Born in Flames: an Aesthetic Education

The grounding narrative of politicization for the people my teenage self wanted to become looked back to Paris, May 1968. Uncompromising refusal, collective action and the aesthetics of the street made the Situationist International a privileged model for political activity in experimental arts and punk rock circles. Zine culture brought the Situationists to the decidedly un-French environs of Newcastle, Australia, the steel and coal port where I was born, a city which also happens to be the birthplace of New York SI-scholar McKenzie Wark, who I later sought out for supervision of my masters degree. But rather than being a cosmopolitan capital of a European republic and progenitor of modern democracy like Paris, regional Australia was a barely-reformed penal colony whose potential liberation seemed somewhat less exciting or consequential. When Newcastle’s most famous riot at the Star Hotel made it to the French media in 1979, the reported headline captured it perfectly: “Australians riot when pub closes.” It’s true that the Star would have been a place I would have hung out if I were 18 rather than 8 years’ old at the time, but a historical clash between police and 4000 drunk youth in a working class city never gained artistic currency in my world, which did not hold Cold Chisel’s commemorative track dear, and it certainly held no promise of a political future.

Before the arrival of the web, my all-consuming activity was mail-ordering books, magazines, LPs and cassettes that could connect me to the artists and musicians I admired, most of whom were from New York or New Zealand. I remember the availability of NTSC VHS players in Australia finally making available videos of independent 80s bands and indie films, and among one of those packages a copy of Lizzie Bordern’s 1983 film Born in Flames made it to my collection. I’d been hanging out on the fringes of feminist politics on campus while dropping out of my sociology degree, attracted by the potential exit from the compulsory heterosexuality I’d grown up with, while intimidated by the intractability of what Gayatri Spivak describes as the “simple and forbidding” double-binds of gender. Born in Flames demonstrated a possibility of bonding in difference, not just in the theoretical manner I would come to understand later, but through aesthetic action that seemed to present itself immediately. The world that created the film seemed more inviting than the prospect of being excommunicated from the radical sects of manguardists who dominated the local political scene. I’d like to say I took the film to heart then, but lacking a community to process it with I only watched it once or twice before it sat in the archives, and it was only much later that I realized how deeply the film had perhaps touched my aspirations for the political.

For the uninitiated, Born in Flames is a neo-realist feminist “sci-fi” set in a future New York that looks a lot like 1983 but for one detail: it is a nominal ten years after a socialist revolution. In the film, mass media channels reframe the continuing oppression of women and black people as a lingering glitch in the system still promising “freedom for all.” Various groups of women, most prominently black and working-class lesbians, organize to demand economic, political and sexual justice through strikes and direct action. Male government figures graph the activity of the militant Women’s Army, but the intelligence-gathering is constantly rebuffed by the Army’s apparent lack of hierarchical leadership. The activist women, however, are not disaggregated merely as a strategy; they also negotiate very real fractures between their own groups along race and class lines. The white middle-class women who edit the Socialist Youth Review are initially disdainful of the black-led Army, which they perceive as a dangerous rupture of a united socialist front toward equality for women. Meanwhile, the white anarchist punk rockers represented by Isabel (played by Adele Bertei of The Contortions, possibly the connection that led me to first see the film) appear to be more simply not very good at fitting in with anyone else’s plans.

Things get serious when Women’s Army leader Adelaide Norris dies in custody after being abducted by government men upon her return from a training exercise with a revolutionary African women’s militia in the West Sahara. The resulting ferment produces an ethical irruption for the white newspaper editors, who finally loosen their attachment to institutional control and “class guilt” to join the black-led collective struggle. The white women realize that if they too refused to wait indefinitely for a future justice promised by the male leaders, they would also be on the receiving end of the same state violence. Their class position, theoretical orientation and professional location still determine their mode of political action: they do not adopt the black women’s praxis through the simplistic assumption of downward mobility. Exposed to critique, however, they learn to read Norris’ struggle as their own. Meanwhile, the white punks learn to understand the collective structure of their plight through more banal and proximate acts of violence: bombings of the rival pirate radio stations highlight the inadequacy of their aesthetic rebellion in the face of fascism.  These diverse women join to shakily bear arms and hi-jack a presidential television address, broadcasting a taped message from senior black leader Zella, condemning the oppression of women everywhere. They finally destroy the patriarchal media organ by bombing the television antenna atop the World Trade Centre in the film’s infamous and prescient ending.

The centrality of the film in my political imaginary became clearer while reading Spivak’s 2012 opus, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. While Spivak’s tone differs markedly from Bordern’s, she shares a goal to read the political through the ethical, to maintain the intuition of transcendental collectivity without suppressing the intractable boundaries of race, gender and class that govern our ability to join collective action. Spivak’s overarching concern in the book is with the possibility of the aesthetic to “short-circuit the task of shaking up our habit of not examining our habits, perhaps.” In this formulation we already have a classic Spivak speed-bump: it will not be as simple as learning to change our habits (through e.g. following new rules); the best we might politically achieve from the aesthetic is learning to stop forgetting we have habits.  “Theory brings practice to crisis [perhaps making practice more ready for the aesthetic ‘shake up’], and practice norms theory.” Following Gramsci, Spivak holds the institutional location of the specific intellectual as central to the political effects of their work: knowing the rules of the game is one thing, but being able to play all the roles in the game is another. Real collectivity is a patient process of learning to listen to those on the other side, but which other sides and where is each practitioner’s own political calculation.

Bordern has said that one of her motivations for making Born in Flames was to create “a process whereby I could release myself from my own bondage in terms of class and race”, exorcising “whatever discomfort I might have felt as a white filmmaker working with black women.” Bordern’s language of the “process” recognizes the double-bind of the political in the personal: in Spivak’s terms she must “learn how to learn” this release from race and class bondage. The impossible “release” Bordern sought could not be reached directly in the single-bind of expert attempts at “anti-racism” or class analysis. Instead, Bordern as artist-intellectual must discover the larger currents she can give herself over to that will carry her where she needs to go, a destination unknown at the outset. Bordern learns to form a cross-racial political alliance not through simply reading political currents, but reading them in preparation for doing them — a doing that is outside the script, in the broader institutional film-making milieu where Bordern locates herself in order to author her work. Similarly, within the narrative of the film, the process of political coming together for the white women is based not on logical or convergent arguments about political organization, but through an “othering of the self” that Spivak locates in the Romantic tradition, staged most strikingly by Isabel’s idiomatic experimentation with performing black music, wearing cornrows and wearing a kufyia. As always, appropriation is endemic to white “creativity”. But through this appropriation the white performer, by learning how to read and perform cultural differences in their idiomaticity, prepares herself in the film to understand how her own oppression connects to genres of life other than her default. The film seems to concur with Spivak that the impulse to “learn from below” across class and racial divides (or, in my case of writing on the film, gender divides) does not allow the certainty of political correctness. As with all aesthetic endeavours, the use-value of this engagement will only be evaluated after the fact, by the critical reader, rather than the producer, in the reader’s own scene of action.

The supplementation of political ends with ethical means that Bordern and Spivak explore is an endless and gendered task, and the film’s narrative reflects a utopian feminist narrative of interpersonal alliances that remain radically open to differently constituted subjects. Theresa de Lauretis diagnosed the audience of Born in Flames as womanhood multiplied and diffracted, where women are “addressed intermittently and only insofar as we are able to occupy the position of addressee.” In a key scene in the film, Phoenix Radio DJ Honey makes a stirring on-air call: “Black women, be ready. White women, get ready. Red women, stay ready, for this is our time and all must realize it.”  As de Lauretis asks, “which individual member of the audience, male or female, can feel singly interpellated as spectator-subject or, in other words, unequivocally addressed?” Bordern’s film asks the viewer to reflexively consider what de Lauretis describes as “the contradiction of my own history and the personal/political difference within myself.” This double-bind can only be escaped through the setting to work of the contradictions through collective action with others yet to come.

De Lauretis located a certain negativity at the heart of the enterprise of women’s cinema, working toward a “deaestheticization of the female body, the desexualization of violence, the deoedipalization of narrative, and so forth.” To mistake this as a simple gesture of refusal would be to forget the double-bind: it is more a specifically shaped negative space than an open horizon of nothingness. In Spivak’s book, mindfulness of the double-bind protects the ethical reflex from co-option as a universal program, reminding us that all moves to freedom have a place of departure. She captures this in her ingenious figuring of the “originary” move in identity claims as being “like the clutch disengaging to get a stick-shift car moving.” The adoption of a collective historical identity – essentialism strategic or otherwise – is here an attempt to to drop out of a specific contemporary gear (neoliberalism, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality, etc). This perhaps relates to Derrida’s suggestion that democracy opens public space by “granting the right to a change in tone.” In Born in Flames certain identifiable political “positions” are represented, but through the film they are escaped, folded onto themselves, interrupted and pulled apart so that genres yet to come reveal themselves in between the stances taken by the diverse cast. Bordern: “Everyone knows nothing will work. But even if the questions are old, they must be renewed to mean something different today.”

“Everyone knows nothing will work” – Guy Debord would have heard that as defeatist, these politics of subjective difference lacking the unitary theory that gave his narrative of May 1968 its broad appeal. But in contemporary intellectual and artistic communities, navigating the diversity of both means and ends is the norm, which vanguardists forget at their peril. As performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña put it in his reflections on collective action with Border Arts Workshop, “we were not able to erase the borders among ourselves, the very same borders we were attempting to erase in the larger society, so we succumbed to our own racism, our own sexism, our own cultural prejudice, our own fears and desires. […] We were devoured by our own chimeras and grandiose ideas. And as you know, this has happened to so many collectives…” Perhaps this is why thirty years ago Spivak considered Berkeley 1967 to “make more sense” than May 1968 as a grounding scene of action in the “more racially ethnically, historically, more heterogeneous” United States. Born in Flames adopts this fractured ground to think its utopia, showing that neither papering over the fissures nor postponing their repair until after the revolution will work. The film stands as an inspirational example of how the assumptions of white patriarchy in its capitalist and socialist forms must be escaped in preparation for subjugated practices to emerge, with no guarantees that they will. Craig Willse and Dean Spade, editors of a recent special issue of Women & Performance on the film’s 30th anniversary, capture it perfectly: “instead of providing a pat narrative of a unified movement advocating for a single clear demand, Born in Flames leaves us with the unexploded bomb.”

Thanks to participants in the 24-day reading group on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization that was part of the exhibition Local Time: Horotiu at St Paul Street Gallery, Auckland in April-May 2013.