Kuszai Southpaw Interiveiw -- Bernstein Web Log
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Charles Bernstein

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Southpaw Culture Interview

photo: Lungfiill/Lorber

Since late last year, Joel Kuszai, co-founder of Factory School, has been publishing a series of related books under the name "Southpaw Culture." This is an important series for those interested in radical poetics, libertarian anarchist thought, and alternative/utopian approaches to education. Because the background information and context of these publications will not be well-known to many readers here, Joel Kuszai provides a valuable introduction to these recent publications, beginning with a discussion of two books of original documents from The Modern School of Stelton.  The books discussed in the interview can be ordered directly from Factory School.


What is The Modern School of Stelton?

The Modern School of Stelton was the school of the Ferrer Colony in Stelton, New Jersey. It employed and proselytized pedagogical principles roughly consistent with the anarchist philosophy of many of those involved with the school.

Formed initially in honor of the martyred Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer in 1909, and as much community center as primary school, the Modern School was associated with modernist movements in art and literature, advances in the human sciences, such as psychology and sociology, as well with radical politics. While there were other Modern Schools, from coast to coast, the Stelton Colony and its boarding school were the most successful and largest. First located on St. Marks Place (the site of Kim's Video), the Ferrer Center eventually moved uptown to to Harlem, where it's programs (lectures, seminars and adult education classes) stretched from esperanto to art to psychology--and that is not to mention the day school for children. Serving mostly immigrant radicals, from anarchists to free thinkers to socialists, the Ferrer Center was a primary organizing point for mobilizations such as those against the war, against the aggression of capital, and for women's rights. In 1914 a bomb intended for Rockefeller's estate in Tarrytown exploded in east Harlem, killing three associates of the Ferrer Center. The increased scrutiny and police pressure, as well as an evacuation of financial support of the Center, led to a search for a rural property upon which to operate the school. Stelton was a center of activity and interest throughout the war years. In 1918, the New Jersey school was investigated by New York's red scare era Lusk Committee on Subversive behavior. In 1920, longtime advocates of Dewey-like principles of self-directed education and contributors to the Modern School magazine, Elizabeth and Alexis Ferm, joined the community as co-Principals of the school.

The Stelton Colony was the site of fundraiser picnics and Saturday dances well into the 40s, including those attended by anarchist poets Robert Duncan, Paul Goodman, and Jackson Mac Low, which is how I first heard of the colony and the school.

Factory School has published several books related to The Modern School.   Would you summarize the basic contents of each of these.

Actually, we've only published two books directly related to the Modern School:  Elizabeth Ferm's Freedom in Education and Joseph Cohen and Alexis Ferm's The Modern School of Stelton: A Sketch, which was released earlier this month.

Elizabeth Ferm's book was assembled by her husband after her death, based upon her publications in the Modern School's main publication, The Modern School. I added a section at the end, but otherwise it is a reprint. In it she states, in various ways and addressing different subjects, the basic notion that education that matters most is that which is found through active interest of the learner. That is, parents and teachers serve mostly as impediments as they seek to "teach" and "direct". The best educator is one who gets out of the way and lets the child do her/his thing. This was, of course, a controversial idea in the radical, mostly immigrant community, where many of the same issues persist.

The other book, The Modern School of Stelton: A Sketch, is a reprint of a book that was published in 1925, on the 10th anniversary of the Stelton Colony and its Modern School. Written by many of the original organizers as well as subsequent leaders of the community, it is the best portrait of the early days of the colony and the problems they faced. Often the same issues are addressed by different writers, so it offers a multifaceted portrait of what was a complicated adventure.

Factory School also has published Lola Ridge's first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems. An early organizer of the Ferrer Center in New York, she was the newsletter's first editor. Bringing her study of the Lower East Side's immigrant experience into a dialogue with the educational philosophy of those in Stelton is a primary project of the Southpaw Culture series. Future books in this area will include writings by others associated with the Modern School, as well as an anthology of writing from the near 15 year run of their magazine.

Another recent Factory School book is called Facing Reality. What's the story behind this book?

This book is a reprint of the 1958 publication by the Detroit Correspondence Group, an offshoot of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Written by Grace Lee (Boggs), Pierre Chalieu (Cornelius Castoriadis) and J.R. Johnson (C. L. R. James), the book offers a critique of the Workers' Councils of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The book provides both theoretical understanding and anecdotal documentation of how resistance to oppressive bureaucracy occurs all the time. Most significant for me has been the model of "editorial committees" in the section titled  "What to do and how to do it". Organized around documenting the experience of everyday workers, their anti-vanguardist model offers an important alternative to bureaucratic professionalized revolutionaries, educators, and editors.

You've also published a couple of books by Cara Hoffman. Who is she and how did you get interested in her work?

Cara Hoffman is a writer and journalist in upstate New York currently working as a prisoner's advocate. We met over a shared interest in anarchism and education. Her work published by Factory School consists of a novel, Nike, and a book of short stories, The Wedding Nike, her first book, is a noir portrait of  the subcultural life of Athens--particularly hotel runners, passport smugglers, deviants and drunk people. It has a distinctly modernist edge, compared to her elliptical second book, The Wedding. Those stories are included in the Southpaw series because they are to be read as political allegories, dark portraits for the unconventionally aware. Since it's possible that Nike will end up on celluloid someday, the opportunities to bring out this young author's first books was a coup for Factory School.

Another one your ongoing publishing projects, and interests, involves Fredy Perlman. Who is Fredy Perlman and why is his work important?

Fredy Perlman was a writer, activist, translator, publisher, and printer. Perhaps best known as the first translator of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, which published by his Black and Red publishing outfit. Perlman split with the Situationists early on, citing their authoritarian dogmatism,  and they rejected the openness of Black and Red, which they thought eclectic and unfocused. In 1968 Fredy and Lorraine Perlman started Black and Red, first as a journal published by a collective of students and faculty at Western Michigan University, where Perlman was a Sociology professor for two years before abandoning academia. 

Factory School has two Perlman books due out soon. His critique of academic institutions and culture are the focus of the Factory School anthology: "The University is a Provocation". His quite literary first book "The New Freedom": Corporate Capitalism (hand bound in an edition of 91 copies in 1962) is coming out this summer.

In '61 and '62 Perlman was the printer for the Living Theater. Inspired by lectures of C. Wright Mills, Perlman left graduate study in literature at Columbia to pursue Economics and Law in Belgrade. He wrote plays, novels, and many what might best be called "post marxist"/anarchist critiques of commodity fetishism, civilization and capital.  His "Letters of Insurgents" is an 800-page epistolary novel tracking a narrative of revolution twenty years hence; The Strait is the story of the Detroit region told from the point of view of a Native American. His critical prose has an epic sweep informed by the classics as much as the current disciplinary thinking. Like his Against His-Story: Against Leviathan, I think that "The New Freedom": Corporate Capitalism is in a lineage with Call Me Ishmael, My Emily Dickinson and other epic American studies. Certainly anyone who likes that kind of writing will be excited to have access to this hard-to-find author.

Finally, your series at Factory School is called "Southpaw Culture." What is Southpaw Culture?

Southpaw Culture is a trans-disciplinary investigation into left culture, the culture of the political left: from "poetry to politics, pedagogy to planning." The series represents some of the same interest in archival work that has always interested me; it's about documentation, as much as "an experiment in motivated fair use." It's structure and outlook are a form of interventionist preservationism: as regulatory pirates, reprinting books that have fallen between the cracks either as "orphan texts" or texts that were in the public domain--or should be. The books themselves reflect the range of my own interests, a means to study what I'd like to study and what I'd like to make available to other people, whether socially as an educator. It's a cross-generational conversation, mixing theory and documentary archival projects with subcultural entertainment, working class culture, and institutional critique.

link    | July 1, 2006

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