about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Lake Michigan
A Review of Lake Michigan
by Daniel Borzutzky

Spencer Dew



While celebrated in certain Jewish and Christian circles for its religious, even eschatological, implications, the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was more than a gift to his evangelical base. As American preachers, known for their explicit stance that Jews will be damned to hell for eternity, commemorated the new embassy’s opening with prayers, Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinian protestors in Gaza, killing scores, wounding hundreds. Such state-sanctioned violence—in defense of segregation, in defense of a “democracy” predicated on ethnic identity, on Israel as an ethnostate—this, more than any otherworldly metaphysics, explains the American decision. The new embassy is a reward for such tactics, and endorsement of such strategy, a further cementing of an alliance between two powers sharing a philosophy and practice of colonialist violence both external and internal. The new embassy’s opening ceremonies consisted of the mutual acknowledgment of two violently segregationist, racist powers identifying—and thus defending—their racist segregation and state-sponsored brutal oppression and murder of minorities and non-citizens as necessary for the preservation of democracy.

Such horror—a return to the worst moments in American history, an echo of the fascist regime that tilted global favor toward support of the Zionist project and the establishment of Israel seventy years ago—is at the center of Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan, a vision of detention camps on the beach of Chicago, accentuating strands of that city’s own past and present while folding in elements from the rest of the country. Chicago has a police force with a history of using torture to elicit false confessions, a police review board that fails to see wrongdoing in instances of brutality and killing; it exists within a country in which privatized prisons are a growth industry, a country wherein speaking the wrong language or having the wrong color skin is sufficient probable cause for a police stop. Lake Michigan locates this Chicago in the wider America, disregarding any placating blue/red mythology, refusing, for instance, to treat Michigan Avenue’s posh Disney Store as existing in a separate world from what Sheriff Joe Arpaio bragged as being his “concentration camp.”

Borzutzky thus gives us both possible future and existing reality, the current reality of state-supported violence against black and brown people, against those labeled as “illegal” and thus deprived of basic human rights. Such violence, as Borzutzky reminds us here again and again, is ignored, is taken-for-granted, is accepted, even celebrated in popular discourse. As in Israel, here in America such violence is rhetorically framed, increasingly, as necessary for the existence of the state. And “the state,” in such usage, Borzutzky shows, is really shorthand for the neoliberal economy. The dead and dispossessed in this book are dead because they lack possessions—paperwork or paper currency. They are victims of a capitalism that, in monetizing data and bodies and behavior, has proven remarkably robust as incorporating routine death, even on a mass scale, into its status quo. “There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times,” Borzutzky writes, “There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected.” Meanwhile, citizens play with their children and ignore the disappeared, or, confronted with evidence of violence, “they say one broken body in my backyard doesn’t count for anything and they are like people who think that one broken body doesn’t count for anything / And a massacre at a Black church is a massacre at a Black church / And a massacre at an elementary school is a massacre at an elementary school.” As Borzutzky explains such indifference, such aggressively willed denial, people “disappear into the abyss of capital,” refusing to resist “because they are too concerned with their own material health to care about the broken body of another.”

Likewise, those few protestors here, those voices calling for justice, are quickly labeled—as they die-in on the wet pavement of the Magnificent Mile, that temple of capitalism—“anticapitalist terrorists who wanted to close down the city’s access to commerce // Then the public forgot about the boy they shot 22 times and the mayor closed 50 public schools and replaced them with privately run charters.”

An endnote—the set of which could be read as its own poem, and proves essential for contextualizing the book as well as mobilizing the reading of the book into something like possible direct action, citation as a call to work—quotes Pauline Lipman:

To deal with the contradictions produced by neoliberal policies in Chicago and nationally, the privatizing state is also a punitive state that polices and contains immigrants, homeless people, the dispossessed, and low-income communities of color, particularly youth, and their political resistance. Chicago is notorious for its police torture scandals and brutal policing of African American and Latino communities. In short, neoliberal urbanism has set in motion new forms of state-assisted economic, social and spatial inequality, marginality, exclusion and punishment.

Borzutzky has a disembodied voice—a murdered person—ask “who will document our deaths and disappearances,” just as he has the imprisoned—the “detained,” in the corporate parlance of ICE—cry out a prophetic vision of a windstorm and hailstorm and “our bodies become our houses and our houses are exploding and as they explode we explode and we see the lake opening in the cracks in the sky and it is only the beginning of the war.”

Indeed, as the people of Gaza bury their recent dead and the corporate imperial lords toast their joint ventures in Jerusalem, as another child is killed by police in Englewood and a family separated by the state and shipped to detention camps from La Villita or Humboldt Park, it is obvious that the war has only begun, that the old horrors of the world—racialization as a tool of empire, disciplining of bodies as a tool of capitalism—exist now in newer, more comprehensive (more attractive, for capitalism is seductive; it is comfort that keeps us blind to the suffering of others) form. Borzuzky’s book, capturing something of the human agony at the heart of everyday existence in—the very existence of—the corporate imperial state, is timely, even essential reading for our moment in this ongoing war.

Official University of Pittsburgh Press Web Site





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