Posts Tagged ‘RIP’

Paul Kantner RIP

Posted: 29 January 2016 in Uncategorized
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Some songs and singers define (and, then, transcend) an age and an ethos. This is one, written by Paul Kantner (with Stephen Stills and David Crosby), who was a central figure in Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship.

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I just learned that, while I was traveling, Benedict Anderson passed away.

Anderson was, of course, the author of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism—first published in 1983, reissued with additional chapters in 1991, and further revised in 2006.

The basic idea is that nations are not original or primordial but, rather, historically and socially constructed.

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. . .

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations; No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices?

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Sidney W. Mintz, a renowned cultural anthropologist who focused on the Caribbean rural proletariat and linked Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth with slavery, capitalism, and imperialism, died on Sunday at the age of 93.

The son of a restaurateur and an amateur chef himself, Professor Mintz was best known beyond the academy and his own kitchen for his Marxian perspective on the growing demand for sugar in Britain, beginning in the 17th century.

In his view, that hunger shaped empires, spawned industrial-like plantations in the Caribbean and South America that presaged capitalism and globalization, enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, and engendered navies to protect trade while providing a sweetener to the wealthy and a cheap source of energy to industrial workers.

“There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts or ruin their teeth,” Professor Mintz wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit — struggles that eventuated in a world market solution for drug food, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful or indolent.”

He added, “No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”

For me, Mintz’s work was important for many different reasons: the importance of history in making sense of food, economic and social relations, and commodity exchange; a conception of capitalism as a global system; and a focus on capitalist and noncapitalist class structures and class struggles in both the North and the South. Perhaps most important, he turned traditional economic determinism on its head by arguing that the consumption of sugar, tea, and other commodities and their social importance in eighteenth-century Great Britain shaped British colonial policy and the production of those commodities throughout the empire.

Mintz’s work was also an important inspiration for one of my recent courses, Commodities: The Making of Market Society.

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I had the honor of knowing Rosalyn Baxandall, her son Phineas, and other members of her family.

A socialist-feminist activist, historian, and teacher, Baxandall was one of the first members to join the international Advisory Board of Rethinking Marxism, which she helped to bring into existence back in 1988 and to thrive in the intervening decades.

I was honored, back in 2013, to be invited to screen and comment on an early cut of Grace Lee’s film about Grace Lee BoggsAmerican Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Here’s what I wrote:

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a documentary about the long and rich life of an extraordinary American revolutionary. And for that we should be thankful, since we simply don’t have many cinematic examples of ordinary flesh-and-blood people who have struggled to locate themselves within, radically challenge, and creatively make history. All the while maintaining her humanity.

But this film is much, much more. It is both a document of people’s struggles over the course of the twentieth century—especially civil rights and black power, during the rise and fall of Detroit—and an invitation to engage in new conversations about the kind of American revolution needed today. Because, as Grace Lee Boggs says, “It’s obvious by looking at it, what was doesn’t work.”

American Revolutionary is also quite wonderful filmmaking—beautifully filmed and edited, with a lively, engaging score. And the filmmaker herself, Grace Lee, makes the life of a venerable and tough woman relevant to younger generations of potential activists and revolutionaries: first, by showing how Boggs found ways of rethinking and reinventing what her life, including her involvement in the people’s transformation of Detroit, might look like; and, second, by documenting Lee’s own struggles to make sense of and to connect with Boggs “the icon” and her confident and uncompromising spirit of revolutionary thinking and engagement.

Lee’s film represents an alternative, then, to the main kinds of messages being delivered to young people today, of either insipid inspirational self-improvement or the cynical “to the victors belong the spoils.” Instead, she provides us the opportunity to imagine a different kind of life and world—one in which ideas matter, giants do in fact fall, and people (including Boggs herself) evolve.

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If like me you rely on Nordic noir mystery novels to sustain an honest pessimism with respect to the world today, you mourned the end of the Kurt Wallander series written by Henning Mankell in 2011. Now, the author himself is gone.

Henning Mankell, who has died aged 67, after being diagnosed with cancer last year, established almost single-handedly the global picture of Sweden as a crime writer’s ideal dystopia. He took the existing Swedish tradition of crime writing as a form of leftwing social criticism and gave it international recognition, capturing in his melancholy, drunken, bullish detective Kurt Wallander a sense of struggle in bewildered defeat that echoed round the world.

For the uninitiated, here’s an introduction to the entire Wallander series.

The masters of the genre (at least my favorites) remain Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Other authors whose work I continue to enjoy are Norwegians Anne Holt, Karin Fossum, and Jo Nesbø and, from Denmark, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Larsen, Leif Davidsen, and Peter Høeg.

To my ears, Ornette Coleman represented (along with Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Bill Dixon) one of the most interesting and original periods in the history of jazz.

I especially enjoyed his collaborations with Charlie Haden, including this one: