Datacide 15

Interview with Osha Neumann: Up Against the Wall Motherfucker and the 60s Counterculture


Osha Neumann, son of Franz Neumann and stepson of Herbert Marcuse, member of the Motherfuckers; lawyer, artist, and author of the book Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker. A Memoir of the ‘60s, with Notes for Next Time. Interviewed by Adrian Mengay and Maike Pricelius in 2010, first published in datacide fifteen in 2016.

AM: In the 1960s you were a member of a radical political group called “Up against the Wall Motherfuckers” based in New York City. Could you explain what the Motherfuckers were?

ON: The Motherfuckers were a small group that formed on the Lower East Side in 1967. The Lower East Side of New York was a predominantly Puerto Rican ghetto at this point. It had been the entranceway for immigrants for many, many years. It had been a Jewish ghetto before the Puerto Ricans moved in. We have been called many things. Some people called us ‘a street gang with an analysis’. Ben Morea, who was one of the key figures, was identified as an anarchist. Others of us did not particularly identify either as anarchists or as Marxists or in any of the traditional political categories. We considered our base to be what the media called hippies – dropouts, freaks, countercultural youth who swarmed into this ghetto around the time when we were forming. It had been a place where the beatniks had been before the hippies, and then the punks came afterwards. It had cheap, cheap rents. There were squatters mixed in with the Puerto Rican population. At that point our base was, as I say, these hippies primarily, although attached to us at various times were groups of young Puerto Ricans, who would come to our events and our demonstrations.

AM: How was life in the Lower East Side? And what exactly did you do as Motherfuckers aside from organizing demonstrations?

ON: We lived largely communally, in crash pads or houses we had. We put on free nights, we gave out free food, we had feasts, we had a free store where people could come and give away things for free, and various other institutions. We published lots of – at that point – mimeographed flyers and then some pages in an underground newspaper that was published in the Lower East Side. After only a couple of years, actually, the situation began to change, both internally and externally, and the Lower East Side, the counterculture, although subject to the stresses of survival and repression from the police, had been still more or less free and joyous. But it got a harder edge. The drugs changed from pretty good acid to heroin, crack and speed. Gangs moved in – biker gangs – to contest with us for the turf, and also our rhetoric changed.

MP: How was the interaction between the Motherfuckers, the black community, and the Puerto Rican community on the Lower East Side? [Read more →]

Pigeon

The jungle foliage became a mist of green, the sandy floor a streak of brick red. Jamaal’s bare feet kicked up a cloud of dust as he tore down the road. There wasn’t a pigeon in the nest faster than him, but today he was late. He checked the timer on his wrist, he had thirty minutes. It was the short cut through the Itinerant Terminal, or he could kiss his legs goodbye.

Tarpaulins flapped on top of makeshift dwellings formed from planks of wood and pieces of corrugated iron; kids dressed in rags batted a hover ball back and forth with glow gloves that had seen better days. A group of ten IT’s huddled round an old laptop while two women peddled hard on a static cycle power conversion system. Jamaal ran onwards, these were not his people. He looked at outsiders partly through jealous eyes with their liberty to roam, but more than not with a sense of sadness. Yes, they might be free but they were generally hungry, homeless, and susceptible to the elements: vicious sand storms that rose from the West and acid rain that rolled down off the Eastern mountains.

The Terminal disappeared behind him and the path narrowed as it snaked round the side of a steep hill. At the top of the bend stood Shila, a thin girl, one of her front teeth missing and a look of mischief on her face. She was dressed in clothes made from rubbish, the faded logos of long since dead multinationals printed across dirty white straw.

“Where are you going all in a hurry, eh?” she asked.

“I don’t speak to Termites?” he replied.

Shila stretched out a finger and pushed it into his port. A flap of skin that shielded a socket mounted on his stomach. He slapped her hand away.

“Do you even know what message you’re carrying?”

“It’s not for you,” he told her.

“You don’t know what it is, do you?”
[Read more →]

‘These days are not to be missed’ – 1990s Rave and Club Culture in Fiction

Nights out dancing, for all their intensity, leave few visible traces. Immersed in a multi sensory environment of noise, lights, encounters, movements, we emerge with only memories and half-memories. Of course there is a material culture of associated objects – items of clothing, flyers, vinyl – but much of it is ephemeral and on its own tells us little. Once everybody has gone home, the haunted dancehall refuses to give up its secrets.

So perhaps it is not surprising that we turn to the novel to get a sense of what it was like to be there, in different times and places. We turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the parties of the Jazz Age, to Colin MacInnes for 1950s London, or even to Jane Austen for the balls of regency England.

The electronic dance music scene that exploded through acid house and rave in the late 1980s and has mutated ever since now has its own library of fictional representations, much of it dating back to the period in the 1990s when the scene in the UK reached its somewhat overbloated commercial peak and publishers like everybody else were trying to get their share of the dance music pound.

The writers of such fictions may not always be reliable narrators – were they participants or voyeurs, or just chancers looking for edgy material on which to build a career? And the perspectives they offer are inevitably partial – as in many domains, male writers seem to be over-represented compared to female, and white voices more dominant than black. But these stories and novels undoubtedly tell us something even if in some cases it might only be how those in the literary world perceived what other people were getting up to at night. There is even an argument that the better writers have got closer to the reality of the experience than more conventional historical accounts. Sarah Champion, who edited the 1997 Disco Biscuits collection of short stories, asked: ‘how can you capture the madness of the last decade in facts and figures?… the true history is not about obscure white labels or DJ techniques or pop stars. It’s about personal stories of messiness, absurdity and excess – best captured in fiction’.

Places and spaces

In fact, much of the content is barely fictional at all with writers frequently referring to (then) actually existing clubs and parties – an obvious device for grounding a story in a specific context, as well as for the writer to indicate that they know what they are talking about.
[Read more →]

Multiculturalism, Immunisation and Rhythm

An interview with Alexej Ulbricht (AU) in March 2015, conducted by Jonathan Nassim and Mikala Rasmussen (JN/MR), with introduction and additional questions by David Cecil (DC).

DC: For many, Britain is an admirably diverse society. In the nineteenth century, London became a destination for immigrants fleeing wars in Europe. In the mid-twentieth century, the subjects of the British Empire (and later Commonwealth) were welcomed in Britain, partly as a much-needed labour force after the demographic ravages of the two world wars. The country became known for its tolerance of differing religious views and ways of life, with a rich tapestry of international cuisine, music, language and fashion in areas like Soho, Brixton and Whitechapel. The social and political means of accommodating this diversity was labelled ‘multiculturalism’, indicating a harmonious co-existence of different cultures. This accommodation was held to be distinct from the more integrationist approach adopted by France (e.g.), which sought to assimilate foreigners into the dominant French culture.

The self-conscious projection of Britain as a multicultural society reached its apogee in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which elaborately staged symbolic enactments of British culture and history. This gaudy nationalist spectacle, viewed by millions worldwide, included explicit tributes to multiculturalism, notably a dramatic depiction of Jamaicans arriving in Britain by boat in the 1950s.

However, hostility towards migrants and minorities is, if anything, on the rise. The Olympic ceremony was immediately and publicly condemned by a leading Conservative Member of Parliament as “leftie multicultural crap”; the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has successfully entered mainstream politics on an anti-immigration platform; while Germany’s islamophobic PEGIDA recently teamed up with the English Defence League to stage public protests in London.

How are we to understand a situation in which Britain both claims to embrace a diversity of people and their practices, while simultaneously rejecting them? On the one hand, British commentators seem to welcome the enrichment to its culture, but the same voices warn of dangers to indigenous employment, threats of terrorism and even the destruction of our green and pleasant land.

Is this contradiction simply to be dismissed as political opportunism? Or a confusion caused by ‘too much multiculturalism’? Or is there an underlying political strategy in this ‘love-hate’ relationship?

Alexej Ulbricht is a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), who has recently published a book entitled Multicultural Immunisation: Liberalism and Esposito. This is a timely contribution to our understanding of social and political attitudes to immigration, including the alleged threats to European culture from Islam and globalisation. Ulbricht takes a step back and asks what gives rise to the contradictions at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. He argues that liberalism is a straitjacket which makes multiculturalism possible only in a superficial sense. Liberal multiculturalism ‘immunises’ society by introducing a few safe elements of foreign cultures into the national body. Therefore, the current hostility is not so much a backlash against multiculturalism, but a strengthening of tendencies built into the liberal multicultural project. Ulbricht argues that we must re-think what multiculturalism is, and go beyond liberalism. Some of the answers, or models of an alternative multiculturalism, he finds in the Berlin musical underground and he speculates on how rhythm may offer another way of thinking about coexistence.

JN/MR: What was your initial inspiration for studying multiculturalism?

AU: The idea for this book was motivated by the kinds of things you read about immigration all the time and the way mainstream discourse about immigration seems to have changed rapidly. Hostile discourse was there all along, but the kind of traction it used to have is different from today. In 2005, the Tories ran an election campaign on the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, which I remember because it was the year after I moved to this country. The campaign fell flat, but if they’d run it now they’d probably win on that same slogan. Thinking about that got me interested in multiculturalism. What I ended up arguing was that there is a lot more continuity than discontinuity regarding this kind of hostility towards immigrants. [Read more →]

A Cry Against Help* & 13 Prostheses on Carelessness of the Self

Psycho-historian Chris Millard has described the clinical invention of ‘self-harm’ as a category so narrow that most cases actually treated (eg. overdoses of non-’recreational’ drugs) don’t count.** The term ‘self-harm’ becomes shorthand for young white women damaging their skin, which they do for standardized personal reasons. Impersonal reasons and anomalous personal ones are sidelined in the diagnostic process, along with atypical patients and nine tenths of the ways of physically assaulting the abstract self.

So much for the exact words.

But figurative speech serves social policing in strange ways. If the literal meaning has leaked out of self-harm over the last four decades, it has sunk deep into ordinary social management in the meantime. [Read more →]

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