tirado/thrown


Notes on Stacy Peralta’s Crips and Bloods: Made in America

While caught onto relatively late here at tirado/thrown, we were moved by Baron Davis’s and Stacy Peralta’s astounding documentary Crips and Bloods: Made in America.  What we first thought to be a historical reappraisal of urban unrest in Los Angeles unfolded into as comprehensive a survey of L.A. gang violence in South Central that a two-hour documentary could offer.  

Immediately, the film took us back to the Los Angeles that we grew up beside and had a tangential relationship to:  Sundays with family at the Slauson Swap Meet, occasional forays into South Central to visit friends, the sensationalized coverage of gang life that frightened the affluent but did not do any justice to the daily tales of suffering, tragedy, and strife in afflicted neighborhoods.  The civil disturbances in 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King acquittals were pivotal events that could not escape the attention of any Angeleno living there at the time.  Crips and Bloods captured the parts of the southland that at times felt so removed from the San Fernando Valley or even Hollywood.

Part of what makes this film noteworthy was that Peralta, the creator of Dogtown and Z-Boys and the Bones Brigade videos, stepped outside of making lifestyle films about surfing or skating to produce what is probably the most profound treatment on the creation of the most noted street gangs in contemporary American life.  

Or is it that much of a stretch?  If the 80s and 90s showed us anything, it was that gang bangers in the city and skater kids in the suburbs, beaches, and valleys were near-simultaneous occurrences of group cultures at the margins of institutional life: the family, education, workforce, church, and state.  While the stakes of their activities could not be any more disparate, they would each have a profound impact on American cultural expression in late capitalism. **

Peralta’s documentary potently cites racism (institutional and otherwise), post-war demographic shifts, police brutality, economic stagnation, geographic isolation, and outright state repression as the sources of social arrangements that have wrought uncounted amounts of human tragedy.

The film’s most lucid insight grasped the relationship of gang violence to a hegemonic state, one where those who stand to most to lose from oppression perform the work of oppression, acting out and generating an exponentially vacuous cycle.  Multiple commentators in the documentary noted how the disruption of community building and self-determination on the part of authorities, the introduction of a cheap and highly addictive narcotic, mass incarceration, and a social climate bereft of economic opportunity generated the perfect environment for a self-destruction that folded very readily with hegemony’s maintenance of social immobility.  It performed a task more effectively than state repression was able to perform, since it did not require the National Guard to perform the violence it did in quelling the Watts rebellion.   Bloods and Crips shows how these broader lines and vectors intersect in the existence of gang members themselves, their families, and community activists.  It deftly demonstrates the human toll exacted by a complex interaction of personal actions, social situations, and psychological exigence.

Among the documentary’s most distressing scenes were aerial shots of the L.A. basin, with its districts, neighborhoods, and development tracts- not so much for the scattering and dispersion of peoples it implied, but for the way that those distributions of space resembled camps organizing life into some form.  If anything, the helicopter shots give occasion to reflect on the thesis that the camp is the biopolitical law of modernity.   They lead to ask how similar or different are cities than concentration camps?  In certain parts of LA, simply responding the question of where one is from can easily be the cipher encoding one’s life or death.

Peralta’s film left us wondering, however: who will tell the stories of the Latino gangs that have developed since the 1930s?    Who will tell of how clicks and maras such as 18th Street, White Fence, Florencia, and the Mara Salvatrucha were born and mutated in response to multiple waves of immigration, how they continue to be shaped by the forces of globalization and political upheaval in Mexico, Central America, and the United States?   Such a sequel would be worth the wait.

 

**Strangely enough, The Serach for Animal Chin takes up as leitmotifs the creation narrative of skateboarding, its co-opting by commercial interests, and a marginalized community whose members are bound by their affinity for skateboarding’s originary ethos.

 

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“Dasein ist Design”

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That was the philosophical catchphrase proclaimed by the self-described “Sloterdijkian” Bruno Latour during his portion of a public lecture with Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design a couple of weeks ago.

Taking as its theme, “Networks and Spheres: Two Ways to Interpret Globalization”, the tandem lectures and discussion was a sweeping journey through very basic issues of space, dwelling, and modes of design required to meet the demands our current socio-spatial conditions.  

Peter Sloterdijk quietly approached the lectern after being introduced by GSD Dean Moshen Mostafavi and lectured with a measure of understatement and modesty.  In the form of a self-colloquy, Sloterdijk introduced listeners to the main features of his three-volume Spharen (Spheres) project, citing VonUexkull, Benjamin, LeCorbusier, and a view of psychedelic capitalism as exemplified by the structure heralding the birth of mass culture: London’s Crystal Palace.  Taking seriously the notion of space as a key anthropological category, Sloterdijk develops a heuristic questioning the home or the dwelling as the primary philosophical space in a context of profoundly fragile spatial and social complexity.  

In the sense that ethos designates a habitat or “accustomed space”, the home is the site western philosophy and ethical thinking.  Instead, Sloterdijk proposes the flexible, structures of spheres and foams as structuring spatial relations (whether biological or interpersonal) noting that the task of architecture is to understand its place between biology (dealing with atmosphere or environment) and philosophy (whose inquiry is oriented towards the world).  Sloterdijk’s lecture hinted at architecture’s biopolitical vocation in the design and construction of habitats organizing space in dynamic constellations of spheres and islands.

Sloterdijk concluded his portion by noting architecture’s contribution to scientific discovery. He cited the early biologists’ use of the architectural terminology used in the design of monasteries to inspire their study of microscopically experienced structures, saying that “the real owner of the use of the cell is the community of architects…”

An energetic Bruno Latour followed. Drawing upon Sloterdijk, he announced at the very beginning of his lecture, “I was born a Sloterdijkian!”  To test out the ideas of spheres and networks in his proposed thought experiment, he took to task contemporary internet-based notions of networks against his understanding of networks as inspired by Leibniz’s monadology and Diderot.  Latour equally takes to task Heidegger’s ontological enterprise, which he claims, superficially considers the atmosphere of the world at its peril. Biopolitics again reared its head, this time in the midst of a critique of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.  In Latour’s words,

The Dasein is thrown into the world, but so naked that he doesn’t stand much chance to last. …the respective relations between death and superficiality are suddenly reversed.  There’s not the slightest chance to understand being when it has been cut off from the vast numbers of apparently “trifle” [sic] and “superficial” “little beings” that make it exist from moment to moment…In one stroke, the philosopher’s quest for being as such, looks like an antiquated research program.

Latour’s lecture simultaneously glossed on Sloterdijk’s and challenged philosophic thought to re-think itself by diving into the material conceptions and conditions of our dwelling and recast the split between nature and culture in terms of spheres and networks. This provocation calls on us to consider justice and equality as operative in environments where space is needed, spherically structured, and mediated by circuits of networks.  In a parody of Heidegger, “Tell me what is your position on space, and I’ll tell you who you are…” he proposes a dead-serious litmus test for philosophers and architects alike to consider.  Towards the end of the lecture, his reverie along theological, economic, political, spatial, and historical lines illustrated the urgency of such a project.

Additional Materials:

Image: From left, Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, and Moshen Mostafavi at the “Networks and Spheres” discussion at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, February 17, 2009.  Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University News Office.



How do you say ‘mestizo’ in Russian?

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Above is one of many images of Soviet playing cards bearing Maya-inspired illustrations from a post on EnglishRussia.com, as referred to tirado/thrown through a special informant.  

Aside from being visual delights, you are initially left trying to ask questions about their provenance, much less making the attempt to decipher them.  They merely rest taciturn, sphinx-like, callado, to whatever you attempt to ask yourself, because they are quite fascinating.  Whatever inspired the workers at the Soviet state enterprise responsible for producing these magnificent artifacts, they generated a pretty exquisite group of cards; they’re imaginative and downright noteworthy.   Who knows? Perhaps a bored KGB officer doing slop-work in 1950s Mexico City came across a deck of Aztec playing cards from Baraja Cuauhtemoc and passed over the naipes to an acquaintance at the state playing card factory in an act of camaraderie. 

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The magic of cards like these is that they are portable pictograms giving the the gamepiece something more interesting to look  at and wonder about than a regular stack of casino cards.  Seriously, they beat the Grateful Dead Aztec-Inspired playing cards.  Want to get a sense for Mayan language and culture during a few hours off?  Take your card to the library and check it against a codex and lexicon!  To think that gambling implements could have the potential to be edifying!

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Modernist flourishes on the Soviet cards such as the cats the queens hold in her hands speak of a mixture of ancient imagery and contemporary adaptation.   The distinct configurations of each of the two jokers in the deck speaks to the confluence of Mesoamerican and European at work in the deck.  The blue card seems to be rendered with a more appearance, while the red one seems almost Medieval European in a Mayan style, but I leave that up to experts to decide.

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However, the images on the face cards are quite faithful to the drawings in codices: with respect to gestures, facial expressions, postures, decoration, and detail, which makes them all the more interesting to discover.

Still, the cards leave me with more questions than answers.  Is the existence of these cards a trace of a mestizaje in the USSR in the form of a curiously made instruments for everyday entertainment, or is it just a fluke of historical detritus washed ashore?  What do these items say about the way Soviets conceived the work of producing items for everyday life?  Why the odd reaction of being surprised at the discovery that Soviets (of all people-gasp!) produced these cards for everyday use when in the US typically has largely uniform face cards from a number of different companies, and when decorated cards would be only for serious gamers and sold as speciality items?  When will we see Mexican and Central-American takes on the matryoshka doll?  Or perhaps more symmetrically, could we find a Latin-American toy, like a balero, trompo, or loteria game festooned with Russian-style decorations? 

At some point, it would be great to give those Cuauhtemoc cards the kind of critical treatment they, as well as these Soviet ones, rightfully deserve.  For now, I am of mixed emotions.  At once I am unexplainably melancholy at seeing items produced by a now-lost regime bearing images from a destroyed civilization.  At the same time, I’m quietly joyful for their existence.

 

Image Credits- Maya Cards: Picdit, English Russia;Barajas Cuahtemoc: World of Trading Cards; Transcription of the Dresden Codex: FAMSI



Mi Ranfla is More than a Ride: Cybernetics, Exhibition Value, Recognition, and Pride

 

Artist Ruben Ortiz Torres digs into his archives and offers his readers at For the Record a video piece entitled Custom Mambo (1992, 5 min., 13 sec).  It’s a marvelous study replete with kaleidoscopic imagery and multiple juxtapositions: Mexican folk iconography with 1950s and 60s American pop culture symbols, dancing cars set against women dancing at car shows, signs of the dangerous, furtive, and panicked border crossings contrasting the relaxed, low-and-slow car cruise.  Ortiz brings these signs of arrival into American consumer life, highlighting in them the desire for recognition in a cultural setting that relegates such ingenuity and communication to the margins of American culture.  Custom Mambo also shows the technology of low-rider culture to be a kind of proto-cybernetics, giving cars the capacity to take on human qualities of gesture, movement, and storytelling beyond through aesthetic intervention.  About these re-tooled, re-constituted wonders, Torres-Ortiz notes:

These “rides” constitute an effort to be noticed in a society that doesn’t want to see the people that ride them. I hope the video conveys the overwhelming experience of the Dyonisian “beauty” that escapes any notion of rationality and at the same time hints at some of the problems it raises.



Death and the Idea of Mexico finally out in Paperback

While this post was originally meant to be published a week or so ago, it’s still worth noting that Zone Books has finally released anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz’s masterful text Death and the Idea of Mexico in paperback, almost two and a half years after its aptly-timed November 2005 hardcover release (which made my Dia de los Muertos that year…). In Death and the Idea of Mexico, Lomnitz draws on a multitude of sources to trace the history of death as Mexico’s constituting and guiding idea. And he does this in a manner that issues an assertive response to Marc Auge’s work An Anthropology for Contenporaeous Worlds, where Auge seeks to traverse the division between history and anthropology to give anthropology renewed contemporary relevance. Lomnitz infuses his anthropological thinking with a powerful sense for how temporal movements require ample space to make their effects felt and ultimately shift form and meaning. Beginning with the originary trauma of conquest and colonialism as establishing the coordinates along which death moves along and circulates, he tracks the ways in which religious doctrine and authority, political and state power, political-economic exigencies, class, and cultural production collude in forming the deathscapes that define Mexico in an utterly singular fashion.

With Death and the Idea of Mexico Lomnitz also proposes a thesis that should make any careful reader of Agamben pay attention, namely that Death was put into play as a way of shaping politics, i.e., a form of life. In short, he is initiating a study of Mexico’s thanatopolitical history. Lomnitz’s analysis bears the possibility of standing as an example of studying how death works in political and cultural settings outside of Mexico, most especially in those that seemingly espouse life as a dominant political sign.

As erudite as his work is, his writing is engaging, thoughtful, and bears a stunning public relevance. The last chapter of the book bears this out, where he discusses the intersections and differences between Mexican, Chicano, and North American uses of death as cultural signifiers in light of emigration. Lomnitz currently teaches Anthropology and Latina/o Studies at Columbia University, where he is also the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He also edits the journal Public Culture. He also happened to pen what was probably the clearest and most slept on analysis of the controversy surrounding the Mexican government’s intention to issue postage stamps in Mexico bearing the image of Memín Pinguín.

No dabbling, let alone serious, consideration of how we think about and relate to death can fail to engage Death and the Idea of Mexico with interest. Even if you remotely enjoy anything Mexicano resembling el Dia de los Muertos, this text is essential reading, because it offers a broad and profound sense of the forces in operation (or not) when long-standing symbols are put into play. It gives the contrary impression to that of one offered by a piece that I ran across in the recent issue of Cabinet Magazine, where Michael Sappol and Eva Ahren lament that “….by sequestering death in the realm of art, pop culture, and kitsch, maybe we hope to attenuate the certain prospect of our impending mortality: Death becomes just another disposable consumer object, or conversely just another collectible. Thus accessorized, we no longer get good representational service out of the skeleton as an inner self…”

In light of Lomnitz’s work, I’d like to offer an alternate possibility as a rejoinder. Could it be that death (with its skullen, masked and synthesized representatives, as the boys in Plastilina Mosh seem to propose in the video below) is the human disco ball nonpareil? And could it be so in a manner similar to the one Heidegger proposes, where Dasein is being-towards-death, in which all of our encounters in the world possess some animating glimmer as we exist beside our own death? Decide for yourself.