10 Books, #8
- Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin
Daniel Tucker once told me that this was the best social movement history he had ever read. I cannot argue with that. It engages from the first page, in a narrative both moving and critical, and follows the whole arc of the most militant black American workers organization to have been assembled in modern times. The authors expose all the motivating outrage, the radical promise, and the irresolvable contradictions in a readable style that preserves a picture of early 1970s Detroit as a hothouse of tensions—between and within races, classes, and competing interests of all kind. The book was out of print for a long time but now is being rediscovered. The new edition is a valuable resource in light of the new interest among builders, artists, and activists in the legacies of Detroit’s social history. It comes at the right time, as some of the principals from the heydey of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement are still around (such as Mike Hamlin) to give living voice to that history.
- The Book of Chuang Tzu
The Tao Te Ching is usually considered the key Daoist text, but Chuang Tzu is where it’s at. I will always recommend Chuang Tzu’s giddy and personal philosophical meditations on everyday events over the slippery and moralistic abstractions of the Tao Te Ching. Here I refer to the Penguin Classics edition.
- Opium, State, and Society: China’s Narco-Economy and the Guomindang, 1924-1937, Edward R. Slack, Jr
A scholarly study of China’s opium policies in the years of its greatest and most acute contradictions, the author insists that it contains lessons for our own so-called War on Drugs. The first thing to understand, according to Slack, is that after the Opium Wars were lost and concluded, China’s national strategy shifted to homegrowing the drug, even while attempting to eradicate it as a moral evil. The author’s details of the trade, of the way that poppy growing regions came to economic and social life with the seasonal crop, of the innumerable interested parties—everybody from the urban street dealers to the workers in the vast transport network to the traveling entertainment troupes that worked at harvest time—not to mention an account of the affects of the drug on its users, paint a picture of a society addicted not only to a narcotic, but to the dishonesty of its policies.
- Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, Louis Althusser
I have this book mainly for the classic essay “Ideology and the State,” in which Althusser lays out his famous theory of “interpellation.” Anybody hoping to understand the formation of individual, and thus social, consciousness in capitalist society needs to consider this text. Others have critiqued Althusser for his squishy theory disguised as social science, but it is a convincing analysis, even if only read as detailed polemic. While Althusser concerned himself with the ways capitalism reproduces itself, the theory of interpellation is also useful for activists invested in the ways that social movements and cultures of resistance may reproduce themselves.
- Revolution As An Eternal Dream: The Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, Mary Patten
Published by Half Letter Press after several years of treading water without a definite plan for release, we may finally enjoy and learn from Mary Patten’s extended essay on the May 19th Communist organization and the related Madame Binh Graphics Collective. May 19th was a Weather Underground splinter group whose actions went well into the decade of the 1980s, tying together the antiwar/anti-imperialist, black liberation, and women’s liberation streams of radicalism. Mary Patten takes on the impossibly difficult task of analyzing a chapter from her own life, one that seems to belong to a different era but still shapes the politics of our present, and making it understandable and useful to artists and activists dealing with the worsening political climate of today. The book is a slim volume but packs in over 40 color reproductions of radical posters from the era.
- Detour and Access, Francois Jullien
A friend tells me that Jullien has made his career on expounding a sort of high-minded orientalism, in which he dresses up an essentialist depiction of Chinese thought in a philosophically-informed analysis. That may be, but for me it works. Here his strategy is to compare classical Chinese and classical Greek accounts of political negotiation, political rhetoric, and social coding. It is hard to argue against his basic point, which is that the long and deeply entrenched history of oblique exchange in political dialogue and negotiations between powers in China serve purposes of access and outcome that would not be possible without those forms of exchange. The subtleties of Jullien’s analysis get totally lost when dumbed down by popular business lit books about saving face in China, but that kernel of difference does warrant serious treatment and Jullien delivers.
- Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910-1960, Dawn Ades and Alison McClean
An amazing compendium of works using the whole range of traditional graphic arts, in high quality reproduction: lithography, letterpress typography, etchings, woodcuts, and linocuts. The authors included examples of fine art prints, newspaper pages, book and magazine covers, and posters. The power of this book is all the more impressive given its relative economy; the goods are packaged in a little less than 200 pages. Since coming across this volume and ever afterward, Mexico may be the first nation I think of when considering the relationship between political revolution and the graphic tradition. That is saying a lot.
- Mexican Blackletter, Cristina Paoli
The author emphasizes the fact that blackletter is not the dominant style of letter form in the Mexican signage-scape, but then goes on to present a hundred folio-sized pages of example after example of blackletter signage from Mexico. The classified examples—groupings of each letter of the alphabet—are particularly useful in extending the appreciation of blackletter in its apparent infinite variation. Her ruminations on its usage, popularity, and meanings help bring the blackletter aesthetic into the global present, through the street culture of Mexico—and anywhere large numbers of Mexican people reside, like parts of Chicago or LA. The book will take any typophile into a vernacular often noticed but hardly ever treated with the combination of seriousness and respectful playfulness that Paoli accords it here.
- Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, Miron L. Heinselman
Quetico Provincial Park and the BWCA together make up a two-million acre parcel of protected primitive land of lakes and millenia-old trails that straddles the modern Minnesota-Ontario border. This is where the open lake water is clean enough to drink and long summer evenings often end in displays of northern lights, providing the wilderness experience that informed writers like Sigurd Olson and Antler. Of the international canoe country wilderness, the Quetico is undoubtedly the better park. But the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the better story. Most people who canoe, camp, and fish in BWCA these days have no idea that the area was a battleground in the 1970s, complete with intense confrontations, disruptive direct action, and undercurrents of violence. Here is that story, as told in great political and legislative detail by some of the actors in the drama.
- The Renaming Machine: The Book, edited by Suzana Milevska
The politics of naming and renaming, particularly with regard to territories and place names, is a fraught arena in our time. The editor/author comes from Macedonia, once a part of Yugoslavia, where renaming has taken on the concreteness of post-wartime trauma. Hers is a complex and yet urgent inquiry, packaged here in a beautifully designed and earthily bound 400-page volume that equals its subject matter in heft and richness of feel in the hands. The best contribution I’ve yet read is the editor’s own, a critical reflection on Sasha Huber’s project Rentyhorn, a project that contests the naming of a Swiss mountain peak after the famous geophysical scientist Louis Agassiz, the man who first theorized the Ice Age but also shamelessly advanced a brand of scientific racism. Huber proposes to rename it in honor of Renty, the enslaved Congolese man Agassiz used to prove his theories of racial superiority.
- Dan S. Wang