Bryan Palmer’s Cultures of Darkness

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Leo Panitch

Cultures of Darkness:
Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression
[From Medieval to Modern]
by Bryan Palmer
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), $24 paper.

BRYAN PALMER IS a Canadian Marxist historian who has done much, in the tradition of E.P. Thompson, to recover and analyze the cultures of resistance that working people developed in the course of practicing class struggle from below. His work is shaped by a particular sympathy for the kind of class struggle that transgresses the existing social order.

This appreciation has often led Palmer to be strongly critical of leaders of the labor movement who have appealed to those elements of working-class culture that crave for artificial bourgeois respectability, and that express themselves in the politics of reformism.

Palmer appreciates the postmodernist celebration of difference and its sympathy for the socially marginal “others” who are feared, shunned and repressed by the forces of order and conventionality. Yet he is acutely aware that the importance of paying attention to the politics of transgression is undone by postmodernism’s simultaneous inability to get beyond the mere defense of the right of marginalized subjectivity to be “recognized” in all of its particularity, and even parochialism, of self-identity.

Palmer wants, in other words, to save the politics of transgression from the postmodernists, whose bogeyman of the “grand narrative” blocks it from understanding “the determining and foundational feature of human experience in the modern world,” that is “the rise and transformation of global capitalism.” (456)

“Current intellectual trends leave us with the disembodied pieces of a puzzle, the borders and linked segments which would make the whole intelligible either entirely absent or jumbled on the interpretive sideline. Yet this puzzle, in its rich totality, is the metanarrative that can, in part, counter capitalism’s current grand story of accomplishment, the obscured mirror image of which is of course enslavement, the forcible extraction of surplus value, and the endless proliferation of special oppressions associated with gender, race and sexual identification. To make the coerced marginalities of history a viable force of transformative alternative, the need is to bring them together. Differences need to be championed, not through a reification of difference, but in the building of programs and perspectives that fly in every way against the impulses and structures of our current varied but connected subordinations.” (4)

Resistance vs. “Articulations”

Palmer has no ready recipes for this, but he clearly means something altogether different than the “articulations” strategy advanced and practiced so commonly since Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe used this term in their critique of socialist strategy two decades ago.

Above all, Palmer believes Marxist analysis and strategy are still essential, while recognizing that “Marxism has nevertheless looked inadequately into the night and paid insufficient attention to dimensions of subordination, marginalization, and transgression not directly and unambiguously connected, via the wage and struggles over its contents, to the labor-capital relation.” (466)

This is what he tries to attend to in this monumental book (whose 450 pages of text are supplemented by another 130 pages of endnotes), which treats us to a series of astonishingly rich histories of episodes and practices of what might be termed “resistance through transgression.”

Each of these cases is shown to be related to the material world of production and commerce and to the wide variety of structures of oppression and exploitation that compose that world.

The metaphor and the experience of “night” is what Palmer’s uses to guide his “travels,” on the premise that it is under the cover of time’s dark hours that appropriate spaces for transgression are created. “Night” provides Palmer with a means of linking what are very diverse practices and peoples under the common theme of “cultures of darkness.”

To offer only a partial list, there are discrete chapters on peasants and witches in late feudalism; on Jacobins, libertines, pirates and slaves amidst the rise of capitalism and imperialism; on craftsmen and day laborers, prostitutes and tavern keepers, fraternal lodge members and anarchists in the cities of industrial capitalism; on lesbians, homosexuals and communists under fascism; on the mafia, youth gangs and race riots in modern American capitalism.

The representations of transgression and resistance in painting, literature and music are never far from his attention, and twentieth-century American capitalism also provides him with the backdrop for three extremely rich chapters on jazz and blues, beats and bohemians, and the genre of literary and film noir respectively.

All these are brought together under the subtitle of “Making Cultures in the Heart of Capitalist Commodification.”

Sometimes the linkages Palmer seeks to make across place and time are painfully labored, notably in the transitional paragraphs between the chapter on witches and the one that follows on pornographers and libertines in the 17th century.

Sometimes the repeated stress placed on the centrality of night becomes tedious, if not banal — as for instance, in his footnoted comment on Geoff Dyers’ But Beautiful, where all he has to say is that we should note “the centrality of night” in what is probably the best book about jazz ever written. (552)

But this hardly gets in the way of what is a truly breathtaking book, whose richness of interpretation as well as documentation is nothing short of remarkable. It is a book that exemplifies what Ernst Bloch (who is not cited by Palmer) insisted needed to be encompassed by good historical materialist work.

Mixing the Streams

The “cold stream” of Marxism’s “historical and current practical conditional analysis” had always to be mixed, according to Bloch, with the kind of appreciation of “subjective conditions” present in the “warm stream” of the Marxist tradition.

Combining these two streams in this book, Palmer largely succeeds not only in setting out the conditions of emergence of the transgressions he investigates, but also in helping us glimpse through them what Bloch called “the concrete forward dreams” that are themselves a component of reality.

Very much to his credit, Palmer does not shrink from criticizing discourses and practices that express dreams that are far from realistic in Bloch’s transformative sense. This is seen, for instance, in his discussion of the Workers Olympics organized by the social democrats of Vienna in 1931.

This mass spectacle, he suggests, may have amounted to no more than a “mass theatre of illusions” hiding the social democrats’ own growing political weaknesses and lack of revolutionary direction: “The festivals of Red Vienna were as much a displacement of revolutionary enthusiasm and energy . . . as they were an unleashing of spectacle’s festive power.” (319)

To be sure, he is characteristically rather more sober about social democratic illusions than he is about anarchist or Trotskyist ones.

For instance, he quotes at length one Haymarket martyr’s final words in 1887 to the effect that “the hundreds of thousands to whom I have spoken will remember my words; and when you have hanged us, then, mark my words, they will do the bomb-throwing.”

Palmer only compensates for this illusion with the claim that “the names of the martyrs remained a ubiquitous presence in the consciousness of class opposition,” as sustained with a quote from James P. Cannon (the martyr’s . . . “footsteps on the gallows’ stair/Resound like drumbeats, quickening the feet/Of men who hear and even now prepare/ The march of stern avengers in the street”).

This statement on the Sacco-Vanzetti executions only repeated, however poetically, the same illusion in 1929, over forty years later. (254-6)

Breaking Down?

The need for a sober “cool Marxism” also fails Palmer when he flirts near the end of the book with some sort of breakdown theory of late capitalism. Here he seems too ready to see the “effervescent destabilizations of mirage-like money” all around us today as pregnant with “potential catastrophic collapse,” and as threatening “to topple a precarious social order in proverbial dominos fashion.” (408)

But it would be unfair to expect from a book already so rich the kind of foray into political economy that would be needed to sustain such a claim. And in any case, Palmer shows he knows full well that even such a collapse can usher in no positive social transformation unless and until new “movements and mobilizations . . . building on difference, actually break it down and bring together the forced fragmentations of capitalism’s tyrannical, eminently pluralist order.”

The question is, of course, how far the “dark cultures of the night” actually can contribute in initiating social transformation as Palmer suggests here they can. At one point, Palmer quotes Nelson Algren’s critical judgment on the beat culture of the 1950s, offered in terms of recalling a Greenwich Village announcement that read: “Classes in Non-Conformity Wednesday at 9. Please be on time.” (381)

One wonders how many of Palmer’s students at Queen’s University, who took the history course he taught that presaged this book, cracked the same joke. If they did, they missed his most important point: As Palmer makes abundantly clear, the possibilities of transformation offered by the “cultures of the night” certainly do not lie in escapism and transgressive tourism.

Nor will these possibilities necessarily be found in most practices of “resistance through transgression.” What is really needed is a politics of “transgression through resistance,” through which it may be hoped that the genuinely inclusive and solidaristic working-class collective subjects so necessary for social transformation will finally emerge.

ATC 101, November-December 2002