Pragmatism in the “Shitstem” and Singing for Obama

Apolitical, as in Conservative

“Apolitical intellectuals” is a poem by Otto René Castillo from Guatemala, appearing on Deathpower. An apolitical intellectual is an interesting idea, and there may be one some day. What I think Castillo is referring to as “apolitical” is not the absence of political subjectivity, but rather disengagement from the politics of revolutionary transformation. The choice of not being engaged is a political one. It may appear to have been “apolitical” in the Guatemalan context in the same way that Anglo is never labeled “ethnic” in North America — in Castillo’s situation, apolitical is adherence to the mainstream norm, orthodoxy that would previously have escaped notice as political, that is free from question from the dominant classes in society, that might have gone without saying as if it were unproblematic. Castillo, and other revolutionary poets, were instead “problematic,” and as “problems” they were dealt with sometimes brutally.


A Fish in the Net

Teachers, Stanley Fish tells us, should just stick to the books, and voice no political opinions of their own. Politics does not belong in the university classroom, he argues. Presumably, politics should even be kept as far away as possible when discussing political issues. Fish knows what he is talking about, as a survivor of, and thriver in, what Peter Tosh called the “shitstem” (system). Too bad that Fish will not recognize that one can voice one’s opinion, and still call forth many other opinions, and have genuine debate and discussion, and provoke questions. Too bad for Fish that he seems to have only known comfortable frowners as students, who think politics and knowledge have never met — in my experience, students tend to be far more radical and critical than I am in class. And too bad that he chooses outmoded ways of segmenting politics from culture, and from economics … like the economics that constituted the class of students who could afford to attend his Duke University, and frown on heresy, and insist on the techniques of a professional career? Perhaps the reality at Duke is more mature than the mute child Fish wishes for.


One-Dimensional Man

Cultural infantilization, doctrinaire moral conservativism, and fear, teach some people to avoid politics and stick to the “facts,” as in the academy during the Cold War. The byproduct, perhaps intended, is the student as a flat character who espouses the doctrines of correct middle-roading discourse — no sarcasm, no satire, no irony. Sarcasm is simply “bad” — no matter what the target or the context, this kind of static primary school dogma should lead hordes of adults to acrimoniously protest against any reruns of Monty Python, because it is surely beyond their limited sensibilities. And if the The New Yorker makes a joke about caricatures of Obama as a terrorist and “secret Muslim,” without an understanding of satire and sarcasm some mistake it as an endorsement of such caricatures. You can see a culture degenerating, first hand. Obama’s campaign on auto pilot does not help matters: anything with any force of conviction, any pointed question, any counter punch, is immediately, robotically … “denounced and rejected,” “condemned and refuted”, for being “tasteless and offensive.”

But where the cold finger of orthodoxy meets the aquarium, many Fishes are sure to follow.


Truth on the Razor’s Edge


Un-diploma-tic. Peace, as Tosh used to say, is the diploma you get in the cemetery. In cultures that value diplomas, Tosh showed scorn. This is unmoderated, unregulated opinion, this is not self-policing. Tosh, a.k.a. the Stepping Razor (see below), had no interest in being the bit player in someone else’s orchestration of allowable forms of dissent. Nor can I recall one love song from Tosh (the Caribbean usually offers a break from the sugary industrialization of “love” found in North America). This was the Malcolm X of Jamaican music in a way, scissors on legs, unrelenting cutting. This is a man who valued freedom and the right to speak out, not someone who would show off to “those that count” his mastery of perpetual pupildom by being the safe speaker, occupier of centres of middle grounds, eschewing controversy, collecting his rations, mindful that the guards are said to be always watching. Tosh is here and now, as a sign to all militant artists to forget about rewards and congratulations and to keep speaking truth … to shit.



Slave Hymns

So then one has to wonder what has happened to Rastafarian culture if certain Reggae artists endorse Obama? What happened to the rejection of party “politricks”? What happened to the rejection of the various “isms”? What happened to the critique of state authority? What happened to looking within, to self-knowledge, against dependence on elite and foreign sources? Rastas spoke of Zion as metaphor for liberation, and when Obama comes even close to Zion it is in a hawkish, neo-con speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Of course Rasta culture was never “pure,” and with a few compromises here and there its internal diversity has been open to official appropriation and to commercialized messages (Cocoa Tea’s for instance) that are high on enthusiasm, and low on substance. “Change you can believe in” — if you are a cynic, or perhaps “pragmatic” — is change that hardly happens, because real change would just be “unbelievable.”


Damnable Heresies

There is always time for one more video, when the words of the beautiful song that is featured say:

These damnable heresies,
Sold into slavery,
By my insecurities, oh, they keep taking me down,

Total confusion, no right or wrong,
Keeping the people from where they belong,
Refusing to speak, afraid to upset,

…conforming my life,
Keeping me blind, keeping me blind, keeping me blind
From the reality of whats being done
I keep playing the fool to help everyone…


“If you’ve got a big tree,
I’ve got a small axe”

3 thoughts on “Pragmatism in the “Shitstem” and Singing for Obama

  1. erikwdavis

    A great post – I think you’re exactly right on the meaning of ‘apolitical’ for Castillo – for me, it means merely those, like Fish, who pretend that a disengagement from politics (not party or electoral politics, here, of course) is somehow anything other than support of the shitstem. We are all political, all the time, and teachers are certainly included.

    As for rastas, there’s been compromise and collusion for years, though the recent wave of endorsements of political figures – even for the relatively conscious reasons given by Cocoa Tea on your previous post – is distressing.

    Discovering Steel Pulse in 1984 was one of the earliest radicalizing moments in my young life, and I return to that album repeatedly for inspiration. In spite of capitulations to the polytricksters here and there, however, I’m heartened that there are plenty who will never stand up to support them.

    I wonder what these artists are feeling now that Obama has done a volte-face on the rhetoric of his primary campaign?

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much Erik. I will try to keep in touch, not always easy, not even with the Internet, to see if there is any shift in opinions from some of these public personalities in Jamaica. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I always appreciate your comments and insights on these issues.

  3. Pingback: » When politics becomes asymmetric, symbolic warfare In Harmonium: Being in the main the musings of a Symbolic Anthropologist

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