Saturday, November 07, 2020

Review: Life as Politics

[Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.]

A book about struggles for social change in the Muslim Middle East, mostly focused on Iran and Egypt but with scattered references to other countries as well. The first edition was written not long before the Arab Spring and laid out an analysis that didn't quite predict the uprising but that described dynamic circumstances allowing for its possibility in a way that most commentators in that moment failed to recognize. This edition was updated in 2013.

My interest in this book was its analysis of what it describes as "nonmovements" as a distinct way in which social struggle plays out in the Muslim Middle East. According to the author, most English-language scholarly analysis of movements in that part of the world has either been hopelessly orientalist (especially regarding movements that incorporate Islam in some fashion) or has uncritically adopted frameworks for analyzing movements that were developed in the West without recognizing why material differences in conditions matter. He argues that most of the states in question act in repressive ways even towards fairly modest forms of collective dissent but at the same time are not as strong or as pervasive in their penetration of social life as we in the West imagine states to be. This means that there is less space for the development of social movements in the sense that we generally understand them here. But (as true everywhere, in all eras) there is still all manner of political diversity, of dissent, of desire for things to be otherwise, and a lot of the time, that manifests in what he describes as "nonmovements." They involve a sort of mass disobedience to state-enforced norms that is not centrally coordinated and is really just lots of individuals acting on their own and in their own interest, but that nonetheless has a deliberateness to it and that cumulatively over time seizes space, physical and social, that the state does not want to yield. This can, under certain circumstances, become more deliberately collective and contentious politics, often when states try to crack down on space that has been seized. He explores this in detail in the context of the urban poor, middle-class women, and youth. In the case of the urban poor, it often means things like appropriating public space for their own purposes, whether that is space acquired to live or to make a living in the informal economy, as well as things like illictly stealing municipal services. For middle-class women, that means pushing against various restrictions on their choices and behaviours, not in a collective and overtly political way but just by pushing back against them in their own lives and in some cases just going ahead and doing the things, in ways that end up over time reshaping dominant norms. States and ruling elites don't like any of this, but are limited in what they can do in response. And obviously this form of struggle has its limits, but it has still managed to accomplish some important things in the context being considered. My own interest in this is because it is very much related to everyday resistance, which I talk about in one chapter of my current book project. Bayat goes to great lengths to argue that what he is describing is distinct from everyday resistance, and I get where he is coming from but I'm not sure that matters for my purposes. I think partly he is distancing what he is doing from some of the less useful (and less actually resistant) aspects of the everyday resistance literature that have emerged in the decades since James C. Scott originally used the concept, and I'm really not very interested in those aspects. And I think partly the phenomenon he is examining includes but also exceeds what "everyday resistance" generally captures, so he is using new terminology to make clear the distinctiveness of the context he is focused on. So despite his disavowal, what he has to say still feels pretty relevant to how I talk about everyday resistance in what I'm writing.

In addition to that part of the work, which I thought was going to be the whole book but is really just the first section, he explores a bunch of other aspects of social change in Egypt and Iran, in a way that mixes history and sociology. I don't know much about these contexts, and I'm fully aware of the limits of what you learn from reading just one book about a topic, but it was still fascinating learning. I wonder in particular how the author's analysis of the Arab Spring might have changed, given that this was written at a point before some of the more tragic and repressive downstream events had become clear. But I enjoyed his examination of the politics of fun (which are quite relevant to the Western left and its tendency towards certain kinds of puritanism), his reflections on what revolution can and does mean today, his use of the idea of everyday cosmopolitanism, and just all of the bits and pieces he shares about political life in the Muslim Middle East, especially Cairo and Tehran, from the '70s to the 2000s. There are points where he talks about movements in distanced and reified ways that seem to be informed by social movement studies discourse, which I don't love, but I didn't find that negated what is of value in this book. I don't know how many people are going to be interested in reading it, but certainly if you are someone who thinks a lot about social movements and other kinds of efforts for collective liberation, and you usually restrict yourself to North American content, this book would be a useful way to branch out.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Red Round Globe Hot Burning

[Peter Linebaugh. Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2019.]

A sprawling, intricate history set in the Atlantic world, particularly Ireland and England but also connecting events there to America and Haiti and France and beyond, during the revolutionary ferment of the decade and a half following the French Revolution. It is organized around the story of two people – Ned Despard, a younger son of the Anglo-Irish gentry and erstwhile British military officer, and his wife Kate, a Black woman from the Caribbean. At some point along the way, they developed revolutionary politics. Ned was playing a leading role in planning an uprising in England that was to seek Irish liberation, a restoration of the commons, and the overthrow of George III, when he and the other leaders were arrested. He was hanged in 1803. Kate organized a vigorous campaign for his release, co-wrote his gallows speech, and disappeared afterwards into the underground for freedom fighters that existed in Ireland at the time. But while the story of the Despards serves as a sort of centre to the book, they are just one small part – important, yes, but small – of a dizzying excursion across topics and time, a series of digressions and lateral associations and circular explorations. It reaches back and forth through years and geography, wanders off to explore this detail over here, illustrates a larger point by a carefully accounting of that theme over there. It makes skilful use of speculation and draws attention to connections, including those that are not (and often could not) be known for sure from the documentary record but that are, on balance, likely. It does all of this to create a sense of the era that a plodding linear history could never match. Linebaugh, I think, has a very lateral way of thinking, and when combined with his voluminous knowledge it results in a unique way of writing history that can sometimes be a bit overwhelming but that I think is magnificent. A key focus for him in this book is drawing together two themes of history-from-below that are often treated separately, the struggles of the working class (very broadly understood) and the struggle for the commons. In these early years of the modern working class in England, the fact that these are not just connected but often the very same fight can be made quite clearly.

Even though it's not something Linebaugh particularly draws attention to in the writing, I also felt moments of keen connection to today. Some of those moments were when he, for instance, quoted radicals of 1790s London writing stridently against the evils of war or the tyranny of the rich men who own what should be held in common, and the exact same words written today would be just as relevant and just as inspiring. And some of those moments were because the struggles of ordinary people today are so often connected to the struggles he wrote about – where I live, two of the most important struggles happening right now are by homeless people to make use of public space to live as safely as they can in the midst of a pandemic, and by Haudenosaunee people and their allies to prevent the settler-colonial enclosure of yet more stolen land via the #1492LandBackLane reclamation at Six Nations. The details are different two centuries on, and (contrary to how some left-leaning scholars and radicals sometimes treat the commons) the difference in continent really does matter quite a lot. But you get the sense that Irish peasants, Caribbean sailors, English labourers, members of the London Corresponding Society, and all the rest would, if magically transported to Hamilton in 2020, instinctively *get* those struggles based on what was going on around them back then. As well, in the context of the growing precarity today of the limited but real democratic constraints that the subsequent two centuries of struggle has put on Western states, it is also sobering to read about the more naked use of state terror in defence of wealth and empire in those years – by the year after Despard was hanged, such terror had managed to drive working-class organizing in England underground, where it remained for at least a decade and a half.

I don't have too much to say that's critical about this book. I think some people might not enjoy the way it's written as much as I did, just because it has a sort of frenetic feel to it and because in its relentless drive to make connections it doesn't always explain everything so it makes you work a bit as a reader. As well, while I really like the approach to writing history employed here, with its expansive circuits orbiting the core of the story, it does mean that sometimes topics that are further to the periphery might occasionally miss the mark a bit. Another element of Linebaugh's method is taking sources produced back then by oppressors and their institutions and reading them against the grain, to see traces of resistance and tell-tale silences. He is mostly great at that, but there were a few moments when he was doing that in relation to experiences of Indigenous people in North America in that era that felt a little off-key, and I wondered if perhaps greater engagement with Indigenous struggles and Indigenous writers and scholars today might strengthen the work in these instances.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Review: Sonic Agency

[Brandon LaBelle. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018.]

A book concerned with "positioning sound and its discourses in dialogue with contemporary struggles," that attempts to seek out "ethical and agentive positions or tactics" grounded in "experiences we have of listening and being heard" (1). It does this by drawing on the scholarly area of sound studies and a range of other theoretical resources, as well as various manifestations of sound and listening, to construct four figures – the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak – for re-thinking the social world and how we act to change it.

Given one of my major pieces of work at the moment, this should have been an inspiring and deeply informative read, but my experience of it was much more ambivalent than that. Though there definitely were fascinating new-to-me ideas in the book, and it did point me towards other sources that may be useful to me, I spent most of my time while reading it reflecting on the complicated relationship between academic work and struggles for collective liberation. As I've said lots of times before, I'm a firm believer that it is possible to read many different kinds of scholarly work in ways that can help inform such struggles, even when the work was not written with that intent in mind – this is rarely the most important thing for people doing intellectual work for and with movements to be doing, but it is at least possible and sometimes quite useful. And, like I said, there were things in here that felt that kind of useful to me. Like in the chapter on "the overheard," the book outlines an interesting vision for the ways in which the highly networked, mediated, and surveilled realities of at least many of us in rich countries create a distinctive social environment where much of both our own experience and formation, as well as our contributions to the experiences and formation of others, are arbitrary, fragmented, unintended encounters. What does that actually mean for who we are, how we know the world, and how we might act to change it? Questions worth asking, I think. And there were plenty of other bits and pieces – far from all, but more than a few – that got at aspects of the social world in new-to-me and interesting ways.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding those bits, lots of this book also felt disconnected and not very useful. And I am not sure quite how to talk about it, because I don't want to feed into the anti-intellectualism in the general culture or the variant that pops up in movements – I don't think it helps to be dismissive of anti-intellectual responses and we should work to understand where they come from, because it is often connected to power and is enflamed by the more ridiculous and elitist elements of scholarly research and writing, but I don't want to contribute to it. At the same time, this is a book that draws explicitly on movements, written by someone who seems to have political commitments that seem like pretty good ones to me, and when I sit and think about how its substance specifically when it comes to things like agency and change might be useful...I don't come up with much. I worry I'm being unfair or ungenerous. No doubt other readers would have a different experience than me. And like I said I think there are bits and pieces in it about how the social world today works that are potentially useful. But much that seems to want to be relevant to struggles for justice and liberation seems to be floating in the air somewhere, disconnected and not easy to pull down to earth.

I've been trying to articulate a bit more clearly what it is about the work that makes me say that. I'm sure if I took more time than I care to, I could come up with something. But my best preliminary guess goes back to feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith's insight from decades ago about the very real, material divide between knowledge that emerges from a grounding in the world of the everyday and most knowledge in the academy that is produced in relation to other institutional discourses and the ruling regimes in which they are embedded.

On a related but narrower and perhaps more petty note, I also found it frustrating that the book would retreat into asking rhetorical questions, often as a device to suggest a certain sort of relationship between its ideas and struggle, without actually having to definitively claim that relationship and therefore have to defend it.

Anyway. Reading this has not fundamentally changed my sense of the kinds of things I think are worth reading, or my sense of the relationship between scholarly work and movemenets. But it perhaps makes clearer something that I already knew: that the relationship between the topic of a given piece of work and its likelihood of containing useful-to-me ideas is a complicated one.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review: Life Isn't Binary

[Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi. Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.]

A look at the ways in which, in Western societies, binaries organize our thinking and our lives, and at ways we can navigate and perhaps at moments move beyond them. Clever and very accessible, though not without its limitations.

I've read two books by one of the authors (Barker) before, one focused on relationships and the other on sexuality, both of which I liked very much. Their general approach seems to be to take ideas which are usually found in inaccessible and often quite academic and theoretical forms, and present them very clearly and accessibly and concretely. They use that to push readers to think more expansively and complexly about the area in question, and thereby to open up possibilities for living differently. This is, I think, the most ambitious of the three books I have read by them. I really like what it takes on and think there are things about how it executes that project that are excellent, though other ways that it falls a little short.

Life Isn't Binary begins from contexts where there is at least a certain degree of familiarity with the idea that most of us think in binary terms but some experiences and some people don't fit within those binaries – so the first chapter is about sexuality and the second chapter is about gender. Indeed, both authors are nonbinary in both of those areas, and another way to characterize this book's mission might be to theorize the world starting from that nonbinariness. The remaining chapters go on to explore how binaries operate in terms of relationships, bodies, emotions, and thinking, how they are limited (but also productive), and various ways to live and think and act (to borrow a phrase from John Holloway that this book doesn't actually use) within, against, and beyond them.

This is obviously a tricky thing to write about, if your aim (as is the case here) is to reach beyond the already initiated. Not only are you trying to talk accurately and usefully about the dense social totality that surrounds us, but you're trying to do so in a way that cannot just make use of existing assumptions about the world. That means that there is going to be a careful, linear, cumulative process of laying things out to the reader and helping them build their understanding, so not every moment of writing is going to actually capture all of the complexity. It's not surprising, then, for a reader who has at least a little background in some of these areas to have moments of reacting with "Yeahhhhhh, but..." to what is written. I certainly had some of those moments. I had some of those moments, but particularly given that I think a lot about how to write about the world myself and have a sense of how tricky it is, I can certainly appreciate how you are inevitably going to end up with such moments unless you write something sufficiently dense that it will not be broadly readable.

On the other hand, though, there seemed to be a pattern to such moments. I mean, they were all quite different, but most of them seemed to boil down, in one way or another, to what felt to me like inadequate attention in that moment to socially organized materiality and to power in the context of whatever binary was being discussed. Not that the authors are unaware of such things, and of course had lots to say about them at other points. But I do wonder if the consistent presence of this kind of "Yeahhhhh, but..." for me might indicate a bit of a different understanding than the authors of the relationship between binaries as conceptual practices – and note I'm not invoking the mind/body binary here, but rather using language that keeps the things we do with our brains firmly in the material realm – and binaries as features of social organization. These two are of course deeply interrelated, and are perhaps best articulated as different moments within the same landscape, but they aren't the same thing, and how they relate to each other is not obvious, consistent, or easy. I think, at heart, that more of this book needed to be both more consistently and more clearly social and material in how it talked about these things.

There are a couple of other minor points I would make. There were occasional "Slow down!" boxes that presented exercises to help readers pause and connect with how they were feeling about what they were reading. I thought this was in principle an interesting and innovative experiment in terms of care for the reader. But I also found it a bit puzzling, because I had trouble imagining, at least in many instances, the kind of difficult intensity that these call-out boxes seemed to presume as likely, or at least possible, reader responses. Perhaps I'm just underestimating the impacts of the text on people to whom all of these ideas are completley new? And I had mixed feelings about where the book ended up. By that point, it had effectively challenged a great many inherited assumptions, had introduced many new and challenging ways of thinking, and was exploring some ways of navigating all of this. But it kind of felt like even as it was working so hard to be expansive and inclusive in this field it had opened up, it was really grounding its advice in a fairly specific sensibility. Which isn't a problem, necessarily, but it felt a bit odd that that specificity remained largely unmarked.

Anyway. As is so easy when you are writing a review, I think this comes across as more critical than I actually mean it. I think this book is a great idea, that it does a lot of things very well, and that it will equip lots of readers who might otherwise never encounter such things with some tools to deal more complexly and compassionately with the world, with the people around them, and with their own experiences. It challenges us to recognize that even when it comes to binaries that feel like they fit our experiences well, all of us have moments of misfitting; and it opens up space, in the context of those binaries that we refuse or that we just can't fit within, to feel seen and supported. I'm certainly glad I read it.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: How to Do Nothing

[Jenny Odell. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn NY: Melville House Publishing, 2019.]

A very thoughtful, very well-written book by an artist who lives in California's Bay Area. A self-proclaimed "field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy" (xi) that is "not anti-technology" but that is "obviously anti-capiatlist" (xii). A book about why we might want to resist the latest generation of encroachment by capitalist logics into our lives and selves via profit-driven tech platforms that are part of a broader set of social relations, and more importantly how we might go about doing that. Not, it emphasizes, by something as simple as 'going off Facebook' or strategic social media fasts – there may be times and places where refusal might look like this sort of thing, but moralistic withdrawal won't transform these logics any more than 'dropping out' to set up communes on the land did in the 1960s. Instead, the book traces one particular logic of refusal that is less about the sort of individualistic shifts in consumption that so often fill books on this sort of topic and more about practices of refusal-in-place – not about seeking purity by not consuming X, but about experimenting with what can be gained by cultivating new practices of attention that follow logics other than the overriding capitalist imperatives of productivity and efficiency.

To the possible frustration of some readers, this is not a how-to – but it doesn't neglect the inevitable desire by readers to figure out what to do in the face of it all, either. It stays connected to the level of lived experience. It never abandons the individual for the kind of disembodied analysis you might find, say, in a traditional political economy take on the same topic. But it does this while maintaining a deeply social analysis that it refuses to collapse into the individual. So it leaves you saying, "Yes, but what exactly should I do with this?", but it gives you a basis to start productively figuring that out for yourself – it just doesn't pretend it can answer it for you.

The particular approach that the author comes up with and explores in depth focuses on cultivating kinds of attention that are grounded in place. Summarizing it like that doesn't really do it justice, because it is not just some randomly chosen not-social-media focus of attention, but rather is very much a product of thinking through the character of the logics being resisted and what kinds of logics might present possibilities for different, more liveable worlds. It explicitly tries to learn from Indigenous relationships to place. It explores what tech-mediated relating and social media might look like if it was not driven by the needs of capital. It, in short, opens up fields of possibility for individual and collective exploration.

I really liked this book and it gave me lots to think about both in terms of my own practices and, in a different way, in terms of my own current book project. I do wish that it had spent more time in what you might call the middle ground, talking about different partial, compromised, imperfect, but useful modes of refusal. I mean, I think all of us have a lot to learn from the approach that it follows and from the author's own experiments, but more attention to what might be helpful to people put together and situated in other ways would, I think, strengthen the book – make it a bit more directly useful, perhaps, while still not collapsing it into the fiction of individualistic self-help.

Excellent read and highly recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Review: Weapons of the Weak

[James C. Scott. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.]

A classic from a political scientist of anarchist proclivities doing what amounts to anthropology and studying the fine-grained class relations in a peasant village in Malaysia in the late '70s and early '80s, in the context of the capitalist re-organization of agriculture often referred to as the 'green revolution'. It is a classic because it is generally credited as the entrypoint into academic discourse for the idea of "everyday resistance" (though you can certainly find related ideas, if not always those words, in some anarchist, left communist, and autonomist sources, and perhaps elsewhere, from before this point). I can't comment on how this stacks up in the context of its disciplines, but my sense from its reputation is that it checks the necessary boxes to count as a classic in that regard too.

Even setting aside its political significance, I found it fascinating just in terms of its detailed attention to people's lives and interactions on an everyday level – which is maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but even when it is set in a context completely unlike the one I live in or any that I'm likely to ever write about, it certainly is mine. A lot of the detail of this book is really beyond what I need it for, and before I started reading it I considered doing something I almost never do, which is to only read it partially. But I was just too interested in this aspect of it to do that.

And of course its argument is pretty politically important, I think: There is this traditional understanding of peasants as politically passive the vast majority of the time – which even on the left has often been interpreted as active buy-in to hegemony – and then given to very, very occasional paroxysms of collective violence against their oppressors that almost never results in any kind of victory. Scott argues that this conclusion, and the everyday life-level observations from many which support it, are at fault because they only observe what peasants do when they are directly interacting with people who have power over them. He, in contrast, pays attention to that and also to what they have to say and do in other situations. From that, it's clear that they do not buy into the ideology of their oppressors, and comply visibly because they have no other choice. But he skillfully identifies the many different ways that they are engaged in a constant, discreet, ostensibly individual but sufficiently widespread and coordinated to be at some level collective struggle using the 'weapons of the weak' signalled in the title – the everyday skirmishes about work, food, land, taxes, and respect waged via "foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on" (xvi).

Part of this is about little acts that take back or block the expropriation of time, money, food, and so on in small ways. But it is also inevitably a struggle over meaning – conversations in coffee shops and on doorsteps, and interactions that aren't openly conflictual but that shape what gets seen as right and wrong. It is the poorer peasants mobilizing the moral framework they share with those who have power over them to their own advantage. And he argues that class struggle inevitably, and not just in peasant contexts, starts with these kinds of mostly invisible acts done at the level of everyday life where ordinary people do what they can to intervene in situations where they are exploited and oppressed – not necessarily with any grand political vision but just to carve out a bit more space, to retain a bit more dignity, to hold on to a little bit more of the resources we all need to live life.

Scholars and revolutionaries alike have often either ignored this scale of struggle or, sometimes more recently, romanticized it in unhelpful ways. Scott is clear that everyday resistance is just what people do to survive. Recognizing it and taking it seriously and giving respect to what people are already doing to improve their own lives are essential for making whatever collective and overtly political projects you might wish to build stronger, more just, and more effective.

Anyway. A book that is super important politically, and that despite being in some ways an old-school scholarly monograph is actually very entertaining and readable.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review: Black Feminist Thought

[Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2009.]

A Black feminist classic, and deservedly so. An effort by one of the most prominent Black feminist sociologists in the US to create a sort of overview and synthesis of the rich and varied Black feminist tradition in that country. As you might expect, it methodically outlines the basis of that tradition and explores its core ideas and themes. It skillfully draws on the work of a diverse range of thinkers and presents its ideas in a way that is both rigorous and accessible.

There is so much important stuff in here that I'm not going to attempt even to summarize it. I think perhaps what I valued the most is the way that it constantly draws connections between social organization and intellectual practices – in this case, between the social organization of Black communities and Black women's lives at various points in history, and the preoccupations and ideas and approaches found in the intellectual work of Black women in those eras. So often, particularly in popular writing but in more 'serious' political writing as well, even when you have some acknowledgment that standpoint is a thing or that who we are shapes what we know and how we understand the world, it's often left as an abstracted, shallow, and somewhat essentialized notion. In contrast, this book makes very clear that those connections are material and practical and grounded and always in motion – they are about the kinds of labour that Black women have been forced into, the kinds of community institutions in which they have come together, the opportunities and constraints in their relationships, and all sorts of other very practical things. On related notes, I also appreciated the book's emphasis on epistemology, its insistence on Black feminist thought as an expansive social justice project, and its honesty about the strains being put on the tradition by the novel (i.e. neoliberal academic) circumstances in which an increasing amount of such work is being done today. And I thought that its examination of how Black feminist thought has always placed a high value on changes in individual consciousness, while never denying the need for collective action, was fascinating – a lesson, through the implicit contrast with superficially similar emphases in other political traditions, in how much the collective context shapes the political implications of individual change.

Collins does note in her preface that she perhaps gives the tradition an appearance of creater uniformity and cohesion than it (or any intellectual or political tradition) actually has. I'm not sure I know enough to comment on that in general, and anyway it's clearly just a predictable aspect of the form rather than any sort of problem. But I did find that reading some of her analysis with respect to sexuality so soon after reading adrienne maree brown's Pleasure Activism (and my greater affinity, at least on a first pass, to the focus and emphasis in some of brown's analysis) made me more conscious of differences within the tradition than I might otherwise have been. Not that I'm constructing some sort of false opposition between them – the two different works seem to exist in amiably dialogical relation to each other and to a broad set of shared ideas – but it's a useful reminder that any political tradition is comprised of many strands and many voices.

I'm a little puzzled by how slow a read I found this book to be. As I said, while it is certainly scholarly in character, it is equally obvious that great effort has been put into making it something that lots of different people could quite comfortably read rather than just other scholars. I would say that the writing isn't exciting, but it is skilled, clear, and precise, and therefore a quiet pleasure to read. And while there were some parts of the book that grabbed my interest more effectively and others less so, I would also say that overall I was quite interested in what it had to say. So I think perhaps reading it felt like a slow process in part for the very practical reason that it is one of these academic editions that's set in fairly small type, but also because of the form of the book – I think a summary and synthesis by its nature is going to be a slower read than other kinds of nonfiction because it likely will include a certain kind of methodical repetition as it applies its core approach and ideas to each area under scrutiny.

Anyway, an important book for understanding a vital political tradition that has had a great impact on a range of currents in the academy and in grassroots politics, and one whose influence will be made more politically sharp and valuable if those of us situated in other ways improve our understanding of its roots and of the histories of survival and struggle from which it emerged and from which it continues to emerge.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Guerrillas of Desire

[Kevin Van Meter. Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

A book with some useful and important ideas, but one I was not as able to like as I'd hoped. It sets out to demonstrate that everyday resistance has been historically pervasive and crucial to successful struggle, and to argue that movements in North America today need to do more to understand how everyday resistance is happening now and to nurture, support, and centre that resistance rather than prioritizing abstracted notions of 'correct' politics. It draws primarily from anarchist and especially autonomist marxist resources to do this.

The book is organized into a couple of chapters of theory at the start laying out its main concepts, three chapters tracing the broad trajectories of histories of slave, peasant, and worker struggles respectively (with an emphasis on keeping the everyday level visible), and then a final couple of chapters applying this theory and history to movement debates today.

I think the task this book takes up is an important one, and I broadly agree with the stance of starting from resistance that is already happening. I agree that autonomism offers some quite useful tools in this respect, and that it is largely underappreciated by folks active in movements on this continent today. And I have great respect for efforts to produce movement-grounded theory outside of the academy. Unfortunately, I think this book is kind of uneven and could have been executed more effectively.

For instance, I think the theory chapters are quite uneven. Some of what they present is quite useful. Another subset I found a bit tedious, but mostly because I was already familiar with the ideas, and I think presenting them works in terms of what the book is trying to do. But some of it was clearly presenting ideas that mattered a lot to the author but in ways that did not fully convince me of that significance. And a few bits were just weird – I'm thinking most obviously of the section with a bizarre genealogy of the concept of "white privilege", but there were others. Those bits aside, I wonder if putting more emphasis on finding a way to make it all flow a bit more organically would have helped.

The history chapters covered useful ground, but I didn't find them all that engaging – and I am someone who really enjoys reading history, especially movement history, when I have the opportunity, even when it is about an era or a struggle that I'm already familiar with. I think my relative disengagement was related to the degree of abstraction required to cover so much ground in just a few short chapters, and to the fact that this was history being deployed primarily to support an argument, which is understandable but which doesn't always make for the most compelling way of relating to the past.

And I felt like the engagement with contemporary questions at the end of the book was, well, similar to the earlier parts of the book: Some useful stuff, certainly, and I definitely support the overall conclusion that movements in North America need to be way better at starting from the ways in which ordinary people are already engaged in struggle of various sorts and at various scales. But a lot of what led up to that felt like it was rehashing ground that is already well-trodden on the left and so wasn't all that interesting, and/or felt like interventions in longstanding and contentious debates that were just too brief and too abstracted from actual movement practices to shed new light or to reframe them in productive ways. In a way, I think it needed more attention to grounded examples. I really appreciate the strong insistence in the book that the kind of engagement with what people are already doing can't come in the form of an easily applied recipe, but rather must involve getting out there and doing a lot of listening, a lot of respectful dialogue, and a lot of hard thinking. But I think given that's the case, it would be a more rhetorically engaging and more politically convincing to make the case for movements built via the nurturing and amplification of already-existing everyday resistance if it went through in rich detail and with lively storytelling some contemporary examples where people are actually doing that.

Anyway. I'm glad I read it because it is useful for something I'm working on, and I do recognize that some of the book's choices were made with a somewhat different reader in mind so it's possible I'm being too critical. It is certainly a useful contribution in a direction that I support, and I hope it sparks a lot of discussions. I just maybe wish some different choices had been made in how it was written.

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.