Letters to the Editor

(March 28, 2005)


Swans Café: Joe Bageant, Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling, in The Ghost In The Hologram
Dear Gilles:

First of all, great to be back among the enlightened ones after a short absence, and especially after the fantastic exchange between Joe, John and Phil in the Swans Café piece. The level and quality of analysis on contemporary American life and art, illustrating how far things have degenerated since the days of the "working class, or blue collar intellectual," a great American tradition (one of the few alas) left me inspired and, more importantly, equipped to face another day in a world that at times seems so full of greed, exploitation and misery it's difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Just knowing that somewhere out there does exist a growing fraternity of folks with a passion for truth, understanding and, crucially, resistance (truth in a time of lies and distortions being a form of resistance in of itself) helps me to do so with something approaching hope in my heart.

Steppling's reference to prison as containing some of the most politically and socially aware voices around especially struck a chord, as among my early influences were two books that almost literally reached down and gripped me by the you-know-whats. They were: Inside The Belly Of The Beast by Jack Henry Abbott and Soledad Brother by George Jackson.

I would encourage all to get a hold of a copy of each if they haven't already had the pleasure.

Anyway, congrats to all involved. Congrats to you and Swans. And long live the Iraqi Resistance.

Joe Davison
Edinburgh, Scotland - March 24, 2005

Gilles d'Aymery responds:

Dear Joe, welcome back. Many thanks for the kind words on the conversation among Joe Bageant, Phil Rockstroh and John Steppling. I felt that they had accomplished a tour de force and was slightly disappointed by the lack of readers' feedback. Noteworthily, your observation about "the 'working class, or blue collar intellectual,' a great American tradition" makes me realize that the lone positive feedback the conversation previously received came from Michael DeLang, who has recently begun to contribute to Swans. While I still do not yet know Michael well, he seems to embody the meaning of blue collar intellectual that you have in mind. Incidentally, the two-part conversation about culture between John and Phil, "America Has Left The Building...", deserves wide dissemination for both its form and content. I ought to acknowledge the creative efforts of John to bring those conversations to the fore, and for his relentless work on behalf of Swans. His efforts and those of all of us demonstrate that not only resistance is possible but that the human spirit can't be defeated by the forces of darkness and reaction. United we stand, like a small but strong link in the chain of life. Again, welcome back!



I read with great interest you latest issue, including "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." I am sending you a link to the same story that was on Rod Serling's Twilight Zone in 1964. It was a remarkable TV production and anyone who was fortunate enough to have seen it will probably never forget it. I hope you can find it somewhere near Boonville for free.

Best wishes...and Swans just gets better and better. I thought the conversation between Steppling, Bageant and Rockstroh was riveting. I don't know how you pulled that one off but it was a classic exchange, full of wit, satire and wisdom. Also, glad to see Richard Oxman writing for Swans.

Swans is really an extraordinary publication, not to be digested on cheap local wine.

Roger Baker
Mineral Wells, Texas, USA - March 25, 2005

Gilles d'Aymery responds:

How did we get the conversation going? Ask John and Phil. Lots of work goes into the making of Swans, day in and day out...with errors and missteps galore, but a deeply-held hope for the future and the worthiness of our collective work. Thank you for the kind words. Please contribute...

John Steppling's Review of Swans' March 14 Edition

To the Editor:
"The genuine, incontestable truth of history is, that the whole life of the workers and peasants is nothing but a struggle of people without arms, education, or rights against people armed with all the knowledge of science, and holding absolute rights to plunder other men's labour."
—Maxim Gorky
Philip Greenspan gives us an interesting take on the impulse for irrational accumulation. A sort of Darwinian prism seen through a Marxist lens (to create an incoherent metaphor). Is greed really a side effect of the primitive instinct for hording food (and gorging) to last out the winter? I doubt it, but I also don't quite discount it either. I think, really, Greenspan is engaging in the creating of a mythic framework for the topic of the rapacious acquisition of wealth. I think about it sometimes; why does Dick Cheney need MORE? He has the best money can buy, the best clothes (well, wait, okay, he has no taste....forget I said that) the best food, the most expensive women and the nicest holidays (like shooting small birds with Tony Scalia) and yet he is driven to acquire more --- not to stop and try and help the planet or the world's poor. There is no compassion in Dick Cheney, nor is there in a George Bush or a John Bolton or a John Negroponte or clowns like William Kristol or Daniel Pipes. The list could go on, but does a John Kerry ever really show any compassion? (No.) All this endless wealth, and endless accumulation...all while recent photos show Mt. Kilimanjaro without its snow cap -- first time in eleven thousand years [ed. and "15 years before scientists predicted it would melt through global warming," according to Paul Brown]. The signs are everywhere, and yet people, most people, pretend nothing is happening. They keep hording. Wolfowitz will now run the World Bank -- perfect, but really, nobody cares. Wal*Mart is opening stores next to Mayan ruins -- so what? Nobody cares it seems. Why is that? I don't know, and neither does Philip, but it's a great topic for further analysis.

Richard Oxman lays out the morning line on domestic terror attacks this year. One would be foolish to bet against this, I suspect. I'm not so sure though about some of the cultural references (i.e., Kauffman, Donaldson, Burton, the Oscars) since a failure to understand just how compromised these "creators" and institutions are is a bad sign. Not to mention major league baseball; the new steroid witch hunt (http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/21487/) is the latest symbol of how far American sports has fallen from anything resembling purity (just a quick reminder, ALL world class athletes take performance enhancing drugs...and usually steroids. I personally have no problem with this, but what should bother everyone is the utter hypocrisy of this whole dog and pony show). Anyway, back to Oxman, whose hipster trope worries me a bit, but maybe I'm just in a bad mood. Looking at, for instance, the Academy Awards as a sporting contest is often seen as sort of amusing; clocking the presidential elections is often seen the same way, but since I worked in Hollywood and have seen, up close, the grotesque nature of compromise and self censorship I find it not remotely amusing...besides which Kaufman is a hack. Still, the odds favor Oxman being right (at least about the terror coming) -- don't bet against him. The U.S. needs another attack, and this is just the administration to give us one.

The subject of torture is at the front of Francis Raven's first piece for Swans. This is a pretty fascinating discussion, actually, and the points taken on profiling (for instance) are quite perceptive. On one level, this is stuff we all know, or should, but on another it's a clear insightful look at some of the illusions connected to the police state apparatus.

Michael DeLang has a tribute of sorts to Karl Popper. I fear I disagree with this valentine to the scourge of the Vienna Circle, and later critic of historical materialism, though I admire the writing of the article. Popper disliked Marx (and Hegel and Plato) because he saw them as utopian social engineers (to paraphrase him). He ended up, for me anyway, as a decidedly anti-historical and uncritical supporter of liberal democratic reform politics. He wanted limited solutions to limited problems (as he put it). Since he is best known as a philosopher of science, one has to see his work in light of this direction (he saw the insights of the individual as insufficient and that "scientific" study was a far better gauge -- which put him at odds with, among others, Adorno). The Popper version of scientific sociology seems to me to exist under the control of the forces of domination and hence to suffer the unconscious accommodations of the oppressing system. I am reminded of Spinoza here, who saw human "insight" into the cosmos, into its functioning structure, as the birth of an ethical respect for the Universe. For me Popper flies in the face of such "Insight."

Still, DeLang writes (regarding Popper):
"The common thread Popper identifies running through the philosophies of Plato, Hegel, and Marx is a concept he calls 'historicism.' Historicist systems are predicated on the belief that society is subject to certain immutable laws of progress and that the only function remaining to the political or social scientist lies in the development of prophecies regarding a pre-determined eventual state of affairs. The prophecies are to be based on the study and understanding of these laws as they reveal themselves in the evidence of history. Once understood properly, the theory goes, the laws can be extrapolated to predict where we are going and, perhaps, how long it will take to get there. However, as Popper points out, because the history we have available to us is almost always a history of power and very rarely a history of people, the methods of historicism can yield the recipes for some pretty perverse and aberrant social conduct. A lie that succeeds becomes the truth. Because history is always written by the victor, it becomes a truism that every military venture ends in triumph. The cruel recurrent theme of the historicist perspective is that might makes right. In the case of those guided by visions of a utopian or apocalyptic nature, it simply transforms to future might makes right. Furthermore, and most importantly, while the historicist point of view offers the allure of relieving us of the burden of our social responsibilities as individuals, it also denies us any significant role in creating the world in which we must live."
This is, I believe, not quite true. I don't know where Marx ever said the material forces of history were immutable. Marx had his utopian moments, and wrong headed prophecies, but to accuse him of suggesting a pre-determined state of affairs (historically) is absurd. Also, where in the world does the idea that all historicism ends in a justification for militarism come from? It is misleading to suggest a clear difference between a history of power and a history of people and this is exactly where I lose Popper -- and DeLang, I am afraid. If one looks at writers on history as diverse as Adorno, Gramsci, Hobsbawm and Davies one sees pretty different analyses of history and its influences, and often from the perspective of "people." Perhaps it's very subjective for me to suggest that Popper seems one of those reductivists popular with pseudo-scientific supporters (not that DeLang is such) and is finally, in his denial of history, a reactionary (he was also an "optimist"). These days he is often linked with Hayak (and that George Soros loves him) -- both which should serve as a warning. That historical thinking is morphed into the idea that it relieves us of social responsibility is typical Popperian quasi-logic. History is not always the history of power, unless of course you are Lynne Cheney. History, when genuine, is a history of people, institutions, and cultures. Still, despite my complaints, the essay itself is a good place to begin further talks on subjects like history and our role therein and I am happy Mr. DeLang is aboard the Swans cruise ship (and not the cruise ship left).

The average cost of running for the Senate (in the U.S.) is eight million dollars. I just wanted to insert that as a segue to some of our fearless leader's observations this time out.

Gilles's blips in this edition starts with a reassurance that SWANS is NOT a CIA front organization. Whew.....I guess I'm relieved. Gilles goes on, however, to point out the various ways Big Brother can track us on the Net. So if you like XXX Pregnant Dirty Schoolgirl Plumper Albino Midget House Party Web pages.....beware.....you are being tracked!

I also liked the details on just how much oil it takes to make one gas-economic car -- and how it's probably better to keep that old 1972 V8 Plymouth. When will it become clear to people that it's THE SYSTEM -- you can't fix it by recycling your aluminum cans or by using free trade coffee.

And here, from one of Gilles's links, the words of that awful tyrant Slobodan Milosevic:
"The new government of Serbia is a puppet for the United States. If there is any expectation a US-supported government might be better for the people of Serbia, or Yugoslavia, ask Iranians if they believe they fared better under the Shah of Iran, enthroned in 1953 by the U.S. for 25 years, than they would have under democratically elected President Mossadegh and elected successors.

Was a long line of military governments which brutally repressed the people of Guatemala for decades better for the people than democratically elected President Arbenz who was removed by United States forces in 1954? Was Mobutu, who for four decades brutalized, bankrupted and corrupted Congo, better for the people than democratically elected Patrice Lumumba assassinated with US complicity in 1960?

Did General Pinochet better serve democracy, human rights and the welfare of the people for decades than the democratically elected Salvador Allende murdered in a US supported coup in Chile in 1973?

It would be difficult to find four greater national tragedies in the last fifty years, all brought about by the United States' determination to control those regions."
It's good to remember The Hague kangaroo court and this obscene travesty of what we laughingly call justice.

And finally, my boy Phil Rockstroh seems to be having a cranky end of winter.....(well, aren't we all?). Phil is often best when cranky, and this is a good example. More good Rockstroh!

Here in Krakow, it's actually a bit like spring. Boris figured out how to open our door and spent yesterday barking at my downstairs landlady (whom he confused with an enemy of the state) from outside her door, and roaming the front yard. Oh well, she is a nice woman and didn't take it personally (I don't think). The Wisla River is rising with the melting snows and the lower walk path is now totally submerged. It's good to have winter over.

John Steppling
Krakow, Poland - March 18, 2005
[ed. Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz. You can find more about his writing on his personal Swans' cove.]


Much ado... Charles Marowitz's English vs. American Theatre Criticism
To the Editor:

I've just come across swans.com, an intriguing journal that I'll begin to follow regularly. I've linked today to Charles Marowitz's piece on theater criticism from my own blog, Superfluities, "Unnecessary thoughts from an unimportant man," at http://www.ghunka.com; excellent writing from Mr. Marowitz. Please let him know that those of us who are interested in theater continue to be appreciative of his thoughts.


George Hunka
Brooklyn, New York, USA - March 14, 2005


To the Editor,

... the NY Times critic, that is, in this piece.

Perhaps Mr. Marowitz was thinking of Washington Post Legend Ben Bradlee. Or Clement Attlee. Hard to say. In any event, it should be "Brantley" with a "y."


Bill Brazell
Brooklyn, New York, USA - March 18, 2005

[ed. Mr. Brazell is evidently correct. Once again, a reader saves the day... I wish we had the editing resources of The New York Times! I've appended the correction to the article.]


To the Editor,

What a delight to come on Marowitz's piece on the diff 'tween US and Brit drama criticism at Swans, especially so here in swampy Seattle, basically a real American ra-ra town with the Husky dogs putting on the only show that counts, at the sweet sixteen, where I have found myself the last decade quite happy save for the miserable theater scene: Dorothy Parker would vibrate to smithereens from the sheer frustration of her sting failing to draw the blood of response; Gilliat would have a year's worth of bloody Sundays before succumbing to cirrhosis; Simon, as nice a lamb as any boxer out of the rink, dissolve of his own vitriol (though, having been analyzed, he meanwhile tries to make nice). Yes, it would be a constitutionally prohibited form of cruel and unusual punishment to condemn any of those that Charles mentions to have to review the abysmal fare -- Agatha type shows are the only ones to which the yokels dance happily around the Schnitzelbank -- that Seattle offers, and not only, mostly, at its three official, but also at its off and off-off Broadway venues in this profoundly philistine region, yet with all the worst affectations of cosmopolitanism -- that is, of a city on, below, above and inside the veritable cusp of the two, but sliding, like the culture as a whole, back to booboodom.

A few additions and nuances: The one critic at the New York Times who can be taken seriously in matters of serious theater, but who failed to get the top job, is Mel Gussow. There existed the once possibility of Wilfred Sheed, a fine friend of ancient standing and transatlantic hybrid with the requisite schooling but a yen for the popular arts and who writes the best kind of ordinary language, becoming the N.Y. Times daily -- if they had allotted him... ah, just one day's pause to reflect. As compared to Simon, whose whatever gift to respond to the truly new is averted by a profound allegiance to a gloomy scholasticistic and I gather painful grammarianism, the now retired Richard Gilman, yet another excellent friend, belongs on the list of the serious weekly critics that Charles mentions, and it is to such like who are reflective in nature that I turn for matters that the mind can entertain with some degree of seriousness. Thus I never discount John Lahr at the New Yorker, and Bob Brustein is/was not a complete idiot despite what Susan Sontag used to say.

My stays in London were always far too intermittent -- don't know the British provinces except for their soccer teams -- to get a feel for their daily arbiters. Someone named Nightingale warbles, occasionally not memorably, for the N.Y. Times, from London; Alan Riding, from Eup [pron: yoop], puts N.Y. Times readers under the impression that they have been apprised. The latter once drew my Ezraish ire when he took Handke at his disingenuous word that he had written The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other because all he'd done was watch what went on a plaza -- to believe that must mean that you haven't the faintest of a writer's previous work; and then proceeded to fence-sit about whether this mirror showed little or nothing: HOUR, which cleans your clock, being far more than any mirror, metaphorical or whatever, has ever accomplished. Handke's work, after all, has been the acid test, and he used to devise new ones every seven years or so. But go to http://handkelectures.freeservers.com, my on-line seminar on that subject, and see for yourself if you can follow my argument that Handke's compositional methods and his introduction of dissociative techniques and filmic qualities into his most important plays, the cleansing of theatrical space, turning it from the profane into the sacred, constitutes a solution to the problematics of a now largely museal theater, and to the conundrum of "multi-media." For no matter the quality of the critic, the subject under review scarcely ever is capable of even producing a scandal any more. And that of course is the skandalon.

With respect to fence-straddling, Riding resembles the now departed, from the N.Y. Times, Clive Barnes. Atkinson loomed during my callow youth spent at a college outside Philadelphia. Yet I had already read all of Shaw, including drama criticism, by then, and Ibsen and Strindberg and O'Casey and much more. And within another year would spend a year's nites at theaters, chiefly in East Berlin, chiefly at the Ensemble, which gave you the idea, that though there might be no socialist heaven at the end of the rainbow, at least there was the theatrical heaven of the here and then (and maybe again now what with Peymann defending the fort with pitch there). And just as once you've had a taste of whatever of the many kinds of heaven, the taste of that theatrical kind of heaven -- well, you're hooked. Peter Brook in London with Marat/Sade and in New York with his Midsummer Nite's Dream, when you were young and very much in love and Peter gave you carte blanche to attend every nite. A seemingly unending festival in Dubrovnik, with Iphigenia in Tauris done in an olive tree grove; Hamlet on a castle's escarpment "beetling over the sea;" and then some things in Paris, especially at Theatre La Huchette, to set one parameter of my taste as it was unhappily strung too high too early on. I mean, if I had trundled into Seattle across the Cascade from some states east of here I might still be bright eyed and agog, though I expect I would have sorted out the philistinism and its resultant idiocies in due course.

Rumor had it many times that Frank Rich is a graduate of the Seattle Weekly, and I found it no wonder that he left, but it turned out to be just rumor now discounted by Frank Rich himself. Theater criticism in Seattle, in its two dailies, counts among its member one of those consumer notifiers without aesthetic criteria, that Charles mentions, and an old newsman, who is so out of it he enjoys the status of polished driftwood, a sweetheart who farms out a lot of assignments to those he knows to be his more interested betters. Yes, part of the problem is that with but one exception, everyone here is just too damn nice. Irony is ill advised, even if heart felt. It can be quite wonderful to come on a Brooklyn accent from a bus driver who escaped that region. That one exception, it happens to be among the two weeklies here, used to be the highly problematic Roger Downey, who also knows how to make nice but not for the same reasons that Simon does, and who served hard time trying to educate the benighted in matters theatrical, to no avail, before succumbing to what had been that tetchy aesthetes aboriginal love: food and wine and... Wagner. Several younger reviewers, especially Annie Wagner, at The Stranger, I don't mind reading at all, can have an original take. Her predecessor, a fellow by the name of Fetzer, was typical for pretending to know and be in cahoots with his ignorant audience that they knew what they really didn't know at all. Richard Christensen, so rumor has it from friends in the far better theater town Chicago, single-handedly helped create an audience there. A recent experience with the performance of a translation I did of Schwab's People Annihilation: Or My Liver is Sick , the ultimate grunge play that might have been done in Seattle if grunge hadn't been, mostly, just another style, leads me to believe that Christensen not only created an audience but also raised the general standard of reviewing there. Here, ACT & INTIMAN, two of the big three duplicative theaters, are not only artistically profoundly compromised, but also for all intentions justifiably financially bankrupt; the third incarnation of what was the most interesting theater, which whelped the few interesting theater folk I have met here, in Seattle in the 1970s and '80s, the Empty Space, just fund-raised itself out of yet another $300,000 sink hole. Four interesting smaller venues went bust during the past ten years, and of course the yearly crocuses keep springing up with hope, mostly to be crushed. My accumulating ten year's dissatisfaction -- 7,500 words, 750 per year -- with what I call Seattle's restoration hardware theater and its audience that goes "ooh-ahh" at every splendid set, and laughs at every stupid joke, and sweetly applauds each and every atrocity, can be found on the Seattle Page of my home site:


The ever more pudgy Puget Sounders are as useful a lot as I've lived amongst, except as a theater audience, and of course with all the zillion of qualifications that need to be made about generalizing about any large group of people. Greater Seattle has much to recommend it in many other respects.

Michael Roloff
Visiting Scholar, German U. Washington
Seattle Pschoanalytic Institute
Seattle, Washington, USA - March 22, 2005


No Hard Feelings

Hey, Monsieur d'Aymery,

What's the heck is going on in the land of the free and the home of the brave? No one, in the entire world (but for the fundamentalists, of whom we home a few, lamentably) fathom what the Amerloques are about, anymore...

Explain to me (and your readers), if you can, what this Terry Schiavo idiotic story is all about. Americans of the US of A sort can let 100,000+ Iraqis die, millions of Africans wither into abject death due to lack of clean water, basic health care, and recurring hunger -- and look at their obnoxious infant mortality rate... -- but they become enthralled with the life of a dead vegetable that your dog would not even consider for breakfast... Come on, Mr. d'Aymery, what's going on in the putrid place you made your own?

It's like poppy John, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears (naked) were soul mates -- with Disneyland as a choreographer... Come on, COME ON!

No one in her sound mind -- and that includes 80 percent of humanity, at least -- listens to what America has to say, without a chuckle...and a deep chill in our collective spine. We fear the beast!

Not only have they (your American acolytes) razed the Indian nations and built their economy on slavery, now they are up to destroying the entire earth to keep driving their SUVs and maintaining their "non-negotiable way of life."

What's going to be la nouvelle du jour or the news of the week, next? We've got the steroids and the vegetable...what's next, if I may ask? Thinking of Philip Greenspan's recent piece, I'd vote to rename the US Democracy, American Hypocracy, though I also like Dumbocracy...they both fit. I sure can vote; after all aren't we all citizens of the Empire?

Get out of there as fast as you can.

As always, bon vent, and give 'em hell.

Alouette Arouet
Paris, France - March 25, 2005

[Ed. There is no where to hide, Ms. Arouet. The U.S. may well destroy the world (and itself) in the name of god and exceptionalism. Americans are as much about rapture as they are about owning...and "stuff" is all they want and need. So what do you want little me to do about this? I try to resist as much as I can, and I'm quite lonely -- but not that lonely -- doing so... Therefore, if I may suggest, no need to add a few more nails to the coffin. Keep with the lighter side...we are still alive...even if barely. Many here fear the beast as much as you do... There WILL be better days... Oh, Terry Schiavo -- the news of the week? Think DeLay and Frist... They've overplayed their hands...so I figure (and hope)...till next week...]


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Published March 28, 2005
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