Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Are the Lips a Grave?


[Lynne Huffer. Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.]

When I write book reviews of scholarly books, I'm very conscious that I'm doing so mostly for my own benefit, as a way to deepen my own engagement with the ideas in question, given that the community-based character of my work means I don't necessarily have the kinds of opportunities for such deepening that might be available in more academic settings. Certainly I appreciate it when other people read my reviews and let me know that they have found them interesting or useful, but I'm well aware that non-specialists are unlikely to find what I have to say any more accessible or engaging than they would find the original book, whereas the fact that I'm not a specialist either, and don't approach the reading or the reviewing in a way embedded in the discourse of whatever specialization, means that people who read and write such books for a living aren't necessarily going to find much of value in what I say either.


I felt particularly conscious of this neither-here-nor-there relationship to the text while reading this book. I read it because it addresses questions that interest me, and it draws at least in part on traditions of thinking and writing that I think have useful things to offer -- in fact, even granting that two big sources of input for the book are things I have not read (the work of French feminist Luce Irigaray & the anti-social strand of queer theory), I was quite surprised at how much of the writing that this book draws from, references, and responds to is material that I have read or at least am somewhat familiarity with. And yet, even though there are some very specific ideas and conclusions that this book reaches that I want to extract and take up, the disjuncture between my own interest in it and the institutional and discursive imperatives that shaped the book itself were particularly...I don't know, discordant, discouraging, and hard work. Or something like that.

And here's what I've made of that disjuncture: First, I want to stress that I am not inserting myself into the kind of movement-based left anti-intellectualism you sometimes find. I don't think that it is a simple matter of "ivory tower = bad" and "real world = good" or of "difficult/obscure = bad" and "easy/accessible = good". Not that I valourize the former halves of those dichotomies either, but I definitely think that those of us who ground ourselves in movements and communities can learn useful and important things from work produced in academic settings, even sometimes work that appears very disconnected from struggle, and even work that may be incomprehensible to most people without extensive labour of extraction and translation. And all else being equal, readable and accessible is preferable to the inverse, but reclaiming politically meaningful ways of naming the world is invariably going to have moments of awkwardness and difficulty because we are pushing hard against the ways that most of us are taught to think and talk and write.

I also recognize that intellectual work done in academic settings covers a vast range, and intellectual work done in community and movement settings does the same, so generalizations about one or the other or the relation between them will inevitably hit the rocks pretty quickly. That said, I think one feature of much work related to the social world that is produced in contexts that compel obedience to the institutional imperatives of the academy is that its primary commitment to qualify as scholarship, especially good scholarship, is its relationship to other discourse that has previously been produced in such settings. And the specifics of its relationships beyond that will be shaped by this primary commitment, this embeddedness in a particular kind of discourse produced in a particular institutional setting. Intellectual work done in movements and communities does not have to obey this particular compulsion. I mean, it can, and I'm not saying that nothing I've written on this site or elsewhere does so, but I think movement- and community-based intellectual work is much more interesting when it consciously doesn't make this its primary imperative. I think it is more interesting when it shapes its priorities in relation to struggle -- not necessarily directly, not necessarily in a simple way, but staunchly -- and then shapes its relationships to existing scholarly and non-scholarly intellectual work in accordance with that. (And, no, this does not necessarily imply sloppiness, lack of rigour, inaccuracy, or distortion of knowledge in the name of ideology any more than the scholarly imperative to be embedded in scholarly discourse does.)

It is this difference that is the basis for much of my reaction to this book. The book asks questions I'm interested in, it draws at least in significant part from sources I find useful, but there is much of what it does that just doesn't resonate for me. Much of what it sets out to do is taking a number of binary oppositions and articulating ways that rather than the either/or of their initial presentation, we can take various steps to rethink them in both/and ways. I'm generally favourable to both/and, so in principle this sounds good to me. And in the book, the core binary that it wishes to bring together, and to which all the other binaries it deals with are related, is that between queer theory and feminist theory. Again, sounds good to me -- I think drawing on both is useful and important.

But the premise from which it begins is a very sharp, stark division between "queer" and "feminist." It points out that these two areas of scholarly work had similar origins, but they have grown in different directions, to the point where they tend to centre quite different and sometimes conflicting theoretical and political commitments, and it has become quite common to regard them as entirely distinct. But you can only maintain the starkness of this distinction if your primary reference points are academic theory. In the ways in which ideas associated with feminist and queer politics are taken up in movement and community contexts, while there certainly can be improtant differences in the ideas and politics of those who plant themselves firmly under one banner versus the other (recognizing each encompasses a very diverse range), it is actually very ordinary for people to embrace and enact both. Like, completely ordinary. My experience is no doubt not representative, but some of my most important movement-based political and intellectual relationships over the last decade have been with people for whom drawing heavily on both is just a matter of course. (And I can think of only one specific context outside of universities where attempts are made to paint as sharp a division between queer and feminist as is portrayed in the book, but I would argue that that is not actually accurate, and is done in a highly disingenuous way by a particular strand of feminist organizing trying to frame its feminist opponents as not-feminist.) So as interesting as I find the question of the relationships among queer and feminist ideas and politics, and as useful as I find many of the sources drawn on in this book, to me painting a stark division by only thinking about academic theory and then drawing the two into a closer relation via only the ideas found in academic theory, is not nearly as interesting as looking at the complicated and contradictory ways in which ideas exist in practical tension (and productive synergy) in movements and communities. And for me, those kind of complex reconciliations and engagements are actually a rich source for creating theory.

The other opposed binaries in the book all kind of follow from there. For instance, it draws a distinction between narrative ideas of self found in a lot of feminist theory versus ideas of the self in queer theory that tend to be performative. Right from the get-go, I just don't understand these two things as opposed. They describe different levels or scales of experience and self-formation, sure, and there is sometimes a tension between them, but I don't see any particular reason why we can't understand both as being useful accounts of how aspects of the world works. (I would also add that the way she talks about performativity felt weird to me, I think because she centres its use in anti-social queer theory, which I don't know a lot about, whereas my own sense of it derives from other sources. Particularly, she emphasizes the way that a performative understanding of self allows for bodily intensities to facilitate "self-shattering," or a sort of transcendence of that which we are told we must be. And in my understanding, certainly part of the work that performativity does is that it gives a materialist grounding for the important notion that we inevitably overflow what we have been shaped to be in some moments, but I would emphasize much more the role of the material repetition of gestures and practices that is perofmrativity in giving a materialist account of our continuity from moment to moment and how we are regulated to be who we are and act how we do.)

Another of the binaries that is related to the last is a politics that emphasizes intersectionality and resistance based on where you fall in a lattice of oppression on the feminist side, and "self-shattering" or desubjectivation on the queer side. (The two different labels on the queer side point to somewhat different approaches -- the former term points to, for instance, Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, whereas the latter is thinking more of Foucault's underestanding of the subject). Again, I don't see these two things as particularly opposed, and I don't see it as necessarily a problem to both embrace resistance based on an intersectional understanding of who we are as well as seeing value in transcending the kind of self we are told we must (and are shaped to) be. You can certainly find people who already embrace the importance of both/and in an explicit sort of way, though I think the language to really capture that is probably pretty rare...but that's fine, because I think the actual practice of many, many people navigating a spectacular array of experiences of being within, against, and beyond our current social relations embody a both/and understanding even if they don't necessarily articulate it that way. Which isn't to say there are never tensions between the two, or that you can't find instances of problems that could be associated clearly with one or the other. But if you relate to theory as something that is dynamically embedded in and reciprocally produced by and producing social practices, then this isn't so sharply either/or to start with, and you have rich resources from which to theorize both/and.

And one final way that I relate my reaction to this book to what I see as the differing pressures of intellectual work produced in the academy versus intellectual work done elsewhere is some of the choices of theoretical resources on which the book draws. That is, while I'm all for an eclectic and far-reaching wander through many different kinds of ideas in order to find things that work for what we need to do, there are some strands of intellectual work that I just see as less useful than others. It would be easy to read what I mean into the crude quasi-Marxist division between idealist and materialist, but that's not quite what I mean -- a lot of things that orthodox Marxist thinkers might dismiss as non-materialist aren't that at all (e.g. Foucault, in my understanding, is very much materialist), and even some that clearly is idealist can still be read in ways that make it materially relevant and useful, albeit sometimes only through a great deal of work. I haven't entirely figured out how this distinction works for me, but it cuts across the crude idealist/materialist binary in complicated ways. Take Freud, for example. In principle, the idea of learning about people and about the world by really close listening to what people have to say about their own lives appeals to me a great deal and certainly feels like it is responsive to the world. But even in the work of Freud himself, those close readings of encounters with people are drawn into chains of reasoning that link image to image, idea to idea, in ways that probably felt compelling in the intellectual milieu in which they were produced but that amount to gross and unprovable generalizations about how human beings work. And I think social theory that draws on psychoanalytic theory -- like, for instance, some queer stuff -- is just not that interesting because however conceptually beautiful or rhetorically compelling it might be, it has drawn far enough away from the lives and realities that it claims to theorize that I'm just not that interested in doing the work it would take to draw it back into the realm of the useful. Versions of poststructuralist thought that are very heavily language-reductionist often feel like that to me too. Not that there is nothing of value to learn there, but I'm wary. So in some of the work in Lips, I like the general political thrust and I like the places it ends up, but because some sections draw on sources that I'm wary of, it's not always clear how I should relate to the conclusions.

So. Elements of the premise and path of this book resonate with me while others do not, but there are at least a couple of the key components of where the book ends up that really do feel important to me. And one way to think about where the book takes the reader (in different ways across different chapters) can be found in the subtitle. The reconciliation between queer theory and feminist theory, as embodied by the subtitle's "queer feminist," is done in significant part by thinking about "ethics." Feminists have done a lot of work on ethics using a range of different approaches, though often in a way that doesn't escape the kind of positive proscriptions that can rarely avoid the danger of becoming normative and shaping new forms of exclusion and constraint (along with whatever more obviously useful work they're doing). Queer theorists, on the other hand, have often mentioned an interest in scrapping morality and replacing it with some sort of ethics, but have done relatively little work figuring out what queer ethics might look like -- and what has been done, particularly in more anti-social strands of work, tends to be very ahistorical and asocial. Yet through ethics, the book sees an opportunity to bring queer theory and feminist theory -- negative and positive, anti-social and social, desubjectivating and intersectional -- into tighter relation.

Also relevant to how Huffer does this is the word "sex" in the subtitle. Partly "sex" is relevant to creating a queer feminist ethics because sexuality is one area where divergence of queer theory and feminist theory been most noticed and discussed. But it also, and perhaps more significantly, points towards the kind of approach to ethics that the book advances. Specifically, it is a reference to Foucault's insight that the social practices and norms and circuits of power focused on sexuality are absolutely central to the shaping of modern subjects, and any ethics must in some way wrestle with that.

I'm probably oversimplifying, but it seems to me that there are two crucial elements to the ethics that the book advances...or at least two that particularly grabbed my attention. One, flowing from what I just said about the subtitle's use of the word "sex," is its insistence that an ethical evaluation of any situation must historicize it, in a Foucaudlian genealogical sense -- we must understand not only how the situation came to be but also how the subjects in the situation were formed. This is a recognition both that we have no choice but to act from who and where we are now, and that we must understand those things as contingent and socially/historically produced such that understanding the genealogies through which we have formed is a central part to undoing the constraints organized into our very selves through the workings of power.

And the other element of her ethics that really caught my attention was an emphasis on the "presencing of otherness" (not her words, but a quote from another writer). As far as I understand, this points towards a particular way of being in encounter with other people that prioritizes openness and deep listening. It is resisting the impulse to reduce the Other to a copy of the Same, to a thing that can be known and therefore deprived of agency and controlled. It is also about paying close attention to silence, to emotion, and to all that passes between us that is beyond simple propositional language -- all things which, the book argues, carry traces of our overflowing of that which we have been produced to be, of the performative excess that can never be fully contained by narrative constraint. And we can make those integral to how we learn from and relate to one another.

All of which may sound to some readers like it is at a bit of a remove from the most pressing concerns of movements and communities-in-struggle. I can appreciate that sentiment, but I think perhaps it overlooks the centrality of having a politicized ethics of relating across difference, both within and beyond our movements, to the work of building said movements. For all my ambivalence about some of the groundwork on which this ethics is built, I think these are important and potentially useful insights, and I shall continue to reflect on them.

(And I don't know if how I've described the book makes it at all evident why I say this, but there are a number of points where its more useful bits make me think about the "within, against, and beyond" of John Holloway's heterodox marxist thought, and of elements of the sensibility described by Chris Dixon as prevalent among anti-authoritarian organizers. But this is already too long, and I will restrain my impulse to explore those resonances more fully.)


[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: Disability Politics & Theory


[A.J. Withers. Disability Politics & Theory. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.]

This is a short and accessible introduction to some key ideas relevant to disability politics, written from a radical perspective by someone with extensive experience in radical disability, anti-globalization, and anti-poverty organizing. Its very straightforward mission is to analyze the most important dominant models through which disability has been understood in Western societies over the years -- eugenic, medical, charity, rights, and social -- and use the learnings from that analysis to advance a new radical model of disability.


The book does what it sets out to do, and does it quite well. I learned a lot and enjoyed the read. I have only two suggestions for how the book could've been strengthened. One is that it could have pushed a bit further in talking about power, particularly in its discussion of the medical model of disability. I mean that in the sense of addressing the question how more insistently and more practically -- in social movements in North America we very easy to fall into a variety of stances that result in us doing much less of that than we need to really equip ourselves to challenge the relations that rule us, and I think there was more room in this book to explore, in that practical how sense, the social organization of knowledge and power in medical contexts, without compromising the books brevity, readability, and accessibility. And the other useful addition would have been more space at the end talking in concrete terms about organizing that might emerge from the proposed radical model of disability -- perhaps some examples of organizing efforts that already embody it in important ways, or perhaps speculation from the author about what could, in concrete terms, be.

Anyway, it's well worth a read. And maybe it's just because the episode of my radio show that I'm editing for next week is about a radical reading group and I therefore have such things on my mind, but it strikes me that this would be a good book to use if your activist formation realizes it doesn't do a good job of dealing with disability issues and it wants to do some collective studying and conversing to start figuring out how to rectify that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ungrounded Progressive Rhetoric of Alarm & Two Awful Stephen HarperInnovations That Really Do Matter



Often, when faced with a barrage of new awfulness from a government or party of the Right, people who fall under the broad umbrella of "mainstream progressive" do a pretty ungrounded job of framing and articulating their opposition. It's not a problem of a lack of vehemence in their objections, or at least not in the kinds of examples I'm thinking about today. Rather, it's a disconnect that shows up in how they contextualize what they oppose, which has consequences for the course of action they advocate as an alternative. What will the Right's new set of policies and practices do? How are they new from what has come before? How are they the same?

In this post, I talk about that tendency a little bit, and then I do some preliminary work to sort out a couple of key things that I think really are both novel and significant in the awfulness of the Harper Conservatives.

Ungrounded Liberal Rhetoric of Alarm

A key period of time during which I repeatedly encountered this tendency by mainstream progressives to contextualize the actions of the Right in unhelpful ways was the heyday of George W. Bush. A lot of writers and a lot of regular folk did similar things, but for me it was epitomized by work done at the time by liberal feminist Naomi Wolfe. I didn't actually read the relevant book of hers, but I did read a sympathetic and lengthy -- like, 7000 word or something like that -- interview with her at the time, so I had a pretty good sense of the points she was making. She pointed to a lot of the truly awful things that the Bush administration was doing in those years, bandied around terms like "fascism" rather freely and without much analytical basis, and made some pretty startling claims about where the United States might be headed politically. Certainly, GWB deserved vehement opposition. Certainly, the violence that the US state did under his watch needed to be named and opposed. But the framing of Wolfe and many other liberals at the time was such that, whatever their intent, the ungrounded liberal rhetoric of alarm that they deployed functioned to make it possible to express visceral, angry opposition to politics that very much deserved to be opposed without risking leading people anywhere near analysis that might compel a recognition of the violence upon which liberalism, liberal-democracy, the liberal state, and liberal capitalism themselves rest.

Or you can look at some of the discourse coming from opponents of Bill C-51 in Canada today. It is, indeed, an awful piece of legislation. It will result in higher levels of state violence and a wider range of oppressive state practices. It will be used to repress movements for justice and liberation. And it should be opposed as vociferously as we are able.

There has been a piece circulating the last few days that rightfully mocks the Conservatives for attributing opposition to the bill to "conspiracy theories" (and the piece also links to a lot of other useful resources, so it's worth looking at). But one thing I have not yet seen mentioned by the lefty and progressive people who have shared it is that one of the things that makes it at least vaguely credible for the Conservatives to make this accusation is that there is a subset of the opposition to Bill C-51 that really is based in the same kind of thinking as sometimes gets labelled "conspiracy theories." (I try to be cautious with that language, as someone quite rightfully pointed out to me a few years ago that however ludicrously ungrounded people commonly labelled as "conspiracy theorists" might be in the details of their claims, however misguided and unsystemic their approaches to thinking about the social world, however magical their thinking, they do often have an impulse to oppose unjust power that we need to strategically engage rather than just dismiss. We need to understand that the prevalence of this kind of thinking is about the triumph of neoliberalism and the failure of the left, rather than falling into a discourse of individual flaws.)

In the case of Bill C-51, while I'm encouraged by the broad participation in the opposition and I think we absolutely need to engage with and welcome folks with a wide range of politics, we also have to recognize that there is a sizeable cluster of liberal and social democratic middle-class white folks who have been very vocal against the bill who don't really get the trajectory of brutal racialized violence by the Canadian state on which Bill C-51 builds; who don't seem to have any recognition of the highly uneven (especially but far from only colonial and racialized) way in which the legislation and its consequent state violence will function if it is passed; and (of most relevance to the accusation of "conspiracy theory" thinking) who have a vastly inflated sense of the danger that they themselves would be in as a result of engaging in conventional liberal and social democratic political activities under the new legislation.

Maybe it is impolitic to point this out, as this deeply personal concern is one important source of energy driving people to be active on this issue. And I'm not denying that these kinds of changes in state practices do change the field for political action in broad and complicated ways that go beyond those most immediately targeted, and they will have at least some chilling impact on all of us, even those not at particular risk of direct state violence because of them. Nor am I denying that climate crisis, the ongoing spiral down into the abyss of neoliberalism, and the changes that actually are happening in terms of state practices and political culture in Canada have already increased in a limited way the likelihood of people with relative privilege facing state violence and repression for relatively benign political activities -- cough, G20, cough -- and at least point to the possibility of much starker realizations of the same trends. They just don't do so in nearly as direct and simple a way as these opponents of the Bill sometimes imply. And they do do so in ways that will inevitably add in awful, tragic ways to the blood of racialized and colonized people spilled through Canadian state practices well before they have the kinds of impacts on middle-class white liberals that some of that stripe seem to fear.

So in light of all of this, I've been thinking a little bit about what is new and what is just more of the same -- not so much in terms of Bill C-51 specifically, but in the larger context of the Harper government over the course of its mandate to date and in the lead-up to the fall election more specifically. I don't often engage directly with things in the electoral realm, but I think this particular set of questions can be pretty important as well as quite relevant to the choices of those of us who ground what we do in movements rather than parties. In thinking about all of this, it has not been immediately obvious to me how to dissect out what is new and significant, versus what looks different but is substantially politically similar to longstanding practices, versus what is new but trivially so. With many, many months to go, the pre-election intensity of the liberal rhetoric of alarm is already pretty high, which only adds to the challenge of figuring out what's actually going on. But as I've been thinking about it, I've come up with two things that I think are both qualitatively new and significant in what the Harper government has been doing.

A War on Process

Anyone who has read liberal and left commentary about the Harper government over the course of its mandate has no doubt encountered this accusation. I'm not even going to bother wading through articles and linking to them, because it's easy enough to name things that are likely already familiar to readers who pay even minimal attention to electoral politics. There were the inappropriate uses of the power to prorogue Parliament. There were the robocalls and other election-related skullduggery. There was the manual of Parliamentary dirty tricks, the clear erosion of governmental responsibility to Parliament (i.e. in terms of refusal of ministers to resign for resignation-worthy things, refusal to provide information to Parliament, etc.), and the anti-democratic deployment of omnibus bills. There is the tendency to react to having legislation overturned by passing new legislation that does more or less the same thing because it will get votes and will take years to be struck down again -- or to just pass unconstitutional things de novo for the same reason. There have been the shenanigans around judicial appointments. And lots more.

There are few different ways to think about those things. Some on the radical left would just shrug their shoulders with a few muttered words about the limits of parliamentary democracy, particularly in a settler colonial state. I have some sympathy for that, especially when it is in response to the above list as contextualized via the liberal rhetoric of alarm. I certainly don't deny the limits of electoral politics or place much hope that the world we need -- the world beyond capitalism, the world of the treaty commonwealth -- will come about through elections and legislation (though reforms to make the world more liveable for folks who are marginalized, on the road to that better place, might). Nonetheless, I think it is also an important point made by...hmmm...EP Thompson? Eric Hobsbawm?...some English marxist historian or other, that it was actually a pretty monumental accomplishment of popular struggle in Europe to force elites to obey the rule of law. And you don't even need to romanticize the rule of law (as some even on the left do) to think this matters. I certainly don't think that the law has ever applied to the rich the same way it applies to the poor, and of course the rules of liberal-democratic capitalism are designed precisely to favour those who own as the extract value from those who work (and of settler colonial states to favour those who settle and to inflict violence on the colonized). But, still, mechanisms that put limits on arbitrary power matter, however imperfect and partial they might be. Yes, the rules are rigged and they cheat, and the state organizes violence into lots of lives, but let's not disrespect the space created by past victories and the constraints put on power thereby.

So partly I think the mainstream fuss being made about the practices I listed in the first paragraph of this section is connected to a point I read years ago in something Noam Chomsky wrote about the Watergate scandal in the US -- it was a scandal because it was elites cheating in ways that targeted other elites, whereas very similar practices directed at entirely nonviolent socialist organizations in the US over the course of decades aroused little interest let alone passionate criticism among elites or in the mainstream of ordinary people. So a good chunk of the furor about Harper's disdain for aspects of Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, at least as heard from elite figures, is not really for our (ordinary peoples') benefit, but because it impacting the ability of another segment of elites to access power. As well, it is also significant that liberal-democratic theory places a lot of ideological importance on having a system of rules; this is part of its claim to fairness, which it contrasts with the arbitrary power exercised in the social forms it replaced. Of course many left thinkers have pointed out that this system of rules functions to hide the imbalance of power by writing it into the rules themselves, so following them will maintain existing imbalances, and that in practice this is often coupled with keeping cheating by elites within certain bounds and out of the public eye. This is, I think, an important divide among elites in North America today -- one faction wants to stick to that relationship to rules, I suspect out of a sense that it makes the system more robust in the long term; whereas another faction wants to make the flouting of process more open and more widespread and its subservience to the interests of the already-rich and powerful more visible. The Harper government is the first real instance at the federal level of that faction of elites winning the place of "government" within Canadian settler state relations.

So I would argue that though the system is rigged, though the system is colonial, and though elites have only ever partially followed the rule of law anyway, it still matters. It's still space that our ancestors won. It still puts some limits on what elites can do, on what power can presume versus what it must work for. It still preserves space for our movements to do important work towards those larger changes we need. So I think, taken as a whole -- and articulated with no illusions about electoral democracy -- these attacks on process and rules and Parliamentary democracy by the Harper government are something new, and they do matter. They are, if you will, non-reformist reforms from the perspective of the forces of reaction.


Electoral Racism and Economies of Violence

One way to think about electoral democracy is as a rhetorical economy of violence. Yes, it's a particularly cynical way to frame it, but it's not inaccurate. And by "rhetorical economy of violence," I mean that elections are about different forces within society competing over who harm will be inflicted upon, and how much. This party wants to leave the minimum wage where it is and cut welfare as the cost of living rises? That really means that they are campaigning for poor people to suffer a bit more. That party wants to cut red tape when it comes to environmental protections and enhance the economy by encouraging more resource extraction? They're really campaigning on increasing violence to the land and to Indigenous peoples and nations. This party wants to mandate Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, raise the minimum wage by twenty-five cents an hour, and raise welfare by 2%? Well, they want to reduce certain kinds of violence towards queer youth, which is good; and they want to mildly reduce violence towards poor people, which is also good; but it's important to recognize that they are campaigning on a having little less of the violence that is poverty in the lives of poor people (queer and straight, both), which means their campaign is also premised on preserving the rest of that violence in poor lives. And so on. And in case it isn't obvious, part of this frame for understanding electoral politics is that the competition among those parties understood as electorally credible is in terms of how much violence and where it is inflicted, but no options are (or could be) about transforming the social relations that are the basis of the violence. And most often, this rhetorical economy of violence is conducted in coded ways, to allow everyone to pretend that it is something other than it is. (And I won't go into it, but I want to stress that in saying all of this, I'm not advocating a left-puritanical abstentionist rejection of elections -- this older piece describes my approach to all of that.)

So. The question that actually started me on the path of wondering that spawned this entire post was the intense, deliberate, electoral racism being deployed by the Conservatives, in the last few months especially. Bill C-51 is certainly part of this. The whole nonsense about the niqab is part of it. There have been various ministerial and MP blurtings of a racist sort that I'm not at all convinced were accidental. Even this push to expand the Canadian role in war and empire in Iraq and Syria is part of it. To put it in the terms of the paragraph above, Harper is campaigning in ways deliberately designed to inflame white fears of Black and brown people (especially Muslims), and promising to inflict more violence on Black and brown people.

And I couldn't decide: Is this actually something new, and significant in its novelty? Or is this the unsurprising latest manifestation of a white supremacist settler colony whose first Prime Minister was committed to (and this is quoting him, not some latter-day historian's description) "the Aryan character of the future of British America"?

I might not have got this one quite right, and I welcome responses from people who have come to different conclusions, but this is what I came up with: There is, of course, nothing new about federal campaigning in Canada based on what amounts to commitments to inflict harm on racialized bodies. But usually, in the last few decades anyway, I think that has mostly been coded, tacit, or implicit. What's new about what Harper is doing is that there is a certain openness about it, a certain deliberate viciousness. Violence against racialized bodies has always been a premise, a condition of possibility for the system in its current form, but one that mainstream Canadian political culture has been committed, in the last few decades, to pretending doesn't exist; Harper, in contrast, is easing up on that pretence and using that violence with significantly more openness as currency for political campaigning (in a way that seem to me to be more like what I know of the Right in Europe than in the US, though that's just an impression). And maybe that change doesn't matter, because after all it's the harm that matters, and the harm is not new. But I think it is significant. I think that not only because the official sanction that comes from more openly vicious racism from mainstream politicians create space for increases in everyday manifestations of racism from ordinary white Canadians, but also because I'm pretty certain that making such racialized state violence a more open currency of electoral competition is inevitably going to lead to that more and worse racialized state violence...like, say, via a completely gratuitous bill pitched as "anti-terrorism" that is, at least in part, a way to get people scared and turn that fear into votes. And I'm not sure that making that kind of tacit more permissible in the mainstream will be something that can be easily removed from the political culture now that it's out there. This seems to me to be both new and significant. Not to mention really awful.

What does this mean?

I don't really know. I'm sure these aren't the only two significant differences, they're just the two I came up with. Certainly if you look at the substance of them -- increasing disregard for the niceties of formal processes of representative democracy, and increasingly open and vicious promise of harm to racialized people in mainstream electoral platforms -- they point at least in a vague way towards a certain f-word that Naomi Wolfe brandished at GWB and that not a few people have been using in reference to Harper. But I tend to be pretty cautious about that word. For one thing, it is a word with enough zing to it that it easily substitutes itself for actually understanding a situation, even when we think we're using it to summarize the understanding we've already developed. For another, I'm not sure what tenuous historical analogies actually tell us about what's going to happen next or what we should do. Is the lesson that the Communists should abandon their Third Period ultra-sectarianism and co-operate with the Social Democrats so the Right can't take power and turn us into a dictatorship? Not sure that's a very helpful lesson.

And as dubious as I am about mainstream progressive rhetoric of alarm about the Right, I have no problem at all about other kinds of rhetoric of alarm: We live in an alarming -- horrifying, violent, vicious -- world, and we need to be able to talk about that. The key is to find ways to do it that manage to name both what is new and what has been happening all along, and to explore how it is all happening so we can actually figure out what to do next.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review: Queer Phenomenology



[Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2006.]

I have always approached understanding and writing the world in an eclectic sort of way. I'm not sure I could do otherwise, as someone whose formal training in these things is next to nil, and who has largely learned about the world and the writing of it through my own haphazard journey of reading, writing, and experimenting. The sensibility that has guided me has been to read widely, take up what feels useful, discard what doesn't, and bring things together even when they don't quite fit. It's not so much interdisciplinary as undisciplined, which I recognize has all sorts of weaknesses as well as some strengths.


In doing this, something that I have always valued but have come increasingly to emphasize as I've learned more is the importance of finding ways to connect things. (I would attribute this emphasis and its increase to the influence of both women of colour feminisms and heterodox marxist or marxist-ish social theory on how I think about things, not that I would claim to do justice to either of those traditions in my own writing.) This includes seeking possibilities for connection (or not) between different ways of understanding the world. But it also includes seeing and trying to understand connections between differently physical locations, between different moments, between different social locations, between differently organized phenomena and experiences, between different scales of the social world, and much else. Indeed, as I've mentioned in a number of posts in the last few months, the basic act of recognizing X, Y, and Z experiences and trying to figure out how they are connected has become pretty basic to how I think about how we can and do know the world.

For all that most of the bits and pieces that have influenced how I think are in one sense or another materialist (even if not everyone sees all of them that way), and for all the emphasis that the overall hodgepodge those influences have created places on experience, I've frequently been dissatisfied with the tools that seem to be available for thinking about how the messy, complex flow that is everyday embodied experience ties into the broader social world. Even just sticking to approaches that push against the common practice of reifying experience into categories that distort or even do violence to it, there's still a tendency to start from a tidied version of our everydays. Which isn't necessarily a problem -- simplification can be crucial to clear thinking and writing, and I'm not claiming that this starting from tidiness necessarily makes the work done invalid or even suspect. But there is still something unsatisfying about the relative lack of engagement across a broad range of traditions with the complexity and chaos from which this grounded tidiness emerges. My current active interest in thinking through how we know the world through encounter, relation, and movement -- I talk about it a bit more in the first couple of paragraphs of this post -- only sharpens my interest in dealing with this particular weakness.

I knew going in that this book would be a very useful one for me. It is an engagement by scholar Sara Ahmed (some of whose other work I've also read and really liked) with phenomenology, a philosophical tradition from the first half of the twentieth century that got taken in a variety of directions in a variety of contexts but that has generally involved paying very fine-grained attention to experience, often as a way of understanding the structures of experience and of consciousness. Moreover, she takes up phenomenology in a way that hooks it into other things that are already part of the hodgepodge of theory and analysis that I draw on -- things like the idea of performativity, like anti-reificatory readings of marxism, and like the shaping of experience and self that different traditions (though Ahmed doesn't necessarily use these terms much or at all, I don't think) talk about as "social organization" or "social regulation" or "moral regulation" or "discipline."

The book is organized very simply. The first chapter engages with phenomenology in general. The second applies Ahmed's queered version of phenomenology to sexuality. The third applies it to race. And then there is a brief conclusion.

I think it's really the first of those chapters that is the most directly useful to me, in that it lays out her approach, her queer phenomenology. I don't have enough of a background in more classical approaches to phenomenology to accurately capture what is drawn from there and what is innovation, so I won't try, but I'll at least touch on the elements that seem important and useful to me. One is, of course, what I already mentioned, that this uses phenomenological attention to experience in ways that connect it to analyses of the social that extend beyond the encounter being examined. This helps to get at the how of our social world, to connect what we actually experience to ways of thinking about the social organization and implications of that experience through ideas like performativity and sexual/moral/social regulation.

As well, I think there is something important in Ahmed's insistence on using an approach as she does that which moves away from our knee-jerk tendency to use visual metaphors in our efforts to describe the social world -- even when social processes are not directly about visibility, seeing, and being seen -- and towards more tactile ways of thinking about our presence in our immediate environment. Even in as deft a writing hand as hers, that can feel a little unfamiliar and awkward, and I'd bet it takes practice to write effectively, but I think it's worth exploring, if only to draw attention to exactly how dependent on visual metaphors our usual modes of social analysis are.

And it is super useful to my own thinking to see how the book begins from moments of encounter and then works through many of the things that we might want to think about in order to understand those moments. This includes, of course, the experience of the encounter itself, but it also places a great deal of importance on thinking about "background." This term gets used in multiple senses to get at how the importance of an encounter, the meaning, the implications, the basis, are not necessarily all present in the direct experience of that encounter. There is "background" in a marxist sense, where you recognize that the thing is made to stand in for the doing that produced the thing, and you recognize (even if you can't fully excavate) that the object you're encountering is present because of a flow of socially organized doing that made it present. But there's also a recognition that the very fact of you encountering what you encounter is a product of social organization in a number of senses. What you are in a physical position to encounter is a product of social organization. How that which is physically proximal differentially enters your field of attention and how it matters (or not) to you -- what is central, what is peripheral, what is absent despite being present -- is a product of social organization and how you yourself have been socially produced. And to capture the ways in which all of this sediments into who we are and how we are able to engage with the world, she talks about "orientations" -- repetitive patterns of proximity, attention, action, and experience that, in a manner analogous to Judith Butler's account of gender as performative, are constantly (re)producing those aspects of ourselves which shape our presence in the world and in encounters, and the position from which we are able to know the world through encounters. To me, this feels like a more materially grounded way of thinking about the cluster of things I've long grouped under the idea of "standpoint." But it's an improvement on how I've often used the shorthand of "standpoint" because it makes it harder to avoid attending to the how of it all.

It is not only human beings who become oriented through performative repetition, however, but also objects and environments. Of course objects and the physical arrangement of objects in space are not just physical but are social -- socially produced, socially organized, part of that social context which structures how and what we encounter. One of the advantages of the book's more tactile approach to talking about experience and about the world is that it makes objects and their physical arrangement more clearly already a part of the social world that we're seeking to understand, an instantiation of social relations that we actually touch and are touched by, whose very physicality shapes and orients us and the spaces we have available to us. We have orientations that are in part shaped by those physical/social environments, and those environments take on not just meaning but material shape and direction as part of our engagement with them and in the context of the socially directive whole. As part of this, she talks about the ways in which bodies that are marked in particular ways gain extension through space through engagement with objects and environments, whereas other bodies are not extended in those ways. This is an aspect of the material how of privilege -- whose bodily extension through space (and into action) is facilitated through the material felt experience of the local environment, and whose bodily extension into space (and into action) is blocked, frustrated, limited. And how this repeated experience of ease of augmentation, or of blockage, shapes what we encounter, how we encounter it, and what we can know about it.

All of this is useful for me because it suggests ways to think about the encounters that are the basis for how I plan to build knowledge about the world in my current work. Rather than encounters being (as I think they are in at least some classical phenomenology) analyzed by bracketing them off from the world and treated as isolated in order to derive meaning from them, Ahmed's queer phenomenology insists on thinking about them in the full rich context in which they are experienced, and recognizing that you cannot understand them by looking at the experience alone -- on thinking through the moment of encounter along with the conditions of possibility for it, the basis for the proximity that makes it possible, the orientations we bring to it, the orientations existing in the environment, the practices and relationships upon which it is built, the specifics of fit, ease, or friction that the particular body or bodies in the encounter have with that environment, and much more.

The chapters applying this approach to specific questions of sexual orientation and of racialization are certainly interesting and useful, though given my purpose in reading the book it is mostly as examples of the kinds of work that can be done with this queer phenomenology and less directly for their specifics. That said, the specifics are still interesting. In Chapter 2, for instance, it weighs in on a grab bag of questions related to sexuality. While at least some of its core points feel fairly familiar (for instance that sexual orientations, both straight and queer, are products of socially organized work), I do think there is interest and value in rethinking them through the very dense, local, tactile account of how, grounded in the conceptual repertoire developed in Chapter 1. As you might hope for phenomenological work, it succeeds in capturing experiential richness about important things -- from family-of-origin as scene in which sexual orientation plays out (and is regulated), to aspects of the how of compulsory heterosexuality, to the social wholes of the orientations that we describe as sexual, to some of the points of friction and ease in how spaces extend or fail to extend bodies based on sexual orientation. And of course it captures this experiential richness in a way that brings it into analysis of the social world, rather than the sort of individualized testimonial into which experiential writing in a more popular vein almost inevitably falls. (I think providing examples of ways to write the self that are also social is really important in its own right.) Anyway, not surprisingly, there are aspects of how the chapter is written that are specific to lesbian experiences, and I wonder how some of the details of the analysis -- nuance within the richness, as it were -- might change if it began from a nonmonosexual positioning.

The chapter on race is similarly full of good stuff that goes in a variety of directions, not all of which is directly applicable to my purposes but all of which is interesting. Again, it's the translation of abstracted ideas like privilege and oppression into more experiential, embodied, tactile notions that I think is most useful -- about how bodies are oriented, how they are facilitated or blocked in taking up and moving through space, and in extending themselves. "I want to consider racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they 'take up' space" (111). I also appreciated the book's discussion of how we are (re)produced as racialized beings -- from extending the idea of performativity to things like nation, to the discussion of horizontal versus vertical notions reproduction and the ways in which, say, whiteness is to a significant extent reproduced horizontally through proximity and contact (via the sort of tactile regulation that she writes about) rather than in the conventional vertically genealogical way we usually (biologistically) think of it. And I do have to say that some of this is actually very relevant to my own work -- the book convincingly argues that it has a tremendous impact on how we perceive the world, on what we encounter, on how we are oriented towards those encounters, if we are starting from experiences of being enabled and extended, versus if we are constantly blocked, diminished, and disoriented. As well, there are inevitably racialized differences in the moment of encounter itself that can only be explained by looking at all the forms of background (and more) I describe above in talking about Chapter 1. How can that be accounted for in trying to write about knowing the world through encounter, relation, and movement? I'm continuing to think about this.

In fact, I don't really know how I'm going to make use of the insights of this book more generally in my current work. It will, I think, have a pretty strong influence on what I'm doing, but I think there's a good chance that what I write won't look much at all like what's in this book. I won't be able to stay as attentive to the dense experiential immediacy that is the main focus of this book, in large part because the archive of encounters on which I will be drawing for at least a part of what I want to do simply won't allow it. But I would also choose not to anyway, I think, because part of what I want to do is make use of the connections this book discusses between the moment of encounter and less proximal aspects of the social world to produce knowledge about those less proximal aspects. Don't know if it's actually going to be possible in the way I'm envisioning, but reading this book is one helpful step along the way to figuring that out.



[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Monday, February 02, 2015

Review: Another Politics


[Chris Dixon. Another Politics: Talking Across Today's Transformative Movements. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2014.]

This is likely going to be a short review. In part, that's because reviews filled with superlatives tend to get boring quickly.
It's also because I have seen a few other reviews of the book before sitting down to write mine -- something that I usually avoid but was unable to this time -- and I'm not sure that I have any constructive suggestions for the book that others haven't already made. And, finally, I'm hoping to have the author on my radio show in a month or two anyway (though I haven't actually asked him yet), and that will likely be a much more effective way for folks to learn about the book than anything I happen to say about it.

Nonetheless, on we go...

The book is a synthesis of a large number of interviews done with activists and organizers from major cities across Canada and the United States who, without necessarily identifying as such, embody a cluster of ways of doing and thinking about social change that -- loosely, with many contradictions and complexities, but with a perceptible coherence -- map out an emerging political tendency on the radical left in North America that Dixon labels "anti-authoritarian." In getting how Dixon is using this label, it is crucial to appreciate that what he means is not co-terminus with anarchism. Certainly anarchism is one tradition that some anti-authoritarians look to, but many do not, and those who might be located in this current might also/instead trace political lineages through struggles in racialized communities for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, to revolutionary women of colour feminisms, to certain strands of radical queer politics, and more. Though there is no universally shared language across this tendency, there is a range of overlapping sensibilities captured in Dixon's use of phrases like John Holloway's "within, against, and beyond," Andy Cornell's "oppose and propose," and the roughly equivalent "confront and prefigure," that feed into what he refers to (borrowing a phrase from the Zapatistas) as "another politics." Dixon also frames this current by naming four "antis" that it brings together -- anti-authoritarianism in a more grounded sense, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. It is a tendency that samples widely in its politics, and that (at its best, at any rate) synthesizes and improvises in principled yet practical ways.

Dixon begins the book by sketching out three historical genealogies for the anti-authoritarian current -- anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. The next two chapters involve describing the tendency in more detail -- the four antis that inform the confrontational aspects of the tendency's politics in one, and the prefigurative commitments that are mixed in with them in the other. Then two chapters on how the tendency both succeeds and struggles in dealing with strategic thinking, and the final three chapters exploring anti-authoritarian ways of relating to questions of organizing, leadership, and organization.

I really appreciate the book's commitment to combining analysis of the present with historical thinking, which is much rarer on the left than it should be. And I think the genealogical approach Dixon uses is effective in highlighting one of the forms of historical continuity that could and should be most important to movements as we try to think about ourselves historically -- we do this because they did that; they did that because of those specificities then, so how might we tweak what we do now to reflect our own realities. That kind of opportunity for relating to radicals of the past as ancestors whose choices are sites for learning rather than objects of trivial interest is something often lost in more conventional ways of doing history. That said -- and I'm always conscious of how unfair it is to ask for more in these reviews, but I often do so anyway -- it would have been nice, even if they could not be explored in as much detail as the main three, to have other relevant genealogies and perhaps other sorts of influences included in briefer form. (How, for instance, was cross-pollination with other radical strands that are not direct genealogical antecedents at play in shaping "another politics"?)

I'm also very appreciative of how skilfully Dixon draws out and synthesizes the insights of the diversely located organizers and activists whom he talked to. Organizers inevitably generate knowledge about the world as part of engaging in struggle, but that knowledge often stays very localized in the person-to-person and internet-based networks that people happen to be part of. Doing these kinds of interviews is a way of making all of that incredible insight more broadly accessible, which I think is a vitally important task and one that this book does very well. My only concern in this area is more about how this excellent and necessary knowledge production is presented: The writing is wonderfully clear and politically precise, which I very much enjoyed and which will only strengthen the book's ability to contribute to conversations in movement contexts. But I kind of wish that some of that clarity had been sacrificed to make the process of drawing-from and synthesis a bit more visible to the reader -- it may just be a reflection of my own preoccupation with questions of how we know the world, but I think it would've been worth it. To folks who have done this kind of work before, it is likely obvious how the ideas presented in the book emerged very much from deep listening and reflection on what was common across a large amount of disaparately-located, collectively-generated movement knowledge. And, certainly, Dixon is quite clear about naming that, and does do certain things to make the process visible. But I think he could've done more of that, and it would've strengthened the book, because I don't think most people who haven't done this kind of work necessarily appreciate how such an approach is different from the more mainstream academic (and, in some cases, non-academic left) rhetorical violence of dissecting everyday experience to fit pre-existing categories (be they of ruling or of supposed resistance), why that difference really does matter politically, and how it is incredibly relevant to our own choices (as individuals and in collectives) about how we know and act in the world. Again, this could just be my stuff. :)

In judging the book's overall success, it is important to keep in mind what it sets out to do. Though written based on research done during graduate work, the book is less meant to describe the current that it talks about than to provide a nudge and a useful resource for critical reflection and conversation by those who are (or might soon be!) within the orbit of anti-authoritarian organizing. As such, it doesn't shy away from naming the political challenges and weaknesses that the tendency faces; indeed, doing so is a big part of the point. But it does so on the tendency's own terms, as a way of feeding back into the conversations that produced those terms. And because of this commitment to catalyzing critical conversation among anti-authoritarians, and to therefore grounding itself in how those conversations are already happening, while it names challenges and weaknesses of the tendency, it likely won't do so to the satisfaction of those starting from different premises -- those who believe that marxist pre-party formations are the organizational key to a better future won't be satisfied with how it discusses the limits of anti-authoritarian approaches to organization, for instance, and those who scoff at anti-oppression politics in toto are unlikely to think that the it goes far enough as it grapples with the pitfalls in how said politics are enacted. That said, I hope that the book not only catalyzes conversation among anti-authoritarians, but across a broader range of left-of-social-democracy currents as well.

I think perhaps my biggest concern with the book has to do with the ways that its approach isn't always able to deal with specificity. Again, I think this flows in part from the political commitment animating the book: Because this tendency is relatively new (in its present form, at least) and quite internally politically diverse, nudging people to recognize what we share with other organizers doing different work in different places, and also what's historically specific to the tradition that our choices are crafting, is pretty key to being able to have better critical conversations and make better choices. And I can appreciate that this mandate might be unduly complicated by going too far to engage with questions of geographical and/or social specificity.

At the same time, though, that choice not to emphasize specificity has implications. It struck me the most clearly in the book's handful of references to aspects of the Quebec student movement that rose to such visibility in the long strike of 2012. Things like that movement's emphasis on assemblies as a way of making decisions and as a central component of organizing do indeed resonate with approaches taken by the anti-authoritarian current, and people in Montreal who clearly fit into Dixon's understanding of that current and its "another politics" certainly threw themselves into the student struggle in 2012. But there's a lot about how the Quebec student movement works that really has nothing to do with the strands that went into the broader anti-authoritarian current in North America, and the book doesn't make that clear -- the radical syndicalism informing the assembly model has its own genealogy that's quite distinct from the anti-authoritarian current or from student organizing in the rest of the continent; the franco-Quebecois rad left has had a very different trajectory in general than its anglo-North American counterpart; and, like it or not, lots about the Quebec student struggle is pervaded by the national question, not necessarily directly (though that too) but in terms of why things are the way they are and how they got that way. And I think all of that matters, both in presenting the student movement and also in how the anti-authoritarian current can and does exist in Quebec. I think this instance made it all more visible to me because the specificity is more specific in Quebec than it might be in other regions, but noticing this made me wonder how it might play out in relevant ways in other contexts as well.

One element of specificity that the book did capture was that in (settler-majority) anti-authoritarian circles in Canada, indigenous struggles have greater prominence and anti-colonial politics are more developed than in corresponding contexts south of the border -- not to say we necessarily relate to such struggles very well, much of the time, but there's at least an expectation of paying attention to them. But I think a related national difference that wasn't captured in the book was the relative disconnection from (and cluelessness about) legacies of Black struggle in many (white-dominated) Canadian anti-authoritarian contexts -- I don't actually know that that is less dire in US contexts, to be honest, but I imagine it has to be. And noticing that got me to thinking about other flavours of specificity, things like how different relationships to immediate need and different pathways of community formation (which may be geographical, but just as easily may be about socially organized divisions in the same place) interact with the general characteristics of the anti-authoritarian current to shape what happens in various contexts. I can't say with certainty how that matters to the kinds of conversations this book wants to catalyze, but I suspect it does.

In the grand scheme of things, however, those are fairly minor concerns about an overall wonderful book, and ones that can easily be addressed in how we take up and discuss in our communities the knowledge that it presents. And as this review has ended up being rather less brief than I expected, I'll close with simple encouragement for you to read the book -- especially if your own practices place you somewhere in the left-of-social-democracy political ecosystem, doubly especially if your inclinations run towards the more anti-authoritarian side of that. Read it, and then talk with your friends and comrades and fellow organizers and mentors and mentees about strategy, leadership, organizing, organization, and all the rest.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Friday, January 23, 2015

Against Policing: A First Critical Conversation in Sudbury

[The following is a Media Co-op piece I wrote about about a recent critical community forum on policing held earlier in the week here in Sudbury, Ontario -- the first discussion of this kind to happen here, as far as we know. Read the full article here.]

SUDBURY, ON -- There is a power and intensity that flows from collectively naming violence and harm in new ways, as a prelude to challenging them. It was this sort of intensity that pervaded a critical discussion on policing that took place among twenty local activists in Sudbury this past Wednesday.

There is nothing new in general about this sort of naming and challenging when it comes to policing -- the #BlackLivesMatter organizing that has been sweeping the continent (including some places in Canada) in response to high profile instances of police violence towards Black people is just the newest effort to confront an old, old problem; and those who pay attention to the experiences of homeless people on an ongoing basis have expressed a lack of surprise at the recent findings by Laurentian University researchers about police mistreatment of homeless people in Sudbury. But it is not a conversation that has happened in collective ways in this city.

The forum was not intended as an open debate about policing but rather was a closed event meant to give people with a range of experiences and existing critical understandings of the issue a chance to come together, to talk, and to reduce the isolation that most have felt in Sudbury to this point. Eight attendees made prepared presentations, and all participated in the discussion. The speakers brought forward a mix of lived experience as well as more research-based knowledge about the history and social organization of policing.

A case that has been prominent in the local news in the last fortnight has been the arrest of three anti-poverty activists, now labelled the "S-CAP 3," during their efforts to advocate for a man who had been denied access to emergency shelter space on a bitterly cold northern night despite having no warm place to go. Crystal Kimewon -- an Anishnabe woman, a student, and a mother -- was one of those arrested, and also one of the speakers at the forum.

She talked about how...

Read the rest here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing the Connection Between the Big Bad World and Everyday Life

From that moment as an undergraduate university student when I first allowed my childhood dream of being a writer to reawaken, it has been clear that what I want to write about is the world. That has taken many different forms, from the nonfictional bits and pieces that I scatter about in public today, to my occasional private forays into bad poetry and not quite so bad but still not good short stories in years gone by, but it has always been present. At some point along the way, it became clear that in order to do that I also had to write about myself – not only because that's what everyone from the driest purveyor of political economy to the most fanciful spinner of fairy tales inevitably does on some level anyway, but because the direction taken as my politics and epistemology have developed pretty much dictates that I have to do so in an overt sort of way.

This is not easy, however. It is not easy in part because I often have a difficult time talking about myself even in the safest of environments – and though it is much less hostile for me as a middle-class white guy than for racialized people of all genders and gender-oppressed people of all racial backgrounds, the internet is far from being a safe place. But it's also not easy on some other level, a level that goes beyond my (partially socially produced) personal idiosyncrasies.

When I think about my daily life, there are a range of kinds of questions that occupy my time and emotional energy. Things like, "What am I going to cook tonight?" and "Should I do laundry today?" and other kinds of domestic concerns. Other things – lots of things – connected to my writing/research/media work, like, "What if I don't find a next radio interview in time?" and "How can I fit some writing in today?" and "Did that hour of work result in anything good or did I just totally waste my time?" and "What should I work on next?", along with lots related to the content of whatever I happen to be doing. Things connected to political involvements, like, "What do I have time to take on at tomorrow's meeting?" and "How on earth are we going to grow the group?". And there's a big chunk organized around being highly introverted, quite socially anxious, and, frankly, dissatisfyingly lonely, in combination with actively craving human connection, like, "Did I say something stupid in that interaction?" and "Does that person like me?" and "Do I have the energy to go to this event?". And at various times there might be worries about money, about the welfare of particular people, about matters of desire and sexuality, about specific tasks or commitments, about public events (both local and global), about my own health, and so on. And, inevitably, more existential "What does it all mean?" and "How should I live my life differently?" kinds of obsessing.

When I think, however, about the political discourse I encounter on a regular basis, it all has a much, much different shape than all of that. I think about the various places I get news and information and analysis, not so much in terms of books but in shorter and more rapidly produced formats. And I think about what counts as "political talk" in the contexts in which I exist. And even for me – someone for whom privilege means I have lots of space for choice in what fills my days, and whose choices include lots of things connected in one way or another to what is widely understood as "the political" – the connections between what fills most of my days and takes most of my emotional energy, and the shape and content of that broader political discourse, are not at all clear.

Public and Private

There are a number of things going on here, I think, but a lot of this disconnection between my everyday experience and various forms of discourse that are commonly understood as being about "the world" has to do with the divide between public and private that is so central to liberal capitalism. As I'll explore more below, how this plays out depends a lot on who you are, but in general our everyday lives and the concerns that fill them are relegated to "the private" or "the individual", while much of our written and spoken political discourse requires, for admission to the category, that it be organized around things that fit the labels "public".

It isn't just "wrong ideas" that make the public/private divide so central, or that make it seem like the two are essentially separate spheres of life – this flows from hor our lives and our social environments are organized, and things could, in theory, be organized otherwise. And even as things are now, there is really no essential separation between the two. They are always and inevitably tightly integrated. But the challenge here is that the separation manfiests in the language and other methods of communication that we have readily available to talk about the world. That is, writing in a way that refuses this disconnection and that really does treat the everyday/private/individual as integrated into the political/public/social is not necessarily an easy thing to do, particularly if you want that writing to be broadly circulated and taken up.

I should add, too, that this is a bit schematic, and things aren't quite so clearly divided. In particular, feminists have taught lessons that push against this divide in different ways many times over the years: In the founding years of its New Left resurgence, they taught that the personal is political; Marxist feminists taught that production and reproduction are inextricably bound together; women of colour feminists taught that it is yet another form of dominating violence to insist that a person be present only as a fragment and not as their whole self. So feminist work is a crucial place to learn in answering the question I'm posing here.

That said, there is also another form of popular political discourse that often (though not always) connects to (liberal versions of) feminism which seems to counter this divide but, I think, doesn't really. It presents a certain kind of politicization of everyday life that in some ways is useful, in that it creates space to talk in political ways about such things, but that mostly fails to connect that political talk to questions of social organization or collective action. It is a kind of politicization of the private and individual that pushes against the divide but often remains trapped within it. It, too, is an instance of continuing to have our politics and our ways of communicating about the world governed by the separation. Of course we should be thinking about things like consumption, aesthetics, sexual practices, and other aspects of personal conduct in politicized ways, but often when this happens the connection with the social world and collective action is made poorly or not at all.

So this separation persists, even among plenty of feminists, and certainly in the broader left. This is not a product of individual failing, but of the fact that, as I said, it is organized into our lives by dominant discourse and social relations.

Public, Private, and Movements

Not surprisingly, the power of this socially organized division also manifests in how we think and talk about social movements and struggle. I may not always succeed in finding the right balance, but in general I think it's improtant to work at seeing, valuing, and suppporting a broad range of forms and modes of resistance, prominently including the everyday-and-individual and everyday-and-organically-mutual modes – those that are most often erased and devalued by being slotted on the "private" side – because they are what is most present in most people's lives. That said, modes of resistance and change-making that are collective and confrontational – those which are more obviously public – are crucial as well, and there are too few opportunities to participate in such things in North America today. Hence my sense of the importance of activism, organizing, and movements. I think we need to have an analysis of what organizing is that works against this separation of modes of resistance along the public/private axis, and against the dismissal of those modes that fall into the "private" side of the divide. That is, I see the process of organizing as, ideally, one of catalyzing the possibility for people to bring together the moments of resistance and refusal we experience in our everyday lives into some kind of more deliberately collective and confrontationl effort to create transformative change.

But, again, how can we effectively talk about this? How do we avoid making our recognition into some sort of ritualized acknowledgement of everyday resistance (of reproductive labour, of that which inhabits the private sphere), or a digressive paragraph we include if length allows? How do we integrate this continuity between our everyday lives and the social world, between private and public, between the modes of resistance that sustain us as we go through the day and those that bring us together to challenge and confront and transform as a collective?

The Landscape of Possibilities

In pondering the possibilities for doing this, it became pretty clear, pretty fast that the range of answers that each of us has access to is, like so much in this life, shaped by the specificities of our experience.

So, for instance, if you happen to exist in a context in which there already is a very clear connection between the experiences of everyday existence and practices of collective struggle, figuring out how to speak or write the integral character of the two should, at least in theory, be reasonably straightforward. It might be personally very difficult or even dangerous, but the shape of potential discursive paths to doing so are at least visible. In North America today, this is a rare sort of context to be in, but it does exist. During the Quebec student strike of 2012, for instance, or the big strike at the mines here in Sudbury in 2010, I suspect the most active strikers had that experience. I think many of the indigenous communities across northern Turtle Island that are under most active attack have that experience. And I think that perhaps folks who are immersed in the Anarchist or radical scenes that exist in the very biggest cities have an experience of that sort (which is not to say that I don't have significant reservations about that as a model for propagating struggle).

But I am not in such a context, and neither are most of us, at least most of the time. And mostly we can't just choose, on an individual basis, to become part of such a context – nor, I think, should we valorize such a choice. And I think not being in such a context is true not only for relatively privileged people like yours truly, but also for most people who experience quite intense levels of oppression and marginalization. And saying that isn't to disregard the extent to which survival is resistance for a lot of people – that's paraphrasing Audre Lourde, if I'm remembering correctly – but rather to recognize the gap between that level and mode of resistance, and more collective and confrontational modes that carry at least the potential of social transformation, for most people, given the neoliberal (atomized, isolated) contexts in which most of us exist in North America today. With some important but mostly fairly localized exceptions – mostly related to transient upsurges of mass activity or longstanding place-based communities of resistance – there is little access for anyone to any sort of overarching movement environment in this particular time and place. (And I hasten to add that if I'm wrong about this, if I'm misjudging this diverse array of experiences that are unlike my own, please jump in and correct me.)

Another very relevant kind of specificity in our experience (which cuts across being present or not in an all-eveneloping movement environment) is about the ways in which we benefit and/or are harmed by various forms of socially organized injustice – racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, capitalism, and so on. How our experiences are shaped by the public/private divide have always been bound up in our experiences of these other axes of social relations. The bourgeois family was the initial model for “the private,” in contrast with the publicness of both the poor and aristocracy. This shaped social norms of propriety that came to dominate, and both were and are used as justification for scorning those who, for one reason or another, choose not to or are simply unable to abide by those norms – because of not having the material resources to be private in the right ways, or perhaps because of the mandatory publicness (and impropriety) that adheres to being “not-white” or “readably queer” or what have you.

It's this last – the ways in which publicness or privateness is made socially mandatory for some people in terms of some aspects of self – that matters for the questions of writing and otherwise communicating that I'm talking about here. Examples of mandatory enclosure in the private realm include the socially enforced silencing of queerness euphemistically individualized as "the closet", the historical confinement of economically privileged white femininity to the private sphere, and the related enforced private character of intimate partner violence that is directed most often (but not only) from men against women – social movements have weakened but not eradicated these forms of mandatory privacy in recent decades. And mandtory publicness includes, as I said, things like racialization or out/unhideable queerness or gender non-conformity or homelssness/visible poverty or some kinds of disability, where a certain kind of surveillance and scrutiny and reading-into-publicness of aspects of self is an element of the overall experience of socially organized oppression.

So if you make a crude division of aspects of everyday life among mandatorily public, mandatorily private, and orindarily private – and of course not everyone will experience the first two, though I think all of us have moments of the last – then it becomes clear that the challenges for integrating the writing about the world grounded in everyday experience can differ significantly.

What To Do

Again I return to the very practical question that triggered all of this: How do I do this? I look at (most) lefty political discourse and the (especially non-book) spaces it shapes and is shaped by, I look at my own everyday life, and it is not immediately obvious to me how to go about writing the integrally related character of the two.

How to do this kind of writing is not actually such a great mystery, of course – there are many examples, many experiments, especially (as I said above) feminist ones. They are enough to make it clear that anyone thinking through this problem is not treading novel ground, and they are a solid starting point for figuring out one's own approach.

Yet questions and challenges remain. For instance, my sense of those experiments in writing about self and the world in this way is that, for all of their breadth, they much more often begin from mandatorily public or the mandatorialy private aspects of people's everyday experience, and much less often from the ordinarily private (though certainly you can find examples that begin from the first two and reach into the last). Beginning from the ordinarly private is less often done, and may take some careful thought.

(It may seem, by the way, that this kind of writing might be easier to do in the context of experiences of the everyday that are manditorily public. I don't experience that, so I can't say for sure, but my sense is that would be a gravely incorrect supposition. With mandatory publicness, there may be some sort of discursive connection between everyday life and larger scale questions that is more readily available, but often that is solely through discourse that is severed from actual experience, often discourses of ruling (like social policy discourse – sorry, friends and former colleagues, but it is) and at least some discourses of resistance. Often, despite a public visibility, it is extremely challenging to articulate an understanding of that which is made public that truly connects experience with the social world, and instead various negative things that are socially produced get made to stick to manditorily public bodies and treated as individual flaws. Moreover, I think there is a kind of forcible dehumanization that goes along with mandatory publicness, a kind of aggressive rejection of the presence of full humanity in public and instead a sort of appropriative mandatory severing of self. Again, I could be completely wrong on this.)

Another challenge is that I believe this kind of discourse should be common in some contexts where is currently rare -- to a certain extent at least, this is less a problem of writing than it is a problem of the expectations of publishers and readers. Where you most often find writing that does this is in longer forms, and less so in short ones, so while it exists, it isn't central to how we engage with the world. It still mostly isn't present in what we read, watch, and hear on a daily basis to learn about what's going on in the world beyond the local space of our direct experience.

Why Bother?

It may not be immediately clear why, in this world of many problems, I think this particular problem is worth time and attention and effort. But I do.

I think that overcoming this division in how we write about the world, how we talk about the world, how we relate to the world as we go about our lives, could be useful. Not that shifting our communication can make the very material basis of the private/public distinction magically transform into some other way of organizing our communities and lives. But pushing against the way in which the sides of that distinction so often appear as separate rather than tightly integrated in how we talk about them, and pushing against the assumption that a distinction organized in this way is inevitable, can contribute to making space for imagining how things might be materially different.

I think that by failing to do this, we end up reproducing discourse about the world, analysis, political talk that most people don't relate to. And, really, who can blame them. It's not that the big issues and big struggles that fill our news and analysis pieces, that fill our urgent conversations at meetings and over pints, are not connected to the everyday lives of ordinary people, but we persist in talking about them as if they are not. So perhaps wrestling with this issue, and finding ways to bring our experiments in doing so into the centre of our ways of communicating rather than relegating them to the margins might help to connect with more people. It might reduce barriers of accessibility to engagement with social movements, with activism, with organizing.

And I think even for people who are engaged with the issues that various flavours of organizing, activism, and movements focus on, this separation from everyday life erodes the accessibility and sustainability of our movements. As I argued above, most people, most of the time, will not be in contexts where that connection between everyday life and large-scale collective struggle is clear and directly experienced. And by not doing better at integrating awareness of the connection that does exist between the ordinary everyday and the social world/collective struggle, we contribute to valorizing those people who can organize their entire lives around involvement – the cult of the militant, as it is sometimes called. This means we place less effort than we need to on organizing in ways that create space for many kinds and levels of engagement, and we rhetorically position folks who can be involved in only limited ways, for whatever reason, as less important or less rad than folks who can devote every moment. This excludes a lot of people, and we need a lot of people. And it harms the sustainability of our movements, because often young activists reach a point where it feels like they are failing or betraying their politics if they take on responsibilities – including paid work, childcare, eldercare, and much more – that mean more of their time has to go into the ordinary everyday and less into organizing, and many feel no choice but to withdraw completely. Again, figuring out new ways to talk about the world is no cure-all, as it's more about how we organize, but I think that challenging that discursive disconnection between the ordinary everyday and the social world and collective struggle can be one element.

I also wonder about what impact the persistence of such disconnection between big issues and everyday lives has on how we organize. I'm not sure about the details, but I'd bet it does, and I'd bet that it's bound together with the tendency of many movements to ignore or underplay or misunderstand the relationship between everyday resistance and more collective and confrontational modes. And dealing with this better in how we communicate is tied to doing a better job overall in recognizing and respecting and integrating the importance of everyday resistance and reproductive labour into how we relate to both the world and our movements.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Review: Research is Ceremony



[Shawn Wilson. Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.]

This book is the latest in my recent spate of reading meant to help me think through how to know and write the world through encounter, relation, and movement. It is a short book by Cree scholar Shawn Wilson based on his PhD work. It builds beyond earlier efforts by indigenous scholars that focused on decolonizing existing methodologies and instead advances at least one take on what it might mean to develop research methods that are indigenous from beginning to end.

One of my favourite aspects of this book is that not only does it do what all books by definition do and present content that builds towards its goals, but it also pushes to reinvent form to reflect its goals. As a way of incorporating the centrality of relationality in indigenous ways of knowing -- more on that below -- he includes sections early in the book that are deliberately personal in character, and that are addressed explicitly to his children. This is meant as a device for building a more human form of relation with the reader than is common in scholarly books. And what begins as a clear division earlier in the book between that personal voice and a more scholarly voice (designated by different fonts) gradually merges into a single voice part way through. He also introduces in brief but meaningfully personal ways the various other indigenous researchers who played the roles of participants-plus-collaborators in the work he presents. There is some defining of terms and laying out of landscape, and lots of attention to tracing in a very lived way the trajectory of the work and the relationships that were the context for its production. There is a short but very useful history of research on and by indigenous peoples. There is a detailed discussion of relationality -- well, there's a chapter focused on it, but really it is central throughout the book. Then there is a chapter presented as a dialogue among Wilson and his participant/collaborators that is a sort of synthesis of the book's ideas. It is presented as one conversation, but it is woven together from notes, transcripts, recollections, and I think a kind of gestalt sense of ideas and the people who discussed them, built over a number of years. And the book concludes with a more conventional (to the eyes of those coming to the book from the mainstream, at any rate) summation of its ideas.

How to take up (or not) the ideas in this book requires a bit of reflection, at least for me. I am not an indigenous researcher, and the work that I'm reading this for makes no pretence at being indigenous research (though it will certainly at times learn from conversation with indigenous activists and published work by indigenous scholars). I am in no position, therefore, to comment on how this work might be applied in the contexts to which it is most directly relevant. So I won't. But I think there is much for me to learn here anyway. The key, I think, is to relate to the work in a way that takes responsibility for context -- to find ways to learn from what he presents, but to avoid anything smacking of appropriation, and not to engage in that form of uptake that white settler folks sometimes do that isn't exactly appropriation but that clearly demonstrates cluelessness about, frankly, our own realities.

Perhaps one useful point of both connection and difference is the central idea of the book: relationality. For Wilson and his participant/collaborators, the fact that it is embedded in a dense relational web is the defining feature of indigenous research and, indeed, of indigenous ways of being and living and knowing more generally. I think this recognition sometimes exists as an empty truism in the understandings of those of us who do not live that reality, but in various ways through the book he builds a richly textured picture of what it actually looks and feels like in practice. I really appreciate that.

The best way for me to relate to that account of relationality is not necessarily obvious, however. Wilson is very deliberate about refusing to contextualize the indigenous research method he elaborates by comparison to dominant approaches. This is a way of making clear that legitimation by Western scholarship is unnecessary, unhelpful, and colonial, and that indigenous ways of knowing are complete and legitimate on their own. It also means that what discussion of Western ways of knowing that the book does contain are extremely brief and not at all detailed, and more focused on describing what is dominant rather than on exploring the fringes where I work and play. Which I think is great and entirely appropriate, given that the vast majority of both formal research and informal knowing of the world in white North America (and other spaces under its sway) are not relational at all in the sense this book describes (though I think maybe I could make a decent case that relationality underlies all knowing and is violently denied and repressed rather than absent in dominant Western frameworks). And yet for me, I think, a key to relating to his presentation of relationality in indigenous knowing is doing so with a clear sense of how relationality is present in and even grounds my own approaches to knowing, which are based on various critical and dissident ways of knowing that exist (to borrow a phrase from John Holloway) within, against, and beyond dominant Western frameworks for producing knowledge. I'm still figuring out what exactly I mean by that, but it includes drawing on work from a bunch of different sources. So, for instance, I'm thinking of heterodox readings of Marx by folks like Holloway, who emphasize Marx's analysis of capitalism as a way of organizing the world which both materially breaks and then ideologically mystifies living relationships among people and our practices, through social relations that prioritize dead things but that still entirely depend on socially organized relationships among people. I'm thinking of Dorothy Smith, who draws both on an anti-reificatory reading of Marx and on feminist theory in advancing her own ways of thinking about how the world exists and how we know it. Of Sara Ahmed's work on encounters. Of, at least in some ways, Emmanuel Levinas' prioritizing of relation and ethics over individualized being, not just in a moralizing way but in his analysis of how the world exists and how we exist in it. Of my own work, however rudimentary, beginning to think in a historical context about how, even if we subordinate this in practices that pretend otherwise, encounter and dialogue and relation across differences in standpoint are really the only basis we have for learning about the social world beyond our own direct experience -- this is my reality, that is your reality, that over there is her reality, so lets figure out how they are materially connected.

Because I'm still in the middle of the muddle in thinking about my own approach to such things, I'm not sure I'm at a stage to say much that's concrete about what and how I can learn from Wilson's work, but a few things come to mind. A key thing to recognize for me in learning from work like Wilson's is that though relationality is present in indigenous ways of knowing and in some dissident ways of knowing that exist within, against, and beyond Western frameworks, it is present very differently in those two contexts. For one thing, in indigenous ways of knowing the world, relationality extends beyond the human and beyond the material as conventionally understood, which I respect and perhaps even aspire to in the longer term, but which I think is not always or even often true in even dissident Western contexts.

Another key point of difference is related to how that relationality exists. My sense from reading Wilson's book is that in indigenous contexts it describes and builds on that which already exists, that which is being strengthened through resurgence, that which is organized by a culture-specific cosmology and sensibility that shape what "harmony" and "living well" are supposed to mean. That is, for all that it cannot help but exist as resistance to dominant Western ways of knowing given the colonial context, it is primarily something positive, something that is and that aspires to be more itself, something evolving and strengthening and dynamic but nonetheless extant. Dissident Western ways of knowing that foreground encounter and relation do not have that. We want to build a social world in which such interdependent existence is valued, in which life and thriving are foregrounded, but we don't have a clear, coherent, shared vision for what that will look like. In many ways, the knowing of the world that we do through encounter and relation cannot help but be negative -- it cannot help but initially be about taking apart the interwoven epistemologies and social organization in which we currently exist, and starts not from some extant whole but rather from aspiration towards building new ways of knowing and new social relations that are not soaked in blood and harm and violence.

Those are very different projects, and I have only begun to figure out what different responsibilities they place on us.

Here's at least one possibility: At a number of points in the book, Wilson talks about how the very relationally situated character of indigenous knowing means that there really isn't any basis, in that framework, for criticizing the ideas of another. You simply cannot assume that you know enough about the place from which that other person is knowing to pronounce them "wrong." You might present your own knowledge, your own take on things, and you might engage in dialogue, but you don't presume you can infringe upon the autonomy of another by telling them what they should think. And there is something alluring about this for me, on multiple levels -- I also think knowing is situated and embodied, I am interpersonally-conflict averse so it appeals to me in that way, it resonates with a political sensibility that prioritizes the autonomy of other people, and it feels like an antidote to the toxic mix of sectarian-grouplet-slash-grad-school sensibility that informs far more of how the North American rad left interacts with people/ideas than we care to admit. But as drawn to that approach as I am, I don't think that I can adopt it directly. Partly, it is because it comes from a cultural context that I'm not a part of, and I'm not sure that respecting autonomy and personhood needs to mean exactly the same thing in the cultural context in which I exist. But more importantly, I wonder whether what I was talking about a couple of paragraphs back, about there necessarily being something negative in critical/radical projects of knowing that are within, against, and beyond Western frameworks, means that embracing that level of non-critique would in some sense be a failure of responsibility. We need to be critical differently; we need to do it better; we need to do it in ways that don't dehumanize; but I don't think we can stop doing it. Maybe. I'm not sure.

Anyway, all of this means that there is no easy "use X, not Y" approach for me to relate to this book. I think it's more a matter of doing things like writing this review, which should help ensure that a sense of the book as a whole stays with me well enough that it can feed into my own later attempts to think through "What do I do now?", via the very sort of learning by taking up stories and applying them to your own circumstances that this book advocates. If anything, it gives me a general push to remember that relationality is always, at least in part, very concrete and real and practical. I sometimes forget that -- again, that isn't purely a failure on my part, as a significant element of unearthing and foregrounding relation in a mainstream Western context requires us to focus on socially organized interrelation that profoundly shapes who we are and how we exist in the world but that does not happen (only) through direct encounter. Nonetheless, the push to keep it concrete and grounded is welcome, and important for me to be reminded of.

As for how to derive learnings from this book for the particular project I'm in the early stages of now, I'm not sure what to say. I think it has encouraged me to think about making self present in the work more directly than is often my first impulse. I think it has encouraged me to experiment with form, particularly in ways that relate craft and form to an understanding of how we know the world. I think it has been a good reminder that, though it won't necessarily look the same for me doing what I'm doing as it does for indigenous researchers doing research in/with their own nations, relationality is in large part about accountability...and I need to figure out what that is going to look like in my context.


[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]