Friday, September 28, 2018

You cannot have a just farm bill and eat it too.

Assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University

Congress is in the midst of reconciling the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. Time is short. On September 30, the current law expires. No matter what transpires it will still not be enough to fully regulate the food system.

The public debate has been framed around work requirements and cuts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the need to support farmers. These are historically interconnected given that the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the first farm bill, was a response to contradictions between widespread hunger, agricultural overproduction, and falling commodity prices. Given that a majority of hungry people live in cities and most farmers live in the country, urban and rural political interests have had to work together ever since to create farm bills that meet the needs of both constituents.

Not only have these contradictions never been fully resolved, they overdetermine the focus of food and farm policy in the United States. As a result, there is rarely an acknowledgement of the benefit of asking how the federal government might regulate the food system differently.

The farm bill is not enough

Missing from the feud between Republicans and Democrats is a larger and needed conversation. Is the Farm Bill the best policy tool to regulate the food system? There is reason to believe it is not.

The current debate again elides considering how to integrate food and farm policy in the United States with holistic policy tools that speak to the entrenched problems that farmers, eaters, and activists have been identifying for decades. Corporate power, widespread food insecurity, unhealthy food, environmental degradation, exploitation of food-chain workers, low prices for farmers, and food system vulnerability to economic and ecological shock are just a few pressing matters. Although the consistent stream of media, from Food, Inc. and the Netflix series Rotten to sharp blogs like Civil Eats, has elevated the significance of food systems in popular culture, the increased public consciousness has not translated into new policy tools.

The narrowness of the Farm Bill and the fact that it is an omnibus piece of legislation that Congress renews every five years or so suggests that most Americans are likely not often paying attention to food and farm policy. When they do, it is the public debate is dominated by a limited set of issues. This is especially problematic given that at least fifteen federal agencies are responsible for regulating the food system.

There are, however, alternatives to the Farm Bill. What if instead of letting a few issues stand in as the entirety of what is essentially an imagined food and farm policy, policymakers were guided by an approach to food system policy making that addressed some of the root problems?

Integrative policy alternatives

Before President Barak Obama’s State of the Union Speech in 2014, four prominent food writers and activists wrote an opinion in the Washington Post calling on him to address the need for a national food policy. As Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter note, “food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.” Although President Obama did not heed this opinion, this set in motion a national conversation among food activists about how they might push this agenda forward from the grassroots.

Integrative policy alternatives are already in place around the world at many governing scales. Cities have adopted comprehensive food plans to inform food system development. States like Minnesota and Michigan have adopted food charters to guide policy making at all governing levels within the state. Countries like Canada are leading the way with working toward holistic national food policies that cut across federal departments. Perhaps an alternative to the Farm Bill is not so implausible.

There is also political support for such an approach. Grassroots food activists have led the rapid spread of food policy councils over the last decade. There are at least 260 food policy councils in the United States, the main work of which is to engage and include many different food system stakeholders and create strategic and policy planning for food system development.

List of food policy councils in the United States and Canada.
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Additionally, the American public wants better food policy in a number of areas, including improving dietary health and food access, supporting food-chain workers, and promoting sustainable agriculture. In response, the food movement has worked to build political power across the diversity of food system issues with new organizations such as the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Alliance and initiatives like the 50-State Food System Scorecard by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But what might be a strategic frame around which to solve many pressing food system problems with policy? The growing power of food justice suggests one promising path.

Food justice policy opportunity

I have been researching the rapid spread of the food justice movement for nearly a decade. Food justice is the fight for social justice throughout the entire food system. If we understand the food system to be a system of systems then this means it is a fight that extends into our economic, political, social, and ecological systems. By proxy, this suggests that much like there are many federal agencies that play a role in regulating the food system, food justice is an applicable framework across issues within the food system.

The question then becomes, how do we integrate a different set of values that mandates federal agencies to consider equity questions when deciding how to carry out their regulatory obligations? If we want to get to the root of many food system problems, this is a prerequisite for success.

Across the United States, food justice activists have elevated the focus on equity. National conferences like the much-loved Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative Gathering provide the opportunity to reflect on the values of the movement and debate the effectiveness of different initiatives and campaigns.

Food Justice.
A relief print by Meredith Stern.

The most comprehensive statement of purpose to come out of one of these convergences is the Principles of Food Justice, drafted at the Food + Justice = Democracy Conference. What is striking about this document is that it historically and sociologically positions the food system within its proper context. Colonialism, capitalism, institutional racism, and patriarchy are not just a backdrop to the story. They are the interrelated systems that have produced and continue to drive food system problems.

One initial step to intervene in these systems that lays the groundwork for a national food policy might be to create a national food strategy. To be effective, the strategy would have legally binding norms and goals that direct federal directives, plans, laws, and policies; require agencies to reform past policies; and receive adequate funding. As a reference point, the National Environmental Policy Act is a procedural law passed by Congress that mandates all federal agencies to submit environmental assessments and impact statements for all their proposed actions. A coordinated strategy centering food justice as the regulatory backbone informing food policy could operate similarly.

To operationalize the response to structural inequalities in the food system, several issue areas are of primary interest: land, labor, urban and rural community development, health, self-determination, and environmental sustainability. Mandating federal agencies to carry out food justice assessments and impact statements of their food system policies would go a long way toward integrating food policy in the United States around a new set of values.

The Farm Bill is not the best policy tool to regulate the food system or advance food justice across sectors. But maybe in the next five years, the food movement will continue to unite around the need for a national food policy and strategically come together around an equity framework for reconfiguring our food system.

Joshua Sbicca is assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University. He is the author of the new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle.

"By highlighting sites where justice, rather than food, is the primary motivator of social action, Joshua Sbicca’s timely and important book takes the conversation about food justice exactly where it needs to go."
—Julie Guthman, co-editor of The New Food Activism: Opposition, Cooperation, and Collective Action

"Can a food justice dialectics with a ‘radical imagination’ and strategies for change ameliorate economic and ethnoracial inequities? Joshua Sbicca’s searching analysis broadens food politics to new terrains of social movement building and struggle essential given today’s revanchist politics."
—Julian Agyeman, Tufts University

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Life on the edge in northern Minnesota border country.


The title of this novel might sound like the answer to a trivia question—points for anyone who can draw the Laurentian Divide on a bar napkin, extra to mark where it meets the St. Lawrence in northern Minnesota. At this juncture, rivers flow in three directions: east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, north to Hudson Bay, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Known to Native Americans as the Hill of Three Waters, where the watersheds of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi River systems meet the Hudson Bay basin, this was an important tribal gathering place for early Dakota, and later Ojibwe.

The community of Hatchet Inlet is fictional but to me feels as real as the actual places that inspire it. Many characters are complex and often contrary: sometimes taciturn, sometimes generous, wary though often kind, typical traits in a place where cooperation can be a necessary survival skill. The geographical divide was a tempting metaphor for divisions within families, bickering communities, and cultures struggling to find common ground.

As a writer, I'm ultimately more interested in what unites us than what divides us, the notion of opposing forces meeting to form something "other" sometimes in unexpected or mysterious ways.

I'd like to meet with readers, writers, and librarians to talk about the quiet activism of stories and literature in an era of loud headlines. I look forward to taking this novel on the road to visit colleges, libraries, and bookstores across the state and beyond. Maybe we'll see each other on the road to Hatchet Inlet!


Events for Laurentian Divide are listed here.


Excerpt from Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich:

The topic over breakfast in Pavola's is death. Not the sort occurring weekly up at Senior Cedars, where grannies in mobility scooters and walkers thump along in their derby to the finish, and not the tragic sort that floored Hatchet Inlet last fall after Kelly Rantala and Jessica Wiirtinen were killed in a drunken swerve. The death patrons of the diner mull over this bracing May morning is theoretical, regarding the current status of Rauri Paar, who may be dead, or—not to split hairs—is maybe not alive.

Pete Lahti holds the little metal pitcher just so, watching half & half meet his black coffee in a tiny Hiroshima bloom. Indeed, if Rauri is dead—and this might be a rugged image for so early in the day—somebody'll have to go out there and peel him off his cabin floor or search is island for gnawed remains. Maybe drag the bay. Pete listens as the caffeine-fueled debate revs and idles across booths, down the straightaway of the counter. Sitting next to him, Pete's father, Alpo, only nods. Every morning since ice-out on the big lake there's been talk. Usually, ice-out this far north in Minnesota is in April—in a bad year like this, as late as May. As soon as ice on the big lake breaks up, Rauri's smaller lake follows suit. Once it's navigable, he straps on a harness like some husky and humps his Alumacraft up the corduroy portage. Beyond Rauri Lake (no one remembers its actual name), it's an easy enough slide down the south side of the Divide, which lands Rauri on the banks of the Majimanidoo, where snowmelt can roil it into a carnival ride. Dodging ice chunks the size of coolers is no easy feat in a twelve-foot fishing boat with only a 10-horse Evinrude. Rauri could be bobbing like a cork around the Laurentian Divide.

Pete's made the journey to Rauri's place a few times, once years back and again on his own last fall when he went out to put down Rauri's old spaniel, Scotty. It's no stroll.

The one thing everyone in the diner agrees on is that Rauri should have shown up by now. You can say "Spring is here," or you can say "Rauri's back." His arrival marks the start of the season, and when weather is slow to warm and cabin fever's not yet broke, you might hear someone mutter, Where in hell is Rauri Paar?" Some won't set seedlings in their windowsills until they've seen the whites of Rauri's eyes.

When he does show, it's first things first: he drops a toxic load of laundry at the Wash & Gogh, then it's straight to the barber for a haircut and hot lather shave. Once his bushman's eyebrows are trimmed and he's wearing a fumigated shirt, he'll beeline to the produce aisle at Putzl's and stand gawking as if at a centerfold, stuffing himself with fresh anything—gnawing parsley while juggling limes and tangelos into this cart.

Lastly, Rauri makes his way to Pavola's, where he takes center stool to enjoy his first fresh eggs since November. Regulars ignore the yolk on his chin and coax an account of his winter out of Rauri. No great storyteller but a wiz at figures and facts, he regales them with a litany of temperatures and wind speeds, snowfall totals, ice depths, pounds of propane used, boxes of Bisquick consumed, cords of birch burnt.

They prod for more. The core of their curiosity regards loneliness, but no one asks outright how he hacks it—every winter out there by himself. Instead, he offers a picture of his season like a paint-by-number of facts: biggest fish, wildlife visitations, vermin infestations, magazines read. Monochrome at best, the sections are slowly filled in with what DVDs got watched and how many times, what supplies were run out of—the previous year it had been cooking oil and Preparation H. Rauri might describe notable meals cooked: his personal best had been a haunch of wolf-killed doe with chanterelles glazed in a reduction of maple syrup and vodka, a side of fiddlehead ferns sauced with condensed milk and nutmeg. Worst was a stew of jerky shards and limp carrots in a base made from the last bouillon cube, garnished with moldy Parmesan and consumed sober.

If anyone had taken note of the Northern Lights over the winter, Rauri could remind them of the exact dates and times, and how many minutes or hours they had waltzed. No nuances from Rauri, barely an adjective, but if it's facts you're after, he's your man.

Pavola's patrons assume that Rauri is thrilled to be among them, and they unconsciously note who his gaze returns to, whose hand gets shaken most vigorously, whose back is slapped most mightily. Who had Rauri missed?


Sarah Stonich is the best-selling author of These Granite Islands (Minnesota, 2013), which has been translated into seven languages and shortlisted for France's Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle; the critically acclaimed novel The Ice Chorus; and a memoir, Shelter: Off the Grid in the Mostly Magnetic North (Minnesota, 2017). Her novel-in-stories, Vacationland (Minnesota, 2013), is the first volume in her Northern Trilogy, followed by Laurentian Divide.

Friday, September 21, 2018

“Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”: Jim Walsh on the world’s rediscovery of “The Gold Experience” and the funky powerhouse joy that is the New Power Generation


The New Power Generation was on the second encore of its first-ever appearance at First Avenue on September 14, when lead singer MacKenzie and rapper Tony Mosley (a.k.a. Tony M) implored the crowd to pay respects to their fallen leader, Prince. As the crowd and band cheered at the night’s first mention of Prince’s name, bassist Sonny Thompson (aka Sonny T), who began his live music career playing with The Sonny Thompson Band in the 7th Street Entry next door, gleefully shouted out, “Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”

Along with fellow original NPG members Mayte (Prince’s first wife), Morris Hayes (a.k.a. Mr. Hayes), Tommy Barbarella, and the NPG hornz, Prince’s spirit was alive and wild and in the house that hot Thursday night. The grief over Prince’s death has given way to acceptance and, this night, real joy—the kind of joy that’s driven by live music, not nostalgia or even reverence for its dearly departed creator. “The music,” is how Prince simply answered when I asked him what he wanted people to know about him, and it was the music this night that lifted most every soul in the joint, especially scintillating dance work-outs like “Sexy MF,” “Get Wild,” “Daddy Pop,” and “DMSR (Dance Music Sex Romance).”

Many of those old tunes are now finding new ears, which was part of the reason I was eager to publish Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s, my clip-by-clip account of arguably the most overlooked years of Prince’s prolific career. It’s also a thumbnail history of the New Power Generation, one of Prince’s all-time greatest bands (“I’m not a judge,” he told me once when I asked him what his favorite band to play with was in terms of generating live heat; “I don’t set foot on a stage unless it’s hot”). To be sure, I have a special place in my heart for the NPG and Prince’s great album “The Gold Experience.” I was passionately covering Prince and the NPG for the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he asked me to write the liner notes for “The Gold Experience,” released in 1995 and debuted at number 6 on the Billboard charts, and rarely heard of again, despite it featuring Prince’s last chart-topping single, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.”

These days, Prince’s first band The Revolution has been paying tribute to all His Royal Badness’s greatest music of the ‘80s, and the hole in everyone’s soul is starting to fill in and being replaced with wonder, amazement, and living in the now. We all pay tribute in our own way, and when Prince died I eulogized him here and here, and, to ensure that his work in the ‘90s was given its proper due, Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s via the University of Minnesota Press.

I was a champion of Prince then, and now, which is why I’m thrilled to know that more people than ever are hearing “The Gold Experience”—many for the first time, since to this day it still feels like an underground release. The good news is that last month, the Prince estate and Sony released 23 long unavailable albums digitally, including “The Gold Experience,” along with the compilation “Prince Anthology: 1995-2010.”

Though never afforded the mythological status of, say, “The Black Album,” “The Gold Experience” nonetheless carries with it a similar man-versus-machine storyline. His last record for Warner Bros. Records, “The Gold Experience” was made and released at the height of Prince’s war with the media giant, and therefore it received little promotional push. At the time, Prince was an early expert adapter of the digital music revolution that was fully underway, and a visionary who saw the future we’re now living out, embodied by artists like Chance The Rapper, a truly independent artist who sells out tours and wins Grammys with little help from the dinosaur that is the major label/media/music business.

Delicious irony, then, that “The Gold Experience” is today available all over the world—for FREE (cue Prince cackle here), via streaming sites such as SpotifyApple Music, YouTube, Pandora,  and, which concluded of “The Gold Experience”: “The album is considered by some fans to be the ‘Purple Rain’ of the 1990s.”

Noted Variety:

Curiously, the artist’s biggest hit from that period—‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1994—is not included, although it was part of the original tracklist for ‘The Gold Experience.’ Reps for the estate and Sony declined comment, but a source close to the situation tells Variety that the song is ‘on legal hold as a result of existing litigation.’ (The song was originally issued on the indie Delmark Records after Prince’s label at the time, Warner Bros., with whom he was publicly sparring, reportedly declined to release it; after its chart success, the song was included on Prince’s next album for Warner, ‘The Gold Experience.’) 
Assembled and curated under the auspices of the Prince estate, ‘Prince Anthology: 1995-2010’ opens with the title track from 1996’s ‘Emancipation’ (‘This is my most important record,’ Prince said of his first album released after he’d left his original label, Warner Bros. Records) and closing with the anthemic ‘We March’ from 1995’s ‘The Gold Experience’).”

Fresh and freaky to this day, “The Gold Experience” is a tour-de-force of funk, rock and soul, and captures the NPG at the height of its powers. As Mr. Hayes told Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current recently, “ 'The Gold Experience’ album was like this band had really just got into that crunched-down, super-tough, well-rehearsed band that was like a powerhouse band.”

Likewise, critics and fans are discovering or rediscovering the greatness of “The Gold Experience.” Last year, the Hello, My Treacherous Friends blog opened this reassessment with “It might be an unpopular opinion, but Prince’s criminally out-of-print ‘The Gold Experience’ is my favorite of all of his albums. Released 22 years ago today, ‘The Gold Experience’ saw Prince at his funkiest, raunchiest, slyest and sexiest while delivering a collection of songs that easily match previous high points like ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times.’”

Around the same time, careful listener and ever-reliable critic Keith Harris, music editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, ranked “The Gold Experience” #4 out of Prince’s 32 albums (his top five: 1. “Sign O’ The Times,” 2. “Dirty Mind,” 3. “Purple Rain,” 4. “The Gold Experience,” 5. “1999”), writing, “By 1994 ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ was better known for not having a name and for accusing his label of reducing him to a ‘slave’ (as he had emblazoned on his cheek) than he was for making hits. It was a weird time to release a masterpiece, but damned if that’s not what ‘The Gold Experience’ is. The NPG’s attack is streamlined to a hard funk punch on the feminist celebration ‘Pussy Control’ and the hard-hitting ‘Endorphinmachine,’ and Prince even tacked on the lovely ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ the 1993 top 10 hit he didn’t yet know would be his last.”

So what are you waiting for? The time is right for all Prince fans to discover or rediscover the carnal funky joy of such would-be classics as “Pussy Control,” “Endorphinmachine,” “We March,” “319,” and “Billy Jack Bitch.” As Prince wrote to me after I wrote an open love letter to him as my time covering him wound down, “Go and get your gold experience/peace love march…”


Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer, journalist, columnist, and songwriter. His books include Gold Experience: Following Prince in the '90s; Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes; and The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History.

"Jim Walsh was front and center for one of the most prolific and controversial eras in Prince’s career, and Gold Experience offers an intimate, real-time account of this critical chapter in the evolution of a generation's greatest musician."
—Alan Light, music journalist and author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Occupy Surplus-Value: Toward the Revaluation of Value


It is hard not to despair. The enormity of the problems dwarf the human scale, even though it is we, humans, who have created them. We seem to have fallen under the wheels of an economic system whose signature products are inexorably increasing social inequality, periodic crises from which only the top tier (those whose "irrational exuberance" triggered crisis in the first place) happily recover, and environmental devastation of such a magnitude that it has tipped us over into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, bearing the now-shameful name of a restless species which seems to have answered the ancient call to go forth, multiply, and subdue the earth a tad too enthusiastically.

Many solutions are proposed. But they rarely target the drive toward quantitative increase written into the dynamic of the capitalist system. Growth is an unassailable article of faith in most discursive realms, even today, as the evidence of its unsustainability daily mounts. Its periodic quantitative measure drives not only the economic cycles, but electoral cycles as well. Even the newly energized democratic socialist movement dares not call it out. Part of the reason is likely that the hyper-complex global reach of the capitalist economy makes systemic change capable of so radically realigning the basis of the economy seem a pipe dream. Many of us are at the same time energized by the urgency of the situation, and prey to feelings of paralysis in the face of the enormity of the task. Small gestures and local projects may fire our imaginations, but cannot quell our sense of the doomed inadequacy of our means. In response, some preach "acceleration": pushing capitalism beyond its limit, or just letting it go, toward a crisis to end all crises, or over a tipping point where our species being is transcended by its subsumption under the transformative technologies its own indefatigable allegiance to capitalism has unleashed.

99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value
is in response to this quandary. It refuses both a reformism accepting of the disastrous systemic general-operating parameters of the capitalist economy, and accelerationism. It proposes an "affirmative" approach to the problems. In light of what was just said, this may come across as disingenuous. Optimism in the face of such rationally grounded despair? How can we not be pessimistic to the extreme? Face it: pessimism is the only rational response. But on the other hand, was it not precisely the economic rationality of the capitalist economy that brought to where we are? Perhaps what is needed is a side-stepping of the alternative between the rational and the irrational, a move beyond the binary choice of pessimism and optimism, hope or despair.

It is a common misunderstanding that affirmative thought and politics are forms of optimism, based on an acceptance of what is. They are anything but. What they are based on is what Deleuze calls "belief in the world" – an actively lived engagement with the potential the world holds for change; with the capacity it always holds in itself for outdoing itself. Affirmation is predicated not on accepting things as they are, but on living the present in so intense a manner – so engaged, so tautly, affectively attuned to the field conditions – as to release a quantum of the charge of futurity they hold. It is to practice "immanent critique": not standing outside and judging from a safe position of implicit superiority, but rather diving into the mess and complexity, risking failure, accepting the inevitably of being wrong at times, maybe even spectacularly – but gaining by that the possibility that a well-tempered tweak from within might alter the relational cast of the field, deflecting the course of things down an altered trajectory, to however small (but potentially great) a degree. It is, to use a phrase of Donna Haraway, to creatively stay with the trouble.

What is gained by this is not necessarily success – although there is no prospect of success without it. Because a theoretically and programmatically correct eagle's-eye view of the totality is nowhere less attainable than with the open, complex, rapidly self-evolving system that is the capitalist economy in which we are immersed. What is gained is what might be called an aesthetic yield of intensity: the feeling that whatever comes, it will have been worth it to have lived the moment thus, because it was lived to the utmost. This is an example of what I call "surplus-value of life": an experienced value that is its own value, worth it for itself. This is a purely qualitative value. It is an incomparable as the timbre of particularly pellucid note of music or the saturation of a breath-taking color. It is incommensurable, unexchangeable. It is such as it was, all and only that, and nothing more than how it was lived. It can be pursued on the smallest or most macro of scales, beginning from right where one is. No need to wait for the correct, final analysis (which will never come) before jumping in. No need for the end-all up front (which will never happen). Any and every moment can yield surplus-value of life, provided the moment is intensely lived.

There is also a common critique of intensity that equates it with pleasure or "positive" affect, in greater than usual quantity. By this account, waxing long on intensity is little more than a pollyanaish romantic indulgence. This is a complete misunderstanding of the concept. Intensity has no more to do with the hedonic categories of pleasure and pain, or with magnitudes of either, than it has to do with optimism versus pessimism. What it has to do with is the living of potential, experienced qualitatively. It doesn't have to do with the pacifying beauty of a red that is a personal favorite, for example. It has to more do, to hijack Claudel, with the felt conundrum of a sea so blue only blood could be redder: quality of experience outdoing itself, overspilling any effective frame of comparison, standing out, in and for its own character. Utmost quality. Excess of quality.

The first conceit of 99 Theses
is to think that the theory of value can be remolded on the model of surplus-value of life. And that capitalist surplus-value is a quantitative capture and conversion of surplus-values of life that are purely qualitative in nature. And that there are such things as relational qualities, irreducibly collective surplus-values of life that we attain only by outdoing our individual selves in relational engagement and affective attunement with shared field conditions. And that the pursuit of these transindividual values can potentially sketch lines of escape from the capitalist capture of surplus-value of life, which the economy continually appropriates toward its own ends, feeding upon it parasitically. And that these lines of escape might eddy into autonomous zones, vacuoles of capitalist business-as-usual, bubbling pores in the capitalist field that prefigure a postcapitalist future in much the same the way that Marx saw capitalism growing in the pores of feudalism.

There is a need for a critical moment, clearing obstacles to the effective practice of immanent postcapitalist critique. Immanent critique does not exclude negative critique, or even destruction. It actually requires them. But it requires that they be dosed and well-diagnosed so as to positively produce the conditions for the affirmative, creative and constructivist, practice of immanent critique. A not insignificant portion of the 99 Theses is dedicated to this field-clearing task of negative critique. The objects of the critique are the market logic underwriting the capitalist system, the myth of equal exchange as the supposed principle of the market, and money in its market role of general equivalent and medium of exchange. The critique of these concepts opens the way to an understanding of the contemporary neoliberal capitalist economy as in fact predicated on excess: not equal value for money, but the drive to surplus-value, in its specifically capitalist expression.

To understand the excess nature and role of surplus-value, it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the financial markets and their speculative dynamic. This requires feats of extreme abstraction, because the financial instruments that dominate the financial sector (such as derivatives) are themselves abstract to the hilt; or better, they are concrete technologies of extreme abstraction. The present-day economic dominance of the financial markets and their highly speculative modus operandi makes it little more than a wan dream to think that we could right the world by disciplining capitalism's in-born tendency for speculation and resurrect the centrality of the old productive economy, where value is commensurate with hard work, and price reflects the true "value of money." This vision of the productive economy is at any rate little more than an extension of the market myth, romantically applied to labor. It conveniently forgets the violence that went into creating the capitalist labor market in the dominant economies, as minutely documented by Marx in volume 1 of Capital – not to mention the essential link between this endocolonial enterprise and the even greater exocolonialist violence of the slave trade and its aftermaths. It also glosses over the ongoing "extortion" of life-time and life-quality that goes into maintaining the labor market, under neoliberalism in increasingly precarious forms – just as essentially linked to the neo-colonial leveraging of global inequalities.

It is the second conceit of the 99 Theses to consider that the speculative nature and excessiveness of the financial markets is actually a better place to begin than the conventional, equal-exchange-based concept of the market. The key is to collectively reappropriate surplus-value of life, breaking free of the mechanisms that capture it for the continuing production of capitalist surplus-value and its murderous dynamic of quantitative increase in unequal accumulation. The task, in a word, is to "occupy" surplus-value. To affirm excess, but in a qualitative key – for a future sea so blue that only something other than spilt blood could be redder. This requires staying with the trouble that is intensity, sorting out its complex relations to quantity, quality, and affect, and understanding their vicissitudes as the conversion to capitalist surplus-value takes place, with the goal of identifying escape hatches. A great deal of the book is dedicated to this philosophical task.

The final conceit of the 99 Theses is that diving into the field conditions of the present, including but not limited to their properly economic dimensions, involves affirming, of all things – gasp! – crytocurrency. Crytocurrency is one of the contemporary field conditions that holds as-yet unplumbed potential. If its yield of potential is paltry as yet, it is because it has yet to correct its birth defect of libertarian market ideology, and its corresponding penchant to reproduce the worst kind of capitalist speculative energies. But in the dawning post-blockchain world, a plethora of projects are brewing that potentially operate by very different logics. They offer the possibility of a range of qualitatively different micro-economies growing pore-like in the capitalist field, and then entering into complex ecologies with each other to start composing a postcapitalist alter-economic field. This is a possibility because these "local" projects are in fact translocal: they are local to networks whose reach can be wide; and they can be made "interoperable" even as each retains its power to define its own mode of governance and its own dedicated value system.

The book delves into some of these potentials, focusing on the project I collaborate on, the SenseLab's "3 Ecologies Process Seed Bank." This is an attempt at inventing a non-market-based collectivist economy running directly on affective intensities of creative play (of the most serious kind – as a counter-model to work). The idea is to build a vacuole where the production of surplus-value of life is the operative economic principle, then to finds ways of making it interoperable with other alter-economic projects, as part of a collaborative ecology of complementary and mutually sustaining micro-economies deriving their richness and strategic staying power from their correlative diversity in a way that empowers them to collectively negotiate their transitional relation with the dominant economy, cooperatively shielding each other from being coopted or destroyed by it.

If this sounds impossible, it is. At least, it is in the present. But in the futurity in this present, it is eminently potentialized, we worldly believe. 99 Theses doesn't purport to have the last word. The 3E Process Seed Bank project doesn't claim to be the model. The goal of both is much more modest: to help provide a starting point, intense and alluring enough for some to dive into and affirm, and in doing so convey to others that the potential is there, wherever they labor and play, free to be harvested in the non-circulating currency of surplus-value of life.


Brian Massumi is author of many books, including 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto; Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts.

"Brian Massumi has brought a rich perspective to bear on the deepest problem linking capitalism, ethics, and calculation: the problem of quality. This book offers many good reasons to see that the emphasis on number, quantity, and countability is the ruling fiction of the empire of capital and the main obstacle to the revaluation of value in both theory and practice."
—Arjun Appadurai, author of Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance

"Brian Massumi's latest philosophical tour de force continues to debunk mainstream economic thinking to make space for postcapitalist alternatives. Reclaiming value as qualitative intensity within an ethical ecology of powers, Massumi pushes the Marxist concepts of capital and surplus value to the limit. He thus shows how the radical task of reverse engineering financial capitalism exceeds both the contemporary cryptocurrencies and cryptoeconomics scene, opening up onto a postcapitalist future."
—Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Outsider Theory, Ruggles of Red Gap, and unforgetting: On the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle.

Pennsylvania State University

When I was in graduate school, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to a movie called Ruggles of Red Gap. Released by Paramount in 1935, the film—a quirky comedy—features the Canadian actress Maude Eburne (no relation), who made a career playing characters named "Ma." Ruggles of Red Gap is perhaps most notable for the scene in which the titular Ruggles, an English valet played in condemned-veal deadpan by Charles Laughton, recites the Gettysburg Address. The scene is memorable not only for Laughton's line reading of the speech, which rises from a nearly inaudible murmur; it is also memorable because nobody else in the scene can recall its words.

The Gettysburg Address scene takes place in a dusty saloon in the gold-rush era town of Red Gap, Washington. As Laughton's recitation unfolds the other patrons gather around him in awed silence, a cluster of enormous moustaches, each one more remarkable than the last. The fact that Laughton's Ruggles knows Lincoln's speech by heart is poignant, the film suggests, because Ruggles is himself a servant. Though a fish out of water in Red Gap—whose butler's livery is mistaken by the locals for English finery—Ruggles is not only a servant; he is also property. The premise of this 1935 comedy is that his master, the dissolute Earl of Burstead, has wagered his faithful valet in a late-night Parisian poker game and (I'm terribly sorry, old chap) lost the bet. The victors are a gold-enriched Wild West couple on a Yerpeen bender, Ma and Pa, who somewhat awkwardly import Ruggles back to Red Gap with them.

The film thus becomes a loose allegory for slavery—at least for a few spellbound moments at its center, when Ruggles begins muttering the Gettysburg Address in a bar. But in doing so it also becomes a story about the way knowledge circulates, even—or perhaps especially–when it might otherwise seem to be failing to circulate. Ruggles of Red Gap certainly gestures toward the all-too-ready tendency for American settler colonists to forget the founding proposition "that all men [sic] are created equal," whether in the era of Manifest Destiny, or during the Depression, or during the so-called age of Trump. It's not the most subtle gesture in the history of film. Ruggles of Red Gap offers neither a sustained critique of US imperialism and white supremacism, nor, for that matter, a lament for the closing of the American mind. Its credibility as an allegory for civil rights is sketchy, even offhand. But the barroom scene is significant for the way it smuggles Lincoln's speech into the heart of an unsuspecting madcap comedy.

For the film also saliently demonstrates a scene of unforgetting, reversing a collective amnesia whereby Pa comes to wonder, now, what did he say that day at Gettysburg? Ruggles, declaring his own independence from servitude, recites Lincoln's speech to a roomful of increasingly eager listeners, including Maude Eburne's Ma. What is remarkable—and of course, staged as a coup de théâtre for the benefit of the viewing public—is that everyone pays attention. The message of Lincoln's speech likewise hinges on this attention: on visiting the Civil War battleground, Lincoln refused to consecrate the ground, calling instead for his listeners to dedicate themselves to the "unfinished work" he associated with democracy: to unforget, in perpetuity.

I had occasion to recall this scene over the recent Labor Day weekend, which was punctuated by two very different efforts to capture public attention in the name of democratic politics. One involved the craven—and hastily withdrawn—gesture of inviting a neofascist blowhard to drum up public "debate" at the New Yorker Festival. Another involved the Nike corporation's decision to center an advertising campaign on the quiet but reverberating antiviolence campaign of Colin Kaepernick. Both decisions were efforts to solicit attention, and both the New Yorker and Nike would claim to do so in the name of democratic principles—if not the explicitly governmental terms of Lincoln's "government by the people, for the people," then at least in the terms of the right to free speech, a gesture of enshrining or hallowing certain kinds of speech acts, whether loud ones or quiet ones. The New Yorker Festival invitation briefly sought to extend the magazine's aspirations toward "big tent" democracy into a veritable three ring circus; but as the tent collapsed it disclosed little else than the whiteness of the tent itself. As for the Nike campaign, it was not immediately clear whether the shoe corporation was championing Kaepernick for his perseverance in protesting the silencing of Black lives and the persistence of anti-Black and anti-Brown police violence in the US— or whether it was merely upholding him as "controversial." There was, of course, no need for Nike to clarify their position; the advertisement works either way.

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, Kamala Harris and a handful of other Democratic senators sought to disrupt the hearings for the lifetime appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice. They did so not only to protest the nomination of a judge known for his right-wing, pro-corporation interests, but also to demand the time necessary for paying attention to delayed and withheld papers documenting his former White House activities. As Harris explained, "The committee received, just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages of documents that we haven't had an opportunity to read, review or analyze." Another call for attention, this time not only in the interest of democratic processes but also, curiously, in the interest of minutiae, of the circulation of records and archival documents, of reading, of public knowledge.

What brought Ruggles of Red Gap to mind was the way in which it dramatizes living memory, rather than formal monuments, as the stuff of democracy. Charles Laughton's recitation of the Gettysburg Address proposes that Lincoln's project of emancipation was to be kept alive not by capturing or enshrining attention, but by performing the "unfinished work" of unforgetting itself. Not, in other words, from sensationalism or mass appeal, but from the slower, more deliberate work of repetition, repertoire, and recursion.

In my new book I take up analogous questions, examining how facts and nonfacts alike circulate and take on meaning as elements in a historical process. An intellectual history of outlandish ideas, Outsider Theory studies the processes and media through which errant, unfashionable, or otherwise unreasonable thinking circulate and take form within the intellectual life of the present. Rather than erecting monuments to "great thinkers," I am interested in the extent to which speculative inquiry extends beyond the work of professional intellectuals to include the work of nonprofessionals, whether amateurs, unfashionable observers, the clinically insane, or populations not commonly perceived as intellectuals. The book features the work of a variety of such figures, from popular occult writers, gnostics, and “outsider artists” to the Marquis de Sade and pseudoscientists such as Immanuel Velikovsky. It accounts for how and why such ideas have left their impression on twentieth-century thinking and continue to exercise a role in its continued evolution. The ambition of this project is therefore not to enforce the demarcation between good and bad theories, but to dramatize the stakes of their intelligibility. And those stakes are especially urgent today: not because every piece of unread documentation is important, but because the repercussions of not reading are severe.

In spite of the vogue for reboots and recursions in Hollywood (A Star Is Born has, apparently, just been reborn, or born again), I doubt if there will be plans to remake Ruggles of Red Gap anytime soon. One might lament the shallowness of the public repertoire of such films: the difficulty of getting one's hands—nevermind one's eyes—on such films, of coming to know them in the first place. To what extent have we, the public, been recast as the gawking, amnesiac saloon patrons? It is an image of the shrinking public sphere that innumerable journalists, education reformers, pundits, and scholars have been lamenting for at least the past decade, if not since the height of the Culture Wars of the late 1980s. Is it not Ruggles who, in his borrowed livery and ready access to the Western Canon, puts The Closing of the American Mind to shame?

But Ruggles—I maintain—does not cite Lincoln in order that we might genuflect before the Great Men of history, as if to enshrine great political leaders or the great geniuses. Ruggles repeats the Gettysburg Address as a performance of its message not to consecrate, and to dedicate oneself instead to the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle alike. This work, indeed, is far from finished. And it is to this unfinished work—the ever-unfinished work of thought, the ever-unfinished work of teaching, and, the ever-unfinished work of political belonging and emancipation—to which Outsider Theory seeks to contribute.


Jonathan P. Eburne is associate professor of comparative literature, English, and French and Francophone studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime, coauthor of four other books, and editor of ASAP/Journal.

"A bracing challenge to academic squeamishness, Outsider Theory is a learned, mischievous, and fascinating book that makes a compelling argument for the positive role of fraud, failure, and error in knowledge production."
—John Wilkinson, University of Chicago

"Jonathan P. Eburne has written a generous, curious, rigorous book about ideas often dismissed as ridiculous, embarrassing, and even dangerous."
—Evan Kindley, author of Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture

"This timely book is not only genuinely interesting, but makes a strong and original contribution to the discussion concerning the future of the humanities. Jonathan P. Eburne's study of questions of method is itself an achievement of method, engaging with the outsiders not as a cabinet of curiosities, but in a way that troubles thinking, and especially thinking about thinking."
—Margret Grebowicz, Tyumen State University