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The Statist Quo: Anarchism as Optimism

September 23, 2014

The state is a giant sharpie that delineates what is and isn’t legitimate violence, what is and isn’t good or real or acceptable. No wonder the pen is mightier than the sword when the pen signs off on its wielding.

The world, we say, is built for humans. But when the world is actually built for a specific group of humans, for wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, western white men, then what of the rest of us? If I told you that the further we journeyed from this “ideal” or “default”, the less human society considered us to be, that would seem pretentious academic nonsense, were Muslims not faced with genocide in Palestine and Myanmar, were 40% of homeless youth not queer/trans youth, were black people not still suffering the effects of wealth and dignity stolen from them consistently for the hundreds of years, were people with disabilities not routinely victimised by police, were wealth inequality not reaching nauseating new levels, were autistic people not endlessly pathologised and designated abhuman, were women not considered purely receptacles of male desire, were people with mental illnesses not stigmatised and feared and ignored.

Any good system is designed to self-obsolete. There is a problem, it fixes the problem, then it ceases to exist. When affirmative action policies become unnecessary, they will simply stop. When gender quotas become unnecessary, they will be no more. When wealth redistribution programs finish paving over the cracks in our moral reality, they will die a happy death.

If I am an anarchist, it is because I believe the state can be that kind of institution.

Not like prisons. Prisons can never obsolete themselves because their very design creates more of the problem they seek to solve. Mariame Kaba at Prison Culture posits mass incarceration is actually the reformed version of the supposedly unreformable institution of slavery, and I buy it, because as her own work proves time and time again, the prison-industrial complex maintains a permanent underclass that capitalism needs to survive. Prison abolition can never come from the work of prisons, because capitalism creates the conditions that make prison seem necessary, and capitalism is itself maintained by the prison system.

By contrast, we can imagine a state that doesn’t presuppose its own existence and works towards its own destruction. The legitimate use of violence is the protection of weak from strong. While obviously the state consistently fails at this goal, due to its control by the strong, what’s important is we can imagine a state of the dispossessed and disprivileged. In fact, we’re working towards that goal every single day, and if it seems like we’re not getting anywhere, it’s only because the most radical goals are forced onto the longest timelines by empires that tremble at the roots of their own demise. They lie and say these goals are unachievable and unrealistic, but only their resistance lengthens the process. More than that, their resistance only lengthens the process, it cannot and will not prevent our success.

If I am an anarchist, it’s because I am optimistic about what humans can do. I believe we can learn to recenter our politic on blackness and indigeneity, transwomanhood and queerness, poverty and the south. I believe we can topple the pillars of white supremacy, I believe we can make states that are democratic for all, and not just for some, I believe we can bring an end to allism, I believe we can achieve excellence.

I don’t believe in a human nature holding us back, because the darkness of “human nature” is the product of living in a culture that socialises incentives for greed and power since literally the moment that the first human experienced what we would now call self-awareness, rational thought and the ability to critique and question and I believe we can reject that indoctrination. I don’t believe the lines we draw between people are insurmountable, because even though the aggregates of every line of is and isn’t means we live in a world where people are deemed inhuman, savage and unreal for not conforming to an ideal of the perfect white man, I believe we can erase those lines, not by ignoring them but by moving the centre of our world to the weakest instead of the strongest.

I don’t believe in god, but I believe in love.

If I am an anarchist, and I am, I am not an anarchist right now. The state has the capacity to be either the greatest justice or injustice to human life, depending on whether it works toward its own infinity or its own annihilation. I am an anarchist for a future of justice and peace. And the sooner we listen to those who know the sting of oppression best, the sooner we can let them set their own timeline for utopia, instead of forcing them onto ours. Maybe we won’t get there in our lifetimes, but for our children, and our children’s children, and their children’s children, we need to start working now. Abdicating that responsibility because we’ll never see its benefits is the purest selfishness, and I denounce it.

I believe in the possibility of perfection. And even if I’m wrong, we can’t stop striving towards it. People are dying, and living in fear and pain, and they’ve lived that way for too long. Whatever we can do to limit the extension of that violence into the future, we absolutely must.

And the first thing I’m going to do is sit down and shut up. These folk know what’s up better than me, so just listen to them instead. I’m just a follower.

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Klein Bottle

August 31, 2014

He only drinks for bottles and cans
to store the scattered
pieces of his insides. He only weeps
for a drop of fresh saltwater
to keep them whole & hard. He only cuts
for a little blood
to feed them young again. He only rages
for a few minutes
til he finds them smashed
& the pieces stuck to the carpet.

And he only drinks…

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The Man Who Dared to Be Dead

August 10, 2014

for Anthony Stallard

Some of us’d rather take the long way
round the curve of the universe
than stand in its aftermath, its cracks
and shrapnel, and even those
who grasp at it are stringed to a cross
up above, but this man, he
clutched at spheres no mortal known,
and took all of the power,
but none of the consequences,
and hid behind a grave, waving his hands
and saying wooooooooooooo.

(written in response to this story for Rattle’s Poets Respond online feature)

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I Burnt a Book

August 4, 2014

Once, I lit a book on fire.

The book was a copy of Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites. I’d bought it earlier that day at a book sale, mistaking it for Wyrd Sisters by the same author. When I discovered my error, my first reaction was annoyance, as I already had a copy. Then, I thought, “oh well, I can just give it to someone else”. And then, I had another thought.

I could burn it.

Understand, I find the idea of burning books repulsive. I shouldn’t need to tell you that a book is more than just paper and ink, but the exact scale of just what a book stands isn’t apparent many people. It is an entire universe, it is an emotional experience, it is an intellectual statement, it is friends and family and enemies, it is moral truth, it is escape, it is freedom. It is another existence unto itself. So, when I decided to burn this book, I wasn’t motivated by an actual desire to burn it. I did it because I wanted to learn. I wanted to know what it felt like, not for the sake of it, but because I wanted to try and understand those who burn books. I wanted to go through that process of book-burning, and feel what it is to be a book-burner, because only then could I fathom the depth of feeling that motivates those who burn books. I couldn’t understand their passion, I thought, until I knew how far that passion could go.

Burning a book is hard. It is, in the first place, pretty much impossible to convince oneself to do it, if one cares anything for books. And then, once convinced, it’s actually just really difficult to light a book on fire if you don’t have an accelerant. I committed my sin on the patio of my back garden. I nicked my mother’s lighter and locked the gate to keep the dog out. My fingers trembled as I tried to ignite the cover. I failed so many times, I started wondering if there wasn’t some divine intervention afoot. At last, I managed to light it, but it petered out after a few seconds, barely singed.

Changing tack, I opened it up and put a clutch of pages from the middle to flames. This time, success: terrible, terrible success. As it took hold, the fire crinkled the paper and sucked it into its dark epicentre, such that, at first, it assumed the shape of a terrible flower, its faceted petals twisting in upon themselves, and then, gradually, became a monstrous range of black obsidian mountains. Each mountain range collapsed and came away from the book, with lighter flakes catching the rising pillar of hot air and escaping as ashen moths on the breeze, while the larger chunks fell to the side and slouched like dead anemones. Yet, even as the fire metamorphosed the next ream of pages, those desultory fragments were still alight and smouldering. Soon, they were robbed of even their blackness, blasted into a grey so lifeless, it was a great mercy when the whole lot was vanquished by the wind.

I would lie if I said there was no beauty in it, but it was the beauty of a blighted wasteland or a flooded cityscape. Neither the destruction itself, nor the debris, was beautiful. Yet, the scale of it, the completeness of it, was breathtaking, and I’ll admit to a certain smug post-modern satisfaction with the undoing of the works of man. But the burning of the book did something at once obvious and peculiar. As the book burned, it became easier to burn. Not just in the physical sense, or in the sense that it became less and less worth saving, but because it became less and less a book and more and more ashes. The book as a physical object is tied up in the cultural and conceptual idea of the book, and when the object of the book, the fact of the book, is destroyed, the idea of the book dies with it. Everything that made me not want to burn the book burned with the book. The fire started as something utterly nauseating, but ended with me as a neutral observer, hardly moved by what remained. Just as ink and paper underwent apotheosis to become the book, the divinity of the book broke down in the flames, until all was nothing.

I don’t exaggerate when I say I took months to come to terms with what I’d done. Even now, my stomach quivers at the thought of those charcoal fronds falling apart like a post-apocalyptic ruin. Looking back, I still struggle to convince myself it was worth it. Apart from anything else, my premises were flawed, since I assumed anyone burning a book would feel the same reverence for the book that I do. But I could barely bring myself to burn a single book, even with such a strict and specific rationalisation. How then could anyone who accepts, let alone advocates or enjoys, the burning of books feel true love for the book? I committed this sin to learn and to empathise, but standing in the shoes of a book-burner just showed me how little such people really care for books. If they knew the book as bibliophiles do, it would hurt them more to burn a book than it would to plunge their arms into a bonfire.

And that, more than anything, is why those who don’t love books can never be the arbiters of the fate of books. They will always be wrong, because they can’t see the book in its entirety, as something that makes the human mind bulge at the sides when we try to conceive of its multiplicity of facets and layers. They will always be wrong, because they don’t see a book, they just see a tool. Books to them are a weapon, an instrument of forcing and foisting, an ethical violence. They want books to dictate their way of life to others, whereas books are, and should be, an arena where individuals can find their own moral truths. Ultimately, the reason book-burners are terrified of books is because they know their ideologies will die if they’re not imposed, and books provide a powerful counterbalance to the machinery of indoctrination. They are a playground for the mind, and how do children learn and discover if not through play?

Let’s not undersell the importance of books. They’re more than just escape, or an aesthetic adventure. If we allow books to be burned, either literally or figuratively, we might as well burn everything else. Books represent an indispensable moral freedom, and we can’t just keep an eye out for bonfires anymore. They’re far too fucking clever for that. What we need to fear are people who burn books before they’re born, who make sure books are never written. The more career-minded writer often bemoans the oversaturation of the writing market, because it has such low barriers to entry. Bullshit. There are low barriers to the act of writing sure, compared to say, music or sculpture. But the barriers to that writing being read and read widely are very real, and very high for the most disprivileged people, who are exactly the people whose voices we need to hear most if we’re to recenter the social conversation and grasp most convincingly at the hot heart of moral truth.

Society is a poem. But when only a handful of people are permitted to write the collective destiny of everyone, it’s a really shitty poem. Especially since the most privileged among us have only the least important and insightful things to say. What we really need to do is shut up and listen. But we can’t do that if we don’t let those who know what’s up speak in the first place. Extinguish the wall of fire and let them write.

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The Ballad of Mack: A Poe-m

June 17, 2014

Once upon a morning beaming, as I grumbled, broke and leaning
Over to one side to favour ruptured disc that is not healing,
While I nodded by the window, I heard the pattering of him go,
Whiskers on his face akimbo, lingo for his plan of stealing
Out into the garden grass, as dingo prowl when they go stealing,
How can I describe the feeling?

Ah, distinctly I remember, every touch of June’s harsh ember,
And thought of facing heat so thick set my weary heart a-reeling.
Soon the beast was on the pavement, heralding my near derangement,
I wished we’d come to some arrangement, ancient beast of pharaohs dreaming,
So still I would possess the skill of patience for this creature seeking
Nothing more than joy of being.

So I rose in quivering sequence, aching for my spinal treatment,
To follow this young lion’s kin, into the garden he was stealing,
Where he hoped to swallow grass and wipe his fuzzy little ass,
And then he’d whisper “Gracias” to sass the gods of love and bleeding,
These seem true predictions, but, still, perhaps too deep I’m reading
Into cats whose thoughts are fleeting.

He seemed to linger in the garden, so foolishly I loosed my burden,
And what’d the skinny fucker do as soon as I was laxly leaning?
Scampered out the garden gate, so sloppily I gave my chase,
But of the cat there was no trace, escaped into the neighbour’s feeding
Thirst for knowledge, never slaked, and me all sweat and heavy breathing.
Bugger all, the cat was leaving!

Despite my wound, I chased the twit, into the bush and cuckoo spit,
Where he in shade was close to sleep, but I had no such time for dreaming,
Soon my girlfriend would be home and I’d be left without my bones.
I knew the fault was all my own, alone I’d failed at kitten-keeping,
And I’d be living on the streets, prone upon my spine a-seeping,
In the sunlight, red and steaming.

I found a mighty chunk of stick and poked the cocky little prick
Out from neath the shady bush, the shock of which sent him a-screaming.
“Shut your face, you stupid cat”, I meant to shout, instead I spat,
Certain in the knowledge that the cat would soon be back to sleeping
On my bed or on my chair or on my lap or on my cleaning,
Anywhere but in this clearing.

I ran the bastard out the garden into the house and drew the curtain
Round the pair of screen doors whose view first set his mind on fleeing.
He snuggled down into a chair, that lovely, loving British shorthair,
Black in colour, texture fair, there the creature sat a-dreaming,
While I panted like a dog, aware of a lesson I’d been gleaning:
Cats are awful shit-faced demons.

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Þæt Wæs God Spræc! or; Why Old English is the Best Thing Ever

May 13, 2014

Hwæt! this tongue of spears calls you to reckoning. A language at once so regal and martial, wherein Hrothgar discoursed upon the duties of a king and Byrhtnoth ordered his troops at the Blackwater. Yet, those whose mouths formed this dead speech whispered sweet nānþing in each other’s ears just as easily as they roared or orated. Guttural, yes; glossal, to a fault, and yet, of their surviving works, how many are songs of lament? And, more importantly still, how many are really dirty jokes?

Quite a few, it turns out. We have always found it easy to read a shallow character into language. Français, the language of love, Deutsche, the language of anger, Español, the language of passion: the shallow character of shallow characters, the romantic Frenchman, the shouting German, the lustful Spaniard. Of course the Anglo-Saxons – who we all think were kind of Vikings anyway – spoke a language of battle, and of course, since they are dead, they spoke a language that always sounded like it was dying. The h’s breathy, wheezy; the c’s strangled, tight, but she died a seven-hundred-year death. She had time to be peaceful, and in that time she worked.

Think of all the labour and the precious, precious time buried in each and every work of literature since Chaucer. Think of the lifetimes bled into the very ink, the bones we flayed from our own bodies to give them strong backs to bind against. Think especially of those people debased and enslaved, their cultures ripped from their hands in the most visceral ways, and who had to toil not only for our self-aggrandisement, but for the simple pleasure of owning a song to sing or a story to tell. If I asked you to name every book you knew, you wouldn’t shut up for days, weeks even. Now, think of nuclear heat that fills every available space and lights water itself on fire.

Imagine, a thousand years from now, a crew of aliens arriving in the black ruins of our world. They undulate through the detritus, trying to find what they would understand as literature. After years of searching, their accomplishments are thus: one abridged copy of The Canterbury Tales, three different version of the Bible, The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook, a fistful of scattered legal documents, Gray’s Anatomy, the complete works of Stephenie Meyer, The Elements of Style, an early biography of Captain Cook  and a secondary school poetry book. From these fragmentary and fire-damaged works, the aliens must reconstruct an understanding of Anglospheric literature worthy of academic inquiry. The fate of the aliens alone is exhausting, but at least they’ll have joy in their work. But just think of all the work, and I mean work, lost to the ages. Forget icebergs, the aliens have found the tip of a nail, a nail we bled and sweated and wept to drive in, yet all that remains is a speck of rust, the merits of which shall inform their judgement of the entire nail.

Does that seem unjust to you? And yet there is no other way. We do what we can with what we have. We read, we interpret, we speculate. There are four books of Old English literature yet extant – the Junius Manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Nowell Codex and, of course, the Exeter Book – plus a morass of individual texts. Some of these are original manuscripts, some are transcripts of manuscripts now lost, such as those destroyed in the dark fire at Ashburnham House, from whence the Nowell Codex barely escaped. They hold marvels, and we have marvelled.

Though most of what survives consists in biographies of saints, translations of the Bible, chronicles and practical guides, Old English truly lives in its poems. Many are meditations on matters of faith, such as “The Dream of the Rood”, where Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is reimagined as the triumph of a warrior king over the enemy, death. Others are historical accounts, like “The Battle of Maldon”, a most curious limb of the poetic corpus. The tale recounted is a resounding military defeat for the Anglo-Saxon forces at the hands of Viking invaders, largely due to the immense and masculine pride of their leader, yet it is recorded nonetheless. They lose because of their rigid adherence to their heroic code, but we are called to praise it, in the same way one might be told that, as abhorrent as Osama bin Laden’s political ideals and actions were, one must admire his gumption. Another striking state of affairs exists between the male and female laments. The male laments, principally “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”, take a rhetorical turn away from despair to consolation, balancing out at melancholia. The female laments, on the other hand, contain no such turn, and end as desperately as they begin. Few things bespeak the desolation of women’s souls with such clarity.

Yet it is the riddles I love best. Many interesting theories surround their purpose. The manuscripts contain no solutions, so the obvious answer is often discarded. One theory describes the riddle as an intellectual party game where each participant conceives of an answer and attempts to persuade the other players of his point of view. Another posits that the riddles are not meant to be solved, that they are actually vehicles by which our arbitrary categorisations and definitions are exposed as absurd. By portraying the thing in terms of the dissimilar other, we are forced to reconsider the ways in which we understand the thing to be itself. In Riddle 7, for example, the swan is recast as a handsomely-dressed woman who transforms mid-poem into a flying spirit.

This is what makes the riddles so potent: metaphor alone is beautiful, but its metamorphosis is sublime. People and places and things are seen to exist in time, to grow and change. Nothing is static in the Old English riddle, everything moves and lives. There is transience, transition and transformation. Riddle 26 depicts the slaughtering of a sheep, the wetting, scraping and stretching of its flesh into vellum, its illumination with scripture, its adornment with gold. The beast, thus changed, rallies to its duty as the vessel of holy words and the salvation of mortal men. Martial, regal, sublime.

And this a dead language?

Hwæt fleard!

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Breaking News: Man Comes Dangerously Close to Giving a Fuck

December 20, 2013

Martin Edwards-Howell, of Owell, NJ, has been apathetic for over thirteen-and-a-half years. But, today, all his weeks, months and years of not giving a single golden fuck almost came crashing down around him. Since swearing off caring for other human beings over a decade ago, Mr Edwards-Howell has consistently succeeded in avoiding even the most tangential sense of investment in the happiness or welfare of other individuals. However, while flicking through channels as he waited for one of his neighbours to “come over and watch the game, or something, I dunno”, Mr Edwards-Howell was momentarily exposed to a UNICEF ad for developmental aid in the third world.

Mr Edwards-Howell managed to turn off the TV before he could begin to count the number of ribs jutting through the mosquito-bitten skin of each of the three malnourished Haitian orphans featured in the ad, but the image had already triggered horrific memories of an article he read on Al Jazeera this one time about child prostitution in Lebanon. Luckily, his neighbour, Shaun Ruggins, arrived moments later with a six-pack of Coors Lite, and Mr Edward-Howell’s apathy was completely restored about three-quarters of the way through his first bottle.

The former chief spokesman for Empathetics Anonymous, Dean Niles, didn’t tweet about the incident because we wasn’t all that bothered, but when contacted, commented: “That’s kinda shitty. Government should probably do something about that.” Empathetics Anonymous was an NGO with the mission of organising support groups for people who wished to overcome serious problems with considering and appreciating the emotional experiences of other individuals, but it folded in early 2007 due to what was described by “insurmountable creative indifferences” on the part of management.

Mr Edwards-Howell’s family released a statement to the press confirming he was “fine, probably”, and that they “didn’t give two swings of a donkey’s floppy cocksicle” upon hearing the news.

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