Author Archives: Luis Feliz

What Goes on in Santo Domingo?

This is Juan Pérez Terrero’s photograph of Jacobo Rincón about to fight a fully armed U.S. soldier. The photo was taken in 1965 during the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic.

This is Juan Pérez Terrero’s photograph of Jacobo Rincón about to fight a fully armed U.S. soldier. The photo was taken in 1965 during the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic.

Not since 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson in a televised address justified the deployment of 40,000 U.S. troops to Santo Domingo under the pretext that a “popular democratic revolution, committed to democracy and social justice,” had fallen “into the hands of a ban of Communist conspirators” have events in the Dominican Republic garner as much international attention as the denationalization and deportation of Haitian workers and Dominicans of Haitian descent.[1] The late New Left intellectual and polyglot Fred Halliday, writing back in 2009, wondered how the country had been “forgotten by the world after the attention of the Rafael Trujillo years and the 1965 events,” which in his mind was “a paradox, indeed, that this country, the centrepiece of the original Spanish colonisation of the Americas, and scene of one of the most tumultuous confrontations of the cold war, should have slipped so easily from international attention.” Halliday concluded with the hope that it was time for the “Dominican Republic” to contribute “another page” to history.[2] The Dominican Republic has written that page, and what appears on it doesn’t recall the anti-imperialist and populist events of 1965 but Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of Dominicans and Haitians living in the borderlands of Hispaniola. Much has been written about the Trujillo regime and its ruthless exercise in state formation and authoritarian rule, something that will be covered on this blog at a later point. But for the moment, the April Uprising, imbued with a comparable mythic quality and historical exceptionalism as U.S. radicals from the Sixties attribute to their movements for reform, will be the focus of this post.

The April Uprising of 1965 to restore the deposed Juan Bosch to the Dominican presidency was a watershed moment not only because of the mythical status the rebellion still holds over the Dominican popular imagination but also because the occupation of the island happened in the polarizing atmosphere of the Cold War. Like other countries across Latin America, Asia and Africa at this time, the Dominican Republic served as a battleground in the U.S.’s war against Soviet Communism. In the Dominican Republic, President Johnson saw an insignificant country where he could rehabilitate the Democrats’ hawkish credentials in dealing with Communism. “I have just taken action,” Johnson said to Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, “that will prove that Democratic presidents can deal with Communists as strongly as Republicans.”[3]

At the level of protest politics, the April Uprising became a cause célèbre among Black Power and Puerto Rican nationalists, New Left activists and New Communist Movement militants.[4] Stokely Carmichael, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, provided another reason why events in the Dominican Republic gained so much traction in the U.S. press. During his 1966 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Carmichael indicated the trajectory the antiwar movement was to take from peace movement to Third World anti-imperialist politics: “One of the problems with the peace movement is that it’s just too caught up in Vietnam, and that if we pulled out the troops from Vietnam this week, next week you’d have to get another peace movement for Santo Domingo[5].” One year later, at the First Conference of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), Carmichael further defined his position from “the problems” to “a common struggle” against “our enemy,” “white Western imperialist society.”[6] Because of these ideological and political conditions, the invasion of the Dominican Republic became another prominent albeit symbolic struggle in the anti-imperialist politics of the Sixties.

Judging by young Dominicans, Haitians and other allies’ participation in recent protests against the Dominican government’s racist denationalization and deportation efforts and extensive media coverage in the New York Times, The Nation and Harper’s among other publications, the Dominican Republic still holds pride of place among Latin American countries in the U.S. If in the Sixties the Cold War rivalries between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and Third World anti-imperialism furnished the conditions for U.S.-based leftists to be receptive to the going-ons in Santo Domingo, what explains the U.S. interest in Dominican affairs these days? And how did this come about? To answer these questions and better understand the intimately intertwined history of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, it is important to take a broad view of the historical procession of events that have made these two country’s destinies forever bound to the other. For that reason, I am introducing a series of essay I would like to call “What Goes-on in Santo Domingo?” These essays will appear bi-weekly on this blog. Below is the list of topics covered. (There is a Dominican proverb that goes– el que mucho abarca, poco aprieta– that I hope to disprove. The proverb translates to “he who tries to do it all does just a little.”)

  • When the U.S. Almost Annexed the Dominican Republic
  • Characteristics and Peculiarities of French and Spanish Colonialism
  •  Building the Dominican State: From Caudillismo to Dictatorship
  • Everyday Trujullismo: Peasants and Authoritarian Rule
  • America Libre: The Cuban Revolution in the Caribbean Context
  • In the Belly of the Beast: The Making of the Dominican Diaspora
  • The Diaspora Strikes Back

[1] Alan McPherson, “Misled by Himself: What the Johnson Tapes Reveal about the Dominican Intervention of 1965,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 38, 2 (2003): 142.

[2] Fred Halliday, “The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts,” openDemocracy, April 23, 2009, (accessed February 15, 2013).

[3] McPherson, “Misled by Himself,” 129.

[4] The North American Congress of Latin America’s (NACLA) inaugural issue covered the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. See Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York After 1950 (Princeton University Press, 2008), 123. Also see Marcelo Bermudez, ‘“We Will Win’ Vows a Dominican Patriot,” The Partison, 1 no. 3 (October 1965): 1.

[5] Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “Berkeley Speech,” in Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books, 1971), 56. The historian David Steigerwald identifies what he labels the five branches of the antiwar movement as follows: 1) moderate antinuclear activists from the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and social democrats 2) traditional pacifists 3) campus radicals represented by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) 4) the Old Left and 5) hippies influenced by cultural radicalism. See David Steigerwald, The Sixties and the End of Modern America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 105-6.

[6] Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “Solidarity,” in Stokely Speaks, 101.

E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

What is HistoryE.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? offers an excellent introduction to the philosophy of history, outlining some of its central debates and concerns. The method Carr deployed takes the reader through a series of trends in the writing of history and engages with the key intellectual exponents of these various schools of thought with the ultimate aim of arriving, through a process of negation, at a synthesis to the beguilingly simple question: What is history?

Carr’s first interlocutor, the German historian Leopold von Ranke, enjoined other scholars to “simply to show how it really was.” Responding to the moralizing trend of medieval and Enlightenment histories, Ranke developed a scientific approach to historical scholarship based on the careful study of primary documents and a focus on understanding events in the past as the people who lived in those times might have made sense of them. More importantly, Ranke’s true claim to renown rests on establishing history as a discipline separate from literature and philosophy.[1] Carr argued against Ranke’s conception of history on the grounds that historians work within a definite social context from which they cannot extricate themselves as they please and become mere value-free compilers in the Positivist “cult of facts.”[2] The answer historians give to –what is history? — “consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answers to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.”[3] Neither the historian nor the subjects of her investigation can stand outside history, or what’s more, apart from the society in which men and women make their mark on the historical unfolding of human experience.[4]

Carr rejected the separation of subject and object in the empiricist tradition of his own country. He argued instead that facts gain their meaning from the interpretation historians develop and shape from the careful “processing” of the available evidence. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”[5] Writing history involves selecting the facts and organizing them in a cogent fashion and thereby rendering a judgment that can pass muster as a sound interpretation.[6] History is not the belief that “facts speak for themselves” unmediated by a human consciousness. [7]

History, although written on the empirical evidence at hand, is “always refracted” through the mind of the historian and therefore its meanings never come to readers as “pure,” “self-evident” or “implicit.”[8] To drive home the point, Carr used the intellectual formation of the Whig historian George Macaulay Trevelyan as evidence of an inescapable general truth: a historian’s political disposition or standpoint leaves an indelible mark on the historical narrative that emerges through the drafting process and sifting of evidence. In what is one the most memorable an d quotable passages in the book, Carr wrote, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts […] The facts are really not at all like fish in the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use–these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”[9] Carr elaborated on this claim further in chapter two, “Society and the Individual,” in which he provided compelling examples to support the claim that depending on where the historian finds herself in the course of history will “determine” her “angel of vision over the past.”[10]

Arguing that through the interpretation of the sources, the historian brings her intellectual and political disposition to bear on her subject, Carr made the first of three claims drawing on both Benedetto Croce’s work and R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. In the second claim, Carr argued that the historian must possess an “imaginative understanding” for the social agents she is analyzing in her work, and in the third, that she can only come to comprehend the past through the eyes of the present.[11] For the second claim, Carr offered as examples the difficulty of reading historians on Soviet Russia and Medieval Europe because of their inability to practice an “imaginative understanding” of the people they studied; and for the third, he provided the examples of the German historian Theodor Mommsen, who, according to Carr, writing about ancient Rome in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, longed for a modern-day Julius Caesar, “the strong man to save Germany from ruin.”[12] Along with Trevelyan, he also included the renown Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Namier, who, similarly frightened by 1848, retreated to study the accession of George III, during an age before the French Revolution when the world was “immune from the fanaticism of ideas, and of that passionate belief in progress.”[13]

After outlining these three propositions, Carr qualified them in two regards for fear that they might give credence to total skepticism and subjectivity on the one hand and a vulgar pragmatism on the other. In response to the dangers of complete skepticism and subjectivity, Carr recognized that if history has an “infinity of meanings, none more right than any other,” then it follows that there couldn’t be any objective history whatsoever.[14] The second danger, because of the emphasis Collingwood placed on the present, rendered historical inquiry a pragmatic enterprise veering towards presentism by making the criterion for a valid interpretation its utility to the current social moment. To reconcile the contradiction of either giving too much weight to “the theory of history as a compilation of facts” or “the theory of history as the subjective product” of the historian’s mind, Carr offered his writing process as a solution, which he characterized as “reciprocal action” “between the historian and his facts” and “between the present and the past.”[15] More concretely, Carr shared that he read and wrote simultaneously when he worked on a project to do otherwise made one liable to run into one of two problems: copy-and-paste history or propaganda.[16]

As we began, we end: What is history? Carr’s answer: history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”[17] I can’t think of a better way to describe what historians do.

[1] Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999), ch.1, esp., 14-15.

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Vintage Books: New York, 1961), 5, 18, 20. The historian Richard J. Evans translates the German phrase Ranke used –wie es eigentlich gewesen–as “how it essentially was.” Evans offers a fuller explanation of Ranke’s contribution to history as a discipline, by for example clarifying the religious dimension behind the German historian’s thinking. Carr states that Ranke believed that all the historian had to do was compile the facts and “divine providence” would take care of the meaning behind these facts. Evans, however, argues that Ranke’s contribution to history as a field lay in universalizing all states, not just Prussia, as “spiritual substances…thoughts of God” and thereby “stripp[ing] away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past.” See Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, 14-15.

[3] Carr, What is History?, 5.

[4] Ibid., 36-37. Throughout the book, Carr referred exclusively to historians using masculine pronouns. As a corrective to unacceptable bias of his generation, I will refer to historians using the feminine pronouns. I also find it stylistically ugly to use he/she.

[5] Ibid., 9, 16.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid.,15.

[8] Ibid., 21 and 24.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Ibid., 43

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 43-4.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 39

[15] Ibid., 34-35

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

The Games People Play in “Force Majeure”



Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” begins with a postcard perfect image of bourgeois life. The screen goes pitch black, polite voices discuss a photo opportunity and suddenly emerges a foggy white expanse of snow that reveals an attractive young couple and their children posing for a picture, the sublime French Alps looming behind them in the backdrop. The husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are on vacation at an upscale ski resort. If this were a Luis Buñuel film (think “Exterminating Angel” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), the human rot at the center of the bourgeois ideal would be savagely attacked with surrealist humor. But instead of goats and bears and suicides in closets and dinners at the funeral of a restaurant owner, we get the crashing movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and echoes of Michael Haneke movies.

No doubt the film could have been much better. Not because it needed to be more like Buñuel’s movies but because it could have been shorter, perhaps ending at 10 minutes instead of turning into a meandering, 120-minutes psychodrama. (Philippe Orreindy’s short film “J’attendrai le suivant…” springs to mind as an example of what can be done with less time.) The dramatic center of the film is on day 2 of the family’s five-day vacation. Tomas and Ebba and their children are sitting at an outdoor café with breathtaking views eating lunch. Their lunch is interrupted when they hear a rumbling and then see an avalanche roll towards them. At first, unperturbed, Tomas snatches his iPhone from the table to immortalize the spectacle in pixels (for whom? I would imagine envious friends back home, or just as well the viewer). Struck with the peculiar millennial inclination to selfie every waking moment, Tomas ignores his wife and kids’ worries and keeps on beaming an easy smile enthralled as he is by the photo opp. Enthrallment turns into the brute instincts of self-preservation when fearing that unlike the other controlled avalanches this one is real, Tomas and other diners’ survival instincts kick in, and they bolt for safety. As he prepares to flee, Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves, leaving his wife and kids behind alone. Nothing happens, but the family, while physically unscathed, will never be the same again. The rest of the film explores the psychological fallout of Tomas’s unmanly actions.

On the surface, the film might be said to explore the patriarchal fantasies of valor and heroism women have come to expect men to fulfill (case in point: Ebba staging a scene for Tomas to rescue her in front of the kids to restore their father’s honor) or to offer insight into the foibles of a bourgeois marriage in crisis, neither of which would be inaccurate. But I think the film also explores the elaborate lies we tell ourselves, and those closest to us, to keep up a façade of well-adjusted bourgeois normality. Therein lies the problem with the length of the film. The psychodrama that unfolds after the scene at the café somehow obscures the scripts the characters perform to reassure each other in the games they play to sustain a false but predictable life. Take Mats (Kristofer Hivju), Tomas’s friend, who upon watching video evidence of Tomas running away from his family rationalizes an explanation for his friend’s cowardly behavior. The general consensus, from Grand Turk to the French Alps: a man is not supposed to abandon his family. Rather than admit that Tomas did just that Mats comes up with an elaborate exculpation for the actions his friend took instead of questioning the very premise underlying expectation for Tomas to behave heroically and selflessly. These are scripts that at first become habits and routines and, overtime, unquestioned norms. Once they become scripts, people adapt them to whatever suits their purpose thereby entering into games not dissimilar from the role of victim Ebba plays for Tomas to come to her rescue. Every victim needs a perpetrator and a saver.

Tomas, Ebba and their children, the nuclear family society holds up as successful emblems of middle-class stability and security, are ultimately revealed, in the course of the film, as frail and deceitful. The closing scene with the vacationers stranded on a road leaves the viewer not convinced that Tomas and Ebba have survived and emerged renewed from an internal dystopian wilderness but rather more solidly rooted in the delusions of domesticity and conventionality. The scales have not fallen from their eyes.








The Post-9/11 World in “A Most Wanted Man”

500px-Spy_silhouette“A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt aptly noted. Equally dangerous, I might add, is the romantic functionary who believes s/he can single-handedly outmaneuver the machinery that makes an unjust system run ever so smoothly.

In “A Most Wanted Man,” the unjust system is all too familiar– extraordinary rendition and entrapment, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of anti-terrorism covert operations and the societal fear that gives moral cover to violating the human rights of those suspected of being terrorists. Günther Bachmann, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most haunting performances, is our unlikely hero of sorts. Bachmann is a seasoned spy in the German intelligence service. Heavyset, morose and disheveled, he is no James Bond. Bachmann’s true merit as a spymaster rests on his tactics. Unlike the brash and counterproductive methods of American operatives, Bachmann attempts to run a more humane and efficient operation. He bids his time when monitoring a potential terrorist or ideological sympathizer and, through coercion and manipulation, even enlists a suspect’s relatives in his surveillance work, the better to lure in the true masterminds with the financial wherewithal to fund terrorist cells.

Bachmann is stationed in Hamburg, Germany where 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators lived a decade before that fateful day. The air is rife with anxiety and the overzealous desire to track, and foil, even the slightest threat to Americans or their European allies pervades the atmosphere. We have entered the nebulous world of George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Bachmann has been sent to Hamburg as a form of punishment for exposing agents working under him in a previous case. A wan world-weary despondency hangs over Bachmann as he scrambles to enact a moral code in a system that has so far outpaced his capacity to outwit the duplicitous machinations of higher-ups in the intelligence bureaucracy.

No doubt Bachmann is a man waiting to get played. The opportunity to throw into high relief the conflict between Bachmann, the cog, and his superiors, the holders of the levers on the machine, arises when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) turns up in Hamburg seeking political asylum after being tortured at the hands of his Russian captors. Karpov also arrives with a letter of introduction that grants him access to millions of Euros his Russian Mafiosi father deposited in the vault of a Hamburg bank. Sure enough his appearance in Hamburg raises red flags for intelligence agents. The Americans and Germans take a keen interest in Karpov. Half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim, Karpov is a man of split loyalties. Or so American and German spies perceive him to be. Indeed, he is an emotionally unstable man. He alternately evinces a crazed intensity, an affecting sensitivity and childlike innocence, all of which make it easier for the viewer to empathize with the brutalization and torture he has had to endure while also lending credibility to the fears of his incognito pursuers.

These contradictory sentiments could have assumed a greater saliency and poignancy when expressed through the actions of the idealistic naïf Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights activist turned mole, who becomes Karpov’s trusted guide. Richter is Bachmann’s counterpart to the extent that they both have moral codes that will become undone as the system exerts its ruthless power. But while Bachmann played by Hoffman dominates the screen with his vital presence, McAdams doesn’t truly rise to the occasion. One moment she is a seemingly trusted friend to the immigrant family that offers refuge to Karpov. Next she is collaborating with Bachmann to use the traumatized Karpov as bait for a sting operation targeting a prominent Muslim scholar and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) with possible ties to terrorists. For someone with liberal credentials in the world of human rights, Richter strains plausibility with her alacrity to collude with Bachmann. Even when Bachmann illegally holds her in a clandestine prison cell, it doesn’t faze her. Ideally, Richter’s moral code would have been informed by her activism, but whatever political work she’s done is never fully explored, much less acknowledged. She is a cipher in the film aside from the function she plays to advance the plot.

Director Anton Corbijn’s isn’t interested in character. He wants to offer the viewer a vision of the new normal we inhabit in the post-9/11 world. Based on John Le Carre’s book of the same title, “A Most Wanted Man” depicts a brutally austere and efficient system that will ultimately go unchallenged despite the best efforts of the so-called good guys on the inside, romantic fuckups like Bachmann who seek to steer the system’s power brokers toward rational thinking and pragmatic decision-making. One way of understanding the film is as an ineradicably unjust system marshaling all its power to discipline and make an example of an internal dissident. Once Bachmann’s liberal faith in deliberation and persuasion runs up against the blatant disregard for these shibboleths and outright betrayal displaces the guessing game with which the Americans and Germans have entertained him, he has only one option at his disposal: go rogue, down the righteous and courageous path of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Except that the film withholds this possibility of social redemption through  personal ethics and instead provides in its place a dark, hopeless fatalism.

The images Corbijn has carefully selected bring us into a violent world sparing in its exploration of human suffering and death; all the subjective violence is elided, and what remains is objective devastation, the contrasting allure of open offices made of Plexiglas and whirring fans in holding cells. Torture, for the most part, is left out of sight. And rightly so. What is in plain view, however, are the calculated maneuvers to keep the system running as smoothly as possible into perpetuity. And that invisible exercise of power is what needs exposure more than anything else to raise the question not of individual acts of resistance à la Manning or Snowden but of collective politics and struggle for systemic change.



The Unexamined Life in “Another Woman”

In Woody Allen’s film “Another Woman,” Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) has no need to elicit the approval from the professorial doyens whose ranks she’s worked her whole life to be a part of. As the chair of a philosophy department in some prestigious college in New York, she commands it. But Marion’s high estimation of herself doesn’t accord with other people’s perceptions. She is a cold, intellectual bully with no appreciable understanding or interest in other people’s emotional worlds. She has set aside the deeper sympathies and bonds people form with each other and opted instead for the unctuous self-regarding dribble of small talk at academic gatherings. And yet as she moves through the world unaware of how other people perceive her and the effect she has had on friends and family, she is poised and self-assured with no whiff of intimation to indicate what a vacuous existence she leads. Like some many films dealing with the self-doubts that plague academics cloistered in a world built on the fragile egos and power trips of colleagues and administrators, Marion comes across as a savant grappling with some terrible, unidentified sadness of the heart. In due course, we learn that behind the persona of a stodgy and priggish bore is a woman living an empty and meaningless life.

Marion has worked her whole life to become an academic luminary, a paragon of a formidable, accomplished and respectable philosopher. Yet she exhibits an air of erudition devoid of any hint whatsoever of the all-consuming, propulsive passions that make the pursuit of knowledge an insatiable lifelong obsession. The high-minded cultural knowledge her position assumes gives Marion a predictable and superficial intellectual shtick.She makes insubstantial quips about translations of Brecht’s work into English and draws attention to other signifiers of a cultured life by the mere mention of authoritative namedrops.

We have entered a world of appearances. In this world, Marion has no distinguishable marker of authenticity other than a conservative intellectual disposition joined to a pseudo-feminist posture marked by literary allusion, drab attire and life experience. She has all the makings of a left-liberal intellectual minus any semblance of concrete political convictions.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, when the ex-wife of her adulterous husband Ken (Ian Holm) barges into the party they are holding, Marion can’t help but admire how coolly Ken dismisses his visibly distraught ex-wife with the words: “I accept your condemnation,” the very words he will later utter to Marion upon her discovering infidelity and womanizing is how he feels less alone in the world. After rejecting the sexual advances of Ken’s friend (Gene Hackman), Marion compliments her husband for minimizing the drama at the party through his temperate and diplomatic handling of a potentially embarrassing situation. No real affection, much less passion, exists between them.  “I love his company,” she tells Ken’s friend. What Marion prizes most is the controlled and assured stability of her stature as a member of an intellectual club and all the assumptions and privileges that carries with it.

Her life is so controlled that she can only know how she truly feels through what might be described as transference, identifying the despair of another woman (Mia Farrow) as her own. Marion eavesdrops on the sessions with the psychologist next door to the apartment she rents to write a new book. In this way, she gains access to her emotional world, and her unfeeling self enters into crisis. The most empathy Marion is capable of showing comes through her identification with the anguish of the pregnant woman next door. The new insights into self she gleans through access to another mind crumble the insular world she’s long inhabited.

By the end of the film, Marion shows signs of becoming a self-conscious social being. And the conservative ideal of the intellectual who lives apart from the social world falls into shambles.

“Another Woman” offers a sardonic take on how people lose themselves and submit to an unexamined life.






Looking at the Capitalist Beast: “Nightcrawler”

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo(1819-1823)The film “Nightcrawler” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a sociopath with a penchant for regurgitating the positive thinking bromides he has picked up from his autodidactic study of business school manuals. Set adrift in the visually bleak streets of Los Angeles, Lou prowls a deracinated and hollowed out cityscape in search of the next best human tragedy to earn a quick buck. Lou is a hustler; he’ll do anything to land the next gig. The problem, however, lies in the disreputable means he employs to make a living– selling stolen manhole covers, copper wire, fencing mesh and etc. In what is either the ultimate bravura move or the most boneheaded decision of all time, Lou seeks employment from the scrapyard owner to whom he peddles his ill-gotten wares. Unmoved by his elevator pitch, the scrapyard owner dispatches Lou from his office with the curt remark that no one in his right mind would hire a known thief. While a minor event in the film, the episode at the scrapyard initiates Lou on the journey that will lead to the serendipitous discovery of a gig better suited to his socially obtuse and unfeeling ways. Circumstance and opportunity converge when Lou stumbles upon a local freelancer TV crew recording a live car accident scene. Watching the veteran cameraman and future rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Lou cannot help but evince an enchanted glint of longing for induction into a new hustle. As if speaking in the knowing argot of a specialized field, Joe further entices Lou with a pithy zinger to characterize the key to success in the stringing trade: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

A quick learner, Lou undergoes a rapid transformation into an efficient and calculated merchant of doom and gloom for local TV news stations looking to buy footage to sate the morbid and perverse obsession their viewers have for carnage and mayhem. “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” the news director Nina (Rene Russo) colorfully puts it.

At first sight, director Dan Gilroy appears to be gunning for the sensationalism of local TV news. But I arrived at another conclusion. Lou embodies a peculiar kind of sociopath that thrives on corporate boardrooms and non-profits, a kind of everyman with no discernible personality or imagination other than the rote gestures and mannerisms he’s perfected to put others at ease and create in turn the perfect image of rehearsed civility and professionalism. While I don’t think Lou ever comes close to achieving the uncanny on screen gravitas of a corporate suit of the likes of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” he does have the raw predispositions and ticks. But even these ticks– for example, the positive thinking pep talks in the car with the gullible and insecure Rick (Riz Ahmed)– don’t add up to a compelling character. What’s more, Lou has no charm. We like anti-heroes because they offer up a tantalizing invitation to revel in the vicarious freedom of notoriety. Lou is flat. With no allure, no charm, Lou is a sore loser. And no one wants to be a loser in a culture that prizes winners.

It is ultimately Lou’s quest to be a winner at all costs that drives him to blur the lines between observer and participant. The more footage he shoots, the more his ambition spurs him to top the last crime scene. To make a name for himself, Lou begins to stage the very accidents and deaths he initially only recorded. Lou’s overzealous desire to build a profitable business out of a hustle culminates with the death of Rick, his underpaid and exploited sidekick, in a shoot-out between the LAPD and a drug dealer.

The capitalist world in “Nightcrawler” divests its characters of any semblance of humanity. The moral universe of the film jettisons any possibility for social bonds based on cooperation and solidarity to emerge from the decadence of a fallen society. People are trapped. There is no escape but to become a hustler, a player in a game of mutual self-destruction.

Juxtaposed to the bleak visual palette of verdant, ochre and red hues radios sound off the impeding financial debacle in the housing market. These nameless workers who we hear through the reports of broadcasters on the radio are the toiling majority capitalism has destroyed with the promise of advancement through the purchasing of overpriced homes. Because of these workers spectral presence in the film, it is Rick and Lou who come to remind us of all vulnerable workers. They remind us of precarious workers, the ones who perform irregular jobs, sometimes underpaid, other times unpaid, without any security in hopes of staving off destitution. Lou himself offers to work for free at the scrapyard as an intern and in turn makes a similar proposal to Rick. In the closing scene of the film, we see Lou with a cadre of interns ready to hit the streets to capture the raw footage on which our voyeuristic thrills are nourished.

After all, if the film takes aim at anyone, it is the viewer. Don’t we all indulge in horror porn? Are we not guilty of creating the expectations for scoundrels like Lou to proliferate? Local TV news stations are merely fulfilling a craven need, giving us what we are hankering for. The self-flagellating overtones of that argument leave me unconvinced. Take, for example, the claim that exposure to extreme violence in film makes people inured to violence, desensitizes them, or what psychologists call habituation. I am not quite sure how that works, but I can attest to being more horrified by the opening scene in Luis Buñuel’s film “Un Chien Andalou” in which a man slits the eye of a calf with a razor than the gaudy bloodletting of the movie “Saw.” Similarly, I am more disturbed by the crosscutting of workers on strike with footage of cattle being slaughtered in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Strike” than the grisly horror flick “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Here we’ve ventured into what philosophers call the Problem of Other Minds, the world of subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. The conventional violence in “Nightcrawler” doesn’t heighten the moral conscience; it parodies it, cheapens it. In so doing, the film doesn’t make any moral demands on the viewer.

And then there is the violence that doesn’t make it on screen. The most devastating violence in “Nightcrawler” has little to do with the gruesome footage aired on local TV news and more to do with the tepid radio broadcasts of the structural devastation capitalism has wreaked on the lives of the poor and working class.

Reading List: European Revolutions

  • Liberty Leading the People, July 28th, 1830' by Delacroix.

    Liberty Leading the People, July 28th, 1830′ by Delacroix.

    Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution

  • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital
  • Roger Price, The Revolutions of 1848
  • Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon
  • Peter Jones, The 1848 Revolutions
  • Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851
  • Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution
  • The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History Ed. Lynn Hunt
  • Jacques-Louis Ménétra, Journal of My Life
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution
  • William H. Sewell, Jr., Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848
  • R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution
  • François Furet, Revolutionary France, 1770-1880
  • Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
  • Thomas Paine, Rights of Man Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
  • Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (Rereading)
  • Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Rereading)
  • Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Rereading)
  • François Furet, Marx and the French Revolution
  • George Rudé, The Crowd in History
  • The Old Regime and the French Revolution Ed. Keith Michael Baker
  • Maurice Agulhon, The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852
  • Eric Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution
  • Robert Wokler, Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment, and Their Legacies
  • Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History
  • Robert A. Kahn, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848-1918
  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
  • Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions ?
  • Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature
  • Gustave Flaubert, The Sentimental Education
  • Karl Marx, Address to the Communist League
  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
  • V.I. Lenin, What is to be done?


A Life Caught Up in the Mix


Marshall Berman, an old-school New York Jewish intellectual of a Marxist disposition who delighted in the simple art of conversation and camaraderie, taught political philosophy and urban studies at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center, contributed numerous articles to left publications such as The Nation magazine and Dissent, and penned various books, including the highly influential All that is Solid Melts into Air, died Wednesday, Sept. 11, of a heart attack. He was 72.

“I just got into his class today,” said a stunned CUNY student on Facebook after confirming the devastating news from professors Michael Busch and John Krinsky from City College. Colleagues and former students expressed their grief on social media late into the night yesterday.

Educated at Columbia University for his undergraduate studies and completing a PhD at Harvard University, Professor Berman, a working-class native of the South Bronx and the garment district, never sold out, remaining to his very last days a habitué of informal gatherings at the apartments of CUNY students throughout NYC. Never losing a feel for NYC and its people, he wrote in Adventures in Marxism, “Life is rough in the South Bronx, but the people aren’t giving up: modernity is alive and well.” He wrote a remarkably elegant and unadorned prose with the cadence of subway disquisitions. He had a keen eye for the unexpected and exuberant in our midst, always projecting an infectious optimism for culture and life.

In 2006, shortly after the publication of On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, one of Berman’s last published books, members of the now defunct Bronx Salon invited him to read at their crowded apartment on Alexander Avenue in the Bronx. At the time, I was a high school dropout working as a book pusher, schlepping carts of books from the KGB Bar to the New School to Cooper Union to the Poetry Club on Bowery. Sitting beside an old sewing machine, surrounded by graduate students, poets and dancers with constipated faces, I listened to Berman read in a droning voice, seemingly oblivious to the jolly drunkenness about him, his wild mane, a nimbus orb of gray-silver hair, irradiated by a tall lamp. After the reading, he rose from his chair, sporting, if I remember correctly, one of those hideously colorful t-shirts for which he was known. With a drink in hand, he danced and laughed the night away. The poet Urayoán Noel read “Spic Tracks” from his collection Kool Logic/La lógica kool. A dance student from Hunter College performed to the percussion of drums. And I sold not a single book to the cash-strapped audience.

Looking back on that evening, I imagine Berman, warm and idiosyncratic flaneur and deep thinker that he was, would have been right at home in the Greenwich Village milieu of the lyrical left in the early twentieth century. After all, he was a modernist through and through in the Marxist sense of having “a feeling for complexity, irony, paradox, combined with a desire for breakthrough and ecstasy.”

Survivors include his wife, Shellie, and two children, Eli and Danny. Funeral service will be held this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Plaza Community Jewish Chapel at 91st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in NYC.