Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power


[Max Haiven. Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Black Point, NS and Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Pubishing & London: Zed Books Ltd., 2014]

It's not a new question: How can we talk about the working of the social world such that we don't reinforce the dominant rupturing of what is actually a single flow of practices into various dualisms patterned on the Western insistence on a mind/body split? That is, how do we recognize that the material and the cultural, the visceral and the imaginary, the objective and subjective (in their Marxist senses), are all part of one social world, and that we need to analyze the world and intervene in it in ways that recognize that, and refuse to fall into caricatured and simplistic materialism that pretends the (so-called) immaterial is irrelevant or entirely derivative, or voluntaristic liberalism that makes agency and will all-powerful? The work of some prominent radical thinkers can be read as wrestling with these questions: Gramsci's notion of hegemony, for one, as well as cultural studies and all of the other approaches that draw on him; Foucault and those who take up his approach; Dorothy Smith's ontology of the social; and I'm sure lots of others that I'm not aware of. I can't pretend that my own reading and thinking about this question have been more than arbitrary and partial, and I like and have been influence by aspects of all three specific examples I mention, in my own completely unsystematic and non-rigorous way. But for all of that, when faced with understanding and intervening in some real-world problem of the interflow of (what gets unhelpfully reified as) the cultural and the material, I don't think we yet have very good tools. And as Haiven points out, the neoliberal/post-New Left evolution of capitalism places ever more emphasis on recapturing what once might have been insurgent imagination, creativity, and desires for its own reproduction, so it is arguably more important than ever to have such tools.

This book, unfortunately, is not a source of final answers either. But it does contribute some useful explorations, both in terms of examining related questions in some specific areas and in terms of modelling an approach that looks like a useful step down the road to a more general framework for answering them. Haiven's quest for "what might be called a materialist theory of the imagination" (13) takes him first to an exploration of value which brings together an autonomist approach to Marx's writing on that question, an attempt to knit together artificially divided "economic" and "cultural" struggles through the multiple meanings of "value", a theorization of radical imagination that puts it in a dialectical relationship with values, and an argument about how certain contemporary struggles fit into that nexus. He then talks about the idea of the commons and its renewed appeal for radicals in recent years, its relationship to the notion of "the public", and the recent global wave of struggles that have been using occupations as a tactic. The following essay is a creative exploration of how finance capital and the financialization of our social relations should in part be understood as being "about transforming value, imagination, and social reproduction beyond the confines of capitalist accumulation" (105). Then there's a short, critical piece on the university as a laboratory for the transformation of work and its attendant disciplines, followed by a fascinating chapter on history and memory, a critical genealogy of creativity and its present status as both source of inspiration for the continual adaptation of capitalist power and energy for resistance, and finally a look at the history of radical imagination (based on some earlier work by Haiven and Alex Khasnabish).

I won't respond in detail to all of the essays in the book -- essays which were apparently written separately but which hang together quite well as one volume -- but I'll say a few things about a couple of them. The chapter on the public, the commons, and occupations was a good reminder of the potential of "the commons" and "commoning" as ways to frame experiments in social reproduction that are collective but neither state/public or market/private. I particularly appreciated the book's practical, non-sectarian approach to struggles that focus on the public, struggles that focus on the common, and the actual and potential connections between the two. In principle, I think that giving priority to the commons is the only way to find our way free of the state/market impasse; in practice, I agree that a big part of that will have to be both defending the public realm from neoliberal attack and simultaneously nudging the state and the public realm towards more "common" forms of social organization, because we have yet to demonstrate that we can create non-trivial commons from nothing. My biggest political concern with the book fell in this chapter, however. It talks about the recent wave of struggles that have used occupations as a central tactic, and in particular focuses on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement that spanned North America (and beyond). And the way in which the book did this inadvertently highlited the problems with talking about the "commons" as path and tool and endpoint for liberation on Turtle Island if you don't make it anti-colonial from the word go. The last couple of pages of the chapter do focus on indigenous struggles and do raise some of the key anti-colonial and anti-racist critiques of OWS that emerged from and with it, but given that those critiques emerged essentially simultaneously with OWS itself, it seems like a missed opportunity (and a repetition of the perpetual deferral to which struggles against racism and sexism and colonization seem to be subjected in mainstream left contexts) to put this in the last two pages instead of the first two. Yes, this would have inevitably changed the conversation and the politics through the rest of the essay, but that's precisely the point. Those of us who see potential for justice and liberation in politics that prioritize an expansive understanding of the commons have to wrestle right from the word go with the fact that our starting point for thinking about the commons on Turtle Island is colonization, and the indigenous/settler relationship must be a primary structuring element (likely through treaties and the idea of the treaty commonwealth) of any revived notion of the commons, whether overtly land-based or not. That anti-colonial focus has to be included right at the start.

The other chapter I want to highlite is the one on history and memory. One important piece of my work has been history-from-below that has been done outside both the institutional and the epistemological confines of the academic discipline of history, and I really liked Haiven's overall framework for thinking about the past. Though our languages are somewhat different, it is quite consistent with things I have written, and even more so with things that I talked about in the launch events I did for the books. His application of the idea of the commons and of "commoning memory" to thinking about history is an interesting one, and one that I will definitely be reflecting on as I inch my way towards plunging into a new and quite different-for-me historical project later in the year. The amount of space the essays gives to using "radical events", with particular attention to May '68, to explore some of its ideas about how memory and history work makes me a little concerned, though I'm not sure it should -- I worry that centering instances of spectacle and militance in thinking through how we do history might smuggle some version of "the cult of the militant" into our history-from-below, and further reproduce the marginalization of everyday life and everyday forms of resistance, though I can't say with any confidence that this is happening from the way that "radical events" are talked about here. And I think his discussion of commoning memory would have only been strengthened if it had included some explorations of actually existing practices that either do what he is suggesting or at least contain seeds and gestures from which we can build this new approach to the past. That said, though, while I hope that all of the essays in this book spark future work, from Haiven and others, I hope that for none more than this one.

I feel like I should say more about the book's overall approach, but I'm not sure I can. I liked it, certainly, and its political sensibility felt quite consistent with my own. On the topics that will be familiar to many lefty book nerds -- value, the university, history and memory, finance -- he adds useful new insights, and those that are central to Haiven's overall project that have not received the same attention from left writers in the past -- creativity, imagination -- he challenges us to radically reconsider what they mean and what place they have in our overall analysis. It doesn't (and doesn't pretend to) offer a final answer to the questions I listed at the start of this post, but it is an important step on the path of developing a materialist analysis of imagination that might meet our needs in this era when our most resistant imaginings and counter-hegemonic desires so often get recaptured by capital.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Lighting the Eighth Fire


[Leanne Simpson, editor. Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008.]

This book is a collection of essays mostly by young indigenous scholars from nations across Turtle Island. They draw from and contribute to a particular vision of resurgence and decolonization. This vision, at least as I understand it, focuses on the importance of indigenous people and nations revitalizing the land-people-language-tradition nexus -- and it is key that these are seen as inseparable -- as a basis for strengthening their capacity to persist, to resist, and to transcend the colonial domination they have faced for over five centuries. As Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred and others have written, this is not some sort of rigid and fundamentalist approach to tradition, but instead a complex, nuanced, living of it that draws on strength, practices, intelligence, and wisdom built over millenia, and does so with the confidence to explore what it means to live those truths in the particular circumstances of today.

Most of the essays in the book are different kinds of grounded explorations of this approach to resurgence in the context of the authors' own lives and nations. The where and the what and the how vary a great deal, as does the balance of "this is what we are already doing" with "this is what we desperately need" in each essay. A few of the later ones are a bit different, and include a look at what this approach might mean for urban contexts, a fascinating essay by Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez about the (indigenous) inter-national level and about how notions of self and difference are shaped, and a powerful piece by Glen Coulthard that starts from Frantz Fanon's writing to show the inadequacy of liberal politics of recognition when it comes to struggles against colonization. All in all, with the proviso that as a white settler I comment as an outsider to the debates and struggles of which these essays are a part, the collection reaffirms the sense that I have held since I first learned about this way of thinking about indigenous struggle and resurgence that it seems to be a very powerful combination of the practical and the radical, and is therefore something very important for settlers trying to figure out how to work against colonization to listen to and align with.

A big part of the reflecting that I did as I read this book was trying to figure out what its implications were for me, as someone situated on the other side of the indigenous/settler relationship. There are general answers to that question that are always relevant, if not always easy to live: listen, educate yourself, build relationships, speak in support, act where you are, and so on. But in the case of this book, I was particularly drawn to a kind of thought experiment, to a deliberate attempt to de-centre whiteness, inspired by my recollections of an essay that I read many years ago by Mohawk legal scholar Patricia Monture in which she talked about being asked about ... I think they asked her about her experience of the very white and racist environment of law school, but it might have been about her experience more generally, and it was someone who clearly expected her answer to be all about hardship and pain and suffering. Instead, she talked about feeling sorry for white people, since they don't have access, as she did, to a different sort of space that operated by a different logic in which to ground and nourish themselves.

And the re-focusing of perspective inspired by that essay and by this collection goes as follows: One way to think about social struggle that has transformative intent is as attempts to transform or replace the predatory social logics of white supremacist colonial heterosexist patriarchal capitalism with a liberatory mosaic of other ways of living that allow for genuine, widespread flourishing. A key question is how and where to ground those logics of living and organizing the social world otherwise. The various strands of the settler-dominated left in North America have a number of ways of approaching this issue -- ignoring it, seeking to impose abstractions, or deferring it to either an ever-retreating future or to a magical spontaneous moment -- that have in common the fact that they mostly do so quite poorly. However, the basis of the approach to resurgence that is the focus of this book is the reality that indigenous peoples already have access to such other logics in the form of traditional teachings and practices, and therefore their struggle is a matter of strengthening them, carrying them forward, and winning back more physical and social spaces to them. (Indigenous approaches also offer a basis for how the diverse elements of this mosaic can/will be able to relate to each other, through the notion of the treaty commonwealth.) The lesson here is not, of course, that we need to just take someone else's ways of living otherwise, which would be a horrendous way of missing the point. But maybe we might do a better job of responding to this void, this uncertainty, that lies at the centre of our visions for social change -- better than ignoring it, trying to fill it with abstractions, or pretending that being unable to fill it (yet?) is a virtue -- if we allow an awareness of the rather different situation of indigenous nations to knock our own experience out of the centre of things. I have a few thoughts on what that might mean but they would stray farther from the book I'm responding to here than I want to go, so perhaps I'll save them for another post, but I think seeing the specificity of our situation might help us address it better.

In any case, this is a book that should be read widely, and as one of "the ones that only read" (21), in Simpson's delightful phrase, I am very happy that its insights have been shared in a form I can access.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Education as Enforcement


[Kenneth J. Saltman and David A. Gabbard, editors. Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. (First edition, 2003.)]

The different things brought together by this book feel variously useful and a little strange, but the final mixture, for all that it has moments that are less engaged and engaging, is quite a bit more emotionally moving and politically meaningful than I generally expect from an edited scholarly collection.

This is a revised edition from 2011 of a collection originally published in 2003. Most of the essays are from the original, with a greater or lesser amount of updating, but there are also several essays new to the second edition as well as a new foreword from critical pedagogy superstar Henry Giroux. Though the focus of the collection might sound quite narrow -- the intersection of neoliberalism, militarism, and education -- the essays are a real mix in terms of the scale they talk about and how abstracted and/or empirical they are. So, for instance, you have sweeping analyses mixed in with careful, local case-studies. There's an interesting overview of the integral role of compulsory education in capitalist societies from one of the editors; a moving ethnography focused on the voices of poor and working-class youth of colour and their experiences of education in a small US city; various essays dissecting aspects of the always-neoliberal and often-militaristic education 'reform' in the US from Reagan onwards, with particular emphasis on how such reforms have predictably and consistently entrenched educational and broader social inequalities; a provocative (and not necessarily entirely convincing) piece linking the growing trend of single-sex classrooms with the militarization of women's bodies in the US armed forces; and lots of other things. The geographical focus is almost exclusively the United States, though there was one on the militarization of language education that also talked about Japan, a very powerful look at the role of formal education in militarizing the worldviews of children in Israel, and a still very US-centric sort of overview essay focused on the Obama era by someone at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.

I have been reflecting a little bit over the last year about the ways in which neoliberalism and militarism are connected. My increasing conviction that there is a deep and essential intertwining of the two is not an original idea, but at the same time most of what I have encountered that talks about one of them either treats the other as connected but peripheral or doesn't have much to say about the other at all. There are exceptions, and it's possible I just haven't been looking in the right places, but I was pleasantly surprised by how this collection starts from an openness to recognizing exactly that kind of deep integration and goes on to explore what that might mean in different contexts. Given the diverse kinds of essays in the book, I didn't leave the collection feeling like it had enabled me to develop a stable sense of how it is all socially organized -- another axis of diversity in the book is the extent to which the essays actually explored aspects of social relations in grounded materialist ways, versus the extent to which they used more distant and reified approaches -- but it did include plenty of examples of specific ways in which neoliberal and militarist impulses play out in relation to one another. Given the paucity of other material that I've found that does this, I think this book would be a useful resource for anyone attempting to write about neoliberalism and militarism together, regardless of whether they were particularly interested in questions related to education.

Another surprise that I encountered in my engagement with this book was its emotional impact on me. You don't necessarily expect that from scholarly collections, and of course not every essay in this one affected me in that way. But some did, and the book as a whole did, such that it took me rather longer to finish it than would usually be true of a book of this sort. And I think that is because it hammered home in a way that I had not appreciated before how the US education system as it currently exists -- as it has been constructed by reforms instituted under all presidents from Reagan to Obama -- is quite openly and horribly premised on various forms of violence against youth, particularly youth of colour. Progressives and radicals have pointed out that this is the case each time so-called reforms have been proposed; they have documented the fact that these have in fact been the impacts each time such reforms have been implemented; and they have attempted to make more and more people aware of this. Yet this trajectory of reform continues unabated. There's lots to say about why this might be the case, but it is inescapable that part of the mix has to be the fact that lots of people, particularly people who are better off and/or white, really don't care that these changes amount to, depend on, and reproduce (in very clearly demonstrable ways) violence against kids who are poor and/or non-white. And that, however unsurprising, is heartbreaking.

I should add that it's not that I was completely unaware of these things before reading this book. But, given that I don't live in the US, I had never had to face the whole picture, presented in both broad brush strokes and specific details, in quite this way before. And I think, for various reasons -- including white privilege, the fact that the trajectory of the white supremacist neoliberalization of capitalist education is in a bit of a different spot in Canada, and my own experiences of education as a youth -- I still tend to default the starting point of my criticisms of mass, compulsory education to the many things that I see wrong with the social democratic ideal for such things, without fully appreciating the extent to which anything resembling that ideal in most places in the United States is far back in the rear view mirror.

And that leads to consideration of a common dilemma in the age of neoliberalism: What is the best way to talk about something that has gotten much worse in recent years without indulging in romantic nostalgia for and idealization of the better-but-still-bad of years gone by? There are any number of areas where that is a risk in the Canadian context, given the direction of so many social changes in the last 20 years, and it can be depressingly difficult to find writing or conversation that doesn't fall into either left-nationalist/centre-left nostalgia for the high point of the welfare state and liberal internationalist foreign policy, or sectarian revolutionary-socialist/anarchist rhetoric that names the systemic evils but so easily forgets that gradations of livability and awfulness in people's lives really are crucially important. I'm not sure that this collection solves this dilemma, at least not in a blanket way. Many essays don't even try to escape the idealization of the social liberalism of earlier decades. Many others do make that attempt, and it is interesting to observe how many don't quite manage it despite trying. I'm not sure I could really capture what's happening without re-reading portions of the book, but there are some of the essays which manage to name the (not-so-) recent worsening without idealizing that earlier moment, and that I think really do come from a radical place and make usefully radical criticisms, but which still include aspects of a distinctly US-flavoured celebration of liberal and republican social forms that, to someone who didn't grow up inside of it, feels a little incongruous. This is not meant, incidentally, as a sort of backhanded Canadian left nationalism -- I know that analogous rhetoric happens here, based on somewhat different building blocks from social liberalism and social democracy, and such rhetoric will no doubt continue to grow and infest the political culture unless mass movements displace our current neoliberal militarist trajectory.

Of course that leads to the question of how to relate this book to the Canadian context. I don't think I actually know enough to say in any sort of conclusive way. Certainly attacks on teachers and on education systems have been a key plank of neoliberal governments in Canada (though given the distribution of powers here, the role for federal action in this area is less direct than in the US). In Ontario, we saw that most spectacularly with the Harris Tories of the late '90s, and it has happened in a different way with the current Liberal regime. I think it is the provincial Liberals in British Columbia that are at the forefront of attacks on teachers and students at the moment. And certainly militarization of Canadian society has been a goal that has been tied into almost everything that the current federal Conservative government has done while in office, and I know from the bits and pieces that I see from my own kid that there are ways that has trickled down into schools. But I'm not sure how it all works here. And though I know that schools have more often than not failed indigenous, Black, and other racialized kids in Canada -- that is, when they haven't been quite blatantly put together to inflict violence on them, as in residential schools -- I have a (poorly informed) sense that the way this is playing out in the neoliberal era continues to take a somewhat different form here than south of the border. So I would be very interested to see the focus of this book taken up in the Canadian context, but I'm not sure I know enough to even suggest what that might look like.

So this is an uneven collection in a number of respects, but one that does a lot of important things that I haven't seen done, or haven't seen done in quite the same way, elsewhere. And I do hope that it is the tip of an iceberg of material out there that really does take seriously the integral connections between neoliberal shifts in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and militarist shifts in same.

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Saturday, March 01, 2014

Tighter security at Sudbury city hall: More ominous than you thought


This past week, Sudbury city hall announced new security measures. The chatter that I have seen about these changes on social media makes the very reasonable points that they are unnecessary, foolish, and anti-democratic. But I want to argue that they have even more unsavoury implications than I've so far seen recognized in the online conversation.

At the moment, the details of the changes are not entirely clear, but a few things are known. There will be new restrictions on where ordinary residents of Sudbury can go in city buildings. This seems particularly to apply to city council meetings and to city committee meetings -- there will be a clear separation between where residents must be and where staff and councillors can be. Journalists will have to get formal accreditation, and that will entitle them to be in the staff-and-council area at certain times, though from what I've seen it looks like even accredited journalists (i.e. those considered sufficiently respectable by city authorities) will be more restricted in their movement and activities than previously. As well, every council and committee meeting will have a uniformed security officer at the door, 'welcoming' people to the event. And the impression given by the coverage of the issue so far is that there are other changes happening as well that are not, or at least not yet, being made public.

According to the original CBC reporting of this development, the city staff person in charge of it -- manager of corporate security and court services, Brendan Adair -- indicated that "security is not being tightened in response to anything in particular." While there is no way to demonstrate in a court-of-law sort of way that this is false without having access to internal documents, it seems highly implausible. What seems much more likely is that this is at least in part a response to an action in late January by the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP). For about ten minutes, members and supporters of the group noisily interrupted a city council meeting to draw attention to the city's woefully inadequate response up to that point to the lack of a full-winter, fully accessible, night-time warming space for homeless people in the city. This public shaming would have been embarrassing enough for the mayor and council, but -- as I reported at the time -- the mayor's handling of it was additionally embarrassing. And it no doubt rankled that she was not, in the moment, able to use security personnel to just make this very brief but embarrassing interruption go away.

In the Sudbury Star piece on the security changes, the fact that these actions are a response to S-CAP's brief, non-threatening, but embarrassing intervention seems even more stark. The story's lead quotes Adair as asserting a need for "more control" at city council meetings, and as far as I am aware, there really isn't anything else he could be referring to. In addition, Adair is also quoted as saying, "We're in the North. How many men do you know that carry knives on their belts?", which is a ludicrous and insulting thing to think is relevant to this discussion. It is, however, an attempt to invoke fear of ordinary people, a rhetorical tack used by law-and-order types that is all too familiar in the era of the War on Terror. (Interestingly, in this case, he doesn't seem to be particularly trying to incite fear of people of colour, which is the bread and butter of War on Terror rhetoric, but rather, through the invokation of a particular classed way that masculinity is enacted in the north, it is fear of working-class men that he is hoping to mobilize for political ends.)

There are a number of kinds of objections to these measures that I have seen on social media from people that might be generally categorized as "progressive." They point out that there hasn't been anything even resembling an actual threatening incident, so these measures are unnecessary. They point out that this seems to have been in response to a non-threatening but politically embarrassing action that was clearly aimed at saving lives, and as such it is a poor use of resources, it is anti-democratic, and it is reactionary. And, in fact, the obliging Mr. Adair was quoted yet once more in the Star article, making quite clearly the anti-democratic point that, "We're trying to create a barrier between citizens and staff." Others are more familiar with this history than me, but in light of various other quiet changes at Sudbury city hall in the last number of years to make (the admittedly always quite limited) scope for political participation by residents even more difficult and less relevant, even if you believe the dubious claim that these changes are not about beefing up the capacity of security staff to respond in repressive ways to entirely commendable political actions, it still seems like it will further corrode whatever semblance of actual democracy might exist at city hall.

I want to argue, though, that we need to see this decision as part of a much larger historical trajectory as well, one that isn't just about Sudbury. So for a paragraph or two, let me step back and give some of that context.

In the decades after the Second World War, the dominant consensus in the rich countries, including Canada, was that the best way to respond to clearly demonstrated human need, particularly when people were getting upset and politically active because of it, was to find some way to partially meet the need in order to get people to quiet down. This is where the welfare state came from. It has always been far more limited and politically contradictory than its most ardent proponents claim, and it always excluded significant numbers of people and reinforced the subordination of others, but it met some needs and was a site for struggle through which other people with other needs could hope to have them met as well.

Starting globally in the 1970s, and arguably then in Canada too though it really picked up steam here in the '90s, was a change in that dominant consensus. There's lots to be said about the causes, character, and extent of that change, but the bottom line has been changes in how our society works such that there are more people with more unmet needs, and the dominant social response to those people is more likely to be repression rather than the partial, inadequate, and contradictory measures to meet (some of) the needs of the earlier social democratic era. In both the context of the everyday manifestations of crushing need experienced in particularly oppressed communities, and also in the context of collective efforts to demand change that would alleviate need, social responses have come to rely increasingly on policing rather than on addressing symptoms (or, heaven forbid, even root causes), and that policing has become increasingly militarized and violent. As a simple illustration of the change in the context of collective political action in Canada, you only need to look at the shift in policing across the Toronto Days of Action in 1996, the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, and the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. And there are countless other examples, domestic and international, of a shift from responding to angry collective expression of demands for justice with (often inadequate) bread to responding with batons and plastic bullets.

I think these new security measures at city hall are one small part of that much larger and longer trajectory. Contrary to what some other lefty types have asserted on social media, while I agree that these changes are odious and anti-democratic, I don't think they are just making something out of nothing. They are, I think, based on city officials perceiving something real and then making a political choice about how to respond to that. It's a bad political choice, but it's responding to a real phenomenon. Adair's framing of it as a fear of dangerous northern Ontarians and their knives may be foolish and insulting, but buried in that statement, and in the more implicit nod to the non-threatening but disobedient and disruptive S-CAP action, is a recognition that there are going to be -- inevitably, one way or another -- more angry people. The trajectory that has been going on since the '70s has only accelerated since the financial crisis began in 2008. Call it "neoliberalism," call it "austerity" -- there are going to be more people suffering, more people being attacked by the violence inherent to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more people who don't have the means to meet their needs. And there are going to be people taking action based on those needs. Many people will take action in fragmented but absolutely essential everyday ways to ensure their own survival. A few might act in individualistic, anti-social ways that express their rage but do nothing to change anything. And others -- hopefully many others -- will find ways to join their resistance to the resistance of others to make it social and collective and visible.

So you have a situation that is going to produce more people whose lives have been pushed into need and suffering and who are understandably angry about that, and who might express that anger in a whole range of ways. And you've got a situation where repression is increasingly the go-to response to people who are making various sorts of demands for justice. There are a whole lot of little choices that go into making such trajectories a reality, lots of little ways to either reproduce them or to work against them. And the city has made a choice here.

I'm not saying, by the way, that the city is only repressive, or is likely to become so. State relations, of which municipal governments are a local manifestation, are complicated, and there are plenty of good people doing what they can in that context to mobilize resources to meet at least some kinds of needs some of the time (albeit inevitably in limited, social democratic ways). But core to this new, neoliberal, austerity-based reality is a recognition that such socially useful work goes so far and no further, and will have increasingly starker limits in the years ahead, and those who think that the well-being of ordinary people and the planet should take precedence and who are willing to take disobedient action to make the state and elites act accordingly are not going to be met with soft words and partial measures but with uniformed people empowered, ultimately, to use violence against them.

Some might argue, in reference to this one small change, "Well what else could the city do?" But part of truly prioritizing the well-being of ordinary people and the planet is refusing to accept pleas to practicality that disguise the politics beneath. "What else could the city do?" is just not good enough. These changes are the City of Greater Sudbury, in a small way, preparing itself to be better able to respond to articulations of human need -- which it knows will come, one way or the other -- with repression and force. And that isn't acceptable, however you dress it up.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two Things Anti-War Activists in Canada Need To Do Better


There are at least two things that the anti-war movement in Canada needs to do a much better job of as we speak out against war and empire: We need to get better at not alienating and shaming veterans and active duty soldiers. And we need to get better at not soft-pedalling the horrors that are predictably and inevitably part of Canadian military intervention abroad.

These two things look, at least at first glance, like they pull in very different directions -- doing a better job of one seems like it will necessitate doing a worse job of the other, and vice versa. As I discuss below, I'm not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly looks that way. And what's most interesting of all is that at the moment we don't really do justice to either of them.

I was reminded of the centrality of not alienating and shaming veterans and soldiers by someone on Twitter last month. Unfortunately -- because I like to give credit where it is due -- I don't remember who it was. But it is vitally important. It is important because shaky capacity to engage with military personnel feeds into narratives used to attack us in the mainstream media, and thereby limits our ability to build the movement in the population as a whole. And it is important because vets and active duty personnel themselves can be a crucial component of organizing against war and empire, and if we can't engage with them then we can never contribute to that aspect of resistance. Admittedly, the latter point is one that even many people within anti-war organizing fail to recognize and that is almost illegible in the mainstream. But if you look back at the history of organizing against the Vietnam war in the United States -- as shown, for instance, in the documentary Sir! No, Sir! -- contrary to myths that have arisen since then about the anti-war movement being nothing but middle-class hippy scorn heaped on working-class grunts, active resistance within the military itself was massive and essential, and was probably second in importance only to resistance by the Vietnamese people among the factors that ended the US assault on southeast Asia.

On the other hand, many people who would identify as being anti-war also engage in various rhetorical strategies that end up soft-pedalling exactly what it is that we are doing 'over there,' wherever that might be in a given instance. Sometimes this is through insisting on nostalgia for Canada's supposed liberal internationalist virtue and the myth of the peacekeeeper. Attachment to such narratives means not really being able to talk clearly about how power works in the world -- for understanding the continuities between how we act in the world now and how we acted then, and therefore for understanding the basis of both as a grounding for figuring out what we need to do to change things. It also happens through a poorly considered attempt not to alienate a public that may passively oppose the war but that has little stomach for hearing ill implied about those who are fighting it. And that, I think, gets wrapped up in the various pressures towards civility -- a euphemistic name for culturally imposed silence around issues that discomfit the comfortable -- that can be so strong in our political culture. Those make it hard to be brutally frank about the fact that during the Canadian participation in the recolonization of Afghanistan, our neighbours, our friends' kids, the guy we played hockey with, that kid from down the block -- they were participating in something that, entirely predictably and inevitably, included the murder of civilians; sexual assault of civilians and of women serving in the imperial armies; the continuation of the domination of a poor, mostly non-white country by rich, white-dominated countries; and torture. Canadians did many of these things directly. And the actions of Canadians were part of what enabled the overall project in which, entirely predictably and inevitably, other Western militaries did these things. This was not some abstracted "mission" that we can agree to disagree about -- it was active involvement and complicity in murder, rape, torture, and white supremacist colonial domination.

Obviously, there is no immediately clear way to speak out against war and empire such that we prioritize both of these at once. There is, however, one strategy that I can think of that will at least begin to make them less mutually incompatible. I think both of these deficiencies in how we talk about war and empire reflect a reluctance to really confront our own complicity in them, where by the "we" in that construction I particularly mean progressive civilian folks in Canada who have a distaste for war. It is obvious how that might be at play when we soft-pedal the horror of Canadian intervention around the world, but I think it is just as much at play in how we relate to soldiers and vets.

Here's what I mean by that: People with a certain amount of class privilege and with what you might call metropolitan sensibilities are able to both admit that racism, sexism, and heterosexism continue to exist as social problems while simultaneously denying our own complicity and thereby refusing to do anything about them. This is one manifestation of what Sherene Razack has described as "the race to innocence." And this is accomplished in this instance by displacing responsibility for these oppressive practices and attitudes onto poor and working-class people, onto people of colour, and onto non-urban people. It becomes Alberta, small-town Ontario, people who work in manufacturing, welfare recipients, as well as the white working class and non-white people more broadly, that are seen as the irredeemable repositories of (variously) racism, sexism, and heterosexism, while middle-class white metropolitan folks are framed as enlightened guides to a better society. Which isn't to say that these nasty social relations don't get enacted and reproduced among these populations. Rather, it is to point out that the dominant (white) practices for how to see and evaluate racism, for instance, have been constructed such that the cultural markers and manifestations of it among working-class white conservatives in rural areas are treated as visible, severe, and worthy of mockery, whereas their equally pervasive character among metropolitan middle-class white liberals are rendered next to invisible and/or treated as being much less serious, all without much reference to the actual experiences of racialized people or to where power lies to change things.

I think we engage in a similar sort of displacement when we talk about war and empire. Yes, it does matter in certain respects that it's the working-class kid from Gander who is carrying the assault weapon in Kandahar and who calls in the US air strike that kills civilians, and not the class-climbing Liberal Party-belonging white gay man in Toronto who has a passive dislike for war but really doesn't think about it very much. But we need a way of talking about it that makes it very, very clear that the latter is just as complicit. Being far away does not lessen complicity. Being notionally anti-war does not lessen complicity. If anything, having class privilege, social capital, and political connections increases complicity.

The point, then, is to find ways to relentlessly name the horrors of our role in the world but not to belabour the blood on the hands of the mostly-working-class youth whom we push, cajole, and bribe (both with jobs and with the psychic wage of 'the mission' and 'the nation') to go over and be the claw on the imperial social body. The point is to begin the conversation from the fact that most of us -- of we-the-cells that comprise the totality that is murdering and raping and colonizing -- have blood on our hands, including those of us who speak against it. And from there, it is a matter of finding ways to communicate (and to demonstrate through lived experiences of struggle along other axes) that though we might be complicit in and benefit from this violence, the way the social body enacting it is organized is also one that (differentially) harms us. To borrow John Holloway's language, we are "within-and-against" this oppressive social totality even as we benefit from aspects of it, and in this fact lies the possibility of working together to challenge both the violence we face and the violence we perpetrate.

That, obviously, is not going to be an easy sell either. Nor is it going to avoid scorn, dismissal, and ridicule, not just from the right but also from liberals and progressives. Nonetheless, I think it points in the general direction we need to take if we want to figure out how to engage with soldiers and vets while pulling no punches about the horrors that predictably and inevitably are part of Canadian military intervention overseas.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning


[Chris Hedges. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.]

There's a flavour of journalist whose names I know well because they are popular on the left, who write about things that I think are important and often (though not always) take angles that I have some sympathy for, but that I have read only rarely. This is because...well, I'm not really sure why. Something to do with posture and tone, I think. Often, they write about US foreign and national security policy, though not only those things. They are generally white men who tend towards the bombastic, if not always embodying it in quite as over the top a way as that term usually implies (and who for me are also emblematic of a certain kind of activist I've often encountered and regarded with ambivalence). I'm thinking of clever men who do good work like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. And another that for me belongs in that category -- someone whose name I am very familiar with, but whose writing I rarely actually read -- is Chris Hedges.

Much of the reporting through which he made his name was done in war zones. This is a book about war, so he knows of what he speaks in a way that many who opine about battle do not. It is a book about what war does to the people, to the narratives, to the social realities on both sides of a conflict. It is a book about how war can be both awful and seductive in its energy, its clarity, its intensity, written by someone who evidently both hates war and is drawn to it, who opposes much war but who is not uniformly anti-war, who sees a necessity for war in some cases but rues it nonetheless.

If there is one sobering truth that the left needs to take from this book, it is the harsh realities of polarized, violent conflict. It can be too easy both for those in the grip of an acute conflict and for those pontificating from bar stools and desk chairs to ignore the kinds of dynamics that Hedges writes about. And any of us who have been alive in North America over the last decade and a half have witnessed at least a version of how the drive to war warps public discourse, and how the state uses fear and patriotism to rewrite, even if temporarily, our sense of ourselves, and draw us into treating the horrific, the barbaric, the monstrous that is done in our names as normal, unremarkable, necessary. And I say that the left needs to take this as a lesson because it is very easy for us in this moment and in this space -- where challenging the socially embedded everyday violence of social relations through organizing ourselves in ways capable of mobilizing collective, confrontational, transformative action is the thing that movements need to be doing -- to forget that social conflict is complicated and the ways that it transforms us and our situations as it occurs is not uniformly or necessarily positive. I think responsible radicalism means trying to understand this, and to recognize that there may be moments where pulling back and de-escalating, or thinking about how we move the struggle forward in a different way, is absolutely necessary.

I think this is a crucial lesson and focus for reflection, regardless of what else it comes packaged with. And unfortunately it does come packaged with some things that trouble me. That is not to belittle the honesty and intensity with which Hedges writes. I admire his determination and ability in turning what are evidently some very difficult experiences into insight. But I think the book's limitations are not insignificant, and there are aspects of his politics that make me very wary.

There are, for instance, some case in which he has been pro-intervention -- notably, I think, in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s. I spent a fair bit of time on street corners leafletting against the particular intervention, so I obviously do not agree with him. Moreover, the fact that he supported it is wrapped up in the very weak and partial analysis of empire that informs the book. As seems to happen in many books where "war" is the primary focus of analysis, the experientially similar intensity of diversely located actors in diversely located wars becomes such a powerful pull that their very different historical and social situatedness falls easily away. In this book, the central example to which he returns again and again is the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with its mobilization of long-latent ethnic hostility by right-wing, nationalist thugs on all sides. It is certainly an important example, and it is one that suits his argument well. And I'm not saying that the dynamics of conflict are completely dissimilar if you look at other places he draws examples from, such as revolutionary movements in Central American in the '80s, the Falklands war in Argentina, the first Iraq war, or the Palestinian resistance to colonization in Israel/Palestine. No doubt many of the things he identifies as general features of war are present in some form at least in all of these instances. But I am much less convinced that they mean the same thing or have the same implications in all instances. However, the fact that this book has a framework that provides such a historically and socially flat analysis of war means it is far easier to avoid asking questions about and taking responsibility for the specificities in these examples, which means that it is easy to draw all of them into conclusions that fit best in the Yugoslavian case but perhaps not so well in some of the others.

One use of examples that was particularly troubling was that of Palestine, despite the fact that he is well known as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. On the one hand, I think it can be an important thing to point out that it is inevitable in life-and-death struggles, as in colonization and resistance to it, there are no angels. Moralistic illusions about "good guys" and "bad guys" lead to poor political choices, even if they are animated by liberatory inclinations; we can't lose sight of the fact that oppressors and those who resist them are all complicated, flawed, contradictory human beings. We should not shy away from how realities of entrenched violent conflict can distort in unjust directions the narratives and practices even of those we support, and that should be present in how we make decisions about acting in the world. But we need to be politically responsible when we are making such points. In citing some examples of that sort from Palestine, he largely avoided talking about the larger context -- he talked about war, but not so much about empire/colonization as the context for resistance -- and he chose examples in a sufficiently arbitrary and anecdotal way that it risks reinforcing racist Western understandings of Arabs and of erasing the yearning for broad justice that I know does inform much of the Palestinian struggle.

There are other questionable things as well. For instance, while I appreciate the honesty of how he writes about both hating and being drawn towards war, I think that any reasonable attempt to understand that has to place much, much more emphasis on gender and masculinity than this book does. He certainly makes that connection, but gives it only a page or two of discussion. Similarly, he talks in one chapter about the ways in which the energy of war both shapes and is pervaded by sexuality, but again says little about the ways in which that is surely (if complicatedly) gendered, and he talks of things like "hedonism and perversion sprial[ing] out of control" (99) in the context of war in ways that are sufficiently vague such that he seems to be lumping the non-normative in with the oppressive and the anti-social in a way that I find very, very troubling.

What is most peculiar about the relative absence of attention to the specificity of different conflicts and to the relevance of power, oppression, and resistance to his analysis is that he actually admits at one point in the book that in many of the situations he discusses, the conflict does involve one group resisting oppression visited upon it by another group. I don't agree with his analysis of who is who in every instance (e.g. in the Yugoslavian example), but what is more surprising than any specific disagreement is that this is treated not as central to his analysis but as something to note on a single out-of-the-way page. How can it not be a central question to figure out how to reconcile the need to resist with the harm caused by the social dynamics of war and other sorts of highly polarized, violent, mass conflict? For citizens of the imperial democracies thinking about the states that act in our names through imposing violence on groups within and without, his advice to begin from our own complicity, to resolutely hold onto our compassion, and to never forget the complexity of the world, is quite reasonable. In fact, I think those points are crucial, even if there is much more that needs to be said as well. But not all polarized social conflict in the world fits that description, and not all people drawn into conflicts live in the same relation to them. In some places, resistance and struggle are necessary. What might it look like to recognize both that fact and the ways that highly polarized social conflict can foster harmful practices and dynamics?


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

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who We Think We Are in Hunger Games: Catching Fire


"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

"I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that.

"But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd."

-- "Jules Winnifield" in Pulp Fiction


You probably remember the scene that quote is from. It's delivered by Samuel Jackson's character. "Jules" is, as he says elsewhere in the scene, in a "transitional period," so after he quotes his usual pre-murderous quasi-biblical schtick, he reflects on it. He recognizes that he would love to think of himself as righteous, or even as a protective shepherd, but he takes the honest way, the painful way, and owns up to the fact that "I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard...".

Keep that in mind, and we'll get back to it by the end of the post. For the moment, though, I want to turn to Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I'm tempted to write a massive, multi-faceted post about as many aspects of the movie as I can cram in, as I sometimes do when it comes to bits of pop culture that get me thinking. There's certainly lots to talk about when it comes to this movie and to the franchise as a whole. There are vestiges of the anti-Blackness (though to my limited eyes it seems considerably improved in this regard) and a complete recapitulation of the anti-femme-ness that marred the first film, for instance. Then there's the way that our expectations of how mainstream storytelling should work resulted in the writers deciding to have the revolutionaries follow a plan that hinges on one moral choice by one person who wasn't even in on the plan -- I'm no expert, but that strikes me as a bad (and profoundly unrealistic) way to plan a revolution. But other ways they showed struggle happening were, I thought, sophisticated and interesting for mainstream pop culture. There are also interesting things to say about gender and relationship practice in the film. But I want to stay focused on one idea.

So. A key way that we relate to stories is through identifying with one or more of the characters therein. Much of the pedagogical impact that stories can have is likely through us placing ourselves in the situation of the characters, and through that imaginative and analytical act learning about them, their world, ourselves, and our world. Now, I don't think that identification with characters is actually as exhaustively descriptive of how we relate to stories as the dominant account of such things would have it. And I certainly think that there is a much broader and richer range of ways that we might be able to relate to stories, if we were provided with more opportunity to develop such practices. But, even so, identification with characters is widespread and important, so that's what I'm going to focus on here.

It's evident from watching the film that the characters that viewers -- all viewers -- are meant to identify with in HG:CF are Katniss and her allies. The story is told from their point of view, they are almost always on screen, and the moral architecture of the world in the film locates them as the "good guys." It's all pretty clear.

Now, in this post, I want in particular to think about how identification of a particular group of viewers with the film works and what its political implications are. That group is, broadly speaking, white North Americans. That's not to say that the things in this post can only apply to white folks, that they apply evenly or universally to white folks, or that none of it is likely to be relevant to anyone else, but to keep it all politically focused, working-class and middle-class white people on this continent are at the centre of what I've written.

The first thing to note is that certain choices were made in the production of the film to make extra sure that white people would identify with Katniss & Co. Notwithstanding the stark class relations within and among white folks, we tend on average to have disproportionate access to financial resources, and Hollywood tends to keep that very much in mind when designing big budget films, to maximize the odds of some of those resources ending up in their coffers. In fact, I think studio execs have a rather distorted and unfairly narrow view of how white people will or will not identify with films, but there is also plenty of evidence of ordinary white folks refusing to engage with narratives about and by racialized people. In the case of the Hunger Games franchise, as I noted in my long and rambly post on the first movie and that many others have discussed more eloquently than I, there was the casting of the part of "Katniss." In the books, she is racially ambiguous and described as having "olive skin," and casting a light-skinned woman of colour to play her would have been much more consistent with the text than casting Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing against Lawrence -- she is brilliant in these movies -- but Hollywood whitewashing characters and stories is a long established practice, and one that must end.

Then there is also the decision in the writing of the books to set the stories in District 12, and the ways in which imagery of poverty was mobilized, particularly in the first movie but in a way that underlies the second as well. It was quite obvious in the first movie that when poverty was being shown to mobilize sympathy for the plight of Katniss' home district, it was very white imagery of poverty -- Appalachia in the US, which has historically been and continues to be a home to many poor white people, and broader pre-Depression white working-class imagery. And this imagery of poor people portrayed sympathetically was in contrast to the images of poor people being portrayed as dangerous which, in the first movie, tended to be associated with Blackness.

Just to be clear, while Hollywood's tendency to whitewash is a problem and its tendency to reproduce the "white=good, Black=bad and dangerous" dichotomy are bad things, there is nothing wrong with a story being grounded in white working-class experience -- making a claim like that is not at all what I'm leading to. But I want to be clear that the way the movie is put together means that everyone is expected to identify with Katniss & Co., and white folks in particular are given lots of space to do so.

Lots of people who see these films are likely to read them in political ways. They are, after all, stories about young people subjected to a brutal series of events that are very explicitly integral to that world's highly oppressive social relations, and the trajectory of the stories lead towards mass uprising. This makes a reading of the story in its own terms that references things political to be largely inescapable, and a reading of the story that connects that to political goings on in the real world is a pretty small and obvious step. Moreover, the moment that we are living through is one that is more open than many other points in my lifetime to reading stories of uprising and unrest with reference to the real world -- the economic crisis that rumbled to the surface in 2008 and the series of uprisings around the globe in response to the interweaving of that crisis with more longstanding dynamics of oppression have opened up space for such reading, even in and through the dominant media. It's nothing new that lots of people are having a rough time, but even more people are than before, and there's also more space in the culture to note and deplore it, and to suggest that it is a systemic problem rather than a product of individual failings. And, finally, the studio has capitalized on this dynamic in its marketing, and at least one form of niche marketing has aimed to get the film to resonate with the many people feeling this kind of simmering dissatisfaction with the current order of things.

Who We Think We Are

My sense -- not arrived at scientifically but one that I am quite confident in, all the same -- is that the ways that the dynamics of identification play out in the case of this film combine with the ample space for political readings to produce some rather troubling implications for how most white North Americans who read the film politically are likely to derive lessons and meaning from it.

That is, to the extent that white folks are taking political lessons from this film, they are doing so via identification with Katniss & Co. -- who are shown, after all, as hard working white folks who are getting a raw deal and who are taking action to change things. The thing is, if you are interested in deriving actually useful lessons, this is not a good way to do it at all. What we are doing when we identify in that way is identifying via markers that are superficial, reified, and symbolic, rather than being connected to how things work. If we actually take the time to map out at least the broad strokes of social relations in the Hunger Games world and map them onto social relations in the real world, it becomes clear that white North Americans as we currently exist are, by and large, not easily mappable onto the residents of District 12 -- the fact that they are, in fact, mostly-white North Americans in their own world is entirely beside the point.

One of the key (and interesting) things that Suzanne Collins did in constructing this world is that (after erasing the existence and relevance of actually-existing indigenous people and settler colonialism, of course) she imagined a reconfiguration of social relations in North America along more explicitly colonial lines. There is a centre that has militarily conquered and subjugated various peripheral areas and that rules them directly. It is all much more starkly spatialized than opperssive and exploitative social relations within North America are today, and resembles the conquest and direct rule of classic European colonization of the rest of the world. It's not a perfect match -- there doesn't seem to have been quite the same sort of racialization of the people in the Districts in the way that accompanied European conquest in the real world, for instance, though if I remember the books correctly I think the Othering of the people in the Districts by the Capitol has moved somewhat down that path. For that and other reasons it's not a perfect mapping, but I think it's reasonable.

Given that how things work matters, it should be no surprise at all that oppression that is socially organized in a different way means that resistance to that oppression also needs to happen differently, and that the landscape for making choices about that resistance is different. If you look at some of the scenes of military intervention into other Districts and into District 12 early in the movie, you are not seeing anything that white North Americans, even poor and working-class white North Americans who are standing up against exploitation, are likely to face. Not that state never responds nastily to white folks resisting -- of course it does -- but that kind of intervention via state violence isn't what we face; that, in fact, looks a lot more like what is done in our names to Black and brown people the world over. It is what our North American armies and immediate proxies have done directly in Falluja, in Kandahar, and in many other cities just since the turn of the century. It is what proxies that are another step or two removed but that are still clearly obedient to the dictates of the West have done and continue to do in many, many countries around the globe. And though it mostly takes a less visibly spectacular, and more everyday-violence sort of form, it is much closer to the underlying dynamics of how life is organized and how resistance can and does happen where distinct communities of non-white poor and working-class people exist today within North America -- from the oppressively policed Latina/o and Black areas of major North American cities, to places that have become by-words of indigenous resistance on the land like Elsipogtog, Oka, Ipperwash, and so many more.

(I feel compelled to add that noting the centrality of this colonial/racial divide in how oppression and state responses to resistance are socially organized makes me think of, and probably on some level was informed by, a hip-hop song called "Panic on the Streets" by a group called Rebels Advocate, whom I think are Palestinian-American, though I could be wrong about that. In part, the chorus goes:

"They call it Chi-town, but to us it's like Kandahar
New York, looking like Falluja
Drama goes down, in Beirut or Houston
...
And I can't tell Ramallah from them Detroit slums
And if you're hometown, New York, Jerusalem,
Tripoli to Tivoli, it's all panic in the streets"

Listen here.)

In any case, I'm not saying that white folks shouldn't know, learn, and think about struggles that are organized like that -- it's imperative that we do, and that we act in support. But we need to recognize how we exist in relation to them, and how such struggles relate to our landscape of choices and necessities when it comes to resisting oppression and exploitation.

We -- by whom I mean that majority of middle-class and working-class white people in North America -- are not residents of District 12. We are, by this more social relational mapping between the real world and the Hunger Games world, some mixture of citizens of the Capitol and residents of Districts 1 and 2. (Note that some non-white folks would likely map onto those formations as well, but as I said at the start that's beyond the purview of this post.) Some of us are the passive beneficiaries (and often celebrators) of the brutal violence that our state dishes out. Some of us are the exploited but still relatively privileged guardians and enforcers of how things are. That doesn't mean that life is all sunshine and roses. That doesn't mean that resistance isn't necessary, or even that resistance to oppression and exploitation isn't integral to daily life in important ways for many white North Americans -- it clearly is, and that is something to acknowledge, respect, support, and nurture. But as I've said repeatedly, the how of it matters, and the landscape for our decisions is not that of Katniss and Co. The landscape for our decisions would have much more in common with ordinary people who live in the Capitol or who live in Districts 1 and 2, and with a few exceptions (Cinna, Plutarch, Effie) we don't get to see what that might look like, and even those exceptions don't give us enough of a window into life and resistance in those areas for us to derive much meaning. (That said, though, particularly through Cinna and Plutarch's contributions, we at least see that resistance within the heart of the Capitol happens, and that it can be important -- and that lesson of "resist where you are" is crucial.)

Anyway, all of this brings us back to Jules. In real life, most of humanity is not clearly divided into the righteous, the shepherds, and the tyranny of evil men -- the lives of most ordinary people express a mix of the three. But through identifying with Katniss and Co. and relating to their struggles in ways that don't clearly demarcate both that and how they differ from our own, we're failing to really wrestle with how things work and with the rather different realities that ground our political choices -- in particular, how even if we aren't actively contributing to it, we are still passively benefiting from the flavour of tyranny of evil men that looks a lot like what was visited on District 12 in the movie. That reality is central to how we have to make any choices about acting in the world. We, inspired if not exactly informed by the resistance of people like Cinna and Plutarch in the movie, can, like Jules, begin the work of trying real hard to change our relationship to that tyranny even as we move through the journey of our own struggles.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Unmastered


[Katherine Angel. Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.]

This book is a meditation by an English academic on gender, power, and desire that I find intriguing in certain respects and troubling in others.

First, the good stuff. I like the topic, of course -- even if some of my own thinking-and-writing about things like the inherent sociality of our selves, and about sexuality, gender, and shame have receded a little to the background so that other areas of work might temporarily take priority, it is still a focus of ongoing interest for me. I am also very interested in thinking about different approaches to write our way from our own experience to broader insights about the world, and this book does that in a bit of a different way than a lot of writing by academics. It is more deliberately literary in its writing, for one thing, and it seems more interested in evoking the texture of certain specific circumstances such that problems of power and agency are made visible, rather than presenting a linear narrative or argument (though the author clearly has a perspective on it all as well). The book is a quickly-read series of vignettes, anecdotes, passages of memoir, fragments of analysis, and disjointed sentences. In taking this approach, it manages to richly draw out moments of the complexity of how power, gender, and desire have operated in her life, but do so in a way that also manages to cast light on such questions far beyond the single life being used as archive. And I think it works reasonably well, within the limits of its scope. And given that, I want to hold it in mind as I continue to ponder how I might wish to go about tackling a particular writing project of my own that would be quite different from this but that might benefit from it in terms of decisions about craft.

Another element that deserves admiration, both in this specific book and in memoir or memoir-based theory more generally, is a willingness to speak about things that are for many of us often shrouded in silence. At the most general level, this is about being brave enough to put self on the page in a reasonably open way. But I also mean it in a more specific sense. I particularly appreciate this book's deliberate work to make messiness visible and to keep from erasing the potentially shameful and contradictory elements of our desires, choices, and practices. Even granting that some level of self-editing -- some amount of pruning of the unruliness of self and life -- is inevitable even when a piece of writing performs the contrary, I particularly appreciate the work that she has done to hold open at least some of the contradictions of those moments to allow all of us to explore what they mean. Even at the level of journals that no-one else will ever read, even at the level of my own internal unwritten narrative of my experience, I often cannot stop myself from collapsing those contradictions in self-deceptive and ultimately unhelpful ways, let alone when I'm writing for public consumption. It is this book's holding on to messiness that makes it possible for it to reveal things (in the context, of course, of the showing rather than telling approach it takes to theory) about questions like, What does it mean for a desire to be the property of an individual? What does it mean to think of desire as socially produced? What does it mean if we don't want to want what we want, and really we want to want something else -- but oh my goodness we really, really do want it anyway?

For all that the book is clever and skilfully written, I'm not sure it is as substantive -- not as filling, not as satiating -- as it could have been. I mean, I appreciate that the breaks, the divisions, the blank spaces, were crucial to what it's doing, but they also mean that it ends up saying much less than it might have. I think I would have appreciated a bit of a different balance, with the text presented in a less aesthetically pleasing way but with more of it packed in. As well, the last chunk of the book -- perhaps the last third or so? -- felt different and a bit less effective. There seemed to be a bit more attention given to producing a book with a shape that might satisfy readers hoping for a clearer narrative arc, and a bit less attention to capturing the experience of power-laden moments. Even with these comments on the writing, though, I have plenty of respect for the writer's skills.

My biggest concern with the book is more of a political concern, and a depressingly common one at that. For all its rich evocation of power in the moment, it did almost nothing to challenge the tendency that it is so easy to fall into when we write from life experience, of theorizing only from where we feel friction in our journey through the social world and not where we experience ease. Figuring out how to push against this in a way that is effective and engaging is one of my key motivations for reading books like this, but in this respect at least the book was more of a warning than a source of strategies. In this book, the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, professional woman writes such that the only element of the social world that is consistently and thoroughly treated as relevant to how power and her desires are intertwined seems to be gender. Whiteness, middle-classness, able-bodiedness, even straightness are largely left unremarked, as if they don't have much to do with the shape and experience of her desires and how she navigates them. And I know this is incredibly common, I know that there are fundamental epistemological differences in how aspects of life in which we are privileged impinge on our experience as opposed to aspects of life in which we are oppressed, so I don't mean to single out this author. But there does feel like there is something particularly egregious about it when the focus of a privileged author writing about their life is desire -- theorizing how power works in the context of the orgasms of the privileged in a way that refuses to engage with the aspects of social relations that might tie that to how power works in the context of the oppressions and struggles and dreams and desires of the rest of the planet, and that would thereby show itself as part of a larger vision for liberation, is a problem, no matter how clever or well written.

So I'm glad I read it, and I certainly learned from it, but there are certain key ways that it was just not helpful in my journey to figure out how to write what I want to write.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: The Liberal Defence of Murder


[Richard Seymour. The Liberal Defence of Murder. London: Verso, originally published 2008 and updated paperback published 2012.]

As I think was true of a fair number of young middle-class white men politicized as university students in the mid 1990s, one genre of radical material that I read quite a bit of at the time was (mostly US-centric) analysis of foreign policy and empire that had a focus on dissecting the hypocrisy of liberals. With the post-Cold War resurgence of liberal imperialism in full effect, it was a ripe moment for such work, and it was a sort of analysis that was legible to and resonated with newly-politicized me. Analysis of that sort becomes pretty predictable after awhile, however, and it provides a considerably narrower basis for thinking about how to act in the world than I initially appreciated, so while it is certainly common in the lefty media in more abbreviated form, I haven't really read many books of that sort in quite some time. That said, I think it's an important sort of analysis, and it still feels very familiar. The Liberal Defence of Murder is firmly within this tradition, but adds to it in important ways.

Seymour is a prolific and talented writer who comes out of the English radical left. This is the first of his books that I've read, but I've been an occasional reader of his blog for years. The presenting problem he takes up in this book is the role played by liberals and by people currently or formerly identified with the left in abetting and promoting the various wars and imperial excesses of the George W. Bush years. In the course of his history of liberal and left imperialism, he covers some ground that is familiar to me from my Clinton-era reading, but the synthesis of more recent material that I have mostly encountered via in-the-moment articles was pretty useful. More useful, though, were two elements that were new to me: The first was that he dealt not only with US examples, but also with content from the UK and (in a somewhat less exhaustive way) Western Europe. And I was fascinated by his longer-ago history of liberal and left complicity in empire, from the various positions taken by founding figures in liberalism, on up through various strands of the European left. With isolated exceptions, liberalism has always been saturated with empire -- as he so pithily puts it, "Liberalism was born one of a conjoined quintuplet, linking capitalism, European colonialism, slavery and 'race' ideology." And far, far less of the left has been consistently and in principled ways anti-imperial and anti-colonial than I would've guessed and would've hoped -- certainly more consistently than liberalism, but still far too little. Seymour argues -- effectively, I think -- that this is a product of the (socially produced) white supremacist and colonial mindset that has been endemic in Europe and EuroAmerica for centuries, and that continues to be a pervasive obstacle to anything resembling genuine, widespread anti-imperial and anti-colonial solidarity today. This unflinching documentation of left complicity was the most important part of the book for me.

The book has its down sides, of course. For instance, I think he spends rather more space than necessary disproving the glib assertion that pops up now and again that the US neocons are all former Trotskysts. This undue attention paid to a fairly trivial point is perhaps related to the fact that Seymour himself comes out of the Trot tradition (though to his credit, he was one of the crew that left the Socialist Workers Party after its recent appalling handling of an instance of sexual assault). The book also gets a bit repetitive after awhile. Of course, it continues to be important to have it all documented exhaustively, but the shape of the contemporary liberal and pseudo-left defence of empire gets to be pretty predictable, as do the options for a robust left takedown of that defence.

In any case, I would recommend this book for people early in their own process of developing an analysis of the roles that liberals play in justifying and carrying out Western domination of the globe, and for those who think that learning from the history of liberal and left complicity might be useful to developing future left politics that are resolutely against empire, war, and colonization.


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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: The Uses and Abuses of History



[Margaret MacMillan. The Uses and Abuses of History. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.]

Margaret MacMillan is a respected academic historian who is firmly embedded in the liberal tradition. I haven't read any of her original historical scholarship but there is one of her monographs I may end up reading, depending on how a particular project of mine evolves. I say these things because I want to start off by establishing -- despite my reaction to this book, and despite having different understandings of the uses and limits of conventional history from MacMillan -- that I appreciate that she does useful work, that it is highly skilled work, and that she does it well, and also that she has skills and knowledge around a particular kind of historical knowledge production that I don't have and don't claim to have.

This book is an adaptation of a series of lectures delivered by the author at the University of Western Ontario. It is lay-focused though clearly filled with reflections based in the author's long career in the academy. Many of its central observations, when expressed as general statements, are things I agree with -- about the dangers of distorted, selective, or falsified history; about the importance of using history to rupture myths, especially national myths; about the temptations of oversimplification and the importance of not erasing complexity; and many other things. As well, a few more sustained passages are useful too. There's good stuff in the pages about national myths, for instance. And the section that lays out the competing historical narratives of the Israel/Palestine conflict is better than I would've predicted (though its presentation as two supposedly equivalent sides without decision is kind of a cop out, and a later passage that moves into ancient history supposedly also relevant to the conflict is something I would categorize as a questionable use of history). And some of the things it says about Canada are useful -- for example, the author played a role as an outside expert during the controversy over the Second World War exhibit at the Canadian War Museum, and was on the side of the split that argued that, really, saying that there continues to be controversy about the strategic utility and morality of Allied bombing of civilian areas of Germany was just being honest, whether it upset veterans or not.

Nonetheless, despite my acknowledgement of the abilities of the author and my agreement with a number of the book's key points, the majority of my reaction to the book was significantly less positive. Since my brief foray into grad school a few years back, I've taken to using pencil to add the occasional note or underline in the books I read, and my copy of this book has "Seriously??" added in many a margin. I'm not going to attempt to be anything approaching comprehensive in reporting on all of that, but I think a good way to tie all of the varied shades of my dismay together is to note that most of them can be related to the author's commitment to liberalism.

One major way this manifests, for example, is the liberal tendency to treat crimes committed and harms done by official enemies and by Others very differently than crimes and harms resulting from the actions of us and ours. This is built into liberal knowledge production in a sufficiently integral way -- necessarily, given liberalism's commitment to rule-based knowing and to a self-image of fairness -- that it can be very difficult to convince those steeped in such practices of the presence of a double standard. Viewed from outside, though, it tends to be quite obvious.

So the book deals a little bit with the ways the Canadian state and those close to it have been mobilizing distorted history for political ends in the last decade, but it does so very tentatively and makes very mild claims. This is in contrast with other recent books (this, this, and this) that tackle head-on the mis-use of history in the Canadian state's militarist cultural offensive, but also in contrast with the strident language used in this book to talk about abuses of history by states that can easily be thought of as enemies. As well, the most important crimes of us and ours in recent centuries -- slavery, colonialism, genocide -- are most clearly named in the book when they are being presented as examples of things that enemy Others (China, Islamists) talk about to distract attention from their own crimes, and are otherwise dealt with much more obliquely (when they aren't just omitted in toto from points where they would to my mind be entirely relevant). When talking about the actions that we and our friends have engaged in over the years, colonization is very selectively acknowledged, and certainly its centrality as one of the key axes of global history over the last five centuries is largely absent from the book. And it is fascinating, frustrating, and central to how liberalism does this sort of thing that you can guarantee that if, for instance, you were to quibble with the absence of contextualization of the Vietnam War in the larger arc of colonial oppression and anti-colonial struggle, she could likely respond by talking quite articulately about that relevance -- and yet, still, that was not deemed relevant to include in the few pages on the war in the book.

The ways in which the colonial history of Turtle Island is not completely erased in the book but is largely voided of political weight is even more breathtaking. The first mention of that history at all is in a section about challenging comfortable myths, in which the finding of one 9000 year-old skull from the Americas that some scientists thinks may have had European rather than Aboriginal features is deployed in a way that seems designed to rhetorically destabilize in a blanket sort of way the claims of indigenous people to indigeneity (74-5), but just sort of in passing and without much discussion before hopping away to another topic. What does it say about the framework you are working from and that you assume in your readers that a single anomalous finding of this sort is used to call into question massive amounts of other evidence and narratives of hundreds of nations, without further discussion or even acknowledgment of the weight of what you are doing with your rhetoric? Even if this finding did mean what she claims, which it doesn't at all, it is classic colonial disrespect to present it this way.

And then there's a passing mention of histories of claims to the land in what is now known as "Canada" that simultaneously acknowledges the highly unjust character of land transfers in the past while still somehow implying that really the biggest concern is lack of good records from those years (112). A little later, there is a sentence about "Aboriginals" invoking various sorts of history "to claim back what they argue are their ancestral lands" (118), in a paragraph that is otherwise about semi-mythological claims by various European peoples to various bits of land in Europe. This construction fails to make clear that, yes, it may be difficult to sort out competing narratives in determining if a given area was, say, Anishnabe or Haudenosaunee land pre-contact -- that is somewhat analagous to some ways that different claims get made in Europe. But even if the details of which indigenous nations have what claims to what part of the land are not always clear, the fact is that they don't need to be clear to us. What matters to us -- to settlers and the states we have imposed on Turtle Island -- is that there is no doubt whatsoever, no need for qualifiers like "what they argue are", in talking about Turtle Island as the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples and not of settlers. Organizing your account in a way that implies otherwise is a big problem.

Another feature that this book shares with many different liberal accounts of things is a very shallow engagement with the Left -- both the histories of those states that appropriated for themselves the mantle of socialism, and also the various intellectual and political traditions tracing some lineage to Marx. As often with these things, much of what it says is, in an immediate sense, true of specific people or institutions or in specific ways, but the blanket way statements are made and the choices made about what to say and how to say it creates an impression that amounts to Cold War caricature rather than the kind of nuance and complexity that other parts of the book claim to favour.

Then there is the section talking about the ways in which history can be used such that people's attention remains focused on the past, to the neglect of problems in the present. Yet there is no clear distinction made between, say, governments doing this and using apology for long-past wrongs as a way to distract from inaction in the present (as one could argue the Harper government did with the apology for residential schools), and people's own decisions about how to relate present realities to past oppressions and take action to create justice for themselves. I would argue that such difference in standpoint matters immensely. This book goes on to caution about people using history to construct a mantle of victimhood for themselves. It does so in a very careful way, as if it knows it is treading on dangerous ground, but I think it still ends up encouraging a reading that will affirm the dismissal by many mainstream white people of the claims of Black and indigenous people whose struggle in the present links current-day problems to the past, and will be mobilized in casual ways by privileged people in general to dismiss people seeking justice and liberation. And, in fact, it's very troubling that the book constructs this opposition between a focus on past problems and a focus on current problems, for instance between the legacy of residential schools and poverty on reserves today, as if the former was not one important mechanism in producing the latter, and as if indigenous people who think addressing the former is important are somehow foolishly leaving the latter unaddressed. Overall, this implication that claims based in historical legacies of injustice are often dubious combined with a complete lack of analysis of the oppressive present and how it was produced by the past, is a serious problem with the book.

Another way the book ties into the overall pattern of liberalism is through various things that it says explicitly about how best to know the world. For instance, there is a section near the beginning that expresses some skepticism for ways of doing history that are informed by theory and that get too far from "what really happened" (37). Again, there's lots to say here. Academic obscuritanism for its own sake is irritating and politically dangerous, but recovering ways of knowing and naming the world in the service of social transformation will sometimes mean ways of talking about the world that seem weird and alienating, and figuring out how those two different tendencies are at play in any given moment is not always easy. But there seems no space in this book's account to recognize that sometimes it is precisely a bit of theory and a way of talking about the past that is a little less easy to engage with that is required in order to get at "what really happened."

Also, there are many places where the book engages in the liberal tendency to disguise political choices as apolitical technical decisions. For instance, in making its case that there is a role for professional historians that amateur enthusiasts cannot fill -- which I don't necessarily disagree with -- it makes it sound like skill and know-how are all that goes into producing knowledge about the past, and that choices that have some sort of political basis are always and inevitably counter to the goal of producing good knowledge. I just don't agree with that. Yes, skill and know-how and care and fidelity to the evidence are important, and you certainly don't have to look hard to find political choices that produce bad history. I completely agree that ways of understanding the past and the present that deliberately substitute what is comfortable for full, prickly engagement with the world are a problem that must be opposed, even (and I would say especially) when those doing so claim in some sense to be doing so with critical, radical, or left intent. Yet practices of knowledge production are never solely technical; they are always political as well. Liberalism often claims otherwise, and claims to have found ways to avoid the latter, but it inevitably amounts to hiding the politics rather than escaping them.

There's more I could say. I haven't touched on the various highly dubious generalizations about Muslims and terrorism and so on, nor her assertion in the final chapter that really business and the military make the best use of history and we should learn from them (all the while citing examples of current imperialisms learning from past imperialisms in a very matter-of-fact or even approving way, as if the US learning from the French experience in Algeria merits nothing more than, "Look! They're learning from history!"). But this has already been longer than I intended and I want to wrap up. And I want to do so with this: I began with the assertion that the author's commitment to liberalism is at the root of a lot of what I found troubling in this book. Another way to get at a related tangle of issues is to say that any general analysis of history, its uses, and its abuses that doesn't fall into some version of the problems in this book must, must, must begin from a frank and critical discussion of how we know the world and how we know the past. Because liberalism is dominant, it doesn't feel the need to lay out its epistemology, so it can disguise political decisions as technical ones, and it can sweep readers along in ways that sound authoritative and convincing and universal when they are very partial and questionable and specific. Epistemology must be where a book like this starts, but other than the implications contained in its modest skepticism about theory, this book has little to say about epistemology, or at least little that makes visible the foundations of what it is doing.

I'm not sure who I would recommend read this book. There are a few bits and pieces that are useful in various ways, but I really think that for the average reader looking to learn a bit about history and how it works, there are way better things to be reading.


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