Monday, February 02, 2015

Review: Another Politics

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

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

Nonetheless, on we go...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

Against Policing: A First Critical Conversation in Sudbury

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

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

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

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

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

She talked about how...

Read the rest here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing the Connection Between the Big Bad World and Everyday Life

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

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

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

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

Public and Private

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

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

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

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

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

Public, Private, and Movements

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

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

The Landscape of Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Do

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

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

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

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

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

Why Bother?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Review: Research is Ceremony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Review: The Radical Imagination

[Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish. The Radical Imagination. Black Point NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2014.]

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the authors of this book at the Peoples' Social Forum that happened this past August in Ottawa. I had already read and thought highly of some of their earlier work in this area, and obviously I was interested enough to take the time required to turn
their words into a radio show. Nonetheless, I wasn't certain at that point that this book would make it from the very large pool that is "great-sounding books of political nonfiction that I'd really like to read" into the inevitably much more limited pool labelled "political nonfiction that I've actually read." Recently, though, I've been casting about for as broad a range of sources as I can find that analyze or model the knowing of the world through encounter and relation -- see the first few paragraphs of this for more explanation -- and it occurred to me that this might be a good fit. As with any book, it has areas where it is stronger and areas where it is less strong, but overall it was a very useful thing to include in my reading list. It helped to nudge forward the evolution of my thinking about my Next Big Project, and to crystalize my recognition that the regular in-depth interviews I do for Talking Radical Radio are not just media work, not just a useful resource for future writing, but are in fact a form of grassroots, movement-based social research.

I think perhaps what I appreciated the most about this book is that it is an instance of activists thinking through their capacities and the opportunities and limitations of their circumstances, and acting accordingly -- and not only doing that, but showing the doing of it. Too many of us who have a bit of space in our lives to choose how we engage politically end up doing so by latching onto something cool or important or sexy and going over there to do things, rather than thinking carefully about how we are already part of the world and what that means about how we can and should act. And the particular landscape that Haiven and Khasnabish think through so carefully is quite directly relevant to me: we situate ourselves in similar political traditions; we are in the same political generation; we exist in similar social locations; and while I do it in a community context with a presenting face of "media work" and they do it in a university context under the banner "scholarly work," our efforts to do intellectual work that is grounded in and responsive to movements and that pushes against how such things have often been done in the past are certainly not unrelated.

In doing this, they present a sharp critical assessment of the neoliberal university, and the larger social role of the university today, as well as a look at the most common tendencies within the academic study of social movements. Though there are exceptions, I'm inclined to agree with them that social movement studies as conventionally conceived is at best irrelevant to movements, and at times works in ways that are actively harmful. From this unhappy picture of the place of the academy in the broader social world, and of the ways the academy usually relates to movements, they begin to sort out what they, as scholars working within said academy, can bring to movements. I think their rundown of possible approaches is useful: 'invocation', which uses conventional disciplinary approaches in ways that capitalize on that prestige to produce mainstream-legitimate knowledge that supports the work of movements; 'avocation', which immerses researchers entirely within movements and has the application of their skills guided thereby; and 'convocation', a new approach that they ultimately settle on as the one they wish to develop and explore. In doing this, they say some quite useful things about knowledge production in and through movements, particularly about the role stories and ethnography can play in that work, which is quite relevant to my own current preoccupations. And when they combined all of this with a rather bleak assessment of the state of movements at the start of their project in the small city in which they were working -- Halifax, Nova Scotia -- they decided that the best thing they could do was create spaces of encounter and dialogue among disparate movement actors in hopes of catalyzing, or convoking, the radical imagination.

To do this, they engaged in a multi-stage project. First, they did in-depth research interviews with a wide range of radicals in Halifax. Beyond just being a way to learn about organizing and about movement dynamics in the city, they envisioned this is an opportunity for those radicals to reflect on their work in ways they seldom have had opportunities to do. The second stage was a series of facilitated community discussions on issues that emerged as key concerns during the interview. It brought activists together across key points of difference, not to resolve difference or to polarize it further, but to understand its shape and to allow it to be the basis of sparking new ideas, new possibilities, new developments in the local radical imagination in the city. And, finally, they have been working on an ongoing basis to bring in notable thinkers, writers, and organizers from elsewhere to continue to stimulate conversation and imagination among movements in the city. In all of this, they retained their place in the academy, separate from movements, but they leveraged the resources and privilege of that location to try and create spaces and opportunities that were useful to movements but that movements in that time and place would not otherwise have been able to create themselves.

Their understanding of the radical imagination is, I think, important. They don't so much mean the genius born in the individual mind, though that can certainly be one part of the whole, but rather something that is produced and circulates socially. It is distinct from the idea of "ideology," in the sense of a coherent set of politics that is or strives to become hegemonic, i.e. that our political sensibilities get organized towards. Rather, it is a recognition of the actually existing, complex, contradictory, and often just as much affective and desirous as intellectual sense of the world as it is and the world as it might be that we all have, and that is shaped in and by our encounters and our relations with the world.

Some of the other key ideas they advance in the book are also useful. Their emphasis on reproduction is absolutely essential, I think. They talk about how movements must engage with broader questions of social reproduction -- something many feminists have argued for a long time, but that movements still do far too seldom -- but also about how movements themselves are sites of social reproduction, and people within movements need to think about how that happens, the often troubling ways it replicates features of the broader society, and the opportunities it creates for doing things differently as we push for broader radical change. The chapter presenting a new framework for thinking differently about success and failure also really engaged me. I worry that it might be a bit too abstract to get much uptake outside of the academy, but nonetheless it offers a way to shift our often stale and simplistic thinking on that question sideways, and we desperately need to do that.

My biggest concern with the book was the two chapters on anti-oppression politics, which cover a range of questions but seem particularly keen to explore how to relate anti-capitalist and anti-oppression politics. I could write a lot about my take on both the value of some of the ideas presented, as well as my significant questions, concerns, and objections, but I don't think I will. Perhaps one underlying factor that may be at play is that there is an immense amount of really good work out there on anti-oppression politics and on seeing the ways in which axes of social relations that we often reify as separate and distinct are in fact deeply intertwined and interlocking -- including both scholarly and non-scholarly, including material focused on knowing the world and material focused on the nuts and bolts of organizing -- and I think these chapters could have been grounded much more effectively in that landscape. As it is, I think they largely miss the mark.

The final section of the book returns to its strengths, with an interesting interweaving discussion of movements and methodology. It draws parallels among the relationships between imagination, strategy, and tactics for movements, and ontology, epistemology, and methodology for research, and concludes with a brief chapter outlining the broad strokes of how researchers might learn from the prefigurative politics of many radical movements today and apply that towards the development of prefigurative methodologies.

I look forward to continuing to benefit from this book, both in seeking to learn from the way it models an answer to the question "What can I do?" from both a movement and a movement-based-research perspective, and in continuing to think about some of its key ideas about knowledge production in and through encounter, relation, and movement. If grassroots media production is also grassroots research, what can I do with what I've found, what I've made? What do I want to do? What is useful? What will support movements and communities-in-struggle?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other

[Emmanuel Levinas. Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.]

For reasons explained in the first couple of paragraphs of this post, one broad category of books I'm reading at the moment is those that enact or analyze ways of knowing the world through encounter and relation. I solicited suggestions on Facebook a few months back, and one respondent whose judgement I quite trust suggested it might be useful to read some of Emmanuel Levinas' work. From the smattering of mentions of it that I had encountered before -- including, if I'm remembering correctly, in Sara Ahmed's book Strange Encounters, which I didn't review, and in this book on feminist philosophy of religion, which was quite influential on my thinking while writing about related themes for one of my own books -- I was inclined to agree.

One way to quickly summarize why Levinas might be of interest is that whereas most of Western philosophy starts from being and then goes on (or not!) to think about us existing in relation to others, Levinas argues that relation precedes being, and therefore that ethics are more fundamental than ontology. His way of arriving at all of this is very different from anything I'd thought about before, but it does fit in rather neatly with a preoccupation of my own in recent years: the ways in which particularly the more privileged amongst us see ourselves as these liberal-democratic discrete agents that get to choose when and how we engage with the broader social world -- a conceit that I think is profoundly harmful, but even those of us who recognize it as a problem have no easy path to really internalizing the implications of the fact that we are always already and thoroughly social.

This book is a collection of short pieces -- essays, interviews, texts of lectures, excerpts from longer works -- spanning several decades and dealing with this particular aspect of his writing. I don't have much background in this area -- or, anyway, what I have is idiosyncratic and sparse -- so I found reading this to be very slow going, but also very productive. It was helpful that the many pieces in the volume returned frequently to the core ideas, approached them in a range of different ways, and took them in a range of different directions. Though I'm sure any proper philosopher who happens to read this review could easily point out ways that this is not the case, I feel that the book left me with a pretty solid grounding in those core ideas.

So. Descartes' idea of I, reasoned from his experience of being a thinking self, has been pretty central to philosophy and ideas in the West since he first came up with it. In the mid- to late-20th century, a number of thinkers, including feminists but also including Levinas, have pointed out that this formulation does not make a lot of sense because it does not describe a circumstance that ever actually happens -- there is no moment where we are an I alone. At a very basic level, from the moment we come into existence we are always in relation to others. For Levinas, this existing in relation takes the form of an encounter with what he describes as "the face of the Other." That precedes all else and imposes an obligation, a sort of duty of care, upon us that in its pure form is absolute. However, in our lived reality we never face a single Other -- there is always a third person, in fact many other people, and from that springs the need to balance our obligation to these many others, to recognize the differences in their behaviours and their treatment of each other, and therefore a need for analysis, a sense of justice, and hard decisions.

Of interest to me given my reason for picking up the book in the first place, among the many different things that Levinas relates to this core idea is a particular analysis of how we know the world. The Western epistemology that flows from Descartes' "I think" begins, as I said, from ontology. The being of I is central, and really the only subject whose subjecthood you can be sure of is your own, and this means that knowing the world is a process of intentionally reaching out to surrounding phenomena and in a sense incorporating them into self through knowing them. It is a relation that is acquisitive and dominating, that turns all that is Different into Same through the incorporation into self, that through thematizing and making known that which is different makes all the world an object. This ignores, Levinas argues, the subjectivity of the Other. Rather than making ontology primary, we must begin from our encounter with the face of the Other. In that encounter, the Other is not known, it is clearly a subject and it is clearly not reducible to I. And it is not a difference that is different in a known way, either, but is a uniqueness that refuses and overflows our categories, an alterity that cannot be reduced to sameness, a fellow subjectivity that cannot be incorporated into me but rather that must be related with in an intersubjective way.

Levinas is not against knowing, in the sense of a reaching out into the world with intention and incorporating the world into self. It is exactly that sort of exercise that becomes necessary when responding to the complexity of the "third person" and the consequent need for analysis and some measured approach to justice. But he insists that the ethical obligation proceeding from the encounter with the face of the Other precedes this, and it is only through recognizing that precedence that we can begin to counter the many problems that flow from the domineering Western approach to knowing.

Though the basis and the language he uses are very different, it all feels at least vaguely consistent with some of my own writing about knowing the world, in the Intro & Conclusion to my books and in a haphazard way on this blog. I talk about an approach to knowing that is very explicit about being situated, inevitably incomplete, saturated with a certain humility, and a product of dialogical relation with other subjects and their accounts of themselves rather than of treating the social world purely as object.

I don't get the sense that Levinas is terribly hopeful about the possibility of what might be called knowing otherwise. For him, this objectifying and acquisitive character is inherent to knowing, and it's a matter of balancing that, in how we act in the world, with the ethical commitment that flows from our encounter with the face of the Other. I'm less convinced that this is our only alternative. I think that perhaps his insights and the insights of others can be used to build a sort of synthesis that incorporates the relational and the ethical into social ways of knowing -- that through recognizing not only the knower as a social being (which he does) but knowing as a social process (which is much less visible in his work), we can enact practices that allow us to relate differently to each other and the world as we go about producing knowledge. I hope so, anyway.

I think it is reasonable for me to ask myself, at this point, whether it was worth reading this book. Yes, I found it powerful and interesting and relevant, but I think at least some of my affinity for the work is about relating to the mid-level analysis rather than extensive buy-in to the fundamental scaffolding upon which he builds it, so I'm not sure I gain much by now having the ability to point to his scaffolding. Perhaps more important for my purposes, it's not clear that people who are engaged with the social world and who are interested in movements and struggle today will care at all about some obscure dead Frenchman's insistance on the primacy of ethics and relationality, especially when there are lots of other sources -- many people who think about things based in feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and other struggles, for instance -- who present much more commonsense and everyday arguments for seeing that primacy, and who might even regard the need to develop elaborate arguments to defend such primacy as a sign of a regime of knowledge that is better left behind. And all of that is fair enough. But I do have a sense (that is still quite underdeveloped, admittedly) that there is value in trying to excavate more liberatory and just tendencies from dominant traditions even as we engage with and listen to ways of knowing the world that emerge more directly from struggles for justice and liberation and that tend to be more thoroughly marginalized in the mainstream. Not sure how that relates to anything I might do, but I still think it's worth further reflection.

Before I close, I should point to some political limitations in Levinas. I agree in general terms with his argument about the presence of the "third person" impelling a need to develop analysis and a sense of justice and to make hard, balancing decisions, but for him that very clearly means a need for the liberal-democratic state. He's very insistent on this, but I don't get the sense, at least from what is presented here, that this is a product of particularly critical thought about the world at the social and political level, it's just the only possibility in his millieu that he can see that might fit. (This reminds me a bit of Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures. It's a book I love, with its reading of Foucault presented via the author's journey of reading him and applying his ideas to her own life, but I was disappointed that her sharp insight and critical analysis seemed to falter when it came to considering how to act in collective political ways, and the dominant liberalism of her environment seemed to allow her little space to imagine other ways of approaching that sphere of activity.) I don't agree with Levinas in this, of course, but I do think his presumption points towards a much more complicated conversation that we rarely have, about the ways in which, in a violent and unjust world, even if we try to imagine our way outside of the state form, it is hard to imagine that whatever we replace it with won't have to incorporate aspects of what I remember reading Dean Spade describe once as "stateness," in that sometimes it is hard to perceive a path towards justice even at a very basic and interpersonal level that does not include at least some manifestations of coercion or even violence.

I also have a vague impression that there are things that a feminist engagement with Levinas might take issue with. I haven't talked much about it because I don't entirely understand it -- it wasn't really emphasized in the pieces chosen for this book -- but Levinas sees the encounter with the face of the Other as a call not just to ethics and care but to the possibility of violence. As well, I wonder about the primary encounter with a subject that is not I being an alien Other rather than the one who birthed you -- would some way of recognizing that initial blurred separateness, and the care (and demand and often ambivalence) that is (at least in most instances) bound up in that relationship change his analysis? And I'm pretty sure some feminist thinkers have taken issue with ethics that make responsibility to other people an absolute good, given the role that ethical blandishments with exactly that form have had in subordinating women.

And, finally, to note something that is only touched upon very briefly in this book and is not particularly relevant to his philosophical work, Levinas seems to have been supportive of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine. Perhaps understandable given the era and social location of his writing, it still points to all sorts of questions about what it means to translate philosophical ideals into lived realities, about whose humanity we recognize, and about our own social production as subjects.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Ottawa shootings and "the race to innocence"

There's this phrase that scholar Sherene Razack has used that I've been thinking about: "the race to innocence." I've been thinking about it as I've watched the reactions to the shootings in Ottawa unfold.

By this phrase, she means "a belief that we are uninvolved in subordinating others" (Looking White People in the Eye, p. 14). My understanding of how she uses the idea of "innocence" is that she's trying to capture the ways in which people with privilege often assume that we are not involved in social relations that cause harm to others and benefit us, and we act and speak and come to know the world in ways premised on that (faulty) assumption that we don't benefit from and contribute to perpetuating harm. Not only that, we often do things that, however they work for us internally, sure look a lot as if, on some level, we really know that we're not innocent at all. It can be hard to read some of these actions as being about anything other than trying to perform innocence, to broadcast innocence to the world, to make sure that at the very least it is the innocent image of ourselves that everyone else in the world has to see and deal with. Now, from what I remember of that book -- I read it a long time ago -- she uses this idea mostly to talk about racialized relations of power among women, and there is something specific about the connection between dominant notions of white femininity and the idea of "innocence." But I think it's also a useful way to think about a lot of really common ways that white Canadians in general talk about ourselves and act in the world. I think it has been central to a lot of the reactions to this week's tragic events, and I think it is an important part of preventing us from finding more politically constructive ways of reacting.

I'm not going to try to be exhaustive, but I want to talk about two things I've noticed. I'm far from alone in noting the kinds of things of which these are examples, and I only notice them because I have observed wiser and more perceptive friends, comrades, and writers notice similar things in other contexts, so I'm not claiming great insight. But I find them infuriating, so I'm writing about them.

The First Thing

I think I could probably write a longer, more involved piece about how patterns of sharing things on social media are actually a really useful way to learn about the social organization of knowledge and about the social organization of emotion, but I'll stick to the specifics here. In a moment like we've been in over the last few days, people who rarely share links on social media that are about "issues" tend to do so, and people who have a certain set pattern of issues that they share links about often break out of those patterns in ways related to the crisis of the moment. This is, of course, perfectly understandable. It's an awful event that grabs people's attention, so they share news reports as the events are unfolding and immediately after. And there is a fairly significant outpouring of public emotion, so various expressions of shock and sorrow and grief, as well as sympathy for the family and loved ones of the young man who died, and respect and thanks for any who played a role in resolving the acute crisis, are shared as well.

The problem, of course, is not that people are shocked and horrified by violence, or that they express empathy and grief in response to the young man who was killed. What I find gut-wrenching is the way that this sharing casts in stark relief all the violence, suffering, and death that most of us don't emote about publically and share things about on social media. What does that say about what violence we actually see as violence, whose suffering we think matters, and whose lives we see as important?

Now, there's lots going on in that massive non-reaction. One awful element is that what is legible as violence depends a lot on who has been harmed and who has been doing the harming. There's a reason, for instance, that one of the powerful slogans coming out of the resistance by the Black community in Ferguson in the aftermath of the police murder of Michael Brown is "Black Lives Matter!" -- that is, for centuries, the dominant white supremacist society (and I'm talking here about the one we live in, not trying to push it off onto the US alone) has been very clear about acting as if they don't. There's something specific about Black experience in this regard, of course, but there are other axes as well along which certain people are automatically and always treated as full members of humanity, and other people have a much more tenuous admittance, or no admittance at all. Tragically, this has everything to do with the presence or absence, and the shape, of public responses to instances of harm, violence, and death.

That's not all that's going on, though. Another factor at play (that, admittedly, intersects with what I just said in ways I'm not going to fully explore here) is our sense of connection with the violence at hand. A lot of people feel a lot of really intense connection to the events in Ottawa -- an individual committing a series of deeply anti-social acts that involved killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- when they might not to similarly anti-social acts in other circumstances because both the acts themselves and the post-act media hype have tied them very deeply to this thing called "Canada". One part of that is what Benedict Andersen calls the "imagined community" of the nation, where various factors work together to give us a sense of having a connection with millions of strangers we will never meet. Now, I think that's a kind of peculiar thing, and often a very troubling one, but getting into why I think that and what we might want to do differently is at the very least another post, and probably more like a book or two. So we'll just note that part of why people were reacting to this particular instance of violence is because of a sense of connection that an immense amount of social work has gone into creating.

It also follows that if there is some other violent incident -- say a shooting where an individual commits a series of deeply anti-social acts that involve killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- that happens halfway around the world, well, there isn't that same sense of connection for most of us, so probably if we hear about it, we note disapproval and sadness in a very perfunctory way, and move on. Again, this seems reasonable.

To bring this back to the race to innocence, though, there's a whole other category of violence that we usually do our best to forget exists. And that is that the Canadian state is an immense source of violence. I'm hardly alone in noting this, even just in the last couple of days. Canada bombs people, it deprives people of resources, it legislates people into the violence of poverty, it kills people through policing, it causes immense harm via prisons, it has done and continues to do incredibly amounts of colonial (often gendered) harm in the very claiming of the land it claims, it pushes global trade and investment agreements that quite predictably cause various sorts of direct and indirect harms, it pushes resource extraction activities at home and abroad that are huge sources of violence to the earth and to people, and on, and on, and on. Of course I recognize that making the case that all of these things do in fact count as violence to people who don't already understand them in that way would take much more than a list, and I don't have time or space for more than that, so you may now have moved into a mode of "Pfft, he's ridiculous" or "But...but...but...but...". As I said, I'm not going to try to convince you, but I'll restate the claim more directly: There are many, many forms of violence that we are connected to through "Canada" because of people and institutions connected with "Canada" committing that violence. But because Canadianess presumes a sort of liberal innocence, none of this registers, so there is no sense of being connected to this violence, so links aren't shared, and there is no public affect to circulate or process...except perhaps resentment at people who point out this violence and its connection to us.

The Second Thing

The other thing I want to comment on has to do with a certain category of link and tweet and story that I've seen lots of people sharing. I saw, for instance, quite a number of people shared a tweet about how even in the midst of the crisis the Ottawa police had sent a message to Muslim community leaders in the city that if people in their communities felt unsafe, they should call the police and the police would respond. And I've seen lots of non-Muslims sharing links about how various Muslim organizations and communities in Canada have condemned the attack and expressed their sympathies about the death of the young man at the War Memorial. And lots of people have been circulating, with all due and appropriate horror, word of the violation of the mosque that happened in Cold Lake, Alberta. And not only have they been sharing news of the violation, they have also been sharing news of the rapid and seemingly spontaneous community response by non-Muslims in the town to help clean up the mosque and show some solidarity with their Muslim neighbours.

In some ways, not only are the decisions to share this material understandable, they are also useful. They help to circulate a sense that acts of direct hate against Muslims are not acceptable, and they encourage further acts of support. They work against the white supremacist, colonial tendency to blame Muslims, en bloc. Certainly there are limits to what such general circulation of sentiment will accomplish, but we shouldn't underestimate it either.

There is more to it, however. Often, part of the work done in the circulation of these kinds of stories is an active distancing of overt hostility and violence towards Muslims from "us" and from the idea of "Canada." It is a way of saying, look, our cops are being supportive, we actively know not to blame Muslims, the nasty hate crimes are from people who are not-us, and the "us" gets together to help in the aftermath. It is a kind of pro-active pushing of badness out of any association with "us." It is an example of racing to innocence.

So if my first example of the race to innocence was evidence of how the presumption of innocence seriously impairs our ability to understand our place in the world, this one feels to me like a much more active (though by that I don't necessarily mean conscious) sort of performance. It feels a bit like a pointed comment directed at the United States, in the vein of the perpetual Canadian liberal smugness that I have always found both irritating and largely unwarranted. And I can't help but think it is an active attempt to deny or repress the fact that people and institutions associated with "Canada" have been committing horrid acts of violence against Muslims in very open ways for a long, long time. This includes Canadian complicity in the sanctions that killed in excess of a million Iraqi civilians in the 1990s. It includes the long Canadian involvement in the conquest and recolonization of Afghanistan, the somewhat-reduced-by-protest but still extant participation (notwithstanding Liberal mythology) in the conquest and recolonization of Iraq, and the participation in the bombing of Libya, all of which have resulted in a great many civilian deaths and, by and large, have made things immeasurably worse for the people who live in those countries. Then there is the utter devotion of our current government to supporting the occupation of Palestine, including the brutal siege and even more brutal assaults on Gaza. And then you have the utterly horrid ways that the Canadian national security state has treated Muslim communities here on Turtle Island, from instances of indefinite detention without charge or trial, to intimidation, to blackmail. To quote the subtitle of a different book by Sherene Razack, Canada has been an active and enthusiastic participant in "The eviction of Muslims from Western law and politics." And now, of course, we have committed to participating in the latest Western imperial venture in West Asia.

Again, this is not meant to blame individuals for sharing the kinds of things described in the first paragraph of this section, or for participating in the circulation of knowledge and emotion of which doing so is an element. The point, rather, is to note that these stories about how this thing we call "Canada" relates to people who are Muslim make us feel good about ourselves and we feel a social impetus to participate in their circulation. But other kinds of stores, other kinds of knowledge, other kinds of feelings get erased or squelched or recategorized into not being relevant or worth mentioning. These are generally ones that refuse to erase the awful violence against Muslims that all of us are connected to through our association with "Canada". And that happens for a reason: "the race to innocence."

Okay, So Now What?

I don't have any particularly satisfying calls to action in response. I think we need to be collectively active and vocal in opposing the ways in which this tragedy is already being used to strengthen the oppressive powers of the Canadian national security state as well as to generate enthusiasm for Canadian participation in the latest invasion of Iraq and Syria. I think such activity is important, but it doesn't really get at the underlying organization of knowledge and feeling that I've been writing about, and I'm not sure how to respond to that. I suppose refusing the pressure to be silent under the banner of "civility", which in this case means that the dominant political readings of tragedy (a la Harper and Mansbridge and co.) are treated as acceptable and supposedly apolitical, while actually pointing out the political content and context of tragedies themselves and of the dominant narratives about them is verboten, ill-mannered, wrong. But I also wonder if there is something to be learned from Sara Ahmed's observation that we tend to construct our immediate environments to maximize our own comfort, and the proximity thus constructed shapes how we know the world and what we know about the world. So, while it sounds painfully individualized, perhaps there is value to encouraging people to adopt a discipline of working against the kinds of avoidance of discomfort that I think are a central mechanism in how we sustain and reproduce the association between "Canada" and "innocence."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

[Rebecca Solnit. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.]

Before I talk about this book, I want to talk a little bit more than I usually do about why and how I read it.

So. A couple of years ago, I published two books of history starting from differently situated stories of long-time activists. These stories were contextualized in ways that worked to be responsive to the standpoints of the those who told them to me, and I used the stories as entry points and building blocks to at least begin the process of exploring the historical trajectory of the social world that shapes all of our lives, and that does so in ways that mean our lives are impacted in vastly different ways by power, privilege, oppression, and exploitation. Though the books didn't necessarily attempt to rigorously or exhaustively do this, the idea was that if I start with my story, and your story, and that other person's story -- listening deeply and honestly to all three -- and then I try to figure out how those three are connected in terms of the material social world that shapes and is shaped by all three of us, then I can learn some interesting and politically useful things.

Over the last year, I've occasionally alluded to a Next Big Project that I originally envisioned as historical but (though I didn't exactly recognize this for quite some time) much less dialogical than that one. That vision lasted through quite an extended period of reading and writing towards/around the NBP, but did not endure very long after I finished another piece or work early this past summer and immersed myself in earnest in figuring out what this new thing could be. It's all still in flux, but it is feeling quite a bit less historical and quite a bit more dialogical than my original plan, which I think is a positive development. I won't go into more detail on that at the moment, but one conclusion that I came to in this re-visioning process is that, along with some rather tedious research that is necessary to set the initial stage for some of the more interesting things I hope to do later on in the document, I also need to further develop my practices around the sort of knowing the world (and writing about the world, a related but non-identical field of activity) through encounter and relation that I hope will make this project both dialogical and interesting (primarily to me, and if I'm lucky to readers at some point in the future). I want to do some reading in the next little while of books that enact ways of knowing the world that are in some way connected to my own still-hazy notions of doing so through encounter and relation, as well as books that explicitly and analytically think through how that might work. (If you have any suggestions for things I should read, leave me a comment! :) ) I asked contacts on Facebook for suggestions, and this book was one. I've read some of Solnit's essays online before and very much like her writing, so I jumped at this opportunity to sink some time into reading one of her books.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of essays. They are unified by a sensibility and by the somewhat abstracted theme identified in the title, though the specific content of each varies considerably. They are essays that weave together writing grounded in memoir and writing grounded in research -- a combination that may not be directly relevant to my current NBP, but that may be more central to a NNBP currently simmering on a burner farther back. And the essays are wonderfully written, thoughtful, and very much relevant to my current priority of knowing the world through encounter and relation, in the sense that they enact an approach that, at least in my reading of it, counts as an example of doing so (albeit a rather different one than I am working towards, I think). My reaction to the specifics of the writing and the ideas in the book are actually quite mixed, as I'll talk about below, but I want to make sure it's clear before I get into that that I am no less enthusiastic about Solnit's flair and craft than I was before, and I give this book a great amount of respect for how much it got me thinking.

The writing in this book is, as I expected, vivid and clever and done with a keen eye to evoking place and detail and mood in ways that are very effective at moving a flow of more abstract ideas forward. Despite that great skill, those more abstracted flows of connection and meaning were sometimes so abstracted, and sometimes took such seemingly arbitrary turns, that even with her skill at weaving them together, it still felt a little disjunctive. I'm not saying that this made me dislike it or that it was poorly done, but it was a little distracting at points, and I suspect some readers might be more put off by it than I was.

My other main concern about the writing was that, as skillful as I found her use of detail and lush description, it sometimes felt like a bit much. And I should hasten to add that I don't mean this in the sense that it was overreaching what she could deliver -- there is a prominent teacher of writing and creativity whose books I enjoy and find useful in some ways, but who makes me roll my eyes in other ways, and one of those other ways is the emphasis she puts on well chosen detail and description to make writing sing despite the fact that often when she does that herself it falls flat and feels forced. I had no such experience in reading this book. Rather, here, it was more a matter of a surfeit of the excellently done. This is perhaps reducible to taste -- mine and the author's differ, and that's fine.

In terms of the approach to knowledge production that this book embodies, I'm glad to have encountered it and I definitely learned from it, but ultimately it's not exactly what I want to be doing. Because of the very personal and sometimes apparently arbitrary twists and turns that it took, reading this book with an eye to the epistemological and craft questions I started with was a really important reminder of the inevitably idiosyncratic character of meaning-making for all of us, all the time. When we actively make meaning from some new experience, yes we are doing so based on the accumulated knowledge we already have, the overall shape of which is a product of how socially organized standpoint has produced our experiences and practices of meaning-making to date. But we are also doing so based both on the random and the arbitrary parts of our experience that aren't particularly reflective of deeper aspects of social organization and also on the many conceptual practices that all of us have that are produced through relationships among meanings that exist in our heads at a remove from the socially organized practices and meanings in which we are embedded. It felt like this book really drew on those aspects of meaning-making, and there's no reason that it shouldn't, if for no other reason than that is an important part of how we each experience our journey through the world -- and, I suppose, in the default liberal-democratic understanding of the social that permeates our culture, it is the part of our experience and meaning-making that really gets emphasized. So, like I said, reading this was a good reminder, and I need to think more about its implications for what I want to do. But I know that I ultimately want to end up with rather a different way of relating to both the more idiosyncratic and more clearly socially produced aspects of how our experiences are shaped and how we make meaning from them.

Another aspect of the substance of this book that I had mixed feelings about was the way in which indigenous peoples weaved in and out of what it had to say. This initially seems unconnected to my point in the paragraph above, but I think they're actually related. Now, on a certain level, the fact that there are multiple points in this book where histories and (to a much lesser extent) present day realities of indigenous peoples are addressed is actually quite a positive thing. It's not something that happens nearly enough in contemporary North American nonfiction by non-indigenous authors, even when it is a book like this which pays a lot of attention to place and land and history. So, in some ways, "yay". But there is something about how the book does it that doesn't sit right with me, and even after spending considerable time reflecting on it, I'm still not sure I fully understand why. On a certain level, I suspect that part of my reaction can be attributed to cultural difference -- the author and I are both white settlers, but my own sensibility around these things comes out of an evolving set of understandings and practices among a mostly Canadian, mostly rad-left, mostly non-indigenous political niche. I've seen it pop up in US contexts in social media, but not so much. I've seen it reflected outside of rad-left circles, but not so much. And it certainly tries to be informed by indigenous anti-colonial sensibilities, but I think it would be foolish to claim that there aren't contradictions and hypocrisies and problems in how those of us who are in one way or another connected with the white-settler-dominated, Canada-based far left take these things up. But, to circle back to my point, Solnit is a product of a much different political niche, and so it's no surprise that her ways of engaging with the colonial past and present of Turtle Island are quite different, and I'm sure there are lots of things wrong with my own ways, so who am I to judge.

But even so, there were things that bothered me enough and on the right sort of grounds that I don't think it's only about difference in political sensibility; there is actually a problem there. For instance, one essay recounted lots of narratives from the earlier centuries of colonization from settlers who became lost to their origins and to their original selves in one way or another, and who became part of indigenous nations. While the essay certainly acknowledged this was part of an overall horrific historical trajectory of colonization and genocide, there were some key points related to that history and the kind of story the essay recounts that it, to my great surprise, didn't take up. It had less than I expected to say about how indigenous folks might have felt in those moments about both the larger attacks on their nations and the act of bringing settlers into those nations. It had nothing to say about the ubiquitous forced assimilation in the other direction, past and present. And the obvious connection between the theme of loss of self and diverse indigenous experiences of the many tentacles of colonial attack did not get made. Or to take an example from elsewhere in the book, a later essay spent an extended passage (pp. 161-9) talking about "terra incognita" on old maps and, again, relating that to the book's theme of getting lost, but it noted only in passing at the end that "those old maps were tools of empire and capital" rather than allowing that insight to inform the preceding eight pages. Or, despite in some places mentioning the ongoing existence of indigenous nations on Turtle Island, there were other places where the book talked about them only in the past tense despite current practices, voices, and experiences of those nations seemingly being relevant to the point at hand. Or the more general failure to connect the overall theme of self and of being lost and of exploration to realities of colonization, not just on Turtle Island but to the ways that postcolonial authors and scholars whose lives have been shaped by colonial trajectories elsewhere in the world have written about it.

And, yes, I know I'm drifting there into complaining that this book was a certain project rather than a different project, which quickly becomes unfair. But in the midst of all of that, there is a core that I think is legitimately politically troubling, whatever the intent of the project.

I think that relates to my earlier points about how the knowledge production that underlies the book isn't quite what I want to be doing. It is a reminder that knowledge production based in encounter isn't intrinsically a path to politically useful knowledge. After all, a core point in Edward Said's scholarship on orientalism is that the West has been producing knowledge (via literature and otherwise) based on encounter with the world beyond Europe for centuries, but it has all along encoded within it systematic distortion, exoticization, othering, oppression, and silencing. And one remedy he suggests is deliberately juxtaposing literature produced on both sides of the colonial divide, and seeking understanding from the ways that they do and don't relate to each other -- an approach that, really, has a similar basis to the quite differently applied one that I talked about at the start of this review, which involves listening to my story and your story and that other person's story and seeing what we can learn about the social relations that have produced all three of us from figuring out how our very different experiences exist in socially organized relation to each other. That doesn't guarantee that we won't still reproduce troubling tendencies in the knowledge we produce, but it's at least a better place to start.

So in reading this book, I enjoyed and learned from its focus on a very idiosyncratic journey of meaning-making, but its ability to combine lots of content about the broader social world with a seeming detachment of that from the actual process of meaning-making, at least in places, was a warning to me. As was its tendency, even when its meaning-making did seem to reflect explicitly on and connect directly to the social the social, to reflect much less on power and social organization than I want to. And I don't dismiss its copious use of the social as imagery, allegory, or analogy -- I think those things can be useful too, as devices for writing. But whatever I do, I hope also to foreground not only social as source of device for illustrating self, but social as producing and produced by self. And however I make knowledge from encounter and relation in the work ahead, I want to be very sure that I do so in ways that are substantively dialogical, and not just sporadically so.

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