Friday, December 31, 2021

Review: Four Thousand Weeks

 [Oliver Burkeman. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Toronto: Allen Lane, 2021.]

An anti-productivity book, of sorts. In most books that are either directly or indirectly about how we individually make use of our time, the goal is to enable the reader to do more. Now, I don't actually often read that sort of book, at least in its most blatant neoliberal-cult-of-productivity manifestation. But I have been known to read more thoughtful or critical books that are at least somewhat related, and at this time of year I will often read a book about writing process, which isn't reducible to productivity but does have to do with...perhaps writing more, and certainly being more able to write. And if you were to magically get access to the dozens and dozens of notebooks I've filled over the last 25 years, you would find that the majority of the ink spilled therein is not recording salacious gossip or deep thoughts or radical politics, but highly repetitive neurosis focused on how I do, can, and should spend my time. So it is definitely a topic of great interest to me.

This book takes the position that, while there might be immediate instrumental value in particular circumstances to trying to pack more into a day or a week, it is a fundamental mistake to think that attempting to do so will solve the underlying drive that brings us to think about such things. It is premised on the inescapability of human finitude. We get, if we're lucky, 4000 weeks in our lives. Most things that we could do, most things that we want to do, we will never get to do. This is sad, even tragic. But, while it is certainly experienced inequitably in certain respects, it is a fundamental truth of being alive. The book starts from this insight, explores what it means and how it relates to conventional understandings of productivity, and makes a few tentative suggestions about what to do about it. There's more to it, but he suggests that the first step is to just accept that this is the reality, and that such acceptance is an important starting point for making decisions about whatever time we *do* have – and the book recognizes that some people have much, much more control of their time than others – in ways that reflect our actual values and desires. Trying to do more than a human can possibly do will just make us miserable. Making our peace with our limits is no guarantee of happiness, but it does put us in a better position to make what we can of our limited time. And it offers a few more specific ways to think about it all as you bring it down to earth in your own life.

So...I like the fundamental insight here. I think it's important. I think it points me towards healthier ways of relating to my time-use neurosis, and towards making decisions about how my highly self-directed life of writing and other sorts of making should be organized – there aren't any big decisions happening right away, but given the stage my book project is at, some should start to become more relevant before the end of 2022. For me, personally, this was a very useful book, and some of its ideas will be with me for years to come.

That said, I really think this book would have been better as a long article. I think there were chapters illustrating particular ideas that could just as effectively been a paragraph or three. I think towards the end of the book, and in smaller ways earlier on, it drifts away from the core insight about human finitude towards talking about other aspects of what might philosophically be thought of as living a good life, in a way that just wasn't as interesting to me. There was also occasional content brought in to illustrate examples that I disagreed with or disliked in some way. And while recognizing the inequitable distribution of control over our time is important,  I think insights about how to change our relationship to finitude as individuals are most usefully taken up as part of a vision for changes in the social. So as a document, I think it could have been implemented better – or, at least, it's not what I would've written, for whatever that's worth. But if you, like me, are in a constant state of worry about how you spend your time, and how to find ways to do the things that you most want to be doing, it's a book worth reading.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: The Dawning of the Apocalypse

 [Gerald Horne. The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020.]

Historical scholarship. A sweeping history of the long sixteenth century, from the first voyage of Columbus in 1492 to the establishment of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in North America in 1607. Though it was really in the seventeenth century that it became clear that all of these interlinked phenomena would become the defining features of the historical trajectory that we are still on today, the long sixteenth century lay the groundwork for what slavery, white
supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism would later become.

My reading experience with this book was a little peculiar. Partly, that's on me – I didn't really know much about the time period, and this book covers a lot of ground quite quickly, so there were sometimes allusions to events and people and so on that I couldn't keep up with. But the writing is also a bit strange, in that the author tends to repeat core ideas a lot in a way that goes way beyond the judicious repetition you expect in careful scholarship, and even specific facts and phrases keep recurring in a way that feels odd. (Can any book bear multiple references to France as "the hexagonal kingdom", for instance? This one certainly tried!) And I couldn't always determine what was about my reading and what was about the writing, but I wasn't always able to follow the logic of its movements across time and space.

All of that said, it is fascinating history and, I think, important analysis. I won't try to summarize it all, but one key theme is how the events of this century set the stage for the shift in the balance of world power from Spain to England. There were lots of elements to this, including the ways in which conflict with Protestant and Muslim nations (plus sometimes France) in the east and Indigenous and enslaved African resistance in the west depleted Spain and allowed England, as a relative latecomer to the imperial game in the so-called New World, to swoop in as opportunity presented. But one of the most important is how Spain remained committed to an approach to empire that pivoted around religion, such that it excluded (if imperfectly) Protestant and Jewish people from its settlements and alliances, thus weakening it, whereas differences in England's circumstance meant it was better positioned to move forward with the emerging pan-European, ecumenical, inter-faith, and inter-ethnic solidarity that is whiteness/white supremacy, which ultimately proved to be a more powerful basis for settler colonialism and empire than Catholicism.

I was also interested to learn about the role that conflict with the Ottomans played in this moment. Christian Europe was losing to them pretty consistently for much of the sixteenth century, which gave urgency to early European efforts to drain whatever resources it could from the New World. As well, the book argues that whiteness was not only a more apt technology for a settler colonial extractive empire than religion, but that Christian anti-Islamic militancy – its fervour and violence, and the form that it took through the Crusades – was itself part of what was transmuted into whiteness.

There were other interesting bits and pieces too...things like the way that the constant warfare within Europe itself in this era drove the development of weapons technology, which was of course important in how things played out as Europe pointed its violent tendencies at the rest of the world. I also hadn't really appreciated before the way that slavery was transformed in this era – it was still, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, a pretty multi-directional practice, with European Christians enslaving Muslims and vice versa over the course of their centuries of reciprocal warfare. The tight and violently racialized association of slavery with African-descended people only emerged as European states became dependent on maximizing accumulation from the pillaging of the New World, and mass kidnapping from Africa was the way they decided to do it (which of course also corresponded with race displacing religion as the dominant sense of "we" in Europe). I also really appreciated the book's copious attention to resistance, particularly by African and Indigenous North American people.

Anyway...a bit of a weird book in some ways, but also an interesting and important one.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Review: The Ministry for the Future

 [Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future: A Novel. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020.]

Science fiction. Starts fifteen minutes into the future and extends for several decades, focusing on the climate crisis at a global scale. Begins with a powerful chapter describing in an embodied way one character's experience of a devastating heat wave that ultimately kills 20 million people – made all the more gripping and disturbing by how entirely plausible, even likely, such a scenario is quickly becoming. In response to this tragedy, the nations signatory to the Paris
Agreement invoke some mechanism therein to create and fund a new organization tasked with representing future generations and engaging in a wide range of strategies to catalyze action on the climate crisis. Throughout, the book follows the viewpoint character from the first chapter and also the woman who heads this new Ministry for the Future. In order to try and capture at least some of the other key facets of the complex, lengthy, global trajectory at the book's core, though, it has lots of chapters that do other things as well – other perspectives, other modes of writing, other scales, and so on. You could certainly point out plenty of limitations to this approach, largely I think because the task that the author has set himself is ultimately beyond what the novel form can easily do. But aside from a few choices that just struck me as weird – some of the later aspects of one central character's personal journey, some of the transparent authorial pontificating (particularly those bits that I didn't entirely agree with), that one weird section near the end about Hong Kong that seemed to have little to do with anything and to serve no other purpose than to show the author wasn't being too soft on China, and so on – I still think it is cleverly done and quite effective. 
I appreciate the book's portrayal of how institutions work – their logics, their inertia, how they are so often beholden to elites or at least to a status quo that benefits elites. I also appreciate its clarity about the fact that any real path forward in addressing the crisis is going to be messy and is not going to look like any one ideal vision, is not going to be pure. Though even as I like that about the book, it still tweaks my own impulses towards purity through elements that discomfit me, like its acceptance of a role for geoengineering (which I see as a tremendously dangerous idea, for the most part).
I think the choice to begin the book with such a horrific scenario was rhetorically quite clever, because it bought emotional space for the rest of the book to be more optimistic than I think it could have otherwise gotten away with. Though I think it may be too optimistic, to be honest. Not that it portrayed a road without profound bumps and barriers, and certainly many of those bumps and barriers are exactly the ones I would expect, but at this point it feels like the odds of us navigating all of that as effectively as the world does in this book are very, very slim. Even the way that the book included political violence was a strange mix of both greater realism and greater optimism than I would have expected. I think it was kind of a bold choice, for instance, for the book to recognize as matter-of-factly as it does that extensive political violence on the pro-climate side is likely to start happening sooner or later. But almost all of it happens offstage, which seems like it is maybe a way to avoid having to deal with some of its implications, and frankly I think it is shown to be more effective in certain respects than it actually would be. And sadly, I feel like the book rather dramatically underestimates the scale and likelihood of massive reactionary violence if significant change to the status quo starts to look likely, whatever tactics are being used to advance that change.
Ultimately, I would say this is a good book and worth reading. In particular, I would say it is quite a bit better than the earlier world-scale climate change epic *Green Earth* by the same author, both in terms of writing craft and in terms of political insight. But if you are reading fiction to think and feel your way through the crises that confront us, as I think I am maybe starting to do in a limited way, you can't make this your only book – though it is written by someone on the left, someone who is very smart, someone who has exerted great care in thinking through the future that he presents, and though it does a lot more work than *Green Earth* did to connect the perspective of people working in powerful institutions to the experiences of ordinary people situated in many different ways, it is still ultimately a normatively Western, white, relatively privileged imagining of how we might deal with what we face, centred on what it might take for such institutions to be jolted into a course that is more sustainable and just. Which is, certainly, one story I'm happy to read. Frankly, it is good to read something that imagines that such change might be possible, and that does so in a sophisticated and grounded way, when I have trouble imagining that myself. But it isn't enough. We are going to need take up, submerge ourselves in, learn from, be transformed by imaginings from sources that go far beyond white Western leftists, and far beyond course-correcting currently existing institutions, if we want to have a hope of getting through this.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Review: Personal Politics

[Sara Evans. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.]

Movement history. An interview-based and archival history of the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the United States in the late 1960s. It particularly focuses on the ways in which women's liberation came out of the experiences of women active in the civil rights movement and in the new left student movement earlier in the 1960s, including both the opportunities for growth and the development of new capacities provided by the time they spent involved in those movements, and the sexism and barriers they faced. This of course is a well established narrative for those us reading it in 2021, but I think when it was first published in 1979, this book was one part of establishing and grounding it. And it is great to read about the nuts and bolts of it all, even going in with some familiarity with the broad strokes of the history of movements in that era.

One minor point that I found fascinating: As I alluded to above, it's pretty well understood today that the new left was very sexist and that prior to the emergence of the explosive feminist challenge of the late '60s there was basically no space or language to name women's oppression in new left contexts. But I had never before encountered the point made in this book that the old left was actually slightly better in this area – still not anywhere close to good, particularly by today's standards, but the surviving socialist and communist organizations in North America and states and movements abroad that claimed the mantle of socialism in that era at the very least recognized what they called "the woman question" as politically real and serious, and that led to certain kinds of institutional (and in some instances even personal) practices *taking* the struggles of women seriously in a way that the pre-women's liberation new left just did not.

Another interesting point is the way that the book deals with race. On the one hand, there is often a clarity and directness to it that I read as a product of the lingering influence of Black and other liberation struggles of the '60s and '70s, that a book written a decade or two later might have replaced with more hesitance and euphemism, not just in terms of what words might get used but also when and where race would be addressed at all. On the other hand, there are a number of points where it felt like Black women disappeared from the book's analysis. Certainly not overall – it is very clear, for instance, on the important role Black women played in the civil rights movement in the south, and also the powerful influence that had on many of the white women who were also active there. But in terms of how it talks about the emerging feminist movement, you can see how it enacts erasures based on the implicit racial underpinnings of certain mainstream understandings of what does and does not count as feminism, as per various critiques by Black and other racialized feminists.

Anyway, this is a very readable, very interesting book, that does important work laying out in more detail certain history that many of us today know as a two-sentence summary, and as such I think it is worth reading. Recommended.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

State violence against homeless encampments and the refusal to know


Many years ago, I was walking in downtown Hamilton with a friend. As often happens in downtown Hamilton, a woman we walked by asked us for spare change.

I no longer remember exactly how the interaction played out – then as now, I often give change if I have it, but not always (particularly after the n'th time of being asked on a given day), and anyway I don't always have any.

I *do* remember that my companion declined to give anything, and the interaction ended with some hostility from the woman who had approached us.

After that, my friend ranted to me about how it was ridiculous that this woman was asking for change when so much of our taxes go to housing and services and all of those things, and this woman should just choose to make use of those.

I was pretty aghast at my usually kind and compassionate friend's (inaccurate) reactionary vitriol.

At the time, I was working doing community-based research related to housing and homelessness and I'd been involved in anti-poverty activism for some time before that, so despite my middle-classness, I had some idea of just how inadequate income and housing-related services were.

As I recall, I didn't have much success in convincing my friend of these realities.

As I reflected after the fact, it became clear to me that one political role for those services my friend pointed to was precisely so that politicians could say to well-intentioned but ignorant middle-class people, "Don't worry, we got this," and be believed.

And I think this active cultivation of the belief that existing resources are suitable and adequate, even generous, is one important element enabling current state violence against homeless people living in encampments.

Active anti-poor hostility driven by neoliberal capital and intertwined with white supremacy, ableism, patriarchy, and settler colonialism underlie it all, but this rhetorical sleight-of-hand re. existing resources plays a part in enabling it.

Of course, frontline workers in the system are often under no illusions about the system's adequacy, and are just trying to do the best they can with what they have.

But managers, other bureaucrats, and politicians – for the most part, the only way they know about the system, the only way they care to know about it, often the only way they are permitted to know about it in the context of their role, is in the terms of the system itself.

On paper, you can have a program that does X, an agency that does Y, and Z number of units of transitional housing or whatever.

So it is very easy for managers, bureaucrats, and politicians to take that on-paper reality as real – to take the system at its word, to judge the system by whether it meets box-checking bureaucratic requirements.

If you actually ask people who need those services, though, they'll tell you that X has never really worked, Y is inaccessible to half the people that need it, and they usually get told the units are full no matter how many reports say Z number are open.

Of course, sometimes authorities just lie, and count on the privileged ignorance like that of my companion from many years ago: "My taxes pay for...why don't they...etc."

But it has been a consistent theme from these instances of state violence against homeless encampments in Canadian cities that authorities claim resources are available and being offered, and can point to some flimsy or inflated on-paper justification.

This gets reported, and then middle-class readers of the news can go away thinking that people violently displaced from encampments either have been housed or could easily have been.

But of course, that is generally not the case at all.

When you hear from people who are homeless and/or advocates supporting them, it becomes clear that the resources are often not available, not being offered, or not suitable. They may check on-paper boxes, but that often doesn't translate into the actual supports people need.

There are no doubt localized exceptions and variation from city to city, but for the most part, in the aftermath of state violence against encampment residents in Canadian cities, only a minority are even temporarily connected with other shelter options.

Most, in most instances, are left to their own devices. The violence has just made them less visible, which is what capital and state authorities care most about.

Again, this is largely not the fault of frontline workers, who work hard to connect people to the resources that do exist.

It's the fault of the system, meaning both capitalism writ large and also our neoliberally fragmented and inadequate social support system.

It's the fault of upper managers and politicians who mostly don't care whether the resources are adequate or not, they just want to have a little bit of cover when they send uniformed goons to displace encampments at the behest of capital and reactionary voters.

It's often partly the fault of mainstream media – even when they report advocate knowledge that the system is inadequate, often they do it in a way that leaves intact the presumed authority of the claims of managers and politicians, despite how consistently those claims are untrue.

And, let's be frank here, it's the fault of ordinary middle-class people who, like my friend from years ago, work really hard to avoid listening to the realities of people who are homeless or are otherwise living in extreme poverty.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Review: The All New Don't Think of an Elephant!

 [George Lakoff. The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.]

Second edition from 2014 of a classic of US liberalism first released in the early George W. Bush years. The author is a cognitive scientist who has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of experimental neuroscience to politics. He has published a bunch of scholarly work along these lines too, but this book was how he brought his insights into the liberal end of the popular political
conversation south of the border. He argues that framing is central to how we make knowledge, particularly to what we take up and what we dismiss, and that framing has a biological basis. He argues that in the United States at least, there are two overarching frames under which all politics happen, the ‘strict father’ family and the ‘nurturant parent’ family, and everything else can be explained by how those frames operate and how political actors relate to them. He then explores in considerable detail how the insights that one can derive from this approach would enable progressives to reframe key issues in ways that would make them more winnable.

Not gonna lie, I found this a pretty agonizing read. Not because there’s no value in it – I think it does actually contain some insight into the practicalities of political communication that can be extracted for use by the grassroots movement-ish left, including outside of the US. But the useful stuff is so embedded in things that for me ranged from distracting to odious that I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Frankly, I think folks on the movement-ish left are better off learning lessons in this area by listening to the advice of movement-based people who are committed to approaches to change grounded in organizing – and here I mean “organizing” not in the more common usage where it gets applied to pretty much anything that is vaguely activisty or that involves putting on events of whatever sort, but rather in the more specific sense of an approach to change grounded in one-on-one conversations and engagement across difference with other people in the same workplace, building, or community to build an organization or some other form of collective power.

Anyway, the book. On the level of craft, it was annoying because it’s very repetitive. Maybe that’s deliberate and based in some other lesson from the author’s background in neuroscience – repetition to hammer the point home, or something like that – but it didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable read.

I was also uneasy about how it talks about the relationship between biology, as understood via experimental science, and the social and political world. Not that I deny that connection or dismiss the experimental findings. But in my experience, the ways in which many scientists theorize the social world is weak (or worse) which in turn means that how they conceptualize the relationship between biological knowledge produced through experimentation and the social world also often tends to be weak (or worse). I don’t know enough about the science in this case to even hazard a guess about how I might critique how this book does it – and because it is lay oriented, the book itself does not provide anywhere close to enough of a basis for a reader who doesn’t already know the science well to figure that out – but based on past experience in other areas, I’m sure I would differ from the author. Among many other things, the fact that the biology as characterized by the author maps so incredibly neatly onto the two-party system in the US makes me think there may well be more to say on the subject.

And the book’s take on politics and on the social world is just, from my perspective, not great in a number of ways. A big part of the book is suggesting how liberals and progressive might frame issues differently, so of course to do that it has to describe the issues it then goes on to frame for us. And...yeah. So many problems.

Some permeate the whole framework. So, for instance, he has very little to say about how any of this intersects with how race and racism operate in the United States. Like, how can you present a framework that you claim explains how people orient towards political choices, especially when your political imagination begins and ends with the electoral mainstream, without even a nod towards one of the most consistent electoral patterns in US political life over the last fifty years: African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. I have no way to know this for sure, but I wonder if perhaps this wasn’t mentioned because it doesn’t map onto his overarching ‘strict father vs. nurturant parent’ frame in a simple way. And then there are specific examples where it seems a glaringly obvious omission, like when he’s talking about the debates over health care during Obama’s first term. And I think what he has to say about how framing played into those debates is worth paying attention to, particularly again if you’re approaching it from a standpoint within mainstream US electoral politics. But how can you talk about the Republican success in mobilizing against the itself-pretty-terrible Democratic plan without at least a nod to the ways in which anti-Blackness energized and surrounded every aspect of the right's opposition to Obama?

And, just, all of how it talks about political issues is firmly within what you would expect for US-based liberalism, though perhaps towards the more progressive end, so from a left perspective it omits and distorts a great deal. For example, the book talks about the better and worse ways that you can make use of these insights into framing. Ideally, it means finding more resonant ways to articulate your genuine beliefs, but some people will use it to claim to be doing one thing and then do the opposite in practice. He gives lots of examples of Republicans doing the latter, but his example of a Democrat doing it was Clinton’s so-called welfare reform in the ‘90s – that is, he framed this as Clinton stealing language from the right but then doing the opposite of what the right would do. Which, I don’t know, maybe that is from the talking points that James Carville gave to operatives for use when talking to progressive audiences in those years, but even from up here in Canada I know that is nonsense. Clinton was not just stealing right-wing language; he was implementing right-wing policies and engaging in a terrible assault on poor people. And don’t get me started on how the book talks about foreign policy – exactly the sort of erasure of liberal complicity in war and empire that is almost always present in liberal sources. Then in multiple places, the book talks about environmental problems in part in terms of overpopulation, which is a terrible and dangerous way of framing them. And beyond troubling accounts of specific issues, there is overall an inadequate engagement with questions of power and how change happens – not none, for sure, but a fundamentally liberal engagement that is inadequate in itself and that shapes the rest of the book in less-than-helpful ways.

So as I said at the start, I think the idea of framing and some of the core insights of this book could be potentially be useful to radicals of various stripes trying to build grassroots power. And I definitely think that many of us who understand our politics in movement-ish ways desperately need to re-think how we engage with people who do not already agree with us. But while I think it is possible to learn useful things from this book, we might be better served by learning from experienced grassroots organizers instead.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: Reading Across Borders

 [Shari Stone-Mediatore. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowedges of Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.]


A lot of Serious People who do Serious Things when it comes to knowledge tend to treat stories and other kinds of experience-based narratives as inherently suspect and not terribly useful. Some do this from a sort of empiricist place, an unreconstructed Enlightment approach to knowledge in which our best approximation of accuracy and reliability, and dare I say it objectivity, comes from removing knowledge and the process of its production to the greatest extent possible from the flaws and biases and partiality of human observers. We don’t want stories about what happened, these folks say, because they are sure to be inaccurate – we want objective proof of the facts of what happened. And then there is another crew seemingly diametrically opposed to this first group, but with a similar skepticism towards stories and experience-based narratives. This second group points out the ways in which any account of some sort of event can only be told using the discursive resources that already exist in society – existing language, existing rhetorical forms, and so on – so no matter how committed you are to what you imagine to be hard-nosed empiricism, you will always be conveying meaning far beyond any supposedly neutral facts, in a way that favours the status quo and the powerful. And while some have used the stories of the oppressed to counter that which is omitted and erased by the faux-neutrality of the empiricists, this second group argues that this inevitably falls into the same problem of only being able to use the discursive resources that already exist and therefore being trapped in reproducing dominant ideologies.

There are definitely things to be learned both from Enlightenment epistemologies and from the critiques of them by 20th century post-structuralists. But a lot of people, including me – and to be clear, a lot of what I’ve done in the last 20+ years is premised on this, in one way or another – have a pretty clear, embodied sense that regardless of what these two groups say, stories, particularly experience-based narratives of people who navigate and struggle against oppression and exploitation, have value as ways to help us know the world and as elements of struggles to transform it. We know that the scorn that these two groups of Serious People hold for these sorts of narratives just don’t account for the ways that stories actually work in the world. This book is an attempt by philosopher Shari Stone-Mediatore to both acknowledge the limits of what experience-based narratives are and what they can do, while also creating a clearer theoretical basis for the powerful things that they have to offer us and articulating some suggestions for how best to relate to them. It is, moreover, a first attempt to sketch out some approaches for evaluating the knowledge thus produced in a way that refuses the alternatives of treating any given story as something that succeeds or fails based on whether it gives us access to some sort of objective truth, or as an artifact so hopelessly trapped in dominant discourse that we might as well chuck it in the bin.

Stone-Mediatore starts out by exploring just how central the story form is to how we know the world and to our political life. Moreover, she makes a case for stories not only being an inevitable part of our political engagement with the world, but actually a positive one. Stories are not a simple reflection of an objective reality (though of course we can still hold stories up to standards of accuracy), but rather they are a more complex sort of thing. They involve producing knowledge and meaning here, now through engagement with there, then, such that what you get out the other end is always produced in that process – it is never a simple reflection of an objective reality but a complex reflection of a partial, situated reality, seen through the lens of how it impinges on the person/group in question. Stories do not tell us about the world in the ways that the empiricists would want, or primarily in the way that empiricists would test them as they apply their own standards to them. But they do tell us about the world. And, yes, stories are built from pre-existing discursive resources and cannot escape that fact, nor the ways in which dominant ideologies are always part of what they wrestle with. But depending on how the story is told, the meaning conveyed cannot escape but can overflow the constraints of inherited discourse, can draw imperfect and partial but real attention to the contradictions, the limitations, the problems, the violence in dominant ideologies. How much and to what extent this happens depends a lot on the nuts and bolts of the telling, and Stone-Mediatore goes through in considerable detail some examples of how this can work. To borrow a phrase from heterodox marxist John Holloway, stories done well can be a sort of rhetorical resistance that takes place within, against, and beyond the limits placed by the fact of our embeddedness within an oppressive discursive system.

To think through how we might evaluate knowledge of this sort, Stone-Mediatore begins from an account in Immanuel Kant of how to assess aesthetic knowledge. Kant outlines what he calls “reflective judgment” which we accomplish via what he calls “enlarged thought.” Put simply, we view a piece of art and we have whatever response we have. In his approach, we must take care to know that our own aesthetic response is a partial and limited one rather than some sort of universal truth. Given that, Kant recommends setting ours aside and imagining how other people might respond to it, and using that to further inform our own appreciation of the art in question. In doing so, he argues, we can approach a “universal standpoint”, a sort of shared and impartial truth of that art that can be reliably communicated with other people who engage in the same kind of assessment. Stone-Mediatore then talks about how this approach is taken up by Hanna Arendt and applied not to aesthetics but to the political realm – a shift that makes sense because it values serious engagement with the perspectives of others as well as communicability, among other things. Stone-Mediatore, in turn, extends Arendt’s use specifically to the context of storytelling and experience-based narratives. Rather than following Kant’s claim that this approach can allow us to approximate some sort of objective or universal standard, she engages very productively with feminist standpoint theorists like Sandra Harding, Nancy Harstock, and Dorothy Smith to make clear that the knowledge given us through serious engagement with the standpoints of others remains situated and partial, but nonetheless a powerful way to enlarge our understanding the world.

In particular, she argues that we can learn more about the world by engaging with the experience-based narratives of people who are exploited and oppressed. The frictions and contradictions and violences of dominant material and discursive realities show up more insistently in the lives of oppressed and exploited people – that is, after all, what oppression and exploitation are. Therefore the stories that oppressed and exploited people tell about their own lives are more likely to illustrate these frictions and contradictions and violences in ways that don’t escape how we are hemmed in by the discursive resources that we have no choice but to use but that can still overflow and exceed those limits. Engaging with those stories teaches us about the shape of the world – not in a way that pretends to be able to stand above it, but in a way that reflects real, material stuff as perceived and understood while in the middle of it. Stone-Mediatore goes on to sketch out some preliminary ideas for how enlarged thought can serve as the beginnings of a standard for evaluating the many stories we encounter in the metaphorical public square, in a way that attends both to the epistemological value of such stories but also their value for visions of justice and liberation.

This is, obviously, a scholarly book that will be of interest mostly to we nerds who spend a lot of time thinking about how we know the world. My own enthusiasm for it grew as the book progressed – from a sense during some of the earlier stuff about Kant and Arendt and so on that, okay, sure, that’s kind of interesting, to a feeling during the final chapter’s detailed engagement with feminist standpoint theory of, oh my god, this is so useful and so relevant. I say that because it resonates a lot with my own undertheorized sensibilities about knowing the world, and wrestles with so many questions that feel important to me. I mean, if you look back at my books that use the stories of long-time activists to enter aspects of Canadian history – both published in 2012 by Fernwood Press – the way of engaging with historical knowledge that I very briefly recommended bears considerable resemblance to what Stone-Mediatore says about reflective judgement and enlarged thought as reimagined through the prism of feminist standpoint theory, though in my case without anything close to Stone-Mediatore’s sophistication and hefty intellectual underpinnings. I probably will have a lot more to say about this book after I let it percolate some more, but I am, by happy coincidence, poised to start writing the final chapter of my current book project, a chapter that is going to talk mostly about how we know the world. I’m not sure how I’m going to take up this book in what I write, particularly given that I am not writing for a scholarly audience, but I’m sure I will. So glad to have read this!

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Review: Life as Politics

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Red Round Globe Hot Burning

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Review: Sonic Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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