BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): S. Yanow’s (2014) War of Streets and Houses

6 October 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Sophie Yanow’s (2014)[2] War of Streets and Houses

The back of the book claims:

An American artist witnesses the Quebec spring 2012 student strike on the streets of Montreal. The brutal police response and their violent tactics trigger and exploration of urban planning and its hidden connections to military strategies. Marshal Bugeaud’s urban warfare tactic s in Algeria, Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planning and repression in the New World; theory and personal experience collide into an ambitious and poetic cartoon memoir.

The book fails to deliver on this, but back-of-book ad-text rarely accurately describes what one has picked up to read. All of the topics mentioned to some extent do appear in the book in what seems (or may actually fall out as) a disjointed, incoherent heap. And as others have observed elsewhere (in different contexts), to put grapes and a cookie next to one another does not invoke (or necessarily even allude to) the Christian last supper, &c. On artistic grounds, one may object that mere parataxis (juxtaposition) doesn’t suffice, but on more general grounds, for anyone even to have the possibility of reading (or misreading or overreading such a juxtaposition) presupposes someone acculturated to that discourse.

And one may certainly read Yanow’s book in such a way; I mean, it has structural features that support and back up such a reading.

Reading the book may very well feel like reading an insider text as an outsider. One finds nothing like Joe Sacco’s painstaking effort to give a sufficient enough framing to understand the nuances of the places he writes about. Here, it seems more as if you must already know the history of the student strike to understand the book. Narratively, it leaps around with very little narrative connective tissue, and what most justifies such a reading comes from Yanow’s art style, which similarly leaves more than usual to the imagination. One might call this minimalism, except that if minimalism aspires to to present the most essential element, Yanow has elected more to exclude key details. How, for instance, does one connect the story from frame to frame; the answer seems that “you already know the story behind the scenes”.

Just for example, at one point the police technique of kettling occurs (in the story) and gets accompanied by an explanatory definition by Yanow. But she does not supply how a resistor deals with, addresses, prepares for, or overcomes kettling. One might call this a lapse—shouldn’t books educate—but to explain the counter-tactic for kettling would make it available for the security forces deploying kettling. She does, for instance, mention that people remove their batteries from cell-phones—something the security forces will obviously learn for themselves (assuming they don’t already know), and which in any case cannot get counteracted simply because the security forces know.

So the book may function as an open, esoteric knowledge—a signal across time and space to those who already know the story and can read between the (scribbled) lines to pick up what they need to know. Some might object that this “locks out” those who might become allies. It seems enough to let people know, “Hey, these things happen. When you see them, you can—like we once did—join in. You learn what and when to do that way, not by ‘browsing’ the history of an action through empty entertainment in a book.”

Such “circumspection” of course serves a protective function as well. For movements subject to police repression, in an era where the media serves as a powerful wing of that oppression, how do you “get the message out” without compromising yourself or making yourself vulnerable? Yanow’s book may accomplish this, and the fact that it fails to satisfying on the level of (coherent) story or (aesthetic) art itself serves to protect against getting taken up by or co-opted by mere lookie-loos on the one hand or nosey security forces on the other.

In any case, one must assume that the panopticon has taken note, so that we may wonder what disinformation (of necessity) it reflects, in order to throw the blood-hounds onto the wrong trails. Once again, what direct actions finally need doesn’t amount to historical publicity after the fact (or accidental disclosures to the security forces along the way) but to inspire resistance. We see at this very moment the resistance in Hong Kong, with barriers and umbrellas and mace and masses, and if you have read Yanow’s (admittedly in ways vague) book, you know unequivocally what you need to do: show up.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Yanow, S. (2014).War of streets and houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books, pp. 1–69.

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