o celebrate the month of May, Hoser writers Ashley Marshall and Kevin Taghabon share their favourite rad book and film lists. Each piece of media has had a profound effect on their writing and how they see the world around them.
My favourite book of the last decade is Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams. The introductory paragraph is absolutely a love letter to Black mothers, and it makes me weep. It makes me take extra special care of Black children. This work reignites my love of the Art Gallery of Ontario as it connects surrealist paintings with the Black Panther movement. I have the soul of an artist, the eyes and ears of an artist, and I am also someone deeply in love with theory. This text blends my passions seamlessly, and creates for me a home where I can be both in love and mobilized. I cannot say enough about how much this text inspired my own pedagogical philosophy, rooted in the heuristic nature of art. In my reading of it, this book is beautifully Sankofic: it looks at our past to paint for us so many possible futures, in all of which we thrive. It gives clout to the believers, and tells us to keep creating.
For more on how Freedom Dreams has informed how we engage with the city, check out Ash’s review of the Three Thirty visual art exhibition.
Kelley’s Freedom Dreams pairs well with Raoul Peck’s documentary surrounding the life of James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro. This was screened in Toronto in 2017, and is part of Peck’s impressive body of political filmmaking. TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, is not just the location of an annual film festival, but also a hotspot for critical engagement with films. Attendees gathered there on March 2, 2017 to participate in a panel discussion and Q and A session with artists and creatives including Shad (Kabango), George Elliot Clarke, Huda Hassan, and Cameron Bailey. In the same vein, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema is a theatre that specifically screens documentaries. This rewarding experience is a semi-regular fixture of Hot Docs’ programming, barring ongoing pandemic restrictions.
At The Hoser, we believe in maintaining awareness of issues as we engage in all art forms, and do what we can to sustain local participation, including critical engagements from the supportive community around Toronto’s arts and culture spaces.
To this day, one of the most influential texts on how I engage with the city is Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege. I learned to participate in urban spaces as political frontiers, noticing the effects on my senses, on my identity, on my ideologies. From this text I was inspired to think through the Situationists International, I dug deeper into post-modernism, and I informed my artistic practice with the city as a living space as foreground. Still, I teach about Yonge-Dundas Square as a cite of hostile design, Foucault’s boomerang, and ubiquitous borders. This inquiry is a necessary backdrop in how I think of “home,” and pairs well with Graham’s later text, Vertical. Downtown Toronto and its high buildings, what Graham calls a “brandscape,” give me a new way of thinking about class. People are renting space. I think about the rhizomes of the streets: King Street, Queen Street, and Richmond. I think of the city in three dimensions, always looking for what I am not meant to see.
I made it through each volume of Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, happy to finally have language to support my thinking that boredom is political. I think Lefebvre’s first volume is my favourite, where he writes in-your-face edicts that demystify the technologies of everyday life, such as “His inner life is rotting away, lit by the phosphorescence of its own decay…Anguish is the desire for what we most dread…it is an alien power which takes hold of the individual, who neither can nor wants to free himself, for he is afraid, but that very fear is a desire” (Lefebvre 160). My marginalia connect this quote to systems of racism, classism, individualism, and ultimately, the psychology of projecting. Aside from these grotesque, hard to face experiences of the quotidian, this work also includes some of the most poetic lines, my favourite of which is “Everyday life should become a work of art and the joy that people give to themselves.” I edited the quote to be gender neutral. To me this work reifies the absolute necessity for the humanities and thinking that links the most macro functions of society to the most micro experiences of it. Knowing this, I attend demonstrations in Toronto understanding that oppressors feel their emptiness, their anguish, and take that turmoil out on anyone they can. They are reacting; we are thinking, feeling, dreaming, and sometimes living. Knowing that we feel more gives me hope. I am not as trapped in my identity as oppressors are.
I read Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher for the first time in 2020 during the pandemic. It brought together a lot of scattered thoughts that unknowingly had been brewing within me over the past ten years. Chief among them: why does so much of the media that I ingest feel like a hollow copy of another era’s stories?
In this book, writer Mark Fisher explains it all in a short 81 pages. Fisher tracks the rise of what many would recognize as capitalist realism: the absence of a vision for an alternative system, and a declaration of the inevitable present. Rapidly accelerating in the 1990s, the notion of capitalist realism bled into all facets of our cultural and working lives.
The limitations on our cultural imaginary are obvious with a few moments of reflection. The way in which every sitcom for a generation felt the same (and many still do). The indistinguishable destruction scenes of dozens of films pre- and post-911. Seven Britney Spears documentaries, perhaps 15 years late. That empty feeling that the latest supersaturated blue and red tinged coming-of-age streaming series was written by the same algorithm that wrote the last dump. “Do I like this, or are they just pressing all my buttons for 30 minutes? Wasn’t the president impeached? What does that even mean? Was there a Ghostbusters remake? Is Fleetwood Mac in town? Netflix made a documentary about...Blockbuster?”
The limitations on our political horizons here are deadly. Should we drop bombs on Yemen, sell arms to the Saudis who drop bombs on Yemen, or send troops to Yemen? Of course the minimum wage isn’t a living wage, that’s reality, baby. Of course Trudeau should go to climate protests, what more could he possibly do to help?
To accept capitalist realism is partly to negate popular political struggle in the name of releasing oneself into the cultural desert of late capitalism, with all its bizarre retreads and fleeting overreactions. It is only more noticeable during the pandemic, where COVID-19 has further isolated people and increased their media consumption.
The necrotic question at the centre of capitalist realism is, “well of course! How could this possibly be any different?” The declaration, from the titans that produce our political and cultural reality, is “there is no alternative.”
Recommended for anyone who takes in too much media and periodically belts, “oh, what the hell!?” at the screen.
Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley is only a few years old, and seemingly everyone who has seen it loves it, but surprisingly there's still a good chunk of people who have haven't seen it yet. In this movie, rapper Boots Riley takes the helm as director and delivers a hilarious and disturbing indictment of the emerging silicon valley work regime, and the labour struggles within. The movie is anchored by fantastic performances by Steven Yuen, Lakeith Stanfield, and Tessa Thompson who form a love triangle, all amidst an ongoing unionization effort and a massive tech corporation’s efforts to make the hero sell out. The movie is chock full of poppy colours and edits, making the viewing experience feel kinetic and immediate.
There are a few moments of body horror near the end, so be warned. The third act is much darker than the first two, which allow more humour in the rising conflicts between the characters, their dead end telemarketing jobs, and each other. There’s nothing here more disturbing than say, Eyes Wide Shut. Much of the creepiness and discomfort comes from the ambient feeling that this is a peek behind the curtain, and the world is truly messed up.
Recommended for anyone with a list of billionaires.