ISNetwork: Bondage and bigotry

The International Socialist Network has split - over a work of art. Paul Demarty is bemused

Dasha Zhukova sitting on the offending art work

A hundred years ago, the outbreak of the Great War caused a split in the social democratic movement - while initially most of the Second International’s sections supported their own states, with only two outliers (most famously the Bolsheviks) taking an anti-war line, by the end of the war the movement was cleaved in two. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the whole bloody history of the short 20th century stems from the response of the workers’ movement to what was plainly an existential choice of indisputable importance.

To mark the anniversary, the International Socialist Network has itself split ... over a photograph. It shows Dasha Zhukova, the fashion designer, art collector and young girlfriend of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, sitting on a chair that is also a sculpture of a prone black woman. A football blog, of all things, described the picture like this: “The black woman depicted as an inanimate object used to service the white, dominant female is unarguably demeaning, disgraceful and reminiscent of the degradation black women have endured over decades.”1

The ISN ended up embroiled in a bitter slanging match - not so much over the above assessment itself as whether that was all there was to it. A certain professor of European studies at Kings College London will, no doubt, be sadistically pleased to see his former bêtes noires fall out on a Facebook thread, started by Magpie Corvid, then an ISN steering committee member - and also a professional dominatrix.

“I wish there were hot BDSM pics in the daily fail every day,” she wrote, “and that vile racist incidents were not their occasion. I looooooooove using people as furniture!”2 The venom that followed was tiresomely predictable, but - it is also worth noting - a highly disturbing glimpse into the perverse authoritarianism of modern ‘intersectional’ identity politics. Most of the ISN piled in to argue, in effect, that comrade Magpie’s sexual predilections were an expression of her white privilege. Richard Seymour, defending Magpie’s position, caught a barrage of abuse himself.

As always in such cases, the Zhukova picture affair is only half of the split issue. It looks like the final straw for Seymour, Magpie and their section of the ISN, which we have characterised as its right wing. The comrades have already complained about “anathematisation” in ISN debates. By the time the ISN’s steering committee circulated a statement3 condemning Seymour and Magpie, Charlotte Bence - one of the original ‘Facebook Four’ - had already decamped to Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21), the most recent split from the Socialist Workers Party.

A resignation letter,4 signed by Seymour, Magpie and allies such as China Miéville, appeared on January 27, almost simultaneously with the ISN’s discussion bulletin5 ... in which the same comrades, including comrade Bence, announce the formation of a platform and argue that the ISN should dissolve itself into RS21. Perhaps Seymour and co will be paid-up RS21 members by the time you read this.

Death spiral

That they should be so keen to jump ship is hardly remarkable. The Seymourites have been a minority in the organisation, and increasingly the subject of vituperation from factional opponents (some of which, no doubt, is deserved). The latest Facebook farce is merely a particularly shabby example of the genre.

So there are two stories here. First of all, barely nine months after its foundation, the ISN appears for all the world to be in an irreversible death-spiral. Its comrades imagined the ISN’s heterodox, heterogeneous political make-up to be an advantage, given that their purpose was to rethink the politics that had animated their SWP lives. It is not an unreasonable assumption, but it was nevertheless false.

The Seymourites’ main interest was playing at big politics: grand realignments, mass organisations and such. Their model was Syriza. The ISN left looks, rather, to the SWP’s rank-and-filist heritage, and broadly argues for recomposition from the ‘bottom up’. The latter often resented ‘regroupment’ talks with other organisations such as Socialist Resistance, since such affairs are invariably discussions among leaders, and thus top-down in nature.

RS21 is an attractive proposition more or less due to its being at the beginning of what is likely to be a similarly truncated life-cycle. Its debates are still, as the ISN’s were for a time, ‘comradely’. While wounds of the SWP factional struggle still fester (many in the ISN still resent the hopeless softness displayed by those now in RS21 in the run-up to the SWP’s March ‘special conference’ on the Delta scandal), now that all concerned are outside the mother ship, the practical differences seem to be smaller. Many of the RS21 comrades, in any case, were ‘radicalised’ during 2013, and arrived in December at more or less the same level of anger and disillusionment that Seymour had exhibited last January.

Indeed, the CPGB wrote to RS21 suggesting talks, to which the answer was, unsurprisingly, ‘no’. The reason? “As you are aware, we are in the very early stages of beginning to work together outside the SWP. We have a temporary structure aimed at facilitating collective work and beginning a process of political discussion. As such we have no mandate or basis to engage in talks with any group at this time.” In other words, exactly the self-description of the ISN circa spring 2013; we shall see when the centrifugal forces take hold. We cannot imagine the result will be any more dignified.

Art and fetishism

Indeed, the other story here suggests that it will be less so. It may only be the final straw for the Seymourites, rather than the substantive reason for their split, but we cannot blind ourselves to the appalling standard of argument directed against Seymour and Magpie over the Zhukova photograph. Zhukova sits on a work of art by Bjarne Melgaard - Melgaard’s sculpture is obviously an homage to Allen Jones’s Chair, part of a 1969 triptych by the British pop-artist of women repurposed as items of furniture.

The main thrust of Jones’s sculptures is a playful reference to the fetish and BDSM scene, which fascinated him; the pieces are bound up, so to speak, with the contemporaneous ‘sexual revolution’, and the combination of obvious kitsch and sexual directness is perfectly representative of the art of the time. The use of humans as furniture, by the by, is - as Magpie’s unfortunate status update implies - a documented sexual fetish, known as forniphilia.

Exactly what Melgaard is up to here is another matter. Changing only the race of the ‘chair’ is obviously a provocation. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones suggests that “in making this woman black he means to retoxify the art of Allen Jones, to offend people with an image long since accepted. The intention is therefore the opposite of racist: it is to question power and representation. Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?”6

On the other hand, we might play up the fetish angle further here. In the era of Fifty shades of grey, it can hardly be suggested that kinky sex as such is as shocking to the public mind as it was half a century ago. ‘Race play’, however - blacking up, or indeed whiting up, for sexual purposes - is still incendiary, the echoes of blackface and minstrel shows all too immediate. Melgaard is a provocateur: he is not interested in toxifying Jones’s art, but his own.

The point of all this is that any interpretation of Melgaard’s sculpture hinges on the question of sexual fetishism. The same, in fact, is true of the photo of Zhukova, whose meaning surely relies on her position in relation to a sexually dominated body.

It is hardly the case, moreover, that controversy over fetishistic art is new. Jones’s Chair most recently went on public display in the Tate gallery as part of its ‘Art under attack’ exhibition, of works that had been vandalised, in honour of its having been the victim of a feminist paint stripper attack.

Perhaps more relevant in this connection is Robert Mapplethorpe, whose nude photographs of black men were and are hotly debated. The issue is put nicely in an essay on Mapplethorpe’s earlier BDSM pictures: “The sheer diversity of the erotic props and paraphernalia on display in the s/m project asserts that Mapplethorpe is cataloguing a collective subculture, not merely his own desires or favoured practices as part of that subculture. But in Mapplethorpe’s images of black male nudes … the model’s body is stripped of any marker of sexual identity or subjectivity - no traces here of the black man’s own erotic investments or fetish objects.”7

The blackness itself is the fetish, which is somehow more troubling than the enjoyment of inflicting and receiving pain. Mapplethorpe’s black nudes - which are both technically impeccable and, yes, hot - trouble our complicated consciousness of race because they make explicit its link to the murky imperatives of human sexuality. Melgaard’s sculpture crudely beats one over the head with this problem, and its relationship to racism is problematic (in the way that Ku Klux Klan propaganda is not).

Back to Mao

Short-circuiting that discussion in order to declare Melgaard’s Chair “just racist” is reactionary philistinism, no different in substance to the moral panics of Mary Whitehouse. It may perfectly well be ‘bad art’ (it certainly is not original), but bad responses to bad art are hardly a corrective.

Indeed, things are worse than that. If the sculpture (or photo) is racist in itself, then the concrete individuals who engage in race-play as part of consensual pleasure must also be beyond the pale, as they no less mobilise fetishised images of race; their fantasies become equivalent to minstrel shows. Moreover, the concomitant image of domination must necessarily map onto a desire to degrade and dominate outside the fantasy of the sexual fetish - which more or less rules out BDSM, practised and enjoyed by a significant fraction of the human population, altogether. As much as it is precisely such accusations that degrade debate on this issue, I cannot describe this attitude as other than ignorant, sexually conservative bigotry, worthy of a Ukip councillor, but not a socialist.

Yet what other consequence than ignorance can possibly follow from the privilege-baiting that now substitutes wholly for rational debate on the question of oppression? What greater understanding can possibly emerge from a mindset that only repeats, in ever louder terms, the first twitch of prejudice? Those who harangued Magpie and Seymour would only have been happy if they had immediately capitulated and repented. When a position is criticised as being an expression of ‘white privilege’, the hidden payload - ever more obviously - is ‘Everyone who does not agree with me exactly is complicit in the oppression of black people’.

It should not surprise us, of course, as privilege theory is every inch a product of American Maoism, and all its basic discursive features - Manichean presentations of minor disputes, strident moralism and the idea that the privileged need to be ‘educated’ by the oppressed - are deflected products of the worship of the Cultural Revolution. That it has made its way into official ‘radical liberalism’ is to be expected - after all, so did most of the Maoists.

It has been suggested that, so far as Seymour is concerned, all this is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. Indeed, he vocally supported the ideological opening up of the ISN comrades to intersectionality and related conceptual alibis for the aforementioned irrationalism; to him (and to most others who left the SWP with him), engagement with these ideas would allow the ISN to be more broad and inclusive. The fatal flaw of this view is that the feminists (and the queer activists, and everyone else) are just as divided as the rest of us; and their theoretical commitments are incipiently irrationalist and (thanks to the Maoism) even more fissile than those of the traditional far left.

If he needs proof of this, he need only check his Facebook notifications.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.insideworldsoccer.com/2014/01/roman-abramovich-girlfriend-dasha-zhukova-racism-black-woman-chair.html.

2. www.facebook.com/magpie.corvid/posts/250619165114541.

3. http://howiescorner.blogspot.com/2014/01/international-socialist-network-issue.html.

4. www.dropbox.com/sc35lq1ua7kn8gzn/Resig­nation%20from%20the%20ISN.docx.

5. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/downloads/338-jan-2014-international-social­ist-network-external-bulletin.

6. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/jan/21/racist-chair-bjarne-melgaard-dasha-zhukova.

7. R Meyer, ‘Imaging sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the masquerade of photogra­phy’: http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Mappleth/MappPg1.html.