China Miéville: Marxism and Halloween - Socialism 2013

not a single person in costume III count this I can't account this to fail right off the bat I got to tell you okay well we've all come as Bolsheviks okay comrades in on March the 5th of this year Hugo Chavez the president of Venezuela died and as we all know for the for the sin in the eyes of international capital of refusing to prioritize their agenda and for you know cutting slashing poverty rates and rates of illiteracy and health care issues and so on he was relentlessly and monstered by the bourgeois press he was relentlessly depicted as a kind of malevolent clown calm devil by the the asinine bureaucrats of particularly the American media but the global media and one of the things that I've suggested at many meetings over many years is to kind of construct a kind of socialist defense of monsters and one and therefore on those grounds it is you know as a kind of socialist being in solidarity with monsters it is obviously an honor to stand against the kind of designated monster du jour but that does not preclude criticism obviously and those of us in the international socialist tradition and many others have have been open and in with with our criticisms of some aspects of of that regime don't war we're getting to Halloween bear with me trust me you know we've had we've had we've raised issues about a you know a certain rising bureaucratic layer deals and and and and standing alongside various unsavory international figures and so on but what I want to do here is I want to focus on on something else a different axis of of disagreement with with java's which is that on the 29th of October 2005 Hugo Chavez urged Venezuelan parents not to let their children dress up as witches or ghouls for Halloween he said this is a game of terror families disguised their children as witches he said and that is contrary to our ways what they the us have implanted here is really a gringo custom and it's terrorism now as historical missteps go this is not up there with supporting Assad I grant you um nonetheless one of the things I want to do today is to argue that it is nonetheless not wholly unimportant to take this mistake about Halloween that Halloween for a rigorous socialist is worth defending so the question here is how do you defend Halloween from from the left as I'm standing on the left how do you defend heroine from the left from others on the left one thing we're definitely not going to do is say we'll look it's just a bit of fun you know because as our exasperated non-political friends constantly point out as socialists we specialize in ruining their fun all the time you know say what do you mean avatars a racist film can you please for one stop ruining everything okay and though we can't we can't comrades we can't stop ruining it and if Halloween deserves ruining ruined it shall be so it is lucky for us that it does not in fact deserve ruining so how could we defend it well we could turn to issues of the rhythm of life and we could talk about a kind of burgeoning Marxist theory of calendars for example and we could say that Halloween the history of which is actually quite contested and uncertain one thing that is pretty sure is that it comes out of harvest festivals in some form or other and and we can say that among many other things some less savory than others one of the things that harvest festivals were were you know a kind of break in the drudgery of agrarian life they were a kind of sanctified area for social relief for play often against the wishes of the rural elite and that therefore as a kind of social support network with a with an element of joy about them they were a kind of inadequate mediated contested precursor to – to a kind of a kind of welfare state in a very heavily mediated way and thus just about worth defending on some levels now I'll buy that but I think we can do better than that so I know I'm not here to suggest that we should be sort of celebrating our pagan heritage for the sake of it if you want to do that knock yourselves out but that's not the axis here I think we can do better than that much stronger for a start I think is to point out the issue that I was mentioning about shadows at the beginning which is this question of those whom are made monsters those who the elite make into the outsiders and the monsters those who are traduced and and slandered as as devil figures and that more often than not not always but more often than not a call for solidarity for those who are made monsters is something that should at the very very least get our attention and you can see this throughout history so you know Chavez had it had a concern that you know this was about people dressing up as witches now you could say that in a certain again highly mediated way this is a kind of fellowship and reclamation with the staggering number of women who were traduced and tortured and terminated in a kind of frenzy of gendered spite over witch trials over the centuries you know now just as one example and this is for our benefit not sadly for theirs it's too late for that but it's not nothing ok I'll take that and once we start standing with the monstrous then you know we're standing with her with monsters and monsterettes throughout literature in history because the disavowed throughout history starting with Grendel being kicked out of her off guard Hall in Beowulf have always had the sneaking sympathy of those suspicious of power you know we're the people who took the side of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and that's better but I think I've got a better one still which is a very strange thing a really peculiar thing which is that Halloween has become a favorite playground for the right in highly odd way as I'm going to read your transcript to something that Christine Romans the CNN business correspondent said on Halloween in 2009 this is the most capitalist of holidays it's about getting the most for the least amount of work there's a website you can find which the top five cities where the best neighborhoods are based on how rich the neighborhood is how drivable it is it's crime rate so you can teach your children how to get the most the best candy with the least amount of output I love that have you ever thought about teaching your kids economics lessons based on Halloween I mean it's really the first time they learn how to get right it's so American this this story does not have a happy ending however my mom took all my candy for kids divided it up equally and gave it back to us in equal amounts and I was like socialism I didn't make up one word of that just for the record and the weird thing is this extraordinary approach to Halloween is incredibly common Google socialism Halloween there are cartoons that make this point there are websites to make this point the odious Republican manchild clown steven crowder has made a did a kind of whole hidden-camera trick about this where he he took he quote redistributed candy from kids trick-or-treating and then like shot their you know upset faces to try to prove that the sugar high of a bewildered ten-year-old is proof that humanity is at base a depraved bullying entrepreneur this is a very common thing and so you know working on the basis an extreme example of this by the way happened in venezuela one of the reasons probably behind what what chavez said was that it wasn't just you know anxiety about which is that a few days before a dozen pumpkin lanterns and paper skeletons had been left around Caracas with with anti Chevy's slogans written on them and little fuses to look as if they were bombs so this is another example of you know the even harder right saying Halloween is our playground now I proceeded on the basis that I support a campaign to deny the right-wing any fun or pleasure in any arena possible and therefore I want to take Halloween from them and therefore one of the strongest reasons for defending Halloween from the left is out of class spite and that's good that's a good reason but I think there is more even still see the wager here is that there is something in the deep thematic structure of the festival of Halloween that we should insist is ours and we should celebrate but if we acknowledge that and we acknowledge that it's a contested zone and we want to take it back then a corollary of that is that we have to say there's a right political way to do Halloween and a wrong way and I shall be schooling those of you doing Halloween wrong for your inadequate class politics so let's let's look carefully about exactly what it is that what is Chavez is critique you know it has three parts this is an implanted contrary to our ways gringo festival it's about witches which is the unreal and and you know the kind of Fantasia witches and ghouls and monsters and it is about terror which he then goes on so terrorism he starts with terror it's a game of terror now the first one of those that this is Yankee cultural imperialism is obviously a reasonable concern you know that the u.s. culture industry specializes in cultural imperialism it's very good at it but as internationalists you know my starting point about the dissemination of culture across borders is that that is no problem per se the question becomes what culture disseminated how to do what to whom by whom in what circumstances and therefore while you might you might legitimately say that you know being at the receiving end of Halloween through the kind of remorseless wedge of toy toy toy companies and and big Pez or whatever is is it is a cultural problem but Halloween itself cannot be blamed for this and should not be blamed for this because done right it is something that our Venezuelan comrades like all of us should and could happily embrace although not little fake bombs obviously that is beyond the pale now to move to the second of his his his his critiques this is the question of the unreal the question of the fantastic the kind of you know having children dress up as witches and ghouls now obviously he just says this in passing but what this is obviously is a position of anxiety on the left that has a history there is a great history of anxiety about the kind of indulgence in the unreal on the left and so one of the things that one's going to have to do to try and defend Halloween to try and claim Halloween is to have a Marxist defense of the flagrant flagrantly imaginary and then the second aspect is you know the Marxist offensive of the terrifying but to start with the flagrant the flagrantly imaginary part of me wants to say you know do we still have to do this really after all this time as people know this is a very old debate on the left you know I mean most famously probably Luke hatches great attacks on you know non realist non mimetic art and fiction and so on and but it has other antecedents as well nadezhda krupskaya Lenin's widow and a very powerful figure in kind of publishing and biblia culture in in in the early Soviet Union she in 1928 attacked a very famous Russian children's book by a coordinator coughs key called the crocodile and she attacked it on the grounds that it was bourgeois frog guilty of quote distorting the facts about animals and plants on the grounds that crocodiles don't walk on two feet smoking cigarettes which is true and lest krupskaya become a kind of foil here I want to point out that this is not an isolated position I mean this was a current in Russian criticism at the time was this enormous anxiety about these these fantastic figures and I think we can still see that the remains of that today and a certain kind of snobbery about fantastic imagery but you know at the same year there was a book put out by very eminent critics around the same thing called we are against the fairytales now by contrast I'm not going to argue this at much length because I suspect that most people here will already be of this of this camp and certainly I am you know I'm interested in the the alternative tradition of Marxism around surrealism and other fantastic fantastic currents which is sometimes called Gothic Marxism and I want to offer two quick definitions of Gothic Marxism as an opposition to the rather leaden literalism of other Marxist currents one comes from Margaret Cohen's brilliant book profane illumination about Walter Benjamin where she offers a long definition of Gothic Marxism which starts off that one it is the valorisation of the realm of a cultures ghosts and phantasms as a significant and rich field of social production rather than a mirage to be dispelled and – it's the valorisation of cultures detritus and trivia as well as it's strange and marginal practices and she then goes on to make various other definitions which are more controversial than that now I would actually probably support most of them but for the purposes of this talk I'll be a sort of soft gothic Marxist I won't go all the way in Mykel Mykel lurvy talking about Andre Breton that the poke of Surrealism says perhaps one might call his a gothic Marxism a historical materialism sensitive to the marvelous to the dark moment of revolt to the illumination which pierces like lightning the sky of revolutionary action a reading of Marxist theory inspired by Rambo Lord Rama and the English gothic novel without losing sight for even an instant of the vital need to combat the boys who are order and he acknowledges that this is a counterintuitive model but it's one that and and I would follow him in that so this is a kind of Marxism which stands against not just obviously class exploitation and so forth but against the disenchantment of a certain kind of cold abstract rationality now the trick is to do that without falling into kind of nostalgia William Morris or into a kind of into a kind of a sort of kind of booster ish irrationalism sort of celebrating you know schizo analysis but quote skits and asses for its own sake this is not against rationality per se it's against the officially mandated version of rationality that is being offered under capitalism for me that particular form of somewhat arid Marxism has actually bought a propaganda model of what proper rationality is so it's not Marxist enough unlike gothic Marxism now this obviously dovetails anyone who's ever heard me talk about monsters which I do a lot this dovetails with that and that's what I'm not going to go into this much more than that than to say you know I stand in the tradition of Gothic Marxism on this but that leaves Chavez is other category which in some ways is more difficult which is the issue of fear and humanity and fear so can we defend fear one of the most famous quotes about fear comes from the enormous Lee important horror writer HP Lovecraft horror writer and racist and all-round bad egg HP Lovecraft who said the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown now he generously he marshaled this to a particular kind of nihilism and anti a kind of nihilist anti humanism that I would that I would want no part of but actually I think that's to grant it too much seriousness I don't think with that slogan what he's really basically doing is saying who it's he's trying it purports to be nonfiction but it's essentially a little piece of pantomime performance and it's designed to write to Rao to raise a kind of ghoulish shiver but paradoxically there is a way I think of rescuing a certain element of this notion of the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind being fear in a very mediated form and what I'm going to try and suggest is that fear is in fact well it's not it's not meaningful to think of it in terms of the oldest or strongest emotion but I do think it is a foundational emotion to what it is to be human and to understand that we need the unique resources not just a materialism but of gothic materialism gothic materialist Marxism there's been an enormous amount written about in the Marxist tradition about and indeed beyond about tool use as central to sentience central to the to the coming into self-consciousness of you know aware thinking animals as humans are the fundamental importance of using tools on this and and you know probably most sort of powerfully within within within the tradition that excuse me the tradition of Marxism is Engles is you know justly famous piece the part played by labour in the transition from ape to man which is an outstanding piece and much much more nuanced than the detractors of angles often in imply and posits a really fascinating model of genuine feedback interaction between the physical body shape tools communication and sentience it's an extraordinary very interesting piece and but fundamentally the the discourse that you know tools are key to sentence of course clearly isn't enough and it's not enough for a couple of reasons and most obviously there are plenty of animals that do use tools you know famously obviously the great apes you often see them you know dipping like grass stems to take out ants to eat and things like that but also crows and corvids in general many of the smarter Birds use tools so what I want to say is that one of the things we have to do to kind of to kind of nuance the idea that tool use is central to sentience is Saywell tool use to do what for what reasons which is surprisingly absent from the discussion tools themselves become this rather abstract category in a lot of the discussion about tool use and to make this case obviously what I'm going to do is I'm going to take a route down the vexed question of octopus cognition in 2009 an essay was published in the journal Current Biology it's online you can read it by three biologists thin normal and trig Anza called defensive tool use in a coconut carrying octopus and what they basically the octopus incidentally the first invertebrate ever been clocked using sophisticated tools and thus far the only I believe what they basically saw they went diving and they saw these octopuses these particular kinds of shallow water octopuses picking up half coconut shells and waddling away with them and then if they were attacked by fish if they were something to eat them they would use them as shields so you know we we repeatedly observe and the thing this is on youtube google octopus coconut if I don't see a spike in Google stats in the next hour then I have no power so you know front front front from the essay you know we repeatedly observed soft sediment dwelling octopuses carrying around coconut shell hogs assembling them as a shelter only when needed while being carried the shells offer no protection and place a requirement on the carrier to use a novel and cumbersome form of locomotion that they call stilt walking which if you look it's a good term for it so the point is that this is it's a pain it's a faff to carry around a coconut shell if you're an octopus and one of the very interesting things about this article I think is that the author's themselves don't realize how important it is they don't realize how radical it is parenthetically I did write them an email and say this is this is dynamite and none of them ever wrote back to me it's almost as if I came across as crazy or something so there's two there's two contradictory statements they make in this in this in this essay first of all they not contradictory but two distinct they say the shell is carried for future use no it is not no it is not what they also say much more correctly as the only benefit is the potential future deployment of the shell uniquely to my knowledge and I stand to be corrected here uniquely in the entire Animal Kingdom other than humans this is the only case of any animal deploying a tool in the aspiration that it need never be used now this is dynamite this is fundamentally different from ant fishing because what you have there you have the model basically or you know there's various animals that have a desired outcome they take a tool they know what the future is if something goes wrong if they drop the ant the stick then the future has gone wrong and they have to they have to rethink but it's a it's a linear model of history what the octopus is doing is basically there's a quote from Graham cheap possibility is not reality but it is in itself a reality now octopuses clearly read Graham's shoe sentience comes not with orienting towards the future with tools but with orienting towards potentiality towards variable futures different futures to be negotiated and the way this is so startlingly made clear in this example is by a tool which is clearly one hopes not to have to use this particular future is to be avoided but you arm yourself against what is called in psychology a dreaded outcome the dreaded outcome which is a term that's often used in the treatment and discussion around OCD is I want to argue fundamental to sentience because it's it's what unlocked it's what it's it's what operates as the the copula between tools a sophisticated brain and the not not simply a sense of the future but a sense of alternative futures potentiality the birth of sentience lies in the orientation to the future provoked by the mediation of tool use and anxiety so fear is not the oldest and strongest emotion whatever that would mean but it is I think very likely highly foundational to consciousness itself and therefore we should respect it so what we've got thus far is an argument for the categories of the fantastic as being central to a succulent Marxist theory of modernity and an argument that Marxist categories are central to a succulent theory of fear and consciousness and that therefore I think you know mapping I think mapping the the establishment of human consciousness historically and there's probably much to be to be gained looking at cephalopods so we've got those two things you know fantasy is central to modernity for Marxism and Marxism is central to understanding the category of more specifically than fear its dread because it's dread of something that might be bad but you don't quite it is not that it's not concrete it is unknown definitionally so imagine how great it would be if we had a kind of grand unified theory uniting those two elements in a distinctly Marxist approach to modern rationality and political and cultural agency wouldn't that be great we have such a theory and we have such a theory in a very very unlikely place in 1936 the famous although neglected quite brilliant although misrepresented Marxist literary critic and poet and polymath Christopher Caldwell author of these amazing books like illusion and reality studies in a dying culture travelled to Spain he traveled to Spain to fight with the Republicans he put his his life where his mouth was and and started as a machine gunner where he was tragically killed scant months later at an incredibly young age of 30 thereby you know robbing the Socialist Movement of extraordinary work for many years to come so that happened in 1936 in the same year a completely mainstream publisher in London called Thomas Nelson put out a collection of ghost stories edited by somebody called Christopher sand John sprig called uncanny tales now the fact of these two things happening at the same time is important because Christopher Caldwell was christofferson John sprig the last book published in his lifetime was a collection of ghost stories collected by this Marxist militant poet theorist which he introduced entirely mainstream collection put out for general readers who like ghost stories spooky tales he collected them he curated them and he wrote a very short introduction that you can smuggle onto the mainstream book shelves of any bookshop and nobody's going to think this is Bolshevik propaganda but he opens it with some startling observations one of the things he says he insists that the uncanny story is a modern phenomenon he says the real caught what he's investigating is that the real cause of the development of the uncanny story in a rational age he uses language which is antiquated so you know some apologies for that but the essence I think is very important quote it may seem at first illogical that the uncanny story should be a modern development when it is precisely in modern times that supernatural apparitions and miraculous interventions are treated with the greatest skepticism but in fact the one follow the other as effect follows cause if you believe whole heart I'm taking out chunks if you believe wholeheartedly and simply in Vampires ghosts and werewolves as do primitive folk they are as real people to you as your next-door neighbor the writer of the ghost story should be a rational man but in Contra distinction obviously the previous paragraph to the way a ghost story works which is that they are not as your next-door neighbor the writer of the ghost story should be a rational man otherwise he cannot build up the matter-of-fact framework which is so horrifyingly shattered by the incursion of the impossible any credulity would make his readers skeptical from the start and he would underestimate the amount of preliminary mining and sapping of their confidence in the rational which it is necessary to undertake before he shows his hand but though he must by habit be a materialist he must be one with chinks in his armor he must be devoid of simple faith and also completely honest doubt in other words he must be a typically modern writer I think this is an extraordinary passage and the model here of a typically modern well writer person and indeed materialist this is being written by a materialist by a Marxist militant who loved ghost stories you must be an you must be a materialist but one with chinks in your armor and the chinks in the armor here are not a sickness to be cured they are not a pathology to be fixed they are constitutive of modern rationality in this model and what is beyond them is or and dread not fear of a concrete reality but dread of an unknown and this is where we go beyond the octopus because the more we understand quite rationally scientifically the more the inevitably disavowed dreadful becomes more and more abstract and unknowable and thereby supernatural octopuses will make their final leap to full sentence when they carry coconut shells against imaginary monsters so only with these gothic Marxist categories can we comprehend the fundamentally dread inflected rationality of humanity the most famous other model that is it's not a Marxist model but it's one used quite rightly I think by Marxists a lot is Goya's model in in in the Caprichos where he says you know the sleep of Reason brings forth monsters this is not a contradiction to that that brilliant observation but I think that it is I think it is a strengthening of it it's a sharpening of it it brings the monsters much closer the rational you know it is not now the sleep of Reason that brings forth monsters the monsters are just outside our arm or whether we're asleep or not and they can't be banished they are there one of the fundamental things that makes us are typically modern human and ghosts and monsters are key figures in this so Halloween a festival dedicated to the monstrous as a game playing inflection of that of that fact and this I think is really key that we can reflect on it and play a game with it be fun to be genuinely afraid but also turn it into play it's not a contradiction children genuinely frightened themselves in their play this is why they attempt to bowdlerized the fearful out of children's culture mistake children like being scared at least some of them do so Halloween is a festival dedicated to the monstrous and the game playing inflection of of that monstrous is a celebration of the of the dread inflected humans that we as Marxists are uniquely placed to understand now what that does not mean is that as Marxists as culture we're doing Halloween right there are many many ways we're doing Halloween very wrong most obviously what we're doing how I mean wrong in is the costumes now anyone with any kind of social social conscience event at all will know about you know the ongoing scandal of the porn if ocation of Halloween costumes particularly for young girls but for women in general and you know if I was a more organized person I would have a PowerPoint and I could show you various slides that you've all seen them so you know XD which and you know sexy vampire and sexy this and sexy that and there's a very very clear and obvious gendered this is I mean that the sexism of this is self-evident it's self-evident enough that it is a mainstream conversation so that is one of so what you have there obviously is you know Halloween being hijacked by the the commodification of women's bodies and women's sexuality at the the behest of of business which is obviously invidious and one of the main ways in ways that culture is doing Halloween wrong um but while that is very important I don't want to undermine that I also that that's quite clear I think it's quite clear to a lot of liberals let alone a lot of us you know this is a genuine conversation going on and I think that one of the things that I want to just to speak about is the experience of being of coming over and seeing an American Halloween for the first time if you're not American because there is something uniquely wrong about American Halloween I remember seeing um you know kids dressed up trick-or-treating and you know seeing a little boy dressed as cowboy seeing a little girl just I'm not I'm not even talking about the gender access at the moment that you know seeing a little girl dressed as a as a nurse you know you see someone dressed as a Superman or whatever it might be and I'm looking at them and I'm like zombie cowboy maybe vampire nurse you know Superman of doom perhaps I don't think you realize what a dereliction it is to have non supernatural themed costumes at Halloween and any of you that allow your children to do this or say forwardly class traitors for all the reasons I've laid out now this obviously this obviously represents on a very banal level the surrender to the complete and inevitable commodification of you know of the of the the logic nature of Halloween the playfulness of Halloween you're all in thrall to big stupid costume and and I deeply resent it because what this is this is about the domestication of dread the whole point of the model of dread that is constitutive of human consciousness is that it is ultimately ineffable it cannot be quite contained and this is why it is a category error to describe slasher films as horror movies in the same way as a supernatural or ghost ghost movies are it's why this particular tendency reaches its Telos in the kind of sniggering sadistic vacuity of torture porn films and that's what you're doing when you let your kids dress up in on supernatural costumes you're complicit with that that is the slippery slope that leads to the hegemonic domestication of the dread inhumanity and the monstrous and so I urge us as socialists to stop that and if your children want to dress up as something non supernatural that I'm sorry but you know sometimes we have to do things that politically we know we need to do you are going to put that Frankenstein's monster costume on and that is the last we're going to talk about so I'm drawing to a close now I'm nearly done and I've got some perfect and I I just got a couple of other things I want to mention them we're going to obviously we gonna have a lot of time for questions and discussions and I want to be clear that there's a million different ways this talk could have gone and I'm very happy to for it to go off in all kinds of different directions I'm very happy to talk in the discussion about and to listen in the discussion about camouflage and disguises and the fact that for example in the UK we have through historical contingency we have a conjuncture of Halloween and Guy Fawkes night and Guy Fawkes night is a highly politically complicated and controversial festival with all sorts of appalling reactionary elements to it around the country but now with the Guy Fawkes Fawkes masks becoming part of the anonymous and the and the kind of you know the mass movements and so on so we can talk about Halloween on that on those aspects we can talk about the history of Halloween as a sacrifice festival sacrifice is quite an important category increasingly in some in some historical narratives that we can go into we can talk about necro politics there's a very interesting set of philosophies about the way we relate to the dead and some very interesting left iterations of those philosophies and obviously as a festival dedicated to the dead you know we can talk about the necro politics of Halloween I'm very happy to talk about that I'm also very happy to simply list favorite monster movies we can go in any direction you want there is a key thing that I'm not going to talk about now but I hope we discuss and certainly I want to talk about when I when I sum up which was okay well even if you allow all of this all of that what about Halloween under socialism what about Halloween under fall communism you know what happens to dread post the revolution about which I have thoughts it is traditional for a socialist to call for something at the end of a talk and so I guess this is socialist for monster costumes I guess well what I'm what I'm trying to suggest is that we should be able to live up to a particular rather beautiful model of the oscillation of fear and play in a poem by the you know famously left poet Carl Sandburg it just that the last lines of theme in yellow on the last of October when dusk is falling children join hands and circle around me singing ghost songs and love to the Harvest Moon I am a jack-o'-lantern with terrible teeth and the children know I am fooling not joking you're not joking he's fooling and we know about the position of the fool in history that reveals truths through play so the jack-o'-lantern can scare but still fool so I suppose what I'm calling for ultimately is come and join me in socialists for dread all right thanks very much

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