Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: Unhappy Silences

[Berenice Malka Fisher. Unhappy Silences: Activist Feelings, Feminist Thinking, Resisting Injustice. Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2019.]

A book by a life-long activist and retired scholar thinking through the many varieties of a kind of moment familiar to anyone invested in questions of justice and liberation: When we know we could speak, we should speak, perhaps at least part of us wants to speak, and yet we remain silent. This might be in debate with opponents, it might be in the face of a microaggression we witness or experience, it might be in the context of deliberations within our own groups and movements – in these instances and others, a range of negative feelings can capture us and keep us from speaking and acting. This book aims not to abolish such silences in any simplistic sense (because sometimes they really are the right choice), but to use the feelings that produce them as a resource to strengthen our movements, our choices, and our agency.

Fisher is a lefty feminist Jewish lesbian who was born during the Great Depression, who taught women's studies for many years, and who has been active in many different movements for peace and justice since her youth – including in recent years a lesbian feminist theatre group and the long-lasting women's peace network Women in Black, a group to a significant extent comprised of Jewish feminists that works to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She draws on her own experiences in these groups and in many other groups in earlier years, as well as on a range of published memoirs and relevant scholarly work to write this book.

Each chapter focuses on one emotional axis (cowardice to courage, for example, or shame and pride) and a practice that can be useful in responding to silences resulting from that axis (in those instances, the practice of reflection and the pracitce of reminding). It does this using an approach that is both engaging but also a bit peculiar, or at least so it seems to me. I wonder if perhaps it is an older style than you usually see today. Or perhaps that's unfair, and it is just the author's own. But I can imagine a few different ways that a scholarly book that takes up this problem or a movement-based book that does likewise might be written, in the hands of many authors of my generation or younger. Dismissing the more obscure scholarly approaches, I can imagine that most of that range would be likely to hone in on relatively closed and definite-seeming analysis and/or conclusions and/or advice. There would be acknowledgement of complexity, but a desire to extract certainty from it, whether certainty of analysis or certainty of pronouncements – a sort of distancing from the weave of the messy, situated stories and messy, situated lives that are its raw materials and into the objectifying idioms of theory and advice.

In contrast, in this book – which draws on scholarship at points but is clearly a movement book – the stories are very much the point and the basis of the pedagogy. While there is definite effort in each chapter to think through meaning and extract useful practices, it is the sort of open-ended insight that recognizes that the goal is not to come up with an analysis that sounds edgy and might help build a CV, and it's not to produce a sort of movement version of over-simplified self-help, but rather it's to tell stories in ways that people can engage with in the complex and open ways that people have always derived meaning from stories. Yes, there were certainly moments where I wanted more of the former, where I wanted the illusion of more closed answers, but I think it's ultimately good that this book kept things more open. It really did feel at points like you were listening to a movement elder think through what she has done and what she has heard.

A different sort of complaint: There are a surprising number of visible mistakes in the production of the book – things like paragraph breaks that happen in mid-sentence. It's only a small thing, certainly, but still an unexpected distraction in a professionally produced book.

All in all, probably a book for a niche audience, but a worthwhile read for people invested in thinking deeply about how movements work and how we could be more effective in navigating and building them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: We Can Do Better

[David Camfield. We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.]

A short, accessible, measured, and methodical book that lays out what the author describes as a "reconstructed historical materialism" – that is, a way of understanding the world and of orienting our struggles to change it that fuses a critical marxist approach to class relations with the many other axes of oppression with which they interlock via the insights of anti-racist queer feminisms. It is pitched, I think, towards readers who are new to these questions, both in terms of how it is written and what questions it answers. In particular, I can see it being a very useful resource in related classroom spaces, in reading groups where people are attempting to build affinity and collective analyses, as well as in the hands of a certain kind of serious young person early in their journey of asking questions about the world that I very much remember once being.

I think it is especially critical at this moment that we have more resources that both draw from marxist traditions and also take seriously the interlocking character of the various relations of domination that we face, given the disappointing popularity in recent years of a sort of refurbished class reductionism. I also think the approach recommended in the final chapter on moving from theory to action is the right way to go (and not only because it quotes me a couple of times! :) ) – committed and radical yet open engagement with actual struggles on the ground as they are already happening in workplaces and communities, rather than obsession with finding a correct line or building a 'pure' organization that will supposedly know best how to proceed.

The book notes early on that even folks who share a similar big-picture sense of how the world works and how we must act to change it will no doubt have lots of quibbles with the particulars of the book. Certainly there are various aspects of how this book does its work that are not quite how I see things or how I would talk about them. Mostly, that doesn't concern me – I've never been a believer in there being One True Way, and I certainly see this book as a useful contribution to the ongoing discussions we need to be having in movements. That said, I do have one concern, or perhaps two overlapping concerns, that feel big enough that I need to mention them. I was surprised that the overlapping nexus of relations captured by terms like slavery, colonialism, racism, white surpemacy, and anti-Blackness were not treated more centrally. I mean, they were there for sure, and were understood as part of the complex of interlocking relations at the heart of this book. They just didn't seem to be given quite the centrality that I understand them to have in the social relations of the last five centuries and in any potentially successful anti-capitalist politics today. And on a related but distinct note, it was actually quite shocking to me that the book had so little to say about settler colonialism and struggles against it – to me, that has to be front and centre of any conversation about capitalism and anti-capitalism happening on Turtle Island.

That said, I think this book does a lot of useful work and has the potential to spark a lot of useful conversations, and I hope it helps people on their journeys towards articulating alternatives to class-only and class-first understandings of the world and of struggles to change it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: The Lost History of Liberalism

[Helena Rosenblatt. The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.]

This is an academic history of liberalism, in the form of what it calls a "conceptual history" – that is, it explores what its proponents (and to a certain extent opponents) have said over the years about the positions, ideas, and politics associated with "liberal" and its cognates. This is presented with some political history of parts of western Europe and the United States. It is not a polemic pro or con, admitting both the virtues and blemishes in liberal thought, and it is written with the sort of measured, readable clarity I associate with a particular kind of scholarship.

I appreciated its debunking of a number of common myths we have about liberalism's earlier years. Rosenblatt argues, for instance, that there was never really anything like what commentators today call "classical liberalism," with its uniform and doctrinaire advocacy of laissez-faire economics – rather, rigidly laissez-faire liberals were always in the minority, and state intervention of various sorts was always a contested issue within liberal thought. She also pushes back against the notion of liberalism as being largely concerned with individual rights, narrowly conceived. For most of its history, liberal thinkers paid a great deal of attention to moral questions, duties, and the common good, and it was really only as liberalism became Americanized and then had to navigate the political battles of the Cold War that a strand focused solely on rights and on the individual pursuit of them began to fluorish.

There are limits to what this kind of history can achieve, of course. The book doesn't shy away from identifying positions taken by liberals of the past that today we see as odious – most opposed democracy in the first half of the 19th century, positions on things like slavery and colonialism were divided, and many opposed basic rights for women up until the early 20th century. But the fact that the book sticks mainly with a history of ideas and of mainstream politics and does not integrate a detailed, materialist exploration of the violences of colonial capitalism and how they related to liberal ideas means, I think, that we get an incomplete picture. Just as an example, take the absence of explicit advocacy for anyting resembling atomized individualism in the work of most 19th century liberals. I think it's a good thing to really grapple with this truth and to get past the caricature that we on the left sometimes have of liberals of that era, so I'm glad that the book discusses it. At the same time, it seems clear to me even from what this book describes (but does not identify in this way) that the overwhelming emphasis on producing particular kinds of individuals with particular capacities and particular moral concerns – and this goes right from the promotion of "liberality" that pre-dates the use of "liberal" or "liberalism" by millenia, on through self-identified liberals in the 19th century – still fostered a way of relating to the social world that put individuals and their choices at the centre. Yes, these were moral choices and they generally were expected to attend to the common good, rather than being the kind of cartoonish self-interested rationalism that neoliberal economists and libertarians embrace and their opponents on the left decry today. But it was still a way of understanding the world that centred individuals, and individuals of a sort that most human beings could never be, and this was happening in the context of the capitalist reorganization of society that melted all that was previously solid into air and imposed its own kinds of individualizing logics on people. So while I think it's useful that this book pushes us to get past our distorted sense of the explicit content of the earlier years of the liberal project, it doesn't necessarily help us grapple with its actual impact.

Anyway, read it with that kind of limitation in mind, but I would say – at least if the topic interests you – it is well worth reading. I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I think what it does is useful.

Also, check out this post, not directly about but inspired by my reading of this book.

This was also posted on Scott's Goodreads page.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The novelty and fragility of liberal-democracy

I've been reading a scholarly history of liberalism. It isn't directly about this, but as it reminds me of things that I already knew in broad strokes and fills in some details, it is making me think morbid thoughts about the relative historical novelty and consequent fragility of the institutions that, at least in 21st century mainstream thought, are understood as being essential to democracy.
Not that such institutions are so great, in all the ways the left and rad Indigenous folk have pointed out since forever, but the possibility of their transformation in illiberal and anti-democratic directions seems to me to be worth worrying about.

So think, for a moment, about 1850.

Sounds like a long time ago. But, really, it wasn't.

"Nonsense," you say. "That was 169 years ago, which is a very long time indeed."

Well, yes, that is the count of years, and that count is not small, but think of it like this: When I was younger, I knew and spent time with people who in turn in their youths knew and spent time with people who were fully functional humans in 1850. And when I say that I knew people who knew people who experienced 1850, it suddently doesn't seem quite so distant.

Take my partner's great-grandmother. She was born in 1894 and she passed away in 2000. I ate many a meal at the same table as her. And it's not even vaguely a stretch that her youth included knowing folks who were alive, aware, and doing their thing in 1850. Or take my great-aunt, who lived from 1909 to 1995. I know she spent time with someone who was around in 1850, because she lived in the same household in Stratford as her great-grandmother, who was born in 1832 and died in 1918.

So 1850 is really not so far removed from today.

And in 1850, almost no countries in the world had what we would now consider to be liberal-democratic institutions. From what I've been reading, maybe Belgium would count? Not sure. And I think that's it in continental Europe, though perhaps some smartypants will pop up to cite some other example. Certainly not France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or most of the rest – admittedly, two of those named weren't even unified states yet, but their anticipatory fragments in that era were no more liberal or democratic for all of that.

That leaves the US and the UK, which in 1850 did have institutions somewhat approximating mainstream understandings of democracy today. But it's hard to take either of them too seriously in this regard, as the former still had chattel slavery, while the latter ran the biggest empire in the history of the world and had a franchise so limited that practically no one could vote.

Of course, there had been various attempts across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 to create institutions that were variously more liberal and/or democratic than what predominated in 1850 – though, interestingly, most liberals were actually against mass democracy for most of the first half of the 19th century, and were not at all pleased when people and movements to their left attempted to insist on such things. In fact, it was really only in the couple of decades after the failed revolutions of 1848 that most liberals reluctantly decided that democracy was necessary, and set about finding ways to institute it over the objections of the reactionaries who were mostly running things in those years, while keeping it limited and controllable.

None of which is news. It's not like that history is a big secret, and the trajectory towards the development of such institutions is no doubt the focus of many a mainstream history course, even at the high school level. But, at least for me, it takes on a different feel when I hold firmly in mind that I knew people who knew people who were around then. The historical novelty of the institutions in question feels clearer, and their existence and stability feels consequently less certain.

As for the fragility of these institutions today – well, that may be a harder case to make than novelty. Though perhaps not – it's hard to avoid a certain unease on that front that comes just from being alive in 2019 and watching goings on in the US, in Brazil, even in still-liberal Canada with the far-right swing of several provinces, the disarray of both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left (such as they are), the slowly growing white nationalist appropriation of the yellow vest symbology, and the launching of a white nationalist federal political party headed by a figure with considerable name recognition. In light of the history that makes it clear that these institutions are relatively new and quite historically contingent, all of this is even more concerning.

Which maybe sounds more pessimistic than I feel. Yes, these institutions of mainstream liberal-democracy are relatively new in historical terms, possibly more fragile than we realize, and definitely (speaking from the left here) far more limited than contemporary liberals will ever admit. But the energy and activity among ordinary people that forced such institutions into history in the face of violently opposed elites, and that pushed and still (disarray notwithstanding) push for more – well, that is not novel, that is not fragile, and that I continue to have faith in.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Review: Age of Anger

[Pankaj Mishra. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Picador, 2017.]

A far-ranging and clever book that convinced me of its core thesis but left me with some questions and considerable ambivalence about some of the things surrounding that.

The book sets out to understand some key elements of our current moment – particularly the growing prevalence of terrorism (understood broadly), and the rise of the increasingly vocal and vicious far-right nationalisms that have attained state power in places as diverse as the US, India, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil, and have managed to have a profound impact on mainstream politics in many other places (cough Brexit cough). The key to understanding these things, the author argues, is for liberals in the West to stop believing the myths about the history of Western liberalism and its supposed enlightened, nonviolent emergence that were promulgated particularly during the Cold War, and to recognize that all of this violence – of liberal capitalist modernity itself and of those whom it excludes – has a clear precedent during the system's formative years within the West.

The Enlightenment and its aftermath gave us a conception of the world composed of atomized individuals, each maximizing their own self-interest, as well as a range of promises related to justice, liberty, and opportunity. That combined with capitalism's power to dissolve earlier social forms and deprive people of the stability, identity, and meaning that those provided while not actually allowing the vast majority of people to realize anything close to the promises that the rhetoric of liberal-democratic capitalism makes. Aspiration to that promise, disconnection from any alternative, and exclusion from its realization produces resentment, and a widespread and relatively stable structure of feeling organized around that unrealizeable desire and resentment. This is true within the core capitalist societies – it was somewhat less true during the unprecedented and probably unrepeatable boom-plus-limited-redistribution in the middle of the 20th century, but it was very much true before that and is becoming increasingly true since. And it is true in a different way in societies that have more recently been violently disconnected from their traditional forms, dazzled with promises, and then excluded much more thoroughly than ordinary people in the West from whatever (often questionable) benefits capitalist modernity might offer.

The book traces a trajectory beginning with Rousseau (whose work included some very valid and important critiques of the key voices of the Enlightenment, as well as some much more dubious stuff) through German Romanticism and various other tendencies to both the particular form of violence we call terrorism today as well as the hateful collective fantasies of reactionary nationalism. This was true in the 19th and early 20th centuries in places like Italy, Germany, and Russia. And it is true in a lot more places now. The structure of feeling produced as an expanding capitalist modernity shaped the more peripheral areas of Europe in the 19th century is very similar to what it is producing on a much broader scale in the Global South today. And of course, this disconnection between what is promised and what most people can realize is becoming increasingly sharp everywhere, and the same structure of feeling is also fueling both so-called 'lone wolf' white nationalist/violent misogynist terrorists and far-right blood-and-soil political movements within the most powerful capitalist countries. Importantly, this disconnection is not just about money and stuff, but also about identity and feeling and belonging. The overall picture this book paints is of a world marked by violent, predatory capitalist modernity and a range of violent, terrible, and equally modern reactions to it, with no clear path to any sort of alternative.

The author's facility at shuttling among years, eras, generations, and thinkers, as he draws similarities and traces out lineages, is impressive. As I said, I'm fairly convinced by the book's core thesis; I think it is a useful way to understand the relevant elements of our current moment. But I have some reservations.

For one thing – and this is perhaps petty – I don't love the way he uses the term "anarchism." It's based on Bakunin and bomb throwers who claimed that label in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it is largely disconnected from what anarchist politics look like in the early 21st century. He uses it to capture a particular relationship to terrorist violence that is about carnage that symbolically targets the old order but that has no thought or care to building anything else. While it captures something that was an earlier part of one strand of anarchist politics, and I'm certainly open to seeing a role for the structure of feeling he identifies in contemporary anarchist politics more broadly, the way the book uses the label comes across like an unnecessary and unnuanced generalization. This may be symptomatic of a broader tendency to paint with broad strokes in a way that excludes the kind of reading of past and present that might help us move forwards. (And by the way, I say all of this as someone who has drawn political nourishment over the years from elements of broader anarchist and anti-authoritarian traditions, but who also has my own deep ambivalences about much of the political action that happens under big-A Anarchist banners today.)

My more substantive concern is the lack of space the book leaves for any kind of politics that will not inevitably be drawn into either neoliberal defence of a violent and horrible status quo or modes of individual or collective response to it that might have varying mixes of reactionary and liberatory rhetoric attached to them but that will, functionally, end up collapsing into an ultimately destructive politics of escalating ressentiment that are just as much part of capitalist modernity as what they oppose. Now, I have no objection to recognizing that both the left and the right have mobilized in the space enabled through this structure of feeling, and that you can point to plenty of historic left projects that may have sounded better on paper than their reactionary counterparts but that ended up somewhere in the crowded terrain between useless and awful. We need to acknowledge and learn from that. I also really appreciate the way that the book's keen knowledge of who read and was influenced by what shows that there has frequently been much more cross-pollination and ideological murkiness across political tendencies than a shallow engagement from a far future decade often allows. But while I agree with the book's final sentence that there is a "need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world," I strenuously do not agree with the implication that there is nothing valuable to be learned as we do so from earlier efforts, particularly earlier left efforts, to address the violence and harm inherent to capitalist modernity. I'm not sure the author actually thinks that, to be honest, but it certainly seems to be implied by his refusal to identify anything in earlier generations of ordinary people coming together to improve their lives that was useful or inspiring or worthy of taking up and adapting. If we can't draw constructively on what our ancestors have done, beyond naming the faults in all of them, then what do we have to stand on? If all of the "truly transformative thinking" that might lead to something better has to start from zero and happen only from this point forward, I think the world is out of luck.

Don't get me wrong, this is an important book and one worth reading. Just be sure to expect one of those books that's all about the problems, and not much about what we might actually want to do in response.

This was also posted on Scott's Goodreads page.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Bored and Brilliant

[Manoush Zomorodi. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador, 2017.]

Some time last year, the realization crystallized for me that I don't experience much direct loss of explicitly designated work time due to social media or other online activity, but it does tend to eat up rather a lot of my time that is not thus designated – it fills up lots of little corners, it shapes leisure, it offers possibilities and, in the inevitable way of such things, it takes away others. Now, I'm generally quite scornful of the moral panic that often surrounds the ways in which computers and smartphones have reshaped our lives. I was a somewhat slow adopter of Facebook back in the day – my eleventh anniversary of joining was last week – but I'm not bothered morally or practically by spending lots of time online. To others of my generation and older who grumble about youth today walking down the street with their face in their phone or using their device to remove themselves from a social situation, I generally retort that I did exactly the same things when I was young except with books (and still do now when I can get away with it, frankly). And if my time is reorganized because of devices compared to what it was 20 years ago, well, so what, that on its own is neither good nor bad, and generally speaking, said devices don't get in the way of me doing what I want to do.


Excpet they do, I noticed in my realization last year, get in the way of me staring off into space, either on its own or with a pen in my hand. I do that way less than I used to. And staring off into space outside of the bounds of explicitly designated work time is a pretty core activity for someone who is a writer and otherwise maker-of-things. This is a lack that I keenly feel.

Earlier this year, I read about this book: The subtitle "How spacing out can unlock your most productive and creative self" may signal enthusiastic buy-in (untempered by any critical perspective) to the cult of neoliberal self-help, but it also spoke to my concern about lack of time spent "spacing out." Last month, I bought the book.

This past week, I was feeling pretty lousy. Particularly early in the week, life was pulling me in lots of different directions, my anxiety levels were quite high, I had lots of external obligations, and I wasn't left with much time that I had much say over – I was busy, and I got done the things I needed to get done, but I managed to do hardly any work on the long-term writing projects that are what I really want most to be doing. When that happens, it always makes me miserable. And I returned to my realization of last year that my explicitly designated work time doesn't tend to suffer too much from the intrusion of online distraction (unless I'm otherwise in a bad headspace), but consumption of online media *does* take up rather a lot of my non-work time, energy, and attention. Which as far as I'm concerned is fine, in and of itself, and most of that time could not be magically transformed into prime work time anyway even if I wanted to go the all-work-and-no-play route, but...could I be using it differently, in ways that still fit with how that time is genuinely constrained, but that would leave me feeling better about things even in a week of high external demands? Might making time to stare into space instead of into my Twitter feed be part of that?

The author of *Bored and Brilliant* is a journalist who hosts an NPR radio show and podcast on technology issues called *Note to Self*. (I've never listened to it.) The book is based on a week-long experiment that they did with a sizeable group of listener-volunteers, giving them a different challenge each day that would alter and thereby make them more aware of their smartphone use. I think something like 20,000 listeners participated in that initial experiment, and the book builds from there. The author is very clear that this is not meant to be anti-tech and it is not meant to get people to stop using their smartphones, but to help people develop tools to be more aware of how they use their technology and more deliberate about making those choices. The science behind the subtitle is based on the fact that when we are "mind-wandering," we are using our brain differently than when we are engaged in some kind of concrete task, and time spent mind-wandering can be crucial to developing new ideas and engaging in figuring things out in our lives and in our work in creative (if not generally terribly directed) ways.

The parts of the book that were about being mindful of choices about time usage and about intervening in various ways into one's own practices felt useful and interesting, or at least a mix sufficiently rich in useful that it felt worth reading. I mean, worrying about how I spend my time has been one of my main preoccupations since I decided to experiment with being a writer twenty years ago, as the proportion of words devoted to exactly that concern in the 10 to 12 shelf-feet of filled notebooks in my office would make (boringly) clear. And as a source of new insights into that ongoing area of reflection, I'm glad I read this book. It prompted me to recognize ways in which my time flows, unthinking, towards screens that I wasn't previously aware of. It got me thinking in new ways about how I might want to engage more strategically with online media. And I think it will have some impacts on my use of devices and will perhaps, I hope, maybe, if I'm determined and lucky, help me win back some time for staring off into space. (And maybe a bit more time for reading books, as well.) There is occasionally some puritanism that appears in how the book talks about these things, but it wasn't present so strongly that I couldn't read things into what I think is a more useful frame of competing interests and desires – I don't like the narrative of excess corrected by restriction, in large part because so much of how I understood myself and the world in my early years was framed in those terms. I much prefer to recognize that I get X out of one pattern of choices and Y out of a different pattern and doesn't Y really meet my needs and desires more effectively?

Anyway. The practical stuff was useful to me, but I didn't love a lot of the explanation and grounding that the book provided. I mean, it's not badly written, and I think it makes skillful use of the sources that it cites. But what it can do is limited by its choice of sources.

And by that, I mean this: The book is written in a style of popular nonfiction clearly informed by the author's background in journalism. It largely cites studies (and authors of studies) that examine technology use through positivist experimental social, psychological, and sometimes medical science of various kinds, as well as people who are prominent in the tech industry and people who have written popular nonfiction about the impacts of technology on our lives. It does not cite very many people whose ways of making knowledge are grounded in the humanities or in social sciences that are other than postivist experimentalism. And I think that's a big weakness. Now, I'm definitely interested to know what experiments about technology show – I'm glad those are included. But citing *only* those kinds of sources means, for one thing, that it doesn't cite people who can talk about other ways that the shape of our lives have changed over the last 30 years, which means not talking about how neoliberal changes in the organization of work and leisure beyond just our smartphones may have a role in all of this.

Perhaps more seriously, it means that it doesn't bring in the voices of those who might be able to critically unpack the conventional narratives that we have available to us to talk about technological change. So even though the book makes clear that it is not meaning to be anti-tech, in drawing on the kinds of sources it draws on, it can't help but treat what-was-before as normative and what-is-now as implicitly deviant. The kinds of experiments this book draws on so heavily cannot help but make that kind of presumption in how they are designed, I think, and whatever *this* book's intention, a lot of the scholars and authors it cites situate what they do in the context of already-dominant narratives of the dangers of technology. And that means that, as often as not, the text ends up reinforcing moral panic-style readings of tech's impacts, even when I think the author genuinely doesn't mean to. More than that, it means that sometimes technology and/or individual fallible habits get blamed for particular outcomes, when maybe more of the blame should be placed on the social organization of our lives and workplaces and families and communities under capitalism. Also, I would love to have seen critical but generous engagement with first-person accounts from the older range of people who are young enough to have grown up in the smartphone era talking about how they navigate all of these things, especially marginalized (queer, racialized, disabled, etc.) youth who have creatively used tech in their struggle to survive in a world that doesn't want them to – I'm sure they have things to teach the rest of us, and perhaps ways to help us parse out different-and-possibly-a-problem from just different, which I don't think this book does very well at all.

I also look a bit askance at the ways in which this book treats so much of this as new. Sure, smartphones and social media mean that my obsessing about my time usage has different details than it did in 1998. But the basic questions about the life you want to live, the things you want to make, the experiences that you want to enjoy, the dynamics of self that pull in this direction and that, and the practices of self-fashioning that can cajole a reluctant self into the shape that you want it to take are no different now than then. At least not for me, anyway. It's not about my phone, or it's only a bit about my phone; it's mostly about me-in-the-world.

Anyway, given what this book sets out to do, and given where I'm reading it from, I suppose it's not surprising that I appreciated at least some of the tools and insights it has given me to think about how I use my time and how I might use it differently, and that I was simultaneously skeptical of its approach to social analysis.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Review: Turning to One Another

[Margaret J. Wheatley. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009.]

This is a peculiar book with a powerful idea at its core but presumptions about how the social world works that take it in directions that I think are misguided.

The core idea of the book is that we live increasingly fragmented and isolated lives, in an increasingly complex and traumatizing world, and that a key step that all of us can take to improve both our own individual experience of life and to improve the world is to put effort into having genuine connected conversation with the people around us. The first section lays out, in a very accessible way, why the author believes this. There is a brief second section meant to provide some opportunity for the reader to reflect. And then the third section is a series of questions that the book encourages you to gather people together and discuss – mostly deep meaning-of-life kinds of questions. Each is accompanied by some thoughts from the author about these questions. Throughout the book, there is lots of use of blank space on many pages, a scattering of hand-drawn images, plenty of quotes and aphorisms, and pieces of poetry.

There are definitely things in here that I like. She never uses the word "neoliberalism," but I think some of what she is diagnosing in terms of the problems of isolation and social fragmentation are exactly the neoliberal shifts in the social that we have seen in recent decades. That's not all she's saying – there is a kind of weird "those were simpler times" nostalgia mixed in there that I find pretty troubling, and the diagnosis of things getting worse to a certain extent confuses actual changes with shifts in perception caused by the fact that it's now harder for more privileged North Americans to ignore certain things. Still, the fragmentation and isolation she identifies are real and important, and even if it isn't all necessarily as novel as she implies, the world is no doubt a violent and traumatic place.

I also agree that the act of connected, honest conversation can be a powerful one. It can be personally fulfilling in a profound way and it is an essential element in building relationships, whether that is romantic parternships, friendships, political alliances, or the kind of trust necessary to come together across deep conflict. Even granting my own bias related to my personal investment in a certain kind of conversation – that sort of connection is something I crave, but something my experiences of shame and social anxiety can make more difficult to realize than I might like – I think it is fair to say that a hunger for interpersonal connection is fairly widespread in this anxious and isolating neoliberal era. It's unlikely that I'll do anything along the lines of hosting groups to discuss the questions she proposes, but I can see the value in doing so.

And conversation can, as she alludes, be the first building block in massive, collective waves of change. There are certainly aspects of how she discusses this that I like. She is clear about the importance of understanding change as starting where we are and building from our connections with the people around us. She regularly refers to the work of Paulo Friere, the radical Brazilian popular educator. Indeed, there are moments in the book where she talks about the importance of real talk among ordinary people in a way that reminds me a lot of how people I know who are very committed to an organizing approach to social change (in contrast with more activist or mobilizing kinds of approaches) talk about what they do.

Unfortunately, where the book goes from its central point is pretty disappointing in some ways. There is inadequate recognition of how power shapes the landscape and possibilities for conversation and for what conversation can do. There is similarly inadequate recognition of what it means for what comes after conversation that our world is socially organized in complex material and fundamentally social ways rather than the more formless liberal-democratic presumptions that implicitly underpin the book.

So, for instance, while there is a paragraph at some point in the book that recognizes that one element of oppression is the dehumanization of the oppressed, that is not taken into account in the book's broad prescription of conversation as a cure for society's ills. Maybe there are moments where oppressed people might want to engage in this kind of conversation with those who dehumanize them, those who are cheerfully content with a world that does them violence, but we need to recognize that a decision of that sort occurs in a much different landscape than when the parties involved are separated by, say, divergent passionate commitments to whether trade tarrifs are good or bad. So advocating conversation, including with those with whom you differ, as the fundamental step in creating a better world comes across as very different advice in those two kinds of cases, and offering it in a blanket way without at least discussing what it means to have such conversations with someone who disregards your humanity, seems like a problem to me. And I should add that towards the end of the book there is a recognition that this kind of conversation must happen between people who regard each other as equals, but that reads as an add-on – the book does not grapple with the broad extent to which that simply isn't true in many relevant practical instances, and it doesn't grapple with what that means for when and how such conversations can happen.

As well, some of the more general talk about social change is a bit weird. Like, the way that the book cites Paulo Friere often has this weird self-helpy boot-strappy vibe to it that is not at all where Friere was coming from. I found that quite offputting. There's also a section that speaks vehemently against the active embrace of identity. I'm not against having a nuanced discussion about the different ways that identity gets taken up and put to work, and about what those various approaches mean in terms of how we understand ourselves and how we can act in the world, but nothing in that section acknowledges how crucial an active and affirming embrace of identity has been and continues to be for certain kinds of collective struggles by oppressed people. And in the few instances where the book moves from general language about broader change being catalyzed by conversation to more specific examples, it picks movements that are distant from and politically safe for privileged North Americans – the Polish movement Solidarity gets mentioned a couple of times, the "orange revolution" in the Ukraine, and so on. Movements closer to home are never named, which makes it possible to avoid dealing with the complex political realities that such collective effort inevitably entail.

It's that invokation of larger collective change but refusal to engage with what it might entail that I find most disappointing. The recognition that genuine conversation can be a crucial step in broader change is carefully presented in a way that speaks about what might come after that initial conversation in only the vaguest of terms. I mean, I suppose I get not wanting to scare people off or to foreclose whatever might emerge from the moment of encounter itself. I do think it's important to enter into encounters with other people with openness, and I agree that will to make change, new knowledge about the world, and transformation of self are all things that can emerge precisely from these kinds of encounters. Certainly in some instances a new openness to hearing certain kinds of unhappy facts about the world may be something that these kinds of encounters can catalyze.

I'm afraid, though, that putting that moment of encounter in one category, a speakable category, while the material details of the world beyond that encounter and what might happen after that encounter in another category, a category that we won't speak about (or at least not now), serves to affirm ways of understanding the world that help keep those of us who benefit from the status quo stuck in that place. Conversation is framed as a clear moral good that precedes and perhaps transcends politics. But the book avoids the reality that what comes next when conversations lead to large scale change is inevitably polarizing, messy, complicated, and political in all the senses you could name. The implication, intended or not, is that deep conversation with your neighbour is what the world needs, but when that turns into action that doesn't share the same kind of easily recognized apolitical goodness, it has become something else, and maybe it's okay for you to just not pay attention to that and go and have another conversation with your neighbour. If we want to think about conversation as a key element of large-scale social change, we can't separate the two – we can't leave power out of how we think about conversation, and we can't pretend that the messy polarizing reality of grassroots movement politics can be treated as separate from the conversations that we hope might lead to change.

I think, yes, we need to explore the power of conversation, including honest conversation across differences that might normally keep us apart. But we have to recognize how power factors in to if, when, and how those conversations occur. And if we want connected conversation to have an impact on the world that goes beyond reducing our own individual sense of isolation, we can't detach talking about those moments of connected conversation from talking about what it actually takes in practical terms to turn moments of grounded connection between people into broad social change.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Thinking about listening and seeing

For more than five years, now, my central project has been a radio show and podcast. And my main book project recently morphed into something that aims to talk about listening in a thoughtful, political, grassroots way. Despite this, and despite being the son and brother of musicians, my way of engaging with the world is really more visual than aural. Audio-related work is not a particularly obvious fit for me, but somehow it has become a significant part of what I do. With that in mind, it has been interesting, lately, to be reading an essay collection called Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole.

I had fallen into a rut of reading nonfiction mostly for its content rather than for its writing, and called on Facebook for recommendations of nonfiction with delightful, moving, writerly writing, regardless of its subject. Cole's name was one response. He writes about a few different kinds of things, but one preoccupation is photography, as informed by a vast knowledge of art history. Despite claiming an affinity for the visual above, I don't really know much about photography or art – I enjoy images, moving and still, but feel much more competent analyzing and creating things that are written. So apart from the delight of encountering Cole's writing, this book has also been interesting for me because it involves such close reading of and deep thinking related to the visual, even as my own writing is currently very focused on exploring things aural. And it is interesting because one of the things that I need to think through in my current work is exactly what the material specificity of different ways of engaging the world means for a book organized in part around "listening."

I'm already quite clear that I mean "listening" in a very expansive sense. I want to draw metaphorically from listening as we conventionally think of it (in a way analogous to how lots of theorizing draws from the visual, but with the intent to subvert that) while thinking about responsive engagement in a way not dependent on sense X or medium Y. I have some awareness of how easy it would be to fall into ableism, and reading and thinking about that is very much part of my process. At the very least, I know not to assume that all bodies communicate in the same way, or that any one approach should be treated as normative. I'm also well aware that the material specificity of different modes of listening/speaking really do matter. Texting and an in-person vocal conversation and sign-language over Skype are quite different modes of relating, at least in some respects. I'm less clear on how those specificities matter and on how to draw on them to talk about the kinds of things that I want to talk about, but it's something I'm actively thinking about.

There's one specific thing that reading this book by Teju Cole, and particularly its essays on photography, has helped me with. That is, when I think about the materiality of engaging with the world through what I see versus what I hear – you might, awkwardly, use the language of eye-listening versus ear-listening – one difference seems to be that eye-listening more easily falls into relating to what is seen as object to be consumed, whereas ear-listening seems to do more to force you to engage with others as agents, as expressers of opinions, producers of knowledge, deciders. So often, the visual seems to be about power-over – surveillance, a la the panopticon, or otherwise deriving pleasure (much media) or knowledge (much academia) from an Other whose voice is treated as irrelevant or nonexistent. At the very least, with the aural, whatever other power relations are at play, that voice is present and is the basis for engagement. The fact that the Other (or even just the other) speaks is part of the premise of the interaction. Yes, there is consumptive listening, objectifying listening, listening that denies personhood. But because voice is how the interaction happens, it seems like that is a violence that requires more work, more active denial of personhood, in the moment.

I'm not sure what I actually think about this distinction – I'm still reflecting on it. As well, obviously, all of this is grounded in the experience of someone whose interpersonal commnication, at least when not text-mediated, is done primarily with voice and ears, not with hands and eyes. So already I know to treat this as specific, not universal.

In doing this thinking, it has been useful to encounter Cole's detailed examination of specific photographs and the work of particular photographers. He demonstrates a mode of eye-listening, even beyond direct interpersonal communication, which foregrounds people and our activities and our agency in engaging with the visual. Images, as he reads them, are not just sources of pleasure or knowledge, but are expressions of human practices and agency and self. It is, I guess, a way of listening to the visual that pushes back against reification, objectification.

One of the things that I think I want to do with listening as a way of framing our engagement with other people and with the world is to push back against the dominant, consumptive, reifying ways we're taught to engage. Part of that will probably mean using the frame of listening to unsettle assumptions and practices associated, in dominant understandings, with the visual. But Cole's work is a reminder that this association with the visual is not an essential one that can only be resisted by turning to other senses or media, but one that is constructed and learned, and that can also very much be resisted on the terrain of what we see.

Which is perhaps an obvious point, and certainly those whose primary communication is through the visual would not need it, but for me it was a useful and unexpected new avenue into some of the things that I've been thinking about.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The increasing fragility of our ability to know and communicate about the world

I've been thinking a lot this past week about the fragility of human communication and of our ability to know the world. That is, I've been thinking about how easy it is, how many ways there are, for human communication and human knowing to fail. This is hardly a new thought, for me or in general, especially in this era characterized by what is sometimes aptly but usually inadequately characterized as "fake news." But it has been weighing particularly heavily this week.

Look at the coordinated right-wing hate campaign against Nora Loreto, for instance. There's lots going on in that situation to make it what it has become: the deliberate and coordinated character of it, how easily many white Canadians become aggressively resistant even to what she did say, and the ubiquity of misogyny are all crucial. But another key element is that there was active, pervasive lying about what she said, done in order to evoke a particular emotional response and fuel the attacks on her. Somehow, the affective power of the lies about what she said was more than enough for lots of people to maintain their outrage and their belief in the lies even in the face of her actual words.

Or look at the various responses to the Western bombing in Syria in the last week. I'm not going to get into the details, but it has all really driven home for me how grassroots politics in the West around war and empire are a complete mess, and not in any easy or singular way. Massive, multiple failures of human communication and knowing are part of that.

In these current examples, technology and social media and the knowledge production practices that have emerged with them are central to the failures of communication and knowing, but this fragility is not tech-dependent. Another example that has been on my mind is a small personal one from almost twenty years ago. It was one of the first times I spoke in a university classroom about my experiences of involvement in activism and organizing. Don't remember exactly what I talked about, but one thing that has stuck with me is that one young woman in the class said some things that made it clear she had understood me to say exactly the opposite of what I had actually said on some to-me politically important points. This shook me. Afterwards, my friend who was teaching the class assured me I had been plenty clear, and that sometimes that just happens. But it still shook me.

Of course, my friend was right – when we come to know the world, we're actively involved in producing that knowledge, and there are a million and one ways that we can get it wrong, whether through our own practices or through how the situation is socially organized. Yes, we are able to meaningfully know the world through our experiences and through our encounters with people and with narratives, yet even without "fake news" and "Russion bots" (real or imagined), that ability is fragile. I do think, however, that even if this fragility of communication and knowing is not tech dependent, it is certainly amplified by how knowledge is produced and how it circulates today.

So. I just don't think those of us who support social justice and collective liberation and so on have really figured out how to deal with this increasingly fragile character of communication and knowing. There are a number of ways of responding that I see among people who broadly identify with those politics, but none that are yet adequate.

Some people surrender to it, and treat this fragility when it comes to knowing the world on any scale beyond our everyday life and then communicating that knowledge not as fragility but as impossibility. I don't think people directly active in movements do this a whole lot, because being active depends on having some faith in our ability to know the world and communicate that knowledge. But I think it is not uncommon in the broader (and much larger) group of people who have social justice-y values but don't have access to collective contexts for acting on those values, and so can only relate to them in very isolated, individualized ways. This is, I think, one of the ways that conspiratorial thinking comes to flourish in progressive contexts, though it can also just feed cynicism, disengagement, and despair.

Other people respond to the fragility of knowing and communicating by rejecting that fragility, by doubling down on a liberal faith in the solidity of our ability to know and communicate, often with an implied "if only" attached. This approach seeks to restore some nostalgic past regimen for how our knowing and communicating about the world was socially organized, whether that is a romanticization of mainstream media or of supposedly more ethical elites of earlier generations or something else.

Then there are other broadly left formations that recognize the fragility of knowing and communicating, and they lean into it – they take every advantage of it in order to push their particular agenda. This may not be a tactic that is as broadly used on the left as it is on the right, but I definitely see the neoliberal pseudo-left as well as centre-left, authoritarian far left, and anti-authoritarian far left people and groups who do it.

So what should we do? I don't have an answer, I'm reflections on this question over the last week have not been particularly optimistic.

All I have is a certainty that we need to figure it out: A way to navigate the fact that our ability to know and communicate about the world is real and genuine, but fragile. A way to navigate all of this that is principled. I think it has to do with putting faith in organizing, including organizing with a strong face-to-face component, rather than online-heavy mobilizing. I think it has to do with centering our political work on responding to the deeper currents of how the world is socially organized, rather than being quite so focused on the details of the moment. (Though of course we must always be able to respond to crises.) I think it has to do with having politics that, yes, are informed by theory, but that are firmly grounded in our everday lives and the everyday lives of our neighbours. I think these must be politics based on seeking the radical conclusions made possible by listening to the everday lives of people around us, people across town, people on the other side of the world.

But I don't really know what doing that might look like in practice under these conditions of increasingly fragile knowing and communicating...except that I'm sure the seeds already exist in what some people in some places are already doing.

And at the moment, I have no ideas about how to defend ourselves from the massive bad-faith interventions by elite and/or far-right forces into our knowing and communicating, and the smaller but still significant mimicking of such bad-faith actions from segments of the left.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Review -- Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

[Liza Featherstone. Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. New York: OR Books, 2017.]

This is a fascinating history of the focus group and related technologies of consultation written by journalist Liza Featherstone.

Since its inception, the form of listening made possible by the focus group has been about allowing elites to understand the experiences and desires of ordinary people, and therefore to respond to them in limited ways while keeping actual power in elite hands. From its origins in social democratic political milieus before the middle of the 20th century to its increasingly avid use by the advertising industry starting in the 1950s and by political campaigns starting especially in the 1980s, the details of that listening and the use to which it has been put have shifted. Especially towards the end of the 20th century, the focus group and the broader culture of consultation of which it is a part have been central to the neoliberal project of making changes in law, policy, and society that are consistently harmful to ordinary people, through a combination of giving elites the information they need to better figure out how to use image and spectacle to sell their agenda (often portraying themselves as the exact opposite of what they are actually doing) and of providing a platform to perform the act of listening which makes people feel heard even as they are increasingly shut out of any actual collective power over what happens in their lives. Though the book is almost exclusively about the US context, I repeatedly thought about the antics of Justin Trudeau and his government, particularly their dedicated performance of listening and sympathy when it comes to things like climate change and the environment, even as they approve the pipelines and other extraction projects that industry wants and that will contribute so much to frying the earth.

At the same time, there has always been an elite disdain for focus groups and for consultation that has grown in the early 21st century and has increasingly manifested in the authoritarian masculinist rejection of listening to anybody about anything seen in figures like George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Yet even as they do this, and as it meets with the approval of a certain segment of the public, their campaigns and regimes are no less dependent on listening to figure out how to sell their agenda (sometimes still via focus group, sometimes using other methods) than those that listen performatively, like Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, or Justin Trudeau. Part of why this elite rejection of focus groups and consultation can work as a brand is because there is also a popular suspicion and even disdain for it, and not just on the right or among white men angry at having to occasionally listen to everyone else for once. Featherstone argues that this represents a broadly misdirected anger – on some level, we recognize focus groups and consultation as part of a project of elite deception, yet so often that comes out as popular disdain for other ordinary people and for listening to them, rather than recognizing that the problem is elite maniuplation and the growing inequality that makes focus groups and performative listening so crucial to the maintenance of elite power.

Today, social media provides elites with more data than ever before to allow them to listen to the rest of us when it comes to certain details while keeping politics firmly non-threatening to elite interest, while focus groups persist because of the power of face-to-face interaction within small groups in illuminating not just opinions but the feelings and rationales underlying them. In some ways, the current scare about foreign interference in Western elections through strategic social media interventions based on prior mining of social media data is just a refinement of what our own elites have been doing to us for decades.

Featherstone argues that much of the culture of consultation that dominates politics and the commercial world today was appropriated from the movements of the New Left, significantly including the women's movement, but that in movements today there is also a way in which the legacy of New Left culture mimics its corporate up-take in the excessive emphasis on "giving voice" and "being heard" and the relatively little attention that many movements today pay to building and exerting power. She argues that we need to learn from the power that focus groups and other approaches to listening hold, but we must re-orient away from an emphasis on voice and consultation towards actual organizing. Which is a reasonable point in a lot of ways, though at least as it is made in this book it paints with too broad a brush, both in terms of its characterization of actually existing movements and in terms of its advocacy for how to do things differently. In fact, in some ways I thought this was the weakest part of the book because it smuggled in assumptions from the author without making them explicit or defending them. My sense is that she holds particular democratic socialist understandings of how we should relate to the state and to power, and that we should "take power" in that sense. And certainly that analysis needs to be part of the conversation, and certainly seems to be one useful element of a broader response to the decades of defeat under neoliberalism. But there are also other ways to think about organizing and about building power that don't necessarily fit within the newly re-forming democratic socialist tradition but that don't belong under the somewhat caricatured picture of movements seduced into liberal ineffectualness that the book paints. Frankly, I think this section of the book would have been significantly strengthened if it had itself been based on a lot more consulting and listening – to the many conversations about related issues already happening in many different movements, and informed by a range of radical traditions and perspectives. So: Some good ideas, but needs a much longer and more nuanced discussion, and inclusion of other radical perspectives as well.

Overall, though, I thought the book was really good. Its examination of the how of an important piece of late-capitalist governance is very important and I learned a lot. And as I've alluded to before on this blog and on social media, the recent re-orientation of one of my own major writing projects involves paying much closer attention to the politics of listening, and this book has definitely been helpful to me as I develop my thinking about at least some aspects of that work. Definitely worth a read.