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The Black Jacobin

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How any group collectively decides to represent itself visually often comes with the same debate and perturbation that mark the drafting of a written manifesto. The image you see on the banner of this website is no exception. I had originally presented four options to the Jacobin editorial board and a discussion over the choices ensued. Technically, there were four options, but really the debate was always between two: the pictoral logo which, referencing The Black Jacobins, finally won the bout and an abstract logo (one of the other three).

I understand where my fellow Jacobins in the abstract camp are coming from. With so much of the Left desperately plastering any image that could possibly signify rebellion onto their rally flyers—burly arm clasping burly arm, clinched fist grasping X object, Angela Davis wailing into something—their appetite for something neutral and more timid appears reasonable. Yet, no image is truly neutral and attempting to dissolve a visual identity in the acid bath of high modernism isn’t a design solution.

Of course, no one wants to issue another risible facsimile of Adbusters, a bound pile of expensive pages with vapid content inciting suburban teenagers to purchase hemp boots, but why should leftists have to make a choice between visual content that’s honest and impassioned and sober political analysis? Ironically, leftists who scoff at bold imagery suffer the same delusions of the Guy Fawkes Left; they opt for lazy applications of style over an attempt to grapple with a world of meaning, because even timid design has semantic consequence. Like the fist-wielding activists who try to beckon to the world their rebellion, they tell us through simple abstraction or just utter lack of design of their tepid intellectualism. In either case, design should do more than surface treatment.

A predilection for “modernism” recurred in the preferences of some for the “simple,” “abstract,” the “non-literal” of the options. This came with a certain misunderstanding of modernism and its history (at least as far as it concerns graphic design). Modernism refers to a diverse tradition that ranges from the highly expressive works of the twenties and thirties to the “objective” treatments of the mid-century, from the rigid designs of Swiss modernism to the more loose and playful forms of the New York School. The concerns that animated modernism were always more complex than the cliché of “less is more.” It’s so simple to conflate the use of abstraction with modernism, but people have made use of abstract geometry in design for centuries before the advent of modernity. Modernism was an ideological project conditioned by certain historical, technological, and practical realities; so attempts to recycle modernist visual tropes while blind to its history inevitably betray the spirit of the project. Stephen Heller described modernism as “[exploring] the outer limits and universality of visual communication.” That’s certainly a tradition I can stand behind and it has implications well beyond frivolous exercises in formal abstraction.

When I got to work drafting different logos, I had approached it with certain considerations in mind. (In fact, I would have preferred not to have created another mark, but the typeface we had already been using for our logo, Futura, was so indistinct that it necessitated it.) Initially, I began by trying to arrange some sort of abstract mark, but it didn’t really make sense because practically-speaking it wasn’t appropriate. An abstract mark, generally, but not always, begs repetition, whether by sheer reproduction and presence or by insinuating itself into elements of an entire design scheme. Otherwise, it can form a rather weak identity.

The adoption of abstract marks as central elements of corporate identities in the post-war era wasn’t just the consequence of Swiss proselytizing; it also fit the needs of large, vertically-integrated, multinational institutions. For such institutions, it is useful to have identities consist of simple forms that can be adapted to many different departments, can be placed on all sorts of collateral, made into sculptures, placed on planes, trucks, the sides of buildings, and suited to a range of cultural contexts. Large institutions have massive budgets and can thus make their identities ubiquitous; they don’t have to worry as much about their marks being too indistinct because they can acquire recognition by sheer volume.

Recent social and economic developments since the seventies have impacted visual identity design. The Unimark empire collapsed, Helvetica—the typeface of social-democratic compromise—grew dull, and the language of corporate identity was replaced by the postmodern drivel of brand identity. (If you ever pick up one of those lousy books on brand identity, you’ll learn repeatedly that “brand is not the same as a logo or visual identity, and that re-branding doesn’t mean just stamping a new mark on a company’s material”—not sure yet, but from what I’ve gathered, rebranding is more like an exorcism or electromagnetic therapy or a chaw of horny goat weed, so that once the marketing team has done its job, the client can return to its target market with both the musk and sexual potency to fuck them.)

Needless to say, a small magazine like Jacobin is not constrained by the same problems of large institutions, so we were in a position to judge our options of logos on their semantic merits, rather than formal ones. It’s easy enough to harangue my comrades, yet the tactless recycling of visual effects is one that graphic designers also suffer from in equal measure. Stylistic treatments abound, but few designers concerns themselves with the actual meaning of their works. Yet, some of the most powerful visual marks have been formal disasters. Take for example the clinched fist, perhaps the most prolific tool in the Left’s graphic arsenal. It’s messy and difficult to recognize at smaller scales—semantically, it can be beaten into a meaningless pulp through poor application, as it so often has—but as the Wisconsin fist proves, another hideous iteration of an already ugly form, but a brilliant one at that, it can still be powerful when done right.

So rather than fiddle about with shapes, I put on the soundtrack to Queimada! and pick up a copy of The Black Jacobins. My search was more or less done after rewatching that scene in Queimada! when the revolutionary leader José Dolores is captured by the British forces. Marlon Brando, playing the imperial agent William Walker, recounts Dolores’s story to an accompanying officer: “A fine specimen, isn’t he? Now it’s an exemplary story: in the beginning he was nothing, a porter, a water carrier. And England makes him a revolutionary leader and when he no longer serves her and he’s put aside, and when he rebels again more or less in the name of those same ideals which England has taught him, England decides to eliminate him. Don’t you think that’s a small masterpiece?”

When I presented the black Jacobin as an option to the editorial board, there was some anxiety. There was some concern over the use of a black person as our mascot, and the inherent potential to cause offense. It was a legitimate concern, given the fact black people have a dicey history as visual identities, hardly advancing past the boxes of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Still, it caused me to scratch my head a couple times, as I am myself a black Jamaican immigrant. Yet that very anxiety demonstrated the significance of adopting this image. The perversity was in presenting a black person as a universal subject, an honor only ever accorded to the white visage. And this wasn’t some inane attempt at subversion either, creating a counter-mythology through facile acts of substitution, like those paintings of Jesus with dreadlocks, where he kind of looks like one of those shirtless extras from a Tyler Perry movie.

While it’s an easily overlooked history—a “lone” country in Samuel Huntington’s taxonomy—there is hardly a greater signifier of universalism than the Haitian Revolution. The events that unfolded on the island of Saint Domingue in a thirteen-year epic were world-historical. The slave revolt struck at the heart of existing contradictions in the Western Enlightenment, by taking up the mantle of the Enlightement and turning it into a genuine project of emancipation, they confounded, terrified, and defeated every empire on the block from the enraged Napoleon Bonaparte who sought to strip the epaulettes off of every nigger on the island to the Southern planters of the US who refused to recognize the independent state. In the most profound displays of internationalism, they also inspired as many as they enraged: from radical French republicans who stood by the free blacks to the Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar who took up refuge in Haiti. Imagine the confusion of Napoleon’s soldiers upon hearing Haitian troops sing the Marseillaise.

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” was now the rightful claim of the black soldiers they were fighting. And these guys weren’t messing around about that fourth one either. Before the revolution, slaves had effectively instituted their own policy of poisoning damn-near everything that breathed so long as they were held in bondage: they poisoned themselves, they poisoned their kids, they poisoned master, the mistress and the rest of the fucking plantation Brady Bunch while they were at it. And after they had gained their freedom there wasn’t a force on earth that could have returned them to slavery, so when rumors of slavery’s return broke out after Napoleon’s ascendance they then took to burning everything.

The Haitian Revolution encapsulates the historic mission of the Left: that is, the truest realization of the Enlightenment. That those ideals, wrested from the hypocrites who hawk them and seized by the wretched of the earth, can become a radical project for human emancipation. Marx saw through the contradictions; his was both a critique of Enlightenment and a project to expand Enlightenment ideals of political emancipation into a project for genuine human emancipation. And so sounds off the Left’s history. It’s the demand that those principles formalized in our political institutions extend to our lived experience—in our social and economic life, in the home, and on our streets.

The history of the Haitian Revolution should also serve as a reminder to those on the Left who, abandoning thoughtful critique, can imagine no response to the contradictions of Enlightenment other than absolute negation. Remember that line in “The Internationale” — and I’m talking about the original version, before Billy Bragg turned it into a sing-a-long for a UNICEF benefit concert — “for reason in revolt now thunders”; it was never a cry for a revolt against reason, but a harbinger of reason itself in revolt.


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