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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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.