Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: What Love Is

[Carrie Jenkins. What Love Is: And What it Could Be. New York: Basic Books, 2017.]

A philosophical examination of romantic love aimed at a lay audience. Some good stuff, but I didin’t like it as much as I’d hoped. It takes a critical, feminist, queer, non-monogamy-friendly approach, all of which is good; I think I’d quite like the author if we met socially; and it says some interesting, thoughtful, useful things. But there were a number of aspects of its approach that I was more ambivalent about. I’m pretty sure a lot of them are connected to the fact that it is a work of analytic philosophy, and that carries with it certain expectations – I don’t know enough about it to be certain, but I think that’s what’s going on. Some of those expectations are good things, like the admirable emphasis on clear thought and clear language. But others of them have more mixed implications.

So, for instance, there’s a valuing of going back to first principles when putting together an argument. There are good reasons for this, and it is connected to the emphasis on clarity I mention above. But sometimes it feels excessive. So, for instance, this book took two or three chapters methodically working up to one of its central points: that we need to take seriously both the cutting edge of biological research as well as social organization when we are thinking about romantic love, and we need to approach both sides rigorously and critically. Which is great – I think the specific model the book ends up at is perhaps a bit simplistic and is certainly only one possibility for thinking biology and the social together, but it’s at least in the same general area as my understanding. Except when considered from a how-did-I-enjoy-this-book perspective, the fact that I started there means I found those two-to-three chapters working up to it to be kind of tedious and could’ve done without them.

And then there is the tendency in analytic philosophy towards thought experiments and hypotheticals, including some that seem quite ridiculous on their face, and others that might appear odious at first glance. This can be useful, and in some cases it can even be entertaining, and it is part of the valuing of clarity and rigour. But it also imposes a very uneven relationship to context. Sometimes context and history are clearly considered; other times, whether it is in the name of not pre-judging or whether it is about maintaining the clarity of an illustrative example, they just aren't. So, for instance, in the chapter towards the end of the book when it actually considers what it might mean in the future to intervene biologically in processes related to “love,” it point towards at least some of the cautionary histories and many of the caveats and concerns that I think such a prospect deserves. But it mentions the possibility multiple times earlier in the book, saying it’ll be explored later, and in those instances it does so without a word of caution and even, at times, with a tone of excitement and possibility. And to my mind, thinking about how I would write about such things myself, I think the highly troubling character of intervening biologically in how people experience love deserves attention at first mention.

And then you have things like speculations about the future of love. While the book does eventually come around to recognizing that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about it as if we can collectively and rationally decide how we are going to encourage the development of romantic love in the future, it does so after talking about it that way rather a lot. Though it recognizes the role of past struggle in shaping romantic love today, it doesn’t frame future changes as clearly as I think is warranted in terms of power and struggle. And, honestly, I don’t think you can speculate about what romantic love might look like in the future without explicitly considering how the social world, including but not limited to social relations of neoliberal capitalism, will shape the pressures and demands we face in how we relate to one another -- for me, this isn't just an arbitrary "well what about X" consideration, but is absolutely central to thinking about how our relationships and our narratives of relationship will be able to evolve.

And even beyond that, whether it is talking about the past or speculating about the future, the book mostly doesn’t talk in an explicit way about whole vast areas of literature where smart people have done important work in thinking about how norms and normalization and normativity function socially, and how those relate to power and struggle. Not, I think, because the author doesn’t know about them – I would guess she knows way more about them than I do, and certainly the approach to the social world in the book is grounded in recognizing the power of socially enforced norms. But how do you talk about that, and how do you relate to literature that is often opaque and confusing and built on layers and layers of specialist language? Again, I admire the commitment to clarity, but I’m not convinced that not building more explicitly on what others have built before is necessarily the best trade-off, especially when what is being lost (as I would argue to be the case here) is a certain degree of incisive edge in understanding how romantic love and power and struggle are bound together. Not that this book ignores that intertwining – it definitely recognizes it – but it feels like it just doesn’t pick up certain tools that could make that side of the conversation richer and stronger.

So...yeah. There’s some sharp thinking and good ideas, but there’s lots about the approach that didn’t quite work for me. If it's a topic that interests you, and particularly if you're keen to find some rigorous thinking that refuses to exclude counter-normative ways of experiencing and doing romantic love, maybe don't be too put off by my reservations and check it out anyway.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Losing people to the right, emotion, and movement building

I've been thinking, lately, about the transition that some people go through from having left politics to having not-left politics. It's not that it happens all that often, in my experience, but it is something that I've seen come up more in the last little while as a rhetorical device to discipline other people on the left -- as in, "Don't do X, or you'll drive me/him/her/them to the right" -- and that has got me thinking about when and how it actually does happen.

In reflecting on this, there are a couple of ways that it happens that I am not thinking about right now. I'm not thinking about the stereotypical life-stage explanation of politics: you move left as a university student, and then right again once you're in the world of paid work, which is really the updated version of Winston Churchill's dismissive quip about people who aren't a socialist at 20 having no heart and people who are a socialist at 50 having no brain. For lots of reasons, I don't think this pattern is nearly as common as bewildered older relatives of student activists often presume, but there is a conversation to be had about how political community, the material necessities of life, and the challenges of committing to activism and organizing over the long term figure into our political choices and identities at different points in our lives. It's just not the conversation I'm having here.

As well, I'm not really that interested at the moment in the case of people who transition from movement involvement to being in some kind of institution which (not inevitably but often) pulls their politics to the right, or at least towards the centre -- which could be the academy, it could be the agency sector, it could be the state, it could be a social democratic party. Again, that happens, and it's worth talking about, just not right now. What I'm thinking about here is people who make the transition from left politics to not-left politics in other kinds of contexts.

In reflecting on this, I have five specific people in mind who have undergone a transition of this sort. Four of them are people that I have known, two moderately well and two much more casually. The fifth is a prominent liberal feminist YouTuber who recently jumped ship to the alt-right -- I don't know her but lots of people have been writing about it, so I have a sense of the situation. The kinds of left (or at least left-ish) politics that each of these people started with are different, and the kinds of not-left politics they ended up with are different too. The amount that I know about each of their journeys varies considerably. For those that I have known personally in one capacity or another, I don't want to reveal anything that might be too identifying, so I'm not going to lay out what I know in any depth. And I could go into more detail for the one who is a public figure, but I won't -- while I admit to reading a few pieces about her case, Laci Greene just isn't interesting enough for me to write about at length.

So here's what I've come up with: I'm always wary of psychologized explanations of people's political choices. I think psy discourses tend to make it harder to see the ways in which all of us are woven into the social world, and I think they often get deployed not to understand but to belittle and dismiss people's political analyses and convictions. That said, it's also a profoundly unhelpful tendency -- and a common one on the left, or at least in its less feminist contexts -- to separate our emotional lives from how we narrate our political choices and actions, and to maintain a sort of masculinist insistence on a particular kind of rationality that implicitly or explicitly devalues feelings. I don't think depoliticized psy explanations and self-fracturing faux-rationalist posturing are our only options, though. It's not always easy to do, but integrating affect into how we talk about the social world and our political navigation of it is certainly possible. (I'm a big fan of Sara Ahmed's work, for instance, and find her really inspiring in this regard, but there are lots of other writers out there, especially feminists, who do this.)

In thinking about these five people who used to be on the left in one sense or another and who are no longer, I think for all of them this political transition was at least in part a means of resolving some kind of emotional challenge. Again, the depth of my knowledge varies a lot across these instances, but as far as I am aware, all five of them were experiencing some kind of sustained knot of bad feeling which was resolved by a change in their politics.

The exact details of this knot vary, though with a perhaps telling relationship to timing. Of these five, two of the transitions occurred longer ago. One of these was related to a very deep and passionate commitment, political and affective, to a particular position on one specific issue that at one time was quite common in the white-dominated North American left. Over time, it became much less common and much less accepted on the left, to the extent that this position is now seen as supporting some pretty intensely oppressive realities. On this issue, the broader left shifted and this person didn't, which I'm sure was temendously difficult in emotional terms -- feelings of loss, betrayal, etc. And eventually, though not as spectacularly as some of the others I'm thinking about, this was resolved by a partial shift away from identifying with the left. The other instance that happened longer ago was -- well, it was more complicated than this, but it involved a very emotionally difficult personal situation that was shot through with gendered implications. This person's later embrace of explicitly reactionary gender politics, and subsequently a broader reactionary perspective, was in part related to resolving the heavy emotional stuff from this personal crisis.

The more recent three have all happened during the Trump era -- not necessarily since he was elected, but since, say, he became the frontrunner in the Republican nomination race. In all of those cases, the knot of bad feeling being resolved by a move to the right is much more similar. In all of them, it is connected to being politically challenged, I think probably in a sustained way over time. The exact content of that challenge varied in the different situations, and I have no idea how fair or deserved it may have been in particular instances, or how exactly it was conducted. Some of the content that one or more of them was challenged about was related to race stuff (all three are white), some of it was about trans stuff (all three are cis), some of it was about political choices, and so on. And even though these challenges were about a lot of different things, there is a weird way that it all feels tied to whiteness -- not so much the challenges per se, but having the space to resolve feeling bad because someone else is challenging you politically, whether or not that initial challenge was about racist behaviour and/or politics or not, by moving to a politics that really is pretty openly racist. All three of them -- this is the two distant acquaintences plus the former liberal feminsit YouTuber -- had a knot of bad feeling that at least from a distance appears to be similar, and in the Trump era felt that they had space to resolve it by making a similar kind of shift in political identity and practice.

I think it's important not to jump to conclusions that are too hasty or too broad from these observations. Certainly the more recent three have narrated their own experiences in ways that decry "callout culture" and the "intolerant left." But while I agree that there is a need for ongoing nuanced discussion when it comes to the toxicity of social media and the politics of calling people out, cutting people off, no-platforming people, left purity, sectarianism, and all of that stuff, I'm really not that interested in the opinions of people who use "someone said mean things to me" as an excuse for their renunciation of support for social justice. So "don't challenge racists or they might become more openly racist" is not even close to a sound conclusion to draw based on what I'm saying here.

I'm also not saying that strategizing about how to prevent this transition from left to not-left should necessarily be a big priority for us. For all its use as a rhetorical device by certain people, it's not clear to me that it is really that common an occurrence, it's not clear to me that there's much we could do about it while remaining principled in other ways, and it's not clear we'd be better off doing those things even if we could.

I think what I am saying, though, is that thinking about the mechanics of what's happening in the relatively rare cases when this kind of transition actually happens is one relevant factor among many to consider when we are having those nuanced, careful conversations about how we engage with each other and how we engage with those beyond our immediate circles. It's about recognizing that -- like it or not, and whether or not it should necessarily factor into any specific political decision that we make -- our emotional journeys, and the spaces that our circumstances and self-understandings allow for resolving emotional crises, are integral to our political journeys. Without at all pre-judging what this has to mean in practice, I think it is fair to say that movement building has to take this seriously.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Less outrage, more action

I'm not one for shying away from thinking or talking or writing about the bad things in the world, but I have really been struck in the last few days by both the seduction and the limits of outrage as a primary mode of engaging the world. Mind you, we should be outraged at the rightwing dehumanization of Omar Khadr. We should be outraged at Barbara Kentner's death. We should be outraged at how white journalists treated two Indigenous women during that Canada Day media conference. We should be outraged at Canada 150 in toto. We should be outraged at CBC welcoming that proto-fascist monster onto one of their premier shows. We should be outraged that he was allowed, unchallenged, to defend scalping Mi'kmaq people. Frankly, not enough people are outraged, which is partly what allows these things to continue happening. Our outrage is important -- an ongoing sign that we have not lost our humanity in the face of a violent, oppressive world. And I am certainly not going to criticize any expression of outrage by the folks most directly impacted by all of it.

But SO MUCH left social media content is pointing out the bad stuff and venting our outrage. SO MUCH. As important as it is, I wonder if the affective pull towards adding our two cents to commenting on how awful X or Y is might in some cases at least be demobilizing. Why is so much left social media attention devoted to "that's bad" outrage, and relatively less to stories of resistance? Why are we not able to carve out more space, more attention, for ordinary people acting in the face of oppression and harm? Not that there's none of that, of course...and some folks do a better job than others of carving out that space. But why don't more of us, more of the time, centre ordinary people taking action? Why do we so often centre elites being awful?

This isn't a call for ignoring the awfulness in the world. It isn't a call for feel-good fluff. Rather, it is a call to centre not the awfulness but what people are always already doing in the face of that awfulness. It is a call to put ourselves and other ordinary people at the centre of the story, to centre resistance, from the individual and everyday survival and thriving, to the collective and confrontational.

It is at heart, I think, a call to resist the tendency of social media to make spectators of us, to remember that people are constantly, of necessity, always always always acting, doing, making, resisting in response to what the world throws at us. I think we'll collectively go farther by centring what you're already doing, what I'm already doing, what she's already doing over there. So maybe, at the level of social media, let's each commit to sharing less "that's awful" outrage and more stories of resistance. And that includes everyday 'cult of the militant' worship of narrow forms of struggle here!

What will this accomplish? Hard to know. Maybe nothing. But centring our attention on efforts to make change feels like one small piece of supporting and participating in such efforts.

And, admittedly, I'm biased in this. With Talking Radical Radio, this is sort of what I do. But, still, I think it's important!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: Dancing on our Turtle's Back

[Leanne Simpson. Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011.]

This is a book from a few years ago by renowned Nishnaabeg author, scholar, and activist Leanne Simpson. It is a book about Indigenous resurgence through learning from, and living lives shaped by, traditional teachings.

Dancing on Our Turtle's Back shares teachings and stories. It shares the author's experiences of learning from those teachings and stories (and from those who shared them with her). And it shares her own analyis of the teachings, the stories, and the overall learning process. It is deeply reflective and it exemplifies a way of engaging with learning, with scholarship, and with writing that is based in the author as a whole person, in contrast with most Western scholarship. And all of this is done in the context of a vision in which Nishaabeg and broader Indigenous resurgence is the most important focus for reaching a decolonized future on Turtle Island -- where resurgence means taking what has, through the relentless persistence of ancestors, survived in the face of the predatory beast that is colonialism; learning from it; adapting it to today as every generation must; and expanding the weave of its logics through lives and communities in ways that will strengthen them and strengthen the nations which they comprise.

I am, of course, not Nishnaabeg, nor Indigenous in any way. These are not my traditions, not my teachings, and the resurgence which they guide is not mine either. How, then, should those of us who are settlers read this book?

There are at least two different answers to that, I think. One is a very direct sort of learning across difference. In this case, it is learning about a people and a polity I am not part of but whose land I live on -- most of my life has been spent on land that is Nishnaabeg or shared Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee. The ubiquity of the rhtetoric of reconciliation and the increasing mainstream presence of things like land acknowledgements nothwithstanding, there is still next to no institutional integration into settler-majority contexts of the kind of learning that would be necessary for even basic respect let alone the kinds of transformations that will be necessary within settler society to make true reconciliation conceivable. You could make a case that reading books is not necessarily the best way to engage in this kind of learning, but it can't hurt and it fits with my own approaches to engaging with the world. So one way of reading this book is as a very basic kind of self education about ways of living that are not mine but that I have an obligation to know about and learn from because of where I live.

Along those lines, I particularly appreciated the way this book, short as it is, was able to convey not just specific information and stories but a felt sense of the broader logic of resurgence. It didn't just tell me that there was this exsiting, complex, sophisticated, diverse body of knowledge that could in theory inform a resurgent Nishnaabeg nation, and then give examples -- I could feel it. I could feel the way those logics have never ceased to exist -- in the stories, in the language, in the lives of elders and knowledge-holders -- and how those logics are the basis upon which more Nishnaabeg people and families and communities are already shaping their lives. And how this logic for collectively living otherwise is the basis for strength in reaching towards...well, towards a future that the settler state and many settler individuals do not want to see.

The other way to derive knowledge from this book as a settler, I think, is to see what can be learned from Nishnaabeg processes of resurgence that is relevant to our own struggles. Obviously this must not be a matter of stealing a story here, a word there, a misunderstood concept somewhere else, and putting them to our own uses. Rather, I think it is a matter of looking at the whole and seeing what questions it prompts us to ask about our own circumstances that we must then answer using the resources (political, cultural, tactical, spiritual, or whatever else) that are ours to use.

One question that books of this sort always raise for me is what work those of us on the settler side of the relationship must do in order to get settler society (and all of its powerful, violent, dominating institutions) back into our own lane. There is no single answer to this, and of course, what exactly the answer looks like must also derive from our own desires for and imaginings of justice and liberation. But I do not feel any less suspicion on the eve of Canada 150 than I have over the last decade or two that the degree and kind of change that will be necessary to truly respect and decolonize our relationship with Indigenous peoples is far beyond what most of us have thus far been capable of imagining.

Another question -- not a new-to-me one either, though I think phrased a bit differently than the last time I asked it in print -- is where we will find the new social logics that can replace the logic of patriarchal colonial capitalism that shapes our lives and communities today. John Holloway makes a pretty convincing case that it is only through our constant acts of resistance, from the small and everyday to the massive and collective, that we will discover those logics and weave the social world anew. Which I think is true as far as it goes. But, still, I look to the experiences of Indigenous nations, where such logics of collectively living otherwise persist and can provide a basis for a transformed future, and I worry about where an attitude of "Oh, we'll make it up as we go along" might lead us. We do not have, among those of us who trace our ancestry to Europe at any rate, the same kind of reservoir to draw on, as capitalism destroyed its traces amongst our ancestor long ago. And yet...should we perhaps be doing more to extract the bits that point to justice and liberation from our own past and from our own present, fragmentary and impure as they might be, as a way to ground possible futures, rather than taking the stance that we'll (metaphorically) burn it all down and figure out what to do next at some future moment? I'm not sure, but it is worth further reflection.

I could probably come up with more examples of questions inspired within me by this book, but I think those two exemplify two important broad categories of questions we settlers can ask about our own situations as we learn from Indigenous resurgence: What are our responsibilites in the current messed up colonial situation? And what lessons can we (respectfully, carefully) derive for how our settler-majority movements and communities-in-struggle might move forward, from the many areas where those who are engaged in Indigenous resurgence have things more together and figured out than we do?

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: Revolution at Point Zero

[Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2012.]

Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch -- a feminist reexamination of the origins of capitalism -- was, for me, a mind-blowing and paradigm-shifting book. While her essays collected in Revolution at Point Zero didn't shake me up in quite the same way, their analysis does succeed in hammering away at our inherited understandings of capitalism using a similar cluster of insights to those that animated her earlier book in such a way as to leave those understandings fundamentally reshaped.

Originally from Italy, Federici was one of the founders of the International Feminist Collective in 1972, which went on to launch the Wages For Housework campaign. She has continued to work as a writer, teacher, and organizer since then, in Nigeria for many years and most recently in the United States.

At least in part because of the hard work of Wages For Housework and those who came after, it has become a feminist truism in the early 21st century that all of those kinds of mostly-unpaid work that make life possible and that even today remain vastly disproportionately done by women -- the cleaning, the cooking, the emotional labour, the work of caring for children and older adults, the relational work that is the foundation of community -- are, in fact, work. Most frequently today, this recognition is taken up in a moral or micro-political mode and connected to efforts to change relations and practices for individuals, couples, and small-scale communities. Which, without a doubt, are important, and need greater recognition and buy-in from those of us whose lives are organized into greater freedom to opt out of this particular burden. Similarly, to the extent that there is awareness today of the Wages For Housework campaign, it is regarded (as it was as well by many who dismissed it back in the 1970s) as simply a demand -- maybe a helpful and important one, maybe an unreasonable one, maybe even a misguided one that would end up expanding the reach of the market into everyday life, but nonetheless just a demand for improved material conditions for individuals (especially women), households, and small-scale communities.

From the early essays written during the heyday of the campaign in the 1970s, to a couple written during the years of Reaganite reaction, to many from the era of the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s and beyond, they all make it very clear that Wages for Housework was never just a demand -- it was a revolutionary perspective. In combination with theorists writing from anti-colonial contexts, Federici and the other feminists affiliated (and later inspired) by Wages For Housework make clear that capitalism is not just a name for those relationships mediated by the wage and by money, but is a system that has always depended on appropriating vast amounts of unpaid labour. This applies to the unpaid labour of enslaved and indentured people in/from the Global South, and it applies to the unpaid labour appropriated mostly from women all over the world that can be described as "reproductive" in character. This unwaged labour is integrally part of capital, and it is subordinated and devalued precisely by its unwaged character, which makes it seem entirely natural and as if it flows from some essential attribute of the category "woman." In demanding that it be waged, feminists were demanding that it be seen as a central and foundational aspect of how our contemporary social relations work. And recognizing that centrality -- truly recognizing it and faithfully following its implications -- must necessarily transform, in ways large and small, everything else that we understand about capital and about struggles within, against, and beyond it.

As with any career-spanning collection, even a fairly compact one like this, there is some repetition across different essays, and also some unevenness. In part because it is well-curated and fairly short, I didn't find myself minding the repetition, and indeed I found it helpful -- the kind of shift prompted by Federici's analysis is the kind that takes multiple exposures to work its way into all of the nooks and crannies of our existing ways of thinking. For instance, given how thoroughly most analyses of neoliberalism in the last two decades have ignored the importance of unpaid reproductive labour in how capital and our lives have been transformed in this era, as well as in how resistance can and must happen, I found it pretty useful to have more than one essay filling this gap in different ways. It was interesting, as well, to trace the shift in the political moment through not just the shifts in the content of the essays across the years but also in the mood and tone of the writing. It's not exactly a happy trajectory, given the years covered, but it's an important one to understand. (And it somehow felt less unhappy than I remember being the case in a collection of essays by US feminist Charlotte Bunch that I read years ago, that covered much the same period from a somewhat different sort of feminist perspective.) It is also interesting to trace Federici's evolving understanding of reproductive labour -- she notes this explicitly in her Introduction -- from a very direct impulse to reject it as imposition and burden in the earlier years, to a much more nuanced understanding by the end that recognizes not only its role in the subordination of women and of the broader working class but also sees collective experiments in new non-state, non-market ways of organizing it as a crucial basis and site for the struggle for a radically transformed world.

As much as I appreciated its analysis, in reading this book, I found it difficult not to be pessimistic. I don't think that pessimism is necessarily something that Federici put in the writing, at least not in any deliberate way -- it's really more a product of my reading of it. I think truly taking account of the role of reproductive labour in global capital, both in years gone by and today, makes our current unpleasant global trajectory even more stark. It makes it even more clear than conventional left analyses that nostalgia for some mythologized (and misunderstood) slightly-better (for some) yesterday simply cannot be what shapes our anti-neoliberal politics. It didn't help that I was constantly aware, as I read, of this book's resonance with Jason Moore's Capitalism and the Web of Life, which builds on the analysis of Federici and many others and adds an ecological focus on capitalism's dependence on appropriating the unpaid work done by what we might call in imprecise shorthand "nature." Even without Moore's focus on ecological catastrophe, though, Federici's work makes it quite clear that there is simply no return to what from the inside looked like an everpresent horizon of plenty and relative ease for the middle class and at least some of the working class in the West in the post-Second World War years, but that from the outside was clearly an unusual bubble and blip in the course of world history that depended on massive predation, and on high levels of appropriation of unpaid labour from women, from the Global South, and from the natural world. We shouldn't want to recreate it, even if we could. None of which is at all new to me, but even so it's still not a happy or easy truth to face, and I felt very aware of it as I read.

Like I said, though, that pessimism is more about me and about the world than it is about the book. And the book is well worth reading. It advances an analysis that is important and useful, and that we cannot do without. As for how exactly to translate these insights into action -- well, that's a lot less clear. Certainly Federici gives examples in some of the later essays, particularly drawing from how working-class women in the Global South and also in urban contexts in North America are already self-organizing. But mostly I get the sense that, in the spirit of the autonomist roots of her politics, she mostly sees that as something that needs to be worked out collectively on the ground as we move forward. And this book is her invitation to do just that.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site.]

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Hegemony How-To

[Jonathan Matthew Smucker. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

We need more spaces and more opportunities to think through past, present, and future choices that we face in our movements and communities-in-struggle; this book is an effort to catalyze such things, so I'm glad to have read it. But my response to it is quite mixed. On the one hand, I think it raises some very important questions and has some good suggestions for how movements need to be approaching the task of organizing for change. On the other hand, there are some basic aspects of how the book does this that I find quite troubling.

There is lots about this book that draws me into affinity with it, or at least with elements of it. It doesn't hurt that the author and I are of a similar political vintage -- we're both white dudes who were more or less politicized in the era of the global justice movement, with sensibilities formed in the broadly anti-authoritarian current therein. We both, interestingly, grew up in small, conservative, Mennonite-majority towns, though in different countries and situated somewhat differently within them. The author's path, however, has much more centrally involved organizing, while mine has tended more towards movement-focused writing and media production, especially in recent years. Perhaps of most relevance to the contents of this book, during the Occupy era I was in a small city and I was a peripheral supporter of the Occupy process there rather than central to it, whereas Smucker was a core participant in Occupy Wall Street in New York City. This book seems in large part to be an effort by the author to use the resources of the academy to draw some lessons from the experience of Occupy, both its breathtakingly rapid impact on this continent's political culture in a crucial moment and its failure to translate that opening into a form of movement that might have been more successful in pushing for material political change.

Like I said, there's lots here to like. I'm all in favour of appropriating the resources of and knowledge produced in the academy for the benefit of movements -- that has limitations and isn't necessarily the most important way for our movements to be learning about the world, but I think it has value, even in a lot of cases when the knowledge in question does not initially seem to have direct relevance to movements. I like the fact that the book experiments with mixing story and theory. I don't necessarily like all of the specific choices made in the course of that experimentation, but trying to find a novel approach to weaving together lived experience and the informal knowledge produced in movements with more formal scholarly sources is a worthwhile endeavour.

I also broadly like the sensibility that the book brings to its concrete recommendations for movements. Not that I agree with every individual piece of that advice, mind you -- I don't. But I like the conversation that the advice will catalyze. Plus, I do like that the book's political recommendations are broadly focused on the need for combining radical vision with pragmatism, on overcoming our allergy to organization, and on contesting the mainstream of power rather than engaging in self-isolating practices of radical puritanism or purely non-confrontational building of supposed alternatives. I think we have some different ways of thinking about how all of that relates to the state form in the longer term, and likely how to apply it in some kinds of specific situations, but I don't mind those differences too much.

I especially want to name how much I appreciate the book's discussion of one particular organizing project that happened outside of the major metropolitan centres that usually dominate movement attention. I say this because not only did I grow up in a small town, but I spent over a decade in a small city, and it was a source of constant frustration that the movement-based left in the big cities that we worked and had relationships with really had no conception of how things worked differently where we were, and almost no interest either. The amazing success that the author and many others had in organizing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, could definitely have been a source of lessons for the small group I worked with in Sudbury, Ontario.

But I mentioned some serious misgivings. This doesn't capture everything, but I think a lot of my discomfort with the book rests in its conceptual middle, its way of connecting its beginning and its end, its problem and its suggested solutions. I think it sets out to address an interesting and important problem, and it ends up in a place that...well, like I said, there's lots I agree with, and lots more that I don't necessarily agree with completely but that I think will spark important conversations. And if the starting point for the book is interesting and useful and the suggestions it reaches are at least worth discussing, should my concerns about the middle count for much?

Let me talk about some of them, and you can decide.

I think the biggest problem with this book is that it does something that has been endemic to Western approaches to knowing the world for centuries: It centres something specific to the knower's experience and then fails to recognize its own specificity, treating it as general in a way that erases or devalues difference. For all that this book mentions other movements, and occasionally uses examples from them, it is a book that centres Occupy. I suspect the author's understanding would be that Occupy is a case study, and a good one to use because of his central involvement. And that's fine, as far as it goes. But a lot of what the book takes from Occupy doesn't always work very well as a stand-in for movements in general.

So, for instance, much of the book is premised on identifying some key faults in movements, broadly understood, which Occupy is taken to exemplify -- a resistance to recognizing that leadership is present whether you name it or not, and the value of formalizing it; a tendency towards self-isolation of movements and groups; a refusal to build organizations; a refusal to get involved in the nitty-gritty of the landscape of power; a tendency towards a sort of strategy-less prefigurative politics; and so on. All of these were central to Occupy, and I certainly don't deny that many of them have, to a greater or lesser extent, been present in a lot of movements in the last thirty or forty years. But that qualifier -- "to a greater or lesser extent" -- is a pretty important one. If you tried to do the sort of analysis in this book but instead of centering Occupy, you centred Black Lives Matter or Idle No More or the migrant justice movement, you might well end up identifying some of the same barriers and challenges, but you'd end up with some different ones as well, and the relative emphasis and the narrative would also be, I think, quite different. Plus, in my own experience of doing in-depth interviews with a few hundred activists and organizers from across Canada in the last four years for Talking Radical Radio, the problems that this book identifies in its analysis of Occupy are important for some groups and projects and broader political tendencies, but not so much for others. And I want to emphasize, I have no problem at all with an analysis that centres Occupy or any other specific movement -- the problem is when the analysis gets generalized and abstracted such that it stands in for movement experience in general, especially when what is being erased from movements-in-general through doing this is lessons flowing from or specifically relevant to activism and organizing among more marginalized people. Some people will read this book and say, yes, that speaks to what I'm facing, and other people will read it and not feel like that at all, and I think it is better to be up front about that landscape.

This tendency to erase specificity showed up in other ways as well. Take, for instance, the discussion of the rhetoric of "the 99%" in Occupy. The book is quite right in recognizing how powerful this was as a frame that allowed certain kinds of narratives about class to be told in a way that had not been possible in the mainstream in the United States in a long time, while being open enough to allow broad and differentiated identification with the figure of the 99% and to allow it to draw in a range of quite differently imagined political projects. As the book discusses, this sort of flexible or "floating" signifier can be really important in generating new kinds of political unity -- which Occupy demonstrated.

At the same time, the operation of any such frame is going to bump into limits in the real world, and "the 99%" was no exception. The book talked about some of those limits, like the tendency for self-isolating practices of many radicals to undo the broad "we" that the frame of the 99% helped make possible. However, it was strangely silent about others. So, for instance, it acknowledges that "many critics from the left and from the academy have taken issue with the meme of the 99%, arguing that it poses a false unity that obfuscates important heterogeneity and power concentrations within an absurdly broad category." It counters these critics by pointing out that what really matters is not the textual accuracy of the framing so much as what it can do out in the world. Which is very important -- I can think of a lot of cases where textual critique by academics or sectarian leftists protecting their own purity gets in the way of really understanding what a given image or figure or document is doing, and that was certainly happening around the genesis of Occupy. But nowhere does the book deal with the fact that it wasn't just academics and sectarians who saw problems with the figure of the 99%. If you're really serious about understanding what that figure could and did accomplish out in the world, and what it could and couldn't have done under different circumstances, how can you not talk about (or at least acknowledge) how the broad economic populism that it invokes may be a floating signifier that has the capacity to draw some constituencies in but it also enters into concrete histories which mean that other constituencies -- including some that must be a part, or even central, to any broad movement for collective liberation on this continent -- have much more complicated, even ambivalent, relationships with it.

I can think of two examples, and there are probably more, of how this is true of the frame of "the 99%": The first is perhaps less visible in the US than in Canada, though it shouldn't be, but there is a subset of Indigenous activists and organizers who may be cautious about or resistant to such a frame becaue it seems to have no space for their nationhood. This is not just me mounting a textual critique, it is identifying a material and fundamental political question that you can't just ignore when you are considering how an appeal to broad economic populism is going to work out in the world (especially in Canada), or how floating signifiers in general work (or don't) to generate possibilities for political unity. And more central to Occupy Wall Street's immediate context, there's a pre-existing history of waves of economic populism that have at least implicitly centred whiteness (as Occupy did) stretching back to Reconstruction that, each time, failed African Americans in one way or another. If you look at how Occupy unfolded (or more recently at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon), that history led to a different pattern of relationships to the blanket message of not-explicitly-anti-racist economic populism among African Americans than among many other groups. That difference isn't simple or direct, it varies a lot with things like location within the country and individual ideology and generation, and you can certainly make a case that it isn't insurmountable -- but it is real. And not only is it real, but to me at least it seems central to an analysis of what Occupy did and didn't, could and couldn't accomplish, and what it might have done to accomplish more. You can't, to put it in terms of this book, contest for hegemony without figuring it out.

Another problem that isn't quite the same but is, I think, related, is what kinds of sources the book draws on. On the one hand, if it ends up in interesting and useful places -- which it certainly does sufficiently to make me glad I read it -- then does it matter what sources of knowledge it engages with along the way? Again, my concern here is not enough to make me dismiss what I find useful in the book, but it is still a concern. Why, for instance, does its engagement with scholarship focus mainly (as far as I can tell) on social movement theory and on fairly mainstream sociology? There's nothing wrong with those bodies of knowledge per se, though I've never found social movement studies to be very useful myself, but why those and not scholarly work of other sorts that centre struggles for justice, particularly those produced primarily by scholars who are socially marginalized and politically radical? And why, even though the book acknowledges that things like informal conversations, movement debates, and interviews with activists and organizers were a part of the author formulating the knowledge presented here, was it not grounded more explicitly in the active debates happening in movement contexts? And I don't just mean mentioning these divisions to explain the reason for writing, but actually digging into their content, and perhaps even exploring on-the-ground experiments by groups that come to different conclusions. Why not, for instance, talk about the self-marginalizing tendency of Occupy and other movements by more explicitly drawing on the active discussions of exactly that, which I know full well were happening during and after Occupy? Why not talk about projects and experiments and examples of actual organizing practice on the ground that, for instance, deal in different ways with questions of leadership? Given that a big point of the book is intervening in such conversations, wouldn't that goal be facilitated by engaging more seriously with how they are already happening?

Take the chapter on prefigurative politics. It ends up in a place that I agree with in a broad-strokes kind of way, arguing that any understanding of prefigurative politics that poses building alternative spaces and practices as something we need to do instead of confronting powerful institutions to create broader social change (which it calls "strategic politics") is a dead end. I agree -- the book doesn't put it quite this way, but we need to "oppose and propose" simultaneously, as radical scholar Andy Cornell has described it. But I'm pretty ambivalent about the way the chapter argues for this. It does so by constructing a binary of "prefigurative politics" and "strategic politics" as ideal types, associates them with a number of other binaries that are based on the particular sociological analysis of the world and of movements that this book develops, and concludes we need the former and not the latter. This feels very divorced from how these conversations actually happen in movements and it doesn't feel like this particular instance of appropriation of scholarly knowledge for movement purposes adds much -- like it was written to pay far more heed than I think is warranted to certain poli sci or sociological disciplinary requirements.

Moreover, it felt like it was quite selective in how it engaged with the field of different kinds of politics that it is supposedly deriving its ideal types from. You could make a case that it bakes its conclusion into the way that it does this derivation, which felt pretty arbitrary to me. Among other concerns, it didn't recognize at all the growing presence on the far left of ways of doing politics that pay lots of attention to strategy but have no time whatsoever for any considerations that are even vaguely prefigurative. And at no stage of the conversation was there any recognition that a major strand of activity and thought that falls under the label "prefigurative politics" as it is often used is less about building little islands of utopian belonging a la Zucotti Park than about figuring out better ways for us to work together as we push for collective liberation in a world saturated with social relations of white supremacy and misogyny and so on -- maybe including that recognition would have changed the overall analysis, maybe it wouldn't, but it seems an awfully important element of prefigurative politics to leave out. And if your goal is to spark and contribute to conversations about these things in movements, why do it in a way that seems so detached from existing conversations and movement practices, and that employs abstraction in a way that itself might make some readers skeptical? Maybe it doesn't matter, but it just seems that there are more convincing paths to get to "oppose and propose" than the one taken in this chapter.

I could go into plenty of other examples to illustrate my concerns, and really I should probably stop here, but there's one more that I think is important enough that it warrants a mention. The final full chapter of the book is called "The we in politics" and talks in detail about the complexities of how we come to understand our individual and collective political identities. As with most of my other areas of concern, it's a chapter that has plenty of interesting and thoughtful things to say, some of which I would agree with and some of which I wouldn't. But after initially reading it, when I stepped back and reflected on what it had to say, it came as a bit of a shock to realize that this detailed chapter on the complexities of political identity in the context of social movements in the United States does not cite even a single piece of work from the Black feminist/radical women of colour tradition. And I don't say that in a shallow, liberal, identitarian way -- I say that because by far the most sophisticated political thinking done in North America in the last half century about the complexities of political identification in the context of struggle against oppression and exploitation has been done by radical Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour. Even if you ultimately come up with an approach to such things that is grounded in other ways, it seems an odd choice not to engage with this important, powerful, diverse body of work at all -- it seems disrespectful, for one thing, but it also seems like an odd choices given that it's the kind of engagement that will only sharpen your own argument. And, again, if your main goal is to intervene in conversations in movements about these things, I'm not sure I understand the logic of ignoring a body of work that informs the political choices and self-understanding of an important subset of people doing radical, creative, and effective activism and organizing on the ground (again, particularly but far from only many radical women of colour).

So, like I said, quite a mixed response. I worry I'm not being entirely fair. But I think whether or not people might find it a useful read will vary a lot from person to person. There is, I want to stress, lots of good stuff in here, including some different ways of thinking about age-old movement questions, some sharp thinking about some of the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy, and some practical recommendations for movements that many people will be able to learn from. But its inadequate recognition of its own specificity, its silence on certain kinds of key movement questions, its choices about which sources of knowledge to engage and which to ignore, and its idiosyncratic decisions about how to discuss certain things mean that lots of other people will probably prefer to give it a miss.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: Direct Action

The following review was done for the April 27, 2017 edition of GET LIT, a bookish show that broadcasts on 93.3 FM CFMU. Check out both the written and audio versions below.

[L.A. Kauffman. Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. London UK and New York NY: Verso, 2017.]

Hello, my name is Scott Neigh. I'm the host of Talking Radical Radio (my site, on, on SoundCloud), and I'm here today on Get Lit on 93.3FM CFMU to talk about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, which was written by L.A. Kauffman and published by Verso.

For many people, the most direct association that they have with the phrase "social movement" is the now-vaguely remembered and much mythologized 1960s. And even for those who link that hazy past with more recent collective mobilizations like Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, there is often little knowledge of what might have happened -- if anything -- in the 40+ years in between. Even many of us who are activists and organizers ourselves know a lot less about the histories of movements in the 1970s and later.

In Direct Action, Kauffman does some important work to fill that gap. She begins with one of the last great mobilizations against the Vietnam war in 1971 and traces a path through some of the most important movements in the United States between that point and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The book's emphasis is on those movements that in one way or another employed direct action -- which she describes as "the fierce, showy tradition of disurptive protest employed by many of the era's most distinctive and influential movements" (x). To a greater or lesser extent, the book talks about the anti-nuclear movement, organizing against South African apartheid, Earth First! and other militant environmental groups, direct action AIDS and other militant queer organizing, the global justice movement, the great anti-war mobilizations around the US invasion of Iraq, protests at Republican and Democratic national conventions, and of course Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

History can sometimes end up being a bit of a stodgy read, and 40 years is a long period to cover, but Kauffman makes skilfull choices about when to zoom in and provide generous detail and when to pull back and give broader strokes. As well, the writing in Direct Action is lively, engaging, and thoughtful, and it strikes a good balance between capturing the intensity and excitement of people taking the streets with the often somber political questions that followed movements throughout these years -- from the challenge of staying active in the context of ever-more-powerful right-wing forces, to the ongoing need to challenge the racism that has so starkly divided movements on this continent.

There were a number of elements of the book that I particularly appreciated. I really liked the book's emphasis on recognizing the role of women, particularly queer women and women of colour, in driving some of the key political, theoretical, and practical innovations over this period -- something that is so often erased. I really liked its willingness to recognize problems with how movements have done things, but to do so in a way that is fundamentally generous rather than based in the more-radical-than-thou sniping that sometimes defines these conversations within movements. And most of all, I appreciated that beyond discussing specific actions and the political and practical dynamics in key moments, the book places a great emphasis on tracing the transitions between different moments and movements. That is, on talking about what was passed down, what stayed the same, and what was adapted and changed.

Of course, as with any book, it has limitations. It is, for one thing, very US-centric. I still think that Canadian readers can learn a lot from it, given that what happens here is always in tight dynamic relation with what's happening south of the border, but that's still not the same as it actually being about what happened here. As well, the lack of attention to the international context felt particularly grating during the discussion of Occupy in 2011, which perhaps more than any point since 1968 was clearly part of a global circulation of struggle.

Most disappointing to me, though, were some of the choices in the book in terms of covering the most recent era. So, for instance, there are certain movements that the book just doesn't focus on. The labour movement, for instance, is beyond the scope of what it covers, and I think that's just fine. But the relative absence of migrant justice organizing from the book, particularly in its coverage of the last two decades, feels like more of a problem, particularly given that movement's energy, its political significance, and the increasing adoption by certain groups within it of direct action tactics. As well, the attention to transitions -- to continuities and to innovations -- between moments and movements that was done so well in much of the book felt sparser and thinner for periods after the anti-war movement of the early 21st century.

Nonetheless, this is very good book -- great content and a lively, fun read. It does some valuable work in filling in our knowledge about important social movements of the last four decades and their use of direct action tactics. And I think it models important ways for thinking *about* movements that we can all learn from as we move forward into an increasingly frightening and uncertain future in which working collectively, audaciously, and creatively to change the world is becoming more and more urgent.

Again, I'm Scott Neigh and I've been talking about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism for Get Lit. I encourage you to tune into Talking Radical Radio at 1:30pm on Thursdays on 93.3FM CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario, at various other times on community stations in different parts of Canada, and online at and

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: Brilliant Imperfection

[Eli Clare. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2017.]

I can think of few writers whose work better exemplifies radical, deeply thoughtful, passionate, nuanced, and incredibly readable engagement with the social world and its injustices than Eli Clare.

Brilliant Imperfection, as its subtitle indicates, grapples with cure -- a word and an idea that, in Clare's radical reading of both it and of the world, is about as far from the straightforward and unadulterated 'good thing' of commonsense usage as you could get. He reveals cure to be both a dense node and a driving force in the social relations that organize the oppressions felt by disabled people and many other people as well, tightly bound up with the equally deceptive and devastating ideas of normal and natural. The book's exploration of cure is not a linear journey advancing a singular thesis, however, but a skillful exploration of the complex whole of that which is wound together in, through, and by cure, accomplished by strategically entering the social tangle at key points and tracing, often in deeply embodied ways, the strands that meet there. The chapters form a cluster around the centre that is cure -- "Ideology of Cure," "Violence of Cure," "How Cure Works," "Promise of Cure" and so on -- and each chapter is itself a cluster of sections grounded in different epistemological and rhetorical approaches that are brought together to illuminate its target.

The politics and ideas in the book are deeply challenging -- or, to be more precise, I felt challenged by them, and I suspect that so would pretty much any reader grounded in movement/left but not specifically disability politics, and probably at least some people engaged in a sustained way with disability organizing as well. Precisely because the book takes the complexity of the social world seriously in its analysis and its writing, it's hard to come up with a singular and simple way of characterizing that challenge that feels even vaguely accurate. It challenges dominant assumptions about what "cure" means, yes, but its relentless examination of how cure permeates the organization of a whole host of other ideas and practices and facets of the social world pushes for a much broader re-thinking as well.

This includes paying a lot of attention to the interlinked character of...well, of the social world, of the aspects of our lives that we're taught to talk about as separate, and of our struggles to change the world. It is the antithesis of the ritualized but often shallow naming of race, class, and gender you see in a lot of scholarly and non-scholarly-left writing. And it feels, when these links are made, like it is a product of thinking and talking deeply about the connection in question. Even when this takes the form of a relatively brief naming of some connection or other, it feels concrete, not the kind of gestural gloss that so often passes for consideration of intersectionality.

The book also embraces difference and contradiction. At several points, Clare directly addresses voices of people with very different experiences and analysis, and considers those differences seriously. Sometimes his conclusion from this engagement is an opposition no less profound than might have resulted from a more superficial consideration -- for instance, his reflections on the words of the father of a disabled girl whose awareness is compared to that of a three month-old about his choice to take surgical and hormonal steps to prevent her from sexually maturing. Sometimes the result is the introduction of new complexity into his analysis, or the admission of contradictions that cannot easily be resolved -- for instance, when considering the somewhat different analysis of cure held by a friend whose disability includes the experience of intense chronic pain. I particularly admired this willingness to let contradiction stand. A lot of the time, such contradictions in our thinking or in our movements reflect contradictions out in the world, and the impulse to smooth them over just leads to a shallower understanding. There was even one instance, in Clare's discussion of his visceral rejection of the idea that his disabled body needs any kind of fixing but his embrace of a particular surgical intervention as part of his journey of being trans, where a relatively neat resolution of that contradiction would have been possible but where he explicitly refuses it, instead engaging with the question one more time in order to unearth the continuing contradiction that he knows is still there.

Even beyond all that I have to learn from this book about the integration of disability into grassroots ways of thinking about and acting in the world, I'm excited by what it can teach me about writing about the world. The introduction to the book describes its form as "a mosaic," or "a swirling, multibranched pattern of histories, ideas, and feelings." Over the course of its many chapters and their many sections -- more appropriately conceived, I think, as a cluster of clusters, rather than the blandly linear series that "chapter" and "section" tend to evoke -- it makes use of a lot of different approaches. It presents broader histories in straightforward narrative ways. It starts from particular figures or media texts and radiates outward into feelings and issues and analysis. It uses memoir. It uses dialogue in various forms, both recounting actual dialogical engagement with people in Clare's life and using a form of imaginative recreation of dialogue with archival figures. It deploys atmospheric vignettes. It traces how categories and terms have evolved, how institutions have shifted, or how they haven't. It, at points, gives full vent to emotion -- a section of direct address to a friend long dead from suicide, for example.

Moreover, it is a great read, and an inspiring example of presenting challenging ideas in accessible ways. Rather than the disjointed shifting from mode to mode, voice to voice, approach to approach, that could have resulted from this experimental form in less skillful hands, it comes together exactly as the label "mosaic" intends -- lots of different kinds of little pieces that are combined to make a powerful and appealing whole. This was a wonderful read, but even more than that I am excited by my prelimanry reflections on how the lessons of this book might be relevent to challenges I'm currently wrestling with in my own work.

[Check out my listing of all of the book reviews on this site]

Friday, March 31, 2017

Writing, "okayness," and the limits of learning by listening

Okayness is a sedative.

Okayness makes your lids drowsy, your thoughts slow down, your focus turn intwards.

Okayness is an outrage. It shouldn't be -- it should be normal, universal, an inheritance that comes with being born. But that isn't the world we live in.

Okayness is an irritant. I'm sure many of you don't want to read about it. Goodness knows that in 42 years, I've become pretty sick of reading and listening to and watching stuff about people who have this kind of okayness, and I know that lots of you are way more over it than I am. If that's you, feel free to click on something else, search for cat pictures, read some fanfiction, find some deep analysis that centres you, whatever you need in this moment. But for the rest, particularly those who experience the kind of okaness I'm talking about: read on.

Okayness, as I'm using it here, means something very specific. I don't mean contextual okayness, the kind of okayness that comes and goes with the vagaries of fortune. I don't mean I didn't burn my breakfast, my bus came on time, no-one I care about died recently, I'm okay. Nor do I mean the okayness of making do, the okayness of surviving or even thriving despite -- there's no shortage of people who manage to rock that kind of okayness without any access whatsoever to the kind of okayness I'm talking about here. No, I mean the kind of underlying bedrock of okayness upon which some of us get to build our lives, while others do not.

It's a hard sort of okayness to talk about, because it doesn't necessarily feel very good on those days when we did leave our toast in too long, when the bus splashed a puddle on our pants as it sped past the stop, when we are grieving, when we are in pain, when it feels like nothing will ever be good and fun and happy again. It's a life-isn't-perfect, tragedies-happen, good-luck-and-bad-luck, hard-work-usually-pays-off, it's-up-to-you realistic expectation of okayness as your default. Fate will tackle you and punch you in the gut, but this okayness means that is a deviation from what the world has promised you. It's an okayness that you can't always feel, but that lets you have faith down to your deepest fibre and your smallest cell that, on balance, unless you're unlucky or you make bad choices, you'll likely be okay in the end -- and even if the dice don't go your way or you make a series of serious bonehead moves, it all might be okay anyway.

That is the kind of okayness that is a sedative and, because it is denied to so many, an outrage.

I say that it's a sedative because it gets inside of us and interferes with our ability to feel things and to know what's going on. But that's a pretty limited metaphor, because it makes it sound like it is only inside of us, rather than something about how our lives and communities are organized that gets inside and manifests there too. Because really, our experience of that sense of bedrock okayness or the lack of same is about the extent to which we get steered away from or towards the sharp jagged edges of the social world. If we never encounter them, they don't show up in the internal picture we build of the world, or do so in a minimized and distorted way. Those who have little chunks of flesh torn out by them every day, however, have no choice but to know that they are there, and to do some work towards figuring out how they operate. The sedative of okayness means we end up with a shallower and less accurate understanding of how the world works, and we get attached to this distorted vision and resist attempts to dispell it.

Of course it isn't simple. There isn't a clear binary, a division of the world between okay and not-okay. There's all manner of nuance, complexity, and gradation, and many different sorts of sharps and points and blocks that target different people in different ways and end up producing different combinations of knowing and not-knowing about the social world. And individual path matters, so there's no absolute and simple correlation between who we are and what we know, or who we are and how we act in the world, or even between who we are and what we know and how we act today, and what that might look like a decade from now.

Even given all of that, however, there are ways of generalizing about this that are useful. Maybe you do have that bedrock okayness and you've gotten the sense your whole life that you belong and that you are entitled to be okay. Or maybe your access to that okayness is shakier or sharply proscribed, but you're close enough to it and you've been told often enough that you should be just as able to feel belonging and to access the limited supply of okayness as the cis straight non-poor white guys of the world and so it shapes your vision for your life and for how things must change. Or maybe the world has made crystal clear from when you were born that there is no way you will ever access that kind of okayness, barring a fundamental transformation of the social world. These fault lines matter to who we are, what we know, and how we act, even if that mattering isn't always simple or direct.

Learning by Listening

A lot of the work that has filled my life over the last twenty years has involved writing and other kinds of media-making, all of which is premised on the possibility and value of learning by listening. For that kind of work to do anything at all in the world, it depends on a reader (or listener, or viewer) finding it, engaging with it, and learning from it. In a lot of what I have created, from my rather disastrous dabblings with short stories to various kinds of grassroots journalism and blogging, that has mostly been intrinsic to the form but not discussed. For some important pieces of it, though, I'm pretty up-front in the work itself about the epistemological and pedagogical importance of listening: My two books of social movement-focused Canadian history-from-below briefly theorized a way of thinking about the past that is explicitly organized around listening across differences in experience and beginning from there to figure out how the social world we all share has produced those differences. And in my largest ongoing project, Talking Radical Radio, I begin each weekly episode in part by describing the show as a "chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in stregnthening all of our efforts to change the world."

If viewed in a certain way, what I mean by that premise -- the possibility and value of learning by listening -- is so broad that not only is it not controversial, it isn't even very interesting. Any time we learn about the world through someone else narrativizing their experiences and analysis, we are learning by listening -- whether that is in a one-on-one conversation, a YouTube recording of a lecture, a newspaper article, a book, a radio documentary, or any other sort of live or recorded textual (in the broadest sense) account of the world. So this encompasses basically any learning about the world through which we come into contact with experiences and ideas via words or other sorts of symbols put together and delivered by someone else. Without that, we would know very little about anything beyond our direct experience, so of course it is possible to learn that way and of course it is important.

Even so, we don't generally think very carefully about how learning by listening happens. If pressed, we probably concede that it is more complicated than this, but often we act as if we believe it is as simple as encountering some sort of account of the world as a written or video or audio text, and either learning from what it has to say or not. Once we think through a little more carefully how we ourselves learn and how we experience the learning of others, it becomes clear that there is more going on and perhaps we should be shifting our expectations of what our work as makers of written or video or audio texts can do in the world.

Consider a stark but illustrative example: Let's start from someone who grew up with the kind of bedrock okayness I described at the start. They live in Canada. They've been led to feel so completely like they belong here that the very idea of questioning whether they belong here feels weird and inapplicable. Their life has its ups and downs, but they have no reason to doubt that if you work hard and catch a break or two, you'll be okay. Their parents have or had decent jobs, the people around them have decent jobs, and they either have one or can be pretty sure they can find one. They are utterly confident that if they really need help, there are places they can go to get it. They've never had to feel concern that the state might take away their children. Crossing the border is no big deal. Nobody bats an eye when they speak the language they learned growing up. If they face some sort of interpersonal violence or harm or loss, they will have not a moment of hesitation in going to the police, and if they are just walking down the street minding their own business, the police will be unlikely to interact with them in any way. This is how they have come to know the world, and their knowledge reflects, at a very deep level, a sort of generalizing of the lack of sharp edges in the social world that they have experienced themselves, which sets the ground to attributing any collective experience of not-okayness by some group or other as about their inadequacies rather than about how the social world is organized. This is not just individual "facts" in their knowledge that reflect this bedrock okayness in which they exist, but the entire framework of how they think the world works.

Now let's consider some sort of text or combination of texts that would challenge that view, and that would present in a relatively brief and accessible way a mix of analysis and first-hand experience illuminating at least some of the ways in which violence is socially organized into people's lives -- the violence of police and jails and courts, the violence of borders, the violence of colonization, the violence of war and empire, the violence of patriarchy and the gender binary, the violence of capitalism and the poverty it creates.

First of all, people whose lives are built on bedrock okayness aren't terribly likely to encounter that kind of material just by chance -- the kinds of media that get organized into mainstream lives, the kinds of content these media valourize versus marginalize, and the way socially produced but individually held inclinations and preferences shape choice within what's on offer all play a role in this. When they do encounter such material, in many cases the source will be a priori dismissed or at least rated as less weighty or reliable, whether that's because it gets tagged as "radical" or because the source is Black or Indigenous or otherwise Other. And even if that effect is minimal in a particular instance, the likely lack of fit between existing and new knowledge can feel uncomfortable or even threatening, and our usual default in such situations is to stick more closely with what we already know. And sometimes, the conundrum of what to do with new and uncomfortable ideas is just too much work to be bothered with, so we just stop thinking about them. There are, therefore, lots of reasons even aside from specific choices based on specific points of content that some or all of the new knowledge might be dismissed or otherwise subordinated to exsting knowledge.

Perhaps what is least appreciated, though, is the limit to our capacity to integrate new knowledge even under ideal circumstances. Even if there is little or no dismissal because the source is "too radical" or Other, even if there is an active commitment to navigating the lack of fit with existing knowledge and its associated discomfort by prioritizing the new knowledge, even then we can only do a limited amount to reshape how we now the world in response to any given instance of learning by listening. We have, over our lifetimes, built a whole edifice around making sense of a spectrum of experience that has largely kept us from the social world's jagged edges, and the entire edifice reflects that. It is entirely possible, and in fact entirely likely, to genuinely and earnestly accept one or two or several core points about the jagged edges out in the world and the injustice that steers some of us away from them and others towards them, in a way that will manage to simultaneously accept those points while leaving the edifice built upon the presumption of their opposite largely intact. One encounter with a text or a voice, or several, will not reorient or re-build the whole interconnected structure of my knowledge, or of yours.


I want to emphasize again that, in saying this, I am not claiming that people don't learn and don't change, including in ways that are informed by listening; I'm just claiming that it often fails to happen when it (practically) could and (politically) should. And when it does, it happens slowly and gradually through ongoing commitments and repeated instances of learning by listening and reflecting rather than all at once. It is a process of discipline -- of self-fashioning through repeated practice -- rather than of revelation.

So what can we learn from that?

Well, some of the implications are, or should be, unsurprising, particularly those for learners and teachers. In our role as learners, this way of thinking about learning by listening reinforces some pretty standard pieces of advice: Do so with humility. Don't assume you know more than you do just because you read something in a book once or heard someone talk about it. Treat learning about experiences and aspects of the social world that don't target you as a lifelong project. And so on and so forth. Similarly for teachers, there are vast fields of literature on various kinds of critical and radical pedagogy that amount to wrestling with this very phenomenon -- others know much more about this than I do, and I won't try to even summarize it here.

What I'm most interested in but also most unsure of, is what this understanding of learning by listening means for writers and others who shape content in various mediums and send it out into the world -- that is, for people who make texts but who aren't, in constrast with teachers, involved in shaping the circumstances of their uptake.

If your goal is to unsettle the default knowledge of people who grew up in bedrock okayness -- and I'm not saying this is the most important goal out there, or even a very useful one a lot of the time, but for those of us who grew up in bedrock okayness I think it's at least one element of our political responsibility -- how do you do that work given the limits to what any one text can achieve, and any one encounter with a text can achieve? Really, how do you engage in any effort to convey complex substance about underlying features of the social world that lie counter to some aspect of dominant commonsense, particularly anything that people are likely to be personally invested in?

Given how we learn, how and what should we write?

I mean, I can come up with a few things. It means we need to let go of the illusion that simply revealing some truth or other in what you write will catalyze some dramatic change. Mostly it won't, because people just don't work that way. It means we should probably take a look around ourselves at how people come to be who they are, and recognize that the practice of deliberate self-fashioning through engaging with texts may have been important for us but is actually pretty weird and rare in the world more generally, and is of no greater (or lesser) value than any other way in which people get shaped. And I think it also points towards a need to deliberately act in relation to movements, which are social forces that shape how texts are taken up. I'm not sure quite what I mean by this, because I'm certain I don't mean that the only valid work is directly meeting needs of organizing efforts for written, audio, and video material -- we also need a more complex and lively millieu of ideas and images and stories that has its own rhythm yet is in relation to struggles for justice and liberation.

But, really, these don't feel like enough. When I sit down at my keyboard or with pen in hand, when I consider how to put together next week's radio show or how to write something engaging and substantive based on my years of doing the show, what do I say to maximize what can be accomplished through learning by listening?

Given how we learn, how and what should I write?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Policing the Planet

[Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, editors. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. London UK and New York NY: Version, 2016]

Smarter people than me have observed since last Saturday's Women's March -- in which millions came together to oppose the intensified harm to ordinary people that the incoming Trump administration has quite openly promised -- that mass mobilizations are complicated. They are always full of contradictions and imperfections and really great things as well as troubling things. They are politically messy, always and inevitably. For some people, situated in some ways, the cost of having to wade through oppressive nonsense at such an event outweighs the benefits of participating, despite holding broadly shared goals, and can end up taking away from whatever important work that they are already doing to win justice for their communities. But for many of us, those contradictions and imperfections -- and that nonsense -- should be taken as a reason to engage with even greater vigour.

Take, for instance, the issue of policing. From the ways in which local Women's March organizers in some locations framed and implemented their events, to lots of the social media conversation about how it all went after the fact, it's pretty clear that this is a site of sharp and troubling political disconnection among those who oppose the agenda of the new administration in the US. This isn't the only way that it breaks down, but I'm thinking specifically of how the broader tendency among many white people of liberal, progressive, and left inclination to refuse to really grapple with the reality of police and other state violence, particularly against Black and Indigenous people, has been no less present in this context than it is in general. This is not a slam against the Women's March in particular, but it is a call for those of us who are ourselves white and who have a more critical understanding of policing and of state violence to figure out how we're going to engage with that political disconnect.

It seems to me there are two broad areas in which we really need to be asking questions about how our politics must change if we (as people not directly affected) are to take seriously the ways in which policing is experienced by Black and Indigenous communities. One is around the practical doing of grassroots politics. What demands and goals would follow from a solid understanding of the role of policing under patriarchal white supremacist settler colonial capitalism? How would existing demands change? What implications would that underestanding have for how we organize our actions? For how our actions relate to the police? For who we invite to speak? For how we understand the differences in police conduct and media coverage with respect to different grassroots actions? It's not that the answers to these questions are simple or singular; there is not just one right way to do things. It's just that not enough of us who are not ourselves directly targeted by police in our everyday lives are asking them.

The other area is more theoretical. It's about those of us who aren't targeted going from the experience of, for instance, seeing lots of reports of police killing of Black people and recognizing that it's an important issue, to actually doing the work to start figuring out what's going on beyond what the media shows us, and how it relates to all of the other important issues and struggles going on in the world. How do these horrific high-profile cases relate to more mundane and everyday experiences of policing by Black and Indigenous people? Of homeless people, of trans people? How are they a product of the historical origins of policing and of the ways that policing is currently socially organized? How do the bits and pieces of racist police violence that become visible to those of us who don't experience it relate to histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism? What about to histories of capitalism, and to the development of neoliberalism? And what about militarist and imperial violence that the US and Canadian settler states are involved in -- how does policing connect with that?

I think for anybody wishing to think through those kinds of questions, and wishing more generally to develop a critical analysis of policing today, Policing the Planet is a good resource. Now, it's important to keep in mind that some, perhaps most, of the refual to deal seriously with all of this on the part of a lot of people who aren't harmed by the current order of policing is not really about "not knowing" in any simple sense -- it's about not wanting to know, about a refusal to know. A book, on its own, will do little to change that. But what a book can do, and what I think this one does, is help equip those of us who already want to wrestle with these questions (and of course those who have no choice but to do so) with better tools for doing it.

Policing the Planet is a collection of short pieces by different people about policing and about popular struggles responding to policing in the era of Black Lives Matter. It is particularly concerned with what gets called "broken windows policing," which emphasizes punitive police responses to small infractions and even to non-illegal phenomena that get understood as "disorder." It is the dominant mode of policing in the United States and is very common globally as well. The book also has some sharp things to say about other approaches to policing which sometimes get posed as alternatives to "broken windows" but which are not, in fact, much different in their end result -- things like "community policing." Under all of these approaches, policing is about maintaining order and the (oppressive) status quo. Blackness, indigeneity, visible poverty, homelessness, and gender non-conformance, among other things, are framed in our society, in different ways and to different degrees, as inherent markers of threat and disorder. This is true regardless of how people who bear those markers behave, and as a result they are disproportionately targeted for police harassment and violence.

I particularly like the mix of pieces in the book. I mean, none address the Canadian context, and it would've been nice to see at least one do that. But I really like how seriously the editors took their mandate to ground the book in movements. Often, when it comes to collections like this, the topic emerges from a movement of some kind, but the logic governing the writing and the selection of pieces feels like it is more about scholars getting a chance to publish things of interest primarily to other scholars. This is very much not like that. The authored pieces seem largely to be by people who are pretty grounded in movements themselves, whether or not they also work in universities -- both people with familiar names, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Vijay Prasad, Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and others, as well as people I hadn't heard of. And it combines these with short, punchy interviews, mostly with organizers who are doing this work on the ground, and not just a token one or two such interviews but around ten of them.

The book certainly doesn't do everything, and for those of us trying to educate ourselves around this stuff there is lots more to learn, but I think it does a pretty solid job of starting to answer some of the questions I posed above, or at least giving us the raw materials to answer them for ourselves. It explores how policing works today, and where that came from. It connects that to how racism has shifted in the last few decades, and how capitalism has shifted in that time, and so on. I think that, in particular, it is important for white leftists to understand how austerity and increasingly repressive policing, with its disproportionate targeting of Black and Indigenous people and its enmeshment with white supremacy and settler colonialism, are tightly bound together. As well, the book gives multiple, easily accessible windows into how people are engaging in collective struggles to try and change things. As a result it will, I think, be a useful resource.

Moreover, for those of us who are not directly harmed or even benefit from the current order of policing but who clearly see its injustice, I think the book presents us with resources that we can use to inform our conversations as we engage with other people like us in our organizations, communities, and mass mobilizations about the oppressive realities of policing.

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