of feminist body politics:

This body belongs to me
To fuck, to hurt, to kill
And if I choose to give it all up
It’s my deal in the end
Do you understand?

You think you have the right
‘Cuz you fucked me a couple of times
To tell me what to do
With this damned body of mine
You just don’t understand

You say you know it all
Trust or take the fall
And feed me all this shit about
What’s good for me and all
You just don’t understand

It’s unfortunate that she would take the “you just don’t understand” stance because it always felt to me like it’s an excuse for not being able to offer a convincing argument. But then again, I don’t subscribe to the ideal of solving everything through rational communicative exchange of arguments (associated with Habermas). Sometimes the correct thing to do is to refuse to speak, to account for one’s actions, in order not to get caught up in a discourse whose terms are set by the enemy.

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Shikhee in her video Stained

 

“Cursive Eve” by I:Scintilla

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Here I:Scintilla takes a look at misogynist mythology and explores the themes of female submission and shame:

You were born wrapped in the pages
The words bind your mind and body
A false comfort of thin paper
You’re claimed as unclean property

They say you need guilt to be good
Your brothers all remain blameless
Heart of snares and nets, hands as bands
Classified as a nameless mass

and later in the song:

They say “In you lives an Eve” and
“Thy desire rules over thee”
“Thou shall not let witches live”
The fiction binds your mind and body

Give you away to male angels
The leaders all remain shameless
Wash away rains ancient marking
Please beg yourself for forgiveness

Of course, one does not need to submit to the submissive position ascribed to women, or, as Brittany puts it in the bridge to the chorus:

Don’t look down on me
I don’t look up

“Delicious” by Diffuzion

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This one has no obvious feminist connections but I couldn’t resist adding it to my list (and it’s not just because it’s perhaps the hottest song written in the history of electronic industrial music). As opposed to the sexual objectification of women in male-dominated industrial aesthetics, Diffuzion posits women here as sexual subjects as opposed to objects:

Latest gadgets 
A brand-new car
Always look some kind of super star
Muscled body
Filled with desire
So delicious
It sets me on fire
No commitments
And no regrets
You’ll remember
I’ll never forget
You look so easy
You are so hard
Here’s my present
Poison in your blood

You’re my latest toy 
Soft and so delicious
Taste this cruel joy
Share my basic wishes
Toy – delicious
Joy – so vicious

Feminism’s engagement with sex and pornography is ambiguous. Some radicals condemn (heterosexual) sex altogether as patriarchal (and, consequently, pornography is seen to encourage rape of women). Others like to subjectivize feminine sexuality, treating women as sexual beings with their own desires as opposed to surrendering to sexual passivity. I tend to side with the latter camp.

Fuck your cunt parade! (or, two examples of queer negativity in music)

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The charming duo.

I am the ringmaster in my own circus 
I play every clown, I hold the flag for freaks like us
I’m not normal and I hope to never be
I am established in the house of weirdos, hee hee
I’ll never wear pretty flowers in my hair
I don’t wanna make you drool, I wanna make you scared
Fucked up androgene and a chemical inbalance
I’d rather be insane than a pretty little fuck with no talent

Those are the first lines of “Clown” by Pretty Addicted, a genre-smashing duo from London, UK. The music resembles something between industrial, EBM and electropunk, but I guess I should stick with “industrifuck”, a term coined by the band itself to describe their music. They emerged in 2013 with their debut album “Filth” (cover art below), compiled of nothing but filthy gothic rave hits and a whole lot of FUCK YOU’s.

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Some days ago I posted a commentary (which sneakily turned into a small essay while I just kept writing it…) on Halberstam’s article on queer negativity – queer politics with an anti-social twist. I wonder if s/he’s aware of the currents in the industrial goth scene because there’s a whole lot of material there that’s relevant to his/her archive of queer negativity. I raise two examples, the first of them being Pretty Addicted.

Why are they queer? I’m not only claiming that because the lyrics are expressing androgyny sometimes (like the lines from “Clown” above or a line from “I Would Fuck Me”: “Don’t ask for my gender cuz I’m genderless!”). What’s also queer about them is their rejection of social norms, probably best exemplified in “Clown”. A lot of the lyrics revolve around sex and they certainly are not about making sweet heterosexual love in the missionary position. If there’s something that demonstrates the coinciding of sex and the death drive, it’s in these lyrics. “PCP for the Crackheads”, a song about drugged out sex, serves as an example:

I wanna fuck you in your dirty face, dirty face 
I want to fuck you while the monsters are looking
I wanna fuck you in this dirty place, dirty place
I want to entertain the monsters looking at me

S/he also sings, or rather screams, from a position of him/her against the world, and s/he does it with genuine rage. The negativity stems from a lot of places: backstabbing, drugs, betrayal, being a fucking mental case. S/he’s the embodiment of the anti-social, speaking from the rejected and repressed spots of the society. And s/he’s not taking your bullshit. Halberstam warned us that calling for negativity might give us more than we asked for, and Pretty Addicted goes to these waters sometimes, especially in “Slut Junkie” where s/he is singing about engaging in meaningless sex after a painful breakup. The song’s morbid humor gets me but I can’t deny it reeks of misogyny:

Slutty bitches in my face 
And they all just erase
Any memories of you
Sex at my disposal
Dancing lesbians and they all
Stop memories of you.
They don’t care if they’re cheap
They suck dick and then they eat
Oh how lovely to see
You were drama, you were tears
You were three fights a day for years
And now I’ll change the beat

and further:

Slut Junkie, I’m a Slut Junkie 
I got a group of sluts in my limousine
Slut dealer, I got sluts for free
And I’m waiting on the jealous ones to make a scene
Motherfucker can you hear me now?
And didn’t mama tell ya not to talk with dick in your mouth?
This night is gonna be a score
And what would I do without the junkie whores?

Nonetheless, the album is great. S/he shows remarkable wit when s/he states that his/her own fucked up state is not his/her own doing (“I am the filth you fuckers made!”) so let me conclude with lines from “You Make Me Sick”:

I am a bastard and a star 
I lurk wherever you are
I am the one who feeds you sex
I make your children wanna sin
Apparently that’s my thing 
I am a criminal at best
I am a bitch and a doll
Wearing my rusty halo
I am the filth you fuckers made
Well look at me now
I’m a fucking goth star
Fuck your cunt parade!

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As I point out in my commentary, Halberstam doesn’t stop here. S/he stresses that we must ally ourselves with the forces lining up against global capitalism. In other words, we should not keep to ourselves in our own negative space but to turn the negativity into politics. While we need it, the purely personal rage of Pretty Addicted is not enough. This is why I’ll bring forth another example from the industrial scene, Angelspit, who make the necessary step from personal to political negativity.

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The band originally started as a duo but has gained members since. They look goofy as hell.

The Australian band Angelspit emerged in 2004 with their EP “Nurse Grenade” and later a full lenght debut album in 2006 called “Krankhaus”. As of 2013, they’ve released 4 full lenght albums and various remix discs. I’ll be using “Blood Death Ivory” for my lyrical examples as it happens to be my favorite (cover art below). They’ve evolved a genre of their own, mixing industrial, electropunk and DIY instruments.

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Unlike many other industrial bands out there, they don’t bother to whine about their depression, broken hearts and ex-girlboyfriends. Instead the lyrical content of their songs attacks capitalism, the banality of everyday life, beauty industry, corruption and greed. On the side they write songs about fucking things up and getting even. “Devilicious” is one of the queeriest songs I’ve heard. It can only be described as sex in cannibal metaphores:

For love and devour, I want your sleaze
You bring all the self loathing, out in me
Sexual digestion runth into thine cup
There’s a god in us all, and she’s so fucked up
Don’t think with your head, think with your meat
I like to get naked before I eat
Using your flash to make a façade pure malicious
Your body in my mouth, DEVILICIOUS!

Before getting into politics, let’s explore their negativity a bit more. “Skinny Little Bitch” is dedicated to the mean girls and boys and the vanity of (high school?) life:

I overcame my bone structure and metabolism
I made myself engage in mind-numbing conversation
A fad diet left me with skin, bone and bitterness
starved myself to a petite listening to repetitive electro shit

Or my personal favorite lines:

He is the home coming queen, hip new breed of clique
Wears a Tiara made of daggers and is in the top 8
You throw him a kiss, he throws hi-voltage bouquets
If he can’t have your affection then he’ll thrive on your hate

Angelspit+sty

Destroyx / Amelia Arsenic often dominates the visual look of the band.

Moving towards the political, “Grind” is a robotic but angry tune taking a look into the everday grind of climbing up the social ladder in capitalism. I am somehow reminded of the movie American Beauty, which describes the banality and meaninglessness of everyday life, slowly devouring up the protagonists. Here’s the second verse from “Grind”:

I’m Satan’s secretary, I’ve covered my pen with chilli
I am gunna jam it up your colon
Turn me into a psycho time bomb in a 3 piece
Kis-cuz-sea with a nasty surprise in piss in your coffee
Don’t call the help desk ‘coz they’ve got some big problems
Get up off your knees, God can’t save you ‘coz she’s shopping
You can suck my cock ‘coz I‘m tired of sucking yours
Ticking boxes, sting you up with your heels clicking

“Homo-Machinery” is a song in similar lines. The title itself is witty, wonderfully taking the marxist point of how human beings become slaves to global capital, disposable pieces of economic machinery.

White collar virgin whores lubricate with sweat and oil
Big green Trojan horse lures them in and keeps them fake
Money is evil’s root, so is corporate personhood
Evil’s temple has a name, calls itself the World Bank
Cogs grind the land in demand ‘coz our wants are high
Chew up all of the greenery
Crush up another white collar, there’s a hundred more in line
They’re just homo-machinery

Angelspit+_n

Bitch poured into a black corset.

“Girl Poison” lashes out against the beauty industry:

Slashing away at a duchess
Pop trash disgust
Sexy little decoration
Pin up girl, age 12
Pocket money spent on hot pants
Innocence stolen
One more girl on an insect diet
Just to satisfy some sick fuck!

The album ends with “Jugular”, embracing resistance and anger against the shallowness of the mainstream. However, what it should have ended with is track 5 on the disc called “Red”. It is a manifesto for nothing less than the communist revolution:

White is the colour of Purity
Black is the colour of Execution
Gray is the colour of Urban Bland
Red is the colour of Revolution!