Sunday, October 04, 2015

Review: Critical Inquiries

[Lynn Caldwell, Carianne Leung, and Darryl Leroux, editors. Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2013.]

Studying the phenomenon we call "Canada" in a critical way is nothing new, but I think this book is an attempt to make critical Canadian Studies a bit more clearly visible as an approach with a name, as well as to present a one-stop resource for bringing it into classrooms. It brings together ten essays, as well as a Foreword and Afterword by a couple of higher profile scholars, that take up different methodologies and focus on different issues, and that end up providing an interesting survey that, as the cover says, seeks to frame "Canada as an ongoing colonial project."

Thinking critically about nation and nationalism in the Canadian context is something that has been a pretty central interest for me for a long time, including lots that appears on this blog and my own books. When I did an MA a few years ago, I successfully pushed against some initial administrative resistance to do a reading course on the subject. And my once-and-future Next Big Project, at least in its current version, is not only (as I've mostly described it) about knowing the world through encounter, relation, and movement, but also about using such approaches to knowing the world to reach some critical insights about the Canadian state, nation, and nationalism. So this book is right up my alley.

Overall, I would say that the book is not earth-shaking, but it provides some useful tools and new ideas in a package that, as I say, will probably be quite useful to some teachers in universities. In terms of specific quibbles, I think the title is poorly chosen -- I get how hard titles can be, as someone who has to come up with at least one and sometimes several each week, and I know I tend to err on the side of the long and/or obscure, but I just don't think enough of the key information about this book is captured in the phrase Critical Inquiries. I was also disappointed with two of the essays. I'm not going to single them out, in part because I'm not objecting to their content or analysis -- they said interesting things, I just think they needed quite a bit more re-writing.

Perhaps the most important intervention in the book comes in the Foreword by Rinaldo Walcott, which the Afterword by Sherene Razack returns to, in its challenge to readers and scholars to knit together a single analysis dealing deeply and well with both settler colonialism and anti-Blackness. Doing both of those things at once is something very little writing produced in the Canadian context -- or, at least, very little that I've seen -- has done, and I feel both relatively clueless and very thirsty to read good work in this area. (I appreciated how Razack, in her contribution, ties this lack to one of her important longstanding ideas, the 'race to innocence', which is also a central aspect of privilege in general and a key practice of Canadianness for many of us.) Given how important this area of work is, it was a bit disappointing that it was not really taken up in an integral way in many of the rest of the essays.

I also find it intriguing that class and capitalism are not more present in at least some of the accounts. And I know that in saying this, I risk being perceived as one of those white guys who insists we need to "get back to class" -- they come in variants that are more openly dismissive of race and gender and so on, and variants that do take serious and sophisticated consideration of such things but still insist on a 'class first' approach that somewhat more subtly deemphasizes them -- but I am emphatically not one of those. But I still think that, even given the book's entirely appropriate foregrounding of the colonial, class relations are one element of the overall complex interlocking mix of social relations that warrant a little more consideration than they were mostly given in this collection.

There was lots of other good stuff, though. Three of the essays, for instance, examine in detail the roles of three key Royal Commissions -- as stereotypically Canadian a method of state formation as ever there was -- in the development of regimes of racialized power since the Second World War. Royal Commissions are not exactly sexy stuff, but they have been the site of some crucial work in the production of the present. There was one essay by Michele Byers and Stephanie Tara Schwartz taking up cultural studies and Mizrahi studies approaches to examine questions of Jewish difference in the Canadian context, and while this is not directly relevant to my own work it certain was fascinating. Carrianne Leung's look at two public history projects focused on Chinese presence in Moose Jaw was a very useful case study of racialized memory making, and I think her conclusions about the need for a much more complex approach to thinking about critical and insurgent histories are important. I very much appreciated Lynn Caldwell's use of Sara Ahmed's work on affect and the nation, as well as her challenging of dominant notions of "reconciliation" that are circulating currently in Canada. Damien Lee -- one of my past interview participants on Talking Radical Radio -- contributed a very powerful piece that deals with questions of Indigenous authenticity, colonial identity regulation, the oppressive character of binary difference-making, and cultural appropriation as a distributed mechanism of enforcing colonial identity categories. And Mary-Jo Nadeau provocatively takes apart the process of public commemoration of the "Famous Five" women who won the battle for (white) women in Canada to be legally recognized as persons, and examines the gendered white nationalism at the core of that commemoration.

So. Lots of interesting bits and pieces, and a few bits and pieces that felt less useful. I definitely think it will find a place in classrooms, though frankly I think that the form of the scholarly collection may not be as effective in shaking loose readers' assumptions about nation and nationalism as the more full development of ideas, passion, and narrative momentum possible in many of the well-done single-author books by some of the names I cited in the second last paragraph of this recent post.

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An NDP candidate's mistake and the politics of not-knowing

I have to admit, I'm skeptical that Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas NDP candidate Alex Johnstone really didn't know what Auschwitz was until last week. But I think the controversy that her claim to not-knowing has spawned raises some larger issues that are worth reflecting upon. One is the tricky question of responding to public not-knowing in general. And the other is around learning from the specific flavour of not-knowing which Johnstone has claimed, and the energetic incredulity and condemnation it has evoked.

The knowledge (or lack of same) of the candidate -- also the vice-chair of the local school board until a couple of days ago -- has become a topic of public conversation through the latest variation on a cycle that has been quite common in this election: Seven years ago on Facebook, she made a joke in the comments on a photo taken at Auschwitz, comparing fence posts in the image to a penis. Someone recently dredged up this fact, and then a reporter asked her about it. Her response was to apologize, and then to explain her actions by citing her lack of knowledge -- she had no idea what Auschwitz was until last week, and had she known seven years ago then of course she wouldn't have joked about it. Subsequently, of course, it is this admitted (or claimed) ignorance that has gone on to become the source of momentum for the controversy.

As I said, I'm skeptical that she really didn't know. I think it's more likely that she was grasping for a way to defuse something that she knew had explosive potential, she made a bad choice, and now she (and the party) are stuck with it and have to ride it out.

I certainly could be wrong, though. Paul Berton, the editor-in-chief of the local daily, wrote a column on Saturday making some quite sensible points about not-knowing and asking questions about what exactly we can legitimately expect political candidates (or any of the rest of us) to know in this era where knowledge is both much more plentifully accessible than a generation ago, and much more socially fragmented.

He writes, "After all, in a digital world, with news media expanding and information exploding, what else should we know? How much can we know?" and after presenting many cogent examples, concludes, "As the information highway gets ever wider, the definition of 'common knowledge' will get ever narrower. Only the most arrogant, as usual, can pretend to know it all." (Well, mostly cogent examples -- his admission that he has worked as a journalist in Muslim countries for a "considerable time" and "can't seem to keep track of the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam" sounds an awful lot like admitting to a shallow knowledge of the social context he was being paid to report on, which is not only in a different league than the other examples on his list, but that also, in the very casualness with which it was shared, potentially offers a disturbing kernel of insight into the ongoing serious problems with mainstream Western knowledge production about Islamic countries. But I digress.)

It doesn't completely abolish my incredulity at this particular instance, but I do have a fair bit of sympathy for the more general point. One small way in which I have long been conscious of a related phenomenon in my own life is that I am someone who reads a lot, and who reads a lot of different things, but who is not in any standard understanding of the term "well read." I've had a few people in my life over the years learn of my delight in and affinity for books both great and small, who then relate to me as someone who would fit into that category, which of course has led to awkward conversations where I have to navigate being assumed to have intimate knowledge of various 19th century English classics, the output of the literary superstar du jour, and so on, which I mostly do not have.

But more than that, I'm a writer and media producer. That means that I am regularly making claims-to-know in public contexts. I work hard at being careful as I do that, but it's the sort of thing where sooner or later, everyone makes a mistake, everyone runs into something that they don't know and arguably should have. And sometimes, someone notices and publically points it out. Heck, I've made lots of mistakes, and I can't claim I've always responded perfectly when people have told me so. And it's not just those of us for whom this kind of thing is work that face this, because really anyone who is involved in social media or even the different sort of public space that comes with social movement or community struggle is likely to face public not-knowing sooner or later.

On the one hand, I have little time for the sort of piece that has cropped up recently condemning the internet outrage and shaming machine, because often those pieces boil down to entitled people not liking the fact that social media gives marginalized people about whom they say awful things a chance to respond...and even, sometimes, a little bit of actual power to inflict consequences. Particularly if an instance of my not-knowing causes harm, then of course I should be held to account for it. But it's not clear to me that there's always real space to be genuinely accountable for an error of public not-knowing, to learn from it, and to move forward. Because if you write, make media, participate in social media, or organize for social change for any length of time, you're not only going to be displaying your knowing and not-knowing in public, you inevitably have to be learning in public. For years, the master post where I list links to my collection of non-fiction book reviews (sorry -- it's a bit out of date!) has warned of reviews "that I would write quite differently now, given that my knowledge base, life experience, and analysis have all evolved over the life of this blog and will continue to evolve...that's the potentially vulnerable side of putting at least part of your intellectual growth on public display." Even in off-line social movement contexts, we don't always do a good job of accounting for the messiness that gets wrapped around public displays of not-knowing: When does it really matter? When is it genuine? When is it a cloak for a more active sort of refusal to account for your own privilege? How do we respond when it causes harm? How do we create space for learning without indulging that harm? How much leeway should be allowed? How do we respond without creating barriers to participation? I don't write this with answers, but with a keen sense that more of us need to be asking the questions.

Of course, the instance at the centre of this controversy is not some generic form of public not-knowing, but is rather a very specific kind of not-knowing that has evoked a very specific sort of response. It is generating so much attention because there is broad public sentiment (including from me, and very likely including from Alex Johnstone) that -- however we shape our expectations for what details about it each of us must know -- the Holocaust as an overall phenomenon must continue to be broadly known, and not-knowing about it must be challenged. It is, after all, the most prominent instance of horrific and inhuman violence and systematic mass murder -- of genocide -- in the 20th century. I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about knowing and not-knowing the past, how it happens, and why it matters, and it seems to me that challenging not-knowing in this area is absolutely vital, in part to honour those who were victims and those who resisted, and in part to contribute to building what is needed to ensure that such horror never happens again.

Of course when it comes to the very worst of the kinds of hateful collective violences that one segment of humanity has inflicted on another -- the Holocaust, the Middle Passage and slavery of Africans in the Americas, the settler colonial genocide on Turtle Island, and so on -- it is important not to diminish their magnitude and their specificity, including by making shallow comparisons to other kinds of phenomena. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is also a dishonour to the memory of those who suffered/died/resisted/survived these great violences if we don't try to learn from them in ways that apply to responding to the many forms of unjust harm and violence that get organized into so many lives today, which even when not in the same league as those historical pinnacles of awfulness still have their own significance and impact on real people.

Which brings me back to not-knowing in the context of elections. In the context of mainstream public discourse in this country, including very prominently in the course of election campaigns, there are huge areas of foundational and ongoing unjust collective harms and violences (including some that are ongoing manifestations of the white supremacist slavery and settler colonialism mentioned above, and also including, both intersecting with those and beyond them, some connected to patriarchy and gender oppression) for which publically performing one flavour or another of not-knowing is not only not challenged in the mainstream, but is very actively reinforced. You cannot refuse to publically not-know about the full enormity, implications, and ongoing character of these collective violences and harms and how they are woven through what "Canada" continues to be, and still be taken seriously as a viable candidate or as a commentator worthy of mainstream access. Not-knowing is the expectation, the norm; and that's a huge problem.

And because I promised myself to try and keep my posts to a modest length in my new upsurge of blogging, I'm not going to try to make the full case for what I've just said -- overcoming the powerful weight of the socially organized, publically mandated not-knowing that I'm talking about is far beyond a single blog post anyway. But there are lots of resources out there that interested folks can use to chip away at this not-knowing if they so desire, from the small efforts I've tried to make on the blog, in my books, and in hearing from many different voices through my current radio work; to the useful collection I just finished reading, Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada (Fernwood Publishing, 2013); to both written work and recorded talks from activists and scholars like Himani Bannerji, Sunera Thobani, Rinaldo Walcott, Taiaiake Alfred, Patricia Monture, Gary Kinsman, Harsha Walia, Sherene Razack, Howard Adams, Glenn Coulthard, Leanne Simpson and many others; to the organizing that happens under banners like No One Is Illegal, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter.

So even if the details of what Alex Johnstone did or did not know, and should or should not have known, remain up for debate, I think we need to be informed by the energy and insistence of the reaction to her not-knowing. I think we need to take that energy, to take the lessons of those pinnacles of historical collective violence and harm, and to apply the imperative to challenge not-knowing to the many ways that not-knowing about historical and ongoing collective violence and harm in which many of us are complicit are sanctioned and encouraged in this election and in mainstream public life more generally in Canada.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Facebook racism & making good political use of "WTF?" moments

Lately, we've been subjected to a rather higher density than usual of a particular kind of moment in public life. These are moments that combine what are (when you're on the left) fairly common emotions like outrage or frustration or dismay, with something else: surprise. It isn't necessarily the flabbergasted sort of surprise that would indicate total and unexpected novelty, though it can be, but at the very least it involves a sense that there is some part, some aspect or flavour or component, that's new in whatever has prompted the reaction.

For instance, I would argue that Donald Trump has been a generous source of such moments, and really as a political phenomenon could be understood as one big example of what I'm talking about. He's incredibly awful, of course, and evokes all sorts of outrage and opposition from those with left inclinations. You can make a case, however, that he is the logical culmination of a 40 (or even 60) year trajectory in the Republican Party and shouldn't be surprising – it's not like Republican presidential hopefuls saying outrageous things is new, but there's still something about him that pushes the bounds of what you previously thought possible and makes you go "WTF?"

The example that has got me thinking about this is less spectacular and closer to home than Mr. Trump, but not necessarily any less troubling: In the space of a couple of weeks, seeing someone in my social media circles share something that's blatantly racist and/or Islamophobic and/or anti-migrant has gone from pretty rare to...well, quite a bit less rare. And perhaps because I'm somewhat buffered from it by the kind of information bubble we all exist in online, from what I've heard, at least some other people are seeing a lot more of this stuff than me.

On the one hand, the circulation of racist sentiment among white Canadians is completely unsurprising. We live on stolen land in a country founded on genocide and slavery and existing in conditions of ongoing colonialism and white supremacy. Our first Prime Minister was a vocal proponent of a "White Canada." Anyone who experiences racism or who listens to those who do will know that manifestations of such things, from the small and everyday to the big and life-threatening, have never not pervaded the lives of racialized and colonized folks in northern Turtle Island. For all of these reasons, "OMG, Canada used to be so tolerant what happened" is a disingenuous response at best.

At the same time, there is something new here – not unprecedented, but somewhat novel in its details. Partly the novelty is the combination of how widespread and unabashed the sharing is, with how odious and hard-right the sentiments – not all of the memes that are going around have these markers, but some that I've seen are quite clearly from a particular openly fascist British organization, or from some weird fringe white supremacist organization here in Canada. And partly it is the way that this is tied to what I wrote about back in March about the novel ways in which the Harper gang is deploying electoral racism. It's opening new ground in what I describe in that post at the "electoral economy of violence," and I fear that now that it's open, there is no going back. And because this is coming from a powerful mainstream institution that mainstream media is institutionally obliged to treat seriously, that shapes how such racist awfulness gets treated more broadly – folks who follow politics in the UK and Europe, for instance, will be familiar with how mainstream right and centre-left pandering to racist fringe outfits leads to their politics getting more serious mainstream treatment overall. At the same time, though aspects of this newish mode of Con electoral pandering to white supremacy have been clear for at least a year, I think there's something very specific about this recent upsurge: I first started to notice it intensely a few days after the alarming news of Harper hiring some Australian thug who specializes in nasty racist campaigning to be his campaign closer. Given that correlation, I think there is deliberate effort and money going into getting this social media upsurge of hate among folks who are not otherwise sympathetic to the Right, or at least its more xenophobic elements. And that tactic done in that way is new too, in the Canadian context.

What I want to say here, though, is less about that phenomenon specifically, and more about where thinking about it has led me. Whether it's Donald Trump, or the sudden jump in breadth and number of hard-right memes in Candians' Facebook feeds, or the blatantly laughable and disturbing demonstration of mainstream media subservience to power in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the UK Labour Party, all of these moments that evoke enraging surprise/not-surprise have something in common. I think they are all moments in which some disjuncture between dominant narratives of how the world works and how the world actually works become temporarily more visible, to more people.

Recognizing a mismatch between dominant stories and actual workings of power, and how those deceptive stories are not only ubiquitous but absolutely essential to the maintenance of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that is our social world, is nothing new. Lots of important work done by both movements and writers since at least the 1920s has focused on pushing against dominant myths about how our supposedly liberal-democratic societies work – myths about universal equality, about fairness, and so on – and drawing attention to all of the ways that liberalism and capitalism inherently, by their very structuring, cannot help but fail to meet those ideals. Organizing in this vein may use other terms and may have other focuses, of course, but it generally has a similar shape to this. So, for instance, we have dominant narratives about the "free press" and the role of (mainstream) media in democracy, but there's no shortage of writers and movements that have shown that the mainstream media is quite a different beast than those stories would have it (albeit in ways that are usually quite a bit more complex, less personal, and more systemic than the unhelpful image that sometimes crops up of a capitalist behind the curtain issuing orders for how to confuse the public next). And lots of organizers and writers have taken on dominant notions bound up in left-liberal nationalist visions of "Canada" as tolerant and welcoming and relatively racism-free, and demonstrated that this is completely at odds with the lived realities of lots and lots of people.

I think these moments of surprise/not-surprise that I'm talking about often involve some sort of shift in how power is actually functioning, big or small, that jars, at least a little, with the currently dominant version of the stories about how the world works. This means the workings of power become a little more visible for a moment, until stories and expectations shift to take this new detail into account, or until the moment is forgotten. The different ways in which these moments are experienced – how much surprise is actually felt, and how each person narrates it – are of course related to the different ways in which differently situated and differently politicized people exist in different relation to these realities and narratives. I think it's an interesting testament to the power that these dominant narratives have that many of us who might know full well at an intellectual level that the social world is not at all like X or Y still feel some surprise when that becomes more visible. And experiencing surprise, whether genuinely or as surprise/not-surprise, is not, as some folks who work very hard to perform rad-ness occasionally take it, a reason to be scornful. Rather, it is an opportunity to make the actual workings of power in the social world more visible. These moments are, to use a hyperbolic and somewhat old pop culture reference, glitches in the matrix. We need to make use of them. And we don't do that by only emphasizing continuity, but by combining that with an acknowledgement of what is new and different – of the bits that mean that whatever it is has become newly visible to new people.

So, in the case of this disturbing uptick in disturbing Facebook memes, those of us who have the space to do so in our lives (and whether we directly experience it or not) need to harness that socially produced sense of surprise, that instinct that something new is going on. Not only do we need to point out, where we can, how the specifics of the content are wrong and awful, but we need to take the upsurge as an opportunity to investigate and talk about the what and the how of what's going on. This newness makes visible a corner of the ways in which white supremacist social ordering and the stories that support it pervade what we currently call "Canada" in ways that are not new and that dominant myths about multicultural tolerance so often hide, so part of what we need to do is follow the thread that is momentarily visible and give it a bit of a pull, so that more of those actual workings of power become visible for more people.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Turning Opportunity Into Crisis Into Process

One of the joys of returning to the city I moved away from over a decade ago has been reconnecting with some very lovely people in what promises to be much more sustained ways than occasional visits in the interim have allowed. And one of the advantages of knowing very lovely people, at least some of whom think there are a few things that you are moderately competent at doing, is that when you reconnect with them, they offer you opportunities to do those things.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, it is.

Except I had a rather surprising density of such possibilities put before me on Monday (along, later in the day, with a fairly substantial amount of alcohol), and it threw me into a mini-crisis that rather derailed my work day on Tuesday. Which is not to say that I am at all ungrateful for the various potential opportunities that were raised in conversation that day, nor that I have yet made anything resembling a definite decision about how to relate to any of them. The crisis, rather, was sparked by the way that having to think seriously about these potential courses of action has forced me to take my slow, gentle, and I'll admit somewhat meandering process of returning to more-than-bare-bones writing practice after four months away, and make it way more definite and clear.

At the moment, my single biggest commitment is to my weekly, half-hour, interview-based radio show, Talking Radical Radio, which broadcasts weekly on 8 or 9 stations across the country and much more occasionally on a handful of other stations, and can be heard online at the site linked just above and at That work has kept going through the ins and outs, ups and downs, tos and fros of moving. What was set aside was, most significantly, work on a major writing project that I first envisioned a couple of years ago as an entirely separate thing, but that has evolved into an effort to make use of the vast stores of wonderful content that I'm collecting through the radio interviews; to put together some ideas about knowing the world through encounter, relation, and movement; and to say some suitably critical yet accessible things about this thing we call "Canada." As I've mentioned before, earlier in the year I wrote about two-thirds of a chapter in that project, and it's the sort of thing that could become a book, or it could fizzle out and become one of the many false starts that litter any writer's life.

In returning to a more capacious writing practice, I have deliberately chosen not to plunge full-tilt back into that work. Partly that's because there were a couple of other, smaller things I needed to get out of the way first (including last week's book review). But it's also because even back in the early months of the year, I was feeling quite dissatisfied with my limited scope for making stuff that was not either A) the show or B) some project so big that, even if it does come to fruition, noone will see for years. Not only was this state of affairs unsatisfying, it also did not feel like it was a very strategic way to build my own capacities and opportunities moving forward. I didn't come up with any good ways to address that dissatisfaction pre-move, but it kind of feels that the current moment – with the freedom of being in the middle of a break not of my choosing, and with certain other writing and community obligations left behind, however sadly, in Sudbury – is as good a time as I'm ever going to have to see what I can figure out.

The sense of crisis that briefly engulfed me yesterday was a result of being presented with a few very concrete somethings that I could occupy myself with, including one or two which might even generate some income, and feeling that bump up against, and even threaten to muscle aside, this precarious combination of intense desire and equally intense vagueness and uncertainty around my writing practice.

As I said, no decisions have yet been made. But whatever I do about other opportunities that Hamilton might present, I need to figure things out around writing, and yesterday's mini-crisis has pushed me to be more definite, sooner, than I might otherwise have been about doing that.

The goal is to have a framework for approaching smaller-than-a-book writing projects that balances spontaneity with a certain amount of deliberateness to make sure I have a sense of direction and forward movement when it comes to substance, craft, and audience. Which is a pretty broad thing to say, and deliberately so. It just means that I want to make sure that I'm doing things that (might?) help me keep getting better at figuring out what I want to say, figuring out different and better ways to say it, and connecting more effectively and/or more broadly with readers and folks who publish stuff. So, really, what most people who write try to do, each in our own ways.

In practice, in the short term, that means writing more pieces and more kinds of (mostly shorter) pieces for this blog. Even before yesterday, I was already thinking that a practice of that sort might be in order, though it would probably have taken me another while to work myself up to it. And it didn't hurt that, last night, I ran across this interesting article by a graphic designer who has developed a practice of producing and publishing a piece of work that he identifies as 'awful' every day. I'm not going to shoot for daily or for 'awful' (though way back at the beginning, blog publishing helped me get more comfortable with having done not-great work that other people could see, and that will certainly continue) but I am going to write.

Some of what I write will likely look more like a standard blog post than what I usually publish on the site. Some might respond to specific short pieces of writing – like book reviews, but in response to an article and or an essay rather than a book. Some might be vaguely experiential or memoirish, though I suspect still tying whatever the focus is into the social world in a pretty explicit way. Some may not feel like they fit at all, and deviate from my usual while actually getting farther from any sort of dominant, readable, bloggish norm. And some, I suspect, will be like this one (or at least similar in spirit, if in content quite different) and talk about writing process, in general or in relation to the nascent maybe-book, which I will also ease into relating to more directly in the coming weeks. (That last was actually the idea of another lovely person, this one not in Hamilton, whom I spent time talking with about some of these things yesterday morning. Thanks, M!)

But, really, I don't know yet what it's going to look like, or whether any of those possibilities will actually end up being part of what I do in the next month. And I don't know how long it'll last, just that it will be more and different, and that for the time being it will be here.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm way behind on editing next week's show...

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: Transformation Now!

[AnaLouise Keating. Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.]

Take the fact that I am writing this review at all as a sign of my regard for some of this book's ideas. I've only recently returned to any sort of consistent writing-and-making practice beyond journalling, a sparse scattering of letters and posts, and the radio show, after four months of having most of my time beyond that tied up in moving. I finished reading this book (for the first time) early in the move-prep but never quite found the time to write a review. Normally, this long after, I would've just let it slide. However, some of the book's ideas are very relevant to some of the work that was before and is starting again to be current for me, while others connect with certain things that I have written in the past and offer me ways for me to deepen what I've done. Which isn't to say that I have no reservations about the book, but I'll get to those in due course.

The subtitle of the book promises a "post-oppositional politics of change," a phrase that is likely to intrigue some and set off warning bells for others. I suspect that what that phrase evokes for many in both of those categories is really a somewhat different thing than what the book actually contains -- it is not at all, if you read it with care and generosity, an argument for a formless blahblah liberalism that refuses to take seriously the immense violence and injustice of the world. Quite the opposite, really. But it is quite a subtle book, I think, and an approach to politics that makes no claim to have everything figured out. In fact, I would argue that it is best treated not as complete and self-contained, but as a source of generative ideas that can be taken up and engaged with as part of the ongoing transformation of our existing politics rather than as any sort of replacement for them, as a necessary corrective and addition that is compatible with a range of both more and less radical starting points.

Here's my take on the basic argument of the book: In the West, our ways of seeing and talking about the world are deeply organized via binary oppositions, from Descartes' mind-and-body split on up. This is no less true in movements and communities-in-struggle that are working hard to create change, or in those corners of academic institutions where folks concerned with justice and liberation and critical analysis of the world have carved out some space. Indeed, vigorous embrace of binary oppositions and a stance of energetic oppositionality can often be central for those of us who are trying to create change. This, the book argues, profoundly shapes how we understand the world, how we understand ourselves, and how we understand our struggles. Furthermore, it leads us to misunderstand all of these things. It leads us to homogenize and discount difference within categories, and to refuse to see points of consonance and similarity across them. And understanding the world less well means being less effective in changing it. As well, the book argues that entrenched and rigid forms of oppositional thought and practice lead to particular kinds of approaches to creating change -- approaches that can certainly be crucial and effective in some moments, but that often hold on long past such moments and end up getting universalized in ways that limit our potential for creating truly transformative change.

To get a flavour of the ideas involved, you can listen to this in-depth interview with the author, AnaLouise Keating -- a scholar, an activist, and a disciple of legendary (and, sadly, now deceased) feminist Gloria Anzaldua. (In fact, it was only after I started to read this book that I realized I had encountered Keating's work once before, many years ago, when I read an important collection co-curated by Keating and Anzaldua called This Bridge Called Home.)

One of the key commitments in Transformation Now! is to take up theoretical work done by women of colour scholars and writers of the past. It quite rightly points out that, even when key works by radical women of colour are cited in and beyond the academy, it is often done in ways that are superficial or tokenistic or that cherry-pick narrow points without really making an effort to engage and build upon the central ideas they present. And Keating is very clear that her commitment to focusing on some of these works by radical women of colour is not based on some shallow commitment to representation for its own sake, but because she believes that some of the most innovative and important theorizing of the world to happen in North America in the last several decades has been done by women of colour, and we all lose by leaving those ideas marginalized. So, for example, she argues that, despite how often the collection This Bridge Called My Back gets cited and described as a feminist classic and put on reading lists, very little work has been done by subsequent generations of writers (particularly in the academy) to actually build on the theorizing done by its contributors. So she does some. As well, she makes great use of some of the central concepts developed by Gloria Anzaldua throughout her career to get at ideas of relationality, complexity, and transformation.

One area in which the book discusses its core ideas, and an area that I found particularly interesting, was in the context of what gets labelled, often dismissively, as "identity politics." There is a rich tradition of writers and activists, not only but primarily women of colour, articulating the importance of experience and identity to efforts to create change, and doing so in ways that emphasize complexity, multiplicity, and relationality. As those insights have spread to other contexts, both in movements and among scholars, the ways that they get deployed have changed. In the terms of this book, they have become bound up in binary oppositional politics, and have therefore lost much of their original openness to complexity, multiplicity, and relationality. To put it in somewhat different terms, I would argue that they have for many people become absorbed into ways of treating identity that are reified, and ways of doing politics that adhere to liberal assumptions about both the nature of the social world and about politics. The book doesn't really explore how this transition happened, but I would guess that beyond the hold that binary thinking has on movements and critical scholars in general, it can be tied to things like the overall push under neoliberal capitalism to reify identities, the impact that the social relations of the academy have on any radical idea, and the sadly predictable result of lots of privileged people taking up these ideas and applying them in simplistic ways such that more radical implications get bleached out.

In contrast with these reified/binary oppositional identity politics, the book poses not a downplaying of the importance of experience and its sedimentation into identity -- that is, the approach some liberals and (in a different way) some (mostly white) radicals have used to respond to the limits of mainstream invokations of identity and intersectionality -- but rather an even greater emphasis on them. It is a recognition that inherited identity categories exist because they say something important about the social organization of our lives, and that it would be cruel and foolish to advocate just abandoning them, but also that such categories are very far from capturing everything that is personally and politically significant about our lives and the social world. It is attention to the fine grain of experience, to what the book talks about as the complex weave of both commonalities and differences that invariably exist within and across inherited categories. It is insistence that in that complexity exists the possibility for new kinds of action, new modes of transformation. It is relational and dynamic rather than centred on rigid, stagnant categories. It is a recognition that, yes, it is and must be central to our politics that we have such-and-such experiences of marginalization and such-and-such experiences of privilege, but we must attend to the how of it, to the contextual eddies and currents, to the possibilities for surprising alliances and unexpected shifts in self-understanding. We are always more than what we are told we must be -- to use language I have picked up in other places, we always overflow; we always exist within, against, and beyond.

I particularly appreciate the three deceptively simple but very powerful lessons that she derives from theorizing done in This Bridge Called My Back. She sees these lessons as a basis for moving from currently dominant approaches to intersectionality that remain bound up with binary oppositional concepts and politics (and, I would add, reified ones), towards a more radical and nuanced "politics of interconnectivity." She argues, on this basis, for "making connections through differences," "positing radical interrelatedness," "and listening with raw openness." In all of these, a commitment to "intellectual humility" and to recognizing the inevitably incomplete character of our knowledge of ourselves and of the world are absolutely essential. And I agree -- these are crucial lessons, crucial tools for us to take up as we try to know the world and change it.

As I have mentioned in some of my infrequent posts in the last year, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how we know the world through encounter, relation, and movement, and I think this book is incredibly relevant to that work. It makes it very clear that we miss a great deal when we insist on ordering our knowing of the world through an abstracted series of binaries, and we gain immensely when we attend to how the social organization of our lives and communities through the workings of power actually happens -- how those complex lived realities of commonality and difference actually weave through our lives. This includes, in the book, an emphasis on the value of considering unlikely juxtapositions of very different sources of knowledge, to explore those commonalities and differences and the complex socially organized relationships that they are part of. So, for instance, an early chapter reads Ralph Waldo Emerson, Toni Morrison's Sula, and Gloria Anzaldua in relation to one another, as a way of theorizing the individual and the social. And this is part of why I think this book offers a much deeper reflection on some ideas that I had begun to fumble my way towards in my own books -- the idea of understanding the social world, either historically or in the present, by beginning from my experience, and your experience, and her experience over there, and figuring out how they are all interconnected. It is relational, it is open to complexity, and it works to understand how things are actually happening, with an underlying commitment to doing so in the service of just and liberatory social transformation. Or, at least, that's the theory...I don't necessarily make grand claims for how effectively I've been able to realize any of that so far.

Related to this is the book's emphasis on developing an understanding of the social world that transcends the binary between a very atomized version of liberalism, and a sort of rigid and unthinking structural determinism. In everyday conversation about the world, and even in most writing outside of very specific niches, these are really the only easily accessible options for thinking about how the social world exists. And neither is very useful. Again, in my past work I've tried to learn from some of the approaches that are out there for getting beyond this binary, and one of the things that I have considered as a focus for a future project (not the one I'm returning to writing at the moment, but perhaps the next one) is figuring out new ways to offer tools to people for beginning to think about themselves as being in the social world beyond the very limited possibilities offered by this binary.

Despite all of these interesting and useful ideas, back at the beginning I mentioned that I had some reservations -- some specific elements that, in the spirit of the book's commitment to finding complex commonalities and differences rather than falling into the binary of devotion or rejection in relating to other people's work, I think deserve further thought and development.

For one thing, I wonder if the book is perhaps a bit too stark in how it poses the distinction between binary oppositional (or reified) identity politics on the one hand, and more complex and relational integration of experience and identity into political work on the other hand. I can appreciate why doing so is important for clarity. And I also think there is a tendency -- again, particularly among that subset of white or otherwise privileged progressives and radicals who don't particularly like identity politics anyway -- to conflate what are actually quite different ways of deploying identity and experience. Given that, drawing out the differences is a crucial task. But my sense -- and I welcome feedback from folks who disagree, because I feel very tentative about this point -- is that, particularly among people who experience a significant degree of marginalization, the language that they often have available to talk about their experience and the world is hard to distinguish from more problematic variants of identity politics, but their actual practice of said politics often organically incorporates much more recognition of complexity and relationality than you will find in a significant proportion of related scholarship, from most powerful institutions that have taken up identity politics for their own ends, and from many privileged individuals (both those who recognize the importance of experience and identity and those who scoff at it).

I also wonder about how best to frame the relationship between the "post-oppositional politics" that the book is trying to articulate and the binary oppositional politics upon which it builds. The book is very clear in some cases that it is not attempting to treat these two modes of politics as themselves a binary, with the "post" clearly trumping the present mode. It is, in these cases, careful to talk about this new approach adding to oppositional politics, which cannot help but continue to be an important part of the lives and struggles of many different people situated in many different ways. But the book is not always as careful as that, and there are moments when it feels like it is dismissing oppositional politics in a much more total way -- I don't think it actually is, but it reads that way in places. More importantly, the book does not tackle what is to me the crucial question of how to make decisions about relating in practice to these different modes of approaching analysis and political action. Not that I'm looking for a recipe book -- that would be a very bad idea, I think -- but it seems absolutely central to lay out some tools that might be useful for people on the ground trying to navigate this political landscape in practice. In scenario X, what is the risk of moving away from starkly binary understandings, and what might be gained? How is that different in scenario Y? What are the ways to take up the recognition of complexity and relationality at the heart of this book's approach, while still being a productive part of movements on the ground that are necessarily oppositional?

Related to that is what looks to me -- and I know full well I'm extrapolating pretty intensely here -- like a deliberate decision by the author to write a book that will easily be misread, a book that requires the very kind of nuanced, humble, generous reading that it advocates. I don't think this is an accident. Among other reasons, I think that partly because one chapter in the book is an analysis of a book by an otherwise much-respected Indigenous woman scholar that is often ignored and criticized because it could and does get used in really politically troubling ways by white and other non-Indigenous women. The undercurrent of Keating's effort to re-read that work in more positive ways involves (it seems to me) a recognition that radical women of colour should not have to orient their writing choices around avoiding misreading and misuse by privileged folk, and instead should be allowed the space to produce the tools that say what they want to say in the ways that centre themselves and those with whom they have political affinity as the imagined reader. (And I recognize that even the way I'm deploying identity-related words in that sentence sits uneasily with the spirit of the book I'm reviewing, but as Keating herself acknowledges, it's hard to avoid sometimes. As well, I suspect (and the book admits) that many people will not be convinced by her reading in this chapter, and I'm not going to weigh in on that, because it's one of those conversations that I feel that I can only sit quietly and listen to.)

And regardless of whether it is a deliberate feature of Transformation Now! or not, I think there is a real danger of it being misread -- or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that it is open to a wide range of different readings, given the danger of presuming (and dubiousness of fixating on imaginings of) authorial intent. Not only can I imagine, as I said at the top, both embrace and dismissal of the book based on such a (mis)reading, I can also imagine it being weaponized in debate in really troubling ways by (probably mostly) privileged folks. I can imagine people towards the apolitical end of the Peace Studies spectrum, for instance, deploying some of the language in this book to push for peace over efforts to create justice, or for some defanged version of dialogue instead of open struggle, in situations where I think those would just be bad, bad, bad ideas. I can imagine class-privileged white university students using some of the language in this book to argue against identity politics in their entirety, to argue against struggle, to argue against radicalism. I can imagine these people thinking they are taking up and using these words exactly as the author intends as they do these things, and invoking her identity and credentials to legitimize their politics against and over marginalized peers. And these really would be misreadings and misuses, no matter the openness to multiple readings made possible by the book. I find it pretty hard to know what to do with all of that. At the very least, I don't think I would feel comfortable writing a book that left itself open in this way. But, frankly, I have immense respect for (what at least to me looks like) the author's decision to write the subtle, complex book that she wanted to write; that requires the kind of reading she calls for; that speaks to people who are willing to do the work to read not just the words but also the field of meaning from which they emerge; and that refuses to put at the centre of its writing people who can't or won't do these things. It's gutsy, and it's a challenge to us as readers and writers that we must take seriously.

So. It's always tough to know how any given instance of reading will filter down into yet-to-be imagined pieces of writing. But this book will certainly be in my mind as I write over the next little while.

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

On Moving

It isn't news to anyone who knows me, but I haven't mentioned it on this site yet: Very soon, I will be moving from Sudbury, Ontario, to Hamilton, Ontario. This is not a product of long-term scheming but of a surprise opportunity decisively seized, so it all still feels somewhat unexpected. And even after it arose as a serious possibility, it went straight from a prolonged interlude of the likelihood-but-not-certainty that can be a feature of academic hiring processes, to a scramble to figure out the practicalities, and I have had little opportunity until now to pause, to breathe, to write. It seems fitting that I write something here, though, as the occasion for the founding of this blog way back in 2004, when blogging was young and social media had barely begun, was moving away from Hamilton and needing an outlet.

When I think of the time between moving away from Hamilton and moving back, it doesn't seem like eleven years. It was a blip in LA, a modest stretch in Sudbury, but a decade? No. And yet it was. And unless I peer closely, the very distinct colours that paint the very distinct phases of my time in Sudbury all blend into one.

The distance travelled has not been trivial, either – when I left Hamilton, I was newly donning the mantle of stay-at-home parent, and now he's a tween. When I left Hamilton, I had 50 oral history interviews in the can, not all of them yet transcribed, and no clear idea of how to use them, let alone the knowledge or skills to realize such a vision – I faced a process that seemed almost endless and unlikely to succeed, but now I have two books to my name, new projects that build on that work, and an accumulation of knowledge and capacity that feels like it opens many more possibilities for the future. When I left Hamilton, I was excited to be on a journey around relationship practices and sexuality, but my steps in the handful of years since its unexpected beginning had been few; now, I feel only a little less clueless and in some ways more wounded and closed, but even given the slowness and smallness of my steps, I have gained and travelled and experienced and learned a great deal. When I left Hamilton, I was already not terribly happy, but I was entering a multi-year stretch of being downright miserable, for some reasons causally related to moving and others just coincident, and while much that I wrestle with today is still influenced by that period, the period itself and its misery are long done. And when I first arrived in Sudbury, the city was for me an unwanted unknown, but now it is home – the site of community, the site of work, the site of learning, the site of struggle, the site of friendship.

At least until it was interrupted by the need to prepare to move, one element of my latest major writing project has involved figuring out ways to know and write about the world starting from moments of encounter and from the relationships which are built from such moments. This has meant a number of things. I have, for example, about two-thirds of a first chapter written which thinks through this approach to knowing the world. It...well, it may end up fizzling out and becoming a false start, but it may end up becoming a book. But I've also done a bunch of less formal writing, not written to be shared, that doesn't theorize about this way of knowing the world, it just sets out to write it beginning from moments of my own life. Mostly, this informal writing has started from moments of encounter and moves from there to gesture towards more fully realized relation that it does not attempt to wholly encompass, but earlier in the year – before there was any glimmer of the possibility of moving -- I decided, on a whim, to see how I could apply what I'd been developing to something more enduring. And rather than that first experiment being about a relationship with a person, I decided to see what I could do with my relationship to Sudbury.

The first and most obvious lesson from this brief and largely unsuccessful experiment was that it is very silly to think that you can apply the same sort of close reading you've been using to write about five-minute conversations to a full decade of residence without drastically changing your approach to account for scale. But beyond that, it was also interesting that a theme that quickly began to emerge, however inchoately, was the ways in which living in Sudbury has shaped how I think about the importance of place. This isn't surprising – the distinctiveness of everything from racial formation to political culture in Sudbury has always compelled my attention. Practically everyone I know whose sensibility has formed in more metropolitan contexts goes through a difficult adjustment on moving to Sudbury, and I was no exception (though I think I navigated it more successfully than some). And approaches to political organizing with their origins in big cities don't necessarily translate directly or easily to Sudbury. This has implications for those of us living here as we make decisions about how to engage in social change work locally, but also as we navigate being the local nodes in more dispersed activist networks anchored in spaces like Toronto, where there is mostly a resolute disinterest in how things actually work on the ground in smaller and more isolated centres, and often a refusal to even recognize the fact of place-based difference. And what makes it most interesting, I think, is that in the global scheme of things, Sudbury is actually not that different – by any measure, be it geographical or social or political – from Toronto, Hamilton, or small-town southern Ontario. So my time here has driven home the importance of the specificity of place precisely because, even given that proximity, I've seen it matter a lot in very concrete ways in my own life and in the lives of people around me – in ways that, I am increasingly convinced, folks in metropolitan contexts must learn to recognize and account for as they do political and intellectual work that cannot help but be the centre that those of us in more peripheral communities orbit around, not only so they can relate more responsibly to the rest of us but to improve the effectiveness of what they do close to home as well.

As for the (once and) future half of this transition – Hamilton – it is too soon to say much beyond a few impressions. My feelings about the move are a mix of sadness and excitement, but the net balance is towards the latter, in part because I still have people in Hamilton (even if I haven't actually had an opportunity yet to hang out with any of them, in my couple of hasty and stealthy forays into the city since this process has begun – sorry about that, but it'll happen! :) ). As well, though most of my core everyday and everyweek activities will remain the same initially – the radio show, the aforementioned writing project, and domestic/parenting responsibilities – I look forward to (slowly) reengaging with political community in the city, and to the greater opportunity for new professional, creative, and political direction that Hamilton holds for me over the longer term in comparison to Sudbury.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Watching a moment of the police watching people

Earlier today, I was out in downtown Sudbury running some errands. Before I came home, I stopped to have some fast food. I was sitting, munching on my pizza, and watching out the window of the establishment.

Across the street, sitting on a ledge, was a group of people -- about eight in total, all visibly Indigenous, about half a dozen men and two women. It's a lovely day here, and they appeared to be enjoying the weather and casually socializing.

As I watched, a white woman police officer approached by bicycle. She noticed the group. She stopped. She initiated conversation. They talked for perhaps five minutes. I have no sense of the content of their conversation, but the body language was calm and at ease throughout, from all parties.

I'm speculating, here, but I would bet that given the ways that policing institutions tend to rhetorically present community policing, the most positive possible frame in which the officer could present the interaction would be as an instance of establishing and maintaining relationships with people she sees all the time in the area she patrols -- about being friendly, about being community-oriented, about being available. She might even believe that.

I have lived in or right next to the downtowns of Canadian cities since 1998 (barring about fifteen months). As such, I have spent lots of time doing lots of different things in urban downtowns. I've walked. I've sat. I've chatted. I've shopped. I've strolled. I've cycled (though not much). I've stood. I've sauntered. And I -- middle-class white guy that I am -- have never had a police officer make a point of initiating casual conversation with me, in all of those 17 years.

So. Not a shocking point, particularly to racialized and colonized people, but one worth making anyway for the rest of us: That casual interaction that I observed, which would be so easy to see through a lense of whiteness and say, "Oh, isn't that nice," and which even the officer involved could easily see as progressive and community-oriented, is really just another moment in a long string of such moments for racialized (especially Indigenous and Black) folks...whatever the individual officer's intent, the institutional and social purpose is for it to be a moment of making clear to people whose bodies are socially marked as "threat" and "deviant", who are the targets of disproportionate and repressive police attention, that they are seen, they are watched, they are surveilled, they are noticed.

(And now back to the non-writing things that have been occupying most of my free moments over the last month....)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Are the Lips a Grave?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: Disability Politics & Theory

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

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

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

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

Ungrounded Liberal Rhetoric of Alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

A War on Process

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

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

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

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

Electoral Racism and Economies of Violence

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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