Jihad: a War Journal by Ari Sitas: Page 7 of 9
Whenever I am troubled by the world's Acentrisms" and Aessentialisms" I return to the Ethiopian document Oriental 827 from the London museum. (75) The delightful story is of Alexander the Great, re-memoried as an Ethiopian, Christian saint, and deals with his travels and campaigns in the strange horizons of the known world. We find this saint of the pre-Islamic period, traveling to seven destinations where his moral and heroic deeds come to guarantee his greatness. Already, the fact of Alexander, Eksander, Iksander as a popular figure in the narratives and oral lores in Ethiopian history, is a fascinating study of the permeability and inventiveness of Africa's traditions; his recasting by the literate mandarins of the Ethiopian clergy as a Christian saint, and the attribution to him of a role as a migrating liberator and civiliser, situates the Ethiopian project as central and creates a series of Aother-nesses" globally. We can enjoy the narrative because the Ethiopian imperial project remained within the highlands facing the Semien range and thirsting for an access to the Red Sea. Had it not, it would have troubled Anglos, Aztecs, Greeks and Pharisees.
Where does one start the narrative of Alexander's saintly sojourns? That he travels to the lands of Agog and Magog, lands of snow in the north full of savage people? That he travels to the city of Mechanism and Contrivance? That he travels to the Brahmins? To Alexandria? The the lands of the Beast? To Heaven? To Ethiopia, the land of Milk and Honey? In a poignant way it is the City of Contrivance and Mechanism that worries him the most: its inhabitants died en masse through the wrath of God, they were evil to the core, but they were ingenuous to have created remarkable mechanical human contraptions that played music and kept them playing to the forever, a soulless creativity within the city's walls. The Music was convincing and expert but the city itself was impossible to penetrate.
Perhaps Agog and Magog and the Cities of Contrivance are everywhere, as Hardt and Negri insist; more likely, given the drift of the above comments I have been pressing on paper, it can be re-mapped to read Los Angeles and Hollywood, New York or Big Industry allowing for its corporate satellites to be everywhere eating away at the micro-foundations of life. I say this advisedly, because 22 of the 24 students I had asked in a tutorial to place this city of Contrivance on the world's map (students of African, Indian and Anglo-descent) placed it in or near LA . One placed it in Japan, the other, in China.
The USA, the new world's imperium dominates now over most of our parameters of thinking, feeling and hoping. It is a shallow dominance because however much it is being drummed up or celebrated, it is not hegemonic. There is in the intellectual circles of the non-West (for some in the West such circles would be an oxymoron) a conviction that the majority of US citizens are paranoid and ignoratnt about the rest of the world and on issue after issue prove to be at odds with the country's democratic facade. And yet its colossal economic and political machinery, propelled by the Bay Area's silicon and digital revolution, LA's raided vinyl-dreams, NY's financial labyrinths and a good dose of evangelical puritanism is seen to be systematically destroying the Rest's autonomy.
Academic colleagues from the imputed Rest are outraged by America's arrogance, despite their genuine sorrow over New York's carnage. The e-mail messages racing through our computer screens have been poignant. To quote an Iranian voice: Awho is the US to judge? It is an urban civilisation ruled by rural backwardness, where science mingles with superstition and angels are known to exist and are often known to have been met by others, elsewhere.Theirs is a cosmopolitanism based on a misunderstanding about the Acosmos". Like Russia in the late 19th century it has become the most obvious example of hypermodernity and backwardness." Or a Mexican voice: AThe US has to deal with the unrequited ghosts of its past, the giant stammering of the ghettos, its heroes: Taylor, Ford and Edison." Yet, I find myself recoiling from absolutist counter-judgements: It is also I retort, the space of Toni Morrison's AParadise" and of de Lilo's AUnderworld", serious encounters with the Aunrequited dead". It is also the space that facilitated the great sounds of the Mingus Big Band and the whimsical classicism of the Kronos Quartet, which, have the magical effect when my cd-player works, to transpose me into hope.
Not all in the contemporary kingdom of Contrivance is dead mechanism and a futility that needs effacing. We cannot concur with the Bin Laden-related invocation of it as a modern Shaitan. We cannot concur even if such voicings are internal: painted in Moloch-like proportions by Allen Ginsberg's Howl in the 50s, or framed so by de Lilo's in the 1990s. (76) Nor can I easily side with the barrage of e-mails from friends inside he US describing it as Aa world of repressed paranoia- filled with unconscious sources that bubble over despite repressions" or that, A our lack of history is also the history of the decimation of native americans; our history is the slave plantation" or that A it harbours therefore a subterranean, embryonic death instinct, a violence of toys and bombs; the rest is about the American Dream with its ramshuckle innocence." So much anger coming from within the ranks of hyphenated Americans who are despairing at Buffallo Bil is understandablel. There is no doubt that much of this has more than substance, but it suffers from the same strokes that are actively signifying Demons anywhere.
Yet we cannot deny internal discord that grates against an easy American Dream, even in LA the hypercity of Stars and callous Opportunity:
AWindless city built on decaying granite, loose ends
Without end or beginning and nothing to tie to, city down hill
rolls there, what's square slides, anything not tied down
Flies in.." (77)
Tom McGrath had nothing but high-energy venom for Los Angeles. In what is his crowning of poetic achievement Letters to a Friend , or perhaps one of the greatest poems to have been penned in the Americas, McGrath, a by-then beaten communist takes issue with this Adetention camp of the spirit", this Aexile" of the imagination. This coincidence of Atime and sulphur", this Ainverse hell", this Apetrified shitstorm" was for the poet, the epitomy of capitalist greed where they Awould tear your arm off for a nickel and sell it back for a dime" It was the city of ruthless rhythms- Aone is to labour, two is to rob, three is to kill...muggery, buggery,thuggery." (78)
McCrath was never an Angeleno. He spent ten years there after the second world war, found himself disengaged from the Communist Party, lost his job due to his prosecution by the Committee of Unamerican activities, founded oppositional journals, hang out with musicians and beat poets until he had to leave the place: beaten.
His words have distilled a triple-image- of a despairing mass of workers skinned by the marauding spirit of the place; of the impotence of its intellectual and cultural elites, Athe culture fakers", the Aexhibitionists", the Adreamers" who were all crazed Ain their thousands, nailed to a tree of wine"; co-opted by money and power; and of a condemned city where memory was squezzed into amnesia where the Asmell of decaying dreams in the dead air" had suffocated the Apotential"
As Mike Davies reminds us in his City of Quartz, (79) LA has had such a spiritual bad press that McGrath's invective could be filed against hundreds of others. It would be a mistake though to push the filing cabinet shut without rescuing what the Apotential" might have meant and what the index of unfulfilled expectations might have been:
AIt is not my past that I mourn-that I can never lose..
-No, but the past of this place and the place itself and what
Was in the Possible, that is the future that never arrived" (80)
For the poet, the grief embodied a struggle against the forgetfulness of this Possible
A Well- money talks, it's hard
To say- Alove" hard enough in all that mechanical clamour
And perhaps the commune must fall in the filth of the American night
Fall for a time...
But all time is redeemed by the single man
Who remembers and resurrects
And I remember
The winter count." (81)
Like the white-washed wall that hides in Los Angeles the Siqueiros mural of a cactus-crucified campesino, remembered only by those who search for it to find only the wall (82), the poet searches again and again for what fell in the Afilth of the American night."
The Apotential", the Apossible" that was and that was never to be, indeed couldn't be in Los Angeles, was not as is usually assumed the failure of the city's rapidly expanding working class to become in Marx's terms, a class-for-itself, or the impossibility of the left to have created a politics of liberation, it was rather a failure to create at a deeper level an emotive communitas or what another craftsman, Charlie Mingus called a Acreative communism", an alternative to the disembodiesd culture of rising cities, of a communitas that creatively traversed everyone from the barrio to the academy. Such feelings were astir in most creative circles- an intoxication with the energy and possibilities of the new megalopolis, its teeming people and the possibility of a public art, a jazz that enhanced cooperation and creativity and a symbiosis with a responding audience, an art that was immediate, complex and republican. (83)
As the melancholy exiles of the Frankfurt school were deciding whether the Pacific Mahoganny was Paradise or Hell, the threads of the Apotential" were snapped from its audiences and its apostles, and the apostles themselves span away from each other. Mingus took his Tijuana demons and his ideas of new forms of improvisation to New York; McGrath to Dakota, and expressivity took on its own turns.
From then on, as the years moved towards the 60s, (and this is a simplification) creativity travelled down two highways: to join the Industry with its evolving division of labour to become a mass of detailed workers, geniuses of technical precision and turn their craft into part of the productive forces that were to colonise the world's image-making, exploding Arabs in their way- the citadel of Contrivance; or, to try and steer an autonomous way through the Asmell of decaying dreams."- a modern citadel of hope.
From then on too, no other part of the world was to experience more solipsism and more invention in its musical languages. The urban experience created the callous landscape for a music both rooted in the area and playful with roots; a music full of echoes of the Apotential" but also defined by the cacophony of what was Aloose..rolling" of what was not tied up Aflying in." Such a sublimation of feeling and its expression was at the heart of Ornette Coleman's achievement in revolutionising America's primary musical exemplar: jazz.
In a series of recordings from 1958-61 what was subterranean exploded outwards in frenetic ensemble Aharmonisings"- Coleman's Aharmolodics". With Don Cherry's pocket-trumpet scattering its solos with unseemly randomness over Charlie Haden's pulses and Coleman's compositions and sax meanderings, attempted all the time to play against any conceivable grain. It captured a peculiar moment of total freedom, not so much for a listener or an audience, but for the creative improvisers. The collection Beauty is a Rare Thing captures the turning point of a new art, at once narcissistic, expansive, able to swallow up all of the world's music, rooted only through allusion and cameo to"origins."- the blues, bebop, expressionism and completely disrespectful of them all. It manifested an Aincredulity" (to steal from Lyotard) towards Afoundationalism." It made possible and laid the platform for one of the most profound statements, indeed one of the most moving statements in African- American expressivity in the music of a John Coltrane, but it would have been implausible without the Apetrified shitstorm" of the LA moment. (84)
New York had its own currents running from Harlem to the skies; Chicago had the industrial moaning of Howing Wolf, and Muddy Waters as the slave plantations still haunted the ghettos and engineering plants; New Orleans had its own spice and gumbo grooves and even Houston spurted out its blues, slide-guitars and wails. (85)But no other place had so much of an alienating and powerful impact as to break the code of Afoundationalism", a leitmoif of most of LA's serious and popular music to this day: Zappa did it to rock and roll and to Varese; Captain Beefheart did it to Howling Wolf and to Ornette Coleman; Tom Waits still does it to Kerouac and Gershwin- yet, this sense of expressivity has been nowhere near the implications of Coleman's sound-scapes. (86)
Whereas Charlie Mingus's mastery lay in his gargantuan abiltiy to swallow and digest and ideed translate hundreds of sounds and influences heterogeneous to jazz and make them the most natural extensions of its pantheon, Coleman attacked the genre's rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. Whereas too, Mingus created careful Aauras" and Amoods" inviting his public to participate in an unusual circuit of emotions that allude to the states of our being (his interpretation) and once the communicative ground seemed established to then take dangerous turns, Coleman would ignore such a social contract and launch into a playful dialogue with and between his excellent musicians.
There was a proud passion in Mingus's Pithicanthropus Erectus, Ah-hum and Tijuana Moods: (87) it spoke for jazz within an African-American tradition, taking its voicings to areas beyond the possible. Next to his cello's elbow after all, there was the growing civil rights movement, a growing sense of solidarity and empathy. Coleman pushed further than that, to test all possible forms of cul-de-sac in the tradition's harmonies, beat and meter. Once the barriers broke down, there was nothing but the dialogue of pure passionate sounds.
Coleman, Cherry and Haden returned to the disquiet of communication, after years of experiment with the possibilities of their sound-based revolution.. Coleman has been searching to re-connect with the new generations of post-sixties rock and rhythm with funk, strings and electricity.(88) Haden has been reconnecting with Mingus's legacy to make his music speak to global liberation politics on the one hand, and Hollywood's allure on the other. . His Liberation Music Orchestra is one of the expressive highpoints of the last twenty or so years.(89) Cherry before his death, became a musical nomad: trying to recover accross the feelings of Africa, the Middle East and further East than that a world music that combined the sensuality of Afro-blues/jazz and the spirituality of Eastern devotion . (90)But the potential was gone. Theirs is a music of the avant-garde reaching out to a people who refuse to become its audience, a people undermined by forces larger than mass culture, redefining themselves through different music codes. Mingus took to the road believing he was mad, delirius, misunderstood. He was. Now, after his death, he is a reconstructed icon. Was the potential ever possible? AJezebel's Dance" on Tijuana Moods seems to say so. (91)