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Reflections on the New Edition of Sakai's "Settlers"

I recently got ahold of the new edition of J. Sakai's Settlers, repackaged and given a new typesetting by Kersplebedeb and PM Press.  For those unaware of the importance of this book, I refer interested readers to my "meta-review" of the earlier edition of the book where I engage with what I took to be dishonest and unfair criticisms of Sakai's position.  Generally speaking, Settlers is a significant radical text, possessing subterranean seminal status, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is its creative use of the concept of the labour aristocracy in order to explain the particular contradictions that emerge in a capitalist mode of production that emerged through the process of settler-colonialism.  Although some readers have taken issue with Sakai's historiography (one important Marxist online group complained that it was "cherry-picking" but without, for all that, really providing a sustained criticism to demonstrate how this was really the case), not to mention the theory of the labour aristocracy (always a fearful notion for those who have a cache in a conceptualization of the proletariat that seeks to ignore, if not obscure, differences within the working-class), the book remains important as one of the only theoretical engagements with the way in which class emerged in the US according to colonization and slavery.  I won't belabour this point any further since I've discussed it at many points in this blog.

The new edition of Settlers does not add any new material to the book itself (the inclusion of an essay by and interview with Sakai notwithstanding), so it is pretty much the same text I already possessed in its earlier form but without all of my underlining and marginalia. [Should I go through this second edition, underlining and making margin notes, and then compare it to my previous understanding? Or should I just import the same underlining and margin notes, by hand, to the clean copy? Or maybe I should just leave it unmarked.]  The formal differences of the new edition are the following: a trim size that is not 8.5x11, thus allowing the book to look like a "proper" theoretical text rather than a graphic novel; a lovely new cover design by stealworks, a company PM often uses and for good reason (because its designer, John Yates, does great work); a new type-setting that doesn't look like it just rolled off a type-writer; some light edits to make its terminology/spelling more consistent; an addition to the title [Settlers: the mythology of the white proletariat from Mayflower to Modern].  The publishers have done a good job of retaining the interior pictures, with several nice nods to the earlier lay-out, as well as even keeping the subtitle ("the real story of the white nation") on the cover header and the original cover's picture on the interior title page.

Personally I'm a fan of these formal updates that have been employed in a thoughtful manner.  While I am quite aware that some people are a fan of its original appearance, and my reasons for liking these updates might be dismissed as some love of bourgeois conventions, I have long maintained that book ought to more resemble, at least when it is closed and on a shelf, what we have been conditioned to understand as a proper book object.  Of course, the apprehension of constitutes a "proper book object" is a social construction (i.e. if every book in academia was produced according to the same print size and DIY appearance of the earlier version of Settlers then this is what we would understand as a "proper book"), but social constructions influence the way in which we engage with reality.  While it is the case that ideologies are also social constructions, and bourgeois ideology is definitely not something we should collaborate with, the size and type-setting of a book is not by itself a bourgeois convention that, if accepted, will mean collaboration with bourgeois ideology.  Not going to open the can of worms of aesthetic theory here, because then I would end up going on tangents about Mao's speech at the Yenan Forum, the current poverty of an old-school activist aesthetic, and that analogy Mao uses about "Song of Spring Snow".

The original DIY aesthetic of Settlers spoke to a period before computers and the accessibility of lay-out programs where independent radical presses were putting out a lot of literature in the same format.  Cut and paste type-written text and pictures on letter-sized sheets of paper (the most easily accessible size of paper) that were either assembled in full 8.5x11 dimensions or folded into chapbooks and spine stapled.  At least the previous version of Settlers was perfect bound.  My assumption (though I lack a document to confirm this) was that the first editions of Sakai's book were probably industrial stapled down the 11 inch spine, as were so many other texts printed out of comrades' basements decades ago.  About a year ago, for example, I encountered an original version of The Capitalist Roaders are Still on the Capitalist Road, published in 1977 by US anti-revisionists, in the archives of Montreal's Maison Norman Bethune: letter sized, spine stapled, photo-copied type-writer pages, a carboard cover with some red text––this was a perfect example of the DIY aesthetic of independent revolutionary publishing.  Then there is Robert Biel's original version of Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (which is being republished by Kersplebedeb) that also possessed the same self-made DIY form.  It made sense at the time, and we can admire these past comrades' hard work to produce multiple copies of their texts, and Settlers obviously comes from this tradition.

Old school DIY rad lit!

The problem, however, is that this tradition of self-publishing no longer possesses the same justification as it did decades ago.  Aside from being retained in zine culture, where that form is as fetishized as I fetishize this "proper book object" appearance, the reasons to produce texts in this way are not based on necessity––lack of access to large presses, a DIY aesthetic determined by the technology that a revolutionary group could get its hands on.  Now with the relative cost of computers compared to old typewriters, the ability to pirate copies of InDesign and Photoshop, and the emergence of multiple Print on Demand services, anyone with a cheap computer and stolen lay-out program can produce a DIY text that looks more like the majority of books.  It actually takes more time and money to replicate previous DIY aesthetics; when this happens it is done more because of an appreciation of this past form that now no longer makes any social sense outside of tradition.  Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it is hard to argue that this previous DIY aesthetic is somehow more radical, just because it looks like the way old radical texts were produced, than new and easier forms of DIY publishing.

I am quite willing to admit that my preference of a certain formal appearance for books has to do with my age and experience, the way I've been conditioned to appreciate libraries and the books that fill those shelves, my long dalliances at book stores, and my long march through academia.  The reason why I prefer the look of the new Settlers to the old one is partially due to this conditioning; there is no reason to value one form over the other aside from subjective taste.  And if anyone suggests that a book is more revolutionary based on trim size and type-setting now that changes in print and publishing (not to mention the fact that more and more books are becoming electronic), then they aren't making a very good argument aside from expressing their own socially conditioned preference.

Whatever the case, and personal taste aside, one of the reasons why I am happy with the new look of Settlers is because of how we have been conditioned to understand books.  The new appearance of Settlers will most probably provide a wider audience; it may even encourage professors who are even more repelled by a certain form than me, to put it on their course syllabus. Some might argue that this last point shouldn't matter because whether or not Settlers is on a university syllabus is worthless due to the classes who are in university.  Perhaps, but since I happen to teach at a university with a large proletarian and racialized population (it's easy to get student loans but not easy to remain in university until graduate school when you also have to work, which is why a lot of the proletarianized students end up being "weeded out" by the liberal university within a few years), I think there are a lot of people who would benefit from being presented with the Settlers analysis.  Moreover, we know that Marx and Engels challenged academics embedded in institutions, just as Lenin would do later, and that this challenge was important.  Placing Settlers in dialogue with a lot of the weaker marxist theories about racism and colonialism is part, at least in my mind, of what Althusser called a class struggle on the terrain of theory.

None of these reflections on the re-release of Sakai's classic are meant to possess the status of science.  Most probably they are justifications of my own aesthetic preferences.  Still, I am happy that Settlers is being republished and given a new form for a new generation.  And I would suggest that anyone who has not read this book, and who possesses the economic means, should purchase a copy from Kersplebedeb post-haste.