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Banned in Victoria
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. On May 12, 2012, the book launch event that was scheduled at Camas Books in Victoria, BC to celebrate the publication of the latest collection of my anarcho-surrealist writings, Scratching The Tiger’s Belly (Eberhardt, 2012), opened on a decidedly sour note. Upon my arrival at the bookstore, I was met by a member of the Camas collective. Without blinking an eyelash, he informed me that while they were still willing to make good on their promise to hold the Scratching The Tiger’s Belly booklaunch at the store that night and stock it thereafter; my previous book, Swift Winds (Eberhardt 2009) was no longer welcome on the store’s shelves. And so unfolds the saga of how Swift Winds was banned in Victoria by the Camas bookstore collective upon the request of none other than Allan Antliff.
Over the last decade, Antliff has consciously positioned himself as a primary gatekeeper of the academic empire of art and anarchy not only in Canada, but throughout North America, and internationally as well. He is Canada Research Chair in Modern Art at the University of Victoria and Director of its Anarchist Archive, as well as Art Editor of Anarchist Studies (UK) and most recently editor of a special “Art and Anarchy” (2011) issue of the Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies journal, where he is a member of their Advisory Board. In the Victoria anarchist community, which he seems to treat as his personal fiefdom, he is a member of the Victoria Anarchist Bookfair Collective, and a long-time benefactor of that event as well as many other anarchist initiatives in the city, including Camas Books, where he is presently a member of their decision-making collective.
My beef about the censorship of Swift Winds is not with Camas Books per se, which maintains a much-needed radical bookstore presence in Victoria. Rather, it is with Antliff and the collective members that sanctioned his personal objections to Swift Winds with an act of outright suppression. When well-heeled academics claim to be anarchists, and, accordingly, spread their university largesse around in the anarchist community where they live; it is not necessarily a bad thing. However, problems can arise when that money, whether anonymously donated or otherwise, has invisible strings attached that involve expectations of allegiance or loyalty to the academic patron in question. In relation to Swift Winds, it is the assumption of just such a quid pro quo arrangement that seems to have manifested itself when Commissar Antliff felt compelled to ask the Camas collective to rubberstamp his discomfort with the book by passing an edict not to carry it in their store.
The offending article in question is the Swift Winds book review essay, “Rocks In My Pillow,” which had the audacity to offer a trenchant critique of Antliff’s book, Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Arsenal, Pulp Press, 2oo7). As I was informed that night by the collective member who was facilitating the book launch event, that particular review was portrayed to the collective as constituting nothing less than a “personal attack” on Antliff. On the night of the launch, when the prior decision to approve Antliff’s request was reported to me by that same collective member, he rationalized the banning action by saying that while an insensitive or unethical person might write such a contentious book review within anarchist circles in the States (where I had lived most of my life), that approach simply was not tolerated in Canada. At that unctuously chauvinistic juncture, I suppose that if I wasn’t such an unrepentant American, I would have seen the light, denounced myself, begged for forgiveness and thanked him for pointing out that such negativity has no place contaminating the polite shelves of an anarchist-oriented bookstore in Canada.
Yet, instead of remorse, after my jaw dropped to the floor, and the steam stopped rising from my head, I contemplated canceling the event. Ultimately, I decided that rather than disappointing those who had come out that evening to hear me reading from my work and/or to hear or play music afterwards, the only reading that I could undertake with any integrity at Camas that night was to perform a brief bit from Scratching The Tiger’s Belly as promised, and then to embark on an unannounced reading of the forbidden “Rocks in My Pillow” essay in its entirety after explaining how it had been censored by the Camas collective at Antliff’s behest. In that way, those in attendance could judge for themselves whether the piece was a personal attack or an intellectual critique, rather than to just take Commisar Antliff’s word for it.
Up until that night, I have always had a positive relationship with Camas Books and I regularly attend the annual Victoria Anarchist Bookfair. Yet, during this whole Star Chamber process, no collective member had ever thought to consult with me about my analysis of the “ Rocks in my Pillow” essay or seriously question whether Antliff’s presence on the collective decision-making body was a conflict of interest. If Antliff had wanted to challenge my arguments in the book review, why had he never written a rejoinder? As to the Camas collective, instead of banning the book, they could have more fruitfully decided to organize a public debate on its subject matter between Antliff and myself. I still would be willing to engage in such a debate at some future date, but would he?
However, in order to act on either of the latter two alternatives, Antliff would have to acknowledge to himself and to the collective that the article in question was not the attempt at character assassination that he had purported it to be, but rather a thought-provoking book review. As such, it unflinchingly questioned the quality of his professional research and scholarship and critically examined his ideas in detail rather than being the puff piece that he would have liked to place on his resume. Admittedly, it was no surprise to me that the thin-skinned Antliff would find my review objectionable because it inconveniently undermines his carefully constructed credibility in both academic and anarchist circles. But that he would stoop so low as to use a personally motivated act of censorship to crudely silence my admittedly embarrassing ideas was a bit of a shock. Perhaps like many entrepreneurial academic careerists, Antliff’s proprietary idea of mutual aid involves the kind of back-scratching and influence-peddling practices that ultimately led him to insist upon the flagrant censorship of an incisive critique which he could not effectively respond to, control or co-opt.
The contradiction between the collective’s blatant act of censorship and Antliff’s carefully cultivated anarchist image couldn’t be more apparent. How can he claim to be an anarchist and apparently at the same time connive to censor the book of another anarchist who disagrees with him and has the temerity to challenge his ideas? It is appalling that, while professing to be an anarchist, he would involve himself in what might be viewed as a cover-up operation aimed at preventing anyone who might wander into Camas Books from coming in contact with what he deemed to be dangerous ideas that might challenge his own authoritative voice in the discussion of anarchy and art. Such censorious behavior is insulting not just to me and my book, but to all those who frequent the bookstore, including his own students, colleagues, and comrades. In my opinion, his willingness to manipulatively play the victim card in order to suppress the dissemination of my dissenting essay in the Victoria anarchist community has all the earmarks of a calculated power play on the part of someone who is used to getting his way. In this instance, what is actually a defense of his own privileged position seems to have been conveniently disguised in the “poor me” rhetoric of victimization. Hypocrisy thy name is Antliff!
But don’t take my word for it either dear reader, check out the electronic version of the “Rocks In My Pillow” review of Antliff’s book from Swift Winds yourself and make up your own mind. It is available at the Anarchist Library site: