Monday, September 02, 2019

Review: Pleasure Activism

[adrienne maree brown. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico CA: AK Press, 2019.]

This is an eclectic collection "written and gathered" (as the author credit puts it) by organizer, facilitator, and writer adrienne maree brown. It contains many, many different kinds of pieces – both newly written and older re-published work by brown herself; pieces by other people, and pieces where other people are in dialogue with her; scholarly essays, writerly essays, personal essays, magazine-style articles, blog-style musings, poems, artistic interventions, and many many interviews. They range from Audre Lorde's classic "Uses of the Erotic" to pieces with titles like "Why We Get Off", "Strategic Celibacy", "Fuck Cancer", "On the Pleasures of the Wardrobe", "Experiments in Cannabis for the Collective", "The Pleasure of Deep, Intentional Friendship", "Nipples Are Magic", and "Beyond Trans Desire."

I'm actually quite a bit more ambivalent about this kind of broad and mixed collection than I used to be. I don't know if this is true or if I just happen to be encountering them more, but it at least feels to me like this kind of book has become more common. I have a feeling some of that may be because it allows for re-use in print of formerly e-published material, which often has a broader range of forms than back in the day when everything appeared initially in print in more formally curated venues. Don't get me wrong, I definitely see breadth of voice and a devotion to dialogical character to be political strengths, and breadth of form can certainly be well done. But in recent years, it feels like I have run into instances of books that have taken this approach but done it in a way that just didn't result in a particularly engaging or substantive product. I was a little anxious about starting this book because I really didn't want it to turn out to be one of those – at least aspects of this topic are things that really matter to me, and I didn't want to be disappointed. Thankfully, I wasn't.

As far as I can tell, a central element of brown's approach (here and in a related but not identical way in her earlier book Emergent Strategy) seems to be centering complex, multilayered concepts/practices, and inviting generous exploration of what they might be and what they can do, to fill them in as we go. It is not of the academic form of X said Y and that's not right because of Z, and A said B and that's not right because of C, and building on that here's what I say – it's here is this complex speculative whole that is perhaps not yet fully formed, and oh here's a piece that's light and funny about one little moment of it, and here's a deeply thoughtful essay about how it weaves through a bunch of other stuff, and here's a personal reflection on how someone else reached some of these ideas in their 20s, and really it is all of these things together from which the politics that she wants to convey emerge. Of course some of the individual pieces felt stronger and some weaker, some felt more relevant to me and some less so, but there were enough of the strong and relevant ones and a rich enough whole that I think that it worked, at least for me.

She writes in the introduction, "Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy" and "ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet" (13).

I understand this as being partly about following a broadened version of Toni Cade Bambara's injunction to writers "to make revolution irresistible," but also partly about the ways in which a centering of pleasure can result in a kind of generative logic that is not only counter to the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist reality we live in but that is, like, really appealing to people. Describing the centering of pleasure as anti-capitalist may sound counter-intuitive, because capitalism works hard to sell us things to give us pleasure, but that misunderstands what brown means by pleasure. Yes, pleasure in part means the feeling of eating a delicious treat, of a good orgasm, of a soaring high, of dancing to great music with your friends, but it is also centrally about the deeply embodied, relational, values- and feelings-grounded wholeness that Lorde captures by her use of "the erotic." Rather than the capitalist cycle of predatory/consumptive/violent moments punctuated by distracting/numbing moments of pleasure (the ratio of course depending on who you are), it is about pushing to centre pleasure (understood expansively) in the everyday, for all of us, not just in moments of so-called "leisure" but in all facets of our lives, and struggling for personal practices, movement spaces, and ultimately transformed social relations that enable that. It is about folks who bear the heaviest burdens of oppression refusing the idea that all there can be is misery, and demanding lives, movements, worlds filled with joy and connection and love and possibility. It is, she stresses, not about excess, but "about learning what it means to be satisfiable, to generate, from within and from between us, an abundance from which we can all have enough" (15).

I have to say that it is difficult for me to figure out what lessons to take from this book for movement spaces, at least the kinds of movement spaces that I am likely to be in. I mean, certainly you can connect its lessons to the need for us to be kinder to each other, more generous, less sectarian. You can connect it to the importance of multiplying the kinds of opportunities in our movements for people with different passions and availabilities and desires to get involved, to the benefits of allowing each other to be present as whole people, and to the wisdom of cultivating movement sensibilties that are less invested in masculinist cult-of-the-militant nonsense and that take serously how we treat each other. I hope it pushes me to do better at being present in movement spaces in ways that move towards all of those better practices, but frankly I hope I've already been doing my little bit along those lines. The things is, I'm not sure there is anything obvious that I would take to the next meeting or next demonstration I go to and say, hey, I read this new book, maybe we should give such-and-such a try. It feels more relevant to my own individual choices, though certainly including those made about relating to movement spaces – what better first step to shift away from movements that valourize dour political obligation, for instance, than by changing that for ourselves and seeing where we end up.

Speaking of which, I did find it interesting to note how my uptake of this book differed from what it might have been 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, I used books about...well, they mostly weren't as multifaceted as this one, but books about sexuality and desire and relationships as a way to connect with a sense of expansive possibility for different ways of living. I had moments of that with this book, but fewer of them than I expected. Not surprisingly, I think that is because of where the intervening 20 years have taken me – both not as far into that expansive possibility as I might like, so being reminded of that fact makes me a bit sad, but also rather farther than my tendency towards "Oooooh, nothing has changed" Eyeore-ism is easily able to admit. So it wasn't the big-picture possibility that I latched onto as I read, because I'm already quite aware, but a couple of more concrete ideas that feel relevant to someone at my stage of a long-term journey of trying to unlearn the heavy doses of liberal puritanism, 'shoulding,' and shame that I imbibed growing up. One was a kick to re-think how I make choices about political involvement, work, and other aspects of time use – my search for logics beyond intellectualized shoulding is two decades old at least, and has at least had moments of success, but I think this book offered some new resources that will be helpful. And the other is some new perspectives related to the ongoing difficulties I experience around narrativizing myself – something anyone who has watched me splutter after asking me "How's it going?" or "What have you been up to?" will recognize. That's about a lot more than just pleasure, but it is about pleasure, particularly in that the kinds of active cultivation of and movement towards situations that give you pleasure encouraged by the book – from opportunities for pleasurable work, to the kinds of political involvements that feel positive and give you satisfaction, to friendships where your weirdnesses match up, to the kinds of partners and sex you want to have – are much less likely to happen if you can't clearly communicate the relevant elements of self.

Anyway. I enjoyed this collection, and I think many of us have things to learn from it, perhaps especially those who think they don't.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

On online reading

More and more, these days, I dislike what I read online.

Probably like a lot of you who have found your way to these words, my online reading is mostly about the state of the world and efforts to change it, broadly understood. The form, politics, and tone vary a great deal – staid journalism to overblown punditry, careful theorizing to back-of-the-envelope strategizing, pop cultural dissection to personal-political confession, and more besides. A lot of it is quite useful in terms of acquiring facts and ideas, learning about the world and other people and struggles. But very little of it satisfies me as writing.

Already, you can probably guess one powerful reason why negative affect might cloud around my online reading like stinging insects or a bad smell – the world's state is awful and it's getting worse. Of course it is unsatisfying, or worse, to read about it.

And I certainly feel that. But it isn't really what I mean here. Our climate-grieving fash-heavy Trumpapalooza will hurt to live through until we're through it, one way or the other, but I might find reading about it more bearable (and maybe even more useful) if the writing was different.

So it may not have any meaning beyond my individual experience but, nonetheless, there are three things, that I would like to see in more of what I read: decent politics, a thoughtful approach, and obvious care for the craft of writing.

It's a sadly rare combination.

Now, you might think that I am just being too politically picky – some excessively narrow definition of acceptability must be what's holding me back. That isn't the case, however. By "decent," I don't mean "identical to mine," I don't mean "pure," I don't mean "sign me up for that!" Rather, I just mean something that feels worth engaging with and listening to for a little while. Which for me is a pretty broad range, including I'm sure some that you would roll your eyes at. Of my three criteria, I think "decent politics" is actually met the most easily and the most often. Despite my complaint about writing, there are lots of people out there producing lots of politically useful work, and I'm thankful for that.

The barriers to the other two – to thoughtful writing and to attention to craft – are considerably higher, and I think overlap quite a bit. Before I explore these barriers, I again want to be clear that this is not about me having definitions of thoughtfulness or craft that are impossibly narrow. At least, I don't think so. Writing that attends to craft can be in all sorts of different forms, tones, and approaches, not just the conventionally revered snobby end of the spectrum. And thoughtfulness, to me, is not about ten-dollar words, citing particular people, or any other exclusionary marker of "smart," but about a certain openness and curiosity.


To an extent, the barriers to thoughtfulness and craft-consciousness are sometimes related to form. Journalistic forms, for instance, can only in limited circumstances allow a thoughtful approach and attention to craft beyond the spare, efficient, and rule-bound communication of basic reporting – just in features and other longform pieces, and not always there. That's not a knock against journalists, that's just the rules they work under.

The situation for scholarly forms is similar but more complicated. Like journalists, scholars are socialized into norms related to appropriate writing in their field, but my non-scholar's take is that they have considerably more freedom than journalists. Many would disagree, but I think the inherently greater complexity of what they are producing means there is more wiggle room for scholars than for journalists to meet disciplinary norms while still writing creatively and compellingly. But even in the humanities, these days, the academy is not organized to incentivize attention to writing craft. If an individual scholar also wants to develop their skills and become a great writer, well, fine, they can go ahead and do that. But most are so overwhelmed jumping through the mandatory hoops of the neoliberal academy, including lots of other kinds of demands re. amount and kind of writing, that many don't have much energy left over for questions of craft that go beyond that.

Which I think ties into the question of why I don't get what I want from the single largest pool of online writing about the state of the world and struggles to change it – the many flavours and kinds of free-form analysis, opinion, punditry, and comment. And that is, I think, that the overwhelming emphasis in that context is on content that is produced quickly and can be consumed quickly, while thoughtfulness and craft take time.

This emphasis is certainly connected to the medium – the cycle in which knowledge and comment are produced is becoming ever more frenetic thanks to 24/7 connectivity and the dynamics of social media. However, I would also argue that, as in the university case, it is tied to broader features of neoliberal capitalist culture and social relations as well. It is facilitated by the technology but cannot be reduced to it. If you want your work to thrive amidst the ever-rising flood of online content, the conventional wisdom is that you get it out there quick when there is some hot new thing, and that you produce a lot of content, all the time. And even if you are not yourself committed to diving head first into making a living as a 'content creator', with all of the attendant neoliberal pressures around shaping and branding not just your work but your self, you still exist in that world.

Of course, there is stuff out there, often in the most unexpected of places, that has decent (or decent-enough) politics, a thoughtful approach, and attention to craft. It's rare and hard to find, but it exists. I just get tired of reading so much, including by lots of people I respect and constantly learn from, that has political value and useful info or insight, but that embodies a cleverness that is not within what I mean by 'thoughtful' and is not particularly concerned with craft.

So, maybe it does all boil down to snobbery or to petty self-interest on my part. What matters is that the world is burning, not whether one mildly peculiar introverted white dude likes how people write about the burning and about efforts to put it out.

But I wonder.

I wonder if maybe there is at least some minimal something in this preference on my part that is an expression, however partial and garbled, of resistance starting from where we are. Maybe there is some value, just a little, to prioritizing not just explicit content that pushes against the trashfireyness of the world – and again, that content is useful and important, regardless of whether it looks like what I'm talking about here. Maybe there is also value in creating, to the extent that we can, such that how we labour and the internal character – not just the content, but the forms, the tones, the shapes – of what we produce also push back against the dominant logics that organize our lives.

I mean, obviously, that is a highly limited thing to do. Online content exists and circulates as it does for lots of material reasons, the surface of which I have only scratched above, and it takes collective action rather than individual changes in practices to make a dent in something like that.

Nonetheless, part of building movements – definitely a much smaller part than actual organizing, but a part – is building cultures and norms and expectations for things to work other than they currently do. And maybe one small part of that can be shifts in how we make and consume media, in what we expect and demand, that allow more room for the slow, the thoughtful, the carefully crafted. After all, is that not part of what we want for our lives – that we have space to be thoughtful, to make what we make and live how we live in nourishing, deliberate, joyful ways?

Or perhaps this is just me trying to put clever-sounding political paint on a broader dissatisfaction that I'm filtering through my own tastes in reading and writing. Either way, I'll be here, doing my bit to contribute to making our awful world better, and keeping my eyes peeled for writing that is politically decent, thoughtful, and well-crafted.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Review: Turn This World Inside Out

[Nora Samaran. Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture. Chico CA: AK Press, 2019.]

This book has its origins in an online essay by Nora Samaran called "The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture" that went viral when it was first published, and also I think in a direct follow-up that circulated quite widely called "On Gaslighting." These two essays are included and also augmented by a few other pieces by Samaran and by a number of dialogues between Samaran and other people engaged in related work around violence, healing, and justice. The book aims to flesh out what the author means by "nurturance culture" and to talk about the various kinds of work being done to create it.

I encountered the original essay twice over the years, once not long after it was published when I was looking for material about shame (an abiding interest of mine), and then more recently when someone pointed me in its direction in response to a question about resources related in a broad sense to listening. Both then and now, I find it a powerful piece that speaks to the work that men need to be doing on our own and with others to make our lives better and to make us better able to be part of just and liberatory communities. In my most recent reading of it, it did make me think about a tendency I first noticed during the initial rise of #MeToo, which is the relative lack of public space for engagement with the *specificities* of men's experiences of how we are harmed by and complicit in patriarchy. This essay, for instance, outlines several broad ways in which human beings form our capacities for attachment to other human beings, and I can see myself in that typology, but I also as I read felt quite conscious of the limits of broad categories, even reasonably accurate and robust ones, to translating insights for self-work and political intervention into the messy, category-overflowing realities of everyday life. Of course, this broad public lack of space for engagement with specificity and nuance is not the fault of this essay or really any other piece talking in broad terms about men's complicity/men's harm under patriarchy – the problem is how little we ourselves talk and write about how that big picture plays out in our everyday lives.

As for the rest of the book, I thought it was mostly interesting (other than one piece that missed the mark) and it certainly created the basis for a more politically expansive way of thinking about nurturance culture and about harm and justice in our communities. A lot of the basic ideas in it were things I had encountered before, but there are far fewer resources out there talking about this kind of work happening in grassroots ways than there should be, and it is always valuable to encounter new voices, new examples, and of course some new-to-me ideas. I'm a big proponent of a model of producing knowledge of the world that prioritizes listening/reading across difference as a way to understand each other, ourselves, and the social world that has produced us both, and the dialogues in this book were an opportunity to do that. However, my engagement with the original essay, from my first reading of it years ago to my just-once-more-before-I-mark-the-book-read final re-read yesterday, was much more self-focused, much more directly about the hunger that I think many men feel to have these experiences named in a way that both prods us to effort and suggests useful tools, and the rest of the book was mostly not that. Of course I do recognize how inappropriate it is to wish for a book by an anti-authoritarian feminist to be more centred on men's needs – that wasn't the goal of the book, nor should it have been, and listening deeply to all of these other people is also key to men figuring our *stuff* out, albeit in a somewhat different way. But I do hope that this book not only inspires men to have conversations with each other, but inspires more of us to write and to share and to publish in ways that continue to explore Samaran's ideas and to create space for understanding the specificities of how complicity in and harm from patriarchy winds through our lives.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review -- BlackLife: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom

[Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdhillahi. BlackLife: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom. Winnipeg MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2019.]

A short, sharp book exploring what is necessary in Canada, in this era of Black Lives Matter, to transform dominant conceptions of Black personhood – which is to say, dominant denials of Black humanity – and all of the knowledge, imagination, liberal and left political organizing, and fundamental features of social organization that are based on those conceptions. Covers a lot of ground in very few pages, and can feel a bit scant and scattered at moments. However, given that the tendrils of anti-blackness and Black resistance that it follows reach into so many different domains, it makes sense that the book should as well – though, honestly, I wouldn't've minded one bit if the book was two or three times its current length.

Despite its brevity, it includes a range of insightful specifics that were new to me. For example, I knew the basics of the occupation of the Sir George Williams University computer centre in Montreal in 1969, but even though this book deals with it in only a few pages, I feel like it gave me a much better sense of the occupation's events and significance than I'd ever had before. Or to give another example, I had some awareness of the upsurge in Black organizing in Canada in the '80s and '90s, but not particularly of the cultural side of that upsurge (which this book focuses on) and I didn't really appreciate that moment as a high point, which intertwined neoliberalism and anti-blackness have since largely undone. And to give yet another example, the idea that anti-blackness is so woven through the cultural and material bases of modernity that it can only begin to be adequately addressed through radical social transformation was not new to me, but this book adds to the relatively short list I've encountered that explore that idea with Canada specifically in mind.

And yet, despite those learnings and more, and the breadth of ground covered, there is also the sense in the book that the authors are wearily making some basic political points that are more or less variants on things that activists, organizers, writers, and scholars in the Black radical tradition have been saying in Canada for generations. They even open Chapter Two by writing, "We are bored with Canada. We are bored with the ongoing attempts to make Canada right" (49). There is a prodigious capacity in white Canada, when we aren't ignoring white supremacy and anti-blackness entirely, to treat them each time they are forced onto the agenda by Black, Indigenous, and people of colour organizing as somehow novel, a surprise, an unexpected intrusion that we really do need to be given a grace period to adequately understand and respond to. Indeed, the book makes a very important link between this sense of perpetual novelty, including the dominant rhetoric of Blackness and Black people as a late arrival to Canada via the post-Second World War migrations, and the ongoing erasure of the presence of Black people in northern North America since the earliest moments of the colonial encounter. But of course undoing that erasure would make it much harder to avoid the foundational violences upon which Canada is based.

Given all of that, I feel like I should have something insightful to say in response to this book about how it can be taken up in social movement and left contexts, but I'm not sure that I do. Near the end of the book, they talk about what they call the "Black Test," which proposes that before any policy proposal or movement demand is taken up, it must be assessed and found to clearly lead to materially improving the lives of Black people in Canada. Which in a certain sense is a very simple and straightforward suggestion. But if taken seriously, it would require far-reaching changes in dominant ways of doing things in white-dominated liberal, left, and movement circles, and I certainly would not want to underestimate the powerful inertia of "liberals' and the left's banal commitments to white supremacy" in this country (94). We truly do require "a new imaginary structure and logic," and "a transformation of what is imagineable by the liberal and left political logics of our day is urgently necessary" (94). As they write to close the book, "Black intellectuals have been leading us to this new imaginary for a long time, in a sustained fashion since our arrival in the Americas. We are now fully faced with the challenge of how to hear them and institute their knowledges for continued global life" (95). May this book be an opportunity for such listening that many more of us take up and take seriously.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: Unhappy Silences

[Berenice Malka Fisher. Unhappy Silences: Activist Feelings, Feminist Thinking, Resisting Injustice. Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2019.]

A book by a life-long activist and retired scholar thinking through the many varieties of a kind of moment familiar to anyone invested in questions of justice and liberation: When we know we could speak, we should speak, perhaps at least part of us wants to speak, and yet we remain silent. This might be in debate with opponents, it might be in the face of a microaggression we witness or experience, it might be in the context of deliberations within our own groups and movements – in these instances and others, a range of negative feelings can capture us and keep us from speaking and acting. This book aims not to abolish such silences in any simplistic sense (because sometimes they really are the right choice), but to use the feelings that produce them as a resource to strengthen our movements, our choices, and our agency.

Fisher is a lefty feminist Jewish lesbian who was born during the Great Depression, who taught women's studies for many years, and who has been active in many different movements for peace and justice since her youth – including in recent years a lesbian feminist theatre group and the long-lasting women's peace network Women in Black, a group to a significant extent comprised of Jewish feminists that works to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She draws on her own experiences in these groups and in many other groups in earlier years, as well as on a range of published memoirs and relevant scholarly work to write this book.

Each chapter focuses on one emotional axis (cowardice to courage, for example, or shame and pride) and a practice that can be useful in responding to silences resulting from that axis (in those instances, the practice of reflection and the pracitce of reminding). It does this using an approach that is both engaging but also a bit peculiar, or at least so it seems to me. I wonder if perhaps it is an older style than you usually see today. Or perhaps that's unfair, and it is just the author's own. But I can imagine a few different ways that a scholarly book that takes up this problem or a movement-based book that does likewise might be written, in the hands of many authors of my generation or younger. Dismissing the more obscure scholarly approaches, I can imagine that most of that range would be likely to hone in on relatively closed and definite-seeming analysis and/or conclusions and/or advice. There would be acknowledgement of complexity, but a desire to extract certainty from it, whether certainty of analysis or certainty of pronouncements – a sort of distancing from the weave of the messy, situated stories and messy, situated lives that are its raw materials and into the objectifying idioms of theory and advice.

In contrast, in this book – which draws on scholarship at points but is clearly a movement book – the stories are very much the point and the basis of the pedagogy. While there is definite effort in each chapter to think through meaning and extract useful practices, it is the sort of open-ended insight that recognizes that the goal is not to come up with an analysis that sounds edgy and might help build a CV, and it's not to produce a sort of movement version of over-simplified self-help, but rather it's to tell stories in ways that people can engage with in the complex and open ways that people have always derived meaning from stories. Yes, there were certainly moments where I wanted more of the former, where I wanted the illusion of more closed answers, but I think it's ultimately good that this book kept things more open. It really did feel at points like you were listening to a movement elder think through what she has done and what she has heard.

A different sort of complaint: There are a surprising number of visible mistakes in the production of the book – things like paragraph breaks that happen in mid-sentence. It's only a small thing, certainly, but still an unexpected distraction in a professionally produced book.

All in all, probably a book for a niche audience, but a worthwhile read for people invested in thinking deeply about how movements work and how we could be more effective in navigating and building them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: We Can Do Better

[David Camfield. We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.]

A short, accessible, measured, and methodical book that lays out what the author describes as a "reconstructed historical materialism" – that is, a way of understanding the world and of orienting our struggles to change it that fuses a critical marxist approach to class relations with the many other axes of oppression with which they interlock via the insights of anti-racist queer feminisms. It is pitched, I think, towards readers who are new to these questions, both in terms of how it is written and what questions it answers. In particular, I can see it being a very useful resource in related classroom spaces, in reading groups where people are attempting to build affinity and collective analyses, as well as in the hands of a certain kind of serious young person early in their journey of asking questions about the world that I very much remember once being.

I think it is especially critical at this moment that we have more resources that both draw from marxist traditions and also take seriously the interlocking character of the various relations of domination that we face, given the disappointing popularity in recent years of a sort of refurbished class reductionism. I also think the approach recommended in the final chapter on moving from theory to action is the right way to go (and not only because it quotes me a couple of times! :) ) – committed and radical yet open engagement with actual struggles on the ground as they are already happening in workplaces and communities, rather than obsession with finding a correct line or building a 'pure' organization that will supposedly know best how to proceed.

The book notes early on that even folks who share a similar big-picture sense of how the world works and how we must act to change it will no doubt have lots of quibbles with the particulars of the book. Certainly there are various aspects of how this book does its work that are not quite how I see things or how I would talk about them. Mostly, that doesn't concern me – I've never been a believer in there being One True Way, and I certainly see this book as a useful contribution to the ongoing discussions we need to be having in movements. That said, I do have one concern, or perhaps two overlapping concerns, that feel big enough that I need to mention them. I was surprised that the overlapping nexus of relations captured by terms like slavery, colonialism, racism, white surpemacy, and anti-Blackness were not treated more centrally. I mean, they were there for sure, and were understood as part of the complex of interlocking relations at the heart of this book. They just didn't seem to be given quite the centrality that I understand them to have in the social relations of the last five centuries and in any potentially successful anti-capitalist politics today. And on a related but distinct note, it was actually quite shocking to me that the book had so little to say about settler colonialism and struggles against it – to me, that has to be front and centre of any conversation about capitalism and anti-capitalism happening on Turtle Island.

That said, I think this book does a lot of useful work and has the potential to spark a lot of useful conversations, and I hope it helps people on their journeys towards articulating alternatives to class-only and class-first understandings of the world and of struggles to change it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: The Lost History of Liberalism

[Helena Rosenblatt. The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.]

This is an academic history of liberalism, in the form of what it calls a "conceptual history" – that is, it explores what its proponents (and to a certain extent opponents) have said over the years about the positions, ideas, and politics associated with "liberal" and its cognates. This is presented with some political history of parts of western Europe and the United States. It is not a polemic pro or con, admitting both the virtues and blemishes in liberal thought, and it is written with the sort of measured, readable clarity I associate with a particular kind of scholarship.

I appreciated its debunking of a number of common myths we have about liberalism's earlier years. Rosenblatt argues, for instance, that there was never really anything like what commentators today call "classical liberalism," with its uniform and doctrinaire advocacy of laissez-faire economics – rather, rigidly laissez-faire liberals were always in the minority, and state intervention of various sorts was always a contested issue within liberal thought. She also pushes back against the notion of liberalism as being largely concerned with individual rights, narrowly conceived. For most of its history, liberal thinkers paid a great deal of attention to moral questions, duties, and the common good, and it was really only as liberalism became Americanized and then had to navigate the political battles of the Cold War that a strand focused solely on rights and on the individual pursuit of them began to fluorish.

There are limits to what this kind of history can achieve, of course. The book doesn't shy away from identifying positions taken by liberals of the past that today we see as odious – most opposed democracy in the first half of the 19th century, positions on things like slavery and colonialism were divided, and many opposed basic rights for women up until the early 20th century. But the fact that the book sticks mainly with a history of ideas and of mainstream politics and does not integrate a detailed, materialist exploration of the violences of colonial capitalism and how they related to liberal ideas means, I think, that we get an incomplete picture. Just as an example, take the absence of explicit advocacy for anyting resembling atomized individualism in the work of most 19th century liberals. I think it's a good thing to really grapple with this truth and to get past the caricature that we on the left sometimes have of liberals of that era, so I'm glad that the book discusses it. At the same time, it seems clear to me even from what this book describes (but does not identify in this way) that the overwhelming emphasis on producing particular kinds of individuals with particular capacities and particular moral concerns – and this goes right from the promotion of "liberality" that pre-dates the use of "liberal" or "liberalism" by millenia, on through self-identified liberals in the 19th century – still fostered a way of relating to the social world that put individuals and their choices at the centre. Yes, these were moral choices and they generally were expected to attend to the common good, rather than being the kind of cartoonish self-interested rationalism that neoliberal economists and libertarians embrace and their opponents on the left decry today. But it was still a way of understanding the world that centred individuals, and individuals of a sort that most human beings could never be, and this was happening in the context of the capitalist reorganization of society that melted all that was previously solid into air and imposed its own kinds of individualizing logics on people. So while I think it's useful that this book pushes us to get past our distorted sense of the explicit content of the earlier years of the liberal project, it doesn't necessarily help us grapple with its actual impact.

Anyway, read it with that kind of limitation in mind, but I would say – at least if the topic interests you – it is well worth reading. I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I think what it does is useful.

Also, check out this post, not directly about but inspired by my reading of this book.

This was also posted on Scott's Goodreads page.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The novelty and fragility of liberal-democracy

I've been reading a scholarly history of liberalism. It isn't directly about this, but as it reminds me of things that I already knew in broad strokes and fills in some details, it is making me think morbid thoughts about the relative historical novelty and consequent fragility of the institutions that, at least in 21st century mainstream thought, are understood as being essential to democracy.
Not that such institutions are so great, in all the ways the left and rad Indigenous folk have pointed out since forever, but the possibility of their transformation in illiberal and anti-democratic directions seems to me to be worth worrying about.

So think, for a moment, about 1850.

Sounds like a long time ago. But, really, it wasn't.

"Nonsense," you say. "That was 169 years ago, which is a very long time indeed."

Well, yes, that is the count of years, and that count is not small, but think of it like this: When I was younger, I knew and spent time with people who in turn in their youths knew and spent time with people who were fully functional humans in 1850. And when I say that I knew people who knew people who experienced 1850, it suddently doesn't seem quite so distant.

Take my partner's great-grandmother. She was born in 1894 and she passed away in 2000. I ate many a meal at the same table as her. And it's not even vaguely a stretch that her youth included knowing folks who were alive, aware, and doing their thing in 1850. Or take my great-aunt, who lived from 1909 to 1995. I know she spent time with someone who was around in 1850, because she lived in the same household in Stratford as her great-grandmother, who was born in 1832 and died in 1918.

So 1850 is really not so far removed from today.

And in 1850, almost no countries in the world had what we would now consider to be liberal-democratic institutions. From what I've been reading, maybe Belgium would count? Not sure. And I think that's it in continental Europe, though perhaps some smartypants will pop up to cite some other example. Certainly not France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or most of the rest – admittedly, two of those named weren't even unified states yet, but their anticipatory fragments in that era were no more liberal or democratic for all of that.

That leaves the US and the UK, which in 1850 did have institutions somewhat approximating mainstream understandings of democracy today. But it's hard to take either of them too seriously in this regard, as the former still had chattel slavery, while the latter ran the biggest empire in the history of the world and had a franchise so limited that practically no one could vote.

Of course, there had been various attempts across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 to create institutions that were variously more liberal and/or democratic than what predominated in 1850 – though, interestingly, most liberals were actually against mass democracy for most of the first half of the 19th century, and were not at all pleased when people and movements to their left attempted to insist on such things. In fact, it was really only in the couple of decades after the failed revolutions of 1848 that most liberals reluctantly decided that democracy was necessary, and set about finding ways to institute it over the objections of the reactionaries who were mostly running things in those years, while keeping it limited and controllable.

None of which is news. It's not like that history is a big secret, and the trajectory towards the development of such institutions is no doubt the focus of many a mainstream history course, even at the high school level. But, at least for me, it takes on a different feel when I hold firmly in mind that I knew people who knew people who were around then. The historical novelty of the institutions in question feels clearer, and their existence and stability feels consequently less certain.

As for the fragility of these institutions today – well, that may be a harder case to make than novelty. Though perhaps not – it's hard to avoid a certain unease on that front that comes just from being alive in 2019 and watching goings on in the US, in Brazil, even in still-liberal Canada with the far-right swing of several provinces, the disarray of both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left (such as they are), the slowly growing white nationalist appropriation of the yellow vest symbology, and the launching of a white nationalist federal political party headed by a figure with considerable name recognition. In light of the history that makes it clear that these institutions are relatively new and quite historically contingent, all of this is even more concerning.

Which maybe sounds more pessimistic than I feel. Yes, these institutions of mainstream liberal-democracy are relatively new in historical terms, possibly more fragile than we realize, and definitely (speaking from the left here) far more limited than contemporary liberals will ever admit. But the energy and activity among ordinary people that forced such institutions into history in the face of violently opposed elites, and that pushed and still (disarray notwithstanding) push for more – well, that is not novel, that is not fragile, and that I continue to have faith in.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Review: Age of Anger

[Pankaj Mishra. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Picador, 2017.]

A far-ranging and clever book that convinced me of its core thesis but left me with some questions and considerable ambivalence about some of the things surrounding that.

The book sets out to understand some key elements of our current moment – particularly the growing prevalence of terrorism (understood broadly), and the rise of the increasingly vocal and vicious far-right nationalisms that have attained state power in places as diverse as the US, India, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil, and have managed to have a profound impact on mainstream politics in many other places (cough Brexit cough). The key to understanding these things, the author argues, is for liberals in the West to stop believing the myths about the history of Western liberalism and its supposed enlightened, nonviolent emergence that were promulgated particularly during the Cold War, and to recognize that all of this violence – of liberal capitalist modernity itself and of those whom it excludes – has a clear precedent during the system's formative years within the West.

The Enlightenment and its aftermath gave us a conception of the world composed of atomized individuals, each maximizing their own self-interest, as well as a range of promises related to justice, liberty, and opportunity. That combined with capitalism's power to dissolve earlier social forms and deprive people of the stability, identity, and meaning that those provided while not actually allowing the vast majority of people to realize anything close to the promises that the rhetoric of liberal-democratic capitalism makes. Aspiration to that promise, disconnection from any alternative, and exclusion from its realization produces resentment, and a widespread and relatively stable structure of feeling organized around that unrealizeable desire and resentment. This is true within the core capitalist societies – it was somewhat less true during the unprecedented and probably unrepeatable boom-plus-limited-redistribution in the middle of the 20th century, but it was very much true before that and is becoming increasingly true since. And it is true in a different way in societies that have more recently been violently disconnected from their traditional forms, dazzled with promises, and then excluded much more thoroughly than ordinary people in the West from whatever (often questionable) benefits capitalist modernity might offer.

The book traces a trajectory beginning with Rousseau (whose work included some very valid and important critiques of the key voices of the Enlightenment, as well as some much more dubious stuff) through German Romanticism and various other tendencies to both the particular form of violence we call terrorism today as well as the hateful collective fantasies of reactionary nationalism. This was true in the 19th and early 20th centuries in places like Italy, Germany, and Russia. And it is true in a lot more places now. The structure of feeling produced as an expanding capitalist modernity shaped the more peripheral areas of Europe in the 19th century is very similar to what it is producing on a much broader scale in the Global South today. And of course, this disconnection between what is promised and what most people can realize is becoming increasingly sharp everywhere, and the same structure of feeling is also fueling both so-called 'lone wolf' white nationalist/violent misogynist terrorists and far-right blood-and-soil political movements within the most powerful capitalist countries. Importantly, this disconnection is not just about money and stuff, but also about identity and feeling and belonging. The overall picture this book paints is of a world marked by violent, predatory capitalist modernity and a range of violent, terrible, and equally modern reactions to it, with no clear path to any sort of alternative.

The author's facility at shuttling among years, eras, generations, and thinkers, as he draws similarities and traces out lineages, is impressive. As I said, I'm fairly convinced by the book's core thesis; I think it is a useful way to understand the relevant elements of our current moment. But I have some reservations.

For one thing – and this is perhaps petty – I don't love the way he uses the term "anarchism." It's based on Bakunin and bomb throwers who claimed that label in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it is largely disconnected from what anarchist politics look like in the early 21st century. He uses it to capture a particular relationship to terrorist violence that is about carnage that symbolically targets the old order but that has no thought or care to building anything else. While it captures something that was an earlier part of one strand of anarchist politics, and I'm certainly open to seeing a role for the structure of feeling he identifies in contemporary anarchist politics more broadly, the way the book uses the label comes across like an unnecessary and unnuanced generalization. This may be symptomatic of a broader tendency to paint with broad strokes in a way that excludes the kind of reading of past and present that might help us move forwards. (And by the way, I say all of this as someone who has drawn political nourishment over the years from elements of broader anarchist and anti-authoritarian traditions, but who also has my own deep ambivalences about much of the political action that happens under big-A Anarchist banners today.)

My more substantive concern is the lack of space the book leaves for any kind of politics that will not inevitably be drawn into either neoliberal defence of a violent and horrible status quo or modes of individual or collective response to it that might have varying mixes of reactionary and liberatory rhetoric attached to them but that will, functionally, end up collapsing into an ultimately destructive politics of escalating ressentiment that are just as much part of capitalist modernity as what they oppose. Now, I have no objection to recognizing that both the left and the right have mobilized in the space enabled through this structure of feeling, and that you can point to plenty of historic left projects that may have sounded better on paper than their reactionary counterparts but that ended up somewhere in the crowded terrain between useless and awful. We need to acknowledge and learn from that. I also really appreciate the way that the book's keen knowledge of who read and was influenced by what shows that there has frequently been much more cross-pollination and ideological murkiness across political tendencies than a shallow engagement from a far future decade often allows. But while I agree with the book's final sentence that there is a "need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world," I strenuously do not agree with the implication that there is nothing valuable to be learned as we do so from earlier efforts, particularly earlier left efforts, to address the violence and harm inherent to capitalist modernity. I'm not sure the author actually thinks that, to be honest, but it certainly seems to be implied by his refusal to identify anything in earlier generations of ordinary people coming together to improve their lives that was useful or inspiring or worthy of taking up and adapting. If we can't draw constructively on what our ancestors have done, beyond naming the faults in all of them, then what do we have to stand on? If all of the "truly transformative thinking" that might lead to something better has to start from zero and happen only from this point forward, I think the world is out of luck.

Don't get me wrong, this is an important book and one worth reading. Just be sure to expect one of those books that's all about the problems, and not much about what we might actually want to do in response.

This was also posted on Scott's Goodreads page.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Bored and Brilliant

[Manoush Zomorodi. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador, 2017.]

Some time last year, the realization crystallized for me that I don't experience much direct loss of explicitly designated work time due to social media or other online activity, but it does tend to eat up rather a lot of my time that is not thus designated – it fills up lots of little corners, it shapes leisure, it offers possibilities and, in the inevitable way of such things, it takes away others. Now, I'm generally quite scornful of the moral panic that often surrounds the ways in which computers and smartphones have reshaped our lives. I was a somewhat slow adopter of Facebook back in the day – my eleventh anniversary of joining was last week – but I'm not bothered morally or practically by spending lots of time online. To others of my generation and older who grumble about youth today walking down the street with their face in their phone or using their device to remove themselves from a social situation, I generally retort that I did exactly the same things when I was young except with books (and still do now when I can get away with it, frankly). And if my time is reorganized because of devices compared to what it was 20 years ago, well, so what, that on its own is neither good nor bad, and generally speaking, said devices don't get in the way of me doing what I want to do.


Excpet they do, I noticed in my realization last year, get in the way of me staring off into space, either on its own or with a pen in my hand. I do that way less than I used to. And staring off into space outside of the bounds of explicitly designated work time is a pretty core activity for someone who is a writer and otherwise maker-of-things. This is a lack that I keenly feel.

Earlier this year, I read about this book: The subtitle "How spacing out can unlock your most productive and creative self" may signal enthusiastic buy-in (untempered by any critical perspective) to the cult of neoliberal self-help, but it also spoke to my concern about lack of time spent "spacing out." Last month, I bought the book.

This past week, I was feeling pretty lousy. Particularly early in the week, life was pulling me in lots of different directions, my anxiety levels were quite high, I had lots of external obligations, and I wasn't left with much time that I had much say over – I was busy, and I got done the things I needed to get done, but I managed to do hardly any work on the long-term writing projects that are what I really want most to be doing. When that happens, it always makes me miserable. And I returned to my realization of last year that my explicitly designated work time doesn't tend to suffer too much from the intrusion of online distraction (unless I'm otherwise in a bad headspace), but consumption of online media *does* take up rather a lot of my non-work time, energy, and attention. Which as far as I'm concerned is fine, in and of itself, and most of that time could not be magically transformed into prime work time anyway even if I wanted to go the all-work-and-no-play route, but...could I be using it differently, in ways that still fit with how that time is genuinely constrained, but that would leave me feeling better about things even in a week of high external demands? Might making time to stare into space instead of into my Twitter feed be part of that?

The author of *Bored and Brilliant* is a journalist who hosts an NPR radio show and podcast on technology issues called *Note to Self*. (I've never listened to it.) The book is based on a week-long experiment that they did with a sizeable group of listener-volunteers, giving them a different challenge each day that would alter and thereby make them more aware of their smartphone use. I think something like 20,000 listeners participated in that initial experiment, and the book builds from there. The author is very clear that this is not meant to be anti-tech and it is not meant to get people to stop using their smartphones, but to help people develop tools to be more aware of how they use their technology and more deliberate about making those choices. The science behind the subtitle is based on the fact that when we are "mind-wandering," we are using our brain differently than when we are engaged in some kind of concrete task, and time spent mind-wandering can be crucial to developing new ideas and engaging in figuring things out in our lives and in our work in creative (if not generally terribly directed) ways.

The parts of the book that were about being mindful of choices about time usage and about intervening in various ways into one's own practices felt useful and interesting, or at least a mix sufficiently rich in useful that it felt worth reading. I mean, worrying about how I spend my time has been one of my main preoccupations since I decided to experiment with being a writer twenty years ago, as the proportion of words devoted to exactly that concern in the 10 to 12 shelf-feet of filled notebooks in my office would make (boringly) clear. And as a source of new insights into that ongoing area of reflection, I'm glad I read this book. It prompted me to recognize ways in which my time flows, unthinking, towards screens that I wasn't previously aware of. It got me thinking in new ways about how I might want to engage more strategically with online media. And I think it will have some impacts on my use of devices and will perhaps, I hope, maybe, if I'm determined and lucky, help me win back some time for staring off into space. (And maybe a bit more time for reading books, as well.) There is occasionally some puritanism that appears in how the book talks about these things, but it wasn't present so strongly that I couldn't read things into what I think is a more useful frame of competing interests and desires – I don't like the narrative of excess corrected by restriction, in large part because so much of how I understood myself and the world in my early years was framed in those terms. I much prefer to recognize that I get X out of one pattern of choices and Y out of a different pattern and doesn't Y really meet my needs and desires more effectively?

Anyway. The practical stuff was useful to me, but I didn't love a lot of the explanation and grounding that the book provided. I mean, it's not badly written, and I think it makes skillful use of the sources that it cites. But what it can do is limited by its choice of sources.

And by that, I mean this: The book is written in a style of popular nonfiction clearly informed by the author's background in journalism. It largely cites studies (and authors of studies) that examine technology use through positivist experimental social, psychological, and sometimes medical science of various kinds, as well as people who are prominent in the tech industry and people who have written popular nonfiction about the impacts of technology on our lives. It does not cite very many people whose ways of making knowledge are grounded in the humanities or in social sciences that are other than postivist experimentalism. And I think that's a big weakness. Now, I'm definitely interested to know what experiments about technology show – I'm glad those are included. But citing *only* those kinds of sources means, for one thing, that it doesn't cite people who can talk about other ways that the shape of our lives have changed over the last 30 years, which means not talking about how neoliberal changes in the organization of work and leisure beyond just our smartphones may have a role in all of this.

Perhaps more seriously, it means that it doesn't bring in the voices of those who might be able to critically unpack the conventional narratives that we have available to us to talk about technological change. So even though the book makes clear that it is not meaning to be anti-tech, in drawing on the kinds of sources it draws on, it can't help but treat what-was-before as normative and what-is-now as implicitly deviant. The kinds of experiments this book draws on so heavily cannot help but make that kind of presumption in how they are designed, I think, and whatever *this* book's intention, a lot of the scholars and authors it cites situate what they do in the context of already-dominant narratives of the dangers of technology. And that means that, as often as not, the text ends up reinforcing moral panic-style readings of tech's impacts, even when I think the author genuinely doesn't mean to. More than that, it means that sometimes technology and/or individual fallible habits get blamed for particular outcomes, when maybe more of the blame should be placed on the social organization of our lives and workplaces and families and communities under capitalism. Also, I would love to have seen critical but generous engagement with first-person accounts from the older range of people who are young enough to have grown up in the smartphone era talking about how they navigate all of these things, especially marginalized (queer, racialized, disabled, etc.) youth who have creatively used tech in their struggle to survive in a world that doesn't want them to – I'm sure they have things to teach the rest of us, and perhaps ways to help us parse out different-and-possibly-a-problem from just different, which I don't think this book does very well at all.

I also look a bit askance at the ways in which this book treats so much of this as new. Sure, smartphones and social media mean that my obsessing about my time usage has different details than it did in 1998. But the basic questions about the life you want to live, the things you want to make, the experiences that you want to enjoy, the dynamics of self that pull in this direction and that, and the practices of self-fashioning that can cajole a reluctant self into the shape that you want it to take are no different now than then. At least not for me, anyway. It's not about my phone, or it's only a bit about my phone; it's mostly about me-in-the-world.

Anyway, given what this book sets out to do, and given where I'm reading it from, I suppose it's not surprising that I appreciated at least some of the tools and insights it has given me to think about how I use my time and how I might use it differently, and that I was simultaneously skeptical of its approach to social analysis.