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The Revolutionary Impulse

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
p. 19 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0055

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Harold Jaffe’s Revolutionary Brain is a collection of essays and quasi-essays, field reportage from the front lines of post-mil culture by one of America’s most committed literary provocateurs. Even more than in his previous books, here Jaffe aligns and merges genres—essay, quasi-essay, fiction, verse, and memoir. The results display an aesthetics that is directed outward to the beleaguered culture, rather than inwards to a consciousness insulated by privilege (and greatly abetted by the misallocation of advanced technologies) from the global crisis. And so, for example, we find in his text “Crisis Art” Jaffe’s plainspoken words about climate change.

“Crisis Art” is central to this collection and to Jaffe’s oeuvre. Here, Jaffe describes four modes of committed art, each unique to their historical conditions. The Woman’s Peace Camp, beginning in 1981 as a Welsh protest site against a NATO missile base and lasting for eighteen years,

gained international recognition with imaginative images such as eggs, spider webs and children’s toys with which they decorated the chain link fences and contested area. In the end, the UK and US withdrew their attempt to site the cruise missile base in Greenham Common.

Jaffe continues by describing the tapestries (arpilleras) created by Chilean women during the Pinochet dictatorship, “tapestries depicting the harsh conditions of life and pain resulting from the disappeared victims of Pinochet’s repression.” Jaffe also includes the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose unsanctioned projections on public buildings seek to, “unmask the buildings’ official rhetoric.” Jaffe then describes the installation art of Rirkrit Tirivanija, whose work is indistinguishable from charity: his project consists of renting derelict public spaces, setting up field kitchens and feeding the homeless, each installation lasting for 60 days before closing up shop, then moving on to the next site.

Jaffe continues by listing the key aspects of crisis art: it is situational rather than refined; directed rather than disinterested, more invested in process than product; it is keenly aware of cultural context; it is often collaborative, contesting the romantic image of the artist as elevated individual; it is “immoral” in its questioning of the morality of the existing order; it is shamanic in that it assimilates the “poison” of the official, war-making, profit-mad culture in order to reconfigure it as art. Jaffe then anticipates several counter-arguments, finally addressing the most fundamental one: what good can committed art do?

Human history, however bloody and unjust, has not ceased; and, crucially, the planet we inhabit and have debauched is dying…. Animals and plants throughout the globe are becoming extinct rapidly. The sun, where the ozone layer is eroded, has become toxic. Lethal bacterial agents set loose from leveled rain forests or industrialized seas migrate into the general population

Possibly the hardest factor for concerned younger artists to accept is that there will always be an incommensurateness between their imaginative efforts and results. The primary objective is to not avert your eyes; to bear witness.

In Revolutionary Brain, Jaffe also revives his call for ethical rebellion against the status quo. The quasi-fictional “Truth-Force” portrays the moral dilemmas confronting revolutionaries in an unnamed Latin-American country. These revolutionaries had initially embraced the Gandhian principle of Satyagraha, but passive resistance proved futile against the brutality of the junta:

the tortures and disappeared, the mass executions in the football stadiums, the everyday cruelties toward the people—even the Gandhian companeros came to recognize that if we wanted to exert any political force we would need to spill their blood as they spilled the blood of the innocent.

The choice confronting the revolutionaries is here stark: either become “righteous assassins,” or give up the struggle against injustice. Using a non-situated dialogue with a revolutionary fighter to explore this moral dilemma, Jaffe distances himself, avoiding didacticism. The text concludes with the repetition of the lines, “Avert your eyes / Don’t avert your eyes,” leaving the reader to ponder where she stands.

The title text, “Revolutionary Brain,” also explores the theme of resistance, summarizing the brief and bloody career of the Red Army Faction and then detailing the ways in which the remains of RAF fighters have been over the decades subject...

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