Underground passages: anarchist resistance culture 1848-2011 by Jesse Cohn [Book review]

Cohn is looking at “culture” in the sense of creative activity (rather than the broader sense of “how we do things”); in particular creative activity from within the anarchist movement, rather than emphasising the anarchist connections of “big names” like Picasso (p16). You’ll see from the subtitle that he covers a lot of ground. I’m not likely to come across much otherwise on Korean anarchist literature, say. Inevitably there’s a lot of people I would’ve liked to have seen mentioned that didn’t make it, but it’s not an encyclopaedia.

It is an academic book (you are going to meet some literary theory) so we get a chapter (p133+) on whether self-expression or communication is the point of this creative activity. This ties in with the trend that, having declared anarchism dead, reanimates it with the proviso that it’s all about being as free as you can be here and now. If the struggle for social change is limited to the protests of the pure in heart, being incomprehensible to all but a few is less of a problem.

I liked the bit about the fact that everyone trying to communicate has to make choices: “[George] Goodin observes that the ‘problem of hope’ – the forces of oppression and evil must not be depicted as so trivial that they are not worth fighting, nor so dreadful that they cannot be fought at all – is matched by an equally serious ‘problem of clarity.’ […] Unless the forces that oppress the victim are given a rationale and logic of their own, they become simply mysterious [… alternatively, they can become] ‘victims themselves and start to command sympathy’ […] rendering it impossible to determine an appropriate target for one’s anger, outrage, derision, and blows.” (p269-270)

The “naked people with flaming torches” iconography of the “olden days” may look strange now, but he looks at it all in context. Cohn’s not afraid to be critical and avoids patronising previous generations. It’s obvious the anarchist movement’s cultural activity – whether of destructive scorn or constructive visualisation – has a long history and plenty still to do.

Underground passages: anarchist resistance culture 1848-2011 by Jesse Cohn
AK Press, 2014 ISBN 9781849352017