The Ledger

May 2018

‘You say you want a revolution’, sang the Beatles, before listing the caveats: ‘destruction’, ‘minds that hate’, overhead costs. But the biggest impediment to changing the status quo isn’t any longer (if it ever was) youthful dogmatism and zealotry. Rather it’s apathy, distractibility and mercenary ambition. It takes energy and everyday leaps of faith to commit to causes beyond ourselves. The post–Cold War order, it seemed almost certain, was the final, slightly lazy triumph of liberal democracy, but the return of strong-man politics to many countries thought rid of fanaticism, civic chaos and outrageous propaganda has offered a jarring corrective. The past year, accordingly, has seen an uptick in motivation for many—a charged, polarised political atmosphere tends to do that. Witness the resourcefulness of the teenage survivors of gun violence who organised the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and how they were galvanised to turn tragedy into action. They have taken on an issue widely thought to be intractable and have wrung support from household names who can afford to take a stand but have needed a nudge to do so, and who in the past might have offered only tepid thoughts and prayers. More and more, our friends and family are putting themselves forward—financially, on social media and even physically—for causes they previously thought surely didn’t need their help; look to airport protests against inhumane immigration policies (read below about the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Emily Greene Balch, who was thinking about similar injustices a century ago); or guerrilla environmentalism; or even arts-and-crafts gatherings to design cheeky, eye-catching signs for public demonstrations. Ovid wrote: ‘What is harder than rock? What softer than water? Yet hard rocks are hollowed out by soft water.’ Keep resisting.



A gentle agricultural agitator whose legacy endures

‘To get an idea of the perfection and abundance of nature,’ Masanobu Fukuoka once said, ‘take a walk into the forest sometime. There, the animals, tall trees and shrubs are living together in harmony. All of this came about without benefit of human ingenuity or intervention.’ In an era of Monsanto, increasingly aggressive petroleum endeavours and the ever-more-conspicuous ravages of climate change, Fukuoka (1913–2008) was a quiet revolutionary who advocated a ‘do-nothing’ farming method that produced miraculous yields and could revegetate desert lands. He trained as a microbiologist and agricultural scientist but renounced the Western, interventionist perspectives of these disciplines after contracting pneumonia in his early 20s—a near-death experience that caused him to rethink the whole cycle of life. He was still convalescing, gazing at Yokohama Bay at dawn, when an epiphany struck: Nature was perfect as-is, and troubles arose when humans tried to boost, juice or otherwise exploit it. He decided to return to his family farm to test his new philosophy, and devised a scattershot way of distributing straw after noting that the wind, in ruffling it, allowed rice seedlings to emerge. He also mixed vegetable seeds and distributed them in the spaces between citrus trees, allowing them to take root where they preferred to grow and reseed. Fukuoka had some lean years in the beginning, but remained creative and above all patient. His influence extended into the natural-food and -lifestyle movements, and he travelled the world observing new locales and advising farmers. The One-Straw Revolution (1975), a slim volume expounding his approach, remains something of a bible for like-minded farmers, kitchen gardeners and advocates of permaculture.



Carving a path beyond ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’

Le Fond de l’air est rouge, a 1977 film by the French auteur Chris Marker, takes its title from a May 1968 slogan of the New Left and is styled in English as the Cheshire-friendly A Grin Without a Cat. Fifty years hence, it holds up well. An ‘essay film’ that examines political dissent in the 1960s and ’70s by means of brilliantly configured archival footage, Grin straddles documentary and personal reflection and ranges between various revolutionaries. There is footage of Fidel Castro, of Che Guevara and of an American pilot dropping bombs on what he assumes is a Vietcong encampment. There are interviews with French communist leaders and impassioned students. The voiceover is deft and decidedly non-didactic. The film weaves together poster-children of the movement with contemporaneous happenings—the Minamata mercury poisoning in Japan, the rise of Salvador Allende, Watergate. A Grin Without a Cat is a persuasive piece of journalism with equally striking poetic touches: a motif of cats and raccoons recurs, as do certain physical gestures. Marker knew not to overwork the material. Instead he let the rollicking times and intense characters speak for themselves.


Reminiscences of a wise and resolute spirit

The Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laâbi was born in Fez in 1942. ‘I have from time to time reflected on how I ended up writing’, he told an interviewer, describing his upbringing in a two-room house with seven siblings and illiterate parents who ‘were almost slaves in our service, so that we could eat, so that we could be clothed, and so that we could go to school.’ It was his mother, he wagers, who sparked his interest in the written word. ‘The image of my mother imposes itself on me, because she was a woman who had a rich language, full of images, and a great sense of humour. She was often angry at her condition.’ Laâbi became a French teacher, then co-founded the literary journal Souffles, whose editors were firebrand poets and painters. It was banned in 1972, the same year Laâbi was imprisoned for ‘crimes of opinion’. ‘Allow me to tell you’, King Hassan II admonished his people after his regime had crushed a student uprising, ‘that there is no greater danger to the State than a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.’ Laâbi would remain in prison until 1980; in 1985 he went into exile in France. The Bottom of the Jar contains Laâbi’s tender reminiscences about his childhood and family, beautifully translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, whose ear is up to the task of capturing the poet’s rich cadence and turns of phrase. Fez in the 1950s is a vivid place, full of vivid people, such as the uncle who loves hashish and storytelling in equal measure (one might be forgiven for suspecting some sort of connection). Admirers of Moroccan writers such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Driss Chraïbi and Mohammed Choukri will cherish this bildungsroman and its warm, wise narrator, his wit and remarkable backbone.


Stirring declarations of protest, both timely and ageless

The English singer-songwriter Darren Hayman was the frontman of the rock-folk group Hefner, which disbanded in 2002. Since then, he’s grown into the well-established role of British eccentric. His output has been prodigious, eclectic and unafraid of new forms—not to mention old ones. Take, for instance, his album of English Civil War songs, or the trilogy of albums he released that explore the history of Essex, including its sixteenth-century witch trials, or Chants for Socialists, which he named after ten protest songs by the English textile designer, writer and social activist William Morris. Hayman stumbled on the pamphlet of songs some years ago while visiting the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. He knew Morris as an artist and a craftsman, less so as a figure of the resistance, less still as a bard. Hayman’s rendition, which truncates and updates the ten songs for contemporary audiences, was released in 2015 by the West London label wiaiwya. Hayman invited strangers from Walthamstow to gather together at the gallery and at Morris’s Kelmscott House and Manor to sing the reworked songs ensemble. ‘Anyone was welcome’, he said. ‘For me socialism is about community. Usually in the studio we just overdub and multiply the voices for a chorus. So it was great to have 30 or so different voices singing the songs in Morris’s childhood home.’ Hayman conceived of the album as a ‘rallying call or a manifesto’ but also as ‘a comfort to people like me, maybe those of us who used to be a little more engaged in politics.’ The album’s eighth track, ‘The Voice of Toil’, is especially rousing.


Sharing architectural know-how to recast the status quo

What’s the antidote to the cult of the so-called starchitect and (almost invariably) his big, braggadocious buildings? According to Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till, two professors in the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, it’s the idea of spatial agency, a concept that lends its name to the collective entity they launched which prioritises the people who inhabit and use any given space, rather than the author of the blueprints. Practitioners of Spatial Agency share technical training and knowledge of architectural processes with others to give them meaningful involvement regarding where and how they reside. The flexible philosophy can apply to numerous projects; examples to date range from Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a transnational NGO founded in 1996 that represents ‘federations’ of urban poor and homeless groups who advocate at city or national level, to the Viennese architectural practice Coop Himmelblau, founded in 1968 with an approach based on the Austrian heritage of Freudian psychoanalysis. Schneider and Till aim to ‘uncover a second history of architecture, one that moves sharply away from the figure of the architect as individual hero, and replaces it with a much more collaborative approach in which agents act with, and on behalf of, others.’ Spatial Agency’s online database of affiliated projects is deep and diverse. ‘In all the examples on this website,’ its founders write, ‘there is a transformative intent to make the status quo better, but the means are very varied, from activism to pedagogy, publications to networking, making stuff to making policy—all done in the name of empowering others.’


The ecstasy, the warmth and the might of words

The very first episode of The Paris Review Podcast starts simply: ‘What you won’t hear is much in the way of hosting’, we are told. ‘We’re just going to let the writing speak for itself, the way it always has in the magazine.’ The lack of hand-holding feels apt from the start, when the cool downtown Manhattan poet Eileen Myles takes such obvious pleasure in reading a poem by James Schuyler—‘A purposeful mutt makes dark marks in blue dew. The day offers so much, holds so little. Or is it simply you, who asking too much, take too little?’—surely, in part, because of the debt Myles’s own poems owe to Schuyler’s blunt intensity. This reading is followed by Wallace Shawn’s impish rendition of Denis Johnson’s blackly, bleakly hilarious tale ‘Car-Crash While Hitchhiking’; then comes a treasure from the archive: George Plimpton, the journal’s founding editor, in conversation with Maya Angelou. Throughout, Angelou repeatedly emphasises her love of language. ‘I love it for what it does for us’, she explains. ‘It allows us at once to explain the pain and the glory and the nuances… of our existence. And it allows us to laugh.’ Plimpton asks whether injustice also spurs her work. ‘Oh yes indeed’, Angelou replies, ‘and there is, I hope, in my work, a thesis: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.’ It’s a fine distinction to heed whenever inequity seems to have the upper hand.


A lifelong pacifist of unflagging boldness

When she was around ten years old, Emily Greene Balch saw the influential Unitarian minister, pacifist and writer Charles Fletcher Dole speak; the experience set her on an unswerving path. ‘He asked us to enlist in the service of goodness whatever its cost. In accepting this pledge, I never abandoned in any degree my desire to live up to it.’ After studying Greek and Latin as a member of Bryn Mawr College’s first, all-female graduating class in 1889, she took economics under Émile Levasseur at the Sorbonne and then joined Wellesley, another of the United States’ original women’s colleges, as a professor of economics and sociology. While researching Slavic immigration, she lived in various disadvantaged American neighbourhoods and travelled to Austria-Hungary. ‘In Prague, in 1906, that one unbearably bleak winter morning, I saw a man fumbling with his bare fingers in an ash barrel in search of something to eat’, she wrote of her turn toward socialism; ‘…the bare fingers in the icy ashes were somehow final.’ In 1918, she was dismissed from Wellesley for her anti-war activism and joined the staff of the progressive magazine The Nation. In 1919, she founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) with Jane Addams and other prominent feminists; nearly a century on, it remains active on a global scale. Between World Wars I and II, Balch assisted governments and international bodies on disarmament and other issues. The rise of Nazism caused her to revise her commitment to pacifism—she came to believe in defending ‘fundamental human rights, sword in hand’, under certain circumstances. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, at the age of 79, for her work in WILPF. Her legacy—of tireless activism, intensive study, pragmatism, kindness and bold acts ‘in the service of goodness whatever its cost’—lives on.


Reflections on protest, activism and action through art

Some of the artists represented in ‘An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017’ agitated for change they intended to be binary and concrete, such as an end to the war in Vietnam. Others—such as Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation—imagined a robust distribution of civil rights that would extend to every citizen. Martha Rosler’s 1975 short film Semiotics of the Kitchen used sly humour to undermine traditional gender roles. Curated by David Breslin, Rujeko Hockley and Jenny Goldstein, ‘An Incomplete History’ contains work by nearly 90 artists, from Melvin Edwards to Guerrilla Girls, John Giorno to Paul Chan, shown in chronological order; it continues through August 27. ‘We're looking to say that this work isn't done, it's ongoing’, Breslin remarks. ‘It's one of the reasons why we wanted to have ‘Incomplete’ in the title of the show. Not just to signify that the work of protest is incomplete, but the work of the museum in trying to work closely with artists, to see how we can be in step with each other.’ It’s an excellent companion to the London Design Museum’s ‘Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–18’, which runs through August 12 and features designs recently deployed in protests, from Internet memes to good old-fashioned marching signs.



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.

‘Resist much, obey little.’

Walt Whitman