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Our Lady of Camden Town

I heard Darcus Howe speak at the Anarchist Bookfair in London last month. The veteran black writer and broadcaster was talking about the recent riots in London, which he linked both to the police shooting dead of Mark Duggan in Tottenham and the ongoing stop and search of young black people. The most surprising thing was that he recalled that just before the riots he had warned of the consequences of this kind of policing and had written that “I hope Amy Winehouse is floating in the stars, speaking in the ear of authority, saying, ‘No, no, no.'”

Winehouse died just before the riots, so obviously Howe was being topical. But how did this Jewish singer from north London come to be conceived, even if only whimsically, as some kind of saint? On the day after Amy’s death I happened to be in Camden, where she died. Her music was everywhere in the market and people were talking about her constantly; fans started a shrine by her home in Camden Square and religious imagery featured in this too, including a remarkable drawing of her bearing the sacred heart:


So what kind of Saint could Amy Winehouse be compared to? One candidate might be St Mary Magdelene. The actual stories about her in The Bible are scant, but a whole corpus of legends have grown up around her. Recently I read ‘St Mary Magdelene: The Gnostic Tradition of The Holy Bride’  (Llewellyn, 2006) by Tau Malachi. Malachi is the founder of the Sophia Fellowship, and has elaborated on a ‘Sophian Tradition’ of ‘Gnostic Christianity’, encompassing mysticism and Christian Kabbalah. In this current, Magdalene is not a bit player in the story of Jesus but his co-equal – both Yeshua (Jesus) and Magdalene embody the Christos (the ‘Light presence’): ‘Yeshua is the first Christed man, Mary Magdelene is the first Christed woman, and the two together reveal the divine potential in humanity… St Mary Magdalene is said to be the soul mate of Lord Yeshua and becomes his closest disciple. Yet more than a disciple, she is said to be his wife and consort, co-equal and co-enlightened with him, and she is the co-preaher of the Gospel. In him Christ the Logos (Word) is embodied and, in her, Christ the Sophia (Wisdom) is embodied’. She is the Spiritual Moon to Yeshua’s ‘Spiritual Sun’.

In a kind of feminist take on the tale of Adam, Eve and his earlier consort Lilith, Magdalene overcomes the division between the Virgin and the Whore, the meek and the powerful, the light and the dark sides of womanhood: ‘In the beginning, Eve and Lilith were joined together , the image of the Supernal Woman, a pure emanation. Some say that Adam was overwhelmed by the glory and grace of this perfect woman. Thus, her power and luminosity was reduced, Lilith being divided from Eve, and Adam received the submissive woman…. Now, Eve and Lilith were reunited in Lady Mary, and she was a whole woman’ (Malachi).

None of this directly relates to Winehouse, but what does resonate is the notion of the ‘bad girl’ who breaks the rules but has a ‘good heart’,  who suffers but through her suffering finds some kind of redemption for herself and maybe others too. In Malachi’s account, Magdalene is kidnapped, raped and forced into prostitution in Babylon, and she descends into hell: ‘When she was in Babylon, her soul passed in descent through Hades and the seven abodes of Gehenna, even into the darkest pit. There, her soul was crucified by that dark power whose name is dreadful. In each abode of Gehenna, she left sparks of her soul behind, until only the faintest spark was left to glimmer. From each dark and hostile abode, a demon was attached to her, to bind her soul and cause her anguish. Thus, when the Lord exorcised the seven demons, he also gathered up the sparks of Mary’s soul from the abode of Gehenna, restoring her soul to her completely’ (the gathering together of the sparks to restore the broken world is a key kabbalist meme). Returning from this hell, the Bride performs good deeds for the poor and ends her Exile.

Amy Winehouse for some clearly represents a kind of secularised figure of this kind. It is not so much that she performed saintly acts of charity and benevolence, but that she suffered through her descent into the  hell of addiction and heartbreak – and then transmuted this suffering into some kind of beauty through her singing. 

Of course the cigarettes and alcohol at Amy Winehouse’s shrine also recall Vodou offerings.

Perhaps in particular those to Erzulie Dantor – a kind of Haitian goddess of love and passion, partial to rum and tobacco. She too bears the scars of suffering on her cheek, and comes to the aid of those who need her protection, women and children especially. 


Marx and Spirit

‘Spiritual matters are not disembodied, otherworldly affairs. It is the prosperous bourgeois who tends to see spiritual questions as a realm loftily remote from everyday life, since he needs a hiding place from his own crass materialism. It comes as no surprise that material girls like Madonna should be so fascinated by Kabbala. For Marx, by contrast, ‘‘spirit’’ is a question of art, friendship, fun, compassion, laughter, sexual love, rebellion, creativity, sensuous delight, righteous anger and abundance of life… Happiness for Marx, as for Aristotle, was a practical activity, not a state of mind. For the Judaic tradition of which he was an unbelieving offspring, the ‘‘spiritual’’ is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not the opposite of mundane, everyday existence. It is a particular way of living it’.

‘He was, of course, an atheist; but one does not need to be religious to be spiritual, and some of the great themes of Judaism — justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people— inform his work in suitably secularised form. He also inherited the Jewish hostility to idols, fetishes and enslaving illusions.

As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted ‘‘satisfaction of her metaphysical needs’’ she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosmos, such as ‘‘Everything is made out of atoms’’ or ‘‘There is no God.’’ It is a theory of how historical animals function’

‘The spiritual is indeed about the otherworldly. But it is not the otherworldly as the parsons conceive of it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the future, in place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date. Anyone who isn’t otherworldly in this sense has obviously not taken a good hard look around them.’

(Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, 2011)


Tactical Religiosity

In the previous post I featured a picture of a woman brandishing a crucifix during resistance to the eviction of the travellers site at Dale Farm in Essex.  The protestor has subsequently been villified in right wing tabloids like the Daily Mail with the claim that, among other things, she is actually a Muslim convert rather than a Christian. Leaving aside the specifics of this individual, this is arguably part of a wider phenomenon which I term ‘tactical religiosity’.

We could define ‘tactical religiosity’ as something like ‘The use of religious symbols, language and/or ritual elements within social movements for political purposes, by people who are not necessarily religious believers themselves’.  Waving a crucifix at police and bailiffs might be one example, another would be the ‘What would Jesus Do?’  banner/meme at the current Occupy London protest by St Pauls Cathedral in London. Sure there are radical Christians involved in the camp, but a lot of people who wouldn’t define themselves as religious have been using arguments derived from the gospels, talking about Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple and so on.

I have used the term ‘tactical’ rather than ‘cynical’ because it’s actually quite complex – for instance there is a large fuzzy zone between ‘belief” and ‘disbelief’.  I don’t think it heralds a revival of old time religion in its socially reactionary forms, but perhaps a wider recognition that it might be possible to strip away some of the oppressive baggage of traditional belief systems and find things of value to an emancipatory politics.

‘Tactical religiosity’ could also be considered as an activist version of the ‘theological turn’ in critical theory.



Dale Farm

The sight of naked state power off the leash makes me feel physically sick, as well as angry. Today was a classic case, with taser-wielding riot police and bailiffs piling in to evict travellers from their homes at Dale Farm near Basildon.

The front page image from tonight’s London Evening Standard shows a semi-apocalyptic biblical scene, with a protestor righteously brandishing a crucifix against a backdrop of a burning barricade. 


Sunset Song

‘And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set their Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you’ (Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song, 1932)

Image is from Finlaggan, Isle of Islay


Paolo Virno and Bob Marley on ‘Exodus’

Paulo Virno has done his time in radical politics, in fact he has literally done his time in Italian prisons following the repression of the ‘Movement of ’77’.  In writings such his Virtuosity and Revolution (1996 – quoted below) he has developed a notion of a politics of Exodus, drawing on the Biblical story to reflect on the possibility of a collective withdrawal from the state and the constitution of new social relations:

‘I use the term Exodus here to define mass defection from the State, the alliance between general intellect and political Action, and a movement toward the public sphere of Intellect. The term is not at all conceived as some defensive existential strategy – it is neither exiting on tiptoe through the back door nor a search for sheltering hideaways. Quite the contrary: what I mean by Exodus is a full-fledged model of action, capable of confronting the challenges of modern politics… Exodus is the foundation of a Republic. The very idea of “republic,” however, requires a taking leave of State judicature: if Republic, then no longer State. The political action of the Exodus consists, therefore, in an engaged withdrawal. Only those who open a way of exit for themselves can do the founding; but, by the opposite token, only those who do the founding will succeed in finding the parting of the waters by which they will be able to leave Egypt…

Because the Exodus is a committed withdrawal, the recourse to force is no longer gauged in terms of the conquest of State power in the land of the pharaohs, but in relation to the safeguarding of the forms of life and communitarian relations experienced en route. What deserve to be defended at all costs are the works of “friendship.” Violence is not geared to visions of some hypothetical tomorrow, but functions to ensure respect and a continued existence for things that were mapped out yesterday. It does not innovate, but acts to prolong things that are already there: the autonomous expressions of the “acting-in-concert” that arise out of general intellect, organisms of nonrepresentative democracy, forms of mutual protection and assistance (welfare, in short) that have emerged outside of and against the realm of State Administration. In other words, what we have here is a violence that is conservational’.

Of course this notion of Exodus as flight from oppression has inspired many in past couple of thousands of years, not least Bob Marley:

Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
We know where we’re going;
We know where we’re from.
We’re leaving Babylon, 
We’re going to our Father’s land

Exodus, Movement of Jah people!

(OK we will overlook the fact that the Biblical Exodus was from Egypt not Babylon!)


Letters Journal & Negative Theology

Nihilists! One Less Effort if You Would be Nihilists‘ is an interesting article by John Cunningham at Mute on Letters Journal, an  ‘Anti-Political Communist Journal’. I haven’t actually seen the physical Letters Journal, but judging by its Hebrew scripture-citing blog there is an interest in radical strands of theology which I share. Or maybe, as Cunningham suggests, it is characterised by a  ‘negative theology’:

‘As fragmentary as Letters appears to be it’s in no way random or ill thought out. Overall, the effect is of a cohesive assemblage happily indeterminate in its theoretical negation and intent on opening out anti-capitalist critique without locking into pre-existing models. This assemblage revolves around the absent object ‘communism’ more defined by its lack in the present than any latent immanence. As Letters IV notes, ‘Whatever is possible in this world is not communism‘. This lack is disruptive in its absence, forcing the anecdotal and literary fragments to revolve around it. But the notion of communism is also decomposed in that reflections upon it end up incorporating the everyday experience of its lack. This infects the certainty usually expressed in critique with an awareness of its own limitations and failure however embedded in critical science it may be. In Letters IV this is almost a negative theology with ‘G-d’ replaced by a communism immanent in its very absence. Much like Kafka’s parables of ‘no exit’ such as The Castle, this accentuates the negativity of the existent, with any kind of utopia only existing as the negative image of the accumulated debris of the capitalist present.This does run the risk of over-emphasising ‘no exit’ over any agency to change ‘fate’. Emphasising ‘no exit’ can risk a reification of such structural constraints and the loss of any sense of the essential instability of capitalism due to its basis in that most unstable element of all – human labour. Generally though, this sense of ‘no exit’ is finely balanced between its destructive use as a way of accentuating the lack inherent in a world built around the needs of capital and a subsequent necessity of not simply retreating to the safety of theoretical certainty’.

Here’s an extract from Letters Journal, October 2010:


1. G-d exists because G-d cannot be expressed. 2. The English word “God” is incoherent. It lacks definition. It is, at best, a question (ie. which God?, what sort of God?, etcetera), but it primarily functions as an expression of dishonesty. 3. One writes G-d as an acknowledgment of the limits of human language. Hebrew demonstrates this limit; the language lacks a word for G-d and communicates entirely in euphemism – King of the Universe, My Lord, etcetera. 4. G-d is not logical; G-d exists entirely outside of logic. If one presupposes G-d’s omnipotence, there is the obvious paradox. 5. G-d is other even to otherness. 6. G-d persists as a lack, as a problem both inexpressible and unavoidable. G-d exists in this problem outside any argument or doubt. 7. G-d’s inexpressibility is explained in the Talmud as exile. 8. The universe exists because it is expressed; G-d is that which expresses it. 9. The inability of the universe to express G-d – the inability of one to express that which is one is expressed by – is the problem of communication. 10. G-d is the radical limit of language; therefore, it is the beginning of the anti-political communist adventure. 11. The adventure is doomed but remains, at heart, the only fundamentally optimistic project in a world ruled by the anarchy and nihilism of the market. And so it is as it shall be’.