Monthly Archives: July 2012

George Mariscal – Brown Eyed Children of the Sun

George Mariscal’s Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun responds to critiques of the Chicano Movement (the Movimiento) as a failed, regressively nationalist social movement by reconstructing it in terms of postmodern discourse.  Using Raymond Williams’ claim that ideology and material practice/ discourse are mutually constitutive, and Foucault’s claim that “overlapping ideologies and discourses produce figures, practices, and languages functioning under a generalized rubric,” Mariscal analyzes a variety of texts, including images, poetry, speeches, student essays, newspaper articles and writings by both English- and Spanish-speaking activists to “map the complex ideological field that was the Chicano Movement of the Viet Nam war era” in terms that he hopes will help 21st century Chicano/a activists form their own context-dependent identities and social movements.  (23, 21)  Because he is interested in the relationship between discourse and ideology in the Movimiento and in constructing a Foucauldian “archaeology” rather than a chronological historical narrative, Mariscal refuses to develop a linear narrative or to reify the Chicano Movement around a single ideology, group, or even defining feature.   Instead, he analyzes primarily written and visual texts by both participants and contemporary observers  to complicate key movement concepts and symbols (or people) such as nationalism, race, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Aztlan, and UCSD.  The end result of this discourse analysis is a conception of the Movimiento as a fragmented ideological fabric whose participants are themselves fragmented, multiple, and heterogeneous.   

The intentionally decentered narrative that Mariscal constructs contributes to the study of the Chicano Movement, and to social movements more generally, in several ways.  First, by insisting that the Movimiento did not subscribe to a single nationalist ideology but was instead the product of a fragmentary dialectic between regressive (static, reactionary) nationalism, cultural (coalition-building, heterogeneous) nationalism, and internationalism or Third-Worldism, he is able to address charges of sexism, racism, homophobia, and exclusionary nationalism as pieces of a larger, more complex whole rather than as defining elements of the Movement.  Second, the same postmodern lens that he brings to the Movement as a whole also allows him more leeway in interpreting Movement subjects: rather than defining Chicanos/as in terms of the Movimiento’s regressive traditionalist working class Mexican participants, he constructs the Chicano/a identity as both a raced body and as a less-concrete body defined by movement, mixture, change, and mestizaje.  This concept of participants as contingent articulations within a larger discursive structure fits in nicely with his argument that this particular movement was not a “traditional” mass movement but a shifting, changing, amorphous one, and thus that it was able to effectively leverage tactics as different as Cesar Chavez’ nonviolence, the Young Lords’ violent antiracist revolutionary stance, and Hispanic liberalism into far-reaching social changes.  Finally, his emphasis on the production of meaning through discourse, as with Che Guevara’s reproduced image or Cesar Chavez as the MLK of the Chicano/a movement, rather than through concrete acts by specific actors, allows him to construct a history of the Movimiento as a history of changing meanings and representations rather than a history of human acts.  The detachment of history from physical bodies allows him to look more closely at the development of ideologies and symbolism  and the reception of different actors.  This approach may make the Movimiento more relevant to current activists than a simple recounting of events, as these activists will be forming movements for their own times that will have little to do with the technologies and logistics and people of the 1960s.

However, despite the strengths of this approach, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun misses the mark in some ways.  First and foremost, focusing on discourse and cultural impressions, at least the way he does it, makes for beautiful language but may be too detached from the actual movement to give readers unfamiliar with the subject matter.  Specifically, given that he draws from a wide variety of sources, including writings by well-known (to the non-Spanish-speaking world) activists such as Guevara and Chavez, Latin American activists, poets, academics, and students and gang members, his emphasis on the discursive production of meaning raises questions of access.  Who was reading these texts?  Where were these writers?  Without information on positionality of writers and accessibility of texts, it is difficult to assess how well the texts he chose actually relate to the movement he’s describing.  Further, favoring discursive sites over historical events runs the risk of derailing his recovery project, as the lack of details on specific events means that new readers won’t be able to place the texts in historical context.  In addition, while characterizing a social movement and its participants as heterogeneous and multiple is likely closer to historical fact than a “great man” narrative, this tactic also allows Mariscal to elide the critical question of boundaries.  In a movement such as the Chicano Movement, which includes an ethnic or racialized component in its many discourses, saying that both the issues covered by the movement and the identities of the people in it were based on movement and mixing rather than homogeneous nationalistic impulses, traditional values, and racial purity is important, but it does not answer basic questions like who is in the movement?  who is out?  and how is it bound together?  More importantly, where are the people, what do the activists think, and why can’t we hear anyone but the most lyrical writers?  It is difficult to conceive of a historical movement when its history is presented as discourse rather than active struggle; at times, the book reads as though Mariscal’s telling is the only discursive fabric that binds it together as a movement.

This tension between history and discourse also affects Mariscal’s analysis of the success or failure of the Movimiento.  Although he constructs the Movimiento as a fragmented, complex cultural formation, he also subjects the movement to a classical binary Marxist analysis, and these two approaches sometimes seem at odds with one another.  Why, for instance, is it alright for the Movimiento to be fragmented ideologically, and laudable for Chicano/as to form alliances with Native American and Black organizations, but troubling for Hispanic professionals to form a contingent separate from working class Chicano/as?   Finally, Mariscal’s inclusion of the academy as a site of struggle is also problematic.  His frustration at being a Chicano scholar at UCSD is obvious in several places throughout the text; at different points, he underscores that he is not getting funding to write this book, that UC Davis is not co-operating to get the Chicano/a studies program underway, and that academia does not support him and it in its ivory tower and not dealing with real community issues.  While these issues may well be real and certainly support his postmodern interest in positionality, they often come across more as personal gripes with his unique situation than issues that affect the Chicano/a Movement as a whole.  While Mariscal’s discursive approach allows for a unique analysis of the Chicano Movement, it raises almost as many questions as it answers.

Despite – and in some case, because of – these issues, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun makes many connections to other works.  As Mariscal notes in his Introduction, his work is indebted to both Raymond Williams and Foucault, particularly in its emphasis on discourse as the site of cultural production.  His analysis of Che Guevara reads like something right out of Barthes’ Mythologies, though it is also indebted to Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum.  Because it emphasizes movement and mixing rather than stasis, racial purity, or any kind of narrative of authenticity, his construction of Chicano identity also has traces of the simulacrum in it.  The book’s focus on the shifting, heterogeneous ideologies and identities seems closely related to Laclau’s “articulation of differential demands” in his On Populist Reason, though Laclau’s book appeared several years after Mariscal’s was published. Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun is in good company in its use of a postmodern lens to analyze a social movement; greater emphasis on historical events and real, live actors would help present-day activists better understand the relationship between ideology, theory, and historical social change.

Mariscal, George.  Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries – Bloody Lowndes

Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes, which both chronicles and contextualizes the Lowndes County freedom struggle of the late 1960s, uses a combination of interviews, archival sources, periodicals and histories to argue – against the canonical view that black militancy destroyed the civil rights movement – that black militancy and separatist ideology, at least in Lowndes County, was a necessary ingredient for the success of the freedom rights (vs. voting rights) struggle.  Although he argues that his thesis holds for the Black Civil Rights struggle as a whole, he centers it around a painstakingly constructed microhistory of Lowndes County, beginning with post-Civil War separatist efforts to build black churches, landholding collectives, and schools; moving through the “Lowndes  Diaspora” and the formation of a strong, geographically diverse social network (whose Detroit arm provided critical fundraising for the LCFO and other local organizations); detailing the interconnections between this local network and SNCC’s unique combination of intensive local activism and political and media know-how; and tracing the eventual corruption and failure of the movement to the departure of SNCC and the integration of its main activists into the local political machine.  Bloody Lowndes shows how the development of Lowndes County’s black community into a strong, grassroots network, in combination with the organizing skills of experienced activists from SNCC, constituted the seeds for a radical democratic revolution.

Bloody Lowndes’ strengths lie in Jeffries’ ability to balance micro and macro perspectives across multiple dimensions, as well as his attention to details that hint at the agentive formation of a separatist black resistance.  It also benefits from well-integrated interdisciplinary work, particularly with respect to history, spatial analysis, and social network theory.  Local struggles – the formation of the LCFO, for instance – develop in tandem with their national counterparts – in this case, SNCC’s desire to try for third party politics again after the Mississippi third party failed; they are also deeply contextualized in a long history that stretches back to the formation of separate black churches in the 1880s and forward into the 1980s and John Hulett’s slide into boss politics.  Formal lawsuits against the federal government share the stage with the emotional dimensions of community meetings and the cartoons that volunteers used to educate an illiterate populace about the duties of various county officials.  Although the discussion of resistance prior to the civil rights era seems rather sparse in comparison to later chapters on the 1960s, these early chapters on post-Civil War black organizing in Lowndes County  reveal Jeffries’ skills at compiling archival documents, many of which were written about freed slaves, not by them,  into a narrative of black agency.  Further, when the narrative slows down in the 1960s, Jeffries’ attention to personal histories, economics, emotions, and the media help the reader feel as if the action is unfolding then and there.  His integration of place – the book opens with a detailed geography of poor, rural Lowndes County – helps situate the narrative in the physical, material conditions of the rural poor; and his use of social network theory helps explain the logistics of the struggle, particularly with regard to educational and fundraising networks.  Jeffries’ particular interdisciplinary approach seems uniquely tailored to his argument that the black Civil Rights struggle was a combination of micro and macro approaches, and as such it is an effective marriage of method and content.
Despite these strengths, however, Bloody Lowndes does have its weaknesses.  While the book is certainly interdisciplinary, Jeffries’ training is in American history, and it is history, more than social networks or geography, that takes a central place in the book.  While historical methods prove incredibly useful for proving his thesis, the other disciplines are key to his arguments, and developing them more fully theoretically would have been helpful.  Further, although the many biographies and descriptions of emotional meetings provide ample psychological and historical context, their relation to the main argument is not always clear.  Is Jeffries merely trying to bring the events to life?  Or is he making a larger claim about the relationships between individualism, emotion, and activism?  Finally, and perhaps most critically, some of the conclusions Jeffries draws from his study of Lowndes County are problematic.  While this narrative provides a powerful counterargument to celebratory integrationist interpretations of the Civil Rights movement, Jeffries conflates his concept of freedom rights with social class, and he ultimately concludes that the failure of the Lowndes County project to raise its black residents out of poverty is a result of people in the movement failing to keep the spirit of revolution going.  He argues that when SNCC pulled out and stopped actively integrating Lowndes County residents into the Civil Right struggle, grassroots support for the struggle faltered and the movement failed to reach all of its goals.  This analysis may have historical traction, but it also begs the question that many other radical revolutionaries have asked: how long can regular people be expected to sustain the revolution?  Can we really fault them for faltering?
Beyond these issues, both the methodology and the content of Bloody Lowndes add substantially to a study of social movements.  Its overall argument that social movements are a combination of national coordination and local struggles closely parallels that in Clay Carson’s’ In Struggle.  And, by narrating the struggle from the perspective of a single community in which SNCC was active rather than from SNCC itself, Jeffries further subverts the ‘great man’ theory that Carson set out to destroy: not only was the Civil Rights movement not led by Dr. King, it was also not led by SNCC – the impetus for it truly came from below.  The book’s use of social network theory to explain the relationship between local struggle and national funding and coordination follows several studies in that field, particularly Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973) and George Ritzer’s “Rethinking Globalization: Glocalization/Grobalization and Something/Nothing” (2003).  Finally, with respect to the failure of Lowndes County to realize more radical goals for social equality, Jeffries’ argument runs curiously parallel to Alain Badieu’s argument in The Idea of Communism: just because Stalin and Mao turned Communism into something awful doesn’t mean that communism is bad – or, in the case of Lowndes County, just because a black separatist movement failed once does not mean that it will always fail or that it has intrinsic faults.  Bloody Lowndes provides an interesting take on the American Black Civil Rights Movement in particular and on a study of social movements more generally.
Jeffries, Hasan Kwame.  Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.  New York: NYU Press, 2009.