Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US – 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁

Vast sky overhead, plains stretching toward the horizon – O, pioneers! For centuries, in the US, a myth of the West has been a cudgel to beat onward a national (and nationalist) idea of prosperity and freedom, wrested in blood. It’s a fairy tale largely told through popular films, television programmes and novels. In these stories, cowboys and homesteaders embody a loner ideal of rugged individualism inextricably linked to a surging free market, striking gold for Christ in the Mormon State of Deseret. But, against this perception of a boundless US interior, the actual political history of the Plains offers up countless examples of the limits capitalism has placed on the region and its political imagination. Given that much of this history plays almost no part in our popular images of the West, we might turn to recent and newly restored art and, in particular, film and photography, for images that re-assert the primacy of the working class in this region. These works also resist the melancholy that has been pervasive in the leftist retelling of the rise and fall of the US labour movement. There are two histories of the region – a landscape conjoined in desert, plains, beaches and old-growth forest, stretching west of the Mississippi to the glinting Pacific and curtailed only by the artificial borders with Canada and Mexico. First, one of so-called manifest destiny; second, one of work.

From the theologies of Mormons and Theosophists, who held that the spiritual future of the continent lay in the West, to the early hucksters of desert real estate, the Western US has long been associated, through propaganda and boosterism, with unrestricted access to resources and renewal through God and grit. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was idealized in the landscape paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, the movies of John Wayne, the novels of Zane Grey and in countless other media, from wide-reaching radio sermons to comics. But this popular history contains a paradox: as big and endless as the West apparently was, from a capitalist perspective, it also needed to be tamed. Construction of railroads in the 19th century by underpaid Chinese, black and Irish workers; farm-steading on the land of displaced peoples that often amounted to legalized serfdom in the early 20th century; urban development across the expansive Sun Belt in the 1980s (at enormous ecological expense, and often bought with subprime mortgages, leading to the 2008 housing crisis); the plumbing of desert to build Palm Springs and Las Vegas: this is another history, one defined by the unfettered exploitation of labour.


Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁

John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, ‘Prairie Trilogy’, 1978–80, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York, and Northern Pictures & Citizen Cinema

John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s documentary series ‘Prairie Trilogy’ (1978–80), which was recently restored and screened at the Metrograph theatre in New York this summer, focuses on a 97-year-old socialist, Henry Martinson, from North Dakota. The son of Norwegian immigrants, Martinson served as recording secretary for the Fargo Labor Assembly and saw North Dakota’s branch of the Socialist Party of America, led by Arthur C. Townley, re-invent itself as the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in 1915. The following year, the NPL won control of the state and implemented a socialist government that granted women the right to vote, introduced workers’ compensation, a graduated income tax, a state-funded insurance programme and several other bureaus focused on the improvement of North Dakotans’ lives. (NPL activities spread to 11 other states.) And then, through the machinations of greater political forces, it was over: the state recalled its governor in 1921 and pro-business government was restored.

Funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council and the state’s federation of unions (the AFL-CIO), ‘Prairie Trilogy’ – which was shot entirely in black and white – begins with Prairie Fire (1978), a short, documentary presentation narrated by Martinson that follows the rise of socialism in North Dakota following an uprising of farmers against capitalists ‘back east’. (The film uses period footage shot by Nilsson’s grandfather.) The second film, Rebel Earth (1979), centres on the relationship between Martinson and a younger farmer named Jon Ness, who shares the older man’s frustrations with capitalism but finds himself with no political vehicle to do anything about it. The final instalment, Survivor (1980), focuses solely on Martinson at his summer home, among friends from the NPL and, in one stark scene, in the abandoned, snow-filled farmhouse where the League was founded. Socialism equals optimism, Martinson tells us, and, despite the crippling anti-labour initiatives of the past 100 years – he and other members blame the 1933–36 New Deal for centralizing progressivism in Washington and for the red-baiting of the McCarthy era – he remains hopeful. The final scene shows Martinson walking down a pier, toward a wind-beaten lake. ‘I believe a socialist regime is as sure to come as daylight comes after dark,’ he tells us. Martinson died in November 1981, ten months after Ronald Reagan became president and introduced sweeping legislation to privatize and deregulate remaining US industries. Night followed night.


Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁

John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, ‘Prairie Trilogy’, 1978–80, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York, and Northern Pictures & Citizen Cinema

Watching Martinson is like glimpsing a kindly poltergeist gleefully tossing furniture about the room; history, in his hands, is not what we know it to be. More importantly, in the stark black and white footage of his recollections of a red past (‘You can’t find a better colour than red’), his arguments with fellow farmers and his singing of farm songs with fellow Norwegians, he offers an image in contrast to the persistent gloom that dominates leftist views of history. The left has long dwelt romantically on its defeat in the major political struggles of the 19th century. Walter Benjamin first diagnosed ‘left-wing melancholy’ in 1931 when he wrote, in a book review for Die Gesellschaft, that the left had been absorbed with a fatalist view that saw no path forward; he compared it to a man who ‘yields himself up entirely to the inscrutable accidents of his digestion’. Political theorist Wendy Brown builds on Benjamin’s notion in her important 1999 essay, ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, writing that the left ‘has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential  fruitfulness’. She adds that this ‘attachment to the object of one’s sorrowful loss supersedes any desire to recover from this loss […] This is what renders melancholia a persistent condition, a state, indeed, a structure of desire, rather than a transient response to death or loss.’ The late British theorist Mark Fisher summarized this melancholic as someone ‘who doesn’t recognize that he has given up’; what is missing, he writes in Ghosts of My Life (2014), is ‘a trajectory’.

The ‘Prairie Trilogy’ trades in some leftist nostalgia – particularly through Ness, for whom Martinson appears to serve as a sorrowful embodiment of that insurmountable loss in the face of a relentless capitalist reality. (In this, I believe, we are invited to see, and reject, Ness as a stand-in for our predisposition to melancholy.) However, it ultimately offers up Martinson as an optimistic courier of a lost history that might be carried forward, rather than mourned. Optimism here is not merely cheery feeling for a better tomorrow; it is, instead, an affirmative belief in a path, a faith in the restoration of that absent trajectory. Perhaps the most engaging part of the trilogy is not the history it rediscovers in Martinson’s early years as a socialist, but in his view of the future as one of coming daylight.


Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁

Fred Lonidier,  I Like Everything Nothing but Union, 1983, gelatin silver print and photostat mounted on panels, 51 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Essex Street, New York

This year has seen an aggressive push, by Donald Trump’s administration, against workers’ rights – from the removal of protections for LGBT employees to the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case in June, which held that public sector unions could not collect fees from non-members even though they still benefit from union-led contract negotiations. As a result of the ruling, unions now expect to lose 30 percent of their membership and millions of dollars. (Night gets darker.) In March, New York’s Essex Street gallery presented Fred Lonidier’s ‘Two Works from the 1980s’, which included the important installations he made in relation to – and for – unions in California. In these works, Lonidier, like Hanson and Nilsson, establishes a dialectic between a leftist melancholy and a more forward-looking politics. L.A. Public Workers Point to Some Problems (1980), a multi-panel, wall-based work, quotes first-hand accounts from Los Angeles’s public workers. They indicate on-site problems and highlight the bleak future that some key union-held sectors, such as education, faced at the time. One representative panel includes, on its left side, the outline of the employment conditions of Deborah Badger, a member of the United Teachers union and, on the right, italicized pull-quotes from her interview. ‘Every day and every week it’s getting worse,’ she says. Black and white images depict Badger with her students alongside examples of those aspects of her job that were worsening at the time, from a pothole-filled playground to basic classroom items that she had to buy for her students. ‘After a while, you get tired of fighting.’

L.A. Public Workers was set in contrast to I Like Everything Nothing but Union (1983), a panel work commissioned by the San Diego AFL-CIO for its offices (and which is still on view there) that asserts the positive role unions play in communities. The installation shows a number of workers from around San Diego, emphasizing the broad racial and gender diversity of individuals who belong to the unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Musician Don Carney grins beside a drum kit (Musicians Association of San Diego County Local 325), Juanita Whetstone and Pat Harte-Johnson sit happily with their typewriters (Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 139) and Rich Koreerat leans against his bar (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 30). Dozens of such photographs – all black and white, shot at work – appear throughout the installation. These vernacular, unassuming images manage to capture not just the labourers themselves, but a certain self-possessed confidence afforded by hard-earned employment protections.


Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁

Fred Lonidier,  I Like Everything Nothing but Union, 1983, gelatin silver print and photostat mounted on panels, 51 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Essex Street, New York

Benjamin diagnoses the left melancholic’s problem as his or her stupefying investment in ‘things’, which he identifies, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), as the ‘dead objects’ of knowledge (as opposed to truth). In his aforementioned 1931 review for Die Gesellschaft, Benjamin describes this investment as ‘pride in the traces of former spiritual goods’. In ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, Brown traces Benjamin’s thinking on the subject and adds that ‘left-wing melancholy’ loves ‘our left passions and reasons, our left analyses and convictions, more than we love the existing world we presumably seek to alter with these terms or the future that would be aligned with them’. In foregrounding the practical reality of union success and peril in the face of an aggressive conservative movement, Lonidier’s ‘factographic art’, as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh termed it in a 1984 essay, rejects the museum- and gallery-based ‘system of representation that we traditionally refer to as “the aesthetic”, [which] by definition extracts itself […] from the economic and political reality of the basis of culture in everyday life.’ Instead, Lonidier ‘counteracts this tendency’ by ‘exploring the basis of [that] culture, i.e., labour.’ Lonidier mobilizes information and photography toward an art that campaigns and petitions; an art that, like Martinson, sees in the labour movement a workable present and a viable future. Not a trace, but a trajectory.

The original exhibition spaces for Lonidier’s work disappeared when unions sold their permanent buildings in favour of rented spaces beginning in the 1970s and ’80s. (The artist did not exhibit in a commercial gallery until 2011.) ‘I am a historical artist now,’ he told me one recent afternoon. When I asked him if he thought his work retained its relevance, despite the dismantling of the power of US unions, he answered emphatically: ‘Yes.’ Like Martinson, he sees the class struggle as ‘continuous’, even as the familiar settings for that struggle – construction ites in San Diego, for example – have dispersed to the manufacturing centres in the global south and away from a strong labour movement. In 2018, Lonidier views the lessons of the past as essentially the same for the present and future, and he believes the issues raised by his work ‘would resonate with any worker anywhere, any time. Now. Today. Then. Fifty years before that.’ Lonidier is currently working on a photobook that collects images of and texts by his late sister, the poet Lynn Lonidier, who died in 1993. It will be his most personal work to date and will be shown in conjunction with the publication of her collected poems.

‘The struggles I’ve represented go on and will go on,’ he told me. I thought of a line by Gertrude Stein: ‘Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.’

John Hanson lives in Bayfield, USA. With Rob Nilsson, he directed Northern Lights (1978), which won the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, France. He was a founding member of San Francisco’s Cine Manifest, a collective of Marxist filmmakers.
Fred Lonidier lives in San Diego, USA. In 2018, he had a solo show at Essex Street, New York, USA. In 2017, his series ‘N.A.F.T.A. (Not a Fair Trade for All)’ was exhibited for the first time in Europe at Kunstbunker, Nürnberg, Germany.
Rob Nilsson lives in San Francisco, USA. With John Hanson, he directed Northern Lights (1978), which won the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, France. His most recent film, The Fourth Movement, was released in 2017. He was a founding member of San Francisco’s Cine Manifest, a collective of Marxist filmmakers.

Main image: John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, 'Prairie Trilogy', 1978-80, film still. Courtesy: Metrograph, New York, and Northern Pictures & Citizen Cinema

Andrew Durbin

Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (2014) and MacArthur Park (2017), both from Nightboat Books. He is a Senior Editor of frieze and lives in New York.

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018

Features /

American Politics
Fred Lonidier
Walter Benjamin
Richard Nixon
Donald Trump
Essex Street
John Hanson
Rob Nilsson
Andrew Durbin

浩瀚的天际,平原向地平线延伸----O,拓荒者!几个世纪以来,在美国,西方的神话一直是一根棍子,用来打败在鲜血中挣扎的民族(以及民族主义者)的繁荣和自由观念。这是一个童话故事,主要通过流行的电影、电视节目和小说来讲述。在这些故事中,牛仔和家园主们体现了一种孤独的理想,这种理想与激增的自由市场密不可分,在摩门教的笛斯特州为基督敲出金牌。但是,与这种认为美国内陆无边无际的观点相反,大平原的实际政治历史提供了无数的例子,说明资本主义对该地区及其政治想象力的限制。鉴于这段历史中的大部分几乎不在我们对西方流行的印象中扮演任何角色,我们可能会转向最近和新近恢复的艺术,尤其是电影和摄影,来寻找那些重申该地区工人阶级首要地位的图像。这些作品也抵御了美国劳工运动兴衰的左翼复述中弥漫的忧郁情绪。这个地区有两段历史——沙漠、平原、海滩和古老的森林交织在一起,从密西西比州西部一直延伸到闪烁的太平洋,只因与加拿大和墨西哥的人工边界而受到限制。首先,一个所谓的命运;第二,一个工作。从摩门教徒和神学家的神学,他们认为大陆的精神未来在于西方,到早期的沙漠地产小贩,美国西部一直通过宣传和推动,与无限制地获取资源和通过G.OD和砂砾。在19和20世纪,它被理想化在弗雷德里克·雷明顿和查尔斯·M·拉塞尔的山水画、约翰·韦恩的电影、赞·格雷的小说和无数其他媒体中,从广为流传的广播布道到漫画。但这一通俗的历史包含着一个悖论:从资本主义的角度来看,它显然与西方一样庞大无穷,也需要被驯服。19世纪由低收入的中国、黑人和爱尔兰工人修建的铁路;在20世纪初经常成为合法农奴的流离失所者的土地上稳定耕作;1980年代横跨广阔的太阳带的城市发展(以巨大的生态代价)e,经常用次级抵押贷款购买,导致2008年的住房危机;修建棕榈泉和拉斯维加斯的沙漠管道:这是另一段历史,由对劳动力的无拘无束剥削所界定。Durbin-.-2.jpg Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁 John Hanson和Rob Nilsson,《草原三部曲》,1978-80,电影版。礼貌:纽约地铁,北方电影和公民影院。约翰·汉森和罗伯·尼尔森的纪录片《草原三部曲》(1978-1980),最近在纽约地铁剧院修复并放映。Henry Martinson,来自北达科他州。马丁森是挪威移民的儿子,曾担任法戈劳工大会的记录秘书,并于1915年看到由亚瑟·C·汤利领导的美国社会主义党北达科他州的分支机构重新发明成为无党派联盟。翌年,全国人民解放党赢得了国家的控制权,实行了赋予妇女选举权的社会主义政府,实行了工人补偿、累进所得税、国家资助的保险计划和几个其他的重点改善北达科他州的局。生活。(NPL活动蔓延到其他11个州。)然后,通过更大政治力量的阴谋,它结束了:1921年该州召回了州长,恢复了亲商业的政府。这部分由北达科他州人文理事会和州工会联合会(AFL-CIO)出资的《草原三部曲》(PrairieTri.)以草原大火(1978)为开头,这是一部由马丁逊讲述的跟随社会发展而出现的简短纪录片。在北达科他州,农民反叛资本家的东东。(这部电影使用尼尔森的祖父拍摄的片段。)第二部电影《反叛地球》(1979)主要讲述马丁森和一个名叫乔恩·尼斯的年轻农民之间的关系。乔恩·尼斯与这位年长的男人一样对资本主义感到沮丧,但是发现自己没有政治手段可以做任何事情。关于它。最后一部《幸存者》(1980)集中讲述了马丁森在夏天的家里,在NPL的朋友中间,以及在一个荒废的、满是积雪的农舍里,联盟成立。马丁森告诉我们,社会主义等于乐观,尽管过去100年中反对劳工的举措十分残酷——他和其他成员指责1933-36年的新政使华盛顿的进步主义集中起来,并给麦卡锡时代以红色诱饵——他仍然抱有希望。最后一幕是马丁森走下码头,向一个风吹雨打的湖边走去。他告诉我们,我相信一个社会主义政权肯定会在天黑之后到来。1981年11月,在罗纳德·里根就任总统10个月后,马丁森去世,当时他推行了一项全面的立法,将美国剩余的工业私有化和解除管制。夜幕降临。durbin-..jpg Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁 John Hanson和Rob Nilsson,《草原三部曲》,1978-80,电影仍然。礼貌:地铁,纽约,北方电影和公民影院。观看马丁森就像看到一个善良的鬼怪在房间里高兴地扔家具;历史在他手中,不是我们所知道的那样。更重要的是,在赤裸裸的黑白画面中,他回忆起红色的过去(“你找不到比红色更好的颜色”),他与同胞农民的争吵,以及与挪威同胞一起唱农歌,他提供了一个与长期笼罩在黑暗中的形象。左翼的历史观左翼在十九世纪的重大政治斗争中长期失败。沃尔特·本杰明在1931年第一次诊断出“左翼忧郁症”时,他在《迪·格塞尔夏夫特评论》一书中写道,左翼已经被一种宿命论观点所吸收,这种观点看不到前进的道路;他把这种观点比作一个人“完全屈服于他深不可测的挖掘事故”。“。政治理论家温迪·布朗(Wendy Brown)以本杰明(Benjamin)在1999年的重要文章《抗拒左翼忧郁》(.ngLeftMelancholy)中的观点为基础,写道,左翼“与其说是潜在的‘成果’,不如说是‘不可能’”。她补充说,这种对悲伤悲伤的对象的依恋取代了任何想要从这一损失中恢复的欲望……这是导致忧郁的一种持续状态,一种状态,实际上是欲望的结构,而不是对死亡或损失的短暂反应。Mark Fisher博士把这个忧郁的人概括为“不承认他已经放弃”的人;他在我生命中的幽灵(2014)中写道,缺失的是“轨迹”。“草原三部曲”在一些左翼怀旧中交易,特别是通过尼斯,马丁森似乎是一个悲哀的体现,在无情的资本主义现实面前,不可逾越的损失。(在这一点上,我相信,我们被邀请去看,拒绝,尼斯,作为我们对忧郁的倾向的立足点。)然而,它最终提供了马丁森作为一个失去历史的乐观信使,而不是哀悼。这里的乐观不仅是对更美好明天的乐观情绪,而是对道路的肯定信念,对恢复那种缺失轨迹的信念。也许这部三部曲最吸引人的部分不是它在马丁逊早期作为社会主义者重新发现的历史,而是在他把未来看成是即将到来的曙光。Durbin-.-3.jpg Mourning and Melancholy in the History of Class Struggle in the Western US - 美国西部阶级斗争史上的哀悼与忧愁 Fred Lonidier,《我什么都喜欢,除了联合》,1983年,明胶银版印刷和安装在面板上的照相机,51×41厘米。礼仪:艺术家和纽约埃塞克斯街。今年,唐纳德·特朗普(Donald Trump)政府积极推动反对工人权利,从取消对LGBT雇员的保护到6月份Janus诉AFSCME最高法院(Janus v.AFSCME Supreme Court)的案件。Tor工会不能收取非成员的费用,即使他们仍然受益于工会主导的合同谈判。作为裁决的结果,工会现在预计会失去30%的会员资格和数百万美元。(夜色渐暗)3月份,纽约埃塞克斯街美术馆展出了弗雷德·朗尼德的《20世纪80年代的两部作品》,其中包括他与加州工会有关的重要设施。在这些作品中,朗尼迪尔和汉森、尼尔森一样,在左翼忧郁与前瞻性政治之间建立了一种辩证关系。洛杉矶公共工作者指出一些问题(1980),一个多小组,基于墙壁的工作,引用了洛杉矶公共工作者的第一手帐户。它们指出了现场问题,并凸显出一些关键的工会控股部门(如教育)在当时面临的黯淡前景。一个具有代表性的小组在其左侧包括了联合教师工会成员黛博拉·獾的雇用条件大纲,在右侧是她面试时的斜体引语。她说:“每一天、每一周,情况都变得更糟。”黑白照片描绘了獾和她的学生以及她工作的那些方面在当时正在恶化的例子,从一个坑坑洼洼的游乐场到她必须为学生购买的基本课堂用品。“过了一会儿,你厌倦了打架。”洛杉矶《公务员》与《除了工会什么都喜欢》(1983)形成对比,工会是由圣地亚哥AFL-CIO委托成立的一个专门小组工作,负责其办公室(现在也是


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