Monday, February 19, 2018

Speed of Life, Alienation, and Estranged Labor: From Janus to Marx, David Wojnorowitz to Peter Hujar

Scenes of the city and water, people and art by Peter Hujar at the Morgan Library.

From the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79). Photograph: David Wojnarowicz/Courtesy of the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Over the last few weeks, the topic of alienation has been everywhere.
People feel alienated from government, work, the unions, the social supports that keep us together, the immigrants making their way here, building the city itself.
Some reach for guns, the machine guns that help them feel powerful.
Others, including the kids who saw their friends shot last week, are calling bullshit on the politicians offering thoughts and prayers.  Hopefully these kids can change the dynamic in congress. Walkouts are planned for March 14th and April 20th across the country.

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Robert AyersRise and Resist The two new signs for Not-my-President's Day ...

Verified account @ReporterBlayne3 hours ago
The lie-in crowd has grown - dozens now on the ground. Others started chanting "shame on you" outside White House.

Its terrifying to know that our government has established de facto policy of allowing gunmen to bring automatic weapons to mow you down when you enter school.  But by offering unrestricted access to weapons, this is exactly our policy.
In other spaces, people have tried to pull together. At our union, we’ve debated what we can do to move from a service to movement orientated model in which we are all seen as leaders.  Yet, this is exactly what we all have to do, become involved.  Only with full involvement can unions feel like dynamic movements, not top down, bureaucratic organizations. With the supreme court set to rule against public sector unions in the Janus case, everyone will need to become involved.  Union membership matters. There may be little staff left to call unless we maintain our membership base.
Oral arguments in the Janus case begin next week. The case involves an argument about public sector unions.

The Janus case is a reminder about the need to to rebuild membership from the bottom. 
Workers face a decision, to sign or not to sign.  If workers forgo union membership, they gain approximately a thousand dollars a year not paying membership dues.  But what they lose is the ten percent increases, they get with collective bargaining for better wages. As my friend Scott puts it to his members at York college, “Who are you doing to call when the president laughs at your request for a raise without the union?

As my friend Ron Hayduck puts it: “Would you take a $2k tax cut for a few years or have that $2k every year? Americans will have fewer such choices after the Supreme Court rules on the Janus case, unless working people mobilize to defend unions and grow them big time. We can do this—we’ve been here before.”

As the New York Times recalled in an article entitled: “6 Reasons That Pay Has Lagged Behind U.S. Job Growth.”

“A collapse in the rate of union membership for private-sector employees — to 6.5 percent last year from the upper teens in the early 1980s — appears to have played a key role in holding down wages. This is partly because unions benefit workers directly: Average pay for workers represented by unions tends to be higher than for those who aren’t, even after controlling for education and other characteristics. But unions also benefit workers indirectly. In industries and regions where unions have a larger presence, pay tends to be higher for all low- and medium-wage workers, not just those represented by unions.”
“…wages for men employed in the private sector who are not union members would have been 5 percent higher on average — about $2,700 per year — by 2013 if unions had the same reach as in the late 1970s. (The figure excludes senior managers.) For men with only a high school diploma or less, that figure rose to nearly $3,200.”
In response to the oral arguments in the Janus case at Supreme Court, our union is taking four steps this week.
1)      We are asking members to recommit to union. The single most important thing our members can do right now to build the power we will need for this round of bargaining is sign the PSC’s new membership card.
2)      We are rallying with other union members at Foley Square on Saturday the 24th of February at 11 AM.
3)      We are traveling to DC on Sunday the 25th to be an active presence in front of the court on the 26th for oral arguments.
4)      And we are organizing on campus, talking with members.

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Why do so?  Without movements to protect us, we struggle alone in a cold indifferent city. Saturday, I joined some friends at the Commons to talk about Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Arguments of 1944.  Here a young Marx sums up the arguments of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.  Given the mood of the day, his arguments are worth exploring.  There is much he agreed with Smith, exploring historical categories of value, profit, and property. Smith recognized work within a system of an invisible hand, providing goods for demands.  A moral philosopher, Smith assumed the invisible hand would make for a more equitable society. Yet, within the expanding income inequality we see today, it is hard to see this bearing out.  On the other hand, Marx saw a class struggle as necessary for workers to make gains.  Describing the conditions of “Estranged Labor” Marx noted that what pollical economy does not explain is that labor creates value. Labor creates wealth.  The problem is, “the worker becomes an even cheaper commodity the more the commodies he creates.  The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.   Labor produces only commodities; it produces itself and the worker is a commodity.”
When things become objects, this way of thinking that can be described as reification.  Here our very essence becomes commodified, as Lukacs describes:

“…his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can “own” or “dispose of” like the various objects of the external world. And there is no natural form in which human relations can be cast, no way in which man can bring his physical and psychic “qualities” into play without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process….”

As result, we become estranged from our work and ourselves. Marx continues

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers[18]; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.[19]
Workers no longer feel a sense of ownership of their labor; instead they confront it as something alien.
His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.”

The text explores dynamics of alienated labor, in material and psychological terms, as well as of social relations.

There is no paradise lost, but a sense of separateness.  People feel a separateness from the land in which they grew. A strangeness takes shape as workers become separate from products or consequences of their products. We feel separate from the food we eat, imported from places unknown.  Machine gun owners feel separate from the slaughtered bodies of those kids who become causalities of their products.  Workers become separate from the things we made that we knew.  We feel separate from the dirt bearing our ancestors, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the trees extending their lives into the skies.  We exist in class relations.  Employed in three gigs at a time, workers work longer hours. Kids feel separated from the culture, schools, their colleagues, their neighbors, their classmates.  The particularly estranged one lash out with guns.

As Sarah Schulman writes

“So the killer’s father died 3 years ago. He started posting scary racist images of guns andhurting
animals. Then his mother died 3 months ago. His girlfriend broke up with him and got a new
boyfriend. He started telling people he wanted to shoot up the school. He got expelled. Who
expel a messed up kid whose parents just died? What do we do with people who
cannot handle immense pain and loss? Kick them to the curb and let them buy guns?”

Immigrants are separated from their families, our country separated from its heritage of decency.

Look at this picture. Save it. Burn it into your brain and never fucking forget it.
Kansas elementary school student Fareed Jamal drew it for his dad, Dr. Syed Jamal, who is in jail and facing deportation to Bangladesh. His family watched ICE drag him away on his front lawn as he was taking his little girl to school in Lawrence. They wouldn't let his wife and kids hug him goodbye.
Dr. Jamal has worked in the US for 30 years as a molecular biologist and has done research with the University of Kansas, Children’s Mercy, and Rockhurst University. He volunteers at his children’s schools. He is a leader within his faith community. He leaves behind his wife and three children. They are “devastated and fearful.” They have no other source of income.
We should remember President Donald J. Trump promised us this. And our entire Kansas Congressional delegation ignored his racist, hate-filled rhetoric towards immigrants of color and gave him their full support to win the Presidency. All so they could get tax cuts for their campaign donors.
Senator Jerry MoranSenator Pat RobertsCongressman Kevin YoderLynn JenkinsCongressman Roger Marshall, M.D.Congressman Ron Estes, and everyone else who supported Donald Trump's candidacy: history will remember you for your complicity. It will remember all of us for failing to stop this racist assault on immigrant families.
There's still a shred of hope for Dr. Jamal. The least you can do is share this petition:…
And we still have a DACA fight to win. There are hundreds of thousands of people left to protect. Keep fighting.
I'll leave you with what Dr. Jamal's son wrote in a plea for support from Kansans:
"My name is Taseen Jamal, and my father has recently been arrested, taken to the Morgan County, MO, jail, and is being considered for deportation. My little brother cries every night, my sister can't focus in school, and I cannot sleep at night. My mother is in trauma, and because she is a live organ donor, she only has one kidney, so the stress is very dangerous. She could die if he is deported. If my father is deported, my siblings and I may never get to see him again. He is an older man, and due to the conditions of his home country, he might not be able to survive.

My father called us, and he was crying like a little child because he was thinking about what would happen to us if he got deported. If he gets sent back to Bangladesh, his home country, he will be in grave danger, and people of his kind are persecuted there. My dad could likely would face persecution or even death at the hands of radical Islamist extremist gangs back in Bangladesh due to his liberal and secular writings and postings on social media platforms and publications. We are the children of Syed Ahmed Jamal, and we are requesting on behalf of our family for your kind help to get back our father. A home is not a home without a father."

We are a body – capitalism is polluting our body – displacing selves from the land, separating, devaluing, and commodifying ourselves.

Marx writes:

“Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Loss is everywhere in Marx’s deep ecology. 

“Just as he creates his own production as the loss of his reality, as his punishment; his own product as a loss, as a product not belonging to him… Just as he estranges his own activity from himself, so he confers upon the stranger an activity which is not his own.”

We all do.  In community mental health class, my students and I talk about the etiology of neuroses.  Does it stem from the inside – the family romance – that Freud describes – or the alienated social relations that Marx describes?  Its hard to say. 

Regardless, we are separated from each other.

I thought about this all weekend, walking to Judson on Sunday with the girls, thinking walking lost in the wilderness, temptations in the wilderness that Mark describes in the Gospels.

The kids and I spent the afternoon exploring a few of these dynamics, looking at art, walking up 5th Avenue to the Morgan Library, playing cards at the Commons, eating Sushi, winding around the East Village home of my activist heros, David Wojnarowicz, whose stories about selling his body to elder man in Times Square, seem to embody the kinds of alienated labor Marx and Lukacs describes.

Olivian Laing writes:

From the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79). Photograph: David Wojnarowicz/Courtesy of the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

His boyfriend, Peter Hujar, documented his world.   The kids and I explored Hujar’s photographs of his friends, the stories of the piers, the artists, the writers, the downtown scene. Number two took pictures, we laughed, we talked about the images of Candy Darling on her Deathbed.   Finishing, we explored Tenneesee Williams show, recalling Marlon’s screams for Stella and wandered through the East Village, stopping at Second Ave and 12, where Hujar used to live, creating a world of images of friends and lives, battling and embracing that strangeness in every way they knew.
"The life and art ofPeter Hujar (1934–1987) were rooted in downtown New York. Private by nature,combative in manner, well-read, and widely connected, Hujar inhabited a worldof avant-garde dance, music, art, and drag performance. His mature careerparalleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising in1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.In his loft studio in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who followedtheir creative instincts and shunned mainstream success. He made, in his words,“uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects,”immortalizing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the speed oflife.Peter Hujar: Speed of Life—on view at the Morgan from January 26 throughMay 20—presents one hundred and forty photographs by this enormously importantand influential artist. Drawn from the extensive holdings of his work at theMorgan and from nine other collections, the show and its catalog follow Hujarfrom his beginnings in the mid-1950s to his central role in the East Villageart scene three decades later."

images of naples...

and then there was WHAM...!  I still think they were bad boys.

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